Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

Tags: young adult, contemporary, suicide, murder, bullying

Today is Leonard Peacock's birthday. It is also the day he hides a gun in his backpack. Because today is the day he will kill his former best friend, and then himself, with his grandfather's P-38 pistol.

But first he must say good-bye to the four people who matter most to him: his Humphrey Bogart-obsessed next-door neighbor, Walt; his classmate Baback, a violin virtuoso; Lauren, the Christian homeschooler he has a crush on; and Herr Silverman, who teaches the high school's class on the Holocaust. Speaking to each in turn, Leonard slowly reveals his secrets as the hours tick by and the moment of truth approaches.

In this riveting book, acclaimed author Matthew Quick unflinchingly examines the impossible choices that must be made—and the light in us all that never goes out. [summary from Goodreads]

FORGIVE ME, LEONARD PEACOCK is arguably one of the most explosive and important books of this year, but if you knew nothing about Matthew Quick, most famously the author of Silver Linings Playbook, you probably wouldn't expect it. Which would be a shame on your part.

It was almost that way for me. In the beginning, I was rather unimpressed by Leonard as narrator. He seemed to come off as just another socially awkward teenager trying to hard to be nonchalant. But, like a hypnotist, his reasoning for why he was going to kill himself--his cool-headed explanations for why it was absurd to keep on living just to be just another blank-faced automaton adult in the rat race--snake-charmed its way into my head, until I found myself nodding along and thinking, "Oh man. This guy is absolutely right. What is the big deal about living when most adults are so unhappy? Why haven't I killed myself yet?"

You see, that is the power of this book. Its main character has a goal that we'd never condone, and yet it's not at all difficult for us to understand where he's coming from. Leonard Peacock is a totally convincing potential murder-suicide. That's why I feel like this book is so important: it's one of the most convincing looks inside the mindset of the ones behind the recent troubling trend of teenage killings.

Cover discussion: I normally don't really like text-art covers, but this one.... I mean, there is no way to adequately describe the experience you will get from reading this book, so I don't even care one way or another what's on the outside.

Little, Brown / Aug. 13, 2013 / Hardcover / 278pp. / $18.00

e-galley provided by publisher and NetGalley. Thank you!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Tags: YA, paranormal, vampires, romance

Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.

One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.

I'm not the type of reader to instantly dismiss all vampire stories out of vampire fatigue; as long as it's written well, I can enjoy it. And THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN is written well. It brings me back to Holly Black's Tithe era, with its grungy urban landscapes full of disaffected, multiply pierced, dyed-haired teenage characters who are simultaneously cooler and yet more vulnerable than you'll ever be. Black's narrative swirls between settings and time periods and points of view in a style that I imagine is like what being on raver drugs must feel like. Slightly disorienting, swirls of more-than-they-seem interactions and side-goings-on piquing the corners of your vision, disorienting your understanding of reality so slyly, so insidiously, that when you pause to take a breather from reading this story, you blink and for more than a second think that Black's world could very well exist, unobserved, in your own. Gavriel, the male vampire love interest, even gets me hot and bothered just like the icy-hot Roiben (Rath Roiben Rye, Rath Roiben Rye) of Tithe did.

Verdict? If you love your vampire tales slightly darker and hipper and more insane, get up this alley. If, like me, you spent your formative years gorging on Holly Black's classic urban fantasy YAs, get at this one. If you like your paranormals more romance-y and plot-driven, then this will probably not be your cup of tea.

Cover discussion: ...Wow. Somehow, in the time between when I read this (on my Kindle) and now, I had completely forgotten about the cover. I guess there's some implication in there about how uneventful this cover is...?

Little, Brown / Sept. 3, 2013 / Hardcover / 421pp. / $19.00

e-galley offered by publisher for review. Thank you!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013 Update

I told myself I'd give myself until Thanksgiving to write this post. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Not only does it bring about the promise of good food and (sometimes, if I can swing it) family, but the anticipation of Thanksgiving helps me keep in mind the humbling thought of gratitude for the blessings I have in my life.

Boy, are there a lot of blessings. Some of you remember the post I wrote over the summer in which I talked about realizing that I had had depression for the majority of my life, culminating in the mental and almost physical paralysis it cast over me this summer.

I'm still not sure how I managed to climb out of that seemingly bottomless hole, and I still don't like thinking back to those months and analyzing how un-human I felt. But I'm happy to say that, for me, medication helped tremendously. For the first time since I could remember, my brain stopped using most of its power to churn out insipid anxieties and started redirecting all that energy to activities that actually meant something to me. I was in shock the first day I completed all the items on my to-do list with energy and time to spare. I couldn't remember the last time I had been able to do that.

Even better things happened. In what was probably the best professional decision I made in my post-graduate life to date, I accept a job offer as Head Media Librarian at an academy in Seoul, South Korea. Even if you knew nothing about what I do for my job, doesn't my job title just sound like a delicious concoction of all the literacy- and education-related issues I have ever felt passionate about? And indeed it is. I'm helping to develop and run an experimental literacy program that's somewhere between a typical reading&writing classroom and a library. So basically my job entails reading children's/YA books and talking about them with kids in order to advance their creativity and critical thinking skills. Oh, and also I get to do projects that end up looking like this:

Oh yes, I consider myself very lucky for having an intellectually stimulating job where every day is a different challenge and a reward. And also that I get to read YA books and get paid for it... hah!

The upheavals in my life this year made me realize most sincerely the importance of having supportive loved ones in my life, and thus this year has also been for me a year of learning about how to make strong, lasting connections with people I care about. This isn't going to be an overnight fix because me and people is like "uh," but I truly have been trying my best to encourage valuable friendships both old and new. A side effect of taking antidepressants is that I have become much more extraverted: there are actually many times when I--gasp!--would rather hang out with people than be by myself! The shocker!

No, but in all seriousness, the changes I have gone through this year have made me fully aware of how blessed I am to have the loved ones I already have in my life, and my luck at finding so many new friends with whom I have so much in common, with whom I can find so much joy and inspiration.

That said, I'm not sure where this leaves me in terms of my blogging. I'd like to start again, writing about things I've noticed about teaching children's lit to young EFL kids, but it certainly won't be in the same capacity as it had been before. Instead of making any promises, then, I'll just leave you with this update on my life. Boy does it feel good to be able to write about happiness!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity review

Tags: young adult, middle grade, historical fiction, World War II, pilots, concentration camps, poetry


While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?

Elizabeth Wein, author of the critically-acclaimed and best-selling Code Name Verity, delivers another stunning WWII thriller. The unforgettable story of Rose Justice is forged from heart-wrenching courage, resolve, and the slim, bright chance of survival.


For me, Code Name Verity's domination of the YA literary scene came about not from its compelling premise and thriller-like aspects, but from the strength of Elizabeth Wein's writing, of her writing voice. Which is why I never had a doubt that ROSE UNDER FIRE wouldn't be excellent. To have what the narrative voice that I associated with Julie/Maddie in CNV seemingly transplanted onto Rose was a little jarring at first for me--but then Rose's own unique brand of strength emerged, roaring, and fed my readerly sympathies and investment. She is smart, resilient, and a much more resonant writer than she gives herself credit for... in other words, exactly the kind of YA heroine that can win hearts anywhere.

ROSE UNDER FIRE deals with a particular dark chapter of World War II history: Nazi doctors performing torturous experiments in the name of "scientific advancement" on young prisoners. The very idea alone is chilling enough, but ROSE UNDER FIRE stays clear of historical moroseness and heavy-handed eulogizing by ensuring that its focus stays clearly on the characters. Rose is joined on the page by more admirable female supporting characters than I can keep track of. What Wein does so well in her two WWII historical novels is that she doesn't merely let the characters' predicaments demand readers' sympathies: rather, the characters--big-hearted, smart-mouthed, brave or frightened--and the empathy they deserve speak for themselves. These are characters we would like anywhere, in any story, in any time period.

Elizabeth Wein has accomplished what few YA writers have yet to do, and that is to make historical fiction popular and resonant. If she continues to write historical fiction, I'll for sure be glad, but I'd also be happy with whatever else she chooses to write in the future. Her surehanded characterization and narrative voice have made me a fan through everything.

Cover discussion: I feel like it changed quite a bit from the hardback cover for Code Name Verity, and I don't know how I feel about it. Still, I appreciate that it's different from most of the other YA covers out there. Its illustrated quality belies the fact that most of the book takes place under the most chilling conditions.

Miramax / Sept. 10, 2013 / Hardcover / 368pp. / $17.99

ARC received from publisher for review. Thank you!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst

Tags: young adult, fantasy, magic, desert, POC


Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. She will dance and summon her tribe's deity, who will inhabit Liyana's body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But when the dance ends, Liyana is still there. Her tribe is furious--and sure that it is Liyana's fault. Abandoned by her tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.

Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. The desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.

The closer she grows to Korbyn, the less Liyana wants to disappear to make way for her goddess. But she has no choice--she must die for her tribe to live. Unless a trickster god can help her to trick fate--or a human girl can muster some magic of her own. [summary from Goodreads]


I wanted this to be AMAZING. Because it’s Sarah Beth Durst. And there’s a stunning Asian model on the cover. But VESSEL didn’t blow me out of the water, though it was still a fine and unique fantasy geared more towards younger fantasy fans rather than jaded, crotchety SFF readers with high demands for world-building, plot, and characterization (a.k.a. me).

Right out of the gate, VESSEL stands a head above others of its ilk because of its protagonist, Liyana. With her slightly snarky sense of humor, especially when she’s with family, Liyana drew me to her immediately…which helped through the rougher periods of the book, when the features that often drag down a quest-based plot—new characters introduced much too quickly to fully capture readers’ support, a whiplash-inducing quick pace that makes it more difficult for readers like me to remain invested in the story—reared their heads.

As with one of Durst's previous books, Enchanted Ivy, in VESSEL, I sometimes found that I had difficulty keeping the thread of what was going on. Didn’t they just arrive in Place B, and why do they have to move on to Place C so quickly? Weren’t he and she fighting only a few pages ago? The constant barrage of questions going on in my head as I struggled to figure out which of the many minor characters introduced were truly significant, what romance to focus on, which interactions were actually important to the overall plot, really took me out of the story, so that at the end of this swashbuckling desert magic tale I closed the book with a little, “Huh.” It was a decent enough read for me, but several months on from when I read the book, I’m not sure how much of it stayed with me at all.

Similar Authors
Juliet Marillier

Cover discussion: Do I even have to say anything? Do I really have to explain to you why I like--nay, love--this cover so much?

Margaret K. McElderry Books / Sept. 11, 2012 / Hardcover / 432pp. / $16.99

Review copy received from author and publisher. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to review it!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

If You Absolutely Had to Choose Between Reading or Writing

Several years ago I attended an author event in New York City, where the authors on the panel were asked which they would choose if they could only read or only write (not both) for the rest of their lives. At the time I just thought to myself that it was a cruel, cruel (but fascinating!) choice to give a bookworm or writer, and that fortunately it's not a very realistic question, but the question has been on my mind lately in light of my recent struggles against  my own thoughts and emotions.

Up until a few months ago, I would've probably told you that, if absolutely forced to choose one, I would rather be able to read--and not write--for the rest of my life. There are just too many books in the world that I want to get around to before I die, and the low panic that would set in whenever I thought about the books I haven't read yet if I died early made the choice a relatively easy one. BOOKS. NEED BOOKS. NEED BOOKS LIKE AIR. And so on.

But in the last month especially, I've been writing just about anything and everything I can think of. Endless, rambling journal entries in which I try to be my own therapist and think my way out of my mental black hole. Postcards, on which each word is chosen with care to best complement the image with such a limited amount of space. Revealing blog posts. Letters to old, almost-lost, newly-refound friends. Short stories that blossomed out of a split-second scene I caught outside the bus window. Longer stories with little plot but chatty characters, or too much plot that I haven't yet been able to untangle and smooth out. Even text messages, 160 characters used as a lifeline, reaching out to people who can entertain, distract, help, or enlighten me.

All of this writing has not just given me a permanently cramped right hand and inkstains that mysteriously appear on my clothes, scarves, and bags. In seeking the writing mode as often as possible, I have actually felt myself feeling better. I enter into writing with a hazy mind and annoyances dripping off me like salty beads of sweat, and on the other side of the writing I emerge clear, calm, and centered. It's not the only answer I have to seek, but when something can make me feel better, I'm going to hold onto it as hard as I can and care for it until the end of my time.

Writing is my therapist. Writing is my toughest coach. Writing is the annoying relative who won't leave you be to wallow by yourself. Writing is my best friend. So I guess that if you asked me again which one I'd choose, I'd now say that I need writing to survive.

What about you? If you were forced on pain of death (noooooooo!) to choose between being either a reader or writer (but not both) for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier

Shadowfell, Book 2
Book 1: Shadowfell review

Tags: young adult, middle grade, fantasy, magic


With an accelerated timeline, Neryn is ready to seek out the four ancient Guardians of Alban to ask for their help in teaching her to become the best Caller she can be, in order to help the Rebel forces (and her friends) of Shadowfell to overthrow King Keldec. But the learning is not easy: Neryn struggles to come to terms with her power and influence, and can’t figure out where her feelings for Flint fit into this greater cause…if they can at all.


RAVEN FLIGHT was not as engaging for me as Shadowfell—but the thing is, they’re not all that different from one another. Neryn is still this can-do-no-wrong protagonist who, if not liked instantly by all she meets, at least can quickly win them over with her earnest naivete. The plot is straightforward quest involving long distances traveled and new characters met.

In RAVEN FLIGHT, we learn more about what exactly makes Keldec so evil. And boy is the man frightening! In one of the most riveting scenes in the story, Neryn is forced to witness Keldec’s cruelties to his subjects from front-row seats. This insight into Keldec’s rule is horrifying, yet really upped the stakes for me as a reader in cheering the painfully perfect Neryn on to success.

Unfortunately, perfection gets old, and Neryn’s personality grated on me a lot more in this installment than previously. I think I’m past the age when I can immerse myself in a protagonist who’s flawless—not in that put-together way, but in the one-girl-can-defeat-the-whole-world way. This is a straightforward fantasy geared, I think, more towards readers new to fantasy than to any others.

Cover discussion: *looks at it for the first time* Hah, kiddingbutnotreallykidding. Ah, I get it. It depicts a scene from the book, which is decent... but to be honest, I really just picked this up because it had JM's name on the cover. We should do a test to see what having JM's name on a book cover will enable me to overcome in terms of outrageous cover designs...

Knopf / July 9, 2013 / Hardcover / 416pp. / $16.99

e-galley received for review from publisher and NetGalley. Thank you!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

That Thing You Didn't Know About New Moms' Bodies...

I revived myself.

So I have long been in awe of Kate Middleton because she has stellar, if upper-class, fashion sense. I fully admit to shedding a tear or two when the birth announcement was made, and beaming when watching video of Kate, William, and Baby Cambridge's first appearance together. A lot of online news outlets have already pointed out how wonderful it was that Kate chose that polka-dot dress for the reveal, like she was carrying on Diana's legacy. And I like that (and I love that dress, omigod), but what I loved more was how the dress hugged the shape of her post-baby bump.
There is huge pressure in our society for new mothers to immediately get back in shape after giving birth. Crazy supermodels and other Hollywood celebrities constantly show up in the tabloid news cycles sporting perfect bodies mere months after birth. Meanwhile, I can clearly recall being in middle school and watching my mom, a petite woman with biceps bigger than mine, trying to work out the soft pooch at her belly, left over from when she gave birth to my youngest brother...eight years prior. With Hollywoodized images affixed in our minds as what the ideal new mother should look like, I imagine legions of mothers battling self-esteem issues and self-disgust for not looking like those perfect pictures, while their Average-Joe husbands hang out in kitschy sports bars, adding more beer to their rotund bellies and bemoaning why their once-attractive wives have now become dumplings.

I have no doubt that Kate Middleton will get back into her old shape in no time, she just seems like that sort of person, but I admire how she was unafraid to pick a dress that showed the parts of post-birth that most celebrities would never dare reveal and, in fact, many of us may have never before seen in the media. Kate will never be a "normal woman," but right now, she's an international face going through normal-woman parts of life, and I think she made such a brave and role-model-worthy decision to show us the beautiful truth about post-partum women's bodies.

I promise a book-related post next. :)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The (Un)State of My Mind

This is probably not what you come to a book blog to read about, but.

So you may remember how, just a few weeks ago, I was shuffling between multiple countries and planning for a great backpacking expedition. You may remember coming across a post introducing my new travel blog, and basically just a whole bunch of references about exciting plans I had to spend several months to a year traveling and living out of my backpack.

As of last week, I am back at my parents' house in New Jersey.

What happened?


There is no easy way for me to write this.

One day earlier this month, I woke up in a hostel in Beijing and knew that I was sad, that I had been sad for a while. There had been days of gray skies and rain, and days of Beijing traffic and crowds, of sticky sweat that left flakes of darkness on my skin when I scratched at it. Traveling no longer felt shiny and exciting, but rather like something that I had go through the motions of doing.

My sadness isn't something that comes and goes. It has always hovered, unblinking and unfazed, in the dark section of the entranceway to my mind. It's a sadmonsterdog that doesn't need any particular kind of nourishment and follows me around wherever I go. When the sun is shining brightly enough and casts that corner into enough shadow, I can pretend that my sadness isn't there, that the light and life are enough to make me a normal, un-sad person. But if the sun is not out in full force, then I have to look into the void of this sad-thing that threatens to crush me with its need whenever it gets the chance.


Here's what traveling is like when you're sad:

You wake up. You have three things on your itinerary for the day, but with the sky the silver of empty colors and the sun nowhere in sight, you know you don't have the energy and pare it down to two. You go to your first destination. The crowds are thick and loud. It's hot. Umbrellas threaten to snag in your hair and rip the strands out. It's hot. You're thirsty and there are always people in your photos and the color quality in them sucks anyway because everything's so gray and you just give up on seeing the site as well as the rest of your itinerary and go back to your hostel and curl up in bed with your computer, hating yourself.


Here's what blogging is like when you're sad:

You have IDEAS and WORDS running together in your head, and a blank screen and a blinking cursor before you. But between your head and the screen is a chorus of faceless voices, crying mocking questions that pierce your well-worn armor.

"Do you think that anything you write now is going to compare to what you wrote back when people actually read your blog, y'know, back when you actually posted things?"

"You are four months behind on reciprocating comments. Way to go with following blogging etiquette. Why can't you do anything right?"

"Wow, your reviews suck now. Just...don't. Stop trying. Stop trying to pretend you're good at it."

As more voices join in, the distance between you and your goal seems to stretch on and on and on, like a demented piece of Laffy Taffy. So instead, you close the lid of your laptop and put your head down on it and try to stop thinking anymore.


Here's what writing is like when you're sad:

You don't.


I don't need an official, clinical diagnosis to know what's wrong with me. I don't even want to write the word, I have such mixed feelings over it. The word, to me, has been perverted into a playground insult hurled by ignorant children or, worse, idiotic adults. When others casually use the word to describe how they feel when they don't get their first-choice iPhone color or their local bar doesn't have their favorite imported beer in stock, why would I want to use it to try and describe the blankness that causes me to spend hours at a time lying on the floor of my room, the black mirror that reflects back to me something so dark and twisted and vivid that I'm not sure if I'm looking at a reflection or if I am the substanceless reflection?

What good does it do for me to be all, "Yup, that's what I have, that's what I am" when it doesn't change the way I've felt since I was a freshman in high school? When it won't make a difference, because you've used the word before, and even after talking to People and the threat of medications, you're still afraid that your sadness is an inherent character defect, a birthmark that just won't go away because, well, it's not meant to?


I had limped through two Chinese cities and half a dozen hostels over the course of two weeks with the same kind of listlessness dragging down my awareness before I realized that to continue traveling when I felt this way was a complete and utter waste of everything. So I looked up plane tickets.

And now I'm here.

I've been trying to get back to what counts for me as normalcy. The process involves lying on my bed, sometimes sleeping, sometimes not. It involves motivating myself to force down unappetizing sustenance at set intervals throughout the day. Avoiding writing, responsibility, and writing-related responsibility, because the words that come out don't sound like me, and little sucks more than to not be able to express myself the way I want to. Playing the piano for hours, when I need more things that don't use words. Walking. Reading old journals and cry-laughing over how silly some parts sound, and how some things have not changed at all.

There are okay days, and then there are days where it's really not.


I just thought you should know.


I don't really know how to end this post.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: Some Quiet Place by Kelsey Sutton

Tags: young adult, supernatural, abuse


Elizabeth Caldwell doesn’t feel emotions . . . she sees them. Longing, Shame, and Courage materialize around her classmates. Fury and Resentment appear in her dysfunctional home. They’ve all given up on Elizabeth because she doesn’t succumb to their touch. All, that is, save one—Fear. He’s intrigued by her, as desperate to understand the accident that changed Elizabeth’s life as she is herself.

Elizabeth and Fear both sense that the key to her past is hidden in the dream paintings she hides in the family barn. But a shadowy menace has begun to stalk her, and try as she might, Elizabeth can barely avoid the brutality of her life long enough to uncover the truth about herself. When it matters most, will she be able to rely on Fear to save her? [summary from Goodreads]


Debut author Kelsey Sutton took a big risk in deciding to write about a protagonist who can’t feel any emotions. After all, one of the biggest criticisms of unsuccessful YA is about bland characters. And while there is an external reason for why Elizabeth is like a shell of a person, I am sorry to say that, instead of being a bold experiment in defying common YA problems by facing them head on, SOME QUIET PLACE merely fell into those very traps.

I’ll be straight with you: Elizabeth has no personality. And it’s not just her being her usual emotionless. She literally doesn’t have anything that distinguishes her from a blank slate other than what’s imposed on her from the outside. When describing Elizabeth, one has to resort to external descriptors: she has rotten parents, an absent brother, she likes to paint. This doesn’t tell us ANYTHING about Elizabeth. People need not be defined by the abuse of their families nor the fact that she paints with all the investment of one doing the dishes. Even sociopaths, who medically do not feel empathy, can have personalities. Elizabeth doesn’t, and that’s not a symptom of her problem.

The lack of personality is not just limited to the MC. Side characters are flat with (again) no personality of their own. Elizabeth’s father is the cardboard drunk and abusive character, while Elizabeth’s mother is the repressed and resentful housewife. Elizabeth’s best friend is the dying girl scared of dying. These are tropes, not to be confused with characteristics. With personality.

SOME QUIET PLACE furthermore falls into common YA pitfalls regarding its plot and mystery. Like too many other YAs that describe themselves as mysteries, SOME QUIET PLACE’s unfolding of its mystery is stuttering and unsatisfying. A great mystery reveals just enough hints in unexpected yet narratively consistent intervals to keep readers ensnared and invested. The “mystery” in this book—of what in Elizabeth’s past caused her to be the way she is—remains a mystery until its sudden anticlimax. The purported “hints” dropped throughout the book are not, actually, hints. “Hints” implies relevance to the plot and mystery; it’s not supposed to be a foray into a dull miniadventure leading into a dead end that the book insists to be a hint, but is in fact just pacing weakness, Insert Dramatic Red Herring Here. The so-called suspense in this book, unfortunately, was so unsatisfying as to frustrate me into apathy.

I could write more, but I’ll stop there and say this: It is completely possible to write from the point of view of a person who can’t feel emotions. But SOME QUIET PLACE was an amateur’s attempt, and sadly it wasn’t long before I realized that I could not feel anything towards Elizabeth and her predicament. And it’s not because I can’t feel emotions.

Similar Authors
Jackie Morse Kessler
Sarah Rees Brennan
Stephenie Meyer
Courtney Summers

Cover discussion: Isn't it luscious? I can practically feel the texture of that dress.

Flux / July 8, 2013 / Paperback / 336pp. / $9.99

e-galley received for review from publisher and NetGalley.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Lunar Chronicles, Book 2

Book 1: Cinder review

Tags: young adult, sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian, France, retelling


Scarlet Benoit’s grandmother has gone missing. Everyone tells her to not worry about it, there’s nothing she can do, her grandmother is an individualistic kind of person, but Scarlet thinks there’s something more insidious behind her grandmother’s disappearance. The only person who will help her is a soft-spoken street fighter named Wolf, whom Scarlet hopes she can trust, but who may have an agenda of his own. Answers are discovered, but more questions raised, when they cross paths with Cinder, whose recent and widely publicized escape from a New Beijing prison just might start the war that the ruthless Lunar Queen has been waiting for.


Cinder was my unexpected enjoyable find of last year. After experiencing how effortlessly Marissa Meyer can weave together a convoluted yet exciting tale, I had high demands for the sequel, SCARLET. And in a way, SCARLET fulfilled them. In a way, it didn’t.

The good first: everything we liked about Cinder is in here, except perhaps even a notch better. In particular, the characters, old and new, major and supporting, are easy to cheer on. I mean, there are exceptions. Kai’s role is reduced to that of beleaguered new and helpless emperor under international pressure. Wolf, I’m sorry to say, did not appeal to me so much, not because I didn’t like his soft and shy personality (I did) so much as I have known many misunderstood love interests with wounded hearts of gold (see: many adult romance male leads). But when you weigh the slightly annoying—Kai and Wolf—against the good—Cinder’s resourcefulness and empathic internal struggle, Scarlet’s ferocity at protecting her loved ones, Thorne’s much-appreciated airheaded charm lightening the mood)—the good comes out on top.

That being said, one of the issues that some reviewers noted as a weakness in Cinder is even more apparent in SCARLET, and that is the world-building. I remember thinking the world-building in Cinder was decent, but in SCARLET I found it lacking. Don’t get me wrong: Meyer does a Richelle Mead-worthy job of setting up an elaborate yet believable backstory to the world’s current state, the one involving the Lunars and Princess Selene. But settings-wise, inadequate research and/or thought was glaringly apparent. At no point did the scenes in France distinguish themselves from what could’ve been going on in any other place in a future Earth. I wanted the book to show me its vision of what a future Earth divided into regions like the Eastern Commonwealth and European Federation, and experiencing strained relationships with Lunar, would look, feel, hear, taste, and smell like. What distinguishes Rieux, Scarlet’s hometown, from other places in the world? How does Paris fare several centuries from now, and how does its altered cityscape affect the characters’ movements and experiences?

Still, SCARLET was fast-paced and exciting. My attention started wavering around the end when everyone was running around killing each other in a very blankly drawn future Paris, but I’m still curious enough about how the Lunar/Princess Selene conflict will play out that I think I’ll continue to hang around this series. Read at the surface level, SCARLET is a successful rollicking good read. But I hope the series will pick up a bit on its world-building, for fear that those cracks will end up pulling the books down.

Similar Authors
Richelle Mead

Cover discussion: Oh hey, look, a publisher that didn't feel compelled to arbitrarily change the cover from hardcover to paperback. Hooray! I do like how this cover matches the one for Cinder, which I felt was memorable and powerful in its simplicity.

Feiwel & Friends / Feb. 5, 2013 / Hardcover / 464pp. / $17.99

Personal copy.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Singapore and Meeting Blogger Friends

In late May I had the amazing opportunity to go to Singapore for a few days to participate in the Asian Festival of Children's Content. I was excited to get to add yet another country to the list of countries I've been able to visit. At my previous job I knew bright students who studied in Singapore, so I've wanted to go and see what makes this country have such a good international reputation.

Singapore is a manageable city with an easy-to-navigate public transportation system. I hadn't heard of any "unmissable" sights in Singapore, so I just sort of chose metro stops at random and explored the areas there. (This is a great way to get to know whatever city you're in, and you never know what delights you'll find.)

Raffles Hotel, one of the oldest and most prestigious buildings in Singapore (not where I stayed):


Boat Quay and Clarke Quay (pronounced "kee") along the Singapore River:

The Singapore skyline. It's not as instantly recognizable as other cities' skylines but once you've seen it it's pretty unforgettable:

Probably the most famous "Singapore sight"--Marina Bay Sands, seen here through a mini-thicket of "supertrees" in Gardens by the Bay:

The Singapore Flyer:

So yes, my camera really liked everything it saw and was able to capture in Singapore, but probably my favorite thing about my time there was that I got to meet, for the first time, some bloggers that I have been talking to for years! Bloggers like Liyana of LiyanaLand and Tarie of Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind encouraged me and inspired my blogging back in my early days, reminding me with their mere presence to keep the importance of diversity in mind as I blogged about YA lit. And what would a Singapore blogger meet-up be without mentioning Chachic, with whom I've exchanged countless postcards and whose unabashed enthusiasm for her obsessions is infectious?

Chachic, Tarie, and I (we're sorry you couldn't make it, Liyana!) met up in a giant mall on Orchard Rd. for a blogger girls night out, where we got plastered and danced with hunky men in themed clubs until dawn. No, actually, we just ate cupcakes. But they were VERY GOOD CUPCAKES. Thanks, Chachic, for introducing us to them!

[left to right] Tarie, me, and Chachic <3 p="">

Chachic showing off the cupcakes!

It was great fun hanging out with these incredible ladies, and I would love to do it again. My tastes of Southeast Asia so far (Singapore, Malaysia, hearing about Manila from Tarie) have only made me want to explore it more. Next year la!

Monday, June 24, 2013

I Have a Travel Blog!

Well, thanks to your overwhelming support of my starting a travel blog, I took some time these past few days and created one!

Are you ready for it?

Do you want to know what it's called and where to find it?

(Unfortunately, it's not called Steph Su Travels... althoough I'll admit to having considered it.)

Drumroll, please...

Come find me at
Everything in 40 Litres

*does a happy dance*

I'm sure you have many questions. What's going to be on the blog? Why did I switch from Blogger to Wordpress and have no regrets about it? What does the name mean? Why did I spell it "Litres" instead of "Liters"? Oh, and will there be many, many pictures?

Visit my travel blog, and your questions will be answered. (Except for maybe the Wordpress one. Simply put, Wordpress is wonderfully intuitive and effortless to use.) There will be stories. There will be pictures. There will be posts about what Chinese sleeper trains are like.

Oh, and there's more! If you like what you find on Everything in 40 Litres--there's not much there yet, but I hope there will be more soon--I hope you will also like my Facebook page, "Everything in 40 Litres", where I will be posting shorter and more frequent updates. It's like a Twitter feed, except I'm not limited to 140 characters, thank god. (I will still continue tweeting at @stephxsu, but I will save the juicy stuff for my Facebook page, I think!)

(And while you're at it, have you liked my Facebook page for "Steph Su Reads" yet? Unfortunately it's not nearly as exciting as every other social networking place I'm on, but since I'm on the topic... :D)

That's all for now. Thanks for reading and sticking with me!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith

Tags: young adult, contemporary, grief, music, piano, mental illness


When a strange caller informs young pianist Kiri Byrd he has the remains of her dead sister’s stuff—a sister who had been dead for years—Kiri’s life turns upside down. Kiri struggles to piece together what she’s learning about her sister, but doing so sets her on a crash course towards a breakdown, and only by acknowledging it can Kiri hope to live with it, to make it a part of herself.


With the weight of the expectations I placed upon its spine after declaring its synopsis to be one of the best I’d ever encountered, Hilary T. Smith’s debut novel WILD AWAKE had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, it was more than up to the task. WILD AWAKE reminded me of the best type of our favorite and revered Aussie YA: it’s whimsical and more than a little odd, but ultimately grounded in the solid reality of common emotions.

WILD AWAKE has many strengths, one of which is its startling and beautiful prose. It startles you because Smith is, oftentimes, just noting in passing an everyday detail or thought—only she does so in a way that makes you pause and actually notice what you otherwise would not. The prose tinkles like water trickling over crystal. Its brightness combines with the darker undertones of Kiri’s situation for a full symphony of bass emotions and soprano wonder.

From the start, Kiri as protagonist stands out. She is many things, has many identities—a serious pianist, a quipper; a dutiful daughter, a monomaniac—but she owns them all unabashedly, deliberately. Unlike other, forgettable YA protagonists who claim to be artists or rebels or whatever, Kiri doesn’t say: she just is, and that makes her being genuine. She’s unafraid to plunge herself into making mistakes, with the result that she gets more out of life than those who hang back. The times when she descends into a whirlwind of monomania are thrilling yet terrifying to read, because you see why she does it, why she needs to let herself go like that, and yet despite how seemingly carefree she is in those moments, you know it’s barely masking a deep, deep hurt. I desperately wish Kiri was real, because I think that her fearlessness, whether or not it’s enviable or reckless, would make me a better person.

That being said, in the end, it’s difficult to say what this book is about. The synopsis emphasizes the mysterious circumstances of Kiri’s sister’s death, but besides for being the catalyst for what happens in the book, finding out more about Sukey and what happened to her becomes less and less of a priority as the book flows along, replaced by Kiri’s deterioriating mental state. Which is a fine direction for a story to go, but still, a little…disorienting.

Nevertheless, WILD AWAKE was a story that lived up to its promises. It is more than the sum of its parts, more than just delectable prose, sympathetic character, and endearing family mystery. Go in with no anticipation of conventions, and enjoy the wild-awake ride.

Similar Authors
Leanne Hall
Cath Crowley
Beth Kephart
Tara Kelly

Cover discussion: LOVE the colors. Not the biggest fan of the double exposure that is reminiscent of photography projects produced by emo/hipster-wannabe college students.

Katherine Tegen Books / May 28, 2013 / Hardcover / 384pp. / $17.99

e-galley received for review from publisher and Edelweiss. Thank you!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Rainy Travel Days are Good for Catching Up

Hello, everyone! Since my last blog post, I've traveled thousands of kilometers and been to three countries and three Chinese provinces. I've seen so much and experienced lots of things for the first time. I've also been planning my next steps here in China, and realized that there's no way I'm going to see all that I want to see in just two months. So I'm still working things out for down the road. :)

Right now I'm staying at the relaxing Charley Johng's Hostel in the oasis town of Dunhuang in Gansu Province, China. It's been raining steadily all day so I've been taking the time to catch up on some stuff online. (I can haz internetz, huzzah!) I came via an overnight sleeper train from Xinjiang Province this morning. (Shall I write a post about sleeper trains in China, hrm?) Xinjiang is a far-flung Chinese province that has more in common with Central Asian and/or Muslim countries than most of Han China. It is colorful and dusty and tasty and delightful.

Cloth on display at the Sunday Bazaar in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China.

Spices at the Sunday Bazaar in Kashgar. My friend bought a ton of different spices, and after she had paid for her goods, the guy took some more of all the types of spaces she had bought, put them through a grinder so they turned into fine powder, and fashioned the result into three lovely-smelling satchets for my two friends and me. I've fallen in love with this unexpected gift: it makes my clothes and backpack smell nicer after a day of travel, and I've even used it to "sweeten up" funky bathrooms and lockers.

Non-yurt accommodation by the shores of Karakul Lake in Xinjiang, China. (My friends and I stayed in a yurt overnight.)

I'm in the planning process of starting up a travel blog, which will be more dedicated to travel experiences, tips, destination guides, etc. I'll still post occasionally here about where I am and what I'm doing. If/when I set up the travel blog, I hope you will be willing to check it out!

Alright, it's dinnertime. I need to stop sitting on this blog post as I've been doing all afternoon and just post it. As I have some downtime over the next few days (and my hostel has solid Internet!) I will be preparing some posts soon for your perusal. Until next time!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Attending the Asian Festival of Children's Content 2013

Greetings from Singapore! My, what a fast and furious time these past two days have been for me. I have been here participating in the fourth annual Asian Festival of Children's Content (AFCC) as a speaker, panelist, moderator, participant, learner, and appreciator. CRAZY, RIGHT??? Thanks to the efforts of super bloggers Tarie (Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind) and Liyana (LiyanaLand), I came to Singapore to give a keynote speech on "Getting the Most Out of Blogging" (moderated by Liyana) and be part of a panel called "Blogging Today and Tomorrow" with coolcat author-blogger Candy Gourlay (moderated by Tarie).

Me (far left) with Liyana (second from left), Tarie (far right), and two sweet blogger-writers from Malaysia WHOSE NAMES AND BLOGS I WILL PUT HERE IF SOMEONE TELLS ME. Please. Help. Photo taken by: Paolo Chikiamco.

For my speech "Getting the Most Out of Blogging", I talked about how blogging should be more personal rather than professional, and, as such, should be able to grow as you grow, change as you and your interests or passions change. Blogging is a reflection of yourself rather than a blatant self-marketing tool. Thus, blogging should be low-pressure and fun; the minute that it stops being fun is the minute you should take a blogging break, step back and remember why you started blogging in the first place: because you felt passionate for something, and wanted to share that passion of yours with others.

Yes yes, that's me speaking. Photo credit: Liyana.

I've got to be honest with you: I was in a bad place, blogging-wise, in the weeks and months leading up to this conference. I felt overwhelmed by and fed up with blogging and other related forms of social media. Others were racing ahead on Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr... and the more I fell behind, the less I wanted to be part of that race.

Finally putting words to those feelings I had long bottled up inside me, and then hearing from people who still love blogging yet also understand its pressures, reinvigorated me in ways I could not have imagined. In particular, Candy Gourlay and Vivian Kirkfield's panel "Blogging and Tweeting for Authors", of which I was moderator, snapped me out of my social media funk and made me realize that I cannot and will not let social media dictate me and my happiness. Fueled by the energy of the like-minded souls I met at AFCC, I am now ready to come back to my blogging and other social media branches with a better understanding of how to best use them to maximize my voice and, most importantly, my happiness.

I need to edit this photo, but this is Candy Gourlay and me right before our panel on "Blogging Today and Tomorrow." I think it is very revealing of Candy's personality...

AFCC is not perfect, but I believe it is on the right track to being the best thing to come to children's literature, media, publishing, and blogging in Southeast Asia. I am so grateful to AFCC for giving me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak about my blogging experience, and I also would not hesitate to attend again if I am in the vicinity in the following years. With hard work and only a bit of luck, hopefully AFCC can continue to grow and attract more and more people to this worthy event. They've got a supporter in me.

More about Singapore and the bloggers I met coming up soon!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan

Tags: young adult, fantasy, short story collection


Yellowcake brings together ten short stories from the extraordinarily talented Margo Lanagan--each of them fiercely original and quietly heartbreaking.

The stories range from fantasy and fairy tale to horror and stark reality, and yet what pervades is the sense of humanity. The people of Lanagan's worlds face trials, temptations, and degradations. They swoon and suffer and even kill for love. In a dangerous world, they seek the solace and strength that comes from family and belonging.

These are stories to be savored slowly and pondered deeply because they cut to the very heart of who we are. [summary from Goodreads]


Quick—someone teach me how to review a short story collection. I’m afraid I didn’t take notes on individual stories as I read this, so just a few words on the collection as a whole.

The book’s afterword explains not only Lanagan’s inspiration for each of these stories, which I found interesting to read, but also that the majority of these stories have been previously published elsewhere. If you’ve been a dedicated YA short story anthology reader, particularly of the SFF kind, then you may have read some of these stories already. It’s probably a good idea to know this, in order to avoid buyer’s disappointment.

The best audience for YELLOWCAKE is devoted Lanagan fans, or readers who have read a book or two by her and are curious for more. I fall into the latter, perhaps moving into the former. Like her other books, the stories in YELLOWCAKE don’t seem like they should work, but they do. In each of them is a vague echo of something familiar: I felt like I had read the essence or the ideas of some of them before. But in Lanagan’s uniquely skillful hands, the ideas turn into phantasmal sights, old and new at the same time.

I’m not sure if there’s a connecting thread running through all these stories. Sometimes I felt like I could catch hold of a connection, but then the next story comes along and dashes my tentative theories into pieces. The best I can come up with is that this short story collection persuasively argues, in a peripheral, is-it-or-is-it-not kind of way, the importance of having a little more magic—however you define it—in our lives.

Cover discussion: In this age of movie-poster-clone book covers, this quiet and slightly mysterious one stands out.

Knopf / May 14, 2013 / Hardcover / 240pp. / $16.99

e-galley received for review from publisher and NetGalley.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Truth or Dare by Jacqueline Green

Truth or Dare, Book 1

Tags: YA, contemporary, mystery, suspense, thriller, betrayal


Echo Bay is a picture-perfect oceanside town with the expected batch of annual summer tourists and year-round privileged white teens. But it has an ominous claim to fame: several times in past Fall Festivals, a beautiful young woman mysteriously dies out in the water by Phantom Rock.

Little of this matters, however, with Tenley Reed’s arrival back in town. Wanting to claim her old life as the most popular and most desired girl in her grade, she throws one of her infamous house parties, complete with one of the Truth or Dare games for which she’s known. But this time, an unknown darer continues the game long past it’s time to end it. Three girls start receiving dares that they must follow through for fear of the darer exposing their deepest secrets: Tenley; her best friend Caitlin, the perfect All-American with the Harvard dream; and Sydney, the scholarship student. And for reasons they don’t know, the darer is not going to stop until they are all dead…


I was hoping, when I picked this book up, that it would defy my expectations. With a synopsis that sounded like it had been lifted directly from a rejected Pretty Little Liars installment, I’ll admit that my expectations weren’t high. And while I did finish the book (which says something, I suppose, considering how I’m not afraid to DNF a book that I don’t have a chance of loving), I kind of wish that, well, I hadn’t.

Throughout the whole book, I kept on shaking my head and saying to myself, “What’s wrong with this, Steph? The writing is decent—it fulfills the basic requirements of a YA blockbuster—and yet, despite the fact that I am reading it, I have an utter lack of investment in the characters and their fates.” What, exactly, did TRUTH OR DARE lack that kept it only mediocre?

And then I realized: it was lacking a heart. There is no non-superficial reason for caring about the characters. Superficiality in fiction differs from superficiality in real life. In real life, superficiality refers to physical, tangible things like appearances or dress or money. In fiction, it refers to the lack of spark that makes the characters never read like anything more than a couple of puppets. And it doesn’t matter how many oh-so-sad tragedies you want to pile on a character—Tenley’s father, Sydney’s past, Caitlin’s kidnapping, Caitlin’s panic attacks, Caitlin’s everything—the fact is that the author did not succeed in making her characters come alive with personality quirks and turns of phrase and all those things that make a person unique. It doesn’t take a really jaded reader to notice this.

(Side note: TRUTH OR DARE is a product of Paper Lantern Lit, a company that essentially develops elaborate plots and then hires new authors to write the stories. I didn’t learn this until after I had already finished the book. The correlation between PLL-style books and—in my opinion—their general lack of heart has yet to be scientifically examined.)

Despite the lack of heart and my lack of investment in the characters, I still kept on reading, drawn by the idea that all would be revealed, and several hours’ worth of my time would be justified. That was before I got to the thoroughly unrewarding ending, which, compared to the tight plotting of the rest of the book, was sloppy, a slap-dash anti-climax put together as a weak payoff before the mystery continues painfully on to a Book Two. What the hell?! Is it too much to ask for some sort of payoff, some sort of conclusion, after trudging through 400 pages of drivel tailor-made for the nonthinking YA reader? There is no clearer sign that this was a concept created for purely financial reasons than such a cop-out ending that basically demands that if you wanted to be invested in the story, you had better be in it for the long haul. Too bad that wasn’t made clear earlier in the story for the rest of us who have no interest in making that sort of an investment in a forgettable teen mystery series.

Oh, I have no doubt that this book will find its audience. It’s just the sort of mediocre copycat drivel that drives the market nowadays.

Similar Authors
Sara Shepard
Kate Brian

Cover discussion: No comment. Next question.

Poppy / May 14, 2013 / Hardcover / 400pp. / $18.00

e-galley received from publisher and NetGalley for review.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: Art Girls Are Easy by Julie Klausner

Tags: young adult, contemporary, summer camp, art, friendship, sex


Fifteen-year-old Indigo Hamlisch is an art prodigy looking forward to her last summer at the Silver Springs Academy for Fine and Performing Arts for Girls. But her BFF Lucy Serrano is a C.I.T. this year, and that means she doesn't have to hang out with Indigo and the other campers anymore: she can mingle with the counselors -- including Indigo's scandalous and unrequited crush, paint-splattered art instructor Nick Estep. But it's not like anything is going to happen between Lucy and Nick... right? As Indy becomes more and more paranoid about what's going on between her best friend and her favorite counselor, Indy's life -- and her work -- spin hilariously out of control. Funny and bold, Art Girls Are Easy is a comedy of errors filtered through the wry, satirical eyes of a girl who's been there, done that, and is just looking for a little inspiration. [summary from Goodreads]


The first line of this book reads: “Indigo Hamlisch stared out of the window of her father’s gray Mercedes Coupe and thought about sex.”

Personally I find this opening tasteless, like it’s attempting to be shocking and edgy but failing miserably, kind of like the wannabe screaming vulgar things at an intimate concert in an attempt to be cool and being met with dead silence by the much classier crowd. However, after suffering through the whole book, I duly acknowledge the utter appropriateness of this opening line: it perfectly represents how unsuccessfully the book attempts to discuss issues of sexuality, body image, friendship, art, inspiration, and privilege. On top of that, ART GIRLS ARE EASY had a jumbled plot and weak character development. All in all, a hot mess.

ART GIRLS ARE EASY wants to be cool. It wants to be the hip new thing that people are talking about, the story that owns criticism and commerciality, the trend that turns people’s thinking upside-down. Unfortunately, it had no idea where to begin doing so. What is the focus of this book, anyway? The jacket synopsis claims that it’s about Indigo and Lucy’s changing best-friendship, but the complexities of this new chapter in their lives hardly appear. Every once in a while, Lucy deigns to come find Indy, they exchange sweet nothings for a few lines, and then Lucy dashes off, leaving Indy behind to feel inferior and insecure. In theory this is what friends drifting apart is like—but the drifting apart needs to be apparent in the harmful way they interact with each other, to show an unhealthy relationship. This book is so confused about whether or not Lucy is the villain that it tries to do a little of everything, with (predictably) poor results: for 90% of the book, we’re led to believe that Lucy is the bad and selfish friend who is just using the less attractive Indy to bolster her own self-esteem, but then apparently their misunderstandings are cleared up in a matter of a few pages at the end, Lucy’s attractiveness is balanced out by Indy’s far superior artistic talent, and Lucy and Indy go skipping off into the sunset. Huh? This is a fine ending ideally, but little exists in the book to convince readers of the strength and veracity of their friendship.

In fact, Indy and Lucy’s friendship rollercoaster takes a side-seat to the main spectacle that is Indy falling apart due to her insecurities. Scenes of Indy eating her feelings, lashing out at others, and even hurting herself could’ve been a moving reflection on adolescent self-esteem. I mean, this is serious stuff! But apparently Indy’s behavior is invalid because her perfect best friend never wavered in her loyalty. Um, what? Are we not going to discuss how, sadly, too many wonderful girls like Indigo will also have body image issues and thoughts of self-mutilation? Are you really going to send the message that as long as the insecure girl is loved by her attractive, nice, and perfect best friend, everything is going to be fine?

But perhaps most infuriating of all—if such a thing can be decided from the myriad choices we have—is how ART GIRLS ARE EASY makes no acknowledgment of the way privilege works in the characters’ lives. Silver Springs is a summer art camp that will make your university look like an overpriced homeless shelter. Throughout the book, characters continuously flaunt their privilege to get their way. They discuss how they’ll use their parents’ money to get the camp to fire a teacher, their parents’ connections to nab them a starring role in such-and-such production alongside Meryl Streep. They acknowledge how they only go to camp in order to make the connections that will get them the careers they want. It’s like Harvard for artsy high schoolers, and the book does not even try to comment on the disgusting excess that is the privilege here. No character is immune from the benefits of privilege—including Indigo. The most the book says about the glutton of privilege that exists in the book is a throwaway passage at the end:
“In no way did [Indigo’s] dad’s money talk negate the sense of accomplishment she felt around her piece. But, she figured, his donation was probably relevant to her Fairness Committee verdict. For the first time, she felt she had a better insight into the machine that kept this place running. This odd, terrible, wonderful place.”
That’s it. No lesson learned about privilege. The book totally passed on the opportunity to open readers’ eyes up to the existence of privilege in our lives and the extreme social stratification that results.

The very fact that ART GIRLS ARE EASY so desperately tries to be cool upends any promise it had of being a halfway decent story. Its faux-edginess is only outdone by its inexcusable misunderstanding of teenage thoughts and feelings. And its unquestioning attitude towards privilege—unacceptable in today’s socioeconomic situation—is the rotten cherry on top of a shapeless, flavorless cake with all the nutritional content of a vat of high fructose corn syrup.

Poppy / May 7, 2013 / Paperback / 240pp. / $16.00

e-galley received from publisher and NetGalley for review.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Zhangjiajie, China

You may have heard of Zhangjiajie. Or, at the very least, you may have seen pictures of someplace that looks sort of like this:

That's because Zhangjiajie is often considered the inspiration for the alien world in the movie Avatar. Visually it's an impressive sight. Spatially it is overwhelming, as Zhangjiajie, as it is best known, is actually a group of park areas collectively called the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, and consists of the four major areas Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Suoxiyu Natural Resource Preserve, Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, and Tianzishan Mountain Natural Resource Preserve--which are then each further divided into smaller sections. Are ya confused yet?!?

Well, I certainly was when I first tackled this giant beast of a park. However, a helpful map or two at your side while reading about how to conquer the park makes things a bit more manageable.

There are many options for getting to the Zhangjiajie area. Zhangjiajie city has a train station, a bus station (with buses nearly once or twice an hour going to and from Changsha, the nearest giant city in Hunan Province, about a 4-5 hour ride away), and an airport with flights from most major cities in China. However, from Zhangjiajie city to the actual park area itself--and the entrances to the park area--is another 40 minutes by minibus, which can be caught leaving from the city car station (right next door to the train station) regularly and costs 10-12RMB. The two main park entrances that people use are the Zhangjiajie Forest Park entrance (森林公园门口) and the Wulingyuan entrance (武陵园门口).

That means that you have four main "regional" choices for accommodation when visiting: Zhangjiajie City, which is that 40-minute minibus ride away; the sizeable town of Wulingyuan, outside the Wulingyuan entrance; the tiny Zhangjiajie Village outside the Forest Park entrance; and a smattering of hostels of questionable quality within the actual park itself.

A fair number of people choose to stay in Zhangjiajie City, traveling the distance to and from the park cheaply, and thus have the convenience of all a decent-sized city offers. Your accommodation choices in Zhangjiajie City range from backpacker hostels to 5-star international hotels. (But a note on 5-star hotels in not-eastern China: they won't be at the 5-star quality of international standards. They'll be fine, but the gilding will cover the chipping paint.) I myself stayed at the Zhongtian International Youth Hostel in Wulingyuan, a 10-minute bus ride away from the park entrance, with everything you could want nearby: cities, supermarkets, wet markets, souvenirs, even a kitschy bar street.

A peak season park ticket costs 245RMB, but the high cost is balanced by the fact that it is valid for three days. You can bet the boy and I made the most of that! On the first day, we went to Yaozizhai, a less touristed area of the park that offered equally great views. The day was HOT--30 degrees Celsius--which made the climb all that much more brutal, because we're talking just stairs, stairs all the way stairs. We chilled at the top of a natural bridge--we were able to walk on top of it--to this kind of scenery:
Here is me chilling against the natural bridge, the size of which you cannot see, but was quite lovely:

On Day Two, we decided to go to Huangshizhai, whose slogan goes, "If you haven't been to Huangshizhai, you haven't seen Zhangjiajie." Well, color me convinced, darlin'! There was a cable car but we decided to climb up. Eurghhh more stairs. Can't escape them if you want to escape the crowds.

Despite the ominous promise of huge crowds by the presence of the cable car, the multi-kilometer loop at the top of Huangshizhai, which took us over an hour to leisurely circle, was surprisingly uncongested. That meant we had relative peace while gazing at some of what was, in my opinion, the most iconic scenery in the park:

We had ambitious plans for our day, but climbing up and down stairs took a lot more time and energy than we had expected, so after descending from Huangshizhai, we walked along the Golden Whip Stream (金鞭溪), in the shadow of formidable canyon-like rock formations:

For Day Three, our destination was Yuanjiajie--specifically, a less developed scenic area within Yuanjiajie called Laowuchang. Today we wanted to save some time by taking elevators and cable cars. As it turns out, the Bailong Elevator, which we took to get up to Yuanjiajie, was mobbed by Chinese tourist groups. And let's just say that the Chinese are not known for their ability to queue. Furthermore, the elevator, which could've provided some nice photo opportunities, was a thing of pure function: I was crammed into the narrow and unaesthetically-pleasing elevator, shot up 300-something meters, and spat out with old Chinese men at my heels. It was truly hard to decide whether or not the time we saved would've been better spent getting away from the tour guides with their clip-on megaphones.

Then we had the most difficult time trying to actually get to Laowuchang. After getting caught up in the tide of tourists at the head of Yuanjiajie (where I took the picture that is at the beginning of this blog post), we got onto a free mini-shuttlebus taking people to the Tianzishan park area. Only, as we found out, the shuttlebuses don't actually stop anywhere along the way, and we had no idea when to get off. 45 minutes later, we were at the other end of the park, but not where we wanted to go. So we rode with the driver back the way we came, asking him to drop us off at the place where we needed to go. Turns out, the driver forgot to stop for us! It wasn't until we were almost back at Yuanjiajie that he flagged down his driver friend who was going in the other direction and asked him to drop us off at the Laowuchang entrance. It's one of those stories that is amusing in future tellings, but not when it was happening.

Well, the rest of the day was more of that. After wandering around half-lost on unpeopled dirt roads, we finally came across the sight I had wanted to come to Laowuchang to see--Fields in the Sky:
Rice fields at the edge of the cliff against a backdrop of karst formations! Amazingggg. Mind blown. I could've stayed there all afternoon, soaking in the sight, taking pictures.

And perhaps we should just stayed there, then turned back, for the next part of our adventure was...adventurous. Not far after Fields in the Sky, the dirt road sputtered to an end at a huddle of crude metal shacks. Huh? Where did the path go? Where is the way to Celestial Bridge, supposedly the next sight on the route?

In the end, we had to hire a cheerful local lady to be our guide to Celestial Bridge. She said that the path was hard for non-locals to find, and washed out in places, and would take about two hours. Well, it did take two hours--two hours of walking along a path that looked like it sees no people except for the rare wannabe-adventurous tourists who were tricked by maps into believing there was actually a path between the two sights. We wound in and out of fingers of mountain ridges, I lost count of how many, often with only a thin line of vegetation separating us from the edge. Again, one of those stories that's good for the telling afterwards, but a lot worrying when it was actually happening!

Since I told you all that, I suppose that I am practically required to show you a picture of Celestial Bridge now:
It's an incredibly narrow bridge of rock, thousands of feet above the ground. It was unconvincingly gated off, so I had wanted to climb through and stand on it, with nothing but air for thousands of feet below me--but I decided not to put my life in the hands of two legs extremely shaky after walking for two hours through uneven brush.

So yes, our third day was a great adventure! What a way to end our trip. The next morning we took the bus back into Zhangjiajie City and caught the 17-hour sleeper train back to Shanghai. Here's a final picture of Zhangjiajie to send you on your way until my next travel post. Bye!

I got a lot of the info I needed for my trip to Zhangjiajie here.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Jiuzhaigou, the Gem of China

In traveling China, a lot of it can begin to feel monotonous: the same kinds of dramatic mountains, the same preserved traditional villages, the same death-to-architectural-style Soviet-like concrete blocks in the cities. Jiuzhaigou, located in a fairly isolated spot in northern Sichuan Province, stands apart from all that. I spent two days there, and would gladly pay the ridiculous entrance fee every few months to see how the gorgeous scenery there changes with each season.

Jiuzhaigou (simplified: 九寨沟, traditional: 九寨溝) means "Nine Villages Gully" or "Nine Villages Valley," named after the minority villagers that used to live off the land here before it was turned into a national park. The accessible park area consists of three valleys that join together like a capital "Y". It's beautiful year-round, but most popular in the summer and autumn, when the water level is high and the colors at their fullest.

Early April meant fewer crowds, but it also meant that most things were not in bloom yet. However, the spotted effect is quite magnificent, in its own way:

Here's a closer-up look at Five Flower Lake, considered by many to be the most stunning lake in the park:

Many of the lakes in Jiuzhaigou are this impossibly turquoise color, the happy result of first being carved by glaciers, then mostly filled by slow-moving water seeping out of the ground that allows the water to be both clear and have a high concentration of calcium carbonate, travertine (limestone) formations, and ages-old natural debris.

Besides for crystal-clear turquoise lakes, there are also large and deep lakes, still clear, but darker blue. April also blesses visitors with snow-covered mountains in the background. Here is Long Lake, the largest, highest, and deepest lake in the park:

Besides for marvelous lakes, Jiuzhaigou also has a lot of WATERFALLS!
Arrow Bamboo Waterfall
Me by a random waterfall among the Shuzheng Lakes, with Shuzheng Village, one of the few inhabited villages allowed in the park, in the background
This last waterfall just might be my favorite spot in the whole park. It's an anonymous one within the Shuzheng Lakes, and hardly anyone was there because it was in between stops on the scenic bus. The water confidently surging over moss-covered rocks and into the pure turquoise lake was heaven.

Jiuzhaigou is for those who want to add some natural amazement to an otherwise history-laden China tour. It is so worth the effort it takes to get there. (More tips on how to get the most out of your Jiuzhaigou trip will follow in a separate post.)

And just because, here are some photos from the eight-hour bus ride from Jiuzhaigou to Chengdu as we left for the next leg of our journey (post to come). It had snowed the night before, and--well, I'll just let the pictures speak for themselves:

Sichuan is gorgeous, the people are friendly, and the food is delicious. I would happily go back and spend more time in that province.

Until next time!


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