The Universe Versus Alex Woods

universe versus alex woodsIf you’ve ever been to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, you know there are winding walking paths that bring you through beautifully landscaped gardens. Typically on these paths you find people taking pictures, picnicking, or slowly meandering, but if you walked on them today you may have seen me wiping away tears. You’d think I would know better that when a book begins with someone in an urn that by the end I will eventually find out how he got there, but it’s the getting there that did me in.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence begins with 17-year-old Alex Woods being stopped at customs in Mr. Peterson’s car while trying to return to England. Mr. Peterson is in the passenger seat in an urn and Alex has a slight epileptic seizure. I’m not giving away major plot points here, because you find out about these things before chapter one ends. In chapter two the story jumps to when Alex is ten and a meteorite strikes him in the head.

You probably think it sounds very far-fetched that a meteorite actually hits him in the head, but Alex, and the rest of the world, are just as shocked by it as you are. Alex and his meteorite become famous overnight, but unfortunately Alex also has to deal with some major medical issues because of it. And as if a smart, geeky kid doesn’t already feel like an outsider and get picked on at school, throw in a freak accident and some epileptic seizures and Alex was bound to be a bully target.

But the real story takes place after Alex, getting chased and bullied by some awful boys, meets Mr. Peterson, a cranky, old, Vietnam vet. To pay back a debt, Alex has to start helping Mr. Peterson, but this help turns into a real friendship where they bond over classical music and Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not going to tell you any of the circumstances that lead to Mr. Peterson being in an urn, but you will find out by the end and it comes about in a very interesting way that may make you question what you’d do for friendship.

This book is very quirky. One minute we’re getting a lesson on meteors, meteoroids, and meteorites, the next we’re learning all about Kurt Vonnegut’s works, and the next we’re given a long treatise on tarot card readings. We’re in Alex’s head a lot in this book, so when he’s researching his meteorite and his condition, we’re researching it. Sometimes this slowed down the book, especially in pivotal moments where I wanted to find out what was going to happen, but it was also really interesting. I can’t say I’ve learned so much about such a weird combination of materials all in one piece of fiction.

The people in Alex’s life are also pretty quirky. Alex knows about tarot cards from his hippy, dippy, trippy mother who owns a shop where she reads cards and sells things like crystals, candles, and books about Wicca and astrology. She’s a really cool mother, even if Alex can’t always see it. Mr. Peterson is also pretty cool in that he’s at that great stage in life where he doesn’t give a damn what anyone think so he’s going to say and do any damn thing he pleases, including enjoying his daily dose of Mary Jane.

I really like stories of young people being taught lessons by ornery old folks. We’ve seen this before, this isn’t anything new, but for me it never gets old. The generational differences, the differences in experiences, and they way they grow and learn from each other is what draws me to these kinds of stories, and this is a great one. It’s about friendship, family, science, death, human rights, mathematics, religion, and a little bit of Kurt Vonnegut and I loved it.

Reviewed at Minnesota Reads.


The 5th Wave

the 5th waveI’ve written in the past about my fascination of all things alien. I’m particularly infatuated with “Ancient Aliens,” the show where alien theorists cannot figure out how an ancient civilization did something, so they must’ve had help from aliens. I can sit and watch that show for hours. One moment I’ll think they have some good points, then I feel like they’re really stretching, and then I find myself laughing out loud.

What I find the most interesting about “Ancient Aliens” is that they always talk about the help aliens provided. They’re here to advance our society and if they visit us in the future it will be for that purpose. That’s hilarious. In the history of our world, when one civilization encountered another, it never ended well. What would really happen to us would be what happens in Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave.

In The 5th Wave, a huge alien vessel, the mother ship, enters our atmosphere and starts attacking humanity in different waves. The first wave takes out the electricity, the second wipes out coastal areas, the third brings the plague, and in the fourth they start hunting us. These waves take out seven billion people, but with some left, what will the fifth wave bring?

We learn about these waves from Cassie, a teen on her own, living in the wild, trying to survive. She journals about what she’s doing and what has happened to her and her family. She talks about the alien drones that roam the skies, refugee camps, and a scary realization that the aliens are using our bodies to fight us in the fourth wave. When they look like us, who can you trust?

There are other people in The 5th Wave. The story gets told from other people’s perspectives in the second half of the book, but if I tell you about them I’ll give away the plot. There are a lot of twists and turns here. You may doubt what you think you know multiple times, so I’m going to stop describing plot and tell you what I thought.

I liked Cassie, for the most part. She trying to keep herself alive in dangerous circumstances and she knows how to handle an M-16. She reminded me somewhat of Katniss from The Hunger Games, though Cassie whines a little bit much for my taste. She whines and thinks about boys and how she was somewhat of a misfit in that area. She doesn’t do this all the time, but I suppose it was leading up to the little romance that happens.

The romance was not really a romance. I think I’m coming at this a bit biased because I just finished reading Eleanor & Park, a fabulous teen romance, and this was no where near as good. This also gave me the creeps, because it was sort of a Luke and Laura romance. Do you remember Luke and Laura? They were this supposed amazing couple on “General Hospital,” but before their fairytale wedding, on one of their first dates, Luke rapes Laura. This is why I couldn’t get into “General Hospital.” There is no rape in this scenario, but it’s the same sort of icky romance that I just didn’t buy. And I really hate the “you complete me” or “you saved me” kind of romances, which is the kind of crap we get here.

The romance really threw me off, because I loved everything else. I loved hearing about the alien attacks, the refugee camps, the military training, and what happens to a lot of other characters in this book. It was so gripping and much more plausible than the alien encounters from “Ancient Aliens.” I wanted more of that and less of the supposed romance. In fact, by the end, we’re left with a cliffhanger where we don’t know the fate of everyone, and I’m hoping for some characters it’s fatal. I know that’s not what Yancey wants me to hope for, but I do.

This is the first in a trilogy, so we’ll see what happens next, but I hope it’s more survival and less bad romance.

Reviewed at Minnesota Reads.

A 13-year-old visits

Last week my 13-year-old niece stayed with me as she attended a week-long volleyball camp. I dropped her off in the morning and picked her up in the evening, just like the other parents, although they all had really nice, expensive cars.

I didn’t have much time to spend with her since the day was volleyball-filled, but with the little time I saw her I learned some things:

  • One Direction is still amazing. Last Christmas I bet her that by this Christmas she would hate them, but she vows she never will. Five months to go.
  • Salad is like eating trees and grass. Gross.
  • Phones must be near at all times, especially during eating, watching movies, and sleeping. 200 texts per day is average. Instagram is the new Facebook.
  • “Pitch Perfect” is a great movie, but “The Breakfast Club” (which is highlighted in “Pitch Perfect”) is only okay.
  • “The Breakfast Club” follow-up: She felt bad for Brian and did not want Bender and Claire together. “No! Why are they kissing?”

“The Breakfast Club” info really killed me. How could you not think this was a good movie? Maybe she needs to be 16 and hate her parents before she understands? I subsequently told her that “16 Candles,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Say Anything” would be things she’d absolutely love. She’s suspicious, but willing to try.

I think I’ll hold off on “Dirty Dancing” and “Footloose” for awhile. I saw those movies when I was really young, younger than my niece, and I thought Penny just had a bad stomach ache and Chuck smoked too many cigarettes before the tractor chicken fight. She might know what those things really are, but I’m not so sure. In the beginning of “The Breakfast Club,” when Brian has to adjust himself and put a hat over his lap, she asked, “What’s he doing? Does he have to go to the bathroom?” Yes. Yes, he does.

Reading list from my RA class

I recently finished teaching the course Readers’ Advisory Services to library science graduate students at St. Catherine University. I have no idea if I’ll teach the course again, but it was such a good opportunity and I loved interacting with future librarians. I really had a blast planning for the class and teaching it, even if it added a lot to my work load. And what librarian doesn’t love talking about books?

For you non-librarians, readers’ advisory is what we librarians do when we suggest fiction and nonfiction titles to you. We listen to the types of things you like and suggest readalikes you may enjoy. Readers’ advisory also includes promoting books and reading through indirect means, like book displays, book lists, book clubs, promotion on social media, author events, other book-related events, etc.

In the course, we looked at many different genres of books, we read a lot of books, and we did some fun things to showcase indirect readers’ advisory. I had an author speaker come in and we did some other events in the classroom, like a murder mystery and Ready Player One Jeopardy.

But since a big part of the course was students reading books in all different genres to further expand what they know about those genres, my friends have been asking me for my reading list for a long time now. You’ll find the list below, but please know:

  • Your favorite book may not be on the list and you may think it should’ve been. I know this. I’ve heard it. Your book is probably fabulous, but I read a lot of books trying to find the ones I thought might be best for the class, and I went back and forth for months before the list was finalized. I wanted books that represented the genre in certain ways, that were semi-popular (sometimes really popular) or had popular authors, that represented both male and female authors, that were diverse so we weren’t just reading a bunch of white authors/characters, and that were fairly recent (except with graphic novels).
  • I do not love every book on this list. I certainly love a bunch of them, but I also included books that I loathed but that represented good things about the genre. So that’s why you’ll see Code Name Verity on the list which I’ve been very vocal about hating. (I’m also well aware that I am in the minority on that. I don’t understand why you loved it just as much as you don’t understand why I hated it.)

With those caveats being said, here ya go. (And no, the students didn’t have to read ALL these books. I wouldn’t have made it out alive if I made them do that.)

Literary Fiction

  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Historical Fiction

  • The Night Birds by Thomas Maltman
  • Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
  • Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • A Good American by Alex George
  • The Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Science Fiction/Fantasy

  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey
  • The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin
  • Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
  • Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
  • Blackout by Connie Willis


  • Trickster’s Point by William Kent Krueger
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  • Stay Close by Harlan Coben
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Kill Shot by Vince Flynn
  • Catch Me by Lisa Gardner

Romance/Women’s Lives/Gentle Reads

  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale
  • The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larson
  • Ada’s Rules: A Sexy, Skinny Novel by Alice Randall
  • The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart
  • Just Like Heaven by Julia Quinn

Young Adult / Adult Crossover

  • I Am J by Cris Beam
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Graphic Novel

  • The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
  • The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore
  • The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • American Vampire Volume 1 by Scott Snyder & Stephen King


  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
  • Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield
  • Let’s Pretend this Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang

The students gave reports and read books in other genres that we didn’t cover as a whole class, so the class did hear about more genres than just what is listed here.

Happy reading!