Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sneak Peek: The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians

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Despite having been out of college for five years, my mom still occasionally sends me care packages of goodies since we still reside 800 miles apart. Usually, she's sending me something I've requested or that she's told me about, but she always fills the box with other little surprises.

In my most recent package containing some Target shoes I couldn't find at the crappy NYC Targets, she included this picture book—The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians by Carla Morris, illustrated by Brad Sneed. She babysits my 2-year-old nephew twice a week, and library visits are part of their routine. Apparently, they were reading this one together, and she realized that it's my story and decided to share with me.

The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians is about a boy named Melvin who grew up as a frequent library patron, bonding with the librarians as he researched for school projects, discovered new books to read, and attended library events. And who can guess what career path he chose by the end?? It's a cute story and a good tool for inspiring that library love all of us bookworms hope our future progeny possess! Just wanted to share with you all.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Revisiting Anne, Part 5: Anne's House of Dreams

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In re-reading this series for the first time since late high school, I've realized something about the story of Anne: I like the movies better. I keep reading these books expecting to feel wrapped up in a big cozy blanket of daydreaming, romance, simplicity, and nostalgia for my first encounter with Anne. But really, I just keep feeling underwhelmed by the series; I guess my Anne love comes from the movies.

So yes, I said it. I'm citing this ONE TIME that I think the movie is better than the book. Perhaps it's just a case of preferring whichever was first experienced, but in the case of the book series, they're all starting to feel the same. Anne moves and meets new people; she loves them all; they all (eventually) love her.

In Anne's House of Dreams, Anne finally becomes Mrs. Blythe; Gilbert's finally a doctor; and the couple leaves their beloved Avonlea behind as Gilbert's job takes them elsewhere. They land in Four Winds Harbor, a small coastal town with its own set of notorious characters. Luckily for Anne, their first little home is exactly as she hoped it would be; it's their dream house, cozy and romantic with a wide open coastal view. Gilbert is away often, mending the sick and all, so Anne takes it upon herself to make friendly with the neighbors (because really, what else is there for her to do?). She meets Captain Jim, the lighthouse attendant blessed with the gift of storytelling; Miss Cornelia, who would be the outspoken match to Ms. Rachel Lynde but has a series bias against men (the phrase "isn't that like a man" was quickly retrieved from the depths of my 11th grade mind); and the tragic but beautiful Leslie Moore, a young woman with a dark past that Anne is determined to befriend.

It's lovely to meet new characters through Anne, because, though the pattern feels the same, it's just like meeting new people in real life; they all have their own stories to tell. My disappointment with the series doesn't lie in this aspect of the books; it's instead with the way Anne's story is going.

For one, I'm upset with the lack of Gilbert. He's not much more than "Anne's husband," occasionally present for a conversation, serving as a "voice of reason" to Anne's flightier ideas. But, even though this book celebrates their marriage and continuously mentions how "happy" they are, I don't see much evidence of that. They just don't interact very much.

I think my biggest issue is with the development of Anne herself. I was actually quite annoyed with things she said in this one, because her romanticism wasn't just optimism; it was selfishly upholding an ideal. (Spoiler details: she doesn't want Gilbert to suggest medical treatment that may improve the well-being of one character because it will make another's life less enjoyable. REALLY, ANNE?) Overall, she's predictable. She still has some of that old sense of daydreaming romanticism that's always been so refreshing and endearing, but it's also not adding anything new. She's lost a lot of her spunk from childhood...and I don't think that should disappear with age! A girl that had a penchant for writing, excelled in school, earned a college degree, and succeeded as a "working woman" is suddenly doing nothing with her time except keeping house and staying updated on local gossip? Now she's just a wife. Then a mother. The end. I can't believe it.

I still love the Anne stories for their well-drawn characters and quaint, nostalgic simplicity. But dare I say I prefer the Anne from the often-criticized movie #3 to this one?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Idlewild Discussion on Mental Illness and Spanish Politics

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Right smack dab in between reading The Angel's Game and The Prisoner of Heaven, I read another book set in war-torn Barcelona for my book club—Carmen Laforet's Nada. [I'm done with reading about Barcelona for a while now.] Deemed "one of the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain" and "one of the great novels of twentieth-century Europe," Nada is the story of an orphan, Andrea, who leaves her small town to attend university in the big, glitzy Barcelona. There, she's housed by poverty-stricken relatives that she only remembers from much brighter days gone past.

Okay. "Great novel of twentieth-century Europe" is quite the acclaim for this fairly simple story. In fact, it left us wondering from where this praise came—and to what exactly it was being compared. The author wrote this book when she was in her early twenties, and it sometimes suffered from what book club members called "writer's workshop syndrome." As in, that sentence sounds like it came from Creative Writing 101. I can't say I really noticed that throughout; I think I took this book at face value and didn't analyze it too much. I didn't love it, didn't hate it. I didn't think it remarkable, but didn't think it had anything too worthy of criticism.

Mario Vargas Llosa penned the book's introduction, and somewhere in there, he described this story as one that is plagued with sadness throughout (not his exact words, just to that effect). So naturally, I entered this believing, "Oh god, 270 pages of depression. Can't wait." But in actuality, I didn't read it that way at all. I'll give you a bit of background to explain why.

When Andrea arrives at her new home, she joins a family that is suffering from a lack of funds. In a nutshell, there's no money and conditions are dismal at best. And then you have the family itself. There's grandmother, the matriarch, who is old and feeble but always trying to take care of others. Her two sons who, post-war, have wandered off the path of ever being productive members of society; now they're just violent or sullen or confused, but grandma will never deem them anything except her "wonderful boys." You have Gloria, one brother's wife, who has some awkward relationship with the other brother but constantly suffers at the violent hand of her husband (though, of course, grandma still thinks she's great). And then there's one of grandma's daughters, who is possessive and manipulating and more than a little bit nuts. Actually, they are all nuts. I think that, really, in the most serious way, the entire family is suffering from various mental illnesses.

So you see how that dismal setting can foster an overall tone of despair. What gives light to the story, though, is Andrea. After reading the intro and the setting into which she had entered, I was afraid Andrea was going to end up mentally and emotionally weak, almost manipulated to a point of submission. That's not the case at all, though. Andrea is a strong character, and through her telling of the story, you get the feeling she's telling it with a bit of an eye roll and a tone that says, "My god, look at these crazy people I had to put up with." I actually read this story with a bit of humor. Much of that tone may come from the perspective—that Andrea's character is "looking back" on this part of her life, though that also makes you wonder how much is truth and how much is reflective exaggeration.

This story takes place in a post-Civil War Barcelona, which is somewhat described through the characters and their situations, but without a working knowledge of post-war society, it just spawned a lot of questions. Like, were these extremes we saw just norms of the time? The poverty, the domestic violence, the gap between rich and poor—were these all understood by readers at the time, making this just a story rather than a statement about a particular moment? So many characters are stuck in the past, or rather, defined by the past. But to them, it's recent; it's just life. To us, it's a reflection of a much broader history—social, economic, and political.

Despite this being a longer-than-usual post, it was actually our shortest book club discussion on record. It just felt rather straightforward. Not bad. Just simple. So like I said before, "great novel" may be somewhat of an overstatement, at least from our perspective.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Book Tour: The Prisoner of Heaven

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As I mentioned last week, I was super excited to join a book tour of the latest in Carlos Ruiz Zafón's "Cemetery of Forgotten Books" series, The Prisoner of Heaven. So much so that I sped read through its predecessor, The Angel's Game, in about three days so that I'd be sure to be all caught up in time to read this one (which was, luckily for times' sake, about half the size of the first two in the series).

So, follow along with me on the timeline through Zafón's series. In The Shadow of the Wind, we're in a post-Civil War Barcelona where we meet characters whose pasts were made colorful by influence of the war. Jump to The Angel's Game and we're pre-war and with new characters, only encountering those we know in a time before the experiences we've shared. Now, in The Prisoner of Heaven, we hop back and forth, gaining a prologue to some characters we know and an epilogue to others.

This story follows Fermín, a colorful character from The Shadow of the Wind with an unending loyalty to the Sempere family and a troubled but mostly unknown past. We know he spent time in prison during the war, and when a stranger from Fermín's past shows up at the bookstore and leaves him visibly anxious, Daniel drags out all the dark details. Unfortunately, Daniel never expected Fermín's story to overlap with his own, revealing a very upsetting truth about his own family.

The Prisoner of Heaven has quite a different feel from the first two. Though it features the same characters we've met and the same mysteries we've followed, it feels more like a respite from the tense action of its predecessors. You can just look at its small size and figure out it won't feature the same type of expansive, winding plot. Instead, this is the book that links the first two together. It lacks the lingering, intense uncertainty that gave the first two such an eerie tone. Despite the simpler plot, you get the feeling that, in this one, Zafón is giving us important information to continue story.

I don't think this is a standalone novel to the same extent as the first two (and I know I keep comparing them, but because I see this one as a bridge between the previous two, I can't help it), though I do think you can read them out of order. Zafón hops around in time from book to book, creating a story that isn't dependent on proper chronology. It's a wonderful structure; because there are no linear restrictions, Zafón can take the story any place he can imagine. You're kept constantly guessing where the story is going to go. However, it's still an enjoyable story that gives more insight to a delightful character, and it's a must if you're already invested in the series. (Hint hint: go read them if you haven't!)



This post is a stop on The Prisoner of Heaven's TLC Book Tour to celebrate its paperback release. And you're in luck, because the tour has just started!

There will be many more fabulous bloggers posting their opinions in the coming weeks; the tour runs through April 11—visit the tour page to see the schedule and follow the discussion.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Fiction | The Volatile Underbelly of Cheer Squad

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Where'd that world go, that world when you're a kid, and now I can't remember noticing anything, not the smell of the leaves or the sharp curl of a dried maple on your ankle, walking? I live in cars now, and in my own bedroom, the windows sealed shut, my mouth to my phone, hand slick around its neon jelly case, face closed to the world, heart closed to everything.

Megan Abbott's Dare Me is really a deceiving novel. The cover looks very YA. The plot summary sounds very YA. But when you read it, you find it's not really YA.

Dare Me is about a high school cheer squad, which sounds kind of basic, but it's much more intense than you would think. For Addy Hanlon, through whose eyes we experience the story, cheer is what defines her. She's always been more of a right-hand man, taking the backseat to her best friend Beth—the unofficial leader of this pack. It's Junior year now, and this is always the ways things have been. When a new cheer coach arrives and shakes up the regime, though, nothing is like it once was. The rules and hierarchies that were established have been unsettled, and everyone is grasping for a new identity.

Or, trying to hang on to their old one.

Amidst the everyday, incessant back-stabbing of teenage girls, a bigger situation is also suddenly on hand. Coach gets wrapped up in the police investigation of an apparent suicide, and the girls—and particular Addy—are left questioning the truth and where their loyalties lie.

Initially, Dare Me reminded me a lot of The Virgin Suicides because it's got this distant, unattached perspective, despite being told through first-person eyes. The perspective is so conflicting with the actual voice, and you realize that, for most of the book, you actually know nothing about these girls; you only see the effect of their relationships with each other, not how their behaviors stem from their own individual personalities.

These characters essentially personify everything you fear about "teenage girls" as an entity; Abbott's abrupt writing fosters a cold, caustic setting where relationships feel empty and characters feel desperate. This isn't mean to sound negative by any means, though; Abbott's use of language and interaction is incredibly creative, creating a world that feels like the harsh reality of a typically superficial, bubblegum stereotype. The language is acerbic, sharp, and sexually-charged, simultaneously holding you at a distance from these characters and their motivations while overall sucking you into its simmering plot.

The more I think about this one, the more I like it, because it possessed a voice and perspective that was refreshingly new. Very enjoyable.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fiction | Murder and Mayhem in Barcelona

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Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind was hands-down one of the best books I read last year, and it wasn't until I posted about it that I learned there were more titles in this short series. I was given the opportunity to read the third in the series for an upcoming book tour (coming soon!), so I decided I must quickly get my hands on the second—there is just too much wonderful detail in these stories to even consider skipping it!

The Angel's Game is the second title in Zafón's "Cemetery of Forgotten Books" series, though it's only loosely based on the first. The setting is the same, and a couple characters overlap, but for the most part, we're taken on a new journey through pre-Civil War Barcelona.

In The Angel's Game we meet David Martín, a writer who has been penning silly but bestselling murder mysteries under a pseudonym, though this, he feels, is not his life's calling. His life feels at a standstill—trapped in a writing contract he doesn't want, unloved by the woman he loves. When a letter arrives from a mysterious French publisher, he's given the opportunity to write a real manuscript of substance—one that has the "power to change hearts and minds." But when David finds himself at the center of a number of unfortunate events, he begins to fear what he got himself into...and he's learning he can't easily escape. David finds himself mixed up into a decades-long suspicious death, the mysterious history of the abandoned mansion he calls home, and an editor who may not be what he seems.

I'm very glad that I read The Shadow of the Wind a year ago, so that the details are not fresh on my mind, because I wouldn't want to compare these two books. Their settings are so similar, but they each deserve to be judged on their own individual merits. The Angel's Game is much darker in tone and reads much like a murder mystery though it still contains the great elements of magical realism that make Zafón's Barcelona such an eerie, mysterious setting. I found this to be uberly creepy and utterly intoxicating, and despite its 500+ pages, I absolutely blew through it.

David is a character that you love to follow, and at certain points in the story I would stop and think, "Wow, this has come so far from the book's opening chapters. How did we get get here?" He seems to just be a guy getting caught up in what's happening around him, and while you want to be on his side, sometimes you as the reader are not quite sure what is real and what isn't. Actually, for a good portion of this book, I had this deep-set fear that it was going to end up like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a book I so enjoyed reading and then ended up despising, because nothing ever happened; it was just a plot with no point, no resolution—details but no real narrative. Luckily, Zafón did not disappoint like Murakami. And though you do question the validity of what is happening, at a certain point, you just don't care and you go with it.

Wonderful. Can't wait to read the next.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Fiction | The Case of Poor Mr. Collicut

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I flipped on the switch marked "Shuddering Sobs," but nothing came.

Damnation! I used to be a dab hand at water on demand. What on earth was happening to me? Was I becoming hardened? Was this what being twelve was going to be like?

Speaking from Among the Bones is Alan Bradley's fifth installment in the Flavia de Luce mystery series. If you haven't picked up one in this series yet, I strongly urge you to do so. Flavia returns, still the ever-precocious 11-year-old chemistry-loving super sleuth. (Read more about books 1, 2, 3, and 4.)

In this installment, Bishop's Lacey is preparing to open the tomb for the 500th anniversary of the death of its patron saint, St. Tancred. When Flavia gets a sneak peek inside the tomb, though, she finds something a bit disturbing. It appears St. Tancred's tomb has already been opened—and inside is the body of the church's missing organist, Mr. Collicut. Of course, Flavia hops right on the case, following in own investigation that leads to hidden tunnels and rooms underneath the church graveyard. Could this be the same path used by poor Mr. Collicut's murderers?

On top of all this murder mayhem, Flavia is also dealing with another sizable mystery: what is to become of Buckshaw? It was a dark day when the For Sale sign went up on the lawn, and suddenly that sign has disappeared. Is this the end of Flavia's world as she knows it?

In contrast to some of the earlier Flavia de Luce mysteries, Speaking from Among the Bones hops right into the story with very little down time before the mystery begins. Character development progresses slowly through the series, but there is some there. This one seems to me to feature Flavia more independently than previous ones, and interactions with her sisters and father seem to take a back seat to Flavia's experiences out on her own. She continues to mature (evidenced by her humorous ponderings and discoveries as quoted above), seemingly ever-so-slowly until you realize that the past five mysteries have all taken place in the span of about a year and a half. (Gee, that is a lot of murder happening in one small town!)

These books are, for the most part, episodic and can be read non-sequentially. There are bits and pieces, though, that refer to earlier storylines (many of which, I must admit, I actually don't remember and thus don't completely understand the significance of the reference), and you may be more fulfilled reading them in order. If you've been following this series, you'll especially be delighted by a surprise twist at the very very end! Again, I will be looking forward to the next.