Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Deborah Wiles
Published: 2010
Middle Grade Historical
“The secret to not being afraid is to understand what scares you.”

I picked up Countdown in my search for YA historical set in the 1960s and didn't realize this was actually a middle grade book (so, still looking for 1960s-set YA!). The story details the experience of 11-year-old Franny during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It was interesting to see an event like this through a child's eyes. In school, Franny and her classmates practice drills to "duck and cover" in case of a nuclear attack. Now, it's not lost on me that if a nuclear bomb went off, ducking under a desk isn't going to do much. The drills bring up a lot of questions for Franny, but the adults in her life don't want to talk about it. Her mother wants to shelter Franny and her younger sibling, which is understandable, but given the instruction she gets at school about air raid sirens and potential attacks, it's compeltely realistic that she would be terrified and have nightmares.

Interspersed with Franny's anxiety over the drills is regular trouble at school - the girl she thought was her best friend doesn't seem to like her anymore. Her live-in uncle is acting strange; he has PTSD but Franny doesn't know that, and she just sees him as a hurting man who occassionally relapses into a soldier role from a past war. Her older sister is spending more time at her college campus and Franny feels abandoned by her sister's absence.

I listened to the audiobook, and the audio format takes advantage of sound clips and music montages from the time period. There are chapter interludes about famous figures of the early 1960s as well, so this book has a lot of educational merit to it. I'm not used to reading middle grade, so the pacing and development of the characters is a little slower. Countdown encapsulates the era and shows how much a world event like the Cuban Missile Crisis can affect kids who supposedly don't understand. It was definitely an interesting read.  

Note: This is the first book in The Sixties Trilogy. Books two and three have not yet been published.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Real Housewives Meet Jane Austen

I don't have much for you on this cold, damp January Monday. So here's a great spin on Sense & Sensibility from the always hilarious Forever Young Adult:

The Real Housewives of Sussex County

It's fitting!
That’s right, we’re reaching into our bag of tricks and pulling out last summer’s sleeper hit, the readalong, where we take turns rewriting a beloved classic novel from the viewpoints of the non-narrating characters! This time, we’re treating you to a rendition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which we genuinely love and really, REALLY hope we don’t end up hating by the end of this little game (although you know we have Marianne in our crosshairs. And those odious little Steele sisters. And dear old Willoughby, although Erin’s warm for his form). Ready? Away!
Check out the posted link above to read.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Hart of Dixie: Guilty Pleasure?

I'm trying to figure out why I like Hart of Dixie. I think it falls into that guilty pleasure category, and its general predictability feels comforting. It's the type of show I can turn on as background filler and not feel too lost if I've missed some dialogue.

The premise is unlikely - Rachel Bilson plays a doctor (I know, please stay with me) who inherits her father's medical practice in Alabama. She doesn't know her father at all, so when he dies (he's quite a bit older than her mother), it's a total shock to find he left her anything. After not getting her dream job in NYC, left with few options she heads south to take on the challenge in her cute shorts and heels.

Plus, her name is Zoe Hart so that's why it's Hart of Dixie. Groan.

That's the set up. So, why is it Hart of Dixie is so appealing? Here are my possible explanations:

1.) The Cast
Several former Friday Night Lights actors are series regulars which lend the acting some credibility. FNL is one of those shows I was persuaded to watch, considering I had no interest in football or Texas. But it's wonderful, and clearly fan allegiance is strong enough to create viewer loyalty in another series. Cress Williams, who played an ex-convict and deadbeat dad in FNL is cast here as a charming, former pro-football player who is mayor of the small Alabama town. Scott Porter plays George Tucker, a potential love interest for Zoe if he wasn't with such a lemon named Lemon (yeah, his girlfriend is named Lemon. But she's awesome at playing a spoiled former debutante). 

2. The Setting
Hart of Dixie excels in the same way Friday Night Lights did with making use of a small town setting. To be fair, FNL was cinematic, capturing wide shots of barren west Texas landscape backed by sparse indie instrumental music, and it filmed in real houses and structures in Texas. Hart of Dixie is definitely more of a typical TV set, but it has a soft edge to it, a homey-ness that just looks pretty.

3. Social Media
The twitter feed for #HartofDixie is an active one - fans might be small in number but they're dedicated and forming character alliances. Eveyone has their own ideal love match: Zoe with George Tucker, Zoe with Wade, Zoe's often shirtless hot neighbor (who's pretty funny, too), and Zoe with the mayor, who's all kinds of flirt although he's mainly Friend-Zoned and has a history with Lemon (which seems improbable on his end, but whatever). Similar befuddled tweets can be found about the strange attraction to the show - I'm not the only one saying, "Can't wait for HoD; not sure why but I love this show!" It's more fun to watch a something like this with the twitter feed as a companion - if you don't have anyone in your household willing to watch it with you (ahem).

Yes, it's a silly premise, it's frequently predictable, but sometimes that's OK. This one is not meant to be challenging television.

Do you watch Hart of Dixie? What do you think? Or do you have another show that you're somewhat embarrassed to admit watching but are completely entertained by?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

DVD Throwback: Felicity Season Two (Part One!)

When season 1 left off, Felicity had the choice to spend the summer in Europe with Noel, her ex-boyfriend (but recently determined to be somewhat more than friends), or she could road trip it with Ben, her recently single crush, from NYC to their home state California.

Who did she choose?

**Warning: Spoilers**
(This warning is generous considering the episodes originally aired 13 years ago!)

She chose Ben!


When fall semester hits, everything is bonkers because Ben and Felicity are together. It's what she wanted all through high school and half of freshman year in college. But now Julie won't talk to her because Ben is her ex and the break-up was pretty fresh when he and Felicity ran off together. Noel won't talk to her because she chose Ben over him. Plus, things are JUST OK because Ben is not really that cool and Felicity didn't listen to her viewers from over 10 years in the future.

For the record, I thought this would be one of those "I choose me!" conclusions, where Felicity ditches both guys and goes on a community service trip to help inner city kids or something. But no, she chose Ben!

The living situations are all mixed around this season. Felicity and Pop-Goth Meghan decide to become RAs (their interview and training process is either so minimal or non-existant that it isn't even mentioned) and because of a housing crisis, they have to share a room. This actually happens, I can atest, and it sucks if your room is single and booked as double because those rooms are incredibly tiny and not at all like what you see on TV! Noel and Elena get an apartment together (? but OK) while Julie is still crashing with Ben and Sean. Julie has plans to move out, but when it falls through, the guys are more than grateful to have her stay. Which leads to a new love storyline: Sean and Julie. I LIKE.

These guys can't figure out who they like.

Did I mention Noel HATES Felicity? It's almost difficult to watch; he can't stand her and will tell her to her face how she ruined his life (by choosing Ben over him). Eventually the hate fades, but there are some uncomfortable moments. Noel is dating Ruby (Amy Smart of Just Friends fame) who's enamored by his skills with the iMac and his general nerditude. She confides in Felicity about Noel, unaware he and Felicity dated. Felicity goes on a blind date with her professor's son, which at first goes as horribly wrong as expected, but it turns out David is just a hurt guy trying to find love again and they start a real relationship.

Things with David culminate in a visit from her parents at Thanksgiving when his family and hers have dinner at Noel and Elena's. Noel and Felicity have too much punch and kiss (that's a lame excuse. They WANTED to kiss). David ends it and Felicity's probably not passing his mother's class. I love that Pop-Goth invited herself to Thanksgiving at Noel and Elena's, completely abandoning three lowly freshmen waiting on a dorm event Pop-Goth forgot about. Worst RA ever.

Meanwhile, Ben is dating an older (probably 30 - gasp!) caterer who happened in on the coffee shop where he works. She looks part Helen Hunt part Jodi Foster. It's of course a terrible relationship because - whoops! - she's married and forgot to tell him. Their storyline is mostly boring, just like most storylines about Ben outside of Felicity. Even with the haircut he's just not intriguing.

SPEAKING OF HAIRCUT, this is the season I heard about back before I ever saw the show where Felicity cuts her hair. And she doesn't just trim the fro'ed-out curls, they're hacked off. Like almost to a Britney Spears breakdown level. It sort of works, but only because Keri Russell can pull off just about any hairstyle. I liked that an entire episode was based around her haircut, so it wasn't like the actress abruptly made a style change and freaked everyone out. It became part of the story, as a symbol for her rediscovery of herself, paired with the inevitable dropping of pre-med.

The rest of the season seems to be gearing up to more tension among Felicity and Noel and Noel's girlfriend Ruby, and Ben is questioning his breakup with Felicity. Also, Felicity's parents are separating. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Throwback DVD: Felicity - Season 1

I got through most of season 1 during my holiday break and just caught up on the last few episodes. My initial reaction: this show's pacing is the polar opposite of The Vampire Diaires. Felicity is slower and quieter. It's a thoughtful show.

The big pitch of Felicity is she's a mousy nerd who doesn't think for herself, planning to go to med school like her parents want, but on impulse, she enrolls in a (fictional) New York university to follow Ben, who finally signed her yearbook after years of drooling over him behind her perm. So she shows up in NYC and Lots of Awkward happens. This show has awkward down.

Felicity befriends Julie and Elena, eventually convinces Ben she's not a total freak, and her RA Noel falls in love with her. Her pop-goth roommate Megan is mostly hostile, but she has some great moments, like when her parents show up and she's dressed like a homeschooler with all her black clothing stuffed away in the closet.

So far, I'm not really a huge fan of Ben. He's not a jerk, but I don't get the attraction. He reminds me too much of Dawson (of Dawson's Creek, another show I never watched) and blond jocks are not my thing (at all).
Dawson chillin'
Ben starin'
Felicity and Julie both have feelings for Ben, and I like that the typical tension between friends and love interests morphed into something believable. I couldn't take an entire 22-episode run with Felicity longing for Ben. Something needed to give, and thankfully it does way beforehand. Ben and Julie get together, Felicity moves on...

So enter Noel. He's enamored by Felicity, and ends up on the receiving end of Felicity's pining for Ben for far too long. I loved that his staff meetings with other Resident Advisors were more like counseling/bitching sessions (having been an RA it that is exactly how it is) and he asks the RAs advice for a "friend" on how to deal with a girl who's in love with someone else. I had to laugh when Noel got a new iMac and declared how fast it was (then promptly dropped it). But my favorite Noel moment so far is when he tries to get a deal on a new vending machine for the dorm. A girl from his floor refers him to her seedy cousins at a warehouse by the docks leading to a shady exchange.

The ex & current gf: AWKWARD
Lots of familiar faces pass through Felicity: Jennifer Garner is Noel's long distance, then ex, then on-again girlfriend. As a viewer, you kind of gear up to hate whoever his girl is since he's clearly meant to be with Felicity (maybe just my opinion) but when I saw it was Jennifer Garner, I thought, dangit, I can't not like her! Another pre-Alias J.J. Abrams favorite is Greg Grunberg, who was in Alias and played Matt Parkman in Heroes. He was also the pilot in Lost (and considering what happened to the plane, it was only a guest appearance). Greg plays Sean, one of Ben's roommates, because for some reason Ben lives in a loft and not the dorms. I must have missed why that's the case, but no matter. It gives the characters a reason to get off-campus and discuss their feelings in a new setting!

Krakow: more '80s than '90s
And then there's poor Brian Krakow. He's the curly-haired nerd from My So-Called Life who realized his chance with Angela Chase was futile after she quit yearbook and dyed her hair. He's another loner here as The Pink Guy (because he makes the tragic mistake of not separating colors and whites) and Julie takes pity on him and they date. But, the story's not over. Brian Krakow is... a rapist. The rape episode includes all the right lessons: Julie reports him, she questions what a sexual assault means, the rapist is vilified by other students. Krakow is defeated. He knows he's done for and sadly transfers back to Minnesota. And we haven't seen him since 1999...

One last face I proudly identified is one of the guys in the dorm who's always trying to use Noel's crush and eventual relationship with Felicity as blackmail, citing RAs can't date students (which seems really stupid) so he can get away with installing a satellite dish and running a hand model agency from his room. This actor played Chuck who wrote the Supernatural book series in the TV show Supernatural.
Chuck is not nearly as cool as Sam or Dean

You guys don't know Supernatural? Dean and Sam realized their lives were recorded in book form and showed up at their own fan convention... OK, moving on. (You should definitely watch Supernatural).

They actually go to class!
Toward the end of the season, everything is falling apart. Everyone's breaking up or getting together with someone who's probably totally wrong for them. Ben is GAMBLING. Noel is MOVING OUT. Felicity has a fling with an ARTIST (who's way cuter than Ben but I don't quite like him enough to oust Noel). Sean is filming a DOCUMENTARY. It's very Reality Bites.

In the season-ender, Ben is SUDDENLY HAIRCUT. He looks totally different and kind of cute. He also fends off the advances of his a friend's girlfriend, respecting the bro over the ho (I can't believe people legitimately say "bros before hoes"). His relationship with Julie ends, although at least it's not because he cheated on her. Noel didn't move out but he's going to Berlin for an internship for the summer. Felicity and Noel are on, then off, then... sort-of. There was going to be a road trip from NYC to California with the whole gang (not Elena since she's boinking Professor Prince Humperdink (really, it's the same actor)), but now the trip is just Ben, going back home to CA. Noel's heading to his internship earlier than he thought, and he invites Felicity. She's got to decide: Europe with her sort-of boyfriend, or a road trip with her long-time crush?


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Book Review: Let it Snow

Title: Let it Snow
Authors: Maureen Johnson, John Green, Lauren Myracle
Genre: YA short stories
Published: 2008

I figured this was fitting for the season; three Young Adult authors write about a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. The movie rights have been optioned, so there's a chance we'll see this on the big screen. I thought that was weird at first, why make a film out of three short stories, but read on!

I could tell by the first few pages the first story was written by Maureen Johnson; being a follower of her on twitter, the writng had her spastic, observational humor all over it (if you're on twitter and don't follower her, you should: @maureenjohnson). The story starts with a girl named Jubilee, who goes by a variety of nicknames to sidestep her awful namesake which derives from a building in a collectible miniature Christmas village her parents are obsessed with. Her plans to spend Christmas Eve at her boyfriend's family's smorgasbord are thwarted when 1.) her parents are jailed after a scuffle at the Flobie Christmas village convention, where a riot broke out over a limited edition piece 2.) her parents are sending her by train to Florida to be with her grandparents 3.) the train gets snowbanked in a town two hours south and she's stranded, boyfriendless and alone.

What follows is a quirky although not entirely unbelievable tale about a Waffle House, a heartbroken teen boy named Stuart who finds her, and his mother's insistence on taking care of a wayward girl alone on Christmas Eve. Jubilee isn't too happy her boyfriend isn't responding to her calls and texts, and she's not sure what to think of this new guy and his creepily obsessive, although genuinely kind, mother. It's filled with a hundred details that make the story enjoyable - specifically how her parent's have attained widespread notoriety as part of "The Flobie Five," who got arrested over the collectible village.

The next story is John Green's, and it again features a Waffle House and a snowstorm. And hey, these guys know Stuart from the first story. It's connected! I love stuff like this. Out of boredom, three friends venture into the storm to the Waffle House where they've heard a team of cheerleaders are stranded. This is the same Waffle House Jubilee eagerly vacated with Stuart to get away from the cheerleaders from her train after it got stuck. It's a typical John Green set-up: awkward gu, whip-smart and somehow unattainable girl, hilarious sidekick involved in a caper. It's solid, and ties together aspects of the first story.

Lauren Myracle's piece is about Addie, a girl who broke up with Jeb who was on Jubilee's train. I thought it was kind of interesting in the first story how Jeb is featured at first but then he completely drops off. The heartbreak and wallowing feels a little cliche, and I have to admit, I didn't enjoy this one as much as the first two. Characters from the other stories show up at the end to the Starbucks where Addie works, and connect the story further. It's satisfying to see how everyone knows each other.
I don't usually go for holiday books but this one is a lot of fun and doesn't feel one-note. It manages to convey the holiday theme without being sappy.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy 2012!

The trend is to ask about New Year's Resolutions, but I was wondering, what are you most of proud of accomplishing in 2011?

For me:

  • Attended a writer's group and submitted a short piece of fiction for critique (scary the first time!)
  • Attended dozens of book events and a conference. Met authors and started to network more about writing and books
  • Made significant progress in my own writing projects
  • Read 54 books and exceeded my Goodreads goal
  • Went on a real vacation!
How about you? What are you proud of having completed or started last year?