Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Best of 2013: Fiction

Over the course of 2013, I read a total of 25 books, or 8,108 pages. Of those 25, I gained several new favorites, including The Great Gatsby, and Between Shades of Gray - novels that I feel have made an important impact on my life.
Several books were also made into movies during 2013, including Gatsby, Catching Fire, The Host, and Safe Haven. The film industry has seem to found a new jackpot in YA novels! 2014 promises to be a year of more books-turned movies as well. I am looking forward to Divergent in March, The Fault in Our Stars in June, and Mockingjay Part 1 in November!
Not only was 2013 a year of great books, but a year of some of my best accomplishments. I  was published in my school's literary arts magazine and became Literary Editor of the magazine for the 2013-14 school year a few days later. My travels took me to Cape Cod, Sugarbush, VTColumbia University, and Strand Books.
I do not plan on posting for the rest of the week, so I would just like to say that I hope everyone has a very, merry Christmas, and a happy New Year! I hope your holiday is filled with family, friends, and good food. And of course, if the time yields, a good books as well! C.S Lewis once said, “Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably."
Best wishes to you as the year comes to a close, and I will see you in the new year!
2014 will be the first year of fully integrating my rating system, so my "Best of" list next year will be based on mathematical reasoning rather than recollection. But for now, here are my top fiction novels of the 2013!
Top Fiction Novels of 2013
10.  Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan

9.   Pivot Point , Kasie West

8.   Safe Haven, Nicholas Sparks

7.   Just One Day, Gayle Forman

6.  This is What Happy Looks Like, Jennifer E. Smith

5.  Such a Rush, Jennifer Echols

4.  The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

3.  Allegiant, Veronica Roth

2.  Out of the Easy, Ruta Sepetys

1Divergent, Veronica Roth

Divergent, the first novel in another dystopian trilogy, had me hooked at the first page. With its chapters of danger and self-discovery, as well as hints of romance and interpretations of humanity, it was a read sure worth my time. Both suspenseful and epic, Veronica Roth did a fantastic job in adding another series of books to the list of novels not to be forgotten. The trailer and movie clip are here!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Best of 2013: Historical Fiction / Memoir

As 2013 comes to a close, I have complied my lists to create The Best of 2013. I will be posting lists of memoirs, historical fiction, and finally, the best of the best in fiction!

Just as a reminder, unlike many other "Best of" lists around the Internet, the books included in my lists are not centered entirely on novels published in 2013, they are just books I read in 2013. Books listed here that were published in 2013 are entirely coincidental.

Top Memoirs of 2013:

2. Night, Elie Wiesel

1. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls

I read The Glass Castle as part my Honors English curriculum last spring, and it was a very eye-opening novel. Jeannette Walls writes about growing up with neglectful and unemployed parents, and her struggle for a bright future. Walls tells her story in a way that is raw and inspiring.

Top Historical Fiction Novels of 2013:

3. In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez

2. Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys

1. Life: An Exploded Diagram, Mal Peet

In reading the review I posted of Life: An Exploded Diagram, you will have noticed the great praise I gave this novel. Taking place during three different time periods: post World War II, the Cold War, and early 2000s, Peet does a fantastic job of painting world history in a way that is moving and delightful.

Check back tomorrow for The Best Fiction Books of 2013!

Friday, December 20, 2013

On Challenges and Nerdfighters

With 2013 quickly coming to a close, it is time for bloggers and readers alike to reflect on their reading over the course of the year. Back in January, I had joined two reading challenges hosted by very successful book blogs. Below you can find the books I read for each category, and links to the reviews I posted for each.

I am currently scoping out what challenges will be available for 2014, and I will post here at the beginning of January with my findings!

2013 Women Challenge I read a lot of books written by women, but this year I had hoped to focus on the original, classic, women in literature: the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, etc. For this challenge I signed up for the "Super Girl" category (11-15 books written by women authors) and it was hosted by the blog Peek-a-Book!

The titles I read this year (15 read of 15 book goal - 100%):

1.  Divergent, Veronica Roth
2.  Insurgent, Veronica Roth
3.  Allegiant, Veronica Roth
4.  Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys
5.  Out of the Easy, Ruta Sepetys
6.  A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, Carol Berkin
7.  The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
8.  Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
9.  Pivot Point, Kasie West
10. Just One Day, Gayle Forman
11. This is What Happy Looks Like, Jennifer E. Smith
12. Such a Rush, Jennifer Echols
13. In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez
14. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
15. The Future of Us, Carolyn Mackler and Jay Asher

YA Contemporary Challenge 2013 This tends to be the genre I read the most, so I had signed myself up as a Level 2 contender (10+ books). All books read for this challenge had to be YA books published at some point during 2013. This challenge, hosted by Katie's Book Blog, also had a group on Goodreads, which listed dozens of titles that fit this category.

The titles I read this year (5 read of 10 book goal - 50%):

1. Just One Day, Gayle Forman
2. This is What Happy Looks Like, Jennifer E. Smith
3. Pivot Point, Kasie West
4. Allegiant, Veronica Roth
5. Out of the Easy, Ruta Sepetys

Just one more day until I reveal my Best of 2013! The announcement will be divided like in past years into two days - Historical Fiction and Memoir on Saturday, and Fiction on Sunday.

On a different note, on Wednesday I spent most of the afternoon walking around the house with my headphones in, so that I could listen to author John Green's (TFiOS, Looking for Alaska) livestream via YouTube. This video was part of the 48 hour-long livestream he hosted in conjunction with his brother Hank on their YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers. The livestream was done to promote their charity event called Project for Awesome, an event where Nerdfighters (the name John and Hank have given their fans) create videos to promote a charity they feel strongly about. Donations to the project are currently over $800,000 dollars, and the money will be divided among the charities that collect the most comments and views. I did not make a video, but did vote for several.

(Miss the livestream? Check out the best moments from the 48-hours here!)

During the livestream John gave a tour of his office while wearing the fox hat from Looking for Alaska. He also read an excerpt from the new book he is working on, and revealed our first look at the TFiOS film adaption - the movie poster! (ahhh!!!) It's easy to forget upon reading books, watching movies, or listening to songs, that there are real people who made those things. Although they might be famous and always in the spotlight, fans don't ever really get the chance to know their favorite singers or authors on a personal level. John Green is not my favorite author just because of the books he writes, but because of how connected he is with his fans. He is constantly answering "Real questions from real Nerdfighters" in his Question Tuesday videos, and sharing updates from his life. It's also neat to see that he gives back, through fundraisers he has created like Project for Awesome and The Foundation to Decrease Worldsuck.

So it's very cool (at least to me anyway) to see that one of the people that inspires you the most is more than just the picture on the inside of a book jacket.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Veronica Roth
526 pages
“There are so many ways to be brave in this world. Sometimes bravery involves laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, or for someone else. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved, for the sake of something greater."  - page 509

It is very, very hard to write about this book without giving away spoilers from Divergent  and Insurgent, but I will try my best. Please stay away if you have not read the aforementioned titles...
The faction-based society of Chicago that Tris Prior and Tobias Eaton had once called home is now completely shattered. War, unjust power, and betrayal has interrupted their world indefinitely. When they are given the chance to escape the city and go beyond the fence, there is no way they can refuse. What they find there is not at all the quiet, safe, life together they had imagined. Tris and Tobias are suddenly overwhelmed by just how big the world is, and together they must face new obstacles and truths they did not think even possible.
And I think the simplest way to explain my feelings about this book is by saying (and pardon my word choice)
What the hell. 
I approached this book already knowing there would be a surprise ending (thanks, Internet spoilers for blowing up in my face) but I did not know just how surprising until I read it a few hours ago. But that is all I will say about it. I am trying to make the Internet a more spoiler-free place, one little unknown blog at a time here :)
I wish I had been able to read this book from beginning to end in about a week's time, but it took me more like a month due to the fact that I have been busy reading Lord of the Flies and Great Expectations for English class. Today was the first day in about two weeks that I picked up Allegiant, and since it was snowy outside and cozy under the covers, I was able to read the last 125 pages in one sitting.
Allegiant picks up right where Insurgent ended. The story is told from a riveting dual perspective, elevating the novel to an entirely new level. Alternating chapters between Tris and Tobias was extremely effective in allowing several events to occur at the same time, as well as thoughts from both characters to be understood.
Although Allegiant takes place in futuristic, dystopian world, Veronica Roth sill manages to make it seem very real. Not necessarily the setting, but the characters. Tris does not suffer from a futuristic virus, but from common themes in today's world such as self-identity, bravery, and love. Throughout Allegiant Tris struggles to determine her role in this new society outside of the fence, as well as with the definition of bravery. Tobias and Tris' relationship is grounded in reality, with arguments, separation and understanding. And although their relationship is so real that it seems cliché, I can not help but sigh and smile every time I read...
Then I thought of how strong I have become, how secure I feel with the person I now am, and how all along the way he has told me that I am brave, I am respected, I am loved an worth loving.
"And?" he says, his voice and his eyes and his hands, a little unsteady.
"And," I say, "I think you're still the only person sharp enough to sharpen someone like me."
- page 372
Allegiant was a fantastic closure to a series I thought a few months ago I would have no interest in. Turns out, Roth's trilogy has made it into my Best of 2013 List, to be posted December 22nd, 2013!
Story Line - 8/10
Character's Voice - 10/10
Writing Style - 8/10

Overall - 26/30

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Movie vs. The Book: Catching Fire

Having bought my ticket at the beginning of October, I was anxiously anticipating the release of Catching Fire until last Friday. A group of friends and I went to the local theater this year, instead of AMC - not only was it cheaper, but completely stress free (meaning no long lines, no sprinting to get good seats).

All members from the cast of The Hunger Games returned for Catching Fire, but some great additions were also made: Sam Claflin (as Finnick Odair), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch Heavensbee), Jena Malone (as Johanna Mason).

Francis Lawrence, the new director of the film, I felt did a great job in keeping things consistent with the first film. For example, the Capitol looks relatively the same as it did in The Hunger Games, along with the village and woods in District 12.

Note: at this point in the post, I would like to discuss some of the differences between the movie and the book, so please, stop reading now if you have not read Catching Fire. Spoiler alert. Thank you!
  1. Bonnie and Twill, the two District 8 refugees who are on their way to the elusive District 13, do not make and appearance in the movie. At first, I was unsure as to how Katniss would decide she would like to run away, but in the end this omission worked.
  2. During the Victory Tour as the President's mansion, Plutarch does not show Katniss his pocket watch. "But then how does she figure out the arena is layed out like clock?!" I found myself screaming mentally while watching. Instead, Katniss climbs a tree inside the arena, where she gets and aerial view of the Corucopia. This view allows for a ver powerful moment where the expansiveness and complexity of the arena is conveyed. 
  3. President Snow is given a granddaughter in the movie, and she symbolizes how much of an influence Katniss has become. The granddaughter wears her hair in a braid, which she says is how all of the girls at school are wearing their hair.
  4. The scene that I missed the most from the book that did not appear in the movie was the scene in which Katniss and Peeta spend the day atop the Training Center roof. I felt that it was a key point in the development of their relationship that was overlooked in the movie. 
  5. Effie Trinket becomes a more well-developed character in the movie when she shares an emotional goodbye with Katniss and Peeta before the beginning of the Quarter Quell. I loved this addition to the movie, and thought it was extremely effective. 
In the end, I actually like Catching Fire better than I did The Hunger Games! (Let me fangirl for just a moment here) Finnick was even hotter than he was in the book, the elevator scene was even funnier, and the monkeys in the arena were even more frightening than I had imagined. 

The movie ends very abruptly, but like the book, it is effective in creating the suspense needed for the third movie/novel. Mockingjay will be divided into two parts (like every other popular YA franchise it seems), with Part One expected for release on November 21st, 2014 and Part Two on November 20th, 2015. 

It's that time of year again! The following sites from around the Web have already listed their Best Books of 2013. You can expect to find mine posted here on December 21st. (Until then, see my choices for  20112012 ) 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Columbia Scholastic Press Conference 2013

{Standing in front of the Library of Columbia University}
On Monday, I attended Columbia University's Scholastic Fall Press Conference with other staff members of our school's yearbook, newspaper, and literary arts magazine. Although the day started off by sitting in two hours of traffic, the rest of the day was extremely worthwhile.
Attendees were able to tour the campus (which is absolutely beautiful, I might add) and go to several workshops instructed by notable professors and speakers.
Workshops I attended:
  • Nuts and Bolts for Magazines - learn about all of the essential tools needed to create a cohesive and readable literary magazine
  • Writing Song Lyrics/Poetry (Inspiration and Craft) - discover how to search for inspiration for your writing in everyday life
  • "Journalism Students are Destined to be Poor" and Other Stupid Lies, Debunked - learn about what jobs are available for writers and communicators that won't have you living on the street
The rest of the day was spent eating lunch at a café across the street on 115th Street, and wandering around the campus while clutching a warm drink from Starbucks. We were so lucky to have such beautiful weather as well, a little cold, but certainly better than rain!
{Loved the brick pathways leading to each building}
John Hampton, the speaker for the Inspiration and Craft workshop, spoke on a subject I had never really thought about before. To begin, he asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine a color they've never seen. It wasn't possible. He went on to say that the most common piece of criticism  a person will receive about their writing is that it is not "original enough". But then, he said, "with only 26 letters in the alphabet, how original can anything really be?" The goal of the writer, he said, should not be to create something new (because like imagining a color you've never seen, it is nearly impossible) but to recreate something - make the reader experience through your writing an event they were not present to see; take a journey you've traveled, and make it tangible for someone else.
Film directors, he said, have so many tools at their disposal: a cast, soundtrack, camera angles, sets. An artist, he said, has brushes, pencils, colors, paper. A writer, he said, has words. Only words. Even though there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, there are millions of words that can be used to recreate an event, a story, an emotion. To conclude, Hampton said, "years later, a reader might forget the content of your writing, but they will never forget how it made them feel."

{Sitting here, it was easy to forget you were in the middle of New York City}

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Veronica Roth
487 pages

“We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”  

In a futuristic, dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each valuing a different human characteristic: Dauntless (the brave), Candor (the honest), Erudite (the intelligent), Amity (the peaceful), and Abnegation (the selfless). Upon turning sixteen years old, each teenager must choose the faction to which they belong. For Beatrice Prior, this will mean choosing between her family and the chance to discover who she really is.

Tris Prior (as she later renames herself) is a dynamic female character who possess all of the stereotypical characteristics of a weak individual - blonde, petite and pale-skinned - but as readers will come to learn, she is quite the opposite. Her strength not only increases from the physical initiation she must under go in the faction she chooses, but also from the emotional encounters that she will face.

The themes present in Divergent are not entirely philosophical or distant, but are realistic for the age group they target. The struggle for self-discovery is a common endeavor during the adolescent years, therefore teenagers should easily be able to identify with Tris as she overcomes obstacles that will eventually lead to how she defines herself. Tris, like other teens, also longs for freedom, which she comes to find in the faction she will end up choosing. One of the novel's most unforgettable lines reads "Peace is restrained; this is free", but moments later, Tris will learn that the consequences of that freedom sometimes have haunting impacts.

In Divergent, Veronica Roth has created a world not entirely different fro other popular dystopians. An oppressive authoritarian government can also be found in The Hunger Games, and a destructed landscape is present in Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It. This lack of originality is one of the few drawbacks to Roth's creation.

Since Divergent's publication, Roth has written two sequels: Insurgent, and the third and final installment Allegiant, became available fro purchase on eReaders and at local booksellers on October 22nd, 2013.

Divergent is the kind of novel that has you up reading much past your bedtime, with its dynamic characters, engaging plot, and simple yet reflective meaning. It's small dosages of romance and violence will leave the reader with a desperate need to get their hands on Insurgent just after turning the last page. This young adult thriller has already captured thousands of readers, but is sure to rope in more when the film adaption starring Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet hits theaters on March 21st, 2014.  Watch the first trailer here!

Story Line - 8/10
Character's Voice - 9/10
Writing Style - 7/10

Overall - 24/30

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Collection of Thoughts and Poor Excuses

I think I should start out by saying, Hello. I can't believe it has been so long since I have posted anything here! When I last posted, I announced the new look I gave Off The Shelf, and I was feeling very mopey about the summer coming to a close. Now, almost two months later, I am feeling mopey about being a high school student, and I feel the need to announce what I have been up too.

1. Just because I haven't posted any new book reviews, doesn't mean I have not been reading. I've actually been reading quite a lot! While trying to understand the epic poetry in The Odyssey and the Old English text of Beowulf, I've been obsessed with Veronica Roth's Divergent series. (review to be coming shortly...I promise!) Now there is only one more week until Allegiant! If you don't mind, I think I will skip reviewing The Odyssey and Beowulf, as I don't think I have it in me to dwell on those stories anymore than I have too...

2. I got a new camera! I have been busy using the new Nikon D3200 in my photography class, and have been spending time learning some cool new tricks for how to take great photographs. Previously, all photos posted on here have been taken with my iPhone, but now I hope to be a bit more professional by using the DSLR to take photos that will enhance and accompany my posts.
3. Most of my days have been looking like this: wake up at 5:30, go to school, go to volleyball practice, come home and do endless amounts of homework, eat dinner, go to sleep - this tiring cycle has left very little free time, and the only thing that really keeps me going is the likelihood of some extra hours of sleep on Sunday mornings.
So, that was my list of very poor excuses for not writing (not writing? actually I have been doing a ton of writing lately for my creative writing class - I hope in the next few days to post some of that here - I just haven't been blogging nearly enough) lately, and I am making a promise to myself now, that I will put aside some time each week to write a review or the like, because I need something else to keep me going - and writing has always put a smile on my face. :)
P.S - I have my ticket to Catching Fire! Whoohoo! The movie theater in town began selling advance tickets last weekend, so I headed over there to purchase tickets for me and some friends!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Two Changes for the Two Year Anniversary

As you can see from opening the page, Off The Shelf has gotten a bit of a re-design! I have been trying to make some changes to the site for some time now, but the Blogger Template was being quite temperamental. I was unable to make small changes (font color, text size, etc.) in the template I had previously been using. In that case, I decided it might be time to try something totally different.

Upon scrolling down, you will notice all of the regular features of this blog can still be found where they had been. The sidebar on the right is still filled with lists of my favorite authors, book suggestions and links to other great book blogs.

I'm not sure I am totally in love with it yet, so the look might be a little different the next time you visit. (For those of you that view my blog via email, make sure to visit the actual webpage to see the changes!) What do you think? Let me know in the comments...

In order to make my book reviews more helpful and direct, I have decided to set in place a grading system. Books will now be rated on a scale of 1 to 10 in the following categories:

Story Line - ?/10
Character's Voice - ?/10
Writing Style - ?/10

Overall - ?/30

Friends have always told me I am never a reliable source when it comes to "how good a book is". I guess it's because I tend to say that every book I read is good, or fantastic, or "the best ever". I hope that with this new grading system, readers will be able to have a better understanding of my opinion and might help formulate their own.

I can't believe it has been two years already since I started Off The Shelf! Throughout that time, I feel I have grown as a writer, and a reader, and I would like to thank everyone who has helped me in those aspects. Thanks to all of the readers and followers of this blog. I hope what I have written in the past, and will write in the future will continue to be helpful, and inspiring.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

What's Happening in the Book World

 {The sun sets at the closure of another month}

Things in the literary world have been very, very busy lately - with everything from new publications to leaked pseudonyms and discoveries made about chocolate. The following are a collection of the most popular headlines buzzing around the Internet at the moment.
To start, have you been reading what you should this summer? With only a month left to go, you might want to check out The Huffington Post, as they have revealed the 7 Must-Reads of Summer.
There are only 10 more days until the highly-anticipated fourth and final installment of Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It series is released on August 13th! Have you pre-ordered The Shade of the Moon yet? You can do so here, here and here!
The biggest hype in the book world currently is most certainly the surprise that J.K Rowling can write a crime novel...who knew? In April, Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. After publication, the novel had only sold 1,500 copies in the UK, but since the leak made by The Sunday Times, sales of the novel have sky-rocketed - putting it at  #1 on this week's Best Sellers List.
Have you seen this week's New York Times Best Seller List yet? If not, be sure to check out the Young Adult category, where all four of John Green's novels have made it into the top 10, as well as two of Veronica Roth's.  
While on the subject of John Green, his tumblr has all of the need-to-knows about The Fault in Our Stars movie coming in 2014. (!!!) 
A new The Hunger Games: Catching Fire trailer was shown at Comic-Con in San Diego two weeks ago.
Happy belated birthday Harry Potter! Entertainment Weekly celebrated the book character's special day on Tuesday by naming 33 Great Things About Harry Potter (in honor of his 33rd birthday)
Last but certainly not least, a study recently conducted in Belgium proves that people are more likely to interact with merchandise and staff when a bookstore smells like chocolate.
On a more personal level, my own book news is that I am currently reading Saturday by Ian McEwan, one of the many books on my Summer Reading List. The novel is a little slow-moving so far, but I'm hoping it will pick up soon, as I'm not really one to abandon a book. (Speaking of abandonment...ever wonder what classics get abandoned the most, or at what point do most readers give up? Goodreads has the statistics.)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Life: An Exploded Diagram

Life: An Exploded Diagram
Mal Peet
385 pages

At this point I need to take you on a short detour. I'm very much a cause-and-effect sort of a fellow. I'm fascinated by the way things fit together (and come to pieces). And if we were to take what eventually happened to Frankie and me and drew something like a flowchart of how it came about, one of its arrows would lead us into the darkness of a Caribbean night.

Clem Ackroyd, the son of a war veteran and a careful bookkeeper, is a working-class boy hoping to one day scrape together the funds to go to art school. Frankie Mortimer is the daughter of a wealthy land owner, living in an inherited estate. Soon, in Norfolk, England, the two will embark on a relationship that must be kept a secret, and if found out, their world could be blown apart. Little do they know, that John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev are about to do just that, as the event later known in history books as the Cuban Missile Crisis begins to unfold.

Life: An Exploded Diagram is set in three main time periods. The novel opens in the year 1945, in Norfolk, England, focusing on the joy and hardship that followed World War II. The story then jumps to 1962, the plot jumping across the pond to illuminate John F. Kennedy and his crisis in Cuba, and then back to Clem, Frankie, and life on the farm. In the last chapter of the book, the reader will have found themselves in New York City at the beginning of a time with enough turbulence to give the 60s a run for their money. All three of these settings will explore the effects of war, and more importantly explosions, on the generations.

In May of 2012, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, Mal Peet spoke in an interview of where his idea for this novel came from. He said: “I was thinking about nuclear weapons…and I was wondering where they’d all gone. We don’t talk about them anymore…The fact that there is enough stuff out there to blow us to Kingdom Come seems to have slipped our minds.”

Peet uses an interesting metaphor to describe the Cuban Missile Crisis in a nutshell: [The Americans] and the Russians were like two guys in a cellar, up to their waists in petrol, arguing about who's got the bigger box of matches.

Throughout the novel, several chapters are dedicated solely to describing the crisis to readers with little to no knowledge about the event. But, let it be known that this brief insight is not written in any way like a textbook. It is fact, but still written in a literary voice.  He describes President Kennedy in all of his good and his bad, explores American democracy as if he were a spy - he goes deeper than what was ever in the public eye. Although Peet is an author from England, he seems to play the role of a British countryman looking in from the outside, as well as a member of Kennedy's cabinet, all at the same time.

The novel is divided into three parts:
1)      Putting Things Together
2)      Blowing Things Apart
3)      Picking Up the Pieces.

Each part is then divided appropriately into short vignette-like chapters with titles such as: A Latin-American Interlude, The Girl Who Ate His Heart Bums a Smoke, Jack and Nikita Talk Turkey, and The Day the World Ended.

The chapters centered around Clem and Frankie are narrated by none other than Clem himself, in all of his British dialect, awkwardness and wrong assumptions. His voice is distinctive and unique, as he and Frankie discover all the wrongs, and more importantly rights, involved with falling in love for the first time.

On page 376, Clem, and ultimately, Peet, makes a profound statement on history.
I lived through all these times, these great events, without caring very much, concerned with my own aging rather than the world's. Most of us do likewise. History is the heavy traffic that prevents us from crossing the road. We're not especially interested in what it consists of. We wait, more or less patently, for it to pause, so that we can get to the liquor store or the laundromat or the burger bar.

If I were reading this book for an English class (or I guess one could read this for a history class I suppose) and I were asked to “find a passage from the text that speaks to the true message of the story” the above would be my pick.

Life: An Exploded Diagram is a brilliantly written novel, exposing the individual's, and the world's wounds to young readers in a way that is humorous, extremely romantic, and poignant. But also with a sense of finality that leaves the traveler, not the reader, feeling enlightened, yet tired, as if ending an explosive journey.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

S'more Summer Please?

{I can't possibly have a cookie without milk!}
When the forecast promises clouds and a possible thunderstorm, I usually know right away the day will be one dedicated to reading. (Especially when I'm finishing up a book as good as Life: An Exploded Diagram) But this past Tuesday was a different kind of rainy day. Instead of reading, a friend and I indulged in another hobby: baking.
This recipe for S'mores Cookies was super easy, and absolutely delicious! They are the perfect substitute for when the inclement weather prevents the toasting of marshmallows on an open fire.
I think the baking time for this sweet treat is very dependent on your own oven. We ended up baking ours for quite a bit longer than what was called for because after the instructed time, they were not as golden as we would have liked.
S’mores Cookies
Adapted from the blog Erica's Sweet Tooth

1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
2 cups mini chocolate chips
1-1/2 cups mini marshmallows, or large ones cut up
2 Hershey bars, chopped

- Preheat oven to 375 degrees
- With an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy
- Mix in eggs and vanilla to butter mixture until combined
- In a large bowl, whisk together flour, graham crackers, salt, and baking soda
- Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix well
- Stir in the chocolate chips
- Use 2 tablespoons or a medium-sized ice cream scoop to drop rounded tablespoons of dough onto cookie sheets
- Bake for 8 minutes and remove from oven. (Note: we baked them for up to 10 minutes to start) Push a few marshmallows and pieces of chocolate into each cookie and return to the oven to bake an additional 3-4 minutes.
- Cool cookies on a wire rack (or just hand them over steaming hot to your hungry friends)

Recipe yields about 3 dozen cookies

{Chopped Hershey bars and mini marshmallows}

{Finished product}

Friday, July 19, 2013

5 More Things

{6. Hydrangeas}
I thought I would blog only once on this vacation, but I couldn't help but share five more things that help make Cape Cod so special for me.
In the backyard here, there are several hydrangea bushes. The blue ones are my favorite, but there is a house around the corner with vibrant purple flowers, and a white one with yellow hues.
After getting ice cream this evening, we visited The Brewster Store. This general store is always filled buckets and baskets of odds and ends - wind up cars, refrigerator magnets, soaps, maps, and greeting cards. It's the perfect place to buy a souvenir or a kitchen item your rental house seemed to neglect. 
{7. The Brewster General Store}
{8. Harbors}

{9. The Cape Cod Rail Trail}
Besides the beach, the CCRT is probably the one place on the Cape where I have spent the most time. The rides are always incredibly scenic, whether you are passing the cranberry bogs, the busy main streets, or Nickerson State Park. When riding, I often stare intently at my feet, watching them spin, spin - the pavement disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. I also watch the other people on the trail. The families - kids with lopsided helmets who are trying to keep pace with their parents. Runners - some with dogs panting at the heat. Walkers - strolling couples in big hats and new sneakers. It's in these observations where I pull out of my fatigue and discomfort and realize, these people I pass, I will see for a second or two, and then will never see again. Maybe they live on the next street over, or in Boston, or maybe even in Missouri, but they traveled to the Cape too.

They also find it special.

{10. Infinite Ocean}

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

5 Things I Love About Cape Cod

{1. Lighthouses}
For as long as I can remember, my family has been coming to Cape Cod for our summer vacation. Over the many years of staying in homes anywhere from Harwich to Orleans, there are many things I have come to love. The following photographs are five of these things.
Usually the mornings here are foggy and a little chilly, but this week the temperatures are much warmer. This hotter weather has certainly not kept us indoors though! We kayaked yesterday to the Stage Harbor Lighthouse (shown above), and this morning rode our bikes to the Hot Chocolate Sparrow for lunch by way of the Cape Cod Rail Trail.

{2. Fishermen's Cedar Shake Sided Shacks  }
{3. Local Farm Stands}
{4. Cranberry Bogs}
Along those rides we passed numerous cranberry bogs, each very green and very picturesque. As we shifted into higher, and faster gears, we whirled past small ponds and thickly settled cottages, a rustic general store, and a busy Main Street. Twenty miles later and feeling hot and fatigued, we escaped to Harding's Beach, bringing with us some local fare. Of course, the best way to end the day was with ice cream!
{5. Black Raspberry Ice Cream in a Waffle Cone}

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Future of Us

The Future of Us
Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
356 pages

Josh and Emma have been best friends and neighbors for as long as they can remember. When Josh's family receives an American Online CD-ROM in the mail, his parents have him bring it over to Emma's so she can install it on her new computer. Upon installing the program, Josh and Emma are automatically logged onto Facebook. But there is only one issue...The year is 1996, and Facebook hasn't even been invented yet. The two friends find themselves looking at their profiles fifteen years in the future - their spouses, careers, homes - it's all there. These unexpected discoveries will force Josh and Emma to re-evaluate what they are doing right, and wrong, in the present.

The Future of Us was an incredibly creative story: the plot premise is certainly out-of-the-box and is relevant to today's teens. Emma, Josh and their friends were readable characters, and each of their quirky characteristics brought them to life just a little bit more.

Asher and Mackler had very similar writing styles - I could scarcely have told them apart, if it weren't for the alternating chapters of Josh, and then Emma's voice. Whenever two authors get together to write, there is always a concern that the styles will be uncomplimentary to each other. In this case, that was certainly not an issue.

The Future of Us is certainly a novel bound to make you laugh, smile, and maybe even reflect on the choices you make today, that could change your life tomorrow.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Pivot Point

Pivot Point
Kasie West
343 pages

As a Searcher, Addison Coleman has a unique power. When faced with a choice, she has the ability to look into the future and see both outcomes. The power is supposed to prevent disaster, but when Addie's parents tell her of their planned divorce, she will have to make her toughest decision yet. In alternating chapters, Addie will experience six weeks living with her mother, and six with her father. Both futures promise both love and loss, and for Addie it will come down to which fate she is willing to live through, and who she can't live without.

A cross between Paranormal and reality, West has created the most unique novel I have read in a long time. With strong characters, and engaging plot, it was undoubtedly an understandable read. The very beginning was a little confusing, as the reader must adjust to the fictional idea of humans having mind powers must stronger than our own. But, by the end, I found myself re-reading the entire last chapter, not out of confusion, but because "I can't believe that just happened."

Pivot Point is extremely suspenseful, romantic and surprising - an outstanding debut.

I absolutely cannot wait for the sequel, Split Second to be published in February of 2014!

Pivot Point is the third book I have read this year for the 2013 YA Contemporary Challenge. All Young Adult books for this challenge must be published at some point this year in order to qualify. As of now, I have read 3 of my 10 book goal. (Just One Day, This Is What Happy Looks Like, Pivot Point)

Friday, June 28, 2013

Dear John

Dear John
Nicholas Sparks
335 pages

Dear John,
There's so much I want to say to you, but I'm not sure where to begin...

John Tyree was a lost, rebellious teenager during his high school years, and upon graduation, he enlisted in the army. Soon after basic training, he was stationed overseas in Germany and thought he had finally found the place where he fit in. But in the summer, back home in Wilmington, North Carolina on leave, John meets Savannah. The two fall in love in two short weeks, but are forced to separate when John must return overseas. Over the course of several years, John and Savannah write dozens of letters back and forth, only seeing each other occasionally, and their love is put to the ultimate test. But no one can foresee that 9/11 is about to change the world, along with John and Savannah's relationship forever.

Nicholas Sparks (Safe Haven, A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, The Last Song) must have something against happy endings. After now reading five of his novels, I can say some endings have been tearful, while others more subtle and just plain unlucky. But why do I keep reading his books then? That's a very good question.

Although Dear John promises a predictable conclusion, please don't let that turn you away. In any Sparks written book, the reader knows they will get a realistic romance wrapped in easy to read language. In real life, not everything works out, and maybe that's why I continue to read his books - because they offer a more grounded and  practical view on life than many of the dreamy and fantasized contemporary young adult novels that seem to be so popular now.

Dear John is a fantastic summer read, that is surprisingly tender, and ultimately satisfying.

The book was adapted into a major motion picture in 2010, starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried. View the trailer here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Day in the City

{Across the street}
Yesterday, I visited The Strand Bookstore on the corner of 12th Street and Broadway in New York City for the first time. I first heard about the store when I was reading Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, but at the time I thought it was only just a unique, fictional, book setting - a made-up place. But then, upon my return to school from spring break, a friend of mine was carrying her belongings in one The Strand's popular canvas tote bags. She proceeded to tell me she went there with her cousin on the time off, and said I "just had to go." And so I did.

{View from the stairs}
As the sign outside proudly states, The Strand boasts 18 miles of books spread out on three floors. The first concentrating on fiction and new arrivals, the second on Children's and art books, and the third level houses their acclaimed Rare Book Collection.
 {Books, books, books!}
The "Staff Picks" table was one of the many tables on the main floor. Some of the most interesting ones highlighted books "Inspired by the Jazz Age", "Beach Reads" or "Summer Romance".
{On the third floor}
In the Rare Book Collection, shoppers can find  the first volume, first edition, of many famous books, including novels by Jane Austen, J.D Salinger, and John Steinbeck.

{Sidewalk sale}
The sidewalk outside the store seemed to be just as busy as the inside. Many people were browsing the carts filled with used books advertised as "cheaper than the e-book". It is so great to see a place like this still surviving in a predominately digital world. The Strand also holds regular events such as book signings, meet and greets, etc.
 {Me looking very happy!}
Overall, The Strand was everything that I had read about and more. Such a cool place for tourists and book-lovers alike!
{What I came home with}

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Summer Reading List

Happy Summer! With school winding down in the next few days, I have found myself looking forward to the season with much anticipation.  The following is a list of novels I hope to read in the coming months. Whether you are seated comfortably on the couch at home, at a picnic table or in a beach chair with sand between you toes, I hope the summer brings you fun, sunshine, and of course, good books!

1. This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. Flowers in the Sky, Lynn Joseph
3. Every Day, David Levithan
4. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
5. In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez *
6. Saturday, Ian McEwan *
7. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
8. The Silver Star, Jeannette Walls
9. Threads and Flames, Esther M. Friesner
10. The Distance Between Us, Kasie West

 *Assigned summer reading for Honors English 2013-2014

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Just One Day

Just One Day
Gayle Forman
368 pages

"We are born in one day. We die in one day. We can change in one day. And we can fall in love in one day. Anything can happen in just one day.” 

Allyson Healey has just graduated from high school, and is now embarking on a post-grad tour of Europe with her best friend. At an underground performance of Twelfth Night in London, she meets Willem De Ruiter, a young and charming Dutch actor. Allyson immediately detects a spark between them, and after spending just one day together, she is surprised to wake up the next morning in Paris, without Willem. Over the next year, Allyson will start college with her mind still lost somewhere in Europe and soon she begins a journey to find Willem. With the help of Shakespeare, friendship, and self-confidence, Allyson discovers more about herself along the way than she ever thought possible.

Gayle Forman, the bestselling author of If I Stay and Where She Went has created yet another YA novel that will surely enrapture it's readers. Just One Day is the perfect travel read. Readers will experience the tulip-smelling streets of Amsterdam, the mysterious back alleys of Stratford-Upon-Avon and the cafés and artist squats of Paris. Forman brings to life Europe's most well-known cities in a way that will have her audience feel as if they are there too.

Just One Day is broken into two main sections, although I don't feel as if doing so was very effective. I would have preferred two separate books to be honest, as I feel more story could have been told in each section.  For example, as a reader, I would have loved to have seen more of Stratford-Upon-Avon given that this was where Shakespeare wrote and performed most of his plays.

Overall, this was a worthwhile read about love, friendship and self-discovery.

Just One Day is the first book I have read this year for 2013 YA Contemporary Challenge. As of now, I have read 1 of my 10 book goal.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Thin Yet Thick: Night

Elie Wiesel
115 pages

{Thin Yet Thick reads might be short in page length - 200 pages or less - but are thick and deep in meaning.}

In his memoir, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel describes his terrifying experiences in the concentration camps of World War II. Born in Sighet, Transylvania (present-day Hungary) Wiesel was taken along with his family in 1944 to Auschwitz, and then later on to Buchenwald with his father. As a teenager, Wiesel's faith was put to the ultimate test as he witnessed and suffered from the in-humane experiences which must never be allowed to happen again.

Wiesel's writing style throughout the book is very consistent, and purposeful. Maybe it is part of the translation, but his sentences are simple and short, giving the voice of the story a sharp and impactful feeling. This writing style also leaves the reader feeling as if they have been told everything. Night is raw and real, unabashed and unabridged. It shows his reconfirmed trust in the human race, although it had dwindled to little during the many months he spent in suffering. He wrote, "How was it possible that...the world kept silent?"

Throughout this powerful story, there are so many distinct moments that might make the reader cry, but for me, it was not a specific event that had a tear rolling down my cheek. There is this horrible paradox to Wiesel's story: "...a convoy of cattle cars was waiting. The Hungarian police made us climb into the cars, eighty persons in each one. The lucky ones found themselves near a window; they could watch the blooming countryside flit by." Lines like these got me every time, as it was so horrific to realize the contrast between the dark, dirty confines of the cattle cars or the concentration camps, and the sun shining in a bluebird sky above.

I tried to capture that image in the photo above, to show that although this might be a dark and sorrowful story, light still peeps in around the edges, showing the initial optimism and hope of the Jewish people. In his Nobel Peace Prize Speech, Wiesel concluded by saying, "Thank you, people of Norway, for declaring on this singular occasion that our survival has meaning for mankind." So in the end, something beautiful did come out of the Holocaust - the survivors. They were like the grass and the dandelions, a simple beauty, finally being noticed.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

100th Blog Post: Living the Dream in the Valley of Ashes

The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
180 pages

I don't feel I have the credibility to really write a review of the novel, therefore I would like to use the opportunity of this 100th post to discuss what is said to be the greatest American novel of all time: The Great Gatsby.

The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.   - page 68

New York, 1922. The Jazz Age is in full swing, and with World War I at a close, the American people are restless, alive with post-war excitement and opportunity. Nick Carraway has just moved to Long Island looking to get started in the "bond business", and winds up buying a home next door to the grand and mysterious Jay Gatsby. After being invited to one of his neighbor's lavish parties, Nick soon learns of Gatsby's secrets, and the love he is desperately trying to find again.

The following are some of my favorite passages from the book, and my understanding of them. Each of the selections refer to a prominent theme of the novel or a character that Fitzgerald so genuinely created.

But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby's hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.   -page 61,

In this chapter of the the novel, Nick lists all of the people who attended Gatsby's parties that summer. To me, this was one of the most interesting sections. All of these people, businessmen, actors and actresses, politicians, and housewives, some invited and some not, came to sprawl out in his lawn furniture, drink his liquor, and dance to his music - but did him the favor of knowing nothing about him. Some visitors had never even met the fabled Mr. Gatsby, some failed to believe he even existed.

At least a dozen men, some of them a little better off than he was, explained to him that wheel and car were no longer joined by any physical bond.
"Back out," he suggested after a moment. "Put her in reverse."
"But the wheel's off!"
"No harm in trying." he said. -page 55

In this scene, a drunk driver has driven his new car into a ditch after pulling out of Gatsby's driveway. He fails to understand that it is impossible to drive the car now that the wheel has fallen off, and is determined to get his hands back on the wheel. This hidden metaphor represents the true American spirit in the eyes of Fitzgerald. He believes in the American will to keep going after times of trouble. Whether that has been after losing a job, overcoming an illness, or wrecking a car, the American dream has always been to go on.

"If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay," said Gatsby. "You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock."   -page 92

Here Gatsby explains to Daisy that her house is directly across from his, only a vast expanse of water separating them from one another. This "green light" not only stands for his goal to win back Daisy's heart, but for the elaborate future he had planned out for himself as a young child. Gatsby's dreams will always be there, like the green light, which will shine bright until it is turned off. The problem with Gatsby's planned-out future is that no matter how hard he tries to swim across the bay to reach it, he never will, as the buoy of fate will prevent him from ever reaching the opposite shore.

This is the Valley of Ashes - a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens...The eyes of Doctor T.J Eckleburg are blue and gigantic - their retinas one-yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose...his eyes, dimmed a little by paintless days under sun and rain, brood over the solemn dumping ground.  -page 23

All of the major events of this story take place under the watchful gaze of Doctor T.J Eckleburg. Several views can be taken on what he is meant to symbolize, but I narrowed down my opinions to just two.
1) Eckleburg has no fingers, or arms, only eyes, and I take that to mean that people do too much watching and not enough doing. We tend to sit back and stare at the corruption, the wrong, the criminal - and never often enough use our hands to make a change.
2) The eyes of Eckleburg represent God in a way that makes us believe that He sees everything we do, but lets us discover for ourselves the best possible way to fix our mistakes.

The Great Gatsby's new film version will be hitting theaters on May 10th! To view the trailer click here

Tonight is World Book Night 2013, a night where half a million books will be given out to those who are light or non-readers in our community. Kicking off last year, the program was started to bring and spread the joy of reading to everyone, everywhere. To find out how you can get involved in 2014, visit:  Happy reading!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Finding Solace in Springtime and Poetry

Spring has arrived. The season took its time this year, waltzing in a week or so later that its scheduled date. But, never the less, it has come. And, with the calender telling us it is April, I thought I would also take a moment to point out this month is National Poetry Month.

The following is the poem O Sweet Spontaneous by e.e. cummings, written in 1920. Many reviews of this poem I have seen read in to this poem much deeper that its surface meaning - relating it to society and its problems - but I like this piece for its ease. e.e. cummings describes spring's beauty without ever actually describing it. He doesn't embellish the blue skies, or the smell of the lilies. He doesn't listen to the bees buzzing or the robins chirping. The sun does not warm his face, nor do the new emerald green leaves give him shade. To him, spring just is.

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

beauty .how
oftn have the religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy

thou answerest

them only with


What is very unusual about this poem is it's format (which Blogger did not quite let me recreate here) - poetry is known for having no set rules, but the spelling of oftn was not a slip of my fingers on the keys, and .how is not a grammatical error. e.e cummings wrote many of his poems this way, and he is probably the only person who will ever know why.

So I leave you with this. I leave you hoping that as expressed in the picture above, spring brings you beauty through the ugly, hope through the doubt, and light through the darkness. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, "A Light exists in Spring / Not present on the Year / At any other period"

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray
Ruta Sepetys
338 pages

It is 1941 and World War II is tearing through Europe, but the horrific events taking place in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are unknown to the rest of the world. Fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas is winding down the school year, and spending her free-time lost in colored pencils and paint, when a knock on her front door changes her life forever. She and her family are taken from their home in Lithuania by the Soviet secret police and are thrown into cattle cars bound for northern Siberia. Along the way, Lina embeds clues into her drawings hoping if they are passed along, they might reach her father, and bring him back to them. In this moving story, Lina will spend the next twelve years fighting for her life as well as others' in the prison camps the world never knew about.

The horrific events that occurred between 1941 and 1954 under the rule of Josef Stalin was a part of history I had never heard of before reading this book. When I first started reading, I had a few questions, so I turned to my grandfather for the answers. We had a really nice discussion, although the topic was not uplifting, and I enjoyed hearing what he had to say (as I always do). I swear, my grandfather should have been a history teacher, he knows so much about the past. He tells me that's one of the side effects of being an avid reader: you learn a whole lot :)

Between Shades of Gray is Sepetys' first novel, and based on the events her Lithuanian relatives faced during this hidden part of history. She says in the author's note, "Speaking about their experience meant immediate imprisonment or deportation back to Siberia. As a result, the horrors they endured went dormant, a hideous secret shared by millions of people."

Sepetys brings to light these tragedies through Lina, her brother Jonas, and their friend Andrius in a way that is sometimes humorous, and sometimes heartbreaking. Interspersed with flashbacks to the past, Sepetys draws parallels to the life Lina used to live, and the one she must now fight for. Between Shades of Gray is a very character driven novel, therefore, in order to love the plot, the reader must love the characters. All of Sepety's characters are drawn to be very real, but the only thing I would have liked more of was more references to Lina's father. A strong connection is developed between Lina and her mother who is described as, "the only sun in the polar night."

Powerful and insightful, Between Shades of Gray, uncovers a hidden section of mankind's timeline in a way its readers are likely never to forget.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Attending Teen Arts 2013

It has been much too long since I have posted here, but I finally have something exciting to write about. Last Wednesday, I was choosen to attend the Teen Arts Festival as a representative of my school in the Creative Writing category. It was a day-long event filled with feedback seminars, art-viewing, and workshops for all kinds of artists.

In attending the Writing Feedback Seminar, I received great praise for my short story, as well as advise and suggestions about the writing life in general. Attendees were placed in small groups of four to five, and were able to read aloud their writing while others looked on with their own copies.

After this session, a friend and I attended a poetry reading, where anyone was welcome to make their way to the podium and read aloud. The rest of the day was spent viewing dance performances, browsing the art exhibits and getting a bite to eat in the cafeteria. Overall, it was a fantastic day, and I hope I get the opportunity to go back next year!

One of the art exibits displaying the work of high school students

My writing (on right) hanging with other stories, essays,
and poems at the festival

On a side note, Amazon just recently bought Goodreads, the social network site for book-lovers. It has been stated that with the two sites now linked, it will soon be possible to update your progress and rating of the book directly in the e-book if reading on a Kindle. E-books will now be able to be purchased through Goodreads as well. Try these two links, here and here for more information and opinions.