Monday, March 31, 2014

The Monthly Digest: March 2014

Welcome back to The Monthly Digest here at Late Nights with Good Books. With these posts I hope to recap everything reading- and blogging-related for the past month.

The Books

Favorite Read from March:
All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry

Notable Quote from February: 
Like the clanging of the bell, the truth crashes in upon me. At last I understand. He took away my voice to save me. And now, to save myself, I take it back.
Julie Berry, All The Truth That's in Me

The Blog
March Reviews:

March Features:

The Writing
Writing research:
I finished reading The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar. It was a slower, heavier sort of read, but I liked it overall. And I know more now about Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm than I ever expected to know.

I'm currently in the process of reading The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. It's not quite what I expected (more of a dictionary/encyclopedia than anything else), but also quite tongue-in-cheek, which is refreshing.

Writing progress:
None again. I'm ashamed, yes, but more saddened than anything else. And also flabbergasted. I love creative writing and yet somehow I manage to avoid doing any writing.

I think this Goodreads Quote of the Day from Saturday, March 22 best sums up my problems:
Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on. 
Louis L'Amour

It's partially (or perhaps largely) fear that has prevented me from writing. It's been quite a while since I really worked on creative works, and I'm worried that I just won't be able to do it anymore. Silly worries, perhaps, but true nonetheless. It's time to face my fears head-on, which is why April is going to be a writing month for me. And with that...

An Announcement:
Except for a review or two for books recently published/being published in April, I will be taking a hiatus for the month of April. I'm having a difficult time balancing everything I want to do right now, and recently blogging's begun to feel like a chore. I still like writing reviews, but I haven't had the time or energy to devote to writing other posts or interacting with the community as a whole. I need time to recharge and reevaluate. Hopefully I'll be back to business as usual in May.

And...I'm thinking of trying out Camp NaNo. Maybe. At least, I'm going to use the fact that lots of people are attempting to write stories this month as a way to inspire me to finally start writing that WIP I've been sitting on for forever. Wish me luck! (No, seriously, I'll need it.)

How was your March?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: Cress by Marissa Meyer

Cress by Marissa Meyer
Series: The Lunar Chronicles, #3
Published: 2014, Feiwel and Friends
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction, Retelling
Source: Library 
Contains spoilers for Cinder (my review), Scarlet (my review)
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"Do you think it was destiny that brought us together?"
He squinted and, after a thoughtful moment, shook his head. "No. I'm pretty sure it was Cinder.”

Thank goodness. I suppose I can count myself among the legions Marissa Meyer’s fans once again. I loved Cinder but had a bit of a rockier relationship with Scarlet. In retrospect, I think that my dissatisfaction of Scarlet stemmed primarily from the fact that Cinder was no longer the primary protagonist, just as her journey was no longer the centerpiece of the story; she fully shared the story with Scarlet. I get a little attached to my protagonists and their personal stories, so it was a rough adjustment for me to accept Scarlet’s story in Scarlet. Because I better anticipated the narrative format of Cress (and was willing to embrace the dual storylines), I ended up quite enjoying this one.

(As a sidenote, please tell me that there are others out there who, like me, don’t like stories with multiple points of view and protagonists as much as a story documenting one person’s tale. I can’t be alone in this.)

As Cress begins, Scarlet and Wolf have teamed up with Cinder and Thorne abroad Thorne’s Rampion spaceship. After the heavy casualties sustained from a Lunar attack on major Earthen cities, Prince Kai of the Eastern Commonwealth has agreed to marry Queen Levana of the Lunars. Bloodshed has stopped for now, but Cinder knows that the peace is temporary, that Levana won’t be content to be Kai’s equal, but will be planning to destroy him and subjugate all people of Earth under her rule.

As Cinder and her friends plot a way to disrupt the upcoming nuptials, they’re being safely hidden from Earthen or Lunar detection thanks to hacker and coder extraordinaire, Cress. Cress is a Lunar, but a shell (meaning that she never developed Lunar bioelectric abilities and is thus treated as a pariah by her own people). For seven years she’s been locked away in a satellite, told to spy on all Earthen networks. But when it comes to Cinder, Thorne, and their friends, Cress finds that she cannot sell them out to the Lunar government, perhaps primarily due to her crush on Thorne, whom she has decided is a hero in the flesh.

When she and Thorne’s Rampion finally do make contact, Cress thinks this is her chance to get out of her satellite once and for all. To make friends and possibly form a relationship. To be useful to the good side for once. But neither she nor Cinder and company could anticipate the fallout arising from a mission to rescue the damsel locked away in her satellite.

There are many, many reasons why this story works and has received positive praise (as anyone can see who bothers to look up reviews of Cress). Rather than rehashing the story’s various elements that work so well, I want to focus my review on two aspects in particular: the characterization of the three heroines, and how Cress works as a “Rapunzel” retelling.

As the series continues, The Lunar Chronicles has gradually gotten darker and more serious. Characters like Thorne and Iko add comic relief, but the main plot is a heavy one: Cinder has to come forward, accept her destiny as the missing Princess Selene of the Lunars, and find a way to avert the crisis poised to destroy Earth and the emperor she loves. With Cinder’s responsibility weighing her down and Scarlet’s grief over the recent loss of her grandmother, it is Cress who brings a new perspective and extra hope to the story.

I loved the addition of Cress to the story. Small and literally child-like in appearance, Cress is in many ways the polar opposite of Cinder and Scarlet. She lacks Scarlet’s familial loyalty and Cinder’s desire for justice. The fact of the matter is, Cress doesn’t really know who she is or what she wants. Up until she started tracking Cinder’s movements, Cress has never been given the opportunity to decide who she is or what she stands for; all she knows is that in a society told that shells are worthless, her technological prowess has given her an extra opportunity for life.

Cress is simultaneously appreciative of the new experiences she now has and very much aware of how easily the Queen Levana could destroy them all. She’s naive and second-guesses herself and is overly sentimental at times, but she’s also a lost girl trying to find her place in this unfamiliar world. I can see where aspects of Cress’ character would bother others, but I quite enjoyed the added perspective she brings to the series.

Cinder, however, is likely to remain my overall favorite protagonist of the series. It is her struggles that I care about the most, and the hard truths she must deal with that elicit my sympathy. She’s not overly tough or overly skilled, but she has a strong sense of morality and an unflagging determination that I can’t help but admire. And there’s no denying that Cinder is the heart of this series. Everything that has happened in Scarlet and Cress appears to be building up to Cinder’s ultimate reclamation of her past, present, and future.

Scarlet does not have much of a role in Cress, unfortunately, but the little perspective she does have is terrifyingly fascinating. Scarlet is physically separated from the rest of the cast early on, and subjected to intense emotional and physical trauma. It is through Scarlet’s narration, however, that the conflict is enriched. And it is through Scarlet’s narration that readers are introduced to Princess Winter, whose story I am very excited to read.

In some ways, Cress is an ambitious retelling of “Rapunzel.” As with Cinder (a “Cinderella” retelling) and Scarlet (a “Little Red Riding Hood” retelling), it’s clear that Meyer is not only very familiar with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, but that she has a healthy respect for the sources of her inspiration.

Aspects of the tale have been adapted to better incorporate the story within the world of The Lunar Chronicles. Instead of Cress being taken by a witch after her parents stole vegetables from the witch’s garden, Cress is born a pariah in her society. Her tower may be a satellite, but it effectively prevents her from human or Lunar interaction outside of Mistress Sybil (the “witch” and one of Queen Levana’s chief advisors). The hints of blossoming sexuality may have been disregarded in this retelling, but Cress loses her innocence nonetheless once she’s taken away from her satellite. And Thorne...actually is a surprisingly effective prince.

Much of the Grimms’ version of “Rapunzel” focuses on the time Rapunzel spends locked away in her tower, but the opposite is the case in Cress. And, really, the story is all the better because of that. What matters more is what happens after the damsel is rescued and realizes that the outside world is even more complicated than she could have imagined.

I am definitely a fan of Cress and applaud Meyer’s creative fairy-tale retellings. This can technically be categorized as (light) science fiction, although that’s not really the draw of this series at all. Instead, this is a book for those seeking a different sort of retelling that is incredibly character-oriented. Winter may be coming, but right now it’s not fast enough for me.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Top Ten Things On My Bookish Bucket List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the BookishThis week we're discussing our top ten book-related bucket list items. I'm not sure these really are at the top of my bookish bucket list, but they all are things I'd ideally love to accomplish in my reading life one day.

First of all, there are a ton of classics that I want to read:
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas - I love the film and I'm pretty sure I'll love the book. I've heard great things about the actual written story and I do love me some nineteenth-century fiction.  
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy - I've started this book three times now. That's just unacceptable. I refuse to let any book best me, and, besides that, I am actually interested in the story here (just not the way it's being told, apparently).
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo - I love the play. And I love the idea of the book. I actually own this and think that I'll enjoy reading it. I just need to devote some serious time and concentration to doing so.
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery - I think I'm probably breaking some serious taboo in that I never read these books as a child. From what I've heard, though, I think I'll still enjoy Anne's stories very much as an adult.
The entirety of Charles Dickens' corpus - Because I actually like the works of his that I've read (well, not Our Mutual Friend, but I consider that to be a rare exception). And I just love the idea of reading an author's entire published works. 

Read 100 new books in one year:
This is more than do-able, just not with my current schedule. But I think it would be awesome to say I've read that many books in a year. Plus, when would being able to read 100 new books in a single year ever be a bad thing? More books to love, more favorite authors to find.

Attend more author events:
This involves both me being more aware of events held in my area and also being able to make the time/commitment to actually attend them. I made a start this year with meeting Lois Lowry and I plan on attending the summer Fierce Reads tour in Milwaukee (which I'm super excited about).

And, more specifically, I'd love to meet:
J.K. Rowling - Probably never going to happen, but she's definitely the person most responsible for fostering my love of reading, writing, and the fantasy genre. I can dream, right?
Megan Whalen Turner - Also unlikely, unfortunately. Of all the authors I've read, I probably respect her writing the most. I'm a very verbose writer and I admire how tightly constructed her prose is. And she's been a major influence of mine since I first read The Thief.

Read more diverse books:
I'm not going to be too picky about which books will qualify as more diverse. Basically, those that deal with a variety of perspectives, genders, races, classes, etc. that are recent releases, as well as those that are older. As much as I love books considered to be part of the classical canon, I recognize the fact that so, so many wonderful books never received the exposure they should have because of their content or author, and that's something I can and will disagree with.

Please let me know what items made their way onto your bookish bucket list!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick
Published: 2013, Roaring Brook Press
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal
Source: Library
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

His attention snaps back to the present, and he thinks how far the world has come in a thousand years, how the island has changed in that time. And what will it be like in another thousand years? People, most people, always assume that civilization steadily increases, that the world improves, becomes more peaceful, and it very often does. But if there’s one thing he’s learned in his days as an archaeologist, it’s that this is not always the case. Sometimes, when civilization falters, sometimes, things become more primitive again. More primitive, and more violent.

As soon as ALA announced that Midwinterblood had won the 2014 Printz Award, I immediately placed a hold on the title with my local library. This was a title I’d been interested in reading previously, but had just never got around to actually obtaining a copy. The excuse to finally read it, therefore, was much appreciated.

Midwinterblood is not a typical, cohesive story; rather, it is a series of seven vignettes told over a period of thousands of years in the history of the Scandinavian isle of Blessed. Besides the recurring location, each story is also tied together through two of its characters: a male whose name is Eric (or a variant thereof) and a female named Merle (or a variant thereof). Eric and Merle’s meetings form the focal point of each story, as well as the focal point of the novel as a whole.

Sedgwick arranges the vignettes in a reverse chronology. The first vignette, titled “Midsummer Sun,” takes place in 2073 and recounts journalist Eric Seven’s trip to Blessed Island, an island where its inhabitants are rumored to live forever. The inhabitants (including a woman named Merle) welcome Eric with open arms and are the most accommodating of hosts, providing him with their special tea made from the Little Blessed Dragon Orchid, perhaps at the very center of the island’s mysteries. Although Eric is enjoying his time there, he cannot help but feel as though something is not quite right, as if there’s some greater meaning he needs to unlock, if only he can remember how.

The other vignettes take place in 2011, 1944, 1902, 1848, 10th century, and an unknown older time. Of them all, the two most important are the final one and first one. The first one sets readers up for the mystery that is the isle of Blessed, and the hold that is has upon all the Erics and Merles throughout time. And the last one provides some answers at long last.

In a way, reading Midwinterblood is like putting together a large puzzle. Each vignette gives clues about purpose and message of the overall story, but it is not until readers have made their way through all the vignettes that they can really understand everything. Any answers are slow in coming, as the vignettes record the moments leading up to an Eric and a Merle meeting, but little more than that. No answers are spoon-fed to characters or readers. It is only through the final story - and the brief epilogue following - that the story turns full-circle and readers discover the full ramifications of Eirikr and Melle’s actions from a time long ago.

This is an incredibly literary novel. Sedgewick is a masterful writer, for the story, which appears to be stylistically simple, accrues greater and greater depth as the vignettes continue. Little details from previous stories become recurring themes. Each and every word in this short novel is meaningful. It’s a novel I can see being even better understood upon a re-read, although there’s nothing like blindly putting all the pieces together for a first read.

As much as I really enjoyed what Sedgwick does with his story stylistically and thematically, I do think it fell prey to some of the traditional pitfalls of short stories: namely, I didn’t get the chance to feel properly invested in any singular story. They are too brief for any emotional attachment to occur. But maybe that’s part of the novel’s greater point. Lives and individual events are fleeting, but there’s always the hope that they’re part of something better, of something significant.

I will say I am surprised that this is considered to be written for a young adult audience. The vast majority of the characters are adults, and the many themes feel more apt for an older audience. I’d be curious to read about the publisher’s (and ALA’s) rationale in marketing this for teens.

I don’t want to say much more, because this is the sort of books readers should go into with fairly few expectations. Midwinterblood is a beautifully haunting series of tales. It’s the sort of story that makes readers work to figure it out. But the ultimate story it tells - of loss, hope, and love - is one worth reading.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, March 21, 2014

Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
Published: April 1, 2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: From publisher via Netgalley
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

“...I’m starting to realize that it’s not a coincidence. That the people I most admire, the ones who seemed to be able to use their bodies, their voices, to fight away the fear, you didn’t win, not really, in the end. It’s gotten harder to write these letters, and maybe that’s why.”

Laurel has to do the unthinkable: start her high school career without her older sister May by her side. In fact, Laurel will never have May by her side again, as her older sister died tragically a few months earlier. Laurel will have to navigate her new high school alone (she switched districts to avoid becoming an object of pity by all the faculty and students). After her mother abandoned their family for California shortly after May’s death, Laurel will spend half her weeks with her father, the other weeks with her Aunt May.

May was Laurel’s role model, best friend, and confidante and Laurel is having trouble processing the fact that May’s no longer there. So when Laurel’s first English class assignment is to write a letter to a dead person, she doesn’t immediately choose to write something to May. Instead, she writes to Kurt Cobain, who was May’s favorite musician. Throughout the school year, Laurel continues writing letters to various deceased entertainers, recording her thoughts and emotions as she attempts to find some normalcy in her life post-May.

I personally dislike it when books are compared to other books, films, or forms of common media. I’m a firm believer that each and every work of literature should be able to stand on its own two feet (except for retellings, I suppose). And yet here I am, going to compare Ava Dellaira’s debut novel Love Letters to the Dead to two other young adult novels: The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.

First of all, the subject matter between Love Letters to the Dead and The Sky is Everywhere is very similar: a young girl is learning how to cope with her older sister’s unexpected death. Her sister was the sun around which the younger sister orbited; and without her sister, the younger sister doesn’t know what to do or how to live. Both protagonists in these two stories turn to various forms of beautiful, lyrical writing in order to help them cope with the pain and loss.

The comparisons made between Love Letters to the Dead and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are much more subtle, but present nonetheless. Laurel, like Charlie, is an incredibly naive protagonist. Tragedies in their lives and a subsequent blocking of emotions have caused them to shut themselves off and enter high school without any friends. And they’re both adopted by a ragtag group of friends that teaches them how to live once more.

For me, at least, the comparisons were fairly easy to draw. But in no way did these comparisons affect my enjoyment of Love Letters to the Dead as a distinct book in its own right.

Laurel captured my sympathy almost immediately, despite the fact that she’s a bit younger than I tend to prefer my protagonists to be. May, however, was a character I alternately despised and pitied. Life hasn’t been easy for either girl since their parents decided to separate a few years ago. This has caused May to seek affirmation through her friends and through dating much-older guys. Laurel primarily sought affirmation through May. In a way, Love Letters to the Dead presents a fascinating exploration into the minutiae of the bonds of sisterhood. May is the leader of their pack, the one who decides everything they do. She embraces that power, while Laurel willingly hands over all responsibility to her. May also does try to protect her sister and provide for her. But, I ultimately felt as though May failed in her main responsibilities as an elder sister (and I don’t just mean through her death). As an older sister myself, I know that sisterhood is complicated, but I think that May was not the older sister she should have been.

Fortunately this story is not simply about Laurel and May’s relationship, but Laurel’s new relationship to others, and to herself. Each of Laurel’s relationships are expertly crafted: from her blossoming new romance full of hope and possibility with Sky, to the juxtaposition of wanton parties and heart wrenching secrets she and her two best friends Natalie and Hannah share, to the well-meaning but distant nights with her father, to her tense phone conversations with her physically and emotionally distanced mother, to the rigidly conservative rules of propriety under Aunt Amy. The secondary characters that Dellaira has created and placed in Laurel’s life felt so real.

Grief for her lost life is obviously a major component of this story. At times it was painful to read parts of this book, as Laurel’s grief trickles in each and every part of her life. Laurel’s anger at May--for leaving her, for the things she did that inadvertently hurt Laurel--is raw, and her sorrow is consuming. But more than simply presenting a portrait of grief, Love Letters to the Dead is about redemption, love, hope in the midst of our grief. Laurel’s narration is at times imagery-laden and simple, terse and sophisticated. It perfectly mirrors the gamut of emotions that Laurel has to endure as the sister who lived, the one who must pick up the pieces of her old life to forge one anew.

As I mentioned above, the novel starts with a letter that Laurel writes to Kurt Cobain, May’s favorite musician. Not sure of what exactly to tell Kurt in her letter, Laurel begins by revealing day-to-day information about her life. And it’s like writing that first letter opens up a floodgate for Laurel: soon she finds herself writing letters to various celebrities that she and her loved ones admired, her letters basically becoming a diary for her. As the story continues, however, Laurel simply doesn’t share information about her own life, but relates her own problems to various situations her deceased addresses once faced.

I do think that the focus on dead celebrities is a particularly apt choice for Laurel. In many not-so-subtle ways May was Laurel’s celebrity. Not only that, but the epistolary style of this novel allows Laurel to develop greater sympathy and understanding with others, even if it is one-sided. Perhaps the mention of Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Amelia Earhart, John Keats, and others will act as a draw to readers. But these celebrities are not much more than foils to Laurel and her relationship with May, and it is because of Laurel that readers will stay invested in this story.

Dellaira has written a novel that will certainly find its way into the hands of many new fans. Laurel’s story is incredibly poignant, both full of heavy grief and also enduring hope. It was incredibly rewarding to witness Laurel’s acceptance of both herself and the life she’s been given. Dellaira has talent and I am definitely interested in seeing what she writes next.

Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer:I received this review copy from the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion. The quote is from an advanced copy of the novel and is subject to change in the final edition.  
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