Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) In Song

25434361Grammy Award-winning and Tony-nominated singer, songwriter, and actress Sara Bareilles has a whole lot of titles to stick onto her name already. 

Which means, of course, I was overjoyed when she decided to add "author" to that lineup! 

Ever since her hit single "Love Song" became a chart-topping success back in 2007, Sara Bareilles has made a career out of her folksy voice, genuine lyrics, and penchant for speaking to the heart of her worldwide fanbase, with songs like "Brave," and "King of Anything." Now, she takes to a different kind of writing platform, to share even more of her life in her own words, including views of her unconventional childhood, how to write a song, her battles with anxiety and depression, and what it took to make the world stop, and listen.

Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song is divided into eight chapters, organized around songs she has written that have been both personal to her, and influential to her career. From her origins with "Love Song," all the way to "She Used to Be Mine," the standout hit from her Tony Award- nominated original score for Waitress: The Musical, the stories held within the book cover not just themes of heartbreak, growth, the industry, and family, but detail what kind of work went into the construction of these notable works of art, and her impressive career.

To be clear (if you haven't been able to tell thus far): Sara is one of my favorite musical acts of all time. As one of my favorite contemporary songwriters, it would make sense that her words would speak to me just as completely through the format of a memoir, as they would through her music.

In fact, this book is one of those things where it's almost hard to review this objectively, due to the sheer amount of love and unconditional support I feel for the person who wrote it. I love Sara, I love her songs, and the feeling's not going away any time soon. Her music has long had a foothold in my life, and I've overjoyed at her continued success.

So, I refuse to distance the concepts of reviewing this as an outsider, versus the status of being a fan: this memoir not only made me love her even more as an already-established admirer, but gave new and additional insight into some of the elements of her career that I've been able to observe from the outside, as a fan, from stories behind the writing of songs I already know all the words to, to the creative process for Waitress, to exactly why she left her judging position on my family's one-time favorite show, The Sing-Off (aka, the a capella reality competition that first brought us the gift that is Pentatonix).

(Also,  in case you were a fan of that show, fellow judge Ben Folds wrote the forward!)

For instance, the story behind "Love Song" is a little different than what you've read or heard before, even when it was told by Sara herself. Her efforts to remain authentic in a media-obsessed industry have helped her carve out a sound and fanbase that's all about celebrating being yourself, which is one of the reasons why "Brave" was so personal to her. And when it comes to the song "Gravity," it captures the feeling of heartbreak so perfectly, because it was an artifact of heartbreak, itself.

In fact, Sara spoke so completely through the memoir, that I ended up highlighting excerpts from some of the chapters, because it meant so much for me to read them. Her writing is conversational and straightforward, while still preserving a sense of artistry that is unique to her style as a performer. In fact, the audio book is even narrated by her, so if you're as big a fan as I am, it might be worth it to hear her tell her own story, in her own voice, out loud.

Regardless, this was probably one of the most meaningful memoirs I've read in the last year.

Final Verdict: Direct, authentic, and incredibly personal, Sara Bareilles' voice shines through her memoir just as completely as it does through her music. Whether you're already a fan of her music, or a fan of celebrity memoirs, I think you should take a chance, and take a listen, because I feel like it's impossible to come out of this not rooting for her unique blend of musicianship and heart.

What's your favorite celebrity memoir? Have you read any written by musicians? Let me know, in the comments below!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Bits of Books: Enchantment of Ravens, The Magician King, Lost Boy

If you're going to settle down to the task of reading a great deal of books, you have to accept the reality that some of those books are going to be better than others. Some might be a total dumpster fire. Some might be a slightly smaller kitchen fire that someone started when they got a lighter too close to a potted plant. And even more so, some of those books are going to be... completely mediocre. You know, okay. Maybe even a little more than okay. Maybe even "perfectly fine."

But you can't just give a two word review like "Perfectly Fine." Instead, that's why I have room for mini-reviews of recent reads, in Bits of Books

An Enchantment of Ravens, Margaret Rogerson

An Enchantment of Ravens is the first novel for Margaret Rogerson, and follows a young painter, named Isobel, whose Craft attracts patronage from many of the fair folk. However, while she frequently finds herself in the company of these unique and dangerous subjects, she makes a crucial mistake when depicting one of the most powerful of all: she paints mortal sorrow into the Autumn Prince's eyes. Now she must travel with him to the Autumn Court and await trial for her crimes.... if they manage to get that far.

The story itself didn't exactly distract me, so much as leave me waiting for it to develop further. There were kernels of interest, new and exciting ideas, that appeared every once in a while, and parts of description where Rogerson really shined; however, too much of it was built on YA genre tropes for me to really grab hold of the narrative without thinking, "I've seen this too many times before."

Even worse, some of those belonged in the more annoying hallmarks of YA, such as insta-love, a regular person who is the chosen one for fairly achievable talents or personality traits, and the typical trappings of an immortal and ageless prince falling in love with a literal teenager.

The world-building felt lackluster, like every time the ideas started to develop outwards more fully, it fell short a couple steps before actually making the journey into a new concept. It was so close to so many different things, that could have been really cool or new, but never quite made it all the way there.

I'm not about to blame my dissatisfaction on the genre, either, as I've read some pretty remarkable fairy-based fantasies recently. Still, while it's easier to take stories about comprehensive high fantasy communities and multiple groups inter-working in one universe, the idea that all fairies exist in this one concise radius, know each other, and interact throughout the courts regularly, seemed a little claustrophobic, as well as unlikely.

All in all, definitely not a great read for me. However, the cover is stunning... and I was interested in enough of the minor nuances of the story concepts that I might be tempted to pick up one of the author's future reads. Maybe.

The Magician King (The Magicians #2), Lev Grossman 

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman, is the second installment in the popular The Magicians series. Once again following Quentin, Elliot, Janet, and Quentin's long-ago classmate Julia, the journey starts in Fillory, where Q finds himself wrapped up in an uncertain quest. Seeking a key at the end of the world, his journey takes him back to Earth, to the canals of Venice, and farther beyond the reaches of Fillory than he even accounted for. His magical education at Brakebills can't help him here... but Julia's unbridled street-learned abilities might just be the thing that takes them home.

In terms of second books that really feel like second books, this is very much a continuation, and in a lot of ways, specifically felt like a bridge for Quentin. The story was much more about Julia, who I enjoyed getting to know better, especially because of how much she'd been sidelined in the first novel. In fact, I still wish her story had been amped up even more.

Additionally, if the series does a great job of making settings feel like characters themselves, and if the main characters in the first book included Brakebills and Fillory, then the second book was oriented more towards Earth - specifically, the safe houses - and Outside-Continental-Fillory. Each place the characters traveled to carried its own distinct ambience and sense of construction.

I almost appreciated being on Earth more, because the narrative couldn't get away with deus ex machina conventionality so much. With Fillory, it often feels like things just happen due to "magic" and it's used as a brush-away excuse, but when confined to the limitations of Earth, even magic is forced into some form of confine that gives it a greater shape and depth.

I'm not terribly satisfied with the ending, but I suppose that's one of the great things about reading a series after its finished. I mean, I can just run out to Barnes and Noble this weekend and pick up a new copy. The same, however, cannot be said for those who read it in the time of its publication... in which case, how did you guys stick through it?

Lost Boy, Christina Henry

Lost Boy, by Christina Henry, is a retelling of J. M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan, told from the viewpoint of Captain Hook, long before he became captain. Before he joined the ranks of the Neverland pirates, and before he ever lost his hand. Back when he was Peter's first and favorite friend, and more often than not, the only thing standing between the other lost boys and some of the more unsavory parts of the island. When he thought that he'd never, ever grow up.

In the scope of adult-oriented fractured fairy tales, it's yet another Peter Pan retelling; this time, courtesy of the Captain. Among the various choices for narrator of various forms of this many-times-fractured tale - Wendy, Peter himself, Tiger Lily, Tink - those featuring the viewpoint of James Hook have always struck me as the most interesting... probably because, like him, I don't particularly care for Peter Pan, either.

It's not that I don't like the original narrative, it's that its a great story with just too many elements within it that rub me the wrong way. The good thing about Lost Boy, is that it adapts to this problem, both honing in on some of that difficulty in order to make it a central conflict, or zapping it out of the plot at all.

For instance, the brutality of Neverland - the endless cycles of violence, especially between boys and pirates, being depicted as fun and games - and the status of each Lost Boy as being someone shucked off by society in the real world, both come into direct conflict with the unbothered, unbloodied boyishness of Peter. These tragic status symbols that are widely brushed over in the original works, are made into plot fixtures in this one: Were the Lost Boys ever really that lost, unwanted, or forgotten? Was it really the children who demanded so much bloodsport? 

Other plot elements, like the problematic depictions of "Indian" tribes in Neverland that have plagued pretty much every adaptation of this story ever, are taken out entirely, and replaced with the antagonizing force of the "Many-Eyed," which are basically giant spiders. While these new creatures could just have been made to be an example of one of the Island's many beasts, they were completely central to the plot, and the tribe was not mentioned in the narrative whatsoever.

The book was okay, and more than that, it was exactly the kind of book I would have loved when I was younger, especially in how it runs up against other Peter Pan adaptations I've loved in the past. However, this book just didn't feel like it went that extra mile in making the story something more than itself. And when you try to retell a story as iconic as this one, you want to make sure the narrative soars all the way to that second star.

Have you read any so-so books recently? Do you have any book reccs for me? Let me know, in the comments below!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: The Hazel Wood

I had been on a string of reading really good books, including another recent YA fantasy release that I really enjoyed, and was worried that this much-anticipated novel might just get swept up in the tide. However, not only did it end up making an impact all its own, but it soared above and beyond my expectations. 

Basically, you know when you were a kid, and you were reading, and your mom called you away to do some chore, and you had to wrench your brain away from the book like you were emerging from a century-long nap? 

Without being too extra, this book made me feel like that. 

The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert, follows Alice, a teenage girl raised in constant motion, in order to outrun the misfortune that dogs her every step. When danger seems to catch up with her and her mother once more in New York, she knows she has to stop running, once and for all, and confront the past their small family was trying to avoid. Alice can only chart her own story, by finding what laid at the center of another one, so many years ago, in her grandmother's best-selling book of fairy tales... one she's never been allowed to read. But these tales aren't filled with "happily ever after"s, and as the search for her missing mother grows more dire, Alice isn't quite sure if she's going to find one for herself, either.

This novel is a much-hyped recent release that I was incredibly pleased to find not only lived up to the amount of positive reviews surrounding it, but exceeded it beyond my wildest expectations. It had some big shoes to fill, too: I read it right on the tails of The Cruel Prince, and was uncertain about reading two YA releases involving strong fantasy elements back to back. However, not only were they both different, but they were each made stronger by what made them different.

The Hazel Wood is dark... and I don't just mean that in a YA way, but in a literature-in-general kind of way. It carries a body count... brutality and bloodshed abound, even when packed within the confines of a fantasy-style atmosphere, and packaged with a teen female protagonist. Cruel Prince boasts a different kind of brutality, one colored by the bright and shiny wrappings of high fantasy and faerie courts, but Alice lives in New York, works at a cafe, and hates her high school. The drama comes from watching her real-world outlook cope with the introduction of deadly raven-calling nightmare women, disappearing books and reappearing trouble, and a forest in the middle of New York whose trees know more than they should.

The plot twists were shocking and sudden, and I loved them. Some were nearly gasp-worthy with their bloodshed or horror, while others brought about hope or clarity in such a stunning way that it actually made me smile. This book continued to surprise me at every corner, which is something I didn't think the YA fantasy genre could pull on me any more.

[It actually reminded me a lot - A LOT - of John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, not only for its focus on traditionalist (ie, Not Disney-fied, very much violent and unrepentant) plots of original fairy tales, but for how deeply woven the intersections of the fantasy world and the real world swirled together. There are so many similarities between the two reads, I feel completely confident in recommending each to fans of the other.]

Not only is the writing a little more on the intense side, but the writing style operates at a higher level of YA, as well: compelling syntax and sentence flow, a high level of diction, and well-constructed and paced metaphorical content, spell this book out as being written by someone who is just plain good at writing! To be honest, I think the gorgeously wrought descriptions are the backbone of the narrative itself: Melissa Albert clearly knows how to make things sound elegant and interesting. The metaphorical descriptions alone deserve some kind of medal, because there were frequent uses of simile that made me reread segments over and over in order to appreciate it more fully, like I used to feel when I read Scott Westerfield's So Yesterday as a kid.

The Goodreads profile for this book marks it as being the first in a series, and I'm not entirely sure how confident I am in that decision. This story would have been absolutely beautiful as a standalone, but due to how deeply I fell in love with Albert's writing style and compelling characters, I trust her to make that decision, and I look forward to reading more of her writing in the future.

Final Verdict: Dark, brutal, and expertly written, The Hazel Wood is a definite recommendation for those who like their fantasy a little more on the twisted side, like John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things or Seanan McGuire's Every Heart a Doorway. Don't be put off by the contemporary setting; the book is at its best when paying homage to the horror born from original folklore tradition. The best fairy tales were always warnings, after all.

What's your favorite YA release of the past year? Do you like books that come with their own fictional source material? Let me know, in the comments below!