Sunday, January 29, 2012

Born to Run: The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, 2011

There are a few ways that I know for sure that I love a book. One is if I’m speeding through, devouring pages like I’ll suffocate if I don’t, and I get through the entire thing in few (but admittedly long) sittings. Another is if it's like The Fault in Our Stars and I feel completely destroyed, but in a good way. A third is if I want to power through, but I can’t because the book is challenging me, making me think, toying with my emotions ever so delicately that I don’t realize it’s happening until after it’s already happened. When it pains me to have to put in my bookmark, but I need to anyway because I have to stop and reflect on what I’ve read, the questions being asked, and generally pull myself together before I can keep going.

The Scorpio Races, the newest novel by Maggie Stiefvater, definitely falls into the third category for me.

On the small island of Thisby (whose location is never specified, but I get a very English/Irish-area vibe from it), life revolves around the first of November. That’s when the Scorpio Races are held, the annual event in which men race down the beach on the backs of capaill uisce – the mysterious and incredibly powerful water horses. To say the races and the month leading up to it is dangerous is an understatement – deaths are common, expected.

Sean Kendrick, a 19 year old and four-time champion, has a mystical talent for working with these creatures. People don’t always understand him, but water and land horses alike do. But Puck Connolly has had her own experiences. Both of her parents were killed by the capaill uisce and now everything she knows and loves might be taken away. So she does the unthinkable, becoming the first girl to ever enter the races and with a regular horse, no less.

Stiefvater paints the most incredible pictures with her words, full of incredible depth and feeling. The landscape and characters are so rich with detail, but it's never overwhelming because it's all tied in among exquisite dialoge and action. Readers hear the story from both Puck and Sean, their individual stories blending together in a patient and subtle way that leaves me in awe. They are each strong in their own ways, and it was interesting to see how the same event and characters can be seen so differently through each of their eyes.

It’s a book about water horses, but it’s also about so much more than that. It’s about our relationships with our family and friends, sacrifice, choices, strength, weakness, home, and what makes each of us who we are. By the end of this book, I was in choked up and had tears welling up in my eyes, and let me just say that that is not something that happens too often, so it’s a memorable occasion when it does. (January seems to be the month of books that make me cry.)

A book for boys and girls, young adults and the young at heart, The Scorpio Races is a book that is absolutely deserving of the accolades and recognition it’s been getting, most recently being a Printz Honor for excellence in YA literature.

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wednesday Words: But I Don't Like It

I like to consider myself a decently read person even though I'm still relatively young. This is largely due to my education - I was lucky enough to go to a high school, university, and now a graduate school that challenge me to read books I wouldn't ordinarily read. They've helped me branch out, explore different genres I may not have considered on my own, and feel like I'm a part of a greater Community of Readers. Were it not for higher education, I'm not sure I ever would have found my way to YA lit, and that would have been a shame.

Since this blog of mine is a purely recreational hobby and not something that I'm paid to do in any way, there's a definite trend in my book selections and reviews here. Almost all of them are YA, many are written by women and/or have a female protagonist. Most of my reviews are positive because why would I read a book for fun if it sounds like something I'll hate? What a waste of time...right?

I'm actually a bit conflicted on this front. What do you do when you find yourself reading a book that just isn't right for you, that no matter how hard you try, it's just not clicking or there's simply something about it you don't like?

Some people abide by the 50 page rule for their recreational reading habits: if you're reading something and just not into it by page 50, then it's time to put it down and try something else. If that works for you, that's great, but personally I can't see myself actually doing it. I know plenty of people who missed out on an amazing ride with Harry Potter just because they thought the first 50 pages of Sorcerer's Stone were a bit on the boring side.

So I usually stick it out, sometimes multiple times to varied results. I posted not long ago about re-reading the books I love, but I have also actually taken the time to re-read books I didn't care for the first time around. I was seventeen the first time I ever read Frankenstein, a high school senior who didn't have the easiest time getting into the story within a story within a letter. It was merely alright in my opinion, but then when I read it again as a student teacher four years later, I got really into it. The experience has made me want to re-read other books I only read in the context of my high school English classes and see if my opinions change.

However, sometimes my feelings don't change that much. I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was 15 and I just felt like I was missing something. I read it again last spring and while I definitely was able to see more than I did before, I still feel like I'm on the outside and it pains me when I dislike Classics, Great Literature like this. And so, probably sometime in the next year, I'll read it yet again.

It's a roundabout way of getting to the point, I know, but I'm curious what others do when they find themselves reading a book they don't particularly like, and have you ever given it another chance? Comments welcome as always, and happy reading!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

To the Pointe: Bunheads

Bunheads by Sophie Flack
Poppy, 2011

Like many little girls, I took dance lessons. I loved putting on my leotard and tights, spinning around pretending to be a prima ballerina. But my dancing career was short lived. For one, I’ve never been the most graceful person in the world. And I’ve never really been flexible – I can’t even touch my toes. And despite my best efforts, I was never able to get my body to get it to move the way it was supposed to. So when my teacher retired, I took it as a sign and turned to something else – soccer (but that’s another story for another day).

However, that little taste left me with an appreciation of the ballet and that it takes a lot of hard work to move that much grace and make it look effortless. But other than The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, how much do pedestrians really think or know about this world? Sophie Flack takes readers behind the scenes and right onto the stage in her debut novel, Bunheads.

Meet Hannah Ward, a 19 year old dancer with the elite Manhattan Ballet Company. To say that dancing is her life is an understatement – she moved to New York on her own when she was 14 to join the MBC and has given up everything else for competitive rehearsals, intense performances, and a complicated relationship with her fellow dancers and her body (which has recently started to betray her and her pursuits for perfection). And then on top of all of that, she meets Jacob, a student at NYU who makes her start thinking that maybe she wants a normal life outside the theater walls.

The best way I can think of to describe this book is that it’s like the novel companion to the 2000 film Center Stage – if you liked that, chances are you’ll enjoy this, too. Flack, a nine year veteran of the New York City Ballet, doesn’t shy away from using proper ballet terms – like the people running the company, she makes her readers rise to the challenge of the dance vocabulary. Hannah is a character I had little in common with, yet was still able to empathize with – I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in her shoes (literally and metaphorically), but she’s a great vessel to see this story through. Her life is complicated and her moods go up and down, and all of that made her just feel more real to me. Secondary characters are also thought out and have distinctive voices, and Jacob is a swoon-worthy crush.

For a debut novel, Flack gives a solid performance. She captures the voice of a 19 year old incredibly well, builds a world that I could easily see in my head, and makes me appreciate this incredible form of dance even more. I can't wait to see what she writes in the future. Bravo!

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading!

Sophie Flack's Website
Sophie Flack on Twitter

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wednesday Words: Giving Headaches and Giveaways

If you've been even half paying attention to the news lately, chances are you've heard some talk about SOPA and PIPA (not to be confused with Pippa Middleton - big difference). Websites and many participants in various forms of social media have 'blacked out' their pages in protest, but maybe you're not exactly 100% sure what exactly is being protested. Allow me to try to shed a little bit of light on this.

SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act, a United States bill in the House of Representatives which claims to crack down on copyright infringement on the internet by restricting access to sites that host or facilitate the trading of pirated content. Its main targets are sites that are hosted overseas, but there in lies a significant challenge: it's very hard for US companies to take action against foreign sites. The SOPA solution? Requiring US search engines and other providers to withhold their services. This bill is very similar to its Senate counterpart, PIPA (the Protect IP Act).

So what's the problem? Copyrighted material has that protection for a reason - stealing is wrong and this material is someone's property. How could anyone think that this is a bad thing? As I understand it, there's another issue at hand: Censorship. Should this law go into effect, the way that people share information will drastically change because US based companies will be forced to limit what we can see and do. Sites we all know (and usually love) such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, etc.

Now I'm a library student. To say that my profession is not a fan of censorship is a bit of an understatement. Information is power and while I do of course believe that copyright holders should absolutely fight for their works and the rights they have to them, I do not believe that SOPA is the answer to solving Internet piracy as it exists today. Also, if you want access to music, movies, literature, information, etc. for free, I highly suggest you pay a visit to your local library. *shameless plug*

So SOPA is giving people headaches to put it mildly. Part of me does like the passionate response I've seen from people on this issue, and I hope that lawmakers are paying attention. The Internet has so much to offer us, such as GIVEAWAYS!

*insert happy dance here*

That's right, readers. One of my favorite blogs Literary Rambles is having a book giveaway in honor of now having 2000 followers. First off, congrats! What an achievement! If you ever have questions about children's books, authors, agents, and publishers, this blog is a fantastic resource and I highly recommend you check them out. If you want to try to get in on the book giveaway action, head on over to their blog, become a follower, tweet/blog about their contest, and then comment on their post to let them know about it.

See, government, the web isn't all evil =)

This business with SOPA/PIPA is far from over, and there's plenty more to discuss about it. If I'm misunderstanding this bill and what it's about, I highly encourage you to post in the comments below and let's make it right. Oh, and happy reading.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Indescribable: The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Dutton Juvenille, 2012

There's nothing that I can really say about this book that hundreds if not thousands of people aren't already saying. I feel like any words that I try to put together to describe this novel, this incredibly poignant, funny, heartbreaking, intense, smart, beautiful story are all pale and pathetic in comparisson to the ones that John Green has put together. But I will try anyway, because this is one of those books where as you read it, you can feel something within yourself changing, and while I may not be the artist that Green is with words, I have to at least try.

Sixteen-year-old Hazel has stage IV thyroid cancer with mets in her lungs and it's terminal, but thanks to the experimental (and very fictional) drug Phalanxifor, the mets have stopped growing so she continues to live on borrowed time. Much to her displeasure, her mother insists that she go to a cancer kids support group and there she meets Augustus Waters, a truly exceptional 17 year old with one leg (lost to osteosarcoma) who is otherwise in good health, cancer free. The two end up bonding over Hazel's favorite book, An Imperial Affliction (again, very fictional - the novel within this novel doesn't actually exist much to the dissapointment of my students who have come to the library asking for it).

And so their adventure begins. I don't want to say any more than that about the plot for fear of spoiling too much, and this is one of those books where it is truly a crime if you know too much before you read it.

So instead, I'll just describe what it did to me and how it made me feel, or rather, how much it made me feel.

I feel totally and completely wrecked by this novel. There's humor and sadness interplayed so intricately and I appreciated that it was done so well because it made it all feel so sincerely real. Whereas some books, even in contemporary fiction, are an escape into a slightly rose-colored-glasses version of reality, with this book you simply go from being in your life to being in Hazel's.

This book literally made me laugh out loud, which I completely love. And then sometimes a page or two later, this book left me sobbing, and that is something that you'll have to trust me when I say is not easily done. I ached, literally and metaphorically. And just when I thought I couldn't take anymore, there was still more story left and even though it was twisting me inside out me, I kept going.

This book makes me feel guilty for latching on to characters in novels as tightly and as much as I have my whole life, and makes me start to think that I probably shouldn't feel that way, that I should be latching onto People instead and experincing more life outside of just reading about it.

This book makes me feel like I should scrap my own dreams of being a writer because now they seem like folly, a downright foolish thought because my stories are like stick figures compared to Green's Sistine Chapel. This book made me want to throw my own manuscript in the trash, and I know it sounds crazy, but I mean that in a good way. It makes me want to find a story I can tell that can do the things that this one has done to me. But I didn't burn my book (though I fleetingly contemplated it while sobbing over this story) because now that I've had time to process the story I've taken in, I remind myself that Green has been trying to write this story for 10 years and I am still very new to all of this. Practice, time, and certain life experiences are necessary for great books to happen. I don't care that Green says it took him this long to write the story, I'm just glad that he did and that it's out in the world now.

Green is often criticized for his teenage characters being too smart, but I see this as a strength. It is one of the reasons I love this book. While I've enjoyed the books he has written in the past, none of them have hit me with the intensity that The Fault in Our Stars has. It is why, not in spite of the things mentioned above but because of them, I can so strongly declare that this is one of the best books I have ever read, and I'm someone with an English degree and working on a library degree - I may only be 23 years old, but I've read a lot of books in my time. I can give no higher praise than that. The novel has been snatched up by nerdfighters around the world which is awesome, but I sincerely hope that it finds its way into the hands of as many people outside of our particular community as well.

So thank you, John Green, for writing this. Thank you for taking me on a rollercoaster and forcing me to look at myself and my life in ways I couldn't or wouldn't before.

Comments welcome and happy reading.

John Green's Website
John Green on Twitter
John Green on Tumblr
John Green on YouTube

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wednesday Words: Rereading

Clifton Fadiman once said, "When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before." It's an idea that I've long pondered. There are some books on my shelves that are more worn than others. I find myself turning to them over the years even though I've already read them at least once and I already know plotwise what is coming, but time and again the words on the pages continue to offer me something in a way that I so desperately need. It makes me feel guilty, therefore, that there are also quite a few books I haven't read yet, or maybe I only read once because I had to for my high school English class and I never gave it another chance.

I've just had the immeasurable pleasure of finishing John Green's latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars, and my thoughts on it will be coming this weekend. I can already tell it is a book that I will be rereading in the months and years to come. And, believe it or not, rereading books actually shows up in this particular novel (I can't say anything more than that out of respect for people who have not yet read/finished the book).

This question that had already been cooking in my head combined with this novel have me considering Mr. Fadiman's words even more than usual. Does rereading the books we hold dear help us or hurt us? Wouldn't it do us more good to try new things, consider new ideas, get to know new characters and situations? Or, since people are always changing and we're never exactly the same when we reread something, is it okay to continually reach for that same volume on the bookshelf and learn a new lesson from an old friend?

I honestly meant to write more on this subject because it's one that I find to be interesting - the answer varies so much from reader to reader - but Green's novel has left me in a state where words simply fail me. Or really, I feel like I'm failing them because I can't use them nearly as eloquently as he can.

Comments always welcome, please share your thoughts, and as always, happy reading.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

But Now I See: City of Bones

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007

I’ll admit that I’m usually a little late to the party when it comes to book series. With the exception of Harry Potter, I feel like I don’t discover series for myself for a few months, or in this case, a few years after they came out. But as the saying goes, better late than never. In a way, I actually prefer it. Just because a series is older (or already complete) doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading anymore. And this way, I don’t have to wait months or years for the next installment to come out (Veronica Roth, if you happen to see this, please can Insurgent be out now?); all I have to do is go to the library.

This was pretty much the case as I finally got my hand on Cassandra Clare’s books. The Twitterverse and blogosphere were absolutely gushing with love for Clare when her most recent novel, Clockwork Prince (The Infernal Devices: Book 2), hit bookshelves last month. I decided I wanted to see what the buzz was about so I chose to start all the way at the very beginning with City of Bones, the first book in The Mortal Instruments series.
To put it simply, I’m completely hooked. Finishing the novel over the course of two evenings, I was immersed in the first part of what I already can tell is an impressive saga (no spoilers, please! I’ll catch up!). Readers are introduced to Clary, a 15 year old girl living in New York with her mother, her dad having died before she was born. Out one night with her best friend Simon at a club, she witnesses three other teens covered in tattoos go into a back room and kill someone. Only it turns out that Jace, Alec, and Izzy aren’t just teens, they’re Shadowhunters; they aren’t tattoos, they’re protective runes; and it wasn’t a someone they killed, but a something – a demon. And perhaps the most important thing of all is that Clary shouldn’t have been able to see any of it.
Clary’s fantasy world that lies just under the surface of NYC is rich, detailed, and appropriately intimidating. The pacing of the story is perfectly spot-on – it’s fast and up-tempo which the many action scenes warrant, but not so much so that I couldn’t keep up. Since it is a fantasy series, there is a lot of explanation that Clary and readers must endure, but Clare does this in such a way that it’s not tedious or boring like an unwanted history lesson. The characters are also impressive – Clary is smart, talented, caring, strong, pretty (though she doesn’t realize it), and is a protagonist I had no problem getting behind. Jace is a spectacular crush and I enjoy that he’s not perfect, he knows he’s not perfect, and he doesn’t care. Simon, Alec, Izzy, Luke, Hodge, the evil Valentine, everyone has a distinct style and voice that makes everything more vivid and real.
It all leaves me with one thought – why oh why didn’t I find this when it first came out in 2007? Oh right, I was at college, majoring in English. Like I said, at least now I get to dive right in to book two, City of Ashes, without having to wait!
So readers, what other fantastic series are out there that I’ve been missing out on? Let me know, please leave comments, and as always, happy reading!


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wednesday Words: Authors are People, Too

Authors gain an incredible power over us readers through their words, and I mean that in a good way. Those who are able to find agents, get published, have a fan base, etc. are able to do so for a reason - they're incredibly talented. Combine these impressive skills with that power and it's easy to think of them as super-human - authors are rockstars in my eyes and it's part of the reason I love going to bookstores, hearing them speak, getting an autograph. I feel lucky to get to be in the presence of someone that awesome.

But it is important to remember that though they may write about magic or technology or coming back from the dead, authors are people, too, mere mortals just like the rest of us. When Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler were writing The Future of Us, their goal was to get the first draft done before Jay's wife had a baby nine months later. When autographing 150,000 tip-in sheets for The Fault in our Stars, John Green actually had to start seeing a physical therapist due to the repetitive motion of doing the same thing so may times and it was doing damage to his wrist.

There are countless other examples of authors who have very big lives going on outside of the hours they spend creating new worlds and characters for us to enjoy. And you know what? It only makes me like and respect them more.

Yesterday, Stephanie Perkins announced via her blog that her third novel, Isla and the Happily Ever After, will be coming out in 2013 rather than the previously stated 2012 publication date. The reason? Her second book, which just came out this past September, left her completely drained in a lot of ways that she doesn't discuss publicly. It wasn't an easy choice, but writing her most recent novel had made her miserable, so much so that if Isla's progress followed a similar path, with doing so much in such a short amount of time, it would be her final book. Ever. After explaining her reasoning, she goes on to say that she feels like she's disappointing her readers with this decision.

Now let's rewind for just a second. Her debut novel, Anna and the French Kiss, came out in December 2010. Her second, Lola and the Boy Next Door, hit bookshelves in September 2011. That's two books out in less than a year, and she's afraid of disappointing readers like me? She couldn't be more wrong!

What people need to understand and remember is that authors are people too, and that writing novels, whether it is as a hobby or, if you're lucky enough, as your occupation, takes time. The creative process is different for everyone, but it's not like a Xerox machine. No matter how prolific a writer is, time to plan, dream, tinker, imagine, get lost in a thought, do research is crucial.

Stephanie's news only makes her that much more of a rockstar in my eyes. I would hate it if Isla were to be her final book because I love her stories. I love that she wants to give readers the absolute best story she can and that she's not too proud to admit she needs more time to make that happen. Add that to the fact that she's an amazingly nice person, a gifted writer, a Nerdfighter, and has a killer sense of style I desperately wish I could pull off, and there's no way on earth I could possibly be disappointed in her.

Besides, look at the bright side - now I already have something to look forward to in 2013. =)

Stephanie and me at Anderson's Bookshop
Naperville, IL

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading.