Sunday, April 6, 2014

Adventuresome Reads

Hey everyone!  So, lately I've been in an adventurous mood.  Next Saturday I'll be heading to the southwest for April break, and I'm really excited to see the beautiful red rocks, canyons, etc.  It'll be a completely new experience for me--I've never been in that area before, and I have no idea what to expect.  That's part of the fun!  Adventures are all unknown lands and uncharted areas.  They have spirit and life and are very classic.  A good adventure book should be nothing more than a wild ride.
1. Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm.  I initially believed this book to be for the younger side of the teen years, but after rereading it I realized that it still has the aura of craziness, yet, at the same time, of being relatable, that it did when I first read it a few years ago.  The book centers around tough kid Turtle, an incredibly interesting and endearing character.  When she comes to her mother's birthplace, the tight knit community of 1935 Key West, she discovers a treasure trove of family she's never known and possibly some other, slightly shinier treasure as well.  Although historical fiction, Turtle in Paradise never felt dated or repetitive.  It's a shining example of every genre it falls into--tween fiction, historical fiction and, of course, adventure.
2. Modelland by Tyra Banks.  Weird looking "forget-a-girl" Tookie doesn't exactly fit in in a society that centers its every validation around models--specifically, around the hallowed place on top of the mountain, Modelland.  So when she and three other strange looking girls are selected to take her place among the best of the best, they knows that something isn't right, and they quickly discover that there's a lot of sinister stuff under the surface of Modelland.  I'll come right out and say it:  this book is really weird.  And definitely meant for a certain type of reader--one who can appreciate its slightly superficial bent as cleverly sarcastic.  The characters are lovable, the plot is tight and exciting, and, especially coming from Tyra Banks, who is pretty immersed in the actual modeling industry, it feels honest despite being pure fantasy.
3. Survive by Alex Morel.  This book pretty much has all the adventure that can possibly be packed into its 272 pages.  Jane, a depressed and disturbed teen, is about to commit suicide on a plane when it crashes into the snowy wilderness, leaving her and one other passenger, a young man named Paul, as the only survivors.  They have to try and fight their way out of the indomitable mountain, developing an unexpectedly sweet romance and learning about themselves as they get closer to safety.  It was definitely pulse-racing--a perfect match of scary and heartfelt--and it even had some semblance of a moral, which gave a classic adventure novel a nuanced side.
I'm packing a few other adventure books in my duffel bag when I head off to Phoenix, where I start my trip (perhaps a post on those soon!).  What are your favorite adventuresome reads?  Comment, comment, comment!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book of the Month--March

How often do we get to read a novel that is almost painfully earnest in its portrayal of teenage romance?  How often do we get to read romantic fiction that isn't fantastical, corny or explicit?  How often do we get to read a love story?  Not often enough.  So, when an authentic, honest story of true love comes along, we should jump at the opportunity.  Having heard great things about it from many of my friends, that was my thought when I checked out Rainbow Rowell's (yes, last month's BOTM author too--she's kind of ridiculously talented) Eleanor & Park.
I'm not quite sure how to go about explaining the plot of E & P.  It's the sort of book that seems so beautiful and fragile--like a baby bird in your hand--that you're almost worried about recommending it to friends.  What if they hurt it?  But I trust you, dear readers, and I have to tell you all I can about such a remarkable book.  This book, set in 1986, is written as a dual narrative.  It switches between the perspective of Eleanor, a guarded, strange looking and acting high schooler with a seriously dysfunctional family situation, and Park, a quiet rock enthusiast and with the quintessential perfect family.  Although they differ in some serious ways, Eleanor and Park are similar, too--they both know what it's like to look different and feel different.  In many ways, they both feel like misfits.  But somehow they manage to find each other.  And, in a way (I know it sounds off-the-charts cliched, but it's not) they save each other.
Rainbow Rowell has a writing style that just won't quit.  Again, (see my post about her newer book, Fangirl) she seems to sidestep cliches in a way that's pretty impressive.  E & P is one part cynical--as in a conscious yes-this-is-a-romance admit that keeps the book grounded--and one part big, bold, beautiful lines that seem to perfectly capture everything I hope love is.  Every snapshot sentence is a work of art--at once frank, precarious, funny, image-laden, loving and achingly truthful.
Also, I couldn't put E & P down.  I think I finished it (and it's a pretty sizable book) in a day and a half.  And it's not a thriller--anything but--I just needed to know how it turned out.  And, the ending.  Oh god, the ending.  Normally I read books twice--first for plot, then for the more nuanced elements, but I couldn't read this book again.  After finishing it I almost felt broken, but, at the same time, I felt healed, calm, and content--I felt put back together.  Read, please read.  I promise you will come out of the story a little sad, a little scared, and probably teary--but mostly, you'll feel refreshed and released.

"It's because you're kind," she said. "And because you get all my jokes..."

"Okay." He laughed.
"And you look like a protagonist." She was talking as fast as she could think. "You look like the person who wins in the end. You're so pretty, and so good. You have magic eyes," she whispered. "And you make me feel like a cannibal."
"You're crazy."
"I have to go." She leaned over so the receiver was close to the base.
"Eleanor - wait," Park said. She could hear her dad in the kitchen and her heartbeat everywhere.
"Eleanor - wait - I love you.” 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

It's a little late in the month, but I just found out that March is Women's History Month.  Yay!  March 8th, specifically, but if you forgot to mark your calendar this time around it isn't too late to celebrate women everywhere.  I'll be honoring women with the best female empowerment book I've read--Libba Bray's Beauty Queens.
This book begins with a plane crash.  Actually, that's not quite correct--it kicks off with a Word From Your Sponsor, a Corporation with serious world domination plans and a mysterious figurehead.  The word, with its creepy emphasis on happiness and a very specific type of beauty, sets the tone for the book--or rather, it sets the tone for the very oppression that the main characters spend the book shaking off.
The fourteen aspiring Miss Teen Dreams who survive the crash must learn how to survive on the island they've landed on.  As beauty queens--really, as attractive teenage girls--they've never been encouraged to think for themselves, although their specific skill set does come in handy (think stiletto catapults and makeup splat guns). The girls reveal themselves and their struggles as their time on the island stretches, and they discover that the island is not as uninhabited as it seems.  Beauty Queens contains fourteen incredible beauty queens with completely unique personalities, reality TV pirates, very sinister politicians and features an unforgettably different beauty pageant as the culminating scene.
As well as beautiful, lyrical and imagery rich writing, Beauty Queens boasts theme after cleverly woven theme.  Bray encourages us to think about the control that companies have over our life, and the danger of monopolies and corruption.  She shows that, instead of a parade of cliched, familiar characters, women deserve new and different media representation.  This book heralds individuality above all.  Beauty Queens takes a commonly cliched type of woman and shows that everyone has unique sides to them that make them special, and that cookie-cutter people and personalities are an unhealthy and unrealistic goal.   What better way to celebrate women and kickstart spring than a message of liberation?

There was something about the island that made the girls forget who they had been. All those rules and shalt nots. They were no longer waiting for some arbitrary grade. They were no longer performing. Waiting. Hoping. 

They were becoming. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Spring Reads

Ah, spring.  Sunshine!  Birds, trees, flowers!  More sunshine!  Spring is far and away my favorite season.  I tend to be delusional about it--I'm the person who starts "smelling spring" in late January and I've been on a fiercely reality-denying bud lookout for months.  But this time I'm not making it up--spring is almost here and I couldn't be more thrilled.  Here are a few books that will put us all in a fresh, sunny mood.  Can't you just picture yourself reading these sprawled out on a grassy lawn?   I know I can.
1. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan:  Two of my favorite authors combine to write a great realistic fiction piece about love, champions and coincidences.  The premise: two seventeen year old boys--both named Will Grayson, although their personalities couldn't be more different--meet one night in Chicago and find their very different lives strangely intertwined.  This book has a sizable amount of improbable love, features a bit of the high school experience of a gay teen and culminates in an extremely fabulous musical.  This is a really great book to get you into the fresh spirit of spring.  Will Grayson, Will Grayson reminds that the possibility of new love is always there and that the hope of changing minds can't be lost.
2. The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff:  Through the metaphor of Winnie the Pooh characters, Hoff explains Taoism in an easy to understand, quite attractive package.  Although this book is purely philosophical (you may want to avoid it if you're not into that sort of thing), I found it pretty enlightening.  As a longtime lover of Winnie the Pooh and someone who aspires to be much more zen than I really am, The Tao of Pooh was a fun, easy read and made me want to implement some of the Taoist ideals into my life.  Don't confuse this with self help--it's more of a fiction/non fiction mix that's half Taoism history and digest of practices, half Winnie the Pooh snapshots and lovable dialogues.  If you want to learn something new this spring (and maybe become a little wiser), The Tao of Pooh is a great way to start.
3.  The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder:  This book may be sad, but it's hopeful too.  Sixteen year old Cam has cancer, and, having spent seven years searching for a cure, she's pretty reluctant to try the new one--her family is moving to Promise, Maine for one more try.  Weird things are supposed to happen in Promise, and they do--Cam meets the love of her life, receives a strange envelope and becomes less cynical--she starts to believe in miracles, as the title suggests.  The Probability of Miracles is a lot about finding hope even within the inevitable--I'll compare it to finding joy in spring even when you know winter isn't gone for good.
4. The Joys of Love by Madeleine L'Engle: Even though this book is set during summer, the title says it all--it's about new love and new possibilities, which clearly makes it a spring book too.  It centers on Elizabeth, who's working as a theater intern at a beachside town and has a dashing love, a great group of friends and is working her dream job.  However, her love is not who he seems and when she stands to lose her job, Elizabeth worries that her perfect summer is ruined.  As a theater kid myself, I loved the genuine details and the beautiful friendships she makes--it perfectly captures the theater experience.  Did I mention that The Joys of Love is set in the 40s?  The plot is perfectly classic and the new love, new life message is very spring-y and exciting.
Get happy, everyone!  Spring is in exactly 4 days, 4 hours (Yes, I'm counting.  Of course I'm counting.) and I can't wait.  Read away!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Finding More Reading Time

It can be really, really difficult to find reading time.  At least it is for me, and I know it is for most of my peers and many adults.  Collectively, we don't read enough.  I end up feeling guilty--if I could only manage my time better, or remember to seize the opportunity to read in a spare moment instead of checking emails or texts.  However, as I slowly move back into a comfortable reading schedule, I realize that a lot of finding more reading time doesn't come from a time issue.   I've realized that if you chose the right book, you don't need to try to find reading time--the reading time comes to you.  Here are some ideas on how to find that book.
1. Try a can't-put-downer.  This might seem like a no-brainer, but there really is no better motivation to read than a book that practically harpoons you to come and unravel it.  I love a book that makes me want to stay up all night because I need to know what happens next.  Mysteries, crime novels, even just really engaging romance--these are all fair game.  And why exactly are we so ashamed of read em' once and throw em' away paperbacks?  Jason Bourne novels shouldn't comprise your entire reading list, but not every book we read has to be a classic.  Just saying.
The books:  And Then There Were None, The Westing Game, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, any and all novels seen advertised on the subway.
2. Read a book with segments.  This is really useful--if a book has the plot construction that allows for separate, non-correlating sections, it provides a safe immersion of reading.  This kind of book gives you a satisfying amount of text to chew through, but if you value your sleep or have a tightly packed schedule, a good sized section can be done in one sitting--on your commute, perhaps, or at breakfast.  There's no pressure--if you're looking to get back into the reading scene, this is a good way to start.
The books: Nine Stories, My Ears Are Bent.
3. Read an old favorite author's new release.  This one is a nice compromise.  Sometimes it can be great to read something new--it's motivating, and there's none of that stagnate disinterest that comes when you read the same old thing all the time.  But it's also a little scary.  An author that you've previously enjoyed comes out with a new release--here's a way to get your new and different fix without plunging all the way in.  Series continuations or spinoffs work well here.
The books:  The Impossible Knife of Memory (so excited for this one!), The Circle, Dreams of Gods & Monsters.  
If you're not afraid to be fully saturated in new-ness, you can try a totally new genre to shake things up.  You may have said you're not a science fiction reader, but (like me) the right book could totally change your mind (the ridiculously amazing Ender's Game was that book for me).  Go ahead and try the opposite of what you usually like--it's an easy and super fun way to get you jumpstarted into reading again.  Make sure that what you chose is a highlight of its genre--one bad book is a terrible reason for you to swear off an entire genre.
Some ideas: historical fiction for the science fiction reader, romance for the crime novel reader, non fiction for the fantasy reader.  If you usually read stuffy serious adult books, try a fun, simple read.
5.  Look for the story.  Find a book that gets you excited about reading again.  Not every good book  lends itself to analysis--some greats were just made to be a wild, enjoyable romp.
The books:  The Twenty-One Balloons, Zipped.
Reading can sometimes seem like a big ball of stress and pressure.  But it doesn't have to be like that at all.  We got into this for the fun--a good time, and a little bit of thought provocation, should be the ultimate end game of a successful reading experience.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Book of the Month--February

Let's face it: we're all busy people.  Who has time these days to slog through line after line of single spaced, philosophical, unapproachable or even plotless novels?  Especially as February winds down and I'm ridiculously impatient for spring, I crave a can't-put-down-er.  But nothing I have to think about too hard--no crime novel thrillers, please.  I want characters I can love, writing I can get into and a book that'll keep me wanting to read when it's below freezing outside and my bed awaits.  Which brings me to February's Book of the Month--Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl.  Now, I know Fangirl is old hat to the teen blogging circuit.  What can I say?  I knew about it and wanted to read it, but put off searching for a copy--see earlier sentence about busy (or maybe just lazy) people.  So, if you're like me--read about Fangirl but never took the time to read the book itself (or just in the market for a good read)--consider this post your wakeup call.  Fangirl is worth the library trip.
The plot centers around anxiety-riddled college freshman Cath (don't call her Cather) and her obsession with the Simon Snow franchise (think Harry Potter with a vampire nemesis instead of just a pale one)--mostly, her obsession with writing fan-fiction about the two main characters.  At first, Cath isn't having a great time at college--she's anti-social, she has no friends and she hasn't spoken to her cooler twin, who's out partying every night, or her single dad, who's descending into mania without his daughters around to keep him grounded, in weeks.  But by being herself, Cath finds new friends and even new love at college, strengthening and building family relationships along the way.
Well, writing that plot paragraph kind of made me want to puke.  The plot of Fangirl, outlined simply, invites cliches with open arms.  In fact, as I read it, I kept bracing myself for them.  It's literally about an antisocial teenager discovering a beautiful new community of friends--I think my fears were justified.  But the cliches never came.  Maybe it was because of the updated element the fan-fiction plot lended to this classic Cinderella storyline.  But it was also Rowell's incredibly approachable writing style.  Rowell had a way of commanding Cath's narrative so that she sounded like someone I could be friends with.  Cath had every human insecurity possible--but not to the point of annoyance.  She had friends who were really great characters, who I wanted to hang with--but not the the point of unbelievability.  Cath was kind of perfect--except that she had so many imperfections.  Rowell's writing mimicked life so well, it was like a transcript of someone's thoughts--with the wrinkles ironed out and a book cover slapped on.
To be honest, I was grateful to Fangirl.  It feels so good to be reading--really reading--to be the annoying friend reading at lunch, to read on the subway rather than staring into space, to be able to pick up a book and not have to worry about not understanding it or being scared.  I loved being caught up in the realism and love that abounded within Fangirl, loved reading something inviting, entertaining and satisfying.  We're tired and it's cold out--let's give ourselves a break.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

How many of you caught the Vermeer exhibition at the Frick Museum in NYC?  Open from October to January, and also featuring other Dutch painters (including Rembrant and Hals), the show was a beautiful compilation of paintings, many of which showed astounding realism and detail (a painting of apricots where the fruits seemed luscious enough to pluck off the canvas comes to mind).  Despite the beauty of the other works, the undoubtable hallmark of the exhibition--and what had even the most line-reviling New Yorkers (myself clearly counted in this category) waiting with the tourists to get into the Frick--was Vermeer's famous painting of a young girl who stares captivatingly at the viewer, titled Girl with a Pearl Earring.    
The painting is as beautiful and detailed as it is spare--one has not even contextual clues such as a piano or a pen to obtain knowledge of the young girl pictured.  The girl herself is a mystery.  Who can blame us for wanting to know the secrets behind the delicate, tantalizing image?  Tracy Chevalier provides a story with her book Girl with a Pearl Earring. 
Though clearly fictional, Chevalier's account of the life of "the girl" herself uses every historical clue we have, including utilizing our knowledge of the Vermeer family and the daily workings of the 17th century town in which they lived.  This is good, old fashioned historical fiction--taking what we do know and spinning it into an engaging tale of love and duty.
The plot in a nutshell: sixteen year old Griet has been engaged to work as a servant in the Vermeer household.  She is smart and perceptive, but most importantly, she has an eye for the aesthetic that will tie her to Vermeer and his paintings as she first cleans his studio, then assists him with his paints and paintings, then, finally, sits for the now famous painting and watches as her relationship with the married and father of six painter escalates into an explosion of a scandal.
This is the book for anyone who loves Vermeer, or Dutch painting, or painting at all.  The account may not be true, but the historical details provide insight into Vermeer's life and times that are very satisfying.  This book offers a story to accompany the nameless, mesmerizing girl with the pearl earring--and don't we all deserve a story?