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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Omar Reviews: Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley

It has been four years since Bryan Lee O’Malley released the sixth and final volume of his Scott Pilgrim series, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour. It has been well over two years since his new book, Seconds, was announced. And it was three weeks after the release of the book that I was able to sit down and read it. It was worth the wait.

Seconds is the story of Katie, a 29 year old chef at a popular restaurant called Lucky’s. Her dream is to own her own restaurant, a dream she is working toward achieving. Katie lives above Lucky’s. One night, she discovers a box in her apartment. Inside the box is a notebook, a single mushroom, and a notecard offering the opportunity for a second chance. All she has to do is write down her biggest mistake, ingest the mushroom, and go to sleep. When she wakes up, the mistake will not have happened. But you’re only allowed one chance, and the mistake must have occurred in Lucky's. What would you do with that power? Would you change one large mistake from your past and be satisfied? Or, would you find a way to change all of your mistakes, attempting to create your perfect life? That is the dilemma facing Katie once she finds the source of the magic. Like all great fantasy, things are not as simple as they appear.

Seconds is one part science fiction, one part fantasy, and one part reality. It is, first and foremost, a character driven book. Most of the story revolves around Katie’s emotional development. Bryan Lee O’Malley is a master of blending the fantastical and the mundane. The fantastical elements of the story serve to highlight the more realistic elements of Katie’s journey, a journey I was happy to take with her. I found myself identifying with Katie more and more throughout the book, as someone who wants to own my own business, as someone who wishes they could change their mistakes, and as a person who has learned from their mistakes. I wanted things to end well for her; I felt that if things ended well for her, they could end well for me as well.

O’Malley’s stylized artwork comes to life in this book. Seconds is some of his best artwork to date. His cartoon-inspired style serves to beautifully mix the elements of reality and fantasy. Like Scott Pilgrim, many settings in Seconds are based on real places which helps the book seem more real. I always love that O’Malley draws characters that look sort of the same, yet entirely different. They look like they all belong in the same book together and the same world, but you never get characters confused for other characters. Too many graphic novels run into the problem of characters looking too similar; Seconds doesn't have that problem at all.

Seconds is aptly titled. As soon as I was done reading it, I wanted to read it again. I was skeptical that Bryan Lee O'Malley would ever be able to churn out something as fun, poignant, and enjoyable as Scott Pilgrim. Not because he's untalented, but simply because Scott Pilgrim was incredible. Then he released Seconds, and I remembered why it's worth it to wait four years for his work. O’Malley never fails to impress.

If you have never read a graphic novel, Seconds would be a great choice for your first.

P.S. – Fans of Scott Pilgrim, keep an eye out. You may recognize a few of the characters in the background.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Summer of #CHBPotter

We've reached the end of our CHBPotter journey, and though we're definitely feeling the sadness, it's been a fun and educational journey. Michelle and I are blogging one last time this summer to discuss our Wizarding World trip and to say farewell to the Boy Who Lived.

First, we'll tell you all about what it was like to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

V: Walking into Diagon Alley for the first time, I felt exactly like Harry in Sorcerer's Stone. There was so much to see, and I wished I had more eyes...my head was swiveling in every direction trying to take it all in. There wasn't a single time I walked down Diagon Alley that I didn't see something amazing that I hadn't noticed the last time I'd looked. Universal did an AMAZING job of creating this immersive experience. Except for the heat, you could really believe you're in Rowling's Diagon Alley. There were people everywhere pointing, laughing, and waving wands to cast their spells (Universal has created interactive wands to use in the parks). My favorite part of the experience (aside from, you know, the entire thing) was seeing Celestina Warbeck in concert. Hearing these magical (and very jazzy) tunes being sung in Diagon Alley by this background character that never gets any notice...that made my entire trip. My other favorite part was the Ollivander's experience. In case you're unfamiliar with the way things are done, Ollivander's Wand Shop allows in a certain number of people per "show," and from that group, the wandmaker picks one person to actually undergo the experience of being chosen by a wand. I've been picked before, but I definitely wanted to try it again so I could have video of the experience. No surprise, I got picked again. The woman playing the wandmaker was fantastic and incredibly believavbe. Not that my first experience was bad, but this one blew it away. I performed Accio to bring a ladder closer (resulting in crashing wand boxes), Lumos to light up the room (and I accidentally made it storm), and then I finally was chosen by my perfect wand. It's a very magical experience, and it draws you in. Michelle, I know you said in the podcast that your favorite moment happened in King's Cross. Was there anything else that stood out to you?

M: Yeah, the King's Cross employee instructing me not to run through a brick wall was pretty great, but really just seeing it all. Or if I'm really honest it was the snacks. From Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice to Chocolate Frogs and Cauldron Cakes...I've wanted to taste these things for sixteen years! I bought ALL the candy in Honeydukes. It was thrilling to be able to be a part of that world for a while. I also really loved the details. Universal went to great lengths with even the small details; this really helps to keep the crowds from overwhelming the experience. Sure sometimes when you look around all you see is a sea of people, but look there are Hermione's dress robes or check out that Crumple-Horned Snorkack - it pulls you right back in to the Wizarding World experience.
Another way of continuing the Harry Potter experience that I only first undertook this summer is Pottermore. I'm still working my way through Sorcerer's Stone, but Pottermore really is totally worth the time it takes to move through it. J.K. Rowling has written tons of addition content for the site that really expands upon the world of the seven HP books. This summer in particular has seen a glut of new information. There's a story about Dumbledore's Army meeting up at the Quidditch World Cup, a story about the life of Celestina Warbeck, and much much more. Anytime I have a spare few moments at my computer I run through a few "Moments" on Pottermore. Definitely recommended for those who've been on the fence about it.

V: Absolutely! Pottermore is great for those fans of the books who wish they could just know more about these characters and places and this whole world! I particularly loved the backstories on both Lupin and McGonagall, and I think those things add so much to their characters and the way you read them. Also, the Celestina Warbeck recorded version of "You Stole My Cauldron" is possibly my new favorite thing, next to frozen Butterbeer.
It's been a heck of a summer for us here at CHB. Reading and discussing the Harry Potter series again and topping it all off with a trip to the Wizarding World has, for me at least, really brought back all my memories of midnight release parties, dressing up, and fan theories and speculation. To me, one of the most magical things about Harry Potter is that it brings people together. No matter who you are, where you're from, your beliefs, likes, or anything at all, if you love Harry Potter, we have common ground and a firm foundation on which to build a friendship. This is the reason that I believe Harry Potter will never disappear and the fandom will never end: we have made too many connections to and through this series of books, and those links are much too strong to be broken by time or distance. The bonds that fans make may have their roots in Harry Potter, but they extend to much more than that, and I think that's absolutely fantastic. And it keeps going. Every new person who picks up the books has the chance to share in these links and these lessons. The magic of Harry Potter lies in the way that it helps us connect to others, be more empathetic, and ultimately, it helps to make us better people.

And on that resonating note, CHBPotter comes to a close. We hope you've enjoyed the books, our discussion and thoughts, and we hope you've learned something along the way, just as we have. We know that Harry Potter isn't for everyone, but to deny the power of Harry Potter is in part to deny the power that literature and stories hold in our lives. Stories are important and they matter. They help us see and realize things about our lives and world that we might not otherwise notice. They help us learn to be better people through empathy and the idea that everyone has their own unique story to tell. To all who have followed along, we thank you for your thoughts and support. And to those who are just now discovering the magic of Harry Potter, we hope you enjoy the journey. CHBPotter has been a magnificent experience for us, and we hope you've enjoyed the ride. To sign off, I'll quote Lee Jordan's ending to Potterwatch, which seems fitting: "Keep each other safe: Keep faith. Goodnight."

P.S. check out our final Potter podcast, Beat Back Those Bludgers Boys, and Chuck That Podcast Here! You can listen in you browser by clicking here or go straight to itunes.

Monday, August 18, 2014

All Was Well: Our Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This is it. The final chapter. Michelle and I have finally finished our Harry Potter read-through with the seventh and final installment of the series, and what a journey it was. With heavy hearts, we discuss Harry Potter one last time this summer:

V: Oh man. This book was very difficult for me. This is the 13th time I've read it, but it still completely broke my heart to read it again. In fact, I cried so hard over the last page that my tears have smeared and bled the ink of my underlines and notes. Finishing this book left me with this deep and undefinable sadness and pain. This is my absolute favorite book of all time, and it's because 7 years and 13 reads later, it still holds so much meaning for me.One of the things that still affects me every time I read it (and it's something we've discussed before, too) is the absolute tear-down of Dumbledore we see in this book, particularly in Harry's eyes. Before Book 7, Dumbledore shines in Harry's eyes. It's not necessarily that he can do no wrong, but he's the one you can always trust, the one who will always be there to save the day and to make things right. Dumbledore always has a plan, and Dumbledore's plans will always work. Of course, the tear-down obviously began happening much earlier than Book 7. In Order of the Phoenix we are forced into the realization that Dumbledore does make mistakes, and his mistakes are very, very costly. But no matter what happened before, Harry still always trusted Dumbledore and held him in incredibly high esteem, so watching that image of perfection and trust shatter right before his eyes is quite heartbreaking. The scene after they read the chapter in The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore where Harry finally screams out all his horror and frustration with Dumbledore and the mess into which he's thrust Harry just hurts me to read. However, one thing that does come out of this is that we finally see the trio - and especially Harry - figuring things out completely on their own. The chapters at Shell Cottage, where Harry finally comes to terms with everything that's happened, starts to put all the pieces together, and learns how to trust again...this section and its follow-through to the end of the book is one of my favorite things to read in the entire series. What are your thoughts on Dumbledore's fall and Harry's development in response to this?

M: We've written time and again about just how impressive the character development is throughout this series. You've mentioned that the trio are still clearly written as kids (especially early in the series) despite being our heroes and heroine. We've talked about the development of Tom Riddle/Voldemort. The last character to be fully fleshed, to become fully human in all that that entails is Dumbledore. Had Rowling not chosen to dismantle Dumbledore's pedestal in the final book I don't believe that Deathly Hallows would have been nearly as emotional. By this time in Harry's development his reliance on Dumbledore has trumped his reliance on himself - having to question all of that really brought emotional heft and increased the stakes for both himself and the reader. It's about becoming an adult, making your own decisions, and realizing that there will not always be someone there to come to your aid - Harry comes into his own power and it's really impressive. This idea moves from Harry's decisive actions at Shell Cottage all the way in to his final decision in the forest (though these choices, made by Harry, were still in many ways manipulated by Dumbledore but they are finally on Harry's terms).On of the big things I wanted to talk about with this book is the idea of trust. Frankly, everyone trusts Dumbledore and Ron and Hermione trust Harry but no one else trusts anyone else and that often leads to problems. In book 5 Dumbledore sees how dangerous keeping the whole truth from Harry can be but after an "I won't keep any more secrets" conversation we get book 6 and it is an entire book of secrets! I feel like a big theme here is both the necessity of trust and the importance of not giving it too freely. 

V: I agree completely. Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Harry all employ different opinions about and kinds of trust, and they all meet with mixed results. Voldemort does not trust because everyone else is lesser, and to an extent, this is also Dumbledore's view. If he tells people things, his plan will fall apart. The difference is that 1) Dumbledore is doing things to help those people he won't trust rather than things for his own benefit like Voldemort and 2) Dumbledore expects people to put their faith and trust in him in ways that he is unwilling to do for others. Harry comes in the middle of all this and has to learn that trusting even Dumbledore isn't always wise and has to learn to trust himself and his own instincts. At the same time, he has to also learn that though trusting other people is always a risk and always involves putting yourself out there, it can be worth it, and there are definitely times when you need to trust other people to do the right thing. Reading through the destruction of Harry's faith in Dumbledore is very hard, especially because the books naturally encourage the reader to feel this same faith, only to take it away when the real trouble starts. Harry's pain and desperation and his realizations that they are just teenagers who are barely scraping by in their attempt to save the world...this breaks me, especially when you hold it up next to 11-year-old Harry's belief in possibility and wonder. It took 7 books to break Harry down to rock bottom, and I think once he gets there, he's surprised to find that he's more capable of dealing with these things than he originally thought.

M: Your points about Dumbledore make me think about his own words, "for the greater good." That's such a dangerous idea, which Dumbledore clearly realizes in his later years. One thing that I really love about this series is how cohesive it is. Everything builds to this epic conclusion, and I enjoy thinking about just how complex it all is. Much like life - many decisions have lasting repercussions and we will continue to return to them. This book doesn't break me down emotionally in the way that it does you, for me it's more of an opening. While reflecting on character and depth and complexity of narrative I'm also thinking about myself and how I've grown/aged/changed as a reader and a human. The Harry Potter series stands, for me, as a symbol of everything books can do. And that's pretty amazing.

And with that we end our final review in the Harry Potter series. We can't really let it end there...we'll be posting one final wrap up to celebrate our summer of CHBPotter, or trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and the all the ways the series continues even after you turn the final page. Keep checking back on our Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook for our final thoughts. Also, don't miss our first podcast, Jiggery Pokery or second and final Potter podcast will go up later this week.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Victoria Reviews: Frozen by Melissa de la Cruz and Michael Johnston

The inside cover description portrays Frozen as a Vegas-esque romp through a nearly destroyed future with hints of magic and darkness lurking around every corner. As exciting as that sounds, thankfully the book is quite a bit more than that. The setting is frozen both literally and figuratively: everything in the world not covered by ice and snow is toxic waste, and passage between civilizations is either highly regulated or impossible. Society is frozen in its current state, with the rich and privileged spending all their time gambling while the lower classes struggle to survive in such a toxic environment. The government has as tight a control as it can manage on the world, and those trying to slip under the radar are usually caught and quickly executed.

Amidst the militaristic rule and dog-eat-dog population comes a surprisingly old-fashioned tale. Arrogant good guy meets independent, no-nonsense girl, and what results is a toxic seas adventure more like Pirates of the Caribbean than a Las Vegas thriller.

This pirate adventure may sound like it couldn’t possibly fit in with the futuristic Vegas that the book paints as its setting, but the interesting thing is that it actually does; the two seemingly opposing ideas flow together quite naturally, even when you throw in a bit of sorcery and a promised land of the kind Wendy Darling could only dream of.

The characters manage to hold their own despite the mixed setting. Nat and Wes are strong people, capable of handling just about anything that comes their way. But at the end of the day you’re reminded that, despite their ingenuity and intelligence, these are only two teenagers making the best of the cruel world in which they are stuck. Hope and a refusal to give up are sometimes the only things giving them the strength to keep moving.

All in all, I must admit that while I started this book with my expectations closer to the floor than the ceiling, I was rather impressed at the way de la Cruz and Johnston managed to seamlessly stitch together so many vastly different pieces to create a complete and compelling story. I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes fantasy and dystopian stories, as this is a bit of both. Frozen is the first book in the Heart of Dread series, and I'm sure the next book will be just as fantastic and surprising as this one!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Reading Group Selections - August 2014

The best books for reading groups are the ones that foster discussions - whether your book club members are boisterous or more subdued, talking about books is what those meetings are all about! Picking just the right book is always a thrill; love it or hate it - book club books are the ones that stand out. 
Here are a few recent releases that would lead to great discussions in any book club:

This is the Water by Yannick Murphy

At a swim meet in their quiet New England town, Annie watches as her daughters glide through the water. Her thoughts drift lazily from whether she fed her daughters enough carbs that morning to why her husband doesn't kiss her anymore, to Paul, a swim-team parent, who's taken notice of her and seems to embody everything she's beginning to think her life is missing. When a girl on the team is murdered at a nearby highway rest stop--the same spot where Paul made a gruesome discovery years ago--Annie and her fellow swim-parents find themselves adrift. With a serial killer too close for comfort, they must make choices about where their loyalties lie. And as a series of shocking events unfolds, Annie must discover what it means to follow her intuition--even if love, as well as lives, could be lost.

Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

For single mom Shandi Pierce, life is a juggling act. She's finishing college, raising precocious three-year-old Natty, and keeping the peace between her eternally warring, long-divorced parents.Then she gets caught in the middle of a stickup at a gas station and falls instantly in love with William Ashe, when he steps between the armed robber and her son. Shandi doesn't know that William's act wasn't about bravery. When he looked down the barrel of the robber's gun he believed it was destiny: it's been exactly one year since a tragic act of physics shattered his universe. But William doesn't define destiny the way other people do--to him destiny is about choice. Now William and Shandi are about to meet their so-called destinies head-on, making choices that will reveal unexpected truths about love, life, and the world they think they know.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Sometimes it’s the little lies that turn out to be the most lethal. . . .
  A murder… . . . a tragic accident… . . . or just parents behaving badly?  
What’s indisputable is that someone is dead.   But who did what?
  Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads:   Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?). Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

This slim volume, in near poetry, paints the unlikely portrait of a poor North Korean prisoner of war who, almost by hazard, begins a new life in a low-key port city in Brazil rather than returning home. Taken in by a kindly Japanese tailor, Yohan learns the trade, learns the language and slowly becomes a member of this odd foreign family of two. A touching portrayal of immigrant life, isolation, and the search for human connections in a strange new world. -- DarwinEllis, Books On The Common, Ridgefield, CT

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed. When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she's found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn't aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream. Through the Learys, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century, particularly the promise of domestic bliss and economic prosperity that captured hearts and minds after WWII. The result is a riveting and affecting work of art; one that reminds us that life is more than a tally of victories and defeats, that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell each other so before the moment slips away. 


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