Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Quick Update...

It's the end of the year, and I've had some interruptions lately.  As is normal, my online job had finals at the same time as the school where I teach.  Grades are all finished now (Yay!) and I can refocus on all that is coming up.  As mentioned earlier, my mother is moving soon, and has sold our family home.  It's such a mixture of emotions that I tend to block it all out of my mind.  I'm sad to say goodbye to the home I grew up in, but know that it's the right choice for my mother.  I suppose you have to be practical.

I'm finishing up school with graduation on Thursday and then I head off to my yearly online conference on Monday.  In fact, I was asked to lead a break out session at the conference, so I'm starting to switch gears and start thinking about that one.  Once that conference is finished, we'll finish packing up the house so my mom can move for good.  Lots of craziness!  I hope to be back to my blogging routine soon.

Here's what I'm reading at the moment:

This is Kinsella's newest release that I was sent from the Amazon Vine program.  I really liked her last novel, so I have high expectations for this one as well. Once I'm finished with Kinsella's novel, I have a HUGE stack to sort through.  I love having so many choices.  :)

I'm curious if you all have a large stack of novels waiting for you this summer, and if so, what are you most looking forward to reading?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Hopeless by Coleen Hoover

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Sometimes discovering the truth can leave you more hopeless than believing the lies…

That’s what seventeen-year-old Sky realizes after she meets Dean Holder. A guy with a reputation that rivals her own and an uncanny ability to invoke feelings in her she’s never had before. He terrifies her and captivates her all in the span of just one encounter, and something about the way he makes her feel sparks buried memories from a past that she wishes could just stay buried.

Sky struggles to keep him at a distance knowing he’s nothing but trouble, but Holder insists on learning everything about her. After finally caving to his unwavering pursuit, Sky soon finds that Holder isn’t at all who he’s been claiming to be. When the secrets he’s been keeping are finally revealed, every single facet of Sky’s life will change forever."

Review:  In the realm of realistic, new adult fiction, this was a definite character study that I'm guessing one could be obsessive about.  There is an emotionally deep love story here, and two characters you feel you know quite well.  Sky has a past, Holder has secrets, and together they have chemistry.   But, can that mend the adult-sized drama that is unfolding?  That's the question that kept me flipping pages until I'd read the novel in one sitting.  The dramatic twists in this young/new adult tale left me feeling like the car ride I was on had dramatically left the roadway and was veering its way through alleys, side streets, and gullies.  In the beginning of the novel, it felt like other young adult stories, with the girl who meets the boy, the two become smitten and a little intrigued with one another, and then starts hanging out.  Then, she learns something shocking about her past and it takes a much more adult turn.

I really wanted to like this book, especially after the gripping reviews I'd read, but it felt overly dramatic with its many twists and turns. Honestly, I think I might just be wearing out with "wounded soul" story lines.  I did like the characters and the mysterious premise around the young relationship, but will admit to feeling worn out by all the turmoil.  Sky is a likable girl, and Holder is a smitten boy who seems almost unreal in his devotion.  Perhaps their sweet love is just too good and has to be challenged? 

Before I start talking myself in circles, I'll just sum it up.  Hopeless isn't a bad read at all.  A little adult in some of its themes and scenes, these lend it the drama that affects the characters' relationship.  Admittedly, I got sucked into the story, but also felt pretty exhausted by its twists and turns.  

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the novel. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Variant by Robison Wells

I can't believe it's taken me so long to post this review.  For me, this was the silent surprise novel of the year.  We read Variant for a district book club I've been in this year, and it took me awhile to get through it.  All I can say is, why did it take me so long?  I didn't have expectations at all, but really found that I loved this book.  I've since handed it off to my "reluctant reader" students and had 100% of them come back loving it.  Without a grade, book report, or anything forcing them to read it, they just came back enthralled and wanted to read more.  That has to be the best thing a book can do for a reader--make them want to read more!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Benson Fisher thought that a scholarship to Maxfield Academy would be the ticket out of his dead-end life.

He was wrong.

Now he's trapped in a school that's surrounded by a razor-wire fence. A school where video cameras monitor his every move. Where there are no adults. Where the kids have split into groups in order to survive.

Where breaking the rules equals death.

But when Benson stumbles upon the school's real secret, he realizes that playing by the rules could spell a fate worse than death, and that escape--his only real hope for survival--may be impossible."

Review:  Let me just cut to the chase and say that I really enjoyed Variant.  I didn't expect to like it, but I did, and that's awesome!  Why did I like it?  It was unpredictable, shocking, and engaging.  Benson isn't the character you cheer on no matter what, but you do kind of feel like you're putting yourself in his spot and wondering how you would react.  This school is just crazy.  What in the world do you do in a school where it's run by the kids?  Yikes!

I didn't find anything juvenile about this novel.  In fact, there is some violence and serious emotional twists that made me feel like these kids needed an adult or two around to help them through everything.  The real clincher is that there are some pretty surprising twists in the novel that you don't see coming.  I think I literally said, "What the heck?" and then smiled.  I like to be surprised sometimes, when I can see that the author led us there and managed to keep me from guessing everything.  This is a dystopian-style novel with some seriously crazy twists.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am happy to recommend it to other readers who need something new to read.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review is based on a personal copy of the novel.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday Blathering & Weekend Cooking: Mother's Day Edition

Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers out there.  My own poor mother came down Friday and then got sick today. Thankfully, we got a chance to go to see The Great Gatsby and go out to dinner yesterday with some work friends before she got sick.  Today she has basically been on the couch, drinking tea and Sprite.  Sad! 

As mentioned in my last post, this last week we had our AP Literature test.  I swear I stopped sleeping, and in its place I had frantic dreams that I was teaching Elizabethan sonnets, lecturing on Oscar Wilde, and quizzing them on essay writing.  I'm glad the test is over now and I can look towards the end of the school year!  Can I believe it's almost here?  Yes.  I'm feeling it this year, more than ever before.

I'm starting to think about what I'd like to accomplish over the summer, which includes getting my health back on track and reading some more literary fiction.  I'm excited to tackle a different set of goals and focus on me.  I know that sounds selfish, but it's so necessary!

Well, I thought I'd share a family favorite today, which is a Texas Sheet Cake.  Growing up, I think it was the #1 food that my dad would make on a weekend.  We would eat a big Sunday lunch, and then we would just have cut up fruit, cheese slices, popcorn, and this Texas Sheet Cake.  In hindsight, I'm thinking that dinner wasn't so healthy or light, but for some reason it was our "light" supper.  Anyway, I whipped up a 1/2 recipe of this yummy chocolate cake and baked it in my small bundt pan for my mom for Mother's Day.  I thought I'd share the recipe.  We switched things up and put a chocolate glaze on it, but the frosting we usually put on it is yummy.  Enjoy!

Dad's Texas Sheet Cake
(Modified by my Dad, over 20 years ago...Thanks Dad! This is exactly as he wrote it.)
Yields:  One Large Sheet Cake Pan

Mix in a large bowl:  2 c. sugar and 2 c. flour.  Set aside.

Boil:  1 cube butter, 4 Tbsp cocoa powder, 1 c. water, and 1/2 c. oil.  Boil these together in the microwave for a minute.

Mix the hot cocoa mixture into the flour and sugar.  While still hot, add 1/2 c. buttermilk, 2 eggs, 1 tsp. soda, and 1 tsp. vanilla.  Mix well and pour into a well greased and floured cookie sheet pan.

Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes. 

Frosting:  Combine 1 cube of softened butter, 4 Tbsp. cocoa, 6 Tbsp. milk, 1 tsp. vanilla, and 2 c. powdered sugar

Weekend Cooking is a great, weekly post run by Beth Fish Reads.  There are some really great food-related posts there.  Stop by to check out other great posts from this weekend.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Great Gatsby Read Along: Chapters 7 to Finish

With the release of The Great Gatsby movie tomorrow, I had to pull it together to get our final discussion up for the novel.  Today my AP Literature students took their AP test, so I'm praying that I stop dreaming of sonnets, thesis statements, and the best way of teaching iambic pentameter.  Seriously.  The other morning I woke up reciting types of poetry, "Elizabethan Sonnet, sestina, ballad, ode, elegy..."  It was maddening, and has left me exhausted.  I have had a really great group of students this year, who worked like crazy.  I'm sure they did great.

So, back to Gatsby and his crazy life.  What's not crazy about these final chapters and why did I love it so much?  It's not that I love to see things fall spectacularly and dramatically apart, but that I love to see the mind of an author throw down on the page.  What can we say?  Fitzgerald royally threw down on the page and left it all there for us to mull over for years to come.

How much do I recount from these final chapters?  Do we talk about Daisy icing Gatsby out?  Do we talk about why Gatsby stuck around and didn't see the writing on the wall?  Do we talk about Tom's crazy lover, Myrtle, and her date with a speeding car?  Do we dive into the crazy jerkish person Tom is, who seems more lacking in conscience than any character we've encountered?  Or, do we look at Nick one last time and ask how much of all of this his narration shaped for us?  I don't even know.  I can see that any one of these could make for a full and exhaustive post.  Instead, here's what stood out to me:
  • Mr. Wilson. 
    He seemed so pathetic and sympathetic all at the same time.  His massive panic over his wife's affair and determination to take her away from that crazy place was understandable.  I think we can all see that Myrtle wanted to escape her mundane life with her mechanic, gas station owning husband, but Mr. Wilson seemed like a truly pathetic character that I finally saw with new eyes.
  • The color blue.  Back in my post "The Great Gatsby Read Along: Chapters 3 to 4," I mentioned the strange use of the color blue to describe the yard.  Here in the final chapter of the novel, Nick comments, "So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home" (176).  I get that smoke can be blue, but the way Fitzgerald has used it on several occasions in the novel has left me thinking about its significance--if any.  I just haven't pictured lawns or yards as blue.
  • The fact that Gatsby admits he originally only got together with Daisy because he wasn't sure he could, and then only wanted to get what he could for a time.  In the end, he didn't expect to fall in love with Daisy.  I don't remember Gatsby being a playboy.  No judgment here.  I just didn't remember that detail from his story.
  • Nick's soft spot for Gatsby.  After the dirty business with the murder, Nick is the one who finds him.  Nick is the one who feels it deeply that Gatsby should not be alone in his death.  Nick is the one who recalls telling Gatsby, after a party, "'They're a rotten crowd,' I shouted across the lawn. 'You're worse the whole damn bunch put together.' I've always been glad I said that" (154).    Nick saw something in Gatsby, perhaps as the true tragic, mislead figure in the whole story?
  • Zelda.  Yes, I thought about Fitzgerald's wife Zelda, who was supposed to have suffered from schizophrenia and whom he supposedly fashioned his character Daisy.  Was there a twisted sort of love/hate relationship with Daisy and Zelda?  On page 179, Nick reflects, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let others clean up the mess they had made..."  Having had a relative with schizophrenia, parts of these lines resonated with me with a frustration that I wondered whether Fitzgerald might have been dealing with?
  • The past.  This theme, reliving the past or facing the past, runs through the novel until the very end.  I love the last two paragraphs of the novel and their final dealings with Gatsby's desire to relive the past or to recreate it.  Maybe it's something we all want, because we idealize the past in some way?  In reality we can't escape the past, because it is our present, and yet we also can't relive it.  How ironic.  As Nick concludes, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back carelessly into the past" (180). Beautifully thought provoking.
So what stood out to you in these final chapters? Does the title then tell us that Nick put aside the tall tales of our main hero and found him to be "The Great"?  I kind of like to think so, but wonder what that then says about the other characters that brought about Gatsby's demise. 

Anyway, here are a few questions:
  1. What do you think happened to Daisy after the "accident" with Myrtle?  What conversation do you think happened between she and Tom?
  2. Was the laser-point focus of Gatsby his own sick fault, or did he ever have a real chance with Daisy?  Could they have ever had a life?
  3. What is it about the past that we somehow can never escape it or relive it?  Or can we actually relive parts of it, and so that gives us some sick hope?
  4. What most stood out to you in these final chapters?
  5. What do you most look forward to seeing in the film?

Well, thank you to all who joined in on the Read Along!  Now I hope we can all get to the movie this weekend and have one last Gatsby chat.  Thanks again!  Don't forget to leave a comment with a link to your post, if you choose to participate.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Insatiable by Meg Cabot

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Sick of hearing about vampires? So is Meena Harper.

But her bosses are making her write about them anyway, even though Meena doesn't believe in them.

Not that Meena isn't familiar with the supernatural. See, Meena Harper knows how you're going to die. (Not that you're going to believe her. No one ever does.)

But not even Meena's precognition can prepare her for what happens when she meets—then makes the mistake of falling in love with—Lucien Antonescu, a modern-day prince with a bit of a dark side. It's a dark side a lot of people, like an ancient society of vampire hunters, would prefer to see him dead for.

The problem is, Lucien's already dead. Maybe that's why he's the first guy Meena's ever met whom she could see herself having a future with. See, while Meena's always been able to see everyone else's future, she's never been able look into her own.

And while Lucien seems like everything Meena has ever dreamed of in a boyfriend, he might turn out to be more like a nightmare.

Now might be a good time for Meena to start learning to predict her own future. . . .

If she even has one."

Review:  This isn't your average vampire book.  When Meg Cabot puts her spin on an adult book, you know there will be a sense of humor injected in it somewhere and a girl who is pretty pragmatic about the world she lives in.  Insatiable is definitely that type of novel.  Meena Harper is the hard working writer for a soap opera that wants to take on the new vampire twist.  (Insert eye roll here.)  Yes, Meena does what she is told and writes this new vampire twist, but how odd that she should then meet the real deal and kind of fall for him???

Meena, like most of Meg Cabot's heroines, is a sort of self-assured gal who really just wants to find a love who is her best friend.  When she meets dark and mysterious Lucien, she finds herself strangely attracted to him, and he finds the same thing for this free-wheeling city girl.  He's dead and she's not, but that doesn't stop a romance from kindling up.  What do you do about the people who want him dead though?  Problem.

While I think I'm just about burned out on paranormal stories and vampires, in general, I can't help falling for a good Meg Cabot novel.  Her novels are always light hearted, even when there is murder and intrigue going on in the background.  Somewhere there's a modern girl, seeing the murder and intrigue as a "shoot-you-ruined-my-day-and-my-outfit" sort of view.  (And I don't mean that as being a silly girl!  She's simply down to earth and notices the things that other authors might not.)

I thought Insatiable was a fun, mysterious read.  I liked the modern twist in New York City, with Meena writing for a soap opera.  And, I liked the idea of vampires and vampire slayers secretly living among us, doing their best to not drag us all in on their problems.  Meena is a relatable character, with spunk and a cute little dog (that I found myself worrying about during key fight scenes).  Lucien, the vampire, is somehow very sympathetic as a character, but could be pretty bad-A in the most opportune moments.  There are a few other characters that I could mention, but they come around to complicate the storyline and add that twist to it that makes it fun to read.  Overall, I thought it was a fun read, and I plan on following up the cliff-hanger that was book one with the next book that's already out!  Strangely funny vampire book, with a new twist to it.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the novel.

Friday, May 3, 2013

One Week to Gatsby!

I know I'm posting A LOT about The Great Gatsby, but we're on the countdown.  If you haven't yet had a chance to check out The Great Gatsby official site, you really should.  It's like literary eye candy!  The costumes, sets, and music look and sound amazing. Let me just share my favorite trailer.  Amazing!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Great Gatsby Read Along: Chapters 5 and 6

Not a lot of reading for this week, but some pretty serious development happened.  Rather than a chapter by chapter run down, I wanted to maybe focus in on the multiple perspectives at play in the story.  We have Gatsby's perspective, Daisy's perspective (of sorts), and Gatsby and Daisy as a couple perspective--well, and we always have Nick's perspective as our narrator.  Let me explain what I mean here.

Gatsby's Perspective:  Gatsby really reveals himself to be this insecure little boy behind the big money bravado.  It seems that no amount of power or money can hide him from his insecurities about Daisy.  We get that they have a past, but what in the world happened between these two to cause him to be so completely insecure?  That is the question that these chapters seem to be highlighting with greater and greater emphasis.

Gatsby's eagerness in chapter 5 to learn whether Nick has talked to Jordan Baker about Daisy, is palpable.  Gatsby won't come out and ask, "He waited, looking at me with suppressed eagerness" (82).  It is the great unspoken plea, to which Nick reassures him that he will set it all up.  And yet, Gatsby highlights through his protests, just how much he does want Nick to invite Daisy in his line, "'Oh, that's all right,' he said carelessly, 'I don't want to put you to any trouble'" (82).  This feels like it needs a Gertrude line from Hamlet ("The lady doth protest too much") to explain it.  In what Gatsby dances around in these chapters, he paints a more delicate and insecure portrait of himself than any narrating of his woes to the audience.

Gatsby has SO many moments of complete emotion-filled vulnerability, that I could fill paragraphs with his behavior and words.  He is antsy, sleepless, and "bored" one moment, only to frantically second guess himself and berate himself for what he believes Daisy feels (or doesn't feel).  On one hand he plays it cool, while on the other he reveals just the opposite (Hello!  Showing her clippings about her life?).  Jay Gatsby is on a mission, and that mission is Project Get-Daisy-to-Leave-Tom-and-Marry-Me.  Or, as he remarks at the end of chapter 6, to repeat the past.

Daisy's Perspective:  Does anyone really know what she is thinking?  I think it's easy to jump to a hatred of Daisy, but I keep coming back to all we've learned about her.  A seemingly unhappy (at best) marriage to Tom (loveless at worst), an acceptance of her fate with Tom out of a need for security (financial AND social?), and a recognition of her dependence on men as a woman (thinking back on her "little fool" comment from earlier), all leave me believing that she is reacting from a place of hurt and fear.  Maybe it might be easiest for her to ditch Tom to return to Jay?  It seems that might be what she has in mind from her behavior around Gatsby.  And yet, she hasn't made a move to remove Tom from her life.  Would she dare?

Gatsby and Daisy Perspective:  There are these moments in the story that struck me.  When they were together, Daisy shed tears over their past,  Gatsby revealed he'd followed her life, Daisy acted much calmer, and Gatsby could back off and be a bit more subtle in his pursuit (the music wafting from the doorway after the party, "...in the very casualness of Gatsby's party there were romantic possibilities absent from her world.  What was it up there in the song that seemed to be calling her back inside?"). 

In Summary:  I love the multiple layers to these characters.  There is a lot of acting going on at a surface level--which we all do, while the real vulnerability hovers just under the surface to pop up and reveal itself.  As Nick says, Gatsby has an "appalling sentimentality," that grabs at all of us.

Line I Snickered At:  After Gatsby and Daisy reconnect at Nick's house, Nick excuses himself so they can talk in private.  On his way back in, he states, "I went in--after making every possible noise in the kitchen, short of pushing over the stove--but I don't believe they heard a sound" (89).  Yea, I can't help but picture Nick bumbling his way back into the house.  What did he think they were doing, anyway...  Too funny.

Okay.  I've rambled on way too much as it is!  There is so much I could go back to say in these chapters, but I'm looking forward to now finishing it up so that we can pull it all together.

Here are some of my questions for this week:
  1. I'm reminded of a psychology lesson I once learned, that states that the person with the least interest in the relationship, controls it.  Is that person Daisy?  Is she so "secure" with Tom that Gatsby could be no more than a momentary diversion from her unhappiness?  
  2. Did you have any lines that jumped out at you in these chapters?
  3. How has your opinion of Gatsby and Daisy changed now that they have finally met again?
Well, thank you again for joining me!  This has been fun to revisit. 

 Please share if you would like!  Whether you've drafted up a blog post with your thoughts (which I hope you'll link), or you share some of your thoughts in the comments, I hope you jump in.

Just as a reminder, this coming week we'll be reading from Chapter 7 to the end.  Happy reading!  I hope to see what you're thinking!