Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thursday's Favorites Spotlight: Harry Potter

It's Thursday already!  Time for my Favorites Spotlight!  And this week it's my all-time favorite series:

I belong to the generation that grew up with this series.  The first time I read this book, I was 11 years old and the third book had already come out.  I didn’t know much about the series, except that everyone in my school seemed to be reading these books, and the book covers looked really cool.  So I asked my mom if I could have a copy of The Sorcerer’s Stone to read.  

I was in love with this series from the very first page.  I was so entranced by the magic in the book, that I remember wishing forlornly that I would perhaps receive a letter from Hogwarts just like Harry did.  The world that Rowling created was complete in every way, down to the smallest detail.  It is a small wonder that I, along with many other children, fervently wished that this wondrous place was real.  Even as an adult, I sometimes daydream of visiting Diagon Alley and entering Hogwarts with a trunk full of books and a wand in my hand.

For my 12th birthday, I received the next two books in the series.  Suffice it to say that I zipped right through the two of them.  The book plots were so exciting, that I even cheered aloud.  I felt like I was right there with Harry crying “Expecto Patronum!”  The books ended too quickly however, and I, along with the rest of the world, had to wait anxiously for the next book to come out.

Waiting for the next installment became a ritual for me.  When the books became available for pre-order, I would go to Borders (back when they still existed) or Barnes & Noble with my mom and order my own copy.  In the weeks leading up to the highly anticipated release date, I would re-read the other books, sometimes more than once.  And as soon as the new book came out, I would go straight to the bookstore, pick up my copy, and eagerly race through its pages.  I never went to a midnight-release party, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t a Harry Potter fanatic.  Not a year has gone by where I haven’t read the series more than once.  They were, and continue to be, my go-to books when I’m bored; they were, and are, my comfort reads when I’m sad or stressed.  

When the final book came out, I read through the whole series yet again, finishing the sixth book at 10 p.m. at night, a few days after the release of the seventh book.  I then immediately proceeded to read the seventh and final book, which I finished in just under 12 hours.  Then I read the whole series one more time, because I just couldn’t get enough.

It’s been 15 years since I first read The Sorcerer’s Stone, and I still truly love these books.  I never get tired of them, and I can still say with absolute certainty that Harry Potter is my all-time favorite series.  I’ve continued my tradition of re-reading the books once a year, sometimes more if I really need them.

Harry Potter has been, and continues to be, a much-beloved series by adults and children alike, and for good reason.  J.K. Rowling has created an amazing, beautiful, and magical world, with an incredible amount of depth and detail, from the remarkable Hogwarts School, to the seemingly insignificant cost of beetle eyes at the apothecary (5 Knuts a scoop, in case you were wondering).  This world is so complete that people can almost believe it exists, to the point where they ask dozens of questions in order to know more.  This subtle, yet imaginative ability to construct new worlds requires a creative talent that only a very few fantasy authors truly possess (J.R.R. Tolkien being one of them), and I’m happy to say Rowling definitely possesses it.

And it’s not just the magic, or the exciting plots, or even the humor that makes these books so amazing; it’s the message they give to its readers.  This series promotes kindness, friendship, and open-mindedness with every page.  One cannot deny that Harry Potter has influenced the way children perceive the world around them, showing them not only the magic that already exists, but also the benefits of compassion and equality towards everyone, especially towards those who are very different from you.  A story that can successfully send such a positive message certainly deserves plenty of praise.

This series is on its way to becoming a timeless classic, and anyone who, like me, has grown up with these books, will agree with me when I say that these are books that everyone should read.  I recommend this series with all my heart, and I hope you, or your children, will enjoy them as much as I did.

Harry—I mean, uh, happy—reading everyone!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tuesday's Opinions: Self-Publishing Authors

It's Tuesday!  And it's time for me to shell out my opinions!  This week it's book-related.

My topic of choice today: self-publishing

for my review click here
Thus far, I've only read 2 self-published books.  The first one, called A Dewdrop Away, was a book that was written by a local author who works at my favorite, family-owned coffee shop (The Coffee Trade, if anyone is interested).  I bought her book because I was impressed that she had written, published, and promoted this book all by herself, so I wanted to support her efforts.  Her book wasn't all that bad, really.  It was original and creative, and had some good parts.  It wasn't perfect, however.  I felt the writing needed a little more work, maybe a little more editing.  This book could've benefited from an agent or publisher reading through this, or at the very least from a more critical group of readers before publication.  But she's on her way to being a great writer, I hope she keeps it up.
The second book was a BOTM (Book Of The Month) for a reading group.  I read it earlier this month, and it's called My Name Is Rapunzel.  I gave it a try because the ebook was cheap and the synopsis was intriguing.  Plus, I felt generous.  I mean, we should support new and aspiring authors, so I read it.....
For my review click here
.....and it was terrible.  It's in my 1-star Shelf Of Shame.  The author had a great premise, but failed horribly in the execution.  I don't normally give such a harsh review, I really don't.  I'm usually pretty generous and try to find some good points for every story I read, while being tactful with my critiques.  But this book irritated me so much that I really didn't have anything good to say about it in my review.  In my opinion, this author was lazy, impatient, and too quick to publish.  Her one editor was her best friend, and she copied and pasted whole chapters so you ended up reading the same thing twice.  As you can see, I still fuming over this read.

So based on these two experiences, what do I think of self-publishing?  Well, I think self-published books should be approached with great caution.  I have a hunch that the majority of them are terrible, with only a few being worth a look.  Based on my experiences so far (one decent read and one bad read), I'm going to look upon self-published reads with a certain degree of suspicion and misgiving.

Here's my theory about self-publishing: some authors self-publish because they want to get their work out there and be recognized, others self-publish because they don't take criticism very well but want to be an author anyway.  The former has potential to be a great author, the latter is most likely going to be a terrible author.  Personally I think that in order to be a good author, one should accept criticism from at least one trusted source and use it to improve his or her work.  Writing is a form a self-expression, but writing a book also means that you're trying to give something new and wonderful to a specific audience, which in turn means that you need to please them as well as yourself.  If you're going to self-publish, at the very least try to find one or more critical reviewers beforehand who can look through your work and give you some constructive feedback, so you can improve your story and turn it into something that was better than before.  This professional can be a publishing agent, a professional editor, another author, even your English teacher/professor.  Just make sure it's someone who can look at your book critically and without bias.  Your work deserves any improvements you can make, so don't be so impatient to publish that you decide to skip this rather important step.

I applaud those who have the courage to publish their stories, and I wish to support new authors, but if an author truly wants approval from their readers, they need to give them something to love.  And that something requires lots of work and dedication.  It requires hours of time, a huge amount of revising and rewriting, and lots of constructive criticism from other people before it can be sent out to the world at large.  I will read a self-published book every once in a blue moon, but I look for quality in my books, and I will rate a book based on the quality I see.  That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.

If anyone has any opinions on this topic please share!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Weekly Updates On Dancing Books, Etc.

Greetings visitors!  It's the start of a new week and I'm behind schedule!  This was supposed to be posted on Sunday, but I had a lot of catching up to do on other fronts.

First, the books!
I just wrapped up the 12th installment in the Amelia Peabody series.  As always, this book was fun, but I just noticed this time around how mushy and melodramatic this book gets in the end.  It never bothered me before, but this time I rolled my eyes a bit.  Still love the book as a whole though.

As for the hardcover, I'm reading, well, let's just say the book Vicious just isn't vicious enough to keep me interested.  So far it's "meh".  But I'll keep plugging away at it and see how it goes.

Since it's the end of the month and I'm way behind on my goals, I hope to finish 3 books by the 31st.  Yeah, that's right, 3 books in 3 days.  I've done crazy goals like this before, so fingers crossed!

So here's the list for the week:

Books I've Finished:

For my review, click here: Lisa's Review

Books I'm Reading: For links to these books, click on the Goodreads shelf on the right-hand side labeled "Currently Reading"

Now for the dance stuff.  So far, the only thing I know of for now is the First Friday Swing Dance happening this Friday at the West Hartford Town Hall! If you live in Connecticut or Massachusetts this is a great place to do some swing to live music!  For details click here.

Well, that's it for now.  Happy Monday everyone!

Favorites Spotlight

Favorites Spotlight:  The Amelia Peabody Series, by Elizabeth Peters

# of Books in Series: 19
Genre: Mystery, historical fiction
Words to Describe This Series: witty, fun, adventurous, historically accurate, well-written

The author, Elizabeth Peters
I first read this series back when I was a teenager (14 or 15, I can’t remember); my library had the first installment of the series on audiobook, and I was interested in Ancient Egypt, so I gave it a try. 

And I loved it!  The book was so much fun, and the protagonist is a character you can’t help but love.  So I went and found the second book in the series.  Then the third…then the fourth....  Pretty soon I was going to other libraries to find the rest of the books in the series, the ones my library didn’t have.  It took some time, but eventually I managed to read every single book in the series in chronological order, with the exception of the latest one, and I’m on my way to remedy that.
At one point I was able to read some of this.

This is a series whose books I’ve reread again and again.  Before I read this series, I was only mildly intrigued by Egyptology.  These books pushed me into becoming an Egyptology nerd.  I listened to Bob Brier’s audio-lectures on the history of Ancient Egypt…three times.  At every museum I visited, I headed straight for the Ancient Egypt exhibit.  Thanks to these books, I learned how to read hieroglyphs.  They even influenced my decision to minor in archaeology in college.

These books had a big impact on my life when I was younger.  Now I’m an adult in my twenties, and while my dreams of becoming a world-famous archaeologist didn’t pan out, I still love reading these books.

Amelia Peabody Emerson
So what makes these books so awesome?  Well, first there’s our clever protagonist, Amelia Peabody Emerson.  She is witty, stubborn, and a feminist in the Victorian era.  She refuses to fit in with societal norms, choosing instead to become a parasol-carrying, bad-guy-fighting archaeologist, and works as an equal alongside her irascible, yet dashing husband, Radcliffe Emerson. 

You also can’t forget their talented son, Walter “Ramses” Emerson.  Ramses makes his debut in book #2 The Curse Of The Pharaohs as a precocious 4-year-old boy.  As the series progresses, he goes from being a gifted yet rambunctious
little boy, to a handsome, intelligent man of many talents.  When I was younger I had a little book crush on the adult Ramses, still do as a matter of fact.
What Ramses would look like in real life
The Emersons aren’t the only loveable characters.  Elizabeth Peters provides us with numerous characters to fall in love with: Abdullah, Evelyn, Selim, David Todros, and Nefret Forth, to name only a few.  All of the characters are very well-developed, to the point that they become real to the reader.  You want to keep reading the books just so you can find out what happens to them.

The setting is another reason to love these books.  The series take place both in Egypt and in England, starting in the year 1884 and ending with the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922.  You are transported back in time to the Golden Age of Egyptology, where big names such as Wallis Budge and Howard Carter regularly make guest appearances, and where you are thoroughly engulfed in the cultures and traditions of that time.  Peters did an excellent job researching this time period, I think.  From what I can tell, everything is very accurate.  And I really appreciated how Peters respects the native Egyptians in these novels.  In the books, many Egyptian characters are given more respect than some of the archaeologists, and the Muslim community is shown to be really colorful and even beautiful.  I just really love how the author portrays every aspect of that time period without fault.

They're just as much fun as the Indiana Jones movies
Reason number three to love this series: the story itself!  These books are always exciting and fun.  There’s a little bit of everything: humor, mystery, adventure, romance.  These books are like the Indiana Jones movies, except instead of just one archaeologist, there’s a whole family of them!  

Overall, there’s just so much that this series has for a reader to enjoy.  Sure, like any long-lasting series, the books start to get tiresome after a while, and you read the final books more out of necessity than for pleasure, but every installment in this series has something good to offer.  I would strongly recommend these novels for just about anyone, but particularly to lovers of mystery and historical fiction.  And if you aren’t sold by the first book, at the very least try the sequel.  I think the second book is the best introductory example to what the entire series has to offer, and if you don't like it after that, ah well.

Enjoy everybody!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Tuesday's Opinions: The Benefits Of Ballroom Dancing

Before I begin, yes, I know what day it is.  I am fully aware that Tuesday won't come around for another few days, but I'm too impatient to get this blog going, and right now, I don't have anything regarding my passion of dancing.  So today's blog post will be all about ballroom dancing.

Fred Astaire And Ginger Rogers
My mother with her partner, David Rosinski
Now, I know that I'm a little biased when it comes to this topic, and it's not just because I'm a dance teacher.  Ballroom dancing has been a huge part of my life, ever since I was 5 years old, and mainly it's because of my mom, Michele Evans.  She's been a ballroom dance teacher for over 30 years.  She's also a former Blackpool Dance Champion.  Thanks to her efforts, I grew up learning the various forms of ballroom dancing.  I did performances, I got my friends to do it, I even wrote a college paper on it for my cultural anthropology class.  This activity is woven into my life's history, including my love life.  If it weren't for my mother's dance classes, I never would have met my husband.

In this day and age, ballroom dancing is slowly dying.  It will never be eradicated, in my opinion, but clearly it has lost a lot of its popularity as a social activity.  Back in the good old days, dancing was naturally part of every party or celebration.  Nowadays, you'll be lucky to find a party with a decent dance floor.  Music is now just background noise, and no longer an inspiration for your best dance moves.  The people of my own generation don't even move their feet when they dance, but jiggle to the tunes with a drink in their hands.  In fact, most people refuse to even venture onto the dance floor until they've consumed a few alcoholic beverages.  The majority of my friends refuse to learn ballroom because they either feel embarrassed or clumsy; the same goes for just about everyone else who won't even try it.

Whenever I tell people I teach dance, the majority of people immediately respond by saying, "Oh, I could never dance."  It's a response that irritates me to no end.  Of course you can dance, you're just not interested in trying it!  Ballroom dancing is surprisingly easy and fun to do, although some dance teachers complicate matters by focusing too much on perfection.  There is no need to be perfect, but there is every need to enjoy it.  Ballroom dancing gives you more to do on the dance floor, with the additional bonus that you get to meet people while doing it, or at least have more reasons to have fun with your friends or loved ones.  It can easily create a very friendly, very social atmosphere.  Some people can look very stuffy and snobbish when dancing ballroom (perhaps that’s why some people are turned off by it), but the majority of people who try it are really just looking for a good time.

For the ladies, there's an added perk: ballroom dancing is safe!  I’m sure all women know what I’m talking about when I say that you run the risk of being sexually harassed or hit on when you go to a bar or nightclub.  If you walk into one of these establishments looking your best, chances are there will be some creep sidling up to you with some inappropriate joke or pick-up line,  especially if you are by yourself.  I’ve gone to nightclubs a couple of times, and I enjoy going to bars with my friends, but when I join my buddies on the dance floor and wiggle like everyone else, every once in a while I’ll notice some guys staring at me.  Leering at me is more accurate.  You see their expression and you know they’re thinking of something inappropriate.  All this can make dancing be very uncomfortable for a woman and make her self-conscious.  The ballroom dance floor is completely different from your average night club.  A woman can dance with a complete stranger without any worry, because you know that he’s too busy focusing on what he’s doing for there to be any sexual undertones.  And when you’re on the floor, sure there will be guys watching you from the sidelines, but instead of leering, they’re probably thinking, “Ooo, nice form on that natural spin turn, I should probably ask her to dance the next waltz”.  Okay, maybe they’re not thinking that exactly, but you see what I mean.  Ballroom is safe.

There are just so many excellent reasons to learn to dance, and to include it at every party.  It really is unfortunate that people can find a bunch of reasons to not dance.  Once someone tells me they can’t dance, I usually get the following excuses:

No need to look like a pro
1) “I can’t dance.  I’ll look like a clumsy idiot.”  Being extremely shy and self-conscious is the first big reason to not dance.  What's so frustrating for me as a teacher is that there really isn't anything to be self-conscious about.  Everyone has to start somewhere; even the most experienced, amazing dancer started out with clumsy footwork.  It’s not going to look all that great in the beginning, but like any other physical activity, practice and persistence always pays off.  Sure you might not end up looking like those guys on Dancing With The Stars, but there's no need to look like a pro.  You just need to be comfortable and happy with what you’re doing.

2) “I can’t afford it.” Ah, the major dilemma.  The cost.  Oftentimes when you go searching for dance studios, the studios that are the easiest to find are also easily the most expensive.  Contracts and huge lesson packages with large price tags attached can be a huge deterrent.  One couple I currently teach had previously learned to ballroom dance at another dance studio.  Their lesson package cost them a whopping $7,000!  And unfortunately, a lot of other franchise studios charge similar 4-digit prices.  Worse still, when you shackle yourself to these studios, your dance progress will be very slow and very technical, since they also want you to participate in competitions and exhibitions.

These studios are not the only places out there, however.  If you dig a little deeper, you can easily find a whole bunch of dance workshops in the local area, as well as small studios that are run by a self-employed dance teacher.  These places are enormously cheaper than the bigger franchises.  Even better, a lot of them are walk-ins only, or they offer nice small packages that don’t require a financial advisor, so you can pay as you go and quit easily if that place is not working for you.  These places also tend to focus on your comfort and enjoyment, rather than on just the technical stuff (the technical stuff is necessary, just not all at once at the very beginning), so you end up learning dance moves more quickly.  I’m not going to use this blog to brag about my mom’s studio (where I work), but my mother takes particular pride in the fact that her studio encourages walk-ins (no package necessary), charges very little ($10 a group class), and promotes a friendly, fun environment.  Personally, I take pride in that too; it makes my job more fun.

3) “Where could I ballroom dance?  Not at the places I go to.” One more big excuse is where you can use ballroom dancing.  Maybe for the first dances at a wedding, but not really anywhere else, it seems.  Plus, the music nowadays really isn’t ballroom music, right?   

Go dance in the rain!
Wrong!  A lot people don't realize that the majority of music out there can be used for at least one type of ballroom dance, you just have to develop an ear for figuring out what fits (or just ask your friendly neighborhood dance teacher to figure it out).  A lot of songs by Muse can be used for Hustle and West Coast Swing.  Pharrell William's song "Happy" makes for an excellent East Coast Swing.  As for places to dance, so long as music is playing, you can dance ballroom anywhere.  Seriously, go dance at the night club, or at the park, or even at your friend’s backyard barbeque.  People will notice and compliment you for it.  Heck even if music isn't playing, you can dance ballroom!  Just pull off a Gene Kelly and go dancin’ in the rain!  There are plenty of opportunities to dance if you choose to look for them.

I should probably also mention that there are always ballroom dance socials in the area, in case you'd rather dance alongside other ballroom dancers.

Despite all these convincing arguments to learn to dance, people still refuse to try it, thinking it's uncool or something.  It's a shame really, because ballroom dancing can be such a wonderful activity to do.  But nobody is willing to even just try it, and that is the most frustrating thing for a ballroom dance teacher to see.  Ballroom dancing is a dying breed that deserves to stick around for a while, if for no other reason than because it’s fun to do.

But maybe there's still hope for ballroom.  Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I’m starting to see more and more people in my age group coming to my classes.  And when I go out and listen to live bands play, my husband and I will often see at least one other couple dancing alongside us.  People are slowly starting realize that ballroom dancing is genuinely fun.  Perfect example: There was this annual town festival that I attended with a bunch of my dance students and friends.  They had closed off the main street of the town to make room for all the food vendors, and an extra-large chunk of street was set up for the DJ and dance space.  Of course the second the music starting playing, my students broke out into a whole bunch of ballroom dance moves.  Apparently we looked like we were having a whole bunch of fun, because large groups of high school students kept joining us to try some of our moves out.  One even mentioned they thought our dancing was awesome, and several asked for my studio’s information.  It felt good to see young people be genuinely interested in learning how to dance.  Maybe one day they’ll recall how fun it looked, and decide to give it a try.  Or maybe not, but let’s hope so.  And if I didn’t convince them, then maybe I convinced you.  Ballroom dancing is fun, and if you’re still skeptical, then I recommend you go out and try it for yourself.  There’s no reason not to.