Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: Long Time Coming

At first glance, it seems like this week's books have nothing at all in common.  A dark, magical novel about a girl torn between two worlds, and a grimly truthful memoir about a boy growing up in poverty--yeesh.  But: I've been meaning to read both of them for what seems like forever.  Yes, Daughter of Smoke and Bone has been out for four months and Angela's Ashes has been out for nearly thirteen years, but time is relative, right?  Anyway, these books were excellent--if there was a 4.5 star option on Goodreads, that would have been my rating for both of them.

(Also, here's a perk of waiting 13 years to read a book: as soon as I finished Angela's Ashes, I started reading 'Tis, whereas the big news this week is that Laini Taylor has announced the title to the sequel of Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  For those who haven't seen it yet:  it's Days of Blood and Starlight.)

Without further ado--here's what I read this week

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #1)Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know people have been excited to hear my reaction to this one. So let me explain the four stars, which seems to be a shockingly low rating for a book that topped the "best of 2011" lists of so many people I enjoy. This book started at a disadvantage with me. It's not that I don't do dark--it's just that I usually do it in dystopian/postapocalyptic ways. The human kind of evil, rather than the paranormal/angels/demons/high fantasy kind of evil that this story at least kind of is. But it reminded me of people I know and love--who have spent time in Prague, or love giant puppets, or who move like gazelles. So as far as it went down the paranormal/fantasy path, it also kept setting off tiny echoes of reality. And I followed those echoes down the rabbit hole.

What I'm saying is--this book written with any details altered? Might have been a three. Or might have lingered, half-read, on the shelf.

But it was written by Laini Taylor--and I bow before her. I am a word nerd. I am. I collect words and I love them, and I met old forgotten friends in these pages, and found some new ones. I've never read a book in which the author so consistently used the exact word--and only the exact word, without ever settling for a substitute--that was called for.

And also, by the time I was done, it didn't feel as...fantastical, at least not in the way I find off-putting. I think I sometimes struggle to feel the stakes in fantasy, if they're too huge and sweeping or elven or whatever. But this book never lets you forget for a second the ties between the big, alien, faraway things--war, angels, pain tithes--and the immediate human things--family, school, friends. It also has just enough of our world laid into the struggle between angels and chimaera (in how many countries on earth has land changed hands back and forth, with each new and previous owner claiming sovereignty? In how many cultures are people sorted and segregated based on appearance?) to make the issues in the book feel important to the part of my brain that thinks about things outside of books--but it doesn't go overboard with the symbolism, because the point is the story.

Anyway, thanks to the dozens of people who raved about this--I probably would not have picked it up, or kept with it in the beginning of the book, without you. And I'm definitely glad I did. I want more!

Angela's AshesAngela's Ashes by Frank McCourtMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was surprised by how un-maudlin and, frankly, funny this book is. It also reads more like a YA novel than a typical memoir--the first-person present-tense narration by a narrator who's between the ages of 2-19 or so as the book progresses. Obviously, there's really awful hardship and family tragedy, but the way it's written saves it from too much sentimentality. It read a bit slower than my normal books, but not in a bad way...I found myself thinking about it on my way down to the subway and between classes. I'm already onto 'Tis, which I'm enjoying a lot as well.

View all my reviews

Waiting in the wings:  

 (I broke my no-more-books-till-February-break vow yesterday when Mr. S and I finally went into a really cool independent bookstore not far from where we live, McNally Jackson.  I convinced him that I should be able to buy one book, to support indie bookstores.  We left with three--a volume of Neil Gaiman's Sandman for him, The Boneshaker by Kate Milford for me--and Cinder, because when Mr. S saw a China Mieville book he'd been meaning to read, he decided he wanted it on his Kindle instead, but then felt guilty about that so he told me to get a second book to make up for it.  I liked that logic just fine, especially because now I can read Ash and Cinder back-to-back, and maybe even go back to some of the literary theory I researched when I taught a class on Fairytales and Mythology last year.  I'm a super-nerd.  Oh well.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: Odd Bedfellows

This week, I only got through two instead of my usual three--they were a bit longer than usual, and they are a really weird pairing.  Without further ado:

What I read in the last week: 

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (Mara Dyer, #1)The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whoah. Like everyone else who has read this book, I am now struggling to talk about it without spoiling. I think what I liked most about it is the way it puts the reader squarely in Mara's shoes for much of the book, as you and Mara both try to figure out what the heck is happening. Parts of it read like a dark contemporary romance, parts like a thriller, and other parts--I don't want to spoil the other parts. But I will say that Noah is just as irresistible as he is meant to be--and that I can't wait for book two!

Prairie Tale: A MemoirPrairie Tale: A Memoir by Melissa Gilbert
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Basically what I expected: some fun/amusing/surprising/sad anecdotes, but the writing didn't exactly light me on fire. I mean, not that Melissa Gilbert needs to be a great writer--she's got plenty else going for her :) I did like hearing about life on the Little House set--nerdily, I probably would have preferred to hear more about that and about Gilbert's development as an actress than about her star-studded romantic life.

View all my reviews

Waiting In The Wings: 

 (This is now at the tippy-top of the list--it's actually making me want tomorrow morning's commute to come faster, so I can start it!)

(This was recommended to me earlier this month when I mentioned wanting to read more memoir in January--and since I've only been meaning to read it for, oh, the last ten years, I decided it was about time.)

Monday, January 16, 2012


Just a quick post to shout out Jaime Morrow, the winner of my 2012 giveaway!  I had hoped to add some 2012 books to the TBR list through this contest, and Jaime's choice of pre-order definitely makes the grade:

(From Goodreads):
Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath, where immortals Feed on the emotions of despairing humans. Now she's returned- to her old life, her family, her friends- before being banished back to the underworld... this time forever.

She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can't find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.

Nikki longs to spend these months reconnecting with her boyfriend, Jack, the one person she loves more than anything. But there's a problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who first enticed her to the Everneath, has followed Nikki to the mortal world. And he'll do whatever it takes to bring her back- this time as his queen.

As Nikki's time grows short and her relationships begin slipping from her grasp, she's forced to make the hardest decision of her life: find a way to cheat fate and remain on the Surface with Jack or return to the Everneath and become Cole's...

I mean, first of all.  The cover.  I am not always that won over by a cover, and when I am, black-and-red are not usually the colors that grab me.  But this cover is too pretty and I cannot help myself--I want it :)  

And all of that aside, I love the idea of riffing on Persephone like this.  Adaptations of myths and fairytales are a huge weakness of mine.  

So, congrats, Jaime, and thanks for the excellent taste in pre-orders--I will be adding this to my list as well! 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: John Green Edition

This is a Very Special Sunday Sunshine, for two reasons:  one, it is entirely composed of John Green books, and two, today is kind of a fake Sunday because there is no school tomorrow, so I don't even have any Sunday Night Blahs to combat!  Plus, I've got a whole mess of finger sandwiches and Jaffa cakes and things ready for our friends who are coming over to watch Downton Abbey tonight.  So this is an extremely sunny Sunday indeed.  Let the reviews commence!

What I read in the last week: 

Paper TownsPaper Towns by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something I love about John Green: the way he creates these wonderfully rich boy narrators with exactly the right amount of casual (hilarious) detail and gorgeous voice...and then makes them translucent overlays for girls who it's impossible not to love even if you know they are manic pixie dream girls. Something else I love: the way this book acknowledges and tangles with its MPDG. I think I will never be able to watch Garden State again: Natalie Portman's character is the ultimate paper girl and Zach Braff's is patently absurd and sort of offensive. Margo is actually, now that I think about it, kind of a muggle pixie dream girl--no magic, after all. Can't wait for more John Green!

Abundance of KatherinesAbundance of Katherines by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book made me realize and remember the joys of the 3rd person omniscient narrator (especially the sardonic, dry-witted kind). Not that I don't love first-person narrators--like the first-rate examples in John Green's other books--but man, 3rd person really worked for this book. Also, the math was pretty cool--not that I understood it, but just in general, I've started to get interested in mathematical thinking and communication, so this was a neat example of that.

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A note on the subjectivity of reading and reviewing: I read this book like a chicken. I knew it could make me cry--and oh, it sure could--and so I read it, and enjoyed it, and kept it at arm's length. I will go back to it someday when I have it in me to cry over a book, and also when I am not reading it on the subway and on Amtrak trains, and I will read it the way it is meant to be read, and then I will cry. Because John Green is exceptionally talented at writing funny, gut-wrenching books.

I will say that this book did make me, forcibly, smile. At least twice.

The author's note:

"This is not so much an author's note as an author's reminder of what was printed in small type a few pages ago: This book is a work of fiction. I made it up.
Neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.
I appreciate your cooperation in this matter."

And this, from p. 33:

"Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can't tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal."

View all my reviews

Waiting In The Wings:   

 (For real this time!  Some of my students have read it and started talking about it in Book Blogging Club, so I must get this in before I get spoiled!)

 (Also for real--this was both a Christmas present from my mom, and also part of my resolution to diversify my reading habits this year!)
(Can you believe I haven't read this yet?  Me neither!)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

RTW: Pseudonyms

I love today's Road Trip Wednesday question:

This Week's Topic

If you couldn't use your own name, what would your pseudonym or penname be?
As a former aspiring actor, I spent many years thinking about a stage name.  I am blessed/cursed (sorry Mom!) with an unusual middle name--Kaylor, which is my mother's maiden name.  As much as I could stand to live the rest of my life without ever saying, "Taylor, but with a K" again, I also really like the sound of it.  And I think it goes well with my maiden name (which, of course, was my last name in high school and college, when I was considering this question much more seriously.)  So my choice has pretty much always been Kaylor Phillips.  (Although in my mind, that is the name of someone with much better hair than me.)  

And remember to enter my book/pre-order/giftcard giveaway if you haven't yet!  Just a few more days till I pick the winner!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

ARC Giveaway Alert!

Ok, this is one of those times when there's a giveaway too cool to ignore--Bailey Hammond is giving away an ARC of Bitterblue by Kristen Cashore!  I know many of you also love her work--I'm really looking forward to Bitterblue, whether I can get my hands on an ARC or have to wait till the official release!  Check out her blog for the details, and to see what she has to say about the book!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday Sunshine

This week I signed up for the 2012 Comment Challenge, which encourages bloggers to read and comment on five blogs a day for 21 days.  Apparently, habits form in three weeks, hence the length of the challenge.  I'm enjoying it so far, but I'm noticing not a lot of posts on Sunday.  So I thought I might try to get up a weekly post over here, about what I read last week and what I'm planning to read this coming week.  I'm hoping that focusing on all the books I'm so excited to read will help chase away the Sunday Evening Blahs!

Also, don't forget to check out my first-ever giveaway!   Just one more week to enter!

What I read in the last week:

1)  Legend (Legend, #1)Legend by Marie Lu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am intrigued by the world, and looking forward to the next book--but I think I wanted more of the relationship between June and her brother at the beginning of the book. It would have raised the stakes for me a little. Also, it's worth noting that the book itself is really gorgeous--definitely one to buy in print rather than as an e-book. It uses gold ink for one of the characters. Gold ink, people!

2) Shatter Me (Shatter Me, #1)Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1) The characters! The main characters were fantastic, of course, but the unexpectedly hilarious addition of Kenji late in the game may have been my favorite of all.

2) The world! I have a feeling the next book will be dramatically different--I think in a lot of series, the first 3/4 of this book would be the first four chapters of a book about the world that unfolds constantly in the last 1/4 of this book. I can't wait to see more.

3) But really, really, it's all about the writing itself. Juliette's voice would not be out of place in a dark contemporary YA (reminded me a little of the genius that is every Laurie Halse Andersen) but it melds perfectly with the dystopian settings and events.

Oh dear. That doesn't sound very coherent. Well...just read it. I promise.

3) Hark! a VagrantHark! a Vagrant by Kate Beaton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book took me about twice as long as it should have because I kept laughing out loud and having to pass the book over to show my husband what was so funny. Kate Beaton's goofy sense of humor and broad knowledge of history and literature are a perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon. My favorite: her take on Anne of Green Gables.

 Waiting in the Wings:  


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

RTW: Room to Write

Today, Road Trip Wednesday asks us to:

Describe your dream writing retreat. Where would you go? Who and what would you bring?

This RTW is one I've spent plenty of time contemplating.  Mr. S and I are starting to grow out of our one-bedroom apartment, and as we plan for where we will live next, I can't stop thinking about having my own room.  Not that Mr. S isn't awesome, because he is, but I've always liked to have my own space where I can have everything just so.  So my first answer is--I would go to my own room, and I would bring my cat, or nobody.  My room won't just be for writing--I'll also keep books and knitting stuff and sculpture wire in there--but there are a few things I would really love to make it feel like a writer's haven.

First of all, my books.  As much as I love my Kindle, I will never be satisfied with e-copies of any of my favorite books.  (Also, some books are just too cool as objects to be on the Kindle--I'm reading Legend by Marie Lu right now, and with its shiny cover and gold print, it makes the most convincing case I can think of for books as physical objects, rather than Kindle copies.)

Ideally, this requirement would be satisfied with the use of built-in bookshelves, which have always been a dream of mine.  While we're shooting for the moon, maybe they could look something like this, with a daybed built right in!

Second of all, plenty of natural light (or really good electric light, I guess).  I also love that about the picture I linked to.  (But you can crawl into that corner of the couch and curl up if it's just too early, or if the dreaded migraine strikes.) 

I also want a desk, so I could go back and forth--couch to desk--to save my back.  Sometimes I like to sit up and sometimes I like to curl up.  Actually, I mostly like to curl up, but then I sit like that for ten hours straight, hunched over a keyboard, and can't move the next day.

And, of course, my laptop.  Can't do much without that.  I tried writing on my iPad this summer for a change of pace, and it wasn't ideal, even with the bluetooth keyboard.  But I hear Scrivener for iPad is on its maybe for editing?  We'll see.  

Or...if I went away away to write...definitely the Berkshires (or maybe the Catskills--mountains, anyway, or what pass for mountains in the Northeast.)  Someplace leafy and green and quiet, like The Porches Inn in North Adams, MA or Mohonk House in New Paltz, NY.  


My alma mater, Williams College, tucked in among the Berkshires.  Fun fact:  The chapel with the four-spired tower there is where I got married! 

But wait!  There's more!  While you're here, be sure to check out my 2012 More-Reading-For-Everyone-Giveaway!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Best Read of 2012--I'm calling it now.

Isn't this a little premature?  Calling the best read of 2012 on January 1st?

Yeah, maybe in a different year.  And don't get me wrong, I am super-excited about the rest of my TBRs, and all the awesome books coming out this year...but.

I just finished The Scorpio Races.  

Friends, listen.  I may read books that are just as good, and I will certainly read books that I recommend to my students more widely, because I know their tastes pretty well and this isn't for all of them.  But I will bet my last November cake that I will not read another book this year that I love more than The Scorpio Races.

Books that have affected me this profoundly in recent memory:

--Looking For Alaska shocked and destroyed me in a way that I forgot a book could do.  Even Mockingjay...I went into with an understanding of some potential hazards.   But Looking For Alaska was a true sucker-punch to the gut and I loved that it could do that to me.  Scorpio Races made me feel as much, but with a feather-light touch that I didn't completely realize until I closed the book.

--The Hunger Games trilogy is simply the most exciting thing I have ever read.  The first book is the only one I have ever read twice in a row--like, immediately going back to page one.  I don't do that, ever.  And I'm not with The Scorpio Races, because I don't need to.  Where The Hunger Games shot through me, The Scorpio Races settled into my bones.  I started to dream Thisby.  It was too real to be exciting, per se...and I read it much more slowly because I couldn't rush it. 

--I am mostly reminded of how I felt in January of 2006, when I read both The Time Traveler's Wife and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series for the first time.  My now-husband, then-boyfriend, had graduated from college the previous June and we were separated by a five-hour bus ride, except that I found a January-term project that put me in New York City with him for a few weeks in the middle of the year.  Somehow, I spent the whole month reading these devastatingly beautiful books that deal with, among other things, enforced separation from the love of your life.  In related news, I spent a lot of time unexpectedly crying over books on public transit.  Those books were the last time I felt a book hook straight into that space in my gut, just below my heart, and yank until I was well and truly stuck.  That's what The Scorpio Races has done, but for entirely different reasons.

I got lured in by the horses.  That's what did it first.  I had forgotten, after so many years, what it was like to read a horse book.  Most of them are written for kids, y'know?  Or they're kind of schlocky.  Or both.  But as a kid I found the good ones and I loved them hard...and then there weren't any more, I guess.  The Scorpio Races is a first-rate horse book for older folks, teenagers and adults.  Honestly, though, by the end of the book...I think I would read it and love it if it were about racing lawnmowers.  Puck and Sean are such magnificent characters, and Thisby such an immersive, textured setting, and the people there have lives out of frame (there are ten more books in that island, that we get glimpses of but never see in their entirety--the Malverns, Annie, George Holly)...I could stay there forever. 

So tomorrow, I bake November Cakes.  Because it's not enough that Maggie Stiefvater can write this brilliantly--she's also invented a food and made it real.  I'm sort of out of my mind with glee, and while I've spent a good two hours since finishing the book going through her blog, my favorite thing has to be this recipe for November Cakes.  That she made it real, that she revised her own recipe, and that even when writing a recipe, she sounds so distinctly like her own self, makes this basically the epitome of everything I admire about her.  I am so happy to have finished this book with a day off to celebrate it and bake these cakes. 

First-Ever Giveaway and Resolutions (Or: More Reading For Everyone in 2012!)

Happy New Year!  We made it to 2012.  2011 was a pretty good year for me, with some big personal and professional events, but I'm looking forward to even better things in 2012.  First of all: my resolutions.

1) Be more organized about my reading.  I want to keep track of everything I read this year, so that those end-of-the-month Road Trip Wednesdays won't creep up on me quite so much.   I also want to keep track of what I plan to read, since all of my fellow bloggers keep going on and on about dozens and hundreds and ZILLIONS of books that I want to read, and sometimes I lose track.

2) Read more broadly.  This means different genres within YA, as well as genres outside of YA.  Each month I will pick a new genre and try to read 1-3 books in that genre, mixed in with my other reading.  First up:  what I am broadly deeming "personal non-fiction"--memoir, biography, autobiography, etc.  This will start with the Melissa Gilbert memoir my mom gave me for Christmas :)  Recommendations for anything really excellent in this big, vague genre?

3) Stay on top of my writing!  This means blogging for now, but also (after our spring musical goes up in March, I think) getting back to my WIP.  Or, WsIP (Mr. S is a nut for correct internal pluralization).  After the musical--no excuses.  But in the meantime, I will focus on keeping myself to at least 2x/week posting here.  Small steps.

And, in order to put some pressure on myself for #3 and maybe help with the first two as well--I am hosting my first-ever giveaway!    In my last post I laid out a TBR list of already-released books, but I am always trying to add to it.  So for this giveaway,  I will be sending one lucky winner the following:

1) A book of your choice from my TBR list (including the runners-up, for a total of sixteen books to choose from!  If you've read them all, you can always donate one to a school or library near you!)

2) A book of your choice that will be released in 2012, pre-ordered for you from 

3) A $10 gift card to  I love this site, and I've used it to get tons of books for my classroom (including sets of Catching Fire and Mockingjay, when I couldn't keep them on my shelves after teaching The Hunger Games!)  I don't even have projects up right now, so there's no ulterior motive--but I would love it if the winner used this to support a teacher trying to get books for his/her classroom.

Entries will be accepted until 12:01 am EST on 1/16/12.  You can earn points by commenting with the book you would want to pre-order and why (mandatory) and by sharing the link to this post on your own blog/Twitter/whatever (totally un-mandatory but very welcome).  I will be using Rafflecopter to draw the winner's name so make sure you use the Widget to enter!  It should prompt you to log in--I need a way to contact you!  I'll also post the winner here within 48 hours of the end of the entry period, so if something goes horribly wrong, you'll be notified on this blog.

Note about eligibility:  Winners must be in the shipping area.  If necessary, I'll spend up to $10 for shipping but more than that gets a little goofy so if you're not sure, you may want to check on to see how much it would cost to ship you two books.  Alternatively, you can win if you are willing and able to accept Kindle versions of the books.  Kindle pre-orders can't be gifted, so if the winner wants/needs a Kindle version I will send the winner Amazon credit in the amount of the pre-order.  I reserve the right to substitute an gift card for the amount of both books in the event that difficulties arise due to geography/stock/etc.  But I think books are more fun, don't you?