December 31, 2012

Movie Monday: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

I hope everyone is having a happy New Year's Eve.  I'm visiting family and enjoying myself, although I didn't pack all the books I meant to, unfortunately.  There are a bunch of movies I want to see in theaters (The Hobbit and Django Unchained are at the top of the list), but I haven't had a chance to go yet.  Perhaps tonight or tomorrow?

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence That doesn't mean I haven't been watching any movies.  My dad and I love watching films distributed through the Criterion Collection together, so I gave him the perfect Christmas choice: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.  This 1983 film was directed by Nagisa Oshima, regarded as one of the best Japanese filmmakers of his generation.  It was a joint British-Japanese production, which is very fitting since the story is one of culture clash between British and Japanese soldiers in a WWII POW camp.

It's not your standard POW movie.  There is no escape, nor any real attempt at escape.  (There is one half-hearted, aborted attempt.)  There isn't a strong structure to the film.  The tension and interest lies in the relationships between the characters.

The eponymous Mr. Lawrence is played by Tom Conti, the only actual dramatic actor in the main cast - and even he was fairly inexperienced at the time of filming.  Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence is a British officer who can speak Japanese, due to time spent in Japan, which puts him in an interesting position in the camp.  He's the one soldier with a real chance at understanding his captors.  His foil in the film is Sergeant Hara, played by Takeshi Kitano.  This was his first dramatic role, and audiences only knew him as a comedian.  But his comedic moments in the film highlight the monstrosity of Hara, who honestly can't understand any immorality in his actions.

But the biggest stunt casting in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was pitting two rock stars against each other.  David Bowie plays Major Jack Celliers and Ryuichi Sakamoto plays camp commandant Captain Yonoi.  Both are limited actors, but used very well.  Bowie has a presence that makes the captain's instant fascination with him understandable and Sakamoto's stiffness fits the reserved military man.

I liked Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but it's an odd film.  It is extremely character driven, but the characters are often enigmatic.  (When in doubt, assume someone is motivated by guilt or shame.)  Yet, it works, and I think the film expresses the truth of what it sought to explore.  Although there is very little graphic violence onscreen, it is a brutal film.  The Japanese characters are obviously the villains, but there is sympathy for their point of view.  And even Celliers, the rebellious soldier who performs the greatest heroic act in the movie, has done bad things.

I recommend Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but must warn you not to expect Bridge Over the River Kwai or The Great Escape when you start watching.

December 27, 2012

Review: Two Children's Books from Marshall Cavendish

Mary Had a Little Lamb Mary Had a Little Lamb
By Sarah Josepha Hale
Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith
Available now from Marshall Cavendish (Amazon)
Review copy

The text of MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB is the poem written by Sarah Josepha Hale in the 1830s, which is slightly different than the children's song still popular today.  It's basically the same, but some lines might trip kids (and perhaps even their guardians up).  I know it took me a second to parse "And you each gentle animal in confidence may bind, and make them follow at your call, if you are always kind."

But my niece loves to sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb," so I think she'll enjoy this book.  Laura Huliska-Beith's illustrations are quite lively.  Her colors are bright but softly employed, and her cartoony style is appealing.  The illustrations add to the text, illuminating the meaning of each line.  This one is a good choice for children like my niece who love nursery rhymes.

The Golem's Latkes The Golem's Latkes
By Eric A. Kimmel
Illustrated by Aaron Jasinski
Available now from Marshall Cavendish (Amazon)
Review copy

Eric A. Kimmel combines tales of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel's Golem with The Sorcerer's Apprentice in THE GOLEM'S LATKES.  When Rabbi Juda goes to speak to Emperor Rudolf II, his housemaid Basha uses the golem to help complete her chores.  But when she goes to speak to a friend without telling the golem to stop making latkes, the town begins to fill up with potato pancakes!

Kimmel's story won't surprise anyone who has seen Fantasia, but Aaron Jasinski's illustrations make the text special.  His style uses light and perspective well to create dynamic, engaging images.  I thought the illustrations were quite lovely and suit the text well.

THE GOLEM'S LATKES is a simple but well done children's book.

December 26, 2012

Review: Super

Super Sequel to POWERLESS
By Matthew Cody
Available now from Knopf (Random House)
Review copy

I love superhero stories, and POWERLESS stood out from the pack to me because of it's brutal first chapter.  Michael's whole life is flying, until he wakes up without his powers or memories, never to fly again.  That's been the fate of the children of Noble's Green for centuries.  Many of them have a superpower, but they lose it and all memory of it on their thirteenth birthday.  Then Daniel Corrigan came to town and helped the Supers find and defeat the culprit.

But something has happened, and the Supers are again losing their powers.  Temporarily, but who knows when they'll be gone forever?  Meanwhile, Daniel is showing evidence of developing powers and the grandnephew of their nemesis the Shroud has come to town.  He's obviously the number one suspect, but Daniel's worried things aren't so simple.

In addition to having a fast and fun storyline, the morality of SUPER is not black and white.  Who deserves power?  Who can decide whether or not someone deserves power?  Daniel may want to help his friends, but some of the super-powered kids aren't as nice or altruistic.  If the local bully didn't have super strength, that would be a good thing.  But would it just stop there?

I liked that there isn't much romance, since the main characters are younger teens.  (They're maybe fourteen during SUPER.)  There are hints of crushes and a quick kiss, but nothing more.  There are a lot of friendships that cross gender lines, which is nice to see.  Molly, a flyer, is one of the toughest characters and always ready to defend her friends.  And Daniel is a good protagonist for the series, since he has no powers - just the ability to think things through and use his head.

I do recommend starting with POWERLESS, since SUPER deals with the fallout from the first book.  Both tell complete stories, however.  Each book has a definite end and can stand on its own if need be.  I'd be happy to read another Noble's Green novel, but SUPER does not require a sequel.  This series is a good choice for kids who love superheroes and are looking for a good read that isn't a graphic novel.

December 24, 2012

Movie Monday: The Sound of Music

Sound of Music I love when they broadcast The Sound of Music in December.  Many people have nostalgic memories of It's a Wonderful Life, but in my family it is all about The Sound of Music.

My sister and I originally loved it because of the songs.  And, when I was a kid, it was all about Liesl.  Forget the romance of Maria and Captain von Trapp, forget the Nazis: Liesl.  I think I just loved her dance in the gazebo with Rolf.  My love of that scene faded a little once I was old enough to understand the Nazi parts.  (I'd embed the scene but it appears it isn't on YouTube.)

This year I mostly missed it because I had other things to do (involving sick children and the world's nastiest diaper), but I did get to see the very ending.  It warms my heart to see the nuns vandalize the cars, year after year.

Do you watch The Sound of Music?  What's your favorite part?  Or what's your favorite bit of holiday programming that floods the airwaves?  (Hate it all?)

December 22, 2012

What It's Like to Make a Shortlist

The first half of the Cybils is almost over.  I am a panelist in the Graphic Novels division, and we decided on the finalists last night.  Five young adult and five middle grade/elementary titles, chosen from the 83 eligible nominees.  It was not an easy decision.  (Let's not even talk about the fact the other panelists now know what an opinionated witch I am.)

"Graphic Novels" is a bit of a misnomer.  We weren't limited to novels at all.  We read nonfiction, including memoirs, biographies, and histories.  We read anthologies of short stories and collected vignettes. The graphic novels ranged in genre from fantasy and science fiction to romantic comedy to war stories.  There was definitely something for everyone nominated, but would there be something for everyone on the short list?  And, well, one section covering elementary through middle grade is quite a lot.  We wanted our list to have something to interest first graders and eighth graders.

To make our job even harder, the bookish community nominated an incredible selection of books.  Some books were bright and bold, others were staggeringly beautiful.  I want to tear out some pages and hang them on my wall, if only that wouldn't ruin the books.  Many offered intriguing, unusual perspectives.  They did things you could only do in comics, the art and text inseparable.  Not all of the books were set in the US.  Characters were Hispanic, Asian, white, black, disabled, gay, skinny, pudgy, tall, short.  The books that stuck out like sore thumbs were the ones where everyone looked alike or there were no female characters.  We needed a shortlist that represent the best of everything the long list had to offer.  And believe me: the long list was not short on virtues.

Some of the books were easy to choose.  Others were more difficult.  Some books I loved aren't on the final list.  But that's true of every single one of the Graphic Novels panelists.  We had a wealth of strong contenders that battled to the finish.  I was afraid blood might be drawn in the chatroom as we fought for our favorites. 

And there were surprises!  One book I thought was a shoo-in didn't make it.  One book I found very affecting, but thought would be a hard sell, had several champions.  I wasn't the only one who wanted it on the list!

I do not envy the judges.  Our decision was difficult, but at least we had five slots in each category.  They will be faced with the heavyweights and asked to be decided on one.  (Two total.)  They too will have to compare romantic comedy to memoir to history to myth.  It's a battle of crisp, sweet apples against juicy, tangy oranges.

I highly recommend that when the Cybils end, you look beyond the winners.  Check out the shortlists in your favorite divisions.  I can guarantee for Graphic Novels that there are no lesser choices padding out an obvious winner.  All ten books are special.  And I'd even recommend checking out the nominees because there were many strong books that didn't make the cut.  Everyone of us wanted more spots so that we could showcase every book that deserved it. 

How do you make a shortlist?  You decide on the best of the best of the best and sadly say goodbye to the best of the best.

December 20, 2012

Review: Saga, Vol. 1

Saga Issues #1-6 of Saga
By Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Artist)
Available now from Image Comics
Review copy

I first heard about SAGA through my dad, of all people.  I think the only graphic novels my dad has ever read are ones that I gave to him.  But he saved an article about the Wall Street Journal about the cover of the first issue for me, just because it sounded like my kind of thing.  Yep, my dad knows me.

Because SAGA is definitely my kind of thing.

Honestly, I'm hoping it's almost everyone's kind of thing, because it's fantastic.  The basic set up is very Romeo and Juliet-ish: Marko and Alana are fighting on opposite sides of a war when they fall in love and run away to start a family.  It's a war that spans several wars, having been outsourced from the homeworld of the original groups who had a problem with each other.  But now several freelancers and a prince have been set on the task of killing Marko and Alana.  And, fortunately, the actual story has little in common with Romeo and Juliet.  Marko may do some stupidly idealistic stuff, but both of them are willing to make hard choices to survive.  And they are very aware that they're parents and must protect their daughter.  Marko and Alana do not lack responsibility.

SAGA is narrated by their baby daughter Hazel once she's all grown up, which at least let's the reader know she survives the craziness of their lives.  The device is done very well, and I like that it gives Hazel a voice since she obviously can't talk as a baby.  Her narration promises lots of bad things to come, and I can't wait to read about them.

Fiona Staples art is colorful, clean, and dynamic.  The backgrounds are detailed by the characters still pop in the foreground.  Some of the designs are rather grotesque, and Staples' art really sells the images.  And for all the monsters on display, the creepiest-looking character (in my opinion) looks totally normal if you just look at her young, smiling face.

This is just the first volume of a comic that will hopefully live up to it's name in length when it's done.  But I have high hopes for SAGA, because the first volume is near perfect.  It's a family drama, a war novel, a romance, an action-adventure story, and probably more.  It's got layers, but above all else SAGA is extremely entertaining.

Thanks for putting this on my radar, Dad.

December 19, 2012

Interview with Amy Helmes and Kim Askew

Did you catch my review of TEMPESTUOUS earlier today?  Not only did I enjoy the book, I also scored an interview with authors Amy Helmes and Kim Askew

Amy is an editor of Soaps In Depth and a contributor to The Rundown.  She once competed against Ken Jennings on Jeopardy!  Kim's writing has appeared in various literary journals and magazines including Elle.  She's currently working on her Master's thesis.

Read on to learn more about Amy, Kim, and Twisted Lit!


1. Modern reimaginings of Shakespeare seem pretty popular in YA right now. Obviously, Shakespeare is perennially popular--but what do you think makes his stories timely? 

What makes Shakespeare so brilliant is the fact that his works really do hold-up in whatever era they’re being read. When you cut through the admittedly challenging language and the historical settings, his universal themes of love, passion, vengeance, loyalty and finding one’s way in the world are so fundamental and universal. What’s more, the intensity with which Shakespeare writes--that heightened sense of drama--is also something that feels very true to the experience of being a teenager. And since many of his most famous characters were young adults grappling with dysfunctional families and falling in could almost say he was one of the original YA authors!

2. How did the two of you meet and decide to write books together? 

Kim: Amy saw me shyly wallflowering away at a networking event, and befriended me. We immediately connected over a love of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. When I moved away for a couple of years, we started our blog, Romancing the Tome, to stay connected. We had so much fun writing it together that a book project seemed like a perfect next step.

3. What is your writing process? Do you alternate chapters? 

We get together and brainstorm a very loose outline for the books to get a handle on our characters and where we want the story to go. (Basing our plays on Shakespeare helps give us a solid framework). In terms of writing, we alternate chapters, and that’s what makes the writing process so fun for us. We love the surprise of getting to see what the other person has done with the story and figuring out a way to add onto it. Because we’re constantly editing each other’s work as we go, it helps us achieve that single narrative voice to keep the book cohesive. Afterwards, we sometimes even forget who wrote which chapters!

4. How did you decide which play to start with?  The Tempest is a fantastic play, but it's not one Shakespeare's most famous. 

Even though it was the second novel published, we actually wrote EXPOSURE (our version of Macbeth) first. It was dark and intense, and the whole idea of Macbeth’s quest to be king got us thinking about prom king and the lengths people might go to for popularity. For TEMPESTUOUS, which we wrote second, we wanted something that was 180 degrees different; something fun and light. The Tempest has some seriously unforgettable characters (particularly Prospero, Ariel and Caliban), and it seemed to strike a good balance of drama and comedy.

5. And, I must ask, which are your favorite plays? 

It’s so hard to choose, but Hamlet is a favorite... Kim, in particular, has a natural affinity for brooding types. We both find Macbeth absolutely fascinating, which is why it was such fun to adapt. And then there’s Romeo and Juliet; it contains some of the most gorgeously romantic lines ever written.

6. Merit Press, your publisher, is spearheaded by fabulous (and bestselling!) author Jacquelyn Mitchard. What is it like to work with her? 

During our first phone conversation with Jackie, we both were trying to play it cool but were TOTALLY FREAKING OUT. Definitely a pinch me, I’m dreaming situation. Lucky for us, Jackie is such a gracious and very nurturing human being. She’s been our champion from the get-go. We had our fair share of rejections early on, so as you can guess, it felt pretty amazing to have a bestselling author contact us to tell us she was in love with our books and wanted to publish them! We are forever indebted to her for that.

Exposure 7. EXPOSURE is somewhat more faithful than TEMPESTUOUS, but neither follows Shakespeare's version too closely. How do you decide to keep certain elements? When do you decide to make something up? 

We didn’t want to do a paint-by-numbers retelling of the plays, where we followed the story to the letter, only reworked it into a modern setting. As writers, that didn’t appeal to us. Instead, we use the Bard’s works as a springboard of sorts and let the story take its own trajectory while still incorporating each play’s iconic themes, symbols, characters and major plot twists. We allow ourselves a lot of freedom in that sense. In TEMPESTUOUS, for example, our main character, Miranda Prospero, is actually a composite of two different characters from The Tempest: the sorcerer, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda. In EXPOSURE, we tell the entire story from the point of view of Skye Kingston, who is our female interpretation of the Banquo character in Macbeth. We definitely turn each play on its ear, and that’s why we decided to name our series Twisted Lit.

8. How did your adorable book trailer come about? 

Amy’s three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son inspired us. We figured we could recruit a bunch of their little friends to learn Shakespeare and recite it on-camera. They did an awesome job, and really, who can resist cute kids? It may be a gimmick, but it’s an ADORABLE one.

9. What comes after EXPOSURE (January 2013)? More Twisted Lit books, an unrelated novel, separate projects? Or is that a secret? 

We’re working on a top-secret adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that we’re absolutely over the moon about. After that, we’re thinking perhaps King Lear or the Henry IV plays...

Tempestuous 10. Give us your pitch! How would you convince a reader to pick up TEMPESTUOUS in less than 100 words? 

Tempestuous is a lighthearted adventure that finds our heroine, Miranda, trapped in a mall overnight with her friend and coworker, Ariel, a sullen boy named Caleb, and the arch-enemies responsible for her recent banishment from her school’s popular clique. If you like the classic teen movies Clueless, 10 Things I Hate about You, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we think you’ll love our book. Shakespeare-phobes needn’t stay away: While there are plenty of nods to The Tempest, readers don’t have to know the Bard’s works to enjoy Tempestuous. After you read it, we’d love to hear what you think!

Review: Tempestuous

Tempestuous Book One of the Twisted Lit series
By Kim Askew and Amy Helmes
Available now from Merit Press
Review copy

TEMPESTUOUS is the first book in the Twisted Lit series, modern interpretations of Shakespeare's plays by young adult debut authors Kim Askew and Amy Helmes, edited by bestseller Jacquelyn Mitchard.  TEMPESTUOUS is a very loose re-imagining of The Tempest.  There is a character named Miranda, in a sort of exile, and one named Ariel, sort of trapped by her guardian, and the characters are removed from civilization due to a storm.  But in TEMPESTUOUS they're stuck in the mall by a fierce blizzard.

(And yes, I did believe the mall would be open.  Mostly because I've worked in a mall during a tropical storm.  The store's only concession to the inclement weather was putting more umbrellas and galoshes on the floor since they were more likely to be sold.)

Miranda is working at the name-changed-for-fiction Hot Dog on a Stick in order to earn back the money she owes her fancy private school due to a tutoring scheme that went horribly awry.  Unfortunately the snow traps her with her ex-boyfriend and ex-friends as well as her coworkers.  She likes some of them, like Ariel, a sweet, goofy girl who happens to be celebrating her birthday.  Others, like sarcastic Caleb, she isn't too big on.  She and him just too alike to immediately become friends.

That would be enough set up for drama, but Askew and Helmes throw another wrench in the works.  The teens are trapped in the mall with an armed robber.  I kind of liked that it took awhile for the danger to sink in.  Everyone assumes the guy already left, plus there's an entire mall to play with!  It's not until someone gets hurt that Miranda turns her full attention to catching the thief.

I thought TEMPESTUOUS was a great deal of fun.  It's a short novel, less than two hundred pages, so there isn't a lot of padding.  I liked how the mystery and romance were balanced - there's enough flirting and interaction to make it believable, but it's the mystery that drives the plot and takes most of the characters' focus.  I also liked that Askew and Helmes managed a great deal of characterization - even mean girls Britney and Whitney get some vulnerable moments.  Miranda herself can be overbearing and too quick to resort to manipulation, but she can come up with a good plan on the fly and she has a knack for leadership.

TEMPESTUOUS may not be Shakespeare, but that's not a bad thing.  (Don't worry Shakespeare geeks, there are plenty of allusions to keep you engaged with the Bard.)  What it is is a quick, appealing read full of teen drama, a bit of action, a hint of danger, a dash of romance, and a couple of epic pranks.  I liked it so much that I started reading EXPOSURE, the second Twisted Lit title, as soon as I finished.

December 18, 2012

Review: The Darkest Minds

The Darkest Minds First in The Darkest Minds series
By Alexandra Bracken
Available now from Disney Hyperion
Review copy
Read my review of BRIGHTLY WOVEN

UNSPOKEN has been supplanted.  I thought it would be the cruelest ending of the year, but at the last minute Alexandra Bracken's THE DARKEST MINDS snuck in.  When THE DARKEST MINDS ends, things are not going the heroes' way.  I cannot wait to read the next book and see how they make it through.

In the world of THE DARKEST MINDS, a plague swept through the US that killed the majority of children between the ages of ten and eighteen.  The ones left behind all had psychic powers.  Ruby is an Orange - she can control the minds of other people.  She managed to survive the purging of the Oranges by convincing the doctor who classified her that she was a harmless Green.  But something happens to reveal her, forcing her to run from the camp before she is killed.

There are two aspects of the premise that I would normally hate.  A plague localized to the US that only affects a certain age group?  Luckily, Bracken doesn't attempt a scientific explanation and there are so many conspiracies that I can assume the plague will be revealed as something nefarious.  The second thing is that the parents willingly give their children up to camps where they are horribly treated.  Bracken tries to justify this - most people are too concerned with the fact the country is broke, everyone thinks the camps are places where the kids are cured, and so on.  There are horrible holes in each of the explanations, but I was enjoying the world Bracken created enough to go with it.

Ruby ends up bonding with three other kids on the run: Liam, Chubs, and Zu.  Liam is one of the best love interests of the year.  One character refers to him as "Pollyanna," which is very accurate.  He has the optimism and idealism needed to inspire Ruby.  She's survived for years when others wouldn't, but she needs to fight if she's ever going to do more than just survive.  But there's no reason to fight if you don't have hope.  I loved the dynamic between the group too.  They really bond into a family, although it takes Ruby awhile to be accepted.  It's a nice blend of realistic and heartwarming.  (THE DARKEST MINDS needs all the scraps of heartwarming it can get.)

THE DARKEST MINDS won't be for everyone.  It can get dark and bleak.  There are few characters worthy of trust.  The deck is stacked against Ruby and the other psychics, and they have few means of bettering their lives despite their powers.  But I believe she and her friends can make it and change the world.  (Once they decide they want to change the world, that is.)  I'll definitely be following this series to see what happens next.

December 17, 2012

Movie Monday: Lesson Zero

My Little Pony "Lesson Zero" is an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that was packaged with a small Twilight Sparkle my mom bought for my niece.  I think I have now seen the episode ten times.

It's pretty cute - the animation is smooth and colorful.  The moral is delivered clunkily, with the characters actually narrating what they learned, but I'll let it slide because it's a kid's show.  It's the only episode of the show I've seen, but I liked that all the characters had clearly defined personalities.  I can definitely be a bit of a Twilight Sparkle myself.

I don't think I'd watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic by myself like a brony, but there are certainly worse things I could watch with my niece.

Do you spend any time with kids?  What shows do you like to watch with them?  (Or movies - I just don't think about the movies much because my niece won't sit through one.  Oddly, my nephew will and he's the younger one.)

December 16, 2012

Review: Into the Woods

Into the Woods Book One of Bigfoot Boy
By J. Torres
Art by Faith Erin Hicks
Available now from Kids Can Press
Review Copy

When Rufus goes into the woods by his grandmother's house, he discovers a totem.  Now when he says the word "Sasquatch" he turns into . . . a Sasquatch!  But the wolves in the woods want the totem and kidnap his friend Penny to force him into giving it up. 

IN THE WOODS isn't long, but it still manages to deliver a good story.  The developing friendship between Rufus and Penny is well done, and I liked that there wasn't any drama about Rufus trying to hide his powers.  There's only hilarity as he ends up without his clothes and needed to borrow a sheet from Penny's clothesline as he ends up naked after transforming back.  (Rufus mind end up going through a lot of clothes over the course of the Bigfoot Boy series.)

I liked Faith Erin Hicks' art in FRIENDS WITH BOYS and I like it in IN THE WOODS too.  Her characters are quite expressive.  Unlike FRIENDS WITH BOYS, the art in IN THE WOODS is in full color, which suits the age group.  She also gets a chance to show off some action chops as Rufus faces off with the wolves.

This fun story will appeal to kids who like stories of friendship and magic.  It has something of a folklore atmosphere, but INTO THE WOODS isn't based on any legend I know.  Definitely a good choice for young fans of graphic novels.  Here's to more adventures featuring Rufus and Penny!

December 15, 2012

Review: Binky Takes Charge

Binky Takes Charge The Fourth Binky Adventure
By Ashley Spires
Available now from Kids Can Press
Review copy

Binky the Space Cat is a Space Certified Lieutenant and ready to teach other members of F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel) how to survive space and alien attacks.  But F.U.R.S.T. has integrated and Binky's first pupil is a puppy.  How disatrous!

BINKY TAKES CHARGE is a cute and funny children's graphic novel.  I haven't read any of the earlier adventures, but I had no trouble following the action.  It also meant that I got to be surprised when the central conceit was revealed at the end.

Ashley Spires' illustrations are quite charming and add to the humor of the story.  But there's a nice lesson too, about accepting people who are different from you and who might have different strengths.  And it's definitely not too preachy when delivered through the antics of a couple of Space Cats and a Space Cadet puppy.

BINKY TAKES CHARGE is a good choice for young readers (or young listeners) who like animals - which is almost every kid I know.  Fans of this series might also enjoy CHI'S SWEET HOME and FLUFFY FLUFFY CINNAMONROLL.

December 14, 2012

Review: The Lies That Bind

The Lies That Bind Book Two of The Liar Society series
By Lisa & Laura Roecker
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy

THE LIAR SOCIETY was one of last year's best mysteries, and THE LIES THAT BIND is a terrific sequel.  I highly recommend starting with THE LIAR SOCIETY because this is one twisty, involved series.  But the premise is simple enough that you could start with THE LIES THAT BIND.

THE LIES THAT BIND opens with Kate Lowry frustrated that she discovered who was responsible for her best friend's death but wasn't able to bring them to justice.  When a classmate goes missing, Kate believes she knows whodunit and this time she's going to save the girl and get real, irrefutable evidence.  That is, of course, assuming she manages to survive her investigation.

One of the best things about The Liar Society series it doesn't matter if Kate puts the clues together or comes up with a truly clever plan, she always two steps behind.  She's playing against two very powerful entities, and she's just one girl with a geeky neighbor and a boyfriend who can drive.  She's very determined and tries, but sometimes that's just not enough.  Lisa and Laura Roecker are not afraid to place obstacles in the heroine's path.  Taking down her enemies is going to take years.

And, well, Kate is a great heroine and I am perfectly happy to spend years with her as she unravels mystery after mystery behind the elite Pemberly Brown Academy.  Which, let me tell you, is a fantastic setting.  The Roeckers delve deep into the rituals and history that make old institutions of education so interesting - and sometimes sinister.

If you're looking for mysteries full of secret societies, unexpected twists, and bittersweet endings, look no further than THE LIAR SOCIETY and THE LIES THAT BIND.  Sourcebook's contemporary YA imprint has been putting out some amazing books lately, and THE LIES THAT BIND is definitely amazing.  A little over-the-top, but I like that in my stories involving super-rich people conspiracies. 

December 13, 2012

Review: Falling Kingdoms

Falling Kingdoms Book One of the Falling Kingdoms series
By Morgan Rhodes
Available now from Razorbill (Penguin)
Review copy
Part of the 2012 Breathless Reads

I love high fantasy epics.  I mean, people have written pages upon pages about the problems of Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, George R. R. Martin's, et al's style and while all of that criticism has a point, it doesn't matter for me. 

I love fat, bloated fantasy that is grandiose and full of melodrama.  Gimme secret children, incest, betrayal, political intrigue, loving descriptions of servant number five's uniform any day of the week.

Thus, I expected to love FALLING KINGDOMS.  As you've probably discerned by now, I didn't.  One of the big problems for me was the structure.  The book cycles through several points of view - at least five - which isn't inherently bad, but I never really connected with any of the narrators.  They're living in a crappy world that forces them to make tough decisions, but I wasn't feeling their anguish.  These are teenagers who are instrumental in pushing their countries from peace to the brink of war!  And yet, they all felt like small people.  They were all sort of mopey in the same way, aside from Jonas, who was also righteously angry.

FALLING KINGDOMS also felt oh-so-predictable.  Morgan Rhodes is obviously taking more after the model of Martin than Jordan, but part of what makes A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones so much fun is when it subverts genre expectations.  Look, as I pointed out in my intro, I love the tropes and style of high fantasy.  But FALLING KINGDOMS didn't seem like it was having fun with them.  It just sort of lurched through unhappy set pieces.  All the grimdarkness and angst beat me down.

I have high expectations for the titles Penguin Teen names as Breathless Reads.  I've enjoyed almost all of them, even when I didn't expect too.  FALLING KINGDOMS didn't even come close to leaving me breathless.  More like a sad sigh of frustration that I was in North Dakota and it was the last book I'd taken with me that I hadn't read.

I do recommend Morgan Rhodes' books as Michelle Rowan.  Honestly, I never thought I would say one of her books wasn't fun. 

December 12, 2012

Cover Reveal and Contest: Flicker & Burn

Today I have super special, two-for-one cover reveal: FLICKER & BURN, the second installment in the Cold Fury trilogy, plus the newly redesigned cover of COLD FURY by T.M. Goeglein!

You might recall that I reviewed COLD FURY in July and said:
COLD FURY is full of things I love.  There's a smart girl who kicks butt and does the hard thing rather than the easy thing.  There are mobsters, assassins, and shadowy possibly-government agents.  It's a long chase scene with a touch of mystery and a hint of the paranormal . . . T. M. Goeglein's YA debut is a fast-paced thrill ride and I look forward to reading more of Sara Jane's adventures.
COLD FURY will be released in paperback June 2013 . . . and FLICKER & BURN comes roaring onto the scene in August 2013!

First, here's the new COLD FURY cover:

And here's the FLICKER & BURN cover:

Pretty cool, aren't they?  Very moody, with just enough color to catch your attention.  What's FLICKER & BURN about, you might ask?  Well, here's the blurb:
The thrill ride that began in Cold Fury kicks into high gear in Flicker & Burn, as the threats to Sara Jane Rispoli come at her from all directions. She continues the desperate search for her missing family, but this time she’s on the run from creepy beings with red, pulsing eyes and ghostly white skin chasing her through the streets of Chicago in black ice cream trucks – they can only be described as Ice Cream Creatures. They're skeletal and ferocious, hell-bent on catching or killing her, but also a weird link to her family, a clue to where they might be and who has them.

While Sara Jane battles these new pursuers, she learns painful lessons about the phenomenon that possesses her, cold fury. At the same time, she’s uncovering buried secrets about the misdeeds of her family – old murders and blood vendettas – that might be connected to the disappearance of her mom, dad, and brother. The mysteries, violence, and constant state of chasing or being chased could be the undoing of her relationship with handsome Max Kissberg. Despite the love growing between them, Sara Jane can’t tell him the truth about her life, and fears for his safety.

Not only do the Ice Cream Creatures display the grisly amputated finger of her mom to prove their viciousness, and not only does Lucky, the Outfit Boss of Bosses, whistle in Sara Jane for a sit-down with deadly consequences, but her gorgeous cousin, Heather Richards, enters the scene, as well. All that matters to Sara Jane is saving her family and keeping everyone she loves alive and safe. But the forces she encounters, both external and the ones crackling inside of her, fight her every step of the way.
Now’s your chance … win an ARC of FLICKER & BURN as soon as it’s available!  Standard restrictions apply - US only, no PO boxes, must be older than 13 to enter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

December 11, 2012

Review: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man's Canyon

The Expeditioners Book One of The Expeditioners
By S. S. Taylor
Illustrated by Katherine Roy
Available now from McSweeney's McMullens
Review copy

I think steampunk now has a cousin.  I'm not sure what you would call that cousin - explorationpunk? - but THE EXPEDITIONERS AND THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN'S CANYON definitely shares blood with steampunk.  There's the alternate history aspect.  In the Expeditioners world, there was a certain machine that never existed in our world.  The machine eventually led to the discovery of new lands and a longer-lasting age of imperialism.  There's the fashion aspect.  Explorers wear vests equipped with all sorts of nifty gadgets.  But The Expeditioners is a different beast.  No steam in sight.

Kit, Zander, and M. K.'s father, Alexander West, recently went missing and is assumed dead.  But they knew where their father intended to go, and it wasn't where the government told them he died.  When a mysterious man delivers a book to Kit, government agents start poking around the kids' business.  In turn, they decide to investigate their father's belongings more closely.  There's half of a map that's clearly important, and no one can decode Alexander West's secrets better than his children.  They set out to find the other half of the map and go to where it leads.

THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN'S CANYON will appeal to fans of adventure stories.  There's a nice balance in genders - once the children meet up with Sukey, there are two girls and two boys.  Sukey and M. K. are just as tough as the boys and both have important skills that aid the group's quest.  (No, neither of them are medics.)  Kit, the brainy one, is also the narrator.  Thus, I think girls and guys can enjoy the book.  But THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN'S CANYON goes deeper than most adventure stories and asks questions about who owns the treasure.  It seems like The Expeditioners will be a series not only interested in unexplored places, but also the people who live in those places and what will happen to them if they are discovered.

But that doesn't mean THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN'S CANYON avoids the tropes of adventure stories.  There are lots of puzzles, and I love a story with puzzles.  There are chase scenes and crash scenes and scenes with newly discovered species that are not friendly.  I was, at points, strongly reminded of Jules Verne.  And in my opinion that is a good thing.

Katherine Roy's art will help to draw in readers who might be daunted by the size of the book.  (320 pages at a larger-than-standard trim size.)  Her style is quite geometric and stylized, but not in an offputtingly arty way.  The way she shades reminds me of topographic maps, which is quite fitting in a novel where cartography plays a large role in the plot.

I think THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN'S CANYON was a good beginning to the series.  I felt like the characters fit fairly stereotypical roles, but there's room for growth.  However, other parts of the novel were very developed.  S. S. Taylor spent a lot of time developing the Expeditioners' world, and I'm eager to see more of it.  The novel certainly ends with an interesting change in the Expeditioners' lives.  (The next book might involve boarding school!  I love fictional boarding schools!)  I'm also intrigued by the fact Alexander West may be alive and hiding.  The Expeditioners seems like it will have a strong story holding together the separate adventures, something I am definitely in favor of.

I liked this one, and strongly recommend it.  Partially because in addition to a fun story the book is really pretty.  And the cover turns over to become a poster!  Who doesn't love posters?

December 10, 2012

Movie Monday: The Amazing Spider-Man vs. Spider-Man

Amazing Spider-Man This year brought about a reboot of the Spider-Man cinematic universe.  The Amazing Spider-Man met with surprisingly good reviews, enough to convince me to see it. But I'm not totally in love with it.

First, let's talk Tobey Maguire versus Andrew Garfield.  Everyone told me Garfield is so much more convincing as nerdy Peter Parker . . . but I don't see it.  The first time we see Garfield's Peter in school, he's got perfectly puffed hair, contacts, a skateboard, and a hoodie.  He stands tall.  He looks cool.  The first time we see Maguire's Peter, he's chasing after a bus and being laughed at because his clothes and glasses may not totally hide that Maguire is a movie star, but he's at least acting lame.

Spider-man I'll give Garfield this: he got to dish out more of Peter's signature terrible humor.  But his delivery need work - the timing of the jokes felt rushed to me.  Meanwhile, Maguire trying to figure out how his webbing works is still a classic bit of physical comedy.

The girls are pretty even.  Emma Stone is perfect for Gwen Stacy; Kirsten Dunst is a perfect Mary Jane Watson.  But the thin ponytail and thick bangs that are Stacy's expected look are terrible for Stone.  She looked best in the scenes where they let her hair be down and wavy - they should've just let her look nice instead of trying to conform to strongly to the comics look.

And look, I love Sally Field and Michael Douglas.  But they were terrible as Aunt May and Uncle Ben.  Douglas's Ben was a scold and Field's May was a doormat.  And look, Aunt May might be old, but that woman is firm.  She's one of the best parents in any comic book universe, not a woman with no control over her household.

I'm not even going to bring up direction.  Sam Raimi crushes Marc Webb.  Webb's scenes of Peter slinging through the city look like everything that's been done before.  Raimi's felt fun.

As for mythology choices, I understand that The Amazing Spider-Man wanted to be different from Spider-Man.   People have complained for years about Peter's web-shooters being organic, so making them once more his invention could've been a good move.  But the organic webbing simplified the story in Spider-Man.  The large order of Oscorp webbing had to look suspicious.  And it just felt wrong without Uncle Ben saying, "With great power comes great responsibility."  Maybe they could've had him say the original "With great power there must also come -- great responsibility!" instead of dancing around it?

Plot-wise, I liked that Peter was a little more free with his secret identity.  Keeping it super secret damaged his relationships in the original movie trilogy.  But there has to be a happy medium - I felt like almost every character knew who Spider-Man really was by the end of the film.  Saving Norman Osborn for a later movie was probably a good move - it helps differentiate the movies and allows for a bigger, more recognizable bad guy to come along in a later entry in the series.  But Rhys Ifans, who I usually find hilarious, wasn't the best fit for the villain.  Perhaps no one would be because the guy is just that grating.  Osborn at least has some charisma, and Willem Defoe did an amazing job of playing two personalities.  (And props again to Raimi, for the framing in the scenes where Osborn talks to himself as the Green Goblin.)

Others might disagree with my opinion, but here it is.  The Amazing Spider-Man was a decent spectacle and hit the standard comic film beats that I love.  However, Spider-Man is a classic of the genre, and its successor didn't come close to touching its highs.

December 8, 2012

Livi's Gift Guide, 2012

Here we go again!  It's not to late to give books as gifts.  Let's start with resources.  Here are my previous gift guides.  MotherReader's 150 Ways to Give a Book is a master class in making books exciting, interesting gifts.  In fact, her list inspired me to give this tip:

Reading in bed is fun, but reading in the bath is luxurious.  Pair a book (or a selection of books) with LUSH's Secret Santa Gift, which includes their Cinders bath bomb and Honey I Washed the Kids soap.  Throw in a donation to a literacy-related charity and a small tub of Charity Pot cocoa butter hand and body lotion wrapped in a Santa's Hat scarf and you've really got a great gift for any reader.  (Please note: I am open to receiving some books and LUSH for the holidays, just so you know.  I need some pampering.)

Now on to the book suggestions!

New York Review Books (NYRB) is having a fantastic holiday sale.  Several great bundles are 40% off and individual books are 25% off.  My top pick for children's books is the Adventurous Tales Collection, featuring THE RESCUERS by Margery Sharp.  My top pick for adults is the Fantasy Novels Collection, featuring THE ADVENTURES OF SINDBAD by Gyula KrĂșdy.

McSweeney's also has several holiday deals.  Personally, I want the Best of Bundle and the Christmas Morning Stocking Stuffer, which contains a classic mug.  My high-ticket recommendation is the signed copy of David Byrne's HOW MUSIC WORKS.  My review is still to come, but that's because I am lingering over this incredible volume.  It's a must for any music lover in your family - my dad is getting a copy for Christmas.

The Expeditioners My dad isn't the only one getting a McSweeney's volume for the holiday.  My younger cousins are getting S. S. Taylor's THE EXPEDITIONERS AND THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN'S CANYON (review coming Tuesday).  This is McSweeney's McMullen's first middle grade novel and it is a handsome volume.  There are 35 illustrations by Katherine Roy, the cover turns into a poster, and it is a little over-sized and just a gorgeous object.  It looks like a gift.  I'm pairing it with THE MARK OF ATHENA, the newest book in the Heroes of Olympus series, because they love Rick Riordan and don't own it yet.

As for other book-related gifts, I am giving the BabyLit version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL to my niece and nephew.  They're a little old for it, but they have a lot of fun with this series - Alison Oliver's art and design is hugely responsible for that.  Expect a review and interview with author Jennifer Adams soon.  You can read my review of earlier books in the series.

Judging a Book by Its Lover For the crazed bibliophiles in you life, I have three top gift recommendations:
I raved about this three in my reviews, but I'm willing to do it again.  These books will remind you of why you love to read.  Absolutely essential.

Now for my top picks from the books I've reviewed this year.

Friends with Boys Contemporary YA:

Unspoken Fantasy YA:

For Darkness Shows the Stars Science Fiction YA:
and one adult novel:
THE CRANES DANCE by Meg Howrey (review)

I wasn't sure whether I should add books I haven't reviewed, but I feel like this list is getting unwieldy.  Just take note that there may be a Part II soon.  This list is also available on Amazon.

December 7, 2012

Review: Raining Cats and Detectives

Raining Cats and Detectives Book Five of Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye
By Colleen A. F. Venable
Art by Stephanie Yue
Available now from Graphic Universe (Lerner)
Review copy

You may recall that I bought the first three books in the Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye series at STAPLE! 2011.  I stand by my assertion that Colleen A. F. Venable is a nice person and you should buy her stuff.

It's easy to say that because her stuff is good, because there is a large amount of crappy art made by nice people and then you sometimes feel guilty for not liking it.  But this series is funny - from silly to sarcastic humor - and charming.  It's about pocket pets who work as detectives, how can that premise not work?

In RAINING CATS AND DETECTIVES, Sassypants the guinea pig is finally sold now that the pet shop has halfway decent management.  At first she likes her new home, with a human private eye, but soon she misses her old pals.  Meanwhile, her assistant detective Hamisher the hamster tries to solve a case on his own: that of the disappearing bookstore cat!  (You people know you love bookstore cats.)  (I actually don't love bookstore cats because most of my family is allergic and I worry about tracking dander home.)  (But I like the idea of fluffy animals in a bookstore in theory.)

You can probably guess how the story turns out, but the friendship and respect between Sassypants and Hamisher is authentic and sweet.  Stephanie Yue's work helps sell the story.  It's absolutely adorable, adds to the humor with sight gags, and the colors really pop off the page.  The illustrations' energy plays off of and adds to Venable's smart script.

Older independent readers probably won't find much of interest in this series, as the stories are very short.  But the books are plenty of fun to read to kids.  And I suspect younger readers love this series.  I certainly would have.  My family always kept guinea pigs and I devoured any stories I could find involving them.  RAINING CATS AND DETECTIVES would've had a place of honor on my bookshelf.

December 6, 2012

Review: The Friday Society

Friday SocietyBy Adrienne Kress
Available now from Dial (Penguin)
Review copy

When I picked up THE FRIDAY SOCIETY, I wasn't expecting a ton.  Steampunk is one of those subgenres that I kind of enjoy but often find overrated.  I was pretty into the first chapter though, wherein Cora discovers a rich guy got himself hired for her job and deals with it through explosions.  Then the book kept getting better.

Cora, Michiko, and Nellie are all assistants.  It's about the best job a girl can aspire to in Edwardian London.  Working in a lab got Cora off the streets.  Nellie took her burlesque skills to a higher-profile job as a magician's assistant.  And Michiko came to Japan to teach samurai skills, but found herself being exploited as a fight assistant because she can't speak much English.  But the three girls band together after a ball, when they all stumble upon a head without a body.

Basically, THE FRIDAY SOCIETY takes Joss Whedon-esque dialogue, proto-feminism, and superheroes, mixes those things in a blender, then sprinkles them over a murder mystery involving grave robbing, fog, and the destruction of a beloved landmark.  If there's one fault in the novel, it's that the explosions of the first chapter take a long time to show up again.

All three girls have their own skills, and they complement each other well.  I liked that there wasn't much romance in THE FRIDAY SOCIETY.  There are make-outs and hints of attractions to be played out in later books, but Cora, Michiko, and Nellie aren't girls who need a man.  They're clever and determined enough to thrive in a society that deems them second-class citizens.  (Probably lower in Michiko's case.)

I honestly hope that Adrienne Kress will write a sequel (or two) to THE FRIDAY SOCIETY.  It's great fun and these are characters I'd love to hang out with again.  Plus, she uses the steampunk setting well.  (By which I mean: mad science!)  THE FRIDAY SOCIETY was not only better than I expected - it would've been better than I expected if I had high hopes.

December 5, 2012

Review: The Golden Twine

The Golden Twine Book One of Cat's Cradle
By Jo Rioux
Available now from Kids Can Press
Review copy

Jo Rioux's debut graphic novel is a treat for fans of fairytale-inspired fantasy.  Suri wants to be a monster tamer, but currently she's just a girl tagging after a caravan.  But that's about to change when she encounters some actual monsters and unknowingly acquires a powerful artifact that a caitsith wants back.

I liked Rioux's art.  Her characters seem slightly manga-influenced and will probably appeal to a wide range of ages.  And the colors are quite lovely.  They're soft and subtle, but there's lots of illumination to brighten parts of the panels and add interest.  At first I thought the colors might be too subtle for younger readers, but I think they fit the mood of the story.

And the story is fun, albeit somewhat familiar.  Suri is determined and eager to prove herself, but totally green.  In one hilarious scene, she talks to someone about being a monster tamer while not realizing that her companion is a monster in disguise and panicking.  Unfortunately for Suri, she picks up some golden twine during that interlude that means her next encounter with the boy will be less friendly.

THE GOLDEN TWINE is a cute story about a girl who wants adventure and what happens when she finds it.  The ending is a cliffhanger - fairly typical for graphic series - and I definitely want to know what happens next.  I've read stories similar to THE GOLDEN TWINE, but it uses tropes I like and Rioux's art gives it a nice personality.

December 4, 2012

Review: The Farm

The Farm By Emily McKay
Available now from Berkley (Penguin)
Review copy courtesy of Krystal of Live to Read

THE FARM starts on the campus of The University of North Texas*, but it's no longer a college.  It's, well, a farm.  Teenagers are divided into three groups: Greens, Breeders, and Collabs.  They're all trying to survive the Ticks, who live outside the electrified fence surrounding the school.  The Ticks feed on human blood, and they like teenagers best.  Lily and her twin sister are about to age out.

Thus, Lily and Mel plan to escape.  There are two major complications.  Lily's old crush Carter shows up out of the blue, eager to reconnect, and Mel's barely functioning in the farm, whereas before the Ticks she could communicate fairly well despite her autism.  And even more unfortunately for the girls, their lives will only get more complicated after they escape.

Lily tended to rub me the wrong way.  She's sometimes good with tactics and strategy, other times horrible with them.  She'll create a very smart, well-reasoned plan one moment and then stupidly charge into danger the next.  Oftentimes things would've gone much more smoothly if she trusted other people's skills.  And I didn't like the way she treated Mel.  Wanting to protect your sister is noble.  Referring to her as your burden, not so much.  I loved when one of the supposed-to-be-less-sympathetic characters tried to convince Lily that Mel was her own person and responsible for her own decisions.  And I really hated the ending, where Lily overrides a very important decision that Mel makes.  Yes, Mel has autism, but she's not incompetent.

But aside from never really getting into Lily's journey, I enjoyed THE FARM.  (I take it back - I also didn't like that Carter's sections are written in third person while Lily and Mel's are written in first.  It served no purpose and I found it distracting.)  The adventure plot is excellent, with lots of suspense and occasional gruesomeness.  The take on vampire lore was very original.  I'd been getting kind of bored of vampire books, but THE FARM and BLACK CITY prove that there are many interesting interpretations of the genre still to be written.

I suspect many readers will love THE FARM.  It's got romance and horror, a road trip, and it blends fantasy and post-apocalyptic elements in an intriguing way.  (And fantastic post-apocalyptic definitely seems like a growing genre to me.  I've reviewed several books that fit that description lately.)  And I would've loved it if Lily didn't annoy me so much.  I don't think we were supposed to entirely agree with her treatment of Mel, considering Emily McKay does have a character say something about it, but it really bugged me instead of seeming like a loving sisterly relationship.  While I'd also dislike her being perfect all the time, I found it hard to believe that a person whose goal is getting herself and her sister to safety kept putting herself in unnecessarily dangerous situations.  But I need to stop talking about that because you probably don't believe me when I say I though the book was fun now.

 *I assume.  A university in North Texas associated with green?  It's not a liberal arts university as described, but a research university; however, everything else fits.

December 3, 2012

Movie Monday: My Top 5 Christmas Films

'Tis the season!  Time to break out some wintery movies!  I celebrate Christmas myself, and I have some favorite films that I try to watch every year.

In no particular order:

Home Alone 5. Home Alone

To some degree, Christmas films are all about nostalgia.  And as such, I'm not even going to try to pretend to be cool.  I've read many criticisms about Home Alone that I agree with, but it's still one of my favorites.  And honestly, I think a little boy is free to use however much force he wants to protect himself from burglars.  The thieves were free to stop the violence at any time by leaving the premises.

Die Hard 4. Die Hard

I got this one from my mom.  Die Hard is the movie she watches every Christmas to celebrate the season, so I got in the habit too. Sometimes we even watch the sequels, even though the second one is truly awful.  I do wish Alexander Godunov had more good acting parts after this film.  (Hey, I'm always a fan of the ballet dancers.)  At least Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman have done other nifty stuff.

Nightmare Before Christmas 3. The Nightmare Before Christmas

The music alone makes this one a classic.  I don't think Danny Elfman's ever topped his work for The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Harry Selick did an amazing job of directing.  The stop motion animation is beautiful, and many of the visuals are truly memorable.  Personally, I can never forget the trees, each marked with a different holiday symbol.  So simple, but such a great image.  Okay, and I remember more famous stuff too, like the crazy toys.

Love Actually 2. Love Actually

Love Actually started a terrible trend.  None of the holiday ensemble movies that have followed are any good.  But the first is quite cute and I love getting together with friends to drink cider, eat cookies, and watch Love Actually.  This movie and a dear former roommater are why I sometimes say "I hate Uncle Jaime!" when things go wrong, and you can never hate a movie that gives you such a useful phrase.  Don't resist the cheese - there's a heart inside!

Elf 1. Elf

Elf is a heartwarming comedy that's much better than it has any right to be, given it's your basic Will Ferrell movie plugged into Christmas.  But hey, I like Will Ferrell movies and it is cute, sweet, and in the spirit of the season.  Most importantly, it's hilarious.  I find it hard to believe that there's anyone who doesn't love Elf, but I suppose there's always someone without taste.  And it even has Peter Dinklage for you Game of Thrones fans.

December 1, 2012

YA for NJ

Kieran Viola organized YA for NJ, a series of auctions on eBay from which 100% of the proceeds will go to The Food Bank of New Jersey.

Check out the auctions now - some still have no bids! You can get a signed hardcover for ten dollars, not bad at all.

Authors participating include:
Holly Black
Sarah Dessen
Kieran Scott/Kate Brian
David Levithan
Jerry Spinelli
Libba Bray
E. Lockhart
Gayle Forman

November 30, 2012

Review: Secrets and Lies

Secrets and Lies Book Two of the Capital Girls series
By Ella Monroe
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy
Read my review of CAPITAL GIRLS

The Capital Girls are back!  Jackie is dealing with a stalker, Lettie is threatened with deportation, Laura Beth's boyfriend's parents are accused of being terrorists, and Whitney just wants to return to LA.  Just another day on the Hill.

I liked that SECRETS AND LIES called out a few of its sillier aspects in this entry.  It's pointed out that gossip about the president and her generation matters a lot more than whatever their kids are doing.  One of her classmates calls her out for continuing to hate DC unreasonably after several months.  Jackie rolls her eyes about Laura Beth worrying about a guy when one of her best friends might have to leave the country.  SECRETS AND LIES is still soapy fun, but it has a bit of perspective.

I liked Whitney's machinations in the first Capital Girls book, but she's wearing out her welcome.  She's a lame, ineffectual villain.  (Also, calling them the Crapital Girls isn't that clever.  Please stop.)  Luckily the extremely creepy stalker and aspiring kidnapper is on the scene to pick up the slack.  I think I know who it is, but whoever it is does add a bit of a chill factor, mostly due to one scene near the end of SECRETS AND LIES.

There's also some new romantic developments, of course.  There might be a love triangle on the horizon, unfortunately, but hopefully it will get cut off at the knees.  The girl involved, Jackie, isn't particularly pleased when the guys show signs of fighting over her.  She leaves both of them alone in a maneuver that I applaud.

I continue to be entertained by the Capital Girls.  SECRETS AND LIES had some interesting new twists, so I'll probably be back for the third book in the series.  I recommend these books to anyone looking for a slightly more clever, slightly more political Gossip Girl.

November 29, 2012

Review: Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland

Werewolves of the Heartland By Bill Willingham
Art by Craig Hamilton, Jim Fern, Ray Snyder, and Mark Farmer
Cover by Daniel Dos Santos
Available now from Vertigo (DC)
Review copy

WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND is the second standalone trade in Bill Willingham's Fables series.  I preferred the first (1001 NIGHTS OF SNOWFALL), but that may be because I loved its structure so much.

WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND finds Bigby Wolf (the Big Bad Wolf to those who haven't read a Fables book before), arriving in Story City, Iowa.  He's searching for a new location for Fabletown and did not expect to find a community of werewolves - especially not one containing a few familiar faces.

Vertigo promises that WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND is a good place to start Fables as well as entertaining adventure for old fans of the mythos.  As someone who has read several Fables books but not even close to half of what is available, I'll endorse that statement.  There's nothing going on in the novel that requires knowledge of the main story arc, and plenty of hints about what has gone on to intrigue new readers.  (At least, it will intrigue new readers who want to see Prince Charming duel Bluebeard.)

Art is, of course, a big part of any successful graphic novel.  For the most part I like the art in WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND.  The colors are soft, the lines are clean, and there are plenty of backgrounds but the panels aren't cluttered.  The shading feels rather old school to me, which I liked.  It fits a tale involving a long flashback to WWII.  But some panels just didn't work for me.  Some of the close ups just have such dead eyes that it is both creepy and distracting.

The story is pretty simple.  I wish Oda, the girl passed out on the cover, had more to do.  She might be precognitive and she certainly gets a portentous last line, but she disappears during the climax . . . passed out.  (Before that she gets the cliche woman trying to seduce a guy to her purposes scene.)  Bigby Wolf, meanwhile, gets to show off his sense of law and justice on the frontier.  Unsurprisingly, it's swift and brutal.  It's nice to see a bit of Bigby's past, but it's a bit boring to see him put up against a group of werewolves who are so outclassed.  (And I don't think the whole "Bigby-as-the-werewolf-God" thing was every fully explained.)

WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND is an entertaining adventure and will definitely appeal to those looking to read a standalone graphic novel in addition to fans of the Fables series.  Fairytale fans might pursue an entry in the series more based in folklore, however.  And yes, this book is rated for mature readers including violence and full-frontal nudity of both genders, mostly nonsexual.  Probably nothing an older teen can't handle, but not the best choice of reading for your morning commute depending on how nosy your fellow passengers are.

November 28, 2012

Review: Darkwater

Darkwater By Catherine Fisher
Available now from Dial (Penguin)
Review copy

Welsh fantasist extraordinaire Catherine Fisher takes on the familiar tale of someone who sells their soul and regrets it.  But she does it in her own style, leading to an ending most readers won't expect unless they're really up on their mythology and/or folklore.

The young girl who sells her soul is Sarah Trevelyan, the last of the once-proud Trevelyan family.  I take that back; they're still proud, they've just lost everything.  But she sells her soul to regain Darkwater Hall from its new lord, giving her a hundred years as the landowner.  When payment comes due, Sarah must prevent fifteen-year-old Tom from making her mistake.

DARKWATER was a pretty quick read.  It's not that long, and it's comforting familiar, a moral fable in new guise.  As mentioned before, however, Fisher does it in her style and she has the chops to flesh out a basic tale.  The text explores both Sarah and Tom's motives, letting their inner psychology be observed and judged.  After all, you don't get devils coming after your soul unless you have some sort of fatal flaw.

I liked that DARKWATER was creepy, but not too creepy, since I wasn't in the mood for horror when I read it.  (I was a little wary due to the awesome cover.)  I mean, I never get nightmares from books, but I needed something that wouldn't make me shriek whenever my niece interrupted me.  (I tend to get absorbed in books.)

I quite enjoyed DARKWATER and think fellow Fisher fans will like it too.  I suggest it for fans of ANOTHER FAUST by Daniel and Dina Nayeri too - perhaps even fans of an older version of Faust, be it Goethe or Marlowe.

November 27, 2012

Why I Love Serialized Fiction by Melissa de la Cruz

Wolf Pact
Today's guest is Melissa de la Cruz, author of the Blue Bloods series.  Her new release is WOLF PACT, a serialized novel of which the last part comes out next week, on December 4th.  I reviewed the first part earlier today.  The action in WOLF PACT leads up to GATES OF PARADISE (Jan 15, 2013), the final book in the Blue Bloods series.  Read on to find out why Melissa decided to publish WOLF PACT as an eBook original serial.


I'm a huge fan of serialized fiction.  To me they're like little TV episodes for a book -- tune in next week for the next installment! I actually started my fiction career by writing serial fiction. I wrote "Cat's Meow" which became my first novel as a weekly column for a fashion website called my friends and I started. I collected them into a proposal and then Simon and Schuster bought it as my first novel. After the book was published, Gotham magazine asked if I wanted to write a weekly serial for them, so I wrote "The Fortune Hunters" for a year. I sold it as a novel to Random House but I actually got too busy and wasn't able to publish it. (Maybe I still will one day, who knows!)  

So to me, going back to serial fiction is like coming home. Wolf Pact was not originally intended to be a serial or an e-book, but as I began to write it, I knew how IMPORTANT it was to publish it before the final Blue Bloods book came out, and how much of a richer reading experience Gates of Paradise would be with the wolves' back story. We decided to go the e-book route in order to bring Wolf Pact to the fans first. I wrote the novel as a novel, and when we made this decision, I had to figure out how to restructure it so it would fit the serial format. It worked out pretty well, because I'd laid out the book in four parts anyway, and from two POVs—Lawson and Bliss. 
Wolf Pact was years in the making, but writing isn't a machine-like process, it took a long time for the story to gel and to discover how the wolves' story related to the vampires. Once you unearth it though, it always amazes me how well it fits, as if it was there all along. I always forget a writer's job is to hunt for the gem of the story in the idea. You have to keep chiseling away to find it. When you do, your work is done, and you turn it in. :)

Review: Wolf Pact: Part One

Wolf Pact Part One of Four
Companion to the Blue Bloods series
By Melissa de la Cruz
Available now from Disney Hyperion
Review copy
Read my review of THE VAN ALEN LEGACY and my interview with Melissa

WOLF PACT is a serial novel by Melissa de la Cruz exploring the wolves of the Blue Bloods' world and their relationship to Bliss Llewellyn.  The fourth and final part comes out next week on December 4th.  I am only reviewing the first part, which may seem a touch pricey at sixty-ish pages for $1.99.  But in the end that's a whole book for $7.96, which is below market price.  Plus, I think serials are fun and I'm happy major publishers are playing around with the model.

WOLF PACT begins in Hell, where Lawson and his pack escape from their masters before they can be turned into hellhounds.  But their escape comes at a price, and they are pursued by the hounds because they can still be converted as long as they're recaptured before they turn seventeen.  Meanwhile, Bliss and her Aunt Jane search for the wolves in order to ally with them to fight the Silver Bloods.

While WOLF PACT deals with a society that's not explored in the main Blue Bloods continuity, it's not really friendly to new readers.  Since Lawson and the pack are new to Earth, they are briefly caught up on the various factions.  But de la Cruz's world is too involved to be explained so quickly.  I can't be sure since I've read the Blue Bloods novels, but I suspect WOLF PACT will appeal more to fans than newbies.

Now, the Blue Bloods series is one that I once loved, but I've been disappointed by later installments.  I think WOLF PACT gets back to what made the first books more appealing.  There's action, a sense of fate, and what seems to be the set up for a neatly woven plot.  I'm intrigued enough to read Part Two.

Come back later today for a guest blog from Melissa!

November 26, 2012

Movie Monday: Reservoir Dogs

Book Cover I haven't seen Reservoir Dogs since I was a teenager. A young teenager, in fact. I remember liking the film, but think I never watched it again because I was uncomfortable with the language and violence.

Rewatching it as an adult was a very different experience.  For one thing, it looks cheaper to my eyes now.  Quentin Tarantino did an amazing job for a first-time director, but he wasn't able to entirely conceal his budget.  For another, I realized Michael Madsen is very attractive.

I mean, I've read lots of articles wondering why he isn't a big star.  And I always sat there thinking, "Uh, because he's greasy and gross?"  Turns out I remembered him that way because Mr. Blond is so loathsome.  Madsen is actually a decent looking guy with amazing blue eyes.

And, probably most importantly, I noticed how Tarantino uses language to great effect in Reservoir Dogs.  The n-word is frequently thrown around.  Misogynist things are said.  But the robbers, no matter how cool and sometimes sympathetic they might seem, are not nice people.  The undercover cop - do I need to be wary of spoilers for a twenty-year old movie? - doesn't use the n-word, however.  He also has a black boss who he respects.  The cops in Reservoir Dogs aren't much better than the criminals, but there is are differences between them.

Overall, it's a great film.  I am happy I saw it young, before I saw all the films it influenced, so that it still felt fresh and innovative.  But I'm happy I watched it again, because I have a different perspective now.

Are there any movies that seem very different to you now than they did when you were young?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...