the undertaking of lily chen

I don’t read graphic novels on a regular basis, but I really should.  I was that kid who held onto picture book reading far past the time my peers gave it up.  I’m not saying I didn’t like chunky novels – I was reading those too.  But I leafed through the latest picture books in the children’s section and then went and grabbed a stack of Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy novels in the same library visit. Now, when I pick up a graphic novel, I’m always pleased – I read it quickly and then go back and pore over the illustrations and let it all sink in.  Danica Novgorodoff’s The Undertaking of Lily Chen caught my attention with its delightfully dark cover art and unusual title.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

the undertaking of lily chen by danica novgorodoff book cover
In The Undertaking of Lily Chen, Deshi, a young man struggling to make a life for himself in rural China, watches his life comes unhinged when he accidentally kills his older brother in a fight. His distraught parents send him on a hopeless journey to acquire a bride for his brother to marry posthumously so he doesn't enter the next world alone—an ancient Chinese tradition with many modern adherents. Eligible female corpses are in short supply, however. When Deshi falls into company with a beautiful, angry, and single young woman named Lily, he sees a solution to his problems.  The only hitch is Lily is still very much alive. 

Danica Novgorodoff, author of Slow Storm and Refresh, Refresh, brings her distinctive voice and gorgeous, moody watercolors to this wry, beautiful, and surprising literary graphic novel.

In parts of rural China, an old tradition of ghost marriages still persists. There are those who say that a man who dies unmarried cannot be happy in the afterlife unless his body is ‘married’ to a female corpse and buried with her.  When Deshi’s brother dies in an accident, his parents demand that he locate a ghost bride before the day of his brother’s funeral.  Deshi’s journey into the countryside to find a body is filled with a little too much adventure, and when he encounters Lily, a girl whose only aim is to flee her dead-end life, he wonders if he’s found a solution (for at least one of his problems).

Novgorodoff’s graphic novel is a morbidly funny book with a unique setting, a feisty heroine, and a backstory that delves into unfamiliar folk beliefs and stretches the imagination.  Deshi’s task is by turns tragic and comic, and his general flailing (and failing) at life, though a well-trodden storyline in adult lit, is revived in the uncommon setting.  Nevertheless, Lily and her family are the highlight of the book. The Chens’ simple life and unsubtle reactions paired with the delicacy of watercolors make for a striking combination. 

Speaking of the art… the palette is neutral, movement mostly implied, and the best part (in my opinion) are the landscape panels.  In all, The Undertaking of Lily Chen is an easy read with an understated art style that compliments the dark, wry humor.

Recommended for: fans of Neil Gaiman and those who like dark fiction and adult-level graphic novels.

top ten books about friendship

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 | | 12 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is a ‘freebie’ (meaning you can choose whatever you want to build a list around).  I haven’t been very faithful about posting TTT lists in 2014, so I’m going to steal last week’s topic and focus on books that feature friendship.  I was very careful constructing this list – there aren’t any sibling friendships here!  I wanted to write about books where the best friends are outside the nuclear family.

Top Ten Books About Friendship

1. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein – Code Name Verity contains one of the best friendships I’ve ever read, watched, or experienced.  AND it’s a great book, too.  If it didn’t make me tear up just thinking about the ending, I’d read it all over again tonight.

2. The Only Alien on the Planet by Kristen D. Randle – Can you be the friend of someone who never responds or reciprocates?  This older YA novel (published in 1996 – ye olden days!) wrestles with some powerful questions about friendship and family.

3. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling –  Oh, the Harry Potter books!  They’re as much about Harry finding a family made up of friends as they are about magic.  And the special bond between Harry, Hermione and Ron is something I’ll carry in my heart for always.

4. Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger – This book is underappreciated.  Set in WWII, it features a correspondence between a young boy and his idol, a baseball star.  The shenanigans that ensue result in a friendship (and story) full of vitality and wit.

5. Pegasus by Robin McKinley – Oh good gravy, this book!  It features a fast, forbidden friendship between a princess and her Pegasus, Ebon.  McKinley always writes beautiful relationships, but this is something special, even for her.  Too bad it’s a cliffhanger, and the second book nowhere in sight yet… *le sigh*

6. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand – Victoria and Lawrence are friends, mainly by dint of Victoria’s force of will (Lawrence is a bit fuzzy on why exactly Victoria is his friend).  And it is this precocious friendship that leads her to the gates of the mysterious (and horrible!) home run by Mrs. Cavendish when Lawrence disappears.

7. Magic for Marigold by L.M. Montgomery – I liked all of the Green Gables series, but I truly fell in love with L.M. Montgomery’s writing in this standalone novel.  Marigold’s adventures and friendships are delightful, and Montgomery’s especial knack at capturing the fleeting memories of childhood is on display.

8. Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo – A Newbery Award-winning book needs no introduction, but I’ll say that Flora and her squirrel Ulysses and their compatriots made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions.

9. The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz – Another Flora enters the mix!  This time she’s a pig determined to prove her worth as a sled dog.  A treacherous journey will test her ambition and spunk, but Flora makes friends wherever she goes (no matter the species!).

10. Plain Kate by Erin Bow – What can I say about this book?  It’s heart-wrecking, in the best kind of way.  And Plain Kate’s friendship with the cat Taggle is part of that.  Dangit, I have tears in my eyes from typing this.  Erin Bow, you are TOO talented!

What are your favorite books about friendship?

the here and now

I never read Ann Brashares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (or its sequels), but one of my very best college friends read them all in high school, and she used to talk about the characters and stories like they were real people who could be right in the room with us.  I knew Brashares’ writing had to be good to pull my friend in, but I never felt an urge to try that series myself.  Instead, it took a beautiful book cover and a science fiction premise to hook me.  Once in, I finished The Here and Now  in short order, and I think I understand a little of my friend’s obsession.

the here and now by ann brashares book cover
Follow the rules. Remember what happened. Never fall in love.

This is the story of seventeen-year-old Prenna James, who immigrated to New York when she was twelve. Except Prenna didn’t come from a different country. She came from a different time—a future where a mosquito-borne illness has mutated into a pandemic, killing millions and leaving the world in ruins.

Prenna and the others who escaped to the present day must follow a strict set of rules: never reveal where they’re from, never interfere with history, and never, ever be intimate with anyone outside their community. Prenna does as she’s told, believing she can help prevent the plague that will one day ravage the earth.

But everything changes when Prenna falls for Ethan Jarves.

 From Ann Brashares, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, The Here and Now is thrilling, exhilarating, haunting, and heartbreaking—and a must-read novel of the year.

Despite appearances, Prenna James is not your average teen.  In fact, she’s not even from this time.  What, then, is she? A fugitive from a not-so-distant future wracked with plagues and catastrophe, where fear rules and death is as close as a mosquito bite.  Now that she and a select few have made it to the past, they live by a strict code that protects the community.  The problem is that Prenna can no longer pretend to like living under the rules, or understand their necessity.  She has questions, important ones.  What does the date May 17, 2014 mean?  What is her classmate Ethan forever trying to tell her?  What is the deal with that old homeless man in the park?  Her search for answers has the potential to turn both of her worlds on their heads.

In Prenna, Brashares has created a stubborn, smart, and curious teen chafing under a set of rules that kill her a little more each day.  Her bleak, isolated life is all she knows, but new high school experiences, memory and an almost unshakeable, albeit deeply buried, hope add up to something worth challenging the status quo for.  Prenna’s society is sinister, isolationist, and Big Brother-esque, but the immense interest in Prenna’s everyday doings at times seemed over the top.  If the reader can suspend disbelief and buy-in, it’s certainly a chilling future.  I myself wavered a bit here and there, but overall I appreciated the execution and the air of suspicion and menace that tainted Prenna’s entire experience.

Of course, this isn’t just a tale of time travel and the eventual end of the world.  It’s also a story of a magnetic attraction between Prenna and her classmate Ethan.  But the rules that govern Prenna cover outsiders’ knowledge of the time travelers as well as intimacy with time natives, so everything is forbidden.  Since the story is told from Prenna’s point of view, it includes her musings and insecurities on petty (and more serious) concerns, including her suspicions about the abuse of power within her own community and the real reasons for the rules they must all live by.

Plot: I knew what was coming.  I guessed all of the twists, and I’m not exactly the most astute mystery-solving reader out there.  It’s safe to assume that you’ll be able to puzzle it out too.  That said, The Here and Now is never boring (even if you can guess the results), and there’s no fluff: it’s serious-as-death consequences and the writing sings in places.   Check out this section from chapter fourteen:

Lying here like this, I can imagine happiness.  Not a kicky, bright kind, but a full, almost aching kind, both dark and light.  I can see the whole world in this way.  I can imagine extending the feeling to other places and parts of the day.  I can imagine holding it in my pocket like a lens, and bringing it out so that I can look through it and remember again and again the world that has this feeling in it.

Prenna is a heroine with real baggage and sorrow for memories.  Hers is not a light story, but it makes for quick quality reading.

Recommended for: fans of Neal Shusterman's Unwind, Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, and anyone interested in young adult sci-fi and dystopian lit.

Fine print: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for honest review.  I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the thinking woman's guide to real magic

Last summer I was reading Beth Fish Reads’ blog (you’ll remember, she does the wonderful Weekend Cooking meme I participate in), and I saw her review of Emily Croy Barker’s debut, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.  She was head over heels for the book, so I (naturally) went searching for it on my local library’s website.  No go.  I requested it be purchased for the collection, please and thank you.  My archived email informs me that my wish was fulfilled on August 1, 2013 (thanks Arlington County Libraries!).  Of course I then forgot all about it in a flurry of reading Irish books, and didn’t get around to it until this week.  Well!  I have now rectified my misdoings and I agree with Beth Fish entirely: The Thinking Woman’s Guide for Real Magic is the sort of book you fall in love with.  

the thinking woman's guide to real magic by emily croy barker book cover
An imaginative story of a woman caught in an alternate world—where she will need to learn the skills of magic to survive

Nora Fischer’s dissertation is stalled and her boyfriend is about to marry another woman.  During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, Nora wanders off and walks through a portal into a different world where she’s transformed from a drab grad student into a stunning beauty.  Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true.

Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school. Her only real ally—and a reluctant one at that—is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. And it will take her becoming Aruendiel’s student—and learning magic herself—to survive. When a passage home finally opens, Nora must weigh her “real life” against the dangerous power of love and magic.

Nora Fischer is an ordinary woman in our world.  She’s a former cook and a now-struggling grad student with relationship drama, insecurities and a passion for poetry.  After one too many misfortunes, she wishes that her life were different, in any way.  And that is how Nora finds herself in another world entirely.  At first, it’s everything she’s dreamed of – she’s the belle of the ball, life is grand, and the dashing Raclin wants her.  A voice deep inside tells Nora to see past illusion, and when she does, the wizard Aruendiel offers her a home.  In his household, she’ll need every scrap of determination and intelligence to survive and learn magic, for this new world is a hard one – much harder than it originally seemed.

Heroine Nora is intelligent, thoughtful, alert, stubborn (or I suppose you could say… persistent?), and loyal.  But she is also convincingly insecure about her looks, her chosen profession, and her love life (thus disqualifying her from the running for 'perfect' woman).  In all, Nora’s a typical educated, modern woman.  However, when placed in the context of a sword and sorcery fantasy, those qualities mark her out as different, as other.  In her new environment, Nora becomes something more: a fierce observer and survivor, an unraveler of secrets and histories, and the mistress of her own fate.

The Thinking Woman’s Guide is an impressive book, nevermind debut.  Barker plays with the notions of portal fantasy (where a character accesses another world through a gate or portal), the meaning and structure of magic, and the politics and inequality inherent in a patriarchal system.  Oh, and I left out one thing… it’s readable.  More than readable—un-put-downable!  I finished it (all 500+ pages!) in one day.  Whew!

Nora’s adventure is an exploration of a new (magical) world, and it’s also generally romantic.  My favorite bit?  When Nora began to learn elementary magic, and juxtaposed that with her daily translation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into Ors, the common language of her new world.  She shares both of these experiences with Aruendiel, the mysterious magician who has offered her protection.  The growth and accommodation between these two: it’s something!  *sigh*  I can’t wait for the sequel to see how Barker continues what could be a fantastic saga.

Now, about the magic and world-building: in some ways it is predictable (if you’ve read a fair amount of fantasy, you’ll see bits and pieces from many kinds of worlds and stories stitched into the fabric of the world), but it is no less satisfying for all that.  It’ll be a delight for anyone who escapes into magical literature and expects a strong female protagonist.  I think Barker was making an obvious parallel between Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Nora, but after finishing the book I jotted down a quick note about Eliza and Higgins from My Fair Lady. 

In any case, it’s an exceedingly well-written book.  And I promise you that’s not just my happy/romantical side talking.

Recommended for: fans of Sharon Shinn and Anne Bishop, and any adult who has pictured him- or herself making the (unlikely) trip to Narnia or Middle Earth.

top ten books i almost put down (but didn't)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 | | 9 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

I tend to decide whether or not I'll read a book within the first few moments of picking it up.  I look at the cover (I admit to being unduly influenced by shiny, pretty things), I read the back cover or flap copy, and if there is still any doubt, I try the first few pages.  From then on, I'm usually fairly locked in. If I put a book down after the initial choice, it's not likely that I'll pick it up again.  Sometimes I'll finish a book out of reading spite, but that's getting rarer as the days go by.  What I'm trying to say... is that this week's Top Ten Tuesday topic was hard to put together.  I had to remember my early moments with each of these (awesome) books and try to think of why they had seemed iffy at the time.  As this is a top ten list, you know that I ended up loving them.  In fact, several are beyond fabulous.  Get reading!

Top Ten Books I Almost Put Down (but didn't!)

1. Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox – Mortal Fire is a complex, intelligent onion of a story. It has an unusual setting, an observer-extraordinaire of a heroine, and a magic that remains mysterious and awful. My reaction upon finishing the book? Impressed!

2. Sidekicked by John David Anderson – The reason this one made the list is because it had the bad luck of being in rotation when I fell into a reading slump - nothing to do with the content itself (delightfully gray, instead of black & white).  

3. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – I almost put this one aside because it made me weep on an airplane.  The flight attendant pretended not to notice, but I was WRECKED and the cocktail napkin couldn't begin to mop up all of my tears.  An emotion-packed and beautiful book, for all that.

4. Larklight by Philip Reeve – I should perhaps have done a bit more research on this one before picking it up.  I saw 'middle grade steampunk' and immediately braced myself for adventure.  The only thing is this one starts weirdly, and is narrated from an odd perspective, with a decidedly old-timey accent.  

5. Rot & Ruin by Jonathna Maberry – Teenage angst boiled up all over the first few chapters of this one before it got down to business.  I'm glad I kept on reading!

6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – I started reading the Harry Potter books just before book 7 came out, so the publishing hype was mostly lost on me. I probably would have given up on this book if I hadn't heard that you had to 'get through the first one, then they're a LOT better.'  I've since learned to appreciate it for itself.

7. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angelberger – I finished this book because it was on audio and I was on a roadtrip with my brother Lincoln.  He made me press play when I got too awkward. *sigh* Sometimes siblings are the best.

8. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai – I started this story and was immediately struck by the free verse that Lai employs rather than prose.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to finish the book.  Very good decision to keep reading!

9. Plain Kate by Erin Bow – There wasn't anything wrong with this one.  It was just that I could tell within the first few pages that main character Kate was a very lonely girl.  I had a few moments of indecision before I convinced myself to live along with her and that loneliness for the duration of the reading experience.

10. Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede – I waited patiently for this release.  I've never NOT liked a book Wrede has written.  But then it arrived, and I was all, 'What is going ON?'  It took a couple of chapters to decide that I did, in fact, like it.

What books would make your list?

waiting on wednesday (74)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

In 2014 I've cut back substantially on posts about books I can't wait to read, and that isn't because I've lost my love of reading, pretty covers, or books.  No, it's just that my towering to-be-read (TBR) pile has been pricking at my guilty conscience, and it seemed mildly inappropriate to add even more books to the stack. But, well, some books deserve a place.  And I really did adore Legrand's middle grade horror debut The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.  I watch Legrand closely now, because I know that I'll just love the next thing she comes up with.  That brings us to Winterspell, her YA retelling of The Nutcracker (GET. OUT. zomg i want this book!), which will be released by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on September 30, 2014.

winterspell by claire legrand book cover
Darkly romantic and entirely enchanting, this reimagining of The Nutcracker from Claire Legrand brims with magic, love, and intrigue. New York Times bestselling author Marissa Meyer (Cinder) says “this is not your grandmother’s Nutcracker tale.”

After her mother is brutally murdered, seventeen-year-old Clara Stole is determined to find out what happened to her. Her father, a powerful man with little integrity, is a notorious New York City gang lord in the syndicate-turned-empire called Concordia. And he isn’t much help.

But there is something even darker than Concordia’s corruption brewing under the surface of the city, something full of vengeance and magic, like the stories Clara’s godfather used to tell her when she was a little girl. Then her father is abducted and her little sister’s life is threatened, and Clara accidentally frees Nicholas from a statue that has been his prison for years. Nicholas is the rightful prince of Cane, a wintry kingdom that exists beyond the city Clara has known her whole life.

When Nicholas and Clara journey together to Cane to retrieve her father, Clara encounters Anise, the queen of the faeries, who has ousted the royal family in favor of her own totalitarian, anti-human regime. Clara finds that this new world is not as foreign as she feared, but time is running out for her family, and there is only so much magic can do...

What books are you waiting on?

how blogging helped me get a job

That title feels a little bit like link bait, but it has the virtue of being true.  Blogging DID help me get a job.  I can now say that five years of blogging has been worth it, career-wise.  Of course, I’ve always known that reading and writing about reading was worth it for my sanity, if nothing else (sanity is underrated).  And the books!  Books are glorious.  Discovering and attending book events like BEA feels like visiting a strange world where everyone is at least as nerdy as I am.  It’s sweet and unnerving and perfect.

Anyway, back to the job bit. 

Background: I’ve been at the same nonprofit in DC for three and a half years.  I started working for them after grad school didn’t pan out and that one disastrous entry-to-the-office-world job.  I was content if not perfectly happy doing what I did: it involved a lot of staring at spreadsheets, but it paid enough to eat well and travel to Ireland, and I had other things going on in life to get my ‘fulfillment’ quota.

blogging helped me get a job

Then a job opened up in another department for a Web Content Manager.  I looked at the description out of curiosity, and then I did a double take.  I could see the path to my dream career, and I had the skills to do it – I’d learned them from blogging.  When they offered it to me (after all of the usual HR type things), I took it without hesitation.  I may be the happiest I’ve ever been in a work environment – and that’s counting the first time I cashed a paycheck, when I began lifeguarding at age fifteen.

Below I’ve copy/pasted some of the exact requirements from my job description, and how my blogging experience helped me land the job.

Minimum of 3-5 years’ relevant online website development and management experience.
I’ve been running Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia on my own for over five years (at times more successfully than others…) – and I have slowly and surely built a following by connecting with fellow bloggers and engaging in social media.  I listed my blog on my resume under ‘Relevant non-work skills and experience,’ and I made sure to talk about it in my cover letter and during the interview process.  I also included my Twitter handle so that the hiring manager could see that I post consistent content with a targeted focus, and that I had a sizeable audience.

Knowledge of HTML and experience with popular content management systems and analytics programs.
If you have tried your hand at blogging, you’ve probably gotten really familiar with Googling for help.  I’ve done my fair share of this, but I can also point to Bloggiesta as one of the events that helped me develop my web skills.  Through Bloggiesta mini-challenges I learned basic HTML, I began to track my blog with Google Analytics, and I played around with RSS feeds and services.  All of these skills are directly transferable to my new position.

Excellent SEO/social media/web editing skills.
I dabbled with Klout for a while before I got a little skeeved out by how much information and access they had to my online life. How did I learn about Klout?  Bloggers.  And of course my Twitter presence is almost entirely book-related, though I tend to listen more often than participate.  Still, I could point to those things, plus knowledge of Google Analytics, Google+, Facebook and LinkedIn.  Web editing?  I do that nearly every day on Blogger.  And SEO was another one of those things I learned about via Bloggiesta. 

Even though blogging taught me the skill set for this job, it’s important to acknowledge that I’d already built trust and community in the company through my 3+ years of previous employment.  I was/am lucky, but I also paid my dues.  I’d like to think that anyone who forms key relationships and proves themselves hard-working could do the same.

I hope this is useful: for those who question if there’s any benefit to blogging aside from engagement with the community and free books, and for anyone who wonders if blogging counts as professional development if you’re not interested in going into publishing.  Even if you think your real world job isn’t remotely related to blogging, you could be developing the skills that will lead you to the perfect job.  I’m living proof.
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