It’s fall, y’all! I think I’ve said that about 37 times in my recent instagram posts, but oh well. Maybe you folks will learn to love it.
Is it too ambitious to call this post “Fall Book Recommendations 2020” ? I’m hopeful I’ll have another version next year.
Below is a small selection of books that either take place in fall or give me fall vibes, which I hope you will read and enjoy as much as I have.
Unstoppable Moses by Tyler James Smith
It’s no secret to most of you that Unstoppable Moses is one of my very favorite books, and I’m sure nobody is surprised to see it on this list. Unstoppable Moses takes place in a chilly Michigan October, which is a relatable experience for many Michiganders who went to fall camp (my 6th grade year, our camp experience was in late October/early November).
You can find my full review of Unstoppable Moseshere, but to summarize briefly and succinctly: this novel is a brilliant YA coming-of-age story. Moses Hill recounts his traumatic experiences while working as a camp counselor and getting a “fresh start” to be someone less iconic than his trauma had forced him to become.
Looking For Alaska by John Green
Having confessed to being a John Green fanatic, I’m sure everyone expected to see at least one of his pieces on this list. Looking for Alaska takes place in Alabama as the school year begins, which is why it evokes such strong autumnal ambiance.
As soon as I post my review of Looking for Alaska, I’ll be sure to drop a link here for you to read. In the meantime, Looking for Alaska is a novel about Miles “Pudge” Halter who attends the same boarding school his father had before him. While Miles is away at school, he makes new friends, falls in love, has some interesting new experiences, encounters a distressing event, and becomes obsessed with understanding the motives of the girl he loved while driven by guilt.
Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
This is a bit of a light-hearted exploration of friendship that I enjoyed on a much more superficial level than the other two I’ve listed here.
Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List is about best friends Naomi and Ely who live in the same apartment building and have been inseparable for as long as they can remember, relying on a “no kiss list” to keep them from falling for the same boy… until Ely falls for Naomi’s boyfriend in the wake of Naomi’s dad sleeping with Ely’s mom. Chaos ensues, love bubbles up. It’s adorable. It’s funny. It’s written in several points of view. In the end, there’s a satisfying resolution that involves important realizations.
This book came to me highly recommended by a friend (and generously gifted by my grandmother, who buys me books every year for Christmas. She’s the real MVP.) and of course that set my expectations high.
Everything, Everything is the story of Madeline Whittier, an 18-year-old girl with SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) who spends all of her time in her home with just her mother and her home health nurse. Zero outside time, zero contact with any other living beings (except on very rare occasions when they are decontaminated by air showers).
The start of this book is… terrible. I’m sorry, but it is. Madeline Whittier begins her story by telling us she’s read more books than we have and it feels like she (or the author, maybe) is trying too hard to pull us in by either offending us or amazing us, neither of which comes to fruition.
After that, Madeline spends the first chunk of pages describing her mundane days sitting alone in her house with books, fonetik skrabbl, her nurse, and her mom in the comfort of a pristine, white house with ventilation to safely circulate the air. Maddy is the quintessential bubble girl.
Shortly after the novel begins, new neighbors move in to the house next door- two parents and two teenagers. Maddy can’t help but watch their every move. She documents their daily schedule and has pantomime-window-conversations with Olly (the teenage boy).
Perhaps reading this novel during a global pandemic where I have been sitting in my home much in the same way that Maddy has, was unwise. Or maybe the issue going into this was how much I know about SCID. Maybe I just shouldn’t have read it after reading Unstoppable Moses, which was phenomenal. I’m not sure.
Maddy and Olly forge a friendship via instant messaging and email, which quickly turns into a romance when Maddy’s nurse, Carla, allows them to meet.
When Olly’s abusive father punches him in the stomach on the front lawn, Maddy finds herself barreling through the air-lock system and into the outside-for the first time since infancy. Her mother is terrified and enraged and her ability to communicate with Olly is cut off, and this is when the book begins to resonate with me a little bit more.
In the absence of her ability to talk to the boy she loves, Maddy feels overwhelmed by her emotions and her desire for Olly’s attention. After approximately 30 pages, Maddy says goodbye to her mom and runs away to explore the world.
The plot twist that comes near the end of the book is something I began to anticipate every moment that Maddy was outside, but it still caught me off guard when it came.
Nicola Yoon has a voice that’s easy to follow and read, but the characters aren’t quite as likeable as some of those in my favorite novels- it’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they don’t feel like they have enough depth. But then, maybe it’s because Maddy’s been living in a literal bubble her entire life and has been sheltered from pain?
Maddy is a bookworm who enjoys honor Pictionary and architecture, but as she begins to experience life, she begins to feel more real. Perhaps that was intentional.
Olly is introduced to us as… well, frankly I felt uncomfortable with some of the descriptions of him because he just seemed really fake and weird and like the author was trying too hard to make him seem quirky. But again, as the story carried on, he grew on me.
The plot of this book was undeniably impressive and clever.
The first 155 pages are so very dull I thought I was going to hate this book. But then, on page 155, I started to feel connected to this book and to Maddy, finally. The adventure that follows is captivating and the plot twist toward the end is surreal. I don’t know if I’d say pages 155-238 & 262-the end make up for the other pages between which are incredibly boring (and sometimes feel like the characters are too obvious or trying too hard), but the middle and end of this book are truly spectacular in a way that I did not anticipate. The writing style is good, the plot is great. The background information just feels a little tedious at times. But then I guess you wouldn’t understand how monumental the plot was if you didn’t learn about how tedious Maddy’s life was prior.
Is there any better way to kick off book reviews on this blog than by reviewing a debut novel by an up-and-coming author? Perhaps reviewing a debut novel by an up-and-coming author that I’ve known since I was a small child?
I’m writing this review from a completely unbiased perspective, so I’ll get this little bit out of the way right now: Tyler James Smith, author of Unstoppable Moses, was a childhood friend of my brother, and the brother of my brother’s childhood friend. That is to say, he spent a lot of time at my house. I played with him and my older brother as a young child, and I suppose with age their friendship faded as most of them naturally do.
That being said, when I heard from his (very cool and kind) older brother that he had written a book, I was excited. And when I found out that the novel he wrote was actually a contemporary Young Adult (YA) novel, which is my favorite age group/genre, I was thrilled. I knew I needed this book.
Now that we’ve got the excitement and bias out of the way, onto reviewing the actual content of the novel.
To directly quote my Goodreadsreview (which I spouted off-the-cuff approximately nine minutes after closing the book):
Honestly, whole-heartedly, and emphatically: one of the best novels I have ever read. Very reminiscent of John Green, both in voice and content (particularly in the scenes involving walking in the cold, where I was reminded of John Green’s third of Let It Snow). The action continues to propel you forward- the reader is always waiting for what comes next- until the very end. I have never read something that so earnestly grapples with trauma and the ways in which it can manifest. This book obliterated me in the best possible way. I would give it ten stars if I could.
I’m more than willing to bet that anyone reading this would like me to expand, so here goes.
Tyler James Smith has a voice that is so charming and witty that you feel like you’re reading the words of an actual teenager who is actually experiencing these things- and I think that’s exactly how YA should be. You should feel that the narrator is really a teenager, tackling everything life throws at them with humor and emotional depth (and confusion). Smith’s voice is just that.
When I say that his writing is like John Green, please note that this is one of the highest complements I could give, because I’m a John Green fanatic.
As far as content similarities between John Green’s work and Unstoppable Moses, they are numerous.
First, a lot of the book involves traveling around in the cold. A lot of those walking-around-in-the-cold scenes involve the comical and sometimes distressing experiences of four teenagers, which is not unlike the chaos of John Green’s part of Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances, wherein three teenagers trek through the snow in search of a Waffle House.
Second, the title character finds himself searching for someone, which prompted me to draw parallels between Unstoppable Moses and Paper Towns.
In some ways, I can see also similarities between Unstoppable Moses and Looking For Alaska. Moses is dealing with a lot of guilt in the wake of a tragedy, just as Miles is dealing with a lot of guilt in the wake of a tragedy.
This book is thrilling. It may not be a thriller (though I think someone with more knowledge of the genre could probably make an argument that it fits) but it is packed with excitement that keeps you on the edge of your seat, trying to read faster and faster, and flipping pages. It took me two days to read and I spent approximately seven hours total. Sometimes I actually had to pause and go back because I was reading so fast to get to the next bit of information, I was skipping details.
From the moment you hear about Moses’ near death experience as a child, you’re ready to see what comes next. The book is a relentless series of captivating events that ensnare the reader.
When I started reading, I could not have been more taken by the premise and the opening chapter. Unstoppable Moses is the story of Moses Hill, who pulled an innocent prank with his cousin and best friend, Charlie Baltimore… which went horribly awry and landed Moses in court-ordered community service as a camp counselor.
Moses is a loveable, relatable, and understandable character. He’s experienced more than his fair share of trauma and the chapters jump backward and forward in time, recalling memories as well as living in the present in a way that feels eerily familiar.
When I messaged the author’s brother to rave about this book, he said I was the kind of reader that authors want, because I get immersed in every book I read. But this book is different. This book grabs you by the shirt collar and pulls you in. You don’t stand a chance.
But that’s not even the best part.
What I love most about this book is how flawlessly the depictions of trauma are written.
Unstoppable Moses is not just the story of everything Moses experiences in his time at camp Jaye’k (and the two substantial events that preceded it), it’s the story of Moses’ emotional journey from Super Boy… to unprocessed traumatized teenager… to more processed, more traumatized teenager.
In true YA-coming-of-age fashion, Moses learns about expressing his feelings and how to cope with the agony of being a human who has experienced bad things (or maybe just the agony of being a human).
Without giving away too many details, I can’t really explain what I mean about the trauma and how Moses grows as a person, so you’ll have to take my word for it. It’s phenomenal. It’s realistic. It’s poignant. It’s hopeful.
When we read books, they change us. They help us put things in perspective and they give us the tools to process our own experiences. I read this as an adult and it gave me new insights on myself but also the other people in my life. If Unstoppable Moses gave me new insights on myself and the others around me, imagine the profound impact it will have on teenagers.
Suffice it to say I recommend that everyone read this book.
If you enjoy:
Coming of Age novels
You will enjoy Unstoppable Moses.
P.S. I downplayed this review a lot because I didn’t want to sound like a fangirling nutjob.
First, we melted 3 tablespoons of butter on the stove.
Then, we melted in an entire bag of mini marshmallows.
Next, we measured out 6 cups of fruity pebbles in a large bowl.
Finally, we mixed.
And as a last step, I buttered a 9×13 pan and placed them in it to cool.
Most of what I enjoyed about this “recipe” was spending time with my daughter, telling her about each step. I also thoroughly enjoyed photographing the steps of this process because fruity pebbles are pretty and I love the art that goes into food preparation.
Fruity pebbles and marshmallows are a match made in heaven.
Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely will (and must) re-shoot these images. They are not my best work.
While ordering groceries a few weeks ago, I knew I wanted to make salmon. But I didn’t want to make salmon the way I’ve always made salmon, because although it is delicious, I had pinned so many incredible looking salmon recipes on my Pinterest, and I wanted to try my hand at cooking something that required a bit more effort.
I started by making searing the four pieces of salt-and-peppered salmon on both sides in two tablespoons of olive oil on the stove. The Cafe Delites recipe calls for five minutes on each side, but I only needed four. When that was done, I set the salmon aside to rest while I worked on the cream sauce.
Next, I melted two tablespoons of butter into the oil (and the juices that came out of the fish while cooking) and fried two teaspoons of minced garlic. The Cafe Delites recipe calls for six cloves, the delish recipe calls for three cloves, but what I had on hand was a jar of minced garlic that has proven to be pretty potent. The internet tells me that half a teaspoon is equivalent to a clove, but I didn’t want garlic to overpower the dish (I’m not a huge garlic fan. Iknow, Iknow).
After that I added in about two thirds of a large sweet onion. The Cafe Delites recipe calls for a whole small yellow onion, but apparently drastically changing recipes to suit my preferences and what I’ve got on hand is my favorite hobby. The delish recipe doesn’t call for onion.
I opted to forgo wine in my recipe, mostly because I ordered my groceries online and didn’t feel like jumping through hoops, but also because I didn’t care to buy a bottle of wine that I wouldn’t use ever again, and also because I’m not a particularly big fan of alcohol (I’m a once-or-twice-a-year-to-celebrate-a-friend’s-birthday drinker).
At this point, I basically switched over to the other recipe, because I didn’t want to use sun dried tomatoes (I don’t care for them, but I also had only half of what the recipe called for and those were already allocated to pasta salad) and because I wanted to use heavy cream instead of half-n-half.
I added the tomatoes (this time I used campari tomatoes salted, peppered, cut in quarters; in the past I have used cherry tomatoes in halves) into the butter-onion-garlic mixture and cooked that until the tomatoes were beginning to burst.
Next, I added the half cup of heavy cream which I brought to a simmer over low heat.
When the sauce mixture was simmering, I added salt and pepper and then two cups of spinach, which I cooked only until wilted.
Both recipes call for Parmesan cheese, but I skipped it.
When I was done cooking, I pulled the pan off the stove and put it directly on the table (on a hot pad, of course). I placed the salmon from the other dish back into the pan and spooned a liberal amount of the sauce and veggies on top of each piece.
Alongside this dish I made a can of french bread (again, what I had on hand) and it turned out to be perfect at sopping up sauce and covering with vegetables to go alongside this awesome dish.
I served this with a basic salad (lettuce, spinach, tomato) and some bread.
The final product was sweet and rich, almost nutty tasting, with the flavor of salmon shining through. It could not have turned out more perfect!
In case you need it, here’s a list of ingredients:
4 salmon fillets (I used frozen)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tsp jarred garlic (or 4 cloves, if you want to use fresh)
Approx. 2/3rds of a large sweet onion (or a whole small sweet onion)
About 10 campari tomatoes (or about 1.5 cups of cherry tomatoes)
Because I love to put bananas on my pancakes, and because I love the song “Banana Pancakes” by Jack Johnson, I made banana pancakes. Banana bread pancakes to be specific.
I followed this recipe which calls for bananas, buttermilk, flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, brown sugar, butter, egg, and salt.
First, my little helper helped me mash two bananas.
Next, I melted 2 tablespoons of butter in the microwave.
The recipe says to mix the wet ingredients and dry ingredients separately and then mix the two, but I’m a huge proponent of never doing that. It wastes dishes and time.
I poured the dry ingredients on top of the banana. First the 1 & 1/4 cups of flour, then 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, a full teaspoon of cinnamon (The recipe calls for 1/2 a teaspoon, but every sweet recipe that calls for cinnamon needs more. I hold this conviction very deeply.) and an eyeballed dash of salt.
first whisked those dry ingredients before adding the other wet ingredients on top and mixing the entire batter.
I added the teaspoon of vanilla into the butter before pouring it into the bowl.
Next I added the 1 cup + 2 tablespoons of buttermilk.
After that, the 1/4 cup of brown sugar.
And finally, the egg.
The next step is to whisk it all together.
And then make pancakes, which I am terrible at. None of my pancakes were photogenic. Several of them were overcooked or squashed. I suspect it’s going to take a lifetime of practice to be able to successfully make and flip pancakes.
In the meantime, I started a very simple crescent roll egg bake. This recipe is simple: just pinch the crescent roll edges together, roll the outside edges to form a barrier, crack a few eggs (I used 6 the first time and they overfilled the dough and oozed into the pan, so this time I used four). Then sprinkle with cheese (I used Sargento four state cheddar). Add any other toppings you’d like- I added tomatoes to 3/4 of it.
Here’s a finished banana bread pancake with homemade whipped cream on top.
Tonight I felt like making a stir fry, and I’m far from good at it, but it was okay nonetheless. First, I chopped up bell pepper. I used about 2 peppers worth, but from 3 different colors (I set about 1 pepper worth aside to use in a cheesy Mexican skillet later in the week.)
Next, I added those to my skillet with olive oil. (Which I badly photographed because my depth of field was very narrow, I was rushing, and the focus is on a small spot of oil instead of any peppers…)
Then I drained the bamboo shoots and water chestnuts and added those. Evidently I did not photograph this.
I boiled the rice noodles but evidently the secret to avoiding sticky noodles is to cook them hours beforehand, pat them dry, and toss them in oil. I didn’t do that because it didn’t even occur to me until after my noodles came out sticky. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Then I started suit frying the veggies. I added the mushrooms and bean sprouts partway through. At the end, I added the rice noodles and jarred General Tso sauce. It was a substantial fight to open these bean sprouts, my can opener kept leaving gouges but not actually opening the thing! But eventually I got it sorted.
This dish wasn’t great, but it was okay. I would definitely make changes next time. Like for example, un-sticking the noodles properly and adding something green- maybe bok choy, since I’m not a huge fan of pea pods in my homemade stir fry.
* the recipe featured on the kindle in images was not followed. I simply checked it to determine when I should start the bell peppers in comparison to other items.