Sunday, April 29, 2012

Choices and Chaos: Pandemonium

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
Harper Teen, 2012

I'm writing this review literally having just finished reading Pandemonium, the second installment of Lauren Oliver's Delirium trilogy, and I'm having trouble finding the right words. It was that good.

But first, since I never did a review of Delirium on this blog since I read it before this blog existed, allow me to give a bit of backstory. Lena lives in a future United States in which love aka deliria is considered to be a highly contagious and dangerous disease. That's why everyone is required to undergo the cure, a surgical procedure, when they are 18. But less than 100 days before her scheduled cure, Lena meets Alex and catches the deliria. And so she makes a choice to run away from the life she knows in the regulated world and escape to the Wilds, the world beyond the fences and the government, and live with him where love is allowed.

The story picks up both right after where Delirium leaves off as well as a few months later - Oliver's chapters alternate between Now (Lena living in Manhattan and doing her part to help the resistance movement) and Then (when she first got to the Wilds). With the Then chapters, we see Lena rebuild herself in an unfamiliar world and in a situation she had never considered. Alex didn't make it over the fence with her, you see. He'd been shot and he told her to go, and so even though it literally nearly killed her to watch the boy she loved covered in blood with no way to possibly get out alive behind, she ran just as he told her to. In the Now chapters, we see a strong young woman who has been to hell and back, and now her beliefs are being tested more than ever before.

Oliver is an artist with words, making every scene, emotion, line, and setting incredibly vivid. Bouncing back and forth between Then and Now could have been incredibly confusing in the hands of a lesser writer, but with this story and this writer, it is a balancing act that has been mastered beautifully. Pandemonium continues in the grander themes laid out in the first part of the story, but also has an independent story arc that keeps readers engaged.

And then there's the ending, which I absolutely cannot say anything about except HOLY WOW I DID NOT SEE THAT COMING. I'm freaking out, and I hope that Oliver knows what she's doing because I'm going to be having a heart attack from now until the final book, Requiem, comes out in 2013.

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading.

Lauren Oliver's Website
Lauren Oliver's Blog
Lauren Oliver on Twitter

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wednesday Words: Read for a Lifetime

I have a confession to make. I'm not always the most naturally-adventurous reader. As many of my recent reviews and Wednesday Words posts have discussed, I am working hard at changing that, but at times it can be overwhelming (especially when the temptation to re-read my old favorites can be so strong).

But there's hope for readers like us who want to step out of the proverbial box - book clubs is one way to do it (but unfortunately, I don't belong to one because I haven't heard of a good local one where I live).

The other way: reading programs that develop their own lists.

It's brilliant in that you let someone else do the hard part for you: the narrowing down of the huge spectrum. The program that the library I work at is particularly great if you're an enthusiast of YA literature but also want to branch out a bit. It's called Read for a Lifetime and it's sponsored by the Illinois Secretary of State's Office. Every year they come out with a list of 25 books - fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, etc. All teens have to do is register at a participating library (public or school), and read four books from the list. If you do that, you get a nice certificate in the spring for your accomplishment.

The list has been continually strong, and I am especially excited about the selections made for the 2012-2013 year (which you can check out here). There are some of my favorite authors such as John Green and Maggie Stiefvater, authors I've met but unfortunately haven't read yet such as the hilarious Beth Revis, and titles I've been meaning to get around to and finally have a bigger excuse like in the case of Franny Billingsley's Chime. This list has contemporary, sci-fi, old books, new books, non-fiction, some YA and some more meant for adults. This list is going to become my friend for the next year, that's for sure.

So if you know you want to read something different, but aren't quite sure what, I highly recommend giving Read for a Lifetime, your local library's summer reading program, or similar initiatives a try. You never know what these lists compiled by others will help bring into your life.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Going Gothic: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
John Murray, 1817

Once upon a time when I was a high school student, I took AP Literature and as a result, YA wasn't exactly on the agenda. (I didn't actually really start reading YA regularly until I took a class on it in graduate school last spring and completely fell in love.) In that class, we read a lot of Literature of the Canonical variety which I enjoyed, but honestly, would have trouble connecting with at times. An author whose work I continually enjoyed, however, was that of the one and only Jane Austen.

Over the years I've come to love her work and really appreciate just how it was to be a woman writer and taken seriously - novelists today often still face that scrutiny that pretending isn't all that hard. These six books get a place of honor on my bookshelf and I've enjoyed them all.

Well, until recently, I only enjoyed five of them. I'm a little embarrassed that I've been saying I'm an Austen fan for so long without having read Northanger Abbey, the first book Austen completed but the last to be published. But with my resolution to reconnect with the classics and grown up books I've been neglecting, I decided it was time for that to change.

What I think I actually found, instead, was an early example of the young adult novel.

Catherine Morland is 17 years old and has led a pretty sheltered, country life. Her ideas of romance and adventure come from the novels she reads, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho. Life gets more interesting, though, when she goes to the city of Bath with some family friends. She becomes friendly with Isabella Thorpe and tolerates her older brother, John. She dances and attends events of society. And she also makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney, who she quickly begins to fall in love with. Eventually she is invited to Northanger Abbey, the Tilney family home, and she expects to finally encounter the kinds of magic, mystery, and horrors that fill the pages of the gothic novels she loves. (Think of it being similar to how so many people started saying they wished vampires were real after reading Twilight and wanting an Edward of their very own.)

This book has much of what appears in good YA today. Young love. A bit of mystery. A dash of humor. Gossip and the rumor mill. Jumping to conclusions. Taking sides. Making mistakes and then trying to right them. Austen has put together a very smart parody of gothic fiction

The biggest difference between this and historical fiction is that since this book really was written two centuries ago, details and dialogue are accurate. You get a tale about what it could have been like to be a teenager in the 19th century from someone who actually was.

The moral of this blog post, therefore, is a simple one: just because a book is old doesn't mean it's no longer relavant or doesn't still have an audience. Many of Austen's work continue to resonante with people today for a reason - they connect to aspects of the human condition that are unrelated to time. I love when I find a book that's been around for a long time but still has something to say. The best ones do.

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wednesday Words: Looking at Lyrics

With April being National Poetry Month, I've been trying to think of a way to make poetry interesting. It's interesting to me that poetry seems to be one of the most polarizing types of literature: people either LOVE it or HATE it - rarely do people admit to falling in between.

I do, though. I know that. I enjoy some poetry, I'm picky about it (at least I can admit it), and I can only take reading it in small doses otherwise I stop looking at the bigger picture. I'll be reading but not letting it sink in, which is the whole point. (Personal favorites of mine are Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, John Donne, Shakespeare's sonnets, and Pablo Neruda.)

But then I was struck with inspiration yesterday when I got the new cd of one of my favorite musicians, Eric Hutchinson. One of the reasons I love his songs so much is of course the musical stylings - his songs are upbeat, generally happy, and you can't help sing along. Which got me really paying attention to what I was singing - Eric writes completely brilliant lyrics.

How does it link to poetry? Because to me, song lyrics absolutely qualify as poetry. Both are comprised of lines that when put together paint a picture and make a story. Well written poetry and songs both have something bigger going on beneath the surface. Both are able to inspire or make us laugh or cry or think or just FEEL something more.

And it blows me away every single time.

So during this National Poetry Month, I urge you to give poetry a try if you haven't lately, or to at least think about the lyrics to the songs you sing along to. You may be surprised at what your favorite songs are actually about. And please leave comments about poets/musicians you like whose words you particularly like! I'm always up for trying new things.

And I want to close with the chorus to one of Eric's songs that seems to describe me perfectly (and makes me laugh every time) from his song "I'm Not Cool":

I'm not cool
And nobody would want me that way
I'm just a regular guy
In an insane world
Don't worry 'bout me
I'll be okay

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

High School Sucks: Ninth Grade Slays

Ninth Grade Slays by Heather Brewer
Dutton Children's Books, 2008

When I was first introduced to The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod last year, I had my suspicions. Another vampire series? Really? But I was so, so wrong because Heather Brewer was able to craft a character and a situation that I could actually relate to and care about. Check out my post on the first book here.

These feelings of connection still ring true for me as I decided to pick up the second installment in the series, Ninth Grade Slays. Bullies exist in all shapes and sizes and ages and unfortunately, I've never found that it gets that much easier to deal with with age. I'm quicker to stand up for myself (sometimes), but it still hurts. After a particularly trying day dealing with one of these situations, I wanted someone who understood what it felt like to feel alone and like the world just won't cut you a break. And so, I reached for Vlad, and I'm so happy I did.

Vlad is happy to have the hell that is middle school behind him, but high school seems to suck just as much for our half-human, half-vampire protagonist. Henry's popularity continues to soar, Otis has been gone for months, Meredith's beauty continues to render Vlad speechless, and the bullies are back and worse than ever. And as if all of that weren't enough, practicing his vampire skills such as mind control and telepathy haven't been going so great either.

Fortunately, Vlad is resilient and there are a few bright spots to be had. He makes a new friend in Henry's cousin, Joss, who also knows what it's like to lose someone you love, and Otis does return and takes Vlad on a trip to Siberia where the teen is able to learn about his vampire abilities and heritage. But there's still trouble brewing back home and it could start costing lives, including Vlad's.

Brewer's talents continue to shine as the series goes on. The pop culture references to other types of modern vampire lore are welcome and Vlad's curiosity perfectly mirrors that of readers. I also stand by my previous remarks that she has a particular gift for capturing the feelings that come along with being this particular age. As someone in my 20s, I still feel the way that Vlad and his friends do a lot of the time, only proving that my inner 14 year old continues to shape me. I admire Vlad's ability to just keep moving forward, though, no matter how awful things get. He still wants to do the right thing, he still cares about Aunt Nelly, Uncle Otis, and Henry more than anything in the world and doesn't want to see any of them hurt, and he just tries to do the best he can with the situation he's in. Vlad is an admirable guy and it's no surprise to me why boys and girls alike gravitate to this series. Vlad gets it; Brewer gets it.

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading.

Heather Brewer's Website
Heather Brewer on Twitter

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wednesday Words: What Do You Want From Me?

To say that this blog has a cozy little following at the moment puts it politely. I'm incredibly grateful for any hits that I get, and I love when I do get feedback from people, yet I feel like there's probably a lot more I could be doing to make this book blog better.

And so who better to ask than you, readers?

My question is a simple one (I hope). What is it that you look for in a book blog? Would you like me to do more (really, any) involvement in some of the memes out there? Do you prefer only hearing about the newest releases rather than books that have been out for a while, sometimes even years or decades? Do you consider quantity of reviews over quality/how in depth they are?

Things of that nature.

Please, please, please leave comments and spread around the link to this - I'd really love to know how build up this site of mine, and I want to give the people what they want!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Can You Keep a Secret?: Clockwork Prince

Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2011

Ms. Clare, you have done it again.

In her second installment of The Infernal Devices, readers pick up two weeks after where the action left off in Clockwork Angel. The London Institute of Shadowhunters is determined to find out more about the Magister, why he’s after Tessa, and who else besides Tessa’s brother Nate has joined his ranks. Over the course of the next two weeks, more questions and secrets come to light and loyalties are challenged.

This novel was much more devoted to character and relationship development rather than to advancing the plot significantly. It can seem daunting that this nearly 500-page book takes place over such short span of time, but it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who has read any of Clare’s previous novels – this is very much her style. Her books are big, full of detail, incredibly intricate, exploring the story from a variety of characters’ points of view, and they each take place in a matter of days or weeks. Perhaps it feels different to us because we have to wait so much longer than that to find out what happens next.

Tessa, Jem, and Will continue to be the heart of this novel. Some of the adrenaline has come off since Tessa first joined this family, but that doesn’t make seeing the three of them try to navigate each other any less interesting. They learn not just about each other, but about themselves, and as a reader it is such a treat, and, honestly, at times a bit like torture. But it is a love triangle, so that’s to be expected. What readers won’t expect is how thoroughly their hearts will be pulled, torn, crushed, filled, etc. It’s a lot of emotion going on here.

Tessa comes to learn just how strong she really is, physically and emotionally, but that doesn’t make her immune to the situations she finds herself in, especially as she has to choose between Jem and Will, two incredible and incredibly different boys, and she’s in love with both of them. Jem allows himself to hope as he scarcely has since becoming sick in loving Tessa and he’s happy to see that the wall Will has put up seems to be coming down. If only he knew the reason Will is changing is also because of Tessa, but no one knows of the terrible burden Will has to bear and how it has affected every part of his life and everyone in it. At times, I can find love triangles to be incredibly annoying or obvious, but the parabati relationship Will and Jem have and the fact that Jem is dying changes things – all three of the people involved here love the other two more than anything in the world. Each of them have secrets (mostly from each other), and these are all secrets that could be game changers if they were shared. I could go on and on, but I’ll just sum it up in two words here for now: heart wrenching.

Secondary characters also get a chance to shine. I’m particularly fond of Sophie, the Institute’s maid, and her growing role in the story. The Lightwood’s are scandalous and dramatic, and Magnus Bane, no matter the situation, always manages to bring a smile to my face (perhaps because thanks to The Mortal Instruments we already know that he’s a truly decent man and remains one even over the course of hundreds of years).

I read this book a bit more patiently, and I think that was a good thing. I really liked this story, but I’m also really okay with having to wait for what comes next. I’m anxious to see what the final installment, Clockwork Princess, will bring and how this story will be wrapped up later this year. I have no doubt Clare will somehow break my heart (it seems unavoidable), but sometimes the best stories must do that to us.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wednesday Words: Back and Forth

Hello, blogosphere! I'm sorry this edition of Wednesday Words is coming later than usual. Not going to lie, I've been a little off on days of the week because last week my school district was on a blissful spring break, and jumping back into the groove of things has taken some time.

Anyway! Remember when I said not that long ago how important it is to read outside our comfort zone and try new/different things? I've actually been taking my own advice! Well, for the most part.

Last week, I was in Wilmington, NC and visited a fabulous used book store called Old Books on Front Street. This store is fantastic. While I wasn't able to find a few titles that have been on my list, I did make two purchases which I'm excited about. I'm about halfway through Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and I have to say, it really makes me miss some of my awesome classmates from college and the crazy intense discussions we used to have on books like this that are about so much more than the plot. Reading a "grown up" book was definitely a good move for me.

I also got F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise which I'm also really looking forward to reading. In fact, I planned on reading that next, but when I got back to work, we've been processing some new books that we ordered a while back, many of which I'm really excited to get my hands on. So even though I said "no more dystopians for a while," I totally checked out Crossed by Ally Condie and Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver, both the second novels in what are shaping up to be truly epic trilogies.

So yes, I went right back to my comfort zone, but I think that's okay. Mixing things up is all fine and good and absolutely necessary to facilitate growth and help us examine our world and ourselves in new ways. However, it's okay to like what you like. I'm not embarrassed that I love YA as much as I do. However, I think that I do need to make more of a conscious effort to go back and forth between each of these zones to really consider myself to be a well-read person.

But that's just me and those are just my thoughts. What do you all think? Is it better to just stick with what you like, or do you like to mix it up now and then too?

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Worth Your Attention: Please Ignore Vera Dietz

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

Every once in a while, you come across a book that is so completely honest that it forces you to examine parts of yourself and your life that you maybe didn't even realize you were missing. A book that completely gets you and understands you better than you understand yourself.

I had no idea what to expect when I finally picked up Please Ignore Vera Dietz. The one description I'd read of it before was confusing, but the blurb on the inside jacket peaked my interest. And once I started reading, I felt an inexplicable kinship with Vera that blew me away. Not to say that she and I have a lot in common, but just the feelings that come along with dealing with your friends and family when you're a teenager were aspects that I could completely relate with.

Is it okay to hate a dead kid? Even if I loved him once? Even if he was my best friend? Is it okay to hate him for being dead? -Vera Dietz

To say that Vera's had a somewhat shitty life and to say she's in for a shitty senior year is an understatement. (Pardon the swearing, but it's almost impossible not to swear a little with this book.) Her best friend Charlie, who she was in love with, has just died, and she knows more than anyone realizes about the mysterious circumstances that brought it about. But she's not saying because they had a falling out five months before. So instead we learn about Vera's life now and in the past via various flashbacks about her family, Charlie, and how cruel the universe can be to us and how we can be to each other. She's a teenage alcoholic, her mom was a former stripper who left her and her father a few years before, and now she's being haunted by Charlie who wants Vera to clear his name.

This is contemporary and YA fiction at a high point. It's not supernatural (don't let the haunted aspect make you think it's some sort of hokey Halloween story - it's not), but King paints a picture and main characters who are able to admit there is much more going on in the universe than we can ever understand. There's a perfect balance between the story happening now and then, the interjections from the pagoda overlooking the town (yes, the building itself), Mr. Dietz, and even Charlie ("A Brief Word From the Dead Kid") are humours and insightful and heartbreaking all at once. The relationship between Charlie and Vera was so relatable for me, and it crushed me as I read and saw it develop to know that it had to end with Charlie dying somehow. Every voice is distinct and brutally honest, every character whole and flawed and complicated and it was all fantastic. I love that this book doesn't remind me of any other book I've read.

My only regret with this book is that I didn't read it sooner. And I told A.S. King as such, and she replied!

If you are a fan of contemporary fiction that's not afraid of getting gritty and exploring those big, awful, complicated, necessary questions that life throws at us and that critics all too frequently claim YA literature is incapable of adequately exploring, learn from my mistake and pick up a copy of this novel as soon as possible.

*EDIT - A.S. King quoted this exact post of mine on her blog! Check it out here!*

Comments welcome and, as always, happy reading!

A.S. King's Website
A.S. King's Blog
A.S. King on Twitter