Slow and Steady

It’s been three years now since I went on my trip to Spain and brought home two books translated from English to Spanish. I picked them up so I could start practicing the language and have a better understanding of the writing structure. I started reading one of those books, Leyenda, two years ago, and it has been a slow go. I was trying to sit down with my dad and read it with him since Spanish is his first language, so he could correct me on my pronunciation and explain the words I didn’t recognize, but damn, it’s hard to get a minute with that man. No grudges though; he works hard and it’s understandable how tired he is every time he comes home. I’m not a kid anymore, so he’s not obligated to pay attention to me and muck through my elementary out loud reading skills, because trust me, reading in Spanish feels exactly the same as reading in English did at five-years-old: excruciating and frustrating.

The challenge has also been fun though. I started reading on my own, keeping my laptop open with a Spanish to English dictionary on hand to help me out when I get stuck. That’s the beauty of today’s technology. I can have an entire language’s lexicon at my fingertips, and even have the option of an auditory sample to know how to pronounce it. Reading out loud in Spanish on my own leaves me giggling like a mad woman because I can hear how foreign I am to my father’s native tongue, but I like that I can’t get the accent quite right and my tongue still trips over rolled R’s. It’s simultaneously amusing and frustrating that I can say the word mentally, and know how it should sound in my head, but can’t get my mouth and brain to connect to form the words properly. I am a stranger in my own land, and it is exciting and aggravating and makes for a roller coaster reading ride.

I also noticed something new happening. Well, not so much new as an old habit that I’d phased out once I learned how to read at a proficient level in English, and that habit was to imagine the details in my mind like a movie playing out. I’ve become so adept in the English language that it’s easy for me to breeze through a book and barely blink at a passage as my eyes rove over the page and understand the scene that is taking place. I process what the words say, but I don’t stop to visualize the characters’ actions anymore. Reading in Spanish forced me to do that so that I can get a grasp on the vocabulary, grammar and syntax structure. The slow reading brought back my ability to read the action on the page and see it in my mind’s eye as it plays out like an image on a TV screen. I see the woman’s hand shake as she opens the envelope that could hold the very information she’s been seeking for over a decade. I see the priest’s apprehension as he hands over the document that could compromise his faith’s foundation. Slowing down to understand what’s happening on the surface made me slow down and dig into the rich imagery the writer took care to create for the readers.

I’ll take this as a lesson when I progress in my English reading, to remember to slow down and really read beyond the words into the visuals and sensory details. I need to remember it’s not a race, but a journey through different roads and perceptions, and I can’t truly appreciate those perspectives if I don’t take the time or care to stop and see the story.

Crushing on Classics

For the longest time I could not put my finger on what about classics made me love them so much. As far back as I can remember I’ve been a fan of the classics, starting with stories like Anne of Green Gables and The Wind in the Willows. Eventually I graduated to works such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and made my way through high school readings like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and various Shakespeare plays. Of course like every other 13-year-old of my generation (probably. I’m just making that up), I became obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

While I take pride in having a fondness for the classics, I know I’m not a literary snob. Classics are obviously not the only worthwhile books to consume, and I’m certainly a fan of cheesy fantasy/scifi novels as well as comic books and mystery-thrillers. I read across genres frequently, but I always come back to the classics.

I think part of my love for them is the language. Since becoming a kindred spirit with my dearest Anne Shirley, it was the first time I ever read a character that sounded like me. She was a young girl like me and she spoke in earnest and with what the adults and others around us like to call “big words.” I always felt so strange being the kid with a sophisticated vocabulary, but trying to speak the way I was expected at my age felt wrong. It wasn’t until Anne came along that I found a repertoire of characters and people that spoke like me. The flow of the language, its poetry and drama, all spoke to me on an unidentifiable level.

It wasn’t until recently after I started watching Jane the Virgin (great take on the telenovela btw) that I realized why classics called to me. Remember that part I said about the drama? Well, growing up in a house with parents that watched telenovelas, and having been a huge fan of Aguamarina myself, I know a thing or two about drama. The classics spoke to me because even though they were written in English by Europeans (most of the ones I’ve read, anyway), they reminded me of home and my culture’s way of storytelling.

Everything is life or death. Love or hate. Joy or sorrow. Nothing is in between. Apathy does not exist in classics the same way it goes by the wayside in novelas. Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s toxic romance is something straight out of a show on Telemundo. And when Edna Pontellier makes her stand against the men who think they own her, I see glistening eyes, perfectly arched eyebrows, set crimson lips and an icy glare so piercing it makes the room go quiet.

It’s easy now to see the connection between what are considered the classics and my experience with passionate, dramatic storytelling. The language is big and over the top and emotions run high, because whether it’s Aguamarina or Pride & Prejudice, rich people got first world problems that suck everyone into their drama. And I am up front and center with popcorn in hand.

The DNF Doubt

First of all, I only learned what the acronym DNF (did not finish) stands for within the last year. I had to look it up because I’m at that awkward age where I’m a millennial but I don’t know all the lingo the kids are using these days. Anyway, DNF hadn’t been a part of my vocabulary not only because I didn’t know what it meant, but because I used to be the type of reader who couldn’t fathom not finishing a book (except Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood…sorry Ms. Tucker!) Ok, there were two others that fit the rare DNF category, but in my defense they were Jonathan Swift and Nathaniel Hawthorne and I was 8-years-old. My mom was a proponent of letting me pick up books she knew I wouldn’t understand and letting me figure out for myself that I was not smart enough yet to get them.

Other than those three rare occasions, I was never a DNFer. How could I possibly put down a book I’d started without giving it a chance? How could I truly judge its quality without reading all the way through? And what if even after 100 pages of nothing, I missed something truly incredible? I couldn’t not finish a book, no matter how boring or bad it was. Besides, what did it matter if it wasted my time? I had time to waste.

Alas, I am no longer the carefree student with time on my hands and a dwindling bookshelf. Now I’m a responsible adult who has to divide my time carefully between all the things I want to do, read, watch, listen to, etc. And my bookshelf? Double-stacked from top to bottom and I’ve barely made a dent in the last five years. Time can no longer be wasted. Therefore, I decided to no longer waste time on books that just don’t do it for me. I can proudly say in the past year I’ve DNFed two books! And one I stuck around with because “well I already started it and I’m more than halfway through and it’s for my reading challenge I might as well finish it.”

I did it again. I let the DNF doubt drag me down into another non-enjoyable book that I gave nothing but excuses. It’s like I’m in a bad relationship with my book boyfriend. Take my advice, readers. Don’t do this to yourselves. If a book isn’t sparking your interest, or if it’s making you mad or any other negative feeling, don’t hate read or try to give it the benefit of the doubt. Just let it go. There are so many good books out there waiting to be read, and we do not have time to waste on those that do not give us joy.

Set a standard if you have to, whether it’s determining how many pages in you can go before you decide enough’s enough, or taking notes and reviewing how it makes you feel. Just figure out a way to let yourself know it’s time to get out and move on.

Audio Books! Can I Get An Amen?

I started listening to audio books a little over a year ago, hesitant to take on the endeavor because I thought, “I can’t possibly pay attention to a story if I’m listening to it.” Of course, that logic is flawed because that’s how I used to take in stories when I was a kid, before I knew how to read. What opened me up to the idea of audio books was actually podcasts. Once I started listening to things like Limetown Stories, Welcome to Nightvale, Wolf 359 and a plethora more, I realized I did in fact have the capability to multitask when it comes to paying attention to stories audibly.

I started with re-reads, as I figured it’d be easier to listen to a story I was already familiar with, so if I miss a line or two, I wouldn’t be totally lost. Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series is where I dove in to the audio book scene. While I recovered from my LASIK eye surgery a couple of months ago, I voraciously ate up Pride & Prejudice through Spotify and listened to Amy Poehler narrate her memoir Yes Please on Overdrive through my library. Slowly I became more comfortable with listening to audio books and taking care of such tasks as scrolling through Twitter and catching up on emails. Long car rides are also an ideal setting for audio books.

I started a new job last month and I can only listen to so many podcast episodes before I’m all caught up and have nothing left to listen to. I ventured into Playster and decided to give new books a try, now that I was a more skilled multitasker with enhanced listening abilities. Once again, Cassandra Clare came to my rescue with Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy and The Bane Chronicles. Honestly, I marvel at my ability to write about traffic school and listen to the enthralling voices of Chris Wood and Keahu Kahuanui all at the same time. Also, hearing the chilling encounters in World War Z helped me get through the day writing about vital records (it’s a thing; go look it up).

Now as I work I am finally getting into another classic that’s been on my TBR list since 10th grade: Jane Austen’s Emma. British narrators are possibly the best, in my opinion. The wonderful thing about audio books, and I’ve saved this best part for last, is I can add them to my Goodreads count of books read! Why is this so exciting for me? Because on top of starting a new job last month, I also started grad school, which means I’ve had no time whatsoever to do leisure reading. Audio books have changed the game though.

I used to be one of those people who thought, “Audio books don’t really count,” because I had that notion that one can’t really pay attention to them. I have been proven wrong and seen the light. Listening to audio books is just an enhanced way of reading. It’s engaging, entertaining and it definitely counts. Audio books are a full-time worker grad student’s best friend. Hallelujah!

Meagan Reads YA Sci-Fi: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Read this book for the 26 book reading challenge I started a couple of years ago and am still chugging through for the category “a book set in summer.” The whole novel takes place in Portland, Maine in the summer before a life-changing event takes place in the main character’s life.

Quick summary that includes spoilers, so read at your own risk. The premise is that this takes place in a future in which the disease of amor deliria nervosa has been eradicated through a procedure that U.S. citizens undergo when they come of age. So, a special kind of surgery targets the part of the brain that processes and let’s you express emotions related to love.

Lena is a typical teenage girl who enjoys running with her best friend Hannah and can’t wait to undergo the procedure and escape her past: being the daughter of the woman who committed suicide due to falling ill with the delirium. Lena follows the rules and wants to fit into her society until, wait for it, she meets a boy named Alex.

Overall, the idea of this society is interesting and captivating, but I think I’m definitely well past my young adult years, because the nauseating young love oh my god I can’t live without you after having just met you and I hardly know you trope makes me roll my eyes so hard. The whole story and character’s development hinges on this stereotype, but my biggest problem with it is how heteronormative it is.

The point of the procedure is to eradicate falling in love, but everything rides on the idea that only boys and girls fall in love with each other. The society even has rules that doesn’t allow boys and girls to have too much interaction prior to their procedures, to reduce the possibility of falling ill. At this point, I’m over books and stories that perpetuate the idea that only heterosexuals fall in love and no other kind of people even exist. It’s 2017. Get with the times please.

However, maybe it was my mind trying to read too much into it, but I felt a sort of queer element from Hannah. They were best friends, and the way she acts toward Lena and wanting her to break free from society’s restraints always felt like Hannah trying to push her friend to the realization of how she really felt about Lena. In the end, when Lena rebels for Alex, and Lena asks her best friend to run away with them, Hannah let’s her go and says she’s not actually brave enough. That whole relationship felt to me like Hannah was always in love with Lena, but Lena never realized it, and Hannah didn’t want to ruin things for her.

I appreciated the strong use of religion to establish this totalitarian government’s rhetoric behind the eradication of love. That is something that actually translates into real-life as is often seen in the U.S.’s politics with a blurred line between Church and State. Each chapter opens with a passage from the Book of Shhh, which is sort of like their constitution and bible. If the chapter doesn’t open with a passage from that book, it opens with lines from some kind of banned literature such as Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, or other poetry and novels that elevate the concept of love.

Another relevant element in this story is how police brutality is seen through Lena’s eyes. With her conditioning, she at first believes the law enforcement is there to protect the country’s citizens from themselves. When she falls to the deliria though and goes through each act of rebellion and becomes a victim of the patrollers, she finds they actually enjoy using extreme force and violence to bring criminals to justice. Lena’s description of her encounter with the police shows her thinking that the cure doesn’t eradicate all emotions, because hate and violence are still prevalent. This leads to the revelation that maybe love isn’t the problem. Love isn’t what makes people go mad and do terrible, chaotic and destructive things. That’s just people.

I’ll end this summary and review with a technical and structural choice the writer made and I think did well. The whole book is written in present tense, which is actually harder than it sounds. There’s a reason most books are written in past tense (in English at least). It’s just one of those things that feels and comes more naturally to our language. Oliver’s choice to write third person limited in present tense makes for an engaging story that brings the audience into the moment and feel like we know what Lena knows. It’s a structure that helps you feel the urgency of every situation, and it’s probably what kept me reading the whole book and look past the love story that I found cliche.

All in all, the book entertains and keeps you intrigued, but I didn’t feel a particular investment in any of the characters, and I don’t feel compelled to pick up the next installment.

Meagan Reads YA Fantasy: The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima

I’m going into my third year of the 26 book reading challenge (I’m a slow reader–sue me). For book 17, “a book by an author you love,” I went with Cinda Williams Chima’s The Demon King since I loved her Heir series.

A quick rundown of the story. It follows the lives of two characters: Raisa, the princess of the realm with a spunky attitude, and Han, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks just trying to get by. While Raisa is blissfully unaware of the injustices of the kingdom and dealing with her mother wanting to marry her off as soon as she comes of age, Han is trying to avoid his old gang life but still make an honest living by selling and trading to provide for his family.

In my Goodreads review, I said fans of Tamora Pierce’s Trickster duology or Bekah Cooper series would like this book, and that’s because it’s got classic fantasy elements with magic and wizards and political intrigue. The world building feels grounded in reality though, especially with the clan of Marissa Pines, a village outside of Fellsmarch, the royal city. There’s a clear dichotomy throughout the novel with the princess heir being of the rich elite living in the castle in the city, and Han being a foster child of the humble clans folk living off the land. Overall, it’s the equivalent of European colonialists versus the natives of the country.

I loved the descriptions Chima creates with how the clans people live, in tight knit communities that are in commune with natural remedies and trading goods for goods. It reminded me a lot of the smaller villages and towns I visited during my vacation to Ecuador 6 years ago. I could hear the crackling of the fires as the characters held meetings and shared stories under the open sky, surrounded by woods.

Throughout the whole book, I kept trying to unravel the mysteries that kept popping up with each new revelation. The reader learns things through the eyes of Raisa and Han, so when a new detail is brought to light that surprises or confuses them, you can’t help but feel blindsided too. There’s a parallel to the two characters in how they learn about the world they’ve been a part of this whole time was built on lies. For Han, he comes to feel like he can’t trust the people he grew up with or cares for, while Raisa starts to realize she’s far too ignorant of the strife going on around her in her own queendom. You can’t help but feel the pangs of coming of age, at that moment where you start to see things as an adult would, and not yet being ready for that responsibility.

In this world that Chima has created, there is a legend of an ancestral queen, Hanalea, who is abducted by the Demon King, a wizard, and forced to sacrifice her life for the greater good of the people. It is this legend that founds the people’s beliefs, and why the clan holds control of magic for wizards, allowing them the use of it through talismans for brief periods of time. The wizards serve the line of Hanalea, and thus royalty and magic can never marry.

Of course, as is apt to happen, some people don’t want to play by these rules anymore. This is where all the lies come undone little by little, and Raisa and Han must now make their decisions and judgments based on new truths, breaking from everything they’ve ever known. Wizards are dangerously close to regaining their old power, the clan is not as righteous as the legends would have it, Raisa and her royal line are in danger of extinction, and Han would rather have nothing to do with any of it but somehow is in the middle of all of it.

I’d have to say my biggest criticism of the book is its pacing. Especially in the beginning, it’s quite stop and go and you wish the narration would just pick a speed and stick with it for a while. The way the story reads at times is clumsy and expository, clearly setting the whole thing up for the next book. There’s lots of background information that’s conveyed through character dialogue, but it’s scenes in which the characters are specifically sitting down to have a meeting or talk, making it feel like the writer just couldn’t figure out how else to portray these details.

In conjunction with the pacing, and the fact that the reader knows this is book one of a series, Han’s and Raisa’s stories take way too long to intersect. Obviously, as each chapter jumps back and forth between them, we know they’re going to meet and have some kind of connection to one another eventually, but it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that the connection happens. And even then, there’s only 1 or 2 chapters in which they’re tied together before being severed into their individual lines again. This made the novel feel a bit fractured, so at times it was frustrating trying to read through. But overall, an excellent tale with many twists and fun characters.

Reluctant Romantic

I’ve read Pride & Prejudice and was smitten. All Cassandra Clare books? Fell like a sucker. I watch The Vampire Diaries and am a hardcore Delena shipper. I openly admit that watching A Walk to Remember still makes me ugly sob. So what is it about the romance genre label that keeps me at bay?

I’m obviously a sucker for a good love story. Hello, grew up on Disney movies, of course I love love. I live for the warm and fluffy feelings of seeing couples come together and live happily ever after. I gushed over Olicity on Arrow (and was heartbroken when they didn’t last) and I still firmly believe Destiel is end game on Supernatural.

It’s not all about the romance in romance novels though. As is bound to come with hand holding and kisses is the sex. I’m certainly no prude. I watched True Blood (with my mother, no less), so I’m clearly comfortable with awkward, sexual situations in my fiction.

Perhaps there’s still a part of my mind that resists due to prior stigmas of romance novels being trashy literature. But I know now the negative perception of the genre and how it correlates with viewing all things feminine with disdain, and knowing is half the battle.

Still, I can’t let myself pick up books with titles like Rough and Ready or Take A Ride. I read Twin of Fire and Twin of Ice by Jude Deveraux and thought those were okay. I barely remember Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Fantasy Lover, only that the sex scenes made me roll my eyes and snort. I can’t possibly take these books seriously.

But why do I need to take them seriously? For crying out loud, one of my favorite shows features an archer that let’s loose arrows that turn into parachutes! Maybe when I’m reading the situations these romance novels unravel, they seem too unlikely to ever happen for real. Then again, I was forced to accept analyzing key strokes as a legitimate method of finding out corporate espionage, so perhaps realistic standards are not the problem.

I’m thinking what it all comes down to in the end, is I simply haven’t found the right romance read for me yet. I probably spent so many years adamantly resisting the notion of liking girly things, that even now, with all the wisdom and education I’ve gained, I’m still a little obstinate in my views of “trashy” books. I hope that changes someday, but for now, I’ll continue to consume my passion for passion through TV, movies, classics and YA reads.