Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Review: A Curious Tale of the In-Between

A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano. Bloomsbury USA Children's Publishing. 2015. Review copy from publisher.

Media of A Curious Tale of the In-BetweenThe Plot: Pram Bellamy has been raised by her two aunts, Aunt Nan and Aunt Dee, in the Halfway to Heaven Home for the Aging. Pram has been homeschooled, which means she has been able to keep her secret -- she talks to ghosts. Oh, it's not scary or creepy; her best friend, Felix, is a ghost. But it is something she knows she has to keep secret.

But a person cannot hide forever: and when Pram is sent to school, she meets Clarence. Like Pram, Clarence's mother is dead. As Clarence and Pram's friendship grows, he shares with her his own secret: his desperate need to find his mother -- his mother's ghost. Clarence is unaware of Pram's secret, but she couldn't help him anyway. Sometimes ghosts come to her, sometimes they don't. She doesn't see Clarence's mother; she's never seen her own mother.

Lady Savant is one of the spiritualists a searching Clarence goes to. She doesn't give Clarence any answers, but she does recognize Pram's power. And she wants it for her own.

The Good: A wonderfully creepy book -- not creepy because ghosts. To Pram, ghosts are not much different from humans. Felix is her best friend, even if she's the only one who can see him.

A Curious Tale of the In-Between starts as an exploration of Pram: telling us a bit about her distraught mother, who took her own life while pregnant with Pram. Telling us a bit about the strange home Pram has been raised in.

And then it turns to creepy and to terror, not because of ghosts or the supernatural, but because of one person who craves the power Pram has. Lady Savant, who is willing to say anything and do anything. People, not what lurks between life and death, or what happens after life, are the threat. But people are also what can save us.

This is a great middle grade book: it's about Pram learning more about herself and her world while making closer connections with friends and family, living and dead. It's also got a sense of place I found delightful even while being scared. Pram's aunts and the home they run are almost like something out of Dickens; the mystery of Pram's parents, even the names used (Pram, Clarence, Felix) make this reminiscent of older stories. Yet it's more that it's a timeless story, not a historical story. And the horror is just enough -- just enough to scare the reader, to make one turn the pages even faster, even, perhaps, to make one skip to the last page just to make sure it ends well.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Review: Daughters Unto Devils

Daughters unto Devils by Amy Lukavics. Harlequin Teen. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

Daughters unto DevilsThe Plot: Amanda, sixteen, and her family live in an isolated mountain cabin. The previous winter had been very bad: they were snowed in, her mother got sick, there were complications when her youngest sister was born, and Amanda herself.... well. They don't talk about that.

Amanda's father thinks life will be better on the prairie, so he packs them all up in the wagon and moves them out, where they find an abandoned cabin.

Life isn't better. The horror is just beginning.

The Good: One of the scariest books I've read in the last ten years; made scarier by how short this book.

Amanda is sixteen; the family lives in a cramped one room cabin, a cabin "built for three" but now housing Amanda, her parents, and her four younger siblings. Emma, her younger sister and best friend; the children, Joanna and Charles; and baby Hannah, born deaf and blind.

Amanda is full of guilt: guilt over wishing her baby sister dead instead of a burden, draining the life out of her mother; guilt over the child she carries, the result of sweet words and warm embraces with the boy who brings the post to the village at the foot of the mountain; guilt over how she went crazy last winter, convinced she saw the devil in the woods and that he was coming for her.

While there are references to a bigger world - the village where Pa goes for supplies and where Amanda sees Henry for the first time, Aunt Charlotte and her children - the world of Daughters Unto Devils is small, as small as Amanda's family and the one room cabins they live in. This is a family isolated; a family that seems close but sharing beds does not mean sharing secrets.

Early on, Amanda is told a ghost story and delights in the thrill it gives her. The story is explained as being about "the land itself. It had been soured by an infection of constant panic, hate, and fear. The man [telling this story] said that in some places, the land can come out to play through the living. It can even make folks go mad."

A land infected that in turns infects others. Panic and hate and fear -- and yes, guilt -- making one susceptible to such infection and evil.

What happens to the people in such a land?

I don't want to say much more. Just where can one hide from devils and demons and the land itself?

And remember how the scariest part of Twilight Zone episodes was that terrible things could happen to anyone? That it wasn't about who deserved it; it one could only live through it and not escape. Bad things happen to people.

In Daughters Unto Devils, very bad things happen.

And for days after, I was half-afraid to look out the windows or into mirrors, afraid of what may be lurking in corners, just out of sight.

Heck yeah, a book this scary is one of my favorite books of 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review: Days of Rage

Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough. Penguin Press. 2015. Library copy.

It's About: A look at the 1970s -- where a handful of groups believed that violent revolution was necessary. Bombings, robberies, murders followed.

The Good: Let's just say -- yes, it's complicated. Days of Rage starts with the groups of the 1960s that gave birth to the Weathermen / the Weather Underground, and then how the beliefs, rhetoric, and actions of different groups influenced others, in both theory and action. It ends in the early 1980s.

Days of Rage doesn't include all groups that engaged in robberies and violence in the name of perceived greater good. It concentrates on a handful, including the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the FALN. Depending on the group and the time, the reasons varied from racial injustice, the Vietnam War, Puerto Rican independence, corporate greed, -- the list goes on.

It's a fascinating look at the time, the actions, and the people. It covers many groups and many people -- there are going to be people or things that the reader will want to know more about. And for some of that, there are books and articles. For others? Not so much, because there are still things that are secret, unknown, with the keepers of the secrets unwilling to talk -- or dead. Days of Rage concentrates on these particular groups in part because of the links between them, either in overlapping participants or shared knowledge. Such as sharing safe bomb making techniques.

Days of Rage tries to explain why people - usually young adults - turned to violence. I say "tries" because while at times I understood, or came close to it, at other times -- no. I think it would be almost impossible to really explain it. While I was fascinated, at the end, it just seemed that a lot of people had gotten away with a lot of criminal activity because people romanticized violence. Because going underground was cool and sexy. And that the death and violence was viewed, even now, by those sharing their stories, as somewhat justified.

Actually, by the end, I was angry and disgusted with most of those talked about in this book. I would recommend this, absolutely -- because it does examine, and try to explain, why people do turn to violence and support those who engage in it. It's a great look at group dynamics, and control, and how and why such things happened. Days of Rage does not excuse what was done: I was thankful that one of the final chapters included the now-grown child of one of the victims of a bombing, someone giving voice to the horror and destruction that was done in the name of political beliefs. It's a voice that I think is still not heard by the some of those who engaged in or supported these groups... and it's one of the reasons I recommend this book.

And of course my thoughts turned to how these groups and their actions were and are presented in TV and films and books.

I can think of at least one YA book: Downtown by Norma Fox Mazer (1984), about a teenage boy whose parents are fugitive radicals.

River Phoenix starred in a 1988 film, Running on Empty, also about the teenage son of radicals on the run.

And yes, one of the parts of Days of Rage I found especially interesting was how as the people grew older, they became parents, and how that did, or didn't, influence what their parents did -- how the children were used as cover, or how someone could drive a getaway car and worry about making it home in time to pick up her toddler from daycare. While I respect the privacy of those now adult children, I do wonder what happened to them when parents were arrested.

The Big Fix was made in 1978, and I haven't watched it in decades, but the murder mystery involves former and underground radicals. And I also want to rewatch The Big Chill (1983) because it shows a group of people who were politically active but did not turn violent, and I want to see just how that is discussed, if at all.

As you can see, most of what I'm thinking of actually works made at the time these groups were still active; or within the ten years following, so that even if not active, people were still in hiding.

I'm sure I'm missing some -- I know the story of Kathleen Soliah/Sarah Jane Olson still finds its way into TV shows (suburban mom's criminal past is discovered!)

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review: Corset Diaries

The Corset Diaries by Katie MacAlister. NAL. 2004. Library Copy.

The Corset DiariesThe Plot: Tessa gets a weird call from a good friend -- an opportunity to make a lot of money. Is your hair still long? Do you have a valid passport?

Thanks to an old friend, she has the chance to be in a historical reality TV show, A Month in the Life of a Victorian Duke. She'll play the American heiress wife.

What could possibly go wrong?

The Good: What could possibly go wrong?

Tessa is doubtful that she is really the ideal person to play the role of Duchess: she's 39, she's not skinny (do not tell anyone she is a size 18) and corsets, really? But the money would help give her chance to pay debts occurred from her late husband's medical bills. Plus, it may be kind of fun, right?

But who can have fun in a corset?

I laughed a lot at The Corset Diaries, at Tessa's trying to stay on-script while having a hard time with eighteenth century manners, servants, and, yes, clothes.

Plus, romance! Max is the man playing the Duke. He's five years younger than Tessa, which Tessa thinks is too big a difference ("when I was a ripe, womanly twenty, . . . he was a spotty, adolescent fifteen. . . . In dog years, our age difference is thirty-five years.") And she may have accidently thrown up on his shoes when they first met.

Bottom line: a funny, hot romance with an older man and younger woman? And a story where they actually give a size to her shape? (No, seriously, usually body may be talked about with words like "curves" and "voluptuous" but it's refreshing to have an actual number mentioned). Plus tons of historical clothes and manners, with a modern attitude?

Yes, please!

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: Love by the Numbers

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake (Love By Numbers) by Sarah MacLean. Avon Books. 2010. Library Copy. Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord 2010; Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart 2011.

The Plot: Regency England. The St. John twins are scandalous, for reasons beyond their control -- their mother famously abandoned children and husband -- and in their control...they are young, handsome, and Gabriel, the elder brother and the Marquess of Ralston, is a rake of the highest level.

When the twenty year old daughter of their mother's second marriage, Juliana, shows up on their doorstep, they recognize her as their sister and will do everything to have her socially accepted.

Lady Calpurnia is 28, plain, and because she wanted more than a husband looking for her fortune, she is unmarried. She realizes life has passed her by, and writes a list of what she would do, if only... if only she was a man, who acts, instead of a woman, who waits.

She makes a list... of the things she wants to do. And while Gabriel isn't on the list, a kiss is, and why not try for a kiss from the man she's had a crush on since forever?

The Good: Nine Rules was fun and hot; Callie is so well respected that Gabriel gets her help in introducing Juliana to society. And Gabriel is such a rake that Callie keeps running into him as she does the things that, if known, would make her not respectable. I liked this book; I liked Callie and her desire for more; I liked the level of spice. But, I'll be honest: I never warmed to Gabriel. I don't think he ever appreciated just how society had boxed Callie in. Basically, this volume, and Gabriel, just wasn't feminist enough for me. Gabriel never really "got it," and it seemed a bit like Callie was doing this more from being single than from being unhappy with society's limits.

BUT. I loved Callie, I loved her list, I loved her chance at love, I loved the spice.

And I LOVED Ten Ways, about Gabriel's younger twin brother, Nicholas. Nicholas is chasing after a runaway lady and encounters Lady Isabel Townsend. Isabel has been keeping home and family together, after her gambling father took off, permanently, to London, her mother died, and now her father is dead as well. But Isabel isn't just taking care of her younger brother...

Long story short, Isabel has created "Minerva House," a place where women can go, women who need a place of safety. Abused wives, pregnant girls, women with no options or choices. And if anyone finds out the truth, it'll all collapse. And here comes handsome Nicholas....  I loved the romance, I loved the spice, and I loved that Nicholas totally got what Isabel was doing and why.

Juliana's story is told in Eleven Scandals, which is her love story with the Duke of Leighton. The Duke, who avoids any hint of scandal and looks down on everyone who isn't him. Since Juliana is half-English and half-Italian and is arguably illegitimate, and the daughter of a merchant, with no title.... well. Yes. She's a scandal just by existing. And Juliana, like her brothers before her, both hates that she's being judged and also fights back with outrageous behavior.

It would be really, really easy to hate the Duke because he's so superior. But.... I found myself feeling sorry for him. Because just as Juliana and her brothers were shaped by their mother, so, too, has Simon been shaped by a world that told him, constantly, he was superior. I loved Eleven Scandals because, well, it brought him down a peg or two; he was made to see that he, and those he loved, were human. And there's nothing wrong with that.

And now I can't wait to read MacLean's A Rogue by Any Other Name: The First Rule of Scoundrels (Rules of Scoundrels), both because I enjoyed these books and because I understand there is at least some overlap in characters.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Review: Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins. Dutton Books for Young Readers. 2014. Library copy.

Isla and the Happily Ever AfterThe Plot: Isla is starting her senior year at her boarding school in France. She's had a crush on Josh for ages and ages, but he didn't even seem to know she was alive. (Considering how small her school is, that seems impossible.... and yet.)

But this year... this year may be different. Isla may be getting her happily ever after.

The Good: ajdlkjas;djs;ldjf;sd

That's not a type.

Yes, this came out last year, but I was saving it. Saving it for when I needed it.

And oh, I'm so glad I did. This is a companion to Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door; it's a true stand alone. I confess, I remembered Josh from Anna; but I didn't remember Isla at all. I need to reread....

I also need to go to Paris, right away. Like, yesterday. So any advice on super cheap airfare, and super cheap yet still nice places to stay?

Oh, right, topic. So Isla. Isla is a middle daughter, a good girl, a top student. She has one best friend. And she's been in love with Josh for ages. Even though he's a slacker, and doesn't seem to care about the rules, and had a really, really serious girlfriend the previous year.

And what is beautiful and wonderful about Isla and the Happily Ever After is that it's about Josh and Isla seeing each other and falling in love.... In Paris. I'm so jealous I could spit.

He's a bit of the bad boy to her good girl, or at least that's how some see them. But really, he's the boy who isn't sure he even wants to be there, and she's the girl who does as expected. So he gets detentions and she gets As. And the main tension I felt, as this sweet, wonderful, love story unfolded is the fear of just what Perkins was going to do, what was going to be the problem that stopped Isla from getting her "happily ever after."

I feel compelled to say the next thing because it was a fear I had (and I'd avoided spoilers so...): NO ONE DIES. And there is something which separates these two, something out of their control. And what does one do, when there is a barrier to one's happily ever after? Do you go over, under, around...or do you quit?

Bonus: because this is at the same school as Anna, and Josh was friends with Anna and Etienne, there are a ton of references to them. And a couple, also, to Lola. And when Anne and Etienne do show up, just, sigh. Lovely. A wonderful end to the book and to the series.

Also? I really liked Isla's approach to sex, a mix of common sense and love.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Review: The Mistress Trilogy

More than a Mistress and No Man's Mistress 2011 reissue. Mary Balogh. Dell. Library copy. The Secret Mistress (with bonus short story Now a Bride) (2012).

The Plot: Regency England. A series about the three Dudley siblings: Jocelyn, the arrogant Duke of Tresham; his younger brother, Ferdinand; and their sister, Angeline.

The Good: Confession: I thought I was borrowing Balogh's The Secret Affair and downloaded The Secret Mistress instead so got hooked on an entirely different series. I also started with the third in the series, but because it's the "prequel" that takes place before the other two, I think it's just as well.

The Dudley brothers are well known rakes, and let's just say the reputation is both inherited and earned.

Angeline adores her brothers, with all their foibles and brashness, dares and mistresses, but as much as she enjoys them, and as much as she recognizes that most rakes in London are just engaged in a flirtatious game she enjoys playing, she does not want one for a husband. No, no, no. So when she sees Edward Ailsbury, the Earl of Heyward, she sees the perfect husband: a true gentleman. Who cares if her brothers think he's a boring, dry stick? Who cares if he looks at her and sees a young woman who babbles away constantly and has the worst taste in hats? Angeline will convince Edward that they are perfect for each other.

Jocelyn is the hardest of the siblings to warm too: but then again, his name may be Jocelyn but his title is the Duke of Tresham and everyone, including his siblings and friends, call him Tresham. He's powerful and arrogant and let me say: it took me a while to get over just how entitled and privileged he was. His meet-cute with Jane in More Than a Mistress is that Tresham is involved in a duel (it involves a duel over a woman not his wife, actually, someone else's wife), she interrupts shouting "stop" and the end result is he gets wounded and blames Jane. Jane ends up loosing her job and gets hired by Tresham as his nurse.

While I wanted to just smack Tresh in his total not-caring about someone "lesser" than him -- who cares if she gets fired? Who cares if she's out of work? How dare she interrupt men at a duel! -- I gradually warmed to him. In part because while he is just that arrogant, he isn't possessive or physically abusive towards those working for him. In other words, he doesn't think, "oh she's my servant now I can do whatever I want." But of course they fall for each other! Oh, and Jane has a secret: she's on the run from possible murder and robbery charges but it's totally not her fault.

Jane's backstory is part of what I'm enjoying about Balogh's works: much as these Regencies are about the time, and are about people who are lucky enough to enjoy the fun and rewards of wealth and title, there are also people who are punished by the system and have to figure their ways around it. Here, Jane was unlucky enough to born in a time when she couldn't inherit outright; when she was dependent on the goodwill of her guardian; when the system failed her, she had few options. And to go back to Angeline: one reason I like Angeline is because she's like Cher (from Clueless, not the singer.) On the surface, a ditz who loves clothes; dig deeper, and that's true but it's also true she cares for those around her and looks beyond the surface. Angeline's immediate response to Jane, even before her full story is known, is of compassion.

No Man's Mistress is about middle sibling, Ferdinand. Second son, so no property or lands. He wins a country estate, goes to claim it -- and finds it is inhabited by Viola, who insists she owns the property. A rom-com battle of wills begins, with both stubbornly refusing to leave the house despite the fact that it means they are living together, unchaperoned (except for servants.) They are also both attracted towards each other and trying to deny it.

I admit to also getting annoyed with Ferdinand: I mean, he won the property by gambling. It's not like he paid for it. And it becomes clear that Viola is living there, and has for a while, and runs the property, and that she would be homeless and without income without it. He seems to think she has options, or that the options of  "oh, go stay with my sister in law" is a real plan.

OK, and now here's a major spoiler. But it's the reason I really like Balogh and can't wait to read her other books. As you may remember from my review of the Huxtable books, women willingly became mistresses; and one did so deliberately, as a means to make money because she had no options. No Man's Mistress also addresses this issue, exploring why, and how, someone would become a courtesan -- that is, a high priced whore. And it does so in a way that has compassion; that points out the problems inherent in a society like that of Regency England; and it allows for second chances and happy endings.

And Angeline once again puts compassion and love first.

Oh! And I nearly forgot. There is a final novella with extra chapters. Now a Bride (Short Story) (The Mistress Trilogy). For the record? For romances, I love epilogues/final chapters, with the couple still happy and still together.

The good news: there are plenty more Balogh books to read. The bad news: Where to start? Also, how many of these, if any, are connected?

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Review: The Huxtable Quintet

First Comes Marriage (Huxtable Quintent) by Mary Balogh. Dell. 2009. Library copy. Other books in the series: Then Comes Seduction (2009), At Last Comes Love (2009), Seducing an Angel (2009) and A Secret Affair (2010).

The Plot: Regency England. The Huxtable siblings don't have much but they have each other: oldest sister Margaret, who, after their parents die, has dedicated herself to raising her younger siblings; middle sister Vanessa, recently widowed; youngest sister Katherine; and their younger brother, Stephen, 17, who they hope to send to university.

All that changes with the surprising news that young Stephen is now the Earl of Merton. Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate, had expected to come to their small village, take Stephen into his care to educate him on his new position, and be on his way.

He hadn't counted on the Huxtable sisters, and the family refusing to be split up.

The five stories tell the stories of Meg, Vanessa, Katherine, Stephen, and their cousin Constantine, who would have been Earl had he been born before his parents married.

The Good: How good? Well, I quickly downloaded these from the library, one after another. The book that was actually recommended to me was At Last Comes Love, about Margaret, the eldest, who put her life (and possible love) on hold while raising her siblings. But, of course, me being me, I had to start at the beginning. And I'm glad I did!

The Huxtables are a wonderful family. They are swept away from all the know and I was delighted to find that their entry into society, into the ton, was not one of meanness or pettiness. Their brother had good fortune, and the fortune was shared with all. They love and care for each other and I was disappointed when the series came to an end.

I also enjoyed how different each story and each Huxtable was. In First Comes Marriage, Vanessa is the plain one amongst her siblings; and when their brother's new guardian, Elliott, decides that the proper thing to do about all these young women is to propose to one of them, she steps up. Katherine is still young, and she feels like Margaret has already sacrificed enough, so Vanessa, seeing that Elliott is contemplating a proposal, proposes to him.

This series, especially for the sisters, also looks at marriages that aren't started in love but end that way. They start for other reasons, and sometimes that includes lust and attraction, but love comes after. It also allows for people to change, or to become better than they appear at first. In Katherine's story, (Then Comes Seduction), the hero, Jasper, starts as obnoxious, casually betting on whether or not he can sleep with someone with no regard for the person who is the target of the bet  -- Katherine. The story (which actually takes place several years after the bet) doesn't excuse Jasper but it does show how moves beyond that.

Margaret's story is told in At Last Comes Love, and what I liked about it is that it didn't deliver on what I saw hinted at in the first two books. In those books, Margaret had had a boyfriend who left home and later married someone else. I was expecting him to return and them to have a second chance; instead, well, Margaret wants nothing to do with him, so lies to say she is already engaged to another, and winds up engaged to a man who had caused a scandal years before and has his own, personal reasons for quickly wanting a wife.

In Seducing an Angel, Cassandra Belmont comes to London a young widow determined to take a rich handsome lover, and sets her sights on the angelic looking Stephen (now 25). It's a bolder view than most, and of course there is a reason behind her desire to take a lover (she's broke and is looking at the financial aspect of being a mistress) and to not be interested in marriage. And there's the little matter of the rumor about her: that she's a widow because she killed her husband. With an axe.

A Secret Affair involves another widow, Hannah, a Duchess, who also comes to London looking for a lover and settles on Constantine Huxtable. Hannah, like Cassandra, is whispered about -- but Hannah is whispered about because she was so young when she married, and her husband was so old, and it was so obvious that she took lovers while married and is about to do so again, now that she's a rich widow.

What I liked for all of these stories is that, well, the people are all likable. Even when they are being stubborn, or even if they've made less than wise choices in the past. Who hasn't? It also looks at the rules of society, and yes, they all have to play within those rules -- yet there are still certain freedoms for them to pursue. And that it isn't all light and laughs: spousal abuse, and the few options available to the women who are abused, figures in these stories. How society treats those who are marginalized, who aren't as fortunate in how they are born, is also threaded through.

All together, thought: a fun, enjoyable, sexy read and I'm sorry that my time with this family has finished. I look forward to rereading; and I look forward to reading Balogh's other books.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

KidLitCon 2015 -- Get Your Tickets Now!

KidLitCon is the independent con organized by the readers, reviewers, writers, and bloggers of the kidlitosphere. It's the very definition of hands-on; no one person owns it; and it's been happening since 2007. It's also very flat -- it's not about stars, or big names (though there will be names you recognize on the panels and keynotes). It's about people sharing what they love; it's about hanging around and sharing coffee or ice cream and late night talk. It's about connecting in real-life with people you've spoken with, or read, online. And it is for everyone. Everyone belongs, everyone is welcome.

This year, it'll be in Baltimore, Maryland (the location constantly changes, so that one day one may be close enough to you.) Both the location and the organizers change yearly, which means that each year it's unique in how it's presented, who is there, sponsorship, etc.

Dates: October 9 and 10, which is a Friday and Saturday. Full details are at the conference website.

I haven't been able to attend for a couple of years, because of location. But now that it's a few hours from my home in New Jersey, I'm happy to say I'll be there! I registered yesterday; I made hotel reservations and have roommates lined up (since I'm paying my own way, roommates are a must --- plus it's a great way to reconnect with friends I see only every couple of years); and I also decided to go on the optional Sunday bus tour.

I will also be participating in two panels!

So, I'm all organized. Well, except for the prep for the panels. And deciding on clothes -- I will be taking the train and want it all to fit into one small bag.

I hope to see you there!

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Review: We Believe the Children

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s by Richard BeckPublicAffairs. 2015. Review copy via NetGalley.

It's About: A look at the child abuse prosecutions of the 1980s.

The Good: We Believe the Children was the cry of the media, prosecutors, and families during the prosecutions and lawsuits of the daycare child abuse allegations of the 1980s.

I was in law school in the late 80s; I remember studying the varying ways that children were being questioned, and how their testimony was being presented in court. I remember thinking, how could children lie about such things? Why would they?

We Believe the Children gives answers to those questions, and not answers that are very comforting or easy. At this point, I think many familiar with these cases and the time know about some of the "why", about doctors and therapists and police and prosecutors and family members who, at best, weren't equipped to investigate such claims and, at worst, made it worse with leading questions, faulty science, and almost abusive questioning tactics of very young children.

Beck discusses those things, but also puts what was happening in the context of the times.Why, for example, was it so easy for people to believe? He points to fear, yes, but also the bigger context of politics -- it was easier for people to believe that the danger of abusers was outside the home (in the daycares, in places which employed those of lower socioeconomic standings), and to link those dangers to changing family structures (the "danger" came from the child being outside the home, in a daycare, so while the parent (ie mom) was not doing what she should).

How does memory work? What does it mean, to repress a memory? What is multiple personalities, is it real, and how does that contribute to what people think about child abuse and what children say?

This book is not an easy read; and the consequences of what happened in 1980s are still ones we live with, and not just in terms of the individuals on all sides of the investigations and prosecutions. Not just the people sent to jail, or the children subject to problematic questioning. It lingers in today's reactions that demand more than allegations; look at happened the last time "we believe" became a tagline. It's also still around in how people view daycare and parenting, as well as how child abuse is viewed, prosecuted, and treated.

It also raises the questions of how people believe what is reported in the here-and-now, without reflection. Truth be told, there are some things in the book that I've read before and agree with, but other points, well, I had a bit more skepticism about. I'd want to look more into, before agreeing a hundred percent.

We Believe the Children also made me think of novels, of fiction that is based on current events and "torn from the headlines" stories. Books that used these stories as parts of plots or motivations.

Other reviews: The New York Times review; The Guardian review.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, August 17, 2015

Review: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin RandomHouse. 2015. Library copy.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins - USThe Plot: Rachel takes the same commuter train to work and home, day in, day out. She watches outside her window, watches the buildings and houses. There is one couple in particular she watches, who she names Jess and Jason. Wondering about them and their lives, making up a story about who and what they are.

Until one day, something happens. Something that forces her from observer to participant, off the train and into the lives of those she watches.

The Good: I confess, that I'm not sure what put The Girl on the Train on my must-read list. Once it went there (and it was a long hold list from the library!) I avoided any reviews or mentions of the book, because I didn't want spoilers. Since it was being talked about in the same breadth as Gone Girl (my review here), I knew that I didn't want spoilers. I wanted to discover the book, and any twists and turns, on my own. (For another day is my perhaps contradictory stance on both not minding spoilers and also getting really annoyed when something I don't want spoiled is spoiled.)

To begin with, The Girl on the Train is nothing like Gone Girl: well, both have "girl" in the title. Are both are best-sellers with twists best discovered on one's own. But the unreliable narrator is different: Amy of Gone Girl is a deliberate manipulator of her own story, depending on her audience, and always believes she is the smartest person in the room. Rachel, the primary narrator of The Girl on the Train, is unreliable for different reasons. She doesn't know herself well enough to lie or manipulate the reader, even if at times she tells the story in a way to make herself look better. She also has problems with memory, and so she's unreliable because at times she just doesn't know.

There are three narrators, and I'll leave it to book clubs and others to discuss why these are "girls" and not women. There is Rachel, in her mid-thirties, the girl on the train looking out at life. There is Anna, a young mother, blissfully happy with her husband, her baby, her life. There is Megan, a wife and the crossroads, unsure of whether to pursue a new career or motherhood.

I picture you as a reader like myself; so here's the deal. I'll do nothing spoilery in this post, but if you want to talk spoilers, or things beyond what I do in this review, we'll do that in the comments. So reader, it's your choice, much like it was my choice to avoid reviews and news articles about the book.

The Girl on the Train is a mystery: a woman is missing. What happened to her? And why? It is also a a character study in Rachel, a woman whose life has come undone. She's of an age when she should be in a house, with a family, perhaps a career. She wants these things; she doesn't have these things; she's having more than a tough time reconciling herself to her life now. One of her few distractions, beyond drinking and wallowing in memories, is watching life outside the train window.

Anna's life of happiness is built on someone's else unhappiness, and you know what? Honestly? She doesn't care. That's right. Judge her as you want, the how of her romance and happiness started. Her daughter, her husband, isn't it what anyone wants? And she'll do what she can to keep anything from creeping into that unhappiness.

Megan doesn't quite know what she wants: she's drifting, anchored by a husband and a home but not much else. Motherhood, the next logical step for a wife in her twenties, isn't for her. She keeps her secrets and her past close and unshared with anyone, not even her husband.

These are the three who tell the story: and because it's just these three, with both limited perspectives and particular ways in which they see things, and because they are telling their stories at different times, it's a bit hard to figure things out. But the dots do connect, eventually, between the women and what they know and what they don't.

In some ways, I found this more satisfying than Gone Girl; I liked it more. At it's heart, The Girl on the Train is a mystery and I love a good mystery. It also has one of the more interesting, unapologetic alcoholics in literature; in some ways, I was reminded of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor. And, because of their complexities and their integrity (each is true to themselves), I liked spending time with Rachel, Anna, and Megan. And while Amy amused me and kept me on her toes, I wouldn't say spending time with her was something I liked.

And yes...A Favorite Book Read in 2015. Because Rachel.

Links: NPR review; publishers' Reader's Guide; New York Time review.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Review: The Year We Fell Down

The Year We Fell Down: A Hockey Romance (The Ivy Years Book 1) by Sarina Bowen. Rennie Road Books. 2014. Personal copy.

The Plot: Corey Callahan is excited to be starting her freshman year at college. Just like her brother, she is going to Harkness College.

Corey's also supposed to be playing ice hockey. But because of an accident her senior year, she's in a wheelchair. So Corey's not playing the sport that defined her. She's also not in a dorm with the others in her incoming class; instead, she's in the school's handicap accessible dorm.

Determination, and refusal to be babied by her parents, drove Corey to start her freshman year. Some things may be more of a challenge for her than others: Harkness is an old campus, and even when buildings are accessible it's not easy or simple.

But other things are great. She has a terrific roommate, and then there is the very cute guy across the hallway: Adam Hartley, a ice hockey player who took a fall over the summer and broke his leg in two places, which is why he's in the handicap accessible dorm. They become friends as together they figure their way around campus, and classes, when their are too many stairs and not enough elevators and ramps.

Corey finds herself falling for Hartley. But he is popular, and a jock, with a hot girlfriend. And he plays the sport she can never play again. Is he only thinking of her as the girl across the hall, a friend to play videogames with? Or could he fall for her?

The Good: I loved this book so, so much. When I, along with Sophie Brookover and Kelly Jensen, was preparing for the New Adult Genre webinar for the Massachusetts Library System, I asked for recommendations for books and Gail from Ticket To Anywhere recommended Sarina Bowen. A huge thanks for the suggestion.

The Year We Fell Down works for so many reasons: it's a college story where being at college, the setting, really matters. I don't say that lightly; some books with a college setting use the college as a simple backdrop, a device (much like dead parents) to give the older teen independence. In The Year We Fell Down, Harkness College matters. What Corey does at Harkness matters. She attends classes, goes to parties, makes friends. It's familiar to anyone who has been at college, but also provides a true portrait of what college is like. The Year We Fell Down is also about how college provides a place for older teens to become independent, to make choices, to succeed, to fail.

It's also a love story, with Corey and Hartley becoming friends and that becoming something more. (Heck, that's hardly a spoiler! It's a New Adult book. It's a romance. It's not about whether the couple gets together, but how and why.) It's real and believable. And as someone who doesn't like stories about cheaters, I'll add that "Hartley has a girlfriend" is handled very well. This is not a book about cheating; but it is a book about people in college sorting out their feelings and figuring out when and how to act out on those feelings.

It's also about a young woman recreating her life. Corey had been a jock: it's who she was, it's what took up her time, it was her identity. Her accident didn't just change her, physically; it also means that she has to recreate herself. Who is she, now? What does she like? It's not a quick process. And part of it is Corey adjusting to her new body. There is never a moment of info-dumping or "as you know" happening; information provided to the reader about Corey is organic and part of the story, while addressing everything from how using the bathroom, catheters, parties up stairs, and sex. (Again, not a spoiler -- it's a New Adult romance so of course there are sexytimes.)

The Year We Fell Down is first of a series, one of those series that isn't about a sequential story but rather interconnected stories, with overlapping characters. I'm looking forward to reading the other books.

And so yes: it's a Favorite Book Read in 2015.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Twitter Chat on August 18

Save the date!

On Tuesday, August 18, at 4:30 pm ET/ 1:30 pm PT, there will be a Little, Brown Twitter Chat with Jennifer E. Smith about her new book, Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between (publication date September 2015).

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I'm happy to say that I've been invited to be part of it; and I'm looking forward to it very much.

As you can tell from my reviews of Smith's previous books (The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and This is What Happy Looks Like), I enjoy Smith's works and her writing so I'm looking forward to chatting with her on Twitter.

Twitter handles to know for the chat: @LBSchool, @JenESmith, and @LizB; and the hashtag to follow is #HelloGoodbye.

Make a note on your calendar; and don't worry, I'll be reminding you again before it starts!

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Va Va Vavoom!

Like the photo I'm using on this page?

It's from this year's birthday present to me: I did a pinup photo shoot at Vavoom Pinups in Chicago.

Vavoom Pinups is about "empowering vintage photography" and I can say that description? Is totally, a thousand percent true.

I had heard about Vavoom Pinups from friends; I was wanting to do something for me. And I was thinking about my younger self, and how sometimes I just wanted to go back in time and say you look amazing, you're not fat, wear that bikini. And I can't go back in time, but I wondered, twenty years from now am I going to be saying the same thing? So forget the self doubt and all that.... and get my picture taken.

I recommend the experience to anyone! It began with hair and makeup, and wow, it takes a while to look that good. No, seriously -- I had no clue that it would take as long as it did. I loved the results.

Vavoom Pinups provides the clothes; and perfect fits don't matter because it's about the photos. So if there are gaps, are things that need to get pinned up, that's all fine because it's about looking right for the photo.

Here are the results:

One of the reasons the photo shoot was so fun was I didn't do it alone. Kelly Jensen of Book Riot and Stacked also got her photos taken -- and we had some taken together. It was a blast.

It was so much fun, and it showed, that Vavoom Pinups used one of the photos on their Facebook and Instagram.

Since I did this for my birthday, it only seems right to post about it on my actual birthday.

This was my extravagant gift to myself: and I have no regrets. I love the photos; and I love the experience; and I can't wait until I'm in Chicago again and can do it again.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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