Not Just Books: January 2021

While we do love us some books, believe it not, we do have a life outside of reading. So to highlight our other pop culture interests, on the last Monday of each month, we each will highlight three other “happenings” from the last month. Big events on favorite TV shows, new movies we’ve watched, old movies we’ve “discovered,” etc. Pretty much whatever we found of particular interest outside of the book world during the last month. Share your own favorite things in the comments!

Serena’s Picks

Netflix Movie: “The Midnight Sky”

Yes, another space-related movie/show for me! But who can resist when you open up Netflix and there is George Clooney staring at you soulfully from the preview panel! Perhaps a bit hard to watch right now, the story focuses on Clooney, one of the last men alive on a world struck by some catastrophe. Alone (or is he?) in the Artic, Clooney’s character desperately tries to get a hold of a crew of a space expedition that is returning home after years away, unaware of what has happened on Earth. The movie alternates swiftly between quiet, reflective moments to heart-stopping action that has you on the edge of your seat. There are several twists and turns that the savvy viewer will pick up on. And the ending definitely sparks conversation if you watch it with another person!

Netflix Show: “Bridgerton”

So those who read my three mini reviews for the first book in this series will know that I had some feelings about the first book in the Bridgerton’s story. And knowing that this first season was focused on this same book, I went in with some definite questions about how certain aspects of the story. And…well, it wasn’t perfect in that area, but definitely much improved. And the sheer joy that is the rest of the show ultimately made up for it with me! This was probably always going to be a win for me, though, as I love historical romances of this sort. The witty, elegant way of talking. The beautiful dresses and balls. And here, the diverse casting and the way the show itself engaged with these topics rather than just throwing a diverse cast together and thinking that was enough. If you’re a fan of the book series, you’re sure to like this. And if you’re a general fan of historical romance shows like “Outlander,” “Poldark,” or any of the Jane Austen adaptations out there, this is probably also for you!

Movie: “Moneyball”

While I don’t get around to watching much baseball myself anymore, I’ve always loved the sport (though the Mariners have always been the team that just loves to hurt you!). But I never got around to watching this movie until now. It was all the better to watch now, though, as I was able to watch it with my husband who has an encyclopedic memory for all things sports related and could rattle off all kinds of extra details about the players and coaches depicted as we watched. And, of course, Brad Pitt is excellent in almost everything he does. The movie was also surprisingly funny, something I wasn’t expecting going in.

Kate’s Picks

Netflix Show: “Cobra Kai”

It’s BACK!! After my husband and I binged Seasons 1 and 2 of the “Karate Kid” continuation, we were on pins and needles waiting for Season 3. Season 2 finished with huge cliffhangers: the kids from Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do had a showdown at school that led to Miguel being thrown over a balcony by Robby and sent into a coma! Johnny was forced out of Cobra Kai by Kreese, who was making moves behind his back like the evil bastard he is! ALI HAD CONTACTED JOHNNY RIGHT AFTER HE THREW HIS PHONE INTO THE OCEAN! Season 3 picks up a couple weeks later, with Johnny in a pit of depression, Daniel dealing with his business being affected because of the fight making media headlines, Samantha suffering from PTSD, and Miguel in physical and emotional recovery. And it only gets better from there. I love how this show continues to explore baggage, trauma, and the relationships between parents and their kids. Plus, Johnny is still so crabby and bitchy yet filled with all the pathos, which you can just hook up to my veins because I LIVE for that kinda thing. And once again there’s an epic cliffhanger, so we CANNOT WAIT for Season 4!!

TV Show: “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

Back when COVID first sent us all into a new normal that has continued far longer than any of us anticipated, I figured that there would be a hold on new TV content indefinitely. Well, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” instead brought their contestants out early, quarantined them, tested them over and over, and then shot a season of the show. Given that no one got sick, I guess they were careful? Regardless, we now have Season 13 of “Drag Race” and it’s…. different. We’re only a few episodes in as of now, but the format has changed, with the queens separated into two groups (COVID safety protocols? They didn’t say.) right off the bat with a marathon of six lip syncs. Combine change with a really good previous season and I’m still trying to discern what I think overall, BUT ALL THAT SAID there have been some great runway looks and some stand out queens already (Gottmik, Tamisha Iman). And this may just be another example of a new normal…. Or maybe just a stunt. Regardless, I’m happy we do have new “Drag Race”!

Netflix Show: “Lucifer”

Like Serena before me, I have started watching “Lucifer”, the Fox turned Netflix show that tells a very loose adaptation of DC’s interpretation of Lucifer Morningstar. Given that I’m doing a “Sandman” re-read right now, I thought I ought to check out this show and boy am I mad that I didn’t check it out earlier. Because I LOVE “Lucifer” and all of the characters in it. I also love the idea of Lucifer Morningstar hanging out on Los Angeles and lending his sarcastic and bitchy hand to a no nonsense detective (and also getting some much needed therapy), which is basically the premise of the show. So we get a police procedural with angels, demons, and fun dialogue, as well as a cast that has great chemistry with each other. Like it’s hard to pick a favorite character because they are all so good. It has really filled the void for me since I was so disappointed with the last season of my other Hell centric show, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”.

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Bitterblue”

Book: “Bitterblue” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Dial, May 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Eight years have passed since the young Princess Bitterblue, and her country, were saved from the vicious King Leck. Now Bitterblue is the queen of Monsea, and her land is at peace.

But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisers, who have run the country on her behalf since Leck’s death, believe in a forward-thinking plan: to pardon all of those who committed terrible acts during Leck’s reign; and to forget every dark event that ever happened. Monsea’s past has become shrouded in mystery, and it’s only when Bitterblue begins sneaking out of her castle – curious, disguised and alone – to walk the streets of her own city, that she begins to realise the truth. Her kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year long spell of a madman, and now their only chance to move forward is to revisit the past.

Whatever that past holds.

Two thieves, who have sworn only to steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, who possesses an unidentified Grace, may also hold a key to her heart . . .

Previously Reviewed: “Graceling” and “Fire”

Review: So this re-read has been one of discoveries so far. I discovered first that “Graceling” held up really well in the ten plus years since it was first published, even given the boom of similar YA fantasies novels that have come out since. I discovered that while I still prefer “Graceling” overall, I actually liked the romance in “Fire” better. And with “Bitterblue” I discovered…I actually hadn’t read this one before?? I own a copy, and I think I must have skimmed through it at some point, but a full, cover-to-cover read? Nope! Given my takeaway at the end of this read, I suspect I may have skimmed some Goodreads reviews when this came out and put it on the back-burner, being a bit wary. Because, yes, for me, this was quite the step down from the highs of “Graceling” and “Fire.”

Bitterblue has been queen of Monsea since she was ten and her sociopathic father was killed at the hands of Bitterblue’s strongest protector, Katsa. In the years since, Bitterblue has struggled to put her broken country back together. But with endless paperwork and little contact with her actual people, Bitterblue begins to suspect that her efforts aren’t accomplishing much. She takes matters into her own hands and sneaks out to wander the streets of her city and see the state of things for herself. What she discovers opens the floodgates and she is suddenly overwhelmed with all of the mysteries and secrets that have lurked from the time of her cruel father’s reign.

So, overall, I really didn’t love this book. It was so surprising and disappointing to have a reaction like this after just loving both books that came before! But, unfortunately, I think there were several things that worked against it. Not least of which is the fact that I think that even its strengths ultimately work against it when compared to the books that came before. Namely that Cashore’s strengths for creating interesting new worlds and great fantastical elements weren’t allowed any room to grow here. We’ve already been introduced to Monsea, and while the story does show us around the city itself and has some new things to add here, the world itself is largely familiar. The magic, too, is familiar. We may meet a few new Gracelings, but their abilities and their place in the world are already understood. So, too, we already know about the Seven Realms and, largely, how they differ from one another and interact with each other. All of this works to undercut much of what made the first two books so great: Cashore’s deeply imaginative new worlds and magic systems.

And while both of the first two books were slower reads overall, this one really seemed to drag on. It’s much longer than the first two, and nothing in the story really justifies this length. Bitterblue is constantly beset with new mysteries and new roadblocks on any progress she’s making on the ones that came before. More than once she simply gives up and returns to her paperwork in her tower. This is just as boring and anti-climatic for the reader as it’s said to be for her. What’s more, many of the mysteries are built around the seemingly crazy actions of many of the characters around her. But they are so random and so off-the-wall that with the lack of understanding around them comes also the lack of caring. Unlike the books before where it felt like clues were being laid down that reader’s could begin to piece together for themselves (part of what kept the pacing better in those books), here, it all feels too disconnected to any logic or overall plan to really engage the reader.

I also really, really disliked the romance in this book. This was truly shocking as the other books in this series had two of my favorite romances ever. But here, nothing really works about it. Saf is a terrible romantic hero. When he’s not annoyingly immature (it’s never a good sign when you’re heroine herself calls the hero this and she’s completely right!), he’s outright rude and mean to Bitterblue. And all of this is when he’s even on the page at all, for there are large chunks of the story where he’s nowhere to be seen. From a personal reading perspective, his absence isn’t missed as when he was around I was mostly frustrated by him. But from the perspective of trying to build a compelling romance, it’s hard to do when you’re romantic hero is nowhere to be found for the last half of the book. And the end was only satisfying because it was ultimately unsatisfying, essentially!

I did like Bitterblue as a character, but I think the romance and the plodding storyline both did her a massive disserve. It was also confusing trying to understand why Bitterblue was suddenly noticing all of these things around her. Presumably she’s been acting as queen for the last 8 years, and while she was too young initially to take notice, it’s hard to understand what was distracting her from it all for the last few years. There’s no obvious impetus for any of it, really. “Winterkeep” will also feature Bitterblue, so I’m excited to see how the character fares when put in a different (hopefully better!) story. We’ll find out next week when we finally get to “Winterkeep” itself!

Rating 6: Very disappointing. It has some serious weaknesses on its own, but it’s definitely not helped by the fact that the two before it were such hits for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bitterblue” is on these Goodreads lists: YA Second World Fantasy and Best Kick-Ass Female Characters From YA and Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Find “Bitterblue” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections” by Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot (Ill.), Stan Woch (Ill.), P. Craig Russell (Ill.), Shawn McManus (Ill.), John Watkiss (Ill.), Jill Thompson (Ill.), Duncan Eagleson (Ill.), & Kent Williams (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: FABLES & REFLECTIONS follows the Lord of Dreams through nine remarkable tales as he touches lives from the mists of the past to the nightmares of the present. In these episodes, kings and spies, emperors and actors, ravens and werewolves all share their stories and their dreams–dreams of life and love, and of power and darkness.

Review: When I picked up “The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections”, I sighed in disappointment. We were once again going to be focusing on stories that exist within the universe and within Morpheus’s world and realities (or unrealities). While I do appreciate how expansive Gaiman is when it comes to his various mythologies, I admit that coming on the heels of “Game of You” I really just wanted to jump back in with Dream, Death, and the like. But as I started getting back into “Fables and Reflections”, I realized that even though we are still off the main storyline track, there are a lot of really excellent moments in these side stories.

The main thematics of “Fables and Reflections” is various dreamers and leaders throughout history, and how dreams and their dreaming natures affected their lives for better or for worse (worse probably being the story “Thermidor”, which focuses on Robsepierre during the Reign of Terror, the time that no one likes to think about when it comes to revolution fantasies). I had a couple of stories that I especially liked, the first being “Three Septembers and a January”. In this tale, we focus on the obscure but real story of Emperor Norton, a man who just kind of declared himself the Emperor of the United States back in the 1800s. Yes, he was real, and a bit of a local celebrity in San Francisco. In this tale, we get to see snippets of his life as the Endless siblings engage in a wager as to which will claim him before Death does so permanently (with Dream being the least nefarious in his intentions, though Delirium can’t know what she’s doing, she’s Delirium dammit!). We get to see Norton live his life under the delusion of his ‘power’, but also see that while he may be ‘mad’, he’s also just a harmless and pretty good guy. There is a lovely moment between him and Death at the end, which emphasizes the overarching point of the “Emperor” in this collection who had the least amount of power is the one who was the best and kindest ‘ruler’ (see Robespierre above, though Augustus also shows up in this collection). It’s a sweet story that really resonated with me.

The other story that stood out has the most connection to Dream and the Endless, and that is “The Song of Orpheus”. As mentioned in earlier collections, in this universe Orpheus is the son of Calliope and Morpheus, and this is basically a retelling of the Orpheus and Euridyce myth with that twist. It’s a story of fathers and sons, lost love, fate, and how parents can fail their children. It is a gut punch seeing Dream have to reconcile with the fact that Orpheus went against his warnings, and in turn refuses to put Orpheus out of his misery after his dismemberment by the Maenads, dooming his son to live eternity as a disembodied head, all because Orpheus didn’t listen to him about saving Eurydice (well, and because of a ‘rule’ The Endless have about killing family, but that feels second to his own wounded ego). It really emphasizes that while Dream is a great character in a lot of ways, he is horrifically pig headed when it comes to those that he loves, to the point where he treads away from morally grey and into villain territory. But, all the more complexity and depth that will no doubt be explored later!

The artwork shifts between the stories (did you SEE the list of artists at the top?!), and the strongest style for me was in “Ramadan”, a story of Harun al-Rashid ruling in historical Baghdad (I will also say that this story has a lovely grace to it, as it was written during the first Gulf War and Gaiman isn’t afraid to make comment of that). P. Craig Russell is the main artist for this story, and WOW. The style appears to be influenced by art from the time and place, as well as illuminated religious texts, and my goodness it’s just beautiful and vibrant.

(source: Vertigo)

All in all, I ended up enjoying “The Sandman: Fables and Reflections” more than I thought I would on this re-read. It’s wistful and dreamy, and it adds a lot of depth to this amazing world.

Rating 8: A ponderous collection of stories about power, empires, love, and death, “The Sandman: Fables and Reflections” doesn’t really advance the plot, but adds flourish to the universe it exists within.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections” is included on the Goodreads lists “Mythic Fiction Comics”, and “Graphic Novels With The Best Artwork”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.6): Fables and Reflections” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Fire”

Book: “Fire” by Kristin Cashore

Publish: Dial Books, 2009

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.

This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she had the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.

Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City. The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.

If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

Previously Reviewed: “Graceling”

Review: Unlike “Graceling,” I never got around to re-reading “Fire” closer to when I read it the first time. Not that I didn’t really enjoy it then, just that, like I said, the TBR list was just starting to get out of control around this time. So going into this re-read, I remembered even less about this book than that. That made it lots of fun to read now as it almost felt like an entirely new book, but one that I already knew I’d enjoy! Win win!

The Dells is a colorful land, marked by the bright, over-powering beauty of its monsters: blue horses, purple raptors, pink mice. But Fire is the only human monster after the death of her cruel father several years prior. Her extreme beauty inspires both wonder and hatred from those around her, so Fire’s life world has been small to stay safe. She also greatly fears the mind control abilities that come alongside her beauty. But when a prince arrives on her doorstep requesting her aide to save the king, Fire is obligated to venture out and put her abilities to the test.

While this is technically a prequel to “Graceling,” it most ways it stands a lone. We have one character (albeit an important one!) who crosses over, but their page time is limited so even there we’re left with mostly new material. I really loved the world-building that went into the Dells and the creativity around the native monsters and how their powers worked. The animals themselves are quite terrifying, especially the monster raptors that seem to constantly lurk in the sky. Though this was also the one point where I was confused. Are these regular raptors, like hawks and falcons that aren’t that big? Or are these some type of unique bird of prey that is bigger? They seemed to be discussed and treated as pretty severe threats to people which was confusing if we’re talking about smaller birds of prey. Not really a big deal, but it was something I kept getting caught up on throughout the story.

Fire herself is an incredible creation. It makes complete sense that extreme beauty would inspire both love and hatred, and seeing how this plays out in Fire’s every day existence was really intriguing. She has some strong abilities, but we also see how very vulnerable her monster looks are to her. She attracts monster animals who want to eat her, and humans aren’t much better, either becoming obsessed with her (often in the grabby, forceful kissing manner) or essentially go mad and want to kill her. Her life seems very challenging, full of fear and tension. This makes it all the more touching to see her begin to form real relationships with the other characters in this book, because we’ve been prepped to understand just how many challenges there are in this for Fire.

I really liked the romance in this book, perhaps even more than I did the one in “Graceling.” Everyone loves a good “enemies to lovers” romantic plot line, and as much as I liked Po, Brigan checked off more on my romantic hero wish list, like steady and a bit solemn. While Katsa and Po were all about the fiery drama, Fire and Brigan have a slow build that is beautiful to watch unfold.

This book was a bit slower than “Graceling,” and the villain(s) were also a bit underwhelming. We see the return of one evil character, and they’re good for the small amount of page time we get from them. But what accounts for the main antagonist and challenge was a bit to removed from the story to feel too invested in it. By the nature of her being, Fire’s work is mostly done from the safety of the castle and is largely passive with most of the action taking place off-page.

I really enjoyed re-reading this book. I really remembered very little of it, and I was pleased to find the romance, in particular, even better than I had remembered. Next up is “Bitterblue!”

Rating 9: A quieter, more introspective book than “Graceling,” but also a bit more heart-breaking (in a good way!) overall.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air and Princes, Other Worlds and Future Lands.

Find “Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Last Final Girl”

Book: “The Last Final Girl” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Lazy Fascist Press, September 2012

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Life in a slasher film is easy. You just have to know when to die.

Aerial View: A suburban town in Texas. Everyone’s got an automatic garage door opener. All the kids jump off a perilous cliff into a shallow river as a rite of passage. The sheriff is a local celebrity. You know this town. You’re from this town.

Zoom In: Homecoming princess, Lindsay. She’s just barely escaped death at the hands of a brutal, sadistic murderer in a Michael Jackson mask. Up on the cliff, she was rescued by a horse and bravely defeated the killer, alone, bra-less. Her story is already a legend. She’s this town’s heroic final girl, their virgin angel.

Monster Vision: Halloween masks floating down that same river the kids jump into. But just as one slaughter is not enough for Billie Jean, our masked killer, one victory is not enough for Lindsay. Her high school is full of final girls, and she’s not the only one who knows the rules of the game.

When Lindsay chooses a host of virgins, misfits, and former final girls to replace the slaughtered members of her original homecoming court, it’s not just a fight for survival-it’s a fight to become The Last Final Girl.

Review: I’m sure it’s come up before, but I love slasher movies. There isn’t necessarily much depth to them, and there are certainly problematic elements to many of them, but I thoroughly enjoy sitting down and taking in the likes of “Friday the 13th”, “Sleepaway Camp”, “Halloween”, and “Nightmare on Elm Street”. And many, many others. High School Kate loved them because of The Final Girl trope, in which the nice, shy, virginal girl was ultimately the one to come out of it at the end, traumatized but alive and ready to fight another day, as there was a lot to relate to with that portrayal at the time. I still like The Final Girl idea, even if it, too, is a bit problematic, and the gang that includes Laurie Strode, Tree Gelbman, and Sidney Prescott (and MANY others) is a girls club that I love. Which brings me to Stephen Graham Jones and his book “The Last Final Girl”. Which is a love letter to the genre that I love that twists it all up into something wicked and fun.

You know I love a good subversion of a genre. (source)

“The Last Final Girl” is a meta, experimental narrative with shifting points of view, stage direction, a script like structure, and bucket after bucket of blood as a number of ‘final girls’ find themselves in a Thunderdome-like fight to the finish, all while a slasher killer in a Michael Jackson mask is picking them and others off. While I did find the narrative structure a bit jarring at first, once I eased into it and got used to it it was easier to follow. This is probably the biggest hurdle for this story, as everything else worked pretty damn well for me. “The Last Final Girl” is filled with oodles of slasher movie references, from characters sharing names with movie heroines and villains (characters with names like Ripley, or Baker, or my favorite Crystal Blake, as if you remove the B, what do you get?), to references to plot points, tropes, actors, actresses, what have you. It’s a major opus of taking so many things and blending them together into a story that’s part deconstruction, part satire, part gore-fest. I loved finding the little Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout, as I love a good game of ‘spot the reference’.

I also thought that Jones created some fun protagonists in our troop of Final Girls. Izzy, the weirdo misfit and main girl we follow, was particularly fun, as, like many of the characters, she’s aware that she’s in a slasher film scenario, and is doing her best to adjust to it and perhaps get through it until the end. And on top of all of that, Jones tweaks and toys with preconceived notions of slasher films, virginal final girls, and masked killers (though given the details that have come out more and more about Michael Jackson in the past year or so, what may have been a sly twist at the time now feels all the more ominous and icky). It never feels like these twists or subversions are trying to outdo the original source material; on the contrary, you definitely feel the affection that Jones has for the genre as a whole, even as he’s playing with it a bit. It feels more like “Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” in that way as opposed to “Cabin in the Woods” when looking at deconstructing horror tropes. I felt that “Vernon” was parodying the genre with affection, with “Cabin” came off as feeling smugly superior to it (this is just my opinion, however).

I will say that if you aren’t well versed in the slasher genre, and if experimental writing styles confound you, “The Last Final Girl” is probably not going to be the book for you. I think that if I wasn’t so into the genre as a whole I would have been completely turned off by the narrative style, as the reason I kept going at first was because of the theme at hand. If it wasn’t a story by an author I really enjoy, and a genre homage that I hold close to my heart, I don’t know if I’d have been able to get past the experimental style choices. As mentioned above, I got into it as it went on. But it took a little adjustment.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Last Final Girl”. It made me want to have a full slasher movie marathon by the time I was done with it.

Rating 8: A brutal, fun, and funny love letter to slasher movies, though it may not translate as well if you’re unfamiliar with the topic.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Final Girl” is included on the Goodreads lists “Slasher Fiction (No Novelizations”, and “Books About Small Towns”.

Find “The Last Final Girl” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

A New Year: Books About Hope and Peace

2020 was…a lot. No part of life felt untouched by the complete upheaval that was life during a summer full of powerful protests, a fall made up of an ugly election cycle, and an entire year burdened by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 2021 has started with an insurrectionist attack in D.C., but will soon see a new president sworn into power. We could all use a little hope and peace looking forward, so here is a list of books with themes such as these at their core.

Serena’s Picks

Book: “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis

Not only is this just a good book to read during the winter any year, but it feels particularly apt now. Even though Christmas technically came, the general feeling of “always winter but never Christmas” definitely pervaded this last year. But at its heart, this is a story of hope in the midst of what feels like endless darkness. Even the part that is set in the real world, with the children sent to the country to escape the bombing in London during WWII. What could just be a grim war story turns into a magical adventure. And right next to the grand example of goodness and kindness set by Aslan himself, there are the smaller, quieter moments that stand out just as much. Mr. Tumnus inviting Lucy in for tea. The beaver family taking in the children and leading them across Narnia’s wintery forest. And while the cold of the White Witch is always present, it’s also impossible to miss the sense of peace and wonder that winter always brings with it as well. Especially when Christmas finally arrives.

Book: “A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World”

Yes, the premise of this book doesn’t sound too peaceful or hopeful. The world has ended. But life goes on and even sort of peace has come along with it. That is until Griz’s beloved dog is stolen away. And so begins a trek across a barely recognizable world, but hope burns eternal and beauty can be found even amidst the destruction that remains. It’s a lovely story, with perhaps some sad bits, but a nice message at the end about the rewards waiting for those who persist in the face of unknowns and seemingly hopeless cases. This book probably goes down as one of my “most recommended” titles in the last several years. I feel like it’s the kind of story that appeals to almost all types of readers and it has hidden gems that surprise even the most savvy reader.

Book: “44 Scotland Street” by Alexander McCall Smith

This is actually a book recommendation from my husband who is also an avid reader, though he tends towards long, Russian novels much more than myself (much to his dismay as he knows I’ll probably never read any of them myself!). But I was talking about this book list and looking for peaceful, hopeful books and this was one of the first ones he thought of. Unlike the first two books on this list, this recommendation is based more on the peaceful feeling he described as having when reading it. The story is essentially just a character study of a small community in Edinburgh and all the quirks and foibles that make up the lives of the people in it. Strong on plot it may not be, but full of warmth and laughs, it definitely is!

Kate’s Picks

Book: “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

So this may seem like an odd choice given that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic world after a devastating pandemic. But “Station Eleven” is, at its heart, about hope and the human will to keep going, and finding joy and peace in the things that are left. After a virus wipes out a majority of the world’s population, groups of people who survived are scattered about in the wild. One of these groups is a troupe of actors who travel around and put on plays for those that they meet, bringing reminders of the old world and joy through art. True, there is conflict, and true, we still see the pain of the world falling apart through flashbacks, but even with all of that “Station Eleven” is a very hopeful tale about human perseverance even in the worst of times, and how important the arts can be when they provide happiness and escape.

Book: “I Am Malala: The Story of a Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban” by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

It’s been almost ten years since education activist Malala Yousafzai was nearly murdered for her activism while she was living in Pakistan. After she survived the attack, and given that she was only a teenager at the time, she became a symbol of tenacity and hope in the face of violence and oppression. Her memoir “I Am Malala” is a very hopeful and powerful book about doing what’s right, standing up against injustice, and the sacrifices that sometimes have to be made for the greater good. What I loved most about this book is that Malala is not only a very powerful writer as she talks about her life and her activism, but it’s also very much a story about a teenage girl with a lot of the dreams and anxieties that you would see across the age group. It’s a book that not only gives hope to me for younger generations, but also gives hope that things can get better if you fight for it.

Book: “Unbowed” by Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental activist whose work had mostly been in Kenya, and her life story is written in this memoir, “Unbowed”. Her work in environmentalism as well as in feminism and political activism brought a number of positive changes to her home country. Not only did she help shift the Kenyan government system to a democracy (and then served in their Parliament), she also established the Green Belt Movement which encouraged the restoration of forests and trees, and put women in countryside communities at the forefront of the movement and action it took in the restoration efforts. While it’s true that she wasn’t without a little bit of controversy during her activism (there are questions about some remarks about HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories she was accused of saying, though she denied it and released her own statement HERE if you’re curious), her contributions to environmentalism and women’s rights cannot be overlooked, and her story is one that is filled with hope for what people of the world can do to make it a better place.

What books fill you with home and feelings of peace? Let us know in the comments!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Sanditon” [2019]

I could probably continue on an entire extra year reviewing various adaptations and interpretations of Jane Austen’s works. There are plays, spin-off books, modern adaptations, the list goes on and on. Every year it seems there is a new version coming out in some form or another and this last year was no exception. Not only did we get a new feature film of “Emma” but the BBC also released an 8-part mini series of Austen’s unfinished work “Sanditon.” So I wanted to briefly touch on my thoughts of both those and to add in one other adaptation that has been a favorite of mine for quite a while, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” both the book and the 3-part mini series.

Mini-Series: “Sanditon”

I promise I’ll leave a positive review for one of these “extra” Jane Austen reviews that I’m doing in January. Alas, like “Emma” [2020], this is not one of them. Unlike “Emma,” however, I am more in-line with the general reception of this mini series. All and all, I think most Jane Austen fans were supremely disappointed by it, not least because of how it ends. Let’s dive into my complaints, shall we?

(NOTE: There will be spoilers in this review.)

The whole thing starts from a false premise: that there’s even a story here to adapt. Austen had only written eleven chapters of this story before her death. For reference, Emma has fifty-five chapters, so by comparison, eleven chapters is only scratching the surface of whatever story Austen had in mind. All we really get from these opening chapters is the introduction of our heroine, Charlotte, her relocation to an up-and-coming beach town called “Sanditon,” and the arrival of a potential love interest in the form of the fashionable Sidney Parker. Story-wise, it’s not much. There are the typical cast of side characters as well, but not much as far as clues to Austen’s overarching plot or themes. In most ways, she’s just finished setting the scene and not much else. It was always going to be a fool’s errand to try to expand that out into a mini series and to call it a “Jane Austen adaptation” is really pushing the limits of that term.

Perhaps in the right hands a compelling story could have been made. But sadly, this mini series ain’t that. It falls into too many traps that many modern adaptations risk and, at its heart, seems to miss the overall tone and heart that makes up all Jane Austen stories. To most fans’ chagrin, the story succumbs to the inane need of modern series to be “gritty” and “push the limits.” There are overtly sexual scenes in the very first episode (some of them even bizarrely going a very “Game of Thrones” route, none the less…). And many, if not most, of the characters introduced are supremely unlikable. For some reason, it seems that many directors and screenwriters often confuse writing a character with layers and depth with just writing supreme jerks, and we see plenty examples of it here. The romantic interest is immediately an a-hole to Charlotte, and not in the endearing, prideful “Darcy-esque” way that is the only acceptable form of this behavior in an Austen story.

Gone is the joy. Gone is the wit. And, worst of all, gone is the happy ending. It seems as if the director intentionally ended the series this way in a fit of over-confidence that the series would be picked up for a second season. Indeed, this is the only acceptable reason for ending an Austen story this way. There are plenty of historical fiction stories to be told where the happy, romantic conclusion is not a given. But those are not the stories that Austen wrote. She even said it herself, “let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”

Every Austen fan who went into this series happily hoping to get one last shot at a new Austen story would have had this one, simple expectation: that the hero and heroine would end up together and happy at the end. Whatever happened from the start to the finish was open for exploration and interpretation. But this ending was a must. Instead, the series not only denies our hero and heroine this happiness, but it essentially resets the story by sending Charlotte back home where her future is once again limited and likely dull. I’ll be blunt: this ending is inexcusable for a Jane Austen adaption and, apart from any other stumbling blocks (of which there were many) would be enough to write this entire thing off on its own.

Unlike “Emma,” which I think I disliked for fairly subjective reasons but is sure to please many fans, this mini series really has nothing to recommend it, as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps for general historical fiction fans it would be an ok watch. But any fan of Jane Austen should simply steer clear, as “Jane Austen” this is not.

Kate’s Review: “Flamer”

Book: “Flamer” by Mike Curato

Publishing Info: Henry Holt and Co. BYR-Paperbacks, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Award-winning author and artist Mike Curato draws on his own experiences in Flamer, his debut graphic novel, telling a difficult story with humor, compassion, and love.

I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.

I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.

It’s the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone’s going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can’t stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.

Review: I never did the whole summer camp thing as a kid. As far as I got was the YMCA Day camp program, but I was such an anxious kid with separation anxiety issues like whoa, overnight sleep away camp was NEVER going to work. I do feel like I missed something, especially since my sister did do one and really enjoyed it. So I do like reading stories that take place at summer camp. I stumbled upon “Flamer” by Mike Curato on Goodreads, and the themes sounded very much in my wheelhouse.

In some ways, “Flamer” feels a bit like the graphic memoir “Honor Girl” in that it has a teenager at camp struggling with their sexuality in the mid 90s. But for me the difference is that Aiden, our main character and fictionalized portrayal of Curato, has a lot more self loathing and and a lot more fear about his sexuality. Aiden is an outsider already, in that he’s bi-racial, he’s on the chubbier side, and he’s an easy target at his middle school, as well as for his emotionally abusive father. So while he has usually felt like he fits in at Scout Camp, his burgeoning sexuality starts to drive his anxiety up, especially as the micro aggressions and flat out bigotry of the time start to become more and more apparent. The story is mostly the last week at Scout Camp, as his safe space starts to feel less safe, and he moves towards an unknown future of high school and self discovery. Curato doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that Aiden has to deal with, be it because of his heritage, because of how he presents as more femme than his fellow Scouts, and how these stresses and the bullying is taking a toll on him and driving him to dark places. Aiden could be a mirror for many kids who are dealing with their own identity discoveries, and how the world around them can make those discoveries hard. The cruelty isn’t limited to fellow Scouts, but also pops up with Leaders who seem supportive, but have their own prejudices that they are harboring and that aren’t as hidden as they may think.

There is also a prevalent theme about Aiden’s Catholic Faith, and how he has always been drawn to certain aspects of the religion and the rituals. I know VERY little about Catholicism, but I thought that Curato really evoked the appreciation that Aiden has, from being an Alter Boy to having a favorite Saint that he relates to, to the struggles he has with his sexuality because of what he believes his religion says about LGBTQIA people. It’s a really fine line that Curato walks in that he definitely condemns the bigotry of those who may practice the religion, but never points fingers at the religion itself, nor does he say that the religion is ‘bad’ in this situation. I think that it would be easy to either condemn the religion as a whole, or to let it and all of its adherents off. but Curato finds a balance in the middle, and it works very well, and makes some of the moments near the end of the story all the more heartbreaking and powerful.

Along with those aspects, Curato also has a great author’s note in the back, as well as a list of resources for kids who may be dealign with the same things that Aiden is dealing with. I love it when books do this, and it feels like a really great resource to have in this story in particular.

And finally, the art work. LOVED it. It’s black and white, but there are splashes of color, specifically those of reds, oranges, and yellows. All of those work for passion, for fire, for anger, for love, and it makes the moments they are used pop and all the more powerful.

“Flamer” is a bittersweet and hopeful graphic novel that I hope people get in kids hands. You never know who is going to need a story like this.

Rating 8: Evocative, emotional, and necessary reading, “Flamer” is a touching and hopeful story about learning to love and accept yourself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flamer” is included on the Goodreads lists “Summer Camp Teens”, and “Guides and Scouts”.

Find “Flamer” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Rev-Up Review: “Graceling”

Book: “Graceling” by Kristin Cashore

Publishing Info: Harcourt, October 2008

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

She never expects to fall in love with beautiful Prince Po.

She never expects to learn the truth behind her Grace—or the terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

Review: I read this book right around when it came out and instantly loved it. I went on to re-read it a few times in the next couple of years. But as my list of re-read favorites grew and grew, after those first few years, I never got back around to this one. So now it’s probably been about ten years since I last read it. Then when I saw that Cashore was returning to her “Graceling” world after so many years with the release of “Winterkeep” later this month, I knew that now was the time and this was the perfect excuse! So in anticipation of this new book, I will be re-reading all three of the “Graceling” books that came before, starting out with this, the first and my favorite.

In a world dotted with individuals with extraodinary powers, marked by their duel colored eyes, Katsa’s unparalleled ability to fight and kill just about anything is frightening to the extreme. Not the least of all to her. Under the thumb of her cruel uncle the king, for years, Katsa has served as his unwilling enforcer. To protect her own sanity and the safety of those she can, Katsa’s also built up an underground life of small rebellions and resistence. During one of these missions she meets Prince Po, another Graceling and one who finally opens her eyes to the opportunities before her. When the two begin to uncover a lurking darkness in the far reaches of the kingdom, they set out to unravel an increasingly malicious tangle. And while they do, they begin to discover there is more to Katsa’s Grace than just killing after all.

There’s a lot to love about this book. I but I think most people can agree that one of its biggest selling points is its main character herself. I can think of a number of books that have attempted an all-powerful, badass female character like this before and bungled it up so badly that the book becomes practically unreadable. So it’s a testament to Cashore’s ability that her main character not only avoids pulling the book down with her but actually turns out to be one of its biggest selling points.

Katsa’s biggest strengths, her seemingly endless ability to excel at practically anything, is just what makes her such a challenging character to write. She arrives on page one seemingly capable of easily handling anything that the story throws out her. So where’s the plot to go? What type of development can you give a character like this? Well, instead of physical limitations, Cashore dives deep into the psychological damage and challenges that a character with these abilities would face. Katsa’s fear of her own strength hinders her ability to trust and form friendships, probably the low hanging fruit as far as personal struggles for this type of character goes.

But Cashore goes even deeper. Because Katsa operates alone so much of the time and has a deep-seated fear, verging on hatred, for herself, her interactions with those around her can be quite toxic at times. She’s rash and prone to striking out. She also struggles to recognize the limitations of others and will push people (and horses!) past their breakingpoint. From this starting point, Cashore weaves together a beautiful character arc that focuses on themes like trust, self-acceptance, and self-control. And throughout this all, Katsa’s very brashness and inability to pick up on the most basic of social cues makes her an incredibly endearing lead character.

Beyond Katsa, the story excels in several areas. While it takes a bit to get started, once it does, there are bunch of fantastic action set-pieces and challenges that are posed to our seemingly unstoppable heroine. And the story quickly moves past the more straightforward aspect of her Grace that would just be one fight scene after another. I also really like the romance in this story. Unlike a lot of other YA books, here the romance establishes itself about halfway through the book. Of course, as any romance novel author will tell you, getting your characters together is only half of the story, and I really appreciate that Cashore left room to dive into the later stages of a romantic storyline. Things like facing losses together, going through fights, figuring out how to be a couple while also maintaining your sense of individuality, making decisions about your future.

I also really like the villain we have here. The build up to the reveal successfully creates a lot of tension that is only compounded upon once the reader discovers what is really going on. The villain is also a great foil for Katsa, being appropriately powered but not in a way that feels like their abilities were created specifically with her in mind (a failing of many archvillains, in my opinion.) My only complaint is that there isn’t more page time with this individual. But, then again, given the nature of the villain, there’s not really a very good way to include more scenes with them that doesn’t hurt the story overall.

So, given my ravings above, it’s pretty obvious that I found this book just as enjoyable ten years later as I did the first time I read it. I’m excited to read the next two books as well since, unlike this one, I never re-read either of those and remember very little about them.

Rating 10: Definitely deserves its place in the YA fantasy ranks as one of the bests.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Graceling” is on these Goodreads lists: Best “Strong Female” Fantasy Novels and Magic, Adventure, Romance.

Find “Graceling” at your library using Worldcat!

Kate’s Review: “Concrete Rose”

Book: “Concrete Rose” by Angie Thomas

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: International phenomenon Angie Thomas revisits Garden Heights seventeen years before the events of The Hate U Give in this searing and poignant exploration of Black boyhood and manhood.

If there’s one thing seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter knows, it’s that a real man takes care of his family. As the son of a former gang legend, Mav does that the only way he knows how: dealing for the King Lords. With this money he can help his mom, who works two jobs while his dad’s in prison.

Life’s not perfect, but with a fly girlfriend and a cousin who always has his back, Mav’s got everything under control. Until, that is, Maverick finds out he’s a father.

Suddenly he has a baby, Seven, who depends on him for everything. But it’s not so easy to sling dope, finish school, and raise a child. So when he’s offered the chance to go straight, he takes it. In a world where he’s expected to amount to nothing, maybe Mav can prove he’s different.

When King Lord blood runs through your veins, though, you can’t just walk away. Loyalty, revenge, and responsibility threaten to tear Mav apart, especially after the brutal murder of a loved one. He’ll have to figure out for himself what it really means to be a man.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Back in 2019 when Angie Thomas’s “On The Come Up” made my Favorite Read list for the year, I promised myself that even though her genre isn’t usually one I cover, I would make exception for her books. Both that one and “The Hate U Give” made my lists, so when “Concrete Rose”, her newest novel, was announced I knew that it would be the first to keep the promise. I was STUNNED when I saw that it was available for request on NetGalley, but took advantage of that and downloaded it. We were finally going to get the backstory for Maverick Carter, Starr’s compelling father in “The Hate U Give”. And I was very interested to see where that backstory went.

While her previous works have tackled social justice themes and Black girlhood, “Concrete Rose” now has a focus on that of Black boyhood, and the difficulties it can entail in a racist society. When we met Maverick in “The Hate U Give”, he is a loving father and very well respected member in his community of Garden Heights. In “Concrete Rose” he’s seventeen, he’s a member of the King Lords (the gang his father was a high ranking member of), and he’s just found out that he’s the father of a three month old baby that had previously been believed to be his best friend’s (you may remember King from THUG). It’s a lot of change and a lot of pressure, and Maverick doesn’t know how to tell his girlfriend Lisa about the baby, and doesn’t want to sell weed anymore now that he is a father who needs to be there. Thomas, unsurprisingly, captures Maverick’s voice very well, as he feels like an authentic teenager who can make bad decisions, but has a lot of heart and determination. We also see the barriers that he has to face due to systemic and societal racism and the poverty that his community is dealing with. He wants to support his son, and stay in school, AND go straight so that he doesn’t end up like his own incarcerated father, but there are few opportunities, and dealing, though dangerous, feels like the only way to be successful. It’s a very empathetic look at why decisions are made to join gangs and to deal, as for Maverick, when things get really hard, it feels like the only support system he has. While I don’t think that it connected with me as much as THUG and “On the Come Up”, I do think that “Concrete Rose” will connect with other readers, especially boys who see themselves in Maverick.

In terms of being a prequel to “The Hate U Give”, “Concrete Rose” does stand well enough on its own. There are certainly a couple of references to the other book with characters and some other plot points that are mentioned, but if you go into this one without any knowledge you aren’t going to feel like you’re missing anything. I really like that Thomas decided to look more at Maverick, as he was definitely one of my favorite characters in THUG. I loved seeing Mav and Lisa’s relationship as well, as in THUG they are Starr’s parents, but in “Concrete Rose” they are a burgeoning teenage couple with ups and downs. As someone who used to dabble in fiction writing, and as someone who ALSO found herself wanting to go back and explore characters that were supposed to be supporting characters only, I definitely LOVE that we got to see Mav and Lisa go through these ups and downs with the spotlight on the two of them. Some reviews I’ve seen has questioned whether this love story needed to be explored, but so what if it didn’t ‘need’ to be? It’s a great story regardless of ‘need’.

“Concrete Rose” is another well done book by Angie Thomas, whose voice and skills are undeniable and so, so important to YA fiction right now. I’ll be curious to see what comes next. While I wouldn’t mind a whole new tale, this book proves that she could go back and explore other characters and give them rich and emotional back stories.

Rating 8: A heartfelt and emotional prequel to one of the most important YA novels of the 21st Century, “Concrete Rose” gives a great backstory to a compelling character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Concrete Rose” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Books for BLM Movement”, and “Contemporary Books with Black Leads”.

Find “Concrete Rose” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!