Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday Words: Series Vs. Stand Alone

I have been on a bit of a series spree as of late when it comes to my reading choices. And by as of late, I really mean the last few months. Much of this has been unintentional - my Goodreads list of books to read was all nicely organized and arranged in the order I wanted to start crossing titles off, but I kept getting distracted by series. I'd read the first book of a series and love it, and if the second, third, fourth, etc. are already out, how could I possibly wait? I've been sucked into an incredible and lively story, and unlike those who may have gotten wind of these amazing books earlier than I did, I don't have to wait a year for the next installment.

But lately, I'm feeling a little burnt out by series. It's entirely possible (okay, probable) that this as a result of my total lack of self restraint, but it's happened anyway. Which is why I'm currently reading Chocolat by Joanne Harris for a few reasons:

1. It's a grown up book
Again, let me stress that I love YA. It's my favorite. It's fantastic. But with the trend being trilogies and series lately combined with the fact that I work in a high school, it's a whole lot of hormones going on. With Chocolat, I've had this sitting on my bookshelf since last fall when I picked it up at a used book sale. It takes place during Lent (making it seasonally appropriate), and the two narrators of the story are adults. Maybe I didn't understand why this was such a good thing in my teen years, but now as I get older (but not that old, I love being in my 20s thank you very much), I can empathize so much more with an adult protagonist than I was able to when I read grown up books in my high school English classes.

2. It's a stand alone novel.
Mostly. It started out that way and was for a very long time because Harris didn't write a sequel until over a decade later. But for these intents and purposes, it's a stand alone. I don't have to read the next book to find out how it all ends because this book has it's own characters and it's own arc. I get to know them, the beginning, middle, and end all in one go, and then that's it. I don't have to get stressed out about a love triangle or if so-and-so lives or dies. And right now, I find that refreshing.

So here's my question to you, fellow readers. Do you only stick to series, strongly prefer stand alones, or do you like to mix it up with books from both camps? I definitely fall into the third category, but I'm anxious to know what you all think.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

In the Beginning: Clockwork Angel

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010

Not long ago, I wrote my review of the first book in The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, City of Bones, and I loved it. It had been quite a while since I've gotten so into a fantasy book, and it was one of my first experiences with urban fantasy. I loved this book so much in fact that I immediately abandoned my to-read list which is carefully organized on Goodreads so I could continue on with City of Ashes and City of Glass instead and they also proceeded to blow me away.

And then what should I find at my library when I went to return those, sitting oh-so-innocently on the shelf, but Clockwork Angel, the first book in Clare's prequel series, The Infernal Devices. Did I give into temptation? You bet I did.

Welcome to Victorian London. Sixteen-year-old Tessa, an orphan from New York, has come to live with her older brother following the death of her aunt whom she had been living with. Only instead of meeting Nate at the docks when she comes in, she meets the Dark Sisters who claim Nate sent them in his place. Six weeks later, Nate is nowhere to be found and Tessa is being held captive and the women force her to use a power she never knew she had: the ability to shape-shift and take on the appearance of others. Luckily, London's Shadowhunters have their own reasons for seeking out the Dark Sisters on a seemingly unrelated note and once Tessa is with them and safely at the Institute, she starts to learn the truth. She is some sort of Downworlder, a mysterious leader known as The Magister wants her for his own, and Shadowhunters are forced to grow up quickly. Amid her concern for her life and trying to find her brother, Tessa finds herself torn between two Shadowhunters her own age, the collected Jem who manages to be incredibly strong and fragile at the same time and Will, a seemingly wild-child who does his best to keep his distance from everyone except Tessa...usually.

Where do I even begin? This book was such an enjoyable trip into times past and (for me) lands far away. While you definitely don't have to have read The Mortal Instruments first to understand what's going on in terms of the Shadowhunter/Downworlder dynamics at work, I personally was glad that I had. Clare includes subtle nods to her other series that made me smile (and sometimes not so subtle *cough cough Magnus Bane, anyone? cough cough*). Clare also spends more time getting into some of the history of this fantasy world, thanks in part to Tessa reading a book on the history and nature of the Shadow World. The blend of action and description of the setting is elegantly done and I could easily visualize the Institute, the characters, and Victorian London. And as usual, Clare hits a home run with her leading cast. I could completely understand Tessa's confusion over her supernatural ability, understanding what is going on with Nate, and her feelings for Will and Jem (which were agonizing to a 21st century reader given how very...different relationships were between men and women 100 years ago). While I didn't really read this story with the same sense of urgency as TMI, I was still completely sucked in and read the novel over the course of three days. It's hard, but I actually forced myself NOT to read the sequel Clockwork Prince right away because I wanted to spread out the story and experience a little while longer. (That review has been written and will be posted in the coming weeks.)

If you like British things, this book is for you. If you're looking for historical fiction with a supernatural twist, this book is for you. If you loved The Mortal Instruments, then The Infernal Devices is a must. For me it's another case of hating that I didn't read this sooner, but I'm so glad to have found it now.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

Cassandra Clare's Website
Cassandra Clare on Twitter
Cassandra Clare on Tumblr

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wednesday Words: I am not a Blogger

A week ago today, I found myself in one of my favorite bookstores of all time, Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL, for the first stop of the Breathless Reads tour featuring Marie Lu (Legend), Beth Revis (Across the Universe), Jessica Spotswood (Born Wicked), and Andrea Cremer (Nightshade) . A fellow book lover of mine whom I met at my last Anderson’s outing, Erin, tweeted to me about it and as I waited for her to arrive and the event to get started, I got to talking with a few other women who have book blogs of their own.

Now these were Bloggers. These women are incredibly well read. They know their authors, series, and publication dates. They are enthusiastic and passionate about these books so much so that they buy extra copies for authors to sign so they can host a giveaway. They participate in many of the memes that exist out there, do interviews, and are incredibly well connected to each other. Many of them had driven hours and across state lines to be at that event (suddenly making my 45 minute commute seem less impressive).

I’m an imposter, a total poser, a wannabe compared to them. But I’m okay with that and allow me to explain why.

I am the first one to admit that I am the new kid on the blogging block. I’m still trying to figure out how all of this works, but I’m loving the process of trial and error in the meantime. I’m not in the position where I can be hosting giveaways of my own. Unfortunately due to my limited time right now (work, grad school, life, etc.), I’m not participating in memes. I consider it a lucky day when I do get to read the books I write about here for fun. And my posts tend to be less like reviews and me just throwing in my two cents. I like being a part of the conversation. In the last week alone since meeting these awesome Bloggers, my twitter activity has increased and I love getting to interact with others who love YA just as much as I do. I’ve also had more conversations with others I was already following when we realized we’re both reading the same book right now and it’s been so much fun, like a little virtual book club, all in 140 characters or less.

In short, Blogging or blogging, no matter what you do, is about more than just the books and the prizes and how many followers you have or comments you get. It’s about the community that forms and the interactions that take place. Growing up, before Harry Potter, reading made me different and nerdy and I saw that as a bad thing. But now thanks to these various avenues of social media, I’m a small part of a fantastic community. I may not be in the major leagues, I may just be another fan in the bleachers, but at least I’m here.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

Check out the many fabulous people I’m talking about:
Erin Brambilla: Blog - Twitter
Jen (Dream Reads): Blog - Twitter
Jacinda: Blog - Twitter
Laci Crawford: Blog - Twitter
Lynn Spinks: Blog - Twitter
Liza Wiemer: Blog - Twitter

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Putting Her Best Foot Forward: Cinder

Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Feiwell & Friends, 2012

*A big thanks to Page Turners Blog for supplying me with a copy of this book!*

Once upon a time, there was a girl who had a starring role in a fairy tale.

And then that fairy tale got a totally kick-ass makeover.

I almost don't even know where to begin my thoughts on this book because I'm so excited about it and the amazing potential for this series. But perhaps I should start at the beginning.

I'll admit (now shamefully) that I was a bit apprehensive when I first heard about this story. Another retelling of a fairy tale? Are YA authors starting to become like Hollywood writers who are completely running out of their own original ideas and are therefore just retelling stories we already have? But then this book started getting some serious buzz, even from other skeptics like me. I entered the Page Turners Blog's contest, happened to win a copy of this book along with gorgeous necklace by Charming Charlie, and cautiously started into this novel.

Before I knew it, I was completely hooked on this fantastic new spin on a tale we all know so well.

Cinder is the best mechanic in New Beijing, and for a very good reason - she's a cyborg, a girl who has many robotic parts enhancing her, most obviously a robotic hand and leg. Given her condition, she is technically the property of her step-mother, but she makes the best of it. She adores the younger of her two step-sisters, Peony, and she passes her days running a booth in the marketplace with quirky android Iko. It's a day like any other until two very big events happen: the handsome Prince Kai comes by and asks her to fix his android and not long after his visit, the whole market is forced to evacuate because another plague victim is spotted. Yeah, that's right, the plague. Before long, Cinder finds herself in the middle of an interplanetary struggle and learning secrets that can have a huge impact on the world's future.

Like I said, not exactly the story you remember from your childhood.

It's been a long time since I've been so delighted to be wrong about my first reaction to a book. In her debut novel, Meyer has taken this age old story and breathed new life into it. The sci-fi and futuristic twist were interesting and didn't scare someone like me who is usually a bit scared of reading science fiction. Cinder is a complex girl who is incredibly strong. She may be part robot, but she is still very much a teenage girl struggling to figure all the regular parts of growing up (not to mention trying to save her country and the planet on top of it). Prince Kai, too, is well rounded and fascinating, and I have a feeling we will see a lot of interesting things happen with him in the coming books. Secondary characters are well thought out and purposeful, the setting is brilliant (especially since it's believed that Cinderella started as a story from China involving traditional foot-binding practices), and the plot had an arc of its own while also leaving me completely anxious for the second installment in the series, due out next year.

The Lunar Chronicles are off to a fantastic start and Meyer has set up a great series. Full of smart characters, action, surprises, and rich details, Cinder mixes the past, present, and future in a captivating way that this reader throughly enjoyed.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

Marissa Meyer's Website
Marissa Meyer on Twitter

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wednesday Words: Make the Time

Busy is a four letter word. It can be a very good thing, but some days it's just pure evil. A standard day for me lately goes like this: wake up, work, get home and hit the treadmill for 2-3 miles (doctor's orders), grad school classes for 2 hours two nights a week, homework, make lunch for the next day, bed.  Forget relaxing or doing something for fun like reading.

Right? Wrong!

We need to make the time, and it's a lesson we need to remind ourselves of over and over again because it's so easy to lose sight of. Last night, I was so excited when I found myself with a wee bit of free time in the evening because it meant I could continue to read the fantastic book I'd started the day before. I'll admit that I did get a teeny-tiny bit carried away because what was supposed to just be 40 minutes of reading before bed turned into going to bed 40 minutes late, but I simply HAD to finish the book (come back Sunday to see which book I'm talking about)! It was a mental vacation that I knew I needed, but didn't realize how fully that was the truth until I was doing it. I'm not saying that we should all read late into the night and neglect our other duties to work and family, but I do know that when I woke up this morning, my head was still full of this amazing story that I couldn't wait to tell the people I eat lunch with at work about.

So here's my proposition: if you can't read every day, at least try to carve out time a few times a week. Instead of TV listings, try having a reading listing. Mondays: watch Castle. Tuesdays: 30 minute episode of Last Man Standing and then follow that up with 30 minutes of reading, and so on and so forth. Study after study shows that reading is good for us, that it keeps our minds active and it encourages creativity. Therefore, it's in our best interests to make it a priority.

I'll admit that this isn't my most well thought out or eloquent post, but I just think this is an idea worth repeating. Coming soon, more gushing about how 2012 is so far shaping up to be the Year of Most Excellent Books That I'm Finally Getting to Read, fun times meeting authors and other bloggers, and other literary ramblings. Stay tuned!

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Find Your Passion: The Element

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson
Viking, 2009

With Valentine's Day coming up in a few day's time, I confess that my original plan for this week's post was to give a review of a novel containing some sort of love story in it that even single gals like me wouldn't mind so much. But then I ended up finishing a book a few days ago and it says even more about love than I could have expected it to. It's nonfiction, it's written by an expert in the fields of education and creativity, and it may sound crazy, but trust me when I say that The Element is absolutely a love story that I believe everyone should read.

In today's economy, we are constantly telling ourselves as well as our children and younger generations that when thinking of what to do with their futures, practicality is probably the best way to go. We consider the financial numbers, oftentimes convincing ourselves that it's better to play it safe and go with the path of stability. But Robinson turns that idea on its head - what is it doing to individuals, to our society, when we essentially push creativity and these other forces of passion aside that we can see time and again if we look to the great names and ages of history, if we are building a world where people's careers are merely jobs and not something they actually enjoy.

His solution isn't easy and it won't just happen over night, but I believe that he's thinking in the right direction: we must each find and embrace our Element, that thing he describes as "the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion."

Though I wouldn't go as far as to call this book narrative nonfiction, it is certainly filled with stories of real people to help illustrate his points. Some you may have heard of (like Paul McCartney) and others, not so much but that doesn't make their incredible contributions to the world any less extraordinary. While he does speak a lot about education and what educational reforms in recent (and not so recent) years have done to how we value creativity, do not feel like this book has nothing to offer you if you aren't a teacher or don't work in a school of some sort. This book has something for everyone. Are you passionate about math or global warming or cartoons? Then chase it. Do you have a good business sense but don't want to give up your love of music or dancing? There's a way to embrace all these parts of yourself and they can help you become the best version of yourself.

I first heard of Sir Ken Robinson when I was in undergrad working towards my teaching certificate, and after watching a video of the TED speech he gave in 2005 (embedded below), his thoughts blew my classmates and me away. Links to this soon popped up on our Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts, and people who have nothing to do with schools agreed whole heartedly with his concepts as well. So if there's something in your life that you LOVE but may be afraid to go after or try, I say give a listen here or read what Robinson has to say. Embrace your Element when you're lucky enough to discover it, and may it open up whole new worlds for you to explore.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading.

Ken Robinson's Website
Ken Robinson on Twitter

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wednesday Words: Cover Stories

"Don't judge a book by its cover." Yeah, easier said than done. I know I've done it, and don't even try to deny it, you have, too. We all do it. We live in a very visually stimulated era, and as upside down as it may seem, the visual has a huge effect on our word based worlds.

I've noticed book covers all my life. Before I could read the words, I read the pictures so to speak, and even as I got older it just became second nature that a book cover tends to give a little taste somehow of what the story inside on the pages contains. On my very first day of library school in my very first class's lecture, we talked about books as pieces of art, and wandering around bookstores and libraries today, I think my professor was incredibly correct when she said that.

I confess, I'm much more likely to read a book if I at least don't hate the image on the cover, and I'm definitely more likely to use it in display at the library where I work. When putting together our current Valentine's Day corner, there were books I selected that were right on the money as far as content is concerned, but the covers were so dated that I put them in a different display case where only the spine would be seen instead.

And yes, I do feel guilty about it. The whole thing really got me thinking - what are people going to think of the (YA) book covers of today 20 years from now? How many of them will be able to stand the test of time, and is even realistic to think they'll last more than a few years, or even from the hardcover to the paperback printings?

Allow me to elaborate. One of my favorite books that I read in high school was F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I was assigned to read it over spring break and that novel is perfect for such an occasion. But the cover is perhaps just as famous as the story itself. And it should because it's gorgeous!

Another iconic example that comes to mind is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Somehow, someway, this orange, cream, and yellow cover can continue to be seen in the hands of readers around the world.

But lately I feel like since such a big emphasis is put on cover art and marketing of books, the more it's changing (yet the more it stays the same). When Daisy Whitney's debut novel The Mockingbirds came out, this was the cover:

However, when it was printed in paperback, the cover switched to this (and now the sequel, The Rivals, follows this new design palate.
That's right, folks. Another YA cover featuring the half-face or unconventionally cropped photograph of a girl. Remind you of anything you've seen before?
I guess my point in all of this is that with the current trends in cover art, I feel like I'm not getting such a special look into the story anymore like I did when I was younger. When the covers all look alike to me, I just think 'what makes this book different? What makes it special?' I judge the books by their covers and most of the time get the general feeling from looking alone like I could have the same experience no matter what novel I choose. (I can assure you that the blurbs on the back or inside the dust cover make a much bigger impact on me, though, when it comes to my selections.) But what are people in the future, in 20 or 30 or 50 years, going to look at our shelves and think? Books really are art, but perhaps in a world where Photoshop can rule the day and everyone seems to have access to a digital camera, this is the way covers are going to be, at least for the time being.

I'm not saying a one-cover mentality is the best option all the time, I just want to look at a cover and feel something. I'll admit, sometimes it can be refreshing when the classics get a new look, too. After all, Gatsby is all about image, isn't it? Check out the tee-shirt I just got from Out of Print Clothing which pretty much emphasizes just that (and because if I'd gotten the classic cover design shirt, the eyes are unfortunately placed if you're a girl if you catch my drift...) Plus I got tons of compliments on this at work, too!
Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sassy Spies: Gallagher Girls

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter
Hyperion, 2006
Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy
Hyperion, 2007
Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover
Hyperion, 2009
Only the Good Spy Young
Hyperion, 2010

Since I read and enjoyed Ally Cater's novel Heist Society a few months ago and I've been on a "girls who kick ass" run lately as far as my reading choices are concerned, I decided to give Carter's Gallagher Girls series a try. Now, this post was originally supposed to just be a review of the first book, but then I really liked the second, immediately read the third, and HAD to get my hands on the fourth. Since this post therefore discusses four books instead of my usual one, this will be a long one with minimal spoilers. You have been warned.

Welcome to the exclusive Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women, or as the students and staff know it, spy school. Cammie is a student, her mom is the headmistress, and she and the rest of the Gallagher Girls are "exceptional" indeed. The school's cover is that it's just another boarding school for rich girls, but the truth is that these girls are certifiable geniuses, each are fluent in 14 languages, and they all know at least seven ways to kill a man with her bare hands.

In I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, Cammie's sophomore year is off to a bumpy start. She and her best friends, Bex and Liz, are given a new roommate, Macey; their covert operations teacher, Mr. Solomon, is tough as nails; and Cammie meets Josh in town, a very normal boy who thinks she's a very normal girl. The girls decide to try the ultimate covert op so this Gallagher Girl can do the unthinkable - have a boyfriend.

The book is Cammie's mission report, and Carter captures that age and voice perfectly. The dichotomy of the girls' lives makes for an interesting plot and premise - according to testing, these girls are some of the smartest people in the world, but they're completely clueless when it comes to trying to figure out if a boy likes you.

A few times I cringed on Cammie's behalf. Did she really believe that lying to the boy she likes and sneaking out of her top secret school could end well? Without giving too much away, in the end she was able to redeem herself in my eyes. After all, people don't always make the best choices when they're 15 and relationships, no matter who you are, are complicated.

The girls are intelligent and strong, all the characters have distinct personalities and voices, and the book was a fun, quick read that kept me interested. The ending especially gave me reason to believe this series was headed somewhere, so I immediately picked up the sequel, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy.

The second novel felt so much stronger to me. I know this series is all about teenage spies, but the plot involving some mysterious visitors coming to the school felt much more plausible to me. The characters all felt a bit more solid and the story kept me guessing. Zach was a welcome addition to the cast as a fellow teenage spy who sets his eye on Cammie. Whereas scenes with Josh would make me wince because I felt no good could come of it, I couldn't wait for Zach to show up. He's smart, just a bit too confident sometimes, sweet when he wants to be, and you never know what's going to come out of his mouth. He brings out the best in Cammie, personally and professionally.

Carter takes it up another notch with the third book, Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover. Junior year brings new and exciting elements like Cammie's kick-ass aunt Abby, attempts on someone's life on the campaign trail (Macey's dad is running for Vice President), and a mysterious organization known as the Circle of Cavan. Zach is back too as the only boy who really understands what Cammie's life is like and he's still full of his own secrets. The book is packed with action and the stakes are much higher. Forget getting a boyfriend - now it's about trying to stay alive and keep people safe. It was one of those situations when I was glad to be behind on a series because I got to read the next book right away.

In Only the Good Spy Young, nothing is as it seems. Mr. Solomon, the teacher Cammie has come to known and trust over the years, is revealed to be part of the Circle (or is he?) and Zach isn't completely the good guy she's wanted to believe he was, either. For some reason, the Circle is after Cammie and if anyone knows why, they certainly aren't telling her. For the first time in the series, I was actually afraid that these Gallagher Girls and the adults around them were in trouble, and with good reason.

The series has humor, spunk, tenacity, and interesting characters, but this turn for the serious kept me interested. In the third and fourth books, it's hard to believe this is the same Cammie from book one - her character has had incredible growth and I continue to root for her. It's killing me now that I have to wait along with everyone else!

All in all, I'm really, really glad to have found the Gallagher Girls. These books are fun, fast reads showcasing intelligent girls living extraordinary lives and I truly enjoy spending time in this world of action and espionage. The fifth installment, Out of Sight, Out of Time, is due out in March, 2012.

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wednesday Words: You Never Forget Your First

For most of my childhood, I'd celebrate my birthday with a bowling party at an alley with my cousins and a few friends. However, the summer I turned twelve, my mom let me do something different. That year, just before the start of 7th grade, I got to pick about five friends and we went to see a movie. It was one that I was particularly excited to see because it was based on a book I liked.

If you guessed it was The Princess Diaries by the one, the only, the fabulous Meg Cabot, you'd be right, and today is her birthday.

I didn't know it at the time, but it was one of the first YA books I had ever read. Mia was a character I could grow up with and look up to at the same time. She wasn't perfect, but that only made me like her even more. She was interesting, as was her situation, the people in her life, and her way of looking at the world.

Fast forward ten years to 2011. I'm 22 years old and sitting in a college auditorium in Naperville, Illinois. Anderson's Bookshop is hosting a stop on Scholastic's "This is Teen" tour, featuring Maggie Stiefvater, Libba Bray, and Meg Cabot. Each of these three women were incredibly smart, funny, and completely engaged with the audience which was filled with those who were young and young at heart. When the talk was over, it was time to get in the signing line and have the chance to meet the authors whose books you had purchased. And when it was finally my turn, I geeked out just a little bit.

Okay, a lot.

But can you blame me? And she was so nice about it! I had been trying to keep calm and seem cool and collected, but I was too excited. I told Meg that I grew up reading about Mia and I'd since enjoyed her adult books along with the fact that I was writing a book of my own and her writing advice on her website had been hugely helpful to me. And being the classy lady she is, she smiled and took a picture with me, and even gave me this when I mentioned that I go to library school:

It was the first time I had ever met someone outside of my family who I had looked up to growing up, and it was a wonderful experience. It only took her a few minutes, but it meant the world to me. I have since been to numerous Anderson's events and met several authors whose works I enjoy, and every time I've been fortunate enough that they are as enthusiastic about their readers as we are about them. Those are memories I'll cherish for years to come.

Meg is certainly not the only one who likes to give back to readers. In the spirit of Valentine's Day, author Lauren Oliver is doing a giveaway in the spirit of love over on her blog. Entrants have the chance to win a copy of Delirium (which is an incredible dystopian novel all about love - it's amazing), a box of chocolates, and an ARC of her upcoming novel Pandemonium, the second book in the Delirium trilogy. It's a great opportunity and you never know if luck will be on your side, so why not put your name in?

So Happy Birthday again Meg, comments welcome, and as always, happy reading.