Sunday, September 25, 2016

Five Lessons I Learned in High School (And Five Books to Accompany Them)

In case you haven’t heard, I recently graduated from high school and started my first year of college. And as most current or former college students can tell you, the first few weeks of your first semester are difficult. There are so many new routines to learn, so many new experiences to be had, and so many new responsibilities to be dealt with.

I’ve been having so much fun, but I’ve also been feeling slightly overwhelmed and disoriented as I try to make sense of the new lifestyle I’m now navigating. As a result, I’ve been thinking about my freshman year of high school, reflecting on how much I know now that I didn’t know then, and wondering who I will have become four years from now.

Obviously, now is not the time to talk about college-graduate me. (I can barely manage college-freshman me.) But it’s the perfect time to look back my high school experience. So here are five lessons I learned in high school, complete with books (of course, because what would be the point otherwise?) that reinforce each message.

Think about the person you are right now. Do you think you’ll be more or less the same ten years from today?

Now think about the person you were ten year ago. Especially if you’re on the younger side, like I am, your personality has probably undergone significant changes. What’s to say your personality won’t evolve just as much in the years to come?

Several experiences in high school reminded me that people and plans constantly change. For example, freshman year, I thought show choir would define my high school experience, but I ended up singing in my school’s top concert choir—and quitting two weeks into my senior year. And even though my future ambitions are highly defined and concrete right now (I’ve been working toward the same career goal for several years), I can’t wait to see how they may change throughout college.

the book: The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson: When Andie’s perfect internship falls through, she spends the summer living spontaneously and learning that plans can be broken—and that’s fine. Complete with an adorable romance and brilliantly-written friendships, this book is perfect for any incoming college student.

The idea of being cliché gets a bad reputation, but some of my favorite high school memories come from common, “stereotypical” experiences. I got involved in school organizations and went on multiple trips with them. I not only went to prom, but ran a campaign to get my friend elected prom king. (It ultimately failed, but not before we had plenty of fun.) I stressed about exams, knowing students around the world were doing the exact same thing. I resented or skipped some of the clichés (pep rallies and parents-aren’t-home parties? not for me) but overall I had no problem living the classic high school experience.

the book: Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid: In a hilarious romp that made me nostalgic for my own senior year, best friends Dave and Julia set out on a mission to accomplish every high school cliché they’ve been avoiding over the past four years.

Throughout middle school and high school I met English teachers who made me feel embarrassed for reading YA books, friends who disapproved of the music I liked, and people who generally thought my tastes in entertainment should be more like theirs. It took me a while to stop being annoyed by these people, but now I’m confident enough in my own preferences to ignore the naysayers.

the book: Getting Over Garrett Delaney by Abby McDonald—Sadie’s been smitten with Garrett for years, pretending to enjoy the same obscure literature, films, and music he enjoys in an effort to capture his romantic attention. But when she decided to get over her drawn-out crush, her empowering, funny engaging journey is centered around the realization that her tastes are just as valid as Garrett’s—and if he doesn’t understand that, he’s not worth her time.

When I was younger, I thought I hated writing, but through my blog (and through encouragement from my freshman-year history teacher), I realized it doesn’t have to be a chore. It’s not easy, but finding a novel way to send a message is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. While I’m not a traditional creative writer (I don’t write fiction or poetry), I’ve grown to appreciate the power of words and love creatively conveying ideas on my blog, my podcast, and more.

the book: And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard: Not only does this book’s protagonist create the best poetry I’ve ever seen from a YA character, but she uses writing to overcome a tragic event in her past. She is a testament to the ability of humans to heal; her writing a testament to the importance of language.

No matter how ready you are for college, if you have an even remotely good relationship with your family, high school friends, or neighborhood, leaving for college will take an emotional toll. When I was younger (even one-year-ago younger), I 100% wanted to move far away for college. My dream school was in Boston, and I undoubtedly would have enrolled there if it hadn’t been for the cost.

But while studying on the East Coast would have been a great experience (and I’m not here to discourage anyone), now that I’m in college, I’m becoming more and more glad that I only live 20 minutes away from home. Not only has my proximity to my parents made the move to college significantly easier in terms of logistics, but I appreciate the ability to meet up with my family more than I realized I would.

the book: The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner: Set in a small, close-minded Tennessee town, The Serpent King features a character who is desperate to leave for NYU. But throughout the story, the author realistically and emotionally portrays the sadness and nervousness that she, her family, and her friends all feel regarding her departure.

High school and college graduates: what lessons did you learn during your years of education? And what have you learned about yourself or about life since graduation? Let me know in the comments—I'd love to hear about your experiences!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Three Reasons to Read The Fixer

I've been a huge fan of Jennifer Lynn Barnes's contemporary thrillers ever since my good friend Summer introduced me to The Naturals series—which follows a group of extremely skilled teenage behaviorists—back in 2014. So, as you might guess, I was ecstatic to finally pick up the first installment of a new series that sounded equally fascinating, especially with its political twist. The Fixer quickly lived up to my expectations, jumping into the action during the first chapter—and while I may not have loved it quite as much as The Naturals, I read it over the course of only a few days. But be warned; the ending contains quite the cliffhanger, so make sure to have the recently-released sequel on hand before reading the last chapter. But aside from that warning, I would recommend picking up The Fixer as soon as possible (especially as political drama ramps up here in the United States).

the book


The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release: July 7, 2015
Source: Library
If the elite of Washington, DC, have a problem that can't be solved… they go to the Kendricks.

When sixteen-year-old Tess Kendrick is sent to stay with her older sister, she has no idea that the famed Ivy Kendrick is the capital's number-one "fixer." For powerful people looking to make a scandal disappear, Tess's sister is there to help—for a price.

And no sooner does Tess enroll at the prestigious Hardwicke School than she unwittingly finds herself following in Ivy's footsteps. Tess never thought she and Ivy had much in common, but when her new friends at school need help, she discovers that her talents quickly make her Hardwicke's go-to high-school fixer.

Secrets pile up as each sister lives a double life—until their worlds come crashing together in a conspiracy that reaches from the halls of Hardwicke to Capitol Hill. Suddenly, there is much more on the line than good grades, money, or politics.

The odds are stacked against Tess, and the price for this fix might be more than she can pay.

three reasons to read it 

I love stories about highly intelligent problem solvers who use their brains to get what they want, an obsession that is evidenced in everything from my middle grade preferences (recommend me a book in the vein of The Mysterious Benedict Society and we'll be friends for life) to the most recent television show I binge-watched (if you haven't seen Scorpion, you should give it a shot). Both Ivy and Tess match this description to a T. From the first chapter onward, Ivy is efficient, commanding, and brilliant at devising solutions to complex problems—and Tess quickly becomes more and more like her sister as she takes on her own high school-level cases. By the end of the book, I wanted to be more like the two sisters, both in terms of their powerful presence and their practical problem-solving abilities.

Despite Tess's intelligence and natural knack for being a fixer, she still has much to learn. She can handle simple cases without much trouble, but when a high-powered political mystery falls into her hands, she knows when to turn to her sister. Ivy picks up on nuances and dangers Tess would have missed—not by virtue of superior intelligence, but because of superior experience—and while Tess continues to gather evidence, she also recognizes when certain aspects of the investigation are simply over her head. Through this collaboration between Ivy and Tess, Barnes portrays the truth that, while newcomers to a field are often intelligent and talented, they usually require training and guidance from an individual with a longer résumé. In a genre that frequently features inexperienced 16-year-olds saving the world in the face of a dystopian government or other catastrophe, this realism makes The Fixer shine.

Aside from its thrilling mystery plot line, The Fixer also spotlights a fairly broken family fraught with emotions. Tess's parents died when she was young, the grandfather who was her legal guardian for several years is now succumbing to Alzheimer's, and she harbors a resentment toward Ivy for leaving three years ago and barely keeping in touch ever since. Barnes beautifully portrays the emotions corresponding with each relationship, creating periodic refreshing breaks from the main storyline. Even better, the family drama becomes increasingly complex and exciting as the plot moves along and secrets are revealed.

All in all, I loved The Fixer and am on the lookout for more books with a similar psychological writing style. Have you read any of Jennifer Lynn Barnes's books? What other political dramas would you recommend?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Fall Leaves and Timepieces

When I was younger, I used to struggle with a seemingly simple question: “What is your favorite season?”

I never had trouble with the other get-to-know-you questions adults would ask us kindergartners; I had an ever-changing but always-certain lineup of favorite colors, and my favorite number was unequivocally five. But when I said my favorite season was winter, I never felt like I was telling the whole truth.

Because the truth is—I’ve always loved season changes more than any one season itself. I scan the weather forecast every November, waiting to frolic in the first snowfall of the season. Each springtime, I revel in the freedom of venturing outside without a coat for the first time in months. And to me, stepping on the first really crunchy leaf of fall is one of the pinnacles of the human experience.

Now that I’m older, I’ve come to the conclusion that my obsession with the changing of seasons is tied to my obsession with the passage of time. For years I’ve anticipated the future—first with a fear of adulthood, then with excitement for my career, then with a balance of both. For years I’ve mourned the fact that I can never return to the past. For years, I’ve tried to wrap my mind around my own mortality, the fact that I, along with everyone else who has ever lived, will die.

Each season shift is a reminder that time passes, not just in our personal lives, but in the world at large. Planet Earth will continue to orbit the sun, countries will continue to progress, and science will continue to march forward and answer questions we don’t yet know to ask. And the incredibly insignificant hiccup in history that is my life will progress as well, hopefully full of adventures and achievements and good friends and fulfilling work. It’s exhilarating.

I ponder time—the way it’s simultaneously an arbitrary measure establish by humans and an inevitability dictated by nature—whenever the seasons transform. But these thoughts especially occupy my mind every September, which marks the best season shift of them all. If I looked hard enough, I could probably find some kind of morbid metaphor in the fact that so many people—the majority of my Twitter feed, every Pumpkin Spice Latte fanatic, most of all me—find such joy in a time of death. But personally, I never feel more vibrant than in the fall. The autumn leaves and breezes sing with the anticipation of all that is in store: cooler weather, a semester of hard work followed by a blissful winter break, all the best holidays back-to-back.

For me, early fall is all about anticipating the immediate future, appreciating the present while it lasts, and reminiscing on past autumn and winter memories. There’s no better time to be alive.

***

I’ve talked before about how I’m a relentless seasonal reader, seeking out spooky, atmospheric books for fall and light contemporaries for summer. But for me, being a seasonal reader means not only reading stories that match the mood of the weather outside, but connecting in a roundabout way to my past self.

When I pick out reading lists—a task I complete meticulously, months in advance—I look not only for typical seasonal titles, but also for books that relate in some way to what I read at the same time last year.

See, when I’m reading, I like to immerse myself into the book’s world entirely. It’s one of the reasons why I’m a relatively slow reader compared to other bloggers, one of the reasons why I love fall and the richly atmospheric settings it brings. When I’m reading, the book becomes an extension of my own life. The story influences my mood. Sometimes my dreams seem to process the plot of the book I’m reading rather than my actual reality.

Therefore, reading a book by the same author, in the same series, or about the same topic as a book I read in the past feels a bit like rewinding my real life to one year, two years, three years ago. I get to replicate a sliver of what I experienced in a time I’ll never really get to live again.

It makes sense that I see literature as a connection to history. After all, written words can quite literally be a way to communicate, albeit one-sidedly, with people who lived hundreds of years ago. But is it normal that I cling to modern books as a lifeline to my personal past?

They say a book can take you anywhere. I love traveling to far-away lands and fantasy kingdoms through literature, but sometimes I most appreciate being transported to a more familiar place and time.

Do other readers feel the same way?

***

Seasons themselves symbolize the future. But seasons and the reading choices they inspire symbolize the past.

Every time the seasons change, I’m faced with the seemingly-conflicting urges to cling to the past, to feed the thrill of the future, and to enjoy the present weather in the moment. Most days, I aim for a combination of the three.

Past. Present. Future. The seasons can symbolize all of the above. It may be an instance of symbolism too messy and personal to analyze in an essay. Or maybe it’s not. All I know is I never explored that particular literary device in high school. In fact, I’m not quite certain how my feelings regarding the symbolism of seasons fit into my English education, which taught me to both stick to a clear point and look for complexity and nuances. Maybe I’m right; maybe I’m not.

But I’m not in high school anymore.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Sex-Positive Story With a Slightly Disappointing Ending: Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

First by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Release: January 5, 2016
Source: Library
Seventeen-year-old Mercedes Ayres has an open-door policy when it comes to her bedroom, but only if the guy fulfills a specific criteria: he has to be a virgin. Mercedes lets the boys get their awkward, fumbling first times over with, and all she asks in return is that they give their girlfriends the perfect first time- the kind Mercedes never had herself.

Keeping what goes on in her bedroom a secret has been easy- so far. Her absentee mother isn’t home nearly enough to know about Mercedes’ extracurricular activities, and her uber-religious best friend, Angela, won’t even say the word “sex” until she gets married. But Mercedes doesn’t bank on Angela’s boyfriend finding out about her services and wanting a turn- or on Zach, who likes her for who she is instead of what she can do in bed.

When Mercedes’ perfect system falls apart, she has to find a way to salvage her reputation and figure out where her heart really belongs in the process. Funny, smart, and true-to-life, Firsts is a one-of-a-kind young adult novel about growing up.
Every reader knows the feeling—the feeling of finding a book that provides exactly the story you need at the precise time you need it. Sometimes expected, sometimes surprising, but always satisfying, these books can complement a good mood or improve a bad day—and Firsts provided me with exactly this kind of tale. I read it during a long day—a day that began with an early-morning plane ride and a cancelled connecting flight that left me stranded in the Denver International Airport for eleven hours. The experience featured plenty of exhaustion and boredom, and without the help of quality reading material, the minutes, which dragged by like hours, would have passed even more slowly. But Laurie Elizabeth Flynn's debut, with its thought-provoking messages and engaging plot, provided the exact amount of entertainment and mental stimulation that I needed.

Firsts is, first and foremost, a story centered around sex positivity, adopting an accepting attitude toward a variety of choices regarding teenage sexuality. Mercedes, of course, obliterates traditional ideas of how young women should behave as well as the role sex should play in society; she invites boys into her bedroom regularly and views the subsequent events as a practical arrangement, a philanthropic deed done for the boys' girlfriends. On the other end of the spectrum is her best friend Angela, who has been in a relationship for two years but, by her own choice more than by pressure from her family or her church, "won't even say the word 'sex' until she gets married." But despite their differences, both girls (as well as several other characters) are portrayed as smart and autonomous, making decisions that, while open to interpretation from readers, are doubtlessly deliberate. The result is a story that is inclusive and accepting of all safe and consensual choices—and that simultaneously emphasizes the importance of the aforementioned safety and consent.

Even better, the character's decisions regarding sex do not merely exist to make a point or to move the plot along; they also drive personality development. Mercedes's choices help readers understand the aftermath of her own first sexual encounter—a scarring experience that is fabulously eluded to before an emotional reveal. And as she begins to question whether or not to continue her "extracurricular" (and as it begins to crumble in a series of events that will have readers entirely invested), the pseudo-confidence she gains from teaching boys how to treat their girlfriends evolves into real self-assurance. Meanwhile, Angela's abstinence relates to her religiosity (a correlation that, if cliché, is certainly realistic for some teens). The same is true, to a slightly less detailed degree for other spotlighted characters, creating a cast full of solid backstories and satisfying development.

The only character whose background leaves a bit to be desired is Zach, Mercedes's maybe-possibly boyfriend; although he is sweet and adorable and grows symbiotically with the protagonist, he has minimal personality outside of the context of the plot. I wish the story would have included more information about his external interests and relationships, creating a more layered character rather than one who seems just slightly like a plot device.

Aside from Zach, I have only one more complaint about Firsts: toward the end, the plot becomes a bit melodramatic. I won't go into detail for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the story includes a handful of theoretically-possible-but-unlikely (in my opinion) events and choices that might require some suspension of belief. This creative license, however, is largely justified by its ability to further the plot and strengthen relationships—I barely found myself minding as I sped through the final 100 pages.

And besides, even if the ending had bothered me more than the minimal amount it did, I could not help recommending Firsts on the basis of Mercedes's fantastic character and her story's feminist, sex-positive message. Complete with a protagonist who has a passion for chemistry and a dream of attending MIT (I've mentioned before how much I love STEM-centered YA characters) as well as spot-on ideas about sex and the role it should play in society, Firsts had me hooked from the moment I read its blurb. The plot deals with issues from absentee parents to slut-shaming in a way that will evoke emotions from empathy to outrage, then soothe the resulting turmoil with empowering themes of acceptance. If you have yet to read a YA novel that specifically tackles teenage sexuality in an open, clever, and original way, I highly recommend that Firsts be your first time. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

August 2016 in Review

Wow. August was a busy month, to say the least. Full of firsts, lasts, and several to-dos, I rarely had a free moment. You know how time seems to slow down when we have new experiences and our brains rush to make new connections? Well, that's exactly what happened to me the entire month of August; the past 31 days feel like they lasted at least three months. But now that the month is somehow, unbelievably, almost over, here are the highlights.

(P.S. I'm trying a new recap style this month—instead of listing every book I read or added to my TBR, I'll just tell you about the ones I'm most excited about.)

highlights from my reading list


I'm sure you've heard plenty of praise for this title already, but in case you're still not sold, let me add my voice to the mix: if you're a fan of emotional, gritty, realistic-but-original contemporaries, you need to read this book. It's set in an atmospherically-built small town full of characters whose close-minded outlook will make you livid as well as characters who are tragically trapped in a cycle of missed opportunities. And at the center of the story are three best friends, all of whom are fascinating to read about. Dill is trying to decipher his religious beliefs and what it means to be loyal to family after his extremely-religious minister father gets sent to prison. Lydia has a superbly relatable dream of escaping from her hometown (and runs a popular blog!). And Travis is a quiet, thoughtful, caring person who loves books as much as we do. I can't stop thinking about this book—the emotions, the setting, and more—and, especially given its 4.25 average Goodreads rating, I'm fairly sure you'll feel the same way. 

This upcoming release is quiet, subtle, and stunning. Most of all, it's very timely. Told from several points of view—a girl whose superior autobiographical memory allows her to remember every tragedy she's ever witnessed or learned about, a boy whose father died on September 11, 2001, a girl who spiraled into depression after being the victim of a cyberbully, and more—it examines the roles of catastrophes (from the international to the personal) in our lives. The rotation through several characters makes the plot patchworked, but it always feels cohesive, and it always left me desperate to read another chapter. To top it all off, the story is set right after the Boston Marathon bombing, an eerily recent historical backdrop that will seem extra realistic thanks to readers' still-proximal personal memories of the event. Mark your calendars for September 13; you don't want to miss this one. 

highlights from my tbr


When I first heard about this book (AKA when the cover reveal dominated my Twitter feed a couple weeks ago), I didn't even bother reading the blurb; I simply saw that Nina LaCour had a new book coming out, questioned why I didn't know earlier, and slammed the "want to read" button on Goodreads. But now that I've finally checked what this book is actually about, I'm even more excited; it centers around college students, and it's sure to feature Nina LaCour's signature emotional writing. I can't wait for February. 

highlights from my life 


  • I went on a trip to Amsterdam! I didn't have time to do a recap post when I returned home, but I had a fantastic time. I went with my mom and my grandma, and we stopped by several museums (saving significant sums of money by using the membership cards that came with our Airbnb—an A+ benefit), took a train to Delft and the Hague, embarked on several walking tours, tried unsuccessfully to bike like the locals, and more. It was my first real trip out of the country, and I can't wait to head back to Europe (or elsewhere!) someday soon.
  • I started college. A few days after returning from the Netherlands, I left home again—this time to move in to my college dorm. For those of you who don't know, I'm studying business (and probably some journalism and PR) at Indiana University's downtown Indianapolis campus. Classes have now been in session for 1.5 weeks, and while I'm feeling overwhelmed by the classwork and the major life change, I'm doing my best to make time for socializing (and, of course, for blogging!). Stay tuned for more college updates in the future. 
If you want to know more about what I'm reading, you can friend me on Goodreads, and if you want to hear more about my collegiate adventures, you can follow me on Twitter. And be sure to let me know what you've been up to!