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Book Review: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Series, #3) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

A girl in old-fashioned clothes looks at hersself in a mirror.Summary:
When Charlotte goes away to boarding school for the first time, she’s very excited to get the bed with the particularly pretty wheels right next to the window.  When she wakes up, though, the view from the window looks different, and people are calling her Clare!  She discovers she’s traveled back in time to the same bed in the same boarding school, but during World War I.  The next morning, though, she wakes up in the present again as Charlotte.  This pattern continues, meaning both she and Clare are Charlotte….sometimes.

Review:
I picked this book up because I have an affinity for both boarding school books and time-travel books.  This looked like the best of both worlds to me.  A fun middle grade book that introduces to the reader to two different past time periods–the 1970s of Charlotte’s present and the nineteen-teens of Clare’s present.

This book is the third in a series, but it is completely possible to read it as a standalone.  No mention is made of the events in the first book, and the second book is actually about what Charlotte’s little sister does while she’s away at boarding school.

The concept is intriguing, because instead of time-travel happening once and landing the person stuck in the past (or future), Charlotte keeps switching, spending every other day in the 70s and every other day in the teens.  In addition to the usual issues time-travel books bring up, such as what stays the same and what is actually different throughout time, it also brings up the key question of identity.  What makes Charlotte Charlotte?  Is she still Charlotte when she’s being called Clare?  Why does hardly anyone notice that Clare has changed? Or Charlotte for that matter?  The book thus addresses identity issues that middle grade readers might be going through, but in a subtle way through the time-travel trope.

Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that? (page 66)

The time-travel itself is left as a fantastical mystery, rather than being given a scientific explanation.  There’s something magical about the bed that only makes Charlotte and Clare switch places, but no one else.  This works without an explanation because the young girls being subjected to the time-travel just accept it without explanation.  This is their reality, and it doesn’t matter why it’s happening, they just have to deal with it.  Some readers, though, might struggle with the fact that the time-travel itself is never explained.

The one thing that disappointed me about the book, and that I think would have made it a classic and a five star read, is that the book only explores what happens to Charlotte when the girls switch places.  Clare, her experiences, and her perspective are only heard about through third parties.  The book, while in third person, is entirely Charlotte’s perspective.  Clare, a reserved, proper girl from the nineteen-teens must have been shocked by both the technology and the mores of the 1970s she suddenly found herself in.  So much more could have been explored by telling both Charlotte’s and Clare’s story.  The book misses an opportunity by only focusing on the modern day girl going back in time.  The girl being thrust into the future, a future where she finds out Britain wins the war, and there is suddenly no food rationing or flu epidemic, that is such a cool story in and of itself, and Farmer just never ventures out to tell it.

Overall, this is a book that sets up a fantastical world of time-travel within a boarding school.  It utilizes the switching of two girls with each other in time to explore questions of identity in a way that surely will appeal to many middle grade readers.  The book does not fully explore the story the way it possibly should have, but the young reader will probably enjoy filling in those gaps themselves.  Recommended to all fans of boarding school, time-travel, or historic fiction set during World War I’s homefront.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Previous Books In Series:
The Summer Birds
Emma in Winter

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Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)

April 16, 2014 3 comments

A sunset near tropical trees and a mountain rangeSummary:
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana.  The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.  However, that belief is full of inaccuracies.  Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana.  Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.

Review:
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink.  In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain.  I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review).  When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.

Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts.  Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen.  Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals.  The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in.  The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones.  The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes.  They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies.  Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction.  Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas.  And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.

There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable.  Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god.  When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in.  Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members.  He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of  the People’s Temple.  He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it.  He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it.  The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs.  Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave.  And many wanted to.  Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide.  Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison.  Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid.  It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.

Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction.  Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment.  A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over.  Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (Audiobook narrated by ensemble)

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Fuzzy image of little girl jumping rope on a city sidewalk.Summary:
It’s 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone is kidnapping–and killing–black children.  How this terror haunts one fifth-grade classroom is told through three different perspectives. Tasha, whose parents are “living apart” for a while.  A painfully intelligent boy named Rodney who does not actually consider himself lucky to still have his father at home. And Octavia, better known as Sweet-Pea by her family and Watusi by her classmates.  She’s the darkest-skinned child in the classroom, and is ridiculed by them all, but she has a spirit that outshines everyone.

Review:
The Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1980 were a real thing that overshadowed the author’s own childhood.  Jones clearly remembers what it was to be in fifth grade and relates those emotions with raw detail, but she also brings along an educated adult’s understanding of race and race relations in the American south.  This all combines to create a powerful story that sweeps the reader away to another place and time while simultaneously leaving them with greater understanding.

The book is divided into three sections. Each child’s tale is told through a different narrative method.  Tasha’s uses third person.  Rodney’s second person, where the reader is told “you are” in an attempt to put the reader closer into Rodney’s shoes.  Finally, Octavia’s is told in first person.  Tasha’s story covers the first part of the school year, Rodney’s the second, and Octavia’s goes through January.  It’s an interesting narrative choice that ultimately works.  The reader sees three different reactions to the child murders and race relations at three different points in the crisis, in addition to the children’s observations of other people’s reactions.  It provides a multi-layered perspective that clearly demonstrates the complexity of all points the story touches upon: crime, race relations, broken families, class issues, and even just the process of growing up.

I appreciate the narrative complexity that Jones chose, but I do feel the story told suffers a bit.  I identified so much more strongly with Octavia than either of the other two children because her voice and personality were able to shine through so much more clearly.  Of course, it’s possible that this is the whole point. In fact, it does feel a bit like the whole book is just building up to Octavia’s story.  But although I had a similar level of attachment to Tasha, I simply didn’t feel that way for Rodney.  Part of that could have been the narrator chosen for Rodney. His voice was rather flat and dull without the nuance of the other two narrators.  But I don’t think that the second person narrative tense helped much.  Thankfully, Rodney’s portion of the book was quick, and the other two sections more than made up for it.

Speaking of the other two narrators, I feel bad that I was unable to find any of the ensemble’s names.  The women who narrated Tasha and Octavia did a phenomenal job. They captured both the age and the dialect of the children without once slipping into a tone that could be perceived of as false or mocking.  They truly embodied the little girls, and I felt I got something extra from listening to the audiobook, which is precisely how it should feel.  It’s unfortunate that the narrator for Rodney failed to do the same thing, providing a rather lackluster, mediocre performance.

The social justice commentary enmeshed in the book is brilliant.  One cannot possibly read this book and not see how racism and entrenched classism negatively impacts children and families.  Even at ten, these children get it that the media and police care less about them getting kidnapped that they would if they were white.  Even at ten the children have already learned racism so well that they ostracize the darkest child in their class.  (This book made me very interested in reading more about racism within the black community).  Most powerful to me, though, particularly after reading the books in The Real Help Reading Project, is how subtly Jones demonstrates the difficult choices parents and other adults must make to provide what is best for their children and how that is exacerbated by inequality.  I’d be more clear, but that would give away the ending of the book.  Suffice to say it’s a powerful message presented in a subtle manner through a little girl with whom it is impossible not to establish a connection.

Overall this is an engaging, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction.  It brings the reader directly into a classroom of fifth graders to see how not just a kidnapping and killing spree but also enmeshed racism and sexism impact the present and future of children.  Recommended to fans of historical and literary fiction.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Movie Review: Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride (1973)

March 2, 2011 2 comments

Dracula holding a blond woman.Summary:
A Satanic cult is doing something evil in a castle above a dungeon full of female vampires.  Van Helsing is called in to help, and he insists that the king of all vampires, Count Dracula, is back.

Review:
My friend and I decided we wanted to have an old-school horror movie night.  We chose the film before seeing it was shot in the 1970s.  I immediately informed her that there would be boobies, mark my words.  1970s films are just *rampant* with boobs.  Especially horror films.  Sure enough, not even 30 seconds into the film, and there’s a naked woman on an altar having rooster blood (*cough* cock blood *cough*) poured onto her.

I honestly came away from this film with three distinct impressions: tits, blood, and vampire teeth.  I honestly cannot explain the plot to you, hence the short summary above.  It makes very little sense.  There are writhing vampire women, Van Helsing, Dracula, some sort of plot to put a super-uber black plague into the world, and an evil bunch of Satanists.  How that all fits together remains a mystery.  Yet I still found it immensely enjoyable as a giggle-inducing cult classic.

First, there’s the rampant unnecessary nudity so typical of the 1970s.  Then there’s the costumes that are obviously trying to be exotic, but just succeed in looking like the 1970s.  The insane plot becomes irrelevant when you’re faced with scene after scene of ridiculous costumes, sentences, and moments.  Nothing induces hilarity quite like a dungeon full of half-naked writhing vampire women being taken out by a bunch of sprinklers, because apparently any water works not just holy water.

All of which is to say, while I found this film hilarious and entertaining, you have to have a certain personality type to enjoy it.  If you like classic, serious old-school horror films, this isn’t for you.  If you like plots that make sense, this isn’t for you.  However, if you like 1970s romps full of unintentionally hilarious scenes and nudity, then you’ll certainly enjoy this film.  The vampires don’t hurt either.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Friday Fun! (Fondue and Seitan)

November 26, 2010 2 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  This has been a busy week for me, although I suspect not as busy as for those of you who actually traveled for the holiday.  Last weekend I hosted my first ever fondue party.  You guys, it was awesome.  I think this is something from the 70s that we need to make have a come-back.   Anyway, I made a beer cheese fondue in my crock pot.  It was *so* delicious!  We had crostini, broccoli, veggie sausage, pretzels, and more for dipping.  Also, one of my guests brought a chocolate fondue, and it was *to die* for.

There were no classes this week because of Thanksgiving, so with the extra time I had I was able to go to a meditation lesson for the first time.  I was kind of surprised at how much easier it is to meditate for an extended length of time when you’re in a room with other people meditating instead of doing it by yourself.  It was a lot of fun and surprisingly relaxing.  I think I’ll try out a few more centers before I decide on one to go to periodically, but I definitely think periodic group meditation is gonna be sticking around my schedule now.  Albeit, not weekly.  Maybe monthly.

Since I have to work today, I didn’t go anywhere for Thanksgiving yesterday.  I spent the day hanging out at home, reading, watching tv, and cooking.  I tried making seitan for the first time ever, and you guys.  It came out so good!  It was surprisingly simple, very filling, and gave me a lot of energy.  One batch makes plenty for a week, so I suspect this is now going to be in my rotation of yummy veg foods.

My other big project this week is incorporating some dishes some friends gave me into my kitchen.  I realized this is going to mean rearranging my tiny tiny kitchen to try to fit everything in.  I think I may wind up using nails to hang various mugs and pots and pans from the walls.  I have very little cabinet space.

I hope my American readers are enjoying their holiday weekends, and I hope the rest of you enjoy your regularly-sized ones.  Cheers!

Movie Review: Black Dynamite (2009)

February 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Montage of Black Dynamite characters.Summary:
When Black Dynamite’s brother turns up dead, he comes out of ass kicking retirement to clean up the city streets.  There’s more going on than originally met his eye, though.  It’s a damn good thing the CIA reissued him his license to kill.

Review:
There’s not much that I love more in my movies than ones that are knowingly making fun of themselves.  Black Dynamite is simultaneously a satire of 1970s blaxploitation films and a mockery of itself.  The dialogue, characters, outfits, and story are so bad that they’re good, and it’s that bad on purpose.  That makes it awesome in my book.

The acting  is excellent.  You believe in the characters in spite of the ridiculous situations and conversations they’re having.  The soundtrack is amazing.  It sounds just like 1970s music, only it has specially written lyrics that go along with the story.  The storyline is so outlandish that it lands in the awesome zone.  If you enjoyed Bill Murray’s appearance in Zombieland, you’re going to like Black Dynamite‘s storyline.

Black Dynamite is hilarious and unique.  If you enjoy kitschy, crazy plot, dialogue, and characters, you’ll like it as much as I do.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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