Friday, April 27, 2018

Book Versus Movie: Love, Simon

So, what feels like a million years ago, I used to have a recurring series on this blog called "The Novel and The Movie," running through various book to movie adaptations, and determining between the two which I thought was superior (Spoiler alert: Between The Maltese Falcon, Bridget Jones' Diary, and Wild, the movie came out on top once!). 

Of course, these posts weren't the only times I've talked about movies on this blog - like in last summer's exploration of the Twilight legacy - but they were unique in that they pitted two different mediums of the same story against each other. When my siblings and I recently saw a movie that led us to consciously make those same kinds of judgments, well, I knew I had to bring the series back! 

(And yes, I'm very aware that this post jumps on board the hype train a little late, as the movie came out March 16th. I'm excusing it, because Albertalli's newest book, Leah on the Offbeat - which focuses on the character of Leah from Simon's story - just came out a few days ago!) 


If you do remember the Twilight post that I just mentioned, then these two might seem a little familiar!

While I read Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda all the way back in 2015, and have been telling everyone how much I love it ever since, neither my younger sister, Delaney, or youngest sibling and only brother, Beaumont, had ever got around to reading it. Naturally, I mandated that before anyone got to see the movie adaptation - Love, Simon, which premiered this past March to a Rotten Tomatoes score of 92% positive - they would have to do so.
  • Delaney is a college senior and soon-to-be graduate, with a passion for HR, and a legacy in Greek life, serving as both Chapter President and Panhellenic President. Despite having been a cheerleader for all four years of high school, and coming out as a lesbian to our parents in college, she has somehow never seen the the seminal LGBT film, But I'm a Cheerleader.
  • Beaumont is a high school sophomore, and member of the Knowledge Bowl, Jazz Club, and School Band, as well as Crew for the annual Spring musical. He loves watching Jeopardy with his family, and would like to make sure this profile mentions his beloved pet hedgehog, Beignet.
Delaney read the book quickly over Winter Break - after I gave it to her for Christmas - and Beau did it in the Spring, finishing up just a day before we saw the movie. 


Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli, follows the story of Simon Spier, a teenager who keeps his sexuality hidden from everyone... except for the stranger from his high school, Blue, that he's been messaging online. After he mistakenly leaves his email open in the library, and is subsequently blackmailed by geeky Martin into helping win over his friend Abby, Simon's junior year gets a lot more complicated. Can he juggle friends, family, the school musical, and this huge secret? More importantly, can he do so, while winning over Blue? 

For Delaney, this story meant a lot, due to her own high school experiences. "As a closeted teen I read most of my LGBT+ books secretly, either not mentioning the plot at all or shuffling the novel amongst the straightest YA fictions you could find," she told me. "In fact, Simon vs. The Homosapiens Agenda was the first LGBT+ book I’ve read since coming out. I can easily say I was not disappointed. The plot was juicy, well thought out, and came from a place where, while I knew the author herself was straight, I trusted her with the characters." 

Beau was a lot more new to the sub-genre, but still went in with high expectations. "While I've read books with LGBT+ characters before, they've never been contemporary or romance... if anything, almost all have been in the fantasy category. I read Simon vs. Homosapiens Agenda because it came highly recommended by both of my sisters, and I wanted to read it before seeing the movie. I really loved the characters, because they were very realistic, and it was funny, emotional, and very dramatic, and overall, a good, solid read." 

Notes from the Field (courtesy of my siblings)
  • Delaney hates it when teen-speak is incorporated into YA novels, especially when it comes to things like Internet slang or social media-specific lingo. Understandably, it was important to the plot - as the school's gossip Tumblr, creeksecrets, plays an important factor - but that doesn't stop the language itself from being somewhat cringe-inducing. 
  • In fact, Delaney couldn't help but flinch at some of the email conversations between each chapter from Blue and Simon, "not because they weren’t as valuable as the story itself, but because they reminded me too much of my own relationships and conversations in high school, and it honestly made me uncomfortable. " 
  • Beau just scoffed at the idea of lengthy chains of email responses back and forth. "There are plenty of other ways to message people." 
  • Beau thought some of the pop cultural references were well-integrated into the plot, but others were awkward, and even automatically dated the novel. "Some, like Harry Potter, will stand the test of time, but others that are really funny now, might not last as long." 


The movie follows the same plotline as the book, to a fairly impressive degree, in terms of a film expectations for an adaptation of a YA novel. They were especially successful is maintaining the sense of personality that Simon imbues throughout the story, as well as creating realistic characters portrayed with emotional depth. However, the changes that were made, were definitely noticed. 

Delaney said that overall, some of her favorite moments of the movie involved Simon's parents, played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel. "I thought they captured Simon’s parent’s reactions beautifully in the movie... I could feel such sincerity in both of their small scenes individually addressing Simon’s coming out. I will always see Jennifer as my second mom." 

One of the other elements of the movie that my family really enjoyed included the depiction of the various emailing sequences throughout the movie. Depending on which person Simon was currently guessing at being Blue, the actors playing the mysterious correspondent rotated, all with a blue filter saturating the screen. Delaney said, "Using the Blue filter over our mystery email boyfriend adds a sense of mystique, especially when partnered with the changing characters filling the screen and voice over as Simon’s suspicions change." 

Additional elements that generated rave reviews? The addition of Ethan, an out-and-proud boy at Simon's school, as well as the inclusion of some of Simon's quirks from the book, like his affinity for Oreos. One of the funnier family conversations we had in anticipation of the movie, was whether they'd have anything Harry Potter-related in the film, which generated even bigger laughs when they actually did. 

Of course, they can't all be positive. Certain changes were made to the movie in order to generate a different thematic tone than what was possible through a movie, versus book, translation. Emotional responses were bumped higher and bigger, the cast of characters was streamlined or changed, and plot points were exaggerated or blown to a larger scale in order to convey a grander sense of drama. 

Personally? I missed the Tilt-a-Whirl ending, and it's clear from my conversations with my siblings that I'm not the only one. In the movie, the entire climactic action - of Simon meeting Blue for the first time - was made much more public and "celebrated," which was probably a deliberate tonal cue the movie wanted to hit, being that it was intended for teens... the problem is, the ending in the book is much more subtle and personal, and reflected more of the interiority of Simon that we get from his firsthand narration. Have a crowd of kids below him on the Ferris Wheel, watching him as he waited, and putting a lot of pressure on his Blue, just didn't hit that emotional point for me. 

Notes from the Field 
  • No one warned me that this soundtrack is so good. Like, it's really good. As in, something we all talked about after the fact. 
  • Great casting choices all around, but mainly in Nick Robinson, who plays Simon, and - of course - the always-glorious Jennifer Garner. Both pulled significant emotional weight through some of the film's most vital moments, and conveyed sincerity and authenticity in a narrative that really warranted it. 
  • All of the characters in this film must be loaded, because these houses are positively huge... particularly Simon's, whose digs look like the setting for a West Elm catalog photoshoot. If you're a fan of immaculate home sets, you'll be in heaven. 
  • The school musical has been changed from Oliver to Cabaret. Beau thought that change was not only a little unnecessary, but also highly unlikely, as a school would rarely actually elect to put on something as risque and subversive as Cabaret. It was like they wanted something that screamed "musical theater" more, and their eventual pick was a super unlikely one. 


Despite the fact that all of us siblings truly enjoyed both the book and the movie, and understood the necessity of the alterations made between the various mediums, at the end of the day, we couldn't help but feel one tells the story just a little bit better.

As Delaney put it, she prefers the book to the movie, "because of its ability to deepen the plot in a way that the movie isn’t able to. I like the dynamic of his family a little better in the book, maybe because it more closely reflects my own."

However, she insists on emphasizing that the movie is incredibly important viewing. "In no way is this the best movie you will ever see, but I’ll be damned if I’m not exceedingly happy that I’ve seen it. Whether you are LGBT+ or straight, you will see a bit of Simon in yourself, and that relatability is what helps make this movie so personal. While it is no Brokeback Mountain or Moonlight, Love, Simon owns what it is - a little silly and a lot heartwarming - and that is why it now owns a part of my soul."

For Beau, the changes between the two ended up being the deciding factor. "Both the movie and the book follow the same general plot, however the movie made several changes... and these changes are probably my biggest problems with the movie as I felt they were unnecessary, and even detracted from the plot.

However, like Delaney, he also really enjoyed the film. In fact, something else the two both agree on, is what order in which to take in these two story mediums: Delaney recommends reading the book first, then seeing the movie, like all three of us did. "In the case of having already seen the movie first, then you should still read the book!"

"It’s a positive way to see each form of content as a separate interpretation." 

Regardless, we hope it's clear that this is a story we all truly enjoyed and loved, and the likes of which we hope to be seeing grace the big screen again soon. Only, after we read the book, first! 

Which do you prefer, the book or the movie? When did you see Love, Simon in theaters? Have you read any of Albertalli's other books? Let me know, in the comments below!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) In Song

25434361Grammy Award-winning and Tony-nominated singer, songwriter, and actress Sara Bareilles has a whole lot of titles to stick onto her name already. 

Which means, of course, I was overjoyed when she decided to add "author" to that lineup! 

Ever since her hit single "Love Song" became a chart-topping success back in 2007, Sara Bareilles has made a career out of her folksy voice, genuine lyrics, and penchant for speaking to the heart of her worldwide fanbase, with songs like "Brave," and "King of Anything." Now, she takes to a different kind of writing platform, to share even more of her life in her own words, including views of her unconventional childhood, how to write a song, her battles with anxiety and depression, and what it took to make the world stop, and listen.

Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song is divided into eight chapters, organized around songs she has written that have been both personal to her, and influential to her career. From her origins with "Love Song," all the way to "She Used to Be Mine," the standout hit from her Tony Award- nominated original score for Waitress: The Musical, the stories held within the book cover not just themes of heartbreak, growth, the industry, and family, but detail what kind of work went into the construction of these notable works of art, and her impressive career.

To be clear (if you haven't been able to tell thus far): Sara is one of my favorite musical acts of all time. As one of my favorite contemporary songwriters, it would make sense that her words would speak to me just as completely through the format of a memoir, as they would through her music.

In fact, this book is one of those things where it's almost hard to review this objectively, due to the sheer amount of love and unconditional support I feel for the person who wrote it. I love Sara, I love her songs, and the feeling's not going away any time soon. Her music has long had a foothold in my life, and I've overjoyed at her continued success.

So, I refuse to distance the concepts of reviewing this as an outsider, versus the status of being a fan: this memoir not only made me love her even more as an already-established admirer, but gave new and additional insight into some of the elements of her career that I've been able to observe from the outside, as a fan, from stories behind the writing of songs I already know all the words to, to the creative process for Waitress, to exactly why she left her judging position on my family's one-time favorite show, The Sing-Off (aka, the a capella reality competition that first brought us the gift that is Pentatonix).

(Also,  in case you were a fan of that show, fellow judge Ben Folds wrote the forward!)

For instance, the story behind "Love Song" is a little different than what you've read or heard before, even when it was told by Sara herself. Her efforts to remain authentic in a media-obsessed industry have helped her carve out a sound and fanbase that's all about celebrating being yourself, which is one of the reasons why "Brave" was so personal to her. And when it comes to the song "Gravity," it captures the feeling of heartbreak so perfectly, because it was an artifact of heartbreak, itself.

In fact, Sara spoke so completely through the memoir, that I ended up highlighting excerpts from some of the chapters, because it meant so much for me to read them. Her writing is conversational and straightforward, while still preserving a sense of artistry that is unique to her style as a performer. In fact, the audio book is even narrated by her, so if you're as big a fan as I am, it might be worth it to hear her tell her own story, in her own voice, out loud.

Regardless, this was probably one of the most meaningful memoirs I've read in the last year.

Final Verdict: Direct, authentic, and incredibly personal, Sara Bareilles' voice shines through her memoir just as completely as it does through her music. Whether you're already a fan of her music, or a fan of celebrity memoirs, I think you should take a chance, and take a listen, because I feel like it's impossible to come out of this not rooting for her unique blend of musicianship and heart.

What's your favorite celebrity memoir? Have you read any written by musicians? Let me know, in the comments below!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Bits of Books: Enchantment of Ravens, The Magician King, Lost Boy

If you're going to settle down to the task of reading a great deal of books, you have to accept the reality that some of those books are going to be better than others. Some might be a total dumpster fire. Some might be a slightly smaller kitchen fire that someone started when they got a lighter too close to a potted plant. And even more so, some of those books are going to be... completely mediocre. You know, okay. Maybe even a little more than okay. Maybe even "perfectly fine."

But you can't just give a two word review like "Perfectly Fine." Instead, that's why I have room for mini-reviews of recent reads, in Bits of Books

An Enchantment of Ravens, Margaret Rogerson

An Enchantment of Ravens is the first novel for Margaret Rogerson, and follows a young painter, named Isobel, whose Craft attracts patronage from many of the fair folk. However, while she frequently finds herself in the company of these unique and dangerous subjects, she makes a crucial mistake when depicting one of the most powerful of all: she paints mortal sorrow into the Autumn Prince's eyes. Now she must travel with him to the Autumn Court and await trial for her crimes.... if they manage to get that far.

The story itself didn't exactly distract me, so much as leave me waiting for it to develop further. There were kernels of interest, new and exciting ideas, that appeared every once in a while, and parts of description where Rogerson really shined; however, too much of it was built on YA genre tropes for me to really grab hold of the narrative without thinking, "I've seen this too many times before."

Even worse, some of those belonged in the more annoying hallmarks of YA, such as insta-love, a regular person who is the chosen one for fairly achievable talents or personality traits, and the typical trappings of an immortal and ageless prince falling in love with a literal teenager.

The world-building felt lackluster, like every time the ideas started to develop outwards more fully, it fell short a couple steps before actually making the journey into a new concept. It was so close to so many different things, that could have been really cool or new, but never quite made it all the way there.

I'm not about to blame my dissatisfaction on the genre, either, as I've read some pretty remarkable fairy-based fantasies recently. Still, while it's easier to take stories about comprehensive high fantasy communities and multiple groups inter-working in one universe, the idea that all fairies exist in this one concise radius, know each other, and interact throughout the courts regularly, seemed a little claustrophobic, as well as unlikely.

All in all, definitely not a great read for me. However, the cover is stunning... and I was interested in enough of the minor nuances of the story concepts that I might be tempted to pick up one of the author's future reads. Maybe.

The Magician King (The Magicians #2), Lev Grossman 

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman, is the second installment in the popular The Magicians series. Once again following Quentin, Elliot, Janet, and Quentin's long-ago classmate Julia, the journey starts in Fillory, where Q finds himself wrapped up in an uncertain quest. Seeking a key at the end of the world, his journey takes him back to Earth, to the canals of Venice, and farther beyond the reaches of Fillory than he even accounted for. His magical education at Brakebills can't help him here... but Julia's unbridled street-learned abilities might just be the thing that takes them home.

In terms of second books that really feel like second books, this is very much a continuation, and in a lot of ways, specifically felt like a bridge for Quentin. The story was much more about Julia, who I enjoyed getting to know better, especially because of how much she'd been sidelined in the first novel. In fact, I still wish her story had been amped up even more.

Additionally, if the series does a great job of making settings feel like characters themselves, and if the main characters in the first book included Brakebills and Fillory, then the second book was oriented more towards Earth - specifically, the safe houses - and Outside-Continental-Fillory. Each place the characters traveled to carried its own distinct ambience and sense of construction.

I almost appreciated being on Earth more, because the narrative couldn't get away with deus ex machina conventionality so much. With Fillory, it often feels like things just happen due to "magic" and it's used as a brush-away excuse, but when confined to the limitations of Earth, even magic is forced into some form of confine that gives it a greater shape and depth.

I'm not terribly satisfied with the ending, but I suppose that's one of the great things about reading a series after its finished. I mean, I can just run out to Barnes and Noble this weekend and pick up a new copy. The same, however, cannot be said for those who read it in the time of its publication... in which case, how did you guys stick through it?

Lost Boy, Christina Henry

Lost Boy, by Christina Henry, is a retelling of J. M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan, told from the viewpoint of Captain Hook, long before he became captain. Before he joined the ranks of the Neverland pirates, and before he ever lost his hand. Back when he was Peter's first and favorite friend, and more often than not, the only thing standing between the other lost boys and some of the more unsavory parts of the island. When he thought that he'd never, ever grow up.

In the scope of adult-oriented fractured fairy tales, it's yet another Peter Pan retelling; this time, courtesy of the Captain. Among the various choices for narrator of various forms of this many-times-fractured tale - Wendy, Peter himself, Tiger Lily, Tink - those featuring the viewpoint of James Hook have always struck me as the most interesting... probably because, like him, I don't particularly care for Peter Pan, either.

It's not that I don't like the original narrative, it's that its a great story with just too many elements within it that rub me the wrong way. The good thing about Lost Boy, is that it adapts to this problem, both honing in on some of that difficulty in order to make it a central conflict, or zapping it out of the plot at all.

For instance, the brutality of Neverland - the endless cycles of violence, especially between boys and pirates, being depicted as fun and games - and the status of each Lost Boy as being someone shucked off by society in the real world, both come into direct conflict with the unbothered, unbloodied boyishness of Peter. These tragic status symbols that are widely brushed over in the original works, are made into plot fixtures in this one: Were the Lost Boys ever really that lost, unwanted, or forgotten? Was it really the children who demanded so much bloodsport? 

Other plot elements, like the problematic depictions of "Indian" tribes in Neverland that have plagued pretty much every adaptation of this story ever, are taken out entirely, and replaced with the antagonizing force of the "Many-Eyed," which are basically giant spiders. While these new creatures could just have been made to be an example of one of the Island's many beasts, they were completely central to the plot, and the tribe was not mentioned in the narrative whatsoever.

The book was okay, and more than that, it was exactly the kind of book I would have loved when I was younger, especially in how it runs up against other Peter Pan adaptations I've loved in the past. However, this book just didn't feel like it went that extra mile in making the story something more than itself. And when you try to retell a story as iconic as this one, you want to make sure the narrative soars all the way to that second star.

Have you read any so-so books recently? Do you have any book reccs for me? Let me know, in the comments below!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: The Hazel Wood

I had been on a string of reading really good books, including another recent YA fantasy release that I really enjoyed, and was worried that this much-anticipated novel might just get swept up in the tide. However, not only did it end up making an impact all its own, but it soared above and beyond my expectations. 

Basically, you know when you were a kid, and you were reading, and your mom called you away to do some chore, and you had to wrench your brain away from the book like you were emerging from a century-long nap? 

Without being too extra, this book made me feel like that. 

The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert, follows Alice, a teenage girl raised in constant motion, in order to outrun the misfortune that dogs her every step. When danger seems to catch up with her and her mother once more in New York, she knows she has to stop running, once and for all, and confront the past their small family was trying to avoid. Alice can only chart her own story, by finding what laid at the center of another one, so many years ago, in her grandmother's best-selling book of fairy tales... one she's never been allowed to read. But these tales aren't filled with "happily ever after"s, and as the search for her missing mother grows more dire, Alice isn't quite sure if she's going to find one for herself, either.

This novel is a much-hyped recent release that I was incredibly pleased to find not only lived up to the amount of positive reviews surrounding it, but exceeded it beyond my wildest expectations. It had some big shoes to fill, too: I read it right on the tails of The Cruel Prince, and was uncertain about reading two YA releases involving strong fantasy elements back to back. However, not only were they both different, but they were each made stronger by what made them different.

The Hazel Wood is dark... and I don't just mean that in a YA way, but in a literature-in-general kind of way. It carries a body count... brutality and bloodshed abound, even when packed within the confines of a fantasy-style atmosphere, and packaged with a teen female protagonist. Cruel Prince boasts a different kind of brutality, one colored by the bright and shiny wrappings of high fantasy and faerie courts, but Alice lives in New York, works at a cafe, and hates her high school. The drama comes from watching her real-world outlook cope with the introduction of deadly raven-calling nightmare women, disappearing books and reappearing trouble, and a forest in the middle of New York whose trees know more than they should.

The plot twists were shocking and sudden, and I loved them. Some were nearly gasp-worthy with their bloodshed or horror, while others brought about hope or clarity in such a stunning way that it actually made me smile. This book continued to surprise me at every corner, which is something I didn't think the YA fantasy genre could pull on me any more.

[It actually reminded me a lot - A LOT - of John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, not only for its focus on traditionalist (ie, Not Disney-fied, very much violent and unrepentant) plots of original fairy tales, but for how deeply woven the intersections of the fantasy world and the real world swirled together. There are so many similarities between the two reads, I feel completely confident in recommending each to fans of the other.]

Not only is the writing a little more on the intense side, but the writing style operates at a higher level of YA, as well: compelling syntax and sentence flow, a high level of diction, and well-constructed and paced metaphorical content, spell this book out as being written by someone who is just plain good at writing! To be honest, I think the gorgeously wrought descriptions are the backbone of the narrative itself: Melissa Albert clearly knows how to make things sound elegant and interesting. The metaphorical descriptions alone deserve some kind of medal, because there were frequent uses of simile that made me reread segments over and over in order to appreciate it more fully, like I used to feel when I read Scott Westerfield's So Yesterday as a kid.

The Goodreads profile for this book marks it as being the first in a series, and I'm not entirely sure how confident I am in that decision. This story would have been absolutely beautiful as a standalone, but due to how deeply I fell in love with Albert's writing style and compelling characters, I trust her to make that decision, and I look forward to reading more of her writing in the future.

Final Verdict: Dark, brutal, and expertly written, The Hazel Wood is a definite recommendation for those who like their fantasy a little more on the twisted side, like John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things or Seanan McGuire's Every Heart a Doorway. Don't be put off by the contemporary setting; the book is at its best when paying homage to the horror born from original folklore tradition. The best fairy tales were always warnings, after all.

What's your favorite YA release of the past year? Do you like books that come with their own fictional source material? Let me know, in the comments below!