20 Atmospheric Autumn Reads

…(An Alliterative Appellation)

…(Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.)

Hello fellow readers, and happy October! Something about Autumn, I think, is especially appealing to literary folk. C’mon: some adventurous novels, blue skies, chilly air?

OR

Dark, rainy nights, pumpkin spice candles, and a glass of Merlot served alongside mysterious and chilling tales?

You guys know what I’m talking about.

‘Tis the reading season.

Awhile back, I comprised a list of autumn reads for kids/ teens for Hip Homeschool moms. (You can read that one on their Website, here.)

When I shared the list with a friend, she asked me what my autumn book list would be for adults. Not like “for adults,” but more like the, “unedited version.”

While all of the classics from my teen list would remain (because let’s be honest, most of us can still enjoy kid and YA fiction), there are also some fall-ish novels that I love but wouldn’t feel comfortable openly recommending for YA (and under) readers.  Below, you’ll find a mix of all of the above making up my top 20 autumnal reads.

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Autumn Classics (These are for Pretty Much Everyone.)

1.Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte- a unique heroine,  a mansion with a dark secret, the test of love between two passionate souls, and a touch of magical realism that seems unique to the setting of North England. Jane Eyre is of my favorites anytime, but especially in fall and winter.

2. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte– Those Bronte sisters really knew how to weave together the feelings of a conflicted heart alongside the mystery of the English moors.  Oh, Heathcliff—in high school I loved you, and as an adult I love to hate you. I still read about you and Cathy every year, though; your tortured and unhealthy relationship is undeniably haunting.

3.  Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier–  Again with that Cornish setting. But can anyone argue that the misty moors and the roar of the cold English ocean is just plain exciting and mysterious and lends itself so completely to thrilling and slightly spooky stories like Du Maurier’s Rebecca?  Okay, no arguments? Good. (Sidenote: I can’t wait for the Netflix film version coming out later this month…just another reason you need to read this book this October!)

4. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith- An uber cozy 1930s account of an English girl who aspires to be a writer and chronicles the eccentric characters and happenings around her. Yes, I know–another British one. *Anglophile alert*

5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald- Hey, it’s an actual American novel (Arguably one of THE American novels.) Gatsby is another favorite novel of mine anytime of the year, and it’s arguably a perfect summer OR autumn read. The thrilling roar of summertime and its dreams takes up most of the book’s premise, but the momentum leads to the fateful first fall of the leaves…the end of summer and its illusions (and delusions).

Autumn YA Novels that Adults Will Enjoy Too

(Because Adults Actually Read Just as Many YA Novels As Teens Do)

6. Shiver (and Wolves of Mercy Falls Series) by Maggie Stiefvater –Not just another paranormal werewolf romance story. This New York Times Bestselling Author totally gets the raw emotions of first love. It’s a sweet and beautifully melancholy tale.

7. The Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare- You know that metallic, green book you’ve seen at Target with the washboard bare torso of a young guy on the cover? Yes, I’m actually putting that book (and the rest of the series) on my list as  guilty pleasure-reads for autumn (but hey, I’m listing them all as “one” book. ) I’m not sure who was in charge of marketing/cover layouts, but The Mortal Instruments is only slightly about dudes with abs. It’s a fun supernatural series with lots of action and witty banter: a fun series for some bathtub reading on a chilly day.

8. Wintersong by S. Jae. Jones- Labyrinth meets Phantom of the Opera! I actually reviewed this one here. It’s a dark fairy-tale that fantasy lovers will gobble up.

9. The Diviners by Libba Bray- I’m actually reading this one right now: 1920s Manhattan, mysterious murders, a plucky flapper heroine, supernatural bumps in the night. Libba Bray is a great writer, and this book is actually pretty darn creepy for a YA novel. The characters are very teenager-ly…but the story is pretty adult (kind of like her Gemma Doyle series).

10. Warm Bodies by Issac Marion- Just your typical little post-apocalyptic  love story/comedy/commentary on human nature (narrated by a Zombie.) Whatever.

11. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R King – While not technically written for a Young Adult audience, this story is definitely appealing/appropriate for teens or adults. It’s a super cozy and engaging introduction to King’s Beekeeper series, which follows a retired Sherlock Holmes and the bright, young woman who becomes his assistant.

12. THE HARRY POTTER SERIES by J. K. Rowling- If you haven’t read Harry Potter then you should. It’s okay to re-read it whenever you want, especially in fall. That’s all I have to say about that.

Not Your Kiddo’s Halloween Booklist (I think the category speaks for itself)

13. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon- Sweeping and kind of steamy historical/romance/adventure/quasi-fantasy that you’ve all probably heard of (because, you know, Starz). Because there’s some rough stuff in it, I don’t recommend Outlander to everyone, even though I personally have enjoyed what I’ve read of the series. The first books starts out with Clare stepping through standing stones in the Highlands during the feast of Samhain (Gaelic Halloween), which is one of the things that makes the first novel of this series a great October read.

14. Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman– A profound, weird, creepy, adult collection of fantastical short stories. A dash of spooky and a dollop of thoughtfulness.

15. Dead Before Dawn (A Sookie Stackhouse novel) Charlaine Harris- A Cajun-infused chick-lit romance/ blood-and-gore/ mystery/ vampire novel. A little bit of a guilty pleasure but super fun (and amazingly successful given the amount of genre crossover).

16. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice- Arguably the most iconic vampire novel since Dracula. It’s fascinating and dark and compelling.

17. Dracula by Bram Stoker- This year was actually my first year reading Dracula (with my bookclub!) It was a slow-starter, but once I was hooked I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It felt much more “mystery” to me than horror. Teen kids would be okay reading this one, actually.

18.- 19.  Rules of Magic/ Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman! I wrote a whole post about this series already! Read it here. 

20. Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman-the prequel to the last two books I mentioned! It’s currently next up on my nightstand, and I can’t wait.

There are so many books springing to mind now that I’m calling this list “done.” However, 20 seems like a good place for me to stop…for now. How about you? What are some books that scream autumnal, Halloweenish mystery to you?

I look forward to hearing about them!

-Katie

Alice Hoffman’s Most Magical Novels

“There are some things, after all, that Sally Owens knows for certain: Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can.” 
― Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic

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The Owens women from Practical Magic  (film version) were a little formative for me as a teen and young adult. Being a Christian, it may seem a little weird to some of my friends that I found a film about witchcraft to be so influential, but there it is.

(BTW: If you have never seen this film, Halloween season is the best time to watch it.)

Practical Magic is a wonderfully 90s (I love the clothes) fantasy/drama is about two sisters whom  rely on one another and ultimately set themselves free from a centuries-old curse. The curse? Any man they fall in love with will die. (There’s also a really evil boyfriend who gets killed, necromanced, and then killed for good.)

I fell in love with facets of the film: eccentric, maiden aunts in a Victorian house,  chocolate cake for breakfast (and midnight margaritas) , a garden by the sea full of lavender and rosemary,  the strong bond of sisterhood,  potions in the form of lotion and shampoo (before EOs were cool), and notion of cursed love.

For me, these elements wove a spell of mischief, whimsy and melancholy that my young INFP heart found undeniable appeal in. Despite the B-rating Rotten Tomatoes gives this movie, I don’t think I was alone in this. I know so many people who still love this film today, and I’d argue that it is possibly even a cult classic.

So, when I finally started reading Alice Hoffman’s book Practical Magic (the inspiration for the film) a few years ago, I was initially a little disappointed. Sally and Gillian, the sisters, did engage me in the way that I expected.  I actually preferred the film characters to their literary counterparts, which is an extremely unusual occurrence for me.

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But by the time I finished reading Practical Magic, I decided that I actually loved the book. I just loved it in a different way than I expected.

“Writing itself was a magical act in which imagination altered reality and gave form to power.” 
― Alice Hoffman, The Rules of Magic

 Hoffman often writes in the genre of magical realism, and she nails it.  She blends together the real world and elements of magic so completely that, as a reader, the whole thing becomes seamless.

It is all real. It is all magic. 

Something that definitely helps with this is her ability to craft a vivid setting for the worlds in her books. In the case of Practical Magic (and the prequel, The Rules of Magic), much of this hinges on the Owen’s family home: an old house, on an ordinary street, where even the dust motes seem brimming with magic.

Even more so,  Hoffman excels at crafting the world of her story around a theme.  The way she does this, especially in conjunction with the genre of magical realism, gives the adult reader a special gift: a novel that speaks to the heart in a way that only a true fairy tale can–revealing truths dark and deep, bright and sparkling. As someone who devours fiction, this is what I love.

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So when The Rules of Magic, long-awaited prequel to Practical Magic, came out a couple of years ago, I had already pre-ordered it.

Almost as soon as I Rules of Magic, I was hooked. I loved many of the same things about it as Practical Magic: the world-building, the  omens, raw bits of wisdom, the whimsical tone.

But there were new things that immediately drew me in, too. The setting of 1960s New York was fascinating, and I found myself much more engaged with the characters (younger versions of the aunts in Practical Magic, and their brother, Vincent.)

What I loved the most, though, was the way Rules of Magic took the web of themes that we find in Practical Magic and went deepersimultaneously dissecting  and expanding upon them. 

There are many kinds of love explored in this work and – at the center of it all – heartbreak and startling truth. Two truths, especially, spoke to me in both of these books.

  1. Love is a curse.
  2. The only way to survive the curse of love is to love more.

If you’ve lost someone that you love, you’ll recognize this “curse” and the way it plays out for the Owens sisters within their fantastical setting.  You know what it is to lie awake at night and fear the inevitable: that this curse of love is one that you will meet again and again.

There is nothing you can do to escape it. It is a fearful, heavy thought—more than sadness: horror. It does feel like a curse. It’s something that not everyone understands–until they experience a major loss for themselves. At some point, we all realize that it’s a curse we will have to live with.

“I’m fated to lose everyone I ever love,” April said. “I already know that.” “Of course you are,” Jet responded in her calm, measured tone. “That’s what it means to be alive.” 
― Alice Hoffman, The Rules of Magic

It is tempting to reach the same conclusion that the characters in Practical Magic/The Rules of Magic do at various times in the the narrative: don’t love at all, and the curse will be irrelevant.

However, as Hoffman explores in this duo of grown-up fairy tales: to attempt to resist love totally is to truly fall under the power of the curse. Yes, the curse of love is real, but the only way to break free of the curse it to continue to choose love, over and over again.

“Know that the only remedy for love is to love more.” 
― Alice Hoffman, The Rules of Magic

It’s a hard lesson to explain, one of those things you don’t get until you feel it. One of the reasons I love fiction is that it allows us to feel and understand things as though we’ve experienced them. It creates empathy with others and helps us to understand ourselves more deeply, too.

Don’t take my word for it though. Read it. I’d say read them both, but if you have to pick one, I’d go with The Rules of Magic.

Furthermore, read them now, because Alice Hoffman’s newest addition to this collection, Magic Lessons is coming out on October 6th!
(I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m a little excited about it.)
“Love someone and they love you in return, you ruin your lives together. That is not a curse, it’s what life is, my girl. We all come to ruin, we turn to dust, but whom we love is the thing that lasts.” 
― Alice Hoffman, The Rules of Magic

Midnight Sun: A Case for Bella.

“You don’t see yourself very clearly, you know.”

These words, uttered from the (“perfect”) lips of sparkly vampire, Edward Cullen, to the disbelieving ( and presumably very normal) ears of a clumsy, teenage girl named Bella, made an entire generation of fiction-devouring adolescent girls swoon.

I know this, because I was there. Okay, fine.

I was one of them.

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You have to understand, that Twilight (because of course, I’m referring to Stephanie Meyer’s outrageously popular, Twilight Saga) was the first of the many YA supernatural love stories of its kind. Despite the fact that it essentially gave birth to a whole new sub-genre, aspects of Twilight’s formula were very old and almost (like Edward himself) antiquated. 

It’s apparent (via numerous literary references within the Twilight saga) that part of the intent of the series was to re-imagine the kind of love-at-first sight/ forbidden love story that one finds in classic tales like Romeo and Juliet, or the more gothic– Wuthuring Heights. It had that whole instantaneous, “you are my soul mate” kind of love  + the whole “We can’t be together. It would never work” thing.

“I love you. It is torture to be with you.”

“I’m like, literally dying to be with you.”

You get it: Good, old-fashioned, love angst, set in modern times.

Plus the stakes were higher than ever, because – in Edward and Bella’s case- they truly could not be together. I mean, Edward is literally torn between his desire to protect Bella or eat her. (It kind of takes the “all consuming love” thing to the next level.)

And maybe this antiquated, almost parodic level of love angst is the reason that.

  1. Teen girls were immediately obsessed with Twilight.
  2. Just a few years (and an awkward film series later) people whole-heartedly scoff at Twilight. The super intense love of two teens (one who is actually 107) comes off as a bit…errr…creepy.  “What modern girl would let herself fall into such an unhealthy, all-consuming relationship?” asks the once-obsessed teen girls who are now in their twenties.

Let’s explore that, shall we?

Enter Midnight Sun

Over a decade later (actually more like 15 years) Midnight Sun follows the exact same plot as Twilight, only this time, it’s from Edward’s perspective.

My initial thoughts when I found out that this long-rumored re-imagination (which was temporarily shelved when it got leaked about 10 years ago) was finally making it’s appearance, I thought it was pretty brilliant.

Honestly? 2020 is a great year for the release of Midnight Sun.

We could all use a little nostalgia + escapism, and this “return to Twilight,”  novel presents itself as just that. 

So I read it. There was definitely some nostalgia. There were also some dramatic eyerolls. Ultimately, however, there was a big surprise in Midnight Sun, too, as I realized that it took me back to my younger self in  unexpected ways that turned out to be surprisingly important. 

Firstly, let me say that the book is advertised as “Twilight from Edward’s perspective,” it is pretty much exactly that, plot-wise. There are a few minor detours from the familiar story because we are traveling through this book with a different character, but nothing that really changes the story. 

At times I got annoyed because much of the dialogue was exactly the same. Come on, we can be a little more creative, can’t we?

However, that’s not to say that the story itself didn’t change. In fact, what struck me about Midnight Sun was how much it changed because our point of view (and therefore perception) of the characters is changed…and also, perhaps, because how much us- the core audience – has changed.

First, let’s talk about Edward. I re-read Twilight a few years ago, and as a late- twenty-something, the constant references to, “Edward’s perfect lips,” had me in stitches. What kind of unbelieveable leading man is this? I thought. How did I ever fall for this level of flat-ness?

But in Midnight Sun, Edward is very deliberately not a perfect character.

For starters, he’s controlling, perfectionist and has obvious anger issues. Plus, he actually does want to eat his girlfriend (sometimes).  Told from Edward’s perspective, this truly becomes more of a “Beauty and the Beast” story, wherein we care a lot less that  the Beast is attractive and a lot more about the fact that he’s recovering cannibal.

Think Kiefer Sutherland Batman, but from 1917. And sparkly. Touch of Hannibal. That’s about right.

While we already had hints of the other personality traits in Twilight (we just ignored them, because “hotness.”) Edward’s also surprisingly insecure. He’s anxious and probably OCD, and we see how the sort of arrogant façade that we got from Twilight is a direct response to those underlying insecurities. 

Essentially, in Midnight Sun, Edward is actually better, more complicated character.  I think this gets a lot closer to the original Heathcliff mark that Meyer was probably aiming for with Twilight.

We also finally see, from this perspective, how Bella changes him from the inside out. I don’t know about you, but I never found that part of this sparkly vampire saga to be believable. 😉 

Essentially, Midnight Sun is much more fascinating, from a character development standpoint, than it’s companion novel, and I found that it made the love story more understandable, too.

And a big reason the love story becomes more believable is that we finally see and understand Bella’s value through Edward’s eyes, which brings me to the most important thing I got from reading Midnight Sun.

Bella really didn’t see herself clearly, and – as a generation of young, female Twi-hard readers- neither did we. 

For years now, there’s been this joke about Bella being the “flat” character that was relatable to all teen girls. The theory goes that she is so bland that any reader can slide into her perspective easily, which is why the book was so instantly popular, (and maybe why it’s popularity didn’t hold up as well over time.)

For a long time, I believed this too. However, after reading Midnight Sun, I realize that (at least after a period of reflection on the author’s part) Bella isn’t an “anyone” character.

She’ s just quiet.  She’s not cardboard; she’s simply a wallflower. From Edward’s perspective in Midnight Sun, I think we get a clearer image of the character envisioned by the author: we see her as shy, selfless, stubborn, smart, family-oriented, bookish, responsible and a bit insecure. She’s sort of a Season One Rory (for the Gilmore Girls fans). 

 

She’s not every girl.

However, I do think she represents a certain set of teenage girl.

The girls who would have picked up a gothic-inspired love story in Books-A-Million in the early 2000s. The good girls. The bookish girls. The girls who absorbed classic novels on the beach and observed everything that happened in the local coffee shop. The girls who hadn’t quite figured out who they were yet, but who wanted to be seen for the strong, quiet potential that they had. These are the girls who would have become instant Twi-hards. These are the girls whom Bella was designed to represent (and I was definitely one of those girls, in case you are wondering). 

From this angle, I come to see finally that I was wrong, all those years ago, thinking that boring Bella doesn’t deserve “perfect” Edward.

Bella was simply unformed, surfacing. The Bella we meet in Midnight Sun could have been or done anything in future years, and I came away from this novel feeling kind of sad that she never got a chance to realize her value, just as she was.

All of these thoughts lead me to the final conclusion that, maybe as a generation of bookish teenage girls reading Twilight, we fell into that same pattern that Edward rightly accused Bella of:

Maybe we didn’t see ourselves clearly. We didn’t see our worth, or that the processes we were going through had value in helping to develop our adult selves.

And maybe these traits and insecurities were part of the reason we even became Twi-hards in the first place, drawn to a story where that sort of quiet value was desirable and powerful to an inhumanly “perfect” leading man.

You might say that I’m going too far with this, or digging too deep.

Maybe I am, but I really don’t think so. Partially this is because Stephanie Meyer’s introduction to Midnight Sun specifically addresses the target audience as readers who were teens when Twilight came out, but whom are now adults living (hopefully full) lives.

As time passes, we all find things that we left hanging, that we wish we could go back and say, or that we wish we’d realized at the time.

For Meyer, I have to think that perhaps she wanted to use this reboot as an opportunity to  address complaints about her characters–to show that Edward was never too perfect or that Bella was never an “anygirl.”

For me, seeing these iconic characters differently gave me a chance to think about things that I hadn’t realized were left hanging, instilling a new respect for the quiet, bookish girl who didn’t think she was good enough. Reading it, I glimpsed my own seventeen year old self through a different lens. 

Is Midnight Sun a great book? Not especially.  Ultimately, I’d only recommend it to the audience to whom it was dedicated—those who read Twilight in years past. However, I think if you did read and enjoy Twilight at any point, reading Midnight Sun is both nostalgic and interesting as a character development experiment and as a vessel of self-reflection.

It’s amazing what you can get out of a familiar story by simply finding a new perspective.

 

4 Ways “Mary Poppins Returns” Gets it Right

Mary Poppins: the icon responsible with so many things that we now associate with British culture, nannies, and childhood in general. She is both no-nonsense (perhaps just as “keep calm and carry on,” as the Queen herself) and whimsical (she’s got Elizabeth II beat on that one). She floats calmly into a family, shakes the foundations down to a crumble, and begins the necessary task of building it back again…making herself unnecessary in the process. Her tools are a mixture of musical numbers, sensibility, life lessons, and instruction in magical (if seemingly random) skills such as jumping into chalk portraits and chimney sweeping in the clouds.

(Because, you know, it’s a jolly holiday with Mary.)

The Banks children aside, this woman was an important figure in the childhood of millions. So when Disney decided to make a sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, I think  a lot of us felt afraid.  Personally, I wanted to love it because I wanted more Mary Poppins in my life. But, remaking a classic? That is very tricky, especially when you are messing with an icon like Mary.

Play it too safe, and you risk the result feeling like a boring parody of the original. Go too far outside of the box- either with the character, the tone, or the plot-and you are going to make a lot of dedicated fans very grumpy.

Still, I wanted to see it, and I  *finally* did a few days ago.  Despite the fact that several people have called this film, “practically perfect,” I was a little skeptical and tried to go into it with few expectations.  However, I was shocked by how quickly this film won me over.  Having given it a little consideration, here are 4 ways I think Mary Poppins Returns completely gets it right.

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1.Emily Blunt IS Mary Poppins, but she is not  Julie Andrew’s Mary Poppins. 

Personally, my biggest fear about this film was that it would be pretty much impossible to do a believable Mary Poppins character that didn’t feel like a lackluster Julie Andrew’s impersonation. How do you even separate Julie Andrews and Mary Poppins?  Fortunately, Emily Blunt owns this character in a way that is completely outside of a Julie-shaped box.

All of the Mary Poppin’s character qualities are there (kind but extremely firm, always in control of the game, full of magical surprises, rosy cheeks etc.) but her mannerisms are different.  One of the first ways this comes through immediately is in Blunt’s more aristocratic-sounding British accent and some jazzier singing moments (which also reflects the film’s time period of the 1930s).  Stylistic choices like these helped me immediately separate Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins from Julie Andrew’s, which allowed me to get into the film more quickly and easily.

 2.  The Plot Follows the Original Formula 

Saying that a movie is “formulaic,” is rarely a compliment. However, certain movie genres can get away with it, and children’s films are one of them. Mary Poppins Returns uses heavy-handed formula in its favor. Keeping things spoiler-free, let’s just say it like this: if you were to take Mary Poppins  and Mary Poppins Returns and break them both down into a timeline categorized into “events, reactions, and musical numbers,” you would have two identical timelines. Identical. Therefore, while many things about the sequel are different from the original, the experience of watching Mary Poppins Returns is extremely familiar.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t translate badly. Instead, is clear that the structure is intentional, and it reminded me of the way that children’s book series often keep the same formula while mixing up the details. Since Mary Poppins springs from the children’s book series by P.L. Travers, this seems appropriate.  More importantly, the familiar effect is grounding.

3. Balance in the details

Of course, Mary Poppins Returns would be a really boring movie if it had an identical plot formula AND the same events, issues, characters, etc. Instead, there are new experiences to enjoy in this film, ones which are relevant to the particular needs of the main characters in MP Returns.  Often, these build on something familiar to the original film and take it in an unexpectedly delightful new direction, such as when the children
“pop into” a pottery piece in their nursery:  a callback that provides viewers with a particularly  amazing bit of new animation  while also teaching us something about the children and moving the particulars of the plot forward.

I also thought it was important that the father (grown-up Michael Banks) in this story has a very different relationship with his children than George Banks did in the original. This, in turn affects the lessons that the children need to learn.  Still, there are very nostalgic and appropriately-placed ties to the original that are thoughtfully and powerfully utilized. (Tiny spoilers: these include, but are not limited to, a certain green kite and an appearance by Dick van Dyke.)

4.  The Music

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert in music or musicals.  That said, here are some of my most important criteria for “a good musical:”

  1. Does the music take me on an emotional journey that mirrors the plot? Does it have me grinning like an idiot, crying, and toe-tapping within the span of 2-3 hours?
  2. Do the songs get lodged in my brain AND (see 3.)
  3. Do I continue to listen to the soundtrack despite the fact that the songs have already been in my head on loop for days? (?!)

This movie definitely ticks those boxes for me, from the tear-inducing ballad, “Where the Lost Things Go,” to the bouncy, joyful “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.”  I’ve been singing, listening, dancing to, and feeling emotional about the songs since seeing the film. I also appreciated the way that lyricist, Scott Wittman, translated the tone and plot of the story so seamlessly into music while the composer, Marc Shaiman, channeled the feeling of the original Mary Poppins’ music into a fresh new score.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that there was very little argument in my brain against this movie while watching it. My heart was definitely NOT screaming (as I’d feared): “You are not Mary! I feel wrong about this!”  Instead, I found myself completely delighted by the music, the acting, the story, the sets, and the special effects  More amazing to me was the fact that everything about Mary Poppins Returns struck a balance that made it fun to watch as a new experience but also easy to feel sentimental about, as if it had been there all along.  Like Mary Poppins herself, I think that Mary Poppins Returns ultimately succeeds by doling out just the proper proportions of sensibility and magic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AMWAP Book Review: Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

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Book length: 192 pages

The following AMWAP book review: 192 words.

Disclaimer: It is hard to give a book review in  only 192 words.

AMWAP Review of Daniel Wallace’s

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions

Big Fish is a humorously-told series of short, fantastical “myths” about Edward Bloom’s adventures in Alabama as a younger man. Contrasting with this are the more mundane, realistic narrations given by Edward’s son, William. While the stories of Edward’s life read like something from The Odyssey, it becomes clear that his son’s personal quest is to discover the true nature of his father before Edward dies.

Adults who want to understand their parents beyond the title of “mom and dad,” will likely find hidden gems in this book.  I think it also has merit for those who are trying to process the illness or death of a parent. As a twenty-something reader (and only child) who lost my mom to cancer, Big Fish hit home in a way that was a bit melancholy. However, the book is also funny and abstract enough to be more thoughtful than depressing.

Ultimately, Big Fish whimsically conveys some universal themes for anyone: a father’s desire to be remembered as a great man, a son’s desire to be closer to his fading father, and the looming question of what it means to truly be known and loved.

 

AMWAP Book Review: Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

 

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Length: 297 pages

The following AMWAP review word count: 297 words

*AMWAP  stands for “as many words as pages.” I made this up as a challenge for myself. I’m not OCD…just quirky.

My AMWAP Review of Norse Mythology

Thanks to some recent superhero films, most of us recognize the names, “Loki and Thor.”

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(Oh, hey guys.)

And if you enjoy any type of  fantasy, you likely know who Neil Gaiman is, too.

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However, many of us don’t know much more about Norse mythology than what we’ve learned from Marvel.

Gaiman, the king of modern mythology, seeks to fix that by paying tribute to his roots with Norse Mythology .

This work consists of sixteen myths, arranged in a narrative arc that traces the Norse gods from origin to end.  It’s a quick read.  I appreciated that each story was short and engaging while also fitting into a larger, more complete story. We also come to know the characters more deeply with each chronicle.

My only dissonance with the work comes from own expectations.  Excepting the origin story of the gods (which was plenty weird, but dryly told), the rest of the content didn’t seem as creative as some of Gaiman’s other works.

The reason behind this is, of course, not an issue: these stories aren’t Gaiman’s to tell. But they are Gaiman’s stories to retell to us, the modern reader.

Does he do that?

I think so.

The voice of the work is humorous and knowledgeable, as if Neil has gathered us around the campfire to tell us about these ancient, mighty, childish heroes of the North.

I laughed at the antics of Thor, at the constant conclusion that “it is always Loki’s fault,” and at challenges and tricks that shocked and delighted me.  I also learned about the Norse concept of Hell (or Hel), the origin of the phrase “mind’s eye,” and countless other gems.  Ultimately, I come away from this work feeling pleasantly interested in, and more connected to, Norse mythology as a whole.

 

 

AMWAP Book Review: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Note: AMWAP Reviews are a thing I made up. Each book review is exactly the same amount of words as number of pages in the novel being reviewed. I like to challenge myself to read a few books a month, but don’t always write a review. If there’s a book you would like to see reviewed, leave it in the comments! -Katie

 

Length: 406 Pages, The following review: 406 words

Jae-Jones’ debut novel is a dark, romantic fairy-tale for young adults that combines traditional folklore with modern themes of self-discovery. Nineteen-year-old Liesel seems plain and responsible, but she has a wild streak, and a fierce talent, buried beneath her familial duties.  As a child, she danced to the music in her head and played games with a mysterious boy whom she pretended was the Goblin King. As years pass, she grows into a stifled composer living under the shadow of her beautiful sister and gifted brother.  When her sister is taken to the Underworld by the (very real) Goblin king, Liesel must accept the reality of her childhood imaginings. Armed with tenacity, Liesel travels to the Underground, where she discovers that the Goblin King and his domain are more complicated, and more connected to her own passion, than she ever would have guessed.

It’s a tale as old as Hades and Persephone. And it’s undeniable that S. Jae-Jones took blatant inspiration from Phantom of the Opera and Labyrinth, too.  Honestly, there are a few times when it’s a little too much. For instance, Wintersong’s Goblin King bears an uncanny resemblance Bowie’s Goblin King (down to the two differently-colored eyes). Still, Jae-Jones expands this character in ways that makes him angsty and interesting in his own right. In fact, character development is something that this author does really well.  The main character, Liesel, toes the line between complacent young woman and fiercely-passionate feminist in a way that will resonate with almost any female reader.  Her relationship with music, too, is evocative and unique. Ultimately, this protagonist’s complexities, and her unexpected decisions throughout the book, give this story a fresh spin.  The author’s writing is lyrical and descriptive with some unnecessary repetitions. I enjoyed her style, though it is not for readers who prefer more action-driven writing. My main criticism of this novel is that the pacing seemed slightly off.  With minor tweaking and editing, this book had enough plot to be two separate novels. As it is, the story comes across as a little unbalanced.

This novel is labeled as YA, but I actually think there is more there for the emerging New Adult audience (twenty-thirty somethings).  Adult lovers of music, fairy-tales and dark romances will gobble up this escapist novel with hidden depth. Wintersong renewed my inner-teenager’s passion for Labyrinth and Phantom of the Opera, while giving me some brand new characters to love.

 

 

 

AMWAP Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

Note: What is an AMWAP review? It’s a thing I made up. It stands for “As Many Words as Pages.” My AMWAP book reviews are uniquely crafted towards a specific word count. It’s my little way of keeping things snappy (and driving myself crazy).

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The Light Between Oceans

by

Pages:343

      The following book review is 343 words.

With The Light Between Oceans (2012) M.L. Stedman wrote the “first novel” which only exists in most writers’ daydreams. The story reads like a classic, and maybe it will considered as such one day. Meanwhile, it’s already a New York Time’s Bestseller, an O Magazine favorite, fodder for book clubs everywhere, and the basis for a 2016 film with an all-star cast.

Like I said: not bad, Stedman, not bad.

When a stoic WWI veteran (Tom) sets off to become the lighthouse keeper of uninhabited Janus Rock, he meets a passionate young woman who steals his heart (Isabel). The two marry and are happy in their own little world on the island—until Isabel’s series of miscarriages begin. Wracked by grief and loneliness, Isabel believes it is a miracle when an infant washes ashore in a boat. The little girl-Lucy- will draw them together as they become a family, and pull them apart as the truth struggles to become known. Meanwhile, a woman named Helen is haunted by the disappearance of her husband and baby daughter…

Some things about this story read like a fairytale: the idyllic setting of Janus and the coastal town of Partageuse, in which the author’s familiarity with her birthplace of Australia shines through. Other elements are more fable. The story is driven by consequences of the characters’ actions and questions of right and wrong. However, I found the most prominent thing about the novel to be the realness of the characters’ emotions: Tom and Isabel’s complicated love for one another; Isabel and Helen’s maternal grief; the rage of betrayal; the quiet emptiness after an internal storm.  Stedman expertly conveys the many facets of human emotion which are woven through every important relationship which can exist between two people.

Loss is real in this story. Love is real. Right is real. Wrong is real. Perhaps, more real than anything, is the idea that the lines between these experiences are not clearly marked—not at all.

This exquisitely written page-turner had me underlining sentences while soaking them with my tears.

AMWAP Book Review: Here on Earth

*Note: What is an AMWAP review? It’s a thing I made up. It stands for “As Many Words as Pages.” My AMWAP book reviews are uniquely crafted towards a specific word count. It’s my little way of keeping things snappy and driving myself slowly insane.For instance…The following book review is 309 words long.

Here on Earth

Pages: 309

Last night I finished reading Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth (1997).  In case you are unacquainted with her, Hoffman’s got this raw-but-lyrical quality that leaves you feeling like you’ve been emotionally stripped bare at some kind of intervention, but that (somehow) you were thoroughly enchanted by the entire experience. It’s fitting that she often writes about magic, because her stories are spellbinding.

Recently, Here on Earth caught my eye. I read a New York Times Book Review that called it, “a Wuthering Heights . . . profound.”  Sadistic though it may be, I’ve always loved Emily Bronte’s twisted love story and the way it makes prickle with goosebumps of anger, passion, and regret.

And that’s pretty much the exact same effect of Hoffman’s Here on Earth.

5159The story successfully carries the haunting themes of Wuthering Heights into a setting of 1990s America as it follows the return of March Murray to her small hometown.  When March re-encounters Hollis, the childhood love she never let go of, the passionate bond between them grows.  As their relationship illuminates the ghosts of their common past, it also begins to cast a destructive shadow over their lives.  Despite the absence of Bronte’s moors, the rural Massachusetts setting of Here on Earth carries a ghostly mystique of its own.

Though I openly recommended this book to everyone while still in its early chapters, I would be more selective in my recommendations having finished it.  Literary triumph? Definitely.  Disturbing? Definitely.  Just don’t tell your teenager to read this alongside Wuthering Heights, okay?

Overall, Here on Earth is a choice autumnal read for those who know what they are in for:  a dark and compelling re-imagining.  It poses some pretty interesting questions about romantic possession, redemption, revenge and what might have happened if Catherine and Heathcliff had gotten a chance to be together, “here on earth.”

All the Light We Cannot See: Doerr Illuminates the Heart in WWII Saga

The brain is locked in total darkness . . . yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. 

These words crackle over an old radio in Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See (2014). They represent a significantly fundamental idea to the novel’s main characters and to the reader’s experience of the book. Doerr’s World War II saga conveys the war’s beginnings through its aftermath via the alternating perspectives of a Nazi boy and a blind Parisian girl. Written in a sparse yet lyrical narrative, All The Light We Cannot See is a nuanced portrait of the oppressive darkness which reigned during this time in history, as well as the flames of humanity- and love-which managed to outlast it.

The (spoiler free-ish) story:

Werner Pfennig grows up in a poor, German orphanage with his beloved sister, Jutta. They live in a town where boys automatically become men who are condemned to a life of  mining as soon as they turn fourteen. When Werner is thirteen years old,his greatest fear is being sent into those mines, the same ones where his own father died. But another opportunity finds him first.  People whisper about the “big things” coming for Germany under Hitler’s leadership. While Werner doesn’t know much about the Reich, he does know that he has a burning desire to understand the world and a rare talent with mathematics and technology. His intellect- combined with his white-blond hair and blue eyes- secure him a place at the National Political Institute of Education where his skills are immediately put to use for Nazi warfare. Werner begins to learn other, non-academic, lessons as well: that being different is dangerous, that his intelligence makes him both valuable and captive, that life would be easier if he could only trade in his own thoughts and sense of morality for that of those around him.

As Werner struggles to accept his role in Germany, a blind girl named Marie-Laure is being raised by her father in France. Whereas Werner must reconfigure himself for the new world he has been placed in, Marie-Laure’s world has, for most of her childhood, been lovingly constructed around her. Her father teaches her to use her senses, to memorize models he has built of streets and buildings, to read Braille, to dream.   When Paris is bombed, Marie and her father flee to the home of her great uncle in Saint Malo, an eccentric man with a fascination for stories and radios. As Marie-Laure is exposed to her own losses and a world outside of comfortable bubble in Pairs, she becomes more curious and imaginative about the world around her. Just as the events of the war push Werner to become one of many, they also force Marie-Laure to become more independent and brave.  For most of the novel, Werner and Marie’s stories remain separate, though interwoven in numerous ways that they have no way of knowing.  The two characters finally converge in a powerful way at the story’s most climatic point.

Doerr spent the greater part of 10 years entrenched in his research, stating that it was his greatest delay in finishing the book.  And his attention to detail does come through in All the Light We Cannot See in a sensory-rich feast.  However, while this book may be seen as a memorial to WWII, it does not contain a straightforward account of historical events. This is not a book of linear facts. Instead, Doerr’s details tell about the horrors of the war solely through the characters’ experiences of them: a forbidden book of birds painted by an American illustrator, the measuring of noses done prior to entrance in Hitler’s academy, bulging bags of ownerless weddings rings to be sorted by a Nazi jeweler.

One area in which Doerr’s descriptions are particularly exceptional is when he describes things from Marie-Laure’s perspective.  The way her blindness impacts her perception does not give her a limited narrative, but a striking one. When thousands of fliers are dropped over the city of Saint Malo with orders to evacuate, Marie first hears the paper rattling in the wind, then finds one with her fingers and notes that it smells like fresh ink and gasoline.  Though she cannot read the words printed on the paper, she understands the meaning. Often, the characters in All the Light We Cannot See never learn the significance of what is occurring around them; many of these historically significant details are tucked away in the text purely to give the modern reader goosebumps.

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Doerr’s story is compelling in its focus on the inner-workings of his characters as they experience the war.  The author artfully conveys the fear that comes from making choices with dangerous and unknown repercussions. He shows hope in the friendship that grows between Marie and her uncle, Etienne.  He depicts the weight of personal, senseless loss through the events that befall one of Werner’s best friends, Frederick. He conveys the feeling that so many people had after WWII: a lifetime of answerless questions.

In this manner, All the Light We Cannot See is a story with two kinds of truth.  First, it is true in the well-researched details of its setting and history. However, and much more profoundly, it is true in the same way that all great stories are true; it makes us, the (you know, readers) understand things we didn’t understand before, ask big questions, and feel full of a broad spectrum of human emotion. If I’m being completely honest, I had to lie awake for awhile when I finished this book a couple of nights ago, sinking into a trembling puddle of feelings–an understanding of times and places that I will never understand fully, but that this novel has given me a sense of.

Doerr’s  lyrical writing style will probably attract  readers who enjoy poetry and fantasy; in many ways this novel often reads like it should belong to a different  genre than historical fiction. Reader who love fairy-tales and poems will likely think this author’s writing is exquisite, whereas those who are expecting a more traditional or straightforward war narrative may find it jarring.

However, given the descriptiveness of the novel, it has much easier readability than one might expect. In part, this is due to Doerr’s habit of “showing” (and hardly ever “telling”).  Another, more obvious, structural statement of this novel which impacts readability is that its chapters are never more than a few pages long, each with its own self-contained theme and perspective.  Meanwhile, the plight’s of the characters and the non-linear storytelling keep the pages turning quickly. While this structure is unusual, and may not appeal to all readers, it certainly has benefits. Doerr said that he started writing the novel when he was a new father, with very short spaces of time available for writing. From my personal experience, the novel is likewise well-suited to busy readers.

The structure of All the Light We Cannot See makes it feasible to pick up and read for only three minutes without getting lost . . . but I’m betting you are going to want to read it for more than 3 minutes.