Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard

This book was an uplifting portrait of a young girl's struggle with grief. I know that sounds slightly skewed and oxymoronic (My brain: is that even a word? Me: shut up.), but I felt absurdly happy and free, not while, but after reading this novel. Let me tell you a little story:

My Mother: Come downstairs!
Me: (reluctantly puts book down)
My Mother: I need you to put these wontons in the oven for TEN MINUTES. TEN MINUTES. TEN MINUTES. TEN MINUTES. DO NOT BURN THEM. I'm going on a walk. TEN MINUTES.
Me:OK...(drifts upstairs back to my room to enjoy the blissful escape that is reading)
My Sister: You know you burnt the wontons, right?
Me: (puts book down) *screams a number of unprintable words*

Yes. This books is so good that it is worth burnt wontons. (My brain: that doesn't sound like the highest compliment. Me: Did I ask you?) That phrase might not sound like a wonderful assessment of the book, but if you ask me, burnt wontons are a high price to pay. 

The Usual Rules is the tale of 13-year-old Wendy--Living with her mother Janet, younger (half) brother whom she loves to death, and her mother's second husband Josh, worrying about her appearance--a normal teenaged girl. The date is September 11, 2001. Her mother, a former dancer, is working as a secretary on the 84th floor in one of the buildings that collapses on that fateful day. Later, as the fact that her mother really is gone is settling in, her real father who hasn't seen her for years steps in and sweeps her off to California with him--where she discovers a new part of herself as she deals with the unspeakable tragedy she's suffered.

What I most enjoyed about this book were the relationships between Wendy and her stepfather, as well as her father. Most books depict the stepfather as a horrible demon from hell. (Although, thinking about it, where else do demons come from?) But in this scenario, Josh (the stepfather) is the more loving parent, whereas Garrett (Wendy's birth father) is kind of a bad parent at first, having not seen his daughter or had any children to care for around 6 or 7 years. He wasn't a very good father for those first years either--cheating on Wendy's mother was one of the bad things he did that caused her to leave him. 

I'm including an excerpt from the book here. Just a warning: Ms. Maynard decided to not include quotation marks for the entirety of the book. I personally liked this style--I think it increased the feeling that Wendy had retreated into herself after her mother's death. However, it takes a little getting used to.

He [Garrett] opened the fridge. Here, he said. See what hits the spot.
      It was nothing like their refrigerator back in Brooklyn, with half a dozen different kinds of cheeses and the crisper drawer crammed full of vegetables that her mother used to complain were always more than they needed. You never know what you're going to feel like, Josh used to say. Could be cold roast chicken. Could be a bagel with cream cheese. A person has to be prepared.
      Here there was a stick of beef jerky and a package of sliced turkey breast. Store-bought tomato sauce. A couple of eggs. Margarine. Never trust a person with margarine in their fridge, Josh told her once. 
      Stop giving our daughter these ideas, her mother said. The first thirty-five years of my life, that's all I ever had.
      Our daughter.
      Wendy was still standing in front of the open refrigerator. Nothing strikes you fancy, huh? Can't say I blame you. But I was saying the best for last. 
       He opened the top door, the freezer. A half dozen Healthy Choice dinners were stacked inside. Take your pick, he said. The sky's the limit. 
       In the end, she settles on a couple of Oreos. That's genetics for you, he said. I love these things, too. 
       He had fixed up a room for her. It must have been his workroom before, because there were still boxes stacked in the corner with papers and a few more tools and art supplies. But he'd put an India-print spread on the bed and a vase of flowers next to it. He'd set up a stuffed lion on the pillow.
       It was mine when I was a kid, he said. Of course you're too old for that kind of stuff. I just thought you might like a little homey touch. 
       He set her bigger suitcase on the floor at the foot of the bed. In a day or two, we can set you up with whatever other stuff you need. You probably like music, right?
       We'll head over to Circuit City and get you one of those portable CD players. Just don't tell me you like rap okay? 
       She hadn't pictured herself this way. Actually playing music in some room other than the one back home. Hanging her clothes up in this closet next to the box of tools. 
       No, she said. I listen to jazz mostly. But I like Madonna and Ani DiFranco and Sade. 
       He left the room. When he came back, he was holding something--a very old photograph of her mother, from when she had long hair. Pregnant, from the looks of it. 
       Janet kept most of our pictures, he said. I only have a few. 
       She looked at the face in the picture. Her mother wasn't exactly smiling. She had a puzzled sort of expression. Wendy wondered if even then they had been arguing. 
       We had different ideas about a lot of things, he said. She was more the type to want to settle down and make a home. I never believed in traditional family structures. It always seemed to me like most people's problems start with their parents. I wanted things to be a little looser, hands-off. Like the whole world was your home, instead of just one place. 

You can see the difference between the sweet, comforting feeling of Wendy's home and family in New York and her new life and awkward relationship with her new father in California. 

Family. The truth is, this book isn't about 9/11. It's about familial relationships. This book includes a mother, stepfather, half-brother, father, and even that father's girlfriend. You can't really define family. Almost everyone has their own definition. Some people's entire families aren't even related to them at all. That doesn't deduct from the love you can show them. And reading this book helped me (and probably numerous others) realize that. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

5 Questions with Allison Glock-Cooper and T. Cooper

I had the wonderful chance to read and review Changers Book One: Drew, the first book in the new YA series Changers by Allison Glock-Cooper and T. Cooper. They also agreed to this interview, which I hope gives you some insight into the new book!  
If you have any questions about the questions (ha-ha) that I asked (i.e. what is an Abider?) Please comment below and I will clarify. 
(Please visit the their website, which is linked below in their answer to question #5!)
HF: What is the significance of the Abiders' relationship with the Changers? Do they represent someone or something in the real world?

AG & TC:To us, the Abiders represent any group that forgoes knowledge in favor of superstition, or that acts from a place of fear. Basically, they are that subset of the population that believe things are better when they stay the same--which is rough life philosophy given nothing ever does stay the same. Their relationship with the Changers is one of distrust and the need to control this thing they can't understand. In the real world, when any minority begins to gain power or visibility, the opposition to that minority grows louder and more desperate. You can find this pattern in most social change movements. Simply put, things get very dramatic before they settle down. And we are meeting the Abiders at the start of their hysteria over the Changers.

HF: Did your high school experiences inspire the book? If not, what did?

AG & TC: Very much so. Also the high school experiences of our children, our friends, their friends. As writers, we are always listening. One small example is that I was, in fact, a cheerleader for a brief, inglorious stint. And the chapters about that came quite directly from the dissonance I felt being an independent, bookish girl putting on that pleated skirt and jumping up and down.

HF: I found Ethan's approach to being a girl amusing, especially to clothing (like jeggings), friendship, and romance. Did you two collaborate on different viewpoints of each gender?

AG & TC: The entire book (and series) is a collaboration, in that my husband would write a brief outline, then I would fill in the meat of the chapter, then he would add and subtract, and so on. Some chapters he wrote exclusively. Others I did. People always tell us they know who penned what, but they are often incorrect, which is a great compliment of sorts, in that it means we were both able to inhabit all the characters, and to play with gender and voice, which is kind of the whole meta-point of the series. That said, I did make him try on jeggings. And he nearly died.

HF: Will one of the supporting character's (such as Tracy or Chase) stories be elaborated upon in the next book?

AG & TC: Tracy and Chase, as well as Audrey and other key characters, will remain with us for the next three books. Whether or not they stay those people remains to be seen. If you are asking if we will explore their origin stories, that is a possibility too. Readers seem very keen to find out what happens to Drew. But Audrey kind of wins my heart. She is the kind of generous, honorable friend everyone wants to have.

HF: Why did you write this series? Do you hope to influence how young people see the world from the eyes of others?

AG & TC: We wrote the series to entertain, of course, but also to engage readers in a discussion about what really defines a person. (Our empathy explicitly addresses this, as does our Unselfies campaign, where we encourage folks to stop taking pictures of themselves and instead take a few of how they feel.)  We believe everyone contains multitudes. And that true love and friendship weather the growth all humans go through as they become adults. We also believe where you begin in life need not be where you end up. It is such a hopeful notion to consider that who or what you become is really up to you. Lastly, we wanted to write something that was real and grounded, but also magical and fun. Because the best stuff in life happens when magic and reality collide.

Monday, February 3, 2014

5 Questions with J. Anderson Coats

I included a review of Ms. J. Anderson Coats' book The Wicked and the Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) in my "Winter Break Mash-Up" post. (You might want to read that post for questions 2 and 4 to make sense.) She graciously agreed to do an interview on the fascinating topics explored in her book here with me! I hope you enjoy.

HF: How and when did you become interested in medieval Welsh culture?

JAC: When I was in the sixth grade, my gifted enrichment program dida unit on medieval culture. One of the books available for our perusal was Castle by David MacCaulay. (If you’ve never read it, Castle is a slice-of-life tour through a fictional castle in Wales with the most lovely and detailed illustrations.) This book pulled me so firmly into the medieval world that I don’t think I’ve ever really left. Castle made the middle ages feel familiar, approachable and real. I went straight to my library and systematically checked out every book on medieval Wales, then the middle ages in general. When I’d read them all, I started harvesting titles from bibliographies and bugging my mother to get books for me on inter-library loan. I became the kind of unbalanced teenager who had research interests instead of boyfriends or, y’know, a life.

HF: When writing your book, did you sympathize more with one character than the other? (Cecily or Gwenhwyfar)

JAC: Cecily certainly has problems, but many of them are first-world problems and often of her own making. Gwenhwyfar’s problems are more immediate and visceral and dumped in her lap, but her
 fierce and uncompromising attitude complicates her ability to deal with her situation productively. Authors can’t afford to cuddle their characters too close. It’s when you put them through the wringer that they start doing interesting stuff.

HF: Did you ever consider writing non-fiction instead of historical fiction on this subject? If so, what made you choose historical fiction?

JAC: I have a bunch of academic degrees; a few in history, one in library science. I definitely could have written a straight history, but I’m much more interested in the story of early colonial Wales---what was happening on the ground to ordinary people, how they experienced these laws and injustices, how they responded. History happens out in the weeds no matter what the books tell you about kings and battles and Important People.

HF: Your book was written with a dual perspective, alternating by chapter. I noticed that Gwenhwyfar's chapters were a little bit shorter than Cecily's. Was there a reason for this?

JAC: I structured the book so Cecily’s narrative was initially the stronger, dominant one, but toward the end, Gwenhwyfar’s sections grow longer and Cecily’s become shorter. The distance between them is shrinking as the world changes around them.

HF: Do you plan to write more historical fiction, and if so, will you stay on the subject of medieval Wales? If you plan to write something other than historical fiction, will you stay in the YA


JAC: I definitely plan to keep writing YA, and maybe middle-grade someday. I like historical fiction and I’ll probably write more in the future, but I go where the story goes.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Changers Book One: Drew by T. Cooper & Allison Glock-Cooper

An ARC (Advance Review Copy) of this book arrived at my house on January 9th. I finished it January 10. Now, some of this may be attributed to my freakish reading speed, but the other part is that I couldn't put it down. I even read it in the dark. Probably not the best idea since my vision is already bad. But hey! good books deserve sacrifices. 

The first book in the Changers series is about a young boy named Ethan who is just starting high school in a new town. When he wakes up on the first day, he's not really Ethan anymore. He's Drew. Drew is small and blonde. She's also a girl. And so begins the journey as Ethan finds out that he's part of a race called Changers: beings that are a different person for every year of high school, devoted to spreading good.

The first thing I really liked is that the Changing takes place during high school. I think that high school really molds a person, and it was interesting how the authors chose to take that to an extreme. The authors really portrayed how it must feel to wake up in the morning and be someone else, but still have the memories and thoughts of who you once were. Here's an excerpt that I think illustrates that.

My eyes are barely slitted as my head pops through the neckhole, and I catch a flicker of somebody in the full length mirror behind the door---WHAT THE? Someone else is in the room with me. I manage to pry both eyes open. Hel-lo there. I pull my shirt all the way down and step a little closer to the mirror. She's wearing the identical Slayer shirt, faded, with holes in exactly the same places. That blows; it was supposed to be one of a kind. 
Wait, is this what my parents were fussing about? Some long-lost cousin or something? Some hillbilly relative?....Her name is probably "Brittney" or "Sunflower" or something innocent and dirty at the same time. This could be sweet. 
I raise a hand, attempt a wave. She does the same. I rub my eyes like they do in cartoons, and look again. Cousin Brittney is kind of a babe, if I can say that in reference to a cousin without being too incesty about it. Long, straight, white-blond hair--the kind that doesn't come in a bottle--and wide, wild green eyes, a nice body. A little shorter than me. She's also...wearing my skull-and-crossbones boxers. That's weird.

 Okay, I get it.  This is a dream, the weirdest freaking dream I've ever had. And it's still going on. Duh, of course, because I was obsessing over getting a girlfriend before I fell asleep, now I've conjured myself an imaginary dream girl. Pathetic, sure. But hey, I'll go with it. I reach out to touch her, and she reaches out to touch me. We get closer. My eyes float down to her chest. My fingertips touch her fingertips in the mirror, and then for some reason my hands do a U-turn and land on my own chest. I look down, start lifting up my  collar to peek inside.
"MOOOOM!!" I scream in a high voice that startles me. My mom is in my room in seconds, takes one look at me, and commences jumping up and down like a three-year-old at a birthday party. She squeals over her shoulder to Dad, "It's a girl!"

As you can see, the authors portray the excitement of parents as contrasting with the confusion of the teenager in a comedic way. Ethan goes on to start "liking" (as, in middle school, like-like) two people: one, a fellow Changer boy named Chase, and the other, a regular girl named Audrey.  It was cool to read about how Ethan adjusted to romance from a girl's perspective. The thing that defines a good YA book for me is how real it feels--how many things go wrong. It has to have a good balance of good and bad, otherwise it becomes too fantastical for me. Changers did that perfectly. None of the romances were predictable--you never knew who was going to "get the girl (or boy)".

I think that this book deals with almost every issue that a teenager will encounter, and serves as a reference for almost every mold-able young adult out there. The book takes on important problems that affect teens everyday--from being too short or too tall to being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, as well as being biracial or foreign. think that everyone should read this book and the rest of the series that will follow. It gives you a glimpse into what everyone else is thinking. 

P.S. Here is the official Changers site!

P.P.S. The book comes out in February 2014.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Winter Break Mash-Up

Ahhhhh. Winter Break. For some (like me), this means Christmas. For others in that category (also like me), this means.......BOOOOOOOOKKKKKKSSSSSSS!!!!! Yes, I did receive many books for Christmas. I have also read most of them in the week that followed, earning me the title of "book freak" from many in my family. I'm going to do a quick review of all of the ones that I have read so far.

Paper Towns by John Green
Once, as we were leaving a stage combat class, my friend said, " Oh my god, that was so much fun. Like, I was about to die from all the fun." This was the sensation I experienced reading this book. The story is that Q (short for Quentin), has been in love with his neighbor, Margo, since he was a kid. One night, she climbs into his room and employs him as an assistant in her various acts of vengeance and kindness around town. Some include: leaving a rotten fish and vandalizing her former boyfriend's house and the house of her best friend, whom he was cheating on her with, going into a closed skyscraper in the middle of town to see the city, and breaking into Sea World, as it is the only theme park in her area that she hasn't broken into. The next day, Margo disappears, leaving small clues for Q on how to find her. You get caught up in the mystery and find yourself trying to decode Margo's messages before Q does. The book has a powerful ending while still being fun and exciting. I really loved the way that Green incorporated the normalcy of "teenager-dom" into a VERY un-normal (for lack of a better term) situation. Although someone like Margo is one in a thousand, you feel like she could be anywhere. 

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron
This book is more along the lines of a YA fantasy. However, while still very easily sliding under that label, I don't think that it has completely succumbed to the stereotypes of its genre. The book has a very imaginative storyline. It takes place around 1850 in England. Seventeen-year-old Katherine is send to her uncle, where she is supposed to send him to a lunatic asylum. She then discovers that he is a wonderful old man and has many beautiful inventions. She also befriends a young mute boy named Davy and her uncle's apprentice, Lane, whom she soon begins to develop feelings for. As you can see, the book sounds pretty generic. I think that the writing is what stood out to me. Cameron artfully creates a world that you can imagine yourself in, and she has very good character development. You can really feel what Katharine is feeling. 

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
I don't know how I can not have heard of this author before. She is an amazing writer. This story is about a (very bratty) girl named Cecily is more or less kicked out of her estate and forced to live in "occupied Wales". Her father becomes one of the English "occupiers" and she ascends the social ladder. Her servant, Gwenhwyfar, a Welsh girl, has a deep hatred for the English, with good reason. The Welsh soon start to overtake the English, and "the brat", as Gwen calls her, gets a look at her life from the opposite side. Coats has amazing characters. The way that she writes correctly portrays every feeling that her two main characters go through with such detail that you can feel what they feel surprisingly accurately. The plot is also good--the whole book is very well written historical fiction overall. I love reading historical fiction that isn't just fact after fact after fact after fact after fact. Its a hard task, and I think that J. Anderson Coats does it extremely well. 

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
The tagline on the cover of this book: "If you're lost, you might need to swim against the tide." Ugh. Before reading this, I thought this would be a corny feel-good book. So it was a pleasant surprise when I discovered characters that I related to, an unconventional plot, and overall, the opposite of what I was expecting. The story is about a 12-year-old girl named Willow Chance, adopted at birth and evolved into nothing less than a prodigy. In her twelfth year, both of her parents are killed in a car accident. She is taken in by new friends and a school counselor who hates his job. I know that the plot sounds pretty simple, but all the little details that Sloan slips in are what makes it special. The book is written in broken sentence/list format sometimes, which I liked. It conveyed the rushing-ness of the human thought.

That's it, everybody. I hoped that you enjoyed and HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY YAY THIS IS MY LAST POST EVER OF 2013 AUSPICIOUS MOMENTS.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

5 Questions with Lois Lowry

A while ago, I had the incredible chance to have an (email) chat with none other than Lois Lowry! I asked her a couple of questions about her Giver series, and she provided me with some eloquent answers. Here they are! I've also provided the links to the individual books of the quartet at the bottom.

HF: I feel that the Young-Adult-Dystopian genre seems to be inspired by The Giver series--it certainly was my first glance into that world. When you wrote The Giver, were you looking to find a new audience or access your existing audience in a different way?

LL:No, I never think about the audience when I am writing. I simply tell the story that is appearing in my head. I had no thoughts at all about dystopia, or science fiction, or fantasy. I was thinking about memory…how it works, how it affects us…when the boy appeared, with a story to tell.

HF: I was struck by the way Claire and her child were handled by the society in the novel Son. Does this reflect on your views about how circumstances could inform a woman's ability to keep her child or give him/her away?

LL: I had four children before I was 26, back in the late 50s and early 60s, so I know a great deal from experience of what a woman's/mother's role was thought to be at that time. And I have lived a long life since then, so I have watched cultural attitudes shift and change.  SON doesn't deal with a woman's right to keep or relinquish a child, but rather with loss….and what it night do to a woman to have a child wrested away. It ponders the question of state control over reproduction, and how that might affect the basic instincts of most women.

HF: When I read the part in The Giver about how the society rid the world of pain, war, discrimination and such, but at the same time taking away color, light, and real feelings, I felt that it was your way of saying evil is also part of human life. Do you think that this is true, and if so, is it a message that you think that young people will be able to hear?

LL: I think the juxtaposition of good/bad in the world is something that kids know and are familiar with from the time they are very young. Throughout history, art and music and literature have all arisen form  deep pain But there are parents, i think, who try very hard to keep that knowledge from children…hence, the challenging and banning of books that some parents find too "dark" or "troubling."  Yet fairy tales from earliest times deal with the existence of evil in the world.  Reading about things that frighten us is a way of preparing our responses…rehearsing, in a way.

HF: Your books in The Giver series are all about how children taking on roles that should really be done by adults. ( i.e. Jonas taking on the memories of the world, Kira holding the past of the world, Matty being a messenger for an entire network of villages, Claire being a mother at 14, etc. ) do you think that the children of this generation are growing up too fast?

LL: The world has become very complex and today's kids must prepare to enter it armed, more now than when i was young. And many political leaders of today—I suppose this has perhaps always been true—are self-absorbed and corrupt. In contrast, young people tend to be idealistic and uncorrupted. In these books, each of the protagonists you mention has a genuine desire to save and heal the world. I like the idea of the young uncorrupted hero/heroine taking on that challenge, and even the burdens that come with it.

HF: If you could recommend 3-5 books that young people should reads before they graduate from high school, which books would you pick?

LL: I would change my mind many times. But right now? I think every young person should read A Fort of Nine Towers, by Qais Akbar Omar, a memoir of growing up in Afghanistan which gives a  passionate and detailed portrait of  a culture we do not adequately understand.  Also: The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien  ("a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling")  My Antonia, by Willa Cather.  Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama. and Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver. Everyone knows it. It's one of the most famous books of our generation. An amazing world of ethics and control is created by the talented Lois Lowry. This well-crafted story is one of my favorites, so I'd like to review it here.
       I first read this in the third grade, when I asked my then 14-year-old sister to give me a really good book, and she handed me this one. I started reading this book and I didn't stop until I was finished. (I mean, except to eat dinner, because everyone knows how hard that would be.) I even sat on the floor of our bathroom and read it when I was supposed to be brushing my teeth--maybe that's why I have braces. WHY DID YOU HAVE TO WRITE SUCH A GOOD BOOK, MS. LOWRY? But seriously. 
      For those of you who don't know, The Giver is about a future world where life is so controlled that people's partners, jobs, and even kids are chosen for them. Jonas, the main character is chosen to have all of the world's memories taken upon his shoulders. The story is about how he chooses to deal with this.    
      I recently re-read this book last year, when our whole grade was required to read it. (Since I had already read it in the bathroom earlier, I got to read #3 in the quartet, Messenger) I was amazed how well Lowry brought the character of Jonas together. He was so well written: just the right portrayal of that 12-year-old feeling of wanting to be older, but not really. I think that Ms. Lowry captured the way that a person on the cusp of "teenagerhood,"--a place where people will start to expect more of you--may feel, in a very interesting way. She created a complex world around that feeling. Jonas' job is to be the person who guides the leaders of his society with the memories of the entire world, so no one else has to have the negative effects of remembering things like war, pain, or even sunburn. But with this seemingly effective solution, comes the forgetting of things like climate, colors, love, or a boat sailing on a still lake. I don't want to ruin the ending for any young (or old, don't want to be prejudiced here) readers that still haven't read it, but I just want to say--you won't look at the world the same way after reading this book.