Rambling Review: The Chemical Garden Trilogy

Because of my current lack of work, I’ve had a lot more time to read. I’ve devoted a lot of this time to the Outlander series per a good friend’s insistence, but now that I’ve made it through to the fourth book, I’ve taken a break to return to the world of young adult, which I love so much.

Since the move, I’ve been staring at our beautiful bookshelf full of my beloved YA series.

And so, I thought, why search for a new book or series to get involved in, when I have so many I know are great just waiting to be re-experienced?

I know a lot of people might not re-read books. I am not one of those people. Granted, I like to let enough time pass by that I forget the minute details and get to rediscover the little things that make a story great.

This past week, I read the Chemical Garden trilogy by Lauren DeStefano. The first in the series is available on Kindle for $4.99, and you can buy the whole series for $20-23, depending on print/digital.

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The trilogy centers around Rhine, a lovely sixteen year old who’s been kidnapped and forced into marriage. Usually, marriage is the best a girl can hope for in her short life — females die at age 20, males at age 25. Rhine, however, just wants to live out her days with her twin brother, and she’s desperate to escape and return to him. The series follows her through escape attempts, adventure, budding romance, and learning all different ways to define the term “love”.

I read DeStefano’s Internment Chronicles series first — also highly recommend — before returning to her debut series. The writing in the first novel is a bit stilted at times, but I can’t say if it’s simply because she was a new author, or if it was because of the character. Sometimes the prose felt a bit distant, but that actually works for the story, since Rhine is clearly trying to distance herself from her current situation. As the story progresses and she falls deeper into the messes she and others have made, the narration is tighter, more internalized, and feels more true to who she may actually be.

As I’m sure I’ve made clear through my previous reviews, I love a good love interest. This series is particularly great at giving little snippet-views of a possible romance, without the love story overtaking the action and adventure of the actual plot. Unlike a lot of YA that has a love triangle, there isn’t an exact shape drawn between two obvious choices. Rather, much like real life, my feelings towards her “options” were fluid, rising and falling with each good and bad experience, inevitability wrapped in “what-if”s and “if only”s.

There are some great twists, and anything that might seem too coincidental I think is explained very well with enough plausibility. The ending is bittersweet, life balanced with death, joy measured through pain, and I think that might be what I like best.

 

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[Fantasy] Football Season is Here!

I love this time of year. Apart from the promise of pumpkin beers and sweaters and boots, fall brings with it the delight of football season.

I was never that girl: super into football. Baseball was my sport of choice, but I’d watch basketball or football if it was on. I’d half-heartedly cheer for the Patriots or Packers (which are my parents’ favorite teams) or the Redskins (because they were the home team), or failing those excuses, I’d pick the team with the prettier uniform colors (i.e. Panthers and Seahawks).

The Wildcards invited me to join their fantasy football league two years ago. It was possibly a rare instance of the boys being nice, or maybe they figured adding a couple girls who didn’t pay attention to football would increase their chances of winning. I don’t think they realized just how consumingly competitive I am.

The first year, I scoured the lists of top players and read a few articles about projections, but mostly I went in fairly blind and ended up with a pretty phenomenal team that brought me to second place. Somehow, I managed to draft Gronk, Odell Beckham Jr, Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead, and Drew Brees. If I hadn’t lost Woodhead in a misguided trade and OBJ to his attitude — and suspension — I might have won it all.

Last year, I made it to play-offs, but ended middle of the pack. It was frustrating, since I’d spent far more time and energy last season reading every scrap of information I could get, taking risks tempered with “expert” advice. Still, I learned.

For me, the best result of fantasy football is that it’s encouraged me to pay attention. And not just to the teams I like for wishy-washy reasons, but to every game. Every player. Because of fantasy, I know the names of the top players in the league. And because of fantasy, I’ve found my favorite team in the Oakland Raiders.

My husband argues this is simply because we have family in Oakland. That helps, but even once they go to Vegas, as long as Carr leads them, I’ll follow. Between the past two years, I’ve had almost their entire (possible) offensive line on my team. My brother-in-law offered me the typical challenge when one claims to love a team: name three of their players. Easy: Carr, Crabtree, Cooper, Janikowski, Murray (at the time), Jalen Richard, Walford.

At this point, I could probably name at least three players on every team in the league. That’s not all Oakland has going for it. I just love watching them. They have an obvious cohesion and a fluidity that’s beautiful. They’re good — good enough to keep every game interesting — but not so good that it would be more exciting to watch them lose (ahem: Patriots). I’ve watched every single team play any number of times, but few give me a similar thrill to the one I get when the Raiders are on the field.

And I have fantasy football to thank for giving me a team to cheer for, and interest in a sport that’s as intricate and graceful as it is straight-forward and brutal. Win or lose, I’ll always have that.

But, obviously, I want to win, too.

Our First Month-iversary

Today marks one month since we arrived in Saint Louis, and in its honor (and because I have nothing clever to say), I will share some of my journal entries from the past four weeks.

Here are the highlights:

7/18 –

Thoughts and memories from the second half of the drive (Columbus, OH to Saint Louis, MO):

  • Way less pretty than the drive to OH
  • I saw a license plate from Alberta!
  • The last 20 minutes of the trip filled me with butterflies. I wanted to be like “no, never mind, let’s just go home, I don’t want to do this.” Then, coming around a bend, I caught my first glimpse of the arch. I audibly gasped and all I felt was excitement.img_4420
  • Passing Busch Stadium, “Country Grammar” came on — which has basically been my theme song for moving to The Lou.

Now we’re watching the first Harry Potter movie on the little TV I brought in my car — OMG I just found out my husband has never seen the end of the series and didn’t know (*SPOILERS*) Harry had to die. WHO DID I MARRY!?

It still doesn’t feel real, but as we get more unpacked and start exploring the neighborhood, I’m sure it will settle in.

7/19 –

My husband just informed me the pill bugs we found yesterday got squished into the bottom of our air mattress and won’t come off — gross, but hilarious!

Some bee-otch was moving out this morning and booked the loading dock from 8-10 but her movers were late and they were supposed to pack her up, too, and they were all “do you mind waiting?” and we had to be like LOL NO. carol

Tonight we had amazing Mexican at El Burro Loco and met the bartender Juan who recommended a strong Chupa Cabra Marg for me and promised I’d like it without even knowing me, but guess what: I did, so good job, Juan. — Love, me & tequila

7/22 –

This morning we got coffee from Soulard Coffee Garden. The back patio was very cute and their sit-down breakfast options looked good. We just got coffee/tea and a muffin — and the coffee guy was pretty douchey.

7/23 –

Since our dishwasher is still messed up, we’ve developed this adorable habit of washing and drying dishes by hand each night and even though there’s a drying mat if I take too long to grab a towel and start drying my husband chides me like, “excuse me, young lady, what do you think you’re doing?”

7/24 –

This morning we tried out Rise coffee shop in Tower Grove. We drove past one boarded building and two with graffiti so my husband was convinced we’d entered the heart of the ghetto. But the Tower Grove strip was nice — super hipster. It reminded me a lot of DC. We also checked out the Galleria so my husband could find some business casual pants — which he ended up ordering online. Typical millennial, destroying the department store industry.

For the fourth night in a row, I’ve asked if he wants to document anything. For the fourth time, he’s simply said “no.” with an angelic smile.

7/25 –

For dinner we went to Dressel’s Pub near us. My husband had the “best burger he’s had in five years” (or so he told his dad) and I had some freaking excellent crawfish mac n cheese.

7/27 –

My husband’s (FIRST) input:
The nice thing about living somewhere else is it forces you to reach out to people you wouldn’t otherwise.

And he likes his friend’s neighborhood in U-City.

8/11 –

My husband shaved his beard for picture day yesterday (frowny face). It won’t be so scratchy when I kiss him, but I really like him with a beard. Fortunately, he does, too, and will likely grow one again once “meet the firms” is over in September.

(Update): On our way to a river boat cruise with his MBA class, he and four of his buddies agreed to grow mustaches this november. NOT what I’d hope for his facial hair…

8/12 –

Last night’s river boat cruise was a lot of fun. It was cool being at the base of the arch, even if the river front is nothing special — very industrial. Still, coming back toward the dock after sunset, with the cool river breeze teasing the hair around my face, the city lights twinkling off the water and the shadowed arch looming overhead, it felt like one of those rare, fleeting moments of 100% perfection. A tiny sliver of pure contentment when you’re just happy to be alive.


After the cruise we went out in Ballpark Village, which was basically like a mall but with bars instead of stores. Expensive, though, so we left and went to Tin Roof. It was so fun, dancing with everyone. A lot of the guys had moves so similar to my wildcards I couldn’t stop laughing.

8/13 –

Tonight, my husband had to remind ME about Game of Thrones! I keep forgetting it’s an hour earlier here and almost missed getting to sing along with the opening.

Earlier in the day, we finally walked through our side of Forest Park. There are some very pretty bridges — one a Victorian footbridge from the 1890s — and decent water features. Still, it’s very shadowed/treed in the direction we walked, so I’ll likely not go that way alone. But it’s nice that we have such pretty walking/jogging paths literally right outside our door.

Hair and Boredom

So it’s been rough trying to come up with things to write about, since my days lately are spent sending out resumes like crazy, desperately searching for a new show to binge-watch, and feverishly devouring the Outlander series books (it’s been about a week and a half of reading and I’m already on book three). It’s harder and harder to get motivated to do anything, partially because I have the luxury of too much time, and partially because in the three weeks we’ve been here and the dozens of jobs I’ve applied for, I’ve had exactly one phone interview so far.

That’s probably not terrible, but I’m impatient. And slightly horrified of how bored I’ve become, and how much I miss interacting with people. Who knew an introvert could get too much alone time? I sure didn’t.

So today I had a plan to get out and do something, even if just read my book in the park or swing by a coffee shop, just to feel like I’m still part of a living world.

Then I got sidetracked by my hair.

I have three go-to hairstyles: down, ponytail, or bun. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll braid a section of my hair going into the ponytail. Or just pull the top part of my hair back. Despite the world of exciting hairstyles, I am not adventurous enough (read: too lazy) to try anything that seems remotely intricate. (No matter how much I drool over the Khaleesi’s hair in Game of Thrones).

It occurred to me that with this wealth of time stretching before me, I might as well teach myself a few new tricks to spice up my hair-life. It was on to YouTube, where I studiously tried several adorable “easy” styles.

The first I tried was a variation on my usual braid-into-ponytail, which was all well and good, but really only added time to a hairstyle I already over-use. The other two are hot-mess versions of what should have been adorable twists to the usual “little bit up” style I’m also used to. I probably should have gotten pictures of the front, because my hair was bulging and sticking up all over the place. Also, it doesn’t show in the pictures, but my super-fine strands kept getting gnarled around the elastics and refusing to sit in a casually poofy way.

The only style that came out fairly okay was the two-rope-braids-into-side-bun (the last of the styles shown in this video). Even this isn’t as carefree as hers, but it gives me hope that one day, I’ll get the knack for fun, casual up-dos down.

Now that my hair is off my neck, at least, it’s off to the park for some reading in the sun!

The Dark Side of Writing

This is about to get really real. Maybe too real. “Over-sharing”. But it’s been inside me for a long time and needs to get out. And maybe someone else needs to hear it. Maybe we aren’t alone, after all.

Sometimes, my dreams of getting published seem hopeless. And not because “so many people are trying, why should I succeed?” or “I’m just not good enough.” Maybe a little of the fear comes from the second, but not for the obvious reason that I think my writing is crap. Semi-objectively, my writing is decent. I’ve written some brilliant things I’m super proud of, and some really awful things that make me cringe just thinking about, but most of my writing falls into the category of “good enough” to be published. I notice weak writing — recognize my own short-comings — in published books all the time, so why not me?

No, I’m hopeless because I hit these blocks that are so much more than “writer’s block” the way I understand it. I don’t know how other writers experience it, so maybe I’m not as alone as it feels. The term “writer’s block” seems so benign. Like “eek, I’m stuck, time to brainstorm” or “wrote myself into a corner” or “let’s take a walk to clear my mind and come back fresh.”

That’s not me.

When I hit a block, words desert me and I tumble face-first into a rock-strewn canyon. It’s dark and frigid and lonely, even walking hand-in-hand with my lover in the sunshine. A revelation smothers me, replacing the marrow in my bones with a certainty that I am nothing and will never amount to much more.

It’s not so much that no one will care what I have to say. That fear is quiet and constant, like a cat sleeping at my feet, occasionally hopping onto the table to flick my nose with its tail.

No, the writing depression is darker, more personal. It assures me that I do have a story worth telling; it encourages me that someone — maybe even just one person — needs what I have inside me, but I’ll never find the words to tell it. I am my own worst enemy and the only thing standing in the way of greatness.

If only I could shed the weaker parts of me. If only my brain could leave my damaged heart and trembling fingers for a stronger body. Or maybe it’s my heart — tender and full — that needs to escape the dictator in my brain, unfeeling and inconsiderate of the words trying to bleed freely. Maybe my skin is trapping the story, pressing it against muscle and bone instead of allowing it to burst into the world. If only I’d been born someone else, I wouldn’t have this problem. My imagination inside a stronger vessel would find its purpose.

In this dark place, I sit on the cold ground, my back pressed to the ravine wall, staring at characters I love more than life. Apologies whisper past my lips: “You should be real,” I tell them, “not me.” It isn’t fair — they have words to share, but a worthless creator who can’t hear them.

The hopeless void stretches in front of me, with no end in sight. I read other people’s words and know I could have said it better, if only my brain worked harder, if only my heart felt more (felt less?), if my hands held the pen with more authority, if my soul didn’t smother my words.

My chest aches, dull and hollow, like an empty mussel on the beach at low tide, picked over and baked. I hunker down to wait it out, desperately clinging to the fragile hope that — someday — words will return, and it will feel as if I could never fail.

I’ll ride that high as long as I can, until, inevitably, I tumble to the ground again. I could walk away from writing, but in the words of Anne Shirley: “I can’t help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It’s as glorious as soaring through a sunset… almost pays for the thud.”

 

Rambling Reviews: Secondborn

**This contains a few spoilers, though — as I’ll go into more below — nothing really felt like a “big reveal” enough to qualify protecting the details**

For July’s “Kindle First” book, I chose Secondborn by Amy Bartol. An aside — Kindle First is possibly my favorite part of being an Amazon Prime member, since I get a free book each month before it’s released to the public. It’s currently $4.99 otherwise.

I love the concept of the story: Firstborns are basically royalty, secondborns are servants and soldiers, thirdborns are illegal and therefore destroyed. Of course, Secondborn follows one such secondborn, Roselle, as she acclimates to her new life as a member of the Fates Army. Since she’s the daughter of one of the highest leaders of the society, she’s something of a celebrity, making her transition into the ranks that much harder.

Bartol’s world-building is pretty phenomenal. I love the different “trees” everyone lives in, and the imaginative technology. After finishing this book, I read that she is well-known for her fantastic worlds, and this time was no exception.

World-building aside, this book felt more like a rough first draft than anything. The relationships are hurried and there is very little depth to Roselle. I liked Hawthorne as a potential love interest, but as soon as I’d thought that, he was declaring his love and they were in this intense physical relationship that just felt strange. Then a year passes (denoted by “one year later”), in which an actual relationship could have developed more naturally between them — complete with the slow, delicious build up of more and more physical affection — and I might have felt more invested when he was suddenly ripped away from her.

She seems to attract every handsome male in her vicinity. That didn’t exactly bug me — after all, her life had been broadcast since a child, and it’s insinuated she’s very pretty — but I couldn’t tell how she felt back. There’s a lot of exposition and “telling” rather than showing, but I don’t feel like I ever really saw inside Roselle’s head.

The whole thing ends rather abruptly, in what feels like the middle of a conversation. There’s no resolution of a goal — and in retrospect, I’m not even sure what Roselle’s goals as a character were for this story. Too many questions were left unanswered, and more cropped up with such a quick ending.

All that being said, if the second book shows up as a free option, I might check it out. There’s so much potential for a great series. The characters can be fleshed out more, given actual motivations and backstory and their relationships and interactions to flow more naturally. The underlying concept of the story has potential to generate enticing plot lines. And like I said earlier, the world itself is fascinating. The first book was just too rushed and disjointed for me to recommend it.

When it Comes to Baseball, I’m a Home-Team Fan

During my first baseball game in Saint Louis, I realized something about myself: when it comes to baseball, I’m a home-team fan. I’ve been accused of being a fair-weather fan in the past, and it’s something I’ve always been offended by (and, honestly, a little afraid of). But this, I think, is different.

It’s true, I’ll cheer for the Orioles or the Red Sox or the Nationals with equal enthusiasm. And at the Cardinals game, I felt the same stirring of excitement and home-team pride.

That’s when it hit me: I cheered for the Red Sox because my parents are from New England, and especially when I was younger, they were so fun to watch. I loved Big Papi and Jason Varitek and Johnny Damon (until he broke my heart and trust with his unforgivable move to the Yankees) and Jacoby Ellsbury (who is possibly the only man who looks better clean-shaven and therefore his move to the Yankees is understandable and forgivable). I spent a good chunk of my life cheering for a team with a rich history and exceptional rivalry, and even now, I’ll pause to catch part of a game or cheer inside when I see them leading the league.

I was born in Maryland and grew up during Cal Ripken Jr.’s reign, so of course I was an Orioles fan. Even after we moved to Virginia, Baltimore was the closest we had to a home team. Camden Yards is a gorgeous stadium that even now, I love to visit. Similar to the Red Sox, I’ll cheer for the Orioles to do well.

My husband is the Nationals fan in our house. He brought me to Nats Park the first time, and his love for them encouraged me to make a little room to become a fan of a National League team (up to this point, I only really cared about American League, because — see above). By the time we left Virginia, the Nats had a hold on the bulk of my baseball loyalty. They’re fun to watch, and they’re building a legacy to one day rival that of the Red Sox or Yankees or Cardinals — teams with the best-known die-hard fans.

But now, we’re in Saint Louis, home of that other franchise steeped in history and legacy. Coincidentally, this is the 125th year of the Cardinals franchise. They’ve been around a lot longer than the Nationals, and they have a row of World Series pennants to show for it. By the time I went to the first game, I knew at least something about half the team, which made me like them even more. I watched Bader (fresh from the minors) score the winning run after seeing his dad on TV talking about how proud he was of his kid, how he’d try to hit him with the ball when they practiced so Bader wouldn’t be afraid of it.

They’re a fast team, which is fun because my favorite part of baseball is stolen bases. Grichuk and the Rockies’ pitcher went back and forth almost every pitch, with Grichuk leading off first base farther than the pitcher liked. Matt Carpenter teased them with threats of stealing home. DeJong smashed a homerun right down centerfield.

It was easy to see why the Cardinals have such an energetic and loyal following. It was also easy to see my husband and I will have little choice in becoming Cardinals fans. It’s already started.

And while we’ll always love the Nationals, I think it’s okay to root, root, root for the home team. As our definition of “home” grows, the list of teams we associate with home can grow, too.