May Wrap-Up–Summer is Here!!!

may wrap up

I have three days of school left. THREE DAYS GUYS. I’m so ready for summer. I’m shaking over here.

May was a good month, I guess. I honestly can’t remember much of it; I think I’m in shock. School is taking one last swing at me before it ends. My first AP exam, finals, lots of end of the year projects, yearbook signing–I’ve been busy.  But there was some good news: I found out that I am going to be the Arts and Entertainment editor for my school newspaper! I’m really excited to take on the role.

In terms of this blog, I could definitely feel my hectic schedule getting in the way of my blogging. I only had 14 posts this month, while I had been close to 20 posts in recent months. Still, I managed to keep reading and blogging despite the craziness, so that’s something.

Most of my posts this month were book reviews. I reviewed six books this month (all links lead to my reviews). After reading some fantasy-esque books (For Darkness Shows the Stars and Graceling), I got into the mood for cutesy romance and read a strong of contemporary romances. My favorite that I read was Since You’ve Been Gone, followed by my childhood revisit All-American Girl and the book I still have mixed-feelings about, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Getting back into the fantasy genre, I just finished The Burning Sky, and I will write a review for it sometime in the next week (it was pretty darn good, I have to say).

In English class, I finished To Kill A Mockingbird (though we started it all the way back in March!!!) and read the extremely powerful memoir that is Elie Wiesel’s Night. I’ll post a review for Night when I can get my thoughts in order about the beating my emotions just took at the hands of some of the most poetic writing I have ever read. And to honor the end of my AP European History saga, I ranted about the horrible textbook that I endured.

In terms of other blog posts, this month was not my best. I took part in two complementary Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Reasons I Won’t Read A Book and Top Ten Things That I Look for in Books. I also discussed the virtues of different types of bookstores and rambled for a bit about the challenges (I imagine) translators face when translating novels. I got some new books–though I haven’t started reading them yet.

In terms of writing, this month was straight-up awful. I published one poem on this blog, and I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t one of my better ones. I didn’t touch my WIP (which I also didn’t touch last month…). I really am itching to write, but school keeps dragging me away. (THREE MORE DAYS, PEOPLE!)

At this point, I’m trying to be optimistic about summer. I’ll have a post in the coming days about my goals for this summer (one of which will needless to say be to WRITE). I hope you are all having a great beginning of summer, and for those of you with finals to deal with–GOOD LUCK.

Book Review: All-American Girl by Meg Cabot

This was my third time reading this book, but my first time reading it since I was much younger. I saw the book in a different light, but I still enjoyed it.

3.5/5 stars

cover all american girl

Amazon description

Top ten reasons Samantha Madison is in deep trouble

10. Her big sister is the most popular girl in school

9. Her little sister is a certified genius

8. She’s in love with her big sister’s boyfriend

7. She got caught selling celebrity portraits in school

6. And now she’s being forced to take art classes

5. She’s just saved the president of the United States from an assassination attempt

4. So the whole world thinks she is a hero

3. Even though Sam knows she is far, far from being a hero

2. And now she’s been appointed teen ambassador to the UN

And the number-one reason Sam’s life is over?

1.The president’s son just might be in love with her

My Review

I’m on a contemporary romance binge right now, and lacking new books to read, I went back to a book that I used to love, All-American Girl. I noticed right away that it is written for a younger audience, but reading it as a slightly older person, I was able to get more of the message Meg Cabot was saying.

Sam is a good protagonist, full of voice and easy to connect to. Her personality is slightly obsessive, which leads her to see people as either idols (Gwen Stefani), soul mates (her sister’s boyfriend Jack), or the devil incarnate (her art teacher Susan Boone). While this emphasizes her youth, it also makes her voice entertaining to read.

The plot of his book is very simple: Sam saves the president’s life and instantly becomes a national hero. And craziness ensues. It’s well paced and appropriately hilarious. It’s a light read, but it will keep you reading.

The larger plot of the book deals with Sam’s budding “frission” with David (the first son) and her obsession with Jack (her sister’s BF). Sam’s personality makes it so that even as the reader can see David and her falling in love, she’s still focused on Jack. As the book progresses, it also turns out that Jack is pretty obnoxious to Sam. It’s frustrating to watch as a reader, but it conveys a powerful message about crushes blinding people to the truth.

The other characters, including Sam’s sister, her best friend, and Jack, were somewhat flat. They added to the story in a one-dimensional way. I would have liked more depth from them, because I think it could have made this book a lot more unique.

My favorite part of this book is all the lists Meg Cabot puts throughout. They are funny and help to move the plot through more boring moments, but most of all they add a well-needed dose of humor and levity to the story. I love that Meg Cabot does things like this is all of her books–things that make them just a little more unique.

There is a sequel to this book, but I’ve never read it. I like the ending of the book as it stands, and I don’t want to change the picture I have in my mind of the couple. Adding another book to the series seems kind of unnecessary.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a younger-oriented chicklit with a lot of humor, if not a lot of depth.

Book Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

This book managed to do something that I had basically deemed impossible: it pulled off a love triangle. Without making me hate the book.

3.5/5 stars

cover to all the boys ive loved before

Amazon description

What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them…all at once?

Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

My Review

It is rare for me to pick up a book with a plot that promises so much Chicklit awkwardness. I’m glad that I “risked it” and picked this book up, though, because it was not nearly as overly dramatic and cringe-worthy as it could have been.

I have to say, the opening pages are not that great. I had read the Amazon preview a few times before I actually bought the book, because the quirky and humorous tone the book’s blurb suggested just isn’t there in the first chapter. Still, the writing gets better after the letters are mailed (which happened farther into the book than I had expected), and once the plot really gets going, I stopped paying attention to whether the writing was amazing or not.

Lara Jean writes love letters when she is ready to get over a crush. She spills out all of her feelings for a guy, puts it in an envelope, hides it in her hatbox, and stops being in love with the guy. The letters are never supposed to be mailed, and how they got mailed is actually a mystery for most of the book (which I liked).

*slight spoiler alert ahead…really it is just stuff that happens in the first chapters but I can’t talk about the book without mentioning these plot developments*

Though five letters get sent, there are only two boys who the book focuses on: Josh and Peter. Josh is the boyfriend of Lara Jean’s older sister, Margot, who just went off to college (and dumped Josh). With Margot out of the picture, old feelings Lara Jean had for Josh start to bubble to the surface, ones that get more complicated when he reads her letter. Peter is a childhood friend who grew up to be a jock and who just broke up with his longtime girlfriend Genevieve. Out of this mess of relationships, Lara Jean and Peter decide to fake being a couple. Lara Jean uses it as cover to get Josh to stop asking questions about the letter, and Peter uses it as a way to piss off his girlfriend, who cheated on him (and who he clearly still loves).

As cheesy as this plot sounds, it actually worked. There was the right amount of socially awkward scenes, balanced by some sweet moments between Lara Jean and Peter. I liked that both Peter and Josh hated the other guy; their warnings about the other guy made it harder for me as a reader to decide which guy I though Lara Jean should end up with. Yes, this book is dominated by the love triangle, but it wasn’t unbearable, and this book renewed my faith in the plot device.

The other plot line running surrounds Lara Jean’s family. There are three sisters: Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty. After their mom died years ago, Margot took over as the leader of the household, since their dad is an OBGYN and does not spend a ton of time at home. The book begins with Margot going off to college, leaving Lara Jean to take her place, even though Lara Jean really does not have a personality tailored for this kind of responsibility. On top of the romantic drama in Lara Jean’s life, she has to deal with keeping her family on track, as well as pressures from Margot to be the amazing student junior year that will get her into a “good” college.

Honestly, I hated Margot. I’m not sure if Jenny Han intended for me to hate her, or if I was just bringing my own personal experiences (and my friends’ experiences) into my reading experience, but I never liked Margot. I hated that she left Lara Jean all alone and then expected her to be the perfect head of household as well as the perfect student. She was just so…judgey.

Their dad was also not my cup of tea. I understand that he was a doctor who had to work lots of weird hours and who had never learned how to lead his family (since he had his wife, and then Margot), but still, his absenteeism and his willingness to let Lara Jean deal with all of the scheduling, cooking, and organizing for the entire family bothered me. The family dynamic was presented as mostly healthy and loving, but it reminded me of a dynamic one of my friends lives every day that is absolutely the opposite, and I just could not handle the positive spin all of the characters seemed to have on their lifestyle.

Though the family plot line did help demonstrate Lara Jean’s character growth throughout the book, it really only served to annoy me as I was reading. Probably, someone coming from a different high school experience or someone lacking my issues with this type of family dynamic would not have the issues I had with this part of the book. Still, if this part had been different, I think this book could have earned at least one more star in my rating.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a chicklit read that has an entertaining, but sweet romance. Though I liked the ending of the book and felt like it could have been a standalone book, I am excited to read the sequel, PS I Still Love You. It just came out this week!

What I’ve Learned In French Class

I had the speaking portion of my second year French final yesterday and it went…okay? Maybe a horror story, maybe not–I haven’t seen my grade yet. Let’s just say that I talk fast when I’m nervous.

Anyway, taking French for the last two years has changed me as a reader and a writer. Having to learn a new language and pay attention to the way they string words together really made me stop and look at English and its own mechanics. You don’t appreciate English’s pronouns until you’ve learned French pronouns. You don’t realize how strange some of our expressions are until you have to learn ones from a different culture. You don’t realize how evil the cross-over between languages is until you get a vocabulary sheet with “passer un examen” on it, which means “to take a test”–not to pass one. And then as you struggle through the “si clause” on your homework, you take a moment to think about the French students learning English and trying to figure out how to write “she had been having” or trying to understand why it’s not gooses, it’s geese.

Not amazingly original thoughts, sure. But I have a lot of down-time in French class, so these are the thoughts I have.

And then in English class, we’re reading Night by Elie Wiesel, translated from the original French. I can’t help but wonder what I’m missing because I’m not reading it in French. And then I’m wondering what the books I read that were written in English would be like to read if they were translated into say…French.

See? We have a theme going here.

The written word is one of the most important pillars of modern society–regardless of language or culture. And translation has to be a part of the modern global culture. But something will always be lost when the words change–right?

Before I go any farther, I’d like to make it clear that I’m a white So-Cal girl whose knowledge of other languages is entirely encompassed by my two years of high school French. I’ve never read anything more than basic poems and children’s books in other languages. So sorry if I step on toes, but this is an idea that has been rattling around in my head for a while and I’ve decided to turn it into a blog post.

Disclaimer, over. Back to the idea that the phrase “lost in translation” does not just apply to miscommunications in romance novels. Especially in the modern age of technology lingo and contemporary slang, I wonder how a translator would transfer these from language to language. Some of my favorite scenes from contemporary books are made that much better because of their modern and familiar “teenage” diction. (The Girl Con scene in Beauty Queens by Libba Bray jumps into my mind, for one.) The rhythm of the banter in dialogue scenes, the way that the use of certain words just makes scenes funnier because of their connotations, those phrases that are so cliche that you just have to use them–how do you translate that when it relies so heavily on the language it was first written in? My biggest worry–when I take time to worry about the books I love being translated–is that something could be irrevocably lost from these books when the unique linguistic diction is translated.

I mean, what is the French version of the Valley Girl “OMG, so like…”? And when French readers read that phrase, do they immediately read it in a high-pitched ditzy voice? These are the questions that I need answers to.

Google Translate is famously bad. And I’ve learned long ago that word-for-word translations are mythic objects, like unicorns. (Did anyone else ever do the thing as a kid where you would look at warning labels that were printed in different languages side-by-side and you would count like four words in on each and go “Oh, so the word for ‘don’t’ in French is ‘la'”? Because I used to do this, and on basically day two of French class I realized how hopeless this method of “translation” is.) There are professional translators for books, and software and companies designed to deal with the problems I’ve imagined. There are even companies like Smartling that specifically focus on translating websites for businesses. And then there is the (rather extreme) method of simply learning a language and getting comfortable enough with it that you can read books yourself, and cut out the middle man (though I doubt I will ever achieve this).

So what have I learned in French class? I’ve learned that language is complicated, but that its nuances are important. I’ve realized that I love that I feel comfortable with the English language. I get pride from linking words together in new and creative ways–I want to explore the English language. I want more than a textbook understanding of English. And I’ve realized that studying other languages makes me pay more attention to my own, probably in the end making me a better writer.

And I’ve learned to not just gloss over the second byline on books that lists who the translator was. That person is pretty darn important, and did a really impressive thing. They fused two languages together and did their best to preserve the entirety of the story–not just the ideas conveyed by the funny bits and the strangely touching scenes. They had a hand in building the story that you read.

Merci, Madame.

Book Review: Graceling by Kristen Cashore

This was my…fourth (I think) time reading this book. And it was still totally amazing.

5/5 stars

cover graceling

Goodreads Description

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight – she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.

She never expects to become Po’s friend.

She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace – or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away.

My Review

This book is a classic for me. My favorite assassin book, hands down. And I’ve read about a lot of assassins.

Katsa has had a hard life. Everyone in the castle fears her because of her Grace, and because of how the king Randa uses her Grace. She is his strongarm, sent to torture or kill people who disobey his rule. Katsa has begun to think of herself as a monster, and her only outlet to use her powers for the greater good is through a network of spies called the Council. She set up the Council as a way to counter the abuses of the seven kings of the seven kingdoms and to keep peace.

It is on a mission for the council that she first encounters Po, a Graced fighter. Po is looking for his grandfather, who Katsa just rescued. Po then follows her to Randa’s court…and plot ensues.

Seriously, the pacing of this book is perfect. Katsa and Po’s relationship evolves from distrust to friendship in just the right amount of time. Each event of the plot hurdles you into the next one, but it doesn’t feel like things are happening unrealistically quickly. It’s just…perfect. (Can you tell I like this book a lot?)

The fantasy element of this book is simplistic, but it works. People are randomly born Graced, with eyes two different colors and a random talent. Sometimes Graces are valuable, like being amazing at archery or hand fighting, and sometimes they are useless, like talking backwards or being able to swim very well. There isn’t any other magic in the world, just a medieval-esque setting. Still, it reads like a fantasy book.

The search for Po’s grandfather leads Katsa and Po across the continent, where they stumble into a far larger conspiracy. This leads the book to have a slightly fragmented feeling between the first half’s plot and the second half’s. The first half is undeniably happier, and a lot of authors would have skipped the second half entirely, but without the second part, the plot would not have been nearly as impressive.

The romance between Katsa and Po develops well. I love Katsa’s reaction when she realizes that she loves Po; it forces her to confront parts of her personality she has never faced before. They are one of my favorite literary couples; they compliment each other so well.

Katsa grows throughout the entire book, never changing so drastically that it becomes unbelievable, but changing enough that the reader can connect to her. Po’s influence can clearly be seen, but it is still clear that she is the one taking the steps toward being a better person. She has a bit of a feminist streak, which I love.

I would recommend this book to fans of assassin books who love great writing, sweet romance, and a complex plot that raises the YA fantasy bar.

A Discussion of Bookstores

I have never been one of those girls that loves to go shopping. Going to the mall is synonymous with headaches and bad pop remixes rather than a great way to spend the day. I like having new clothes, but I don’t really enjoy the process of finding clothes to buy.

But bookstores–I love bookstores. I could spend hours in a bookstore, finding new books to read.

But nowadays there are a lot of places you can go to buy books. So I decided to take a little while and discuss the various merits of the different types of bookstores. Keep in mind that unless I say otherwise, I’m just talking about the YA sections of these book stores.

Big Commercial Bookstores (eg Barnes and Noble)

At first glance, these seem like the best place to go for book shopping. They usually have a wide selection and lots of new releases, and (at least for me) there are a lot of locations nearby other places I might find myself, making it easier to pop in and get something new to read.

My only problem with this type of book store is that they just feel…commercial. I’ve never been one to read really popular books, and these bookstores seem to specialize in “popular” books. (I’m not trying to be a hipster, it’s just that they never seem to be as good as people say they are.) Also, it just feels like more of the books I see at stores like Barnes and Noble have cliche and overdone plots than I do at smaller, local book sellers. I go to bookstores to find new books, not to have books with covers (or plots) that I’ve seen everywhere already.

Smaller, Local Bookstores

There are two great local bookstores in my area. Both of them are smaller than the massive Barnes and Nobles I go to, which means they have a smaller selection, especially of YA books. One of them is actually a children’s book store, though by now they sell books for all age ranges. They have less turnover than the larger book stores, but their selection also tends to lack the plasticy-corporate feeling that bigger stores suffer from. I love the atmosphere in these smaller bookstores–it really feels like the employees know their store and love books–but the smaller selection can be annoying when I’m dying to read something super new.

Honestly, I end up ordering most of my books off of Amazon. This is mainly because I have been given so many Amazon gift cards in my lifetime that I don’t actually pay for books out-of-pocket anymore. However, I hate trying to find books to read from Amazon. Their “recommended” section invariably contains books I’ve already read (ones that I ordered from amazon…you’d think they could update their programming) or books that (like the ones from Barnes an Noble) just look to cliche or overly dramatic for me to ever read. Generally, if I buy a book off of Amazon, it is a sequel to a book I already own, or it is a book that I saw in a store but didn’t have money to buy it with in person. Shipping isn’t really an issue with Amazon because I have Amazon Prime, and sometimes if I preorder books, I’ll actually get them a day before they come out, which is cool. Still, as a way of finding new books to read, Amazon is probably the worst.

Used Book Stores

I actually got the idea for writing this post when I went to a Used/Vintage book store last weekend. I love the atmosphere of used book stores, but I find myself being a very different type of reader when I go into them. For instance, last weekend, I walked out of the store with a nonfiction book on Napoleon invading Egypt, a copy of Bullfinch’s myths and tales, and a book about ancient Egypt. It’s not that I am not going to read these books–I definitely am–it’s just that I would not have bought them from any other type of bookseller. Since used book stores generally don’t have a YA section (or if you’re like me and you just manage to not see the part of the store that has paperbacks until you’ve paid and you’re leaving), I usually end up buying historical nonfiction books. I like that these stores push me to buy different books, but in terms of places I’ll go looking if I need something light to read for fun, used bookstores are not for me.

What about you? Where do you buy your books? Do you agree with what I’ve said about each type of bookstore?


Top Ten Things that I Look for in Books

top ten tuesday

 Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week, they post a new Top Ten topic and other bloggers respond with their own lists. I take part in this meme when I have something to say for the topic and I remember what day it is.

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a freebie, so I decided to do a counter to a recent Top Ten of mine: Top Ten Reasons I Won’t Read a Book. This time, I want to focus on reasons I will read a book. And yes, I know it’s Wednesday, but I’m just going to pretend I posted this on the right day.

  1. A new type of magic. One of my absolute favorite things to read about is magic, but I don’t want to read about magic that I’ve read about before. I love it when authors create entirely new ways that magic works and rules that govern it. Perfect examples include Harry Potter and Mistborn.
  2. A unique twist on a cliche genre (I’m looking at you dystopian). I hate to write off genres as a whole, so I’m always willing to read dystopian or paranormal books that look like they take a tired genre and inject new life into it. Good examples include Vampire Academy and Across a Star-Swept Sea.
  3. The promise of awesome friendships. Friendships are one of my favorite things to read about; I love watching groups of people form and then go on to do amazing things together. Some of my favorite examples are the Gallagher Girls series and Beauty Queens.
  4. An author I love. This one is obvious. We all have auto-buy authors, the authors we just trust to write amazing books over and over again. Mine include Libba Bray, Patrick Ness, and Maggie Stiefvater. And if Megan Whalen Turner ever wrote another book, I’d buy that book so fast you don’t even know.
  5. The promise of adorable romance. As you can probably tell, I’m a sucker for adorable romances. Of course, the best source for these is the contemporary romances, but sometimes I pick up a fantasy novel and just die because of the two people I can tell will end up together. You know?
  6. Assassins or thieves. Yep, basically if assassins or thieves are involved, I’m buying your book. Unless your book looks really cheesy or cliche, that is. But even then, if it looks cute or funny, I might buy it anyway. Best examples include the Queen’s Thief series, the Heist Society series, and Graceling.
  7. A plot based in fairytales or mythology–but with a fresh twist. I can’t handle any more cliche spinoffs from the Percy Jackson series, whether those are written by Rick Riordan or someone else. Still, I love mythology and fairytales, so if those get reimagined (in a cool way) in a YA style, I’m in.
  8. A unique setting or fascinating world-building. This one goes along with the one about magic, but expands it to include anything that involves unique worlds–unique cultures, religions, governments, social structures, and magic, of course. I don’t care about plot anywhere near as much as the world it is set in–mainly because the world it is set in will decide if the plot is interesting, more often than not. Some of the best examples of this are Steelheart, the Gemma Doyle series, and The Scorpio Races.
  9. A powerful first page. If I’m in a bookstore–or sometimes on Amazon–I will always read the first page to see if I like the writing style. Sometimes, you just know that a book will be amazing. Code Name Verity is the ultimate example of this. Read the first page–the first line–and I dare you not to read the rest of the book in one sitting.
  10. A lack of tired, tropey, stereotypical plot devices that are clear from five words into the summary on the dusk jacket. Basically, I like new things. I like reading things I haven’t read before. Because of this, books that have plots/characters/worlds that I’ve read before are beyond boring. I can’t tell you how many books I pick up in book stores that I put back before I’ve even read the entire plot summary because I can already tell that I have read it before.

Book Review: Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

I picked up this book because it had been on my radar for a while and I was in the mood for contemporary romance and I found myself in a bookstore. I did not expect it to affect me as much as it did.

4.5/5 stars

cover since youve been gone

Amazon description

Before Sloane, Emily didn’t go to parties, she barely talked to guys, and she didn’t do anything crazy. Enter Sloane, social tornado and the best kind of best friend—someone who yanks you out of your shell.

But right before what should have been an epic summer, Sloane just…disappears. There’s just a random to-do list with thirteen bizarre tasks that Emily would never try. But what if they can lead her to Sloane?

Apple picking at night? Okay, easy enough.

Dance until dawn? Sure. Why not?

Kiss a stranger? Wait…what?

Getting through Sloane’s list will mean a lot of firsts, and with a whole summer ahead of her—and with the unexpected help of the handsome Frank Porter—who knows what she’ll find.

Go Skinny Dipping? Um…

My Review

This book was great. I love the premise, especially because the “you” that is missing isn’t a guy. I liked that so much of the book was driven by friendship–even the romance. The strong friendship theme helped to keep Since You’ve Been Gone from falling flat as a cliche contemporary romance–which it could have been, if the only plot line running was the romantic one.

Emily was the perfect protagonist for the story. She was a naturally introverted person who had been pulled out of her shell by the extremely extroverted Sloane. When Sloane disappeared, she reverted back to her awkward, unsocial self. I could easily relate to Emily, and I found the things that Sloane’s list pushed her to do sort of inspired me. I appreciated that though Sloane’s list pushed Emily out of her comfort zone, Emily’s character never fundamentally changed. If she had suddenly become an extrovert, it would have made the book feel fake. Instead, it felt real, as Emily pushed herself to take chances and live a little without losing her personality.

I liked the way the list played out. Each chapter was titled with whatever item on the list would be completed in those pages, but often the title did not match the item Emily was planning to cross off. The fact that plans went wrong and randomly helpful events that occurred instead added to the sense that this book could actually happen. I also liked the things Sloane chose for the list; they were random and embarrassing enough to push Emily out of her comfort zone, but there were also ones that were personally tailored for them and that tied into the friendship. The inside joke nature of these dares made me appreciate Sloane and Emily’s friendship more.

The book starts with Sloane already gone, so the only glimpses the reader gets into their relationship is through flashbacks. The long flashback scenes the author included were as full of life and energy as the others, but they did not clearly tie in to the scene that was happening around the flashbacks. I would have appreciated it more if the flashbacks clearly echoed or tied in to what was happening in the “actual” story. That could have made what was a fairly well written book into something really special.

Ahh, but the romance. I loved it. It did not dominate the plot, but it pushed it along. Emily and Frank genuinely started out as friends, and I liked that Frank had a girl friend when the book began. It sounds horrible, but it let Emily and Frank develop a friendship that felt real and solid before the signs started showing that they were developing feelings for each other. They were not the perfect OTP-type couple, but they felt honest and good for each other. Frank actually had a personality, and the relationship developed with just the right amount of drama. All in all, very well done.

I would recommend this book to anyone in the mood for a contemporary romance that pushes beyond the cliche boundaries. The plot is well-paced and entertaining. I loved the focus on friendship. And in the world of inspiring books, I think this one actually pushed me to try to do things that are outside my own comfort zone.

Book Rant: The Western Heritage

In honor of the AP European History exam I took last week, I thought I’d take a moment to review the textbook that taught me the material.

And by “review” I mean “scream in rage about” and by “taught me the material” I mean “sucked at teaching me the material.”

If you’ve ever had a horrible textbook, this will speak to your soul.

I read the Eighth Edition of The Western Heritage by Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, chapters 10-31, which encompass European history from 1300 to present day.

cover western heritage

First and foremost, this book has an identity crisis. Half of the time, it acts as a textbook, explaining the who/what/where/when/how of European history to those who have essentially no background knowledge. The other half of the time, it seems to be making a point of being as mean to students as possible: leaving out sentences that could have clarified motivations, referring to things by names that they had never been called before (or were when they were originally explained), and acting like it was talking to an old friend who had already studied the history for years on end. It is clear that the book had different authors, and that these authors wrote different chapters, because things would be referred to by different names and titles between chapters. Sometimes, this was a slight annoyance (such as when they alternated between writing ‘Hapsburg’ or ‘Habsburg’), but other times, it was seriously confusing (such as using about ten different words to refer to the Netherlands, and never clarifying the nuances between the terms–if there were actually any). These problems should have been fixed by some sort of editor, but it seems as if no one cared enough to read the book start to finish and realize that continuity had been sacrificed to the deity of giving students headaches.

The images and “extras” included in each chapter only made this problem worse. The Western Heritage includes lots of maps, which at first sounds like a blessing for students. That is, until the text mentions a city or region that IS NOT INCLUDED ON THE MAP. More often than not, the cities on the map were never mentioned in the text, and any geographical markers the text included were no included on the maps. Essentially, the maps served no purpose besides taking up space–a trend continued by the countless “extras” included in each chapter. The textbook includes anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen “Documents” scattered throughout a chapter. In these boxes–which take up around a half a page–quotations from people or documents being discussed are included and then discussed. I never read any of these, mainly because they didn’t add anything meaningful to the text. There were also “Art and The West” pages included between chapters, discussing specific pieces of art, and “Encountering the Past” full-page explanations of cultural phemonima (such as Dueling in Germany or Table Manners).

All of these features were just space-fillers, making sure that the textbook–that students often carry around–was twice as heavy as necessary. I wouldn’t have minded if these “extras” actually helped me understand the text, but they were distracting more than anything.

The book also features basic images–portraits of important people, pictures of posters, sketches of inventions. These images were actually useful and well-chosen; however, their placement was a joke. Honestly, pictures were sometimes included in the text a page (or more) after the person/thing had been talked about. I would be reading about something, then turn the page and start reading about a different section. Then, when I glanced at the caption for the image included on the page I was currently reading, it would be referring to the person I read about on the previous spread, sending my brain back to that section and confusing me once I refocused on the text.

In all honesty, the textbook is fairly well-written. It features complex diction and sentence structure, making it enjoyable to read on a linguistic level. Sometimes, the sentence structure made things more confusing than they had to be, but as this was my first textbook that did not feel like it was written at an elementary school level, I did honestly respect that the writers had erred on the side of complexity.

I feel like most of the problems of this textbook could have been solved if it had been read by a copy editor and an average high school student before being published. The editor could have fixed continuity issues, and the student could have pointed out the things that made the book needlessly confusing.

Of course, these problems are not contained only to this textbook. They are issues that most textbooks probably have, encouraged by a textbook industry that thinks changing the colors in a diagram warrants a new edition of their book and that focuses more on “extras” than the actual text students try to learn from. However, this is the first textbook I’ve ever actually read all the way through (usually I just read the select parts of chapters that the teacher assigns), so this is the first time these issues have really hit me in the face.

Did I learn about European history this year? Yes, more than I had ever imagined. But that was from the help of numerous review books and another textbook (shoutout to the wonderful being that is History of the Modern World), as well as The Western Heritage. I’m glad that AP Euro was hard–I wanted it to be a hard class–but I don’t see why overcoming the nonsensical nature of this textbook had to be one of my trials.

Book Review: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This book impressed me with the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of its social message, but I think I would have enjoyed the story more if I hadn’t read it in school.

4/5 stars

cover to kill a mockingbird

Amazon Description

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

My Review

Unlike everyone else who has recently read this book (or so it seems), I didn’t pick up To Kill A Mockingbird because of the announcement of Go Set a Watchman. I read it for school–10th grade Honors English–and it is easily my favorite book we’ve read this year.

It’s hard to talk about a book that is so popular, so influential, and so timeless. It feels strange to break it down as I do other books into plot, characters, themes, and writing style. But I’m not sure how else to talk about it, so here goes.

I loved Scout. I connected to her on many levels–she is an endearing child, her innocence and optimism make the book what it is today, and her simple rejection of Southern femininity speaks across decades to my feminist side. Rarely do I pick up books with young protagonists, mainly because I feel I’ve outgrown middle grade, and it was a pleasure to read a book whose themes were adult and whose plot pulled no punches, narrated by an elementary-school age child who made the whole book bearable. I feel like authors today don’t break the rules governing the relationship between the age of a protagonist and the content of the plot as often, and I wish they did. It is wonderful to read about young, innocent, energetic protagonists who get in fistfights and make up “haunted” houses.

And then there’s Atticus. He is amazing. Many people in my class had trouble with his somewhat distant relationship with his children, but I understood and loved it from the beginning. He couldn’t have been the lawyer or righteous character that he was if he was a super hands-on father, but that isn’t to say that he was a bad father. He was actually the best father that Jem and Scout could hope for–teaching them lessons so subtely that they followed them instead of rebelling against them. This, incidentally, also made sure that the reader didn’t want to strangle Atticus for being “preachy,” something I was afraid would happen if Harper Lee had not been such a gifted storyteller. Atticus’s relationship with guns was one of the most powerful parts of the book for me (and not just because it is where the title came from). The scene where he shoots the dog was one of the most dramatic and thought-provoking scenes in the book, and I know that in “X” amount of years it will be one of the moments that stays with me.

The rest of the characters in Maycomb were simple but alive. Though there are tons of side characters, each one of them is memorable and well characterized. Miss Maudie was one of my favorites; I loved the solidarity we got to see with Atticus and her sweet relationship with the children. Miss Stephanie Crawford and Aunt Alexandra drove me crazy, but in a good way–the story would not have been believable without their deeply Southern input. Jem and Dill, honestly, were some of my least favorite characters. I liked them, and they obviously contributed to the story, but their treatment of Scout bothered me, and I just never connected to them the way I did other characters. Calpurnia, on the other hand, was one of my favorites.

On to the plot of this book. It is a complex plot, not the kind of thing that can be described with any other term than “growing up.” The beginning’s focus on Boo Radely did a good job establishing a basis for Maycomb and Scout, though I preferred the scenes that focused more on Scout’s personal life than the Boo Radely “myth.”

Of course, the trial was the most powerful portion of the plot in terms of social commentary. I admire that Harper Lee didn’t shy away from making it a rape case, and that she was willing to make the truth of the case as “scandalous” as it would have been during the 30’s (when it is set) and also the 60’s (when it was published). Tom Robinson’s plight got to me, as well as the horrible position Mayella was in. The hatred I feel for Bob Ewell surprised even myself–I am extremely emotionally invested in this book. Atticus came into the spotlight and validated the hero-worship that comes his way. And Scout was simultaneously forced to grow up and strengthened by her youthful innocence.

The repercussions of the trial were important, but it was clear to me that the book was winding down. The attack scene, which I guess functions as a climax, felt like it was in the falling action portion of the plot, and ended up being lost a bit for me. Still, I loved that Harper Lee brought Boo Radley back, just to validate the beginning of the book and to show Scout’s growth. I was genuinely proud of Scout in the last pages of the book.

I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn’t read it in school. Not because of annotating it or of beating it to death with class discussions, but because of how slow we read it. The plot felt very disjointed as we read it, chapter by chapter, with shot breaks between sections of the plot. I’d like to reread it at some point, on my own time, to really absorb the story as a whole. I think the plot would seem more continuous, and I would enjoy the impact of the story more fully.