Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Bites: A Contemporary Fiction Mixed Bag

Whew! It's a been a busy beginning to the new year! Since I used my last few weeks of 2011 and the first few weeks of 2012 to get in some extra reading before the spring semester got rolling here at school, I'm making use of my occasionally recurring blog feature 'Book Bites' (a name of which I am pathetically proud) to share quick reviews of several novels in a single post.  This group is mix of recent and not so recent releases that generally fit into that broad category of contemporary fiction.

Past Perfect by Leila Sales
Chelsea has spent most of her life trapped in the past--in 1774 to be precise.  Every summer since she turned six, Chelsea has worked with her parents at Colonial Essex Village, a local living history museum.  Now that she's sixteen, Chelsea just wants to get a normal job--preferable somewhere with air conditioning.  But thanks to her theatrical best friend, Chelsea is back at Essex for the summer, along with Ezra, the ex who broke her heart a few months ago.  But just as Chelsea is trying to bury her past with Ezra, she meets Dan, a very cute Civil War re-enactor and her sworn enemy in the long standing prank war between Essex and the Civil War museum across the street.  But was her past with Ezra as perfect as Chelsea remembers? Or is it time for her to stop living in the past altogether? And most importantly, would her family and friends ever forgive her for dating a boy devoted to a different historical time period?

This romantic comedy delightfully lives up to its quirky premise and positive buzz.  The unusual setting amid historical re-enactors initially sets this apart from the average teen romance.  Chelsea's sarcastic but sensitive voice and the multifaceted exploration of the theme of misremembered history, both personal and national, further increase the novel's appeal.  

3 1/2 STARS

Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John
If Piper could just learn to keep her big mouth shut, she would not be in this mess.  But since she couldn't, Piper is now the manager of the school's suddenly popular local rock band, bizarrely named 'Dumb,' and she's got to get them a paying gig within a month to make the arrangement official and get her share of the profits.  However, there are a few problems. Firstly, Piper is deaf. Secondly, and more importantly, even Piper can tell that Dumb does not sound good.  But somehow Piper and the other mixed up flavors of people that form Dumb are going to have to learn to make beautiful music together.

Another novel with a quirky premise and one that not only lives up to its potential but actually supersedes it.  Five Flavors of Dumb is a delightful novel about friendship and coming of age that happens to feature a protagonist who is deaf.  Piper is funny, frustrated, sarcastic, angry, and kind.  Her deafness is integral to the story in that it shapes Piper's life and motivations; the novel provides a look at the complex social world that Piper and her family live in as part of the deaf community.  However, the novel never makes her deafness a gimmick and Piper's conflicts with her family and her shifting perceptions of and relationships with the other members of Dumb are pretty universally relatable.  


My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger
Boston native and baseball fiend T.C. falls in love with gorgeous and politically active Alejandra at first sight.  But Ale just can't trust all that charm and she's preoccupied with sneaking her way out from the limiting life of diplomat's daughter into the spotlight of the stage.  Meanwhile T.C.'s brother and aspiring theatrical superstar Augie is falling in love with Andy Wexler (who, incidentally, is falling in love with Augie) and everyone knows it, except Augie and Andy.  So through one roller-coaster of a year filled with romantic mishaps, sign language, Mary Poppins, baseball, and musical madness, T.C., Ale, and Augie rely on each other as they figure out some of the secrets to love, life, and the pursuit of happiness.

Where has this novel been my whole life? It's been on my radar for a while but I didn't get a chance and copy in my hands until earlier this winter.  And I am so happy that I did!  As other reviews have noted, Year is a bit of modern day fairytale but it is a delightful and extremely funny one.  The characters are all fully developed and sympathetic and the individual voices stand out in the multi-formatted narrative, which includes journals, emails, text messages, faxes, IMs, and more.  This one is a welcome addition to both my 'happy place' novels list and my 'makes me laugh/snort on public transportation' list.


Notes From An Accidental Band Geek by Erin Dionne
Elsie Wyatt has big dreams of orchestral superstardom and she is determined to make those dreams come true.  The first step in her plan of becoming a premier French horn player with the Boston Symphony Orchestra like her father and grandfather?  Get accepted to an extremely selective musical summer camp.    To improve her chances, Elsie has to find a musical ensemble to diversify her resume.  Tragically the only option left seems to be marching band, an ensemble that won't let Elsie play her instrument or sit down.  

This musical tale lives up to its cute title and mildly humorous blurb; Notes is a light middle grade coming of age story that will appeal especially to tweens devoted to music.  However, it doesn't go much deeper than that.  Elsie is a prickly but very sympathetic protagonist and her development into a more self-aware person is enjoyable to follow.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Not Just For Dancers: Bunheads by Sophie Flack

When I was in early elementary school, I wanted to be a ballerina.  It did not make a difference to me that I did not take serious ballet lessons or that I was not very interested in anything that involved serious athletic effort or ability.  I briefly took beginner dance classes, wore a pink tutu around the house, and redecorated my bedroom in baby pink with a ballet slipper pattern border (a fact I regretted for the next decade).  Although my ballet career never took off, my fascination and love for this form of dance continues.  The intense and demanding backstage world of professional ballet has always been especially interesting to me so when I heard buzz about a new novel called Bunheads, I was immediately intrigued.

Hannah Ward is not a ballerina.  Ballerinas are the big stars--the soloists in the spotlight.  Moreover, the word calls to mind fluffy pink tutus and porcelein figurines the twirl on top of music boxes. Hannah is a dancer in the corps de ballet in the famous Manhattan Ballet and her life is not pink or fluffy.   It's hours upon hours of hard physical work in sweaty leotards, practicing until her whole body aches.  Dancing has been always Hannah's only focus in life.  She's never had time for an outside social life--or a date.  When she meet sweet musician and NYU student Jacob, Hannah begins to discover the world beyond the stage.  But competition within the company is getting more and more intense and Hannah begins to realize that she's going to have to make a choice between her passion for dance and her longing for a normal, more diverse life. 

Bunheads does more that give readers a peek into the very separate world of professional ballet; it paints a complex and realistically conflicted picture of that world from the viewpoint of an involved insider.  The author Sophie Flack is recently retired dancer whose own path in the ballet world clearly parallels that of her protagonist. She danced with the company for nine years, including both national and international tours.  Thanks greatly to Sophie Flack's breadth of experience in this world,  the piece manages to portray with equal clarity both the wonder and beauty passionate dancers feel about their choosen art and career and the almost superhuman emotional, physical, and mental pressures dancers work under within a professional company.  Flack works to dispell certain myths about ballet dancers (about ubiquity of eating disorders or the belovedness of The Nutcracker) while also acknowledging the harsh truths behind some of them, such as the very real strict body shape and weight requirements in most professional companies and the potential serious medical consequences for dancers who do not maintain healthy eating and exercise habits while trying to meet them. 

Hannah is a great narrator, determined and passionate about her career as a dancer but also vulnerable and concerned that her sacrifices may not be leading her to the future she might want as an adult.  Her love for and her doubts about her career as a ballet dancer come through in her narration and her coming of age story is one that both dancers and 'pedestrians' (her friends' term for non-dancers) will be able to understand.  Although the novel is filled with ballet and dance terminology, it remains completely accessible for non-dancer readers and the descriptions and explanation are integrated well into the action of the plot.  An interesting and enjoyable debut!  This one flew off the display at my library almost immediately and I've already got a waiting list, especially among our population of young ballet dancers!


Friday, January 6, 2012

The Fast and the Fantastical: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Every October, the capaill uisce--water horses with a taste for flesh--begin to merge from the sea surrounding the island of Thisby. Every November, the Scorpio Races take place and riders attempt to control their deadly captured mounts long enough to cross the finish line. Some succeed. Others die. The somewhat stoic 19 year old Sean Kendrick is already a four year champion of the races but this year he's competing to earn his beloved capal uisce stallion--and his own freedom-- from his employer, the owner of the horse trading stables on the island. Kate 'Puck' Connolly has never wanted to ride in the races, especially not since her parents were killed by capaill uisce at sea a few years ago. But when her older brother declares his plan to leave Thisby and make his way on the mainland, Puck is desperate to give him a reason to stay with her and their younger brother, keeping what's left of their family together. So Puck enters the Scorpio Races with her trustworthy island pony as her mount, making her both the first female rider and the first to ride an ordinary land horse. But while both Puck and Sean are desperate to survive--and succeed--on race day, these competitors slowly develop a deep connection born of mutual respect and a shared love of the island. However, only one rider can win the Scorpio Races.
When I heard that Maggie Stiefvater's newest novel The Scorpio Races was going to be about dangerous, carnivorous water horses, I was intrigued and excited   When I heard Maggie herself speak about the novel, her inspiration, and the development of the story, I learned that it was about much more that fantastic mythological horses--and I was even more excited.  Fascinated since childhood by the pieces of Irish, Scottish, and Manx mythologies that describe various versions of violent, magical horses dwelling in the ocean, Maggie Stiefvater has been attempting to write this particular story for a long time.  She discussed her longtime interest and slight obsession with water horse legends and her multiple attempts to write about them when she visited D.C.'s own Politics and Prose Bookstore to kick off The Scorpio Races' publication in November.  She describes much of this process similarly on this page on her website.  Maggie is a very funny and very eloquent speaker and writer, especially when discussing the writing process and her personal journey of development as a writer.  When discussing the development of this particular novel, she noted that the piece never really came together until she realized that she adapt the water horse myth more freely and that this particular story was more about the island of Thisby and the relationship the characters have with the island than it was about the water horses.  And I believe that this very accurate observation describes the real strength of this book; reading The Scorpio Races is an absorbing experience that can transport you into a fully imagined and fully real world that manages to be simultaneously familiar and foreign.    

As Maggie discusses on her website, this novel is more about the island than the carnivorous horses (although they're also fully developed creatures).  Thisby feels very much like a real place with a clearly developed social structure, religious/spiritual life, and long held traditions, including a fully described traditional dessert.  I have always found Maggie Stiefvater's writing to be distinctly atmospheric; her Wolves trilogy wonderfully evokes the small Midwestern town and its landscape and seasons ground that particular supernatural romance in our own recognizable world.  The world of Scorpio Races   emerges even more clearly and the island is a character in its own right, equal in both value and complexity to the human characters.  By only a few chapters in, I wanted to book the next boat out to Thisby!  

However, the human characters, especially our narrators Puck and Sean, are also complex and well-drawn and their relationships with eachother, the island, their horses, and the supporting characters are equally interesting and well-crafted.  The novel is generally well paced and the final race itself is as heart-stoppingly exciting as any action scene in The Hunger Games.  There are occasional plot holes (supporting characters that appear and slip away, never to be mentioned again) but overall, the novel's otherwise rich characterization and world makes these flaws easy to overlook. 

For anyone who likes horse stories, adventure stories, romance, and/or fantasy, The Scorpio Races is a wonderful new read and a perfect book to curl up with on a snowy evening!


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

That Other Egyptian Princess: Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Good historical fiction can be hard to come by.  A great piece of historical fiction manages to walk a delicate balancing act, combining a solid, well-researched historical framework and a rich, engrossing story.  In good historical novels, the authors manage to transport the reader into another time, place, and culture through accurate historical details and good old-fashioned character development; they must delicately craft a good, readable story out of historical facts, keeping just the right amount of 'history' and 'fiction' to satisfy a diverse group of readers. Since great historical fiction can sometimes be rare, it is especially satisfying when you stumble upon a great new historical novel like Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter!

Cleopatra Selene has always known exactly whom she was: princess of Egypt, daughter of the brilliant Queen Cleopatra and General Marcus Antonius, and a great queen in the making.  Growing up within the palace in the culturally and intellentually diverse city of Alexandria, Cleopatra Selene and her brothers learn multiple languages, chase eachother through the stacks of the great Library, attend special celebrations and dinners, and play Roman and Egyptian games.  But then Octavianus, new leader of Rome, decides that he wants Egypt's many riches for his own developing empire and begins a fresh war against Cleopatra Selene's parents and beloved country.  Suddenly everything and everyone Cleopatra Selene has ever known and loved is destroyed and she and her young brothers are shipped off to Rome, to live as prisoners in the household of Octavianus, the very man who ruined their family.  However, although she's living a disgraced princess in exile, Cleopatra Selene refuses to forget her destiny: she will be queen of Egypt and fulfill her duty to the goddess Isis and to the people of Egypt--no matter what the cost.  Living in the heart of enemy territory, Cleopatra Selene must endure heartbreak and confusion as she struggles to choose between romance and power in her quest to live up to (and perhaps beyond) her mother's example.

Cleopatra's Moon fits my personal definition of good historical fiction perfectly; Shecter has seamlessly combined historical facts, cultural details, and good old-fashioned storytelling to create a rich and addictive novel.  Using Cleopatra Selene's very aware and distinct voice, Shecter brings to life the varied worlds of ancient Alexandria and Rome, clearly displaying a vast amount of research but never overburdening the plot with dry facts or trivia.  The characters, especially the determined and unsinkable Cleopatra Selene, are full developed and incredibly interesting; you might start this novel because of an interest in ancient history or epic drama but you will stick around for the rich characters.  The story is a excellent balance of action, romance, and emotional highs and lows that will keep you turning pages.  Shecter also provides a helpful character directory at the beginning and a fascinating "Facts Within The Fiction" section that summarizes the historical facts about real situations and people on which she based the novel.   A great read for lovers of historical fiction, especially those with an interest in Ancient Egypt!


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reading and Blogging Resolutions for 2012!

Wow! Another year is coming to a close and another year full of reading is about to begin!  And after  intending to pull together a set of reading and blogging goals for several years, I am finally doing it.    

1.) My basic reading goal for the year is to read at least 150 books this coming year.  After fiddling with my Goodreads record to figure out a more accurate count of my reading for 2011, I estimated that I read approximately 130 books this year.  So I'm aiming just a little higher for 2012.

2.)  I also plan to participate in the 2012 Debut Author Challenge (run by the lovely blogger Story Siren--more info HERE).  I tried to join this challenge very late in the year in 2009 and managed to finish about 6 debut novels (half of the minimum challenge goal of 12 books).  But since I am joining at the beginning of the year this time, I hope to meet (and maybe surpass) that minimum goal.

3.)  Inspired by a goal on the amazing blogger and librarian Abby the Librarian's 2012 Reading Resolutions post, I want to read at least 20 non-YA books this year, including adult fiction and nonfiction.

4.)  I aim to listen to more novels via audiobook format in 2012 as well, especially because my local DC public library system has a great selection.

5.)  I (again) aim to update my blog at least once a week but I also aim to remain generally relaxed about blogging and not put too much pressure on myself if I get behind.  

6.)  I also hope to keep diversifying the content on the blog, adding more baking posts and more posts about library programming and other librarian-related topics in addition to my reviews.

What are your reading resolutions for 2012?

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!