The world can be an over-whelming mess of a place sometimes. Trying to deal with sorrow, tragedy and anger can push us to confront pain or flee it. Sometimes being in that place can lead us to do something really big, something that will form a personal mythology - a touchstone for the rest of one's life.

Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail starts with an emotionally strained young woman taking her first steps on a path from the Mojave desert to the Bridge of the Gods.
Four years prior, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died within 7 weeks. As the eldest, she tried without success to keep her family from crumbling under the weight of that loss. A divorce and experimentation with drugs led her further down the rabbit hole.  Not knowing how to cope, Strayed got a big idea. She decided to hike the Pacific Crest trail. She had never backpacked a day in her life.

The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,663-mile wilderness route stretching from Mexico to the Canada and traversing nine mountain ranges and three states. The first day she sets foot on the trail, Strayed is carrying a backpack the size of a trunk that will open up sores on her body, and wearing boots that will cause her so much discomfort that she will hurl them over a mountain. By the end of the journey she will have found a sense of inner strength that will be a solace to her on other spiritual, psychological and physical journeys. There have been countless re-tellings of this story, but Strayed avoids cliche by presenting the details in such an honest and emotionally compelling way that you feel as though you've earned something just by reading the book.

The story explores many themes: Strayed, a single woman alone in the middle of nowhere, deliberately makes herself vulnerable in order to grow stronger. Those who have taken similar journeys may also recognize that the wilderness of just a decade ago is not the same as today's - when I was young, being in the wild represented both challenge and real danger without the lifelines of technology to come to the rescue. Certainly, there's still danger in undertakings of this kind, but the concept of absolute solitude has gotten that much smaller.

Strayed has been much in the media lately. She made the news when it was announced that she is the author of the Rumpus's online advice column Dear Sugar. You can also listen in on her recent interview on OPB's Think Out Loud. And for the more visual among you, take a peek into Strayed's thoughts about her journey with this slide show.

Our guest blogger is the novelist, humorist and screenwriter Marc Acito. He was the winner of Oregon Book Awards' 2005 Ken Kesey award for Best Novel for How I Paid for College. His latest book is the sequel Attack of the Theater People. This entry was first published in 2009.

I'm a promiscuous library user. At any given time, I've got two dozen books out and as many on hold. I got into the habit when I was poor and couldn't afford books. I probably shouldn't say this, since it's in my best interest that readers buy books, but I never buy a book I haven't read. I figure why own it if I'm only going to read it once?

So I use the library to test drive--promiscuously. If I love something enough that I need to own it, then I buy it, underlining and scrawling marginalia as I re-read.

As a result, I'm a familiar fixture at the Hillsdale Library, my local branch. Yes, it's true. Despite being a gay guy with a trendy haircut, a ready wit and the same waist size I had in junior high, I live in Deepest Suburbia. I prefer to think of it as the Lower West Hills.

Living as I do in the burbs, I’m a huge fan of books about desperate housewives. Reading stories about smart, funny women who are miscast in their lives is like having a marathon phone call with your best girlfriend, assuming your best girlfriend is hilarious, brilliant and completely honest.

A perfect example is the compulsively readable We Are all Fine Here by Mary Guterson, in which a married woman finds herself pregnant after a liaison with her old boyfriend in the bathroom at a friend’s wedding. You know those friends who are constantly screwing up but you secretly enjoy it because it makes you feel better about your own life? That's what reading this book is like.

We Are All Fine Here delivers Hitchcockian suspense without anyone being chased by a crop duster or rappeling off Abe Lincoln’s nose. From page one, questions abound: Who is the baby’s father? Who will the heroine end up with? How much longer can she hide her morning sickness? (announcer voice) These questions and more will be answered As The Stomach Turns.

In contrast to the friend who screws up is the friend who’s got it all together. For that, you must turn to Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther. Forget the melodramatic MGM weepie with Greer Garson. This slyly comic story of a well-bred Englishwoman on the eve of World War Two fascinates me with such pressing concerns as how do you find a charwoman on short notice and what do you say at a shooting party?

But Mrs. Miniver’s contentment with her privileged life is tempered by her wry observations, like how she longs to invite the scintillating half of the couples she knows to dinner, then invite the boring ones another night that she could cancel. It’s like Mrs. Dalloway for Dummies.

The best literary friend of all, however, is the narrator of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, who is the perfect synthesis of the first two—a mild screw-up who still has her head screwed on straight. Long before Nora Ephron felt bad about her neck, she wanted to wring the neck of her philandering husband. Because the novel is reportedly based on Ephron’s own calamitous marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than the acerbic author herself in the role, even after Meryl Streep played her in the movie.

This book proves the adage that “Writing well is the best revenge.” The heroine of Heartburn writes cookbooks—which is appropriate given Ephron’s totally edible prose. It’s a delicious book, one you alternately want to gorge on yet savor, and the kind of hilariously wise and well-observed novel that makes readers wish the author were their best friend and makes writers like me contemplate suicide.

While I lead my own life of quiet desperation, however, I depend on these fictional friends they way I do my real ones: for comfort and laughs and inspiration. I take solace in knowing that there are others in the same boat. Especially if that boat is dry-docked in Deepest Suburbia.

With the gift-giving season over, many more people now have ebook readers.  (Amazon sold over 1 million Kindles each week in December 2011.) A friend of mine was reading A Billion Wicked Thoughts (see also: Sex at Dawn; Bonk; Why We Love); she told me about a chapter that revealed that the reading of romances has risen along with the sales of ebook readers.  Not only are more people reading romances, these books are also getting more explicit, and romances are becoming a mainstay of other genres as well.

I have noticed this favorite fluff is fantasy.  The major plot point is now the romance, and the good parts are now >ahem< really good, especially if I stray away from the YA books. I've also noticed there are subgenres to the paranormal romance subgenre, namely, werewolves, vampires, fairies and of all things, medieval Highlanders.  Of course, if you follow a series long enough (and these things always seem to become a book series) many of these sexy creatures show up eventually.

Here's a sampling, some of which are available as downloadable ebooks. However, you may have to wait just as long, or longer, for your ebook to become available, so why not go for it...flaunt your fluff and check out that hard copy of these sexy tales.

The Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost
First in series: Halfway to the Grave.
Cat is half-vampire, she hates vampires, and she hunts them.  She's good at it...or so she thinks...until she meets a very old (and of course sexy) vampire. Humorous homages to Buffy the Vampire Slayer throughout, down to the name of her main vamp, Bones.

The Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
First in series: Darkfever
Not quite as full of explicit scenes as her earlier Highlander series, Moning goes darker and more complex with this intrigue full of dark Fae and other creatures.  Her Highlanders make a cameo appearance.

Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
First in series: Dead Until Dark
Who hasn't heard of these?  HBO's True Blood is based on these books. How do I explain the appeal? Yes, there are the steamy vampires who are outed, and attempting to be accepted by humans.  But Sookie, she seems like she could be your next door neighbor, just trying to cope with blocking your thoughts from her head, getting her bills paid, and keeping her house clean.

I recently returned from a trip to the Cape Coral area of Florida. While on Sanibel Island, I spotted a place called Doc Ford's. My sister said, "Oh, Doc Ford is the marine biologist in the novels of Randy Wayne White. I've read a few of his mysteries and enjoyed them."

Since I've come back I've read a couple of his mysteries and want to read more. (I've not read them in order, although, I think that they should be read this way because the characters grow and change and the stories build on one another.)

I picked up Shark River first. It's a story of murder, kidnapping, drugs and revenge. Add a Bahamian woman with a treasure map who claims to be Doc's long lost sister and the stage is set for a wild ride.

Maybe it's the sense of place and wonderful descriptions of sea life, mangrove swamps and the habits of horseshoe crabs; or maybe its the patterns of speech of Doc's Bahamian cousin in Shark River that attracted me. Perhaps it's my experience of a tiny bit of the Florida that he describes.

I saw much bad driving in Florida, but Randy Wayne White describes it best: "We went south on U.S. 41- an illustration of crazed manners and automotive chaos. In South Florida, melting pot driving habits are so unpredictable and dangerous that defensive driving is not enough."

If you want quirky characters, fast action, humor and good writing, give the mysteries of Randy Wayne White a try.

A couple of Sundays ago, the Oregonian ran an opinion piece in its book review section: Listen here: Audio books don't count as reading by K.B. Dixon.  In the piece, Dixon says "Listening to a book is not reading a book. It is a passive enterprise. When we read, we hear a voice in our heads -- it is a voice of our own imagining, an individual translation of the language, of the text, of the writer's stylistic voice. It is cognitively tailored in a way no other voice can be."

While I find this to be true, at the same time I (perhaps an overly active audiobook listener, I listened to over 700 hours of books in 2011) couldn't disagree more.  I believe that when we read to ourselves, we hear our voice in our head.  My particular voice is that of an overeducated, middle-aged, white woman, so I don't hear the voice of a child who has spent his whole life living with his mother in a small Room, I don't hear a 20-something Gen-Xer struggle to raise his 10-year-old brother (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), I don't hear a black family hanging on to their land in Depression- and Jim-Crow era Mississippi (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry), I don't even hear Dobby the Elf or Voldemort (Harry Potter series). Or I wouldn't hear these voices were it not for Michal Friedman, Dion Graham, Lynne Thigpen or Jim Dale. (I could go on and on here, and probably will in future posts!)

That's what I most like about audiobooks:  The alternative interpretation of the story, the interpretation that I simply cannot provide.  It's not any more passive than eye-reading is.  I'm thinking; I'm absorbing language, character, setting, plot details.  I'm usually "reading" at a slower pace when I'm listening as well, giving my imagination a greater chance to settle into a book's details.

Sure there's all that multitasking stuff about audiobooks -- listen during a long drive (heck, during a short drive), listen while exercising, gardening, doing housework.  I listen while knitting.  There is no doubt that audiobooks are a great way to get through those things.  But, for me, it always comes back to the voice that is not mine.

For an alternative view of audiobooks, see this article in the online magazine n+1: Listening to Books by Maggie Gram.

If you're looking for a good listen, here's a few things that I've listened to lately (I tried to select those without many holds): Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld, and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

Happy listening!

Seanan McGuire is a new author who I've really been enjoying. Her first book, Rosemary and Rue was published September 2009. She was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer by the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention. Her first series (up to book 5 now) is about a character called October Daye.  In this urban fantasy universe the different types of fae beings may decide to pass as humans, take a human lover and have mixed species children. When the children figure out that that mom or dad really is different the children are given the changeling's choice.  They may go to faerie and leave their human life and parent behind forever or stay human, forget and live out their mortal life with their human parent.  Either way, the changeling loses one parent and the human parent is left wondering why they're suddenly bereft of a partner.

October Daye was still quite young when she had to make the choice and in crying out for her fae mother left her human father behind forever. Now a part of the fae world, where changelings are very distinctly second class citizens, October has to make her own way.  She tries to hide in the human world at first but is forced deeper into fae when an important countess is murdered.  The dead countess binds October to investigate, forcing her to resume her position in Faerie.

Seanan McGuire, writing as Mira Grant, has also started a zombie urban fantasy series which isn't to my tastes but got to the final ballot for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novel.  That's actually pretty impressive for someone that's only been published for 2 years. The first book in the Newsflesh series is Feed. I'm also really looking forward to the first book in her new series Discount Armageddon: An Incryptid Novel.

Our newest blog contributor is Andrea who says of herself: "I like to read fiction, memoirs, comics, and zines. In my free time I write short fiction and publish zines and minicomics. I also moonlight as a freelance book editor, though I have recently taken a sabbatical from editing to focus on my own work."

“The circus arrives without warning.” So begins Erin Morgenstern’s stunning debut, set in both England and America beginning in 1873. Reading this book feels like curling up by a fireplace while a storm is raging outside and listening to a kindly grandfather tell you stories about the past. Tales of a fantastical circus only open at night, where things are so exquisite, they are almost painful to experience. There are black and white striped tents full of wonders: the ice garden, the cloud maze, the wishing tree. There is a room full of bottled memories you can open and smell. There are delicacies to eat like caramel corn and chocolate mice. And each night too there are the reveurs, self-described circus enthusiasts, wandering the grounds in red scarves as they follow the circus from town to town, aching for a more interesting life. Open to the possibility of magic.

At the heart of The Night Circus is a love story between--you guessed it--two magicians bound in a tense and complicated rivalry from birth. Celia and Marco find they can bend the rules that have been set by their mentors to make the challenge more about love and less about winning. Because to win this magical challenge, one of them has to die. And that will not do for two people in love.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about The Night Circus is it was originally conceived during NANOWRIMO, or National Novel Writing Month. This competition happens each November and encourages its participants to write a novel in one month. I personally have tried--and failed--a few times to complete this very challenge. The fact that the author was able to create such a masterpiece in this time frame is astounding. No doubt there were rounds and rounds of editing. I heard a rumor it took about 5 years start to finish, but the fact that the seeds of this brilliant, moving story were born during such a time of communal, frenzied writing, coupled with the self-doubt that inevitably comes with such a monumental task gives hope for the rest of us who are left behind in the real, boring world and feel the need to find magic of our own making.

For those of you who are already fans of The Night Circus, take a look at the site I09, where Morgenstern will be answering questions about her book from 1-2 p.m. Pacific Time on Monday, February 27th. You can submit your questions now.

I really want to
Hang out with Mindy Kaling.
Or maybe be her?

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

In my life, lucky means snagging the last box of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Valentine's Day cards from the Dollar Tree shelf for the child who will have no other kind. Not even the kind with scratch 'n' sniff stickers. (My mind wonders about combining the two--what does the end of a franchise/era/childhood smell like?)

The Odds by Stewart O'Nan has 67 holds, but I managed to find a copy on the Lucky Day shelf. It was exactly what I wanted for Valentine's Day--the perfect love story to pluck from the twee sea of pink and red plush animals with giant eyes, the cheap boxes of drugstore chocolates, the cards that always fall short of the mark.

Set on a Valentine's Day weekend, the story follows Marion and Art Fowler on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary. Jobless, facing foreclosure and with their marriage set to finally implode, they book a bridal suite at a ritzy Niagara Falls casino for a second honeymoon--and the gamble of their lives with their liquidated savings.

Find a cozy place to sit and break out that heart-shaped box of chocolates. (You know, the battered ones with all the tiny finger-holes in the bottoms from children attempting to locate the caramels. Or maybe that's just my box.) Bet red or black on this game of reading roulette. Either way, you'll win.

While he's written a few books since his debut trilogy I hold a soft spot for Joe Abercrombie's first trilogy: The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings. And given these books when I say soft spot -- well, under the ribs is supposed to be a nice efficient spot to thrust a blade up into a man's heart. The cover of Book One is nicely splattered in blood in fair warning of the story itself.

In many ways this is a very traditional fantasy cast of characters. There's a barbarian berserker, a wise old wizard, a dashing swordsman and so on.  But there's a dark spin on all of them.  Think about it. Would you really want to be traveling with a trained killer of a man that can't tell friend from foe on the battlefield and towers over you?  Logen Ninefingers may be an ally of the moment but he is an unwashed savage killer and dangerous to friend as well as foe.  That wise old wizard?  Well, you've only lived a human lifespan and he's got goals that don't really count the ant-like human lives around him. The dashing swordsman?  Kind of a pathetic little man really. Of all the many characters I found myself feeling the most for the torturer Glokta. The most 'evil' of the main characters actually isn't too bad a least not for someone that is willing to torture people into confessions to support a corrupt institution.

They're off to save the kingdom...or collect a relic that can open a gate to the realm of demons.  Not that the wizard is passing out straight answers.  The series is dark, gritty and in its own way humorous.

Why do I do this to myself? I check out pretty much every animal rescue book and documentary that crosses my path. (And I keep the tissue well stocked.) I think it's because so many of these heartbreaking stories end on a hopeful note, with good people doing good things for animals in need. The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and their Tale of Rescue and Redemption is a perfect example.

Written by Sports Illustrated writer and editor Jim Gorant, The Lost Dogs tells the story of the NFL player's illegal dog-fighting operation and the amazing rescue and recovery efforts that followed the investigation. It's hard to read at times, describing in painful detail the brutality inflicted on these animals at the hands of Vick and his associates. The dogs, considered too "damaged" to be adoptable, were scheduled to be put down.

Ultimately though, cruelty proved no match for the dedication of so many people who tirelessly advocated for saving the dogs and finding them suitable homes. Most of the dogs responded surprisingly well to socialization tests, and there were more happy endings than one might expect. The children's book Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance chronicles one rescued dog's journey from terrified pup to loving pet. The simple text relays a message of compassion and resilience to young readers, and the wonderfully expressive photos are a treat for all ages.

Please welcome Gesse, a new contributor to the blog! She has this to say about herself: As a kid I used to try to read while walking, but have since realized that this is a dangerous idea.  I still try to find plenty of time for reading, though, and am always eager to share my opinions with my friends and family.  I figure that sharing my opinions in this blog will give my friends and family a much needed break!

Galore is well-titled, in that it really contains a lot of stuff!  A lot of characters, a lot of history, a lot of thoughtful observations about modern life and a lot of beautiful turns of phrase. Michael Crummey creates a specific, detailed world, which is interesting both in its similarities to and its departures from our own world.  I read most of Galore on a train trip between Seattle and Portland.  I make this trip pretty frequently and generally spend a lot of time walking to the dining car and back, and wondering if that woman on her cell phone will ever end her very loud conversation.  While reading Galore I was entirely unaware of such distractions; the first time I looked up from the book we were arriving in Seattle.  If that’s not enthralling, I don’t know what is!

The book begins with a retelling of the Jonah and the whale story. This Jonah is named Judah and he has washed up on the shore of a remote Newfoundland town called Paradise Deep.  As we learn about Judah’s story and the different reactions the townspeople have to his presence, we begin to understand the individuals that populate this settlement and the elaborate interconnections between them.  As the novel continues we follow these same families out of a mystical past into recognizable historical periods, tracing the changes they experience on both personal and societal levels.

Others have compared Crummey to García Marquez, and while I can see the similarities between their magical-realist approaches and their facility with an enormous cast of characters, I think Crummey’s writing is something unique.  The specific blend between realism and magic is all his own and in his hands common words and everyday occurrences become fresh and strange.  If you’re a fan of richly drawn, literary historical fiction or even science fiction with a well-created alternate world, you shouldn’t miss Galore.

Picture this: Death, a pudgy, half-naked bumpkin sporting only a single buck tooth and a leather codpiece, comes rolling into the small town of Shuckton on his motorized bicycle and delivers a beat down against the mayor via television remote control before snorting up his soul through a dustbuster - and that’s just in the first ten minutes.

Death Comes to Town is eight half-hour episodes of the silliest comedy hi-jinx that The Kids in the Hall have ever produced. Conceived by Bruce McCulloch after the Kids re-united in 2008 for a comedy tour, Death’s murder mystery plot is little more than a thin excuse for the troupe to breathe life into new and irrepressible characters. There’s Marnie, the terminally forgetful pizza delivery lady who calls her condition “the fuzzies”; Dusty Diamond, the town coroner who harbors an unconventional love for the dead mayor; “Crim” the local career criminal; and RAMPOP, the mayor’s adopted “special” son who speaks only in chirps and whirrs and sees all adults as large animated butterflies. My personal favorite? Inept defense attorney Sam Murray and his decrepit, perpetually dying 32 year-old cat, Buttonhole. If you don’t laugh until you weep at the scenes where Sam takes Buttonhole to the vet, you may need to upgrade your humor software.

Filled with plenty of the satire, sight gags and salacious humor that the Kids are famous for, this four hour mini-series can be knocked out in one glorious sitting and is best enjoyed with some gravel and grubs or eggs straight from the body (why yes, there is even a Chicken Lady cameo). Don’t you want to spend some time with Death tonight?

When Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey came out I read the review and decided it wasn't really going to be to my tastes. Too violent, too scary, too gory... not my thing at all. Then I picked it up on a whim. I needed something new to read and was in the right mood to try something that might be pretty gross. Turns out I was wrong to reject it the first time. I loved it. Sure it's violent and it's gory, but it isn't actually scary. Instead the books are really pretty funny -- in a sick, twisted, puerile and violent way -- but they are surprisingly humorous.

Stark was a callow young magician who loved his girlfriend and had a few daddy issues. Then he got betrayed by his buddies and cast into Hell. Alive. There he spent eleven years getting tortured in unspeakable ways while killing monsters and demons in an arena to amuse other monsters and demons, all to survive a little longer. Now he's back on earth, has a few anger management issues, and wants revenge, in part for being betrayed and in part for his murdered love. While he's getting his revenge he earns a buck freelancing as a monster killer for an angel and as a bodyguard for Lucifer when he's on earth. The only side Stark is on is his own.

These are nice light books in their own blood-and-unspeakable-gunk-soaked way. The books are a very fast read. I also enjoyed book three, Aloha from Hell: A Sandman Slim Novel. I hope there's a fourth book in the works!

Is your iPod at capacity? Mine is. And when I download songs to my computer, I never do anything with them. Add to that a shed crammed with CDs I can’t bear to part with, and it’s too much music to handle.

Library CDs broke my cycle of pointless song-hoarding. The music they hold is ephemeral, passing through my life like fragrance. Newly liberated, I scaled way back on listening to my iPod. Overuse was making me numb to its charms. These days, I only listen to it while walking on lunch break. Reducing iPod visitation hours has made me fall in love with a few bands all over again.

Like The Misfits and the anthology Static Age. It’s a collection of songs they recorded during graveyard hours in New Jersey, but it plays like tinny transmissions from a cave in outer space. Cruddy recording never sounded so right, and neither did the words “Her omelette of disease awaits your noontime meal/ Her mouth of germicide seducing all your glands.”  It was 1978, and they were young enough to pull off lyrics like that with punky-sincere sneers. In my book, Static Age is all the Misfits you need.

I look like a mom and a library nerd lady who wears knitted ponchos, because I am. But on my walks I am listening to THE MISFITS, and therefore a bad-ass! And no one knows, unless I am pumping my fist and muttering some ridiculous mock-Satanic chant along with Glenn Danzig under my breath.

Today on my awesome bad-ass walk I saw a crusty old dude walking from the opposite direction. He had a puffy coat and a black eye and carried a little boom box like the one our youth librarian has in the meeting room. I paused my Misfits and heard Sam Cooke’s velvety voice blasting out of the boom box. I smiled at the puffy coat guy and he smiled back. And for a happy moment, our private music worlds intersected.

Do you have a case of the winter blahs? The sparkle of the holidays has passed, but the winter weather remains. Spring and summer seem a long way off, know what I mean? Well, never fear. Cue Fred Astaire! You can't go wrong with his singing and dancing charms. Check out the film A Damsel in Distress, based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse and recently released on DVD. This lighthearted movie is heavy on talent, featuring the music of George & Ira Gershwin and co-starring George Burns and Gracie Allen. You won't find Ginger Rogers in this one, but the story involves the usual plot suspects (romantic complications, mistaken identities, etc). And the musical numbers are fantastic! An Oscar-winning fun house routine features Astaire, Burns, and Allen dancing on and around turntables, tunnels, slides, and distorting mirrors. A Gershwin gem, "Nice Work if You Can Get it", highlights Astaire's incredible rhythm and musicality, both as a dancer and as a drummer.

If you'd like to learn more about Fred Astaire, check out his engaging autobiography Steps in Time. In his conversational, easy-going style, Astaire relates the story of his life and work, at least up to 1959 when the book was first published. In a more recent publication, Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, author Todd Decker describes Astaire's contributions to the art of jazz music and his collaborations with a variety of musicians, arrangers, and performers.

Sit back, relax, and let Fred Astaire tap your troubles away!

Whenever some pundit or book reviewer decries Young Adult or teen books as somehow not as good as books for adults, don't believe them. (This happens regularly, usually when they think they are talking about an exception to the rule.) I find there are many teen books that are complex, extremely well-written, and compelling, and many books aimed at adults that are simplistic and puerile. So if you're looking for a quick but satisfying read, check out that YA section.

I'm sure I'll write about many YA books for adults in the future, but today I will focus on a few historical fiction books.

The Pox Party (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Vol. 1) by M.T. Anderson. A boy raised as a science experiment is given a classical education and sheltered from his status as a slave in New England in the 1760s. Blinders are removed and a pox party changes things. This book is not for the casual do have to like that 18th century baroque style.

Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. I'm sure you knew our fledgling nation's capitol was in Philadelphia in 1793. Did you also know a yellow fever epidemic claimed around a fifth of the residents? There would have been more if many hadn't fled the city, including George Washington. Protagonist Mattie Cook falls ill despite fleeing, but survives to return to the devastated city.

The Land by Mildred D Taylor. The son of a white landowner and a former slave, Paul Logan is openly acknowledged by his father in post Civil War Georgia. Paul works hard to acquire land of his own. Needless to say, he faces many obstacles. The author draws upon true family stories for her well-crafted books on the Logan family.

A few summers ago, I went to visit some cousins who live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania which is essentially THE place to be if you're Amish. I tried not to stare, but ultimately failed because everything about the Amish was so different from my experience and totally fascinating. We went to a horse auction run by the Amish, parked the minivan next to a horse-drawn wagon, passed horse and buggies and a sort of bicycle/scooter mashup that was one young man's mode of transportation, and shopped at Good's which is kind of like an Amish Wal-Mart. I finally got the inside scoop about these people when I recently read Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler.

Ira now lives in Lancaster Co, PA, but was born into a large family in an Old Order Amish community in Aylmer, Ontario (who knew there were Amish in Canada? Obviously not me.). Wagler talks about the customs, rules and differences among Amish communities (they can be pretty wide) and what it was like for him growing up in several of them. We're let in on life at an Amish school, we go to an Amish wedding and church services, we see communities work well, and sometimes not so well, and we experience the pain and struggles of Amish youth who don't fit the mold. Wagler was one of those youth. He first left when he was a teenager, and then came back and left several more times before finally leaving for good. The writing is sometimes a bit overwrought, but the feeling of being let in on a secret was certainly worth it.

Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.

These are the words of sixteen-year-old protagonist Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell's book Winter's Bone, giving her younger brother a lesson in conduct. Their father has not been home in days and they are hungry. A family across the way, to whom they are related, has freshly killed carcasses hanging in the trees; he is wondering about requesting some of the meat.

Ree's father cooks crank and the story picks up after he is missing and in danger of skipping a court date; if he does, the family will lose the house and land--their only security, pledged to a bail bond. Ree's mother, mentally ill and a vacant shell of her former self, is a burden Ree carries without question, along with her two younger brothers. They are family, and family is all.  

This novel is atmospheric, darkly lyrical and devastating. While the gritty portrayal of hardscrabble Ozark life is striking, even more compelling is the seeming resignation and acceptance of the status quo by adults, children and the law. The questioning Ree is a lone and exposed nail waiting for the hammer of the system to come down. She is clear-eyed about the risk she is taking but she also knows that without that risk she will sacrifice her life and the futures of her small brothers to the ravenous and self-perpetuating cycle of drugs and poverty.

She knows that searching for her father will take her deeper into darkness than she wants to go, but she also knows it is her only chance of finding the light.