July 31, 2013

Review: The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Series: Dairy Queen, #2
Published: 2007, Graphia
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Format: Paperback, 277 pages 
Source: Borrowed from library
Contains spoilers for Dairy Queen (my review)
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

I’d promised myself that I’d really work on talking more, talking about uncomfortable things, because I could see from Brian how well things could work out if you did. 

The Off Season takes place right about where Dairy Queen left off. D.J. is not only a part of her high school's football team, but she's doing really well, even receiving some national attention. Her father's hip has healed enough that he can start managing some of the farm work again. She and Brian Nelson, the quarterback of rival high school Hawley's team and also the boy who helped out on her farm all summer, have something good developing between them. She and her best friend Amber are starting to work past some of the difficulties their friendship suffered from in the summer, and D.J. has even gained a new friend through Amber's girlfriend Dale. And, most of all, D.J. hopes that perhaps her family is opening up a little, working past everyone's difficulties in communicating clearly with one another.

Life seems to be good, certainly better than it was for D.J. over the summer, until she comes to realize that everything she mistook as being stable was really descending slowly and surely into chaos. Sure, things with Brian seem great, but only when they're alone or away from people who actually know them. And things may be better with Amber, but Amber's certainly not having an easy time in their hometown anymore. A shoulder injury forces D.J. to choose between football and basketball (and a chance for a college scholarship). Worst of all, however, are the problems that spring up within the Schwenk family. D.J.'s injury pales in comparison to her mother's problems, her father's slow recovery, and a devastating accident that changes the life of one of her older brothers forever. With the stakes raised, D.J. is asked to step up to the plate and support her family like never before.

While Dairy Queen was more focused on D.J. learning how to differentiate herself from her family, The Off Season is about D.J. learning how to apply her talents in a way that benefits her family. I mentioned in my first review how I initially had a difficult time justifying how D.J.'s family treated her. But, honestly, the burdens D.J. carries for her family in the first book are tiny in comparison to those D.J. and her family must endure in the second installment. D.J.'s family undergoes so much drama and trauma that perhaps the story borders on unrealistic. They deal with misunderstandings, strained relationships, and injuries galore. All of the Schwenks are shown to be incredibly selfish in one way or another, especially in the demands they make upon D.J. I found that I could only emphasize with them to a point before my frustration began going down the path of extreme displeasure.

And yet it's in these family dynamics and characterizations that the Dairy Queen trilogy really shines and comes into its own. The first book focuses more on D.J. and her parents (especially her father) learning to understand and come to accept one another. The second book focuses much more on Schwenk sibling relationships, with the only-mentioned older brothers Win and Bill becoming integral parts of this installment. Even little brother Curtis continues his slow progression towards opening up for D.J. What is really wonderful about the focus on the Schwenk siblings is how it further fleshes out D.J. More so than parent-child relationships and perhaps even friendships, sibling relationships are incredibly formative on a person's growth. D.J. becomes a well developed character in her own right in Dairy Queen, and through The Off Season, Murdock places D.J. into context with her family to an impressive degree. The Schwenks and their family dynamics are truly wonderful to behold.

In addition to all the family drama of The Off Season, a large portion of the novel is dedicated to D.J.'s relationship with Brian. After witnessing them develop into independent, fully-fleshed out characters in Dairy Queen, I was more than ready to accept the progression of their relationship into something more romantic. Just as it's impossible for readers (and Brian) to view D.J. as a hick dairy farmer by the end of the first book, so, too, is it impossible not to realize that there's more to Brian than his privileged background. He and D.J. are so good for one another, supporting each other in ways that no one else can (at least for now), so it was with equal disappointment and anger that I witnessed their relationship begin to dissolve. At the end of the book, however, I was still rooting for these two to find a way to work out their differences and be together.

The Off Season is a very different sort of book than Dairy Queen. If I'm being honest, I cannot even say that The Off Season is quite as strong as Dairy Queen. I really enjoyed how the first book focused on D.J.'s personal growth and acceptance of herself and her desires. The Off Season is more a test of mediation between D.J.'s new realized self and the needs her family is forced to place upon her once again. Because of that, I ended up spending a good portion of the novel quite frustrated at the characters and their choices. But that actually ends up being a very good thing; the story ends on a positive note, for, as important as it is that D.J. finds herself, it's just as crucial for her to find her role within her family and be there to support them. Through new trials and tribulations, D.J. is able to emerge that much the stronger and continues to be a protagonist worthy of emulation.

Rating: 4 stars
Read more »

July 30, 2013

Top Ten Favorite Beginning Lines in Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by the bloggers of The Broke and the Bookish. Once again, I altered the prompt slightly so I could just focus on some of my favorite literary beginnings (and I didn't want to spoil anyone by discussing book endings). I love a strong opening sentence, so here are some of my favorites.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. 
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Not every 13-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. 
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

It was a pleasure to burn.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
 It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The angel Gabriel went to the oracle on Mount Sinai, looking for a wife.
Archangel by Sharon Shinn

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien 

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. 
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy 
I am a coward. 
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein 

This is certainly not an exclusive list. I was going to explain why I loved these, but then I figured it was far better to let these sentences support themselves. 

Please let me know what some of your favorite story openings/endings are!
Read more »

July 26, 2013

Review: Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt
Published: 2009, namelos (Originally 2006)
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Format: ebook  
Source: Personal purchase
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

Each man, when he dies, sees the landscape of his own soul.

If ever a book deserves to be reviewed entirely by snippets of itself, it would be Martine Leavitt's Keturah and Lord Death.

While standing on the edge of her small country village, Tide-by-Rood, Keturah spots the elusive hart that has enchanted the minds of her fellow townsfolk for many years. Entranced, she follows it into the forest and becomes hopelessly lost. After wandering around for three days, Keturah knows that death is coming for her. Soon enough, Death appears as a handsome and solemn man astride a horse.

At their first meeting, Keturah hopes to delay her own death by entertaining Lord Death with a story about a young maiden who must live for her true love. Lord Death becomes so captivated by Keturah's story that, when she ends halfway through it, he grants her another day. If she can prove that she is the maiden from the story, then perhaps he'll allow her to live; otherwise Lord Death wishes to claim her for his bride. 

Although Keturah initially returns to her town with the sole purpose of finding a true love to save herself, her perspective of life and death gradually begins to change.

Not quite a fairy-tale retelling itself, Keturah and Lord Death nonetheless weaves together many of the elements and themes present in well-known tales. Like Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights, Keturah hopes to keep her death at bay by telling partial stories by night. Like Persephone, she finds herself courted by the Lord of Death himself. And yet in addition to the clear homages to folklore traditions, Leavitt has also created a fairy tale that is entirely her own.

Tide-by-Rood is a poor, provincial town on the edge of a wealthy kingdom. With the exception of Keturah and a few of those about whom she cares the most, the majority of the townspeople remain nameless. Her best friends Gretta and Beatrice are in love with Tailor and Choirmaster, respectively. Many characters are referred to by trades or other superficial characteristics. The village itself is not overly descriptive. As a whole, the story is a short, quick read. Almost too short and quick. I do wish it could have been longer and more descriptive, and yet all of this plays directly into the idea that Leavitt is crafting another fairy tale, a story driven by allegories. The specifics of Keturah's life and the people within it are not nearly as important as the greater themes and messages of this story.

Given the nature of Keturah's predicament, death is a major theme throughout the book. Keturah is young and, when faced with the harsh reality of her own mortality, finds that there are so many things she has yet to accomplish. If she accompanies Lord Death, she'll never get married, never have children, never live in her own cottage, and, worst of all, never find love. Against this grim possibility, Keturah finds the courage and fortitude to do many things to defy Lord Death. She seeks spells and completes various tasks in order to find a man she can love and marry. She invents stories that remain unfinished by the end of the night, so that Lord Death will spare her life for another day. And yet, Keturah will not do anything that will harm another. She will not have another take her place, and, when she learns of threats to others' lives, she does what she can to save them.

Death is not the villain in this story, however. Personified as Lord Death, death is enigmatic, unknown, resigned rather than heartless, inevitable rather than cruel. Keturah learns that she has always had some sort of relationship with death, and yet death is the constant companion of all, even if most choose to ignore his existence. 
"I am here for all to see, Keturah, if they wish it," he said, still calm. "I have touched them all in some way." He stepped closer to me. His tone had an edge to it now. "They think my realm is far away. Would they sleep at night if they knew I was waiting in their cold beds? Would they be so glad of the harvest if they knew I rested in their root cellar? It is not I who am the coward."
Aptly titled, the book is primarily about Keturah and her relationship with death. For it is through her encounters with Lord Death that Keturah really begins to grow, gaining a better understanding of life and of herself. She learns to define her life not by what is missing from it, but to celebrate what is present. There's an ever-present pull between Keturah and Lord Death, a mix of fear, curiosity, and desire. 

My only wish is that Lord Death could have been better personified, and that I could have gotten a better understanding of his relationship with Keturah. And yet that would have ruined the allegories and themes that Leavitt has so carefully crafted. Even to Keturah, death is a mystery, and that's how it is supposed to be.
"Tell me what it is like to die," I answered. 
He dismounted from his horse, looking at me strangely the whole while. "You experience something similar every day," he said softly. "It is as familiar to you as bread and butter." 
"Yes," I said. "It is like every night when I fall asleep." 
"No. It is like every morning when you wake up."
Beautiful, isn't it? Page after page of Keturah and Lord Death is full of ruminations on life and death, the great unknown. If the plot of the story itself does not convince you that Leavitt has written her own fairy tale, then the beautiful prose should do so. Deceivingly simple on a superficial level, the language is intricate, profound, and moving; Leavitt's writing style is perfect for this sort of tale and is the type of writing that most authors can only hope to aspire to.

Those seeking a faster-paced story should look elsewhere. Those seeking an engaging, thought-provoking, and beautifully written story full of fairy-tale elements should give Keturah and Lord Death a try. It's a slower story, but well worth the effort. Leavitt has crafted a truly masterful tale and, if they're anything like this, I will eagerly look into her other works.

Rating: 4.5 stars
Read more »

July 24, 2013

Waiting on The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Breaking the Spine that spotlights any upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Publication Date: October 29, 2013
Lost your way? Your dreams?  


Welcome to Lost. 

It was supposed to be a small escape. A few hours driving before turning around and heading home. But once you arrive in Lost...well, it's a place you really can't leave. Not until you're Found. Only the Missing Man can send you home. And he took one look at Lauren Chase and disappeared. 

So Lauren is now trapped in the town where all lost things go-luggage, keys, dreams, lives-where nothing is permanent, where the locals go feral and where the only people who don't want to kill her are a handsome wild man called the Finder and a knife-wielding six-year-old girl. The only road out of town is engulfed by an impassable dust storm, and escape is impossible.... 

Until Lauren decides nothing-and no one-is going to keep her here anymore. (Goodreads)
So after falling in love with Durst's high fantasy novel Vessel, I knew that I'd have to keep this author on my radar. None of her previously published books really grab my attention. But this - I like how this is more of an adult fantasy. And one thing that I know Durst can do is create a unique and fully believable fantasy world, so I am eager to be introduced to Lost and Lauren!

What are you waiting on?
Read more »

July 23, 2013

Top Ten Aspects of a Book That Make Me NOT Want to Pick It Up

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by the bloggers of The Broke and the Bookish. I altered this prompt slightly to be: Top Ten Aspects of a Book That Make Me NOT Want to Pick It Up. This is basically a companion post to a previous Top Ten Tuesday where I listed my Top Ten Aspects of a Book That Make Me Want to Pick It Up.

I believe this calls for a certain type of writing/critical thinking. *grabs snark cap* Are you ready, lovely readers, to see what aspects of a book tend to either ensure I'll never read it, or if I have read it, will most likely garner it a low rating?


Romance masquerading as speculative fiction (most specifically YA dystopians) I have no idea how this became the common, cool thing to write. Really, I don't. As a reader, I dislike being fooled into thinking that a story is being marketed as a dystopian about a corrupt government and potential rebellion, when those aspects only seem to be setting the stage for a forbidden/difficult romance. Last time I checked, dystopian world don't exactly provide the best setting for romance. (ex. Renegade by J.A. Souders) 

Love triangles  Okay, not all love triangles are taboo for me, but many of them are. I just hate how prevalent they are in YA novels (and you're going to have a hard time convincing me they're that prevalent in real life). I don't think I'd mind them as much if every once in a while they focused on a different "side," rather than having our female protagonist be the focal point and object of affection for two guys. It's just become such a tired literary device. (ex. Matched by Ally Condie) 

Unrealistic male protagonists  I suppose the same can be said for unrealistic female protagonists, although I feel as though there are fewer female protagonists being written by a male author. I do think it's a wonderful thing to try to step outside one's comfort zone while writing. I run into issues, however, when I start realizing that a protagonist just doesn't sound or act like his/her gender at all. I understand how difficult it can be to write convincingly as someone of the opposite gender, but then get help? Have people of said gender review your story and tell you how the voice can be made more realistic? (ex. Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl)

"Mandatory" in-between novellas  These just make me angry. First of all, shouldn't the authors be focusing on the actual next installments in their series instead of taking time away for a random novella? If the events/characters of the novella aren't included in the actual books, there's probably a good reason why not. My general belief: if whatever aspects in the novellas are important enough that they need to be read as part of the series, then they should probably be included in the actual novels. (ex. Destroy Me by Taherah Mafi)

Companion novels that tell the same events from a new POV  This is somewhat related to my thoughts on in-between novellas. I live life as a singular person, with my single point of view. I prefer to read my novels that way, too. If I've formed enough of an attachment with the protagonist, then I'm satisfied with my understanding of the story. I don't want nor need the same story to be rehashed from another person's perspective. (ex. Hopeless / Losing Hope by Colleen Hoover)

Lack of believable worldbuilding If a story is not taking place in our world, then solid worldbuilding should be a no-brainer. I don't think it's much for me as the reader to want to understand the new world I'm reading. Some geography is nice, as is a basic understanding of history, culture, language, religion, race, etc. It can be difficult and intimidating to consider all these factors, but they're crucial to a reader's ability to understand and enjoy the story being told. (ex. Delirium by Lauren Oliver) 

Uncredited retellings  Let me first be clear: I absolutely adore retellings. I think it's great how authors can find creative ways to envision an older story, while also allowing the older story the potential to be brought back to public attention. What I dislike, however, is when it's not readily apparent that the story is a retelling. Since this story wouldn't be in existence without some older one, I think it should be made clear through blurbs, promotion, reviews, etc before even starting the book. Not knowing a story is a retelling upfront is not okay with me. (ex. Ten by Gretchen McNeil)

Being touted as the next [big name book]  I kind of understand the marketing tactics behind this move. At the same time, though, why would you want to emphasize the fact that you're derivative and invite comparisons? If I've already read some of the big name books that a new book is being compared to, is the new book bringing anything new to the genre? In my opinion, it makes so much more sense to focus on what makes the story unique and worth reading. (ex. Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza, which is supposedly for fans of The Bourne Identity series and I Am Number Four)

Contemporary Protagonists with Strange Names  For fantasies and other sorts of speculative fiction, I am more than fine with authors using more fanciful names for their characters. In books that take place in our world? Not so much. You're trying to convince me of the normalcy of your setting, and yet your character has a ridiculously strange name? Yeah, not very convincing. Also, I hate it when female protagonists randomly have surnames as their first names, or names that are 100% guy names. (ex. Cricket from Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins)


I could push myself to add another example, but, honestly, these nine are the big ones for me. That's not to say that I haven't read and loved books that incorporate one of these dreaded aspects, but in those cases generally everything else about the book has been pretty much perfect.

What about you? Let me know what are some of main bookish aspects that cause you to think twice before picking up a book!

Disclaimer: The only book listed that I've actually read is Lauren Oliver's Delirium, so these are all my interpretations based on others' reviews and promotional materials. I am not saying that I'd necessarily hate any of these works, but that they all contain an element that tends to bother me as a reader.   
Read more »

July 21, 2013

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Published: 1994, Public Domain Books (Originally 1890)
Genre: Classic
Source: Personal ebook
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. 

First a funny story: I actually downloaded the free ebook of The Picture of Dorian Gray back when I first got my Kindle in May of 2011. I got to 40% and then just stopped reading it. As this is a free book that was presumably put together by volunteers, there are a few errors and formatting issues with the ebook. That, along with the fact that it took me months to get used to reading full books on my Kindle, made me put down the story temporarily. But since it was selected as my work book club pick for June, I was able to return to Dorian Gray's story. And what a story it is.

Dorian Gray is rich, young, handsome, and an incredibly naive young man. He befriends artist Basil Hallward and spends many months acting as his muse. During one of their sessions, Dorian encounters Basil's friend Lord Henry, who is everything that Basil and Dorian himself are not. Lord Henry is worldly, cynical, and charismatic. His honest words allow Dorian to reconsider his values in life, especially the importance of beauty within society. 

After meeting Lord Henry and seeing Basil's latest masterpiece, a picture of Dorian himself, Dorian laments the fact that while he'll eventually become old, his portrait will remain youthful and perfect forever. And through those words Dorian makes an unconscious bargain: over the years he is able to retain his youth and good looks while his portrait ages and displays all the imperfections of his soul. 

At its heart, The Picture of Dorian Gray is nothing less than an in-depth study of the driving forces behind our decisions: morality vs. immortality, youth vs. maturity, intelligence vs. beauty. Due to the Faustian bargain he makes, Dorian finds himself physically distanced from the repercussions of a hedonistic and amoral lifestyle. Each and every decision he makes do not affect him, but instead affect the portrait of himself he keeps hidden away in an upstairs room in his house. How do people act once all blame and culpability is removed from their actions? And, the bigger question, do people really act much differently even when their actions do affect them? Dorian can actually witness the consequences of his actions through the ever-changing portrait, but because it is the portrait changing rather than himself, he does nothing to change his life.

In many ways, Dorian truly deserves his curse. Although I found it strange that all Dorian had to do to enact the curse was to wish out loud that he did not age (not a truly Faustian bargain in my opinion, since Dorian did not consciously make any agreement), once he finds himself cursed it's like he loses all sense of goodness. When Dorian first discovers the changes in his portrait, he's driven by grief and understandably isn't ready to do anything different with his life. But this goes on for over eighteen years. The closest he gets to trying to be a better person (as far as the readers know) is when he admits to Lord Henry that he'll break off a dalliance with a young country girl now rather than delaying it any longer. The few attempts that Dorian makes to better himself are half-hearted at best, especially when he realizes that the little effort he makes doesn't seem to change much in the grand scheme of things.

And yet, Dorian is not quite the villain of this tale. The reason his portrait first begins to change is due to an act of selfishness and a bit of cruelty, but it's not due to anything completely horrible. His decision to embrace a hedonistic lifestyle is at least partially due to the fact that he comes to believe in an inner darkness, and that it's inevitable. None of the characters in this tale are without flaws, and it seems very possible that Wilde was actually criticizing the entire British upper class through this novel. Dorian, along with other characters, acts irresponsibly, cruelly, and superficially. Not all of his actions are condoned by others, and yet presumably his affluence and general standing prevent him and others like him from becoming complete social pariahs.

The focus of this novel is on an actual picture, and so Wilde does spend a fair amount of time contemplating the role that art has within our lives. In fact, these ruminations make up some of the strongest parts in the novel. To what extent is art something created for the viewer to enjoy, and to what degree is it a reflection of the artist? Should art be viewed purely for aesthetic purposes or can it also be a form of education? Wilde addresses conflicting sides of this debate, at one point noting that "all art is useless" and at another praising "art for art's sake." It's definitely thought-provoking and worthy of greater discussion.

Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray reminds me why I love to read classics, particularly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classics: the language. Beautifully poetic, and rife with poignant truths and witty observations about life and humanity. Not only is The Picture of Dorian Gray well worth its classic status, but it is an incredibly accessible work of literature. Although certain terms and concepts are a bit obsolete in our time, the story itself remains pretty relevant. Dorian is the perfect anti-hero, and his tragic story is something that should be experienced at least once by every reader. Both classic lovers and those more reluctant to read classics should give this book a try.

Rating: 4 stars 
Read more »