February 28, 2016

Event Report: Montgomery County Book Festival 2016

I enjoyed the Montgomery County Book Festival when I went last year, so I decided to attend again.  I once more skipped the opening keynote and just attended the three author sessions.  This year the festival downsized, and there were rumors that this was the final year.  If so, it will be sad to lose such a fun event.

A School for Unusual Girls Murder By The Book once more sold the attending authors' novels, although they had a thin selection.  Sometimes this was because part of an author's backlist was through another publisher, and sometimes it was because they just didn't have that many copies.  I did manage to buy a copy of A SCHOOL FOR UNUSUAL GIRLS by Kathleen Baldwin before they sold out.

Murder By The Book also advertised two upcoming YA events at their store: Soho Teen Night on April 20th at 7:00 PM with Adam Silvera, Joy Preble, and Brianna Baker (AKA Robin Epstein) and Tor Teen Night on April 21st at 6:30 PM with Alan Grantz, P.J. Hoover, and David Lubar.

There was also a vendor table from comic shop Space Cadets Collection, selling various collectibles and comics (new and used).  I picked up some cute toys from the bargain bins for my niece and nephew!  Proto Makerspace did some robotics and 3D printing demonstrations.  It looks like they have some cool classes.

RidersTruthwitch I first attended a session with Susan Dennard (my reviews), Veronica Rossi, and Kathleen Baldwin.  All three introduced themselves and their books before launching straight into a Q&A.  This was a good format because all three offered long, thoughtful answers to the questions they were asked.  (The panel could have used a moderator, however, because one guy kept asking questions instead of letting other people have a turn.)  I was surprised to learn that all three of them don't use outlines (although Dennard and Rossi have in the past).  Baldwin's metaphor for it was that she writes like a bloodhound sniffing out the path.

The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch I then attended Daniel Kraus' session.  He gave a very thoughtful overview of his books and his process, although he only talked about SCOWLER after some audience prodding.  He said that it was a book he wanted out of his head, and after that he never wanted to think of it again.  His newest book, a two-part novel called THE DEATH AND LIFE OF ZEBULON FINCH, first came about after a conversation about zombies experiencing the ages when he was in college.  He passed around his outline for one section, his original timeline (covering Zebulon's life and physical deterioration as well as what was happening in history), and a little cheat sheet about the slang and popular entertainment about one of the decades the book covers.  It was really fun to get that in-depth look at how much planning goes into a long, complicated novel.

We Were Liars I finished the day by attending E. Lockhart's session (my reviews).  She's gotten very practiced about talking about WE ARE LIARS without giving away the story.  She talked mostly about stories that inspired her and that are somewhat like the story in WE ARE LIARS, both fairy tales and personal anecdotes.  She had a quiet but dramatic way of talking that I really enjoyed.  She didn't answer many questions, but that was mostly because our group ran out of them after just a few.  (Hey, it was the end of the day!)

Hopefully this wasn't the last year, but if it was, the Montgomery County Book Festival went out on a good note.

February 26, 2016

Review: Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah

Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah By Erin Jade Lange
Available now from Bloomsbury Children's
Review copy

REBEL, BULLY, GEEK, PARIAH is one of those books that unexpectedly sucked me in.  Even with the description, I didn't realize what a propulsive thriller this would be.  (Possibly because the title sounds like a dramatic story about getting to know each other despite differences - which, to be fair, happens between running from guys with guns.)

Sam just wanted to buy her mom's old violin back from the pawn shop.  But she ended up with formerly popular Andi, former football jock and current bully York, and York's little brother Boston in a stolen cop car.  They accidentally hit a cop and the other cops started shooting at them.  It says something about the current world environment that I didn't immediately twig that the cops were corrupt and the car was full of drugs.  (Sam is half black.)

What follows is a mix of misfits hanging out and teens struggling to escape more skilled adversaries.  There's plenty of twists and turns as the four try to figure out how to find the real cops and clear their names without ending up dead.  Erin Jade Lange does a wonderful job of making the teens concerns seem real.  Their worried about their lives, but they get tangled up in more mundane concerns too, like what this will do to their college prospects or whether their parents are missing them.

It's also an opportunity, strangely enough, for Sam to leave her shell.  An accident left her scarred as a child, providing an easy taunt for everyone on the playground.  She had even more pressure on her because of her home life, where her mom moved in and out of prison due to her addiction.  Sam knows firsthand how much damage the drugs they've found can do.

REBEL, BULLY, GEEK, PARIAH is a fast-paced read with appealing characters.  Yes, they commit a serious crime, but there are hugely extenuating circumstances and this kids' first instinct is to turn themselves in.  What follows certainly kept me turning the pages.

February 24, 2016

Review: The Forbidden Wish

The Forbidden Wish By Jessica Khoury
Available now from Razorbill (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

The latest novel in the young adult genie microtrend is THE FORBIDDEN WISH by Jessica Khoury.  This retelling of Aladdin casts the genie as a woman who once wreaked destruction on an entire city due to her love of a human.  She's wary of interacting with them ever again, and just wants her freedom.

However, Aladdin has found her lamp and now has three wishes.  He's a thief, the orphan son of revolutionaries, and his country is on the verge of revolt.  A new revolutionary is on the rise, and the king is dying.  Everyone fears the foul vizier taking even more control of the throne.  The genie has a simple solution to get Aladdin to use all of his wishes and get his vengeance: become a prince.

While the story of Aladdin is familiar to many due to the Disney version, Khoury takes her story in a different direction.  At the same time, it's not an entirely unpredictable direction.  The romance between Aladdin and the genie is sweet, but I often felt I was being told more about their love for each other than feeling it myself.  I wanted more of a sense of passion.

I did enjoy the variety of female characters that Khoury populated her retelling with.  The princess may no longer be the love interest, but she still occupies an integral role to the story.  Her friends have their own personalities in addition to help move the story along.  There's also some historical queens who inspire their actions.  I liked that Zahra, the genie, wasn't the only woman Khoury added to the story.

I thought THE FORBIDDEN WISH was a fun retelling that combined jinn lore with a satisfying battle for freedom.  The romance was a little flat for me, but the struggle for personal, political, and other freedoms rang quite true.  I admired how Zahra overcame her fears to keep doing what was right, even if it had gone wrong for her many times before.  She's the kind of main character I can get behind in any story.

February 22, 2016

Movie Monday: The Witch: A New England Folktale

The Alamo Drafthouse has been pushing The Witch hard, and The A.V. Club gave it a fantastic B-grade review.  Given that I've enjoyed other recently hyped horror movies such as The Babadook, I decided to give it a try.

Writer and director Robert Eggers put quite a bit of research into this project.  The Witch uses dialogue that often comes from diaries, court records, and other primary documents.  I didn't find this hard to follow, but I've read many texts from the time they were sourcing from.  There were times I wished for the characters to enunciate more, mostly in times of great emotion.

The Witch won a directing award at Sundance, and I can see why.  This is Robert Eggers' first film, but it looks beautiful and uses sound compellingly.  The seventeenth-century costumes are fantastic, and the natural light bathes everything beautifully.  I sometimes found that the score veering into cliche horror strings, but the use of silence was more sophisticated.  Many shots are done from a distance, which really expresses the isolation of the main family in a simple visual way.

William, his wife, and their children are banished from the plantation because of his refusal to stop preaching the Gospels as he sees them.  Winter is coming to their isolated farm, and it doesn't look good.  Their corn crop is failing, for one.  Worse, the baby son was stolen away while eldest sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) played with him.  Things start going even more wrong from their, and each member of the family begins to accuse other members of being behind the curse.

The acting is on par with the direction.  Taylor-Joy is fantastic, with her wide, expressive eyes.  Many key points of the movie are shot with her face in close-up, just reacting.  I fully expect to see her showing up in many more roles.  Harvey Scrimshaw does a fine job as the eldest brother Caleb, too.  Both of them do a good job of portraying their uneasiness with the situation.  The younger children playing the twins also do well enough.

At the same time, I found The Witch mostly boring.  The witch is shown very early in the movie, which removes any suspense about the cause of the events on the farm.  It also takes a long time for the story to kick into gear.  Then, the ultimate ending simply didn't work for me.  The Witch is a film with a psychological level, but it just fell apart at the end.  The character's final choice was wonderfully acted and shot in a beautiful way, but the film failed to make me believe the choice.

I think Eggers' has talent, but hope his second story lives up to his direction.

February 10, 2016

Review: Idyll Threats

Idyll Threats A Thomas Lynch novel
By Stephanie Gayle
Available now from Seventh Street Books (Prometheus Books)
Review copy

Pushcart Prize-nominee Stephanie Gayle's first mystery novel IDYLL THREATS is set in the small town of Idyll in 1997.  The cops are ill-prepared to solve a murder, given that they mostly deal with traffic tickets and supervising the town festival.  Luckily, the new police chief Thomas Lynch is a former New York homicide detective.  His interest in working the murder of Cecelia North goes farther than that, however; he was one of the last people to see her alive.  Revealing how and where would reveal his greatest secret to his underlings, unfortunately.

I thought the 1997 setting was done wonderfully.  Not many people have cell phones, for instance, although a few do.  It's also just after a retroviral drug was created, one that helped the gay rights movement recover.  I thought Thomas's life as a closeted gay man was well done.  There's an accepted level of homophobia in the police station and the town itself that isn't necessarily violent, but is pervasive and unwelcoming.  And yet, Thomas does manage to meet other men he's interested in who are interested in him.  He's not sexless, nor entirely alone even in a smaller town.

The setting and characters will keep me coming back to this series.  But IDYLL THREATS did not fall down on the mystery angle.  I kept the pages turning as the clues were uncovered and the picture started to come together.  I also liked Thomas's torment over trying to get the work done right, to find the evidence that could replace his refusal to make a statement.  He feels guilty (as he should) even though he's otherwise doing his best.  I also liked how this element comes up again and again, as other people who saw Cecelia or other clues start to come forward despite their own reasons for staying silent.

IDYLL THREATS is a slim but encompassing novel.  I really felt like I got to know Idyll and its residents.  I'm looking forward to Gayle's next Thomas Lynch novel.

February 8, 2016

Movie Monday: The Brothers Grimsby

The Brothers Grimsby, known as Grimsby in the UK, is the newest movie from Sacha Baron Cohen.  It does not have anything to do with the brothers Grimm, as I originally thought.  The title refers to a real town in Northern England (that is reportedly unhappy about its portrayal).

It comes to theaters March 10, but I was lucky enough to catch a preview at Alamo Drafthouse.  It was a great program that included a behind-the-scenes look at Brüno before the movie and a livestream Q&A with Baron Cohen after.  It was an unfinished cut of the meeting, so we got to answer a few questions about what Baron Cohen might do for the final cut.

I was mostly interested in seeing the movie because Mark Strong (Kingsman, Welcome to the Punch) plays Baron Cohen's secret-agent brother.  The two were separated after their parents' death, and Baron Cohen's Nobby manages to find him just in time to screw up a mission that could prevent millions of deaths.

Honestly, most of the humor didn't work for me.  It's very focused on being gross, particularly in a sexual way.  I did appreciate how many of the gags became funnier just by going on longer and continuing to cross the line of good taste.  I'm probably happier than I would have been if I paid to see the movie.

The behind-the-scenes material was great.  I loved getting a glimpse at the security measures Baron Cohen uses when deliberately trying to provoke people.  He also spoke later on how safety is always the most important thing and getting the gags is second.  You know where the exits are, have a plan to get out, watch people's hands, and then try to be funny.  It was very sobering, particularly after the reveal that the racist white supremecist, F. Glenn Miller, interviewed for Brüno went on to murder three people outside a Jewish community sites.

It was also interesting, and less fraught, to hear how Baron Cohen managed to finagle an R-rating for The Brothers Grimsby.  He did it, of course, by submitting an even more outrageous cut.  The film's most memorably perverse scene is 2 1/2 minutes, but the version originally submitted to the MPAA was 11 minutes.

Even though I didn't love The Brothers Grimsby, it was an enjoyable night out at the movies.  I did love getting a peek at Baron Cohen's process.

February 5, 2016

Review: Remembrance

Remembrance A Mediator novel
By Meg Cabot
Available now from William Morrow (HarperCollins)
Review copy

The sixth Mediator novel, TWILIGHT, came out when I was a sophomore in high school.  I remember eagerly devouring it to discover how Suze Simon and Jesse de Silva would make their relationship work, even though he was a ghost and she helped ghosts cross over to the other side.  I started reading Meg Cabot's books because of The Princess Diaries series, but I liked Mediator even better because of the paranormal element.

Twelve years later, Cabot has returned to Suze's story with REMEMBRANCE.  It's only been six years for Suze, who has graduated from college and is now interning as a counselor at her old high school.  Jesse is almost done with med school.  And Suze is being driven nuts by his old-fashioned refusal to have sex before marriage.  In walks Paul Slater, Suze's loathsome ex.  He's threatening to tear down Suze's old home, the building that Jesse haunted and still anchors his soul. 

Suze has quite a bit on her plate between her evil ex and a girl at the school being followed by a murdered child.  Luckily, those six years haven't dulled her edge.  Suze is fierce, and not to be messed with.  Her only power might be seeing ghosts, but that isn't going to stop her from delivering justice to those who need it.  Even though REMEMBRANCE is an adult novel and the first six books were YA, she (and the rest of the characters) feel like the same people.

The main difference is that there's a bit more swearing (although most of it is just referred to) and a darker storyline.  Suze stumbles across some stomach-churning crimes as she attempts to help one ghost achieve peace.  The way Paul re-enters her life by trying to blackmail her into sex is also pretty intense.  At the same time, I don't think Cabot edges it up too much.  The original fans are now adults, and there's nothing I don't think a new teenage fan couldn't handle.  (Especially not if they've been reading some of those dystopians.)

I loved getting a chance to reacquaint myself with Suze and her friends and family.  It's been ages since I read the original Mediator novels, but it felt like stepping back into a familiar place after a journey away.  REMEMBRANCE is a fun, vibrant read sure to satisfy fans.  I'm very happy Cabot went back to the well for this one.

February 3, 2016

February 1, 2016

Review: Jillian Cade: (Fake) Paranormal Investigator

Jillian Cade Book one in a series
By Jen Klein
Available now from Soho Teen
Review copy

JILLIAN CADE: (FAKE) PARANORMAL INVESTIGATOR is Jen Klein's first YA novel, but she's already a seasoned writer due to her work with hit TV show Grey's Anatomy.  The eponymous Jillian Cade knows all about the paranormal due to her father.  She uses the information she's picked up from him (in addition to some common sense) to run Umbra Investigations.  After all, it isn't too hard to solve a haunting that isn't actually happening.  When a classmate hires Jillian to find a missing person, she realizes that she might be in over her head trying to solve a real case.  But her dad ditched her, so she has to make money somehow.

I took a long time to warm up to JILLIAN CADE.  I think I was expecting something kookier.  Instead, I got Jillian's reluctant attraction to Sky Ramsey, the mysterious new boy who knows too much about her.  (And who is totally off his rocker, since his explanation for the disappearance is that a succubus did it.)  The story did start to move once it pulled off one of my favorite tricks: it switched genres.

I feel like I'd like a sequel better, because the reveals really broadened the world of JILLIAN CADE.  This book took too long to build for me, and I just couldn't with Sky.  His whole stalker-act could've been written to be 90% less creepy, thus making the romance 90% more believable.  (As is, it mostly hinges on Sky being hot and Jillian feeling possessive of him.)

JILLIAN CADE: (FAKE) PARANORMAL INVESTIGATOR isn't a bad first novel, but I expect more from someone working on a show that knows how to bring the drama.


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