New TV Shows To Get Excited About In Fall, 2014!

TV Premieres I’ll Definitely Be Tuning In For This Fall!

gotham

by REBECCA, August 25, 2014

It’s a glorious time of year: the horrors of summer are nearly behind us and the Fall TV lineup has been announced! With one of my favorite books newly kicking ass on screen (Outlander), my expectations are high. Will this year’s shows cut it? I can’t wait to find out slash watch them anyway.

a to z

A to Z (NBC) premieres October 2. Let’s start on what will likely be a low note.

Andrew Lofland, while a guy’s guy, has always been a secret romantic . . . not above crooning to Celine Dion while driving to work, with dreams of finding “the one.” He imagines her to be just like that shimmering beauty he spotted that night in that silver dress at that concert two years ago. Zelda Vasco is a no-nonsense lawyer who has strong feelings about being her own person and prefers the control of online dating. However, when a computer glitch sends her a total mismatch, she’s asked to come in for an interview at Wallflower Online Dating, the agency where Andrew works.

Andrew and Zelda meet for the first time and despite their differences, sparks fly. She thinks it’s chance. He thinks it’s fate. After all, he’s convinced she’s the shimmering girl in the silver dress. Is it true love forever or just a detour in destiny? Andrew and Zelda will date for eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour. This program is a comprehensive account of their relationship—from “A to Z.”

The pilot of A to Z is available online now.

constantine

Constantine (NBC) premieres October 24. I’m excited about this one, but it’s a real bummer that it looks like NBC is not going to make Constantine bisexual like he is in the comic.

Based on the wildly popular comic book series “Hellblazer” from DC Comics, seasoned demon hunter and master of the occult John Constantine is armed with a ferocious knowledge of the dark arts and a wickedly naughty wit. He fights the good fight—or at least he did. With his soul already damned to hell, he’s decided to abandon his campaign against evil until a series of events thrusts him back into the fray, and he’ll do whatever it takes to protect the innocent. With the balance of good and evil on the line‎, Constantine will use his skills to travel the country, find the supernatural terrors that threaten our world and send them back where they belong. After that, who knows . . . maybe there’s hope for him and his soul after all.”

gotham

Gotham (FOX) premieres September 22. Whee! If this isn’t awesome I will be so so sad.

Before there was Batman, there was Gotham.

Everyone knows the name Commissioner Gordon. He is one of the crime world’s greatest foes, a man whose reputation is synonymous with law and order. But what is known of Gordon’s story and his rise from rookie detective to Police Commissioner? What did it take to navigate the multiple layers of corruption that secretly ruled Gotham City, the spawning ground of the world’s most iconic villains? And what circumstances created them—the larger-than-life personas who would become Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler, Two-Face and The Joker? Gotham is an origin story of the great DC Comics Super-Villains and vigilantes, revealing an entirely new chapter that has never been told. Gotham follows one cop’s rise through a dangerously corrupt city teetering on the edge of evil, and chronicles the birth of one of the most popular super heroes of our time.”

happyland

Happyland (MTV) premieres September 30. I’m not sure about this one, since the only MTV show I’ve ever seen is Teen Wolf (<3), but I’m game to try it.

MTV’s newest scripted teen drama exposes the soapy inner workings of one of the country’s most popular theme parks, revealing the less-than-magical reality of what goes on behind the scenes. Lucy is a cynical teenager who grew up in the park (her mom works there as a princess) and wants to leave so she can experience the real world. Naturally, that all changes when she meets Ian. He’s the son of the park’s new owner, who sweeps Lucy off her feet . . . until a scandal comes to light that turns both their lives upside-down.”

Jane the virgin

Jane the Virgin (CW) premieres October 13. This sounds fucking nuts, but . . . maybe also funny? Or maybe just an extended chance for me to yell at my tv, “GET AN ABOOOOOOOORTIOOOOOON!” Only time shall tell.

Gina Rodriguez stars as a young woman named Jane, and Jane is a virgin! What more is there to know? Well, okay, there is the fact that she’s pregnant because she was accidentally artificially inseminated by her gynecologist. Whoops! And to make matters even more complicated, Jane has to decide whether or not to keep the baby after discovering the sperm specimen belonged to cancer survivor Rafael, who’s not only a former crush of Jane’s, but also her new boss.”

red band society

Red Band Society (FOX) premieres September 17. This is the show that 10-year-old Rebecca really wanted when she was reading all those Lurlene McDaniel books. It’s apparently based on a Catalan show.

Red Band Society is a coming-of-age dramedy about a group of rule-bending friends and the adults who mentor them through the ups and downs of adolescence in Los Angeles’ Ocean Park Hospital. Exploring everything from strong friendships, and first loves, to humorous mishaps and heartbreaks, the series is a story of life, with an edgy comedic tone all its own.

Twelve-year-old narrator Charlie is in a coma and introduces us to this band of unlikely friends, including the “new kid,” Jordi, a 16-year-old who comes to California to seek out treatment at the renowned hospital. What Jordi soon discovers is that it’s not his illness that’s going to change his life, but his new friends. Also at Ocean Park is Leo, the 16-year-old, charming and independent “leader” of the group. Leo’s best friend is Dash, a 16-year-old “rebel” with a big personality, who is determined not to let his cystic fibrosis stop him from living his life. Also on the ward is 15-year-old “know-it-all” Emma, Leo’s on-again-off-again girlfriend who is coping with an eating disorder. Rounding out this group of patients is Kara, a “mean girl” cheerleader who shares a room with Charlie. Although her heart is failing, she is realizing for the first time that she actually has one and begins opening it up to her new friends.

You can watch the pilot online now.

Survivor's Remorse

Survivor’s Remorse (STARZ) premieres October 4. Well, Starz is kind of killing it with Outlander, so maybe this will be delightful? Even though I don’t care about sports, I love sports movies, so I’m game (get it?). Also I have a fantasy that Survivor’s Remorse might be the new Friday Night Lights . . . because it’s about sports + it’s set in Philly and Friday Night Lights ended in Philly . . .

This basketball comedy follows a young amateur baller Cam Calloway as he lands his first multimillion-dollar contract with a professional basketball team in Atlanta. Cam, along with his cousin and confidante, move to Georgia to start Cam’s career. The two confront the challenges of carrying opportunistic family members and their strong ties to the impoverished community that they came from.”

So, what will you be watching this Fall?

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Finally, Outlander!

A Review of Outlander (episode 1), created by Ronald D. Moore and based on the books by Diana Gabaldon

Starz, 2014

Outlander

by REBECCA, August 13, 2014

Battlestar GalacticaY’all, I have been dreaming of seeing Outlander on the big screen since I first read Diana Gabaldon’s book circa the turn of the century. Like many fans, I approached news of Starz optioning it with the mixture of hope and trepidation that always attends beloved adaptations. Would they cast it right? Would it evoke the same feelings of the book? What if I hate Claire and Jamie onscreen? Knowing Ron Moore, of Battlestar Galactica fame was at the helm made me hopeful, though, because he has such a great track record with sprawling, epic stories, of which Outlander is certainly one.

But, like many fans . . . I don’t actually have TV, much less Starz. Rather than watching episode one, “Sassanach” when Starz put it up for free viewing last Saturday, then, I waited until I came to visit my parents (who do have Starz—and a large TV) to watch. But now I have, so, though I’m late for the game I’ll be goddamned if I don’t talk about it. In list form. Because . . . mostly it’s just stuff I liked.

Most importantly, for me, I really liked Claire (Catriona Balfe). She was capable and brave and spunky without seeming like she had a chip on her shoulder. She seemed wise and mature, which she’s supposed to be, but still with a sense of humor.

I didn’t love Tobias Menzies as Frank, Claire’s husband. Since he and Black Jack Randall are played by the same actor, I really wanted someone who, as Frank, looked really appealing and cultured, and to me he looks like a villain as Frank, too, making his transformation into Black Jack less striking. He did a good job, though, and, most importantly, Ron Moore was smart to spend the meat of the first episode developing their relationship so that it will be understandable why Claire wants to get back to her own time.

OutlanderJamie. We didn’t see much of him, but he’s clearly Jamie-ish. Sam Heughan definitely looked the part and seemed to have Jamie’s tender youth and bravado pretty much sewn up. Also, you know, extremely handsome. Still, Jamie makes me slightly concerned about the cheese-factor . . .

My problem with the episode is actually a problem with genre. Diana Gabaldon’s book is not really a romance novel. It’s sweeping historical fiction at the center of which is a couple. But it’s often shelved in the romance section (I learned the embarrassing way in high school) and spoken about in terms of the romance genre. The character of Jamie isn’t actually the problem. The problem is that when viewed in romance terms, Jamie’s character has become a huge romance cliché: the strapping, red-headed 18th-century Scottish agitator who speaks with a brogue, threatens to throw women over his shoulder (in a nice way . . . ) and has, for the times, relatively progressive gender politics. It’s practically a staple now, nearly twenty-five years after Gabaldon wrote the book. So, I worry that simply by virtue of presenting Jamie faithfully, Outlander will verge into cheeseball territory.

OutlanderOf course, I would still happily watch a cheesy, romantic version of Outlander, but I don’t think that really does justice to the complex drama of the books, and it makes me a tidge worried that Starz won’t get the extra-literary viewership that it will want to justify renewing the show.

Okay, but aside from the tragic problem of Sam Heughan’s attractiveness and chest muscles, I thought the episode was great. Maybe this was a testament to my parents’ TV, but the long, sweeping shots of Scotland . . . that shit looked amazing. I loved the way the 1945 scenes were shot with a muted palette and dim or washed-out light; it makes the gorgeous natural colors once Claire goes through the stones really pop.

OutlanderThe music was gorgeous (not that I’d expect anything less from Bear McCreary, who also did the music for Battlestar), as was the cinematography. And I can already tell that I like the pace Ron Moore has chosen. It’s lingering, like Gabaldon’s books are, but not plodding. It meant that we got the great scenes of Reverend Wakefield’s housekeeper reading Claire’s palm, and the quiet moments of walking and driving around Inverness. The episode did a great job of establishing Inverness as a respite after the war—a safe place for Claire and Frank to reconnect after a long absence—which made it all the more shocking when Claire was ripped from it. Good show!

Scotland Decides 2014I am a little freaked out to see that Starz is splitting the first season, though, with episodes 1-8 running through the end of September and then going on hiatus until after New Year’s. I guess it’s good in that it will stop me from sitting in front of my computer staring and wishing I was in Scotland. Sigh. Also, I love that a show about independent Scottish clans will be airing simultaneous with the Scottish independence referendum (September 18).

Anyhoo, I was pleasantly surprised and cannot wait to snuggle back into the familiar world of Outlander! Did you see it? What did you think?

“Think Twice Before Falling Asleep”: Welcome to the Dark House

A Review of Welcome to the Dark House, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Hyperion (Disney), 2014

Welcome to the Dark House Laurie Faria Stolarz

by REBECCA, August 6, 2014

hook

For seven horror fans (well, six horror fans and one traumatized girl who’s trying to desensitize herself) this will be the weekend of their lives. After submitting essays about their scariest nightmares, they’ve won an exclusive look at horror director Justin Blake’s new movie and the chance to stay at a bed and breakfast crawling with creepies. But when you hand someone else a guide to your most terrifying nightmares, don’t be surprised when they come true . . . [Come on, that clearly should’ve been a sentence in a blurb about this book; you’re welcome, Hyperion!]

review

I’ve been on a total horror/supernatural/mystery kick lately, so I was excited to read Welcome to the Dark House (good title; good cover). I liked the premise a lot: horror fans competing to win an in-the-middle-of-nowhere weekend that’s all about their favorite horror director. It’s got the promise of thrills and chills alongside the possibility for some nerdy meta-horror fandom.

752px-john_henry_fuseli_-_the_nightmareWelcome to the Dark House starts really strong. Ivy Jensen’s nightmare is rooted in reality. Six years ago, her parents were murdered by a serial killer as she slept across the hall. After she called 911, their killer came to her room and spoke to her before police sirens scared him away, leaving her in constant fear that he would reappear and finish the job. Ivy’s fear hasn’t lessened over the years, so, at the end of her rope, she decides that she needs to somehow desensitize herself to it. Imagining that she might do so by learning what so many people seem to love about horror movies, Ivy enters the contest, even though she isn’t sure how she got put on the list to receive its announcement, and when she wins, she decides she will conquer her fears by facing them.

And it pretty much goes downhill from there. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a terrible book. It’s fun and has a few scary moments. But it could have been totally good, so I found myself getting more and more disappointed as it went along. What it suffers from are the same things that make so many horror films throwaways, and it’s frustrating to see, because a novel is the perfect medium (to me) with which to take advantage of everything that’s awesome about horror but also to add in a lot of that to which horror movies aren’t as suited.

Horror Film Problem #1. Welcome to the Dark House doesn’t go in depth enough with character development to make me care about the characters as people to care when they die (that’s not a spoiler if you’ve ever seen a horror movie). The reason that I wasn’t able to care much about the characters is that the book is written from six different perspectives, shifting every chapter. For the first few chapters this worked fine because the characters hadn’t gotten to the bed and breakfast yet. But once they were all together, there was NO REASON for a shifting perspective because . . . they’re all together. So, the shift in perspective seemed arbitrary—why have Garth tell this part of their dinner and Shayla tell this part? No reason. Because they’re all together.

Of course, there would have been a reason if the characters’ POVs deepened our understanding of them and their backstory, or if, as I always hope for in a shifting-POV book, the different characters’ views of events are quite different, revealing internal mysteries and hidden motivations. But that wasn’t the case here. As such, I was constantly having to flip back to the chapter to see whose POV it was from because the voices of the characters are not distinct from one another. This is a huge pet peeve of mine in general: if you’re going to use shifting perspective, your characters’ voices need to be unique enough that there’s never any doubt in my mind who is speaking.

It also turned out to be a problem because (no specific spoilers:) some of the characters die. So . . . it’s kind of awkward. Really, this should have been either in third-person, so we could fully experience things from all characters’ POVs or it should all have been from Ivy’s perspective since she’s established (as any horror aficionado will see) very early on as what Carol Clover calls “the final girl.”

haunted-dark-house_1680x1050_29115Horror Film Problem # 2. Like so many horror films, Welcome to the Dark House starts out as one kind of book and becomes a different kind in the third act. The first act, where our horror fans are arriving at the bed and breakfast and meeting each other, and the second act, when they begin to experience the delights of the horrors that have been planned for them there, feel very much of a piece. This makes up the first half of the book, which was both too long to glean as little depth about/investment in the characters as I did, and also too short to really develop the B&B as a house of horrors. It was, as horror goes, kid stuff.

The one exception to this is Natalie, a character whose nightmare is her own reflection. Her character has some interesting shit going on, which I appreciated, but which merely served to make the rest of the characters feel generic by comparison, unfortunately.

Halfway through the book, it decides it’s not satisfied with the B&B concept and takes the characters to an amusement part where, in order to be shown the new Justin Blake film, they must each face a carnival ride that is their own nightmare. Except there are also a bunch of random other rides that they can go on, so they just hang out for a while, lessening the suspense for no reason. Oh, and they’re locked in. In case that wasn’t obvious.

So, in order to be allowed to see the movie they must each face their nightmare ride, but no one is allowed to go on anyone else’s ride or they forfeit the chance to see the film. No idea why, except that this conceit finally makes it clear which chapter is told from which character’s perspective . . . ?

article-0-1B9A660E000005DC-455_964x633Horror Film Problem #3. Also like so many blah horror movies, Welcome to the Dark House isn’t even satisfied with one shift in frame; it has to add another one. The ending provides an ad hoc explanation of why they’re all actually there, which is thrown away so casually in one sentence that I don’t know why Stolarz even bothered. And, the final nail in the coffin, the book ends with the essays that the characters wrote to win the contest. But, why? Because we already saw what their nightmares were when they lived through them. Like, twenty pages before. (It also serves to remind the reader of a major plot thread that was never tied up . . .)

So, all in all, I think most real horror fans will find Welcome to the Dark House a predictable, unsuspenseful exercise in skimming. However, I would recommend it to folks who aren’t that into horror but are looking for a bit of a scare because it won’t feel as done-to-death for those unfamiliar with the genre, and because it really is only a tip of the hat to horror, so it’s not going to scare the bejeezus out of you.

readalikes

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

Darkhouse (Experiment in Terror #1), by Karina Halle (2011). Y’all want a real horror novel that is also called Darkhouse? Of course you do! Karina Halle’s Experiment in Terror series is one of my all-time fave horror series. Perry Palomino has always had . . . issues with the supernatural. But when she meets Dex Foray, she’s willing to dive headfirst back into them to be the host of his online ghost hunting show. As the fear factor rises, so does the chemistry!

The Midnight Club Christopher Pike

The Midnight Club, by Christopher Pike (1994). Five terminally ill teens living in Rotterdam House meet (at midnight) to tell stories as a ward against the fear of death; they pledge that the first to die must send a sign to the rest of them . . . from the other side.

procured from: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Welcome to the Dark House by Laurie Faria Stolarz is available now.

“I Used to Think I Was a Good Person”: The Dogs of Balboa

A Review of The Dogs of Balboa by Rose Christo

Self-published,  2014

The Dogs of Balboa Rose Christo

by REBECCA, August 4, 2014

hook

While walking home one day, fifteen-year-old Michael Mirez sees a sexual assault and runs away in fear. Over the next year, Michael self-destructs, endlessly punishing himself for not stepping in to do more. Now, Noah Flattery, the boy Michael saw assaulted shows up at Michael’s school, and Michael sees his chance to try and make it up to him. But what starts as a relationship of guilty protection becomes so much more, and Michael isn’t sure if he can handle it.

review

Gives Light Rose ChristoAn important thing to know about the world: there is a series called Gives Light, written and self-published by the inimitable Rose Christo and, before you do anything else, you should read it. I’m telling you this because I want to improve your quality of life. (Also, you should check out our interview with the very smart and funny Rose Christo HERE.)

Whew, okay. Now that we’ve taken care of that, let’s talk about The Dogs of Balboa, a book that has a similar tone and dynamic to the Gives Light series—and what a welcome dynamic it is!

Our narrator is Michael Mirez, whom we come to know as a responsible kid who loves his older brother, Joel (who joined the army at eighteen), and sisters, respects his father, a terse Spanish lawyer, and feels protective of his mother, a wheelchair-bound former-reindeer-farmer from Lapland. Michael is kind and funny, and thinks of himself as a good person. All that changes when Michael sees a boy being raped by two men in an alley. Michael wants to intercede, but, terrified, runs to his best friend, Tamika’s, house and calls the police instead. After that day, Michael never lets himself off the hook again.

Michael’s opinion of himself changes drastically that day, and he doesn’t believe he deserves anything good in his life. His guilt even causes him to fail his sophomore year. He spends his time in Joel’s room, confessing things to him that he can’t say out loud. How everywhere he looks he sees the personal failure that’s come to define him. Rose Christo has a way with this kind of character. Her portrait of Michael’s guilt and trauma over what he witnessed and his reaction to it are exquisite.

The boy from the winter alleyway crept back into my head. I almost vomited. Truth was, that boy was always in my head. Mostly he lingered toward the back somewhere, just out of sight. It was whenever I was in danger of thinking something really hypocritical—or relaxing, even for a moment—that he made his comeback, that he reminded me I didn’t deserve respite and he wasn’t going away. He was never going away. What had happened to him was never going away. If I had just said something. If I had just opened my mouth.”

earth5Then, on the first day of Michael’s (second) sophomore year, he runs into a beautiful Native American boy smoking in the bathroom and everything changes. Because it’s the boy he saw in the alley that day a year before. And suddenly, all Michael wants in the whole world is to keep this boy—Noah—safe. It begins with Michael walking him to and from school, where they develop a rapport. Michael notices that sensitive, jumpy Noah seems to feel safe around him. But this only serves to heighten Michael’s fear that he cannot ever truly keep Noah safe; that he’d already let him down too severely.

Almost without noticing it, Noah and Michael begin spending all their time together, where they realize they’re both fascinated by space—planets, constellations, black holes. But, no matter how close they get, Michael sees every interaction as pointing out his own failure; as pointing out that he doesn’t deserve to be happy.

“A part of Noah was stolen last winter. Noah wanted to go to space to get back to himself, the unmovable, indomitable part of himself that stood still with the ethers while the earth shook. I wanted to go to space to get away from myself. I wanted to stop being Michael. Noah stood his ground while I ran away.”

The closer they get, the less Michael feels he can bear to lose Noah’s friendship, so he avoids telling Noah that he is the one who witnessed his attack. But the closer they get, the more Michael feels like he’s assaulting Noah all over again by enjoying his friendship without confessing. And, little by little, Michael is beginning to question whether his feelings for Noah stop at friendship . . .  because he’s beginning to feel something very much like love.

The image of the violent practice that gave this book its title

The image of the violent practice that gave this book its title

The Dogs of Balboa is pitch-perfect; a poignant and chilling exploration of the horror of suddenly proving to yourself that you aren’t who you thought you were, and the horror of living with the aftermath. Michael, it’s clear, did nothing wrong. But after being confronted with a version of himself that he found lacking, he is unable to live with that self. Noah has his own version of events, but Michael isn’t sure he’ll ever be able to revise his opinion of himself. Christo is a master at character-building through voice and reaction, and Michael and Noah are no exception. They are delightful, complex characters who each possess something that the other one desperately needs.

As with all her novels, Christo’s secondary characters—Michael’s siblings, Noah’s sister, their friends from school—are fully-developed and help build the world. The Dogs of Balboa explores multiple different cultures, from Michael’s mixed heritage and Noah’s Native American household, to the large Gujarati population at their school.

The Dogs of Balboa reminded me of Gives Light in some ways. An unlikely friendship between two boys that’s based on unconditional protection on one side and unconditional acceptance on the other; issues of guilt and redemption; trauma, both person and cultural; and sexual assault. But this isn’t a rehashing of Gives Light by any means, merely a very worthy and very welcome follow-up. The Dogs of Balboa is a beautiful book you won’t forget.

readalikes

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2012). When Aristotle and Dante first meet, they seem an unlikely pair. Aristotle is angry at the world, with a brother in prison and frustrations around every corner, and Dante is thoughtful, with academic parents and a paranoia that he’s not Mexican enough. But Ari and Dante quickly become inseparable, and this story of their relationship is a gorgeous testament to the ways we sometimes need someone unlikely in order to discover ourselves.

How to Repair a Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis

How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, by J.C. Lillis (2012). Psh, y’all, J.C. Lillis’ debut novel is a masterpiece of the friends –> boyfriends genre. Like The Dogs of Balboa and Aristotle and Dante Discover the UniverseHow to Repair a Mechanical Heart features two opposites who form a close friendship. Brandon and Abel have a fan vlog about their favorite tv show; now, they are embarking on a journey to see the show’s appearance at comic-cons across the country . . . and a journey of lurve. My full review is HERE and our interview with the so-delightful J.C. Lillis is HERE.

procured from: bought, as I will with EVERY Rose Christo book that comes out!

Caught Between Two Worlds: Otherbound

A review of Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis

Amulet (Abrams), 2014

Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

by REBECCA, June 11, 2014

hook

Every time Nolan Santiago closes his eyes, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a servant girl bound to a cursed princess in a world far from his own Arizona town. Amara has no idea he’s there. Until, one day, their worlds collide, and they realize that although all they want is to be rid of one another, their worlds are bound in a way that only working together can hope to untangle.

review

Whee! I’ve been so, so bloody disappointed with all the YA fantasy I’ve been reading lately, so much so that I’ve started and abandoned five or six fantasies in the last month or so. I had high hopes for Otherbound, though, and I am so thrilled not to be disappointed. Corinne Duyvis‘ debut novel is impressive and original. But, most important to me, it has stakes—the lack of which in a number of books I’ve reviewed have been driving me wild with confusion and frustration lately.

Nolan Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Nolan, by Corinne Duyvis

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the deal. Nolan’s parents, teachers, and doctors all think he is epileptic, diagnosing his departures into Amara’s world as micro-seizures. He has tried medication after medication, but nothing seems to have an effect on the seizures—because, of course, they aren’t seizures. He’s been visiting Amara’s world since he was a kid. Indeed, one of his early experiences of Amara’s world, while he was riding his bike, was so distracting that he was caught under the wheels of a car and lost his foot. So, although he is invested in Amara, her fellow servant Maart, and Cilla, the princess they serve against their will, Nolan pays a huge price for his implication in their world. His parents struggle to afford medications that don’t help him, his teachers and classmates don’t even notice when he barely makes it though the day it’s so common, and everyone in town knows to look out for his seizures. Nolan’s life isn’t wholly his own even when he’s in his own world.

Amara Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Amara, by Corinne Duyvis

Amara was taken from her home as a child because of her mage-like ability to heal herself and tasked with safeguarding Cilla, the princess who escaped her family’s overthrow with a curse that will kill her if she spills even one drop of blood. Amara’s job is to absorb the pain of the curse into her own body, should Cilla accidentally spill her blood, since Amara can heal herself. She and Cilla have been bound together so long that Amara has trouble knowing whether her feelings for Cilla are hatred, pity, friendship, or perhaps something more like love. She has no idea that Nolan has been with her, looking through her eyes and feeling what she feels, until one day he manages to take over her body—to make her body run when she’s in danger but has passed out.

Cilla Otherbound Corinne Duyvis

Cilla, by Corinne Duyvis

When Nolan is finally able to control Amara’s body enough to explain that he is there (servants in Amara’s world have their tongues cut out and communicate through sign language), Amara is horrified to realize that what she once thought were private thoughts, sensations, and feelings, have been observed. But she and Cilla may need the insights Nolan has, as a longtime observer, to discover who cast Cilla’s curse and how to break it so that she and Amara—and Nolan—have a chance at living free lives.

When I say that Otherbound has stakes, I mean that there are real personal risks to and for characters, both physically and mentally. But there are also stakes because of Duyvis’ worldbuilding. Duyvis uses the class system of Amara and Cilla’s world to raise questions about the ability of a servant and a princess to ever enter into friendship or love as equals. Ethnicities, in Amara and Cilla’s world mean different things than they do in Nolan’s, but power and race and gender and pain are all bound up in both. Yet Duyvis never falls back on allowing these to be demonstrative of any fixed meanings about characters, groups, or places.

Otherbound starts a bit slow, especially because it shifts between Nolan’s and Amara’s worlds so quickly, but as the mystery ratchets up and the stakes grow, it really takes off. There are twists and turns, but never red herrings or deliberate obfuscations for the purpose of confusing the reader. For me, Nolan’s was the more interesting story. While I was taken in by Cilla and Amara’s adventures, I cared more about the boy attempting to live a life split between two worlds, always struggling to reassure his parents and sister that, maybe, just for today, his seizure medication is working and they can watch a movie or practice Nahuatl together. Otherbound is a story about connections and the ways we become tethered together, implicated in each other’s lives whether we choose to or not.

Otherbound will appeal to fans of contemporary YA, queer YA, fantasy, and adventure stories. Oh, and you should check out Corinne Duyvis’ website to see more portraits of her characters (she went to art school—no, seriously, look at some of those gorgeous pencil drawings!). Duyvis is also an organizer of Disibility in Kidlit, which is an amazing resource for all things disability in YA.

Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

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Wake Dream Catcher Lisa McMannFade Dream Catcher Lisa McMannGone Dream Catcher Lisa McMann

Dream Catcher series by Lisa McMann (2008–2010). Janie can’t help it: she gets sucked into other people’s dreams. When she falls into a different kind of terrifying nightmare, Janie isn’t just an observer—now she has a part to play.

Skin Hunger Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of MagicSacred Scars Kathleen Duey A Resurrection of Magic

A Resurrection of Magic series by Kathleen Duey (2007–present). Duey’s series (which I ADORE!) alternates quickly between perspectives in an attempt to solve a mystery of magic too. My full review of Skin Hunger is HERE. The third book in the series is slated to come out this summer.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis will be available June 17th.

“Don’t Open Your Eyes”: Bird Box Is Horror At Its Best

A review of Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Ecco (HarperCollins), 2014

Bird Box Josh Malerman

by REBECCA, June 4, 2014

hook

Something out there is making people crazy. When they see it, they lose their minds and kill. Others. Themselves. Everyone. Malorie doesn’t know what’s going on. Then, it’s later and Malorie hasn’t seen the world outside her house in four years. But today. Today she has to risk it. She has to take to the river to try and save herself. Today, she has to open her eyes.

review

HOLY SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE, BATMAN!

Bird Box is told in chapters that alternate between the present, when Malorie and her two children are rowing down the river, trying to find safety, and the past, when a mysterious . . . something . . . has just begun to threaten humanity.

In the past, Malorie and her sister, Shannon, just moved in together and are ready to start a new life when the news begins reporting strange stories of mysterious deaths in St. Petersburg, Yakutsk, Omsk. Then, closer to home, in Alaska. No one knows what the cause is, but people are turning on each other, killing each other and themselves. Little by little, the panic builds. What is it? Is it a disease? An attack? An epidemic? Bit by bit, people become scared even to leave their homes, because it seems like the people affected are those who see . . . something.

Shannon is terrified, but Malorie has other worries. She’s just realized she’s pregnant, and that seems scarier than some vague threat out there. But when Malorie can no longer deny what’s going on, she finds a house with people who are helping each other survive. Together, she, Felix, Jules, Cheryl, and Tom survive. All anyone knows is that the madness can’t get you if you can’t see it. So they block up the windows and seal all the doors. They live off canned goods and develop elaborate systems to get water from the well behind their house without ever opening their eyes. Malorie comes to love and depend on her housemates. But soon she’ll have to give birth. And, slowly, something is creeping closer to threaten the safe house they have made. But is the threat from outside, or from within?

In the present, Malorie lives alone with Boy and Girl, her four-year-olds. There is a fog this morning, and so Malorie decides it’s finally time to go. Under cover of fog, she thinks they can make it to the river, and then, safety? She isn’t sure. All she knows is that she has trained her children from birth to hear with an acuity no children in the before could have. And it’s their ability she will have to rely on as they make the trip down the river. Because they have to do it without ever opening their eyes.

Bird Box is an absolutely beautiful and harrowing horror story. Debut author Josh Malerman (lead singer of The High Strung) has crafted a story that is incredibly creeping and suspenseful (at one point, I found myself standing in my kitchen, reading as my water boiled because I absolutely had to see what happened next, and nearly screamed when my cat brushed up against my leg). It is, for me, the most exciting kind of horror story: one that is all about atmosphere and mystery and dread.

bird box josh malermanAlternating between past and present ups the suspense, but it also instructs the reader that this isn’t a story about what happened next. We begin in the present, so we already know what happened (kind of). It’s about how it happened, and how the characters reacted to it. That is to say, it’s a book that’s as much about ideas and psychology as it is about fear. There are multiple theories about what is going on in the world, and Malerman allows these theories to resonate throughout the book, never giving any definitive answers but always showing us the material consequences. His prose is tight and declarative and perfectly echoes the way Malorie has come to think in this new world.

Because Bird Box is a novel about the threat of the invisible—of that which absolutely can not be looked upon—the characters spend a great deal of time experiencing the world without sight. In the hands of a lesser writer, I think, this could feel like a gimmick. Malerman, though, manages to make the reader feel as claustrophobic, vulnerable, and jumpy as the characters do. The fact that the whole mystery could be revealed merely by removing the blindfold adds a layer of temptation that is titillating.

When I first read the blurb, I was nervous that this would be one of those post-terrible-world-event books where the main character just wanted to make the world safe for her children, or feels hope because she has her children. Bird Box was the opposite. This isn’t a book about the horrors of pregnancy (though that whole giving birth thing is its own scary story). Rather, it’s about the guilt and horror that Malorie feels about raising two children who have never seen the world outside. Who have never seen anyone but her. She has to put their safety above their comfort if they’re all going to survive, and the ways in which she must deny her children their childhood resonate beyond a book of speculative fiction. These are children growing up in a war-torn land who must learn to survive instead of learning to play, and that’s not the stuff of fiction.

bird box josh malermanSome reviewers, I know, are disappointed that more of the questions that Bird Box raises are not answered. For me, the denial of answers to the reader has the powerful effect of making the readers as helpless as the characters. If we could see what they cannot, I think, the reading experience wouldn’t be nearly as potent. More literally, the reader is in Malorie’s position narratively: we look at word after word, waiting for the threat to reveal itself, and once it does we cannot look away. I often found myself covering the recto side of the book so that my eyes couldn’t wander ahead and see something they shouldn’t. The experience of the medium of storytelling itself participating in the creation of fear was extremely disconcerting.

The one weakness of the novel, for me, was the characters. Though we are in Malorie’s head (primarily), she never really came to life for me. I was still desperately rooting for her—because, as I said, the reader is in her position. Still, though, certain moments would have had more resonance if the characters were a bit more fleshed out. Indeed, the character who came to life the most was the scariest! (Which is kind of awesome.) Still, the lack of character development had one positive side effect, which is that it leant a sense of real unease to the house they all share since their relationships feel so tentative and contingent.

Bird Box is a wonderful debut and a truly chilling horror story. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Josh Malerman.

procured from: the library

 

Teenage Superspies, Codeword: Milkshake

A review of I Become Shadow, by Joe Shine

Soho Teen

I Become Shadow Joe Shine

by REBECCA, June 2, 2014

hook

“Ren Sharpe was abducted at fourteen and chosen by the mysterious F.A.T.E. Center to become a Shadow: the fearless and unstoppable guardian of a future leader. Everything she held dear—her family, her home, her former life—is gone forever.

Ren survives four years of training, torture, and misery, in large part thanks to Junie, a fellow F.A.T.E. abductee who started out as lost and confused as she did. She wouldn’t admit it was possible to find love in a prison beyond imagining, but what she feels for Junie may just be the closest thing to it.

At eighteen they part ways when Ren receives her assignment: find and protect college science student Gareth Young, or die trying. Life following a college nerd is uneventful, until an attack on Gareth forces Ren to track down the only person she can trust. When she and Junie discover that the F.A.T.E. itself might be behind the attacks, even certain knowledge of the future may not be enough to save their kidnappers from the killing machines they created.” (Goodreads)

review

So, the above blurb gives the whole plot of the novel. Which is okay, I guess? Because, though I Become Shadow is an action book, it’s not really a mystery. The book is divided roughly into three parts. The first part is told retrospectively by Ren Sharpe, our protagonist. She tells us the story of how she came to be abducted at the age of fourteen and how she wakes up in the training facility where she’ll spend the next four years. She meets Junie—who, because the blurb doesn’t refer to as “he,” I assumed was a girl because, well, you know, his name is Junie, and was disappointed to find is, in fact, a boy—and begins her training.

The second third, which is the shortest piece, gives a kind of brief summary of the next four years: how Ren learns everything from mortal combat to defensive driving to techniques in surveilling her future target. Here, Ren and Junie must part ways. But DON’T WORRY! Of all the places in the whole world, they both end up in Texas. Finally, the third part covers Ren’s time at college protecting Gareth, until things get complicated . . . in exactly the way the blurb describes.

training montageI Become Shadow isn’t really a bad book. It just seems unsure what it’s supposed to be doing, a problem that is likely more one of publishing than writing. Because so much of the book (more than half) takes place at the F.A.T.E. center, you’d think that Ren’s trials there are the center of the novel, but they seem to be prodromal to her assignment. Okay, then, well, when we get to Ren’s assignment, you’d think that we were finally getting to the meat of things. But almost nothing happens in this section. Ren herself keeps commenting on how boring it is to watch a nerd (you know, like the blurb said), and, yeah, it’s boring to read about someone being bored watching a nerd. Then, in the very end of the book, the Big Plot is revealed (just like the blurb already told you it would be).

There is nothing that indicates I Become Shadow is the first in a series. But this has to be the first in a series, right? Because we end with everything revealed but nothing resolved. Did Soho Press tell Joe Shine to write a book that could be the first in a series but not commit to a second book? Did this start out as a longer story that got chopped in half? It’s really not clear. The result is a book that might be a very summary standalone or the diffuse first book in a series. Either way, though, it reads wrong in its apportionment.

DivergentIt’s not awful—there’s some intriguing worldbuilding that undergirds the creation of F.A.T.E. But that raises more questions than it answers (including the kind of annoying questions like, “but based on what you’ve said, why would this ever happen?”). The training sequences feel very similar to Tris’ experiences in Divergent: because Ren and the other future-Shadows are kidnapped because of circumstance not skill, they’re starting their training from nothing, so there are the now-familiar scenes of a normal girl learning self-defense stuff. Again, nothing terrible, just nothing galvanizing.

The real trouble, though, is the voice. I found Ren intensely irritating, and it’s her tone that drives the book. She thinks she’s funny and clever and unique and the other characters’ responses to her seem to uphold her uniqueness, while I sat there thinking, “seriously?” An example: Each trainee receives instruction from a voice piped through a speaker to them. When Ren responds to the voice, she calls him “Mr. Speakervoice.” When it’s time for Ren to graduate, the man behind the voice seeks her out because she’s apparently so unique and amazing and tells her that Mr. Speakervoice is “one of the best names I’ve ever been given that’s for sure [sic]. You’ve certainly been a fun one, Ren” (139). Seriously? That’s like naming your fluffy white cat Snowball—it’s a description of what the thing is. How could that possibly be the best name he’d been given? How, god, how?!

Also problematic: none of the characters have any personalities. Ren is supposed to be wry and snarky (or so her voice must be trying to imply), but we don’t know anything about her. She has also long ago accepted that she’ll never break free of F.A.T.E. to see her family again or live her own life. And she is injected with a serum that makes it so she can’t feel pain or fear death. You know, so she can protect her target more effectively. People, if you don’t have your own hopes, dreams, desires, and fears, and you can’t feel pain or fear death, you know what you are? BORING. Or, in literary terms, a character with no stakes whatsoever. Which makes you boring. And, since Ren didn’t care about her safety, fear anything, or worry about what was going to happen, I couldn’t either. So, it might seem like a great conceit in theory, but in practice it just flattens the story out completely.

All in all, the premise that underlies the creation of F.A.T.E. is the only interesting thing about I Become Shadow, and we get about two sentences about it. The characters are blah, and the story has no real stakes. Again, it’s not terrible or anything, but I was very aware the entire time I was reading it that it could have gone in so many interesting directions and seemed to choose the path of least resistance every time. I hate to be repetitive, but this is what I keep finding with Soho Teen’s releases: decent books that feel too thin and/or tortured into marketable shape to really excite me or do anything.

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I’ve read a lot of books recently that explore a similar kind of training/testing teens in their skills of fighting, surveilling, manipulating, killing, escaping, etc. Here are a few that worked better for me than I Become Shadow.

How to Lead a Life of Crime Kirsten Miller

How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller (2013). “A meth dealer. A prostitute. A serial killer. Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies. The most exclusive school in New York City has been training young criminals for over a century. Only the most ruthless students are allowed to graduate. The rest disappear. Flick, a teenage pickpocket, has risen to the top of his class. But then Mandel recruits a fierce new competitor who also happens to be Flick’s old flame. They’ve been told only one of them will make it out of the Mandel Academy. Will they find a way to save each other—or will the school destroy them both?” (Goodreads).

The Naturals Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Naturals (The Naturals #1) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (2013). “Seventeen-year-old Cassie is a natural at reading people. Piecing together the tiniest details, she can tell you who you are and what you want. But it’s not a skill that she’s ever taken seriously. That is, until the FBI come knocking: they’ve begun a classified program that uses exceptional teenagers to crack infamous cold cases, and they need Cassie.

What Cassie doesn’t realize is that there’s more at risk than a few unsolved homicides—especially when she’s sent to live with a group of teens whose gifts are as unusual as her own. Sarcastic, privileged Michael has a knack for reading emotions, which he uses to get inside Cassie’s head—and under her skin. Brooding Dean shares Cassie’s gift for profiling, but keeps her at arm’s length.

Soon, it becomes clear that no one in the Naturals program is what they seem. And when a new killer strikes, danger looms closer than Cassie could ever have imagined. Caught in a lethal game of cat and mouse with a killer, the Naturals are going to have to use all of their gifts just to survive.” My full review is HERE.

The Testing Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing (The Testing #1) by Joelle Charbonneau (2013). “The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.

Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies–trust no one.

But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.” (Goodreads).

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. I Become Shadow by Joe Shine will be available on June 10th.

Movie Review: Palo Alto

A Review of Palo Alto, written & directed by Gia Coppola; based on the short story collection by James Franco

Palo Alto Gia Coppola James Franco

by REBECCA, May 26, 2014

Palo Alto is the directorial debut of Gia Coppola (Sofia’s niece), based on the authorial debut of actor James Franco, and starring Emma Roberts (Eric Roberts’ daughter; Julia Roberts’ niece) and Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s son). That is to say, it can no more escape a kind of in-group latitude and indulgence than can the characters it portrays.

Palo Alto James FrancoFranco’s collection, Palo Alto (2010), contains twelve stories, all with different first-person narrators, but which feature some of the same characters (such as April, Emma Roberts’ character). Coppola’s script is based on five of those stories—according to many reviews, the five least dramatic, as those not in evidence include murder and gang rape (a whisper of which filters into the film). As there’s little action, plot-wise, it’s the themes that tie the pieces of the film together: mainly the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for the female characters, the antisocial behaviors that the male characters’ privilege makes acceptable, and all the characters’ attempts to mask boredom with mood-altering stabs at fun.

Responses to the film have been understandably mixed. I felt a bit conflicted myself coming out of the theatre. On one level, I loathed the film. The characters are all unappealing, some because they’re boring, some because they’re sexual predators, some because they’re selfish and mean. The dialogue is banal and uncreative, with nothing but a vague mutual yearning between April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), to suggest that these characters are anything more than attractive but superficial blanks. However, despite this—or perhaps because of it—emotionally, I found the film affecting.

Emma Roberts Palo AltoWe are introduced to Emily, who is called a whore throughout the film, when she confesses, during a game of Never-Have-I-Ever, that she has never been in love. For the rest of the movie, she repeatedly reaches out to boys at school and at parties, attempting to use sex to seek the love she’s never felt. In contrast, sixteen-year-old April, who “tries to be good,” is the victim of her sexually predatory soccer coach (a grinning James Franco) for whom she babysits. She’s flattered by his attentions and returns them initially, only to be confused and terrified when he confesses his love to her, their relationship suddenly elevated to a level more threatening to her than sex.

Jack Kilmer Emma Roberts Palo AltoThe film, that is, portrays the emotional and physical violence that accompany sex and love for these characters in no uncertain terms. What’s troubling, though, is that while the film seemed to critique this extension of rape culture, there were things that disabled the critique. The most troubling of these is the film’s singular use of voiceover, by one of the male characters (Fred), which seems to be taken directly from the book, describing how one of the characters subjects his girlfriend to a gang rape. It’s presented in the same manic, dreamy tone as the rest of the film, which places it on the same level as April staring dazedly out the car window into the California sun.

Thematically, then, the film was affecting, but Coppola’s style—dreamy pacing, close-ups of beautiful people looking forlorn, and a disjointed narrative frozen in one moment in time (which invites unavoidable comparisons with aunt Sofia’s)—refuses growth for the characters. The film’s aesthetic glorifies what it portrays by seeming content to linger forever in the suspended moment of this violence, this detachment, this adolescence. As such, I found it a truly upsetting and unsatisfying film. That isn’t to say that it had a responsibility to do something other than what it did; simply to say that I wasn’t interested in what it chose to do. According to a piece on Gia Coppola in the New York Times, James Franco actively wanted a woman to be the one to adapt Palo Alto because he thought it would “give the largely male-centered stories a more layered approach” (“Unto the Next Generation, Cinematically”). This sums up the film for me: it’s a narrative of sexual violence halfway repaired by the emotional depth Coppola lends it, but ultimately more troubling for the beautiful mask she puts on it.

“Geekers Have To Geek Out”

A Review of Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach

Sourcebooks Fire, 2014

Fat Boy Vs. The Cheerleaders Geoff Herbach

by REBECCA, May 22, 2014

hook

It’s war in a Minnesota high school when the creation of a new dance team threatens the funding for band, which has come from the school’s pop machine (yeah, “pop”; this is Minnesota). Gabe (aka Chunk) is ready to take on the system—even if he has to do it one Mountain Dew Code Red at a time.

review

When I first read the premise of Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders it reminded me of a kind of The Chocolate War meets Pump Up the Volume meets Mean Girls. Well, maybe that’s just what I was hoping for.

The plot is simple. Gabe is the class clown, a role he embraces in the hope of staving off bullying by laughing at himself for being fat before anyone else can laugh at him. His mother left him and his dad and has never looked back. His two best friends don’t make him feel great about himself. The only thing he really enjoys anymore is high school band. And now, even that is being threatened when the school board redesignates the funds from the school pop machine for the new dance team, which is really just all the cheerleaders with a more expensive coach.

When his beloved band and marching band camp are threatened, Gabe decides he has to take action, so he bands together (heh) with the other Geekers, as he calls them, for various protests, letter writing, and playing of “Tequila.” (Sidebar: I think it should be considered a literary crime to even mention songs like “Tequila” by name in a book as they then immediately become lodged in one’s brain. Other offenders include: “The Macarena,” “The Chicken Dance,” “Feliz Navidad,” and any song that has ever been blared out the speakers of a neighborhood ice cream truck.) Along the way, Gabe makes new friends and realizes that if he wants to stop being thought of as a clown then he needs to stop acting like it’s okay to treat him like one.

This is a light, entertaining read, and who doesn’t like a story where geeks take on the man—or, in this instance, the pop machine. Geoff Herbach does a great job of evoking a small Minnesota town and I enjoyed that the scale here is realistically small. Gabe et al aren’t trying to bring down the government or anything. They live in a small town and so one of their teachers getting arrested for drunk driving is a huge deal that instantly goes Minnekota-viral on Facebook, etc.

My two favorite characters were Gore and RC III. Gore (Chandra) is a six-foot-tall goth girl who everyone fears because she once threatened to kill some kids who were mean to her (hence, “Gore”). RC III (also not his real name) is a newly arrived jock who’s kind of a big deal but likes hanging out with the geeks more than the jocks. They are the voices of reason in a group of otherwise overreactive characters, and perhaps that’s why Gabe likes them so much. “You shouldn’t call cheerleaders bitches,” Gore tells Gabe. “Why not?” he asks. “Look what they’ve done to us.” “You don’t have to be like them,” she says (161). It’s simple and it’s true and I like her.

Gabe plays the 'bone

Gabe plays the ‘bone

Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders brings up lots of interesting issues—class, race, body image, self-conception, emotional abuse, surveillance culture. And I give it credit for its themes, certainly, even if they are laid on a bit thick. The use of names as a thing that communicate our sense of self is nice: Gabe transitions from being called Chunk because he doesn’t like it, but Gore likes the nickname she was given and reclaims it, whereas RC III chose to name himself after someone he admires and simply asserts it as his name. There are some nice moments of commentary, too. For example, Gabe makes the point that, because he thought his money was going to the band, he feels good about buying and drinking four or five Mountain Dew Code Reds a day because he’s managed to convince himself that he’s winning (for band) even as he’s losing (by drinking so much pop). But, though it raises many interesting issues, ultimately, it doesn’t really dig into any of them so, in the end, it feels like the content is just to fill out a relatively predictable storyline. As a result, it’s not terribly satisfying. It would have felt meatier if the plot structured the book but wasn’t so very foregrounded.

The Scar Boys Len VlahosAnd I lay this at the feet of yet another narrative frame that totally backfires. I discussed this issue when I reviewed Len Vlahos’ The Scar Boys, which is written as a college application. Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders is written as a memo from Gabe’s attorney, which is being submitted as context for the case against him (for stealing money from the pop machine). This narrative frame was totally unnecessary, as there is no threat that Gabe’s going to go to jail or anything (he stole $17.75 in change). So, no reason for it. But it has a number of downsides. The first is the one I already mentioned: that such a device foregrounds the linear this-happened-then-this plot at the expense of character development and richness. I mean, how much are you going to describe people when talking to your lawyer? And, if this were a mystery or a crime story or an adventure story, then maybe foregrounding the plot would be fine. But, though it would be a great armature for a book about Gabe, as storylines go, it’s not quite unique or unpredictable enough to be The Focus of the novel.

In turn, this contributes to the theme tourism because there isn’t any reason for Gabe to delve deeply into any issue that isn’t directly connected to the plot. Sometimes Gabe will start to talk about something and then say, “Hey. Why are we talking about this, Mr. Rodriguez? Shouldn’t we be talking about how . . . how you’re going to keep me from going to jail or something?” (7) and sometimes feels the need to justify how things relate: “This totally has to do with the pop machine” (11). By drawing attention to how he’s shoehorning things in or where he’s cutting himself off, this narrative frame just highlights these superficialities.

Frankenstein Mary Shelley

The best narrative frame!

Finally, the kiss of death: I didn’t find Gabe to be a very pleasant narrator, either. He doesn’t have any interests besides band (that we hear about) and he’s very judgmental. I don’t feel like I know him well and the shifts in his character have to be taken on faith, since he simply asserts them. And the narrative frame didn’t help this either. Because every word is something Gabe’s saying to his lawyer, there’s no internal monologue. I hadn’t thought about it in quite these terms when I reviewed The Scar Boys, but it turns out that this is a huge problem for me, since what I like most about reading is getting to know new characters. In a third person narrative, we get to know those characters through what’s said about them as well as what they say and do. In a first person narrative, we get to know them by that unique voice that is unfiltered. But in a first person account to a lawyer, or in a college entrance essay? Despite (perhaps?) best laid plans, these narratives fail to engage me because their technique is neither narrative truth nor confession. And so I’m bored.

So, I discovered something about myself as a reader, and can make sure to cross off my list all YA novels with a narrative frame that means the story is being told to a grown-up. Well, it’s all about the lesson, no?

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Sister Mischief Laura GoodeSister Mischief Laura Goode

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). Also set in Minnesota! Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats. My full review is HERE.

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. Going

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going (2003). Curt MacCrae startles Troy out of throwing himself in front of a subway train and demands that he is owed lunch in exchange . . . and that’s just the beginning. Soon, Troy finds himself one half of the punk band Rage/Tectonic, even though he can’t play the drums and hates anyone looking at him. Can Troy overcome his self-consciousness to embrace the musician inside? And can he save Curt from his own demons in the process? My full review is HERE

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Fat Boy Vs. the Cheerleaders by Geoff Herbach is available now.

Movie Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

A review of Only Lovers Left Alive, written & directed by the delightful Jim Jarmusch

only lovers left alive

by REBECCA, May 12, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive is a decidedly non-dramatic meditation on immortality and love. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are centuries-old vampires living in Detroit and Algiers, respectively. Adam is a somber musician who makes music that no one hears and collects vintage instruments while hiding from fans of the music he released when he was well-known. He’s depressed at the state of the world, which zombies—humans, that is—have polluted and detached from so thoroughly that even their blood has become poison. Eve is a dreamy appreciator of literature who lives in a home packed with books and hangs around with her buddy Kit Marlowe (yes, that Kit Marlowe) (John Hurt). When she talks with Adam and senses his depression, she comes to Detroit to reconnect with him. While there, Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), an irresponsible hedonist with a penchant for risk-taking behavior, comes to visit, throwing Adam’s routine into disarray.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 5.53.04 PMFrom the gorgeous and vertiginous opening shots of a camera spinning around Adam, Eve, and a record (music is their shared language), the stakes of Only Lovers Left Alive are clear. This is a film about perpetuity and how people connect over and over through time. It’s a film that glories in the aesthetic, and Jim Jarmusch lingers lovingly over Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s faces and hair the way only a lover would. They are dark and light, gloom and resignation, creator and appreciator.

Only Lovers Left AliveThere is no complicated plot; indeed, not a whole lot happens. But the non-drama perfectly echoes the sense of longevity of immortality—the sustained state where even the most dramatic happenings lose their urgency and even the most minute of difference in repetition can assert itself as beautiful. Adam and Eve are aesthetes and appreciators, and the film echoes this, too. The camera caresses the curve of a Gibson and the tangle of wires that Adam patches together with the same appreciation as the curve of the lovers’ cheekbones or the tangles of their hair. Attention, the film seems to posit, is the antidote to boredom; fascination to despair. And Adam and Eve are indeed fascinated.

This fascination makes Only Lovers Left Alive an incredibly poignant love story. Immortality is the premise that gives scale to their love, but it’s their respect for and fascination with each other that has sustained that love. With very little dialogue, Adam and Eve manage to communicate the connection they have through touch, gaze, and pointing out to one another the things that fascinate them. Jarmusch may be indulgent with his camera, but he shows amazing restraint with his script, giving us peeks of the characters and their histories but only hinting at the majority of their story. The effect is of a snapshot in time—a mere episode in lives so long we cannot conceive of them.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 6.39.04 PMAdam and Eve have changed their appearance over the years to match the world around them, but in the privacy of their homes they wear dressing gowns from the 18th century and speak about friends like Mary Wollstonecraft. Detroit and Algiers are on display as similar collections of old and new, of the deterioration and resurrection of art, culture, style, and taste. The grand Michigan Theatre, which is falling down around them, but will be reclaimed, is the logical analogue to Adam and Eve’s recursivity: they reinvent themselves each generation, the world they knew before swallowed up or torn down before it’s reincorporated into the next one. The film is melancholy in its meditation on humans’ ruination of the world and its beauty, but there is a necessary hope there, too. For one like Eve, who has seen these cycles so often, destruction and death are necessary for reinvention and new life. Adam hasn’t quite her scope, and he feels the losses more acutely.

only lovers left aliveOnly Lovers Left Alive was everything I wanted a Jarmusch take on vampires to be. Swinton and Hiddleston are perfect, beautiful casting, and the glimpses we get of Detroit and Algiers are the perfect atmospheres for the film. Add in the wonderful John Hurt as Kit Marlowe, who actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, Mia Wasikowska as a thoroughly charming vehicle of chaos, and the always delightful Jeffrey Wright as a stylized doctor, and it’s a pitch-perfect cast.

The only thing that irritated is the way these preternatural beings split down such traditional gender lines. The two men are creators—Marlowe a playwright and Adam a musician—and their lives are their work. The women are appreciators and consumers: Eve reads voraciously and supports Adam’s every endeavor, but creates nothing herself. Ava’s consumption is more literal; she chugs blood and makes demands, paying for them with a winsome smile.

only lovers left aliveMy favorite thing about all of Jim Jarmusch’s films is how he approaches the topic of each with such incredible respect and fascination. Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception. Each element feels considered and selected, leading to a film that looks like a beautifully curated slice of life. It’s just that these lives have been going on for quite a while.

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