When life gets you down… read a middle-grade novel. These books tackle serious issues without the angst of YA or the bleak cynicism of adult fiction, and that’s something everyone needs sometimes. My latest recommendation is Trouble in the Stars by Sarah Prineas.
Readers are plunged headlong into a journey of discovery when a young shapeshifter (who enters the story as a blob of goo) goes on the run from StarLeague (dystopian government type) soldiers. After stowing away aboard a freighter, the shifter takes human form and is christened Trouble by the crew. Trouble learns what it means to be a human (from food to friendship) while trying to earn the crew’s trust. But eventually StarLeague will catch up, so it’s up to Trouble and the ship’s crew to chase down the truth about where Trouble came from and why StarLeague wants so badly to find them.
New readers of sci-fi will appreciate learning the lingo alongside Trouble, and similarly diversity (of many stripes) is explained in clear, matter-of-fact terms. Fans of Firefly (or parents who want to expose their kids to the concept but not the actual show) will appreciate the outlaw vibes, complete with a mysterious, coveted individual who doesn’t know their own power. This is a good read for all ages, balancing a quick and interesting plot with thoughtful characterization and moral considerations.
See also its sequel, Asking for Trouble for the continued adventures of your new favorite shapeshifter. Trouble in the Stars is also available on Overdrive.
Most of the time, I want a podcast that’s going to make me laugh or tell me an interesting story (or preferably, both) but sometimes I want a podcast that’s mindful, thoughtful, and helps me see things in a new way. Here are a few podcasts to try if you’re looking for a moment of gentle profundity, or insight.
Poetry Unbound (or any of the On Being family of podcasts) is a particularly beautiful place to start, in my opinion. In Poetry Unbound, poet Padraig O Tuama reads a poem and offers insight into what the poet may be saying (about life, being human, etc.) before reading the poem a second time. A great podcast for feeling calm and profound. Other podcasts from On Being include the eponymous On Being, Becoming Wise, and This Movie Changed Me, all on the same theme of life’s meaning and personal transformation and insight.
For a print version of this podcast, try The Poetry Remedy, edited by William Sieghart, or for a timely collection, Together In A Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn.
If you’re looking for a podcast that makes you think and helps you rest, but also teaches you something new, you may like 99% Invisible. This popular podcast focuses on the design, architecture, and infrastructure which underlies our daily lives but all but completely escapes our notice. Aiming to help you see the world differently, it’s accompanied by a print book, The 99% Invisible City, by the show’s creator Roman Mars.
And of course, there are also podcasts to help you start a meditation and mindfulness practice, such as Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris. This podcast features guests, insights, and advice into how to live a more mindful life. Accompanying the audio insights is Harris’ 2014 book 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice in my Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. For a more practical, advice-based book, see Harris’ Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.
Not to be melodramatic, but Finna by Nino Cipri is the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It reads in many ways like an American version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – one of my all-time favorite books. The deceptively thin volume is the story of Ava and Jules, a young couple that just broke up a week ago and now has to find a way to continue working together at a Scandinavian big box furniture store. As if the horrors and indignities of working retail AND a breakup weren’t enough, they then discover a wormhole to a parallel universe has opened inside the store — and a customer has wandered through it. It falls to Ava and Jules, as the employees with the least seniority, to go through the wormhole and try to bring the customer home. While trying to survive a perilous multiverse, they must also walk the perilous path from breakup back to friendship.
I fell in love with this book almost instantly, and there’s many reasons why. For one thing, it’s a slim and unintimidating 137 pages, and the writing style and brief chapters make it a quick and addictive read. The humor is dry and wry, realistic about the cruelties and frustrations of both working retail and navigating relationships. Both characters are honest about their own good and bad qualities and while the hurt and defensiveness is real, they don’t flinch away from taking a long, hard look at what went wrong in themselves and in their relationship. Moreover, meaningful as the relationship between the characters is, the book doesn’t get bogged down in it, balancing out the heartfelt discussions with lots of frankly wacky adventures in parallel universes both beautiful and sinister. Finally, this book is one of a very rare type: a novel, with a genderqueer protagonist, that doesn’t focus exclusively on that individual’s gender. In fact, Jules’ gender identity and the social difficulties that come with it are treated as established and routine, mundane everyday details compared to the rest of the plot. As a genderqueer person myself, it is so refreshing to read novels where gender-diverse people exist, live their lives, and do things other than obsess about their gender identity.
If you love slice-of-life sci fi, Welcome to Night Vale, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or are craving some light-hearted LGBTQ representation, I 100% recommend you check out this book.