Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wednesday Words: The Book You're Meant to Write

I know it's not Wednesday, but I really wanted to end the 2011 entries to this blog on a high note, so consider this Wednesday Words: Saturday Edition.

I've never been in love, not even close. I'm one of those perpetually single people - my life is full in infinite ways, I just don't happen to have a boyfriend right now. But I'm okay with that because I've been falling in love with stories my entire life and discovering that stories are all around us, you just have to pay attention. In songs with and without lyrics, the sound of crickets on a summer night, in an impossibly delicate sunset or painting, in television shows, in movies, and of course in books.

Though I feel like in my life, despite my voracious reading habits, I have a hard time finding books that leave me with the feeling like in some magical cosmic way it was meant for me, that the author somehow knew that this shy yet smart-mouthed nerdy girl from Illinois was in need of a story that clicked with her. But then Harry Potter happened when I was 11 and I "met" Hermione, and suddenly I didn't feel so alone anymore. Then I got older and last year I read According to Jane by Marilyn Brant and it's awesome how similar my life is to that of the protagonist.

Yet this itch remains, and this past year I started to write more stories myself. Over the course of the summer, I wrote a first draft of a YA novel in which the protagonist has an awful lot of me in her - she's the protagonist I often wanted to read about but couldn't find.

When her latest book The Scorpio Races came out this past October, Maggie Stiefvater wrote about why she wrote the book on her blog. Her answer is simply poetic: this isn't a story that she just snapped her fingers and it came to her overnight, but the story she always wanted to read but had never found on the bookstore or library shelves. As she says, it's the "most Maggie" book she has ever written, the book she was meant to write. At my last count, this novel has gotten five starred reviews which leads me to what I believe is an obvious conclusion: this isn't just a book for Maggie, but a book that a lot of people maybe didn't realize they were also looking for until it finally existed. Her anti-NaNoWriMo post was one that hit home with me in November when I was near tears and neck-deep in another first draft, but looking back and really thinking about it, this particular post about how this book finally came to be is my favorite of hers. It's advice that I try to follow in my own writing as I work to write the story that only I can tell and I haven't already seen on my library shelves. I want to write the book that will hopefully do what Hermione did for me when I was also a precocious bookworm of an eleven year old.

If you're a writer, may Maggie's words help you as they have also helped me. If you're a reader, may you have the best of luck as you search for that book that perfectly fits you on the shelves. May all of you have a very Happy New Year. I hope to see you all back here in 2012. Bring a friend while you're at it. Spread the word, the more the merrier!

Comments welcome, and as always, happy reading.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking for the Bright Side: Instructions for a Broken Heart

Instructions for a Broken Heart by Kim Culbertson
Sourcebooks Fire, 2011

I'm one of those typical Caucasian Americans who has a blissfully messy European background. Italian, Irish, German, English, Austrian, Polish, and on and on and on. That being said, I've always been a fan in learning about the countries of my ancestors, trying to visit them, and reading books that take place there. When I read the description for Kim Culbertson's Instructions for a Broken Heart, it sounded like it was right up my alley - the majority of the story takes place during a girl's spring break trip to Italy.

Unfortunately, that's also where my excitement ended, and it really does pain me to say that because I had such high hopes for this book and was praying that it would turn around somehow.

Jessa's troubles start in the first chapter when she walks in on her boyfriend making out with another girl from their high school's drama club, only days before the club is to leave for a tour of Italy. Not wanting to let a boy ruin her plans to see the country she's dreamed of her whole life, she decides to go on the trip even though it will mean having to watch the new couple be all over each other.

It's an awkward and unfortunate situation to be in to be sure. I can empathize with being in Italy with a broken heart and I know it's not fun. However, it's not enough of an excuse for the often bizarre events that happen, Jessa's self-centered and all around poor attitude, and the fact that despite the fact that the whole story takes place over the course of 10 days, I felt lost half the time. Names, places, and an endless supply of Broadway references that non-thespians won't understand piled up into a big emotional mess. While I expected there to be a bit of over-dramatic flair given the fact that this is a high school drama club, this was simply ridiculous.

The titular instructions for a broken heart are laid out by Jessa's friend Carissa who was unable to make the trip, so instead she lays out 20 tasks Jessa must complete while she's away. While her intentions may have been good (and I use that word incredibly loosely), the results are disastrous more often than not. And since I found the main character to be pretty one dimensional, it shouldn't come as a shock that I wasn't exactly blown away by the 'supporting cast' either. The inclusion of a tour group from another school only added to the confusion. Another aspect of the story that irked me was that Culbertson would build up to reveals only to have them be incredibly anticlimactic.

I could honestly keep going on about why this book just fell short for me (don't even get me started on the ending), but I think you catch the drift of what I'm saying. Were I a person in Jessa's shoes, maybe I'd be more sympathetic to her views and actions, but to me this story was so full of cliches and half-thought-out ideas that I can't say I'd recommend it.

Comments welcome and happy reading.

Kim Culbertson's Website

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wednesday Words: The (Completely Accidental) Fault in Our Services

One of the many things I love about storytelling, no matter which medium it is being conveyed through, is that it is a unique experience for each individual. Jane Austen's novels have been read for many many years and by people all around the world, but they manage to say something different to each person. Her books may be over 100 years old, but they were new to me when I was a teenager looking for a story to be lost in, and I got to discover that world for myself in a completely fantastic way - spoiler free.

Books, movies, music, really the arts in general have an incredible ability to always be new to someone because they're constantly being discovered by a new audience or generation. But sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, parts of that experience are soured by stories being leaked and revealed.

Last week, Barnes & Noble accidentally shipped out preordered copies of John Green's upcoming novel The Fault in our Stars. To say this book is highly anticipated is a bit of an understatement. When he promised to autograph tip-in pages for the entire first printing, the demand was so overwhelming that the first-printing is 150,000 copies plus his publisher moved up the release date from March to January. Things were going relatively smoothly (or at least John was putting on a really great game face for the last few months) until this accidental shipment.

Once these orders were sent out, I can't imagine that there's a whole lot that can be done. It's not like they could all be tracked down and taken back. Needless to say, some people got this book three weeks before the rest of us will and it leads to a big question: to read it or to wait?

Temptation is a powerful force. If I got it early (which, to be clear, I did NOT), I could read it early and finally know this amazing story, but is three weeks really that long to wait? And if I read it early, it's not like I'd be able to talk to anyone about it - I would NEVER want to spoil the reading experience for others. (The "highway overpass spoiler" incident that occurred when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out left me disgusted.) So while it would be incredibly tempting to read it early, I think I'd wait instead. I imagine it's like when expecting parents have to decide if they want to know the sex of their unborn child or not - once you know something, you can never un-know it, and in the grand scheme of things, is it really that long to wait?

While it is an unfortunate situation for Penguin, John, and Barnes & Noble to be in, I must say that I've been impressed with how professionally and honestly it has been handled. Were it my book, I'd probably be sobbing that my hard work now seems tarnished in some way, but John has put on a good face. He's addressed his thoughts on his Tumblr as well as on the YouTube channel he and his brother Hank share. Is he devastated? Yes, he says so. But it was just one of those things, an unfortunate accident that happens from time to time, and he and so many others are continuing to work hard to make sure that the reading experiences of others can still be times of exploration, thought, and discovery.

So chin up, John, and may January 10th still be a very special day for you and DFTBA. In the meantime, if you are someone who has not yet read one of Green's novels, check out Looking for Alaska (my review can be found here), An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, Will Grayson Will Grayson (co-authored with David Levithan), and Let it Snow (co-authored with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle).

John Green's YouTube Vlogbrothers Response:

Comments are welcome, as always.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Pains of Living: Willow

Willow by Julia Hoban
Dial, 2009

Julia Hoban takes on a lot of complex emotions, relationships, and issues in her debut novel Willow. A selection on this year's Illinois Secretary of State Read for a Lifetime list, it's rarely on the shelves at the library where I work - to say it's been popular is an understatement. I was anxious to see what it was about this book when I finally got a chance to grab a copy.

Last spring, Willow's entire world changed in the worst way and she's convinced it's all her fault. Don't even try to tell her that it's not. After all, she was the one driving the car when the accident happened and now since both of her parents are dead, she's living with the guilt and staying with her older brother, his wife, and their baby. She knows that everybody knows she's the girl who killed her parents, but what they don't know is how she's been coping with it all, one cut at a time.

Hoban doesn't shy away from the nitty gritty in this book. Her writing style is captivating and kept me interested, but I wasn't quite as invested as I was expecting to be given how popular the book is. The exploration of "why do people cut themselves?" is handled in an exceptional way - I had friends who were cutters in high school and I could never understand why they did it, but this book gave me a few moments of clarity about how this truly is an illness and that it's an incredibly hard question to answer, and that the answer is different for everybody.

However, there were other areas of the book that I felt could have used a bit more explanation. I understood that Willow was in pain (physically and emotionally) and that she blames herself, but it was hard for me to be sympathetic to her at times, especially when she would refuse to listen to Guy, the boy who enters her life and learns her secret, or when she was convinced that everyone must be talking about her all the time. Having been in Guy's position myself, I could empathize with the situation he found himself in, but I also had some trouble with him as a character - he was just a little too good to be true, he needed a flaw to make me believe that like Willow, he could easily be a real person.

If you're a reader who is interested in "issue" novels such as Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, give Willow a chance if it's on your local library's shelves. It's not a story for the faint of heart or, at times, stomach, but it is a story worth reading.

Comments welcome and happy reading.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Words: Yes, Virginia

I have no doubt that there is plenty of book related news going on at the moment. What books are making popular gifts this year? How are e-readers faring this shopping season? Are there any more good "best  of 2011" lists that are worth taking a look at?

But in honor of Christmas and the spirit of the season, this edition of Wednesday Words is going to be a bit different. Instead of book news about what is happening now and in the future, I'm looking to the past. 1897, to be precise.  And without further adieu, here it is: My absolute favorite editorial of all time, printed in The New York Star.

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.' Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus? 

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measure by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. 

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Happy reading and Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Choices and Courage: Divergent

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2011

I immediately feel a sort of kinship with Veronica Roth. From reading her blog and following her on twitter, I'd like to imagine that if we ever met, we'd be friends. We're the same age. We both hail from Chicagoland. We both attended Big 10 schools. Both of our names end in "ica" which is just kind of fun. But while I may fancy myself a writer, she actually is in a very big way. We're talking New York Times best selling BIG. If you haven't heard of her debut novel Divergent, a runaway hit that recently won the title of Goodreads Best Book of 2011, you're missing out.

Beatrice is 16 years old living in a dystopian Chicago. In this future, Lake Michigan has dried up into a marsh, buildings of the past are crumbling down, and society divides itself into factions, each one devoted to a different virtue. And when you're 16, you have a choice to make: do you want to continue to stay with the faction of your parents and family, the one you have been raised in and have identified with until now, or are you willing to leave all of them behind and join a new faction? An aptitude test is supposed to help you make your choice, but the choice is still yours. Unfortunately for Beatrice, her test results are inconclusive which is very dangerous thing to be.

I read this entire book in a day because I could NOT put it down. This is a high-action book and while there is a bit of a romantic relationship at play too, it is by no means the whole of the story (Think Hunger Games - it plays a supporting role). Roth paints an incredibly vivid picture and explores a question that many people struggle with - what does it mean to be brave? The relationships among characters are complex and Tris (she gives herself a new name) is too. Roth captures being 16 perfectly in that delicate dance between still being a child in many ways, but in just as many others being an adult. 

The only reason I can't give it five stars is because there were a few things that I felt a bit perplexed over when I was done. The first book in a planned trilogy, I'm hoping some of them will be answered in the future, but for now I can't help but wonder what drove this society to the faction system? How is it they can afford these serums and simulations, but not to pave roads? How come sometimes Tris says the food is manufactured/processed, but later it appears that it's fresh? Little things, I know, but they might have significance and so I'm curious. 

If you're a Chicagoan, a fan of debut novels, a lover of dystopian fiction or looking to give it a try, I urge you to pick up Divergent. It seems to be a book people either love or hate, and I definitely fall into the former category.

Comments always welcome, and happy reading!

Veronica Roth's Website
Veronica Roth on Twitter
Veronica Roth on Tumblr

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wednesday Words: Trying Something New

To anyone who has been reading this blog or simply looks at the tag cloud in the sidebar, one thing about my reading habits is extremely obvious: I LOVE YA. I'm not embarrassed at all by this fact that at 23 years old, I get an incredible amount of joy from reading books primarily aimed at 14-18 year olds. In my defense, as if I need to provide one, I didn't start reading these books until a graduate school course on it this past spring, but now that I've tried it I don't think I could ever give it up.

That being said, I've been afraid lately that I've become too comfortable just sticking to YA lit with my reading tastes. Don't get me wrong, it's fabulous the way that YA can cross genres and still discuss really intelligent issues, but I am 23 years old and I do have an English degree and lately, that itch for wanting something a bit more difficult has been there. Again, this is in no way putting down YA and saying it can't be, but I mean my brain wants a book that I don't always understand what it's saying, that I need to make sure I have access to a dictionary, and that I can't speed through. So this week, I started reading Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. It's nonfiction, it's aimed at baseball enthusiasts (I'm a moderate fan but I'm not obsessed with the game or stats), and I have to take my time.

Honestly, it's been a welcome change. Have I also been reading YA on the side? Yes, but Moneyball is my main read right now. As readers, I think it's important that every now and again, we be willing to look outside of the box every now and again. It's so easy to get comfortable with one series or genre or author and not stray too far from the things we know we like. After all, reading for fun should be enjoyable, not work, right?

Well, yes. And no. People that read are, in my opinion, people who enjoy being stimulated. After all, unlike movies or TV where everything is laid out in front of you, reading requires work. Your imagination has to fill in the gaps, or you have to consider an issue and make a narrator come to life in your head. In that sense, reading is already a challenge, so why not really push ourselves every now and again?

Baseball isn't my favorite sport, hockey is, yet I find myself picking up a book exploring the world of the Boys of Summer every few years. I can watch a game and understand the general gist of what's happening, but I'm not passionate about it. I have a favorite team, but unlike the Chicago Blackhawks, I don't follow the stats of the Cubs. Yet here I am, reading a baseball book. And there are statistics involved, too (math has never exactly been my forte). Yet I can't put it down. I'm so interested in learning about how Billy Beane's mind works and how these other numbers and baseball enthusiasts somehow changed the way the draft is approached. Just because I was willing to try something I wouldn't normally consider.

So what genres do you stick to and which ones are you considering giving a chance? Let me know in the comments below and, as always, happy reading.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fight to be Heard: Five Flavors of Dumb

Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John
Dial, 2010

People just want to be heard. No matter what your age is or where you live, it's a common trait among human beings because it's a basic need. We want to be listened to and understood and know that we are contributing to the bigger picture.

But for Piper, the protagonist in Antony John's YA novel Five Flavors of Dumb, that's easier said than done for a couple of reasons. She's never been the most popular girl in school. She has a hard time getting her parents to consider where she's coming from, let alone her peers, and as if all of that didn't suck on its own, throw in the fact that she's deaf. She started losing her hearing when she was six years old and between her hearing aids and stellar lip-reading skills, she's able to scrape by life at school and home with people who can't or won't use sign language.

All Piper wants and dreams of is to get away from her parents in Seattle and go to Gallaudet University next year, a college for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. Her mother's parents, both of whom were deaf, gave her money when they passed away specifically for that. However when her little sister is born deaf, her parents decide to use the money instead to give baby Grace cochlear implants.

Sick and tired of being ignored or overlooked and misunderstood by her family, Piper breaks out in a big way and finds herself the new manager of Dumb, a rock band made up as students at her school. She's smart and has big ideas, but it is challenging managing a band when you can't actually hear if they're any good or not.

I have long been interested in deaf culture. I think that American Sign Language is completely beautiful and I did my student teaching in college at a high school with a fairly large deaf education program. John, a man who actually has a fairly extensive music background, therefore had big expectations to fill for me as a reader, and I'm glad to say I think he did a solid job. The story, band members, and Piper's family all show their opinions on what it's like to be a hearing person or a deaf person and the role that sound and silence can play in our lives. There were times when I would have liked a bit more depth because at times the plot felt a bit rushed or forced. Also, it wasn't always clear to me when Piper was interacting with people via sign or if she was lip reading - this ambiguity made some situations she was in a bit too convenient if you catch my drift. On the positive side, John clearly did his homework in terms of music history, especially as it relates to Seattle, and this added a level of authenticity I appreciated.

Overall, I was happy with this book and on Goodreads I give it a 3 out of 5 stars. Piper's story is one about making sure you are heard and it's one that a lot of people should be able to relate to on one level or another.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

Antony John's Website

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wednesday Words: The Barriers on Bloggers

A few days ago, I was following a discussion going on via YA author Maureen Johnson's twitter account. While much of what she writes here is delightfully strange, this time the topic was on a bit more of a serious note: are publishing companies holding book bloggers to a different set of rules?

For more information on this, I started digging around and found this article by The Guardian. In a nutshell, it seems like HaperCollins' imprint William Morrow is telling book bloggers who request ARCs of books (that's "advance reader copy" and not a large boat filled with animals) what they'd like to see happen with those thoughts. This is part of what bloggers got to read:

"You will no longer receive titles piece-meal. Instead, you'll receive 1–3 emails during the month with all of our upcoming titles available for your review, one month ahead of the on-sale date … Your job is simply to review the book within a month of receiving it and post your thoughts on your blog or site. Ideally, we'd like for reviews to appear online within two weeks to a month after the on-sale date, so you might keep this in mind when selecting books,"

Not exactly a stance that welcomes a whole lot of discussion. 

Now I'll admit, this is all very new to me. As you can see from my list of past posts, I've barely been at this two months. The books I review have often been out for months if not years and I get them from my local library or, on occasion, they're books I already own and feel they deserve more love than they currently receive. This blog is something I do for fun in my free time and I in no way profit from it. I talk about books because it's essential for my existence and because they feed my soul. 

What are my thoughts on the issue? I'm still soaking it in, to be honest. I guess I don't think it's too out of line for publishers to want reviews to be posted when the book is still new and trying to garner marketing attention - book blogs are in many ways a virtual version of "hey did you hear about this book?" But to basically demand that a review has to be up within a month seems odd to me. If you're afraid that a book will no longer be of interest or relevant in a month, then there's a bigger issue, there. I also feel like it discourages people who write the blogs from trying something different or out of their comfort zone when it comes to selecting ARCs. This date makes blogging feel much more like homework and much less recreational or to spread a love of reading.

It's an interesting issue to be sure, so please, if you're reading this, take to the comments! Voice your opinions! Tell your friends and family to come here and they can say what they want too!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Current Historical Fiction: The Future of Us

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
Razorbill, 2011

Carolyn Mackler  (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things) and Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) capture the spirit of 1990s in their new collaborative novel The Future of Us. The premise is one that is so simple, yet these writers expand the subtleties of the situation in such a way that older readers who remember the 90's will find themselves reminiscing about the past while younger readers my find themselves contemplating what their futures may look like in 15 years.

Meet Emily and Josh, two teenagers in 1996, who already have enough on their plates. Emily is dealing with her mother's latest marriage, her dad's new family, a boyfriend she doesn't really like all that much, and the fact that she hasn't really talked to Josh since last fall when things very suddenly got really weird. Josh is trying to figure out where he went wrong with his friendship with Emily, his overbearing parents, and just getting through his sophomore year with his friends. Then Emily gets a computer and Josh brings her a CD-ROM for 100 free hours of America Online (something everyone over the age of 20 no doubt remembers getting in the mail week after week). But something goes funny when Emily goes online - she's brought to a weird website called Facebook and the woman in the picture looks like an older version of her.

Suddenly the pair find themselves playing with the powerful force of time and discover that all of the choices they're making in the present seem to have a huge impact on their future lives. Emily is continually unhappy with the version of her life she's looking at and trying to change things, but Josh is at the opposite end of the spectrum and doesn't want to mess with anything too much because 1) he likes what his future looks like and 2) he wants to focus more on now.

This is a novel that readers of all ages will be able to appreciate on different levels (and, weird as it may sound right now, is being classified as historical fiction). I found myself laughing at the references to times past - dial-up, disc-mans, the music playing on the radio. Younger readers may wonder how we ever lived so primitively and it may be interesting for them to see how dealing with life, friends, and family was so much different before the technological revolution of the 2000s. (At one point, Emily goes to the library to look at phone books because there's no such thing as a search engine for that kind of data yet - how old school!) The book is also seamless in terms of story telling- while Emily and Josh (who take turns narrating) each have distinct voices and points of view, the flow of the story is never stifled by this. They fit together so well and each character leaves you considering a new point.

In the end, this novel really reaffirmed my happiness that Facebook didn't yet exist when I was in high school. I know how incredibly ironic or hypocritical it may be for me to say this on a blog (which I advertise via my Facebook account and Twitter), but the book made me long for a different time when talking to people actually meant physically speaking to an actual person. This book, like the others by these two extremely talented writers, sucked me in, made me think, and took me on a satisfactory journey as a reader from start to finish. For the social media-inclined reader in your household, this book is a must read.

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading!

Jay Asher on Twitter
Carolyn Mackler on Twitter

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wednesday Words: Libraries Live

There are a few questions that are pretty much inevitable when I tell people that I go to "library school" and that I work in a high school library. First of all, there's "library school? Is that real?" Secondly, there's usually something along the line of "Do we really use or need libraries anymore since more people turn to the internet than to books for information?"

The answer to both of these questions is incredibly clear in my mind. YES!

Library school, is, in my humble opinion, heaven on earth. I sort of stumbled into it by accident (a long story that I will save for another day), but I'm so incredibly happy that I did. But the second question is one that affects each and every person in this country because despite what you may be reading on the internet or in newspapers about budgets being slashed and libraries across the country and around the world being closed, they absolutely are still relevant and matter more than ever before.

I say this and plenty of people simply nod their heads and smile, thinking I'm just some poor girl clinging to an idea because I don't want to admit that an English degree and now a library degree are crazy avenues of education. But they couldn't be more wrong. A library is a living organism - it has an incredible capacity to adapt and change and grow and it is stocked not only with books full of information, but also with people full of skills. (This is often another question I frequently get asked - "You really need a master's degree to be a librarian?" Yes!)

So people don't use books quite as much as they used to for research. Okay. I understand that. But that doesn't mean the books on the shelf are any less useful, and in the meantime, there are countless online or other electronic resources that libraries may pay to subscribe to, eating the cost so patrons may use them for free and find what they're looking for. Internet, movies, music, and of course the traditional books - these are things you pay for with your tax dollars and if you take advantage of what your local or school library has available, trust me from both a patron and professional point of view when I say that you can get more than your money's worth.

This week I got my local public library's bi-monthly newsletter, and on the first page the title proudly declares that they are celebrating "half a century of service." When the library here first opened, it was 1962 - Kennedy was president, gas cost 32 cents a gallon, and The Beatles hadn't even come to America yet. Fifty amazing years later, it continues to stand and thanks to the ability of many dedicated librarians, staff members, and passionate community members, it serves as a fantastic example for me to resort to. Libraries are national treasures, and I encourage you to take advantage of yours.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Something You Can Sink Your Teeth Into: Eighth Grade Bites

Eighth Grade Bites by Heather Brewer
Dutton Children's Books, 2007

Once upon a time, not that long ago on this very blog, I said something along the lines that I've read vampire books before and I did NOT like them. I'm really regretting having said that now because it was really unfair to generalize. And as it turns out, it's not that I don't like vampire books, I just didn't like that particular one.

My mind has recently been changed though by Heather Brewer and a thirteen year old boy named Vlad.

In the premiere novel of The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, readers are introduced to the titular Vlad at the beginning of eighth grade. He's bullied. His parents died three years ago. His only friend is Henry, but Vlad always feels like he's in Henry's shadow because Henry's the most popular guy in school. And as if all of that weren't enough to have on your plate, Vlad is half-human, half-vampire, he's pretty sure his parents were murdered because his father was a vampire, and there's something awfully suspicious about his new substitute teacher, Mr. Otis Otis.

It's going to be a long year for Vlad.

Heather and me
There are so many different things about this book that I enjoyed. I liked that we got to see everything the way Vlad does - it was so interesting to see things from the vampire's point of view. I think it also helped that there's still so much he has to learn about being a vampire, so we're learning right along with him. I loved the character of Aunt Nelly and showing how much of a difference having love and support at home can help even when things feel awful. I loved the story, the twists on vampire legends, the pop-culture references to other vampire media, and the fact that the book actually covers a lot of issues that any human can relate to. Though I wasn't bullied to the extent that Vlad is, junior high was hardly a picnic for me either. Everything about that time in life just feels Awkward and messed up and getting through a mundane day can even be exhausting. Brewer does a fantastic job at tapping into those years that some of us would rather forget and with the exception of the whole blood-drinking thing, I was able to identify with Vlad page after page after page.

Plus Heather gave me a t-shirt, tote bag, and took a picture with me! This woman rocks.

So if you're like me and are extremely apprehensive about some of the fads that come and go in fiction (such as vampires), had a bad experience, and swore them off forever, trust me when I say I think you really ought to reconsider. Perhaps you just haven't found the right vampire for you yet. Even though being a teenager can bite sometimes, Eighth Grade Bites reminded me that imagination and being open to something new can be just the thing to help you get through. It got me into my 20s fairly unscathed =)

Comments welcome, and as always, happy reading!

Heather Brewer's Website
Heather Brewer on Twitter

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Catch Her If You Can: Heist Society

Heist Society by Ally Carter
Hyperion, 2010

Ally Carter has created a 21st century pseudo-Robin Hood that kept me turning the pages in Heist Society. Kat Bishop has had anything but a normal life, and she's only 15 years old. But that's usually the case when you're born into a family of art thieves like the Bishops. She's been to the most impressive (and expensive) museums and art collections in the world, and her souvenirs don't come from the gift shop.

But three months ago, Kat walked away from the life, just wanting to be a normal kid for a change. Unfortunately, her friends, family, and fate all have other plans. Her father has been accused of stealing valuable paintings from a mobster, only he didn't do it. The only way Kat can prove her father's innocence (in this case, anyway) is to steal them back from the real thief. Sounds hard enough, but she's also been given a 2 week deadline. Luckily, Kat's not the only teenage thief around, so she assembles a heist society of her own, jumps back in the game, and they race the clock and security cameras as they attempt to pull off one of the riskiest jobs in history.

The primary and secondary characters are all colorful and it's fun seeing how they all fit together into the various aspects of the job. Kat is a perfect and impressive blend a girl who can figure out how to steal a painting from the Louvre, but can't tell when a guy is flirting with her (like her friend, the mysterious and fantastic Hale). I also liked the family dynamics at play - even though Kat's father is alive and well, it's Uncle Eddie who seems to be her primary father-figure. The crew is also extremely smart, which I enjoy. In this game, age doesn't matter if you have the skills.

If it were possible, I would be giving this book a 3.5 instead of a 3 on Goodreads, but I can't bring myself to justify a 4.  I really enjoyed Carter's exciting and action-packed story of teenage art thieves and con artists, but there were a few areas that still left me wanting more. The book is face paced, but in this case it made me feel like I was always missing something. In spite of all the good (and there are a lot of good things happening in this novel), I still had more questions than I'm comfortable with. What was it about the life that made Kat want to leave it so bad? What exactly happened to her mother? And for God's sake, what is Hale's first name?!

Perhaps these questions will be answered and these issues are resolved in the sequel, Uncommon Criminals, in bookstores and libraries now. I've liked what I've read so far, and I can't wait to see where the crew ends up next.

Comments welcome, and happy reading!

Ally Carter's Website
Ally Carter on Twitter

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wednesday Words: Giving Thanks

I have much to be thankful for in my life from this past year, but it's amazing to me that a solid portion of those things are actually book related. Maybe it makes me a nerd, but all I know is that it makes me a very happy and grateful one. I have two blogs up and running (with lots of room to grow), library school is almost done, and YA literature in particular continues to surprise me almost daily.

One thing I am particularly grateful for was an event that took place this past Monday at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, IL. For those of you who are fans of independent bookstores, go to Anderson's. For those of you who have never yet gotten to experience the amazing things that an independent bookstore has to offer, go to Anderson's. If you live in the Chicagoland area and have not yet been to Anderson's, what are you waiting for?

See where I'm going with this? It's an amazing place, the staff is incredible, and I'm convinced that if you are not yet a booklover, this store and these people will absolutely change your mind.

Back to the point, though, on Monday night they had a panel of ten YA authors come, talk about their books, and then do autographs and pictures. Needless to say, it was pretty much heaven on earth in my eyes. This is now my 3rd time meeting YA authors and I've yet to have anything negative to say. These people are amazing. They're smart, empathetic, outrageously talented, brilliant masters of their craft, and they genuinely seemed to like talking to their fans and with each other. (For more of me gushing and professing my undying love for these people, check out my other blog here - I have plenty more to say.)

Books are so often seen as individual entities. We do independent reading, silently and by ourselves, but that didn't always used to be the case. Not so long ago, reading aloud with friends was considered to be a social activity that people would spend full evenings doing, taking turns passing the book around. Writing, I'm even finding out, doesn't have to be an isolated event. Communities of writers are incredibly supportive of each other and they act as cheerleaders and counselors for those times when it feels like you're going no where (both in life or in your story). And authors, let me tell you, are an interesting breed of artist. It's one of those things where hearing these people talk on Monday, I found myself nodding along because so much of what they were saying made perfect sense to me - I just got it.

So, as a librarian-in-training, an English degree holder, a writer, and a person passionate about all that books have to offer, meeting authors is a fantastic way to fall in love with it all over again. And if you haven't yet gotten to experience the quaint feeling of an independent bookstore (which is also full of incredibly helpful and enthusiastic book people, too), Anderson's Bookshop is waiting for you.

Comments welcome, and happy reading!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cut Loose: One Night That Changes Everything

One Night That Changes Everything by Lauren Barnholdt
Simon Pulse, 2010

Reading for fun means different things to different people. For some, when they read for pleasure they can't get enough of how-to manuals or learning about the French Revolution. For others, it's all about a story that brings up warm fuzzies and believing in the good side of people. This weekend, I got to experience two different examples of "feel good" entertainment. The first was when I saw the new remake of Footloose - it wasn't high theatre by any means, but I enjoyed it. I got lost in a story for two hours and it was fun. The second was Lauren Barnholdt's sophomore novel One Night That Changes Everything.

I love stories that take place in an incredibly short amount of time because they make me feel like I'm experiencing the characters and situations in real time. In this case, readers are introduced to Eliza, a junior in high school living in the greater Boston area. She's looking forward to a night hanging out with her two best friends since her parents are out of town, but the boy who recently broke her heart, Cooper, and his friends seem to have a much different agenda: they've somehow gotten their hands on the little purple notebook that Eliza has been writing down all of her fears in since she was 12 and they want her to face more than a few of them before the night is over otherwise they'll post all of them online for the whole world to see.

Barholdt's novel is fast paced, and rightly so considering it all takes place in less than eighteen hours. Yet in that short amount of time, you still get a feel for the characters that's more than one-dimensional. Some of Eliza's fears/tasks are pretty common - who isn't mortified by the thought of performing karaoke? - but others are much more painful, like admitting a secret to her big sister that's been eating at her for a while. And of course there's Cooper, an enigma all on his own. His "friends" are the one putting Eliza through all of this, yet he's trying to help her as much as he can every step of the way.

All in all, this book got me into a fantastic mood for the weekend when I read it Friday. It was fun, I liked the pacing, and the premise, though a little ridiculous, was still interesting. I couldn't wait to see how Eliza got through it or if she would ever draw the line and say "No." This novel is brain candy that isn't so sweet that it will leave you groaning with a headache afterwards, but instead just made me smile and feel a little bit nostalgic for the nights I had in high school and college that felt like they, too, changed everything.

Comments welcome, and happy reading!

Lauren Barnholdt's Website
Lauren Barnholdt on Twitter

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wednesday Words: E-Readers

It feels like they're everywhere, and it seems like a lot of people have very strong opinions on them. I am talking about the wonderful world of e-readers and the incredible impact they have had on the publishing and reading public in the last few years.

Within the last few months, we've seen what has been presented to us in commercials and ads as huge leaps and bounds in this particular venture. E-ink, no glare screens are just the tip of the iceberg for some of these devices. Now we have tablets, color screens, touch screens, LEDs that are back lit so you don't even need to invest in a booklight anymore. Plus there's the selling point that's been there pretty much all along - you can have hundreds if not thousands of books available to you at your fingertips, and all in something that weighs just over a pound.

With the new Barnes & Noble Nook Color Tablet out along with the new line of Amazon Kindles, these devices somehow are making reading a bit more chic again because it's not just about reading anymore, it's about having this gadget. I couldn't avoid this topic even if I tried.

There are big claims being made on both sides of the aisle. Some say that these devices combined with self-publishing makes it possible for every writer's stories to be shared. Others say this degrades the publishing industry if anyone can call themselves a 'published author.' Some believe e-readers will make bookstores and libraries obsolete (or that they already have) while others believe that on the contrary, they actually encourage people to come see what their libraries have already available and they force what has a reputation to be a stuffy and stale institution to put its best foot forward.

What are my thoughts on e-readers? I have more than a few, that's for sure. I don't believe it's the end of independent and chain bookstores, though they still have their work cut out for them. I don't think all libraries will suddenly be torn down and turned into parking lots, they will just have to adapt and I believe they can. But mostly, my thoughts on this are very similar to the ones I have when talking about best-seller or most-popular lists: they're not one size fits all, not everyone is going to like them.

Personally, I love my Nook. I got it last spring so it's the older version, but it's been great for traveling and I've loved being able to check out library books to it. However, I still like the feel of a book in my hands and I find myself checking out physical books more than ever before because they're more readily available. But I don't chastise people who refuse to use them because I definitely had my doubts too.

I'm anxious to hear what other people's thoughts are on this because it's a debate that will be going on for years to come. Comments are always welcome, and as always, happy reading!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Not Your Parents' Ghost Stories: The Name of the Star

The Name of the Star (Shades of London #1) by Maureen Johnson
Putnam Juvenile, 2011

I'm not usually one for ghost stories. I don't like horror movies or being scared. I like the magical, but usually am quick to avoid dealing with the supernatural, vampires, or werewolves. (If I'm honest, it was Twilight that gave me a bad first-impression of this genre and I've been reluctant to give it another chance.)

And then I read The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson.

It's modern day England and Rory, an American girl, is trying to acclimate to the many differences she's encountering at her very British boarding school in the east end of London, Wexford. Her focus is on trying to get used to all these changes, but the rest of the city is wrapped up in Ripper-mania - that's right, someone is recreating the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 starting the night before Rory's arrival to town.

Johnson does a brilliant job easing readers into the more supernatural aspects of this story. It starts out feeling like a contemporary story (which it is in many respects), but eventually secrets come out and all is not as it appears to be. We're trying to stomach it all and wrap our heads around it the same way Rory is, which I found refreshing unlike other novels where characters easily accept these "truths" with no questions asked. Primary and secondary characters are all colorful and complex, and they feel very real. And with an ending like this one, readers are clearly forewarned that Rory still has much more to learn in the second and third installments of this Shades of London trilogy.

I'm still not saying that I'm going to be diving head first into the world of supernatural literature any time soon. However, I am much more willing to give it a second chance than I was before. And I can tell you this - I can't wait for books two and three of this series in the coming years. Johnson has me hooked.

Comments welcome and happy reading!

Maureen Johnson's Website
Maureen Johnson on Twitter
Maureen Johnson on Tumblr

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wednesday Words: The Best of the Best

It's hard to believe that just over a week ago, decorations in stores, offices, and homes had to do with ghosts, goblins, and graveyards. Yet suddenly here we are, a mere nine days into November and plenty of places seem to have skipped over Thanksgiving and put their minds straight to Christmas. And when the holiday season is upon is, new year's is just around the corner. And with 2012 almost at our doorsteps, it means that in the coming weeks we will be seeing much more looking back at 2011, often lists about the best and worst things the year had to offer.

An example of this in the world of books is simple: lists announcing the best books of 2011 are already floating around the internet, posted in libraries and mentioned on Twitter. The three biggest ones to catch my eye were the lists by, Publishers Weekly, and the voting currently taking place at

Upon reflection, I'm not really sure what to make of these lists. Do they tell us anything we don't already know? Of course there can be surprises, a book may show up on these end of the year lists or ballots that didn't get maybe as much attention as it ought to have when it first came out in the last twelve months. But it seems to me like these lists are more of a confirmation than anything: these are the books that have touched us, have said something, and in a lot of cases but certainly not all have had time on best-seller lists as well.

To me, it's a difficult thing to grasp. To narrow down all of the talent and hard work that was published this year down to a list of ten items just seems cruel and very narrow. I'm not saying that these books which have been selected don't deserve the honor, but I personally would love to know exactly what criteria is being used to determine what exactly "best" means to the people forming these lists.

For this reason, I like that Goodreads has made it possible for users to nominate and vote for books that may not have been selected in various categories. In a small way, it is a step towards leveling the playing field. I sometimes find myself actually more interested in pursuing these write-in candidates because I want to know what was so good about that book that none of the others on the ballot warranted the vote in an individual's mind.

But maybe that's just me. Just because I don't know exactly what my feelings are about these lists doesn't mean I won't be looking at them, still eagerly reading descriptions and summaries to add to my ever-growing pile of titles I'd love to read at some point.

I'd love to hear the opinions of others on this topic, so if you have thoughts, please leave them in comments. As always, happy reading.

Best Of Lists:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Great Perhaps: Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska by John Green
Puffin, 2005

With NaNoWriMo and my writing goals taking up much of my free time, my pleasure reading has been bumped down the to-do list for the time being. However, since one of the most common pieces of advice among writers is to read read read. I was able to heed this advice yesterday as I took the train to Chicago, and in honor of my destination I decided to re-read Looking for Alaska by John Green who wrote the novel when he lived in the city of big shoulders while also working at Booklist Magazine.

A new student at a boarding school, Miles has come to Culver Creek from Florida seeking "a great perhaps." A junior in high school, he has a knack for learning the last words of people and though he isn't exactly sure of what he's looking for, he knows he won't find it unless he makes a change. And so it's goodbye Florida, hello Alabama. From the very first day, his life is full of mischief and adventures thanks to his new friends: The Colonel, Takumi, and the ever mysterious Alaska Young, the girl who manages to both irritate Miles and steal his heart.

Alaska is a force to be reckoned with and for the first time in his life, Miles is thinking outside of his usual box and willing to live outside the standard set of rules. The novel is cryptically divided into two sections. Rather than chapters, the "Before" section is counting down to an event ("One hundred days before"). Eventually readers find out what the event is and from then on, segments in the "After" portion count the days since.

I first heard about John Green while an undergraduate working on my minor in secondary education. One of the Vlogbrothers, John and his brother Hank make regular YouTube videos talking about a wide variety of issues. I saw my first one in an education class in which we were discussing book challenges, and Looking for Alaska was a current example. Accused of being a pornographer by citizens who were uncomfortable with the book being part of the curriculum, in his four minute video, Green eloquently states his case in a fashion that is reminiscent of the novel being discussed. I was hooked, and I had to read the book that had started this all.

One of the major strengths of Green's debut novel is that Green raises the bar for his readers and expects them to reach it. He respects them. He crafts a story that is serious, funny, realistic, and with a strong and relatable voice. He knows that young adults are capable of thinking about more than just gossip and sex and while both of those feature into the novel (it is YA, after all), they do not dominate the story. Through Miles' eyes, readers are challenged to look at the parts of life that aren't so easy on the eyes. Questions are posed that are not capable of simple answers, no matter how old or smart you are. It's no wonder to me that this book was the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award winner for excellence in young adult literature.

I was actually sad when my train pulled into Union Station in the morning, and then back into my home station in the evening when my city business was over because I so enjoyed becoming reacquainted with this story. To anyone who says that young adult literature doesn't count as "real literature," this should be the book you hand over to change that person's mind.

Comments are welcomed and as always, happy reading.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wednesday Words: The Two Sides of NaNoWriMo

Last week I mentioned my plans to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. We are now nearing the end of day two and I'm glad to say that so far, I'm on pace to "win" or hit 50,000 words by month's end, but there is still a very, very long way to go.

As yesterday's start date drew closer and closer, I started to notice more of the authors I follow on blogs and Twitter start to become more vocal about the event. In some circles, the amount of support for the endeavor is incredibly enthusiastic. Veronica Roth, the 23 year old author of the New York Times bestselling novel Divergent encourages those who have under taken this goal to just keep writing, every day, and not looking back at what's already on the page. Stephanie Perkins' debut novel Anna and the French Kiss started out as a NaNoWriMo draft. Similarly, Maureen Johnson (another NYT bestseller and supreme ruler of the Twitterverse) has been selected as this year's Agony Aunt of the month, a sort of spokesperson and advice columnist to those NaNoers in need. She too sees the process as liberating in some ways because the month isn't necessarily about writing well, it's about taking the time to write anything at all.

As a participant, I find their words encouraging. The task is a daunting one and there have already been occasions where I find myself rolling my eyes at whatever horrendous sentence or turn of phrase has just gone from my head to my laptop screen, but I take a breath and try to just follow their advice to keep moving forward. It's difficult to not edit and tweak, and part of me is extremely uncomfortable with it, but I figure I'll never know if this kind of bootcamp writing really works for me unless I give it a chance.

However, not all novelists are fans, and these words I find just as interesting, if not more so. Maggie Stiefvater, a NYT bestseller and author of the incredibly popular Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy is willing to express her dislike of NaNo, and upon reading her thoughts about why, I respect her even more than I did before (which is difficult because I already thought the world of her). It's never easy to have the less popular opinion, and I think it's fantastic that she is willing to share her thoughts and reasons even though she's had to deal with some pretty ugly backlash as a result. I find myself nodding along as I read her blog: it's an outrageous goal, it's demanding (and not in a good way), and writing so much so quickly doesn't encourage good writing. And I do agree - what's the point of saying you wrote a whole novel in a month if you end up having to throw out so much of it come December?

She's not just being a negative Nancy, though. I give Stiefvater even more props for the fact that she's willing to listen to NaNo suporters and she respects their views. She acknowledges that some people like the forums and community, some people like the fire under their seats, and that a lot of people don't always participate the way the rules to become eligible for "winning" state because they use the time to edit old stories, or just try on a new genre for size with no intention of meeting the one month deadline.

Both sides have very valid arguments, and it's up to each individual to decide what they think for themselves. My strategy is to participate at least this one time in my life, guided by the logic that my mother would try to use on me when I didn't want to eat my vegetables: "You'll never know if you like it if you don't try it."

What are your thoughts? Leave them in Comments and, as always, Happy Reading (and writing!)

Blog Posts on NaNoWriMo by the previously mentioned authors:

Monday, October 31, 2011

Back from the Dead: Classic Literature

Since it's Halloween, I feel like it is only fitting to mention at least a little something about the dearly departed. But since this is a literary blog, I want it to be book themed as well. My compromise: classic literature.

Those of you who have ever taken an English class may have heard the term "canonical literature" or had a teacher who talked about books that are a part of the canon. No, they probably weren't talking about those weapons on pirate ships or battle fields; they were most likely talking about the literary canon. To put it simply, books that we classify as being in this group are ones that have been deemed of significant importance. In layman's terms, they're the books or authors we refer to as the classics.

William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chalres Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. off the top of my head generally belong in this group. If you noticed these seem to almost all be the names of dead white males, you'd be right, but luckily for us, society and what we value is in constant flux, so this group is always growing and has actually become fairly diverse.
These classics can often be very challenging to read, though, because they were written so long ago. I got through many titles and authors in high school and college, but I must admit that since graduating, contemporary fiction has been my primary reading material. The language is more familiar. The social customs aren't so foreign to me. I don't have to work as hard to identify with characters. I fear that this has made me a bit of a lazy reader.

Recently, I decided to get back in touch with those classic books I'd fallen in love with as a student all those years ago in my high school English classrooms. But I didn't want to cheat, I wanted my brain to really have to work at it, so I couldn't just reread Pride & Prejudice for the
6th time. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I picked a book I'd heard of nearly my whole life but never took the time to read.

I'll give you a Halloween hint: there's a candy bar with the same name.

Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers was my choice, and so far, I'm really happy with it. Sword fights, action, honor, hot tempers, friendship, taking down the bad guys - no wonder they decided to remake it into a movie (in theaters now). All of that has been going on, and I'm not even 100 pages in yet. As someone who primarily has read contemporary female authors for the last few months, It was a conscious decision to read something written by a man because they just have a different way of looking at things. In a nut shell, so far, so good.

But why do it if it's so much harder? Isn't hard enough for most people to find time at all to read an actual book and not just email or even blogs? Why bother with books that are sometimes hundreds of years old with ancient ideas that can't possibly be relevant to people today?

Because they are relevant. Because the whole nature of reading and books is to help us escape, to challenge us, to grow. They are the classics because they mattered once, so who's to say that they don't still matter or that people today can't relate if we don't actually read them? Pride & Prejudice was written by a woman who never got married back in the 1800s, yet that plot can be seen time and again in chick-flicks in cinemas now. And that's just one example. Many of today's stories or authors owe thanks and pay homage to those who came before.

So after all that, here's my two cents: read a classic. You may be surprised at how much it can tell you about the world today.

As always, happy reading, comments welcome, and if you like what you see here, tell your friends!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sisterhoods and San Francisco

Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares
Random House, 2011

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
Dutton, 2011

In the last week, the two novels I finished reading both had one thing in common: girl power. Not necessarily in a 1990s, Spice Girls "If You Wanna Be My Lover" sort of way, but in a "know and embrace who you are, surround yourself with people who love you for you, you are a strong young woman" sort of way.

Not long ago I shared my thoughts on Ann Brashares' fourth novel in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, Forever in Blue, and how much I was looking forward to the fifth installment. Sisterhood Everlasting did not disappoint, though I will admit that it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. Brashares was brave in that she diverted from her tried-and-true formula when telling readers about the lives of Tibby, Carmen, Bridget, and Lena ten years after the events of Forever in Blue. They're all grown up now, but traces of their past insecurities are still very present and their bonds tested. I liked that the girls were still recognizable, but this felt much more like an adult novel to me than YA. My less than glowing comments are only two: first of all, I loved that Brashares brought back some secondary characters as well, but I felt that she left them underdeveloped. I know they aren't the protagonists, but it just felt like a tease when someone would be mentioned but then we didn't get anything more than that. I also felt that throughout the series as a whole, there were some characters who just always got the short end of the stick. I know not every story can have a happy ending, but for two characters in particular I was more than slightly frustrated by the choices Brashares made.

If a happy ending and something more in line with YA, chick lit-y, warm-fuzzy story is what you're in the mood for, then I have two words for you: Stephanie Perkins. I came across this fantastic up and coming author earlier this year when browsing the shelves of my local library and picked up her first novel, Anna and the French Kiss. I was immediately taken with her charming writing style. Perkins is incredible at capturing all the warm, amazing, butterflying, agonizing, devastating, and completely wonderful roller coaster feelings that come with having a crush and falling in love for the first time. Lola and the Boy Next Door is a companion novel to Anna, so people who read the first get to still see a few of their favorite characters in a new setting. San Franciscan Lola is a girl with big dreams and an even bigger wardrobe - she's a budding costume designer with an older, rock and roll boyfriend, a shy best friend, two fantastic dads, and a whole lot of unrequited feelings for Cricket, the boy who used to live next door. She feels like she has a pretty good handle on all of this until Cricket moves back. Suddenly, Lola has to look at various things in her past that she'd rather not and learns that looking fabulous on the outside only counts if you're making the effort to be a good person on the inside. Perkins takes readers on a fantastic journey. You may not always like the choices Lola is making, but you can't help but root for her and hope that she figures things out in spite of all that. I also cannot applaud Perkins highly enough for how wonderfully she took on the characters of Nathan and Andy, Lola's dads. Lola is very straightforward about it and has an attitude that I find commendable - neither dad is less of a man than the other or anything like that, they love each other, and they love her. It's a fantastic home and family environment that was so refreshing to see. I quite literally could not put this book down which is the highest compliment I can pay any writer or work. 2012 can't come soon enough for the final companion novel in this collection, Isla and the Happily Ever After. If you haven't heard much about Perkins, just wait because you will.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Follow-Ups, Give Aways, and NaNoWriMo

Long before I became a blogger myself, I was a person who reads blogs. It should come as no surprise that since I am attempting here to write my own kind of book and literature related blog, I follow more than a few that already exist on the subject. One that I want to mention today is Youth Services Corner. YSC is run by a woman named Whitney who, like me, has a library school background and a genuine passion for youth services. I personally love her insights into the world of YA. Her most recent post is extremely timely given my last one here: I told you about Read it 1st, Whitney has just compiled a list of which upcoming movies are actually based on books or short stories. I highly encourage you to check it out.

There are also blogs out there who are able to provide their readers with more than just thoughts and information - they can give you genuine, tangible stuff as well. Literary Rambles, a fellow blog, is a fantastic resource for people interested in children's books authors, agents, and publishing. The information is gold in this blogger's opinion, and they currently have a few ARC giveaways going on right now (ARC as in Advance Readers Copy, not a boat). Readers can currently try for a copy of Crossed by Ally Condie (the second book in her Matched trilogy), Darkfall by Janice Hardy (the final book of The Healing Wars series), and Audition by Stasia Ward Kehoe which is in stores now.

Finally, with October soon coming to a close, I want to briefly mention a huge international event that will be upon many of us for thirty days. November is National Novel Writing Month, but since that can be a mouthful, it's often shortened to NaNoWriMo. The objective is simple in theory if not necessarily in execution: write an entire novel between midnight November 1st and 11:59 p.m. November 30th. And by novel, they mean a minimum of 50,000 words. Is it a daunting challenge? You bet. But I'm really excited for what November brings because this will be my first time participating. If I'm successful, this will actually be the second book I've written this year. (I spent four months this summer writing the first draft of a YA novel that was just over 60,000 words long). I'll be posting my word counts here (I'm actually aiming for 60,000 words again because that's the average length of a YA novel) and let you know how the process is going.

With a few posts here under my belt, questions and comments would really be appreciated. And if you like what you see here, please don't hesitate to tell others about it too!

Happy Reading (and writing)!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Turning Tradition on its Head: Nikki Heat and Read it 1st

Heat Rises by Richard Castle
Hyperion, 2011

Sometimes it scares me that Hollywood seems to be out of original ideas. I mean, how many TV shows and movies each year are based on books or short stories? It seems to me like that number is rapidly growing. As a librarian-in-training, someone who works in the education field, certified English teacher, and, in general, a person who just loves books, I am a staunch believer that whenever possible, you should read the book first. Time and again, we’ve seen that while some film adaptations can be extraordinary (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.), they still often don’t quite measure up to everything that the book was able to be.

This is why I’m a huge fan of a relatively new website simply called Read it 1st. While it’s not by any means a new idea, this brain-child of Hank Green and Nerdfighteria is very straight forward – here people can make the pledge to read the book before they watch the movie and can sign up to get newsletters letting them know what stories coming soon to a theater near you may actually already be available at your local bookstore. The pledge, sign-up, and a copy of the first (and so far, only) newsletter are all that make up the website now, but I sincerely hope to see this grow in the future.

However, there are always exceptions to the rules. Anyone who has ever had to try to spell correctly in the English language knows this (oh, that pesky “I before e except after c!”). Nikki Heat can fall into this category, though it doesn’t necessarily have to. But first, some explanation is necessary.

Now in its fourth season, ABC’s hit show Castle follows mystery writer Richard Castle, a “consultant” with the NYPD who hangs around so he can follow the brilliant Detective Kate Beckett as research for his latest series of novels. And so Nikki Heat was born, a character who bares many similarities to her “real life” counterpart. In a completely brilliant marketing move, ABC decided to make the series a reality. So what we have is a real book series being written by a fictional author based on “real life” fictional people. It’s all very Meta, but trust me when I say that it works.

Here in lies the dilemma, however. The books often contain Easter eggs that relate back to the series. Non-viewers may miss out on some of the jokes or those “hey, the characters had that same conversation last season!” moments. Also, I find myself hearing and seeing the TV characters I’ve come to know and love in my head as I’m reading (it’s obvious who from the show is who in the books). So to read or to watch first? That is the question.

My answer? Either way works. I’m not usually one for mystery novels, but the show and these books have opened me up to a genre I probably would have continued to overlook. On their own, Heat Wave, Naked Heat, and Heat Rises (which came out just last month) are great mysteries. I love the style of the writer and there are plenty of plot twists to keep me interested without feeling blindsided. These books aren’t the hardboiled detective stories of old, and that’s why I like them. They’re contemporary, fresh, and like playful brain candy. And, since I watch the show (it did come first), I get those occasional Ah-Ha moments that people will get to have if they read first, then see the show.

The long and the short of it to me as that books and media don’t have to always be butting heads. So often they actually complement each other. Read it 1st shows us that books can inspire great film and that it can be thrilling to see some of our favorite characters brought to life. Likewise, Castle/Nikki Heat has been able to get huge numbers of TV viewers to turn off the tube and pick up a book or two or three. The moral is clear to me: Never underestimate the power of a good story.

Richard Castle's Website
Richard Castle on Twitter

Monday, October 10, 2011

Past and Present: Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood

I remember first reading about Tibby, Lena, Carmen, and Bridget when I was in late elementary school or early junior high and completely falling in love with their friendship. I was so jealous that there were people (okay, I realize they're characters) who had such strong friendships like this, other girls that they could count on whether they were together or apart, making good choices or less than awesome ones. I adored the first book, was less enthused about the second, and fell in love all over again with the third.

And then, just like the girls do in the books, we drifted apart. I learned a few years later that a fourth installment had been written, but it become just another title on my extremely long "books to read" list. The book would always be there in the same way that The Pants would be for the Septembers. It wasn't until the 5th installment of the series, Sisterhood Everlasting, came to the library where I work that I realized how much I missed these girls and this story. I checked out both books and in the spirit of the fact that today it's 79 degrees out and a day off from work, I soaked up the entire fourth summer of the sisterhood sitting in the sunshine.

Ann Brashares has so lovingly shared this sisterhood with YAs and adults for years, and this chapter in their journey is no exception. Part of this may be nostalgia talking, but anyone who reads this book can see the immense care that Brashares has taken to accurately show what it's like to be a teenager in today's world and how easy it can be to lose touch with the people who matter most to us despite the fact that technology or a pair of pants connecting happen. Emails, texting, letters, and phone calls are never quite the same as being in the same space as those we hold dear.

One aspect of Forever in Blue that shines is its ability to tell not just the story of one summer, but really four summers. The pants have become little more than a "thinking of you" greeting card and though they aren't present very often, it is summertime and they are able to work their magic in small ways. In them Carmen is able to start rediscovering the confidence she's lost, Tibby hopes to find comfort in a time of uncertainty, Lena tries to look forwards rather than back, and Bee realizes she can't move to the future without acknowledging the past.

Old and new characters wrap their way into the lives of this colorful quartet and I was thrilled to revisit these girls again. I am now more anxious than ever to read Sisterhood Everlasting which takes place ten years later. These books have simple plots that explore a complex time in anyone's life and stress the ideas to love yourself, be yourself, and true friends are always there, whether you're together or apart.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A New Take on Ancient Myths: Percy Jackson & the Olympians

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)
Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan
Miramax, 2006 (first book)

The first time I ever learned about Greek mythology, I was in sixth grade. It seemed reasonably cool – gods with extraordinary powers, heroes going on amazing adventures. But by the time I got to high school and we had to study the myths for a whole unit in my freshman English class, my enthusiasm had waned. They were just a bunch of old stories, right? I mean, it’s not like any of it could happen, and even if it did, it was all thousands of years ago. Wasn’t it? That’s what Percy Jackson thought, too.

Percy has ADHD. He has trouble in school because chaos seems to follow him no matter how hard he tries. He’s nobody’s first pick for anything and doesn’t really think of himself as anything special. He wants to do and be good and is still trying to figure out who he is and what he wants. In other words, he’s like a lot of 12 year olds when you meet him. He certainly reminded me of myself at that age.

Riordan’s saga of Percy, the half-human, half-god son of Poseidon, is an amazingly relatable story even with the premise that has been set up: the ancient Greek gods really do exist, Mt. Olympus is actually above Manhattan, and demigods such as Percy are trained to fight monsters and save the world at Camp Half-Blood. Over the course of five books, we see the world as he does, feeling every conflicted feeling along the way.

It is easy for people to compare the series to Harry Potter. There are undeniably parallels. Both are stories of a boy with a less than desirable childhood/home life (yet with exceptional mothers) who think they just have a hard time fitting in only to discover they’ve been special since birth and that not all is as it seems. However, to me Percy felt a bit more grounded in that the story takes place in this world rather than an “other” location such as Hogwarts. America is Percy’s battleground, and while Camp Half-Blood is certainly unique, Riordan still gives it a summer camp feel that many can relate to.

Another strength of the series is that Riordan expertly keeps his younger readers in mind over the whole course of the five book saga. The choices Percy, his friends, and his enemies all must make get more serious with bigger responsibilities and consequences as the story progresses, yet it never reaches further than what a 12 year old reader will be able to understand.

Where Potter can intimidate some hesitant readers with its length, Percy seems to suck them in. It’s also a great tie in to those mythology units like the ones I had so many years ago – readers can make connections and see those stuffy old gods in a new light. The series also had me saying plenty of times “I forgot about that one!” Riordan has done his homework and put a fresh face on old tales, and readers of all ages will enjoy this young hero’s journey for many years to come.

Rick Riordan's Website
Rick Riordan on Twitter