Monthly Archives: February 2014

Where I Read

792306775ba96bcbad91985119b0ce5aI have read in many different places in my life. Some were comfortable and some not. Often I would pick a place simply because no one else was there, and I didn’t want to be disturbed. It’s how I found myself in a coat closet with a flashlight once, and also why I was sitting in a bathtub one time at a party just reading while others pounded on the door to get in. In fact, I’ve even been known to feign sleep or sickness in order to read in bed with no one the wiser.

When I was a senior in high school I would get on the bus after school and head down to the waterfront in South Philly, my bookbag filled with books from the school library, or from the public library, or a mix of both. I would walk from 2nd and Market Street down past the little shops and curios, past the artists in the park who were painting idyllic scenes, and end up in a little courtyard between two mammoth hotels. Funnily enough it was easy to feel alone there, with all the people entering and exiting the enormous buildings next to me. I would sit on the grass, put on my headphones, and just read.

Then in college there was this little nook in the student activities center where no one seemed to go. It was admittedly tiny, but I could fit one of the orange plastic chairs in there, and it was enough. I would bring a slice of pizza there on a paper plate, balance it on my left leg, with a book on my right leg, and just read. I would be extremely careful not to smudge any of the pages, be the books mine or the library’s, but I wouldn’t stop either reading or eating, somehow concentrating on both with a fierce focus.

And now I have a space on the couch. You see, we have an L-shaped couch, and the end of the L is where I take up residence. On the bookshelf within my reach are a plethora of books — some I’ve read, and others I have yet to read, but all books that for some reason are on my personal continuum. I have two stacks that are closest to me, though, one of which are my books in progress, and there are always at least three books in that stack, while the other one contains books in my queue. This space is so comfortable to me that I rarely read anywhere else in the house, and the cushion on this side is slightly more depressed than the others on the couch. I keep switching it around to keep things level.

I have to say that the place I liked the most to read in, however, was on the train going back and forth from Philly to New York City. I would make the trip pretty much every weekend while I was in college, to head up to NYU to meet friends, or to just wander the village. And during each trip, going both ways, all I would do was read. Before we even pulled out of the station my head was buried in one book or another, and I would shut out the world. The movement of the train and the sound of the wheels rolling over the tracks was the perfect backdrop for me to lose myself in another world. It was soothing, and I always think of it when I’m having to read in a place that doesn’t have quite the same ambiance.

In the end it doesn’t really matter where I read. I can honestly read just about anywhere, but it’s the little things that I remember, the special places that I will always think of fondly, that will forever hold a firm place in my heart, because they gave me those moments. And the list continues to grow.

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A GAME OF THRONES | A Review

game-of-thrones-bookcoverOf course this book series has since transcended the bonds of its binding and become an acclaimed (and very good, too) series on HBO, but before all of that there were the books, and make no bones about it, the books are monumentally better. In fact, the novels are so intricate that even with entire seasons devoted to each one there should be no real comparisons. While George R.R. Martin shouldn’t be confused with the second coming of J.R.R. Tolkien, he does know how to sell a plot and create a believable world in which his characters can play their “game.”

What first struck me about the novel is the difference of the world within its borders from the one that we know. It appears to be set in an earlier time period than the present due to the description of styles of dress, the castles, and the lack of modernities, but because of its other peculiarities there is no definite answer to that question. Instead, what we as readers are given is a history of these seven kingdoms, including the vague references to dragons long thought to be gone from the land. Ultimately it is the history and culture of the world that draws us in from the start.

The bulk of my investment in the book comes through the introduction to the Stark family, holders of the castle and grounds of Winterfell, to the far north of the seven kingdoms. More so than any other family or group in the novel, Martin delves into what makes the Starks special, and special is the only term that can adequately describe them. While they are insular, they do interact with the world around them through the lens of a code espoused by their patriarch, Eddard Stark. The author does a great job of explaining the motivations for Stark, his wife, and his children.

As a counterweight to the Starks are the Lannisters, scheming pretenders who are described nearly as in depth as the Starks. In every great novel there should be balances, and if the Starks are on the side of good, the Lannisters are decidedly bad. However, Martin does a great job of humanizing them to an extent during sections of the book (and indeed the series, too) that keeps readers on our toes wondering what to make of the family, and wondering if we can separate some parts of characters from others. By the end of the novel the battle lines have not only been drawn, but blasted through.

For a relatively large book that starts a series, A Game of Thrones moves with a quick pace, each chapter told through the perspective of a different major (and sometimes minor) character. Because of these shifts it becomes possible for us to follow Cersei Lannister, Eddard Stark, and the prodigal Daenerys Targaryen who isn’t even in the seven kingdoms at the opening of the novel. It is a style that flows smoothly throughout the course of the book and is what allows for the fast pace. There are also plenty of surprises and deaths that test readers and jar emotions. These surprises are necessary and inserted at exactly the right spots for full effect.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys alternate worlds with their own histories and cultures different from our own. It is easy to get invested in the book and the series from the very start because of the language used and the swiftly moving plot. I also highly suggest reading the book before watching the first season of the show because the book is definitely still better, no matter how dynamic the show has become.

I give this novel FIVE stars.

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Everyone’s a Reader

Reading8_0I heard somewhere that everyone’s a reader. They just haven’t found their genre yet. And that has stuck with me for a long time because it’s true. Honestly, the people who keep saying they’re not readers either haven’t found their genre yet or they haven’t attempted “reading” in different ways. My wife is really into listening to books on CD, and she’ll listen to them on her commute to and from work. She gets through “reading” books at a pretty fast clip in this way.

One of my friends is big into manga, and she reads each issue as if it’s going out of style. I picked up a manga once and I couldn’t follow what was going on. I’m not that visual, and those books are just as much about what’s going on in the pictures as they are about the words. Maybe even more so. Still other people I know only read non-fiction. Give them the latest biography and they’re set, but try to have them read a Janet Evanovich book and it might as well be in Greek.

Still others I know are the opposite and just like non-fiction. A Facebook friend of mine reads only romances to the exclusion of everything else, and another guy I know is really into just trade books that show him how to do things. My sister is a big fan of books that explain statistics and history in new and fresh ways. Yet another reader I know is into magazines, and she will read them from cover to cover. No books for her.

Me, I’ll read just about anything, so long as it’s well-written. But there are so many people out there who call themselves non-readers, which would be fine if that were true. It’s generally not. Perhaps they don’t count the things they read as reading material. Or maybe they don’t read that often, but the reading that they do counts. And it helps them, even if they don’t realize it. The key is to figure out what interests them and go with it.

I know someone who reads liner notes to albums and analyzes them. Another person I know enjoys reading instructions to games and breaking them down for others who might want to play. Hey, even reading the backs of books to get an understanding of what they might be about, or reading reviews, or reading blogs counts! I have a blogger friend who never read anything in her life until discovering WordPress, and now she religiously spends hours every day reading and responding to blog entries.

It’s fun to watch someone discover their niche, too, to see the light in their eyes when something they read just clicks with them, the excitement and exuberance they get that they can’t keep inside. Even if it’s the most boring thing in the world to me, just the internal satisfaction they embody gets me all excited too. Because everyone’s a reader. Some just haven’t found their genre yet.

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Library Blues

thWhen I first became a teacher, one of my initial classes was full of seniors who were taking the writing class as an elective. One of my first lessons focused on the importance of reading and deciphering what you read. Because it was an elective, I was using some books that weren’t readily available at the high school, so I suggested going to the local library to get the books. I was surprised at the response to that from one young lady.

BlondeGirl: I’m never going to a library.

Me: Why not?

BlondeGirl: Those books are soooo dirty.

Me: No dirtier than your phone.

BlondeGirl: Oh. Ewwwww.

That’s one of the bad raps the library gets, that so many people use the materials that they either get worn out so much faster or they’re so filthy from that same overuse. Too many library haters exist these days, even with the recession and the cost of books not really going down. Perhaps the rise of eBooks and eReaders can be attributed to the decline of the library, but while bookstores have utilized these eReaders to stay alive, libraries too have gotten into the virtual game.

I have an application called OverDrive that allows me to order eBooks to rent from the library system in the Utica area. I can check out the books and upload them to my Nook to read at my convenience. Plus, if I’m worried about the condition of the books from the library itself I don’t have to touch a single one. One of the letdowns, however, is that the library only has so many digital copies it has purchased, and some of the waiting lists are ridiculously long.

There are also some people who clean off the books they get from the library with Lysol and various other cleaning products. Good luck to them, but I’m of the opinion that the things you have in your own house have numerous germs. What’s a few more? I just try my best not to think about it. Instead I think about all the money I’m saving by checking those books out instead of buying them for a ridiculous amount of money.

I have an app on my phone called BookMyne that gives me access to my library account, and it keeps track of the books I’ve checked out and their current value if I were to purchase them. It’s crazy to look at those numbers with over $15 dollars a book, and I’ve read some of the most current, most expensive first-run books from the library. It also helps that my wife is a librarian and finds out about upcoming releases long before they come out, so I can get my name on those hold lists and get the books soon after they’re available in the system.

Now of course I’m thinking about where those books have been. Where’s my Lysol?

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REAVE | A Review

reaveebookThese are bleak times, when men are savages who do what they like when they like, and when women are treated like property, to be passed around like so many baubles, to do demeaning tasks, and to get absolutely no praise for their efforts. The leaders of this world use others to maintain order in what would otherwise be a chaotic place — by any means necessary. These Reapers kill on command, and they’re generally seen to be heartless machines, but things are not always as they seem. This is the world of Reave, the debut novel from an up-and-coming author, C. Miller.

What do you do when you’re taken from the only home you’ve ever known, only to be given away to someone else as their property, a servant in the lowest caste system your society has? This is the problem facing Aster, a young girl who is blossoming into womanhood as a servant in the Valdour House. But perhaps “blossoming” is putting a candy coating on a bitter pill to swallow. She has been taught subservience on every level, that men are all only after one thing, but she must call them “Sir” regardless of what she does or doesn’t want to do or say. It drives her insane, but she’s now allowed to voice those feelings.

But the story only starts there. During the course of this novel (the first in a planned series) Aster finds her way in a rapidly changing world, discovering her true self along the way. A Reaper arrives who makes her question the way things have always been done, and forces her to think about her real place within the world she has called home for way too long. Does she have what it takes to become someone she should have been all along? Or will she retreat into the shell of a person she has become in her world?

The complex reasoning and underpinnings to this novel make it a worthy read for anyone looking to explore alternate societies that derive from the worst in human nature. What C. Miller does in Reave is force us as readers to make the same decisions as Aster, and whether or not she succeeds ties us to her in myriad ways. While we may not agree with some of those decisions, we always understand why she does what she does. That’s the mark of an author who knows her characters, and who can convey those motivations at will. That is what takes Reave from just another one of those “dystopian” novels, and puts it in a class by itself within the young adult genre.

I give the novel FIVE stars.

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It’s Fun-damental

ideas-01-e1354228940454Do you remember that ad campaign from the ’80s that traded on the slogan, “Reading is Fun-damental,” as if just by its sheer play on words it could convince people that reading could be fun? I recall at the same time that it wasn’t fun to be associated with reading. At my school it wasn’t easy to be a reader because the cool kids weren’t into it, so us readers would be ridiculed on occasion when caught doing what we loved. But that was okay.

People who know I’m a writer and author often ask what first got me into writing, and my answer is always the same: reading. I think others don’t tend to give reading the credit it definitely deserves. Fundamental means it’s a necessary base for so much else in life. I know that some of my most interesting ideas when it comes to writing, to plot, and to character description and motivation, they come from all of the reading that I do in-between my writing.

So, why is reading not seen as fun? Why do kids continue to berate others for being readers? Who perpetuates this abiding lie that keeps so many people away from something that they might enjoy? I think the idea that sitting down somewhere and doing something that stretches your mind is passe these days. It’s why most of the “intense” television shows that are thought-provoking often get canceled in favor of shows that you could probably watch in your sleep and get the same effect. These days what’s most convenient, what takes the least amount of energy from us, that is what’s celebrated.

But reading, while it takes work, is ultimately fulfilling when it all comes together. I remember my school had a Read-a-thon when I was in sixth grade, and I was so pumped up for it. I was downright giddy, actually, because it meant I got to stay at school overnight and read as much as I possibly could. For me, that was my heaven, and it definitely lived up to the hype. From seven o’clock at night until 9 o’clock in the morning we camped out in the school library, in the kindergarten classroom, and in the first grade classroom, and we rotated every little bit to keep awake. I wish as adults we could do something like that.

When I became a teacher it was so exciting to me to see some teenagers walking the halls with books in front of their faces. I would interrupt them when they tried to walk down the stairs that way, but it was heartening to see how absorbed they were by their books that they couldn’t put them down even long enough to pass from one class to the next. That’s the epitome of fundamental, and it’s good to see the next generation carrying on the tradition.

Sure, no slogan, no slick ad campaign can turn someone into a reader, but there are enough of us out there to make a difference, to share the joy of reading, and to keep the FUN alive for ourselves and for our children.

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SIX YEARS | A Review

9781409144588How well do you really know anyone? That’s the real premise of Six Years, by Harlan Coben, and while at times it stretches the levels of belief, it still sits in the realm of possibility, which is all I ask from books of this type. Jake Fisher had a wonderful summer with a woman he knew as Natalie, but at the end of that time she marries another man and has Jake promise her that he will move on and not attempt to locate her. He kept the promise for six years, until he can’t keep it anymore.

One of the primary issues in Six Years is the timeline. While it takes six years for Jake to finally decide to look up Natalie again, the real time of the book is little more than a week. In that short time period Jake almost gets killed twice, he finds out that things aren’t how they always seemed to him, and he gets a lot of confidential information dropped in his lap. While I’m sure those types of situations and breaches do occur, I’m not convinced that they could happen as quickly as they do in this novel. That’s where if you suspend your belief you can enjoy the book, and if you can’t then you’ll be stuck shaking your head the entire way.

I enjoy Coben’s straightforward style. Unlike someone like Stephen King or Dean Koontz, he gets right down to business, and his books generally move swiftly. To his credit, the writing is smooth despite the lack of descriptive fluidity, and while the novel is relatively big (367 pages) it doesn’t read sluggishly. Jake Fisher is the only character who is described in complete detail, leaving a lot of the other characters’ traits to the reader’s imagination, something I enjoy. If I wanted every last detail spelled out for me, I would look to a movie. Coben knows how to dole out information.

Where the book has issues is in closing. While the breakneck pace works well for the vast majority of Six Years, the end comes rather quickly, and there is little setup for it. In fact, I turned the next page after the end, thinking there was more to come, but it was done. In fact, this book sets up for a possible sequel, and I would read it just to find out how this story really does end. As it is, though, the actual ending does answer most of the questions the novel asked at the beginning, which is what it needed to do at the very least.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes suspense and figuring out a mystery because, even though the premise isn’t at times completely believable, the writing rescues it.

I give the novel FOUR stars.

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Changing Perspective

582c6ac03064f581b6a9ad50f5e8e721I used to read every single book from start to finish, regardless of how much I liked or hated it, despite some horrendous writing styles, from the time I learned how to read until about ten years ago. The premise for doing so was that the author spent their hard-earned time writing it, if I start it I should finish it. For the author. It was some kind of twisted homage to a person who would never know if I even started her work, much less finished it. Then, ten years ago, I realized life is short. Why should I waste any time that I have?

Since the day I decided I could stop a book before its conclusion, my reading experiences have been so much more fulfilling. At first, of course, I felt insanely guilty when I just stopped reading those first few books. I found myself dreaming that the characters in the book were chasing me down, angry with me for abandoning them after we had forged a bond. The problem is that we hadn’t forged a bond, which was the reason I abandoned them in the first place. It’s been better since then.

A couple of months ago I picked up The Heist, a novel by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, from the library. I was attracted to the idea behind the book, that a notorious criminal and a federal agent were going to be involved in a cat-and-mouse game throughout. Except that when I opened the book I felt like I was reading something more along the lines of a high school tale of jealousy and one-upmanship. And the writing was abysmal. After only one chapter I was done, and I know I will never finish that book. Perhaps it got better plot-wise, but the writing was just not up to par, and it would continue to ruin my perspective of the book, and of its authors. So, I quit, and I moved on to a book that was worth my time.

Now, I know a lot of readers who have different ideas about whether or not to “give up” on books, or when to give up when it’s obvious nothing is going to change. One of my friends said that she reads the first 50 pages. Another told me she reads the first three chapters. And yet another told me that she’s like I used to be and reads every single page, even if it’s horrendous and tough sledding.

Do you think it’s important to finish what you start when it comes to reading books, or do you think it’s okay to cut bait when things aren’t shaping up the way you hoped? If you think it’s okay to interrupt your reading and put the book aside, when is that cutoff point?

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HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY | A Review

200px-HerfearfulsymmetryStories about twins often tease the senses, especially when the twins in question are identical. As readers, we revel in them because so many authors paint them as symmetrical, opposite ends of the same spectrum. Indeed, often authors will show us twins as interchangeable, and they often will pretend to be each other, usually to comical effect. There is absolutely nothing comical about the twins we see in Audrey Niffenegger’s second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.

The story revolves around a cemetery in London, and features a ghost as one of its protagonists, so the setting is already a bit macabre, and it continues its pattern throughout. Twins Julie and Valentina move into their Aunt Elspeth’s flat after her death, as she has bequeathed it to them in her will, for whatever reasons. It is the seemingly arbitrary selection of the girls as her heirs when she had never met them previously that sets this story off on uneven footing.

While the young ladies are described in myriad detail, something is still wrong with them, and we as readers can sense it from the start. However, it isn’t clear what’s off about them until about halfway through the book when the marginally younger, and more vulnerable, sister, Valentina, begins entertaining ideas from the ghost of Elspeth about hosting her ghost inside of Valentina’s body. It is that moment, when we realize this may become a reality, that we start to detach from both of them.

That’s where Her Fearful Symmetry falls apart as a narrative tale where we believe in the characters and their motivations, and also when it tips its hand, giving away its highly scripted ending. Where Niffenegger succeeds in The Time Traveler’s Wife is where she ultimately fails in its follow-up — in keeping her secrets and keeping the readers guessing right up until the very end. It is perhaps this one issue that changes this novel from a must-read to a head-scratcher.

That being said, the writing is definitely on par with my expectations, if a tad bit treacly at its end. The mood is decidedly morose, a bit more morose than it needs to be for the scenes without Elspeth’s ghost, and the man who was Elspeth’s lover is just not realized as a character. With how important he becomes to the end of the novel, he just wasn’t fleshed out enough for the reader to really care as the story wound to its inevitable conclusion.

I enjoyed the portions of the book that took place inside of Elspeth’s head and featured her recollections of her own childhood with her own twin sister (the girls’ mother), and explained why the two of them had become estranged. In fact, it is this estrangement and the surprise revelations as it relates to the two of them that is reminiscent of the type of superior writing and revelation in stages that made The Time Traveler’s Wife so dynamic. If the book was only made up of these sections it would be a success, but unfortunately the other parts come along for the ride.

I would recommend this book for readers who enjoy quality descriptive writing. Throughout the novel I could clearly visualize the settings and characters. However, if you’re looking for the mystery that this book was supposed to be, there really was only one, while the other failed to materialize.

I give this novel FOUR stars.

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Family Reading Time

Mixed-race-family-readingMy mother has always been a reader. Some of the first memories I have are of her sitting in the living room rocking chair with a book in her lap and a bookmark on the side table. It seemed like every night there were a few minutes she was able to devote to the enterprise, and I was in awe. I would sometimes sit at her feet and she would read to me. I remember the sound of her voice then. It was strong and confident, yet full of wonder and excitement. I could tell that for her reading was something special, something to be honored and appreciated.

At night she would also read to us in her bedroom. I recall sitting cross-legged in the middle of her bed, with my sister next to me, enraptured by the stories she would weave. I remember an itsy bitsy spider who was fascinated with a water spout, a cat who always wore a stylish hat, and a bat who wanted desperately to be a bird. Every story, no matter how many times she read it to us, carried with it a sense of magic and wonder that I still feel now every time I read them to my own children.

So, from an early age we learned the value of reading, and the importance of finding time to not only read individually but to incorporate family reading time into the equation. It’s not easy either, with the crazy, hectic nature of life and all the other responsibilities we have to do, but I think it’s essential to find that time. Sometimes at night when I’m reading to my own children I’m reminded of being on the other side of things. When I see their bright little eyes, and I know their ears are taking in every single word, I smile.

When I talk to my sister on the phone these days one of the first things we talk about is whatever book we happen to be reading, what book we just finished, or what books are next on our lists. We are such different readers, too. My sister is really into a lot of non-fiction. She is huge on books that explain what’s going on in our world, and she has such an analytical mind that those are wonderful for her. My focus is on fiction where I thrive on understanding character motivation and plot twists. But we share such a love for simply “good” books that we often cross-read and compare our impressions.

My oldest daughter is completely into reading as well, tackling books that should be above her grade level, and doing it with ease. She shares her impressions with me, and we have phenomenal conversations about what she’s reading and what she’s going to read next. She listens to my suggestions, and I hear hers. In fact, she reads so much that I feel bad having to interrupt her for dinner or for school. It’s a reminder to me that there is indeed a circle of life.

And here I am in-between these two families, the one I was born into, and the one that I helped create, still reading every single day, and still sharing it all with both families that claim me as their own. It’s a testament to the glory of family reading time and its impact on everyone involved. I treasure those times always.

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