Kate’s Review: “The Hollow Ones”

52594581Book: “The Hollow Ones” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: A horrific crime that defies ordinary explanation. A rookie FBI agent in dangerous, uncharted territory. An extraordinary hero for the ages. Odessa Hardwicke’s life is derailed when she’s forced to turn her gun on her partner, Walt Leppo, a decorated FBI agent who turns suddenly, inexplicably violent while apprehending a rampaging murderer. The shooting, justified by self-defense, shakes the young FBI agent to her core. Devastated, Odessa is placed on desk leave pending a full investigation.

But what most troubles Odessa isn’t the tragedy itself-it’s the shadowy presence she thought she saw fleeing the deceased agent’s body after his death. Questioning her future with the FBI and her sanity, Hardwicke accepts a low-level assignment to clear out the belongings of a retired agent in the New York office. What she finds there will put her on the trail of a mysterious figure named John Blackwood, a man of enormous means who claims to have been alive for centuries, and who is either an unhinged lunatic, or humanity’s best and only defense against unspeakable evil. 

Review: Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for sending me an eARC of this book!

I have loved Guillermo del Toro ever since I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” back in college. I don’t think that there is one del Toro movie that I haven’t at the very least been entertained by. I try to see all of his movies, and I went to his traveling show of his personal collection of props and artwork when it came to Minneapolis. I also liked his foray into writing, having enjoyed his novel adaptation of “The Shape of Water”, and his vampire dystopia “The Strain” Trilogy that he wrote with Chuck Hogan. So when I had the opportunity to read his and Hogan’s newest collaboration, “The Hollow Ones”, I leapt at the chance. It was a fun surprise too, as I had no idea that they had a new book coming out. I really gotta get more on top of my del Toro stanning I guess.

We move from vampire lore and into demons and possession with “The Hollow Ones”, where del Toro and Hogan give us a mythology and magical system with some influences from a few different sources. You have references to occultist John Dee, references to Voodoo and Hoodoo, and inspirations from Judeo-Christian ideas of possession and Western occultism. Our protagonist Odessa is trying to reconcile the strange and horrible things that she has seen or has been hearing about as mass murders and spree killings start breaking out around New York and New Jersey, namely having to turn her gun on her FBI partner after he turned uncharacteristically violent during a confrontation with a mass murderer. Odessa serves as the audiences’ stand in as she learns about the dark magic at hand, and after she is connected to the mysterious John Blackwood (in my ARC his name was John Silence, but that has changed for the final product). Blackwood has been chasing insidious beings called Hollow Ones for centuries, his immortality a curse tied in with these creatures that jump from host to host and cause as much violence as possible while inside. We not only explore Blackwood and Odessa’s teaming up in the present, but also Blackwood’s partnership with Soloman, a Black FBI agent who had a similar case in the 1960s in the Deep South, and who is now the man to connect Odessa to Blackwood after a Hollow One has started up again. I liked seeing the juxtaposition of two agents having to contend with being Others within their field (Soloman’s arc in particular was a fascinating comment on the Jim Crow South and how being a Black agent put a target on his back), and having to hunt down a disturbing evil with a strange and awkward immortal. It’s just kind of a fun concept, and del Toro and Hogan make the system believable and interesting enough that it’s ripe with potential for scares and shocks. And let me tell you, scare and shock it does, as the Hollow One we are following is INCREDIBLY violent, so much so that I feel a need to put a content warning for a particular scene involving this creature and a baby. Yeah, that wasn’t an easy moment to read for me right now. But it does show that del Toro and Hogan aren’t fucking around with this thing, and also shows just what Odessa and Blackwood are up against, and what Soloman and Blackwood were up against previously.

All that said, “The Hollow Ones” never really moved from ripe potential into a full blown pay off. While it does follow a clear path and story, and while the foundation is there for something really great, I felt that it totally captivated me. I liked Odessa a lot, but Blackwood wasn’t terribly interesting to me even though he should, as a cursed immortal, should be INTERESTING. And on top of all that, it’s very difficult these days to ignore or overlook stories where authors take ideas and concepts from other cultures and don’t do the due diligence to do so appropriately. While I enjoyed the themes and plot aspects of the 1960s storyline, using Voodoo, Hoodoo, and folklore from slave narratives felt very uncomfortable, especially since it was being used in a way that appeared to be ‘demonic’, or at least Othering. I love you, del Toro, but that stuff may not be for you to play with in the stories you tell. Not unless you are VERY careful and respectful with how you do it. And I’m not saying that I think that this was intentionally racist, but it does go to show that some of those past tropes in horror (occultism, the mysterious ‘voodoo’ spells, etc) really do have problematic origins and that you can’t really hold it up through a lens of nostalgia.

This is the start of a series I have heard, and I will probably pick up the next book. As I said, lots of potential in the world building and the characters themselves. But “The Hollow Ones” wasn’t the big bang I was hoping for.

Rating 6: A solid horror thriller with some interesting ideas, “The Hollow Ones” has potential, but doesn’t quite flesh itself out as much as I had hoped, and delved in some culturally appropriative storytelling elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Hollow Ones” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward To in 2020”.

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

Serena’s Review: “Storm and Fury”

40291564Book: “Storm and Fury” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Inkyard Press, June 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Trinity Marrow may be going blind, but she can see and communicate with ghosts and spirits. Her unique gift is part of a secret so dangerous that she’s been in hiding for years in an isolated compound fiercely guarded by Wardens—gargoyle shape-shifters who protect humankind from demons. If the demons discover the truth about Trinity, they’ll devour her, flesh and bone, to enhance their own powers.

When Wardens from another clan arrive with disturbing reports that something out there is killing both demons and Wardens, Trinity’s safe world implodes. Not the least because one of the outsiders is the most annoying and fascinating person she’s ever met. Zayne has secrets of his own that will upend her world yet again—but working together becomes imperative once demons breach the compound and Trinity’s secret comes to light. To save her family and maybe the world, she’ll have to put her trust in Zayne. But all bets are off as a supernatural war is unleashed…

Review: This book had been hanging out on my audiobook holds list long enough that I had forgotten completely why I put it on there! Which can be a good and bad thing. For the good, it was a complete surprise, as I typically don’t read this type of book and probably wouldn’t have prioritized it if I had known that it was a modern YA fantasy. For the bad, I didn’t realize that this was a companion series to another, already finished series. Not that it had a huge effect on this read, but it was a factor. But, overall, I wasn’t super impressed with this book.

Trinity has been raised by the Wardens, taught to fight demons, and hidden from humans. But she is not any of them. Though going blind, Trinity’s unique abilities, aided by her excellent combat skills, have made her a force to be reckoned with. Her future, however, is anything but clear. It is made all the more murky when a group of stranger arrive with ill-boding news. And soon that news strikes closer than home than any of them would like. Now Trinity, with the help of the oddly appealing but supremely frustrating Zayne, must venture outside her home and put her true powers to the test.

So, as I said, this is the beginning to a companion series that had already completed. I will give props to the writer, however, for making this one feel pretty approachable all on its own. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of the world and various players in it fairly early on. Once the main character and her love interest from the previous story showed up, I did feel like some background on their story and, particularly, their histories with Zayne would have been helpful. But even there, as they are all new to Trinity, it wasn’t hard to be introduced to them the first time through her eyes. If anything, I was more fully in her boat than I would have been otherwise, also not knowing what to believe between the various histories being told.

I also liked Trinity’s voice well enough at the beginning. She was funny and only ridiculous at times. Unfortunately, these traits swapped as the story went on, and she quickly became less funny and more ridiculous. Surprising no one, this change corresponded with the increased page time devoted to the romance. Again, not knowing the history between other characters and Zayne, it was all too easy to have to be mired in the nonsense of insecurity and drama alongside our main character.

The romance itself was everything I hated. First off, we have instalove or instattraction. Tons of mentions of how Trinity felt an inexplicable draw and interest in him. And he, too, with very little true development, is of course interested in her as well. Then you add in the forced drama in the middle. And then you get to the end and find out it was all just kind of pointless? I don’t want to spoil it or anything…but it’s another of my least favorite tropes. So the book strikes out three for three in the romance department.

The story is also incredibly long, something like 500 pages? Much of this is devoted to witty repartee and smaller character moments. Some have value, others not so much. And the few action scenes we get are brief and over before you really realize what’s going on. Overall, the story probably could have lost about 200 pages worth of filler and been a tighter, more compelling story for it.

I also really, really disliked the “reveal” at the end of the book. It wasn’t so much that I could see it coming, as that it just didn’t make that much sense. We get a bland, villain speech as an explanation, but no groundwork or character development had been laid down beforehand to make any of it feel earned or believable.

Yeah, so not much about this book worked for me. I was mildly intrigued by the characters who were introduced from the other book, but I also don’t trust this author anymore as far as developing an interesting, trope-free romance. So, I think I’ll probably skip those and not continue this either. If you’re a fan of her other series, this may be worth checking out. But if you’re new to this author, I can’t recommend this. If it sounds like your thing, probably just read the other series first and go from there.

Rating 5: A cringe-worthy romance really killed the mood on this one.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Storm and Fury” is on a bunch of fairly random Goodreads lists, but this one made me laugh and given my rating…“I’ve Thought About Reading… But I Probably Won’t.”

Find“Storm and Fury” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “He Started It”

51373979Book: “He Started It” by Samantha Downing

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Description: Beth, Portia, and Eddie Morgan haven’t all been together in years. And for very good reasons—we’ll get to those later. But when their wealthy grandfather dies and leaves a cryptic final message in his wake, the siblings and their respective partners must come together for a cross-country road trip to fulfill his final wish and—more importantly—secure their inheritance.

But time with your family can be tough. It is for everyone.

It’s even harder when you’re all keeping secrets and trying to forget a memory—a missing person, an act of revenge, the man in the black truck who won’t stop following your car—and especially when at least one of you is a killer and there’s a body in the trunk. Just to name a few reasons.

But money is a powerful motivator. It is for everyone.

Review: Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Even though it got a lot of hype when it came out, I never actually read “My Lovely Wife” by Samantha Downing. I’m not sure why it never made it to my hold list, but for whatever reason it just hasn’t been on my book stack. But given all the buzz it has, when Berkley sent me a link to Downing’s newest book, “He Started It”, I was pleasantly surprised and delighted. And the description alone was enough to get my hyped: feuding siblings, a missing person, family secrets, and a mysterious potential stalker? That just screams something that I would want to read about! As someone who used to go on family road trips all the time throughout her childhood, sometimes to the point where everyone in the car wanted to murder each other, that was the icing on the cake!

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One of my shining moments was convincing my sister she had kidney problems because she had to stop and pee so often. Memories. (source)

“He Started It” is from the perspective of Beth, one of three dysfunctional siblings who are on a road trip in hopes of collecting an inheritance from their recently deceased grandfather. When we first meet these siblings, all we know are that 1) they aren’t really close to each other, and 2) this road trip is a re-creation of a trip they took with said grandfather when they were kids, and if they want to get their money, they have to do it. As we get to know Beth, siblings Eddie and Portia, and Beth and Eddie’s spouses Felix and Krista, we find we are following a group of very unlikable people who have a lot of secrets. And while the characters themselves are all pretty reprehensible, the road trip they take is incredibly fun, mostly because the secrets start coming out and you just have to know more. As Downing slowly shows us what happened on the childhood road trip, and slowly starts to reveal facts and details that are more and more salacious as time goes on, you find yourself completely hooked into what happened to these siblings and what motivates them in the present day. As mentioned, we are mostly getting into Beth’s head, so it’s hard to know how reliable she is and what kind of picture we’re getting, but all that is just part of the salacious fun as more well crafted twists come out of the woodwork. And almost all of the big reveals and shocks feel well earned too. And while none of the characters were enjoyable, I still wanted to know what happened to them because I wanted to know if they would all get what was coming to them. Suffice to say, I devoured this book in a very short time, and really had to force myself to put it down when I had other things to do.

In spite of how freakin’ addicted I was to this book, I will say that the ending threw a wrench into my overall experience of it. I’m not going to spoil anything for you guys, because up until that point I had a really fun time and I still think it’s worth the read. But what I will say is that it felt abrupt, it felt unresolved, and it felt a bit like a shocker just for the sake of being shocking. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se, but it did mean that this book never really moved from ‘mindless fun thriller’ to ‘you gotta read this book, thriller fans of all ages!’ That’s not a bad thing when you want to bring a stack of books to your backyard escape. But it may not stand out too much from other stories in that stack.

“He Started It” was fun in the moment, and as someone who is trying to live more for the moment, I was thankful for it as I was reading it.

Rating 7: Though the ending kind of throws the whole thing off, “He Started It” is a fun and kind of salacious thriller that will take your attention and refuse to return it until you’ve finished.

Reader’s Advisory:

“He Started It” is included on the Goodreads lists “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications Jan-July 2020)”, and “Books Featured on First Chapter Fun”.

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

Not Just Books: July 2020

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

mv5bzta5n2i4njatmgrhzc00ywvllthjmtctyzjiy2uwmzezmtdixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtkxnjuynq4040._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Netflix Show: “Next in Fashion”

Yet another fashion competition show! I have an obsession, and the continuous quarantining/social distancing isn’t doing anything to help me break out of these habits. I’m not sure how I missed this show when it came out on Netflix earlier in the year, but I sure was pleased when I discovered its existences. And as much as I love Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, I’m pretty sure this managed to make a much more enjoyable viewing experience on a tiny percentage of the budget. It’s much more humorous, down-to-earth and approachable to regular viewers. The hosts are hilarious and don’t take themselves too seriously, and it’s easy to become attached to the contestants. I was also really pleased with the winner of this first season, so that’s always a bonus!

mv5bmguwzjlimtatnzaxzi00mwnilwe2nzgtzguxmgqxzjhhndrixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynju1nzu3mze40._v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Movie: “Knives Out”

I’ve finally gotten my husband to watch (re-watch for me) all of “Supernatural.” All 15 seasons of it. But with that much of one show to binge, we also have evenings where we definitely need a break. So, when browsing Amazon Prime, one night we discovered this movie. I had remembered a lot of people raving about it last fall, but never got around to watching it myself. We went in thinking it was a comedy, which in some ways it was, but more just of wacky/quirky storytelling sort. Instead what we mostly found was a very suspenseful murder mystery. I was so tense throughout this entire thing! But I still enjoyed the heck out of it, and with its star-studded cast and story full of twists and surprises, it’s definitely one to check out if you haven’t already!

mv5bodcyntm4mjuwof5bml5banbnxkftztcwnte5mjc2nw4040._v1_uy268_cr90182268_al_TV Show: “Legend of the Seeker”

This show came out several years ago and only ran for two seasons. I think it was a bit ahead of its time for trying to adapt a classic fantasy  book series (Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series) into a TV series and was definitely still adhering to the Sci Fi Channel standard where fantasies can’t be taken too seriously and must always contain an element of cheese. But I still really enjoyed it and it’s a nice show to return to during stressful times. It has a good mixture of drama, comedy and high fantasy. Plus, it has a lovely romance at its heart that comes to a satisfying conclusion after its two seasons conclude. Not to mention, the leading man isn’t bad to look at though I wish they had just let him use his native Australian accent since the American one can be a bit strained at times.

Kate’s Picks

unsolved-mysteries-reboot-netflix-theme-songNetflix Show: “Unsolved Mysteries”

So even though I’m sure it would have been right up my childhood and teenage years alley, I never really watched the original “Unsolved Mysteries” when it was on the air. I’m sure my parents knew that my anxious nature couldn’t handle it. But I ended up seeing episodes through re-runs and streaming as an adult, and when I found out that Netflix was rebooting it I was THRILLED! The basic premise of the show is still there, covering strange cases of unexplained deaths, missing people, and the otherworldly, but now it has taken out some of the cheesier elements and has one main focus per episode. There are only six episodes thus far, and who knows when they’ll add more given COVID-19, but the new “Unsolved Mysteries” hits exactly where I want it to. Even if there is no Robert Stack this time around.

8ldhjc3hx29nkk0bfgayzkiwqwnHBO Max Show: “Search Party”

Oh how long I waited for “Search Party” to come back! I was worried that it wasn’t going to happen, as it had been a couple of years since Season 2 ended on a cliffhanger, where our protagonist Dory (Alia Shawkat) was arrested for the murder of her former lover Keith… right after she had killed April, a woman who was blackmailing her about Keith’s murder. So when HBO Max picked up the show and dropped all of Season 3 at once, I binged binged BINGED. “Search Party” is still awkward, funny, and dark as hell, and the best thing about it is that we’ve been able to watch Dory transform over the seasons, from meek and aimless millennial…. to full on villain. John Early’s Elliot is still my favorite as he remains his shallow, overdramatic self, but it’s Dory’s attorney Cassidy, played by Shalita Grant, who brings a fun new dynamic to the series as another shallow hipster… but with ethics and a moral center nevertheless. Can’t wait to see what happens in Season 4, as it ended on another cliffhanger.

hamilton-poster-disney-plusMovie Musical: “Hamilton”

We were those people who finally stopped waffling about getting Disney+ specifically because of “Hamilton” dropping on it. While I saw the stage show when it came to Minnesota a couple years ago, both my husband and I were very excited to see the original Broadway cast in all their glory performing for streamers everywhere. While it’s true that “Hamilton” isn’t completely historically accurate, and that creator Lin Manuel Miranda took some liberties here and there, it cannot be denied that this show is a once in a generation powerhouse of creative genius. And frankly, during this time where so much seems hopeless and despairing, having a fluffy pick me up can be really helpful. Suffice to say, we greatly enjoyed watching it on July 4th weekend.

 

 

Serena’s Review: “A Natural History of Dragons”

12974372Book: “A Natural History of Dragons”by Marie Brennan

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Tor Books, February 2013

Book Description: All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Review: When I read “Turning Darkness into Light” a year or so ago, I didn’t realize that it was connected to Marie Brennan’s “Lady Trent” series. It was still an enjoyable read, however, and it inspired me to go back and put the original series on my list. Of course, that now makes reading this series, set quite a bit before “Turning Darkness,” into a very different reading experience than it would have been had I been approaching without any prior knowledge. But, overall, I really enjoyed this read!

Before she was the well-known adventurous, Lady Trent, Lady Isabella was just a young woman with an unladylike interest: dragons. But ever determined, she set out to make a life for herself where she could pursue this unlikely passion as far a a lady of her time could hope for. Instead, she got more than she ever wished for. Finding a marriage of true affection with a liberal minded man who eventually even concedes to allowing her to travel on expeditions alongside her. Never did he suspect that she, herself, would be the one to begin making the most extraordinary discoveries of their time!

This book was both what I expected and very different than I expected. On one hand, it’s kind of your staple historical fantasy story featuring an intrepid lady going and doing what no lady has done before. Lady Trent’s voice was very familiar, if a bit less bland than the likes of Amelia Peabody and Veronica Speedwell. But her story was unique enough to stand alone. For one thing, I appreciate the way the story is grounded in the realities of the “time” for a lady such as herself.

Her marriage is not made from wild romance, but from the practical choice of two individuals with unique interests to team up with another who can appreciate their eccentricities. It was a nice change of pace to read about this type of relationship and how their feelings towards each other change and grow over the years as they are put to different, unexpected tests. Her husband doesn’t simply jump onboard with her wanting to travel the world, but very realistically expresses concern that he will be judged for not protecting his wife as a proper husband should. Of course, he quickly sees reason and realizes that her wants and needs are more important than this judgement, but I appreciated that the challenge of living so far outside the norm was addressed.

The story was a bit slower to get started than I may have liked, but once Lady Isabella actually begins her explorations, I really enjoyed it. Even then, the dragons were much more often an idea or passing fear than ever being very present. This, of course, was part of the mystery of them, but it did leave the pacing of the story itself a bit stilted. Here, mostly, is where it was strange that I had read the companion book before this actual series. Many secrets and truths had been taken as common knowledge in that book, but here Lady Trent had yet to make any of these discoveries. It did add a strange, new layer of intrigue for me, personally, as I spent a lot of time trying to guess how all of these smaller clues would lead to the bigger reveals I knew were coming at some point. Even knowing some of the outcomes, I still wasn’t able to put much together beforehand.

I really liked the narrator for this audiobook, and I highly recommend reading the book that way if you like audiobooks at all. The slower pace and, at points, removed feeling one has from the characters themselves did knock this back a few points in my rating. But I plan on continuing the series and hopefully those aspects will pick up in the next one.

Rating 7: A fun historical fantasy story, if a bit plodding at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Natural History of Dragons” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “Dragons/Serpents.”

Find “A Natural History of Dragons” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “These Women”

52218559Book: “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda

Publishing Info: Harperluxe, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: In West Adams, a rapidly changing part of South Los Angeles, they’re referred to as “these women.” These women on the corner … These women in the club … These women who won’t stop asking questions … These women who got what they deserved … 

In her masterful new novel, Ivy Pochoda creates a kaleidoscope of loss, power, and hope featuring five very different women whose lives are steeped in danger and anguish. They’re connected by one man and his deadly obsession, though not all of them know that yet. There’s Dorian, still adrift after her daughter’s murder remains unsolved; Julianna, a young dancer nicknamed Jujubee, who lives hard and fast, resisting anyone trying to slow her down; Essie, a brilliant vice cop who sees a crime pattern emerging where no one else does; Marella, a daring performance artist whose work has long pushed boundaries but now puts her in peril; and Anneke, a quiet woman who has turned a willfully blind eye to those around her for far too long. The careful existence they have built for themselves starts to crumble when two murders rock their neighborhood.

Written with beauty and grit, tension and grace, These Women is a glorious display of storytelling, a once-in-a-generation novel.

Review: I know that through my true crime reviews, and maybe even a thriller review or two, that I’ve mentioned the concept of ‘lesser dead’ on this blog. For those who may not have seen that, it’s basically the idea that law enforcement doesn’t prioritize certain victim groups when trying to solve cases. Groups included in this concept are POC, addicts, and sex workers. When I read a book review of “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda, the fact that it was emphasizing a literary thriller take on this concept, I knew that I really needed to read it. But as I read “These Women”, it became apparent that the narrative wasn’t only going to focus on forgotten sex workers who are the victims of a serial killer, but also on other women who are connected, if not directly affected.

We have multiple perspectives in “These Women” who represent a swath of women living different lives in South Central, Los Angeles. You have Feelia, a sex worker who narrowly survived being murdered. Dorian, whose daughter Lecia was a victim of the same murderer. Julianna, a sex worker who Lecia used to babysit for. Essie, a detective for the LAPD whose colleagues don’t take her insistence on paying attention to a potential serial killer seriously. Marcella, a neighbor to Julianna who finds a cell phone that sparks her creativity, no matter what that may mean for another person’s privacy. And Anneke, a judgmental woman who has certain opinions about other women in her community. On the surface a lot of these characters seem different from each other, but once you get really into the grit and meat of this book you realize that, while there are some differences and some privilege differences, all of these women are struggling in their own ways, usually because of societal expectations thrust upon them. I felt that Pochoda gave pretty good attention to most of them, though there were some that were more compelling than others. The pain was very real in a few of them, the rage in others, as well as perspectives that were more about privilege and superiority. They all worked well, and really brought on guttural responses at the various injustices that are feeling especially pertinent in this moment.

While this is definitely more a character study, or an examination of some aspects of the culture we live in, there is a mystery at hand, and that is who is killing these sex workers, and why. The mystery did take a back seat to the other aspects of the book, but for the most part I thought that it was well laid out and plotted so that I was taken by surprise by the reveal when it happened. I also found myself really enjoying how all the pieces eventually came together, both in terms of the mystery and in terms of how all of these characters are connected to one another. It also is a good way of showing that there is common ground between all of these women in a way, and how a society that looks down upon the gender as a whole makes victims of them all in different ways, and sometimes in ways that can be damaging to each other. All of that said, I did feel that the story ended a little abruptly, and I think that that is in part due to the structure of it as a whole, with no moment to tie all of the perspectives together. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day because this is less about conclusions and more about concepts, but for me it just felt like it was cut off when there could have been a little more room to sink into an end.

Overall, “These Women” is dark, emotional, and gritty. Also very sad. But I think that it tackles a good number of themes and realities that many thrillers sometimes leave by the wayside. Ivy Pochoda has a very clear message, and while it’s hard to immerse oneself in, it’s necessary to do so.

Rating 7: A very powerful message about how society views the victimology of certain groups, “These Women” is a compelling literary thriller, even if it ends a bit abruptly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Women” is included on the Goodreads list “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers, 2020”.

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

Serena’s Review: “The Poppy War”

35068705Book: “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the the library!

Book Description: When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Review: Whew! That book description is about half the length of my entire post usually! But I guess given that this is a 600+ page book, it kind of makes sense. There’s a lot to pack in there! This summer continues to be the summer of catching up on books that were quite a hit a year or so ago, and that for whatever reason, took me forever to get to! I have clear memories of seeing this cover and title being thrown about everywhere and yet I never really knew anything about what it was about! Which, having read it now, I kind of get! There’s a lot in here, and it’s the kind of book that’s hard to pin down or to compare to some other, obvious read-alike. And, while I was not prepared for everything in this, I really loved it!

Rin has always been a fighter. Maybe not in the classical sense, though she gets even there eventually. No, she is one who fights against the life that others have chosen for her. A war orphan from a poor providence, through sheer stubbornness and force of will she studies hard enough to earn her ticket out of an arranged marriage. Then, in a northern school that looks down on her lowly beginnings, Rin, again through sheer stubborness, finds a way to become one of their best students. And then the war hits, and her real fight begins. Not only against an almost unstoppable invading force, but the fight within herself to define her future. Will she follow a beloved teacher, warning of dark paths ahead? Or an esteemed leader who asks her to embrace every bit of power she has always hid within herself.

This book took me by complete surprise. For one thing, it almost reads as two entirely different books, so right when you’re getting settled in and think you understand the type of story you’re read, bam! Nope! The first half is your classic coming-of-age, boarding/military school story ala Tamora Pierce’s “Alanna” series. You have Rin, the girl who has nothing going for her, proving to everyone again and again that sheer stubbornness is enough to get you through most everything. She’s an outcast among her peers with the one sweet friend and the one big enemy in the local school enemy. She befriends the quirky teacher. It’s all lovely. And as familiar as that all sounds, the author imbibes her story with such a complicated history, culture, and mythology that the reader never once feels like these aspects of the story are coming off as tropes.

And then, whoops! Not the innocent school story anymore! A foreign army invades and suddenly the story takes a steep turn into a grim and gritty war story. And even that came with surprises. It starts out well enough with a few things going Rin’s way as she learns more about her abilities, her history, and her potential. She joins up with a crew of other “freaks” and they have a few wins. And then…it gets dark. Pretty suddenly even. And when I say dark, I mean dark. I’m not a prude about violence by any means, but man, I wasn’t prepared for where this book headed. I definitely teared up a number of times and had to put the book down (metaphorically, as it was an audiobook) at least two or three times. Some parts of it were really hard to get through.

I will say that this is the one part of the story that knocked it back a point from being a full “10 rating” book: at times, it felt like the violence was almost a bit too much. There was one section in particular about three fourths of the way through where I felt like the book just seemed to linger and repeat examples of the atrocities. While a lot of this was necessary for Rin’s own arc and to justify her choices and how she ends up where she does, I think the point was made even without some of the circling round again through all of the horror. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s the kind of thing that many readers will have different tolerances for. But, the warning stands: this book goes to some awful places. I wasn’t prepared, so I’ll let you know so you can be!

I really liked Rin’s character. Her arc is incredibly compelling, especially as we see her struggle through some awful choices. And by the end, we have a character who is very different than the one we started with. But at the same time, completely recognizable. And the changes are so subtle and the influences on her pile up so slowly, bit by bit, that by the grand conclusion, we’re not shocked by what should be shocking.

I also loved the incredibly world-building, history, and mythology. This story felt completely fresh, and even after 600+ pages, I still only felt like I was scratching the surface of this world. This is the first book in a trilogy, and while I have a few guesses as to where one or two things are going, I’m also prepared to be dead wrong. Since I was completely blown off my feet with this one, it’d be the height of arrogance for me to assume I know what’s coming next! That said, I will need to give myself a bit of breathing time before getting into the second one. My heart can only take so much!

Rating 9: A little late to the game and repeating what’s been said a bunch of times already, but this book is incredible.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Poppy War” is on these Goodreads lists: “Asian Speculative Fiction by Asian Authors — #ownvoices” and “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Poppy War” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Year of the Witching”

49789629Book: “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson

Publishing Info: Ace, July 2020

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

Book Description: A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.

But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.

Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

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

So for the past few months some friends and I have been continuing our ‘Horror Movie Club’ that we had just started before social distancing became the name of the game. We log into Netflix and open up Netflix Party, then watch a scary movie every Tuesday. Back in May we watched “The VVitch”, one of my favorite witch movies because damn, that ending. I was the only one who had seen it, and when that ending twist came the chat exploded with glee and I basked in the (what I see as ) feminist message at the end. You intertwine witchcraft and feminism and I am totally there. So when I read the description for “The Year of the Witching” by Alexis Henderson, I immediately, IMMEDIATELY, requested it from NetGalley. I want MORE feminist witchcraft in my reading, after all.

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EMPOWERMENT! HEXES! PATRIARCHY SMASHING! I WANT IT ALL! (source)

First and foremost, it should be noted that “The Year of the Witching” is a dark fantasy, bordering on straight horror story. Horror in terms of scary imagery, but also horror in terms of the horrors of fundamentalism, misogyny, racism, and corruption. Bethel is a community that seems to take some of its inspiration from Puritanism and the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, with nods to Puritan beliefs of witch craft and the FLDS notions of a Prophet and polygamy. Citizens are kept in line with religion, and girls and women are the ones who bear the brunt of the hardships and the punishments for stepping out of place. Immanuelle is accepted by her family and mostly by the community, but is always Othered because of her mother’s ‘sin’ and because of her race. It’s far too seldom that witch stories involve Black of brown witches (with a few recent exceptions), so for Immanuelle to have the potential for magical powers and to be biracial with dark skin is pretty awesome. It also opens up the potential to  not only explore misogyny in Bethel, but also misogynoir as well. The entire society is an exploration in how a society can use fear and religion to exert control and power over its members, and at the top of this is the Prophet, who leads the town and passes judgements that sometimes end in pyres where women and outsiders are burned for the sins of being women and outsiders. And while the people in Bethel are being subjectted to this, it’s very clear that they are still complicit in this system.

That isn’t to say that Henderson falls into the trap of ‘one side is completely evil and the other side is completely good’, as the witches of the Darkwood that Immanuelle is drawn to (as was her mother) are described as evangelists in their own right. Immanuelle is caught between two extremes, and has to suss out if out of reaction to one side she will swing all the way to the other side, which has its own malevolence. Henderson really figured out how to find the nuance, which we don’t always get to see in stories that have as much rage and revolution in them as “The Year of the Witching” does. Which is awesome. Instead of falling merely into rage, even if that rage is completely justified, Henderson lets Immanuelle explore other ways to proceed when it comes to the liberation of herself and the women in her life. And I loved that.

And yes, this is a very creepy tale with some really neat witch mythos inside of it. You have your usual ‘cast out women who were seeking power’ tale, but Henderson goes a little further with it, giving each witch in the coven a specific backstory, specific roles they played before and after the clash, and unique descriptors that harken to folk horror as well as body horror. I especially loved the descriptions of Lilith, aka The Mother, who is the leader and in direct opposition of The Father and what the people of Bethel believe. I don’t want to spoil her description because I really want it to to be a surprise to readers, but holy hell, it’s both something out of a nightmare and also powerful as hell.

“The Year of the Witching” is an excellent YA horror novel with a lot to say. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on it. Especially if you loved the end of “The VVitch”.

Rating 10: Spooky, angry, feminist and empowering, “The Year of the Witching” is a dark and scary tale of agency, independence, and discovering your inner power.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Year of the Witching” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dystopias with Gender or Religion-specific Phobics”, and “Black Heroines 2020”.

Find “The Year of the Witching” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Beach (Backyard?) Reads: Summer 2020

Back for 2020, here is a list of some more favorite beach reads! “Beach read” is a very fast and loose term for books people read over the beautiful summer months when we really should be outside “doing things” (responsibly for a pandemic of course!) but are instead reading…maybe outside. Some people see these months as an opportunity to slog through long classics (we’re looking at you “Moby Dick”) before the busy-ness of of the fall starts up, but for the sake of this list, we’re limiting our choices to stand alone, mostly feel good books (though there’s some obvious leeway here for Kate’s horror tastes!) that could be easily brought along on vacations. Or maybe staycations this year. So, still a very loose definition, but hey, we had to start somewhere! We will select one title for each of the genres we most read.

Serena’s Picks

36524503._sy475_Fantasy Title: “The Bone Houses” by Emily Lloyd-Jones

This book took me completely by surprise last fall and ended up making my “Top 10” list for the year easily. I also feel like it went largely unnoticed by most fantasy fans. For whatever reason, the hype train seemed to have missed it, and that’s a huge shame! This book is everything I look for in my YA fantasy titles. An excellent leading lady. A humorous side kick (this time in the form of an undead goat). A great romantic lead. And a fantasy tale that verges on a fairytale retelling, this time pulling themes from “The Black Cauldron.” And, of course, per the rules of this lists, it’s a stand-alone title that is completely and utterly satisfying to read all on its own. Not going to lie, I’ve been pretty much online stalking the author ever since to see when/if she’s coming out with something new soon! You’ll be sure to hear about it when I do!

13138635Science Fiction Title: “These Broken Stars” by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Man, that cover really dates this book. I mean, it’s not even ten years old (it came out in 2013), but the whole “ballroom gown” cover art for YA titles is definitely a thing of the past. While this book is technically the first in a trilogy, each book in this series tells a complete story of its own and each features a new set of characters, even if familiar faces pop up now and then in the later books. This, being the first book, definitely reads as a stand-alone. It also falls on the romantic side of science fiction and is that rare YA unicorn: a science fiction title written for young adults. It’s pretty much a survival story, as well, when our two leading characters find themselves crashed landed on a strange new world and have no one but each other to depend on. It’s been a while since I read this (and I wasn’t a fan of the sequel when I got to it and never read the third one due to that failure), but I definitely remember enjoying it, and I gave it four stars on Goodreads.

51318896._sx318_sy475_

Mystery Title: “The Body in the Garden” by Katharine Schellman

I read this one just this last spring, but it’s really stuck with me since as an exciting new beginning to a historical mystery series. Yes, yes, it’s the beginning of a series. But many mystery novels that I read are, but most can still be read individually, and this one definitely fits that bill with a solid beginning, middle, and end. Those who follow this blog know that I was pretty disappointed by the last Veronica Speedwell book to come out, so that made it all the more exciting to find a new lady sleuth. Lily Adler is a very different heroine than Veronica Speedwell. She’s a recent widow, for one things, which puts any romance plotline firmly on the backburner. She’s also a more quiet, introspective detective ala Sherlock Holmes than very flashy and bold. I really enjoyed the mystery itself, and she collects an interesting assortment of sidekicks along the way. One of whom is named Serena, so bonus!

32618152._sy475_Historical Fiction Title: “The Phantom Tree”

This is one of those historical fiction titles that definitely includes time travel, so it all borders on fantasy. But the historical fiction aspect of it is by far the predominant and other than the fact that time travel exists, it doesn’t stray much further into the realms of impossibility. The story follows Alison Bannister after she discovers a rare painting depicting a woman who is a historical mystery. But the woman in the painting, Jane Seymour, holds much closer ties to Alison than anyone would suspect, and in tracking down what happened to this woman, Alison begins to put together more puzzle pieces about her own life. The story features chapters from both Alison’s and Jane’s perspective, and the way the two’s story weaves together is both beautiful and tragic. It’s a lovey historical fiction title that is a great choice for a stand-alone read on a hot summer day.

Kate’s Picks

13129925Horror Title: “Horrorstör” by Grady Hendrix

This was my first experience with Grady Hendrix, and right away I knew that it was going to be super wacky! The book is designed like an Ikea Catalog, which told me everything I needed to know about Hendrix as an author. And “Horrorstör” is a great introduction to Hendrix’s work if you haven’t picked it up already. At the Orsk Furniture store, strange things are happening. Items are being destroyed overnight and no one knows what is happening. Amy, who works there any hates her job, is offered six hundred dollars to stay over night along with a few other employees, to keep an eye on things. But instead of vandals, they find some pretty angry spirits are at play. It has its scares, but it’s also a fun hoot as only Hendrix can deliver!

36388243._sy475_Thriller Title: “Something in the Water” by Catherine Steadman

I couldn’t pass up the chance to pick a book that takes place on a literal beach! Though this one might make you think twice about searching for oceanic buried treasure… Erin and Mark are a married couple who go on a luxurious honeymoon in Bora Bora, hoping for romance and pampering. But after a tropical storm runs through, they find a mysterious bag in the ocean… and it’s filled with a lot of money. Seeing an opportunity, they decide to keep the money, as there are no markings as to who it belongs to. But an owner it does have, and that owner will do almost anything to get it back. This apropos setting and thrilling mystery will keep you on the edge of your seat!

45754737Graphic Novel Title: “My Brother’s Husband” by Gengoroh Tagame

You want something sweet, and perhaps a little melancholy? A story about relationships between brothers, between lovers, between parents and children? A story with an adorable little girl and a delightful Canadian and a slightly neurotic single father? Then you definitely need to pick up “My Brother’s Husband” by Gengoroh Tagame! It follows the story of Yaichi, a single dad living in Tokyo, whose twin brother Ryoji has been out of touch with the rest of the family after being ostracized for being gay. When Mike Flanagan, a Canadian gay man, arrives on Yaichi’s doorstep to tell him that he is Ryoji’s widower, Yaichi’s world starts to change. You may need a tissue or two for this book, but it is lovely and adorable. I should note that it is manga and reads back to front and right to left, but it’s easy to get the hang of. And don’t let that stop you from reading this charming book.

44153387Non-Fiction Title: “The Feather Thief” by Kirk Wallace Johnson

I figured that for my non-fiction selection I should stick to a topic that is super interesting and intriguing, but isn’t steeped in blood, gore, and violence. So instead we look to a true heist story! In 2009 an American citizen strolled into the Tring Museum outside of London, and stole a number of rare bird feather specimens because he wanted to turn them into fly ties for salmon fishing. He then basically faded into thin air. Years later Kirk Wallace Johnson heard about this story, and immediately wanted to know what happened next. So he did his own investigation into it, and what he found out was staggering and strange. So if you want a true crime story that isn’t going to upset you but will still totally take you to the criminal mindset, “The Feather Thief” may be a good choice to read on a hot summer day by the backyard kiddie pool.

What books are you hoping to read this summer? Let us know in the comments!

My Year with Jane Austen: “Clueless” [1995]

mv5bmzbmogq0nwitotzjzc00zdaxltgyotetodjiywq2ywniywvjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynte1njy5mg4040._v1_sy1000_cr006691000_al_Movie: “Clueless”

Release Year: 1995

Actors: Cher – Alicia Silverstone

Josh – Paul Rudd

Tai – Brittany Murphy

Christian – Justin Walker

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

“Clueless” is definitely a movie of its time, but it’s still a blast to watch today. Similarly to “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” is a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s work which means that while some things follow along pretty faithfully, there are also a lot of changes to make it work as a modern tale.

I really like the initial match-making switch. Instead of a governness, we see Cher setting up two of her teachers in an attempt to improve her grade. On one hand, this makes Cher’s reasons much more self-centered than Emma’s, but the change works well, I think. After her initial success, Cher decides that she likes helping people like she did for these two, sad, pathetic teachers. And so she takes Tai (Harriet Smith) under her wing. In many ways, her goal in helping Tai is much more centered around making Tai popular than specifically matching her up with someone. In the book, Emma had already proclaimed a desire to match Mr. Elton up before zeroing in on Harriet. Here, we see Cher directing Tai’s love life more because Tai’s original interest (a drugged up skater boy) would not be a good match for a popular girl. Elton is then selected as a proper match for someone of Tai’s aspiring popularity.

This arc then comes full circle when we see Tai become truly popular and then snap at Cher in all of Tai’s mean girl glory. So Cher’s “what have I done?” is much less about her project girl being interested in someone whom she realizes she cares for (though that is a factor), and more to do with how sweet and nice Tai had been before Cher’s meddling in her life. Luckily, on Tai seems to course correct on her own at the end of the movie.

All of the actors cast for various parts work great, and it’s definitely one of those movies where you see really young version of actors who went on to do bigger projects. Brittany Murphy, for example, is barely recognizable as Tai. And obviously Paul Rudd would go on to be a household name type actor. But even the smaller roles, like the two teachers and Cher’s father, are all pitch perfect and really help round out the movie.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Cher is probably the least likable Emma we’ve come across so far. On one hand, this is understandable because she’s the only teen version we’ve had. At 15-16, she’s four or five years younger than the version in the book and the other two adaptations I’ve reviewed. Not to mention the very different education and expectations she would face in L.A. in the mid-90s versus the Regency period. But she’s also given the fewest opportunities to show her good side as well. The movie leans in heavily to how spoiled she is, doing very little to counterbalance it with good deeds. Like in many other versions, it mainly relies on showing her care towards her father as the best look into her inherent goodness. But as her father is also less likable than other versions…

Not to say that you don’t end up rooting for the character, just that it’s a bit harder. Her constant up-speak is also a bit tough to handle, dating the movie and also signaling what is now a cliche of an entire new level. At the time, it was just a valley girl thing, but now the trope is so often connected with idiocy that it doesn’t do the character any favors to modern viewers.

I do like that the big realization moment for her is less her being rude to one individual, but seeing the type of person she’s turned Tai into. Tai was originally this sweet, friendly character. And after snapping and being rude to Cher, we see Cher realize that actual “value” of the things she’s been sharing with Tai. Tai is like a brutal mirror that is held up to Cher, and that, along with the realization about her general “clueless-ness” is enough to inspire change. It’s also pretty clear that she doesn’t do any of this in an effort to impress Josh, making it feel like the type of change that will be more lasting.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Josh is a pretty solid mid-90s teenage interpretation of Mr. Knightley. Having him being interested in a law (and with a less than stellar mother) is a good excuse for having him want to hang around Cher’s house and work with her dad. Of course, we can’t have him scolding Cher in quite the same way. It wouldn’t come off nearly as well with the age difference being so much more close and the times making it all sound much more patronizing and unappealing if he had done. Instead, we see him being more subtly critical of Cher’s superficial tendencies while at the same time clearly enjoying her company.

And, of course, no discussion about Paul Rudd can be had without acknowledging the freakishness of his lack of aging. It almost makes the age difference seem weird since he looks so much the same when he’s much older that he could just as well be in his mid-thirties in this movie as younger twenties.

I really liked that they included a version of him coming to Tai’s rescue and dancing with her. This version does a weird thing where we have the “rescue” of Tai by Christian, as well, but then it does nothing with this. It’s already established that Christian is gay at this point, and there is no inclusion of Cher becoming confused by any reference of a “rescue” by Tai. It’s kind of a weird choice. Instead, it’s used mostly to elevate Tai’s popularity which results in her later nastiness to Cher. But eh, I still like that they included the Tai/Josh dance thing. It’s a great moment for giving Cher more insight into why Josh is such a great guy.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

Elton is by far the biggest “villain” in this movie. Not only is he not interested in Tai, a stuck-up ass about popularity status, and all of that. He repeatedly accosts Cher when she’s clearly said “no,” pretty much forcing her to get out of the car to avoid him. And then he leaves her in a bad part of town to be mugged. Much worse that the book version of Mr. Elton. I do like that he’s one of the few characters whose name remained the same. I guess it works pretty well for a snobby L.A. teenage boy in the 90s.

Christian, on the other hand, is really not much of a villain at all. Other than perhaps leading on Cher more than he should have, he seems like a pretty decent guy. It’s kind of unclear why he misleads her at all in the first place. He must know that she’s misinterpreting his actions, but at the same time, he’s not too subtle about hiding true orientation. Everyone other than Cher seems to see it, and we don’t see any push back in the movie itself about it. It’s definitely a unique take on her misunderstanding with this character role. This makes much more sense than any hidden romance would have, given the time period. And it’s kind of nice to have the movie end with Cher and Christian kind of being besties, instead of the tense, friendship-pretty-much-over state that Emma and Frank Churchill are in at the end of the book.

There’s also the jerk lawyer guy who snaps at Cher at the very end of the movie, thus making Josh come to her defense, thus serving as the impetus for the relationship getting started. So is he really a villain in the end?

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

The romance in this movie does play second fiddle to the comedy. There are a few moments here and there that speak to Josh and Cher’s ultimate future, but they are scattered in between the bigger comedy scenes featuring Tai, Cher, and Dionne’s antics. We have the aforementioned dancing scene, of course.  There’s a small moment where Cher and Josh are hanging out at home watching a movie, and Cher seems to make a passing comment that sometimes having a quiet evening at home is more fun than all the social outings one could come up with.

And Josh is the one to come to Cher’s rescue after the Elton incident. This serves as a good point for Josh realizing that he’s into Cher as we see Cher correct Josh’s then girlfriend on some quote from Shakespeare. Josh smiles at this and seems not at all concerned that his girlfriend is pretty displeased at being shown up by a high schooler. And we get an even clearer idea of his interest when he follows Christian and Cher on their “date” just for “safety.” It’s very cute.

The actual romantic conclusion of them kissing on the stairs is a bit awkward, I think but fine enough. And then I think the cut to the wedding scene is pretty hilarious and a nice hats off to Jane Austen’s endings always featuring weddings of the main characters. And in this scene, the already established relationship between Josh and Cher reads as much more natural and enjoyable to witness.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Well, watching it now, there’s two sides to the comedy coin. There are the things the movie meant to be funny. And there are the things that are simply hilarious because of how dated it makes the movie feel. The very first scene, even, with Cher selecting her outfit on this old computer screen is just comical. Especially because it’s supposed to be set up as a way to establish how well-off Cher is. But to modern eyes…it’s some janky stuff.

The fashion, also, is hilarious. Even growing up in the 90s myself, it’s hard to get a good read on how accurate this way versus how much of it was blown up to extremes to show off Cher’s situation. Either way…man, gotta love it. Even Cher spends a moment (in an odd tonal break in the movie) to point out how bad men’s fashion was at the time. But, on the other hand, her friend Dionne is pretty much literally wearing a plastic bucket for a hat in the opening scene. So.

Dionne and her boyfriend don’t have any obvious parallels in the book itself that I can think of. But they play well for humor here. I especially like how all the comedic moments early on that highlight their bickering and public feuding are later tied together to show that, while they enjoy the drama in the crowd, in private they are much more caring and loving towards each other. In this way, they serve as a good example of love to Cher as she’s going through her awakening period.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

The director was asked to simply create a movie for teenagers. It was her own fondness of reading “Emma” as a teenager that inspired her to adapt that book into a teen movie.

There are 63 different costume changes in this movie.

Gwyneth Paltrow was considered for the role, but never auditioned. One would imagine she had her own “Emma” thing going around then.

While according to filming this was his second movie, “Clueless” was released first and thus is the movie that introduced the world to the lovely Paul Rudd.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

I didn’t actually do it, but I was tempted to count the number of “As ifs!” we had in this movie.

This seemed to be the most classic “Emma” moment in the entire movie:

In two weeks, I’ll review the YouTube series “Emma Approved.”