Saturday, July 29, 2017

On Goodbyes and New Beginnings

One of my closest friends leaves for medical school this morning, making last night the last time we were able to hang out together (at least for a bit). Her departure is bittersweet, as it marks the end of an era of sorts: our group of friends, which we amusingly dub "The Squad", will no longer be able to grab Dim Sum on Sundays nor hang out and drink wine on Fridays in its entirety. Though that's sad to think about, the beginning of her new adventure signals the countdown to an adventure of my own.

In just a few short weeks I'll be headed across the country to begin anew in New York City (well, just east of it). I'll be attending Hofstra University for my final year of undergraduate studies, and, if all goes according to plan, I'll graduate with my BA in English, Publishing Studies and Literature.

And that is exciting. Except, it's also not.

I've lived in California my entire life and have been fortunate to be surrounded by a loving family, great friends, and awesome coworkers. When I pack my bags and fly away a month from today, I'll be saying goodbye to life as I know it, stepping into a new city with new people and new challenges. And frankly, that's terrifying.

While the move will be scary, the first year I'm in NYC will be relatively manageable. I'll have guaranteed housing on campus, a meal-plan (and tons of tasty on-campus dining options), and resources that will help me get settled in after graduation. I'll finally get to live out the traditional college experience, you know, the college life you see in every college movie ever: awesome roommates, crazy parties, and thrilling playoff football games. (Though I may pass on the latter two). Instead I'll opt to make new friends and connections, pack in as much knowledge as Hofstra lets me, work (hopefully), get an internship (hopefully). and blog (also hopefully). New York is the city that never sleeps, but I may be borrowing that moniker for a while.

But soon I'll graduate. It'll be a great time. My friends and family will come out, we'll all go to dinner and catch up, and I can bask in the glory of finally obtaining my BA after a less than straight path through higher education. Then it'll be morning and life will hit me.

I'm terrified.

Where will I live? Will I be able find a job in publishing? Did I save enough money? These questions, among many others, have been rattling around in my brain for the past few months, and I'm sure they'll continue to do so. These are all perfectly valid concerns to have, but I'm trying to stay positive.

I'n addition to all of the concerns relating to my basic ability to live in NYC, I've been contemplating which direction I want to go in the world of publishing. I've been interested in digital media for quite some time, particularly platforms that focus on sports or pop culture, though I have some reservations with online media. Getting into books, because books, has also been a serious consideration, though I'm not too sure where I'd go with that. I am particularly engrossed with children's literature at the moment, so we'll see. My girlfriend suggested I look into working as an agent, an idea I like (though commission doesn't sound super fun) and one I will continue to look into. Experience and internships will ultimately play a large role in the direction I go. I know a lot can happen in a year (c'mon winning lottery ticket!), and I'm optimistic everything will work out.

Saying goodbye to a close friend yesterday was difficult, and saying goodbye to a ton of other fantastic people in my life very soon will be also be challenging. But I'm excited to see where my next move takes me.

No matter what happens, I'm forever the optimist, and I know I'll figure it out.

Though any advice you have is also appreciated. :)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Title: Looking for Alaska
Author: John Green
Publisher: Penguin
Date Published: December 28th, 2006

Description (from Goodreads):

Before. Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . . 
After. Nothing is ever the same.

Spoiler Alert: The remainder of the review will feature spoilers. 

I didn't like this book. I know, I know. It gets a ton of great reviews, and people love it. I had a difficult time getting through it, so let me tell you why. 

The Nicknames: The Beast. The Colonel. The Eagle. The Weekday Warriors. Pudge. It seems every character in the book has a nickname -- Alaska isn't even her real name -- and it all feels too fake. I mean, I get the propensity for teens to use nicknames, but when everyone in the book is running around with monikers, let alone very boring ones-- did John Green find a noun in the dictionary and put a 'The' in front of it? -- it loses a sense of realism. To some degree, the nicknames make sense; they serve as a way for the characters to mask their true identities, their flawed selves -- a new name, a new persona. Despite this, the names simply fell flat and take away from the story more than they add.  

The Characters: Much of Looking for Alaska's appeal stems from its focus on flawed characters. I was excited to see how Green developed these characters and what exactly their flaws were, but I never was able to feel empathy for any of the characters, instead finding them annoying.

Miles is extremely apathetic and takes on a very passive role -- everything seems to happen to him and he never has true control over any of his actions. In fact, he seems to be just as much an observer in his own life as I am (I couldn't help but think of Bartleby the Scrivener while reading this book). He overly romanticizes Alaska, the embodiment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and despite his own claim to growing and changing as a result of meeting her and attending the charter school, I find it hard to believe he's changed much at all. He ultimately comes to terms with Alaska's death, but he remains equally powerless by the end of the book; perhaps this development was internal, but it is never played out or explored. 

And then there is Alaska. She's the most flawed character in a book about flawed characters, and, frankly, that's why so many people love this book; however, her shtick is too overplayed and uninteresting for me. She's the beautiful yet mysterious girl, the girl everyone fawns over, but who no one really knows. Her traumatic past, perhaps the most developed aspect of her character, hangs over her head, leading to her sudden mood swings and suicide, but I have a difficult time using her past to justify her destructive behavior. Pudge seems to confuse Alaska's dark past and detrimental behavior for quirkiness, and that is problematic. Alaska's self-destructive tendencies often affect others, bordering on abuse (e.g. cheating on her boyfriend, pranking), and I have a hard time truly feeling empathy for her character. 

The Dialogue: Usually characters make or break a book for me, but my biggest knock on this book is the dialogue. Much of the back-and-forth seems forced, but it is mostly just boring. Take this encounter for instance:  
I am concussed,” I announced, entirely sure of my self-diagnosis.
“You’re fine,” Takumi said as he jogged back toward me. 
“Let’s get out of here before we’re killed.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I can’t get up. I have suffered a mild concussion.”
Lara ran out and sat down next to me. “Are you okay?”
“I am concussed,” I said. 
This reads very clunky and just too unrealistic, and though not all of the dialogue is this bad, it certainly captures my general feeling about it. Still, there are still a handful of fantastic lines, the kinds you see on Tumblr and Pinterest, but the bulk of the novel was simply, boring, too unrealistic, and not very fun. 

I hoped for the book to pick up following Alaska's death, but the After section just made it all the more confusing. It starts as a romance, but shifts dramatically to a suicide-mystery, one that feels amateur and lacks any real denouement. 

While I certainly applaud John Green's attempt to write about flawed characters in Looking for Alaska, the characters and dialogue didn't work for me, leading to a overall mediocre read. I'm still planning on reading more John Green moving forward (I'm looking at you, The Fault in Our Stars), and I hope I find them to be more enjoyable than this one.  

Rating: 2/5 Stars

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Book Review: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Title: When You Reach Me
Author: Rebecca Stead
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Date Published: July 14th, 2009

Description (from Goodreads): "By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late."

Spoiler Alert: The remainder of the review will feature spoilers. 

This review will probably a bit shorter than normal, as I made very few notes during my reading, and with tons going on between when I finished the book and when I'm writing this post, my memory has gotten a bit hazy on many of the details.

I do remember, however, just how delightful this novel was to read. Continuing on my summer journey to read more Children's/YA lit, this middle grade proved to be another stellar read. Most every middle grades book I've read (at least as an adult) has sounded like you'd think -- fairly simplistic language, with simple and straightforward themes, ya know, meant for kids between 8-12.  Yet, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me seemed to transcend the traditional sound of a middle grades book, and simple it was not. The book very quickly moved into a mystery (on the very first page of my Kindle edition), one that had me trying very hard to Sherlock Holmes the ending before I reached it -- I didn't. More, the book posed deep, intellectual questions for the 12-year old narrator, Miranda, revolving around time and space, philosophy, and death. While I don't think Stead necessarily has answer to any of these questions, the book certainly got me thinking about these questions, and kept me entertained throughout.

Perhaps this is because I'm a big-time Doctor Who fan, but I absolutely loved the book's treatment of time and time travel. When You Reach Me cleverly handles time, both in the structure of the book and throughout the plot, allowing the ending to surprise even most deductive of readers. The sort of roundabout return of Marcus aka The Laughing Man feels like something I should have foreshadowed considering his seeming obsession with time travel, yet I didn't -- maybe the kids will.

The point-of-view was absolutely great, and Miranda's voice was fun to read. I'm a stickler for good characters (who isn't?), and I enjoyed the realistic and individual characters within. I also dig the setting, 1970's New York City, though I do have quite the affinity for the Big Apple, and I like many books situated there.

The story was an absolute pleasure, combining elements of sci-fi and time travel with mystery, all while handling themes of friendship, family, death, and class/race. I'd recommend this book to most every reader, and I'm looking forward to checking out more of Rebecca Stead's titles in the future.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Book Review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Title:  The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2)
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Date Published: September 17th, 2013

Description (from Goodreads): "Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater have been woken, nothing for Ronan, Gansey, Blue, and Adam will be the same. Ronan, for one, is falling more and more deeply into his dreams, and his dreams are intruding more and more into waking life. Meanwhile, some very sinister people are looking for some of the same pieces of the Cabeswater puzzle that Gansey is after…"

Spoiler Alert: The remainder of the review will feature spoilers. 

Review: After reading The Raven Boys, I was incredibly excited to finally get my hands on (well, not literally because ebooks are a thing) the second book in Maggie Stiefvater's wonderful Raven Cycle series, The Dream Thieves. I read The Raven Boys way back at the beginning of the year, and I was greeted with beautiful prose, good characters, and a gripping story leaving me wanting more, more, more. The Dream Thieves continued the amazing narrative of the first books and allowed me to delve even deeper into the story's magical world.

Perhaps the best thing, in a long list of best things, about this book (and the series as a whole) is the strong cast of characters. The primary set of characters (Gansey, Ronan, Noah, Adam, Blue) not only have uniquely fabulous names, but they are fully fleshed out and refreshingly real. Gansey is an old-man trapped in a teenage body with a strange obsession over the Welsh King Glendower. Ronan, the quintessential bad boy, might be rough around the edges, but he is wonderfully sensitive and empathetic, and he also has a rather kick-ass crow on his shoulder. Oh yea, and he can take things from his dreams. Adam is mysteriously dark, attempting to bridge his traumatic past with new and independent future, one he is losing control of after his agreement with Cabeswater. Even Noah, perhaps the least developed of the characters, is amazingly likable, though maybe the most mysterious out of all the Raven Boys. And Blue. The not-so-psychic daughter of a family of psychics. The girl who can't kiss her true love without killing him. The girl that often acts as the voice of reason in a group of sometimes idiotic group of teenage boys. I'm struggling to think of another novel that has me so invested in the characters, and I think Stiefvater's ability to write good characters is further cemented in the second book of The Raven Cycle. 

Much of this ability stems from her ability to create characters that are innately real. The emotions of the characters feel genuine and elicited strong empathy from me as I read. It seems anger is a major aspect of the character development in this installment, as both Ronan and Adam struggle with their ability to manage their anger, hell, their feelings in general (#puberty). In fact, much of The Dream Thieves focuses on the characters, shying away from the primary plot of finding Glendower just slightly, and the tension between characters is pushed to the forefront. Despite them being such a close group of friends, the characters seems to isolate themselves, struggling with their relationships with one another, and shifting the group dynamic created in The Raven Boys. While the book ultimately ends with the Raven Boys (yes, I include Blue in this designation) once again unified and much of the tension between them dispelled, I am expecting a growing hostility between to be explored in the final two novels.

I've been driveling on and on about the characters, and I still haven't mentioned the unabashedly charming Gray Man, aka Dean Allen. Mr. Gray's initial appearance in the novel ostensibly paints him as (one of) the primary antagonist(s) of the novel, though he was incredibly difficult to dislike, and I found him to be one of the most charming characters I've ever read. Part-time hit-man, part-time Old English academic, Mr. Gray's humanity seems to rest itself on his handling of the Graywaren (Ronan), and thankfully, he's able to escape his demons and his profession (which is oddly normalized), seemingly linking up with Blue's mom, Maura at the end of the book. I hope he continues to be a presence in the series.

Like The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves begins slow, the language unhurried and magical as Stiefvater once again draws the reader into the dreamy and mythical world of the Raven Boys. Much of this slow start seems to stem from Stiefvater's strong development of the characters, and the story's richness that requires quite a bit of backstory and explanation to fully understand. Though perfectly following everything that happens (e.g. the magical characteristics of Cabeswater, Ronan's ability to remove things from his dreams) can be difficult at times, the plot progression and strong characters allow the story to press forward without the book from becoming boring or too encumbered by the rules of Stiefvater's world. Despite the slow start, the novel quickly becomes hard to put down, as the final third of the novel quickens, leading to a thrilling end -- one that is both satisfying and not very predictable.

I am decidedly in love with this series, and I'm looking forward to reading the next book, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, very soon. Go and pick up The Raven Boys, then very quickly check out The Dream Thieves -- it's brilliant.

Rating5/5 Stars