Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Movie Review)

mamma mia here we go againMamma Mia! Here We Go Again is the sequel that nobody wanted… until it got announced and everyone cool realized that actually, yes, we do want this. Here’s the thing about Mamma Mia!: either you’re going to like it or you’re not. Either you will embrace the campy ridiculousness or you will groan because, in the way of all jukebox musicals, it doesn’t exactly have a tight plot.

The best thing about Here We Go Again is the same as it was in the original: everyone is having an over-the-top good time. Pretty much everyone goes all in with the silly choreography (though special props go to Christine Baranski/Tanya and Julie Walters/Rosie, because they—more than anyone else—look like they are having the time of their lives), and when the whole group puts on ABBA outfits at the end, it’s hard not to want to:

  1. get an ABBA outfit
  2. have a dance party

mamma mia you can dance

The story parallels Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) in the wake of Donna’s (Meryl Streep) death with Young Donna (Lily James) in her first summer on the island. While Sophie attempts to throw a reopening party for the hotel while fighting with her husband (boyfriend? I’m not sure) Sky (Dominic Cooper), Young Donna flirts and charms her way into the hearts of Sam (Pierce Brosnan/Jeremy Irvine), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård/Josh Dylan), and Harry (Colin Firth/Hugh Skinner). This is essentially the whole plot, but it doesn’t matter because everyone sings and it’s fun.

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You and Me and Him (Book Review)

you and me and himI love stories that emphasize platonic friendships, so when I randomly stumbled upon You and Me and Him by Kris Dinnison, which has “What if getting the guy means losing your soulmate?” as a tagline, I was sure that I’d like it. A story with friendship prioritized over romance? Yes, please. Unfortunately… I was wrong, and I did not like it.

Fair warning: this review is pretty negative, so if you like this book or don’t want negativity, you may want to turn back now.

What’s it about?

Maggie and her BFF Nash are outsiders who only have each other, but their friendship is challenged when Tom—new, handsome, and charming—blows into town. Maggie and Nash both crush on Tom, and Tom’s preference for Maggie might spell the end of the relationship.

What’d I think?

Honestly, it would be easier to list what I liked about this book than what I didn’t.

What’d I like?

dean shrug sueprnatural

What didn’t I like?

Okay, now that that’s over with, let’s talk about the premise. No decade-long best friends would abandon their friendship—which they both claim is the most important relationship in their lives—because of a crush. Tom is a crush. He is not a longtime romantic partner or even a really close friend. He’s a crush. Any relationship that can be demolished by a new crush is clearly a weak relationship. That makes sense, though, since at no point in the novel do Maggie and Nash act like even friendly acquaintances, let alone platonic soulmates.

Also, Tom is not worth fighting over. He is not nearly as charming as he makes himself out to be. I have a hard time believing he’d have his choice of friends at every new school he attends. In fact, I found him sleazy and was convinced he was two-timing everyone.

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Goodbye Days (Book Review)

goodbye daysI read Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner entirely because it has blurbs from Becky Albertalli and Benjamin Alire Sáenz, who are both amazing. It is possible that I might have liked Goodbye Days more if I had read it at a different time, but I am coming off having read similar stories from Jandy Nelson, Adam Silvera, and E. Lockhart that were much better, and Goodbye Days can’t escape the comparison.

What’s it about?

Carver Briggs’ three best friends—Blake, Eli, and Mars—are dead. They died in a car wreck when Mars, who was driving, was responding to a text that Carver sent. Does that mean Carver is responsible for the Accident? It depends on whom you ask. Carver himself isn’t sure, which makes the criminal investigation into the accident all the worse.

What’d I think?

Goodbye Days has a bizarre mix of beautiful writing and writing that makes me cringe. There are a few sections that are dramatically better than the rest of the novel, specifically the titular goodbye days, in which Carver meets with the families of his dead friends and spends a day in remembrance. At moments like that, the writing elevates and actually engaged me emotionally. When Carver is missing his gang, the reader misses them with him:

“But guess where my love of writing took me. One day I wrote a text message that killed me three best friends. Now do I have your attention? Sure, I’ve written a few stories here and there, but my masterwork was a two-sentence-long text message that ended three stories. I’m the only writer in the world who makes stories disappear by writing.”

The major problem, at least for me, is that every relationship becomes better and more poignant in retrospect. In flashback sequences, the reader sees “the Sauce Gang” in their prime and they are… obnoxious. Immature. One-dimensional. Not funny. It is very hard to reconcile the boys Zentner shows us with the ones that Carver and the families mourn. Blake is probably the best example. When Carver and Blake’s grandmother Nana Betsy remember Blake, he is a beautiful soul, endlessly selfless, warmly giving, loyal and kind despite having grown up in an abusive home before Nana Betsy took him in. When flashbacks show us Blake in person, he just farts a lot.

It’s supposed to be hilarious, but the humor in the novel does not translate (at least to me). At one point, Nana Betsy says, “ ‘Aren’t most stories about the people we love that way? You had to be there.’” That might be true, but in a novel, the reader is there with the characters. If the boys are so hysterically hilarious, why didn’t I laugh at any of their jokes?cristina laughing internally grey's anatomy

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The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles) (Book Review)

summer of jordi perezI read The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles) by Amy Spalding because I randomly picked it up and saw that it has a lot of endorsements, including one from my beloved Becky Albertalli. I’m glad I did, especially in the middle of a somewhat stressful summer, since it is a fun, cute summer read.            

What’s it about?

Plus-sized lesbian fashionista Abby Ives has one goal for the summer between junior and senior years of high school: get the internship at Lemonberry, her favorite boutique, and turn it into a job. As it turns out, though, the summer is going to be a lot more complicated than that. She has to split the internship—and therefore compete for the paying job—with Jordi Perez, a talented photographer. Her best friend Maliah has a new boyfriend, which strains their friendship as they try to find a new rhythm. Abby finds herself with a new frat-boy best friend who wants her to help him find the best burger in LA. And the internship gets even messier when she finds herself falling in love with Jordi.

What’d I think?

I really enjoyed this book. It’s cute. It’s not the sort of book that you’d pick for a book club, but it is remarkable in its own way. Take a moment to list any books you can think of that:

  • Feature a gay protagonist, but does not have either coming out or dealing with homophobia as a major plot point
  • Emphasize a fun, healthy, and decidedly platonic male-female friendship
  • Let a fat girl be fun, desirable, and more than just her weight
  • Present “girly” hobbies—like fashion, shopping, and blogging—as valid

There are a few out there, but definitely not very many. (If you thought of some, please let me know in the comments so I can read them).

For me, The Summer of Jordi Perez is mostly notable for being a standard romantic comedy with a nonstandard heroine. Throughout the novel, Abby thinks of herself as the stereotypical sassy best friend to her best friend Maliah:

The sassy best friend gets to have witty one-liners, a killer wardrobe, and usually a pretty great job. But it is the best friend’s goal to help our heroine fall in love; it is not the best friend’s job to fall in love herself.

Therefore, I’ve just realized that I’m probably doomed at love. Because I’m pretty sure I’m not the heroine. I don’t even think I’m in my own story.

Abby has spent her life surrounded by thin, straight heroines. Her mother runs a famous healthy food brand. She has internalized the idea that her role is to be a sidekick, and her growth over the novel is to see that she doesn’t have to play that role, and that real life is not comprised of characters and roles and tropes. The novel is called The Summer of Jordi Perez, but it isn’t—in my opinion—the summer of Jordi Perez. It’s the summer of Abby Ives: it’s the summer where Abby grows into herself, and that’s pretty awesome.

rebecca josh groban people aren't characters crazy ex girlfriend

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The Trials of Apollo #3: The Burning Maze (Book Review)

burning mazeI have been following Rick Riordan’s Greek mythology books for a long time. Riordan is one of my auto-buy authors, though I hadn’t noticed until finishing The Burning Maze, the third book of The Trials of Apollo series, that my anticipation for the books may have waned a bit. I still love Percy and all the other demigods, but I let several books jump the line ahead of The Burning Maze, and instead of reading it right when it came out, I waited to read it until now.

(I’m trying an amended format on this review, since it’s a little long. The TL;DR bits are all in blue, so if you are so inclined you can skip to them and just hit the highlights. Let me know what you think of the format, so I know whether or not to keep doing it.)

Mild spoilers for all previous books ahead. Spoilers for The Burning Maze will be hidden at the end.

What’s it about?

Apollo—Greek god of music, the sun, archery, and a few other things—is being punished for allowing the events of the Heroes of Olympus series to occur. He has been banished in a wimpy, love-handled human form and tasked with rescuing five oracles from three evil Roman emperors (if you have read the previous books, you already know this; this is context). In The Burning Maze, he is searching for the third oracle with the help of his stalwart master Meg, daughter of Demeter. This time, amongst other things, Apollo and Meg have to deal with a section of the labyrinth that’s filled with fire, an evil talking horse, monsters with giant ears, and their darkest hour yet.

So who’s in it?

The Trials of Apollo series is, in a way, a victory lap for the various heroes from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians and the Heroes of Olympus series. In previous books, we’ve checked in with Nico di Angelo (and Will Solace), Percy Jackson (briefly), and Leo Valdez (and Calypso). Book three brings back way more familiar faces. Grover returns after a long, long absence. Piper McLean and Jason Grace are central, and Coach Hedge and his wife Mellie also join in on a few adventures. As always, there are also a few new characters.

The_Hidden_OracleI wrote in my review of The Dark Prophecy that different combinations of characters work differently, and I have to say that Apollo’s best team-up is still the one from The Hidden Oracle. Nothing beats the combo of Apollo’s sunny conceitedness and Nico’s dark snark. However, I think that Grover and Piper compliment Apollo better than Leo did. Jason, to be entirely honest, has always been kind of a nonentity to me. He’s a sort of boring golden child, and compared to characters like Percy, Leo, Grover, Annabeth, Nico, and Frank… he comes across as kind of blandly nondescript.

Jason is perfectly serviceable in this book, just as he is in the others, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that Jason was the character the fewest people were looking forward to seeing again.

Piper is pretty cool. Like Jason, she was never my favorite, but she is Piper in peak form. She has some badass moments, some charming moments, and she is more in touch with her Native American side. At moments I thought Piper’s culture seemed a little overdone, like maybe Riordan was worried he hadn’t emphasized it enough in previous books, but overall I liked that it was a bigger element.

Grover is Grover, by which I mean awesome. I love Grover so much. I still miss early Grover, when he was awkward and anxious, but big time savior of nature Grover is good, too.

How does it stack up against the other two books?

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We Were Liars (Book Review)

we were liars.jpgWhat’s it about?

In We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Cady Sinclair Eastman spends her summers on her wealthy grandfather’s private island with her fellow Liars (cousins Johnny and Mirren and love interest Gat) and her very privileged, very greedy extended family. But something happened to Cady her fifteenth summer; a traumatic injury after a swim left her with debilitating headaches, gaping holes in her memory, and a dependence on prescription medication. When Cady returns to the island two years after the incident, no one will tell her what happened that fateful summer, and she has to depend on her own damaged memory to put the puzzle together.

A caveat

I think at some point I am going to have to reread We Were Liars, because I am not totally sure how I feel about it. I think I liked it. I’m mostly sure I liked it, but there are definitely some things about it that I have to pause over. It’s possible that once it all sinks in more I’ll be like, “That was brilliant!” but it’s also possible that I’ll feel mildly cheated. So. Time will tell.

What’d I think?

There are definitely some parts that I unequivocally like. First and foremost is the writing. Lockhart does a great job with the voice and the atmosphere to build the suspense. I read this book at the edge of my seat, equal parts desperate to know what happened and afraid to find out. I knew that there would be a twist coming (there are several blurbs that announce as much), but there were a couple times prior to the actual reveal when I wondered, “Is this it?” They weren’t it. When I came to it, I knew.

I also really love the way that Lockhart paints the extended Sinclair family. They are terrible. Seriously. The worst. Granddad Sinclair is a mean, prejudiced old man and his three daughters are selfish and grasping. Lockhart builds the mystery around the family from the outside and then reveals the truth. The whole novel is built like this. There is a pretty surface-level lie—often more than one—and an ugly truth underneath. Cady’s rewritten fairy tales to make sense of her family are also highlights.

Lockhart also does a really good job criticizing societal issues like racism and classism, mostly through Gat (Johnny’s mother’s boyfriend’s nephew, who is intentionally and essentially the only non-white character who appears in the novel). The commentary is integral to the story as a whole, but it is not heavy handed or preachy.

Characters are not a standout aspect of this novel in my opinion. I like everyone fine, but I don’t love anyone. I’ve written before about how mysteries tend to elevate plot above character as a necessity of the genre, and that’s true here. We Were Liars is partially a family drama, but more than that (in my opinion, anyway) it is a mystery inside Cady’s mind. Cady is so emptied out by her illness that she is barely a person, but she has a phenomenal narrative voice. She is a great unreliable narrator.

So what didn’t I like? Again, I’m not sure I didn’t like it. I don’t know what to think about the twist. And obviously that’s all I can say about that until the spoilery section at the end. 

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The Sky is Everywhere (Book Review)

the sky is everywhereLast year, I read I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It was my favorite book from 2017, so I obviously had high hopes for The Sky is Everywhere (Nelson’s first book). While it does not match the heights of the Printz-winning I’ll Give You the Sun, The Sky is Everywhere is still an excellent novel.

What’s it about?

After the sudden and unexpected death of her beloved older sister Bailey, Lennie Walker is unmoored (Wuthering Heights moor pun intended). She lets her music slip and endlessly writes poems about her love and grief that she releases into the world. The only times when she can fight through the pain of her loss is when she is with Toby, Bailey’s boyfriend, or with Joe, the new boy/musical prodigy who moves to town and has never known her without Bailey.

What’d I think?

Summaries of The Sky is Everywhere (including mine, unfortunately) zero in on the love triangle. Lennie is drawn to and attracted to both Toby and Joe, and a large part of the novel is her discovering herself in romantic and sexual contexts. Both Joe and Toby help Lennie process her grief and come into herself on the other side of Bailey’s death.

The romantic storyline is also—by a wide margin—the least interesting part of the story. Whenever Joe and Toby take a backseat, the story gets better, because there is a lot more to Lennie and her story than who she wants to kiss.

I hate poetry. Hate it. The only time I will read a poem without complaining is when it is sung to me in music form. And yet… Lennie’s poems, which are spread throughout her world on scraps of paper and old wrappers and pages from her favorite book, are heartbreaking and beautiful. They include memories of Bailey and messages that Lennie hopes might somehow make their way to Bailey, and they give a really tangible element to Lennie’s grief that does not necessarily always make it through when she is in the middle of her hormonal frenzies.

I also love Lennie’s messy family. Her gardening guru grandmother, who took Bailey and Lennie in when their mother/her daughter ran off, is precious. Uncle Big, the local Lothario who has been married five times, is a hoot who prompts one of the most interesting ideas in the novel:

This is our story to tell. [Uncle Big] says it in his Ten Commandments way and it hits me that way: profoundly. You’d think for all the reading I do, I would have thought about this before, but I haven’t. I’ve never once thought about the interpretive, the storytelling aspect of life, of my life. I always felt like I was in a story, yes, but not like I was the author of it, or like I had any say in its telling whatsoever.

You can tell your story any way you damn well please.

It’s your solo.

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Swing Sideways (Book Review)

swing sidewaysI went to my first-ever writer’s conference at the end of last month, and while I was there I met Nanci Turner Steveson, the author of Swing Sideways. She is an extremely nice lady, and she gives really great revisions and writing seminars. Because she was so nice and helpful, I really wanted to like her novel more than I did. Of course, Swing Sideways is a junior fiction novel about good ol’ country girls and I have outgrown 98% of JF and usually actively avoid books set in the country, so that is probably in large part why I didn’t enjoy it.

What’s it about?

Annabel “Annie” Stockton is prescribed a “summer of freedom” by her therapist in order to combat the panic attacks and anxiety brought on by her overprotective mother. She takes advantage of this freedom to spend time with California, the granddaughter of the notoriously grouchy Mr. McMurtry, who live on a farm next door to the Stocktons’s summer home. Annie has always been a country girl at heart, so when California asks for her help in finding two ponies that are lost on her grandfather’s property in the hopes that doing so will bring her mother home, Annie enthusiastically agrees.

What’d I think?

intended audience

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My Ten Least Favorite Storylines

It’s Camp NaNoWriMo, which means that I’m reading less, which means that I don’t have as many reviews to post, which means I’m trying something now.

I write a lot about my biggest pet peeves in stories, but I’ve never really spelled out what they are. I really like blogs that do top tens and lists rather than just reviews, so I figured I’d start with this one since it is easy to write and see how it goes. So. My Ten Biggest Pet Peeves in Storytelling.

(I used TV shows for examples since that makes it easier to find a photo/gif, but these go for all types of storytelling)

10a) “I am a disposable love interest and my rival the protagonist is ready to make his/her move. Time to become stupid/abusive/untenable in 3… 2… 1…”

Have you noticed that a protagonist’s romantic interest is only ever given one real option, especially in TV shows? It rarely happens that someone chooses between two normal, nice people There’s always the show’s OTP and then… urgh. No way could she pick that guy. This doesn’t happen with an established love triangle with three developed characters. This is exclusively for placeholder love interests.

Cosimo-Fusco-1.jpg
Paolo was a regular, inoffensive guy until it was time to get rid of him, and then he groped Phoebe.

10b) “I am a despicable love interest and there is literally no way my partner will ever pick me because I am the literal worst.”

Sometimes a love interest needs a partner to delay the inevitable of a will they/won’t they relationship, but obviously you can’t give the love interest someone who actually suits them, because it might sway people away from the OTP. The solution? An asshole!

*I refuse to put a picture of Karofsky or Walter from Glee here, but they are the first examples that spring to mind*

 9) “Hey, we just met and this is crazy, but you’re my soulmate. I love you, baby.”

There’s a limited amount of time in a novel/movie to tell a storyline, so love at first sight it is!

love at first sight romeo + juliet

8) “I will stalk, manipulate, and mock this woman until she loves me. I am attractive, so it will work.”

There are so many “romantic” storylines that start out with a guy refusing to take no for an answer. That is not a way to start a healthy, fulfilling relationship. That is a major red flag.

noah the notebook
Remember how Noah threatened to commit suicide to get a date? Gross.

7a) “I am a happy and successful woman. I don’t need a man to complete/define me… Hey, a hot guy!”

This is self-explanatory. 

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Three Wishes (Book Review)

three wishesLiane Moriarty is one of my favorite non-YA writers, so when I found out about Three Wishes, which is her first novel, I knew I had to read it. I love Moriarty’s writing, especially in the first few books that I read. I adored The Husband’s Secret and The Hypnotist’s Love Story, really liked Big Little Lies, and mostly liked What Alice Forgot and Truly Madly Guilty.

What’s it about?

Cat, Gemma, and Lyn are triplets who are at once very similar and incredibly different. They love each other fiercely, but one birthday dinner ends up with one sister throwing a fondue fork at her pregnant sister. Three Wishes is mostly the story of how they got there.

What’d I think?

It is really interesting to read a lot of books from the same author, because you start to see patterns across the body of work. You start to see what subjects are important to the writer. There’s nothing wrong with this, obviously. I notice that there are major themes and even types of characters who pop up in all the fiction that I write. There are some authors that I love precisely because they visit and revisit themes that resonate strongly with me.

Liane Moriarty, unfortunately, is the opposite.

I love her writing, but between books I forget that she is deeply obsessed with pregnancy and women who desperately want, but who are unable to have, children. Everyone has a few personal pet peeves, and this is one of mine. I am very, very annoyed by stories about pregnancy in general, but when characters can’t have them, they suddenly turn into defunct baby factories: the only thing that’s important to or about them is what they can’t do. I know I’m supposed to sympathize, but seriously.

Children dominate Three Wishes. Lyn has a toddler and she and her husband, Michael, are idly contemplating having a second kid. Cat really, really, really wants a baby and she and her husband, Dan, are actively trying to conceive. Then Dan cheats on Cat and suddenly her whole life is about Dan’s infidelity and the fact that if she splits up with her husband in her thirties, she may never have a chance to procreate. Gemma, at least for the majority of the novel, is immune to the baby fever and as a direct result of that, she is my favorite character. More on this in the spoilery section at the end.

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