Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?"

I came across a really interesting piece on the Tor blog today called "Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?" by Jo Walton. In it, Walton introduces thoughts from both sides of the argument. 

Claire, the blogger responsible for The Captive Reader, suggests that while we won't get everything out of a book read too young (i.e., we'll enjoy the characters and plot, but miss the deeper themes and allusions), it does us no harm as we can always go back and reread things later. However, she does emphasize just how much of an effect the age at which we read things can have. I love that she uses Jane Eyre as an example: 

"I read Jane Eyre, one of Kaye-Smith’s ‘approved’ books for youths, when I was fourteen in school and hated it. Was this the fault of a too early introduction? Or perhaps a too late one? Would I at twelve, when for one brief summer I understood... the allure of gothic novels, have been more receptive to the absurdities of the plot and the odiousness of Mr Rochester that irritated me so much a few years later?"

THIS. A pained 16 year old me was fond of exclaiming "I HATE Jane Eyre! 'Oh, Mr. Rochester!' 'Oh, Jane!'" in tones of despair, and claiming that it was all just "a Victorian episode of Passions." Would I have liked it more at a less tetchy and pseudo-jaded age? Very likely. In a similar vein, I read Wuthering Heights as a senior and while I loved the creepy dilapidated houses and windswept moors and bogs, I was frustrated at how cruel everyone was to each other, and worked at such cross-purposes- intentionally or otherwise. When a college professor announced that this would be our next book, I accidentally let out an audible groan. She asked why I didn't like the book and I admitted "well, I didn't like anyone in it..." and waited for a stern rebuke. She just smiled and said, "that's ok, you're not really supposed to!" In later classes, we spent a lot of time discussing the characters selfish motives and the spidery evilness that is Nellie Dean. It gave me  a whole new appreciation for the book (and my namesake). 

To use another personal example, I read the first part of Great Expectations in sixth or seventh grade- namely the parts where Pip is still a boy. How clearly can adult readers recognize the horrible panic and gnawing guilt of having done something wrong (stealing a file and food for the convict, who was terrifying in his own right), and remember the fear of getting caught? Sure, they can understand it on an intellectual level, but does it resonate as well? 

Walton does make a good point about the feasibility of this "read first, understand more later" idea: for some people, there will be no reread. Some people (including J.R.R. Tolkien) are self-professed one time only readers, who get as much as they're going to get the first time around. For them, Walton suggests, maybe it is best to wait. 

This brings up another interesting point. How can one know when to read something? If a kid is lucky, they grow up in a family of readers, and/or with the support of teachers and librarians. If not, well, there's a kind of serendipity that happens with books sometimes, and internet savy kids could always make use of things like Goodreads for book recommendations, as well as recommendations from friends and peers. 

Did you read any books too early/late? Are you a re-reader? What books did you read differently at different times in your life, and did you notice your perspective having changed? 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Word on Re-Reads

"I maintain that reading and rereading is kind of like listening to favorite music that you haven’t picked up in a while—you’ll find all sort of things that you never noticed, but more than anything, you’ll remember yourself when you first listened to it. It often works better than pure recollection, looking back on who you were the last time you read a certain book." -Emily Asher-Perrin, Tor.com

I found this quote while reading one of Tor's many series, Magic and Good Madness: A Neil Gaiman Reread, specifically the American Gods portion. I loved reading through staff writers Bridget McGovern and Asher-Perrin's thoughts on the book (one of my favorites), seeing what elements and references jumped out to them, learning more about dozens of deities, and getting glimpses into the story I never would have seen on my own. It made me want to reread this book in a more... not serious, but maybe more curious, focused way- like the reading done in the best literature classes. I might even be tempted to start taking notes in my copy of the book. (The horror, I know!! Don't worry, I'm pretty sure I've got a spare).

I really agree with the quote above. I think there is much to be gained from multiple readings, both in terms of gaining a deeper understanding of the work and in terms of reliving great reading experiences on a more personal level, like listening to a well-loved album. I'm pretty sure that I'll be rereading things like The Hobbit, Pride & Prejudice, Outlander and Stardust for the rest of my life.

On a weird other hand, there are some things I am reluctant to reread for various reasons. Reading the last two Sandman books (again, thanks a lot Gaiman) wrecked my emotional high-school self to an embarrassing and slightly scary degree. The next year I read 1984 and felt like I was along for the ride in a more real and terrifying way than ever before. I loved. it but I'm not in a hurry to relive the soul-numbing dread of that ending anytime soon.

Reading The Compleat Moonshadow by J.M. DeMatteis was another raw teenage read that really got to me in the best and most powerful ways. It follows pretty much the entire life of Moonshadow Birnbaum, "born to a Brooklyn hippie, raised in an intergalactic zoo, and ejected at age 14 into a harsh, uncaring cosmos, is collected in this mammoth volume. Accompanied only by a grouchy alien furball, Moonshadow must confront issues of love, death, sex, and war on an odyssey through distant world and spiritual spheres." Maybe because this was one of the first graphic novels I read, maybe because it was so, so honest and emotional, I genuinely felt like I was experiencing everything through Moonshadow's eyes. When he hurt, I hurt. When he stood in wonder at the beauty of the cosmos or wept at the unfairness of the universe, I did the same. (Actually, I think this kind of predicted my obsession love affair with Doctor Who... huh...) 

Despite being one of the most profound reading experiences of my life, it's one I'm leery of repeating. Part of my brain tries to tell me that I'm just worried I'll be let down the second time around, that it can't have been so great. The rest of me knows better. I knew when I was reading it that this would be a slightly different book depending on the age of the person reading it, that when I reread it, it wouldn't be quite the same book because I wouldn't be quite the same person. I'm not sure I'm quite ready for that.

What books do you consider to be old friends? Do you feel the need to re-read The Great Gatsby to see if your English teacher was onto something after all, or to get ready for the Baz Luhrman spectacular? Are there any books that you don't want to re-read? 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

R is a young man with an existential crisis--he is a zombie. He shuffles through an America destroyed by war, social collapse, and the mindless hunger of his undead comrades, but he craves something more than blood and brains. He can speak just a few grunted syllables, but his inner life is deep, full of wonder and longing. He has no memories, no identity, and no pulse. Just dreams.

After experiencing a teenage boy's memories while consuming his brain, R makes an unexpected choice that begins a tense, awkward, and strangely sweet relationship with the victim's human girlfriend. Julie is a burst of vibrant color in the otherwise dreary and gray landscape that R lives in. His decision to protect her will transform not only R, but his fellow Dead, and perhaps their whole lifeless world.

Scary, funny, and surprisingly poignant, Warm Bodies is about being alive, being dead and the blurry line in between.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

You know when you find a book at exactly the right time, and things just gel? I can't remember the last time I was so pulled into a book, not just for it's likable characters or snappy dialogue, but because I cared so deeply about what was happening in the world of the book, in our world, or when I felt like I completely agreed with and understood the author's point. I love how well Marion uses zombies as a metaphor without seeming pretentious or heavy-handed- partially that's because his zombies seem original while still being familiar and often terrifying. I loved the language in this book, too:
“I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I'm drowning in ellipses.”  

“There is a chasm between me and the world outside of me. A gap so wide my feelings can't cross it. By the time my screams reach the other side, they have dwindled into groans.” 

“Of course, if I don't eat all of him, if I spare his brain, he'll rise up and follow me back to the airport, and that might make feel better. I'll introduce him to everyone, and maybe we'll stand around and groan for a while. It's hard to say what 'friends' are any more, but that might be close.” 

If you haven't already guessed, while there is plenty of humor, most of it is of the very dark variety. Don't be fooled though, this is no cynical snarkfest. There is genuine heart here, under the tasty brains that will make you relive that day you owned the discussion in English class because you "totally get what the author is saying, man."

Then again, I say all that but COMPLETELY missed the bones of a famous play that are shallowly buried here. (Hey guys, did you know The Lion King is "Hamlet"?!) I think I'm glad I did, actually, I loved it on its own and might have been distracted if I knew to look for more references.

I love R. I love Isaac Marion. I love that I get to use the phrase ZomRomCom again to describe the upcoming feature film adaptation. Who would have thought that phrase would be resurrected post-Shaun of the Dead? Speaking of the King of the Zombies, Simon Pegg contributed a blurb for this book which I think sums it up perfectly: “A mesmerizing evolution of a classic contemporary myth.”

Warm Bodies shuffles into theaters February 1st.

Monstrous Beauty

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences.

Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

I've been waiting for this one for months! I was so excited for another mermaid story, and a serious, dark, and historical one to boot. So was it worth the wait?

Yes. I loved the edgier take on mermaids that Fama presents here- no shell bikinis for Syrenka! Instead, a wickedly long tail, razor sharp fins, and creeptastic eyes. I loved the overlapping past and present narratives, and the moody Massachusetts setting. There were also plenty of details to geek out about- Hester works in a living history village and a few pages snarkily rebuking teens in Pilgrim-speak, for instance, and I would love to get my hand on a copy of Ezra's lovingly described natural history notebook. Add in an unorthodox Scottish priest and a Tall Dark and Handsome and you've got a book I'll happily devour.

One word of caution for supernatural fans- I'm not sure how much of this was due to Fama's use of foreshadowing and dramatic irony, and how much of it is because I am a rabid fan of all things occult, but I got bored of understanding things chapters and chapters before Hester did. Could she really not piece together the truth of what was happening? And once one thing was revealed, couldn't she put more pieces together herself? *sigh*

Still, most of this book was intriguing and a pleasure to read, and even the paranormal romance aspect was handled well. Four stars.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Sailor Twain: The Mermaid in the Hudson

Sailor Twain: The Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel

One hundred years ago. On the foggy Hudson River, a riverboat captain rescues an injured mermaid from the waters of the busiest port in the United States. A wildly popular—and notoriously reclusive—author makes a public debut. A French nobleman seeks a remedy for a curse. As three lives twine together and race to an unexpected collision, the mystery of the Mermaid of the Hudson deepens.

A mysterious and beguiling love story with elements of Poe, Twain, Hemingway, and Greek mythology, drawn in moody black-and-white charcoal, Sailor Twain is a study in romance, atmosphere, and suspense.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

First Second Bress, you're my new Favorite. You've been spoiling me this last year. Anya's Ghost, Friends with Boys, Level Up, American Born Chinese, Zita the Spacegirl... Fantastic. I'm not sure how they keep pumping out some of the best graphic novels I have ever seen, but I am sure that Sailor Twain completely deserves its place in this stable of nerdy goodness. 

The summary covered it as well (and quicker) than I could. So here, look at some art, and then go find a copy. Or, you know, go read it for free where it was originally published as a webcomic 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Some Kind of Fairy Tale

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

It is Christmas afternoon and Peter Martin gets an unexpected phone call from his parents, asking him to come round. It pulls him away from his wife and children and into a bewildering mystery.

He arrives at his parents house and discovers that they have a visitor. His sister Tara. Not so unusual you might think, this is Christmas after all, a time when families get together. But twenty years ago Tara took a walk into the woods and never came back and as the years have gone by with no word from her the family have, unspoken, assumed that she was dead. Now she's back, tired, dirty, dishevelled, but happy and full of stories about twenty years spent travelling the world, an epic odyssey taken on a whim.

But her stories don't quite hang together and once she has cleaned herself up and got some sleep it becomes apparent that the intervening years have been very kind to Tara. She really does look no different from the young woman who walked out the door twenty years ago. Peter's parents are just delighted to have their little girl back, but Peter and his best friend Richie, Tara's one time boyfriend, are not so sure. Tara seems happy enough but there is something about her. A haunted, otherworldly quality. Some would say it's as if she's off with the fairies. And as the months go by Peter begins to suspect that the woods around their homes are not finished with Tara and his family...
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

How have I been missing out on Graham Joyce for so long?? He had me hooked just paragraphs into this book, and it only got better from the first chapter. I loved all the characters and thought all of their actions and reactions to be completely believable. The story is told from various points of view and all of them built upon each other perfectly while still having entirely distinctive voices.

This is not a young adult novel, but since so much time is spent in flashbacks to Peter, Richie, and Tara's teenager years, some chapters are told from the perspective of Peter's teenage son, and there's a chance that Tara herself may be as young as she looks (or is she?), it really kind of works as one. If you've ODed on supernatural fluff and are looking for something more substantial, this might be a perfect fit.

The Wicked and the Just

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

Cecily’s father has ruined her life. He’s moving them to occupied Wales, where the king needs good strong Englishmen to keep down the vicious Welshmen. At least Cecily will finally be the lady of the house.

Gwenhwyfar knows all about that house. Once she dreamed of being the lady there herself, until the English destroyed the lives of everyone she knows. Now she must wait hand and foot on this bratty English girl.

While Cecily struggles to find her place amongst the snobby English landowners, Gwenhwyfar struggles just to survive. And outside the city walls, tensions are rising ever higher—until finally they must reach the breaking point.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

The most striking thing about this book is Coats' decision to tell her story using two protagonists- one on each side of a hostile occupation. If you'd asked me which girl I sympathized with more, the downtrodden but fierce Welsh maid or the entitled, "bratty English girl," I would have had an easy answer for you. But that's really the point of the story- it's a difficult, if not impossible, task to chose between sides, and people can always surprise you.

I feel like I can't talk too much about the characters' developments without spoiling things, and in a book that is far more character than plot driven, that would be a shame. Suffice it to say, both girls will entertain, anger, and surprise you at different points in the story. I'm a little surprised at how boldly Coats wrote their tense and (understandably) difficult relationship. Three cheers for complexity!

I will also say that this is some pretty hefty historical fiction, and unless you already love the genre in general (and to a lesser extent, the period in particular), you might want to pick up a different book. I loooove historical fiction, especially English, and I also love Wales, and medieval things, and nitpicky domestic details like you'd find in Catherine, Called Birdy. Even with all of those things, though, there were a bunch of new terms for me to look up. It's certainly not a bad thing, but I would have appreciated a glossary at the back, and I could see how non-genre buffs might be put off. All in all, this was an in-depth and unflinching look at a really fascinating time/place in history, and features two complex and challenging female protagonists. Huzzah!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

For years, Grace has watched the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf--her wolf--is a chilling presence she can't seem to live without. Meanwhile, Sam has lived two lives: In winter, the frozen woods, the protection of the pack, and the silent company of a fearless girl. In summer, a few precious months of being human . . . until the cold makes him shift back again. Now, Grace meets a yellow-eyed boy whose familiarity takes her breath away. It's her wolf. It has to be. But as winter nears, Sam must fight to stay human--or risk losing himself, and Grace, forever. -Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

Ok, so I am the first to admit that I am very late to this party. This book was published in 2009 and as far as I know, was immensely popular right off the bat. I kept meaning to catch up, but only just got the chance. I've seen a lot of reviews for Shiver over the years, and while I saw a lot of rave reviews, I also saw plenty of people complaining. Some readers don't like the dark blue ink. Others were bothered by the poetic, image-laden prose. Still more couldn't stand Sam, who they saw as overly sensitive. Having read the book, I can't honestly say that any of these claims were completely off base. I can say that I didn't mind in the least.

Really people? We're going to complain about a different color of ink? This is why we can't have nice things. If you get the chance, read this book in hardcover to enjoy the jacket art fully, and take a beat to appreciate the novelty of the ink. I thought it was really pretty and a nice change.

The prose? Yeah, sure, the plot is a bit slow moving and the prose will settle around you like falling snow, or a warm blanket. Again, this is a problem?? If you're a reader of this blog and at least some of the books I recommend, you couldn't ask for a better book to curl up with on a snowy day.

Finally: Sam. Yes, he's a sensitive lad. He cooks, writes songs, and reads German poetry. He takes Grace out for book store and hot chocolate dates, and follows her lead romantically. But you know what else he does? WRESTLE A WOLF WITH HIS BARE HANDS. Sam's no wimp, he's just not an alpha-male creepy stalker jerkbag like plenty of vampire/angel/demon characters I could mention from other stories. Again, fellow reviewers, THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS.

Sure, I have a few quibbles with this book (when don't I, really). There were times when I wished Grace were a slightly better friend to her friends, or when I rolled my eyes at her complaining about her absent parents. Then again, it turns out her parents were almost dangerously neglectful of her at times- certainly she was hurt by their aloofness, and it was interesting to see a paranormal romance book that dealt with the whole Absent Parent Syndrome thing in a more direct way. 

In the end, this, like most paranormal romances, is a story about first love- and Stiefvater does a marvelous job of telling that story. Complete with snow, books, hot coco, and full-puppy werewolves. Happy winter to me!

Wonders of the Invisible World

Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip

Stylistically rooted in fairy tale and mythology, imperceptible landscapes are explored in these opulent stories from a beloved fantasy icon. There are princesses dancing with dead suitors, a knight in love with an official of exotic lineage, and fortune’s fool stealing into the present instead of the future. In one mesmerizing tale, a time-traveling angel is forbidden to intervene in Cotton Mather’s religious ravings, while another narrative finds a wizard seduced in his youth by the Faerie Queen and returning the treasure that is rightfully hers. Bewitching, bittersweet, and deeply intoxicating, this collection draws elements from the fables of history and re-creates them in startlingly magical ways. -Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

I'm always up for a good short story collection, and since McKillip stories are often standouts in anthologies and I have enjoyed several of her novels, I figured this would be a safe bet. I was pleasantly unsurprised when this proved to be true. I'd read several stories in previous books, but some were new to me, including my now favorite McKillip tale: "Kelpie." I loved the group of (fictional but still recognizable) pre-Raphaelite artists in that one, particularly the sweet and especially well-developed romantic leads (although I also really enjoyed the Dante Rossetti stand-in). I also loved re-reading "Jack O'Lantern," "The Fortune Teller," and some others.

This collection works equally well as a great introduction to a pillar of modern fantasy writing, or a chance to discover missed stories from a favorite author, and both ways you can enjoy the gorgeous cover art.