Wednesday, August 29, 2012

RTW: Best Book of August

Better late than never, I've heard, so: here's my Road Trip Wednesday entry for Best Book of August!

First let me say that August has been a really, really strange reading month for me.  It's been chaotic and ultimately awesome with our big move, plus I've been trying to get through the queue of books I requested for review over at NetGalley, meaning I've read outside of my normal preferences a little more than usual.  I also finished my Great Expectations project like, fifteen minutes ago.  So looking over my Goodreads list at all my August reads, I realized I actually gave NO four-star reviews this month: totally bizarre, as in general, four-star reviews make up the vast majority of the books I choose to finish and post about.

So, here are the three books that earned five-star reviews from me this month:

My Life Next DoorMy Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(My review here.)

Blink OnceBlink Once by Cylin Busby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(My review here.)

And of course:

Great Expectations Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(My concise review is on Goodreads but I'll be posting it here on Sunday.  My chapter notes are here.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: First Buffalo Edition

Whew!  After all the chaos of moving, starting to get settled, visiting friends in Toronto, and Mr. S's birthday today, I'm thrilled that I managed even one book this week!  Happily, it was a pretty excellent one.  (I'm a little nervous posting this--it's not out yet, and while I really loved it, I always kind of feel like when people get to read it they'll disagree and think I'm dumb.  But I feel strongly enough about this one that I'm going to stick my neck out for it.)

Anyway, probably one more light week, and then after Labor Day, Mr. S will start his new job, and I will be writing/blogging/reading/reviewing/beta-reading full-time!  Hooray! 

What I Read This Week: 

 Blink OnceBlink Once by Cylin Busby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, ok. I don't want to say too much. I will say this: I know there's a big clamor for male narrators, and this book has an excellent one. West has been in an accident and is, essentially, trapped in his body. He meets Olivia, and she starts to change everything for him. Throughout all of this--a devastating accident, a grueling and uncertain recovery process, wildly changing relationships--West's voice felt true to his teen guy self. So I think a lot of you will enjoy this book based on that alone. But the storytelling is impeccable, pulling me in, getting me invested, and then totally knocking me back. Don't be put off by the "trapped in his body" thing, either--that is a weird phobia of mine (awake in coma, buried alive, Across The Universe situation) so I was a little leery about this one, but that part actually isn't TOO terrible for the reader. DO pick this one up when it comes out on September 4th--I think a lot of folks will be talking about it. It's definitely one I would recommend to students (despite some language and violence, I think it's a worthwhile read and one many of my kids would really enjoy.)

View all my reviews


Monday, August 20, 2012

What day is this? Where am I?

Just a quick post to say that I am, in fact, alive (although many of my muscles regret it right now) and in Buffalo!  This was my first real move as an adult--we moved twice when I was in high school, but all within the same city, and when I moved into our place in New York I'm pretty sure I did it with duffel bags on an Amtrak train.  I had NO IDEA how completely drained--physically, mentally, and emotionally--I would feel during the whole process. I'm still pretty out of it (we got to the new apartment at about 11pm yesterday, after a nearly 8-hour drive--Mr. S is such a trooper and drove the whole way fueled by beef jerky and a bottle of water) but the new place is wonderful! 

We have wifi on our porch!  I can sit out in the beautiful Buffalo weather (that is not a joke several months of the year) and write or blog or watch kittens grow up.

You can't see the whole thing, because I am not great at angles and the other half is a mess.  But you can see the edge of one rug, and all of another; our living room is large enough for TWO area rugs.  After living for so long in Manhattan, walking in the door last night and seeing this nearly sent me into shock.   My living room has different areas!  There's a TV area, and a desk area, and lots of open space! 

This doesn't look like much yet--a lot of the boxes and miscellany were designated for this room.  But hopefully, in the next month or so, I will be transforming it into my office!  (And hopefully in the months after that, I will be spending some serious time in here writing!)  I will post pictures once it's up and running--consider this the "before".

Yeah, this isn't the most interesting picture.  But let me explain: when ew came in, we noticed that there was this small round hole in the dining room floor (that's the black blob partway up the center of the picture.)  We asked our landlady about it and she told us that it used to be a button under the dining room table that could be used (by stepping on it) to call the maid during supper!  I thought that was very cool, even if it is now just a little hole in the floor.  (The house is apparently quite old and has lots of character--many old light fixtures and things like that.  I love it!)

The fireplace doesn't work, but it's a really lovely old detail that just gives the whole room a certain something.  Yesterday before we got in, Mr. S's parents met the movers here and supervised the unloading, and then made it nice and homey for us!  It was so nice to come into furniture that had been nicely arranged, and a few little treats like the beautiful fresh flowers.  The painting is by my father--he did it when I was little and gave it to me as a wedding present because he knew I had always wanted it.  Really makes the place feel like home right away. 

For the next two weeks, we'll still be setting up and recovering, so my posting may continue to be spotty.  But Mr. S starts work at the beginning of September, and then I'll be back on a much more regular schedule.  I'm trying to keep up with everyone else's blogs but it will take me a little while to get back on track (and to catch up with the chapters I missed in Great Expectations!)  So if I'm not around too much for a bit, then see you in September!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: Shuffling Off To Buffalo Edition

So--eek--this will almost certainly be my last blog post from our home here in New York City!  A week from today, we will be driving for eight hours (because I can't bear the though of inflicting air travel on our cat--or inflicting our travel-anxious cat on a plane) to our new home in Buffalo.  In light of the fact that the movers are coming in a mere six days (this move is a two-day process) I will probably not be posting again until we have safely landed in our new place.  Keep your fingers crossed that everything makes the journey safely!

My reading this week was slowed a little by two things--one, of course, was packing.  Not a ton of fun (although we have been watching Friday Night Lights as we go through--we somehow didn't get around to it until now, and it's wonderful!) but very productive.  The other thing, which is WAY more fun, is beta-reading Elodie's fabulous MS.  This is my first time beta-reading so all I can do is hope I'm being helpful--but I'm having a blast because it's so good!

And, full disclosure:  since this week's Field Trip Friday, I've been watching a lot of this Kitten Cam.  I have stress; kittens relieve stress.  If you like what you see, go check out the live feed and, if you're willing and able, I would encourage you to support the Purrfect Pals shelter (they even have an Amazon wishlist of stuff they need, which I really like.)

What I Read This Week:

My Life Next DoorMy Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do you ever get most of the way through a book, and the plot is such that you look at the dwindling number of pages and think, how on earth could this get wrapped up so quickly? I started straight-up panicking near the end of My Life Next Door. The pacing on this one is really interesting: the beginning takes its time in the best possible way, like the way a cat stretches out for five whole minutes before getting up and going anywhere (well, mine does, anyway). You meet Samantha Reed, the protagonist. You meet her family and friends. You glimpse the neighbors who she's been watching from her window since she was seven. And then you get pulled in a little farther. You get to know these neighbors--the Garrett family, the house in the neighborhood that's always a little unkempt, with toys on the lawn and floats in the pool. You especially get to know perfect third child Jase (yeah, he might be a little too perfect, but you quickly stop caring). You wonder WTH is up with Sam's best friend Nan, whose sharp edges seem to appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. You become exasperated by, then worried about, then provisionally, tentatively happy for Nan's screw-up twin brother, Tim. It all unfurls slowly, like you're living it, at the speed not of narrative but of real life.

Then, suddenly, in the last third of the book...everything changes. It's a whole other book. And while the first two-thirds would be a four-star read on their own, the last third adds what 30 Rock fans like myself would call "the third heat". It's fast and intense and often jaw-droppingly frustrating. And if you happen to pick the book up just before that change happens, planning to read one or two chapters before bed, well, I'm sorry. You'll be up until it's over. I was. So go pick this one up before summer ends and everyone remembers what bedtimes are! You won't be sorry (but you may be sleepy.)

Since You Left MeSince You Left Me by Allen Zadoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm in a bit of a quandary here. See, I enjoyed this book. I liked Sanskrit's voice. His sense of humor was right on, and his uneasy place among the more-observant Jewish students and professors at his private school was interesting to me. His Big Problems--the accident he invented that got bigger than he anticipated, his mother's sudden life changes--earned his angst and my interest. And I'm a sucker for spunky tween little sisters, like Sweet Caroline. All good, right?

Well, I have a big reservation. Sanskrit's dad--presented as kind of a mess of a human being, although a more or less decent guy--makes a few remarks throughout the book that really startled me. One is a weird nickname based on religious garments (non-Jewish ones) and one is a stereotype of hygiene habits in a particular country (a non-Western one). I won't quote them here, as I read an advance copy, and perhaps these have changed going into the final version--I have no way of knowing, as the book comes out a few weeks from now. They weren't huge or hateful, but they were enough to give me pause; if they remained in the final version, I might not choose to stock this in my classroom. I don't think they "ruined" the story, and I do actually think they were fairly realistic. Sanskrit's dad is a flawed guy and I guess not every YA character who says something obnoxious has to wind up being A Terrible Horrible Person. But I don't know that I could justify his remarks if a parent showed up and wanted to know why I gave their kid this book. That's just teacher-me speaking, but I felt I had to include a mention of that in my review. Reader-me thought it was an interesting way to flesh out that character, but YMMV.

I suppose my final word on this for now is: if you like funny, flawed male narrators, you will enjoy this book. I would never tell anyone that they couldn't or shouldn't read it. Just realize that, as in the real world, you may come across ideas or statements that you don't like, so be ready to read with a critical eye.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Road Trip Wednesday: Sounds of Summer

Today, the Road Trip Wednesday crew over at YA Highway asks:

What music has been your summer soundtrack?

  • I would like to start this post by noting that anyone who doesn't include "Call Me Maybe" on their list is a dirty rotten liar; that song has been pretty much unavoidable and I can't help having it in my head at least 30% of the time.  Since I have seen a fair number of HONEST posters include this one today, I will include the Sesame Street version.

  • The other song I've found impossible to avoid, as I've been glued to the Olympics, is even more embarrassing.  Apparently it's by the appallingly named Phillip Phillips, of American Idol fame.  It's called "Home", and in the interest of not bringing down the infamous copyright wrath of the IOC, I'm just going to link to this EW article about how it's being used as the theme song of the US Women's Gymnastics team.
  • Annnnnnd then there are the songs associated with the TV we've been watching.  First of all, Mr. S and I have finally gotten around to Friday Night Lights, which isn't super musical, but does have a timeless refrain in "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."  Second of all, we have been watching Dawson's Creek, which I loved the first season of but never really watched thoroughly all the way through.  In a complete and utter travesty, the immortal theme song (Paula Cole's I Don't Wanna Wait) has been replaced on Netflix/DVDs by some other dopey song, the first line of which sounds a lot like "My heart is in my pants."  The real lyric is "my heart is in my hands" but I think my version might be more appropriate for the crew from the Creek, who are all either getting sexy with each other or obsessing over the fact that they aren't.  And third of all, I have been having a LOT of "Oh, THAT'S what that song is called?" moments while watching season two of The Glee Project, a reality show designed to cast a recurring character on Glee.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday Sunshine: Netgalley Roundup

Whew--got my third book in just under the wire this week.  I've got to get back on my game!  This week, all three books are ones I received on my Kindle from Netgalley, and all three come out during the month of August 2012.  These are actually all outside my usual styles/genres (I read mostly YA, mostly  faerie-free fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian/contemporary), but if you like action-packed survival stories, MG with heart (and/or dog stories), or tales of faerie folk, you might see something you like here.  I found something to enjoy in each one of them.

What I Read This Week:

The RaftThe Raft by S.A. Bodeen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Whew! I read this book all in one sitting--and a short sitting--because it was so action-packed. S.A. Bodeen (author of the edge-of-your-seat read The Compound) is a definite master of suspense. There were times I felt that the voice was a bit lacking, but to me the action made up for it, sucking me back in again as Robie, the main character, was thrown up against yet another life-threatening challenge.

Since so much of the book hinges on suspense, I won't say much about the plot, other than the obvious--after a plane crash, Robie is stuck on a raft with a man she barely knows, and must make the best decisions she can in the worst situation she can imagine. If you like survival stories (I do!) this is a good one to add to the collection; I think many of my students would enjoy the quick read, high stakes, and adrenaline-fueled story.

Kizzy Ann StampsKizzy Ann Stamps by Jeri Watts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ok, first: This was a really sweet story. I totally rooted for Kizzy throughout, and got really happy when things actually went her way (they often did not.) I also totally loved her wonderful, wonderful dog Shag. And I was interested to read about some details of life in the barely, uneasily integrated American South that I hadn't come across before (like the fact that dog shows did not permit African-Americans to show dogs.) In the author's note at the end, I learned that one of the characters, an African-American poet who (fictionally) ran a library for the town's black citizens was actually based on a real, published poet who lived in the town at that time. She's an interesting character--Kizzy is a little intimidated by her, at least as much because of her librarian ways and the fact that she's seen the inside of the library for white people as because she's a published writer. Ultimately, though, Kizzy starts to appreciate her, oddities and all, and by the end of the book decides that maybe she should get to know her better (I wished we saw some of that!).

That said--I was a little uneasy by how many of the active characters who helped Kizzy were white. The book is told in the form of letters to her white teacher in the formerly white school that Kizzy helps to integrate. I wished that we saw a lot more of Kizzy's teacher from her old school, a respected veteran teacher who gave up her job when the school for black children was shut down in favor of integrating the local white school. She was mentioned several times, but didn't spend a lot of time "on page", and she was so intriguing. Much of the book focused on Kizzy's relationship with her white teacher, a white (Scottish) man who teaches her how to train her border collie, and a white classmate and neighbor. As a teacher myself, I find it hard to resist a depiction of a dedicated, generous teacher who helps her students grow. And I appreciate that, in the last letter, the teacher writes back and sort of gives Kizzy some more agency when she says that she hopes Kizzy will be her student who goes on to do great things. We all hope for that student. It's a difficult narrative to write, though, as it can be hard to resist giving the saintly (white) teacher all the credit and the children (often children of color) none. This story just veers a little too close to that line at times.

I do think this book was a good-faith effort to tell the story of a young African-American girl living on the cusp of integration and having an experience that didn't tend too much to the usual extremes of either violence or happiness; Kizzy faces large and small obstacles because of her race, but it is overall a hopeful story. I think this is a positive contribution to the way-too-white field of MG literature, and like I said, I did really enjoy it. I don't think the author intends this to stand alone as THE representation of this era or anything, and I don't think it's a harmful portrayal. Kizzy certainly has to make hard choices and do hard work on her own at several points, so it's not like she's a one-dimensional or stereotyped character. I'm doing my best to read thoughtfully and critically, but I'd love to hear some other (probably better-informed) opinions, because really I'm no authority on race. I think it's hard to resist Kizzy and her story, and actually the book this most brought to mind was Love That Dog by Sharon Creech--Kizzy has a strong voice, and the relationship with the teacher is built really nicely even though we only hear Kizzy's side up until the very last letter. Give this one a try--it *will* make you smile--and then let me know your thoughts!

Innocent Darkness (The Aether Chronicles, #1)Innocent Darkness by Suzanne Lazear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ok, so. I'm going to preface this whole review with the information that the Fae (fairies/faeries/what-have-you) are generally speaking, not my thing. I can roll with them in riffs on the old-timey fairy tales, but otherwise I tend to run far, far away. So while this was a three-star read for me, I want you to know that I am in no way claiming to be objective here, just honest: this is a story dominated by faerie folk. I didn't love that about it, but it's certainly not an inherent flaw--in fact, one reason I chose to push on and finish the book and write about it anyway is because I'm sure some of my readers will like that about Innocent Darkness.

That out of the way, here are the things I did like. The Earth half of the setting is really interesting, and I think I would have done better with the faeries if they had spent more time in our world and we had spend less time in theirs (again--just me.) Noli Bradshaw--the garden-tending, flying-car-fixing, would-be-botanist in turn-of-the-20th-century California, is certainly an interesting protagonist. Her father has disappeared, her brother is away doing something that sends home money, and she is left with her bone-weary, well-meaning mother, who has sunk to the level of working for money. Horrors! This setup makes the stakes pretty high for Noli, and I would have been happy to read a totally realistic (well, except for the awesome steampunk elements like the flying car) version of her story. After crashing the flying car--the last straw for the officer who's picked her up one too many times--she is sent off to the world's worst finishing school, where you get tortured for such improprieties as speaking when not asked a question, failing to answer when you are, or possessing a book. I was fascinated by the dynamics of the girls at the school and would have been happy to stay there for an entire book.

...And then Noli winds up in the Otherworld with a dashing Faerie huntsman, who intends her as a sacrifice to save all of Faeriedom, but then accidentally falls for her, and then there's another guy in the mix (no spoilers here) and then there's some more love and then a terrible Faerie thing happens and basically we spend a lot of time in Faerie land. There are rules to follow and bargains to be made and tiny little faeries that flutter around bringing people berries. Essentially, the middle third of the novel is what people who like stories about faeries enjoy, and what I had the hardest time getting through.

By the end, though, there were enough threads of the story that I was invested in that I will probably actually read the second book--faeries and all. Lazear left Noli and her chosen love interest in a dilemma that managed to come back around to Victorian society mores in a way that I found really interesting, and I want to know how that resolves! I'm even kind of interested in learning more about the Faerie Queen and her huntsman--there aren't a ton of scenes between the two of them, but they sort of bring out the worst in each other and it made me more curious about both of them. (In parts, the huntsman actually kind of reminded me of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer--that reluctantly reforming good-for-nothing who can't be bothered to care about anything except a girl who pushes him away). So, if you like faeries, give this a shot. (Also, I should note that some of the romance gets a bit steamy. This is neither a warning nor an enticement--I just thought you should know. Do with that knowledge what you will.)

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

RTW: Best Book of July

Back on the YA Highway with Road Trip Wednesday!

This Week's Topic is: What was the best book you read in July?

A quick check of Goodreads shows that I had a whopping THREE five-star reads this month, all right in a row!  That's especially unusual for me; usually a five-star read is followed by a three-star read because I'm still so blown away by what I just read that nothing seems to measure up.  (One of the many reasons that all Goodreads ratings should be taken with a grain of salt; I try to be as fair as I can, but I've noticed that pattern over time.)

Anyway, my three five-star reads were:

 Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley: This book is just so strange that it grabbed my brain in a different sort of way and really wormed its way in.  I went in expecting strange, and I got it; what I didn't expect was how real it felt at the same time.

 Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins: Okay, at this point, I think I may have been the last person in the world to read this, but in case I'm not--a slightly anxious, slightly snarky teenage girl shipped off to boarding school in Paris meets total dreamboat Etienne St. Claire.  Love ensues.  I can't do it justice, so just read it already!

 Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins:  Somehow, even better and sweeter than Anna and the French Kiss.  Lola Nolan is my hero; Cricket Bell is my high school dream guy (even though he's in college!)  This is my winner for book of the month because of Lola's outsized personality, screw-ups, sweetness (it's under there!), awesome family, outrageous costumes, and just overall excellence.