Friday, July 31, 2015

Stand-Off

Stand-Off (Winger #2) by Andrew Smith (2015)

Last year I read Winger, and had no idea it was first in a series until after I finished it. It was a relief to find out there would be a sequel, because I really needed to work through what happened at the end and so did Ryan Dean. In Stand-Off he's back at Pine Mountain and is stuck in a tiny room with a freshman roommate who is twelve years old. What kind of crap deal is this for a senior year? His roommate is Sam Abernathy who, like Ryan Dean, started high school early and is younger than anyone else there. Ryan Dean has no time for this pipsqueak though, because he's busy with rugby and his girlfriend, Annie. He's also haunted by a new cartoon character he keeps drawing, who he calls Nate (Next Accidental Terrible Experience,) and he's been having night terrors.

My very favorite part of this book is Ryan Dean's relationship with Sam Abernathy, who he mainly refers to as The Abernathy and describes as being "cute as a laundry hamper filled with beagle puppies and cotton balls." Ryan Deal finds him completely exasperating. Sam is terribly claustrophobic, which means that he has to have either their door or the window open at all times, resulting in many cold winter nights. He also can't close the door in the bathroom, so Ryan Dean has to leave every time Sam has to use the bathroom or shower. At the same time, this kid is like somebody's mother: he picks up Ryan Dean's dirty clothes from the floor, and even does his laundry. His favorite pastime is eating microwave popcorn while watching the cooking channel. He desperately wants to be Ryan Dean's friend and is completely undaunted by the constant rebuffs.

Although that is a big part of the book, it's more about Ryan Dean coming to terms with his friend Joey's death the previous year. Coming back to school is hard when Joey's not on the rugby team or in the dorms or anywhere, and Ryan Dean feels like he doesn't have friends anymore. He does, of course, but he still isolates himself, even to some extent from Annie. This kid is not doing well. He can't sleep, he's not really eating, and he's being sort of a jerk to everyone. But I know he'll pull through because he has before, and at heart he's a good guy and I think a strong and smart person.

Even though the main theme is pretty serious, it was full of lots of fun everyday stuff in addition to his aforementioned roommate. For instance, his health teacher used a cartoon to teach the boys how to do testicular self-exams (or TSEs) and then assigned them homework to do a TSE and then write a paragraph about it. This same health teacher taught them a framework for sexual consent which Ryan Dean learned very thoroughly and regularly brings up in a joking way, but which at one point causes him to have an epiphany: "Consent applies in every direction, not just between straight guys and the girls they pursue." (Very good, Ryan Dean. You get a cookie!)

I loved visiting Ryan Dean again, and didn't even realize how much I had missed all his quirks, like the way he curses but then admits that he didn't actually say that because he doesn't curse. Or how he'd rate things, like: "That confession was definitely five out of five rogue asteroids on the Ryan Dean West Things I Never Saw Coming Scale." There's nothing more satisfying than a sequel that's just as good as the first book. I don't know if Andrew Smith plans to write more books in the Winger series, but if he does I'll be first in line to read them.

Stand-Off will be published on September 8, 2015. 

I received my copy courtesy of the publisher via Edelweiss. I was not compensated for this review.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lola and the Boy Next Door

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins (2011), narrated by Shannon McManus

Seventeen-year-old Lola lives in San Francisco with her two dads, is really into costume design, and has an older boyfriend named Max who is in a band. One day she returns home to find a moving truck next door and to her great distress learns that the family moving in is one she knows. They are the Bells and not only have they lived there before, but one of them broke Lola's heart just before they moved away.

Now Lola's life is upended. She wants to hate Cricket Bell for how he treated her, but she is still so attracted to him, no matter how much she tries to deny it. Of course, she's madly in love with her boyfriend Max and tries to just be friends with Cricket. As you can imagine, that goes really well. To complicate matters further, Lola's biological mother also shows up and wreaks havoc with her comfortable life.

Stephanie Perkins really has some chutzpah naming her male romantic lead Cricket, doesn't she? To be fair, his twin sister's name is Calliope, though she is a figure skater and that somehow seems appropriate. Anyhow, Cricket is adorable and kind and has been in love with Lola forever, and you know they are going to end up together (see: title of book) but the fun is in getting there.

I loved Lola so much! Sure, she made mistakes and didn't handle difficult situations well, stringing Cricket along while hanging on to her boyfriend. But her relationship with Max was her first real romance so it was complicated for her. Also, Max was older and nobody was as excited about their relationship as she was, and I think it made her even more determined to keep him. I loved her confidence though, and her sense of fashion that would embarrass many people but was one of the most wonderful things about her. Her goal was to never wear the same outfit twice, and she dressed in rather outlandish ways that were super creative and probably took a lot of energy. Through most of the book she was preparing for an upcoming school dance; she planned to dress up as Marie Antoinette and was making her outfit herself. It was kind of wild.

This book is the second in a series, after Anna and the French Kiss. Anna and Etienne from that book are friends with Lola and although they're only secondary characters, it was great to see them again. Or to hear them, I guess, since I listened to the audiobook. The narrator was different from the first one, but sounded pretty similar I think. I really enjoyed listening to it and I will soon be downloading the third book in the series. This is a great teen romance for the summer!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Uglies

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (2005)

I read Uglies for the first time in 2008, so check that post for the basic premise of the novel. I went on to read the entire series and loved it the whole way through (I wasn't posting about every single book I read back then so I don't have posts about those - sorry!) I just read it again for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work and now I'm tempted to revisit the rest of the series.

The society Westerfeld has created was intended to correct the faults of the "Rusties" (that's us) who were all miserable and wreaked havoc on the environment, bringing on a final catastrophe that ended our way of life. One of the changes they made was to make everyone beautiful so that people wouldn't develop eating disorders, and to prevent people from being treated differently based on how attractive they are. It sounds all well and good in theory, but of course there is a dark side to it all.

Environmentalism is also very important in this society because of the havoc wreaked in the past. I was thinking about how many dystopias are based on us causing vast environmental damage and the later society rebuilding it under very strict governmental guidance. Right now, we can't seem to get it together enough to make any environmental changes, and I really wonder if it's even possible to do without having a complete catastrophe first. Or without some government exerting extreme control over everyone's lives. It's so interesting to think about!

Another thing I thought about was the idea of defying the government, the way some of the people did in this book by leaving the city and living off in the woods. One of the discussion questions I came across was something like "When is it ok to rebel against the government?" My reflex response is that it's ok if the government is wrong or oppressive, but who is the judge of that? Is it oppressive for the government to force you to vaccinate your children or to prevent you from buying semiautomatic weapons to kill each other with? Some people would say yes and some would say no. It seems very clear cut in a dystopia novel (sometimes) but real life is much more complicated.

Just like the first time I read it, Uglies was gripping and full of food for thought. I love reading about this version of the future and the people who inhabit it. I have already checked out a copy of the next book in the series, Pretties, which I may or may not read. I still love this series but as usual I have a whole stack of books waiting to be read. Stay tuned to find out whether or not I finish the series again.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday Knitting

So I was knitting along on my Thyri pullover, paying more attention to the episodes of Orange is the New Black that I was watching, and suddenly I was at the end and the thing was about four miles long.

Seriously, wtf?
Pretty much the entire torso was a series of decreases and increases, so there was no continuous measuring to see if I had reached the correct length or not. And based on my row gauge, I even slipped in a few extra rows between some of the increases/decreases to make up for it. Not enough to account for this crazy length though. I don't know what happened.

Thank goodness it was knit top down. Tunic is not a good look on me. So I will be ripping back several inches and then re-knitting the hem. 


Here I'm pointing at the spot where I'd like the sweater to stop.

Otherwise, it's an ok sweater. The yarn is lovely, and I like the long sleeves and thumbholes. I wish the sleeves weren't so tight (are other knitters plagued by this problem or are my arms just enormous?) and there's an awkward seam in the yoke that I think is from swapping between one skein of yarn and another (hand-dyed is lovely in theory, but not so much in practice.) This will likely be a cozy lounge-around-the-house sweater rather than a work or socializing type sweater.

I will post again when it is actually finished to my satisfaction.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Unbecoming

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm (2015)

When the story opens, Grace is in Paris working at a job restoring antiques. It is clear that she has run away from something. As her story slowly unfolds we learn that two guys from her hometown with whom she was close are being released from prison. Her involvement in the crime (and with the two men) is revealed over the course of the novel which moves back and forth in time between Paris and Grace's hometown of Garland, Tennessee.

This book is difficult to describe in a way that does it justice. It's not a crime novel, though there is a crime at the center of the story. Much of it is about lies and thievery, but it's also about the way that Grace built her early life and found a family that was better than her real one, and then how she destroyed those relationships that she built. It was kind of a slow burn, but didn't drag. I really enjoyed reading all of it and kept trying to find spare moments to pick it up again.

I loved the details of Grace's job in the antique shop. She helped her coworker Hanna (who was a pretty interesting character herself) restore an ornate centerpiece with tiny sheep and acorns and peaches and other little bits that needed to be restored and, in some cases, remade. It is incredibly meticulous work, and the project reminds me a little of the way Grace has manipulated the people and events around her and remade her life into something different.

The title and cover are pretty underwhelming and I never would have picked this book up if it wasn't chosen for my book group. In fact, I actually received a galley of it from Penguin and gave it away without reading it. But I'm so glad my friend picked it for book group! It really got under my skin in a way that reminded me a bit of The Woman Upstairsa book that stuck with me more than I originally predicted. (But if you didn't like that book, don't let it turn you off from this one - it really is different.) Unbecoming was vividly atmospheric and vaguely ominous. It's a book I won't soon forget.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity


Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

Today I give you ten books that celebrate diversity or diverse characters. This was actually a bit difficult for me. I read a ton of books with LGBT characters so I had to really narrow it down, and then think a bit to pull in some other types of diversity. In a few cases, I looked pretty far back at my reading list in order to pick something that I think deserves to be in (or back in) the spotlight.

I should also note that the idea of a character who is "diverse" doesn't actually make sense, since diversity basically means "variety" and one thing alone cannot make up a variety. My angle here is to highlight characters who are part of a minority group or have defining characteristics which are underrepresented in books.

Here goes!

1. Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon: this book celebrates diversity more than anything I've read and also I think everyone should read it because then the world would be a better place. The end.

2. She's Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan: one of my favorite memoirs, this was the first thing I read that made me sort of get what the transgender experience is all about. I posted about it in 2007 as part of my list of Memoirs I Didn't Hate, which is still a list worth checking out. I didn't describe it very well ("became a woman" isn't quite accurate) but that's my fault, not the book's.

3. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray: this may seem like an odd choice at first, since it's about a group of beauty pageant contestants. But the characters are all trying very hard to conform when, in fact, they are a rather diverse group in many ways. It's satirical and hilarious.

4. Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern: one of the main characters has cerebral palsy and the other has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and their friendship is beautiful to behold. I like that the book is about much more than the ways in which they are different from other teenagers.

5. A World Away by Nancy Grossman: I don't read a lot of books that focus on the main character's religion, but I couldn't pass up this one about a teenage Amish girl. It was refreshingly different and I loved it.

6. Annabel by Kathleen Winter: this haunting novel has an intersex character who is from Labrador, Canada. Both the character and setting were unusual, and it was beautifully written.

7. Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed: young adult novel centering around a Pakistani-American family and arranged marriage.

8. Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher: still one of my favorite young adult novels, it's about a high school boy in Missouri who falls for a trans girl.

9. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters: Victorian-era lesbians star in one of my very favorite novels.

10. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: a Nigerian woman is the star of this brilliant novel about race in America. One of the best books I've read in the past few years.

What are your favorite books that celebrate diversity or contain characters of an underrepresented group?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Stand Out

Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It by Dorie Clark (2015)

In her last book, Dorie Clark addressed career transition: how to evaluate your strengths, and develop and promote your image in order to succeed in your new role. In her new book, she tackles an even more ambitious goal: finding an idea that will set you apart in your field, and then selling it.

It may seem impossible to come up with an idea that is revolutionary, or even lucrative, but Clark shows very clearly that it's not. It's easy to forget that trailblazers are often regular people like us, who just happened to think of a particular question or problem in a different way, and the first several chapters of the book are devoted to different ways of approaching this. Each section ends with questions to ask yourself, and one of my favorites in this first part was "What questions do newbies in your field often ask that get shot down or dismissed?" What a great way to identify areas for innovation! Many of the "Ask Yourself" questions were equally as creative and thought-provoking.

Once you have your idea you need to get it out there, and this is what the latter part of the book addresses. Specifically, you need to build a network, leveraging one-on-one relationships while also building an audience. Clark presents so many ideas about how to approach this that anyone should be able to find something that works for them. Some of my favorites are getting involved with charities, recording a podcast interview and then blogging and tweeting about it, and taking on interns to help with a project (she has a great story about Seth Godin's internship program.)

This is the kind of book in which everything the author suggests, I think "Yes! I want to do that immediately!" I am not, of course, going to do all of the things, much less immediately. I've known Dorie Clark for a long time, and my energy level has never come close to matching hers. But I could do some of the things. Point being, it's all broken down into manageable tasks that you can pick and choose from based on what's right for you.

Stand Out contains lots of food for thought, and it's not the sort of book I wanted to plow through. I deliberately paced myself so I could think about the many, many ideas as I went along. Thankfully it is appropriate to many fields, and not just those in the for-profit sector. One of Clark's strengths is her varied background, which includes a stint running a non-profit as well as volunteer work on charity boards, so when she writes she doesn't focus totally on for-profit business. I've been thinking a bit about career development and needing a good idea for a project, so I read this at just the right time. I found it inspiring and hopefully now I will be motivated to take some action. Recommended for anyone with a career.