Liv, Forever

18077961First Lines: Chances of a girl like me ending up at Wickham Hall were next to nothing.  I was a farmer’s daughter and neither of my parents even finished grade school.  But I loved to read.

I’ve had this book sitting on my priority reading shelf (because that’s a thing…right?) since Halloween when I thought a ghost story sounded awesome.  Well…Halloween was about six months ago and I finally just got sick of seeing it.  And I gave it a try.

Liv Bloom has only ever wanted two things: to get out of the foster system and to become an artist.  After being adopted by an ok family, she gets accepted to the prestigious Wickham Hall on a scholarship, where she gets her own art studio.  It’s a dream come true…even if the traditions there are a bit strange.  But it’s here that she meets Malcolm Astor: legacy student, artist, and the only boy who has been able to melt her defenses.  And her only friend is Gabe, a fellow scholarship student who warns her to stay away from Malcolm.  But she’s finally enjoying her life…until it ends.  Weeks after arriving, she’s murdered and, in death, discovers that she is not the first.  With the ability to see ghosts, Gabe is the only person who can help Liv find her murderer, uncover the conspiracy, and stay connected to Malcolm.  It won’t be easy…

I found this to be an interesting, slightly unsettling read. There are times when it takes a big leap into the cliche, but I still enjoyed reading it. I liked that it was mysterious and vaguely creepy the entire time, even if I kinda knew how the mystery was going to end.

I’m not going to say that any of the characters are real stand-outs. Liv is artistic, but she’s pretty much a stock character beyond that, even though she’s the narrator. Gabe and Malcolm, the two supporting characters, are really the only ones who go through any measurable character development.  But even they are kind of forgettable.

I did like the quirks that these ghosts had, their powers and their limitations I mean. That’s what made it all interesting. And, as I mentioned, I liked the way the mystery unfolded.  I think this probably comes back to enjoying the writing style and the way the plot unfolded, but honestly, I can’t tell you what exactly it was about this book that kept me hooked.  This is an odd feeling for me.

There are moments that this book is trite. But there are also moments where it really does draw you in.  I like a good ghost story and while this one didn’t scare the pants off of me, it was pretty unsettling at times and had me looking over my shoulder from time to time.

The Upside of Unrequited

5139zwihtyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_First Lines: I’m on the toilet at the 9:30 Club, and I’m wondering how mermaids pee.  This isn’t random.  There’s a mermaid Barbie attached to the door of the bathroom here.  Which is a pretty odd choice for a bathroom mascot.  If that’s even a thing.

Hey guys!  So I got this as an ARC ages ago and forgot I had it…(oops?)…but I did manage to finish it around the time it came out!  (It released yesterday.)  At least I’m timely!  Anyway, I had to give this book a try.

Molly knows all about crushes and unrequited love, since she’s had twenty-six crushes throughout her life.  And it doesn’t matter how many times her twin sister Cassie tells her to get out there because Molly can’t stand the idea of being rejected.  Fat girls never win the guy in movies.  When a cute girl comes into Cassie’s life, Molly finds herself suddenly alone and dealing with her sister’s love life.  Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend brings with her a cute hipster boy.  If Molly can win him over, he could be her first kiss.  The only problem is Reid, Molly’s chubby Tolkein-superfan coworker.  Because there’s no way Reid could be cuter than the hipster…right?

I was up and down with this book. There are some very intelligent observations in this book about family, relationships, and friends. I appreciated those. I also really liked its portrayal of love in all its forms. (We have lesbian parents, another couple involving one female who is gay and one female who is pansexual, and straight couples too.) I didn’t feel like it was trying to make a big flashy point like, “LOOK! WE HAVE A GAY COUPLE HERE! PRAISE ME FOR ADDING GAY CHARACTERS!” It felt more natural. No one questioned why anyone was gay or straight or anything else. It was just their normal.

I also liked the portrayal of those uncomfortable feelings, like being a third wheel or having an unconventional, politically-incorrect, probably racist grandmother making uncomfortable comments in front of other people. (As cringe-y as she was, I did like Grandma Betty.)  And the truths about dealing with misogyny, weight, social pressures, etc.  This book covered a lot of ground.

I liked that the main characters included so many diverse types. Molly is, by her own admission, a big girl. She has two moms, one white and one black. Her twin sister is gay. Molly’s friends include total nerds and hipsters. So it was cool to see how some of this played out throughout the story.  And, of course, I love people who are unapologetic nerds.  The ones who like what they like and everyone else can take it or leave it.  There are a few of those in this story too.

But there were also things I didn’t like. I didn’t like the constant (and I mean constant) profanity. And boy, do they get creative with it. I think every other page had some form of profanity on it. Yes, I know people curse, but this was prolific.

I also thought a lot of the dialogue was unnecessarily vulgar and forced. I have lived a quarter of a century and I have never had 60% of the conversations Molly and her friends have about female bodies, boys, sex, etc. Nor have I heard most of those conversations at any point. At first it felt fine, like it was a little bit of a shock factor but whatever. But the longer it kept going on, the more it sounded like that attention-grabbing student who blurts out dirty comments in order to get the class to pay attention to them. It was more annoying than anything.

It just all came across as kind of eh to me. I keep picking it up and then losing interest. Not that it wasn’t good in a lot of ways, but it just didn’t keep my attention.  But given its high rating on Goodreads, it’s working for a lot of people.  Just not me.

A Series of Unfortunate Events: Season 1 (Netflix)

a-new-series-of-unfortunate-events-to-hit-netflix-462487Secrets will be revealed, one unfortunate event at a time.

It dawned on me the other day that I finished this series recently and I hadn’t blogged about it!  And with Netflix’s sudden interest in adapting YA novels into TV series (looking at you, 13 Reasons Why), I’m going to be busy!

If you don’t know the premise of A Series of Unfortunate Events (which is an unfortunate event in itself), here’s some background: three children (Violet, Klaus, and Sunny) find themselves suddenly becoming orphans after a fire destroys their home and kills their parents.  Shipped off to live with their closest relative, Count Olaf (played by Neil Patrick Harris), the trio find life is no longer comfortable and safe.  They have too many questions about their parents, their parents’ deaths, and their new guardian.  Because no matter how they try to escape Count Olaf, they can never get far enough away.

Quick overview of the episodes: this series covers the first four books (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, and The Miserable Mill).  Each book is broken into two episodes that range in length but generally run about 50 minutes.

I thought this series was really interesting.  I watched it over the course of about a month with my boyfriend, who kinda sorta knows the stories.  Anyway, the story is narrated by Lemony Snicket (played by Patrick Warburton).  He cuts in and out to explain what words mean or tell us that something bad is about to happen, the same way Snicket did in the books.  (It’s probably been over 12 years since I last read the books and I still remember Snicket’s way of defining words All. The. Time.)

The acting, I thought, was great.  Obviously I enjoyed Warburton’s dry humor and his somber delivery as our narrator, but NPH…give this guy some props.  He plays Olaf (and Olaf’s many personas) masterfully.  Olaf is obnoxious and boisterous and terrible, but that just goes to show how good NPH is because that’s so not the NPH we’ve come to know.  And the fact that he pulls off these weird disguises he wears to get close to the children also goes to show just how amazing an actor he is.  (As if that isn’t enough, he also sings the theme songs to each episode!  The songs are all a little different, depending on which book you’re in.)

The children were also delightful.  Violet (played by Malina Weissman) is clever and careful.  I totally bought into her older sister act as she tried to keep tabs on Klaus and Sunny to protect them.  And Klaus (played by Louis Hynes) was just a sweetheart.  He’s booksmart and savvy, always two steps ahead of Olaf.  They were so much fun to follow, and the chemistry between the two of them was great.  They really seemed like family.

And of course, the minor characters were fantastic.  From Olaf’s crew of henchmen to the Baudelaire orphans’ new guardians, they were all well-cast and brilliant.  I did kind of have a freak out when I saw that Aasif Mandvi was playing Uncle Monty.  I think Mandvi is hilarious.

The show, amazingly, is targeted at both children and adults.  So the humor remains clean and the children’s conflicts are familiar to other kids.  But as an adult, I loved the subtle jokes this show got off.  It broke the fourth wall, they made all kinds of literary references to classic novels and writers, and the acting sometimes gave subtle jokes as well.  It’s mostly based on puns and slapstick for humor, but that’s my favorite.  And like I said, there are great literary references if you listen closely.  Everything from George Orwell to Virginia Wolf to Moby Dick.  Basically every episode dropped something that my English major side picked up on.

I really enjoyed this.  I won’t say everything was perfect; some of the episodes felt long.  There were times I started getting a little bored.  But it was still fun to see this series come to life and I’m really interested to see where the next season goes.

The Outlaws of Sherwood

51g4kt1rhxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_First Lines: A small vagrant breeze came from nowhere and barely flicked the feather tips as the arrow sped on its way.

Hey guys!  So I grabbed this at the library because A) it’s Robin McKinley, who has written some of my favorite Beauty and the Beast retellings and B) I really do love me some Robin Hood.  I’m on a British/medieval kick right now (not really shocking, since I am about 60% of the time anyway), and this seemed like it would hit the spot.

Robin, a young forester, is weak.  Or at least that’s what the other foresters think.  As a target for their bullying, Robin does his best to stay out of their way.  But when one confrontation leaves a man dead, Robin knows his only option is to hide in Sherwood Forest.  With the help of a few friends, Robin manages to put together a small camp and recruit others who don’t fit in.  But creating a band of outlaws is the easy part…what happens when the Sheriff of Nottingham begins hunting for them?

I’m not really doing this book justice with that blurb, because it covers so much of the Robin story that it’s impossible to mention all of it, but it covers the big parts.

This was pretty well done. It does start off slow though, I will say. It took me a while to get into the story, but once I did, it was cute. There were a few twists I was not expecting, which says something for a legend I know as well as this one. I liked the changes that she made to the story (which every author does) and I thought it built well on the original legend.

The characters are all quite charming (well, besides the villains, obviously). They each have their quirks and I liked being introduced to each of them. I really liked Little John, who has been rapidly rising in my respect of his character the more I read these retellings.  And it has all the old favorites: Alan-a-dale, Much, Marian (who is a very strong and vivacious lead, certainly not a caricature), Will Scarlet, the Sheriff, King Richard, etc.  It also includes characters I was not familiar with.  A few I’m pretty sure were made up for this story (like the young Cecil, who becomes Little John’s boy), but others I think are in some of the older version of Robin Hood and have been dropped in more recent years.

Speaking of characters, as I mentioned with Marian, she is a female character worthy of admiration.  Most/all of the female characters were.  I absolutely loved that McKinley made it a point to show the strength of women, whether they were fighters, nobles, or simply the kitchen help.  Each one of them had a moment where you saw them as a person with fears and strengths rather than simply a shadowy, requisite female character.

The plot, after the beginning, can be quite exciting.  We cover so many of the stories surrounding Robin that we’re familiar with: Robin on the run, meeting Little John, Robin’s feelings for Marian, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, etc.  This story does make it more of an Us vs. Them story, with the Saxons (the original people of England) vs. the Norman invaders (those who came from France with William the Conqueror to take over and settle England, thus starting British history as we know it).  This was a point of real contention at this time, and it was a twist that I don’t usually see a lot in modern Robin Hood tales.

The ending is definitely worth it. It just takes a little while for this band of merry men (and women) to get going.

Romeo and What’s Her Name

28265679First Lines: “What’s so urgent?” my best friend Jillian Frankel called out as she made her way through the throngs of juniors clogging the halls of Shaker Heights High School.

Hey guys!  So I’m on Spring Break this week and incredibly hopeful that I’ll get a few more posts up than I have been lately!  (Also, I know it’s April Fools today, but let’s just ignore that.  Not really a fan of this “holiday” anyway.)  So this book was one that I wanted to read because of the Shakespeare connection.  And the acting.  You’ll see.

I’m just going to copy the actual jacket here, since it does a good job: Understudies never get to perform. . . which is why being Juliet’s understudy in the school’s yearly “Evening with Shakespeare” is the perfect role for Emily. She can earn some much-needed extra credit while pursuing her main goal of spending time with Wes, aka Romeo, aka the hottest, nicest guy in school (in her completely unbiased opinion). And she meant to learn her lines, really, it’s just:
a) Shakespeare is HARD,
b) Amanda, aka the “real” Juliet, makes her run errands instead of lines, and
c) there’s no point because Amanda would never miss the chance to be the star of the show.

Then, Amanda ends up in the hospital and Emily, as the (completely unprepared!) understudy, has to star opposite the guy of her dreams. Oops?

It was…sort of cute. If this was any Shakespearean work, it was A Comedy of Errors. Everything that our characters do is just one farce after another. Emily especially is basically a comedian in teenager form. Everything she touches turns into a clumsy accident. Which, while funny, gets incredibly old when she seems to be incompetent rather than simply an unfortunate girl.

It wasn’t until the second half of the book that I started getting more into it. I truly almost put it down in the beginning because I just couldn’t connect with anyone or anything. Even the Shakespeare sometimes made me cringe (especially Emily’s attempts at Shakespearean language). While I’m not a Shakespearean purist by any means, I do think it needs to be treated with respect. And I didn’t really feel like this book did that, so it was off-putting to me as an English teacher/nerd. For the normal reader? It’s probably not a huge deal.

The second half, as I mentioned, was better. I understood the friendships better and Emily was less of a Danger-Prone-Daphne. If only the Emily that existed there could have existed throughout most of the book.

I also struggled with some of the characters seeming like complete stereotypes. Amanda, Emily’s rival for the role of Juliet and Wes’s affections, is your textbook Queen Bee. Vicious, popular, manipulative, and nasty, Amanda is every Mean Girl we hated in school. But it’s completely a caricature rather than feeling like an actual character. It just wasn’t fun to read.

I think part of my problem was with the writing style.  It was very obvious.  I mean, you can tell so much information from the first sentence alone, like an info-dump there.  I’m not saying the whole book was an info-dump, but it was one of those where the surprises were never subtle.  It was one where Emily would say things like, “Why should I do that?  That’ll never happen.”  And then it does.  Like 10 times over.  Rinse, wash, repeat.  It’s only funny like twice.
But I did still kinda like it because it was still entertaining after I understood what was going on. It just wasn’t as great as I was hoping.

Wildly Into the Dark: Typewriter Poems and the Rattlings of a Curious Mind

51viohmxugl-_sx361_bo1204203200_Hey guys!  I know this isn’t my usual fare, but I really wanted to let you know about this one.

This is a collection of poems from Tyler Knott Gregson (the guy who has all those typewriter poems that you see on Pinterest).  I was contacted by the publisher about reading this and passing the word on for two reasons.  (One of them is obviously for a review.)

So we’ll start there.  I own Gregson’s first collection of poems and I love that book.  Gregson’s poetry is interesting because he usually focuses on the small yet important details in daily life, like the way the wind grasps your hair and blows it around or the way loneliness can feel like an old friend.  It’s kind of a fascinating way of looking at the world.

Actually, I’m pretty sure Gregson must be an introvert because there’s so much he writes about that is so identifiable.  It’s all of that writing from a curious mind.  He just sees things differently, in a way that makes you as the reader feel not so alone in noticing weird things too.  I like that.

I will admit, though, that I’m more of a fan of Gregson’s love poems.  While Wildly Into the Dark does have love poems, the vast majority of them are more philosophical and, on a couple of occasions, political.  There’s nothing wrong with it (the poems are still quite good), but they just aren’t my usual interest area.  But overall, the collection of poetry is quite good if you enjoy poetry.  (As a teacher, I am well aware of how many people do not.  I get to hear it every day.)

As I mentioned, the publisher had another reason for contacting me: $1 of every preordered book goes to To Write Love on Her Arms.  (Official release date is March 28, 2017.)  This is an organization I have a lot of respect for and I would absolutely love it if anyone interested in this book enough to buy it would preorder it so TWLOHA gets some of the proceeds.  I wanted to give them a shout-out for that.

If you’d like more information about preordering or the book, go here.  It’s Gregson’s website and he’s got all the details there.

Thank you to any and all who give this book a second look!

Beauty and the Beast (2017 Movie)

movie_poster_beautybeast2017_95e8117fBe Our Guest.

I saw it last night, guys.  You ready for this?

(I’m not even going to give you a synopsis of this movie because I truly hope that no one needs an explanation of what this movie is about.  That would just be so sad.)

Let’s start by talking about the story itself.  Obviously, probably about 85-90% of this movie is the same as the original.  (Some of the dialogue is word for word the same as well, a fact that I know because I have the original animated movie completely memorized.)  Your basics are all there: Belle goes to the castle, Gaston is the bad guy, “Be Our Guest” is a huge production, etc.  The plot is essentially the same.

However, there are some differences to the story, and I won’t go too far into specifics because the discover of it was just so much fun as I was watching it.  Some of the differences have been well-publicized, like Belle being the inventor rather than her father, or Le Fou’s gay scene.  (We’ll talk about that later.)  Belle definitely feels like more of a stronger heroine than the original does, and that’s thanks in large part of Emma Watson’s insistence that Belle not be a damsel in distress.  I liked that she was more willing to be part of the fight rather than just watching it happen.

I was happy with other differences as well.  Disney did a nice job trying to fix some of those plot holes from the original (like the much talked about age of the Beast, since the rose would bloom until his 21st year, etc.).  But we also get backstories on Gaston, Belle, the Beast.  It was great.  And more interactions with the enchanted people in the castle!  You’re going to enjoy Stanley Tucci’s new character.

Oh!  And I almost forgot.  For those of you very familiar with the original tales of Beauty and the Beast from about 200 years ago (or the Robin McKinley retellings), you’ll be pleased with a few changes to the story.

I was also very happy with the music.  Obviously, most of the songs you know well are in this movie again.  (I noticed one or two were cut, but they were reprises or additions to the anniversary edition of the movie.)  The singing voices for the main characters were a little bit different than I was expecting, like how Emma’s voice is a bit airy, but I liked the way it sounded.  And I’m a huge fan of Josh Gad, so his singing is always phenomenal.

There are a few new songs added to the movie, but you’ll be pleased to know Alan Menken returns for this and the additional lyrics were written by Tim Rice, who is a longtime lyricist for Disney.  (Howard Ashman, who wrote the original lyrics, died from AIDS before the 1991 movie was released.)  Some of Ashman’s original lyrics, which were cut from the 1991 film, were added back in for this movie.  So even the new songs and verses feel like classic Disney songs.

Now for the acting.  I thought that Emma Watson did a wonderful job as Belle (partly because Emma is Belle in so many way).  Dan Stevens plays the Beast in a way that makes him seem tough but also soft at times.  As I already mentioned, I love Josh Gad for his humor and vocals, and this did not disappoint.  Gad is hilarious as Le Fou.

But you know who the surprises were?  Luke Evans as Gaston and Kevin Kline as Maurice.  I had heard that Evans wanted to play Gaston in more of a way that made him seem like a human before doing a bait-and-switch style shift in his character.  Of course, Gaston is still a complete narcissist, but he’s not as conceited as he is in the original.  And his shift into a monster is more unsettling for that reason.  And Kline gives Maurice more of a backbone (and more intelligence).  One of my issues with the original Maurice is how flighty and helpless he seems, but Kline did a nice job of still keeping Maurice a bit absent-minded but still respectable.  I understood him more.

Of course, I can’t leave out the enchanted cast either.  Audra McDonald is always a favorite of mine, so insert glowing praise here.  Ewan McGregor is fun as Lumiere, Ian McKellen is great as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson does fantastic justice to Mrs. Potts, and the ensemble of Plumette and Chip are scene-stealers.

I was well-impressed with this movie.  Sure, when you know what’s going to happen next, it takes out a little of the excitement and suspense, but it was still a lot of fun to see it all on the big screen.

I enjoyed myself while watching this movie.  And my boyfriend (who not only came to see this with little complaining AND bought me a replica of Belle’s necklace in the ballroom scene) enjoyed himself too, even if he denies it.  From a male perspective, he enjoyed Gaston’s character a lot and the inclusion of “X-Men and Hobbits” in this movie.  (He caught McKellen’s voice immediately and recognized Luke Evans, but it took him until the credits to identify McGregor.)  He was rooting for Gaston nearly the entire time.

Have fun going to see this yourself, friends!  Let me know what you thought!