Book Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

I really enjoyed this book, more than I thought I would. It is fantasy, but a very YA take on the genre, definitely not high fantasy. It reminded me of Kristen Cashore’s Graceling and Bitterblue, with similar characters and plot dynamics.

The amazon description of this book does a woefully inadequate job of expressing what this novel is about. It acts as if the plot of the book is Ismae having to decide if she will kill a man she falls in love with (Duval, by the way). She isn’t asked to kill him until page 400, and it is overshadowed by much more important plot lines running at the time. The book is fantastic without the drama the description depicts.

Here’s how I would describe it:

Ismae is only too happy when she is offered a place in the convent of Mortain, the god of death. After a life with an abusive father and a narrow escape from a brutal arranged marriage, the job of killing men on the god’s instructions is welcome. After training to be an assassin for three years, Ismae is given a series of tasks, which will earn her full membership of the convent. On these tasks, her path crosses that of Duval, a member of the royal court sworn to protect the young duchess while her country is plagued by the threat of French attack. Through a convoluted series of events, they set off for court together, with Ismae masquerading as his cousin (which everyone interprets as mistress). Ismae is on orders to see is Duval is a traitor; Duval is attempting to keep the duchess safe from the many arranged marriages set up before her father’s death.

Inside the court, it’s basically a giant game of FMK, with rampant affairs, powerful barons trying to gain power by marrying the duchess, and people trying to kill each other for their own political gain. Ismae is drawn into the royal family, desperate to distrust Duval, even as she is forced to question the convent that has been her first home.

The book is really well done. Good writing, very distinct and alive characters. The evolution of the dynamic between Ismea and Duval is done beautifully, never betraying the characters LaFevers created. One of the reveals was a bit obvious, but it worked with the story.

I would really recommend Grave Mercy. There’s a little bit of romance, hints of fantasy, lots of political intrigue. It’s captivating and hard to put down.

Hell and Styx #17: Distracted

I know it’s been a while, but here is Hell and Styx #17!

This one picks up where H+S #16 left off, after Hell and Heaven went to the human world. By now this plot line is really long, and I don’t want to repost all the links, so you can link to the rest of it from H+S #16 or from the Hell and Styx page.

Hell and Styx #17: Distracted

Styx woke up the next morning to find that the kitchen was back.

Purgatory couldn’t seem to decide if the gatekeepers needed a kitchen, making it appear and disappear at random. They rarely cooked, when meals could be produced by a simple thought; it was a luxury to have enough time to conjure specific ingredients and then manually combine them. It was more the presence of a shared, neutral room, not either of their bedrooms, that the kitchen seemed to symbolize.

Styx found the door at the lowest flight of stairs before the ballroom, leaning open halfheartedly. A prickling sensation crawled up his spine. Hell never did anything halfhearted unless she was extremely distracted. Doors were either wide open or closed. There was no in between.

But today there was, and Styx, who had noticed a distinct souring of Hell’s moods since Heaven up and left four days back, proceeded with caution, peering into the kitchen, wondering if he should abandon the whole endeavor and skip breakfast.

The thought of dealing Hell, after she had had a few gruesome deaths in her to add to her bad mood, dispelled that notion. Now was the best time to find out what was wrong, before it got any worse.

He steeled himself and entered the kitchen.

He stared for a moment at the scene before him, and then jerked back into the entranceway.

There wasn’t anything wrong. Not unless Hell disliked making out with Heaven, which it really didn’t appear she did.

Styx crept back in and stared at his best friend pushed up against a cabinet, wondering if he felt more like cursing or applauding. He’d seen this coming, of course. Since Heaven left, but really, since he showed up.

Hell meets Heaven—how could this not be the end result?

Styx backed away quietly, suddenly without any desire to eat. Finishing the descent into purgatory proper, Styx wondered if he would mind if Hell had to deal with a few murders’ murders today.

* * *

Hell would have given everything she had to keep every bad person on earth there one day longer. But the voices were already encroaching, whispering, like static from a radio turned all the way down. Purgatory used to leave her alone longer, but it had grown impatient in its old age. Having not dealt with any souls since before meeting Heaven last night, it had been half a day since she had dealt with any of the dead. Hell didn’t have to focus to feel how cramped the ballroom below was growing.

“I—I have to go,” she said, when the voices were louder than the pleasure of kissing and being kissed by Heaven.

Heaven leaned back to watch her face. “Is something wrong?”

“Just purgatory being chatty.” Hell pointed to her head and tried to laugh off her disquiet.

“You’ve haven’t been away a day!”

“Yeah, well, tell the dead guys that,” Hell said, ducking out of Heaven’s grasp and heading toward the door.

“Do you want me to come?”

Hell shrugged, not wanting to turn him down, but not wanting him to watch her work. “I’m going to be really busy.”

“Getting that,” Heaven muttered.

“I’ll get it over with quickly. I won’t get distracted.” Hell couldn’t understand what compelled her to promise that.

“Thank you.”

Hell nodded in response. “Look—do you want me to tell Styx that you’re back?”

Heaven blinked. “Why wouldn’t you?”

Hell crossed her arms, leaning against the doorway, kicking the door out of the way with her foot so it slammed against the wall. “Are you staying?”

Heaven gaped at Hell. “You’re asking me that question?”

“Better safe than sorry.” Hell gave a wry smile, but Heaven could tell she didn’t find any of this funny.

“Of course I’m staying. What was last night? You think I’m just going to leave after that?”

“The kissing and falling off a building? You got your rush. Are you going to go back to pining over Lily-what’s-her-name? Is the guilt going to stain your angelic soul?” Hell’s voice was laced with sarcasm.

“I’m over Lilith. I wouldn’t be kissing you if I weren’t.”

“Can you stop obsessing over the human world?”

Heaven glared. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“I. Live. Here. I can’t up and leave whenever I want to spend time with you. I’ve been gone barley twelve hours and the powers that be are already calling me back. I need you here, if this is every going to be anything.”

Heaven hadn’t meant to get angry, but the next minute, he was. “I like the human world, though, Hell. You can’t ask me to never go back because of your petty issues with it.”

Hell snorted at petty issues. “Fine. Visit your precious world. But if purgatory decides to remove your room, I’m not appealing their decision.”

“I won’t obsess.”

“You’d better not.”

“I’m really happy where I am,” Heaven said, forcing Hell to make eye contact with him. “Really happy.”

Hell knew what he was saying, but didn’t want to deal with it while she was still burning on anger. “I have to go to work.”

* * *

Hell watched Styx gently guide a grandmother through a crack, forcing her smile away as he turned around.

“The kitchen’s back.”

Styx raised his eyebrows. “I noticed.”

“Heaven’s—also back.”

Styx noted the flush creeping up Hell’s neck. “Must have just missed him.”

Hell wanted to tell him that she’d been to the human world. He had been badgering her for years over her irrational hatred of the place, and he would be proud that anyone had managed to convince her to go.

What else he would feel at the news, Hell decided she didn’t want to learn this early in the morning.

“Gotta shut the voices up,” she said with a tight-lipped smile.

Styx watched her weave her way through the crowd, abruptly noticing how packed the room was, wondering how distracted Heaven had kept her that the voices were chattering away.


Finally Back to My Novel

Remember, right when I started this blog, that I said I had just finished the first draft of my novel, Devil May Care, and that I was going to let it sit around for a month before I started editing it? And then after that month was over I said I’d wait one more month until school was out?

Well, school has been out three weeks, but I FINALLY went back to my novel. In the last three days, I reread the 341 page manuscript. It was painful and uplifting at the same time.

I knew that the beginning of the novel wasn’t good. It was rough, and I didn’t really know where I was going with the plot. And though the writing at the end of the manuscript is some of the best I think I’ve ever done, the writing at the beginning…is not.

edit old writing

I wrote the entire novel without an outline. I basically had no idea what the plot was going to be as I wrote it. This is the way I write and I don’t regret it, but it definitely left my work cut out for me as an editor.

I am, of course, having existential crises every two seconds: This has no plot! My main character is one dimensional! There’s too much romance! There’s not enough romance!

edit crap

I’m trying to stay positive, but it’s hard.

The thing is, I really like Devil May Care. But I’m also realizing that I need to do a lot of work on it. I’m going to rearrange events in the plot, add depth to more side characters, and flesh out my main characters. There are some elements of the conclusion of the novel that I know I need to add, but I haven’t yet figured out what they’re going to be.

I have a lot of work. And it’s summer, so motivation is taking a while to show up. But I’m taking this seriously. Now that I’m back inside the DMC universe, I’m ready to work.

edit homework


Keeping this in mind, there will probably be less Hell and Styx posts for the next few months. I know I’m sort of in the middle of a plot line right now, and I promise I will work on it while I edit. Just, you know, slower.

I hate editing. Seriously. The last novel I wrote died when I tried to edit it. That’s the reason (one of the reasons) I switched to Devil May Care. So I’m kind of scared at the idea of editing DMC, which is my favorite manuscript I’ve ever written.

I just have to remember this:

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

OH MY GOD  I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I can’t believe it’s OVER!

This entire series is amazing. Seriously, it’s not just hype. It’s crazy how good the books are.

(Spoiler alert, proceed with caution.)

In book seven, we as readers really get to see the strength of not just Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but everyone at Hogwarts and in the Order. As I mentioned in my review of the sixth book, their support structures are gone. The stakes have reached their climax–it’s their last shot to defeat Voldemort.

I’d like to focus on two reveals that played out in this book: a deeper understanding of Dumbldore’s past, and Snape’s true colors.

First, the insight Rowling provided into the nooks and crannies of Dumbledore’s childhood. As Harry learned mismatched facts about his mentor’s youth, he was forced to reevaluate his firm belief in Dumbledore’s goodness. This further pushed Harry to stand on his own and grow into his own person. Still, he remained loyal, endearing him to me with his true Gryffindor spirit. (I’ll stop talking before I sound exactly like Dumbledore.)

Second, the reveal of Snape’s undying loyalty to Dumbledore. Forget what I said in my review of book six–J.K. Rowling is even better at lying to her readers than I imagined. So I look like an idiot again–but I’m still okay with it. The characterization driving the complex dynamic between Snape, Harry, and Dumbledore is fascinating in its complexity and its realism.

Really, I can’t think of anything else to say that I haven’t said already in previous posts. The seventh book was the ultimate ending to the series, tying up loose ends, strengthening characters and their bonds, and finally defeating the evil that had followed Harry through the previous six installments.

The epilogue was perfection. There’s nothing more to say.

The Harry Potter books showcase some of the most well-done characterization I’ve ever read. Rowling’s gift for creating twisting, complex plots is breathtaking. The emotion both written into the book and that they inspire is powerful and heart-wrenching.

They’re gorgeous. I’m so glad I reread them, and I know this won’t be the last time I crack open their covers.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

I loved Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. One of my favorites of the series. Perfectly plotted, and a continuation of the great character development set up from the start.

(Warning: MAJOR plot spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.)

J.K. Rowling is a master at deceiving her readers. Even with the second chapter of the book spelling out Snape’s betrayal of the Order, I was convinced that he was a triple agent, still loyal to Dumbledore. Dumbledore’s complete trust of Severus was infectious. Also, Harry’s past, wrong beliefs that teachers and students he hated were evil kept me from really believing his most recent accusations. Even when Snape killed Dumbledore, I tried to find a loophole, a way the Killing Curse could have been faked.

I was an idiot.

But I was an idiot at the expense of incredible writing, so I’m okay with it.

What I love about this series, but especially the sixth book, is how fallible the characters are. Of course, all stories contain such characters, but Rowling spared none of hers this fate. While many authors would have felt compelled to make the professors at Hogwarts infallible adult figures who were obeyed on principle, Rowling understood the plot depth she could harness if they were in fact the opposite. Harry is loyal to the school and its (not evil) teachers, but he is more loyal to his personal beliefs and his gut instincts. This keeps him safe as his peers and his mentors fall.

It is refreshing to have an adult author write so plainly about adults’ misunderstanding and underestimating of youth. I’m a teenager; I know what it’s like to realize an adult has no respect for me, only the cookie cutter stereotype of “teenagers” that society has chosen. To see great wizards humbled by lesser youths is uplifting, and I hope many adults recognize their own flaws in the failings of the adults in the Harry Potter universe.

I love the insight we gain into Voldemort in this book. He used to be a simple, imposing Evil–terrifying by his legacy alone. He was a monster, and rightfully so, but in this book, we see the man…and we understand him. What was once a random rampage of evil is unearthed. Even his heartless nature is explained with the splintering his soul endured to create six Horocruxes. Young Voldemort is almost more frightening than the one alive in the present story. We watch him coolly, intentionally become evil. We have to accept that he chose this path, deliberately. His need for power, lack of friends, desire to cause pain–they are all rooted in his past, and when we learn of their causes, we feel sickly close to the Dark Lord. This is terrifying. Rowling did an incredible job with these plot reveals, using them to test the bond between Dumbledore and Harry, set of the end of the series, and get her readers closer to her villain than we ever wanted.

Harry and Ginny’s relationship in this book added a needed burst of happiness. They’re perfect for each other. Even with Harry’s (stupid) need to be a hero and “break things off” with her, I know they can’t stay apart. Even if I didn’t remember the ending, I would believe this. (Screw the realistic romance I mentioned in my review of book four–they are soul mates and I LOVE it.)

J.K. Rowling’s gift for characterization is breathtaking. She captures personas we’ve all met and brings them to life effortlessly on the page. We understand every action they take, including their failures, because of the characters she has created. Slughorn’s pride, Snape’s hatred of Harry, Voldemort’s power-hunger–in understanding them, we are drawn into the story. As the series lengthens and teaches more and more about every character involved, my emotional commitment to the series grows, leaving me sobbing during Dumbledore’s funeral.

I think Dumbledore’s death was, though painful, necessary. Harry has slowly lost every one of his support structures: Sirius Black, Dumbledore, his faith in Hogwarts’ impenetrability. Looking in the seventh book, with a clear goal of destroying the Horocruxes and Voldemort himself, Harry must finally face the world without an adult’s watchful eye keeping him safe. By losing Dumbledore, he lost his safety net. Had he not, the seventh book would not be as powerful. The stakes have to be as high as possible–Harry has to be alone. Sure, he has his friends, but even that is tested, and they are his same age and (basically) skill level. They are youth against the vast evilness of the world, what the series has been building up to.

Of course I cried when Dumbledore died. But after all of the botched, unnecessary character deaths I’ve read, I appreciate a character dying for a reason, not just a body count.

It’s clear J.K. Rowling knew what she was doing when she wrote this series. She can write, and I love that.

I’m halfway through the seventh book now. I can’t believe this series is going to end. It’s kinda killing me.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

I really loved Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix.

(Warning: there will be plot spoilers in this review, so if you haven’t read this book and want to, please refrain from finishing this)

The premise of this book was perfect. As the series shifts from MG to YA, Harry learns of the Order, a group of adults who will fight against Voldemort, but isn’t allowed to join. The juxtaposition of being powerful and smart but still considered a “child” is powerful, bringing out emotions not just in the protagonists, but in the reader. Harry’s frustration is palpable, relatable to anyone who has tried to walk through an open door only to have it slammed in their face. Especially as a teenager, facing situations in which some adults treat me with respect and others still see me as a child, Harry’s struggle with the Order is familiar, captured beautifully by J.K. Rowling.

What struck me most about this book in the series was how realistic it is. While the other books did have realistic social elements sewn into the mystical plot, this book portrays a vividly realistic account of the pressure and awkwardness of high school. The pressure of OWL years and the ensuing amount of homework is true in any school (even without complex wizarding exams). The way Harry and Ron procrastinate their massive amounts of homework is even more realistic, a trap even the best students can fall into.

The romance between Harry and Cho is awkward and tentative, and comes off extremely high-school-y. This isn’t a story written for the romance, but as with any group of teenagers crammed together for a year, flings and couples do appear. J.K. Rowling managed to add romance to her series without losing the focus of the novel, something other authors have dramatically failed to do. I respect her also for making the coupling–because there are others–tense and awkward, instead of the born-for-each-other, instant romance of most books that involve this sort of thing. This is real romance, playing out in the background of stressful schoolwork and larger issues, the kind that actually happens, instead of some perfect, soul mate romance seen in other series. (Don’t get me wrong, I love reading that kind of romance. But in this series, it was refreshing to see that the realism of the series wasn’t sacrificed for a few bonus points with an older audience.) Harry Potter is still about magic and triumph and sacrifice–but the addition of romance added to the realistic-ness of the series.

And then there is Dolores Umbridge. She is a fantastic evil character, something I appreciate. She is every horrible teacher you have ever had–but moreover, she feels like a bad substitute teacher. All of the jaw-clenchingly horrible things she does come off as the actions of a power-hungry sub, while the rest of the students suffer because they know what the class is supposed to feel like. This highlights the loyalty Harry’s peers feel to past teachers, and actually learning the subject.

Umbridge is the ultimate red-tape character. She is an evil none of the students know how to fight–a corrupt government. Every move Harry would make to undermine her is countered with a bureaucratic sweep of her pen. In this way, Umbridge is not only keeping Harry from enjoying his time at Hogwarts, she is also (unintentionally) aiding Voldemort in his rise to power by containing the people trying to stop him. She is frustrating. She is the perfect antagonist–and I LOVE her.

The creation of the D.A.–Dumbledore’s Army–adds a level of solidarity to the Hogwarts peers. Whereas before it was just Harry, Ron, and Hermoine who united against the approaching evil, now there is a group. This is the first step toward the unity Dumbledore–and the Sorting Hat–begged for. And for Harry, who has experienced very little loyalty or faith in his years at the school, this is a turning point, proving to him that he is strong enough to be a leader. Ironically, this show of strength was spurred into existence by Umbridge, so that her lasting legacy in the school is one of unity, not brokenness.

I loved Fred and George’s exit from the school. It was hilarious and perfect and I don’f feel like I need to talk about it much, because it was basically awesome.

The climax of the fifth book was really intense. I haven’t read this book since I was really young so I had no idea what was going to happen–and I was terrified. Serius’s death was almost too sudden for me; it wasn’t until the whole ordeal was over and Harry was trying to cope with it that the loss really struck me. However, the rest of the Order survived, and the book ended on a hopeful note for the group.

The fifth Harry Potter was emotionally moving in its realism and uplifting in its triumph over evil.

50th Post, Time for a Rant

I’ve tried to keep my posts somewhat emotionally-controlled in the past. But this is my 50TH POST! So screw it, I’m ranting.

But it’s about books, so don’t worry.

I have two younger half-sisters, one of whom just finished third grade (is a 4th grader now). Since I’ve been rereading the Harry Potters, I’ve been talking to the rest of my friends about when they read the series and how the books affected them as readers, and I decided my older little sister would really benefit from reading them.

The Arguments in Favor of this Movement (largely based off of conversations I’ve had with my fellow 14/15-year-old friends):

1. Fourth grade is the time when the HP books become really popular. Lots of kids will be reading them, and having gotten a head start in summer will be a conversation starter and a useful device in friend making. (Or she could just read them once the school year starts if anyone has a problem with being ahead of the curve, it’s the same idea.) This is an example of peer pressure benefiting the whole instead of turning it into druggie teens.

2. Since the series starts out young and not that dark or scary, little kids (if you call 4th graders “little”) can read the first books. Due to the long length of the books, most kids read the books over a long period of time, so that by the time they’ve gotten to the later, darker books, they are older and more mature and can handle it.

3. If you read Harry Potter after you have “grown out of” playing, you’ve missed out on a plethora of game opportunities. Most of my friends, including myself, played some version of wizarding duels as kids. My sister and I even worked it into larger, already existing games after we read them, just borrowing the spells. J.K. Rowling’s books give the reader the incredible ability to “learn” magic, because you are in the classroom as they learn the wording and motions required for each spell. It’s a game waiting to happen, and fourth graders are at the perfect age to take advantage of this. Again with the friendship building opportunities.

4. Harry Potter is a gateway book. In fourth grade, one of my friends was still reading those really tiny, cheesy books that you see in Scholastic book orders, that are really only age appropriate until at most second grade. Her brother forced her to read the Harry Potters, and she credits them as the books which got her interested in reading. Now, she is just as avid a reader as I am (which is pretty freakin’ avid). Most of my other friends, who read HP earlier, still credit it as one of the books that got them interested in reading.

There, look, I presented my arguments in a clear, logical fashion without getting too sarcastic or rude.

Now for the thing I’m actually ranting about.

This weekend, at dinner, I brought up that I thought it would be a good idea if my 4th grade sister read Harry Potter. We could read them together, I said, and I read them when I was way younger than you, so you’ll be able to handle it. They’re awesome books. I think she’d enjoy them.

On top of these reasons is the most important one for me: like one of my friends, my little sister is still reading books that I find are waaaayyyy below her maturity. She isn’t challenging herself, and her parents aren’t either. Since a large portion of my personality is based on what books I’ve read, I really wanted this sister to be interested in reading, so I could share some of my favorites from when I was her age, and we could bond over them. Also, I know she would benefit in school and in her future if she picked up a love of reading now. So far, any effort toward this has failed. So I’m hoping Harry Potter can have the same effect on her as it did my friend, inspiring her to go looking for bigger, more complex books, and really get into reading.

I’m not going to get into the fact that neither of her parents even touched my suggestion, clearly thinking their daughter too young to read the books (let alone the fact that I read them in SECOND GRADE). That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms that I’m not opening here.

It was what my little sister said.

In the last weeks of the school year, all the third graders got to meet the fourth grade teachers. They talked about what to expect next year, because it is the first year of “upper grades.”

My sister shared this statement from a FOURTH GRADE teacher:

(paraphrased, of course, but I trust my sister to have gotten the gist of it, mainly because it didn’t strike her as pathetic and horrible, so she had no reason to exaggerate or reword it)

“I see some kids reading Harry Potter in my classroom and I think, ‘You should not be reading that. You aren’t ready.'”

I knew from previous conversations that the teacher speaking was the one my sister actually wanted to get next year. I’ve been in the position where adults (or just older people) harp on an adult that I feel loyalty to. It sucks A LOT. (A note to adults out there, please don’t put children through this.)

So I kept my burst of outrage to a minimum in her presence, but I couldn’t keep it in forever. Ergo, this rant.

“I see some kids reading Harry Potter in my classroom and I think, ‘You should not be reading that. You aren’t ready.'”

This is BS.

See my above reasons. If you’re at a 4th grade level, HP is perfect for you. If you aren’t reading at a 4th grade reading level, there is a good chance HP is the book that will get you there.

It is despicable for a fourth grade teacher to hold this opinion. I get it if you are a second grade teacher, it might freak you out to see a kid cracking open book six. But this is fourth grade, when everyone will be reading it anyway. Don’t act like only the “good students” should be reading a book they clearly enjoy.

My little sister added a clarifying comment:

 “No, I think it’s just for the bad kids. You know, the ones whose reading levels aren’t there yet.”

Ahh…reading levels. The bane of my elementary school existence.

Let me explain.

My school used the Advanced Reader program. I know her school uses a different program, but they all operate in similar ways.

It all starts with a vocabulary assessment. My school took this in the computer lab. Basically, there was a sentence with a blank in it and four word choices. You picked the word that made sense. If you got the question right, it gave you a harder question. It also saved a profile for you, so that when you took the test the next month, it started you at the difficulty that was appropriate for you.

Based on these test results, the computer spit out a reading level, a range of grade levels that you should be reading at (e.g. 4.3-6.5, middle of fourth grade through middle of sixth grade). Then you went on and looked up whatever book you were reading. AR (Advanced Reader) was a program that reviewed the vocabulary used in books and gave them a grade level based on the author’s diction. The books you read were supposed to fall into the range given to you by the computer.

By fourth grade, I was testing at a high school reading level. By sixth grade, my range was something like 7.2-12.4, which made it almost impossible to read books at my level. But we’ll get back to that.

I don’t know what my sister’s reading level it, but I’ve gathered from conversations that it is on grade level, probably a little above it.

Here’s the thing: I hate reading levels. Everything about them.

Because here’s the attitude teachers take:

You should read books that are within you reading level.

Which often translates to:

Don’t read that book, it’s above you reading level.

I’ve literally had a teacher say to me, “You should know 99% of the words in a book you are reading.”

But how are you supposed to improve you reading level if you only read books inside of it? How are you supposed to learn new words if you aren’t reading new words? Reading levels create a culture of stagnation. Instead of driving kids to read whatever books interest them, no matter what age level they are written for, kids today are told that the only books they should read are the ones that are “appropriate for them.” Instead of challenging children to read books that will be difficult, teachers like the one quoted above are holding their students’ hands and pulling them away from the edge of what I can only assume they consider some form of moral damnation.

This pisses me off.

Reading is one of the most important things in my life. I credit it with most of my successes: I’m really smart. I have a really good vocabulary. I can figure out a word based on context clues alone. I can read an article with words I don’t know but still understand it, because I’ve always read things that were too hard for me.

I would not be myself if I had read the books the computer told me to read.

Kids should read books that sound interesting. If we try to tie them down and force feed them books that are deemed “right for them,” we kill a generation of would-be readers.

In second grade (I think), my teacher had bins of books, each categorized by the reading level they had been awarded. Reading at already a higher reading level than most of the books provided, I was forced to gag my way through How to Eat Fried Worms, easily the grossest book of my life–and I read half of Mary Roach’s Stiff, which is about cadavers.

In addition, I found AR’s ranking of books to be at best arbitrary and at worst nonsensical. Because it only analyzes books with a computer, it misses the other elements of a book that can increase or decrease the actually grade level a book can be read at, including plot content and the author’s use of “big” words.

For instance, in the Series of Unfortunate events, Lemony Snicket makes a point of using long, complex words, but then DEFINES THEM in a way that a small child would understand. That’s just part of his writing style. I could easily read them in first grade, because he made it readable to that age. But AR awards them sixth grade reading levels. This is an example of drastic overstating the actual reading level of a series, not accounting for an author’s use of words.

On the other end of the spectrum, Alice in Zombieland is given a 4.5 reading level. I read this book last year, and loved it. However, it is a dark, intense book–no matter what the title implies, it is not a lighthearted book. There are strong elements of death, danger, and sadness that I would not have been comfortable reading in fourth grade. The interest level given by AR (because it also tells you what ages of children would want to read this series) is MG+, Young Adult when translated out of stupid AR speak. The plot of this book is at a high school level. And yet, according to AR’s logic, a fourth grader would be fine reading it, and it would be pitiful for a high schooler to touch it. I can only imagine what the teacher whose words started this rant would say when confronted with this conundrum.

But back to Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s level is 5.5, with an interest level of MG (4-8 grade). Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’s is 7.2, with an interest level of MG+ (young adult). The series clearly matures as it progresses, so this isn’t an insane jump. I’m not sure the vocabulary is really that hard, but whatever the computer says. The point is, the interest level of the first book includes fourth grade. There is no reason a fourth grader shouldn’t read at least book one (and then see argument #2 above).

Reading is the best way to improve vocabulary. Seriously. And it’s fun.

We are living in a culture where high schoolers are carrying around SAT vocab prep books as freshmen (one of my friends does this). But if we had just encouraged children to read at a young age, and challenge themselves to read books that are maybe a little too hard, maybe a little too mature, we’d have this problem fixed before we ever needed to wallow away a summer at SAT bootcamp. Read whatever you want. Read books below you and above you. Read for the sake of reading and be surprised at how much more you understand about not just our language, but the world.

For parents out there, please trust your kids to pick out books, but also encourage them to challenge themselves. I feel like a lot of parents in elementary school are afraid of their kids maturing too quickly, and dissuade them from reading books that are “older,” especially if they have a teacher’s voice preaching reading levels at them in the background.

All I know is that if my mom had done that, I definitely wouldn’t have tested at a 12th grade reading level at any point in my life. And if I’d actually cared at all about AR reading levels when I was in elementary school, I wouldn’t have a blog dedicated to my love of books today.

Hell and Styx #16: Far From Normal

Hell and Styx #16!

Sorry I haven’t posted one of these in a while, I’ve been busy reading and enjoying summer (read: doing nothing).

This story continues (sort of resolves) the plot begun in H+S #9-#15 (skipping #10). These stories span Heaven’s appearance, his arguments with Hell, and the flashbacks detailing his past with Lilith. Links to those stories can be found on the Hell and Styx page, which also has a description of  what this series of stories is all about.

I’m experimenting with adding pictures. None of them are mine, just random ones I found online. Some of them should be pinned to my Hell and Styx Pinterest board. Don’t think of the pictures as exact images of what is happening, more abstract, to add to the aesthetic fo the story. Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments.

Enjoy! 🙂 Likes and comments are always open.

Hell and Styx #16: Far From Normal:

Heaven returned three days later.

His white shirt was coffee stained and he smelled like smoke and grease.

“What happened to you?” Hell asked.

“I tried to escape,” he said, a secret smirk pulling at his lips, but Hell didn’t get the reference.

Hell stood there, at the door to his room, staring at him, trying to decide whether she wanted to smile, because she had been right, and continue the argument, or ask why he had run away, and show sympathy she hadn’t intended to feel.

He beat her to it. “You were right.”

Hell didn’t smile. “About what?”

“I was…torturing myself. And I did love something—someone—in that world. But I think I’m ready for a break.”

Hell bit her tongue, not trusting herself to speak after that news.

“Can we—get out of here? I want to…show you the human world.”

Hell’s fists clenched, but she forced herself to think about the offer. Heaven had come back. He had come back to admit he was wrong, and to show her something.

“Why?” Hell asked.

“Because I want to.” Heaven said the words like they tasted bitter in his mouth, but Hell believed them.

Hell closed her eyes and felt below her, feeling for how many of her souls were in purgatory. A good number, not impossible if she started now. On a normal day, she never would have considered taking a break. She had only allowed herself a minute to check Heaven’s room.

But today wasn’t a normal day, because Heaven’s room hadn’t been empty.

“I’ll come.”

* * *

“Just, imagine being there. Your body will drift apart and then back together in the human world.” Heaven bit his lip, conflicted. “Here, hold my hand. I don’t want us separated. Geography can be a bit confusing, especially in the beginning.”

Hell suppressed a glare and took the hand he offered her. Then she closed her eyes, and tried to imagine being in the human world, where she had grown up.

A feeling of detachment washed over Hell and she felt weightless, like she was separating into random pieces. Then, as if gravity were compressing her back together, she reformed, solid again.

She opened her eyes. She was standing on a fire escape. She’d never been to this city before—it was all honking cars and flashing lights, tall buildings and bustling foot traffic.

“You wanted to show me this?”

“Not really. I just wanted you to…experience this.”

Heaven lead her over to the stairs, and they started descending. Hell stopped on the next landing and crossed her arms. “Why are we walking?”


“We aren’t corporal, right? We can’t get hurt. We could just…jump.”

Heaven genuinely looked like the thought had never crossed his mind. “Uh…sure.” He lead her over to the railing, taking a few test swipes, running his hand through the metal. He quickly scanned the crowd below, though Hell couldn’t fathom what he was looking for. “Yeah, let’s try it.”

Hell smiled, enjoying herself for the first time. “Ladies first.” And then she calmly stepped off the platform.

It was a bizarre experience, falling without a real form. Gravity still worked. Ground was ground. But any other object was as bothersome as air, and Hell crashed through an awning and a restaurant table, before calmly landing on the ground. A rush of adrenaline hit her, leaving her gasping as Heaven appeared next to her, equally exhilarated.

“That was awesome.”

Hell nodded, catching her breath.

“Dinner?” Heaven asked, grandly gesturing to an open table in front of the restaurant they had just fallen into.

“Can we eat?”

“Just like in purgatory. Think and it shall appear.”

Sitting in chairs was difficult. They couldn’t pull them out, but once they actually sat in them, the universe recognized them as another surface to be made solid. Hell ended up with the corner of the table stuck painlessly into her chest, unable to back up her chair. Heaven had a potted fern drooping through his head.

“What will you be having tonight?” Heaven asked.

Hell closed her eyes and “ordered.” A second later, she was eating a gourmet fish stew in front of a simple, faded-paint cafe.

Heaven created a filet mignon, served with a mushroom risotto and caramelized onions.


They both got two bites into the meal before they burst out laughing at how ridiculous they were being.

“This is wonderful,” Hell said.

Heaven sliced his steak. “A step up from burgers and pizza, definitely.”

Pizza. Hell remembered a previous argument. “You know Styx and I aren’t involved or anything…right?”

Heaven grinned. “Any particular reason you thought I should be clear on that?”

Hell willed the blood rushing to her face to stop. “Just thought I’d finish that argument.”

“Nice to know anyway,” Heaven said with a wink.

Hell ate in silence, cursing her stupidity, barley tasting the tomato broth, which was the exact shade of her flaming cheeks.

“What’s your story?” Heaven asked.

Hell looked up sharply. “What do you mean?”

“What made you Hell?”

“My dad named me.”

“Not what I meant.”

Hell knew exactly what he meant, but she didn’t feel like talking about it. But she knew a bargaining chip when she saw one. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me about that someone.”

Heaven glared, but agreed. “Fine.”

“I started hearing voices when I was five. The souls in hell, you know. Screaming. Trying to get my attention. When I was six Styx found me at school, asked me to come with him. I vanished and I’ve never been back.”

“Your parents?”

“Mom was out of the picture long before this. Dad had no idea what to do with me, so he did nothing. He’s still alive, I guess, probably wallowing away into nothingness. Probably over me being gone. He’s one of Styx’s, for sure, if you know what I mean.”

Heaven nodded. Styx sorted the souls that had done nothing good or bad with their lives, those who simply wandered through life toward an inevitable death.

“And then you just started sorting souls?”

“What else was I going to do?”

“They’re horrible—and you were six.”

“It’s funny that you think I haven’t realized any of this yet,” Hell snapped, her good mood souring.

“I’m sorry,” Heaven said, his eyes grabbing hers. “For everything.”

Hell nodded, accepting his apology. Heaven wasn’t jealous of Hell’s cosmic duty anymore.

Heaven blinked, then stared at the ceiling. “Her name was Lilith. We met by accident. She was—different. So damn tired of being normal, you know? It’s horrible. Everything we want, she despised. School. Jobs. Homework. Normal friendships.”

“She could see you?” Hell asked.

Heaven nodded, but it was clear he didn’t want to talk about it. “She knew I wasn’t normal. She wasn’t an idiot. But she liked it. I was exactly what she needed, she thought. She called me Risk.”

Heaven exhaled sharply, like he had cut himself on his words.

“You okay?”

He shook his head. “I’m fine.” He flexed and clenched his fists a few times. “I just wanted to be normal for once…you know? She was perfect. She could see me. We just walked around her town, and talked. Every night, for two weeks. Made inside jokes. Laughed. She told me secrets.”

Heaven’s speech got jerky, full of pauses, as if he was piecing together the most basic of details, cutting out huge swaths of emotion. “I didn’t know how bad it was getting. I knew she was trying to escape her life but I didn’t know that I was no longer enough. I learned later that she’d started taking risks. Jumping off of roofs. Running across train tracks. Anything that would get her a thrill.

“That’s what killed her. She tried to jump from just a bit too high. Didn’t land properly. Paramedics got to her too late.”

“And she went to purgatory?”

“Right. She was one of mine. She was calm, just leaning against the wall. She’d known it was coming…you know? So I kissed her…and let the wall take her.”

Hell stared at Heaven, chewing on her lip, unable to find the words to express what she was feeling. She finally tried, “I’m sorry,” but she knew it wasn’t enough.

Heaven laughed cruelly. “You know, I’ve been reliving those two weeks for a year and a half. You were right—I’m obsessed. But I’m so freaking tired of this shit. It’s over. It’s my fault, and her fault, and that stupid, boring town’s fault. It’s gravity’s fault. I just need it to be…over.”

Hell understood what tonight was, or at least what it needed to be: as far from normal as possible.

“You want dessert?” She made a massive slice of carrot cake appear in front of her, then raised her eyebrow at him that clearly said, “Your move.”

Heaven swept his hand across his face and forced a grin. A bowl of ice cream appeared on the table.

“That the best you can do?” Hell snapped her fingers and chocolate sauce drizzled itself over the ice cream. Whipped cream swirled itself atop the dish until you couldn’t see the ice cream below it. One cherry landed with a plunk on the top.

Heaven waved his hand and two milkshakes appeared, one Oreo, one strawberry.

Hell took a sip of the pink shake and created a strawberry shortcake that was a foot tall.

Heaven countered with a cheesecake the size of a deep-dish pizza, that balanced precariously halfway off the small table.

Hell conjured up a chocolate cake, then karate chopped it with a knife, revealing an oozing center of molten chocolate.

Heaven clapped and a massive scoop of vanilla ice cream dropped onto the steaming cake. A confetti of colorful sprinkles followed, covering everything on the table.

“I want to eat,” Hell said, allowing Heaven the minor victory.

“This is ridiculous,” Heaven said, mouth full of three different types of cake, ten minutes later. “We can’t eat all of this.”

“Admitting defeat?” Hell taunted.

Heaven smiled and glared, cutting himself another slice of cheesecake.

It took them an hour to polish off the desserts. Both of them were nauseas, but refusing to admit it to the other.

“Ooh, let’s be obnoxious!” Hell dragged Heaven through the table and into the crush of people on the sidewalk. She started jumping up and down in front of people, pulling grotesque faces. When they—of course—ignored her, she walked next to them, making rude speeches about human dignity. She was half a block away before Heaven joined in.

It was fun, being incorporeal. Heaven walked half a block overlaid on top of a grumpy fat man, while Hell walked beside his wife, saying random, suggestive words extremely loudly. Hell danced a jig in front of a liquor store. Heaven tapped random passersby on the shoulder, pretending to be an obnoxious pollster, asking questions such as, “How long have you been growing that nose hair? It’s impressive!” and “Did you know that your child has been screaming bloody murder for the past ten minutes?”

At one point, Hell create a water balloon and lobbed it at Heaven, who was busy harassing a old lady about her hair dresser.

And then it was war. Up and down fire escapes, through restaurants, at one point, even into a private bathroom, the two chased each other, hurling water balloons at each other. By the time they found themselves on the roof of a towering apartment building, they were both soaking.

They both stood on opposite ends of the roof, armed with balloons, arms cocked, ready.

“Truce?” Heaven called, taking a step forward, lowering his arm.

Hell shrugged, walking toward him. When they were ten feet apart, Hell threw her water balloon at his face. “K. Truce.”

Heaven dropped his off the side of the building. Smiling, Hell joined him on the edge. “This has been fun.”

“I’m glad you came.”

“I’m glad you came back.”

“Were you waiting up for me?”

“Of course not. I knew you were going to come back eventually.”

“Didn’t think I could stay away?”

“Knew you couldn’t.”

“Did you want me to?”

“Stay away or come back?”


Hell didn’t know when the two of them had gotten so close together, or the sun had set. But she knew what she wanted to do.

“Guess,” she said.

It wasn’t that she kissed him, or he kissed her. They kissed each other, each caught up in a rush of emotion that they’d never felt before.

Hell grinned. “Are we doing this?”

Heaven stared at this crazy redhead, who had convinced him to jump off a fire escape, eat a mountain of dessert, and then chased him all the way across the city with water balloons. She was the opposite of Lilith, but that didn’t even occur to him, because it was like Lilith had never existed, she was so far from his thoughts. “Yep.”

And the second time they kissed, they let themselves fall over the edge.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

I liked Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. I’m not sure I liked it as much as the others, but it’s good.

(Spoiler alert: from this point on, there will be direct references to specific parts of the book’s plot, so if you haven’t read it yet and plan to, stop reading now.)

The premise of the book is interesting. By incorporating the Tri Wizard Tournament into the plot, J.K. Rowling continued worldbuilding, adding to the complexity of the wizarding world. Since the first book, most plot reveals had gone toward a greater understanding Harry’s and Voldemort’s past. This, while important, left the actual world of wizards fairly small: Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, Platform 9 3/4, the Borough, and the implied existence of the Ministry of Magic. However, with the Quidditch World Cup and the Tournament, Rowling vastly expanded our knowledge and understanding of wizards’ life outside of Hogwarts. I think this added perspective that the series needed, especially as the characters age and grow less dependent on their school.

The structure of the plot is reminiscent of the quest model seen often in middle grade novels. Much like in a hidden object computer game, one accomplished task brings the protagonist to the next task, to the next one. All of the books in the series so far have had similar plot structures, born from the construct of the series: the obligatory time with the Dursleys, the return to school, the buildup, and then the climax at the end of the term. This is forgivable, of course, because each plot itself is different, and as a series set at a boarding school, this is an inevitable design. However, book four takes this model one step farther, adding in a series of three tasks. This divides the book into periods of action and then lulls as the plot builds up to the next burst of drama. While the book is still an enjoyable read, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire comes off more disjointed than the previous three, and coupled with its length (734 pages in my copy), makes it a slower read. I can understand why many people I’ve talked to got stuck in the middle, bored, in the sandtrap that was the lulls in the otherwise dramatic plot.

J.K. Rowling could have done a better job characterizing the rest of the school champions taking part in the tournament. I got the basic impression of each one, but nothing more complex, which is strange coming from Rowling, who usually puts a lot of effort into her characters. The other champions–Fleur, Krum, and Cedric–were pivotal characters, and I would have liked for them to have more than their obvious characteristics.

I’ve talked a lot about the things I didn’t like about this book, but I want to be clear on the fact that I did like this book.

Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort at the end of the novel was my favorite Harry/Voldemort clash so far. It played with the connection the two share, juxtaposing it with the enmity between them. This promises even more dramatic confrontations in the future. In addition, the climax was darker than any other seen so far, revealing that the series is ready to leave the middle grade genre behind and enter the more twisted YA one in the remaining three books.

If the first book was an exposition for the next two, I believe the fourth book was another exposition, setting up the greater conflicts that will occur in the rest of the series. There is a noticeable shift in the plot’s focus, from the small world of Hogwarts to the larger world of magic entirely. The ending of the novel, as Dumbledore gathers his closest friends to work against the stubborn Ministry, hurtles the reader into the next book. It is clear from those last pages that things are officially larger than Harry, and that the future holds more danger and darkness than he could have imagined.

Slightly Off Topic: Pasta Salad Recipe

Recently I made lunch for a group of my grandmother’s friends, and I thought I’d share the recipe with you guys. I know it’s not reading, writing, or doodling, but I did it, so I’m writing about it. Deal.

Vaguely Mediterranean Pasta Salad:

(measurements for ingredients are adjusted…AKA iffy…because the first recipe made, like, twenty servings)

1/2 pound of pasta (ish…enough for four people)

1 tbsp capers

3/4 cup artichoke hearts

1/2 cup roasted red bell peppers

1 zucchini

1 yellow squash

8-10 button mushrooms

1/2 red union

1/4 Kalamata olives

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

3 garlic cloves

15-17 shrimp, no shells

lemon juice (measurements later)

pesto (measurements later)


1. Slice the zucchini and squash, then grill them until tender. Also grill the mushrooms. Cut up everything into bite-sized pieces.


2. Cut the Kalamata olives, roasted red bell peppers, and artichoke hearts into bite sized pieces. Chop the capers into smaller pieces.


3. Slice the onions and dice the garlic. Then saute them together until the onions are sweet and almost clear.


4. Make the dressing. It’s one part lemon juice, three parts pesto (I used basil), and two parts the oil from the artichoke hearts (from the jar…just strain it out). Since I made this in such a large quantity, I don’t have exact measurements for this part. Go off of what tastes good, basically.


5. Cut the shrimp in half. If they were frozen and you defrosted them in water (which works really well), dry them on paper towels before cooking.


6. Saute the shrimp in olive oil, using the same pan as the onions, so as to take advantage of the flavor they left in the pan. This should take about 5-7 minutes. Then toss them with some of the dressing, incorporating the natural juices from the shrimp–they taste amazing.


7. Cook the pasta. That part’s simple. I used squiggly pasta that looks like this:


8. Mix everything together in a really big bowl with the cheese and serve.