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A discussion of books, movies, and TV shows; with an emphasis on books for children and teens.
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1. New Post: Bling Ring

The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World by Nancy Jo Sales. It Books. 2013. Library copy. Inspired film by the same name.
The Bling Ring.

It's About: The true story of how, in 2008 - 2009, a bunch of teens broke into the homes of their favorite celebrities and stole clothes and jewelry. The Bling Ring explores who those teens were, how they planned the crimes, and how they were caught.

The Good: Both the film and the movie view this series of home robberies as an opportunity to examine entitlement celebrity fan culture. The teens targeted those people they liked, not those they didn't. They wanted to be in those homes, go through their closets, wear their clothes. It was part celebrity worship, but it was also part entitlement. Why shouldn't they do this?

The reader is as much a voyeur as those teens, reading about the robberies and the celebrities, laughing at those rich people with poor security. The movie ups that aspect by filming in the actual locations, including some of the homes.

I found it helpful to read the book before the film: the film changes some things to the make the story more linear, less messy, so consolidates and shifts some events. In simplifying the story, some of the nuance and depth is lost. That the "ring" was messy is part of the point of the underlining story.

A book like this is dependent on who talks to the writer, and not all of the teens spoke with Sales. While understandable, it also means that the reader is left with not enough understanding of just exactly what happened, who was involved, how involved they were, etc. Still, it's a pretty valuable examination of a certain type of teenager as well as a look at what happens when they get caught.




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

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2. Review: Complicit

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin's Griffin. 2014. Reviewed from ARC from publishers.

The Plot: Two years ago, Jamie's older sister was sent to juvenile detention. She'd burnt down a neighbor's barn, killing several horses and injuring a young girl who'd tried to save those horses.

Rumors have always swirled around Cate: she was that type of personality, that attracted and repelled and fascinated. And now... now she's been released.

Jamie is afraid, to be honest. He's put that all behind him, what happened with Cate. What she did. He's been seeing someone to help. He lost his best friend but he's rebuilt his life, flirting with a cute girl at school, continuing to get good grades.

What will Cate do, now that's back?

The Good: This is the type of book that is so hard to write about!

Jamie tells the story. He tells what he knows and what he remembers. And that is the sticking point. Jamie is an unreliable narrator.

The story as he knows it, the story as he tells it: Cate and Jamie were the children of a teen mother, struggling to make ends meet. When they were little, about six and eight, she was murdered. Jamie has little memories of his mother, or her death -- just hazy details, of their small basement apartment, of her living on the edge, the type of life that led to her death.

And then the miracle: after months in the foster system, Cate and Jamie were adopted, kept together, by a rich couple who were looking for older children to replace the ones they had lost. At first, young Cate is the one who seems to adjust easily, being happy, taking riding lessons. It's Jamie who is lost and sullen and doesn't quite connect, until he's sent to a therapist and things get better and Jamie gets better. Like the lost son, he takes piano, He calls his adoptive mother "Mom."

When Cate enters her teen years, things change. Jamie, the younger brother, looking on, doesn't understand why but suddenly Cate is the trouble maker, pushing boundaries, drinking, smoking, boys, and then, of course, the barn fire. And now she's back, reaching out to Jamie, and acting as if there's more to the story. That there's more that Jamie knows.

Jamie wants to know what she knows.

That's the story Jamie is telling us. Between the lines, though, the reader sees another story. Of a lost child. Of someone who has learned to act the right way, to give the right responses. Of the growing concern that part of Jamie's acting the right way includes what he is, or is not, telling the reader. Of trying to figure out how much of what he is saying about Cate is real. And of trying to understand Jamie, and who he is, and what he's done.

This is a suspenseful, psychological drama about a mentally ill teen. Who that teen is, and what they do, is a question that will leave the reader guessing.

A bit of a disclaimer: this is the type of book that I only like when done well. Unreliable narrator, unlikable characters, questions left for the reader to answer -- I am so picky about these things that usually my short-form response is that I don't like these things when the truth is that I do like them, I'm just very particular about how such books are crafted and written. And Kuehn in Complicit? Does it so well it's a Favorite Book of 2014.

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

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3. Review: Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker. Vintage Reprint, 2014. Personal copy.

The Plot: The story of Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the servants.

Sarah, one of the housemaids, is the main character -- and as she works long days, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, doing whatever is required -- she has her own dreams, her own hopes, and her own loves.

The Good: I was lucky enough to "discover" Pride and Prejudice on my own. I was in high school, it was a book on the shelf at home, I was bored with nothing to read. (Seriously, you want your kids to read? Have plenty of books at home and let them be bored.) Like many others, I fell hard for Elizabeth and Darcy and Elizabeth and Darcy together.

You may remember I was disappointed in the Pride and Prejudice mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley (yet I'm still looking forward to the upcoming TV program.) I am so happy to say that I had the exact opposite reaction to Longbourn: it was everything I wanted, and more, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One thing I find interested, now, as an older, adult reader, is how often books written long ago, books like Pride and Prejudice, don't show certain aspects of life at the time. It reveals, of course, both what the characters would (and wouldn't) think as well as what the author thinks the reader does and doesn't want to know. In other words, the servants in Pride and Prejudice are barely mentioned, even though, of course, they are there because these homes and houses needed staff to run.

Longbourn looks at those servants -- and I loved, actually, how little we see the Bennets, because how often would they interact with each other? And even though we know Elizabeth sees herself and her family as not being well off -- still, they did have servants even if they don't have many. And they had the privilege that having servants meant. Or, as Sarah puts it: "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." In that one sentence we see a different side of Elizabeth's behavior, which in Pride and Prejudice is strictly shown as her independence and non-conformity. It also shows a disregard for the people who have to clean her clothes. It's careless and rude.

Sarah is one of two housemaids, and that's another thing -- this is no Downton Abbey. There are a couple other servants, yes, but altogether there are very few, expected to do very much, with very little pay or free time, and from a very young age. Yet, it's shown that these servants are lucky because they have jobs, a place to sleep, food. It's shown just how few options these workers had -- especially the women. This is one of those books that makes me value, all the more, the servants and serving class of the past -- the workers, the people making the best of their worlds, the people who strive to be happy with what they have. And makes me thankful for all the laws we have, against child labor, for minimum wage, for overtime.

The source of the fortunes of the wealthy is explored, especially just what it meant to be "in sugar." Ptolemy Bingley, one of the Bingley servants, was born a slave. I loved that Longbourn showed that England wasn't all white in the nineteenth century, and how others would interact with Ptolemy.

The risky position of women, love, and sex is also shown (and I won't go into more because spoilers.) I will say this: Longbourn, surprisingly, made me much more sympathetic to Mrs. Bennet and the pressure she was under to have a son and how precarious the family was without sons. She was no longer a silly woman, but rather a desperate one who had few options other than trying to have a male heir and then wanting security for her own daughters -- a security her husband was reluctant, or unable, to think about.

Of course, this is a Favorite Book of 2014!




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

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4. There Is Nothing Wrong With Writing Nonfiction Books For Children

So, today's critical response essay is in response to an article in The New York Times that talks about writing non fiction for children: To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify.



I read the title, cringed, read the article. While there are some good things in the article (notably quotes from librarians and authors and publishing folk I know and respect), there are some things that left me frustrated enough that I vented a bit on Twitter (thank you, friends, for indulging!) and wanted to round up here, the problems I have with the article.

In a nutshell, my response:

There is nothing wrong, and actually much right, with writing age-appropriate nonfiction books for children and teens. When and how subject matter is introduced and discussed is, well, the reason fifth graders aren't sent to university classes (unless they're Doogie Howser, of course.)

The long version:

1. What is right for an eight year old, a ten year old, a twelve year old, a fourteen year old, is different. It is not sanitizing, simplifying, nor dumbing down to recognize that a ten year old is not a thirty year old; and they learn and process things differently. It is actually respecting the audience to recognize that in writing and presenting information.

2. Common Core is driving the increased use and purchasing of nonfiction in schools and public libraries.

3. Schools are increasing their purchasing of nonfiction at a time when the resources to do so have been reduced. Funding for books is decreased; and professional librarians, who evaluate and find books, have reduced hours, increased responsibilities, or have been eliminated all together.

4. Like any author, an adult nonfiction author may or may not be someone who can also write for teens and children.

5. If an author has spent time -- meaning years and years -- researching, interviewing, and writing an adult nonfiction book, I think it's not a stretch to say that author now has knowledge and expertise in that area. Why not have them use that knowledge and research to write another book on that topic, only now for a different audience?

6. "Young readers" and "teens" are two different age groups. In the article, the new books mentioned are specifically for the age group "under thirteen." Of the five individual titles mentioned, the intended new audiences are given as ages 12 and up; ages 10 and up; 5th to 9th grade; ages 10 and up; and ages 8 to 12. While some of these do veer into the younger teen audience, for the most part, this is children: under 13.

7. If nonfiction is being purchased to support education, which means texts to use for class, well, let's just say that I wouldn't want to be the teacher assigning a roomful of students multiple books of the lengths given in the article: specifically 759, 750, 877 pages. And even though most of these books are talked about for the under 13s, because of the size and educational needs, I can easily the "younger" versions being used in teen classroom settings. Because time. Those readers who want more can always seek out the other books.

8. The quotes from Angela Frederick and Chris Shoemaker are spot on. Why teen librarians are being asked for quotes about self-selected teen reading in an article about materials for the under thirteen set, I'm not sure. I would have liked to hear from school librarians and children's librarians, given the target age and that the audience is beyond public libraries. (Again, respect to Angela and Chris and their quotes.)

9. Blanket statements or assumptions about the differences between the books an author writes for a teen audience, an under thirteen audience, and an adult audience serve no one. Talk about the individual books. For example, I've read both books that Michael Capuzzo wrote on the Jersey Shore shark attacks, one for adults, one for teens. The teen version (Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916) simply streamlined the book, removing some historical explanations and details not really needed to get to the heart of the story, and also included a wealth of photographs, illustrations, and maps not found in the original. (Seriously, I will always be Team Show Me The Photo of Anne Boleyn's Jewelry Don't Just Describe It).

10. And a yay to Steve Sheinkin, also quoted, who writes a lot of original work for children and teens. And yes, kids and teens love nonfiction, and yay to publishers for creating the books kids want and libraries buying them, because they can be hard to find in bookstores.

11. I refer again to point 5: what's wrong when an author with the research writes a second book on the same subject? Nothing, I say. Review the individual titles and let us know: is this book good on its own? Is it good compared to what else is out there for that age group? Don't just assume that the younger edition is not needed, dumbed down, and a quick way to squeeze out sales. I'd argue that it can be harder to get a point across in fewer words. That said, with the reduction of resources in schools, yes, it's easier for schools to purchase a "known brand" -- a book by a well reviewed author. But that is equally about budget cuts and the schools not having the professional staff to search out the breadth and depth of other titles.

12. Another point about cost. And time. If an author already has the research done, the book they will write will be published quicker than the new-to-the-subject author. And that means a quicker turnaround time for publishing a book that is needed by a school who wants books to support the Common Core. And they want the books now, not four years from now.

13. In case you're missing it: Common Core, Common Core, Common Core. Budgets, budgets, budgets. School librarians, school librarians, school librarians.

14. If loving photos, illustrations, maps, etc in a nonfiction book mean you don't respect me as a nonfiction reader, so be it. Perhaps the adult nonfiction should include more of those resources instead of sending us who like those visuals to the younger books that have them.

15. By the end of this article, I had tremendous, over the top respect for Laura Hillenbrand, who obviously respects her readers, her subject matter, and the new readers. Who sees a need for readers and wants to meet it.

16. Given the way books are challenged in schools, and given how school boards and states are trying to control book content, for authors and publishers to be aware of how to present materials for age groups is responsible, not sanitizing. Wanting to have children's books instead of adult nonfiction in an elementary school library is responsible.

So, what are your thoughts?



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: The Timothy Wilde Novels

The Gods of Gotham (A Timothy Wilde Novel) and Seven for a Secret (A Timothy Wilde Novel) by Lyndsay Faye. Berkley Paperback 2013, Berkley Paperback 2014. Personal copies.

The Plot: The Timothy Wilde novels are mysteries set in 1840s New York City, at the very start of New York City's police force.

The Good: There are few things I like better than a historical mystery. Faye both recreates 1840s New York, full of details and interesting tidbits; yet also creates something that is a mirror to our own time. For example, the formation of the police force is far from simple. Part of it is need, with the growing size of the city and population. Then there is the mix of altruism and nepotism. Wilde, for example, gets a job on the new force not because he wants it or has any particular skill set -- he's a bartender. Rather, it's because of his politically connected brother.

Timothy Wilde is reluctant to even take the job, because he and his brother don't get along but for various reasons he needs the job. And, it turns out being a bartender is a pretty good skill set: observation, talking, listening, crowd management. Oh, and another thing: many regular people were opposed to a formation of the police, in part because they feared it was militarization. So.... 1840s questions that have parallels today.

The Gods of Gotham is the first in the series, and gives as much room to Timothy's own origin story as it does to the start of the police. He'd been left orphaned as a child, raised by his older brother, befriended by a local minister. Timothy isn't desperate enough to accept his brother's job until he loses everything in the Great New York Fire of 1845. And here is why I love fiction that accurately incorporates history: learning not just about fire but also the just how scary a fire was -- how it was fought -- and the devastating losses, both in terms of lives, injuries (Timothy's face is burnt, leaving scars), and property. Timothy's savings, all his property, is lost.

And Faye's writing! I loved it. Here, an example of showing the bias of the times and where Timothy stands in terms of that prejudice: "Popery is widely considered to be a sick corruption of Christianity ruled by the Antichrist, the spread of which will quash the Second Coming like an ant. I don't bother responding to this brand of insanity for two reasons: idiots treasure their facts like newborns, and the entire topic makes my shoulders ache."

The Gods of Gotham, as that quote hints at, is about the immigration as a result of the Irish Potato Famine, how those Irish Catholics were treated in New York City, as well as missing children, prostitution, child prostitutes, private efforts at addressing the problems of poverty, women's rights, religion  -- and, of course, the politics of the 1840s. And as I read it, I thought of all those historical fiction children's books, set in Ireland, set in other European countries, were the happy ending, the solution to poverty or discrimination, is emigration to America; and how often that was just the start of a new nightmare.

In Seven for a Secret, Timothy Wilde is still with the New York City police force. How the police worked, what actually it meant to be a member, was fascinating -- Timothy's role as detective, investigating and solving crimes, is almost as revolutionary as the force itself.

Seven for a Secret centers around a different group of New Yorkers than the one shown in the first book: the world of free blacks and runaway slaves. Without giving too much away -- don't worry. Timothy is not the Great White Hope that saves the day. The mystery involves that community, and so Timothy becomes involved, and at times he is ignorant of the laws and social mores and risks -- but the community itself has leaders, and Timothy works with them or for them. The African American characters are multifaceted and complex.

My favorite quote from Seven for a Secret: "He likes who he is in the story because it's the wrong story he's telling."

What else? I adore Timothy's older brother, Val. Yes, Timothy is often at odds with him; yes, Timothy is judgmental about Val's choices, from Val's politics to his substance abuse to his womanizing. But what captured me is that Val was a teen when his parents died; the two books show just how brutal and cold their world was, and just how indifferent it was to two orphaned boys. Timothy doesn't quite realize or appreciate just what Val did, was willing to do, to take care of him. Val, in some ways, has earned his right to drink or drug or romance too much. He's my 1840s Bad Boyfriend.

I also like how Faye portrays the female characters, including how Timothy views them. They are whole; more than tropes. (And having watched and/or read one too many historical fiction shows, where it's either the virginal wife (hey, you know what I mean) or the whore - -well, it was nice to see more than that, and to see Timothy himself seeing the disservice society does by viewing women as being either one or the other.)

Finally -- Timothy himself. He's in his mid-twenties, and while he's great at observations and putting the pieces of a puzzle together, he's not brilliant. He makes mistakes, mistakes that arise from his youth, his inexperience, his own biases (such as the ones he has about his brother), and his own stubbornness.

Good news: a third book is on its way! The Fatal Flame is scheduled for May 2015.

And yes -- these are some of my Favorite Books Read in 2014.


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

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6. Speedy Reviews

I prefer writer longer reviews, but for several reasons I find myself way, way, way behind were I'd like to be on book reviews.

So, rather than forever being because of how far I've gotten behind, I'm going to do a bunch of short ones. Hope you enjoy them!



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. Flashback July 2012

A look back at what I reviewed in July 2012:



One Moment by Kristina McBride. From my review: "If you could change one moment in your life . . .  That’s how Maggie feels. She wants to change one moment so that it doesn’t end with her boyfriend Joey dead, floating in the water below the cliff. Only thing is, she doesn’t remember what happened at the top of the cliff; she remembers agreeing to jump off the cliff into the cool water below, something Joey and her other friends have done countless times over countless summers. But after that, she remembers nothing. So what is the one moment to change? Something at the top of the cliff? Earlier, when she agreed to jump? If they all hadn’t gone to the party the night before, would things have ended up differently?"

Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. From my review: "Jane is a terrific mix of tough and vulnerable, smart and naive. Here she is on why she is at school: “It was rage that got me to Birch Grove Academy for Girls and out of Hellsdale. I nestled into my bed, knowing that rage would help me survive here, too.” Jane may know the way of the streets, but families are alien territory. What I liked about Jane is how her background impacts her; for example, one of the first thing she does when she settles into her own home (which is a cute little cottage I would love to live in!), is to find a place to hide those things that are important to her. When Mrs. Radcliffe takes her on a shopping trip so that Jane is ready for school, Jane returns half the clothes and pockets the money, putting it in with her secret stash. She’s a foster child who has to hide what is important to her, and who has to be always ready to run."

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. From my review: "Prince Khemri is one of the ten million Princes who rule the Empire. To “ordinary folk,” these Princes seem immortal. And, it’s true, that they can be reborn in certain situations; and that they are augmented in what may appear to be super-human ways. . . . The sixteenth anniversary of his selection as a Prince-candidate is Khemri’s day of investiture as full Prince. He even gets assigned a Master of Assassins! Khemri has big plans, based on his grooming as a Prince and the things he’s been taught. He’s going to get a warship, go explore, make his mark, and become the next Emperor. Turns out, his education wasn’t complete. Some details were left out. Like the competition between Princes can be deadly. Instead of sitting back and living out the adventures lived in his favorite Psitek experience, The Achievement of Prince Garikm, he finds himself being saved from assassinations attempts and enrolled as a Naval candidate because the Academy is one of the few safe places. That’s all in the first thirty pages. That doesn’t even cover Khemri’s three deaths. Action, suspense, space pirates, and, yes, even a touch of romance in this intergalactic adventure."

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge, illustrated by Andrea Dezso. From my review: "I love retold fairy tales, especially when they twist and tweak and turn inside out. You may remember that from my post about the TV show Once Upon A Time. Take something you think is familiar, look at it from a new direction, what new truths are there? Most of these tales live in a world that is both modern and fairy tale. The first one is The Stepsisters, from Cinderella, and begins “I write this on a brailler, a kind of typewriter/ for the blind.” Like some (but not all) of these stories, it takes the viewpoint of a secondary character (the stepsisters) and makes references  that are both non-fairy tale (a brailler) and classic (the birds pecking out their eyes.) It gives a different perspective: “Mother turned us against our stepsister,/ belittling her.”"

This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers. From my review: " I like zombies. Love zombie movies and TV shows and books. I want three things from a zombie book: a new take on the story. A good metaphor for what the zombies represent. And a concrete tip or two on how to survive the zombie apocalypse.
This Is Not A Test is told from the point of view of a depressed, abused teenage girl who wants to die. Sloane was “rescued” by two high school classmates, Rhys and Cary, who didn’t know she wasn’t trying to survive, not like the rest of them. And now she is one of six, huddled up in a school, exits blocked and barricaded. Five teens who want to survive: . . . . And Sloane, whose secret is she’s not like them, never has been. Sloane doesn’t want to live, but she doesn’t want to put the group at risk, won’t do to them what [her sister] Lily did to her, so she finds herself with them, in the high school, where her silence is mistaken for strength."

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough. From my review: "When reading this, I was reminded of three authors: Diana Wynne Jones, because Barraclough’s capturing of childhood reminded me of Jones. When Cora discovers a piano in her aunt’s house and wants to play, she sits down. But what child just sits down on a piano stool? “I sat down on the stool, one of those that whirled around and went up and down, and I must have whizzed round on it for five minutes at least before I cam to a stop, all giddy.” Stephen King and Peter Straub, because Long Lankin is a horror story about cursed generations, missing children, murders, witchcraft, and the supernatural."

And a little blatant self promotion, for the book Sophie Brookover and I wrote, Pop Goes the Library, because in 2012 was when a e-book version became available! Yes, the title is still in print, still for purchase, and still has a lot of valuable information... even if it was written before the Brangelina wedding.




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. Review: Belzhar

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer. Dutton Children's Books. 2014.

The Plot: Jam Gallahue was in love with Reese Marfield and it was wonderful and magical and all that made life living.

Was.

A year that has passed since she lost Reese, a year of life not being worth living, a year of Jam barely able to leave her bedroom, shattered by his death.

So Jam's parents have done the only thing they can think of: sending her away from her New Jersey home and all the memories, to go to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school in Vermont for those who are "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent."

Jam isn't happy to be there, but then she finds herself in a unique seminar: "Special Topics in English," with five students intensely studying one author for a semester. This year, the author is Sylvia Plath.

Each student is given a journal, to write in. And when Jam puts pen to paper ... something magical happens. She finds herself in a place where time stands still, and Reeve is hers again.

As the semester draws to a close, Jam wonders what will happen when she reaches the last page. Will she figure out a way to stay with Reese? Should she?

The Good: Another one of those books that I love, but part of what I love is the twists and turns and the reveals. It's not just the secrets: it's finding out the secrets.

Jam is at a school for the "emotionally fragile," so everyone has some type of story Hers is Reeve. Her fellow Special Topics members (Sierra, Marc, Griffin, Casey) each has had a loss; each, it turns out, can also use their journals to return to that pre-loss time. Inspired by the title of Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, they call the place they go to Belzhar.

Jam's whirlwind romance with Reeve was meaningful and magical but short: only 41 days. Actually, that is the sum total of the days they knew each other. It was sixteen days before they kissed. So Jam has only a handful of memories stored up and what she finds is in that Belzhar, she is limited to experiencing only what actually happened. Oh, it's not as if she's stepping back in time: Reeve understands that something is happening, something outside time almost, and impatiently worries about the times she isn't with him.

And... I don't want to get into spoilers, about Jam and her friends, or about Jam and Belzhar, and what it is or is not. But wowza; there was a certain deliciousness in reading and figuring out and discovering, much like there was with We Were Liars (but for different reasons.) Belzhar is not just about "emotionally fragile" people, but it's what it means to be emotionally fragile and how that shapes how you see the world and how you act in it. And aside from that, it's about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, much like The Bell Jar itself is Plath telling her story in a certain way.

And, of course, the language! This, for example -- "to be on the verge of your life, and not to be able to enter it" is just such a good description of someone being held back and knowing they are held back, for whatever reasons.

Or this: "Because when I let go of the story I've been telling myself and just try to think about what's objectively true, I can barely get a grip." And how often is that true, also -- the truth being so frightening that we tell ourselves other things we believe to be true, to get through the day.




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

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9. Review: Falling Into Place

Falling into Place by Amy Zhang. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Liz Emerson, a high school junior, has crashed her car into a tree.

She planned it, oh so carefully, to look like an accident.

It wasn't.

Now, as she lies in the hospital, hovering between life and death, Falling Into Place examines just what led her to that fateful moment.

The Good: Falling Into Place has some seriously beautiful writing. I dog-eared (yes, dog-eared, don't tell) so many pages to mark passages where the language knocked me off my feet.

"But that afternoon, in the abandoned field by the elementary school, Liz pretended that they were. In love. She lied to herself. Her world was almost beautiful. She didn't care that it was false."

"Had the world always been like this? Why had it seemed so much kinder when she was younger? Why had it ever seemed beautiful?"

In some ways, Falling Into Place is the mirror-image of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah explains her suicide by naming the people who hurt her, who let her down, her gave her no reason to live. Liz's story, also is a list of the reasons she gives herself for aiming her car at a tree... except her reasons are not things done to her. No, Liz's reasons are the things she did to others.

A small aside: if you don't like any spoilers, go no further. Because my conversation will be mainly about the characters and who they are, and aren't, and for some that may be too much.

I'll be honest: Liz is a difficult person to feel sympathy for. Or, at least, it was difficult for me to feel any sympathy for her. I began liking her, the way you would any character, but as the way Liz treated others piled up, action upon action, I just -- couldn't. I felt sorry for her mother, as her daughter's life hung in the balance, because that is a terrible situation to be in. But Liz herself.....

Liz is the type that hurts people because she can. Because she feels it's better to hurt others first, before they can hurt her. Because she has some own deep childhood wounds -- a father who dies tragically, a distant mother who cannot connect either emotionally or physically with her only child. She is, inside, a hurt and jealous child: "It made her remember that there had once been a time when she was in love with the sunshine and the wind and each brief flight. It was like watching the sky change colors, his playing. And then it made her jealous, because Liz Emerson was never at peace like that. Not really. Not anymore."

Liz both recognizes what she does and hates what she does yet cannot stop herself; she knows she does hateful things but does nothing to stop or make amends. She thinks she cannot fix what she does, so she doesn't even try. Instead, her solution is to end herself. "She looked around and saw all of the broken things in her wake, and then she looked inside herself and saw the spidering cracks from the weight of all the things she had done. She hated what she was and didn't know how to change, and half an hour before she drove her car off the road, she that despite all of that, she didn't have enough force to stop the world from turning. But she had enough to stop her own."

And... despite the glimpse into who Liz is, and seeing those who both love her and forgive her, despite not wanting her dead, I find I cannot feel much for Liz. I feel for those who she breaks: there's at least one suicide, plus a handful of teens whose lives get sidelined with pregnancy, drug use, failures. It's nice that we see at least one of her victims put aside Liz's actions and words, see her vulnerability, forgive her, and get on with his own life instead of letting Liz ruin his whole future -- but it wasn't a real balance. Not to me. And Liz herself had nothing to do with it. One of her good friends thinks, "she doesn't remember when she turned into such an awful human being" and the friend is thinking about herself, but it could be about Liz, and the thing is -- they are awful. And they feel bad about it, when it all comes crashing down....but where do they go after that?

These are the teens who I hope against hope that the real life teens I know never, ever encounter. And that if they do -- they are the type who don't care what the Lizs of the world think or do.

What is frustrating about Liz is the obvious: her world, the world she wants to escape, is her own creation. She sees a cruel world because of who she is; and that Liz has shaped her reality to be her is something she doesn't recognize. She doesn't see that she can stop it by changing how she sees the world: by looking, once more, for the beauty she saw as a child.

But what matters about Falling into Place is not what Liz learns or does not -- it's what the reader figures out. That the reader realizes, like one of Liz's targets, that just because someone like Liz is "never careful with her life or anyone else's, and in her disregard was a coldness, a deep cruelty, a willingness to destroy anyone, everyone", there is no reason to let Liz destroy everything: "he found that there were still beautiful things in the world, and nothing could ever change that." What the reader can also see, as Liz's full life comes into view, that Liz's world is also the sum of her own choices, her own times of going for cruelty and power instead of understanding and kindness.

What also matters about Falling into Place is the language. It's beautiful writing, that makes the ugliness more bearable -- much like Liz herself looks for beauty, yearns for it. I look for the beauty in Falling into Place. And I find it, in how the story was told. In how the pieces fall into place. And how, finally -- I do find, underneath it all, that I have sympathy for Liz, after all. In how she and her world spun so far out of her control that she felt like there was only one answer.



Other reviews: Scott Reads It; The Perpetual Page-Turner; Queen Ella Bee Reads.




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

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10. 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.

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

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11. 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


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

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12. 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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13. 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.




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

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14. 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.




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

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15. 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.

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

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16. 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.







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

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

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

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

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20. 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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21. 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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22. 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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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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

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24. 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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25. 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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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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