Summer Reads

School ended 54 days ago, and I’ve been celebrating ever since. Sort of. I’ve been celebrating the end of required reading by doing it voluntarily: checking out a steady stream of books from the library and devouring them like they’re going out of print. Here are a few:

(Full disclosure: this is not a “Recommended Reading” list. Not all of these are books that  I would hand to a friend, or wave in the air and say, “Look, Mom!” Because…well…keep reading…)

Finished:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

Firebirds edited by Sharyn November

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard

The Killing Floor by Lee Child

Make Me by Lee Child

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funk

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

Sabriel by Garth Nix (reread because <3)

Currently:

What’s Best Next by Matt Perman (technically this is a list of fiction and this one doesn’t belong here, but here you go.)

Next up: 

Lirael by Garth Nix (and then Abhorsen and then the one that’s not a reread: Clariel)

The Graveyard Book (Graphic Novel, Vols. 1 & 2) by Neil Gaiman

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas (maybe)

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

Smoke & Mirrors by Neil Gaiman (yah, a lot of him on this list. Neverwhere is still one of the most unique books I’ve ever read. He’d almost have a free pass, if I gave that sort of thing [can’t do it, but that’s another post for another day].)

Rebel by Amy Tinterra

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Watership Down by Richard Adams

…[∞]

Yeah, summer has been pretty fantastic. But…(full disclosure continued)…

Here’s the funny thing about reading: you can read a lot of good things, or a lot of bad things, or a lot of bad things disguised as good things, and you can read things because you want to finish, or you can read things because you want to know, you can read out of curiosity, and you can read because you want to be brave, you can read because you think you should be able to, and you can read things because you think you don’t care. I love reading, and admittedly, some of the things I read are less than wonderful or read for less than wonderful reasons. For example: sometimes I read because I don’t like what my brain does in the silence of a train platform when the day is over or just beginning. I like to keep occupied, to stay involved, to color my world with something other than now. The Purple Line still reminds me of those wonderful little Ray Bradbury stories I read; just short enough to read one or two between work and the apartment, and gripping enough to feel the emptiness of space. How can one become claustrophobic on a train car when the unexpectedness of a story and the sense of another time and place has already caught you? I read because I love words and the way they can replace every other sense. You can see, touch, smell, taste, hear – all from the page. It’s powerful and freeing and extraordinarily personal.

It’s also dangerous. Dangerous because you have to come up for air and reorient yourself. Dangerous because the world within a story builds its own moral compass, and you’re cheering and pursuing and being dragged down paths that you would never choose in the daylight. You have to step back and revisit and resettle and understand what is real, what is true, and what, most importantly, is right. Reading a book to find your way is like using a compass in the Bermuda Triangle: it will be wrong, and you will probably get lost.

So in the midst of catching up on Book 1, Book 4, or Book 20, whether it’s the “innocuous” kids book or the “temporary” thriller, the most important book I’m reading is still the one next to my bed when I go to sleep and there when I wake up. It’s the one in my backpack wherever I go, and the one that will forever and always be the most rewarding and most fulfilling, and the one whose compass never needs readjusting. I have to read it first and last and in between and let it tug away at the things that shouldn’t be there and pull in the things that should. And that doesn’t just apply to the books.

tl;dr: Aslan says it best

THE LUCY VARIATIONS

I said I was going to read The Lucy Variations, by Sara Zarr, before it was due back at the library today. So I did. I got home from work yesterday, ran 2 miles, sat down with this book, and didn’t get up until I was done. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that everybody read books this way, but I knew that if I put this one down, I wouldn’t pick it back up.

Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. The right people knew her name, her performances were booked months in advance, and her future seemed certain.
That was all before she turned fourteen.
Now, at sixteen, it’s over. A death, and a betrayal, led her to walk away. That leaves her talented ten-year-old brother, Gus, to shoulder the full weight of the Beck-Moreau family expectations. Then Gus gets a new piano teacher who is young, kind, and interested in helping Lucy rekindle her love of piano — on her own terms. But when you’re used to performing for sold-out audiences and world-famous critics, can you ever learn to play just for yourself?
National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr takes readers inside the exclusive world of privileged San Francisco families, top junior music competitions, and intense mentorships. The Lucy Variations is a story of one girl’s struggle to reclaim her love of music and herself. It’s about finding joy again, even when things don’t go according to plan. Because life isn’t a performance, and everyone deserves the chance to make a few mistakes along the way.

Let me say first that I’m not sure I’m able to give an unbiased review of this book. It felt too close to me, a little too emotional for me, to be able to talk about it objectively. This book was frustratingly accurate. The reason I feel like I can’t/shouldn’t review this is because I was in that world. The music world. There’s a lot of my life that was completely different from Lucy’s, but I was amazed at how accurately Sara Zarr depicted the pressure of being a young musician. The times when you feel you have no agency, and this thing you loved is out of control and you no longer love it and you walk away…I did that. I was far from a musical prodigy, but I walked away from piano after I graduated high school. The pressure to make a career out of music soured the entire thing for me. The only way I felt that I could make myself heard, make everyone around me understand, was to walk out. I didn’t walk out on a recital, but I did walk out. No more lessons, practicing, nothing. You want to know what it’s like to win a few competitions, lose your first love, wonder what happened? This book will tell you exactly how it feels.

I’ll admit that there were parts that had me in tears. Tears because of the love and loss of music and the way it feels inside of you, and the way talent and expectations and selfishness are held in the same fist, the way family dynamics and sibling relationships can pressure and distort your perspective into something you don’t want it to be…they were all fabulously written exactly the way they are in real life.

But the rest of it was frustrating. Let me say this up front: Lucy was an unlikable heroine. I don’t want to spoil it, but her friend Reyna tells her something about her need for an audience, and how that plays into her interactions with those around her. Absolutely true. The one thing that redeems Lucy is the fact that she understands this near the end. She makes some frustrating decisions along the way, but she realizes some of the reasons and is able to realistically come to see some of the alternating perspectives. The characters are not one-sided, and Lucy eventually comes to see both sides. How she gets there is frustrating and occasionally stupid, but in an accurate teenager way. You know what I mean? I wanted to be mad at her, but I felt like I couldn’t because Sara Zarr wrote it all in such an understandable way. Frustrating, but accurate.

So. I loved it, cried over it, got mad at it…yep. Well written, but not for everyone.

Have you read THE LUCY VARIATIONS? What did you think?

RTW #183: Best Book Of May

 

Back on YA Highway’s Road Trip this week. I’m hoping to join up with Ready. Set. Write!, starting next week, so these road trips will be less frequent during the summer.

But, for this week’s question: What was the best book you read in May?

I nearly didn’t read this. I had a crazy Memorial Day weekend, and I wanted a quick, engrossing read to wind down the weekend. But I wasn’t really looking for the conversational, hammock-and-iced-tea sort of book, either.

Well, To Kill A Mockingbird ended up in a class by itself.

It starts out conversational. The book is an older Scout relating the events of her childhood in pitch-perfect tone. It’s the narrator as an adult, but you are getting the viewpoint of the child. You know the book isn’t written by a six-year-old, but you know exactly how that six-year-old felt. There are things that six-year-old Scout doesn’t understand, but her older self doesn’t try to offer been-there-now-I-know-here’s-what-it-meant commentary on it. Instead, you get to walk on Scout’s journey through the entire book, and see the world from what you know and understand and what young Scout and co. are able to comprehend and react to.

The book covers approximately two years of Scout’s life, and her reactions and grasp on situations is age-appropriate without a shred of annoying juvenility.  Her young-child analysis of the people around her reveals things to the reader without being unrealistic as to her age. She explains things as she understand them, and it fits her personality and her maturity while simultaneously letting us know things that she cannot yet understand.

I loved the tenacity of the characters surrounding Scout. They are prime examples of show, don’t tell, with their layers and strengths and flaws being revealed through the eventful years rather than being described outright.

I loved Scout, Jem was exactly like my brothers, Dill was a rascal, I was cheering for Cal, Boo was tragic, I want to be Maudie when I grow up, Alexandra surprised me, Judge Taylor was fabulous, Mayella was six pages of complicated, Bob terrified me, and Tom Robinson nearly made me cry. I can’t say enough good things about this book.

And Atticus? ❤

P.S. I’ve never seen the movie…thoughts on the adaption to the silver screen? Worth seeing?

Road Trip Wednesday #182: Carried Away

This week I’m joining the YA Highway road trip, which asks the following question:

This Week’s Topic: What’s been your most surprising read of the year so far—the book you weren’t sure about going in that really swept you off your feet?

I saw this question and knew it was an opportunity to gush about my latest reading love. While I’ve already written about my unexpectedly enjoyable read of The Raven Boys, this latest set of reads has me singing its praise and trying to convert everyone in my near vicinity to see its amazingness.

 

Goodreads description for Cinder and Scarlet

Oh, yes.

Let’s elaborate, shall we?

The setting…

It’s semi-dystopia, semi-fantasy, semi-science fiction, and all perfectly meshed together. I was surprised by the introduction of the Lunar queen, because I was so well settled in the plague-riddled world of New Beijing. But it fit together so well, even with the mechanics and androids thrown in. This world was expanded perfectly in Scarlet, with my favorite being a crumbling opera house as a scene-stealing third party in the final act.

The characters…

Cinder is exactly the sort of girl who I’d like to be friends with. Funny and smart, with plenty of convictions and a well-realized sense of who she was/is in her world. The fact that everything she knows is changed by the end of the first book only allows her to expand as a character. Scarlet, on the other hand, jumps out as a passionate fighter, and she’s kept distinct from Cinder, yet just as likable. The supporting cast: Iko, Thorne, Wolf, Kai…they are intriguing, funny, and characters worth rooting for.

Just one thing…

I finished Cinder wondering how the Lunar’s glamour worked, and why Queen Levana didn’t just spell everybody into submission. Scarlet helped explain a little bit more, showing off the Queen’s power, but I feel like I’m still waiting for a little bit more to be explained. If Earth people are so vulnerable, how is Kai even able to hold any conversation with the Lunars? His reaction is described in detail upon his first meeting, but despite the difficulties, he seems to have plenty of cheek (good for him!) in later conversations. He does end up literally tongue-tied in Scarlet at one point, which makes sense considering Levana’s abilities. But how did he get away with his fabulous responses without that being used previously? I just don’t know where the boundaries are, and that makes the power feel a little underused.

So…

Quibbles aside, I loved these books. I didn’t expect to have so much appreciation for them. They’re page-turners filled with interesting characters and a fresh, exciting world. And my favorite part? They’re based on fairy tales, which were my bread-and-butter when I was growing up. Rather than be constricted by the basic storyline, the books are allowed to expand beyond them, and the nods to the original material are woven in with care and detail. Marissa Meyer never detracts from the main storyline to offer some homage to the fairy tale. Instead, she makes it an integral part of the story, and it allows you to be surprised and pleased as you retroactively recognize the elements of the basic tale.

So, what book has kidnapped you and happily stolen your time recently?

RTW # 173: Best Book o’ March

I’m trying to get back on board with YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday’s. Considering the fact that I had spring break this month, and a decent reading list, I actually have an answer to this week’s prompt!

This Week’s Topic: What was the best book you read in March?

This month I had several fantastic reads. I hope to get the chance to write up something about them, because it was a great month for reading. Runner-ups include

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein

I also have Prodigy, by Marie Lu on my TBR list, and I am halfway through I am the messenger, by Marcus Zusak. Both were books that I didn’t get a chance to read over spring break, and despite my astronomical school load, I can’t bear to send them back to the library without finishing them. In the war between reading books and getting schoolwork done, I think sleep is the losing party.

But what was the best one of March? That honor belongs to the incomparable Maggie Stiefvater, and her first book in the Raven Cycle, “The Raven Boys”

Goodreads description

This. Read it. Now.

This book surprised me, more than anything. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it–in fact, the only reason I picked it up was because The Scorpio Races was one of my favorite reads all last year.

I tend to not do well with complicated mythology/books that have to be explained to me. I dislike characters when they have to explain things in unrealistic ways because that’s how the author gets his/her exposition across to the reader. It kills a book to have a paragraphical explanation inserted into an otherwise-decent character because things have to be explained regardless of the appropriateness of the thing coming from the aforementioned character. Confused yet?

Because I was not. Maggie’s characters are far beyond “otherwise-decent.” She was able to get into the heads of four different characters, allowing the central mythology to be realistically explained from the various perspectives. I loved how we got a first-person viewpoint of the “corpse road” from Blue, and then gradual explanations of the “ley lines” from Gansey and Adam, resulting in the  meshing of the different perspectives as you realized they were describing/interacting with the same thing.

The Characters:

I loved Maggie’s characters. Particularly as regards the four main boys and Blue, they were fifty shades of real. I loved how she was able to show how complicated Gansey was, and yet how he still came across as the quintessential rich boy from Blue’s perspective. It was a little surprising to have so much of Gansey explained from Adam’s perspective, but it worked because Gansey was still consistent as a character. I always had a hard time when an author would tell me about a character and then show them acting completely differently in other scenes. In this case, the tell-and-show is consistent; every action lined up perfectly with every description.

The only person this didn’t work with was Barrington Whelk. The tell-about-him sections gave the impression of a well-rounded character, and the writing from his viewpoint was suitably despairing, but I didn’t feel as much remorse for him at the end as I think I should have. He was set up as a three-dimensional character, but it sort of fell flat at the end. He wasn’t quite as engaging or dynamic as the main characters, or even any of the residents of 300 Fox Way–Maura, Persephone, Calla, and Neeve were all less-described characters who held their own as soon as they walked onto the page.

The Rest:

The town of Henrietta felt old and new at the same time, perfectly fitting the central mythology. Before I read the book I saw some complaints about the pacing; personally, I loved getting to know the characters so much that I never felt like it was dragging at any point. A lot is left open for the remaining books, but there is definite closure. There’s also the perfect, absolutely loaded last line that knocks you upside the head and reminds you that this is not over yet.

Summary:

In case I haven’t gushed enough: the best part of this book is the five main characters. They are real, and no description I give can fully convey how true they are. Initially set up as line-item teens–the bad boy, the lurking shadow, the resentful sidekick, President Cell-Phone, and the odd girl out…each of them are far more than they seem. (Breakfast club, anyone?) The relationship between the boys is exactly the sort of closeness and complexity and dysfunctionality that it should be, and Blue is a perfect stand-your-ground character; she isn’t swallowed up by the pre-existing dynamics of the Raven Boys group.

So, go read it.

What’s your favorite book of March? If you’ve already read The Raven Boys, what did you think?

RTW #167: The Great Gatsby

Time for another Road Trip!
Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway’s contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody’s unique take on the topic.
We’d love for you to participate! Just answer the prompt on your own blog and leave a link – or, if you prefer, you can include your answer in the comments.
[caution: I tried not to spoil the book, but quotes and character comments abound.]

I think I loved this book by the end of the first page. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about life in the Roaring 20s, didn’t waste a moment in inviting me in with a depth of character understanding that was at odds with the shortness of the book.

There was so much to love about this book. It wasn’t a book that you could skim through; the writing is the sort to be read carefully, savored, and returned to over again. After I finished it, I read the beginning again; that first synopsis of Gatsby as told by the narrator after everything is over…and it felt like watching a movie where you know the ending and just want to save the characters from their eventual fate. At first reading, the beginning had been more poetic than applicable. Now: “When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. […] No–Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”

The Great Gatsby is not a happy story. It is not a triumphant story. Rather, it is a clearly, elegantly told story of sad, beautiful people who each hold their own despair in life and who each pursue their own unhappy ends.

Daisy, who is conscious only of her own unhappiness, but too shallow to do more than acknowledge whatever moment she currently exists in, completely overwhelmed by those around her.

Tom, the hypocrite who lives to please himself and who cannot fathom others who redirect their allegiance from him.  King of the playground, king of the gridiron, king of his own moral code.

Jordan, capable only of surviving behind her shades of gray, described as “incurably dishonest”, yet attractive just the same.

Myrtle, dismissive of the hands that feed her.

And Gatsby. Jay Gatsby. The child who built his castles on the sand, and when the tide rolled in, tried to build them up again.

Maybe it is Nick, the narrator, and his way of so clearly describing the summer…but there is a creeping sense of dread through all of this. A foreboding, warning that underneath the glitter and cars and rendezvous over tea, this will not end happily. That these broken people will be just as broken at the end as they were at the beginning. The difference is the war-torn Nick, who in the end, visits with the man in the owl-eyed glasses and comes home a little less, empty despite the glitter and the glamour and all that Gatsby’s world could offer.

Yes, I loved this book. It’s the sort that carries over even into today’s age. It doesn’t matter whether or not we have a neighbor whose house glitters in the evenings. While Nick seems casually untouched by the swirl of the rich, in the end he sees: “I couldn’t forgive him or like him but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people[–]they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . . “  I think everyone has been astonished by the carelessness of someone else, no matter how much we wanted to see the best in them. We may be rooting for them to succeed, or trying to establish them in a better light…but in the end we shake hands with a child and leave angry with ourselves for caring in the first place.

I love how Nick describes the contradictions in Gatsby’s world. The carelessness of the rich, juxtaposed against the hopefulness that the wealth brought. The identity as an established man, built on the unending dreams of a child.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”