Thursday, March 12, 2020

Throwback Thursday #2: Spirited Away (dvd)

In need of a great movie to watch over the weekend, I asked around... And was given Spirited Away. I've seen some of the films to come out of Studio Ghibli (I especially loved When Marnie Was There), but this, perhaps the studio's most well-known, somehow eluded me.

Until now.

Spirited Away is about a young girl who, along with her parents, gets trapped in the Spirit Realm. Chichiro is upset about having to move away from her friends and us reluctant to follow her parents when they stop to explore a seemingly-abandoned village. Good thing she does, though, because her parents are transformed into pigs when they stop to eat at a mysterious, but also deserted, restaurant. The whole family is trapped when the sun sets and the village comes alive (?) with ghosts and spirits. Chichiro learns the only way to rescue her parents and escape is to outwit the evil sorceress who oversees the village. Something that is much harder than it seems.

Spirited Away ranks right up there with the Strangest Movies I've Ever Seen... and I've seen some odd ones! (The most bizarre being Stalker, a Russian-language film I watched at a friend's house because her BF liked to show guests odd movies...just to mess with them. I'm told Stalker actually inspired the Jeff VanderMeer book Annihilation. Having read this book and watched the movie, I can definitely see the influenceOverall, I'm not sure if I liked Spirited Away or not. I'm sure much was lost in the translation, being that this is not originally an English-language movie, and several cultural differences added another level of foreign-ness to the experience. But I can see how the film is as popular as it is...especially among Anime fans. If nothing else, it was certainly entertaining and kept me guessing right to the end.

So thank you to the kid who recommended Spirited Away (you know who you are). Now I can say I've seen it. 

--AJB

Throwback Thursday: Ten Miles Past Normal, by Frances O'Roark Dowell

Sometimes it's fun to re-read books you read when they were new and see how they stack up. Sometimes these books are still great. Sometimes.... Well, sometimes they lose something in the re-read, whether they're no longer timely or they're just not as good as you thought they were.

Fortunately, Ten Miles Past Normal, by Frances O'Roark Dowell (originally published 2011) is pretty much just as great as the first time I read it.

Ten Miles Past Normal stars high school freshman Janie Gorman, a former suburban kid whose parents moved to the country to try their hand at goat farming (it's a long story). Janie wants nothing more than to blend in with the rest of her classmates. Not be Miss Popularity. Just... blend in. Something that's hard to do when you sometimes come to school with goat poop on your shoe or hay in your hair (OK, so these things don't happen every day, but their single occurrences live in infamy in the hallowed high school halls).  To complicate things, Janie's friend group got split up and she and her BFF Sara have been growing apart. 

Ten Miles Past Normal begins with Janie acting very uptight and restrictive about all things that could cause her to stand out any more than she already does: Refusing to try new things, not wanting to associate with people who could be considered "weird" or "different"... that sort of thing. She's absolutely humiliated by her family. In particular, her mother, who has a popular blog about life down on the farm. Actually, Janie is a bit of a brat when we, the reader, first meet her.  And I really didn't like her much. 

Gradually, though, Janie begins to loosen up. She makes friends with Verbena and Monster, two students who are just the sort of people she would have avoided at first. She joins the school's Jam Band as the sole female bass player. She even starts to be OK with farm life. And when the story finishes, Janie has become a really awesome character.

No more spoilers, though. 

I first read Ten Miles Past Normal when it was first published. It was a book I checked out solely based on the awesome cover and ended up loving. And I was so happy to discover the book was just as great the second go-around...almost 10 years later. The plot development and the character growth are handled so well. It's a great coming-of-age story. There were a couple bits that gave me pause (the "Just Say No" moment felt really random and forced and After School Special, and it didn't at all fit with the story), but otherwise it was pretty much the perfect book.

--AJB

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood, by Ben Zaehringer

There's no denying it's a serious world out there right now. Between global pandemic panics, pre-election political warfare, and enough celebrity drama to keep the tabloids in business until the dawn of the next millennium, it's hard to avoid being brought down by it all. 

That's where humor comes in.

Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood, the new comic collection by Ben Zaehringer, is filled with enough laughs to brighten even the darkest, most worrisome day. Or at least provide a decent break from it all.  Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood is filled with short comics that poke fun at everything from Santa Claus to pop culture to alien abductions (Spoiler: Space Roomba). Nothing is immune. The drawings aren't particularly complex. In fact, the characters are pretty much stick figures, but that makes the humor all the better (think South Park). 

Overall... Awesome! 

--AJB


Thursday, March 5, 2020

She Ra and the Princesses of Power: Legend of the Fire Princess, by GiGi D.G.

Not gonna lie: I am so loving all these graphic novel reboots of cartoons I watched as a child back in the 1980s (yep, guys, I'm that old). While I don't remember She-Ra as well as I do Jem and the Holograms, I still had fun revisiting the story and its colorful (literally) cast of characters.

Legend of the Fire Princess, by GiGi D.G. is the first graphic novel in the series. The story opens with a conference among the Princesses. Their leader warns the ladies (and Bo, don't forget Bo...the one and only guy in the whole story) of a growing power in the nearby wastelands. Legend tells that those very wastelands were once a rich and beautiful kingdom. But the ruler got hold of the powerful Fire Runestone. Mistakenly thinking she could control it and use its powers for good, the ruler attempted to wield it. She thought wrong...and destroyed her entire kingdom in the process. The Fire Rune was thought lost to time. But recently there have been stirrings where the stone was last seen. So Adora (a.k.a. She-Ra) and friends are sent to destroy it. But not all of the company think the stone should be destroyed. In fact, some think they are powerful enough to use the stone against the enemy Horde.

So it seems we have a very Lord of the Rings theme going on here, don't we Precious?

The ladies (and Bo) find the Stone...but so do Horde minions, Scorpia, Catra and Entrapta. An epic battle ensues. Complete with battle bots. And magic swords. And elemental powers. Pretty much, it could be anyone's win... But then Entrapta somehow activates the unstable and terrible power of the Stone, forcing everyone to evacuate empty-handed. The enemies flee back to the Horde H.Q., where they're sure to catch it from The Boss. Meanwhile, the Princesses (and Bo) use the power of Friendship to neutralize the stone and pretty much render it useless (I think). 

So no giant Eagles swooped in to save the day. But there were friendship hugs. So. Many. Friendship. Hugs. 

And a shocking little plot twist nugget that hinted at Adora's possibly dark past. Which I hope is expanded upon in future issues. I also hope the authors indulge my Scorpia-Catra ship (because there totally is Ship Potential there).

Overall, Legend of the Fire Princess was a quick and fun read. I 100% enjoyed it and am looking forward to the next one!

--AJB

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Plain Janes, by Cecil Cadtelucci

I needed something good to read that would be a quick read, so I grabbed Cecil Castelucci's graphic novel The Plain Janes, which just hit the "New" shelf. This book is actually three stories in one, detailing the (mis)adventures of four highschoolers, all named Jane, and their pursuit to bring art appreciation to their small town -- Despite the art-hating police chief, who attempts to thwart them at every turn.

I thought The Plain Janes would be cute, lighthearted story about four art nerds. Something I, also an art nerd, could totally get into. I mean, look at the cover: It's so happy and adorable! But the story was actually much more serious than that. It touched on heavy topics like censorship, paranoia, fear, and the dark side of family and friend dynamics. I didn't expect so many politics. You have to be careful when you're an author writing about politics. It's very easy to get caught up in a rant and have your story suffer. I've seen it happen.  More so in recent years than ever before. It's not a pretty thing. But with Plain Janes I never once felt like I was being force-fed any kind of agenda, so I was able to sit back and enjoy the story (and root for the Janes, of course).

Overall, I loved the story of how these four underdogs banded together to change their entire town by introducing art and flowers and beauty. It is an inspiring story of friendship and how several small changes can lead to one BIG change. I loved it!

--AJB

Monday, February 24, 2020

Honeymoon by Beach Bunny

When I first heard "Prom Queen" by Beach Bunny on Alt Nation, I had a kind of gut reaction to it.  For a moment I thought that I was on the 90's grunge and alternative station and that they were playing some old Riot Grrl song that I didn't know.  Then I saw that it was new.  I added it to my playlist and it has been in heavy rotation.  It's one of those songs that, for me, feels like it's just always been there.

"Prom Queen" isn't on this album but as soon as we got it in I had to check it out anyway.  I LOVE it.  I think you should listen to it but you're going to have to wait until I return it which could be a while...

Beach Bunny is an alternative/surf band from Chicago.  If I could liken their sound to other bands I would call it a cross between Silversun Pickups, L7, and the Raincoats. It had a great 90's vibe and is super catchy.For me the standout track was the last one, "Cloud 9."

Friday, February 21, 2020

Throwback... Friday? (Book/Movie Pairing: Paper Towns by John Green)

The one thing about pretty much very John Green book ever written is you can rely on certain things...pretty much in the same way you can rely on the Earth to take (approximately) 356.25 days orbit around the Sun: 

1. A Teenage Main Character who is a bit too whiny for their own good. Said character is often highly intelligent and more well-read than the average college graduate, but always lacks common sense (see 3)

2. An Unattainable Love Interest who is SO darn bizarre they don't even seem real, but, rather, like a mixed bag of the most weird and random personality quirks the author could dream up. They're more Caricature than character.

3. Drama, drama and...wait for it... MORE drama. And did I mention there's drama? Because there is. Lots of it. Said drama is always caused by the Love Interest and always, always derails the life of the Main Character. Because Main Character just can't leave things be (see 1).

4. The Classic Chick Lit Best Friend (or friends). Because every Hero/Heroine needs a Wingman (or Wingwoman) to feed into and encourage their obsession over the Unattainable Love Interest. And to provide (over-the-top) comic relief.

It doesn't matter if the above characters are male or female. This is the formula. It obviously works, because the books sell. And there was a time when we couldn't even keep them on the shelf (That time has pretty much passed. Magical Warrior Princesses seem to be what's in right now). 

I recently re-read Green's Paper Towns (2008) and followed it up with the movie adaption. The story is typical faire: Good Kid Quinten, or "Q" to his friends, has been 100% obsessed with his neighbor, Margo, since the day she and her family moved next door. Margo is a free-spirited quirk fest whose reputation as a wild child precedes her (and she's actually done most of what the rumors say she's done). After years of ignoring Q, she suddenly shows up at his window and precedes to drag him on an all-night revenge mission of vandalism and destruction, cumulating with breaking into Sea World. And all this without getting caught or arrested. Because, you know, she's Margo. The next day, Margo has vanished. But she's left an elaborate series of near-impossible-to-crack clues as to her whereabouts. Clues that Q drops everything to solve, thus putting in jeopardy his perfect attendance record, the trust of his parents, and the relationship with his best friends... because said friends inevitably get dragged along for the ride. They eventually find Margo, but (spoiler) the story doesn't end like Q hopes. 

The movie adaption pretty much followed the book. Except for the ending which, in my opinion, should have stuck closer to the original story. But the casting was decent (although I pictured Margo differently). And I was entertained enough to keep watching. 

Overall, though. I didn't like Margo...in either the book or the movie. For all her crazy quirks, she didn't have much of a personality. And I didn't understand what Q (or anyone else, for that matter) saw in her. Maybe if she'd had some redeeming features, I could get behind such a character. Rather, she came across as a selfish brat who was just out to screw up everyones' lives in order to alleviate her own boredom. 

Also, no one. And I mean NO ONE would have realistically been that bothered to find and decipher that cryptic and vague trail of clues. 

But otherwise, we wouldn't have had a story. 

I can see the appeal of Paper Towns to its intended audience. And it's a nice break from Warrior Princesses. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Strange Ones, by Jeremy Jusay

Imagine this:

It's a slow afternoon, not quite time for the after school crowd, and I figure I'd browse the "New" shelf. I come across Jeremy Jusay's graphic novel, The Strange Ones, tucked away between two much more brightly-colored books. I suddenly recall reading some buzz about this book weeks ago, but couldn't remember exactly the where or when or what. So I pick it up and am instantly absorbed in by the story.

Set in the mid-90s, around the time I was just finishing up Senior Year and getting ready to head off to college (into the unknown), The Strange Ones centers on a friendship formed between Anjeline and Franck, two loner teens each struggling to put their past demons behind them. As they explore New York City, they bond over cheap food and the alternative music scene. They become each other's first friend in a long time. They each become what the other needs...even though they have no idea of this when they first meet.

And then Franck dies.

And Anjeline is left to cope with the aftermath.

Honestly... I wasn't exactly expecting that twist. At all. I thought this was going to be one of sweet, dime-a-dozen stories about the healing power of friendship. Maybe with a romance blossoming toward the end. And it sort of was. Just not the way I expected. But after some thought, the story (as dark as it became at one point) was exactly as it should be. And I wouldn't have changed a thing about it.

Sometimes you NEED a story with all the feels (one besides warm fuzzy ones), and The Strange Ones definitely delivered.

I loved this story so much more than I expected to. And I'm happy I picked it up.

--AJB

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

I recently finished Kelly Barnhill's (award-winning) YA novel The Girl Who Drank the Moon, as it is one of our 2020 Battle of the Books selections. This is your typical Fantasy, filled with Dragons, Witches, Wizards, Monsters, Heroes, Villains, Castles, Towers, Magic, Danger, Adventure, and One Very Special Girl. All the standard fantasy tropes have found a home within the pages of this one. It was cute... And well-written... But I didn't think there was anything particularly special about it.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a juvenile fantasy.

Anyway... without being too Spoilery

Five hundred years ago (give or take), a terrible volcano erupted, devastating the Protectorate and the surrounding forest. There was a dragon involved. And a wizard. And a witch. It's unclear what exactly went down that fateful day. Not many are still alive who witnessed the events. And history always gets changed and reshaped to fit the ideals and views of Those In Charge. Long story short: People blame the Witch in the Woods (isn't there always a witch in the woods?), and every year on Sacrifice Day the village Elders leave a baby in the woods to appease her. I suppose so she doesn't unleash her wrath upon them again. Or there could be a more corrupt reason behind the tradition. Either way, the witch isn't who people think she is. And this year's baby is very special indeed. 

These elements combined....the Smack, predictably, is about to go Down!

What happens next?

You'll just have to read to find out. 

--AJB

Friday, January 17, 2020

Call Down the Hawk, by Maggie Stiefvater

I've been a fan of Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle series since the first book came out back in the early 2010's. This was a world that was mysterious and magical and, quite literally, the stuff of dreams...but without being exaggerated and over-the-top like, say, Harry Potter (which I also love, but sometimes it's all just too much). So I was absolutely thrilled when a spinoff trilogy was announced.

Call Down the Hawk is the first book in the Dreamer Trilogy and focuses on Raven Boy Ronan Lynch, a character who can take objects from his dreams and bring them into the waking world (awesome superpower, by the way). And I'm happy to announce that this new series is shaping up to be just as good, if not better than, the one from which it spawned. 

In Hawk, the reader learns that there has been a dire prophecy: A Dreamer, the technical term for what Ronan is, will somehow manifest the End of the World. As in Actual End. As in Apocalypse of Flames. The agency that learned of this prophecy has no specifics on who and when, so they've been dispatching bounty hunters to locate and dispose of the world's Dreamers (Surprise! Ronan is not the only one). Ronan must team up with rogue dreamer Hennessy and the mysterious Bryde if he is to stop whatever dream entity is waiting to escape and make the prophecy come true.

In Hawk, the reader gets to know Ronan and the Brothers Lynch better (the Raven Cycle focused more on other characters). We're also introduced to Dreamer Hennessy, who is living with a death sentence of a recurring dream that will eventually kill her... To Jordan, a literal dream girl that wants nothing more than to break away from her Dreamer and become an independent, living and breathing person... To Carmen, a bounty hunter who is starting to question the motives of the agency that hired her.

The characters, the plot, the world building, and, of course, a killer cliffhanger come together to make Call Down the Hawk a book you won't be able to put down. The only drawback will be waiting a year (or more) for the next installment.

--AJB

Monday, January 13, 2020

Abominable

I was so excited to see Dreamworks' latest film, Abominable. So when I finally had the opportunity over the weekend, I was thrilled. 

Abominable is a cute story of a baby Yeti who escapes his captors and recruits three kids to help him get back to his home at the peak of Mount Everest. They are led on a dangerous trek across China, evading SWAT teams, diabolical scientists, and conniving rare animal collectors before finally reaching their goal. The good guys win and the bad guys get dropped off the edge of a cliff, presumably to meet their untimely demise. Happy ending. YAY!! 

Plus there was the film's undeniably stellar animation (I mean, Dreamworks is probably my favorite animation studio, producing such gems as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda). 

I should have loved this film. But despite all that Abominable had going for it, the viewing left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. 

Nothing about this film felt finished to me: The main characters were one-dimensional, despite all their personal dramasI felt that I should feel something for their plights, but I didn't. Even the villains were uninspired with no true motivations for why they were so evil. Worse, the storyline has been done before (and done better) in other movies (probably Disney). Even the attempts at humor fell flat. Everything about this movie lacked creativity. It seemed like the entire project was rushed. The end result is a movie that seems like it will be cute and heartwarming but, in reality, is totally forgettable.

If I can say anything good about Abominable is this: At least it was better than CATS.

--AJB