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Downsiders

Author: Neil Shusterman

Downsiders, vol. 1

My rating: 4 of 5

In the wake of her parents’ separation and her mother’s latest whimsy (a long-term trip to Africa), Lindsey finds herself shunted off to New York to live with her distracted father and her odious step-brother Todd. Meanwhile, deep beneath that same city, Talon finds himself challenging the precepts and perspectives of his own culture–a people who live beneath the city with their own noble way of life, isolated from the Upsiders whom they view as stupid. And when these two teenagers’ worlds collide, the result is staggering . . . possibly even devastating to both worlds.

Shusterman is one of my favorite authors, as is pretty obvious just from this blog. His books have such a different way of viewing things; they’ve very unique. Downsiders is true to his norm in that it’s quite different from anything I’ve ever read, but it’s also pretty different from any of Shusterman’s other writing. While there are aspects that are similar, I’m not sure I could have picked him out as the author if I hadn’t known. The pacing, while great for this story, is slower than in a lot of his books, and there just isn’t quite as much spark . . . I don’t know how else to put it. Also, the flavor is almost–I want to say Dickensian, but that’s not quite right–it’s as close as I can get to describing it, in any case. Still, while all that sounds kind of negative, I did actually enjoy this book. The concept of a complete, isolated culture living in the abandoned tunnels and forgotten structures beneath New York City is fascinating, and the actual development of this culture in the book was well written. The characters were also believable, and the choices and changes they went through during the course of the story felt true, honest–and important to us as readers because of that. The ending, largely due to those decisions being honest choices not fairy-tale ones, is both beautiful and bittersweet; the story is better for its being so. I wouldn’t recommend Downsiders for everyone, but if you’ve got the patience to dig into it, this book is a rewarding read.

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I Hunt Killers

Author: Barry Lyga

Jasper Dent, vol. 1

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Seventeen-year-old Jasper Dent (better known as Jazz) did not have the most normal childhood. Actually, he was raised by his dad, a notorious serial killer–raised to think like and eventually become a killer himself. But now Jazz’s dad is behind bars and Jazz wants a different life for himself. So when the body count begins to rise in his small home town, Jazz decides to (unofficially and without the sheriff’s permission) assist with the investigation. Because he knows how the killer thinks. And to prove to the town that he’s not like his dad . . . only, is it the town or himself that he needs to convince?

So, I’ve never read much Barry Lyga, but I Hunt Killers was an interesting enough read. It’s kind of a mashup of a contemporary YA novel and an adult crime thriller. And I guess that’s where I get my weird personal reactions to this story. Because on the one hand, I really enjoyed it, but on the other hand, it’s kind of strange and unsettling in a way I’m not sure I like. There’s this total dichotomy, even though in the book the elements are actually combined pretty well. On the crime thriller side, you get this guy who can get into the killer’s head, you get some pretty intense crime scenes, some very painfully intense flashbacks to the guys’ childhood, and a puzzling mystery that gradually unfolds. And on the YA side, you’ve got this kid who is struggling to even see himself as human, who struggles to see the people around him as human rather than just as things to be used. There is a ton of psychological and emotional baggage and internal conflict going on. And then you’ve got Jazz’s awesome girlfriend Connie and his BFF Howie–both of whom get dragged into the mess that Jazz involves himself in. The writing and the pacing of the story are good. The author clearly put a lot of research into this book. And I would read more of Barry Lyga’s books. I probably would read more of this series, even. But I still feel just a bit off about I Hunt Killers . . .  but maybe that’s the intended results, because how can a book about a kid who was raised to be a serial killer ever really be okay?

 

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The Janitor’s Boy

Author: Andrew Clements

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Normally, Jack Rankin is something of a model kid–polite, hard-working, good grades. Life isn’t exactly normal right now, though. The entire middle school has been dumped in the ancient high-school building for the year until their new building is ready to use . . . the high-school building where Jack’s dad works as the janitor. Not a big deal, except let’s be honest, when the other kids find out, it’s totally a big deal. Let the teasing begin. And wondering why his dad so desperately wants to ruin his life, Jack begins to get angry. That’s when he comes up with the perfect revenge.

Although I’ve been vaguely aware of Andrew Clements’ writings for some time, this is the first time I’ve actually read one of his books, and I must say, I’m impressed. This middle-grade/coming-of-age story is warm, humorous, accessible, and engaging. Moreover, it delves deep into the complexities of the parent-child relationship at a challenging age and stage of life, opening some interesting discussions on the topic from both the child’s and the parent’s point of view. I love, love, love that the story actually carries Jack through the transformation of perspective from seeing his dad as someone who provides for him and tells him what to do to seeing his dad as an actual whole person with his own problems and stories and personality. It’s something I’ve experienced personally, but I’ve never seen a book actually develop this phenomenon before. I think this is what truly raises the bar in this book, transforming it from an amusing middle-grade story to a beautiful, moving coming-of-age story. I also really enjoyed how much individual personality each of the characters had and the way in which that personality affected the flow of the plot. In short, The Janitor’s Boy was an impressive surprise for me, and I would highly recommend this book.

 

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Catch Me Now (Supernatural Fanfic)

Author: BatTitan

FanFiction ID: 8980147

Status: Complete (35 Chapters)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

With one misstep, Ariel finds herself falling, not down the stairs at her school as she thought, but right out of her safe college life and into an airplane . . . right next to the Winchesters! Of course, she knows they’re the Winchesters (and not Jared and Jensen); she’s enough of a fan of Supernatural to know that. Also, enough of a fan–and in enough shock at being dragged from her own universe into theirs–to attract their attention. Not necessarily the best of things when they’ve just been dumped on the same plane themselves and are still reeling from the madness of it all. Things get sorted eventually,  and Sam and Dean decide to keep Air (as she prefers to be called) around since she must have been dragged into their world for a reason–possibly something to do with the impending Apocalypse ? Ariel becomes almost a part of the extended Winchester family, offering her opinions readily, helping where possible, and trying not to be too obvious of a Destiel fangirl whenever Dean and Cas are around each other. And then there are the dreams she begins having. . . .

So, the premise of Catch Me Now may be the sort that is both overdone and consistently messed up . . . but in this story, it works and does so brilliantly. A lot of that is due to the author’s obvious talent in spinning a quality tale; the writing itself is excellent. Equally impressive was the character of Ariel and the way her story was woven into the plot of Supernatural so seamlessly. Because this fanfic is essentially season 5, and other than the character insert, it pretty much sticks to canon (even when I really wish it wouldn’t!). Ariel is a really well-written OC, and I truly appreciate the work the author took to create someone who would work in the context of the story and the already existing characters, adding flavor and character without completely altering the course of the story. I especially appreciated that she wasn’t 1) a completely flat self-insert sort of character, 2) overly stereotyped in some way as OCs often are, 3) an awkward love interest for Sam or Dean, or 4) somehow automatically a great fighter or otherwise equipped to be a huge help in the fight. She’s funny, quirky, opinionated, smart, geeky, and compassionate–which is just what is needed for these guys–but she’s also just a normal college girl. As for the plot, the first few chapters are basically just the associated episodes as seen through Air’s eyes, which is interesting enough as it is. But as the story develops, we get more of her own story, sometimes as a part of whatever is going on in a certain episode, sometimes elsewhere, doing her own thing (often with Gabriel–I adore the amount of Gabriel we get in this story, it’s brilliant). The author did make a couple choices here and there that threw me a bit–like changes the person in which the story is written partway through (for a really good reason) and sticking with the plot where I would have loved to see some divergence (see above)–but in all those instances, there were solid reasons behind those choices and I respect them. They certainly didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the story, and I would highly recommend Catch Me Now to anyone interested in a fun, engaging Supernatural fanfic.

Note: You can find this story at https://www.fanfiction.net/s/8980147/1/Catch-Me-Now.

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When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Author: Kimberly Willis Holt

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Nothing much ever happens in the sleepy Texas town of Antler. Or so Toby Wilson thinks until the summer of 1971 blows into town like an ill wind, bringing challenges and change aplenty.  His best friend Cal’s brother is in Vietnam fighting, and Cal can’t seem to bring himself to even write him back. Toby’s mom went to Nashville for a country music competition, and now Toby isn’t sure she’s ever coming home. And then Zachary Beaver rolls into town in a trailer with red letters proclaiming him the fattest boy in the world. That sure brings some excitement to the town as folks line up to pay their two dollars and gawk (Toby and Cal included). But then Zachary’s guardian leaves town . . . without Zachary, and as they begin to spend more time with him, Toby gradually discovers there’s more to Zachary than a stuck-up, overly hygienic, overweight kid.

Why does this book not get more love?! I’d never even heard of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town until I happened to stumble across it in the middle of a book sale, where I picked it up on whim. It’s fabulous. The tone is simple and captures small-town thirteen-year-old boy remarkably well. There are a lot of coming-of-age elements as Toby and his friends deal with loss, loneliness, love, family, and learning to understand those who are different from themselves. And all of this is expressed in a simple yet moving way that I really enjoyed reading. I valued the flaws that were present even in the most likable of the characters, the humanity of them, and the way these flaws influenced their choices. It was also interesting to read something Vietnam War era that wasn’t focused on big cities, university campuses, and peace protests; you get a much better picture here of how the war affected everyday life for the majority of the country, I think, and just a better picture of what life was like at that time. I would certainly recommend When Zachary Beaver Came to Town both for middle-grade readers (the intended audience) and for older readers as well. It’s excellent.

 

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Psych: The Musical

USA Networkpsych-the-musical

Psych Season 7, episode 15/16

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Santa Barbara: murder capital of the world . . . or so fake-psychic detective Shawn Spencer would have us believe. But when former playwright and suspected murderer “Z” escapes from the institution (where he had been kept since the night he was found in the burned theater with the murdered critic who was going to ruin his show), Shawn’s assertions begin to appear more accurate. Especially when his only lead is an escaped serial killer with an addiction to show tunes. As the body count begins to rise, it seems Shawn’s gut may just be wrong . . . perhaps the obvious suspect is also the correct one.

I love when TV shows do random musical episodes, and Psych: The Musical is no exception. This extra-long double episode is classic Psych, playing up the both the strengths and the long-running gags of the show with aplomb. I do feel that, since such a large portion of the focus is on the music, a bit of the detective side of the show slips to the wayside . . . but you do still get a solid murder mystery with an interesting twist here. Really though, the main focus is on the humor and hijinks, and that comes through strongly in the songs and choreography. In fact, I would almost say that the whole point of parts is solely to be goofy and mess around–which is not to say that the music and choreography is not impressive in its own strange way. The cast actually has a remarkably solid pool of vocal talent; James and Dulé are quite good, and I’ve mentioned previously that I love hearing Timothy Omundson’s singing. His duets with James are probably the best (and silliest) parts of the show. Maggie’s ability to dance in heels is quite impressive as well. The music was pretty typical showtunes, although nothing majorly catchy. “I’ve Heard It Both Ways” is probably the most memorable as well as the song which embodies the characters and the show the best; it’s probably the only track I would listen to outside of watching the episode. All in all, Psych: The Musical was neither my favorite Psych episode nor my favorite TV musical, but it was still a fun show–mostly recommended for Psych fans as opposed to musical fans in general.

Written & Directed by Steve Franks/Music by Adam Cohen/Produce by James Roday & Dulé Hill/Starring James Roday, Dulé Hill, Timothy Omundson, Maggie Lawson, Kirsten Nelson, & Corbin Bernsen/Guest Starring Anthony Rapp, Ally Sheedy, Barry Bostwick, Brooke Lyons, Kurt Fuller, Sage Brocklebank, & Jimmi Simpson

 

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The Return of Doctor Mysterio

BBC

My rating: 4.5 of 5

NOTE: This TV special takes place following The Husbands of River Song” and immediately preceding series 10 of Doctor Who. It’s relatively spoiler-free, but you should still be sure to watch “The Husbands of River Song” first because you’ll miss half the feels of this episode if you don’t.

On Christmas Eve of 1992, the Doctor is in New York, trying to stabilize the mess he’s made of time there. That night, he encounters a young boy named Grant and accidentally gives the boy superpowers (don’t ask; it’s the Doctor) . . . and a strict command to never use those powers. Twenty-four years later, the Doctor returns to New York to investigate an alien invasion (surprise) only to encounter Grant–who is living a double life as both nanny to a small baby and local masked superhero “Ghost.” So much for never using those powers. . . .

At first, I was kind of exasperated with the writers for choosing a superhero story–I mean, that’s basically the only sort of movie that seems to be coming out right now! And honestly, I’m not the superhero movie type. But “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is Doctor Who, and I have to admit that it brings in the best of both worlds. You’ve got all the quirkiness and geekiness of Capaldi’s Doctor (absolutely brilliant!) and the classic Who alien invasion story. Plus you’ve got a good guy trying to protect the people he loves and live up to the ideals of the old superhero comics he read as a kid . . . all the while keeping his true identity a secret from the very clever and insightful (except as it regards him) journalist that he works for. The lightness and action of the superhero plot (and the sweet, innocent romance they work in) actually do a lot to counterbalance what may otherwise have been a very dark and angsty story (if you’ve watched “The Husbands of River Song,” you know why). On the other hand, the interactions between the Doctor and the journalist, Lucy, are humorous on the surface but serve to draw out and develop the Doctor’s inner turmoil, which is neat to see. In any case, I would definitely recommend “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” to any fan of Doctor Who.

Written by Steven Moffat/Directed by Ed Bazalgette/Produced by  Peter Bennett/Music by Murray Gold/Starring Peter Capaldi, Matt Lucas, Justin Chatwin, & Charity Wakefield

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