Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book #32: Notes from the Blender

Notes from the Blender is rather interesting in its construction: it is written by two authors, Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin. I'm sure that co-authorship can be a risky thing. What if things don't flow? What if the authors' visions for the book don't align perfectly? What if they don't use the same voices? Lots can go wrong with a single book penned by more than one author. With Notes from the Blender, though, everything with the co-authorship goes quite right.

The realistic novel is the story of Declan and Neilly and their families, which suddenly combine much to both teenagers' surprise. You see, Declan's dad, widowed after Dec's mother died in his youth, is going to marry Neilly's mom, who is divorced from Neilly's now openly gay father. In true YA novel style, Declan is very not cool, yet Neilly is. The sudden throwing together of their modern blended family, complete with new sibling on the way, is a setting that can really explore a lot of the themes of being a teen in high school: friendship, relationships, parental tension, rebellion, sticking up for oneself, questioning one's beliefs, sexuality... you name it, it's here somehow. And because Cook pens Neilly's sections and Halpin writes Declan's, the voices and tone of the book are so extremely genuine. Dec has real high school boy thoughts, and Neilly has real high school girl thoughts. What could have been just another realistic YA novel trying to capture some faux aspect of growing up suddenly becomes a funny, heart-warming story about real people.

I loved the characters and tone in Notes from the Blender--I'll definitely be keeping this title in mind when discussions of multi-author books come up. And while the cover makes the story seem extremely lighthearted and run-of-the-mill high-school-issues, the story really is a genuinely good and interesting one. I'd suggest it to readers who enjoy YA realistic fiction, subtle explorations of teenage spirituality, and stories about quirky families.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Book #31: The Help

Kathryn Stockett's The Help had been on my to-read list for quite a while--probably since I first started hearing people talk about it after it first came out. I hadn't actually read it, thought, because of a combination of factors: the extremely long holds queue at the library, for one, and the fact that it was taking seemingly forever to be released in paperback. But when I started reading it after getting it on my Kindle, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Help is the story of Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. It's a place where segregation is very, very institutionalized--practically everything in everyday life is dictated by it. The story follows a relatively small cast of mostly female characters, some of them white, proper society ladies and some of them their black home help. The meat of the book begins when Miss Hilly Hollbrook, a particularly evil brand of society belle, announces her proposed legislation--the Home Help Sanitation Initiative. In other words, she wants for every white household to have a separate, outdoor bathroom for their black help for "sanitation" reasons (the trailer for the forthcoming film version of the book tells you as much). We see this development through the eyes of Aibileen and Minny, two longtime black maids in Jackson, and Skeeter, a white society girl who doesn't feel she can support this type of society. The result is a secretive plan to publish a book from the perspective of the help--written anonymously by Skeeter and filled with the stories of Aibileen, Minny, and many of their friends. It's a dangerous task to undertake, but they feel it is necessary.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the book--it's well-written, interesting, thought-provoking, etc.--the potential for exploitation makes me ultimately unsure of how I feel about it. What does it mean that a white author wrote a book that is told from black women's perspectives, some of it in dialect, for more than half of the narration? What about this bit about a lawsuit brought against the author for unpermitted appropriation of character? One of the great book group discussion points for this book is whether Skeeter exploited the maids by writing their stories; has Stockett done a similar thing? I guess these considerations are part of what makes the book so popular among book discussion groups.

I would suggest this book to readers who enjoy reading a single story from various characters' perspectives; who are interested in fictional accounts of mid-1900s race relations in the American South; and specifically to those who plan on seeing the movie when it comes out in August. Always read the book first!

New meal: Chicken Sesame Stir Fry

Finally, a new meal! I've been traveling here and there and working odd shifts to cover colleagues' meal breaks that I haven't really had the time to break out my stockpile of recipes to try and really make something new for myself. Until a few days ago, that is, when I just couldn't stand eating something reheat or cold sandwich any longer.

So I made a chicken sesame stir fry. I always used to think I didn't like food with soy sauce, but I've lately found that is definitely not the case. Maybe the change is due to my roommate and her own diverse cooking repertoire, to my ever-developing taste buds, or just to getting over whatever mental block I may have had about food with soy sauce. Whatever the instigator was, the end result is quite pleasant.

I made this stir fry rather improvisationally, what with not having a specific recipe and being too hungry to search for one. I but a bit of olive oil, low-sodium soy sauce, and sesame oil into a nonstick frying pan, and once that was hot I dumped in the chicken pieces I'd cut up. At the same time, I steamed some broccoli and sugar snap peas so they'd be ready to just jump in the pan. By the time the chicken seemed cooked through, I tossed in the broccoli and sugar snaps peas along with some sweet peppers and mixed the whole thing together over the heat for about five minutes, just to make sure it all melded well. I served it over brown rice, and mmm, was it tasty. Great leftovers, too!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book #30: Entwined

Growing up, I had a beautifully-illustrated picture book version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. I found the story completely enchanting, and for years after I stopped having it read to me at bedtime I still could recall the image of the twelve lovely princesses descending the magical staircase in their bedroom on their way to a night of dancing.

When I read a blurb about Heather Dixon's Entwined, I knew I had to give it a try because of my love for the Twelve Dancing Princesses tale. This YA novel is a creative retelling of the familiar story. Azalea and her eleven younger sisters are indeed princesses, and they love to dance. When their mother the queen dies, however, the King--the girls' father--mandates that the whole family shall be in mourning. For the girls this means drab clothing, not being able to venture into the palace gardens, and certainly no dancing. To make matters worse, Azalea and her sisters looked to their mother for all manner of familiar affection; the King seems entirely disinterested in showing them any such feeling.

When the girls figure out how to activate some of the old magic left in their palace home, they discover a magical, beautiful silver world full of fine ladies and gentleman, lovely music, and all the dancing they could want. A man who calls himself only "Keeper" is their escort and guide in this magical place, and he seems only to want for the princesses to enjoy themselves. As time goes on, however, Azalea starts to see that perhaps Keeper isn't so benevolent after all--and that perhaps their dancing will have repercussions worse than they could have imagined. Throw in some romantic intrigue which is creatively written to still fit the traditional story plot and you've got a solid, slightly eerie novel with equal bits of magic, family, love, and personal strength as themes.

I'd suggest this book to readers who were creeped out--in a good way--by the Crooked Man in John Connoly's The Book of Lost Things, who enjoy YA novels with fantasy elements and strong female characters, and who are intrigued by the possibilities offered by creative fairy tale retellings.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Books #27-29: The Hunger Games series

I had put off reading Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy for months. I have a friend's hardback copies sitting next to my desk in the same place I originally set them down sometime in March.

This past Wednesday, I started the first book in the series. I finished the last one less than an hour ago. That's less than four days, people. Four days in which I worked three shifts and drove from home to Bloomington, so my reading time was restricted. I was so captivated by the story, the characters, absolutely everything about the series that I had a very hard time putting it down in order to do normal thinks like shower and do laundry (but I did, don't worry). It's that good.

I don't want to tell you any more about the series because I don't want you to read my description and, thinking you won't like it, not read it. You can find plot synopses and teasers all over the internet. But the main fact is, you need to read these books.

One thing I will say: I was continually surprised and caught off guard by everything that happened in the books. Every time I thought I had figured out a character, a plot line, anything, Collins would take everything a mindblowing step further. As someone who reads a lot and can often spot endings from afar, that's a high compliment. Read The Hunger Games. Please!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Book #26: Dead Girls Don't Write Letters

I can't remember where I saw Gail Giles's Dead Girls Don't Write Letters mentioned, but after finishing it, I really wish I could. This book has a crazy twist, and I really want to know what kind of list it was on that got me to read it in the first place.

High schooler Sunny is in a rather dysfunctional family situation. A few months prior to the present of the story, her older sister, Jazz, left home to pursue a life in New York City. After Jazz dies in an apartment fire, the girls' parents are devastated--they separate, and the mother falls into crippling depression while the father seeks solace in alcohol. Sunny, though sarcastic and annoyed at how her parents totally ignore that fact that she is still alive and part of the family, isn't all that upset that her sister is gone. Jazz always purposely overshadowed Sunny, see, manipulating their parents and pretty much everyone else to not like Sunny. Or at least so Jazz thought.

Everything takes a turn, however, when Sunny receives a letter from Jazz in the mail saying that she is alive and well. She was out of town at the time of the apartment fire and just recently became aware that people thought she had died. Much to Sunny's chagrin, Jazz writes that she'll be returning home--the prodigal daughter returned. Things get even stranger, though, when the girl who shows up isn't Jazz. But she does know an awful lot about Sunny and her family...

I don't want to say any more about the plot and risk giving away the amazing ending of this quick novel. I'm personally not much for thrillers, but this book had me flabbergasted and trying to figure out the ending the whole evening after I read it. The writing isn't the most well-developed, but it suits the fast pacing of the story. I'd suggest this book to anyone who enjoys short eerie tales and YA psychological thrillers.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book #25: Matched

I wasn't sure that I was going to like Ally Condie's Matched when I first started reading it. Sure, it's a dystopian world, which I can totally get behind, but the protagonist Cassia's only concern seemed to be receiving her match--the boy with whom she would later enter the Marriage Contract--and then getting on with her Camazotz, Giver-esque existence. She seemed perfectly nice but without much depth or interest. I stuck with it, though, and now my only complaint about the book is that I didn't know it is the first in a trilogy--and the other two volumes won't be released until Novembers 2011 and 2012.

As I mentioned, Cassia lives in a dystopian world. Everything is controlled by the Society: marriage partners, vocations, the age of death (eighty), living arrangements, nutrition allotments... the list goes on. The Society, the reader discovers, was formed after it was determined the old (i.e., our) way of life was too harsh and cluttered. They eradicated disease, yes, but they also eradicated independent thought. All of human culture up until the Society was condensed into samples--the Hundred Poems, the Hundred Paintings, the Hundred History Lessons--which were the only remaining ties to a pre-Society past. The only choices to citizens: obey now or obey in a few minutes after you've taken the red tablet you carry around with you.

Back to Cassia and her match. At her Match Banquet, she learns that she is matched with someone she knows. This rarely ever happens in the Society, that a person's ideal match for strong progeny is someone familiar. In Cassia's case it is her best friend Xander, and she feels quite happy with the development. Until she looks at his datacard, that is. When she looks at his information on her port, the screen suddenly goes blank. In Xander's place appears the face of another boy she knows: Ky, an Aberration. As an Aberration, he is allowed to exist in the Society, but not to be Matched or receive the highest benefits of the Society. Suddenly Cassia isn't so sure anymore. Add in the complications of an illegal poem her grandfather gives her at his Final Banquet and the fact that Ky seems to be even more different than she first realized and Cassia suddenly isn't so content with her Stepford Society life anymore. But can she rebel in a Society where rebellion just does not happen?

I really got into the pace of Condie's writing, and while I think Cassia was perhaps in her head a bit too much to stay completely interesting to the reader, the complexity of the Society more than made up for any other shortcomings. I'd suggest this book to readers who enjoy dystopian fiction, female characters who really come into their own, and captivating series.