Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: The Sacrifice Box

The Sacrifice Box by Martin Stewart. Viking Books for Young Readers. August 2018.

The Plot: 1982. Five friends find a box in the woods and each put a treasure in it, and tell themselves the rules: Never come back to the box alone. Never open it after dark. Never take back your sacrifice.

Four years later ... something is coming after them.

Someone broke the rules, the box is not happy . . . and something is coming after them.

The Good: I read the publisher pitch for this and was sold: "A horror story about friendship, growing up, and finding a place in the world: Gremlins meets The Breakfast Club by way of Stephen King and Stranger Things."

I was sold. And did The Sacrifice Box deliver?

Well, this is my first post in almost two years.

Which means I either loved it. Or hated it.

And the answer is.....

Loved it!

I was reminded of the horror books I loved as a teen, by Stephen King and Peter Straub. And since I was reading those books in the 1980s, the 1980s time period makes perfect sense.

Two sets of kids find the "sacrifice box," that speaks to them and whispers the rules in dreams. One, in the early 1940s; another in the 1980s.

Both groups find that breaking the rules can be deadly; for them, and for others.

I enjoyed the group dynamics, good and bad, for the two groups of kids. The kids live on an island, and Sep - the primary main character in the 1980s group - just wants to leave for the mainland. One reason? He has no friends. He's a loaner who doesn't quite fit in. He can only really remember fitting in once, and that group of friends sealed their friendship with a sacrifice at the "sacrifice box." But it turns out, that was a group who came together one summer because, well, they were the ones who were around. It wasn't anything more than that... at least, that's what Sep tells himself.

And now.... now something has crawled out of the sacrifice box and Sep and those who once were his friends have to get together and figure out who broke the rules and whether they can be fixed.

As I said, great group dynamics. And very, very creepy -- including some giant crabs and I do not want to know if they are based on something real. Also good use of setting -- the isolated island an d the mix of folks who like the small village life and those who can't wait to escape, to those who see it as comforting and those who see it as limiting. Also, it goes "there" -- folks die. Which, yeah, for me -- horror has to have some skin in the game. Dead things, not just pets.


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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review: Arrowood

Arrowood by Laura McHugh. Spiegel & Grau, and imprint of Random House. 2016. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Arden Arrowood is returning to her hometown after twenty years away.

Twenty years ago, while she babysitting her twin toddler sisters, she stepped away from a moment -- and they vanished.

Before: Arden and her sisters and their parents and their grandparents, in the big family house in Keokuk on the Mississippi River. Picturesque and perfect.

After: it all falls apart. First Arden's parents leave Keokuk, moving from place to place until they divorce and each builds a new, different life. Arden drifts, in her own way, unable to finish her graduate degree, unable to commit to anything permanent.

Now: Arden's father has died, and she inherits the family home. The home that was the last place she saw her sisters. Arden returns, for many reasons. Because she has no place else to go. Because once it was home, and no matter where she has lived, it's never been home. And maybe, just maybe, the mystery of the twins can be solved.

The Good: I love a gothic mystery, and this is a present-day, present-time gothic mystery. Arrowood takes and twists and updates these elements.

Instead of a castle, there is the old family home, where generations of Arrowood's lived before Arden and her parents and her grandparents. And it's a big home, almost abandoned in the years since her sisters were kidnapped. No one wanted to live there anymore, so when Arden comes home it's to a house that is almost frozen in time. One nice spin is that even there Arden has a legacy of a family name and home, that legacy, to be blunt, doesn't include money.

Arden's financial concerns aren't limited to her own needs. It's also the town of Keokuk, which is a place that is no longer as vibrant as she remembers, is a place with shuttered stores. It's fallen on harder times. Old family friends have stayed, and Arden has to decide what her role, if any, will be in the town of Keokuk. Keokuk as a setting is key, and I confess at first I thought it was a made up location until they started naming famous residents and I recognized a name and looked up to the town and saw it, and some of the history in the book, was real.

There is mystery and suspense: what happened to those little girls? As grown up Arden begins to look into the past, she discovers secrets about her parents and grandparents that make her question her memories, as well as how she now views her parents.

And there is Arden herself, who I liked in part because she isn't perfect. Her returning to her childhood home is in some ways a running away from her current life, and part of her realizes that, as she tries to figure out what to do and how far to pursue the truth.

Where Arden's search ends up raises lots of questions, not all answered by the end of the book, and that's part of what I like about the book. I want to talk more about her parents, and her mother, and her father, and her grandparents, and what is said and not said. And I want to talk about those twins.

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

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Review: The Passenger

he Passenger by Lisa Lutz. Simon and Schuster. 2016. Library copy.

The Plot: What's a woman to do, when her husband falls down the stairs and accidently dies?

Well, I guess some women would call the police and believe that because they didn't do anything, it would all end up alright. Those are the women who wouldn't dream that anything bad would happen, that anything would go wrong, because bad things don't happen to good people.

Then there are the women who know better. Who see that the world isn't fair, and bad stuff happens for no reason, and secrets can be dangerous, and the best thing to do is to pack a suitcase and run.

Tanya Dubois is the type of woman who knows better than to stay around.

And the reason she knows this, is, well, needless to say, Tanya Dubois isn't her name. And she has a story to tell you.

Just, as she tells you -- keep an eye on your id and your credit cards and your cash.

The Good: A mystery. No, not the mystery of Frank (that's the name of Tanya's husband) (the one at the bottom of the stairs.) The mystery of who Tanya was before she was Tanya, and why she is Tanya, and what she is running from.

With a healthy dose of suspense, because what Tanya is running from is starting to catch up with her. She is playing a dangerous game of survival, as she figures out who to trust, who not to trust, who is trying to kill her --

And I don't want to give away too many twists and turns.

But I'll say this; there is a bit of wry humor to the story, and in some ways you have to be as self-centered and focused on Tanya as she is herself. You can't think of the people whose names she takes, of those she lies to, of people who are hurt because they happen to be in her way. It's Tanya's story. Not theirs. She has to take care of herself, put herself first, if she wants to stay out of prison. If she wants to stay alive.

Some of the people whose paths she crosses, some you can trust. And some you cannot.

And yes, you'll start wondering, can you even trust Tanya? Or whatever her name is?

And you'll start wondering, what would you do, if you had to leave all you knew, including your name? How could you start over with nothing but yourself?

My last thoughts -- what I liked best about The Passenger was Tanya. Because she gets up and keeps going. Because she's a survivor. Because she's a decent person who is impossible situations, just trying to figure out how to put one step in front of another. And because of who she is and what she does, her cleverness, I kept picturing Kristen Bell as Tanya.

Teen Appeal: This is an adult mystery, but there is some teen appeal. Tanya is an adult -- not yet thirty -- but there are flashbacks to her teen years. And then there is the whole aspect of invention and reinvention and survival.

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

Saturday, July 23, 2016

TV Review: Stranger Things

Stranger Things, Original Netflix Series.

The Plot: A small town in the 1980s. A young boy rides home on his bicycle, and disappears. A desperate mother, a sheriff who didn't know he was looking for redemption, a brother who feels responsible, and boys who just miss their friend all search for answers.

There are stranger things in their town than they ever dreamt.

The Good: I loved this miniseries. It's amazing, it's wonderful, and you can read just about anywhere what made this so terrific. 

It's a love letter to the movies of Steven Spielberg and the books of Stephen King, and so much more from that time period. I can't wait to rewatch, because there are so many things I'm sure I missed. It's not just the four friends -- it's the music, the way scenes are framed, the clothes.

It's almost perfect.


And now we have spoilers. Because I had the misfortune of watching this after I'd seen Ghostbusters, and as I watched Stranger Things, I couldn't help but notice how the women were portrayed. And not portrayed. And that this is not a love letter to the childhood of the 80s, but, rather, the boyhood of the 80s.

I can have something I love, but also be disappointed and wish it were better. So, here are things that bothered me. And standing alone, individually, perhaps not a big deal, but the totality of it was what got to me

Winona Ryder (and man do I love her and she is terrific here) is Joyce, the mother of the Will, the missing boy. She's divorced and struggling financially and will do anything to get her son back. She's among the first who not just realizes that something supernatural has happened -- she goes all in, even if others think she's crazed from grief and not rational.

Her opposite is Karen, the mother of Mike, one of Will's friends.  She has the nice Colonial house with the husband and three children. Joyce and her home are messy and frantic; Nancy and her home are well put together. The working class struggling family versus the nuclear family. But, they seem to get along, and Karen comes over to offer Joyce support.

Joyce is a mom who will do anything, believe anything, to get her boy back. And yes, that's good....

But both Joyce and Karen, as the main adult women, are defined primarily by them both being mothers and what they do for their children. Later adult women include a mother whose child has been taken from her and is now comatose over it; and a spurned librarian (I thought that was funny, actually.)

The sheriff investigating the case, the police working the case, the scientists (yes, there are scientists because this is also as much science fiction as supernatural) are mainly men. There may be a secretary or assistant scattered there, but the main characters are men.

Then there is Nancy, Karen's teenage daughter and Mike's older sister. (There is also a younger sister, Holly, who mainly seems to remind us of Gertie from ET and I'm totally fine with that.) Nancy and most of her storyline is out of a John Hughes film. To Mike she is annoying, but at least one of his friends has a crush on her, so from the start she's introduced as the object of affection.

A cute boy likes Nancy, but Steve's a bit of an entitled prick but she doesn't see it, his friends are snarky and mean, hers is insecure. Remember, I said spoilers. When Nancy sleeps with the boy, the consequences are out of the horror films of the 70s and 80s: her best friend goes missing, photos are taken, everyone knows. And while there is a throwaway line or two to defuse it, it's a classic "punished for having sex" plot.

But it gets worse than that. Will's older brother, Jonathan, is out in the woods by where his brother's banged up bike was found taking photos at night, as one will. He sees Nancy and her friends and starts taking photos. And continues to do so - he's the one that takes the photos mentioned above. But because he is the "poor outcast" boy and Steve and friends are "entitled pricks" when Steve and company start giving Jonathan grief for what he did, Nancy wants them to stop and is clearly sympathetic to Jonathan. Steve breaks Jonathan's camera, and the sympathy is to Jonathan.

So basically: Jonathan stalked Nancy, took photos, but it falls within the "oh it's just that he likes you" line of storytelling and because she's a nice girl, she is pretty much OK with it. Because she just "knows" that it wasn't creepy stalking, it was accidental because I like you and I just happened to be there with my camera. And then, because her friend has gone missing like his brother, they band together to find out what happened. Which I am fine with, actually -- it's the much too easy acceptance of what he did that bothers me.

Nancy's efforts to save her friend turns her into a bit of a bad-ass. And it changes her relationship with Steve, which is great. And what happens also changes Steve, also great. But, without going into the details of how, as adventures happen and battles are fought, she adventures...and has to be rescued. She fights but ultimately needs another to save her.

And now we come to Eleven, a mysterious girl who is found and taken in by Mike and Will's other friends. They hide her in the basement. The actress is wonderful and engaging. Eleven has super powers that she is still just learning to control, and they have limits. What this means is that despite those super powers, she has to be saved and rescued and carried by the boys. (Oh and when she does her mind stuff she has "bleeding from the nose" which is yes, a total trope, but when the only one bleeding is the girl on the edge of puberty, the combination of power/blood/weakness is interesting, to say the least.)

But there's one more thing about Eleven. Mike, Will, and their other two friends (Dustin and Lucas) are all boys. Eleven is a girl. And the introduction of Eleven is quasi-Yoko like, causing division among the friends. Oh, and like Nancy, she becomes the object of affection. Because she cannot be a peer of the boys who find her: she also has to be a love interest. There is even, I kid you not, a makeover moment including wig, dress, and makeup, where Eleven then self-identifies as "pretty" -- pretty thanks to the boys! Not pretty until they make her up the way they think a "girl" should be, with a little-girl dress and a blond wig and makeup. (Eleven did indeed need some type of costume to help her hide in plain sight, because she has a shaved head, but the level they took it is...interesting.)

So, yes, I'm sure some are thinking I'm just being a crank or I didn't get it or I'm over-reading this.

So let me say again: I loved this series. It was great. But it's clearly a boys story, with very little places for a girl to see herself in the narrative that isn't "mother who'll do anything" or "girl who the boys like" or "girl who gets saved."

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Movie Review: Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters (2016), rated PG-13.

The Plot: Four women band together to fight ghosts and save New York City.

The Good: Did I really need to say more, to describe the movie? It's a remake of the original film, and a remake in every sense of the word. Not just that the four main ghostbusters are now women, not men; but, also, who the characters are, the plot, the jokes, etc.

It's action, it's adventure, it's funny; it's four people discovering not only that ghosts are real, but also how to successfully find and trap them.

Seriously, the plot and the reviews you can get anywhere; I'm just going to share the reasons I loved this movie, and want more like it. Not meaning, a sequel, but that would be terrific; but, meaning, more films centering on women. And even that is too simplistic.

Ghostbusters features four women. Which shouldn't be so revolutionary, in 2016, but it's in how they are featured, how they are presented, how they are shown, how they interact that is so amazing.

This may be scattered, but here goes.

They dress the way they like; they fight ghosts in practical, comfortable clothes. They do not wear super tight clothes to show their body, or tops to emphasize cleavage, or high heels as they run and fight. (One character starts in suits and heels, and at one point is wearing heels during an initial action scene, but it's clearly established she's dressing to try to get a potential job. It's not her preference, and it's not how she keeps dressing once she's busting ghosts.)

There are no fat jokes, or jokes about their body. There is nothing, actually, that treats them and their bodies as objects. One person is slimed, repeatedly, by ghosts. In almost any other film, this would have been an excuse to show her strip down to her underwear, to show her in the shower -- not here. The only body jokes are about the handsome yet dim male receptionist, and even then? He remains fully clothed during the entire movie.

There are some "music is on so we're dancing" scenes, but it's not "and for some reason, we're all in our underwear as we dance."

There is no makeover/dress up role to show that someone is now "pretty."

No one is fighting for a man's attention. In point of fact, there is no romance at all.

Part of the movie is the forming of the ghostbusters; so there's some tension as they come together. But even when there is some conflict there, as this happens, it's fun and funny -- it's not mean.

There is no slut-shaming or slut jokes.

They don't have to be rescued by anyone. They take care of themselves. They're the scientists, the researchers, the historians, the engineers, the people who make things and use things and get the job done.

They are individuals. 

And I almost cried. Because it was so amazing. To just have a movie about a bunch of girlfriends who are themselves, who get along, who have some laughs and jokes, and who act. Who are successful. Who are a team.

I want more films like this. And I'm so happy for the girls and teens who will watch this, and have this, as part of their reality.

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

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review: When We Collided

When We Collided by Emery Lord. Bloomsbury. 2016. Review copy from publisher.

Media of When We CollidedThe Plot: Vivi is spending the summer at the California beach town of Verona Cove. She's there only a week and she's in love with every thing about it. And when she goes to work one day and sees a cute boy sitting outside the place she works, well, it's about to get even more perfect.

Jonah has always lived in Verona Cove, just as his parents did. Everyone knows him, and his parents, and his siblings. And his dad's restaurant. And that his dad died of a heart attack six months ago, shattering everything.

Vivi knows none of this; she doesn't look at him with pity.

And Jonah doesn't know Vivi's secrets, and she's glad about that, so she won't push him with questions.

Jonah and Vivi meet; and the collision shakes them both up, shaking secrets free.

The Good:I love this book! It's told in two voices, that of Vivi and Jonah. And it's a great summer romance, as these two opposites attract. Jonah is part of a large family, and lives in the town where his family has always lived  -- his roots are deep and strong. He's the sort of teenager that when his dad died, and his mom stopped getting out of bed, he quit sports to help his older sister and brother (both also still in their teens) take care of their younger siblings, as well as help at the restaurant. And he doesn't complain and he doesn't seek sympathy, he just gets it done.

And Vivi is the daughter of an artist, used to moving around -- like this summer, when they are staying in the house of a friend while her mother paints. And it's always just been the two of them, not even a father to see on weekends. Vivi is creative and extroverted, seeing the world as one big adventure. When she sees Jonah, she's attracted to both his looks but also to his "normalness," his typical teen boy looks. Jonah, also, at first, is attracted to Vivi's external qualities: she's pretty and lively.

And they complement and complete each other; and they help each other; and they fall in love.

OK, spoilers. Because the reason I love the book are spoilers.

Vivi has bipolar disorder. No, that's not a secret, but it's not something she tells Jonah because she doesn't want him to see her differently or judge her. She doesn't want to defend her actions as being her, not her disease. (And her secrets, well, it's why she respects that Jonah may not want to tell everything.) Vivi also has depression, and she's been given medicine for both, and at the start of the book she's decided to stop taking one of her pills.

Uh oh, I thought. I hope this isn't a book about how pills are bad because they make one "less" or some such. And it isn't -- it's the opposite. What it is, if anything, is a novel's worth of showing that Vivi does need, well, if not that pill, some pill -- maybe a different one, maybe a different dosage, but that she has a disease that needs treatment. Yes, Vivi is, always has been, outgoing and creative; she's a people person who always is doing something and thrives when others are around. But, as the book goes on, the reader, if not Vivi, can see, well, when things are different. Sometimes, yes, it's because of the chapter's in Jonah's perspective, or it's something Jonah has said, but other times it's Vivi's own words, the words and sentences and paragraphs that Lord uses changing.

Vivi, as I've said a few times, is creative and outgoing. She's in some ways bigger than life. She's dyed her hair and looks like Marilyn Monroe; she wears vintage clothes, often taking them apart to create something new; she's the girl who turns a regular day into an adventure. Uh oh, I thought.... not a manic pixie dream girl, please, no. And she isn't, in part because her voice is so strong, in both her chapters and in Jonah's. In part because she is a full, whole person, with her own story and dreams and plot and not just there to help Jonah get over his own grief and depression because of his father's death. But mostly because Vivi is always her own person, and doing her own thing -- she is someone who has a strong sense of self. At times, I have to say, that strength of Vivi, that strength of her personality, annoyed me. It veered towards self-centeredness and selfishness, but you know what? That's OK. Because it's human, and it's real, whether one is sixteen or seventeen or thirty-seven.

And Jonah. In some ways he's almost Vivi's dream boy, with his good looks and kindness; his understanding; his loving family for Vivi to fall in love with. But he isn't -- because he's angry, he's just pretty good at hiding it. Angry at his father's death and his mother's withdrawal, and angry at having to take care of his younger siblings, and having to balance adult responsibilities with his older siblings. But his anger is tempered with the truth that he also wants to do what's he doing: he wants to take care of them. He wants to help. He loves his family.

One of the things I really liked about Jonah, or rather, Jonah and Vivi, is their oppositeness sometimes caused friction. At it's best, it was "oh I love her outgoingness, I love his reserve," but at other times, frankly, they became annoyed or frustrated with one another. And sometimes, yes, Jonah needed to shaken out of his premature adulting; and sometimes Vivi needed to be reminded that rip tides do exist. But other times, it's just their personalities. Like a skinny dipping scene, where Vivi is one of the group jumping into the water and Jonah is not. Neither is wrong, both are true to themselves, and it's the scene where I thought -- ah, these two are not going to stay together. And they shouldn't.

And finally -- the last thing I loved about this book. Such a spoiler. But let's just say, Lord wrote a love story about two teens who are perfect for each other at this point in time -- not forever.

A Favorite Book of 2016.

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review: The Girls

The Girls by Emma Cline. Random House. 2016. Review copy from publisher.

The Girls by Emma Cline
The Plot: It begins with a girl. A woman. Evie.

And the first time Evie saw the girls -- the girls that led her to Russell and, almost, to a night of death and blood.

And now. Now, that teenage girl is so far in the past -- that girl is a woman, a middle aged woman with a job who floats through her own life. She's house sitting for an old lover, in a shabby house, and the ex-lovers son and girlfriend show up. And they know who Evie is, who she was, and about Russell.

The whole world, of course, knows about Russell.

And Evie in the present looks back at a past world, and a past child, and that child who yearned for adulthood.

The Good: Much has already been written about Cline's debut novel, and how Russell and his followers, and the night of blood, are inspired by the Manson Family and the Tate-LaBianca murders.

The Girls is not about Russell, not about the male cult leader. Rather, it is about the "girls," the young women who gather around Russell. Or, around any Russell, any charismatic male cult leader. Suzanne, the one who first captures Evie's attention, is only nineteen. Evie is fourteen. While it is tempting to say, oh, this is Leslie, this is Squeaky, this is -- no. There are some scattered, overlapping details, but these girls are not Manson's Girls. They are Evie's.

When Evie first sees Suzanne and the other girls, it is across a park. Their hair is "long and uncombed," their jewelry catches the sun, they were "different." "These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile." In another book, in another story, these would be the fey, fairies who lead Evie from her everyday life into a world of fantasy and adventure.

And these girls do lead Evie away. And they are indeed "sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water."

For Evie, this is the summer before high school. It's the summer after her father moving out and away, moving in with a girlfriend, while her mother tries to deal with the loss of him by focusing on herself. It's the summer when she feels a disconnect from her friends; when she is trying to figure out herself. 

Evie is looking and she doesn't even know what she is looking for, and she finds it in the girls. In Suzanne, especially. Suzanne is older, and to Evie she becomes everything. Part of it is that Suzanne is older, of course; part of it is the glamour. And yes, it is glamour, and Evie, in her safe, clean, sanitized upper middle class life sees the shared and faded and dirty clothes, the sex, the messy communal living, the dirt, as more authentic and real and raw than her own life, and so it's more attractive than her own life. More appealing. An escape. And, as she flits between her home and the place where Russell and his group live, she tries on parts of their lives, as she tries on Suzanne's clothes.

Suzanne -- the attraction Evie feels for her is one that Evie can't even name. She wants to be like Suzanne, she wants to be friends with Suzanne, she wants to be liked by Suzanne, she wants to be Suzanne, she wants .... She wants. And that want, all focused on Suzanne, leads her to almost, almost be in the car the night that Suzanne and others drive away to their night of blood. And I love Constance Grady's review at Vox, which focuses on the friendship aspect by comparing this to My-So Called Life, and the friendship between Rayanne and Angela. Which totally gets that this book is not about a cult's leader, but about what the cult offers, or appears to offer. And part of that is community.

As Grady says, and as some reviewers miss, the point is not Russell. The point is Suzanne, and the girls, and in Evie being pulled in by them. Wanting to be accepted by them. And seeing her own needs and wants written in their lives.

And the book starts and ends with the older, but not necessarily wiser, Evie. She was left out of that night, left behind, protected by her casual relationship to them, protected by money, protected by her age, from being seen as a true member of that family. Yet, in some ways, that initial attraction still impacts her life. She is haunted not so much by what they did, but how close she came to doing it, also. Evie is in many ways frozen in time. She is middle aged, with no family or home, living in the house of a friend. In her own way, her current life is as rootless and "free" as the life she saw, wanted, and envied. Except it no longer has that community of women; and one of the lessons she's learned is that she cannot trust herself to judge others, who is safe, who is not, who can be her family.

A Favorite Book Read in 2016.

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

Sunday, May 22, 2016

So this is a bit of a serious but necessary post.

I had a death in the family -- someone who is older (67), and wasn't feeling well, but in no way was death expected.

Or planned for.

I know there is often talk of wills and the need for one. And this was a case of no will, but to be honest, the lawyer agreed that it's simple enough that the lack of a will isn't going to be a problem. So yes, the "but I don't have much to leave" or "I don't have children" or "I don't have young children" can make sense.

But it's not just that.

It's the everything else.

And I'm not just talking the funeral and services and memorial. Which can be pricey. And decisions are being made about this when, perhaps, the amount left by the person, and owed by the person, are still unknown. Or unavailable.

It's finding out the things you need to know, especially nowadays when so much is online. How easy, or difficult, is it going to be for people to find out about accounts (banks, credit cards, any other bills) and where things are?

How easy, or difficult, will it be for people to to access usernames and IDs and passwords so that they can access account information? Once, that is, they find out about the account to know they need to find out when a bill is about to paid, or a check deposited, or how much is owed on that credit card?

I mentioned when things are unavailable. Funerals and related costs can be expensive, and if the person's money is not available until after probate -- well, that delay can be a challenge, also.

My final bit is about why it's good to be aware of finances. As much as the death was a surprise, and there's a lot to do -- what doesn't have to be done is an education on family finances and bills. I know that can happen to some, when one person takes care of everything and the other is left surprised at just how much has to be done.

So, anyone, that's my serious bit of advice for today. Yes, keep your passwords secure -- but also have them be somewhere they can be found.

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

Monday, April 25, 2016

Contributing to Digital Footprints

Today, I'm wondering about how librarians talk about teens and kids in the library and when it's potentially harmful. Or, rather, what are the consequences, intended and unintended.

As I was reading Twitter this past weekend, there was a lot of talk about a recent convention where a panel went bad, things were said, then it was discovered that teens organized the panel and the talk changed to both "golly, glad social media wasn't around when I was a teen to capture all that" with a side of "what was the organization thinking, to basically approve the panel and offer no guidance or resources to make sure that the panel didn't go as wrong as it did."

I'm not linking to it, or adding to specifics, in part because a, the particulars don't matter, and b, I don't want to add to the digital footprint surrounding the teens involved.

It did make me think of a topic I've mused about, how much of the talk around teens and social media is around what the teens do and so and how they need to be taught about digital footprints and consequences and all that. Those are all good conversations to have, and YALSA has done a great job with things like its Social Media Guide for Teens. And ALA's Choose Privacy Week. As ALA says, "Through programming, online education, and special events, libraries will offer individuals opportunities to learn, think critically and make more informed choices about their privacy."

Informed choices about their privacy.

But, what about when when there is no choice? When it's someone else, writing and posting and sharing?

And a few things as I go further. The internet is a big place, with lots on it, and people use it in many ways. So I'm not talking about places that are private or closed. And I'm not talking about personal sharing, about family and friends where they are well aware of what's being shared.

I'm talking within the context of librarians, either sharing professionally or work-related, or with enough details that it may as well be work related.

I'm talking about librarians talking about their patrons and customers.

I'm talking about places that are public and meant to be public -- not places that are closed, or need to be joined to be seen.

And I'm talking about the types of posts where the library, and thus the patrons, can be easily identified.

In short, I'm thinking of posts that talk about children and teens that, if read by those minors, or their family members, brings about a "uh oh, I know that library, that librarian" and the details are such to then say "and I know that kid."

And has "that kid" been written about so that now all the world sees, now and as long as it's part of a Google search, particulars that, given the choice, that kid would have chosen to keep private?

Maybe it's about things the minor patron did at the library. Maybe it's not even something the librarian thought was bad. But if the story is, here is this great turnaround and shows the positive impact my library had on this teen . . .  well, when did the minor teen consent to their life being shared? And, as I note, being shared so specifically that they can be identified?

Or maybe the story is about challenges the minor and the family is facing. Those can be anything -- as an example, financial. And your point may be about the positive impact of the library, and the resources the library can provide, and how the library matters in the lives of people who are struggling. Does that sharing contain types of details that if read by that teen and their family and their friends, those reading know exactly who is being talked about? Whose father lost a job, whose mother faces foreclosure?

I'm not saying not to share great, powerful, meaningful stories that involve teens. But I am asking . . . if we talk about teens, and privacy, let's also be mindful of the role we play in creating a minor's social footprint.

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Review: Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Simon & Schuster. 2015. Library copy.

The Plot:Ani FaNelli has the perfect life: a great job at a magazine, a wonderful apartment in New York, just the right wardrobe, and a handsome, rich, old-money fiance. And she's 28 so it's all right on target.

Perfect. If you saw her, with the ring and the clothes and the haircut and her figure you'd see her and think.... perfect.

Maybe you'd be jealous. Maybe you'd hate her. Maybe you'd want to be her.

Anyone else may want to hide her past and where she came from, and so, OK, yes, her name used to be TifAni. And TifAni was suburban middle class but private school and just the right college have helped her become Ani. And Ani wants to show everyone just how perfect her life is, so she's agreed to appear in a documentary about what happened at her school when she was 14. Her fiance doesn't want her to do it, doesn't want her revisiting such terrible times, but she's going to show them all.

Show them with her perfection.

And if Ani can't sleep, so what? Who can tell? And if she's tired of pretending to be the perfect girl to show she's worthy of the perfect fiance, well. Everyone pretends, right? Everyone gets angry, right? No one wears their true face.

The Good: Ani's seething anger is revealed in the first pages. She is shopping for her wedding registry with Luke Harrison, her fiance (and wow, she cannot wait to ditch FaNelli and become a Harrison), and as they look at knives she fantasizes stabbing him.

Ani name drops right and left, to show she knows. She knows. And you don't. She knows the right shoes, the right slacks, the right bag, the right diet, the right way to pass the salt and pepper. She's dedicated her life to being the person who fits in with a certain class of people, Luke's class, and at first I was as annoyed as I get at 7th graders in middle grade fiction who only care about being popular. Why -- why does it matter so much?

Why is it so important, what other people think? Why can Ani only see value in herself based on how others see her? And it's not in an ingratiating way, because Ani also has an edge to her. An anger to her. So she uses her knowing the right thing to do as weapon against those who don't know. And Ani, of course, can figure out those who think they know -- until she shatters that belief by how she dresses and what she eats and what she does for fun.

And the chapters take us back to when Ani was 14, when she was one of those kids who wanted to be popular and liked. To have friends and a boyfriend. And Ani was at a new school, a private school with rich privileged kids who came from the right type of money. And if you haven't guessed, someone named TifAni FaNelli doesn't come from the right type of money.

Something happened, at that perfect school with those perfect kids. And it's terrible. And the aftermath is terrible. And you can see how that shapes the grown up Ani, why she became who she is.

And then, something even worse happens to teen TifAni. And that's the mystery, of course -- what happened to that teenager, and what she did. And how that made her who she is.

But as the reader realizes how the past shaped Ani, down to her anger, the question arises -- when will Ani figure it out? Just as she made herself perfect with her clothes and her hair, she figured out what Luke wanted and became that perfect girl. (And I don't feel sorry for Luke, because whenever Ani slips and shows her true self, Luke is horrified and tries to put her back into the box of perfect girlfriend.) And while the "big reveal" may have been those terrible things from her high school years, and part of the mystery is how that shaped the adult Ani, what I read for, eagerly, was for adult Ani to realize that what she had done to recover and heal was now damaging.

Basically, I waited for her to realize that "winning" isn't being married at 28 to Mr Wonderful -- especially when Mr Wonderful isn't.

Anyway. I LOVED this book, and definitely teen appeal. I'll put it down as a Favorite Read in 2016. And yes, it's a 2015 book so I'm sure many of you have already discovered it -- but I'm getting read for the Edgars Award later this month and this is a nominee so that explains why I didn't read it until now.

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: A Madness So Discreet

A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis. Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Long version: Grace Mae is trapped in an insane asylum. As terrible as it is, with the cruel staff, harsh living conditions, and fellow inmates, it is still safer. Safer for her, for the baby that grows insider her, safer for her than....

But those are the thoughts and the words buried deep within her. Thoughts and words kept so tight inside her, that no sound comes from her. Not anymore.

When Grace reacts with violence to the straying hand of a drunk doctor, she finds herself in the damp, dark basement of the asylum. The worst place to be, where the most dangerous are sent.

Yet in the bleakest place she finds kindness. And escape. A purpose. And, possibly, justice.

Short version: Grace Mae is trapped in an insane asylum, because it's the best place for her rich family to hide her and her pregnancy. A brilliant doctor sees her, sees who she is -- not as an inmate, but as someone with a talent of observation that can help him with his own study of criminal minds. Chasing crimes is no easy business, especially when one has their own past

The Good: This is one of those books that is so good, and I so enjoyed the twists and turns of Grace's journey (both physically and emotionally), that I don't want to say anything.

I don't want to say why or how Grace ended up in an asylum.

I don't want to say who befriends Grace, and why.

I don't want to say how Grace manages to escape.

I will say that Grace ends up at another asylum; one so much better than the madhouse she had been before that it's like the difference between heaven and hell. And that difference is mainly in how the staff treats those in their care: with kindness and respect? Or with fear and disgust? With soft beds and decent food, or with rags and stale bread?

The doctor who Grace helps with criminal investigations appears a cold fish at first, one no better than the other staff at her first asylum. But things are never that black and white, and see, I don't want to say how he brings her to that new asylum, but the why is he has realized her matters of observation and memory and deduction can help him in his investigations. Even more so when others look at her and see not just a woman, but someone who is insane so can be dismissed and ignored.

I will say that then there are the crimes that Grace investigates and OK. I have to stop now because oh, wow. What happens. And then what happens next. And then what happens after that. I'm a mystery reader and I didn't see half of it coming.

Some final words: this is an Edgars Award Nominee, and I'm going to the Banquet in April so am reading all the Young Adult Nominees. Hopefully I get all five read before then so can do a post on all of them.

The setting is late nineteenth century America. Do you ever see those lists of reason that people used to be committed -- ranging from alcoholism to reads too many books? It's a bit funny and a bit sad. Reading A Madness So Discreet, it is only sad, whether it's the woman whose husband wanted a new wife; or the young girl infected with the pox; or someone who hears voices. The horrible place in Boston makes it sad; but it's also sad in the better, cleaner, safer, place, because even then, these women are there because there are so few options for them, so little medical knowledge, so few ways for them to control their lives.

And that is, at the end, why I adored A Madness So Discreet: because ultimately, it is about how Grace regains control of her life. How she manages to do it against terrible odds. And while this book stands on it's own, I'm very intrigued by Grace and her journey and hope to read about her again. So yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2016.


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

Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: In Defense of the Princess

In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Strong, Smart Women by Jerramy Fine. Running Press. 2016. Review copy from publisher.

It's About: Do you worry about a little girl in pink and glitter who wants a tiara? Or do you know someone who worries about that, and you know that the worry itself is the problem but you're not quite sure how to answer the concern?

Jerramy Fine writes about the princess dreams of girl and women of all ages, whether it's playing dress up or knowing the names of current eligible princes. And she does so with respect and humor, digging down to look at the motives of princess-wishing.

The Good: In Defense of The Princess is a fun read, and a quick read, and it packs a lot in less that two hundred and fifty pages. Fine's credentials to write about princesses? Well, I'll point to her memoir, Someday My Prince Will Come: The Adventures of a Wannabe Princess. Which no, I haven't read yet, but right now, I really really want to. Because the parts of the story that Fine tells in In Defense of the Princess made me laugh and smile and I want more of that story. Her writing feels like you're sitting down talking to her, and you just wish there was tea and biscuits and scones to go along with the conversation.

Fine covers a lot -- the chapters range from In Defense of Disney Princesses to In Defense of Beauty to In Defense of Feminine Power (Your Inner Princess). There are quotes from many people, as well as Fine's own analysis and insight. And seriously, I just want to hand this to everyone. Because it's about how wearing pink and dreaming of princes can be powerful, and that there is strength in having dreams. Even if that dream is of castles and princes and fairy tales. And what is that dream, actually? Is a dream of a castle basically a dream of a home that is special and safe, and if that's the dream -- what's so wrong with that? If a dream of a prince is a dream of someone who respects you and loves you and wants the best for you, what's wrong with that? Does either mean that the dreamer cannot be someone with a career? It's not an either/or world or dream

And if it's viewed as either/or, what does it mean to first define those dreams as "girly" and "feminine" and then to say that such dreams are, well, not as good as other dreams. Not as important.

So as you can see, there is a lot here, and I was also reminded very much of conversations about teen literature and what it means to have a "strong female character" and what does "strong" mean when talking about women. Is "strong" only about physical strength? (Kelly Jensen, at Stacked Books and Book Riot, has written about this a lot, and hosted posts about this topic.) While this is a book for adults, there is teen appeal here. Maybe a teen wants to understand why they were obsessed with princesses as a kid; maybe you want them to understand why they are writing letters to Prince Harry and why that is totally OK. Or maybe you want to pair this with any YA book or film that has a princess or a princess-ish cover, to say, hey, glitter and pink and tiaras are cool but let's dig deeper to say why they are cool. (And standard disclaimer: it's also totally cool to not think they are cool.)

Also: I'm quoted! YES. I KNOW. It's from the post I did about two years ago, and still one of the most popular posts on my blog: Princess Shaming.

One last thing: some of the empowerment that Fine talked about reminded me of my vintage photo shoot from last year, at Vavoom in Chicago. Getting the hair, the makeup done -- having the attention and the dress up and the photos. Well, yes. I guess I could say I did feel like a princess. And thanks to people like Jerramy Fine, I understand the positive power in that.

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

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review: To All the Boys I've Loved Before

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny HanSimon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: When Lara Jean has a boy she wants to get out of her system, she writes a letter to him, honest and raw, addresses it, seals it, and .....

C'mon. Of course she doesn't send it. She puts in away, and with that, puts him behind her.

Until the day someone finds the letters. And mails them.

And what had always been safe and sound is now out in the open. Not just the letters, but all her dreams and thoughts and emotions. Everything that had been in her head is now out there.

The Good:Such a great book!  The mailed letters forces Lara Jean out of her comfort zone and out of herself, and it ends up being good for her.

But to get there -- I had such second hand embarrassment for her. The close my eyes while reading type of embarrassment.

What I liked best is the family dynamic. Lara Jean is the middle of three sisters: the oldest, Margot, is in college; the youngest, Kitty, is nine. Their mother died years before. Margot is going to college, in Scotland. Yeah. So the family, that had to shift after the death of their mother, shifts yet again as Margot leaves.

Margot has a boyfriend, Josh, and yes, Josh is one of the five. In that interesting way that friends and family can be, Lara Jean's friendship with Josh, and her being used to "Margot and Josh" as an entity, means that when Margot and Josh break up, Lara Jean doesn't get it. And isn't understanding. And as frustrating it was to read, and as much as my sympathies were with Margot, it was so real. (And I think there will be teen readers who, based on their own life experiences (or lack of them), will be siding with Lara Jean in this.)

Also: there is anxiety about driving in here. Sometimes it seems all teens in books are either eager to be driving, or are just good and confident drivers, and it's refreshing to have Lara Jean be so nervous and reluctant to drive. Also, she isn't a great driver. (Don't worry! No serious accidents!)

When I heard about the letters, I wondered what they would be like. If Lara Jean working these boys out of her system meant that the letters would be mean or angry. And also wondered if they would be to boys who even knew Lara Jean. And what was interesting was how unique each letter, and each boy, was. And how they each handled receiving that letter. And how sweet and kind many of the letters were.

And yes.... there ends up being a romance. And it did, and didn't, do some of the things I expected which is actually perfect for a romance.

(And yes, I read this a few years back! But I am going through my list of books I read that I enjoyed and that I wanted to share, and so here it is!)

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

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Review: Saint Anything

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen. Viking Books for Young Readers. 2015. Library copy and personal copy.

The Plot: Sydney's older brother, Peyton, has just been sent to prison for drunk driving - an accident that left a teenager paralyzed.

This is not a story about Peyton. Sometimes, Sydney's whole life seems to have been about her charismatic older brother. She's been invisible, on the sidelines, as his life and troubles and addictions took center stage.

This is not a story about him.

It is a story about a Sydney, as she discovers who she is, other than "sister of" and "daughter of". As she finds her voice.

The Good: Sarah Dessen is just so good. So, so good. Saint Anything is a look at a family whose eldest son is an addict. As I said, it is not about him or what he does to the family and others. It is not about why he is now in prison.

No: it's about his sister, Sydney, who has lived in his shadow so long. Her family is one that looks good from the outside, looks perfect and privileged from the outside. And, until her brother's problems, it was. Oh, maybe Dad was a little too much about work. And maybe Mom was a helicopter parent, a bit over involved and over organized and over invested. But it was a world of private schools and a summer house, new clothes and new cars.

Sydney is now at the local public school, partly because attorney fees have eaten up her family's money, partly because she wants to hide. Maybe not hide -- but she doesn't want to be at the same school her brother attended, where everyone knows Peyton and knows her as "sister of." When getting a slice of pizza after she school she meets Layla Chatham, sixteen, and makes a friend.

This is the brilliance of Dessen: she recognizes that making friends isn't easy. Sydney at first wonders at it, but allows herself to be open to Layla's friendship and finds herself drawn into Layla's circle of friends. Including Layla's brother, Mac. Sydney finds herself attracted to Mac but Layla is her friend and she doesn't want to jeopardize that friendship.

As Sydney creates a new life for herself, she finds herself trying to balance her new friendships with her old friendships. And she tries to navigate the minefield of home. Where her mother decides that the best thing to do for Peyton is what she's always done: cheer him on, be there for him, support him, intervene when necessary. Wonder why the warden doesn't recover her concerned phone calls. And can't understand why Sydney isn't more supportive. While all Sydney can think is, but what about the real victim, the boy Peyton hit? And why does all this mean that Sydney now has to live with changed curfews, when she has never done anything wrong?

Oh, in reading this I got so deliciously mad at the mother. Much like Sydney herself, I was more accepting of her father's benign neglect, his simply not being there emotionally or physically. As I write this, I castigate myself for allowing that. And like that Dessen left me to find that conclusion. And my being angry at the mother -- it was complicated, but mostly about the mother favoring her son so compulsively while ignoring her daughter in the ways that matter. That I understood the mother, realized where she was coming from, didn't help end that anger. But here's the thing: Saint Anything allowed the mother's story to work itself out, with time. Just as Sydney needs the time to find herself and her friends, her mother needs the time to readjust to the family she has and their needs.

And finally, Ames. Ames is a friend of Peyton's. Like Ames, he's an addict; unlike Ames, he has stayed sober. To Sydney's mother, he is a link to Peyton, a connection to her son, and the hope that Peyton, like Ames, can stay sober and have a life. Ames is always over, a confidant, encouraging, charming.

But not to Sydney: to Sydney, he is creepy. He makes her uncomfortable. He's always -- there. Her friends who meet him see it, also. but her parents do not and cannot understand why she's difficult about him. And this is also something I really like about Dessen's work, how she knows and shows that the lives of teens, while lived in the same spaces and adults, can be different. That they see things differently. In the case of Ames, sometimes more clearly. But -- again in the case of Ames -- that as teens, they cannot always articulate those things to their parents. And when they try, they aren't heard.

There's so much more, of course. There is Mac, the romantic interest. But in a way, the real romantic interest is the Chatham family. Sydney, feeling isolated and alone at home, sees in the close knit and loving Chatham family a warmness and acceptance that she isn't feeling at home. The Chathams aren't perfect, but they give something to Sydney and that includes a way for Sydney to find a way back to her own family, her own parents and brother.

Of course, a Favorite Book Read in 2015.

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