Sunday, June 29, 2014

All About the Wordplay: Lexicon

Lexicon by Max Barry
Penguin, 2013

Max Barry brings wordplay to a whole new level in Lexicon, an action-packed novel exploring the idea of what if words had more power than we usually give them credit for? First, readers meet Wil, a man being ambushed at an airport. He has no idea who they are, what they want, or why he is apparently so special. Next, readers meet Emily, a girl living on the streets making money with slight of hand and card tricks, easily able to persuade people to give up their hard earned money for her games of chance. It's this particular talent that leads to her enrollment at a top-secret school where students are taught how language can actually be used to manipulate minds. As both of these narratives unfold and the stories eventually become intertwined, the adage of "choose your words wisely" takes on a much different meaning because in this world, words alone can kill.

Throughout this book, I found myself constantly wishing I'd paid better attention in my college courses on linguistics - I never appreciated how interesting it is back then! I was on the edge of my seat, wanting to know how Wil's and Emily's lives mattered to each other and what was so dangerous that these "poets" were willing to sacrifice the lives of so many people. While I was able to predict fairly quickly who Wil and Emily are to each other, the numerous twists and turns meant that nothing ended up being exactly as I'd been expecting.

While in most cases narratives coming together usually means more clarity, this time I was scratching my head. I am more than willing to admit that much of this probably had to do with how quickly I was reading (I couldn't slow down!), but I also feel like the mythology/rules surrounding the words became less clear. I'm being puposely vague to avoid spoilers, but I will advise that if you read this, do so slowly to make sure you catch all of the details. I did not, and as a result, the ending was a bit mushy in terms of its cohesiveness to me.

This is absolutely not a YA novel - there's adult language and situations right from the get-go - however in the hands of an incredibly mature teenager who is in college, there's definite appeal. If you like action-packed books with a dash of a nerdy side, then this is absolutely a book worth checking out.

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!

Max Barry's Website

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Short Story Saturday: Starry-Eyed, Talent

Welcome to Short Story Saturday! Each week, I'll talk about a different story from the collection I'm working my way through and offer up some thoughts. I'm currently reading Starry-Eyed: 16 Stories that Steal the Spotlight.

Story: Talent
Author: Claudia Gray
Summary: Landon sometimes uses his strange ability to control other people's emotions to his advantage as an actor, but is afraid of ever kissing another guy (especially the totally straight Jesse) and accidentally forcing someone to like him when they really don't.
Thoughts: One of my favorite genres is magical realism, and in this story Claudia Gray uses it masterfully! I wasn't expecting this element to Landon, but seeing how much he clearly thinks about his talent and how it effects others. The pacing was amazing, especially between him and Jesse, and there were a lot of amazing, complex emotions in this piece. I loved this one!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wishing and Wizards: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker
Viking, 2013

Reader's stumble from reality into another world full of magic (and misogyny) in Emily Croy Barker's debut novel. Nora's doctoral dissertation is going nowhere and she's just run into ex-boyfriend (who recently got engaged to someone else) at a wedding. Desperate to clear her head, she goes for a walk and ends up in another world. At first, it seems great. She's beautiful here, adored even, and has a whirlwind romance with a prince. Only problem is, it's not real. Nora has actually been put under multiple enchantments by the evil Ilissa (who is now her mother-in-law). Thanks to the help of the reluctant and ornery magician Arundiel, she escapes, becoming a fixture in his household. She's determined to learn magic herself so she can get home, or at least survive, but does she have what it takes to master it? And does she have time with Ilissa hunting her down?

Barker has clearly put a lot of thought into the world Nora finds herself in. The best word to describe it is layers: the differences between mere wizards and magicians, class distinctions, types of magic, and even gender politics. As an academic, Nora experiences culture shock in many ways, the strongest of which is not the presence of magic or lack of electricity, but the misogyny. Women are very much second class citizens, with dowries to be arranged and a woman's purity the difference between life and death. In these ways, I found the novel to be interesting. Not only is it as if Nora has traveled to a different world, but also backwards in time.

Arundiel, the magician who saves Nora and begrudgingly becomes her teacher in the magical arts, was the character I was most interested in. Is he perfect? His past and hands are blood-soaked, but I respected his intelligence. His arc and growth were subtle, but definitely present, and he's the person I was most interested in hearing from.

The biggest criticism I have about this book is the length, and subsequently, the pacing of the plot. I'm not opposed to long books, so this novel's 563 pages did not daunt me at first. However, I believe that no matter how long a book is, every scene should have a point. That was where I struggled with Thinking Woman. While fantasy and science fiction novels tend to be longer by nature due to the intricate world building that must often take place, the pacing of this novel was often slow. The second quarter of the book was especially hard for me, and I felt that exposing the falsehoods of Nora's "fairy tale" could have happened much more quickly. The plot didn't truly pick up in my eyes until literally halfway through when Nora finally starts to study magic herself. The ending was left open, which makes sense as it is indicated on the author's Goodreads profile that she is working on a sequel.

If you are a fan of fantasy novels and don't mind books that take their time, then check out The Woman's Guide to Real Magic.  I borrowed this from my library and might be willing to check out a sequel from there in the future if the description strikes my fancy and the writing seems tighter (aka shorter), but that's a big if.

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!

Emily Croy Barker's Website
Emily Croy Barker on Twitter

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Short Story Saturday: Starry-Eyed, Echo

Welcome to Short Story Saturday! Each week, I'll talk about a different story from the collection I'm working my way through and offer up some thoughts. I'm currently reading Starry-Eyed: 16 Stories that Steal the Spotlight.

Story: Echo
Author: Kiersten White
Summary: Shy Loti is torn between being invisible and wanting to sing in the school talent show, but she can't understand how she makes the performance list when she didn't audition - did she?
Thoughts: Readers can always count on Kiersten White to put a paranormal twist on an ordinary situation, and this story is no exception. Decidedly creepier than some other stories of hers I've read, I liked the blending of something so typical with a paranormal element from Loti's German heritage, something she was struggling with before anyway. Fast and a little freaky, this is a story that makes you think.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Going Against the Flow?: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
Harcourt, 2007

In an effort to expand my reading horizons, I am taking on my goal of reading more widely and taking on more books outside the world of YA. Going through my Goodreads account, I visited my to-read shelf to see what "grown up books" I had listed, was charmed by the summary of Paul Torday's debut novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and decided to give it a shot.

Dr. Alfred Jones is a fisheries specialist and very much a facts and figures kind of man. So when he receives an email from Ms. Harriet Chetwode-Talbot who says her client, a wealthy Sheikh, wants his expert help to introduce the sport of salmon fishing to his home country of the Yemen, he laughs it off. It can't be done. Science says so. But the Sheikh is a visionary man of faith with deep belief in his dream. With limitless resources, could the impossible become possible? And if people could salmon fish in the Yemen, what other impossibilities can become realities?

This book had an incredibly strong start, immediately engaging me as a reader in terms of characterization, plot, and presentation. The epistolary novel is told in multiple formats: emails, office memos, reports, even diary entries. Characters are quickly established and the variety of entries allow for quick pacing. I was eager to see what would become of these skeptics - some scientists, some politicians, some bureaucrats - and if the Sheikh's extraordinary idea would succeed. However, the second half of the novel lost much of the whimsy that had captured me in the first place. Entries became longer (hearing now from mostly two or three characters, one of whom I found consistently annoying) and the political satire became much more heavy-handed. The ending, therefore, felt rather flat. This is most likely a result of my expectations - I was more focused on the aspects of this story examining people's ability to adapt and grow (and dare I say it, dream or believe), however the author's focus was the opposite, on how our survival instinct and adaptability are not always the same thing.

In short, I'm happy that I finally gave this book a chance. If you are a fan of satire, especially that which pokes fun at trying to get anything done when the government is involved, then pick this up from your local library. I will say that I have seen the 2011 film adaptation of this book and enjoyed it much better. Hollywood, as it tends to do, changed the ending, but in doing so I believe they made it stronger. I do not believe that all books or stories should have happy endings, merely ones that do the story justice, and to me the film does a better job of that than the novel it is based on.

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Short Story Saturday: Starry-Eyed, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Welcome to Short Story Saturday! Each week, I'll talk about a different story from the collection I'm working my way through and offer up some thoughts. I'm currently reading Starry-Eyed: 16 Stories that Steal the Spotlight.

Story: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?
Author: Marc Acito
Summary: Fourteen year old Gale and 9 year old Sterling are determined to make their Jewish summer camp's production of The Sound of Music a success in 1969, and Gale finds a love she wasn't expecting.
Thoughts: This was a very sweet friendship story about two people mature and wise beyond their years (in some ways more than others), showing how love stories aren't always about romantic love, but about finding someone who cares about you and understands you in a way no one else does. The story was appropriately campy, especially given the setting, and heartwarming. All in all, cute.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Family and a Farm: What the Moon Said

What the Moon Said by Gayle Rosengren
Putnam, 2014

*ARC Provided by the author - Thanks, Gayle! Sorry it took me so long!*

Middle grade readers should get ready to be swept into the past in this debut novel by Gayle Rosengren. Esther is 9 - almost 10 - and growing up in 1930s Chicago when she gets the news: since Pa has lost his job, the family will be moving to a farm in Wisconsin with the hope that the future will be a bit brighter there. She is confident that living like pioneers and with animals will be an adventure, but the truth is, it's a lot of hard work. On top of all the changes is Ma and her never-ending superstitions from the Old Country about good and bad luck. Esther feels like no matter how hard she tries, she always makes Ma unhappy. When Ma demands that Esther do the unthinkable, the young girl is torn. Should she obey if it will make Esther miserable? And will Ma ever hug her and say she loves her?

Esther is a plucky, deep-feeling, and complex protagonist who I could easily throw my support behind. Rosengren does a phenominal job showing how kids back then really weren't so different from kids today. I loved the layers of this character - she doesn't always do the right thing, struggles with what the "right thing" even means, celebrates the highs, and is devistated by the lows. Seeing the world and her situation through her eyes was a treat.

Secondary characters enhance Esther's world, from her siblings, her new pet dog, her new best friend, and even her teacher. My only troubles with this book, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Ma. Esther's deepest wish is for her mother to show her even the smallest crumb of affection and to say that she loves her. Ma seems to like Esther's siblings well enough, but why not Esther? Of course the message of the story - love isn't just about words, but actions - necessitates that Ma cannot be the touchy-feely type, but her unwavering coldness did hurt. Were I a younger reader, it very well could have been a bit too much emotionally and made me put the book down, but I stuck it out and understood the effect Rosengren was aiming to achieve.

It is to be expected that a novel taking place in the Great Depression be tinged with sadness nor get a completely happy ending, but the tale in What the Moon Said is realistic and, for that reason, satisfying. If you have any Little House fans in your life, chances are, Esther's well-written story will be a hit with them.

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!

Gayle Rosengren's Website
Gayle Rosengren on Twitter

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Short Story Saturday: Starry-Eyed, Tessitura

Welcome to Short Story Saturday! Each week, I'll talk about a different story from the collection I'm working my way through and offer up some thoughts. I'm currently reading Starry-Eyed: 16 Stories that Steal the Spotlight.

Story: Tessitura
Author: Maryrose Wood
Summary: Part of why Fiona sings is to make her father happy, but it's only when a famous soprano enters her life that she learns to really make herself heard.
Thoughts: This story was a lot of setup with a very abrupt ending. Readers get a lot of backstory about Fiona's life at home, her situation at school, her growing relationship with her vocal coach and her distant relationship with her father, but then it comes to a sudden halt. One thing I did really like about this story was the world building - I had a very clear sense of the Irish American community Fiona lives in in NYC - but I would have liked more closure.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

I'm Versatile!

I could not have been more shocked to learn that I have been nominated for a Versatile Blogger Award! Thank you so much to Theresa Hernandez for the nomination - it is completely unexpected. This past year has been crazy, and not that this blog has ever been big by any stretch of the imagination, with my summer just around the corner I  am hoping to be better about posting and getting through the never ending to-read list!

This is all very new to me, but according to the VBA website, I must nominate 7 bloggers for the award, then share 7 things about myself. And my nominees are (in no particular order):
- Liza Wiemer @WhoRU Blog - blogging extraordinaire, passionate reader, and soon-to-be published author (HELLO? coming at you in 2015 from Spencer Hill Contemporary)
- Heidi @ YA Bibliophile - not only does she always have great content and posts regularly, but I have no idea how she's always on top of all the books! Plus she's an awesome person.
- Kyle @ A Reader's Pensieve - A completely genuine and lovely person, I love her thoughtful posts on books from a classroom teacher's perspective
- Rachel & Megan @ Read, Write, Ramble - These two teens let ALL THE FEELS fly in their book reviews and posts about events they attend.
- Merrick @ Merrick's Art - While most of the blogs I read are usually book/library related, not all of them are! I have no idea how I stumbled across Merrick's corner of the Internet, but me and my newly-emerging fashion sense are eternally grateful.
- Brittany @ The Book Addict's Guide - Brittany I first met at a book club meeting a few years ago (PS whatever happened to that book club?!) and her blog continually blows me away. She reads a lot (and widely in terms of genre), posts constantly, and the hard work and pride she takes in her blog is evident in every single post.
- Casey & Natalie @ Literary Rambles - A must-read blog for anyone who is seriously pursuing becoming a published author. While things haven't panned out for me in that particular arena (yet!), I would have been completely lost without this resource.

And now for seven things about myself!
1. I LOVE traveling. Even the parts at airports. It's a little ridiculous.
2. My childhood pet was a Yorkshire Terrier named Lizzie (after Queen Elizabeth).
3. I played the clarinet from 5th grade through my senior year of college.
4. I own entirely too many t-shirts.
5. Someday I really want to take ballroom dancing or an art class. Or both! But not at the same time. Oh you know what I mean...
6. New Year's resolutions are impossible for me. Instead I usually set goals for myself at the start of the summer and at the start of the school year (which is when my birthday is, so it's when a new year is starting for me).
7. My cousin and I can recite almost the entire movie A League of Their Own from memory.

And there you have it! Thanks again, Theresa, for this nomination!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Tale of Woe and Wonder: Juliet

Juliet by Anne Fortier
Ballantine, 2010

"Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene." Such are the opening words to William Shakespeare's masterpiece, but what if Shakespeare got it wrong? What if, for starters, the story of Juliet and her Romeo actually involved three families and took place in Siena?

In her English debut, Juliet, Anne Fortier delves into the rich history of one of the world's most famous tragic stories and weaves it into present day. Twenty five year old Julie Jacobs is heartbroken when her Aunt Rose - the woman who raised her - dies and is shocked when a letter indicates that everything has been left to her cruel twin sister, Janice. Julie gets a secret letter of her own along with a key, a passport, and instructions that her own inheritance awaits in Siena, Italy, the place where Julie and Janice were born and where their parents tragically passed away. Once there, Julie gets wrapped up in learning about the events of the year 1340 and the true story of Romeo and her ancestor, Giulietta. But it appears the old family feud - or at least the curse, the "plague on both your houses" - is still at work, and Julie is its next target unless she can find a modern-day Romeo of her own to help her stop it.

My aunt actually recommended this book to me because her book club recently read it, and I'm so glad that she did! I love Shakespeare and especially since I studied abroad in Verona, Italy, the story of Romeo and Juliet has become something of a constant presence in my life. This novel strikes great balance. Chapters alternate between the events of 1340 and present day, and both time periods are lush in descriptions of what drives these characters and how things and people are not always what or who they appear to be on the surface.

I will admit that there were certain elements that I predicted from the very beginning, but they never turned out exactly how I was expecting. The mystery kept me guessing (though I didn't do a great job of mentally keeping track of some of the details and was a big confused as a result towards the end, so read carefully!). The relationship between Julie and Alessandro - a police captain who has a particular interest in her quest - was more than welcome to this reader, the shift from adversaries to something else was so sudden that it was hard to be believable. However, their constant tension made me especially excited for the present-day chapters.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. I was hooked right from the get-go and maintained interest as the plot thickened. I agree with those who compare this to book to The Da Vinci Code - the unlocking an ancient puzzle has a similar sort of feel to it. Should you read this book, read carefully and take your time with it. You'll be glad you did.

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!

Anne Fortier's Website
Anne Fortier on Twitter