The One

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Cover art by Alan Lee

A couple weeks ago, Emily wrote a post about a popular Tumblr trend of listing your Top 10 Favorite Books, or the Top 10 Books That Changed Your Life, or something along those lines. As Emily noted, deciding which ten books to put on this list is far from easy. There are a lot good books to choose from, and throughout the years so many books have influenced me in a number of different ways. But the difficulty in choosing only applies to books #2-10. The top place on any possible list of ten books will always be the same 100% of the time without even the smallest doubt: The Lord of the Rings.

Those who know me are well aware of my undying love for J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings. I made my obsession with Tolkien and his work pretty obvious in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college via large posters taped on my wall, the excessive number of copies that I own, dressing up as Eowyn for Halloween, how often I quoted the movies during the day, and many other eccentric habits of mine that stem from my deep love of the three books that make up Tolkien’s immortal trilogy. So whether I’m making a list of my ten favorite books or the ten books that changed my life, The Lord of the Rings is always number one. This is partly because I love the story and the characters, partly because I was insanely obsessed with the books and the movies as a pre-teen, and partly because it is the best piece of fiction ever to come out of the Western world. But this book’s importance to me goes far beyond my own measly opinion that it is the best ever.

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J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings didn’t just influence me. It didn’t just inspire me. In a sense, the books created the person I am today. That sounds cheesy, but I don’t mean that it turned me into someone who wore a hobbit cloak to school and learned to speak Elvish. I mean that it awoke the creator inside of me, an aspect of myself that I consider to be of the upmost importance to my very being. Through Emily’s list of books, she’ll explain how each one influenced her as a writer, but The Lord of the Rings made me into a writer, or at least it turned me into a person who wanted to write. Not that I want to write like Tolkien or be Tolkien, but the man was the most powerful mythmaker I’ve ever read. He was the author who first gave me the idea that I could create worlds and characters and stories of my own. He didn’t just introduce me to mythmaking or story writing. To me, he practically invented the concept.

And it wasn’t just writing. Reading The Lord of the Rings was the thing that made me into an artist (albeit an average one). It inspired me to draw. I first started drawing in elementary school after I read Tolkien’s books and saw the movies. For some inexplicable reason, I felt not just the desire, but the need to draw these characters myself. And so I did. For years. And slowly I got better, and my interest in art expanded from there, but when I trace back my personal relationship with art, it starts with The Lord of the Rings.

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Three cheers for progress.

This also applies to music, though this is mostly due to the movies and the amazing score by Academy Award winning composer Howard Shore, but it ties directly to the books. Watching the movies, listening to the music, and reading about the cultures in Tolkien’s novels made me want to learn how to play the piano. I practically learned how to play the piano with the only goal of eventually learning how to play the music from Peter Jackson’s trilogy. But the stories in Tolkien’s work, along with the music he inspired in other artists like Enya, Chris Thile, and The Piano Guys, inspired me to try my own hand at composing. I’m not a spectacular composer, but it’s something I take great pleasure in that never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Tolkien and his writing.

Anyone who knows me is well aware that when I start talking about The Lord of the Rings I can’t stop, so I will leave my rambling about the characters and the themes for another time. For now, I will say that no other book was, is, or will be as important to me as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. To me, it wasn’t just a good book. It wasn’t just good writing or interesting characters or a compelling story. It was an agent of creation, awakening the artist inside of me. It didn’t just teach me how to write; it made me want to write in the first place—and draw and play music and stop biting my nails (true story). Without this book I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t have the same dreams or goals. I wouldn’t be trying to make it as a writer. I wouldn’t be Clare. How many books are that powerful in a person’s life?

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My brothers being good sports and agreeing to dress up as three hobbits and a Nazgul for Halloween, with me as my favorite character Eowyn on the left.

Mistborn

ImageMy relationship with the fantasy genre is complicated. On one hand, my all-time favorite book is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. From a young age I have loved stories about fairies, elves, magic, different worlds and universes, so it follows that I would love fantasy books. And I do. But the problem with loving The Lord of the Rings so much is that almost every fantasy novel you read afterwards seems like a cheap knock off in comparison. So despite my adoration of the stories, I am always very hesitant to pick up that kind of novel. There are just too many bad fantasy books out there. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, however, came highly recommended by several friends whose taste in literature I esteem, so I decided to give it a whirl. And for the first time in a long time, I fell in love with a fantasy novel.

Mistborn takes place in a fictional world known as the Final Empire, a place that has been ruled by one man, considered a god, called the Lord Ruler. The empire is sharply divided into two classes—the nobility and the skaa. Skaa are treated like slaves, forced to work under harsh circumstances, abused and killed at the whim of their noble masters. The nobility are rich and privileged, many of them born with the power of allomancy, the ability to utilize the energy of different metals as a power force (like the Force in Star Wars or magic in other books). Mistings are people who are capable of burning a specific type of metal to use for power. Mistborns are people who can burn all the types of metal and possess the strongest kind of power. In an attempt to keep this kind of power out of the skaa, laws forbid the interbreeding of the nobility and skaa. This law, however, does not always succeed, which gives way to the main characters of the book.

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Brandon Sanderson

Kelsier is one of these skaa/noble halfbreeds who inherited the powers of a mistborn. He is the most famous thief in the capitol city of Luthadel. Before the books starts, he and his wife were the best con team in the world until they were caught and sent to the Pits of Hathsin, essentially a death camp. Kelsier’s wife Mare dies in the Pits, but Kelsier survives and returns to Luthadel with a plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler and free the skaa from their thousand-year slavery. In order to do this, Kelsier assembles the best con team ever, the most important of whom is a young girl named Vin.

Vin, like Kelsier, is half skaa/half noble and also a mistborn. Kelsier brings her into his team and begins to teach her about allomancy. Having grown up on the streets, suffering abuse and betrayal left and right, Vin is slow to trust anyone, but the more time she spends with Kelsier and the other members of his team, the more she learns that there’s more to life than she thought possible. Vin is tasked with masquerading as a noblewoman from the country in an attempt to infiltrate the noble circle for spying purposes. It is during this mission that she meets Elend Venture, the heir to the most powerful noble house. From Kelsier and his friends, she has heard only terrible things about the noble class, many that she found to be true. But Elend seems different, good. Now as Kelsier’s ultimate plan unfolds, Vin finds herself falling in love with her supposed enemy.

One of the pitfalls of most fantasy novels is that they are very cliché—female warriors, thief stereotypes, old sages, video game styled battles, etc. Sanderson includes several fantasy expectations in his story, but he avoids the clichés. Kelsier is charismatic and daring, but unlike the sexy thief stereotype, his character flaws of pride and risk-taking get him and his team into serious trouble at times. Vin, unlike most female warriors, is portrayed with her own character flaws. She is more complicated than some badass fighter, her weaknesses showing as well as her strengths, especially her doubt in herself and other people.

ImageSanderson also pays more attention to the technical aspects of a rebellion than most fantasy authors. The organization doesn’t magically happen. The peasants aren’t magically trained warriors. It isn’t as easy as 1, 2, 3. Sanderson, via Kelsier, lays out a carefully planned rebellion planned out in stages, making the rebellion more realistic and interesting.

Sanderson’s novel isn’t perfect. Some of the supporting characters could have used more development. There could have been more exposition earlier in the book explaining this new world to the reader, and other explanations could have been clearer. Some of the writing about the use of allomancy comes off very textbook-y and an editor could have deleted unnecessary words, paragraphs, and pages. But overall, Mistborn is an original and enjoyable read. The pacing is pretty good for a fantasy novel and it sucks the reader into the story, investing them in the characters, especially Kelsier and Vin. There’s enough of a twist towards the end to make it interesting, and the ending makes the reader jump into the second book to see what comes next.

Mistborn is no Lord of the Rings, but it is by far the best fantasy novel I have read in a long time. For any fan of the genre, I highly recommend it. I just started the second book in the series, The Well of Ascension, and am looking forward to reading more about Brandon Sanderson’s world and it’s many characters.

Imagination Takes Flight

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Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novel Peter and the Starcatchers was marvelously adapted for the stage by Rick Elice.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions from my childhood was receiving a book from my parents to read each Christmas Eve. In 2004 I received a book that I had been eyeing for months– Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. The book is an explanation of sorts for how Peter and the Lost Boys got to Neverland, how Peter learned to fly, how he met Tinkerbell, how Captain Hook became his nemesis.

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A prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Peter and the Starcatchers is the story of Peter before he reaches Neverland.

I’m sure that Peter Pan purists are gasping in shock and anger now. But for a twelve-year-old girl who had loved the original book all her life and was on the cusp of growing up, Peter and the Starcatchers became an instant favorite. I did not want to grow up. And so I clung to a funny novel written by Dave Barry (yes, that Dave Barry) and Ridley Pearson. I read the whole book on Christmas Eve, and then read it again the next day.

That book, though perhaps not of the highest literary merit, still holds a special place in my heart because it met me where I was when I read it for the first time. In the spring of 2013, Clare and I were lucky enough to see the Broadway adaptation, Peter and the Starcatcher. The play was masterfully adapted for the stage by Rick Elice.

The plot follows a group of orphans– Ted, Prentiss, and a boy who was orphaned too early to remember his name– as they are shipped off on a boat called the Neverland to become helpers to the evil king of a land called Rundoon. The Boy soon runs into another passenger on the ship, a girl named Molly.

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The Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) meets Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger).

Molly has a secret. She is an apprentice Starcatcher– a person who works to protect the magical Starstuff that falls to earth and keep it from the hands of evil men who will use it to try and take over the world (Napoleon and Genghis Khan are used as examples). Molly’s father is on another ship with a trunk filled with Starstuff. Or, at least, that is what he thinks. It turns out that the trunk is actually on board the Neverland, and Molly will need the Boy’s help to keep it safe from the evil clutches of a nefarious pirate named Black Stache.

What results is a wild and glorious romp as Black Stache and the passengers on the Neverland play a game of cat and mouse. Verbal sparring also abounds, Black Stache chews scenery, and the audience laughs uproariously. Rick Elice’s writing is hilarious and oftentimes irreverent in the best of ways.

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Christian Borle won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor for his portrayal of a familiar (if two-handed) pirate named Black Stache.

But the main reason that this has become my favorite play of all time is that it makes me use my imagination. The set is beautiful, but is utilitarian and sparse. At first I was skeptical, because the scenery looked more like what I would have found in one of my high school theater productions. But then, a piece of rope became a door, a room, a wave. A row of human bodies became a hallway and a ship rocking back and force. Frisbees and penant flags became the ghastly face of a very hungry crocodile. A yellow rubber glove became a familiar fairy. Green umbrellas became a thick jungle.

The characters allow the audience to think back on their own childhoods. Molly is an incredible character. She has one foot in childhood– she is curious and competitive– but also has one foot in adulthood– she takes on a great amount of responsibility to do her duty and protect the Starstuff. She is at times bossy and confident, at others vulnerable, and is always precocious and willing to learn. I love Molly, and wish that every girl who is starting to go through adolescence could see this show. “Oh, this training bra is so uncomfortable!” she complains at one point. But she never loses sight of her goal. Molly is feminine without wearing a princess dress, and is strong without ever picking up a weapon. Her beauty and strength lie within her character.

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The minimal set allows audience members’ imagination to soar, just as the Starstuff allows a cat (use your imagination) to take flight.

The Boy also reminds the audience of what it is like to be a child sometimes. He has no control over his life. He is an orphan who is mistreated in the most Dickensian of ways, and hungers for love and acceptance. He feels utterly powerless at the beginning of the play. “I hate grownups!” is his constant refrain. But after he meets Molly, the Boy begins to see that he has choices to make. He has the choice to save his own skin or try to help Molly save the Starstuff. He has the choice to do good or join the band of pirates after he meets Black Stache. And, ultimately, he has the choice to become the flawed hero we all know, or to grow up.

I have to admit, I cried the first time that I saw the show. The bittersweet ending brought me back to the Christmas Eve where I first read Peter and the Starcatchers. It brought me back to the frustrations and joys of childhood, to the beauty and vulnerability of adolescence.

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Molly and the Boy

This show means the world to me. And for Christmas this year, I gave my dad tickets to see Peter and the Starcatcher at the Kennedy Center. We laughed through the play, and I cried again at the end. For we all have to grow up someday. But, as this play shows, we can all relive the joys and pains of childhood when we create things.

If you are interested in seeing the play, you can check out tour dates at this website.

If the play is not touring near you, fear not! An annotated script of the play Peter and the Starcatchers is available here!

A New Take On An Old Fairytale

ImageEver After, A Cinderella Story, Ella Enchanted. The list of Cinderella adaptations in books and films is seemingly endless. Fewer fairy tales have received so many renderings that I wonder if anything original can be done to the story about the servant girl turned princess. Of course, as often happens, I was wrong. Cinder by Marissa Meyer is a completely new and original take on the Cinderella story, and a quite enjoyable one at that.

In this retelling of the fairytale, which takes place in the future, Cinder is still the stepdaughter forced to do hard work to support the stepmother who hates her. This time, though, Cinder is not just the stepdaughter, she’s also a cyborg. After suffering a terrible accident as a child, parts of Cinder’s body were replaced with mechanical parts. As a cyborg, Cinder is considered a second-class citizen in her hometown of New Beijing, but she is a first rate mechanic. This is how she meets Kai, the prince of the kingdom. Kai comes to Cinder hoping she can fix his android, which he jokingly tells her contains important information to the security of the country.

Fixing the prince’s android isn’t the only thing on Cinder’s mind, however. There’s also a plague raging through New Beijing, and after it infects Cinder’s nice stepsister, Cinder becomes involved with a doctor trying cure the disease. This takes Cinder to the palace, where she repeatedly runs into Prince Kai, who must deal with his own troubles. With his father ailing quickly, Kai faces a difficult threat coming from the Lunar people, a country inhabiting the moon where the people possess magical powers.

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Marissa Meyer

Okay, so that sounds a little odd. A cyborg Cinderella and strange moon people with magical powers. It is a little odd, but Meyer weaves traditional aspects into the story—the mean stepsister, the cruel stepmother, the ball, the glass slipper—while interpreting these aspects in an original way to fit her story. Meyer also adds in a mystery surrounding the Lunar princess to the midst of the story to keep it exciting and moving forward.

Any lover of fairy tales will enjoy this new adaptation of the Cinderella story, and readers who like fantasy or sci fi books will enjoy this novel. It is dystopian without the dystopian setting being the center of attention. The world is different and futuristic, but at the same time modern. Cinder deals with being an outcast in society, not to mention dealing with saving the people she loves and falling in love herself. Cinderella is a timeless tale that can thrive in any setting, and it flourishes in Meyer’s novel. Cinder is not a groundbreaking book, but it is a very enjoyable read. Audiences will fall in love with Cinder and relish the new interpretations of the traditional aspects of the Cinderella story. Just as Cinderella transcended from a mere servant to a beautiful princess, Cinder rises as a great futuristic interpretation of a very old fairy tale.

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If you enjoyed Cinder, check out the next two books in the series: Scarlet and Cress.

Midwinterblood

A few weeks ago I rejoiced as the American Library Association announced its 2014 book awards, which include the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Coretta Scott King, and the Printz. The Printz, though a much newer award, has become my favorite of the book awards. The award is named for a librarian in Topeka, Kansas who was an active member in the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) and dedicated his life to ensuring that his students had access to quality literature that expanded their horizons and made them think. The first award was given in 2000, and recognizes the best book written for teens based on literary merit.

Thanks to the Printz Award, I have discovered some of my favorite authors like Melina Marchetta, John Green, and Paolo Bacigalupi.

This year the winner of the Printz is a book called Midwinterblood written by Marcus Sedgwick.

2014 WinterMidwinterblood is a huge story that is broken up into seven short stories. The first story takes place in the year 2073, as a reporter named Eric Seven travels to a mysterious island called Blessed, whose inhabitants are rumored to have found the secret to immortality. The island seems familiar to Eric, and a girl named Merle seems even more so. Eric is drawn to her, and is drawn to the island and its mysteries. As he gets to know Merle and works to unravel the island’s secrets, he unearths some sinister things about the island and its inhabitants.

The plot above is only one of the seven vignettes that we get of the island and its inhabitants, as the story traces the lives of a star-crossed pair back through time. We slowly work our way back through 2011, World War II, and the early 1900s to a more primal time. Each story contains versions of Eric, Merle, and their love– and as readers travel back, we get closer to the root of the stories and the first time that Eric and Merle found each other.

isbn9781780225067-detailThere is a reason that this book won the Printz. The writing is mysterious and gorgeous, but unadorned. Its simplicity is beautiful, and there were several times that I wanted to read passages aloud because they were so lovely. Sedgwick expertly crafted this book– all seven of the stories are incredibly different and contain a variety of characters, but are all connected and woven together with great care.

I could not put this book down. Each story answers some questions about the mystery surrounding Eric and Merle, but also opens doors to other mysteries. The mystery within the book is a very dark one, and the tone of the stories that encompass it is equally dark. The book made me squirm and made my skin crawl, in a way that I have not experienced since I was very young and was listening to ghost stories around a campfire.

This book follows inhabitants of Blessed throughout the ages– there are vikings, vampires, ghost stories, and things that are even more primal and unsavory. But I think that that is the appeal of this book. It is dark, gruesome at times, and terrifying at others. Sedgwick is able to tap into the primal fear that thrills through us all when we think that someone is following us or lurking in the shadows while we walk home at night. But he couples this with our primal need for love and acceptance, something that has not changed throughout history, no matter how much our culture changes.

I don’t think that this is a book that I would read again or have on my bookshelf. But Sedgwick is a brilliant writer who deftly taps into emotions that we all experience, and while I may not want to own this book, I did go and check some of his books out at the library. I am excited to read more from such a talented author. Here’s to more gorgeous prose and more delicious nights of staying up late and hiding under my covers.

Between Shades of Gray

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A representation of St. Basil’s Cathedral during the Opening Ceremony at Sochi.

Friday night, athletes from around the world marched into Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia in the middle of an elaborate ceremony to signify the start of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The performance aspect of the opening ceremony highlighted Russia’s history, from imperialism to the revolution, as president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin watched. He watched as his Russian countrymen walked into the stadium, but he also watched as the athletes of former Soviet countries walked behind their own flag. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan are the fourteen countries that emerged as independent states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they represent part of Russia’s history that was not broadcasted during the opening ceremonies—oppression, imprisonment, and genocide.

ImageRuta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray offers a glimpse into a part of Russian history that the Olympic opening ceremony skipped over. It tells the story of Lina Vilkas, the daughter of a Lithuanian professor. Her unique artistic talent is just beginning to create amazing opportunities for her, but her world comes crashing down when Soviet officers invade her home, deporting Lina, her younger brother, and her mother. The story follows Lina and her family as they are taken to Siberia with other Lithuanians during one of Joseph Stalin’s many genocides. Lina uses her art to leave behind clues to help her father find them as she befriends other prisoners as they unite to survive the cruelty of the Russian gulag. Through this fictional account, Sepetys reveals the often overlooked cruelty and outright evil of the Russian gulag system and Stalin’s mass genocides of Eastern European countries and even his own Russians.

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Ruta Sepetys

Almost everyone is familiar with the horrors of the concentration camps of Germany during World War II, whether it is through books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire or learning about WWII in high school. But less people know about the horrors of Stalin’s reign. Historians estimate that Stalin killed between 20 and 40 million people during his time in power. Obviously, a country seeking to assert itself as a modern nation to the rest of the world would not highlight this aspect of its history during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, but this part of Russia’s history is too often overlooked. Sepetys novel is important because it uses powerful story telling to remind the world that this tragedy happened, and we cannot forget the victims who survived, nor can we forget those who did not live to tell their story.

Between Shades of Gray is a well-written and powerful story. Sepetys’s careful research, in which she interviewed survivors from Stalin’s gulags, adds a deep truth to her fiction, making it that much more moving. Her characters are normal people one can imagine meeting in real life at school or in the supermarket. Her story is a powerful tale of the resilience of the human spirit and the persistence of hope. And above all, Ruta Sepetys’ story is a reminder—a reminder that millions of people suffered and died under Russian governance. As these Olympic Games unfold in the upcoming days, Putin will try to prove to the world that Russia is a modern nation, but if Russia’s history has taught the world anything, it’s that oppression can always hide under a peaceful façade. As rumors of human rights violations already permeate ‘Putin’s Games’, I pause to wonder if Russia’s oppression ended with Stalin’s death or if the glamour of the Olympic Games only hides the continued suffering of the people living under Russia’s government. Either way, Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray is an important reminder of the capacity in human nature for great evil and great hope.

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The required representation of the “dove of peace” in the Opening Ceremony: ballerina’s twirling in glowing necklaces.

My Top 10 Nickel Creek Songs

Have you read John Green’s amazing book The Fault in Our Stars? If not, dear reader, I highly suggest that you borrow it from your library or purchase a copy from your local bookstore, because it is a great read (and is being made into a movie that looks just as awesome).

On Monday I was reminded of one of my favorite quotations from the book. Hazel, the main character, says about her favorite book, “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like betrayal.”

I don’t know about you, but I definitely feel this way about some of my favorite books. And I also feel this way about my all-time favorite band, Nickel Creek.

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Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile make up the band Nickel Creek.

Perhaps you have never heard Nickel Creek, though it seems that whenever I bring the band up someone always says, “Oh! I listened to them in college!” Why Nickel Creek is so tied to the college days of others, I am not quite sure. But it makes me smile.

Nickel Creek is a bluegrass band that works to push the genre envelope, singing traditional tunes one moment and then singing a Radiohead song the next. The band is made up of Chris Thile on the mandolin, Sara Watkins on the fiddle, and Sean Watkins on guitar. The band formed in 1989, when they were very young, and toured festivals throughout the 1990s. In 2000, Alison Krauss produced one of their albums, titled Nickel Creek. The album received rave reviews, and was nominated for two Grammy Awards.

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Their second album in the 2000s, This Side, won a Grammy in 2003 for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

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Their third album, Why Should the Fire Die? was released in 2005 to great reviews. The title of the album almost seems prophetic now, as the band decided to go on an indefinite hiatus after their last tour in 2007.

51MWnFR4DtLNickel Creek has been my favorite band since I was eight years old. Some of my strongest childhood memories are of being curled up in my favorite armchair by the fire on an autumn night, listening to Nickel Creek while I read with my parents.

So I was slightly devastated when I found out that the band was going on hiatus in 2007, but their last tour, called the Farewell For Now Tour, kept me hoping and praying that the band would get back together again someday.

And on Monday, I found out that that day has finally, finally come! In celebration of the band’s 25th anniversary, Nickel Creek is coming out with a new album and is touring!

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Needless to say, I am ecstatic and have been listening to their first three albums non-stop since Monday.

If you are a seasoned fan looking to reminisce, or if you’re looking for some amazing, genre-defying, good-mood-inducing goodness, here are my top 10 Nickel Creek songs (in no particular order– all of their songs are amazing).

1. This Side

2. Jealous of the Moon

3. House of Tom Bombadil

4. Tomorrow is a Long Time

5. Green and Gray

6. The Fox

7. Doubting Thomas

8. Speak

9. Robin and Marian

10. Scotch & Chocolate

Bonus Tracks:

Nickel Creek’s new song, Destination, from their new album

and a live cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic, as sung by Chris Thile. Because somehow it is both hilarious and brilliant.

Happy listening!