The Waterfire Saga by Jennifer Donnelly

Magic depended on so many things – the depth of one’s gift, experience, dedication, the position of the moon, the rhythm of the tides, the proximity of whales. It didn’t settle until one was fully grown; Serafina knew that. But she needed it to be with her now, and she prayed to the gods that it would be.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled on everything strong and sure inside of her, and started to sing.

Whales? Well, why not, it’s all explained in The Waterfire Saga, an absorbing four-book YA fantasy series about…mermaids. My exploration of the YA genre continues, and after some searching for something else about mermaids, I stumbled on Deep Blue, Rogue Wave, Dark Tide and Sea Spell. Serafina, Neela, Becca, Ava, Ling and Astrid are thrown together by adversity and destiny, and while a mission of global proportions awaits our heroines, discoveries about life, love and friendship are plentiful along the way. The usual, but always interesting components of the genre.

Clear-cut language and a lot of drawing from the richness of world history, folklore and linguistics make this an appealing read to all of us who had literature courses during our studies. We recognize origins of names, titles, countries, and the additional logic behind this is clearly presented in the novels. While these layers and background often rooted in humanities make the reading experience all the more enjoyable for those of us outside the target audience, they do not overload the reading process for a younger reader. I remember my reading times from a younger age very clearly and I am sure I would have enjoyed this series just as much as I did now, albeit with different accompanying thoughts.

Each heroine lives, breathes and swims right off the page and in to my imagination, going through identity struggles and the pains of self-discovery. The appeal of the series also lies in the fact that the end goal of this particular story, while dealing with romance, themes of home and family, longing, wanting more than what life turns out to be, does not revolve around the mermaids wanting to escape their world. In fact, not only is the warmth and energy of their patriotism palpable, so is the respect and focus with which the author includes descriptions of the seas and its creatures. This warmth and empathy extend to the depiction of one of the central themes of the novels – the strength of friendships.

How could she explain to them what her swashbuckler clothes meant to her? When she looked at them, she didn’t see frays and tears, she saw Sera and Ling eating stew in Lena’s kitchen after Ling had almost been captured by Rafe Mfeme. She saw Becca and Ava in the River Olt, fighting off the rusalka. She saw fierce Astrid battling Abbadon in the Incantarium with only her sword.

And she saw herself – being braver and stronger than she’d ever thought she could be.

The Waterfire Saga shows mermaids who are self-aware, intelligent, vulnerable, loyal and resilient. They are relatable, and if a younger friend or relative of mine was reading this series, I would not be worried about the ideas they might be getting.

Becca was not only good at making things, she was good at making things better. Life in foster homes had taught her that if she waited for someone else to make things better, she’d be waiting a very long time.

Well plotted, well written, well researched and probably created with a lot of enjoyment.

 

 

 

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Remember Me by Mary Higgins Clark

Menley had always wanted to live in a house. As a little girl she drew pictures of the one she would have someday. And it was pretty much like this place, she thought.

Mary Higgins Clark has been my favorite writer for so long and I have re-read all her books so many times that I can’t remember which of her numerous suspense novels I read first. This is a rare case for me. But it doesn’t really matter, because each of her works takes me on a trip to yet another world that always yields a new discovery even if I’ve been there before. It’s like taking your favorite long walk, and knowing for sure that it’s never truly the same, for all its familiarity. As we grow, as we change, as we learn, so do the literary works that accompany us in life find their way in to the crevices of our evolvement. And so do we identify anew with characters, situations, language and actions. That is the mark of a great author.

The tried and tested, yet irresistible plot formula of a heroine beset by tragedy and struggling to find her way out, while being pulled in to a murder mystery, is, of course, present here too. And it’s not just the main heroine – plenty of characters in the novel carry burdens with them. For some these burdens lead to disastrous life choices, for some they lead to battles of resistance and self-discovery. Mary Higgins Clark’s characteristic empathy and sincerity permeates Remember Me like a warm breeze without being cloying. Serious subject matter is handled with grace and dignity – a refreshing trait. While the topics of murder and death are not presented in a graphic way, as compared to most Scandinavian thrillers, for example, the just right balance of words and description is enough to send a chill down your spine, as well as evoke the feelings of sadness characters are going through.

The next summer they’d lost Bobby. And after that, Menley thought, all I knew was the awful numbness, the feeling of being detached from every other human being…

Mary Higgins Clark has the unique gift of seamless, unburdened prose, which by no means make it simple, but lets it hit right at the heart of the story and the characters’ thoughts.

Though each of her novels is special in its own way, Remember Me stands out for particular reasons. The novel draws the reader in to the story within the story, the writing within the writing, as Menley Nichols herself is getting more and more drawn in to the research of the history of the house she and her family are staying in during their summer in Cape Cod. The feeling of something about to come to a head grows stronger and stronger throughout the novel, as we wonder along with Menley whether the alleged murderer is innocent, if her heart will heal after loosing her first child, and just how deep her connection to the centuries-old story of the former owners of the house is.

Suspense, no other word for it. And first-class writing about life.

 

 

Painting Words on Your Wall

Now, I hate painting, based on the one and only time I did it after shamelessly procrastinating. But if I were to do it, this could tempt me.

Author Meredith McCardle painted the first page of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on her wall in three weeks. There is something about the sheer purity and the simultaneous richness of words on a white page that is accessible as an art object, especially if it’s words from a beloved book that still makes your skin tingle.

Speaking as a fellow Harry Potter fan, great choice of wall coverage! Glancing over at my own shelves, I confess I would take a page out of the same book (pun!) My own choice would possibly be the passage describing Harry finally casting his first, real Patronus in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: “And then it hit him – he understood. He hadn’t seen his father – he had seen himself

Harry flung himself  out from behind the bush and pulled out his wand.

“EXPECTO PATRONUM!” he yelled.

And out of the end of his wand burst, not a shapeless cloud of mist, but a blinding, dazzling, silver animal.”

The memories make me tear up. Another choice would be Jane Austen’s immortal Pride and Prejudice, which I feel I can open at any page. Actually, I just opened it at Mr. Collins’ proposal to Lizzy – no, not for my wall. How about this: “They walked on, without knowing in what direction. There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to any other objects.”

Ray Bradbury’s special prose from The Halloween Tree is also a good idea for some word painting: “And Ghost and Mummy and Skeleton and Witch and all the rest were back at their own homes, on their own porches, and each turned to look at the town and remember this special night they would never in all their lives ever forget and they looked across the town at one another’s porches but especially on and over across the ravine to that great House where at the very top Mr. Moundshroud stood on his spike-railinged roof.”

I’m so lucky that the works I’ve quoted here so far also have great film adaptations to underline their brilliance. How about playing an audiobook or the movie in the background as you paint?

I am very tempted. Very.

 

Readsomnia

Just seeing a picture of colourful book spines is enough to make me feel charged and run again to my bookcase. It’s a reminder of one of the things I love to do most, because it goes hand in hand with my writsomnia.

There’s a stack of books on my nightstand, some of them with bookmarks sticking out of the middle, others waiting to be opened. A magazine with historical photos of my favourite city rests at the bottom, supporting the small tower on its wide cover, while several new additions to my library are lying atop the novels properly lining my bookshelves. So many memories and so many worlds at my fingertips.

During today’s Internet wanderings I came across this enjoyable and very relatable article on how to fit more reading in your daily routine. I wouldn’t say I’m a particular supporter of setting reading goals for myself – I tend to lean heavily towards wishes, curiousity and basic need. This probably stems from the many years of having to work with reading lists, first in heavily humanities based high school classes, then in a even more heavily literature based university course with a hastily put together curriculum. I never measured my personal reading, I just did it. And I’m afraid I still harbour a deeply-seated mistrust of school reading lists, while at the same time retaining proper respect for homework and school as a fact of life. By coincidence, the reading lists I had to deal with rarely reflected my tastes at that moment in time. But they encouraged me to make lists for myself, something I have taken up with renewed enthusiasm as an adult.

I’ve probably also been spoiled by always being allowed to curl up with whichever book I wanted and having the space at home to do so, not to mention a literature professor mother who I could ask about aforementioned literary works for university courses (cough).

The article by Mashable’s Scott Muska lists the very first tip which I myself love – to never leave home without a book. A friend of mine once said she liked to have a bag that would always fit a book, and I agree. Paperbacks are usually easy to take along, and even if I don’t get to peek in during the day (torture), it’s still comforting to know it’s there. And e-readers are a godsend! Being a big fan of turning pages and scrutinizing covers in anticipation, it took me a little time to warm up to mine, but I did. Grabbing a moment to read when you are waiting or not really doing anything somewhere is another tip the article gives – one of my favourite places to do this is the subway or the bus. I also discovered this increases my reading speed – something about being in a contained bubble of time until you have to get out. If not for a goal, reading does bring you towards a special sense of achievement. And reading before bed is a sure-fire way to get sleepy after a long day at work.

I don’t remember not being conscious of reading or what a book was. My great-grandmother was an educator and a large part of her career was spent teaching both children and adults how to read. Her daughter, my grandmother, became a beloved employee of her university library. Bookshelves lined the walls of her own home, where in turn her daughter, my mother, would spend hours reading, something she quietly learned to do on her own at the tender age of three, while listening to my grandmother teaching someone else in the family. It was at my great-grandmother’s house, also full of books, that my mother was discovered sitting on the floor next to an encyclopedia half her size, carefully turning pages. She would read to her own children, in some cases the same book several times over with each child. My father would take over on the evenings when she worked, patiently waiting while I “explained” the story myself based on the illustrations.

This connection with the printed and the written has followed me through several generations. I remember wandering around, trying to see what was on the topmost bookshelves in my childhood home and feeling confident that one day I would get to find out for myself. I remember taking learning to read as a given next step, and the elation of my first book-based discussions with both adults, siblings and friends alike. I remember light arguments about finally turning the light off on a school night not because of phone calls or too much TV, but because of being stuck in a book, vaguely muttering, “In a minute” and having that minute turn in to half an hour. I also remember trying to read under the covers with a flashlight à la my hero Harriet the spy, but it wasn’t as comfortable, so I abandoned that particular method.

Nothing has really changed, except that I may actually be sleepy the next morning since I stayed up reading, as the days of parental supervision are behind me, continuing a heated inner dialogue about the story until I get to lose myself in it outside of my mind either here or in a conversation.

 

 

 

Home. A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews

Next in line for memoirs by inspiring female public figures. To not take away the many tantalizing and surprising bits, it was a filling, eye-opening read from an artist known not only for her unique singing voice, but cheery public image. I grew up with watching The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, and while I was mesmerized by Julie Andrews’ singing, since I was little I had always noticed, that when she smiled, her smile reached her eyes. Not many people have that quality. That’s what makes it all the more fascinating, as well as grounding, to discover the hardships that she faced throughout her childhood and youth, filled with work. Despite the very real challenges in her life, what stands out is her enjoyment of life and people, her matter-of-fact descriptions of hard times, and the seemingly natural taking on of staggering responsibility for both her family and her career. Never once does she turn away, and when she describes her theater experience, you get the sense that she was simply where she was meant to be. Reading and writing defined her almost as much as singing did, in fact. Whatever life threw her way, and as much as she had to carry on her shoulders even when she was just a girl, she was always capable of having fun.

She also presents valuable insights on the ever current topic of what it’s like for a woman to work in the entertainment industry, and some experiences that she recounts are not that far removed from what we hear about today. One of the passages that I couldn’t stop thinking about after reading it (after the first preview of the US performance of My Fair Lady): “Everyone rushed to Rex’s dressing room to congratulate him. I slumped in my chair, thinking, ‘I don’t believe we did it…’ at which point my door was flung open and Cecil Beaton flew in. The little hat that I wore with the yellow suit was lying on my dressing table. It was an oval shape and flat like a saucer. In he haste of pinning up my hair and the hat going on my head in the quick change, it had been put on back to front. It was the only thing that night that hadn’t been done correctly. Beaton picked up the hat and slammed it on to my had. ‘Not that way, you silly bitch – this way!’ he snapped. I nearly burst into tears.”

If you’re wondering, she doesn’t elaborate any further on this incident, or recount how she felt when she got home, or indeed the next day. But as she says later in the book, “When actors work together there is a tacit understanding that the show and its message are what matters above all else. Personal issues are set aside once the curtain is up.”

Cue massive Sound of Music nostalgia (though she rarely mentions the film in her memoir).

The Only Pirate at the Party. By Lindsey Stirling and Brooke S. Passey

Lindsey Stirling is one of my favourite artists on the planet. So when I heard that she was co-writing a memoir with her sister, I knew at once that I would have to get my hands on it. It must have been the fastest pre-order I ever placed. When it arrived, I read it in a day.

The book is a crowd-pleaser for her fans, just as her performances are. It’s all that Lindsey is herself: lively, warm, attentive, dedicated and sparklingly engaging. It’s also a written extension of her talent to observe, process and create.

The relationship with her sister and co-author Brooke is a guiding factor throughout her life, work and the book. In fact, some of the most interesting chapters, besides the ones about her work and life as a performing artist, are those where she talks about her family and siblings. The searing depiction of the influence of her eating disorder on her life and how she reclaimed being a sister left me floored, blinking back tears.

I nearly jumped when I read the the title Chapter on my Young and Carefree Drug/ Alcohol Escapades – was there something I had missed? To everyone’s relief, and subtly pointing out certain expectations regarding famous people, Lindsey writes, “I have never done drugs or consumed alcohol, so this chapter is really short.”

As happy and as positive both her personality and her work are (not without effort), several chapters of the book are darkly honest, though while being direct, the stories and struggles Lindsey touches on are not delivered to shock – they are part of the journey that led her to being herself, and she chose to include them.

One can’t help feeling admiration for the amount of work Lindsey put in, continuing to tour and make videos while working on the book with her sister, especially considering the devastating loss of her keyboarder and close friend Jason Gaviati to cancer shortly before the book was published.

The Only Pirate at the Party is full of moments both heart-wrenching and endearingly funny. There were times when I wanted to shout, “Lindsey! Don’t base anything you do on some of those mean comments! And certainly not on those reviews in the paper! They just don’t get it!” or “Don’t you see, those other musicians were just jealous of you!”

I was very fortunate to see Lindsey play live two years ago. The keen feeling for beauty that she carries inside herself translates not only to her art, but to the way the book is written. By the end of it you understand who this girl is, and why she is the only pirate at the party.

I hope she will always know just how incredibly, uniquely gifted she is.

Why Not Me? By Mindy Kaling

A logical sequel to reading Kaling’s first book was reading her second. Luckily it had already come out by the time I finished Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

Why Not Me? is described as a “second coming-of-age”, and in the modern world it might as well be. Kaling started writing about her life and work experiences in her first book, and she made it clear at the end of it that she wasn’t finished. Which was nice to read – you wanted to hear more from her. “If my childhood, teens, and twenties were about wanting people to like me, now I want people to know me. So, this is a start.”

While still familiarly funny and recognizable in Kaling’s both snappy and flowing prose, the book makes a more paced, thoughtful impression. The simple dedication, “For my mother”, and subsequent poignant chapter are an example of further examining deep and tested relationships that filled the author’s life. Youth and experiences described in Kaling’s first book are still not at all far away, but she is at a different level of depth. She also takes a more detailed look at phases that were mentioned in the prequel.

One of my favourite chapters was A Day in the Life of Mindy Kaling, because it answered the questions all readers probably have when buying a book of this kind. You have a voice, a vision, an identity – how do you do the things you do? How do you see life and work? What is it like beyond what we see of you in public?

But my absolute favourite is 4 A.M. Worries. This is another chapter in which Kaling is plainly vulnerable and simply writes down things that many people can identify with. Perhaps not always at 4 A.M., but Kaling nails describing those deep-seated, sometimes hidden worries so well, you almost think you just spent an hour talking to her.

But even those 4 A.M. worries don’t diminish the sassy, intelligent optimism Kaling exhibits. The coming-of-age does take place, yet again. “And these days, I find I’m caring less and less about what people think of me. Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my security in my career, maybe it’s because I’m skrilla flush with that dollah-dollah-bill-y’all, but if I had to identify my overall feeling these days, it’s much more “Eh, screw it. Here’s how I really feel.”

Here’s how I really feel: I would read this one again too.