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1. Review: Poisoned Apples

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. HarperCollins. 2014. Reviewed from electronic galley.

The Plot: Fairy tale retellings, in poetry and photographs.

The Good: Seriously, I just adore retellings. Whether it's looking into the historical origins of fairy tales, modernizing them, twisting them -- I just love what people can do with the familiar and the unknown, making them new and fresh.

Poisoned Apples approaches fairy tales with a particular question: what do they say about what it means to be a woman? What does it mean in today's world?

"The action's always there
Where are the fairy tales about gym class
or the doctor's office of the back of the bus
where bad things can also happen?"

Where bad things happen. There, right there, it shows that the darkness of the fairy tales is what will be examined.

So many good, tight poems, and each is independent, so it's hard to write about because how to select just one or two.

Some are cynical -- the "Prince Charming" who is charming to parents but says to the girlfriend
"Girl,
you look amazing. That sweater
makes your boobs look
way bigger."

Others are not. "
Retelling" says, "What the miller's daughter should have said
from the start
or at any point down the line is,
no."

And then offers a better solution:
"Once upon a time
there was a miller's daughter
who got a studio apartment
took classes during the day."

"Retelling" may be my favorite because it says, you can say no. You can put yourself first. And that means a happier ending for everyone.

Poisoned Apples is a short book but not a quick read. There is a lot here to discuss; a lot to think about it; a lot to question. And the questions are not just about fairy tales and the poems. It's about what it is to be a woman, what that means, what society and family and friends say it means.

I reviewed this from an electronic galley; and let me say, I want to get my hands on the final print version because I think it's going to be an even more intimate reading.

Other reviews: Sense and Sensibilities and Stories; Kirkus Reviews.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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2. Reading - It's Good For You!

Honestly, I don't care.

No, not entirely true -- telling me I should read something because it's good for me is a turn off.

Really.

The New York Times ran a Bookends dialogue asking, Should Literature Be Considered Useful?

And I ask -- why. Why.

As an adult, reading because I want to -- this really pisses me off.

Does everything have to be "useful"? Does everything have to have reason, a point, a higher message?

Listen, it's cool if that is why you read fiction. Or, rather, if that's one of the reasons you read. I think, at different times, we read for different reasons. So that some people are indeed reading for a purpose beyond entertainment, that includes gaining education, information, or enlightenment. That's cool. That's your choice.

But please -- don't frame your choice as being better than mine. Don't frame your choice as meaning that's the only reason to read fiction. Don't frame it as the only way to gain that useful information or education.

I'm afraid that part of the reason literature is looked at as "what can it do for the reader," "what benefit it gives," is that, sadly, is the world we live in - what is valued is not being lost in the book, but the test taken after reading to prove that the message was received and the lesson understood. Reading is literacy and grades, test scores and college applications, jobs and promotions.

Pleasure and enjoyment, escape and relaxation, isn't enough in a world where everything has to be purposeful and achieving and enlightenment.

I actually find I get a bit defensive about it -- like I have to justify reading for fun. That I have to give reasons about how I spend my other time to show my non-reading time is useful and productive enough to prove that I deserve time for fun. I fall into that trap that values the "work" above the "fun." Look at all the hours I worked! Look at all the professional reading I do! Look at all the other things going on in my life! Look at what I already know, that I don't need to read a book to know that "message"! And then I pull back, realizing I'm simply supporting the idea that reading as fun is something that comes in second, has to be earned, isn't good enough.

And I cycle back to my start:

I read for fun. Not for enlightenment, not to be a better person, not to learn about the universal human experience. I read to get scared, I read to fall in love, I read to feel less alone, I read for adventure, I read for so many reasons that all fall under.... because I want to.

And if that's why I read, why shouldn't that be OK for teens and kids?

Oh, I get that just like I have things to read with a purpose for work, they have things they have to read with a purpose for school.

But that's not the only way or reason to read. And, especially outside the school environment, reading for fun, rather than reading "because", should be championed.

It shouldn't be a guilty pleasure.

It should just be ... a pleasure.





Related posts: Libraries - More Than The Common Core


Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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3. TV Review: Happy Valley

Happy Valley, TV series on Netflix, originally created for and shown on BBC One.

The Plot: Catherine Cawood is a Yorkshire police sergeant, divorced, living with her sister, raising her young grandson, Ryan.

She's put together the pieces of her life following the tragedy of eight years before that ended in her daughter dead, Catherine's own divorce, raising her daughter's baby, and her son not talking to her.

And then she finds out that he's back. Tommy Lee Royce, the young man responsible for her daughter Becky's death -- even though there was nothing Catherine can prove. That was then, this is now. Catherine's search for justice is going to take her to unexpected places.

The Good: Sarah Lancashire, Sarah Lancashire, Sarah Lancashire.

I love this show so much, and the actress, that I'm never going to do it justice.

I sat up and took notice of Lancashire in Last Tango in Halifax, a show about two people who meet up again after sixty years, fall back in love, and what that means to themselves and their families. It is a terrific show, and I'll write about it one of these days. Lancashire played one of the adult daughters of the couple who remeet. It was created by Sally Wainwright, who then wrote Happy Valley, creating the role of Catherine for Lancashire. (When I looked up Wainwright on IMDB I also found out she wrote one of my favorite Shakespeare Re(Told) episodes, The Taming of the Shrew.)

Happy Valley is a mystery, a police drama, a family saga. Catherine Cawood is a fabulous character. She's tough and capable and good at her job. She's strong but not superhuman. She has flaws. She's in her late forties, with a complicated family. After having a few drinks with a man (see, I'm being very sparse with details), as they're kissing in the car, she matter of factly tells him "I'm too old to be shagging in cars" so invites him in. And yes - I confess that I loved watching a show about someone my age, being given a full, independent life.

In case you can't tell, half the reason I love this show was the amazing character of Catherine Cawood and how magnificently Sarah Lancashire brought her to life. In Happy Valley, it's not just Catherine who is terrific, but the other characters, also. There is a strong ensemble cast, and the other women are just as nuanced and shaded as Cawood.

The other reason I fell hard for Happy Valley is the story. The mystery is two-fold: first is the one close to Catherine's soul, what happened to Catherine's daughter, the role that Tommy Lee Royce played, and what Catherine will be willing to do to get justice -- or, revenge.

At the same time, the viewer watches another mystery unfold: a man unhappy with his job and his boss sets in motion a kidnapping, not realizing the brutality he sets forth in motion. Because the kidnappers demand silence, the police at first aren't aware so that it takes a bit for Catherine to be directly involved. The viewer knows, though, and watches near-misses and overlapping events with a fuller knowledge than any on0screen character. Eventually, the threads of the stories are braided together into strong, marvelous storytelling.

The setting is West Yorkshire, an area called "Happy Valley" because of high incidence of drug related problems. Catherine's sister is a recovering heroin addict, and drug use and trafficking are always lurking in the background, a vague poison to everyone's life. Happy Valley is not happy.

And yes, I'm not giving many details -- because part of the enjoyment for the first watching, at least, is learning secrets and seeing how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

Who will like this? Viewers who have enjoyed Broadchurch, the Fargo series, and True Detective. Like those shows, this is not an easy, happy mystery TV series. The stakes are real; their is violence and death. There are no happy endings. . . . but there are resolutions. And, in some ways, people making peace with their lives.

For those who have watched this -- can you recommend any books that have the same type of setting and characters as Happy Valley?








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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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4. Review: It Happens

It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader by Kelly Jensen. VOYA Press, an imprint of E L Kurdyla Publishing, LLC. 2014. Personal copy.

It's About: Don't you just love non-fiction books? They have the entire pitch in the subtitle.

Disclaimer: I am good friends with the author. I am quoted in It Happens. And I'm in the Acknowledgments.

The Good: It Happens is organized into three sections: Real Tools; Real Reads; and Real Talk.

The first part defines what, exactly, is contemporary YA fiction and why it matters to readers. As a former lawyer, I love that Jensen does this. I believe that it's hard to have conversations and discussions when we aren't beginning from the same place; and the way to know where that same place is by doing what Jensen does in Real Tools. I think even those familiar with YA fiction and contemporary YA fiction will appreciate what Jensen says.

Next is what is the heart of the book: Real Reads, extensive lists of contemporary titles. The lists are broken into fifteen themes. There are tons of books here, including books from 2014. Of course, I did what I always do when given lists . . . quickly skim to mark what I read, then actually it to discover books that I haven't read.

Real Talk, the final part, is basically "lists plus." Now that Jensen has provided the plethora of titles, with themes (so that they can quickly be used for booklists, booktalks, and displays) Jensen provides the "plus" -- how to use the titles to start conversations, especially tough conversations on topics like bullying and sexual assault.

I'll conclude with some reasons about why I think contemporary YA fiction is loved by readers. I believe that YA readers, like adult readers, should have the books they want and need to read. And so that includes contemporary books. I think that sometimes contemporary books can be easier for readers because they go in "knowing" the world and the characters, but the setting and people are familiar. It's the towns they live in, the families they live with, the friends they go to school with. I think that familiarity is very important to readers -- and it's why I think contemporary realistic fiction has to reflect the contemporary world, in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, economics, family -- well, you get the idea.

I think that too long, the default for books have been that anyone can and will identify with the middle class white main character so that it's OK that the majority of books that show only that world. And I think that is a ridiculous reason to not have the diverse books readers want and need. To bring this back to It Happens, Jensen includes diverse books in her lists, not just in her section about The Diverse World but in other sections. Books about sports includes books with characters that have obsessive compulsive disorder; books about best friends include books about people of color. Multiple entry points are included for each book.

Other reviews and links: Jen Robinson's Book Page; Circulating Ideas Podcast interview.

And a bonus -- a giveaway! Kelly Jensen is having a giveaway of her book over at her blog, Stacked. A winner will be picked later this month.




Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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5. Review: Wildlife

Wildlife by Fiona Wood. Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: It's time for the "dreaded term" that is an "outdoor education camp." Nine weeks away from home, in the middle of nowhere, just you and some classmates and teachers.

Sib -- Sybilla Queen, 16 -- will be going. It's both dreaded and looked forward to, and she'll be going with friends and teens she's known her whole life. And all that time away from home! Things aren't quite what she expects, though, when she starts a romance with popular Ben Capaldi and her best friend Holly veers between jealous and supporting.

Lou, also 16, is new to the school and the group. She stands out, not just for being new, but for also not caring if she makes friends or enemies. Instead she sits back and observes. But if she's not willing to let people into her life, can she really tell others about how they're living theirs?

The Good: Wildlife - first, for the record, every year there is one book whose name I just repeatedly get wrong. This year, whenever I say Wildfire, know I mean Wildlife.

Wildlilfe alternates between two stories: Sib and Lou. Sib's story is about the girl who before school starts gets her braces off and has her acne clear up -- you get the idea. The cosmetic changes are even more amped up, because she posed for her aunt's advertising campaign. A glammed up version of Sib is what introduces her classmates to the "new" Sib -- except it's still the same old Sib, inside.

The New Sib now has a new boyfriend, Ben, and she is both flattered and scared by that. Yes, she likes him, but it's her first real boyfriend and she's just not sure what she wants or how she wants to be. Her best friend, Holly, is there, always being supportive and telling Sib the way she should be treating Ben.

Here is Sib describing Holly: "Maybe I need to explain that Holly's mean is not really meant to be mean -- it's just Holly! And you get used to it!." The reader doesn't need Lou seeing the Sib/Holly friendship to realize the relationship is toxic, and unhealthy, and Sib has no idea that Holly is that mean.

Lou's boyfriend died. It's probably best to get it out there, up front. She is still grieving and isolated, keeping the world at arm's length. Her moms think that the "outdoor education campus", nine weeks in the "wilderness," will somehow help. (While Lou hasn't attended the school before, one of her mothers went as a teen.) Lou's story is one of grief and loss and recovery, and putting together ones life. She's slowly drawn into the world she finds herself in, not through the other girls in her cabin -- Holly has marked her as an enemy, an outsider -- but through Michael, Sib's other best friend.

This is not a book where Lou and Michael fall in love, or where Lou finds new love. No, it respects Lou's loss and the time, the long amount of time, it takes when a loved one dies. What Michael and Lou offer each other is more important: friendship and acceptance. Lou needs that, even if she won't admit it, and Michael needs it, because he has to go through the pain of seeing the person he loves -- Sib -- happy with someone else.

This isn't a book about Sib and Ben falling in love. Sib and Ben's relationship is important, and I loved how Sib sorted out all her own complicated feelings about Ben. She's attracted to him, she wants a relationship, but she's also not quite sure about him or herself. Ben's a decent enough guy, but he's a teenaged boy. He doesn't pursue Sib until after she's glammed up. He and Sib are put together in a heightened time and place, the intensity and isolation of the wilderness experience. Out in the real world, would they have anything in common? And does that matter? One thing I love about Sib is that, when it comes to Ben, part of Sib realizes all this. But part of her is also young and new to relationships so she is unsure just what she wants from Ben and how to proceed, both emotionally and physically. So Wildlife is about their relationship, yes, but Wildlife is about a more important relationship.

Wildlife is a book about the friendship between Holly and Sib. Sib is in some ways a passive girl. It's not the type of passive of someone who doesn't know what they want; it's the passive of someone who is content with what they have. So content that it's not that she lacks strong feelings about things, but that she doesn't care so let Holly take the lead. It's like the old deciding where to go for dinner: it's not that the person who says "I don't care" doesn't care, it's that they have no real strong urge for Italian or pizza or hamburgers or Indian, they just want food, and if you care, find.

It's the type of passive that allows Holly to be the leader, and for Sib to go along with it. It's what some people call "too nice." But here's the thing about that type of "nice." It is genuine. Sib truly loves, and forgives, Holly.

Holly is a wounded girl: from the start, Sib explains that part of her tolerance for what Holly does is that she, Sib, knows the "real" Holly. What the reader (and Lou) sees is a girl who has gone from acting mean to being mean. A girl whose own insecurities and need for popularity and acceptance means that she's not afraid to push others around, and push other's buttons, to get what she wants. Holly is the type of girl you don't want your child to be friends with: not because she's dangerous, but because you know at some point, she's finally going to go too far and hurt your child emotionally. And much as I grew to hate Holly, I have to confess: given her own emotional wounds, I wonder if Holly at some point will "grow up" and stop hurting others to make herself feel better. I wonder if she will ever become self aware. Still, that is just wondering --in the meanwhile, I want those who Holly hurts to stay away from her because they can't fix Holly. Only Holly can.

Wildlife is about Sib and Holly's friendship slowly, messily ending. Just as the boarding situation helps Sib and Ben's relationship progress, it also helps Sib and Holly's friendship implode.

Oh, the reason I put "wilderness" in quotes earlier is that this isn't tents and camping. There are cabins, and meals, and toilets, and showers, and classrooms. It is in the middle of a wilderness area, with opportunities for tents and camping and no toilets or showers. Like many experiences, it's a very controlled "wilderness." It's also a great time for all the teens to practice being grown up and older with a safety net. They are away from home, yes; but there are still rules and teachers and chaperones around.

This is one of my Favorite Reads of 2014, because of the character growth and the dynamics between people.




Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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6. Review: Brazen

Brazen by Katherine Longshore. Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: England. 1533. Fourteen year old Mary Howard is being married to Henry FitzRoy, also 14 but already the Duke of Richmond and Somerset.

Henry FitzRoy (Fitz to his friends) is the only living son of Henry VIII. That he is a bastard means that he can never inherit his father's throne, but he is important and Mary's marriage to him is important. She, now is important.

Only -- not so much. Henry VIII doesn't want the marriage consummated - both from a belief that it's not healthy for the young teens, as well as knowing that such a marriage can easily be annulled if necessary.

If the king's new bride, Anne Boleyn, delivers the longed for legitimate son, Fitz's role remains the same. But if not.... well, what if Fitz was made legitimate?

What is it that the young and noble do with their time? Mary and Fitz and their friends form a circle of teens whose time is dedicated to sports, and flirtations, and poetry and song and dance. The most important dance being, of course, keeping the King happy.

The Good: I loved the first of Longshore's books set in the court of Harry VIII, Gilt. Gilt, set in 1539, is the story of Henry VIII's wife Catherine Howard, told from the point of view of one of the queen's friends. I didn't read the next book, Tarnish, about Anne Boleyn coming to Henry VIII's court for a very simple reason.

Anne Boleyn breaks my heart. Every time. And I didn't know if I could read about her, young and hopeful. So I avoided Tarnish.

Longshore fooled me, though! When I heard about Brazen, I didn't think about years. I thought, oh, an interesting look at the young Tudor court. And since Reign is one of my current favorite TV series (all about the young Mary Queen of Scots) and because I loved Gilt, I said yes.

I'm glad I did. Even though Anne turns up, a new mother, with all her future yet to come falling apart. Because I loved Brazen. I loved young Mary, wanting to have fun but also knowing the seriousness of her situation, the need to successfully navigate the Tudor Court. And I loved reading this Anne, an Anne who is smart and strong and fights as best she can, having done her own dance of destiny -- and who, despite her best efforts, has it all crashing down on her. Because Henry VIII is a man who is ruined by the power he has; and Anne does not give him a son quickly enough to satisfy him. I love how despite the danger and risks, Anne insists on her own autonomy and personhood.

Early on, Mary overhears an argument between Anne and the King. He tells her, "You should be content with what I've done for you. And remember I made you what you are." She responds, "I am myself! I am Anne Boleyn. You have not made me!"  And he says, "I can make you nothing." And this is where I knew Longshore got Anne, her "I am myself," her belief in herself.

I loved Brazen so much that I'm willing to have Gilt rip out my heart.

But now, back to Mary. I love the friendship she shares with Madge Shelton and Margaret Douglass. I love how Brazen shows the importance at that time of family, titles, money, and access to the king. Or rather, the danger.

Brazen captures the always-moving court and what that means to the members, to never stay in one place, to have their lives be spent in the rooms that are not their own, with rank and location determining where one sleeps for those weeks or months. Each section is titled by where the court is currently: Hampton Court Palace, 26 November 1533; Greenwich, December 1533; Greenwich Palace, 1534; Whitehall, 1534; Hatfield Palace, 1534. And that only brings us to page 72!

Brazen is also about being young. And wanting to be in love. And being in love. And not wanting to repeat the mistakes of parents. And it's also about words: Mary and her friends like songs and poetry, and one way they communicate with each other is by a shared book (based on the Devonshire Manuscript).

And yes.... it's a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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7. Review: Hate To Love You

Hate to Love You by Elise Alden. Carina Press. 2014. Review copy from publisher. New Adult.

The Plot: Paisley has a "slutty reputation" (her words) but is still "technically" a virgin. Technically isn't good enough: Paisley is pregnant.

Paisley meets her sister's fiance, who is as snobby as Paisley's sister. It's mutual annoyance (but also attraction) from the start.

Which is why Paisley pretends to be her sister and sleeps with the fiance, James.

Paisley doesn't have a supportive or loving family. Which may explain why she slept with James. It also explains why Paisley decides to share the truth - she slept with James - at the wedding reception. It also explains why she decides to tell a lie -- that James is her baby's father.

All hell breaks lose, helped along by the cell phone videos of her epic announcement. In the aftermath, Paisley gives her baby to James and leaves.

It's seven years later, and Paisley is back. Determined to establish a relationship with her son. But will James forgive her?

The Good: Let's start with I LOVED THIS BOOK. If the plot sounds like twelve kinds of soap opera meets a Lifetime movie meets a Syfy show, you'd be right and that's what makes it AWESOME and AMAZING.

First, yes, it's a traditional New Adult book which means plenty of sexytimes.

Now, as I get into things, you may be saying, but Liz, you're telling me too much! Spoilers, sweetie. Actually, all the information above? The reader knows that from the start! Part of why I loved this book is even thought I knew what was going to happen, I still had to turn the pages, wanting to know why and how it was going to happen. About half of the book is explaining just how James and Paisley ended up in bed together; and half is Paisley, seven years later, trying to get her life back.

The first half: I won't go into too many details about the epic night, except to say heavy drinking and black out curtains so that the bedroom is total darkness. (I KNOW.) (And if right now you're thinking about things like logic, like "wait, how can he be so drunk that he can't tell this isn't his fiance's body, that's just not making sense," part of the answer is "Caroline is such a good girl that he wasn't getting any action before this so he didn't know.") (I KNOW.)

The kind of middle, the wedding reception where she announces she slept with James and is having his baby, is noteworthy because of the videos people take of her. Not only does the video go viral, but it inspired a lot of people to use important family occasions to announce secrets to their families. Also on video. EPIC.

In a nutshell, first-half Paisley is a bit of a mess. There's a reason why she has a "slutty reputation" (I really hate the word slut, but Paisley uses it, so it's here in quotes), and that is slowly revealed. (Semi spoilery - there is a tragic backstory AND her family is just awful.) (No, seriously, so awful that by the end, any sympathy I had for Caroline was gone.) In a way, the disaster of the wedding reception and losing her son and her family wanting nothing to do with her is the best thing to happen to Paisley. She leaves England and in the seven years (which aren't shown in the book) Paisley sobers up, continues her education, and gets her act together.

Once back in England.... let's just say this is the type of book that the only job in the entire country that Paisley can get is at the place where James works. Working for him. (I KNOW).

So the second half is Paisley trying to prove to James she's changed, yet there's the attraction with James, and FEELINGS and SEXYTIMES.

But Liz, you may be saying. I get the soap opera and Lifetime references, but Syfy?

Did I mention the kind of psychic powers that Paisley has, and the sort of psychic connection she has with James?

Yes, this book had a lot going on. But you know what? I kept turning the pages. I wanted, no, needed, to find out what happened next and why and how. Paisley was working against such a stacked deck, was such an underdog, that I was understanding of her self-destructive behavior and hopeful that she'd have a happy ending. And at the same time... this was a roller coaster of "what the hell just happened" and I really enjoy that type of book!

Other reviews: Dear Author; Harlequin Junkies; Shh Moms Reading; Confessions from Romaholics.







Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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8. Micol Ostow Blog Tour for Amity -- Interview


As you know, I really liked Amity by Micol Ostow. And by "liked" I mean "had the heck scared out of me."

So when I found out about the Blog Tour for Amity, of course I said I wanted in!


You know what I like about doing author interviews, like this? I get to ask questions! Which means that the things I wonder about, I can get the answers to.

I hope they are things that you also find interesting!

First, here's a short bio of Micol Ostow (from her publisher):

Micol Ostow has written dozens of books for children, tweens, and teens, but Amity is her first foray into horror. I turns out, writing a ghost story is almost more terrifying than reading one. (In a good way.) Her novel family was called a “Favorite Book of 2011” by Liz Burns at School Library Journal, and her illustrated novel, So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother), was a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens.

In her spare time, Ostow blogs with the National Book Award-winning literacy initiative readergirlz.com. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, her (utterly fearless) daughter, and a finicky French bulldog named Bridget Jones. Visit her online at www.micolostow.com or follow her on Twitter @micolz.

Liz: I vividly remember the first time I read THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and the first time I saw the original movie. When were you introduced to the story? The book or one of the movies?

Micol Ostow: Actually, my first introduction to the Amityville legend came via my favorite master of horror, Stephen King. In his early nonfiction treatise on horror, Danse Macabre, he dissected what he felt worked and what didn’t work in the movie, specifically. Ironically, if I recall much of his criticism of the original movie had to do with its focus on the physical manifestations of the house’s evil spirit rather than a build of psychological terror or dread. I didn’t end up seeing the movie until the 2005 remake, which I found really effective. Afterward, when I was kicking around ideas for my follow-up to the novel family, that remake was on tv and sparked something in me. That was when I went back and finally watched the original movie and read the book. So it was a surprisingly long time coming for a horror buff, in addition to my coming at it with a weird amount of preconception and bias given my total ignorance of the original subject matter!

Liz: While AMITY is a scary haunted house story about the supernatural, it's also a scary haunted house story about a very real haunting: the very real family dynamics that trap people, as well as the evil that people can do even without ghosts or hauntings. What type of research did you outside of the AMITY references and homages?

Micol Ostow: The “research” question is always hard to answer because the answer is slightly embarrassing: I’m very drawn to dark stories and I’m fascinated by the question of evil from within versus evil from without, so much of the research I did both for family and Amity was actually just background reading I’d done before I even had the slightest notion to write either book. Putting aside the obvious Amityville source material, though, I’d say the book’s most clear-cut influences to me are The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House.

To me, Connor is basically Jack Torrance – a flawed character who is driven to evil deed via the energy of the house, the way Torrance is driven mad by the Overlook Hotel. And Gwen is a successor to Hill House’s Eleanor, the fragile, overlooked (no pun intended) woman whose history of madness renders her fear unreliable. Both are to some extent tropes of the genre and there are plenty of examples of each throughout pop culture, but those two are my very favorite iconoclasts. I probably reread The Shining in particular at least twice a year. Does that count as research?

Liz: What was the scariest book you read as a teen?

Micol Ostow: The Shining! (That was a gimme.) I wasn’t quite a teen though, and definitely wasn’t supposed to read it. My mother was a Stephen King fanatic and kept those terrifying 1970’s library hardcovers on her nightstand, perhaps unaware of how they were imprinting on me (or maybe that was her plan all along?...) Pet Sematary made an impression, but The Shining was the one I actually snuck out of the children’s room to read in furtive fifteen-minute increments. I think I was maybe twelve? At most.

Liz: What was the scariest movie you watched as a teen?

Micol Ostow: Again, I wasn’t quite a teen – maybe eleven-ish? – but my younger brother had been home sick with something icky and lingering, and as some kind of pity-bribe thing my mother, I guess, allowed him to rent A Nightmare on Elm St. #s 1-5. I stumbled in as they were queuing up the first movie and got sucked in. TERRIFYING. That one and #4 are the two that still get me, every time.

Liz: Thank you so much!

Check out all the stops on the Amity Blog Tour.

Two stops for tomorrow: readergirlz and Little Willow.







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9. Film Review: If I Stay

Saturday morning I decided to cry my eyes out at an early showing of If I Stay.



Any money saved by going to that early show was quickly spent on eating my feelings afterward, and buying a feel-good book to counter all the sad.

That's good, by the way. In case you were wondering.

If I Stay is the film based on Gayle Forman's book of the same name. Earlier this summer I reviewed If I Stay, and it's companion, Where She Went.

If I Stay is the story of a Mia, a seventeen year old girl whose family was in a terrible car accident. She is in a coma, yet can still observe the world around her, including learning what has happened to her parents and baby brother. Should she fight to stay alive?

Here is the thing. I cried at the trailers for this film. I cried when I read the book. I knew all the plot points. There were no surprises. And yet.... I cried through the whole film.

Why?

Because sometimes, it's not what happens. It's the emotional journey. And no matter how many times you go on that journey, it remains heart wrenching. Plus, Chloe Grace Moretz as Mia was stunning -- the perfect portrayal of not just Mia, but of a teenage girl, with insecurities and faults, strengths and passion. She made Mia so real that my heart broke, yet again, as I saw Mia realizing what she had lost and trying to decide if what she had left was enough.

As in the book, If I Stay introduces us to Mia, a teenager who is fairly typical. She has a good family and friends and a boyfriend. She loves them; they love her. That's big. That's huge. And it's a huge thing played out against a life that is not much different from the viewers. That Mia is "just another teen" is the strength of this movie. Oh, yes, she's also a cellist who wants to go to Julliard, and I'm not diminishing her talent or her dream but really -- she's not a superstar. She's not performing in front of crowds from the time she's five.

Even in Mia's music, which yes, matters to her -- it's hers, and it's something she loves and is passionate about, but it's also something that she's not sure of. Is she good enough? It's a question any teen asks themselves, as they try to decide what to do with their life. It's a bit heightened in that Mia's father is in a band, and she's grown up around music and musicians (even if it's not her type of music), so she's well aware -- even if its never outright stated -- that a person can love something and it not mean they are the best at it.

One thing I like about visual storytelling is it can show me things, reveal things, that I may not have picked up in the book. And yes, sometimes this is because of changes in the adaptation, but it's often about staying true to the spirit of the book if not the text. So, for me, the movie made me understand more how Mia viewed her father leaving his band to pursue a job that was more stable as something he did because of her younger brother, Teddy -- never realizing it was also for her.

The movie is true to the book, but something happened at one point where I both feared and hoped that a change had been made and I said to myself, please please please even though there was no way, no way, and it was just like in the book BUT STILL MY FOOLISH HEART, IT HOPED.

There were a couple changes that I thought made the movie stronger. Slight spoilers, here --

In both, Adam and Mia's other friends at first cannot visit her because of hospital rules limiting visitors to immediate family. So, of course, they decide a distraction is needed -- and it's changed in the movie. Personally, the book-one was one that I had eye-rolled at but that's because I found it too over the top for my tastes; and I think the movie-one makes much more sense and is more "real."

My only slight problem with the movie -- and this I think is editing -- also has to do with the visitor rule. (Spoilers, again.) While the viewer can infer that a family friend who works at the hospital stepped in to allow visitors despite the rule, it's not explicitly said, and I can see some viewers thinking "wait, look at all those visitors now? why?" (And if it was explicit and I didn't hear that line in my crying, let me know and I'll remove this paragraph.)

One last personal observation: the book was fresh in my mind. So I cannot write to the experience of someone who has no knowledge of the book -- whether, to them, the movie worked as well as it did for me.

So overall: thumbs up!

Now, on to quibble about other people's reviews. In part because for both of them, I wondered how much it was about teen girls, and films for teen girls, than this particular film.

While The New York Times review is overall good, why the hell does any review of If I Stay need to include a The Fault In Our Stars reference? Maybe I'm being a bit sensitive, but it seems like many other films, for other genres and audiences beyond teen girls, get reviewed without including references to other films for the same audience.

Also calling Adam a bad boy...where in the film does it say he is? Adam is only a "bad boy" for a viewer who assumes, from the start, that any teenage boy in a band is "bad." Which just leaves me annoyed, because "bad" is about actions, not about liking to play punk / rock music; wearing leather; and having a less-than-perfect family. Also, why not just praise Moretz as a good actor? Saying she's good at this role because it somehow reflects something in her own diminishes Moretz's accomplishments, even if its meant as a compliment. It's called ACTING.

I'm also less than a fan of the School Library Journal review, but that's more because I disagree that Moretz's performance made Mia into a girl who was "taciturn and a bit sullen." (Yes, Mia is shown to be a private and quiet, but especially combining taciturn with "sullen" leads me to think this isn't using the tern taciturn in a positive way.) That and other ways the review talks about Mia makes me think "ok, so Moretz is playing a typical teen...and that's somehow not good?" I also have to rewatch the film because I thought the point of their car trip was visiting friends and family, not snowboarding, but I may have missed that reference. And I think paring down Mia's circle of family and friends is necessary for a film; too many people can be too hard to keep track of. But that's just me.











Movie poster from Gayle Forman's Tumblr.

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10. Review: Feral

Feral by Holly Schindler. Harper Collins. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Two girls: one dead, one left for dead.

Serena is the dead girl, but it's her story that starts the book.

Claire is alive, having survived a brutal attack months before. She's the new girl in town, arriving at the same time Serena's body is found.

Claire finds herself drawn into the mystery of Serena's death: was it an accident? Or was it murder?

The Good:  The cats. Oh dear lord, the feral cats.

I thought I was going to say that the scariest scene was Claire's attack. A confident teen, walking home alone in the dark, chased and surrounded and beaten and left for dead.

But then I think of the feral cats, the ones that went after Serena's dead body and that scene, and the later scenes were the cats seem to come after Claire, and I think, no, that's the scariest scene.

This is a mystery, yes, about what happened to Serena. The reader, from the start, knows what has happened: "The body belonged -- or really, the body had once belonged -- to Serena Sims, a B average junior who loved her best friend, the sound of the rain, writing for the school paper, and her mother's chocolate mayonnaise cake with homemade icing, a family specialty. . . . Seventeen and dead: it was the worst kind of vulnerable." Serena is dead, but she is somehow still present, still feeling everything. And sharing all that, every bump and thump as her killer drags her body and dumps it. And then the cats come.

But there is only so much that Serena shares with the reader.

Then there is Claire: still recovering, physically and psychologically, from her attack months before. She is drawn to Serena's death for many reasons, one of which is that everyone else seems to believe that Serena's death is accidental. It turns out that Claire's new house was one that Serena lived in years ago; the first teens she meets are friends of Serena's; the local feral cat is the cat Serena fed.

As the story progresses, as Claire chases down the truth, Serena's ghost -- if that's what she is -- grows unhappier and unhappier with her own death, and more dangerous.

One more thing: the setting is fabulous. The town, Peculiar, Missouri,

How all this comes together was something I didn't expect, and made me go back and reread the first few chapters to see what clues were there. Part of me doesn't want to give away what that is, but part of me wants to give it away so you can understand when I say: Brilliant. You had me, you convinced me, and when I realized the truth of what was happening -- yes. That's true and real. Well, maybe not real, because at the end? I'm not sure what was real or not, what was Claire's fears, what was a haunting. But I do know this:

Damn, those feral cats are scary.


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11. Dolls or Action Figures? Hints or Hacks? Inspiration or FanFic?

One of the things that interests me is the way that language and words get gendered, and how that influences how we talk about things, what gets celebrated and respected, and what is "cool." And how often that if it's something that is coded masculine it's cooler, de facto, and somehow better than when it's feminine.

The two obvious examples are that girls play with dolls, boys with action figures. And when movie tie ins are created, the female characters are sorely lacking in the action figure area because, well, action figures are for boys and that's where the money is. Don't believe me? Look at what is being sold for Guardians of the Galaxy, and what those toys are called, and what is available. Even T-shirts are "boy" or "girl."

Or "life hacks." Disclosure: hate the term. As has been pointed out by many others, it's basically Hints from Heloise with a cool computer (i.e., male) word added to it so now suddenly such hints are not relegated to home ec classes (if they even still exist) or "ladies" magazines, but are now cool trending pieces online.

So all this was on my mind when I read Lev Grossman's op ed for The New York Times about writing fantasy. It's a good piece -- Finding My Voice In Fantasy.

And what I'm about to say has nothing to do with Grossman, his books, The New York Times. 

Here are the paragraphs that made me sit up and go "huh":

"It began almost as a thought experiment: I wanted to write a story like “Harry Potter,” or “The Chronicles of Narnia,” or “The Golden Compass,” a story about someone who discovers power he didn’t know he had, and who finds his way into a secret world. But as much as I loved Harry, and felt deeply connected to him, I was also painfully conscious of how different my life was from his. I was in my 30s and dealing with different problems from Harry’s. I wondered if there was a way to make my magician’s life look more like my own.

"So I made my magician older. I made him American — he doesn’t talk in the crisp, correct manner of English fantasy heroes. I gave him a drinking habit, a mood disorder, a sex life. I wasn’t going to give my magician a Dumbledore or a Gandalf. There would be no avuncular advisor to show him where the path was. I wanted my magician to feel as lost as I did."

I half joked to myself, "ha, sounds like alternate universe fanfiction to me."

And I stopped laughing.

Note: I'm not saying what Grossman did is or is not fanfiction. But as a reader of fanfiction, let me say -- you get into reading alternate universe works, and those AU stories get so far from the original source material that it's barely fanfiction anymore.

And I began to wonder at the mostly women who've written and published many "a story like" and been criticized because the source material was Twilight or the inspiration was One Direction. And how, because those women didn't have a background in publishing or knowledge of how it works from their life or educational experiences, their starting place is not an agent, and their explanation of origins was not "thought experiment" or "a story like," but rather the online community of lovers of the source material/inspiration -- fandom. So fanfiction. And so they are haunted by that past, and no amount of "thought experiment" or "story like" forgives them; instead they are told that it's "not original." (Of course, some of the most well known examples of this are writers laughing all the way to the bank. But still.)

And I think of how the "baggage" of being a fanfic writer can follow the writer (often female) into present works, with those writers getting a heavier dose of criticism / suspicion of originality. I saw a throwaway joke in a story get attacked as not being original, and the p-word mentioned, because the writer (female) has fanfic origins, and the joke was one that was so old that variations of it were probably around before Guttenberg. But because she was known to be in fandom, and a similar joke had been made in that source material, it was suspect.

And so I'm wondering.... it this an example of male writers being allowed to be "inspired" by other works when creating stories, where women are sighed at for not being "original"?

Or is this more to do with privilege -- that those who, whether because of family, education, geography, or profession, "know better" about how it all works so can set up their writing career in a way that avoids the fanfic stigma?









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12. Reunion - Saint John Vianney High School Class of 1984

So, this past weekend I went to my 30th High School Reunion.

I KNOW.

Also, Hallmark and Lifetime Channels lied -- no grand romances begun, and no murders.

Here are some photos:


Included in that are both my high school graduation photo, as well as photo of me from fifth grade.

I KNOW.

It was fun seeing old friends again. Especially since the last time I saw many of them was at graduation from high school.

I am now at an intense level of nostalgia -- right now I'm listening to songs from the 70s. Which is before I graduated high school, yes, but was the soundtrack to my life for my first fourteen years.




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13. Review: Amity

Amity by Micol OstowEgmont USA. Reviewed from ARC; publication date August 2014. My Teaser from April.

The Plot: Two families, years apart, move into the same house.

A house called Amity. A house in the middle of nowhere. A house with secrets, dark and deadly.

The Good: Amity is about a haunted house; a house that is both haunted and that haunts its unfortunate inhabitants. It is told by two seventeen year olds, Connor and Gwen. Both have just moved into a new house. It is the same house, ten years apart. And both see what those around them cannot, or will not: that there is something terribly wrong with the house. Something supernaturally wrong.

As I said in the teaser, this scared the hell out of me. The title, Amity, refers to another story about a haunted house, The Amityville Horror. I read that original book at age thirteen, believing every word. Specific details have changed: the location of the house. The time period. The families. You don't have to read that book to "get" this one. That one book lead to several movies, several versions of the story, but all about a haunted house.

"Here is a house of ruin and rage, of death and deliverance, seated atop countless nameless unspoken souls." Connor's story is the earlier story, when he and his siblings move into the empty house. Connor's family is one that looks so pretty on the outside (mom, dad, twins, little boy), much like the house they move into: "Probably from the outside it looked like we were doing better than we really were. That was Dad's thing -- make sure we looked like we were doing better, doing well." What scared me about Connor's story was not so much his realizations that something was wrong with his house, but that he welcomed that darkness -- that Connor came to Amity with something already missing from his soul.

The present-day Gwen has a different set of problems than Connor, but part of those problems means that when she begins to see that something is wrong at Amity, people don't believe her. For Connor, the reader wonders how far he'll go; for Gwen, it's wondering whether she'll be able to stop history from repeating itself. And if she can, what will the cost be?

I love how the stories went back and forth between Connor and Gwen. I loved the various references to the original story. I loved how isolated and strange Amity was, further isolating Connor and Gwen's families. And I loved as both madness and haunting settled into both timeframes, those times began to merge.



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14. Review: Ketchup Clouds

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher. Little Brown. 2013. Reviewed from ARC. (Note: the paperback is coming out in Fall 2014, and will be renamed Yours Truly; the book will also have a new tagline, see the second image.)

The Plot: Zoe is writing letters, letters to America, to a man on death row.

She is writing him, because "I know what it's like. Mine wasn't a woman. Mine was a boy. And I killed him three months ago exactly."

No one knows. So Zoe is at home, going through the motions of her life, being the daughter her parents expect, the older sister her younger sisters expect, the person her friends expect.

But it's eating at her, what she did, what she didn't do, what happened three months ago. She has to tell someone.

So Zoe picked someone like her. Someone who knows what it likes to have killed someone. Someone who is being punished.

The Good: I have to admit, the "writing letters to a convicted killer in prison" was not the pitch that won me over.

What won me over was hearing it was the winner of the 2014 Edgar Award. I love a mystery!

What made me fall in love with this book was the sympathetic, tragic, and realistic triangle between Zoe and two brothers. It's the type of thing that on paper, that intellectually, you can say doesn't make sense; shouldn't happen. But Ketchup Clouds takes us, slowly, through Zoe's life, through the year, and it breaks my heart. Because it not only makes sense -- at each point, I nodded, agreeing fully with Zoe's emotions and choices.

Max Morgan is popular and handsome and cool, and Zoe is smart enough and self aware enough to know that the attraction is partly being flattered, partly lust. There's a hot boy who likes her, and she likes him back. "He actually sounded nervous. Max Morgan. Nervous because of me."

What Zoe doesn't know is that the handsome mysterious boy she has been flirting with is Max's older brother, Aaron. Aaron is just an boy she's seen and been attracted to at a party, and really, that moment of flirting isn't reason to not kiss Max. When she doesn't know Max is Aaron's brother. And of course, by the time she knows, it's too late. She's kissed Max, she's enjoying whatever it is she has with Aaron, she doesn't know what to do, she doesn't even know if Aaron likes her back

And it's Zoe's first boyfriend, her first relationship. And I just loved it, even forgetting every now and then that it would end in death.

I also liked Zoe's family: Zoe's mother is overprotective, meaning she's not someone Zoe can confide in. Zoe's family was so fully and lovingly drawn, and complete, with it's own story. As Zoe lives with her secret, the two brothers and what happens, she learns about some family secrets and gains a better understanding of her parents' lives and choices. And how you can live, eventually, with the things you think would break you.

There was such a sense of sadness, and living with grief, that I'd hand this to anyone looking for If I Stay readalikes.

Cover change: I love that they kept the design. As for the title, Ketchup Clouds is one of those titles that makes perfect sense after having read the book, but I think Yours Truly with the line "some girls get away with murder," better sells the book to readers.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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15. Review: United We Spy

United We Spy by Ally Carter. Final book in The Gallagher Girls series (and oh, how it pains me to say that.) Disney Hyperion. 2013. Personal copy.

Previously, in The Gallagher Girls:

In I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You, Cammie Morgan had to balance boyfriend and school. Not too simple when you're at the local snooty private boarding school and he's a townie; when your mom is the headmistress; and, oh, yes, when the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women is actually a school for super spies.

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy introduced a new layer to Cammie’s world: boy spies from the Blackthorne Institute including a maddening, heart pounding, annoying, (and so cute!) Zach. Cammie and friends prevent a kidnapping in Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover.

More secrets about the Gallagher Academy, Blackthorne, spies, family and friends are uncovered in Only the Good Spy Young. Cammie believes she has to figure out what's happening on her own, and has to deal with that aftermath, in Out of Sight, Out of Time.

The Plot: United We Spy is Cammie's final year in school, and the final book in the series.

The Good: The previous book, Out of Sight, Out of Time, was intense. Cammie was recovering from amnesia following a kidnapping, as well as dealing with the aftermath of having run away.

Long story short: the entire series has been about Cammie and her friends uncovering and fighting the mysterious and old secret society, the Circle of Cavan. All that comes to a head in the final book. Cammie also has to figure out what graduation will mean, for her -- what will her next step be? Will she remain in the world of intrigue and spies, and what exactly does that mean?

This series is best read in order, because it builds on previous books in terms of plot and character development. And while I'm sad to see the series end, because I love these young women, I love this world, I love Ally Carter's writing, I know that there are a good number of readers who like their series complete. (The cool new term for this, from what I understand, is "binge reading," like binge TV watching, where you can power through the whole thing at one go.)

I refuse to give away any more details -- you need to read and discover that by yourself.

Just know this: I have invested my own money and shelf space in making sure I own each book, in hardcover.

And now, some United We Spy quotes -- because I just love the writing.

"Cambridge is nice. It could use some better locks, though." Said as Cammie & friends are breaking in. For reasons.

"The first rule of running, Sir Walter," I told him. "Never go anyplace familiar." I remain half-convinced that reading these books (as well as watching The Americans) means that I, too, could be a successful spy.

"The jump didn't kill us. At least, my first thought was that we hadn't died. But I didn't let myself get too cocky about the situation. After all, we might have been off the mountain, but we were anything but out of the woods."

"Spies aren't like normal people. No one expects us to have houses and mortgages, tire swings and barbecues on the Fourth of July. But every spy is somebody's child."

"Women of the Gallagher Academy, who comes here?" "We are the sisters of Gillian."

Other books in the series, in order:
I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You (2006) My review
Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy (2007)
Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover (2009) My review
Only the Good Spy Young (2010) My review
Out of Sight, Out of Time (2012) My review

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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16. Over at SLJ: The Story Behind Addison Stone

Adele Griffin's newest book is The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone (Soho Press, 2014).

I had the privilege of interviewing Griffin, and writing up a little something about the book and how it was created, for School Library Journal.

You can go read my article at The Story Behind Adele Griffin's Hybrid Novel, 'The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone'.

I promise to write up more of my thoughts on Addison Stone here -- the short version? Loved it. This is the type of creative, inventive story telling I love, and Addison herself is a fascinating young women. Love her or hate her, you'll remember her.





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17. Review: Where She Went

Where She Went by Gayle Forman. Dutton Books, 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sequel to If I Stay.

So, um, spoilers for If I Stay.

Three years ago, Adam's girlfriend, Mia, was in a terrible accident.

And now? It's been years since they've seen each other. Mia left for college, and moved on with her life. Adam eventually did the same. Now, they are both successes, he a rock star with an actress girlfriend while Mia is a rising cellist. They haven't spoken to each other in years.

And then they meet. Almost strangers.

The Good: If I Stay was told from Mia's point of view, in a place between life and death, as she struggled with the question of whether or not to stay with the living, despite the tremendous loss of her family in a car accident.

I loved If I Stay: I cried, cried about how perfect and flawed Mia's family was, cried at the decision she had to make, cried at her choice to go on, alone. I picked up Where She Went expecting it to pick up Mia's story and to find out about what happened when she woke up.

Where She Went was not what I thought it would be, but instead was what I needed it to be.

It is Adam's story, after three years have passed. To my shock, Adam and Mia have broken up. And as I read and found out more, it clicked, what Where She Went was about:

Grief. And living with loss. And rebuilding. And those things, those are terrible, horrible, the world has ended moments. Just because Mia chose to go on, didn't mean that she woke up and was the same person. It didn't mean that it was somehow easy to know how to navigate having no mother, no father, no brother. And just because Adam and Mia were everything to each other, it didn't mean that they were, at that moment, the best thing for each other.

So Mia walked away from Adam, because her grief and loss were hers. And if I had to place a bet onto why this is three years later, and why it's not by Mia, my bet would be that what Mia went through was too raw and awful and confusing. Where She Went is a punch in the stomach, and had it not been told when and how it was, it would have been even more overwhelming. Instead of being hard to read, it would have been impossible to read.

With Where She Went being Adam's story, the reader can also see and experience and appreciate Adam's own loss. No, it's not the same as Mia's, but it is a loss. He loved her family, he loved Mia, and then he was left without that and without knowing who he was without her.

Sometimes people are meant to be together, but that does not mean they are meant to be together always. Or forever. And I'm glad that not only does Where She Went explore that, but it also gives two people a second chance. They needed to be apart. But can they come together, again?

In many ways, I liked this book better than If I Stay. So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2014.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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18. TV Review: The Musketeers

BBC America's The Musketeers. Sundays, 9 pm.

Such pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty boys.



I cannot understate just how pretty these men are. For those of you who don't care about watching four very attractive men dressed in leather, don't worry, there's more!

There is BANTER. Delicious one liners. And ACTION. Because, you know, swords.

And there is just the right updating. Oh, the series is set in Paris in 1630 and the basic characters from the book are the same -- D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Artemis; Milady; Cardinal Richelieu; Constance. Confession, I haven't read the book (I know! Tried once and it didn't take), but I adore the 1973 film so, so much. So, between that and wikipedia I know the basics of the source material.

What The Musketeers has done is updated certain aspects for modern viewers (and I don't just mean the leather.) Yes, Athos's tortured backstory is all about Milady, but some of specifics of her crimes and how he discovered it have changed. (Her husband never saw a brand on her? How did that work, exactly?) D'Artagnan meeting the Musketeers has been altered. Porthos's mother was a freed slave, a bit of a nod to Alexander Dumas's own heritage. (Yes, Europe wasn't all white in the seventeenth century).

But my favorite part so far is what The Musketeers have done about the central female characters. Now, so far, they haven't really interacted with each other so I'm not getting into the Bechdel test here. Rather, on their own Milady, Constance, and Queen Anne are fully created characters, independent of the men in their lives. They exist for reasons other than being supporting characters in the Musketeers lives.

Milady is still a villain, deliciously so, and is often the smartest person in the room, but her path towards being this is still unclear. She is probably closest to the original Milady, in that Milady was always the scheming bad guy. What I hope to see more of, thought, is her backstory of who she was before and after her marriage to Athos. While I don't want or expect redemption on the level of Regina from Once Upon a Time, I still hope for more than "oh, evil woman."

Constance, though -- Constance! My memory from the film is that Constance is primarily the love object of D'Artagnan, and is more of a prop in the lives of the Musketeers. The BBC version delightfully makes Constance her own person, with her own desires and wants. She's also given funny lines, and isn't just the foil for the Musketeers. She and D'Artagnan don't have insta-love based on mutual good looks, but instead a developing affection.

And Queen Anne! What that actress can do with a look. It's clear that she sees her husband as immature and spoiled, but heis still the King, and so she has to put up with him and do her best. I'm only four episodes in and often I think there's a permanent thought bubbly over her head going "I should have been king. Really, Louis?" And man, those looks she gives him.

And if The Musketeers follow the book in terms of what happens to Constance, I will be PISSED beyond the telling.

What else? Did I mention banter, action, and some pretty, pretty men?





All images from BBC America.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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19. Echo Company

Great news!

The Echo Company books by Ellen Emerson White are available to buy!

White wrote these books back in the early 1990s, under the name Zach Emerson.



The Echo Company books are set during the Vietnam War, told from the point of view of a young soldier, Michael Jennings. A follow up book, The Road Home, is about a young nurse Michael meets and is about both Rebecca's time in Vietnam and her homecoming. I wrote a pretty in-depth look at these four books, as well as a couple others that refer to the characters in these books, in my 2007 post, Ellen Emerson White: Vietnam.

At the moment they are only available as ebooks from Amazon.

The titles, in order:

Welcome to Vietnam (Echo Company Book 1)

Hill 568 (Echo Company Book 2)

'Tis the Season (Echo Company Book 3)

Stand Down (Echo Company Book 4)

The Road Home (Echo Company)

As I said back in 2007, "It's real. It's death and dying and blood. And Ellen Emerson White doesn't shy away from any of it. And what she has done is take you into the experience; just as Michael (and the reader) has the lull of "ok, this isn't so bad after all, I can make it" BAM. No. It's not OK. It is that bad. This is one of the few war novels I have read that respects the soldiers and their experiences; that doesn't play politics about the issue of war. And is brutally honest about the soldier's experiences."

And about The Road Home, "By exploring the Vietnam War thru the POV of a female, and of a nurse, there is the horrors of war combined with the healing of medicine; the mixed emotions of saving the lives of soldiers, only to have the soldiers go out, risk their lives again, or to kill. And the details, of triage, of deciding who lives and dies, who gets morphine and who doesn't, who dies alone or dies with lies of "it's going to be OK. Rebecca goes from naive and hopeful to scared, afraid, bitter."

Trust me: you will love this series. And since it is historical fiction, you won't have to worry about anything seeming "dated."

If you haven't read any Ellen Emerson White before? Go, read.

And if you have read Ellen Emerson White, what's your favorite book?

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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20. Review: And We Stay

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard. Delacorte Press, Random House. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: January, 1995, and Emily Beam has just started at the Amherst School for Girls to finish her junior year. Before this she went to her local high school, and she isn't going to talk about why she is now in this boarding school in Massachusetts.

It was because of a boy. Not just any boy, her boyfriend. And the gun he took to school. And what happened. And why.

The Good: "Before Boston, before ASG, Emily had wanted nothing more than to be loved by a boy. When she was fourteen, sixteen, she had watched girls on the cheerleading squad sprout wings with each boyfriend. They became more beautiful, the beauty of confidence. For four months, Emily had it, too."

Emily had it with Paul, a senior. Paul, who took his grandmother's gun to school one day and killed himself.

And now Emily is at boarding school.

Why the setting of 1995? Because what happened with Paul, with Emily, at the school is Emily's secret. Or, not so much secret, as thing she cannot talk about. In today's world of social media and easy Internet access, the "why" of Paul would remain hers but the facts of it would be known.

And why Amherst? Because Emily becomes fascinated with another Emily who lived in Amherst, Emily Dickinson. Emily writes poetry, and it's in these poems that she gradually comes to terms with the boy she loved and what happened.

OK, Spoilers. Sorry, but this is one of the times when I want to talk about those secrets and yes.... for an original read of the book, it is best to discover it on your own.

Paul and Emily's relationship is what the Emily at 14, at 16, had wanted. And at first, Paul is what she wants and she loves him. But as time goes by -- and yes, it's only a handful of months but it's still time -- Emily realizes she wants more. When she gets pregnant, she tells him she's getting an abortion. The scene, later in the book, is heart breaking. At first she tells him it's because her parents say she has to, even though they haven't, until she owns that she doesn't want a baby. And she breaks up with him.

Maybe today Paul's reactions, wanting to marry Emily, being against her having an abortion, would be different than in 1995. Or, given some recent news stories, maybe not.

But And We Stay is about Emily living with, and surviving, what happened: Paul, being in love, not being in love, and how quickly it all happened: the break up, his suicide, her abortion. She is sent to boarding school in part so she doesn't have to go back to the whispers and bad memories of her old high school, but also about giving her a blank slate against which to come to terms with what happened. It is only her memories, her emotions, she has to think about.

It's told in the here and now of Emily at ASG, and so it's not just about Emily coming to terms with her past. It's also about her connecting, despite herself, with those around her. It's about finding her voice through her poetry.

My favorite line in the book is practically the last one: "It does not have to define who Emily is, was, or will be." And this is the heart of the book -- deciding what does, or does not, define us.

Other things that I like: Emily's parents. They do their best for her; she is not "sent away" to boarding school but sent to, for herself, not as punishment. That while the story is told in present tense, it still creates a distance between the reader and Emily, reflecting the distance Emily keeps between herself and the world. The friends she meets at ASG. And that there is no new boy or new romance.



Other reviews: Wondrous Reads; Kirkus; Finding Bliss in Books; Stacked.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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21. Flashback June 2012

A look back at what I reviewed in June 2012



The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos. From my review: "Houston, 1968. Two stories are intertwined; the story of a white family and a black family. Jack Long is the race reporter for the evening news. Larry Thompson is a local activist and college professor. They reach out and develop a friendship, based in part because both realize that “men of conscience have got to get together . . . , or nothing is going to change."

Gilt by Katherine Longshore. From my review: "England, 1539. Kitty Tylney and Cat Howard are two teenage girls, living at the home of Cat’s grandmother, the Duchess of Norfolk. The Duchess may be rich and powerful, but she is also old and absorbed in her own affairs. Kitty, Cat, and the other girls who live crowded together in the maiden’s chamber are there because they have no where else to go. No one is really interested in them. . . . . Young, pretty, bored. Dreaming of life at court, with dances and pretty clothes and handsome men. In the meanwhile, making their own fun, in ways not quite proper. Late night festivities that include dancing and drinking and boys. Kitty, abandoned by her family, values Cat and her friendship more than anything, because it’s the only thing Kitty has. She’ll do anything for Cat, follow her anywhere, help her with anything. All of Cat’s dreams come true when she captures the eye of the King, and she brings her friends along for the good fortune. Dreams sometimes turn to nightmares; how far will Kitty go to help her friend?"

My Sister's Stalker by Nancy Springer.From my review: "When sixteen-year-old Rig’s parent’s divorced, he went to live with his mother while his sister, Karma, stayed with their father. The two haven’t really kept in touch in the four years since, especially since she left for college. One day, Rig, missing her, searches the Internet for her rather distinct name. What he finds chills him: a website by someone obsessed with his sister. Photographs that could only be taken by someone watching his sister. Will Rig be able to convince his parents that his sister is in danger? Will he be able to save his sister?"

New Girl by Paige Harbison. From my review: "A re-imagining of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. When a space opens up in the prestigious Manderley Academy, the “new girl” from Florida finds herself in a complex situation. The reason for the opening? The disappearance of Rebecca Normandy the previous spring. Becca had herself been the “new girl” the year before; despite being at school just one year, Becca made an impact and impression on all she met: her grieving roommate, Dana, who resents being given a new roommate; Max Holloway, Becca’s boyfriend; Johnny, Max’s former best friend."

Grave Mercy: His Fair Assassin, Book I (His Fair Assassin Trilogy) by Robin LaFevers. From my review: "You know, “nun assassins” is enough, isn’t it? (Or is it assassin nuns?)"

Summer and the City: A Carrie Diaries Novel by Candace Bushnell. From my review: "Seventeen year old Carrie Bradshaw is in New York City for a summer writing program. She’s just been mugged and has called the only number she has, a cousin of a semi-friend. Carrie goes with Samantha Jones to a party, and thus begins Carrie’s introduction to New York City in the 1980s."


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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22. TV Review: MTV's Finding Carter

New teen show alert! MTV's Finding Carter! MTV, Tuesday, 10 p.m.

Carter is out one day, having fun with her friends, as one will. Which includes breaking into a carousel, as one will. The police come and bring everyone to jail. Carter is the cool one, shrugging it off as no big deal. Except, when her friends are released into their parents' custody, her mother is no where to be seen.

Instead, Carter is taken aside by the police and it's patiently explained to her how her photo and fingerprints were entered into the system. Carter isn't fazed, since she has no priors.

What the police tell her does faze her: her parents, her mother and father, are on their way.

Her real parents.

Over a decade earlier, three year old Linden Wilson was kidnapped.

Carter is Linden.

Carter's going home, to people she doesn't remember.


Finding Carter is about teenage Carter, adjusting to this new knowledge and new family. The added complication? In Carter's view, she had a pretty great life, including a wonderful mother. The opening scene between mother and daughter was very Gilmore Girls, in how the two interacted. So now? Now, she views the Wilsons as people who have removed her from the life she loved.

So far, it's just been a handful of episodes. Carter, and Finding Carter, is very much a young adult novel, with Carter and her wants and needs at the focus. I love Carter: she's fun and confident and self-assured. I also am frustrated with her: she has absolutely no sympathy for the loss that the Wilsons suffered and sees this entire thing only through her own point of view. I both admire that the show is willing to be so dedicated to Carter's truth, while wanting to throw things because would it really hurt Carter that much to realize that this family lost a child?

And, well, the answer to that question is yes. I can see that yes, it would hurt Carter -- it would destroy Carter -- to acknowledge that the woman she adores and calls "mom" could have done something so terrible to someone else. So, instead, Carter is focused on one narrative, her narrative, where she has been kidnapped -- but from the mother she knows and loves.

Part of Carter's intense rejection of her mother's crime is to focus her anger on her birth mother. Again, while this pisses me off tremendously I love how real and true it is. The other members of her blood family are people who didn't have counterparts in her life, so she can let them in and let herself like them: father, sister, brother, grandparents. Mother, thought? That role is taken, so Carter pushes back. Sometimes brutally. I am really, really looking forward to Carter both coming to terms with her "mom's" actions and letting her blood mother in -- even if it takes a season or two.

Carter, Carter, Carter. Because Carter insists her name is Carter, and they all must call her that, not Linden.

The Wilsons have been scarred by the loss of their daughter. Linden's twin sister, Taylor, is a "good" girl but it's also clear that it's a reaction to not just her over protective parents but also her fears. She knows the worst that can happen. It did, to her family. Then there is Grant, a sibling born after Taylor's disappearance. The father wrote a book about Linden's disappearance -- and, unknown to anyone, is writing a sequel about finding Linden. Right now, Carter sees her father as the "good" parent -- a role he embraces -- and I can't wait to see her find out about this betrayal.

Which brings us to poor Mom. Who may be one of my favorite characters, probably because Carter dislikes her so much. Her main crimes: she's not Carter's "real" mother. She's a police officer. And she's not "real" in the way Carter insists a person should be "real": she doesn't show her emotions in the way Carter thinks "real" people do.

Yes, I do want to rant at Carter for judging this poor woman who lost a child. I want to rant at how Carter has such a narrow view on what a good, real person is, and realizing there are many ways of loving. That being a mother is not about baking cookies and someone has to pay the bills. And I want to rant at Carter, about how can she judge a woman so critically when that woman was shaped by the loss of her three year old? A kidnapping that Carter so easily forgives?

One last thing about Carter: she is the "cool" girl. She has the eyeliner and black clothes, the friend with benefits, the casual drug use and drinking and that breaking into the carousel thing. But the thing is? It's also clear that she's a good person. She's not a "bad" girl, just the cool girl. And I really, really wonder about her relationship with her "mom." Some of Carter's actions with the Wilsons are clearly oppositional, done to piss them off and establish her own identity. So, then, what about her "mom"? Is it that she had a "cool" mom who also did this stuff? Will we at some point see something other than Carter's loving memories?

And yet. And yet. Carter is still a teen. A teen who has lost her mother, her home, her life, even her identity. She has some pretty good reasons to be bratty and self-centered and self-destructive.

So, yes, I'm loving this show and am frustrated and can't wait to see where they are going to be go with this.

Anyone else watching?


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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23. Review: If I Stay

If I Stay by Gayle Forman. Dutton, a member of Penguin 2009; SPEAK, imprint of Penguin 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Mia is in a coma.

There was a car accident.

She can see what is happening around her, but she cannot interact. She is not dead but she is not alive.

Her family is dead.

It's all her choice, whether to stay with the living. But what will her life be like, if her family is gone?

The Good: Confession: I did not read this when it first came out, in 2009. I skipped to the end of the book to find out her choice, then read other things.

Then I saw the trailer. And Chloe Grace Moretz's performance as Mia. And just from the trailer, I cried more than I cried in The Fault in Our Stars. Even though I have a pretty firm rule to not read books before movies, I broke the rule. In part because the trailer already seduced me into wanting to see the film version, and in part because even though that "read the end" moment had told me the ending, I wanted to know more about Mia and how how she got to that moment.

Looking for a book to make you cry buckets? Then this is the book for you. Yes, from the start you know there's been a car accident and her family is dead. You'd think that would mean, no tears because you already know the worst. So, why cry? Because If I Stay proceeds to flashback to Mia's family and OHMYGOD I love her parents. I want them to be MY parents. Mia is a teen who had a great, supportive family. Page after page just shows you the depth of what she has lost.

Page after page of If I Stay is also showing the depth of what Mia has to keep going: her best friend, her boyfriend, her music, her other family members. Her boyfriend! Adam, like Mia, is a musician, but entirely different music so that music isn't necessarily something they share. What they do share is respect and love and fun, and wow, Adam. I just loved him.

Seriously, Mia before the accident had a great life.

Reinvention and starting over is often the subject of novels, and there is something curiously appealing about suddenly having a clean slate. Typically, though, this is a fairly positive process in that it's a character's choice and what they are leaving is a place and people that they can return to. Vacations, holidays, changes in mind, all that means that what is left isn't really gone.

Mia is faced with a choice: does go back to a world where her life and the people in it will always be "behind" her? She was worried about the impact and changes leaving for college was going to be, and suddenly she has to face a life where those she thought she was leaving have left her.

Mia's going to be facing a life where no one shares her childhood memories. Or family jokes. Without the love and support of her parents.

Is that a life she wants? Is what she has left enough reason to stay?

I LOVED this book. Love, love, love. Who cares if its a 2009 title? It's a Favorite Book Read in 2014. Also -- I can't wait for the movie.



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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24. KidLitCon 2014

KidLitCon 2014!

It's time for KidLitCon! Believe it or not, it's the 8th. Yes, the 8th!



It will be held in Sacramento on October 10th and October 11th. I'm afraid that this year, I will be missing it, but I wanted to remind you all that it was happening and what you need to know.

More information is at the Kidlitosphere website, at the KidLitCon webpage.

KidLitCon is an independent event, volunteer run and organized. It floats around the country, which changes who, each year, are the volunteers putting it together. That means each KidLitCon is a unique experience. It also makes it that much more excellent that it's been going on for eight years.

What is KidLitCon? From the website: "KidLitCon is a gathering of people who blog about children’s and young adult books, including librarians, authors, teachers, parents, booksellers, publishers, and readers. Attendees share a love of children’s books, as well as a determination to get the right books into young readers’ hands. People attend KidLitCon to talk about issues like the publisher/blogger relationship, the benefits and pitfalls of writing critical reviews, and overcoming blogger burnout. People also attend KidLitCon for the chance to spend time face to face with kindred spirits, other adults who care passionately for children’s and YA literature."

What I love about KidLitCon is it's about the bloggers. Full stop. That is the primary purpose and mission of KidLitCon. It's about what the bloggers care about. Oh, there may be authors and publishers there, presenting, and that can be great and amazing. But it's not about them. They are there to support the blogging community: they are not there saying, what can the blogging community do for us.

This year’s theme for KidLitCon is: Blogging Diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Lit: What’s Next?

Here is the link to Registration. It includes the tentative schedule, registration costs, what is and isn't included in costs, information about lodging. When you look at the price, remember: this is about volunteers. It all goes into making the con happen. The deadline for registration is September 19.

The link to the form to submit a proposal to present is also at the Registration page. That deadline is August 1. At this point, there are no discounts offered to people presenting.

One of the reasons that the KidLitCon floats around the country is that gives more people the opportunity to attend, present, and network.

Two of the reasons I love attending KidLitCon are presenting and networking.

KidLitCon offers a great opportunity for people to present. Have an idea? Submit it. You're the expert. You know your stuff. You just haven't had the time or money to travel to BEA or ALA or NCTE -- but because of KidLitCon now being closer to you, here's your chance. And honestly, KidLitCon needs you to make it wonderful.

KidLitCon is also the time to put faces to the people you've always known. My best memories of KidLitCon is getting to meet people in real life, and have conversations, and hang out talking and talking and talking. It deepens friendships and relationships. As great as the Internet is, allowing us to have a common space online to talk and connect, it's so terrific to be able to meet in person.

And sigh as I'm typing this I so wish I could go!!

Other posts about KidLitCon:

Tanita Davis talks about KidLitCon, and this year's them of Diversity, at what it means when we talk about Diversity

At Nerdy Book Club, Jen Robinson talks about why she loves attending KidLitCon










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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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25. Review: Second Star

Second Star by Alyssa B. Sheinmel. Farrar Straus Giroux. 2014. Review copy from publishers.

The Plot: Six months ago, Wendy's younger brothers disappeared. Everyone is convinced they are dead. Not Wendy. She doesn't care what the police, her parents, or her best friends think.

John and Michael loved surfing; and when Wendy meets Pete, a surfer, her instinct tells her following Pete may lead her to her missing brothers. She'll do whatever it takes to find John and Michael, including leaving home to join Pete and his band of carefree surfers.

The Good: Of course it's a retelling of Peter Pan!

I love the story of Peter Pan and what it has to say about embracing and rejecting adulthood and growing up. Sheinmel doesn't shy away from her source material: Wendy Darling is looking for her missing brothers. She has a dog named Nana. Pete's name, is, well -- Pete. Pete's girlfriend is Belle. And Pete's nemesis is Jas.

Surfing is the stand in for flying away to Neverland. Michael and John, like Pete and his friends, believe that the only thing that matters is the next wave. Wendy, the good daughter and good student -- she's on her way to Stanford after graduation -- didn't share her brothers' obsession and passion. In trying to find out what happened to her brothers, she enters their world -- and Pete's world.

Jas is the local drug dealer, dealing in "fairy dust", and Wendy's journey, her following in her brothers' path, brings her into Jas's world. Pete and Jas used to be friends, but the friendship ended when Jas started selling drugs.

As I said, I love the story of Peter Pan. I adore the 2003 film. I also love what Once Upon a Time did with their Peter Pan retelling: making Peter the villain, full stop. For the most part, thought, I've stayed away from sequels and retellings because of some of the elements of the original story, particularly Tiger Lily. Sheinmel's version avoids those problems by using Peter Pan as an inspiration, not a blueprint, and omits those parts of the story.

The essential part of the story is about growing up, yes -- and Second Star explores what it means to grow up, to embrace adulthood. Pete and Jas and the others have decided that there is only one particular way of moving forward, and that is to build their world around surfing. For Pete, that's living in abandoned homes and stealing to eat; for Jas, it's dealing drugs to buy surfboards and get money to travel.

Wendy is in search of her missing brothers, but she's also in search of herself. There is the pathway she has always been on, the one leading to Stanford. She jumps into Pete's world, into the world of her brothers -- and finds she loves surfing. Later, she finds herself with Jas, and finds herself falling for him, as she fell for Pete, and is confused by her emotions and desires. She's seeing two different pathways for her future, and has to figure out what is right for her, not her parents, not her brothers, not Pete and Jas. Those struggles are complicated, of course, and not simple -- and it's not as simple as "be a boring grown up" or "be self indulgent."

What else? There is a lot about surfing in this book. It's not just a device; it's a critical part of the story. I love that the "pirates" are drug dealers. Addiction and mental health issues are also touched on, especially as it becomes unclear how much of Wendy's search is real and how much is wish fulfillment.

Other reviews: Book Swoon; Beauty and the Bookshelf.






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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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