Monday, November 10, 2014

Sorry Stereotypes in YA Fiction

Hi all! This is a column I wrote last month for my school's newspaper. I hope it makes you think!

A beautiful teenage girl is looking off into the distance.  She might be floating in water or wearing a ballgown. Her eyes are bright and her cheekbones prominent.  Remind you of anything?  Maybe just about every Young Adult book cover ever?  Wait.  Let me amend that.  The cover of every YA book written by a woman.  
When I was in elementary school, checking out every sci-fi book in the library, I used to ask the librarian about “the creepy girls on the covers.”  I couldn’t understand why there had to be basically the same image on every book.  Lately I’ve been thinking again about the role gender plays in books and their covers.  Books written by women, or with female main characters, tend to be deemed “girl books” or “chick lit.”  Books written by men, with male main characters, are less likely to be so easily labeled, but if they’re violent or especially adventuresome, these too become “boy books.”  

Are there really such things as books that can only be enjoyed by one gender?  Of course not.  Anyone can read a “boy book” or “girl book” and love it, regardless of whether they’re the gender of the main character.  Most books don’t have much in them that’s inherently geared towards one type of person.  Why would they?  Author want their ideas to be accessible to all readers.  So where does this sense of books specifically for certain genders come from?  The covers.  Especially in the science fiction or supernatural genres, YA book covers rarely seem to break out of the mold of gender stereotyping and tired cover design that publishers often slap on books.  Covers of books with female authors inevitably feature the aforementioned ethereal girl and a cute, feminine font.  Books authored by a man tend to escape stereotypical covers and receive a more simplistic design, often involving a nature scene or some kind of slicing, dramatic lettering.  An experiment proposed by author Maureen Johnson on her Twitter involved “coverflipping” popular teen books–imagining that the book’s author was the opposite gender or genderqueer, and changing the covers accordingly.  As expected, the now-female authors covers are more “girly” and less intelligent, while covers of male authored books become more simplified and graphic.  The thing is, book covers don’t always mirror the theme of a book (although maybe they should).  Gendered book covers don’t mean much about the actual plot– just a reflection of the insulting way publishers view teenage demographics and a sorry example of stereotypes that are still perpetuated today.  
*Check out a few coverflipping examples, above, or google "coverflip challenge" to find out more.*
Covers are the main way that we get an impression of a book, whether we’re buying it or just checking it out of the library.  And oftentimes book covers decide for the prospective reader whether they can read the book–whether their gender is “supposed to” or not.  But we know male and female authors to be capable of writing books that are beloved by all genders–it’s happened before (TFIOS, anyone?)–so why aren’t book covers more inclusive to all readers?  We deserve books that don’t exclude certain people from enjoying them.  Gender varies from person to person, but books should be for everyone.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Trying New Things--Plays

I've posted before about the importance of trying new things when reading.  Everyone has their comfort zone, that reading niche that they feel safe in, but branching out is a key way to escape a reading rut.  How can you knock something if you haven't tried it?  I'm guilty here as well.  I love realistic fiction, and often I don't want to give other genres a try.  But when I read some science fiction, there was stuff there that I really liked, and I can now add a few good ol' sci-fi reads to my favorites list.  Lately I've been reading a few plays that I want to talk about.  A whole different form of writing to be enjoyed!  The chances for exciting dialogue (which, of course, is a huge part of almost all plays) are many.  Here are a few recent plays that I've read and love:
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard.  This play is hilarious, subversive and very, very clever.  It focuses on the exploits of two minor characters found in Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Although I didn't always understand what was happening--the play's genre is, after all, absurdist--I could laugh at the improbably weird events and appreciate the well-written dialogue.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde:  Another comedy, this one in typical Wilde form as a trivial satire of marriage and Victorian society.  Hilarity ensues when two friends, both leading an alternate life under the name of Ernest, have their lies catch up to them as they discover that the women they love only like them because of their attraction to their names.  The comic exchanges between characters in this play were laugh out loud funny.  Plays, even older ones (this one was first performed in 1895), can be still be completely modern and comical if they're written well (and Earnest definitely is).
Our Town by Thornton Wilder:  I read this play to prepare for my position on the production staff of my school's performance of it, and it is incredibly well written.  More of a tragedy, the play is told in three parts:  Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Dying.  It focuses on the events of George and Emily as they grow up and fall in love in the small New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners.  Our Town is cruel--called "metatheatrical", it constantly reminds you that you're watching/reading a play, often just as you become invested in part of the storyline.  But despite the heartbreak, it's an incredibly detailed and intelligent work with seriously lovable characters.  I can't wait to see it performed!
A note:  I haven't seen any of these plays performed, so I'm interested to hear the thoughts of those who have.  How does seeing a play on a stage compare to simply reading it?  Tell me in the comments below!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Best New Books--Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

Hi guys! I know I normally review classics and less recent YA books, but today I'm doing a newer one--Cristina Moracho's amazing realistic fiction novel, Althea & Oliver. I wrote a shorter review that was published in the kid's newsletter put out by The Corner Bookstore (great book selections and a favorite hangout of mine, check it out on 93rd and Madison!). This is the slightly longer version. Althea is tough, impulsive and eager for change. Oliver is pragmatic, sensitive and hoping for things to stay as they always have been. They've known each other since they were six, and improbably, they’re best friends in their junior year of high school. When Oliver starts to succumb to a confusing, nameless illness, change is on the horizon. The lines between healthy and sick and between friendship and romance begin to blur. 
Althea and Oliver is set in the 1990s, running from rural North Carolina to gritty New York City and more. The plot is pulse-elevating and tear-jerking, and so intensely detailed that it feels as though you’re sitting with Althea or Oliver as they try to deal with their latest crisis. The characters are true to life and lovable, making you want to reach into the book to help and protect them. The dialogue is witty and realistic. 
In all honesty, I cried at least twice while reading this book.  Actually, I may have spent the last third of the book in a very teary state.  It wasn't all that tragic, but there was something about the way Moracho's writing made me love the characters that made their sadnesses all the more poignant to me.  It encouraged me to care deeply about the book, which I think is really important in a good YA novel--or any novel, for that matter.  Althea and Oliver is sad–but it’s also funny, suspenseful, heart-warming and true. The book is, overall, impossible to put down.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book of the Month--September

It wasn't love at first read for The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I.  In fact, when I first read it a few years ago, I didn't like it at all.  I kept my copy of it buried in the back of my bookshelf, and forgot about it.  It was only recently, when I cleaned out my shelves for the first time in awhile, that I remembered this book.  I thought that I should probably try it again.  And this time, I liked it!
The Perks of Being a Wallflower chronicles 15-year-old Charlie's first year of high school.  He makes new friends, comes into his own as a teenager beginning to be independent, and deals with many tough experiences along the way.  What sets this book apart from your typical coming of age novel is that Charlie isn't what one might describe as a "regular kid".  He's extremely sensitive and gifted, and the issues that him and his friends grapple with are scary and all too true to life, including suicide, sexual abuse and trauma.
It's not an easy book, and a prospective reader should be prepared to be confused and frightened by some of the events of the story.  Part of what makes the book so difficult is that we don't want to believe that the issues that these high schoolers are dealing with are a reality, but in fact, many of them are, even for teenagers.  The characters are relatable, and lovable despite their faults.  Charlie makes a good point when he says that "sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book."  I can understand where he's coming from, although I'm not sure if I thought that I was the book's characters.  Rather, the book's realism allowed me to feel that I was a friend, sitting silently by the characters and watching the story unfold.   Wallflower is also beautifully written.  Chbosky has a gift for language and for story, making this book a rare hybrid of a can't-put-downer and a serious novel.  It reads like a poem--I love that.
Ultimately, Wallflower is scary and sad.  But the writing is wonderful, and it's one of the best novels I've read in a long time.  Just add this experience to the long list of reasons to give books a second chance.  If I hadn't, I would definitely have missed out.
A note:  I have not seen the movie.  If anyone has, let me know how it stacks up in the comments--I'm curious!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Definition of Literary

Sorry for the gap in posting!  School's start has been busy for me, but I did have a very interesting question posed to me in English class, which I wanted to share.  Imagine you've been assigned by Merriam-Webster to write a few definitions.  Your first assignment?  Define "literature."
At first, it seems easy.  Written word--but what about Us Weekly magazine, Twilight, even stop signs?  Did those count? So it needs amending.  But then you get too personal and too opinionated.   I thought about "written word that is meaningful to someone," and for a time was confident that I had found the answer.  Then my teacher asked if his email to his mom--"Mom, you're the best!"--counted as literature.  The class agreed that it didn't.  But it was still meaningful to his mother, he said.  Then I had to start over.
Who would have thought that such a simple word, one that I use, or reference, in almost every blog post, could have proved so inscrutable?  The problem lay in the fact that everyone has their own opinion of what counts as literature.  Some people stand by the classics, others argue that fandom-inspiring novels such as Twilight and the Harry Potter series can count as well, while some exhausted students just said written word and left the definition in its broadest form.  What do you think?   Is there a limit to what we can and cannot call literature?
For the record, Merriam-Webster's website has several definitions for the word, but I think the most fitting to this post is: "writings in prose or verse, especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest."  A clever definition in that it still leaves room for opinion.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Summer Reading Report

Hi all!  I'm back from camp and now ready to give a tell-all of my summer reads.  I was not able to read all of the Original Eighteen books that my friend and I brought, which was probably fortuitous (I had to eat, after all).  However, of the New Twenty (adding two books that were delivered to us during camp), I read twelve, and adding the two extra books that I borrowed from friends, that makes fourteen books in seven weeks.  Not too bad, I think!  And they were good books, books that made me laugh, shake my head, furrow my brow and even tear up a little.  So here's the report, in the order that I read them.
1. The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich.
2. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.  As my first foray into the beat genre, I liked how the characteristic detachment of the Beats worked to tell an urban murder story that was chilling, not terrifying.
3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.  This book, along with #12, took me forever to read.  I struggled to fully understand it, and while it was a bit over my head, I'm glad I took the time because I feel that I got more out of this amazing book (one of my favorites of the summer).  To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee names it as "the only war novel [she'd] ever read that makes any sense" and I have to agree with her.  There's no praising of the war.  Rather, the book shows the ironic parallels in each character's wartime actions in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes scary and sometimes sad (I can name this book as the occasional tearjerker of the bunch for me).
4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.
5. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  I have to say that the half Russian, half gibberish slang through which the book is told threw me for a loop at first, but once I got into it it wasn't too hard to keep up with.  There were some interesting points about the evils of government and the problems that extremely advanced science can bring upon society, but I most enjoyed getting absorbed in the harsh yet beautiful language of the book.
7. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.  Another favorite!  I loved the way that Morrison wove family, community and the plight of a race to create this beautiful novel, while also adding suspense and one hell of a storyline throughout history-laden sidebars and fascinating clashes of the unique and engaging characters.
8. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell.
9. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.
10. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.  Yet another favorite (there are some pretty great books  in this bunch!).  One of the only books I've read that ties the narrative itself back to the main character, I really enjoyed the way this book was told.  The book read like one of Kilgore Trout's science fiction stories, a sort of "guide to earth", and also featured the narrator as a crucial character (the book was told in third person and first person).  It was occasionally inscrutable, always intelligent and ultimately felt really fresh and interesting.
11. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.  I think this is the only book of this bunch that could be comfortably classified as a YA read, though it could also be great for adults.  This book was about relationships--sister to brother, sister to sister, niece to uncle and friend to friend.  Not all of the relationships were "correct", and some could be brutal, but Brunt told the story without pointing fingers or condemning a single character.  Rather, she showed that there was well-meaning and good in every person.  There was a great moral tone to the book, and I definitely benefitted from reading it.
12. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X (told to Alex Haley).
13. On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  Another awesome Beat book!  I found it amazing that, despite there being no dramatic plot twists and, really, not too much plot at all, this book was still really interesting.  I loved Kerouac's language and his involved characters.
14. Beloved by Toni Morrison.
School starts in two days!  I'm ready to read some new books and get to doing some new posting.  A note:  no Book of the Month for June, July or August (although several of the above books more than pass muster), but there will be one this September and then hopefully uninterrupted for the rest of the year.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Camp Books--Part 2

Update:  I now leave for camp in only two days.  Whoa.  So, here's part two of my perhaps-unattainably-long camp book list.  Oh well.  New motto: one can never have too many summer reads.  Without any further ado, here are the final nine.
10.  Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison.
11. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.  I took a Buzzfeed quiz on "Which Classic Female Author Are You" and I got Toni Morrison, so if you ask me that's more than enough inclination that I'll love this book.
12. The Last Girlfriend on Earth and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich.  Title story: God struggles with balancing his job (creating the world) with his girlfriend (evidently demanding).  Everything about this book suggests hilarity, which in this litany of classics is definitely going to be welcome.
13. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Blunt.  Two people come together after the man they both loved dies of AIDS.  I'm calling this as most-recommendable novel of the summer. (Too early? Nah...)
14. The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath.
15. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  In terms of sheer sum of character-plot excitement, this book has a lot of fun in store.  Futuristic fright + government conspiracy + lovable punk main character + a slang dialect, Nadsat, which I look forward to annoying co opting = apparently, this book.  Too good to be true?  I hope not.
16. Iris Has Free Time by Iris Smyles.  This book is "subtle, complicated, funny, bold, sad and wise."  All that and the cover has a tutu-wearing girl on it who I think I already love.
17. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
18. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.  According to a hilarious back cover photo of the two authors wrestling, these Beats seem to have been good friends.  Add that dynamic to an urban murder mystery, and you have great bedtime reading material!
And now, I must bid you all adieu for seven weeks.  Not to worry--I will be reading away in my cabin, and I look forward to providing an account of (hopefully) all eighteen books.  Have a readilicious summer, everyone!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Camp Reads--Part 1

I am thrilled to share that I depart for camp in exactly seven days.  I think I've previously mentioned that camp is one of the best places in the world to do some reading, and thus is my pre-camp book shopping a rite of mid June that brings with it joy and, mostly, anticipation for the amazing books that I will get to devour in--let me say it again--exactly seven days.  This year a close camp friend and I decided to try something new.  We bought eighteen books together, and divided them up into nine and nine to bring to camp.  These books will belong to both of us at camp, which for me is just double the suspense--getting to own 18 books for seven weeks is very exciting.  Here are the first nine books--next installment coming soon!
1. The Great American Novel by Philip Roth.  Super psyched for this one. The back cover sounds like a blend of humor and good old fashioned American storytelling, which I really don't read enough of.  Described as "ribald, richly imagined, and widely satiric" on the back cover.  I would like to write back covers for books because it seems like a pretty exciting job.
2. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.  I loved Slaughterhouse 5, and, according to the back cover, we get to learn more about Kilgore Trout, the semi-crazy science fiction author from Slaughterhouse and a really fascinating character overall.
3. On The Road by Jack Kerouac.
4. Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare.
5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  A reimagining of Genesis, which I've wanted to read ever since my English teacher drew a metaphor to it in a very interesting lecture last semester.
6. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
7. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.  This is my second out of three World War novels (this one is World War I) included in the eighteen.   I plan to be an expert in the subject by August.
8. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.  Main character Oscar Wao is "a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R.Tolkein and, most of all, finding love."  Again with the back covers!  This one also mentions a curse that has dogged Oscar's family for generations and an immigration story.  I'm already sucked in, and I haven't even cracked open the cover.
9. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
My book buying strategies are many.  First, I'm a sucker for books with cool covers.  If I like a book's cover design, it tends to be a tip off that I'll like the book.  Second, if I've read the author before and enjoyed them, I'll read them again.  Maybe it gives me a sense of security or something, but it works almost every time--a good author is a good author.  Most importantly, I always read a section of the book before I buy it, to get a feel for the author's style and see if I like it.  I can tell straight away whether the book is slow moving or fast, poetic or tell-it-like-it-is, dialogue or inner-thoughts heavy.  The only problem with that strategy is that it led to me picking up the unfortunate habit of reading a section from the middle of a book, not being able to put it down and reading to the end, and then never reading the beginning.  Which I suppose doesn't really count as reading the book, which does make the entire experience a bit of a waste of time.
Read any of these?  Liked 'em?  Comment me some encouragement!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Trying New Things--Science Fiction

I've said it before and I'll say it again--I'm a realistic fiction girl.  I like my characters relatable and my settings within the realm of earthly possibilities.  But how do you learn anything new in reading if you don't take risks?  Science fiction is way outside my reading comfort zone.  So, naturally, I'm giving it a try.  And I don't hate it!  Here are a few of my sci-fi favorites.
1.  Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.  In the future, as earth battles an alien race, the government is breeding child genuises to fight the Buggers.  Ender Wiggins is earth's best bet; a quiet, incredibly gifted child who, although a terrific fighter and leader, struggles with many deep rooted psychological issues.  I'd be hard-pressed to think of a book I've read that is more fantastical than Ender's Game, yet somehow it seemed as real and interesting as any realistic fiction book.  The characters were incredibly down to earth, although the setting and premise was "out there", like literally in outer space.  A good gateway book for people like me who are just venturing into the realm of sci-fi.
2.  A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle.  This book and I have a bit of a history.  In fourth or fifth grade, when all of my friends were loving this book, I decided to give it a try--and hated it.  I couldn't make any sense of it and it felt like a waste of my time.  I came to the conclusion that it was just one of those books that you either like or hate.  But, in the spirit of this blog, I tried it again a few months ago.  And, wow.  It's pretty good!  Meg and her little brother Charles have to, with the help of their friend Calvin, rescue their father from the fifth dimension, where he has been imprisoned.  They travel from planet to planet, encountering various aliens and finally reaching the sinister Camazotz, where they must battle The Black Thing to free their father.  Yeah, it's about as complicated as it sounds.  But the characters are lovable, and I liked the staging--the way that each new planet felt like an adventure.  L'Engle is not a writer to be trifled with simply because this is a kids book--her writing style is sharp and almost poetic.  How did I almost pass this novel up?
3.  How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.  I just finished this a few days ago, and it could not have been a more welcome challenge.  Charles Yu, the apparently self-titled protagonist is part counselor, part repairman as a time travel technician on Minor Universe 31.  Together with his side-kicks--TAMMY, his flirtatious operating machine, Ed, his non-existent but still pretty darn cute dog, and various incarnations of himself--he has to resolve his issues with his past and find his father, the tortured genius who lost himself in time.  This book was really confusing--although, by the same token, groundbreaking.  In a setting in which time travel is the basis for life, and parallel universes the norm, Yu makes time travel sound like a real, scientifically valid concept (and maybe it is!) through detailed, well thought out explanation.  I loved the way he took common concepts and reappropriated them to sound like scientific terms (such as nostalgia: "weak but detectable interaction between two neighboring universes that are otherwise not causally connected.  Manifests itself in humans as a feeling of missing a place one has never been"). And this sci-fi storyline was not without plot--I loved Charles, who was somewhat nerdy and sometimes uncertain, but I was always rooting for him.  What a ride!  This book made me struggle and gave my brain a stretch--I don't normally have to comprehend advanced physics in my daily reading, but I kind of liked it. Lesson of the day:  look outside your comfort zone, and you might find some refreshing reads.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Book of the Month--May

So, I promised I'd read this book for you guys--and, wow, I actually managed to get around to it!  Gotta love school libraries.  I just have to say, Laurie Halse Anderson keeps on proving herself to be a really, really good author.  I wasn't sure if she could continue her awesome streak of one poignant, heart-wrenchingly real book after another, but she has.  The Impossible Knife of Memory is another winner for sure.
Hayley Kincain and her dad have never stayed in one place for long, so when they move back to his hometown in time for her senior year things are bound to be different.  Hayley's father struggles with post traumatic stress disorder, meaning that their home life is pretty different from the kind most teenagers deal with. There's a love interest and high school drama, but the plot mainly centers on her dad's PTSD--his inescapable demons, his drug habit and his terrifying anger issues.  Make no mistake--he's not a monster.  In fact, I thought he was the most likable character in the book.  That's one of the reasons why this book is a winner; Anderson portrays mental disease honestly, neither criminalizing nor exaggerating the issue.
The Kincains were an incredible team.  Firecracker Hayley's ruminations were enjoyable to read, from her "zombies vs. freaks" rule or her more serious thoughts on PTSD and other issues including drugs, divorce or assault.  The poetic war flashbacks, presumably from her dad's point of view, were equally creepy and fascinating.  Hayley's relationship with boyfriend Finn was not my favorite part of the book, but it was a welcome break from some of the book's heavier stuff.  And, surprisingly for a very self-reflective book, there was a plot twist at every corner--a sudden relapse here, an old face turning up at the wrong moment there--which made the book exciting.  I admit I had to set the book down and think at some points, in order to let myself catch a breath.
All in all--an exciting, contemplative, amazing book that taught me new things and made me think. Interested?  Check out the first six chapters here.  Go forth!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Summer All Stars

Books have always been an important part of my summer routine.  I take ten or so books to my sleepaway camp every year, and, as I read them over and over throughout the seven weeks, I feel a huge understanding and love for them.  Here are a few of the books that I remember reading at camp over the years.  Summer reading for the win!
1.  Paper Towns by John Green.  The first time I read this, I borrowed it from a camp friend across the tent line and proceeded to keep it for the next three weeks.  It has become one of my favorite books.  I now own a copy and eagerly press it into the hands of friends, hoping that they'll love it as much as I do and keep it for a long time.
2.  The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare.  In preparation for my school doing this as the fall play, I liked to read this while sitting on my tent steps after swim, trying to brush my hair in a very literary way and feeling cool.  This is actually the only Shakespeare that I've read that didn't feel at all english-class-analysis-y.  It's actually funny ("she is spherical!") and very easy to understand, especially if you have the Folger edition.
4.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  This book defines the summer of 2012 for me.  I must have read this twenty times over the seven weeks.  It was hard to get into, and I almost gave up after a few chapters--imagine what I would have missed!--but once I passed the slow part I was enthralled by heroine Francie and her escapades as an impoverished Brooklyn child in the 1910s.  There is no reader, no matter how adverse to this type of book, that I would not recommend A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to.  It is that good.
5.  Sorry, Please, Thank You by Charles Yu.  Sometimes it can be good to have a whole summer to think about a book.  This is a collection of short stories that range from mildly confusing to incredibly, implacably random--yet they are masterpieces of writing and imagination.  I spent a lot of time last summer talking about these stories to anyone who would listen, trying to tease out the bits that I didn't get, and I actually do feel that I reached some sort of truce with these stories.  Thank god for long summers.
6.  The Princess Bride by William Goldman (or S. Morgenstern?  Can someone please explain to me who actually wrote this book?).  This was my tent group's bedtime reading as eight year olds.  Was it a little over our heads?  Yes.  Still, I come back to this book again and again as a favorite.  It superhumanly encompasses every genre imaginable, and I especially love the slightly sardonic way Goldman writes romance.
Go out on a limb and buy some books this month for summer.  It's much easier to focus on your reading when you aren't wearing long pants--I promise.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Recalling on Mother's Day

Mother's Day is a great time to bond with your mom--if that involves the two of you walking four miles up the Hudson, so be it.  Today made me remember an important experience that I had as a little kid with my mom, which was reading together.  I recollected on the books we used to read and realized that all of them, even the small child books, are still favorites now.  Thanks, mom!  Here are the books that we read:
1.  The Winnie The Pooh books.  My favorite was, clearly, Piglet, hers was Eeyore.  "Thanks for noticin'." These books are gems.
2. The Mary Poppins books.  I've already raved about these, so I'm not going to do it again, but Mary Poppins is behind some of my teenage fantasies--if only I could sing a song and my room would just me clean!  Where do I get a Mary Poppins?
3.  Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy by Jean Webster.  Amazing mother-daughter reads right here. Judy is lovable as a 1910s college girl in Daddy Long Legs, and in its not-quite-sequel Sallie takes on the role of an orphanage superintendent.  Both are epistolary novels, so I can definitely trace my fondness for those back here. 
4.  And, obviously, the Mother Daughter Book Club books by Heather Vogel Frederick.  There just kept being more and more of these, didn't there?  Wow.  
Happy Mother's Day, everyone!  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book of the Month--April

Ah, philosophy.  Everyone's read too many deep, idealogical books that end in pretension and confusion.  Although the back cover of Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being reads like a fast paced historical fiction novel, this book is pure philosophy--and I loved it. The fragile, beautiful plot was inescapably involving.  The two wildly different main characters, both searching for themselves, were lovable.  Best of all was the writing.  I don't focus on writing style enough, because I've been in a plot-craving mood lately, but Ozeki's mixing of prose, plot and imagery certainly created one amazing read. 
A Tale for the Time Being, written in dual narrative form, tells the stories of two people--one sixteen, one late middle aged--who find their totally different lives tied together.  Nao, a Japanese teen who has decided to commit suicide as her life--bullied at school and watching her dad fall apart--seems more and more ruinous.  Her diary, detailing both Nao's story and that of her 104 year old nun grandmother, is found by Ruth.  Ruth (who I believe is inspired by the author--no reason, just that they have the same full name) is an aging writer who, despite living in idyllic paradise, is discontented and grappling with the meaning of life in the same way that Nao is.  As Nao's story gets darker and darker, Ruth finds herself consumed with the desire to know more about Nao and to help her, learning from Nao at every turn.
Despite the fascinating plot, I'll focus on just the writing.  Nao's narrative is written mostly in none too elegant sentences whose purpose is to tell the facts, and nothing more.  Still, within the information wonderful insights about life come through, told perfectly as a teenager can tell them. Her encounters with her grandmother Jiko had the most poignancy. As Nao states about her Jiko, “Sometimes when she told stories about the past her eyes would get teary from all the memories she had, but they weren't tears. She wasn't crying. They were just the memories, leaking out.” I loved reading Nao's frank yet beautiful observations and stories. Contrastingly, Ruth, the author, writes philosophical insights filled with description.  Her sentences managed to be factual (with frequent tidbits from Ruth's awesome autodidact husband) and completely sombre without becoming stuffy.  Her story was told partly in flashbacks, to a simpler time, and partly in her current, obsessive quest to find out more about Nao.  Ruth wrote prose--"when she woke to an insipid beam of winter sunlight filtering in through the bamboo outside her window, she felt oddly at peace and well rested."  Reading Ruth's narrative felt like reading something serious and deep, and yet beautiful, not boring. 
I'm glad that A Tale for the Time Being wasn't just Ruth's sober poetry or Nao's candid notes--the book needed both halves to be perfectly yin-yang (among the many concepts I learned about in this book).  As cliched as it sounds, reading it was a journey of knowledge and faith.  It was both intellectual (look for a surprising quantum mechanics slant at the end!) and spiritual (I now understand the principles of zen in total).  I am 100% a better person for having read this book.

“She sat back on her heels and nodded. The thought experiment she proposed was certainly odd, but her point was simple. Everything in the universe was constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives. 

That’s what it means to be a time being, old Jiko told me, and then she snapped her crooked fingers again. 

And just like that, you die."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

I'm back from the gorgeous southwest!  As all of us book lovers know, one of the best parts of vacation is definitely reading, and I did a lot of that.  Going Bovine was one of the new books that found a coveted spot in my suitcase this trip.                                                        Disclaimer:  This book is weird.  Really, really weird.  Take the weirdest book you've ever read and multiply it by five.  Don't believe me?  The heroines of our novel are Cam, an apathetic sixteen year old with mad cow disease, Gonzo, a hypochondriacal video gaming dwarf, Balder, a sassy yard gnome who happens to be a Viking god, and Dulcie, a riddle-loving punk angel/spirit guide.  And I haven't even gotten started on the plot yet, which is too multilayered and strange to explain well.  Think crazy  quest across the country to find a mysterious Dr. X who may know how to cure Cam, all while fighting through dark forces, personal issues and a nefarious snow globe company.                                                              So what keeps this weird book interesting and not head-spinningly confusing?  Bray's token witty dialogue helps.  The clever conversations between characters are almost as compelling as the ridiculously engrossing plot.  How did Bray write a plot that, despite being completely all over the place and--let me say it again--weird, manages to stay understandable and fascinating?  I'd hazard a guess that it's her wonderfully approachable and very true-to-teenage-life writing style coupled with the plot that keeps on giving, with new layers added on chapter to chapter like clockwork.  I couldn't put it down.  
The best part of Going Bovine was that, despite it being a fairly silly novel, it left me with questions.  Bray expertly weaved funny dialogue and ruminations with serious stuff like the nature of life and death.  This book was a pretty wild ride, but one that was both hysterical and eye opening at the same time.

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?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Authors to Fall In Love With: Laurie Halse Anderson

There are good authors.  There are great authors.  And there are authors you fall in love with.  For me, Laurie Halse Anderson is of the third category.  I've read six of her books, and every one was an eye-opening, thought-provoking experience.  Anderson has written many pre-teen books and a handful of picture books, but her tough teen fiction novels are what I love to read.  She probes deeply into even the most frightening, most unexplored teen issues, and encourages the reader to think about topics that we may sometimes prefer not to think about, because they can be sad and scary.  It's so good to read teen fiction that is completely opposite to the cliched, boy-meets-girl or character-discovers-self variety.  Anderson does romance, self-discovery, and the other myriad themes she deals with, in a completely nuanced, exciting way.
Here are a few books to get your Laurie Halse Anderson lovefest going:
1. Speak: Arguably Anderson's most famous book, Speak tells the story of Melinda's rape and how it shatters her life. As a ninth grader, Melinda is outcasted at her high school, with fail grades and no friends.  Her only respite is art class, but even that is a small comfort.  She doesn't want to tell anyone what happened to her the previous summer, but when she does, the truth is what finally sets her free.  The wonderfully poetic style of Speak alone would have made it a good read, but the clincher is the beautiful metaphor and imagery sprinkled just so in Melinda's narration.
2. Wintergirls: I'm not going to lie:  Wintergirls was terrifying.  But isn't that the point of difficult reads?  This book turned my perception of eating disorders upside down.  Lia, who is anorexic, and her best friend Cassie, who is bulimic, are descending into the deathly territory of eating disorders.  When Cassie dies, Lia begins to make a slow and painful recovery--all while being relentlessly haunted by Cassie's spirit.  There were moment during my reading of Wintergirls where I was very scared, but I have all the more respect for an author that can tackle the issue of eating disorders without being judgmental or avoiding the tough stuff.
3. Catalyst: Main character Kate is a high school senior and overachiever for whom things don't seem to be going right.  Her nemesis is living in her house, she has her heart set on MIT, the only college she applied to, but has yet to hear back, and more and more it feels like Kate's obsessive managing of her life isn't working.  Catalyst was interesting because it showed me that every person's life has more to it than you might assume-- or, in other words, there's no such thing as perfection.
4. Prom: Compared to her other books, I first thought that Prom seemed pretty lighthearted, and even a little cliched.  No such thing--it was a hilarious book filled with lovable characters that had a few tough topics mixed in, including the scary thought of life after high school for so-called "average kid" Ash, who knows she isn't going to college, and the perseverance of community through even the toughest setbacks.

Further reading:
Twisted, a more adult novel about suicide
The three books in the Seeds of America historical fiction series, including the amazing Chains
The Impossible Knife of Memory (her newest book, which I have yet to read but looks amazing)

Have you read Laurie Halse Anderson?  What did you think?  Let me know in the comments.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Romance for Valentines Day

Happy Valentines Day, everyone!  I can't think of a single holiday that is so simultaneously loved and hated.  So, whether you're feeling the love or not so much, here are some books to get you into your own holiday spirit.
1.  Zipped by Laura and Tom McNeal
This book has subplots to end all subplots.  If fifteen-year-old Mick Nichols' discovery of, and subsequent obsession with his beloved stepmother's seeming affair wasn't complicated enough, he's dealing with a few other problems--problems ranging from the teenager-y love type to the dark and scary.  He crushes on a Mormon field hockey heartthrob and begins a surprising friendship with a beautiful college freshman who's hiding a deep secret.  All the while, strange things are happening at the Village Greens, where he works.  I loved the way Zipped was narrated--perspectives switched and switched, carefully giving information while leaving a tantalizing amount up for speculation.  Zipped has "right love" and it has "wrong love", and the ultimate message is that when there's love, things will turn out okay.  
2.  Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (illustrated by Maira Kalman)
This was not an easy book.  Why We Broke Up was sad and real, but I was glad that I read it, because the writing format and style was, in my mind, amazing.  Min, a high school junior and film geek, and Ed, a popular senior and captain of the basketball team, have broken up.  Min is writing Ed a letter and she's giving him a box with every object she associates with their relationship.  Min is witty, philosophical, sad and ultimately truthful.  As she details why each object makes an appearance, you learn about who they both are beneath the surface and, of course, why, ultimately, they were never going to work out.
3.  An Abundance Of Katherines by John Green
I am a very vocal John Green fan (perhaps a post on that to come).  This book is a perfect example of why I love him--it's just a damn good story, and I don't think there's enough of that in YA lit right now.  Colin has dated 19 girls named Katherine, and all 19 have dumped him.  But that's not all--Colin's a child prodigy on the end of his run (18 years old) and he's having a "Where do I go from here?"type crisis.  So he does what anyone in his situation would do--take to the road with his best friend and head to Kentucky, where he gets some new friends and a summer job, and begins to write The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability.  The Theorem is going to avenge his type, the Dumped, by predicting how any given relationship will end.  It will bring him fame and fortune--if only he could get it to work.  And wait--there may be a girl for him along the way.  Don't be afraid--this is not a math book.  This is a smart, romantic commentary on the nature of dating and fame and genius.
So, whatever your mood this Friday, there's no better time to read a romantic favorite.
Did I neglect to mention your favorite romantic read?  Let me know in the comments!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book of the Month--January

Hi everyone!  I've decided to start a new custom on Blog For (Teen) Book Lovers.  At the end of every month, I'll post about one Book of the Month--my favorite book that I read during a given month.  For January, the book I'll be writing about is called Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (but since that's a bit of a mouthful, let's call it Aristotle and Dante) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. 
For a book that is at least ninety percent teenage angst, Aristotle and Dante was an amazing read.  It covers a wide amount of themes, including homosexuality, racism and, well, the secrets of the universe, but the genre is purely realistic fiction--no doubt about it.  Narrator and main character Ari is the antonym of his best friend Dante--where Ari is tough, Dante is emotional, and where Dante's family is close knit and open, Ari's is covering up a dark past incident that no one will tell him the whole story about.  Still, Dante and Ari bring out the best in each other, and they stay friends through hospital visits and crises of identity.  Dante and Ari slowly discover the secrets of the universe, right up until the shocking and touching final scene.                                                                 This book was an interesting read for me.  I'm a realistic fiction girl, but Dante and Ari are nothing like me--they're both Mexican boys from Arizona, struggling with things that I haven't even begun to think about yet--so you'd think I wouldn't be able to relate to them.  But somehow, Sáenz's writing style--a perfect blend of frankness and imagery that was almost poetic in it's beauty--pulled me into the story and found me wanting to stand by Ari's side as he struggled with his race, family history and even sexuality (but I've said too much).  
Aristotle and Dante is no easy read.  It's a little dark, a little sad, and it's very mature, but I assure you that you won't regret sticking it out with Ari, because the final message of the book is one of pure, innocent hope.  I'm a natural speed reader, so going back and really listening to what Ari was saying was difficult for me, but I was so glad I did.  The revelations Ari and Dante make rang so true that I wanted to have them next to me, just to talk, so I could share even more in their wisdom.  I think that we all want--no, need--to know the secrets of the universe.  I'm grateful to Ari and Dante for helping me along the way. 

"Do you think it'll always be this way?"
"I mean, when do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?"
I wanted to tell him that the world would never belong to us.  "I don't know,"  I said.  "Tomorrow."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

It's rare to find a book that is completely fantastical--and yet you believe every word.  The Future of Us is that kind of book. It's set in the 90s, when computers are just beginning to be a household staple, and the story begins when Emma installs a CD-ROM to her new computer.  When she logs on, she finds herself on Facebook--fifteen years in the future--seeing what her life will be like through her future self's friends and statuses.  She calls over her best friend, Josh, and they figure out that not only can they see their futures, but they have the power to change them--sometimes easily, sometimes not.  As Josh and Emma continue to refresh, they become obsessed with their ever-changing futures, jeopardizing their friendship in the process.  They realize that after seeing their futures, things will never be the same.
Most time travel or future-spying books are almost unreadably confusing.  Somehow, I could easily follow along with Josh and Emma as they navigated.  It had to have been the hyper-realistic writing style--I could imagine my friends, or even me, staring at the computer with them--that made The Future of Us so approachable.  It's gripping, too--you can't take your eyes off the page as Emma and Josh slowly become slaves to their futures.
The Future of Us is a contradictory novel.  It's fantasy, but it's realistic.  It's romantic, but in some ways it's very dark.  It's sci-fi, but not so much that someone like me, who's known to be hilariously not-techy, can't understand it.  Beyond that, it has a narration style that I find fascinating, with Josh (written by Jay Asher, author of the amazing book 13 Reasons Why) telling his side of the story and Emma (written by Carolyn Mackler) telling hers.  I can't think of any specific genre lovers, even the most fanatical, who wouldn't be into this book.  
This book truly covers every base.  Nuanced narration style--check.  Every genre in the book--check.  Lovable characters that you wish you could reach into the book and protect from harm--check.  Utterly gripping, equal parts scary and cool plot--check.  Finally, there are an endless amounts of things to think about like the idea that “One little ripple started today could create a typhoon fifteen years from now.”  How can we ever know what the future will be like?  Maybe the future's inevitable elusiveness is what makes this book such an enthralling read.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Childhood Favorites

There's few things more comforting than curling up with a book that you loved when you were a kid.  I liked many books, but I picked these four as the ones that still seem as magical and meaningful to me now as they did then. These are all classic books that opened up worlds to me--some (numbers two and three) remain titles I'd cite as two of my all-time favorites--and I hope they'll inspire you to relive books you loved during a time that you may have forgotten.  Maybe you'll even discover a new favorites here--it's not too late to fall in love with these wonderful stories.

1.  Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
There happen to be six books in the Mary Poppins series (I've only read the first four).  All the books are wonderful works of fantasy--there's a new story in every chapter and each is more engaging and implausible than the last.  You may recognize some chapters from the Disney movie (also a great film), although don't be surprised at some parts (including Mary Poppins' not-so-cheery disposition) that are unique to the book.  I think that the magic of Mary Poppins lies in the fantastic happenings of the stories--each just believable enough to make you think, just a little bit, that you wouldn't mind a Mary Poppins of your own.
The quote: "'Don't you know that everybody's got a Fairyland of their own?'"

2. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
I can't quite say, truthfully, that I fell in love with this book.  In this case, I fell in love with a character.  Peter Pan was dashing and impish and enchanting--I could fully understand why Wendy followed him to Neverland that fateful night.  This book contains a parade of lovable characters, so whether you're a Wendy or a Captain Hook, there'll be one for you.  Peter Pan is the rare story that is lighthearted, but while still confronting some tough themes, such as the nature of responsibility.  Mostly, it's a tale of love and triumph--and don't we all need more of that?
The quote: “Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.” 

3.  Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll 
Alice In Wonderland is a kooky, colorful story of an imaginative girl who falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in a mysterious world called Wonderland.  Part of the thrill of Alice In Wonderland is the fact that everything is fair game in this strange world (think pig-babies, haughty caterpillars, mad tea parties, and, of course, smiling cats) and you follow along with Alice eagerly, holding your breath to see what Wonderland will hold for you next.  It's fun to live, at least for a little while, in a world that has no limits, and Alice In Wonderland is as inexhaustible as they come.
The quote: “Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” 

4.  The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène Du Bois
The Twenty-One Balloons is an adventure of the purest kind--it has diamonds, a mysterious island, volcanoes, earthquakes, and lots of balloons.  The back cover of this book contains what is quite possibly the most riveting, gotta-read, need-to-know premise I've ever seen.  A man aspires to, in a year, cross the Pacific Ocean in a hot air balloon.  So how does he end up, three weeks later, with twenty hot air balloons--and in the Atlantic?  Enough said.  You will not be able to put it down.
The quote: “Half of this story is true and the other half might very well have happened.”

Childhood, and these fabulous books, hold an undeniable magic and thrill. I'll leave you with Alice In Wonderland's famous riddle:  Why is a raven like a writing desk?  Better tell me in the comments, because I haven't the slightest idea.

Did I leave your favorite out?  Leave me a comment and let me know!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Every Day by David Levithan

Hi everyone!  I'm back with a new layout and a new (well, slightly amended) blog name.  I'm going to be focusing more on books for teens--and that doesn't mean the cliched "Teen Books" that we all find so disgusting!  Think more books that will interest a teenager and really get them thinking.  As a teenaged writer and reader, I've realized that as much as one can love reading, when you've got school, homework and myriad responsibilities, it's hard to find a book to read, and even harder to find time to read it. So allow me to help you out.
In David Levithan's Every Day, main character A has a remarkable, unheard of, unexplainable situation.  He (gender is unspecified, but for the sake of this post I'll go with male pronouns) wakes up every day in a different body, living someone else's life for 24 hours.  The person whose body and life he inhabits is always his age, (sixteen during the course of the book) and they have always lived in the same general area.  A has never known why he is this way or even what he is.  Fearful of being locked up, he tells no one about his situation.  Then, one day, A falls in love with Rhiannon, a sweet and caring girl who, underneath her prettiness, is deeply insecure.  Suddenly he's twisting the rules he's created for his situation and doing wild, dangerous things just to see her again.  As he engages in a seemingly hopeless quest to win Rhiannon's heart, one thing becomes inevitable--that he will be caught.  And when he is, he attracts the attention of one very sinister character that offers A a difficult choice.
Let me just say that at first glance, Every Day was not my kind of book.  The plot just seemed so fantastic that I wasn't sure if I would like it at all.  So I was shocked when I finished this book, and I wanted more--immediately.  What made Every Day so incredibly grabbing (in every way--let's just say that I had a great deal of trouble resisting the urge to take it to the dinner table) had to have been A's unique voice.  His persona was a combination of incredibly wise and incredibly scared, as he's in the unusual predicament of having no control--none at all--over what happens to him.  Or maybe it was Levithan's genius for crafting new, fascinating worlds and situations as often as A woke up in a new body.  Either way, I was hooked.
Is there anyone who would dislike Every Day?  I don't know.  By all means, if you don't want to be dazzled by a story craftsman as wonderful as Levithan, stay away.  But this book really does appeal to all genres--it has realism, fantasy, romance, and it manages to touch on some tough teen issues such as drug addiction and depression through the characters A inhabits.  Levithan really seems to understand the ethos of A's fateful line: "We all contain mysteries, especially when seen from the inside."  Ain't that the truth?