Baby Driver

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Phenomenal.

There is literally nothing about this movie that I didn’t love. I saw it three times in the space of four days and cannot wait to own it so I can watch it again whenever I want. If you have not seen it, you should do that right now. Run, don’t walk. And when you do watch it, pay close attention to the music—it is so much more than a soundtrack. In fact, my wonderful friend Cailey, who is incredibly intelligent and well versed in all things Hollywood, told me that she would classify this as a modern musical . . . one where musical numbers are abandoned in favour of a score that is integral to the pacing, the choreography (not the dancing), the gunfire, and even the love story.

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Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

IAveyard_RedQueenf I had never read the Hunger Games trilogy or the Lunar Chronicles or the Mortal Instruments, or watched the Divergent movies or The 100 television series, I would most certainly have been blown out of the water by this dystopian YA novel.

However, this tale—about a teenaged girl living in a downtrodden society ruled by an elite race of [super-]beings with special skills and a fondness for killing for/as sport, who accidentally discovers that she is also special and is then thrown into an adventure that includes self-discovery, empowerment, battle training, a few unnecessary deaths, a violent stand off (or three), a love triangle, and an unexpected (yet totally expected) twist at the end—hits a lot of the same notes that all of the above series hit, which makes Red Queen just another iteration of a novel that I have read many many times.

That said, it is a very good iteration. I appreciate the world, the premise, the characters, and the pacing, AND there were approximately three “twists” that I honest-to-goodness did not see coming.

So, if you’re over this trend of YA dystopian novels in the vein of the Hunger Games and the Lunar Chronicles, you could probably skip this one. But if you can’t get enough of strong female characters in the vein of Tris and Clarke (and even Clary) who face ridiculous challenges and surmount incredible odds to fight for justice and freedom and to protect their family and their fellow downtrodden comrades, then, by all means, jump on the bandwagon and discover the spitfire that is Mare Barrow.

No. 16 on my challenge. The talented Victoria Aveyard was but 25 when this, her debut, was published in 2015. She has since published six subsequent novels in this series / universe and has two more on the way.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

McKay_WitchesI have been enchanted by Ami McKay since her first novel, The Birth House, and it seems she still has me under her spell. (See what I did there? This book is about witches. You get it.)

With both The Birth House and The Virgin Cure, McKay set a precedent as an author of great skill and imagination, and The Witches of New York certainly rises to the occasion. No matter the story, McKay writes evocatively, and effortlessly transports the reader back to early 20th century Nova Scotia or late 19th century Manhattan. She has a knack for convincingly integrating fact (historical tidbits about the setting, medical practices, high society, etcetera) and fiction, and a talent for creating incredible women who are vivid, strong, intelligent, and able to persevere and thrive in the face of adversity and misfortune.

Witches is technically a sequel to The Virgin Cure—it returns to the story of young Moth, now Adelaide Thom—but this new installment is entirely able to stand on its own. It’s the first of McKay’s novels to venture into the mystical, and even the touches of magic are so well integrated that they seem almost normal—as if psychics and spell keepers and young girls who can commune with the spiritual world have always been a part of the natural fabric of Manhattan, and McKay has simply pulled them straight from history, finally telling the stories of the witches of New York.

No. 12 on my challenge. Ami McKay lives in Nova Scotia and my edition of the book was published by Knopf Canada.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

Saga.StapletonI had no idea what I was going to read for our graphic novel category, but before I even had time to fret about it, the lovely Rosie came to my rescue—she sent me the first volume of Saga through the mail. Snail mail no less!

And I’m going to tell you right now, I’m glad she did.

It’s a strange story about love and family in a universe that’s totally bonkers, but from the first frame it effortlessly transports you to a world that you’re inexplicably fascinated by. Cyborgs with human bodies and computer screens for heads are royalty, alligators are butlers, horns and wings are typical human appendages, bounty hunters have eight legs and no arms or a lie-detecting cat, and ghosts are a secret weapon in an age-old war (and great babysitters). Its universe-so-crazy-you-can’t-help-but-accept-whatever-comes-next aesthetic has garnered more than a few comparisons to Star Wars, and I totally see where they’re coming from.

It’s creative and crazy and violent and sentimental. It’s jam packed with fully realized characters that are neither good nor bad, but who are fighting in accordance to their orders, their moral code, or their desire to be free of a senseless war. Oh, and it’s absolutely beautiful and unexpectedly funny. I can’t wait to get into Volume Two and beyond.

No. 25 on my challenge. Thank you, Rosie!

 

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

Hang on to your hats, folks. My first post in nearly three months just happens to be for a book that I adored and from which I scribbled down pages of notes and quotes, so this might take a while . . .

kendrick_scrappylittlenobodyIf you’ve been paying attention, you probably know by now that I read a lot of memoirs, celebrity or otherwise. My love for the genre started with The Glass Castle and ran amok from there. Some of my favourites are Augusten Burrough’s A Wolf at the Table, his brother John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye, Una LaMarche’s Unabrow, Amanda Lindhout’s A House in the Sky (seriously, this one), and of course Jenny Lawson’s brilliantly hilarious Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy. These authors, and many, many others, have captivated me simply by telling their stories, their history, their truth (fair warning: Augusten Burroughs doesn’t define truth the same way that we do).

I’m pretty sure, though, that this is the first time I’ve read a celebrity memoir that is just so.darn.relatable. (Now, you’re thinking, “Yeah, right, Tori. You relate to Anna Kendrick on a personal level. I’m sure.” Give it a minute.)

I have always loved Anna Kendrick as an actress and as a famous personality. She can act with the best of them and she’s got a set of pipes that nobody expected to find hiding in her tiny frame. She seems quirky and hilarious and genuine and I was very pleased to find that, between the pages of her well-written memoir, she is just as weird and adorable and ridiculous as she portends to be. She convincingly demonstrates, through many amusing and wacky anecdotes, that despite her current career she truly is just a scrappy little nobody that happens to be insanely famous. And she manages to do it without being arrogant or pompous.

So here it is, the relatable part, as exhibited via selected quotes. Read this and tell me you don’t feel a kinship to this little weirdo:

She’s afraid of getting too comfortable in her career 
I’d moved away from everything I knew and loved at seventeen in spite of how scared I was. I wondered if I would still have it in me to do something I found so daunting? Aren’t you supposed to get more independent as you get older? Shouldn’t I be bolder, more self-sufficient? Have I gotten comfortable? Have I stopped pushing myself the way I did when I was trying to ‘make something of myself’? Was that a fluke?

She doesn’t believe she’s special, and some days can’t believe this is her life
Saying other kids were mean felt like I was saying I was more kind, which [I] definitely wasn’t . . I guess all I was feeling was that I was different. Sometimes I’ll be at work and get that same feeling. I am not like these people. I don’t know what I’m doing here.

She’s bitterly sarcastic and delightfully self-aware
I lost a Tony Award to Broadway legend Audra McDonald when I was twelve, so I’ve been a bitter bitch since before my first period. I’m very proud to have lost that Tony to Ms. McDonald. She is one of the finest talents in the theatre world and genuine Broadway royalty. I also feel that if I had won and made a televised speech at age twelve, the delayed embarrassment would have been so severe, I’d currently be a Howard Hughes-style shut-in, but without the money for the mansion or the planes or the legion of servants to take away bottles of my urine.

She’s not sure if she’s an adult or if she’s just really good at playing one
Renting an apartment on my own and going to work at Lincoln Centre made me feel very grown-up. I was constantly congratulating myself for the smallest things. Yeah, I’m just riding the subway to work in New York City like it’s no big deal. Which of course meant that to me, at every moment, it was a HUGE deal. I wish I could say this masquerading-as-an-adult-and-getting-away-with-it feeling was exclusive to being seventeen, but so many things in my life are still like that. Yeah, I’m checking my email on a laptop I own like it’s no big deal.

She’s got a healthy dose of self-doubt
I think I’m supposed to act as though I always knew I’d find success (not out loud, obviously—just using some heavy-handed subtext), but moving to Los Angeles felt like that dream where you’re naked in a grocery store, hoping that no one will notice. I figured I’d be discovered and thrown out at some point. I’m still waiting.

The simple act of moving to the big city didn’t mean her life was instantly amazing
How do I describe my personal life during this time [after moving to LA]? I met funny, interesting people, I went to art galleries downtown, I performed a one-woman show for free on the street corner. Except none of that’s true. I was alone and freaked out and I stayed in my room a lot. I spent most of my time trying to find ways to occupy myself without spending money or ingesting calories. I didn’t have any friends. Well, I didn’t know anyone. Which is the less depressing way to say I didn’t have any friends.

She’s just as gullible as she is naive
“I’ve seen you on meth?!”
“I would say, for the last year, you’ve only seen me on meth.”
I’m the biggest idiot on the planet.
“Why do you think I never wanted to eat the food you were baking?”
“You said you didn’t have a sweet tooth! I believed you! Because, you know, I believe people when they say things!”
He was laughing now. I’d gotten shrill and frazzled. I was laughing with my friend about how he was hiding a meth problem from me. This is when I learned that I cannot tell when people are are on drugs. At all.

Romance and relationships are an enigma to her
It’s not that deep down I want someone to “take care of me”, it’s that I’m exhausted, and occasionally overwhelmed by self-doubt. I’m steering the ship, but I don’t know what I’m doing. None of us do. But it would be so nice to believe that someone out there did, and that maybe they could take the wheel for a little while. It’s a seductive feeling. It would be great if it were real. But I guess I’ve got to count on myself. Which is not great news.

She’s clueless when it comes to fashion
When Up in the Air was chosen to premier at the Toronto International Film Festival, Paramount Pictures hired a professional stylist for me. I suspect word had gotten back to them that I enjoyed dressing like a teenager who lived in her car, and while that was spectacularly endearing, it would be in their best interest to have someone help me dress like an adult woman.

She’s a tightfisted bitch who knows how to stretch a dollar because even famous people need budgets (my personal favourite)
“The Louboutins are a little pricier than the others, but it’s your first big premier, and I think they’re really special.”
“Okay, how much are those?”
“One thousand ninety-nine.”
Dollars? A thousand dollars?! That’s more than my rent! Like, a lot more! Maybe you’ve noticed that I live with two dudes and sleep in an Ikea twin bed. Or has living in a world of luxury for so long left you unable to recognize the signature lines and craftsmanship of the Malm collection? (For context: my stylist was earning more to dress me for Up in the Air-related events than I did for making the actual movie.) There was a feeling from the people around me at that time that although I hadn’t made much money yet, things were about to start going so well that huge checks were right around the corner! I should spend whatever I had to, even if it seemed imprudent, because I’d have tons of money in just a few months! I’m glad I was such a tightfisted bitch, because the money didn’t follow for about two years. In fact, Twilight was the only thing keeping me above water. I’ve said in the past that without that series I would have been evicted, and people think I’m joking. Nope. Me and my Oscar nom would have been living in my car. Which is a charming story now, but at the time I did not find it funny.

This
Now, I know just enough to know that I don’t know anything.

And, last but not least, she’s still figuring out what it means to grow up
With every birthday, I have stupidly expected to feel different only to discover that I’m still me: tragically lazy and childish . . . Every now and then I test the waters of self-improvement with some practical changes . . . I expect to take an interest in my retirement plan, understand general car maintenance, and do my laundry on a schedule instead of three days after I run out of underwear. But just thinking about that stuff makes me want to lie on the floor and eat packets of Easy Mac until I feel too swollen and turgid to do anything but dream up elaborate ways to murder everyone who says “life hack.” I power through. I’m still an embarrassment to civilized society, but now I change the toilet paper roll instead of resting it vertically on top of the old one. There’s hope.

 

I could go on, but I don’t need Touchstone tracking me down for copyright infringement, so I’ll stop here and get to the point: I’m just like Anna Kendrick. And the brilliant thing is, if you read her book, you’ll realize that she’s just like you, too.

No. 24 on my challenge.

The Mortal Instruments+ by Cassandra Clare

So . . . it’s the end of March, officially spring already, and I’m just now diving into this year’s book challenge (and no—I still haven’t finished 2016). But boy, did I jump in with a vengeance.

Now, you may remember that when we came up with this year’s challenge, Rosie and I decided that we were going to be more mindful of who and what we were reading. We endeavoured to read books by people of colour, books by young women, books to make us smarter, and books that had such an impact that they’d been banned from high schools. And because I wanted to read the second and third books in Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series, we also included “two books belonging to a series.”

Well, let me tell you right now that I went a little off book and a lot overboard. Not only did I not read either of the books I had planned to read, but I also chose a series that has way more than just two books and requires about 5% of my brain power. That’s right folks. I chose Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series (because the deliciously terrible Netflix show based on the series is on hiatus and I needed my fix). And, because the YA series is just as deliciously terrible (and oh so much more so), I got to work and devoured all six books (coming in at 3237 pages). And then I read the Bane Chronicles (ten “novellas”). AND THEN I cringe-read a 165,000-word fan fiction that basically just fills in the story lines of the entire series from another character’s point of view (as if I’m going to tell you which one).

In ten days.

I also slept well, ate decent meals (well, ok. I may have had cereal or popcorn a few times), went to work, went for brunch and tacos, saw Beauty and the Beast in theatres twice, and read two manuscripts. That right there is my BA in English coming in to play.

Now, since I read everything so quickly, and I read them all online, and I read the auxiliary texts interspersed with the novels, and I mixed canon with fan fiction, I can’t really tell you where one book ends and the next one starts. So for these reviews, I’m going back to my roots: short, sweet, and totally superfluous.

City of Bones

A combination of The Hunger Games (murderous teens with little-to-no parental supervision), Twilight (vampires, werewolves), and Divergent (a crew of highly trained badasses who take in and are mostly enamoured by a pretty, young, special girl with inherent and as yet untapped and undeveloped skills)—all of which I enjoyed in one medium or another. Typical start to a YA series . . . except, of course, that whole incest bit.

City of Ashes

Malec and Vampire Simon. That is all.

Oh, and the Seelie Court and the truck boat and of course Clary has the ability to create runes. Obviously.

City of Glass

Hey! You let Simon out of prison.

I don’t like Sebastian, but at least he’s not her . . . Wait. More incest? WAIT. OTHER INCEST?

MALEC!

Of course Clary saves the day. And Jace. And all of Idris. Because of course.

City of Fallen Angels

Hey, not incest! Yay! I also enjoy the effect of Simon’s religion on the weapons used against him, and that there was a consequence for Clary raising the dead (not even the Genie can bring people back from the dead). And in general, throughout the whole series I was pleasantly surprised to recognize themes of Milton’s Paradise Lost in Clare’s world of angels and demons. It reminded me that this fantasy series—as absurd as it is—is rooted in centuries-old literature that is highly respected and practically required reading for any university-level English student. I can tell you from experience that Paradise Lost is called an epic poem for a reason—Clare certainly did not shirk her homework.

Side note: dead babies. Not cool.

City of Lost Souls

Obviously, Clary is going to save the day, so my biggest take away from this entire book is that I want a magical teleporting apartment with a closet full of clothes that fit me perfectly and a training room full of weapons to hunt demons with.

Also, what the hell is with this woman and incest?

City of Heavenly Fire

In all, this was an entertaining and addictive series right to the end. I appreciate Clare’s version of a hell dimension that was essentially a mirror image to Earth that was ravaged by evil and could not be saved by too little too late. Sebastian’s reversion to Jonathan was unexpected, as was Simon’s sacrifice, and I was glad that, after two wars and several battles in six months, the whole thing wasn’t wrapped up in a convenient little bow where everyone lives happily ever after. Except, oh wait . . . it was and they do. Damnit, Clare.

The Bane Chronicles

The whole reason I started reading the Mortal Instruments series is because I religiously watch the sub-par television show, much like a bored housewife watches Days or a crazy person watches the Real Housewives. And in that terrible television show, Magnus is my favourite character by far. But it turns out he’s not that prominent of character in the books—not as compared to Clary and the Lightwoods—and I was unsatisfied with the small parts he has to play in the first and second books. So I read this. A tad long to be classified as short stories, they’re snippets of Magnus life before and during the series. Because Magnus is a bit ridiculous, so too are these novellas, but they stretch out over a few centuries and it’s fun to see how the character I’m familiar with interacted with the trends, beliefs, and taboos of the times.

In the end, I think it’s pretty clear that I enjoyed this series for what it is. There are certainly some YA fantasy series out there that are better written, that don’t hang their primary romantic relationship on incest (or the threat of it), and that don’t include demon babies (or demons of any kind), but there’s a reason this author keeps churning out novels set in the Shadowhunter universe, and why the readership keeps growing. I mean, not even a poorly received movie could deter this fandom. So I say take it for what it is and enjoy!

No. 19 and 20 (+) on my challenge. Now how am I going to fit Hollow City and Library of Souls on here?

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Yes, I’m still working on my 2016 book challenge.

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Since The Painted Girls fulfilled the “something your mom recommends” category, I present to you my genius mother’s review:

“This book called my name from several places—bookstores, airports, discount chains—so I finally gave in and purchased it. Having a niece in the ballet industry, combined with my love of historical fiction, drew me in, wooed me. And once I began to read I couldn’t put it down. The dark underbelly of Paris, teeming with ne’er-do-wells, is revealed: the façade of the well-to-do patrons, the incredible struggle of the poor, the heartbreaking sacrifices of the dancers, all woven together to create an intriguing tale of love and loss.”

No. 18 on my challenge. Thanks for the recommendation, Momma. I whole-heartedly agree.