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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sappy Christmas Movie Challenge

white people kissing

“Pic for Attention”?

Well sort of, but also sort of relevant! Dane and I were goofing off with this one, which we jokingly call the “White People Almost Kissing Photo.” We started calling it that when we realized that the cover of pretty much every single Nicholas Sparks book or film has a “White People Almost Kissing” image on the front. (The “almost,” part is important; people in the act of actually kissing tend to have unattractively squished noses.)

And you know what else usually has a cover with people *almost* kissing and follows some pretty consistent formulas? Sappy Christmas Movies. In particular, I’m talking about the uber romantic ones you might find on the Hallmark Channel or, over the last couple of years, on Netflix.

These are the movies that swallow up your suspensions of disbelief and recompense them with warm fuzzies. They’re getting married even though they met last week? Sure. He was able to dodge airport security because he loves her? Of course! The millennial barista makes enough money to afford THAT apartment? Why not?

Whether you love them or make fun of them (or both), the Sappy Christmas Movie is a staple of December. It’s safe enough to have on with the kids in the room, mindless enough to not get confused by the plot  if you are watching it while doing some holiday baking or wrapping, and -well-sappy enough to give a cozy feeling that we all especially enjoy this time of year.

From what I can tell, there are a few rules to the Sappy Christmas Movie  formula:

  • Usually there are a few standard character types to choose from for the male/female characters.
  • Also, the story line will STRONGLY remind you of two or three well-known movies without  being an exact copy of any of them.
  • Obviously, despite some standard obstacles, the two main characters fall in love.
  • This MUST happen at Christmas, preferably in a small town.  If you don’t like small towns, New York City is also acceptable. Or the North Pole. Or a tiny European country that kind of  rhymes with “Genovia.” You get the gist.

In honor of this much-beloved seasonal staple, I wanted to create a challenge/game for those of us who love (and love to make fun of) the Sappy Christmas Movie.  I’m going to give you some categories and suggestions/ideas to get you started, and there are a few funny (okay, not standard) options in there, just to keep in interesting. After you come up with something for each category (use my ideas or not), go ahead and write a short (paragraph-ish) summary of your Sappy Christmas Movie!  I’d love to read yours…so post it in a comment! The sillier, the better.

Merry Christmas!

Sappy Christmas Movie Formula

2 Overused Character Types/ Unlikely Match + 2 Other Movie Plots Smushed Together +Christmas+ Idyllic Setting= SCM SUCCESS

Choose:

2-3 Standard Character Types

Ideas:

  • The lonely single mom/dad
  • The party girl/guy
  • The workaholic
  • The former workaholic who has recently lost it all and having an identity crisis
  • The person who has forgotten their family and friends
  • A combination of any of the last three (basically Scrooge)
  • The Manic Pixie Dream girl of Christmas
  • Charming Smalltown Shop Owner
  • Charming Smalltown Farm Owner
  • Charming Smalltown enthusiast of any kind
  • Big City writer/reporter
  • Charming Big City business owner
  • Santa’s child/grandchild
  • An unhappy princess/prince
  • A lawyer having a moral crisis

1-2 Scenic Location (s)–There is an option for 2 locations in case one person has to chase after a romantic interest halfway through story

Ideas:

  • A Farm (the deep south, the midwest, the pacific northwest)
  • A Christmas-loving town in Anywhere, USA
  • Manhattan
  • Paris
  • London
  • Some small, European country that is undefinable but where everyone speaks English
  • The Jungle
  • A Resort/Amusement Park

2 Hit Movies  “Borrow” Plot Devices From

Ideas: Usually these are romantic comedies, but I’m also gonna throw some randoms and beg you to make them work! 🙂

  • The Holiday
  • 500 Days of Summer
  • The Wedding Planner
  • A Roman Holiday
  • The Princess Diaries
  • The Prince and Me
  • Mrs. Doubtfire
  • Jurassic Park
  • James Bond
  • Mary Poppins
  • Kate and Leopold
  • Diehard
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Twilight
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • The Fifth Element
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • The Prince and the Pauper

1 “Unexpected” Roadblocks to Romance

Ideas:

  • Emotional walls refuse to budge because of a breakup/ loss of loved one
  • One character’s DARK SECRET is revealed (AKA they were a jerk until this point in time, they are lying about their career/identity,  they are secretly writing a story about the love interest, or they actually have super powers)
  • One person has to move far away because of an opportunity that has been a lifelong dream.

1 Christmas Theme /Symbol/Trope

Like:

  • Redemption ala Scrooge or the Grinch
  • Realization of a Lifelong Dream (inspired by Christmas)
  • Snow as a Magical Entity
  • Tis Better to Give Than Receive
  • Christmas Eve is a time when Wishes Come True
  • At Christmas You Realize That You are Where You Are Supposed to Be
  • Help: I’m Stuck Reliving Christmas Day Multiple Times
  • Kissing a Stranger Under the Mistletoe

 

 

How Do You Like My Leaf?

One of the many things I loved and miss about my mom is how we used to make up silly songs together about ordinary situations. Usually, this would happen when we were walking or cleaning or driving somewhere. I used to love running errands with her, even when I was older. She was the kind of person who made mundane things in life a little extra special and fun.  When my dad would protest to the unrealistic nature of blockbuster musicals, we would point out to him that he kind of lived in a musical.

Though my mom and I both had a deep appreciation for good music, the songs we’d make up were classically terrible. Just really, really bad–but funny. Snort until (your pants are at risk) level of funny. Usually, the melody would either be stolen or very haphazard, and the lyrics would be morbid, purposely obtuse, or random observations.  Sometimes they wouldn’t make any sense to anyone but us. We could rarely remember them later.

HOWEVER, I do remember the very first song.

The very first song we ever made up together was when I was about three years old, and it was called, “How do you like my leaf?”

Mom and I were walking at Wilshire Trails park in Gainesville, Ga. It’s a beautiful park, with paths that wind through threes and over streams, an old, covered “Troll bridge,” and several large rocks on which to climb. It was autumn, and the ground was strewn with wet red, yellow and brown leaves stuck to the path. I picked one up gleefully and beamed up at my grown BFF.

“How do you like my leaf?” I singsonged.

Without missing a beat, mom sang back: “It’s very wonderful!”

“How do you like my leaf?”

“Very Very NICEEE!”

“How do you like my leaf?”

“I don’t want to sing this song!” (still singing of course)

“How do you like my leaf?”

“VERY VERY NICE!!!!”

This kept going. It escalated. The faux angst to my mom’s response lyrics got increasingly more panicked. You get the idea.

Whether we wanted to or not, we would remember, “How do you like my leaf?” forever after.  It can get stuck in your head permanently. Eventually, my mom, dad and I hated that song, but we loved it too.

Well, that silly little song has been in my head a lot this week, and I know it is because it is the week of my mom’s birthday.   Autumn was, in so many ways, her season. It was the time of the year when my small family made so many formative childhood memories. Autumn was when we’d head up to the Appalachian Mountains and camp as much as we possibly could. Autumn is when we’d meet my grandparents for a cozy vacation in Tennessee. Autumn was when we’d head to Jaemor Farms to buy all the apples and explore the corn maze. It was when my dad would light up the old fireplace for the first time in months, making our house by the lake smell like old stone and smoke and spices and woods.

All of these memories, and so many more, float through my head  constantly  this time of year. They are like memory-leaves scattering down, catching on light breezes as my heart jerks in response to them.

A few days ago, I was walking with Kora, my three year old daughter, and she found a bright orange leaf that she thought was amazing. She beamed at me with her billion watt smile.

“Look, mama! A Nana (banana) leaf!”

It was a perfect leaf, and a perfect memory, and a perfect moment to share a little bit of my mom with my daughter. So I taught Kora the infamous jingle. Of course, what with being the very bottom of the barrel it terms of sophistication, the song thrilled Kora’s little heart and provoked many giggles.

Yesterday, out of nowhere, she wanted to sing it with me again. It caught me in the gut, but made me smile, too.

My mom’s birthday is tomorrow (October 27), and it is the first year since she’s passed where I have a very full day that does not allow me much time to reflect. The last four years, I’ve purposefully tried not to schedule much, unless it was getting together with my dad and/or grandmother. It has kind of been a day for me to remember, to put flowers on my mom’s grave, to look at pictures. Tomorrow will not be that, though. I’ll be participating as a first-time vendor in a really whimsical local fall festival, selling  the apothecary products that I make.  When the opportunity first presented itself, I knew I wanted to do it immediately. However, when I found out it was on the 27th, I hesitated. Would it be wrong to be busy?

But the more I think about it all,  the more I feel good about it. My mom would have been so excited about me doing this, and I know it will be a fun new fall memory for me and my family.  So many little things this week keep pointing me back to the thought that I am able to go forward while smiling back at the beautiful memories behind me.  There is heartache to be felt, but sweetness to remember…And wonderful things that can only be built because of what has come before.

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Alice Hoffman: Practical Magic & The Rules of Magic

 

“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

practical magic

The Owens women from Practical Magic  (film version) were a little definitive for me as a teen and young adult. Growing up in a Christian home (still a Christian), it may seem a little weird to some of my friends that I found a film about witchcraft to be so formative, but there it is. Essentially, it’s a contemporary (90s) fantasy/drama about two sisters, witches from a long line of witches, who 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 particular 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  wove a spell of mischief, whimsy and melancholy that my young INFP heart found undeniable. 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 Practical Magic a few years ago, I was initially a little disappointed. Sally and Gillian, the sisters, did not fulfill my expectations as characters.  I actually preferred the film characters to their literary counterparts, which is an extremely unusual occurrence for me.  Though Hoffman is one of my favorite authors (for reasons I’ll discuss later),  I’ve got to be honest and admit that I have had this issue with her writing before. Somewhere between her third-person, omniscient point of view and her resistance to relying much on dialogue, I just have trouble connecting with her characters sometimes.

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 that one of her great strengths is her ability to craft a vivid setting that draws you into the world of her book. In the case of Practical Magic (and the prequel, The Rules of Magic), much of this hinges on the Owen’s family home, a place of intense magic on the otherwise ordinary Magnolia Street.

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.

rules of magic

So when The Rules of Magic, long-awaited prequel to Practical Magic, came out last October, I had already pre-ordered it.  Much more quickly than its sequel, I was hooked. I loved many of the same things about it as Practical Magic: the world-building, the fascinating omens, raw bits of wisdom, the whimsical tone. There were new things to draw 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, and their brother, Vincent.) What I loved the most, though, was the way it took the pattern 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 in 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. It’s more than sadness. It’s horror, with a kind of guilt attached that requires no logic. It’s something that not everyone understands–until they experience loss for themselves. However, it is a club that we will all join. 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 (in addition to being just plain impossible). 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, I’d much rather you experience this particular truth-bomb in fiction form. Read it. I’d say read them both, but if you have to pick one, I’d go with The Rules of Magic.

“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

I will give a disclaimer here for my friends who know and trust me as a Christian reader/writer: there are a lot of things in these books, beyond the practice of magic,  that you may be uncomfortable with. There is definitely a good bit of language, sexual content, and some plain old morally objectionable stuff. I definitely don’t recommend these for kids/teens, and I’d also caution my adult reader friends who avoid this type of content. Personally, these sorts of things don’t really stop me from reading books if I feel that the books have substantial redemptive literary/moral value (which I do in this case.) I realize, though, that I have many loved ones who feel differently, and that’s okay too.

The Secret Garden (AKA The Library)

The deep South has its fare share of gardens. In fact, here in south Mississippi, where I currently reside, a step outside in mid-to-late spring yields an instantaneous whiff of deep, sweet fragrant flowers—Honeysuckle, Magnolia, Gardenia. These are some of the most most heavenly, decadent blooms of all, to my mind. They are also some of the most short-lived. This is almost ominous, because if spring in the deep South is beautiful and lovely (and it is), it is equally short-lived.

Then we get summer. About five months of it.

And in some parts of the deep South, like south Mississippi, summer is a time that you don’t really want to be outside too much.

Why?

If you have to ask, then you clearly have never sat in a sauna with an non-breathable blanket over your head.

Then you have clearly never felt the need to change clothes after a short and exhausting walk to the mail box.

You have clearly never seared the bare-skin of your thighs on the seat of a car when attempting to run errands.

You have clearly never had your hairstyle or makeup melt, almost instantly, off your face the second you leave the house.

You have clearly never—

You getting the picture?

It’s not just hot here.  It’s a drowning kind of heat. And in a small town, like where I live, there’s not much you can do to escape it.

There’s not a mall here. There aren’t many restaurants. There are no indoor parks. My town doesn’t have a movie theater.  You can drive to other towns for some of  those things, if you feel like it. But, a lot of times, you don’t really feel like being out all day, because of the heat.  There’s one public swimming pool, but it’s pretty insane once the the heat picks up.

Mostly, people are inclined to visit each other: at their houses, at church, at work, at pools of friends and families of friends. If you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, and that’s the vibe you are getting…it’s because it really IS like that. (If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird,  then I suggest you do so immediately).

There are definitely wonderful things about living in a small, Southern town. But summers can be hard. This is not true everywhere in the south, of course. I grew up in the south, a town in Northeast Georgia. But it was a bigger town than where I live now, and it was also close to the mountains, as well as a lake. There were plenty of ways to be outside and get cool. My husband grew up in Florida (which is not really the South, culturally speaking, though it’s plenty hot).  Still, he had the beach.

Because of this heat-issue, I struggled a little with making things fun for my (then) almost-2 year old, last summer. Now, even though it’s just the first of May, I’ve started thinking about ways to make this summer more memorable for her.  Summers are such a magic time, aren’t they? At least, I think they SHOULD be. Thanks to a certain HGTV show, the downtown area of our neighboring town has flourished, and we now have more things to go and do nearby. However, all of these things cost money,  which tends to add up if you are using them to escape the heat.

Then I remembered something. One of those simple, duh, moments. A memory from my own childhood.

The library, of course. We don’t have a bookstore here, but we DO have a library. The town right next to us has an even bigger library.

My own childhood is filled with memories of the library, especially in the summertime. We’d go every Friday–my mom, dad, and I.  Coming in from a sparklingly bright parking lot to the quiet, clean smell of dusted books and the cold, sharp AC elicited a feeling of excitement.  Reverent  tones. The flicking of pages. I can still feel the weight of the bags of new books we’d leave with–worlds waiting to be discovered.

So yesterday, I told my almost-three year old about the library.

That it was a place we would be going. A place where for her to listen to stories with other children and find new books to read. A place so special, a place of such awe, that you have to whisper when you go there.

And we went. And she loved it. She picked out three books and we have read them all about three times since yesterday.

In the perilous summers of the deep South, the library is its own haven.  Some say libraries are on their way out in the digital era, but all I can say is that I refuse to believe it. Libraries are a sanctuary, a secret garden. Many may have forgotten them, but those who remember the library love it truly and always. May we nurture it and share it’s beautiful secrets with others, so that we never forget what an oasis it can be.

 

20 Atmospheric Autumn Reads for Adults

…(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. 

Recently, I comprised a list of autumn reads for 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. While all of the classics from my teen list would remain, there are also some fall-ish novels that I love but wouldn’t feel comfortable openly recommending for YA readers.  Then, of course, there are the books that I have yet to read, but which are on my personal to-read list for this autumn!

So, without further do, here’s my list of 20 Atmospheric Autumn Reads for Adults.

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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.

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 story.

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. 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)

12. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman- A lyrically written account of two magical sisters facing down a family curse and a dead guy in the backyard.  Different from the movie (though I like both).

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 Ann Rice- Arguably the most iconic vampire novel since Dracula. It’s fascinating and dark and compelling.

Books on my To-Read List This Season

17. Dracula by Bram Stoker- (I realize that it’s crazy that I’ve never read this).

18. Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman-this prequel to Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic  just came out! Pre-ordered on Kindle and can’t wait to read it!

19. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke– I started this beautifully cozy, slightly creepy,  historical fantasy last fall and somehow fell out of reading it.

20. Something by Stephen KingWhat’s a great first read by Stephen King???

(Guys, don’t kill me for having never read Stephen King). 

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

 

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.

 

 

That Gingerbread Feeling

 

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(Pictured: My grandparents’  Christmas Day table, as it was always set, up until a few years ago: holly plates, glasses and teacups.)

The other night I was listening to John William’s Home Alone score. One of the loves Dane and I share is for film scores–his all time favorite film score composer being John Williams (THE man). I’m actually not sure who my favorite is.  I default to Hans Zimmer (the other man) , but I guess I tend to be much more drawn towards specific scores than composers. But we can talk about film scores another time.

Anyway, I’ve never really stopped to pay much attention to the words that the choir  kids are singing in the main title of Home Alone, “Somewhere in my Memory.” Have you? Here they are, in any case:

Candles in the window,
Shadows painting the ceiling,
Gazing at the fire glow,
Feeling that gingerbread feeling.
Precious moments,
Special people,
Happy faces,
I can see.

Somewhere in my mem’ry,
Christmas joy’s all around me,
living in my mem’ry,
All of the music,
All of the magic,
All of the fam’ly home here with me.

As I sat listening to this song in the glow of the Christmas lights, I was struck by its meaning. The first verse conveys the feelings you have when you’re young at Christmas. You are mesmerized by all the beauty of the things happening in the moment: the lights, the people, the presents. The second verse is more about what happens as you get older.

In one sense, some of the magic fades. Time goes by more quickly, the pressures of things to get done increase as life responsibilities go up. However, and more significantly, the passage of time also does something amazing  as each new Christmas is stacked upon memories of the last. It creates something beautiful to unwrap each December alongside the lights, the scents and the traditions.

Sometimes we all have a few long stretches of years where we get to share our Christmases with the same loved ones, the same recipes, and the same annual outings. Even so, no Christmas is the same. But then there are the Christmases where someone important is missing, or maybe when someone new has entered the picture. These stand out in our lives, linked by their connection with this powerful time of year.

I’ve learned about that over these last few Christmases, as so many loved ones who defined my childhood have passed on and as I’ve experienced Christmas as a wife (and now) as a mother.  Still, I can see those Christmases as a child so clearly. I can feel them, even as I appreciate this new Christmas for all that it is. It’s painful. It’s joyful. It’s beautifully bittersweet.

Somewhere in my mem’ry,
Christmas joy’s all around me,
living in my mem’ry,
All of the music,
All of the magic,
All of the fam’ly home here with me.

What a poignant time of year this is, that it allows us to see a kaleidoscope of our lives… All the big things, anchored in Christmas.

~As you think about this time of year, what Christmases jump out to you the most? What is different, this year? What things can you count on to be the same?~

 

 

Your Last Autumn

It drifted in twirling pathways

Of deep grey rain and golden sunbursts

On the mountains

–Your last autumn.

Anxious finches, the rustling light on leaves.

The world in memory. The world in preparation.

Only in Fall

Can the world be angled so differently.

Your eyes were a cerulean blue,

Like the sky,

Your last autumn.

I wonder what moments were focused in those lenses.

Crinkly-smile lines and warm sweater hugs?

The final leaf falls, in a sigh.

But now it is some other Fall,

And I see grays and golds

And blues

And you.

-Kathryn Gustafson, 2016