30 July 2009
You know, Jess has lent me a lot of books over the last few years, some of which I have loved (The Hunger Games, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks), some of which I have not-so-loved (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), and some of which I couldn't drag myself through (er, perhaps better not named, yes?). Usually, though, Jess is right on, so when she raved about Sea Change by Aimee Friedman, I was definitely willing to give it a try.
And I'm so glad I did.
Sea Change begins as Miranda, the protagonist, takes the ferry to Selkie Island, a small island off the coast of Georgia. Her grandmother, Isadora, has recently died and left the family summer house, the Mariner, to Miranda's mother, with whom Isadora had a falling out thirty years earlier. Miranda's mother, a successful New York surgeon, plans to clear out the house and sell it and has asked Miranda to help.
The story follows Miranda as she arrives on Selkie and learns about its mysterious history as well as her mother's. There are actually a number of mysteries within the story -- why did Miranda's mother have a falling out her own mother, Isadora? Why did Isadora leave the Selkie house to Miranda's mother? What happened between Miranda and her best friend in NY? -- and all are interesting and, ultimately, satisfyingly resolved.
The central mystery, of course, deals with the legend of Selkie island's original inhabitants -- are said legends based in reality? Friedman manages to keep Miranda (and the reader) guessing about this throughout, and I love that she leaves the answer to this question open-ended.
The most significant comment I can make about Sea Change is that it is beautifully written. This is a huge compliment, trust me -- a lot of YA these days ignores the style part in favor of plot-love-triangle-sparkly-vampire-love-shield, and so I really appreciate it when an author makes the effort to utilize evocative language and imagery. Friedman's writing style truly captures the mysterious atmosphere of Selkie Island while also developing it as a place steeped in Southern tradition, and this not only sets the stage for the story but also enriches it throughout the novel.
But atmosphere isn't everything. For example, Saundra Mitchell's Shadowed Summer (a novel similar to Sea Change in its style) is also brilliantly atmospheric, but the atmosphere takes center stage, at the expense of plot and character. In reading Sea Change, on the other hand, I enjoyed not only the language but also the development of the relationships Miranda, the protagonist, has with the other characters in the story, most prominently with her mother.
I'll admit to becoming annoyed with Miranda as the novel wore on; she is characterized as being scientific and logical, but this characterization is laid on slightly too thick at times and makes Miranda difficult to like. But by the end, I felt as though Miranda had grown and become less judgmental and more open-minded.
My biggest issue with the novel is Miranda's relationship with Leo. As Jess so eloquently put it last night over flourless chocolate waffle, we might be a little old for the typical romances depicted in YA, which go from zero-to-true-love far too quickly for my taste. I like to see a relationship truly develop, not magically pop into being, and I found Miranda's insta-love with Leo hard to believe. That said, Friedman writes some lovely scenes between Miranda and Leo, and I appreciate that she doesn't tie their storyline into a neat bow at the end.
Overall, Sea Change is one of the best YA novels I've read this year, and I'd highly recommend it. Of course, now I really, really want to go to Selkie Island (if it existed), but no more vacation for me this summer. Oh, well.
28 July 2009
It's so hard for me to criticize any Harry Potter book -- they all have such a special place in my heart and always will -- but Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the weakest of the series for me, both in my initial reading and the more recent reread. In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure, Chamber of Secrets is the book I either (a) skimmed through or (b) skipped when rereading the series each time a new book came out.
I actually liked Chamber of Secrets more on the reread, especially since I was rereading it on the heels of Sorcerer's Stone -- and reading it while on vacation with family friends in beautiful, peaceful Ohio, sitting outside and drinking a glass of my favorite pinot gris. Setting makes a serious difference in the reading experience, doesn't it?
I think my real problem with Chamber of Secrets is the beginning; though I love Ron and the twins' flying car rescue of Harry from his uncle-imposed exile (and Mrs. Weasley's reaction when the boys -- with Harry in tow -- return in the early morning after having been gone all night), I'm not a big fan of the flying car in general. That Ron and Harry would jump into the car when they can't get through the barrier to Platform 9 3/4 instead of, you know, waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Weasley to return, struck me as a device, and a forced one, at that. Rowling makes up for it by making Ron's wand (broken in the inevitable flying car crash) a major plot point as well as by bringing the flying car (now gone feral) back later in the book, but the illogical flight to Hogwarts and the trouble the boys get into is maybe my least favorite moment in the entire series.
There are some truly fantastic moments in Chamber of Secrets, though, like:
- Harry's discovery of and subsequent dive into the diary of Tom Riddle -- Rereading all of the scenes in which Tom Riddle makes an appearance is fascinating, especially when you couple those scenes with Dumbledore's memories of Tom from Half-Blood Prince. Over the course of seven books -- and you really have to put all seven together to get this -- Rowling develops a complete, complex portrait of Voldemorte.
- The introduction to Dumbledore's phoenix, Fawkes -- Harry first meets Fawkes when Fawkes is at the end of his phoenix cycle; he burns up before Harry's eyes and is reborn from his own ashes. It is a beautiful, beautiful moment.
Side story: I teach ninth graders, and every March we read Fahrenheit 451, which is my favorite book to teach, bar none. Anyway, if you've read Fahrenheit, you know that the phoenix plays an important role in the story, for its representation of both fire and rebirth. When the phoenix is first introduced at the beginning of the novel (as a symbolic patch on the firemen's uniforms), I always ask, "So what is a phoenix? What does it do? Why is it significant?" And the students always know the answers, because they've most of them read Harry Potter, and they remember Fawkes.
- Hagrid's backstory -- I'm actually not a huge Hagrid fan, but Rowling teases a lot of Hagrid's past in Sorcerer's Stone, and I like that she follows up with it. His expulsion from Hogwarts (at Tom Riddle's hands, no less) is very in character, and while I think his bumbling gets old at times, I like how Rowling uses him to introduce many of the creature characters throughout the series (Aragog, Buckbeak, etc.).
- Gilderoy Lockhart -- The first time I read Chamber of Secrets, I hated Gilderoy Lockhart so much, but on rereading -- well, I still think he's a jerk, but I absolutely love how Rowling characterizes him. I laughed through every one of his scenes, especially his wizard duel with Snape (Snape! *heart*), and when he gets his comeuppance at the end, well, no fate was more richly deserved.
Still, The Chamber of Secrets is a solid second book and starts to move out of YYA (young young adult) into YA nicely -- just in time for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is one of the strongest books in the series and which I am super-excited to reread, because Prisoner of Azkaban is when things really start getting good. And by good, I mean darker. Well, and good. I think Rowling hits her stride with PoA, but I'll save that for another post.
27 July 2009
Anyway, on to #s 6-10 in my favorite reads of 2009:
6. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (NF)
My brother gave me this book for Christmas, and I devoured it immediately. Gladwell explores success and where it comes from, and it truly makes you think about luck versus hard work versus innate talent. The chapters on Korean pilots and Japenese school culture were especially fascinating, and whether you agree with Gladwell's hypothesis -- that success is a lot about luck (where geographically, in what month, in what family, in what year you were born) -- or not, Outliers offers food for thought.
7. Shadow Kiss (Vampire Academy #3) by Richelle Mead (YA)
I read the first Vampire Academy book (titled, appropriately enough, Vampire Academy) a year ago February, and though I liked it, I wasn't wowed by it. I gobbled up the second in the series, Frostbite, but Shadow Kiss topped both. This is a series that (unlike some -- *cough* Twlight *cough*) only improves as it continues; I love Mead's characters, her world-building, and most importantly, her fearlessness -- she doesn't hesitate to force her characters, especially the protagonist, Rose, to face tragedy. The end of Shadow Kiss, for example, was heartbreaking, but necessary, and it offers intriguing possibilities for book four, Blood Promise, which comes out at the end of August. Huzzah!
8. Fade by Lisa McMann (YA)
I loved Wake, the first book in the Dream Catchers series, but while I feel Wake was mostly about character and concept development, Fade (book #2) adds real danger, both in Janie's work with the police department and in her dream-education, where she discovers that her power comes with a life-altering price. The scene at the end of the book, when Janie goes "undercover" at a party to discover whether a teacher has been inappropriately involved with his students, is a nail-biter, and I just adore Janie's relationship with Cabe. I just discovered that this is actually a trilogy (yay!) and that the last book (boo!) will be out in February 2010 (yay!).
9. The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (YA)
I already expounded on The Chosen One in my beach reading post, but again -- this was an affecting, beautifully developed story that pulled no punches and had me speeding through to the conclusion, anxious about Kyra's fate. Seriously, this is a must-read.
10. The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart (YA)
Can I take a moment to mention my deep and abiding love for E. Lockhart? I just adore her. I've read nearly all of her books, and I've never been disappointed by a single one. In fact, if I were making my list of top 10 YA books I've ever read, Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks would be in my top 5. Anyway, what I love about The Boyfriend List is Ruby Oliver, the protagonist and first-person narrator. Her voice is just so engaging that I would totally want to be friends with her (if she existed).
Oh, books are so awesome. Way awesomer than the work I'm currently avoiding...
23 July 2009
10 Best '09 Reads (January - June)
1. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (NF)
The top spot definitely belongs to World War Z, however; besides the fact that zombies are my new disaster movie, Brooks does an incredible job in detailing the zombie war from many different perspectives and in easily distinguishable voices -- no mean feat. Plus, the chapter on the dogs who worked with the military to locate and destroy zombies? Totally made me cry.
2. Y: The Last Man series by Brian K. Vaughn (graphic novel)
Jess's husband, Steve, gave me the first book in this series for my birthday last year, and I loved it. So I asked for volumes 2-10 for Christmas, and my awesome parents gave me all of them. What I love about Y: The Last Man is, first and foremost, the last man himself, Yorick Brown, who is simultaneously hysterical and heartbreaking. Actually, that phrase could really sum up the series as a whole. And the last pane of the story -- what an iconic, and entirely appropriate, image to end on.
3. The Troy trilogy: Lord of the Silver Bow, Shield of Thunder, Fall of Kings by David Gemmell (historical fiction)
I've already talked about the Troy trilogy ad nauseum, but that's because it is awesome!
4. Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (YA)
Jess knows me so well -- she gave me this end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it YA book (and its companion novel) for Christmas, and wow. Just wow. Miranda's voice is amazingly written, and Pfeffer doesn't pull any punches: when the moon is knocked closer to Earth by a meteor, there really are no astronauts headed up to put it back on course. I love that Pfeffer is relatively unflinching about how people react to disaster on a global scale.
5. Pledged by Alexandra Robbins (NF)
I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified by Robbins' in-depth look at sorority life, and I truly could not put this book down. I especially like how Robbins turns what is, by itself, the engrossing story of a year in the life of four sorority girls into a call for Panhellenic reform.
Well, I've managed to cover my top five and expended all of my remaining energy. I'll do the other half of my top ten tomorrow!
18 July 2009
Right before the bell rang, one of them said, "Ms. Reeder, you should spend the summer rereading the Harry Potter books."
"Now that," I replied, "is a great idea."
It's taken me a few weeks to get around to it, though, as I've had a bit of a pile to get through first (as I've mentioned already on this blog, Jess tends to lend me must-reads), but last week I finally picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for what is probably the tenth time since it first came out.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling is a really lovely introduction to the series proper, and it does all the things a good book one should do and does them particularly well. I remember, even in reading this book for the first time, how interested I was in the story and, perhaps more importantly, in the wizarding world that Rowling brings to life so well.
What I Liked:
We meet many (though not all) of the major characters in Sorcecer's Stone: Harry, of course, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Profs. Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Snape, Hagrid, and the Dursleys. While the characterization of the Dursleys is a little over-the-top, it does help the reader understand the distance between Harry and his only remaining family immediately, and ultimately why Harry is so willing to essentially leave the Muggle world behind, despite spending his entire life in it.
I especially like how Hermione is developed, though; after having read the entire series (a few times), I forgot how annoying Hermione is at eleven, and it makes me appreciate even more how much she grows up in later books, thanks in large part to her friendship with Harry and Ron (who do some growing up of their own, of course). I also loved the characterization Snape, but then, I *heart* him in all his greasy git-ness.
I was surprised how quickly the plot moved, but then, I'm used to books 4-7, which are probably three times as long as Sorcerer's Stone. On rereading, I appreciate how much Rowling fits into a relatively short piece as well as how nicely she hints at the various revelations that come at the end (when I first read this, I was shocked when Harry came to the last room and was faced with Quirrell). It also seems clear that Rowling had a plan from the beginning, as there are a number of moments that foreshadow what is to come in later installments.
And then there are the myriad aphorisms that come out of Sorecer's Stone -- more, perhaps, than any of the other Harry Potter books. Two key examples:
- "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself."
- "To the well-ordered mind, death is simply the next great adventure."
Both from Dumbledore, natch. And speaking of...What Needs Work:
I was disappointed in the small role that Dumbledore played, though this probably makes sense in the grand scheme of things, because it isn't until after the incident with the Sorcerer's Stone that it becomes clear that Harry is in constant danger.
I also think Ron isn't nearly as well-developed as some of the other major characters, and, as much as I come to love him later, I found myself shaking my head and wondering what, exactly, Harry sees in Ron to become such good friends with him.
Sorcerer's Stone is also geared more toward YYA (young young adult) whereas the later books tend to skew older. I don't know if it's fair to complain about this, though, as Harry is himself a tween, but the style of writing and storytelling, though compelling, doesn't stay with me the way the later books do.
But overall, Sorcerer's Stone is actually better than I remember and a truly wonderful beginning to the Harry Potter series. Now on to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which may be my least favorite of the series. We'll see how it holds up this time around.
13 July 2009
I adored David Gemmell's Troy trilogy, which used fantasy elements sparingly and focused instead on character development, strong plotting, and historical detail, so when my father lent me Lion of Macedon, I was looking forward to another glimpse into Greek legend-turned-history. But Lion of Macedon tries to walk the line between historical fiction and fantasy, and in doing so, fails to fully embody either genre, leaving me a little confused and disappointed.
The story takes place a hundred years after the Battle of Thermopylae, at a time when the Greek city-states fought for power amongst themselves and Persia utilizes this rivarly to prevent the city-states from banding together as a unified Greece and potential rival. The protagonist, Parmenion, a half-Spartan, half-Macedonian, is raised in Sparta, but because he is only a "half-blood," he is shunned by his peers and underestimated by those who should be training him to be a Spartan soldier. The discrimination Parmenion faces kindles his desire for revenge against the people and ideals of Sparta, as he eventually travels to Thebes, among other places, to use his gift for strategy against the Spartans.
Like Gemmell's Troy trilogy, Lion of Macedon follows multiple characters, and I became attached to a number of them, like Mothac, Parmenion's manservant and friend, and Thetis, the priestess of Aphrodite who saves Parmenion's life at one point. Too, Gemmell has no compunction about killing characters off, but I don't really mind this; I think it adds an urgency and realism to the story that fits well with the bloodthirsty time period in which the book is set.
I also enjoyed the fact that, though Parmenion is clearly the protagonist, the narrative point of view shifts frequently, and other interesting characters become more prominent than they might have otherwise. One example of this is Phillip of Macedon, around whom the last third of the book truly revolves -- we learn a great deal about how Phillip, at age fourteen, saves not only himself but his older brother from possible assassination, but also how he eventually rises to power and, with Parmenion's help, establishes Macedonia as a city-state to be reckoned with.
(I think Gemmell uses this technique more successfully in the Troy trilogy, either because he has three books in which to extend various characters' arcs or because he had simply matured as a writer -- I think Lion of Macedon was written ten or so years before Lord of the Silver Bow, the first Troy book.)
Ultimately, however, Lion of Macedon loses its power because it is more fantasy than historical fiction (or maybe it's both -- historical fantafiction?), and for me, this robs the historical plot -- which is engrossing in and of itself -- of its intensity.
Despite the truly interesting story of Parmenion and his travels, the true premise of the story is this: a seeress named Tamis has foreseen the "dark birth," the birth of a child who will grow to be a merciless man and, with his maurading armies, bring darkness to Greece. Tamis believes that Parmenion plays a key role in preventing the dark birth (or protecting Greece, should the child be born), and she shapes his life toward exactly that by using her powers to make people hate him, deprive him of his one true love, and so on.
Lion of Macedon is well-written with strong plot and characters as well as a concrete connextion to history, but the conclusion, which relies on a prophecy, the Lord of Chaos (I think?), Aristotle the philosopher-turned-magus, and fantastical journey through Hades to rescue the spirit of an unborn child, falls flat.
The final chapter does set up the sequel nicely (ten points if you know who the dark child of the prophecy -- Philip of Macedon's son -- is!), and I'll definitely read it, though perhaps with a little less enthusiasm than I began Lion of Macedon.
10 July 2009
Okay, I wasn't going to comment further on this, but come on. It's lazy. I get that most managers/administrators have a number of evaluations to complete. I get that it's time consuming and not a lot of fun, especially if you have to find a diplomatic way to offer criticism. (Trust me, I know. I struggle with this every time I grade student papers.) But the whole copy/paste/find/replace thing cheapens the evaluation process and shows a lack of respect for the employees who are being evaluated.
I mean, I write college recommendations for up to twenty-five students a year, and it takes weeks to complete, but every single recommendation is original and focused specifically on the student in question. Because I care about the kids and I want colleges to know how individually amazing each of them are. Evaluations should be the same way and should show a familiarity with each employee's specific strengths and areas for growth.
Two summers of working with evaluations coupled with my experiences (some positive, the majority negative) with various administrators over the years has -- ye gods -- gotten me to this point: I might want to go into administration some day. Because teachers need administrations that will stand up for them and in whom they trust. And I kind of think I could be that.
(Wow, I can't believe I just wrote that. This is a major personal policy change. We'll have to see if this spark is a fire by the time I finish my master's in who-knows-how-many years.)
The other (less personally revealing) thing I have discovered is how many parents out there don't care about the laughability of their kids' names and and possible (likely) (assured) teasing that said kids must have received on the elementary school playgrounds.
Here is a sampling:
- Last name: Reeks. This is just sad, and probably not the parents' fault. But can you imagine if your last name was "Reeks"? Your name is, without revision, a tool for people like WS, whose favorite insult is "You stink."
- Last name: Williams. First name: William. Did his parents have absolutely no imagination?
- Last name: Racey. What don't you name your child if your last name is Racey? Especially because your last name is Racey? That would be Tracy.
Isn't that sad? And, at the same time, really funny? Don't judge me: I have to entertain myself somehow.
09 July 2009
So imagine my delight when, three weeks ago, I saw a preview for Impact, a (good, old-fashioned) TV miniseries about an asteroid that hits the moon and sends it not only out of its orbit but headed towards Earth! Appointment TV! I curled up with Q on the Sunday of Impact's premiere and watched a fairly expendable cast of characters deal with the possible end of humanity!
(Except not really, because does the world ever really end in movies like this? I mean, someone always comes up with a brilliant plan that involves sending people into space and ends with a room full of cheering scientists and civilians, brought together by circumstances but now forever bonded -- like a microcosm of the world! -- by the close call.)
But Impact was fantastic. By which I mean fantastically bad. I'm really not sure what I liked best about it:
- The "romance" between Alex and Maddie, which never went further than a kind of forced hug.
- The crotchety old grandfather, as played by James Cromwell, who hits a guy (who is, admittedly, threatening Cromwell's grandchildren) with a cane and then promptly drops from a heart attack brought on by the exertion of -- smacking a guy with a cane?
- That once Crotchety Grandpa dies from said heart attack, his grandkids catch a ride to D.C. with the guy who was previously menacing them. They get into a car with a stranger who then gives them candy.
- The fact that, in part two of the miniseries, Natasha Henstridge's role is reduced to reaction shots in which she basically stands with her mouth open. Seriously. That's what she does for two hours.
But I think my favorite part was this dialogue at the end of part one:
President of the United States: So... what
happens if the moon hits Earth?
Maddie: Um, there won't be an
Oh, Mr. President. Obviously you will not be the one developing the magical electromagnetic plan to get the brown drawf out of the moon's core and set the moon back in its regular orbit (or send it out into space? In two pieces? Or put its two pieces in a new, not-dangerous orbit around Earth? I don't know; there were a number of plot points I was not clear about at the end).
Anyway, the other day I discovered that NBC is doing a miniseries starting this Sunday called Meteor, which is about -- wait for it -- a meteor! Which is three times the size of Mount Everest and heading straight for Earth! I can't imagine what the characters will do to stop it, but I'm thinking it might involve astronauts...
07 July 2009
This is what my desk looked like when I came in yesterday morning:
What did I do before I had hundeds of evaluations to sort and alphabetize?
(I turned these haphazard piles into three organized stacks within two hours, but seriously! Two hours! I'm so earning my paycheck this summer.)
06 July 2009
I'd like to say that I did some amazing things, like parasailing or risking my life on the Slingshot (um, hell and no), but instead, I just read. I read a lot -- on the beach, at the pool, on the balcony, in the car. I think it works out to a book a day -- I actually had to go to the used bookstore, which was luckily just a block away, on Wednesday to buy a few more books because I had almost finished the ones I brought with me.
Here's how it breaks down:
- Monday: The Chosen One (Carol Lynch Williams) -- Jess lent me this one. I've gotten super into sci-fi YA, but The Chosen One is realistic contemporary YA. It was difficult to read at times because I was so anxious for Kyra, the main character, but ultimately I loved it.
- Tuesday: Troy: Fall of Kings (David Gemmell) -- I had really been looking forward to Fall of Kings because it's the last in Gemmell's Troy trilogy; my dad read it first and lent it to me a week before we left for the beach, and I managed to save it, which is kind of amazing for me, as I'm a "read it if you have it" kind of person. Anyway, the conclusion of the trilogy definitely did not disappoint, and I wish Gemmell were still alive, because there were characters who definitely deserved books of their own.
- Wednesday: The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) -- This was a reread, because The Hunger Games is our freshmen summer reading this year. I first read this right after it came out (Jess lent it to me), and it became perhaps my favorite sci-fi YA of all time. I bought my own copy before vacation and, when I had finished it on Wednesday, I lent it to my brother, WS, because he had run out of books to read, too.
(I'll be honest: my motives in lending WS The Hunger Games were not entirely altruistic. I wanted to find out if the book appealed to guys as well as girls; in the spring, when the ninth grade team talked about making The Hunger Games the summer reading book, I predicted that, though it has a female protagonist, the guys would gravitate to the action of the plot. And, yays! WS loves it. He was about two thirds of the way through it when we left on Sunday, and on the way home, he apparently recapped the story for his girlfriend, Dee, and asked her to read him the read as he drove.)
- Thursday: Eight Cousins (Louisa May Alcott)
- Friday: Rose in Bloom (Louisa May Alcott) -- These books were both Mason's purchases, I read Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom, when I was younger and really liked both. Upon rereading, I still enjoyed the novels, though I found them a bit preachy at times (I was about to say outdated, but as they were written in the 19th century, that seems unfair). Still, Alcott's various characterizations of the cousins are fun and distinctive, and Rose definitely picks the right guy at the end of Rose in Bloom.
- Saturday: The Demon's Lexicon (Sarah Rees Brennan) -- Another Jess-lend! I enjoyed Rees Brennan's world-building, though I was not particularly fond of Nick, the protagonist (there are actually deliberate, author-intended reasons why, I think, but it made the reading hard going at times). The story is great, though, and other characters -- Alan and Jamie especially -- make up for Nick's stand-offishness.
- Sunday: Lion of Macedon (David Gemmell) -- I started this on Saturday night, when I realized that I had read everything else and my father kindly let me borrow it. It takes place in Greece about one hundred years after the Battle of Thermopylae and follows Parmenion, a half-Spartan, half-Macedonian boy who comes of age as the various Greek city-states battle for control. I wasn't sold on the book, but once I started reading, I couldn't put it down, and I spent most of yesterday (after picking up Q from the kennel and unpacking) engrossed in reading it on the couch.
So once more, my vacation can be summed up by what I read! I did other things, too, but I've been shirking the alphabetizing and probably ought to try to earn some of my paycheck this week.