None right now

Friday, March 23, 2018

Movie Review: It (2017)

Please note: This review was written months ago and previously published in my university's newspaper, The ArkaTech.

Oftentimes, the most exciting part of a movie is the hype surrounding it. Believe me, the anticipation I felt for Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of “It” (based off of Stephen King’s book of the same name) was delicious, but it paled in comparison to the reality of the film. “It” is equal parts thrilling, hilarious, and emotional. I would not mind seeing it a few more times, despite my college kid budget.

“It” follows a motley crew of pre-pubescent boys and one feisty girl (they’ve dubbed themselves the Losers Club) as they puzzle out the mysterious disappearances happening in their town. The closer they get to discovering the truth, the weirder things get. When one of the members of the Losers get captured by Pennywise the chilling clown, the rest of the team ventures down into the sewers on a rescue mission, confronting all their fears along the way.

The group dynamic between these kids is what makes this movie. Even if Pennywise were completely removed from the film, this would still be a solid flick because of these characters. There is never a shortage of ruthless one-liners, mustered courage, or camaraderie. Admittedly, some characters are more developed than others, but they each have their own distinct personalities and struggles. I was emotionally invested in each and every one of them. I wanted to hug them all and promise that nothing bad would ever happen to them again, and I’m so proud of how much they grow by the end of the movie.

While “It” is being marketed as a horror film, I wouldn’t describe it as particularly scary. There were a few moments that had me jumping in my seat, and, of course, Pennywise is a thing of nightmares. However, the true horror, in my opinion, lies in these kids’ personal lives—in humanity. “It” isn’t so much scary as it is absolutely riveting. I was eager to solve this puzzle alongside the Losers, and I was never able to predict what life had in store for them next. “It” did not lose my attention for a single second while I was watching and even long after the credits were done rolling.

I applaud any movie that can make me go from cackling to tearing up in a single scene, and “It” accomplished that feat many times in a mere 135 minutes. I will be talking about this movie for a long time, and I can hardly wait to see what kind of magic the sequel will bestow upon us.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Lefty's Lowdown: Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer
(Letters to the Lost #1)
Published: April 4, 2017 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Source: I won an ARC of this novel in a giveaway. All opinions stated in this review are 100% my own.
Summary from Goodreads: 
Juliet Young always writes letters to her mother, a world-traveling photojournalist. Even after her mother's death, she leaves letters at her grave. It's the only way Juliet can cope.

Declan Murphy isn't the sort of guy you want to cross. In the midst of his court-ordered community service at the local cemetery, he's trying to escape the demons of his past.

When Declan reads a haunting letter left beside a grave, he can't resist writing back. Soon, he's opening up to a perfect stranger, and their connection is immediate. But neither Declan nor Juliet knows that they're not actually strangers. When life at school interferes with their secret life of letters, sparks will fly as Juliet and Declan discover truths that might tear them apart.

I'm so mad at myself for putting this novel off for so long. I really enjoyed one of Kemmerer's previous books, so this book hit my "highly anticipating" list the moment I heard about it, but it took me seven billion years to make the (incredibly) smart decision and start in on this gem. And, what do you know, the moment I started reading, I couldn't stop. I guess good things really do come to those of us who wait.

Letters to the Lost is a book about grief and guilt, but it's also about healing and connecting to those who are still here. As a self-proclaimed piece of macabre garbagio, I'm always enraptured with YA books that explore death, and Letters to the Lost does so in a way that is gutting and honest. There are some truly thought-provoking discussions throughout this novel and some very sharp observations about grief.

It was fascinating to watch the two protagonists, Juliet and Declan, develop a relationship through these anonymous letters, and every time they interacted face-to-face without knowing who the other person is, my heart began to thump quite erratically in my chest. It was the best kind of anticipation and anxiety. I really connected with both of these characters. While I found their decisions and attitudes to be quite frustrating at times, it was hard to stay mad at them. They had depth and complexity and horrible revelations and tremendous growth. I also really admire the way they help each other heal, but not in a way that's unhealthy. Not in a "Someone loves me so I can love myself" kinda way. These two characters understand each other and they push each other.

But even better than the romance is the BROMANCE in this book. Declan and his best friend Rev have one of my favorite bromances (and, really, friendships in general) in the history of YA. Their love for each other is so pure and selfless and unconditional. It's obvious from the very beginning that they would do literally anything for each other at any time. And there are never any cracks about them being gay for each other, which is important. While I don't think homosexuality is ever offensive, I think it is crucial to portray a beautiful male friendship as exactly what it is without gender expectations muddling things. I NEED MORE AUTHORS TO TAKE NOTES.

My singular complaint for this novel is that I wish we got to see a little bit more of Juliet and Declan being all happy and kissy together, but that's just a personal complaint because I like to read romance.

With this novel, Kemmerer has gifted the world a poignant and engaging story. The moment I finished this, I could not wait to pick up the sequel so I could get more of these characters.

My rating: 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Top Ten Books On My Spring TBR

My reading situation is a bit weird right now since I'm studying abroad and I didn't bring any books with me, so I'll be relying on the books on my kindle. I also don't plan to buy many books because I don't want to take them back to the US with me, even though there are so many releases I'm anticipating this year. So, here are the most interesting-looking titles on my Kindle (literally all of these are eARCs I haven't read yet. Whoops!).

1) Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate - I read Redgate's Noteworthy last year and I really loved it, so I've been meaning to get to this one for some time now!

2) Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer - This is the only physical book I brought to Europe with me, knowing I'd been approved for the sequel on Netgalley. I've been wanting to read this one since I first heard about it, so I can't wait to get to it!

3) Reign the Earth by A.C. Gaughen - I adored Gaughen's other novel Scarlet and I've been wanting to pick up something else by her for ages. This sounds like a really interesting fantasy and I hope like heck that it hooks me right on it.

4) Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova - This is yet another book I've been meaning to get to for quite some time. I've heard wonderful things about it, and it seems unlike any other book I've read.

5) The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton - I've heard sooo many good things about this book, and it sounds like a lot of fun.

6) The Last Magician by Lisa Maxwell - Oh my gosh, I've been telling myself to read this one for SO LONG. It was one of my most anticipated releases of 2017 and I have no earthly idea why I haven't read it yet??? 

7) Deadly Sweet by Lola Dodge - Tbh, I just love the cover. I haven't heard much about this one, but it sounds fun!

8) The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert - I actually started this one some time ago and wasn't really hooked, but I am going to try again. I've seen a lot of hype about this book and I want to be in the know, ya know? 

9) More Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer - This is the sequel to Letters to the Lost! I'm really counting on loving that one and then loving this one, too. 

10) Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett - This will probably be my next read. I really loved Bennett's previous novel Alex, Approximately, so I squealed a lil bit when I got approved for this one. I could always use a solid contemporary novel. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

What I've Learned After A Month Studying Abroad

As you may or may not know, this semester I am studying abroad in Graz, Austria. Just a litttttle bit far from Arkansas. A couple weeks ago marks the one-month anniversary from when I arrived in Europe, feels like it's been a lot longer than a month. It definitely felt like I was just kind of thrust into unfamiliarity. No amount of planning could really prepare me for all the things I've experienced since I've been here, so here are a few things I've learned.

1) The language barrier isn't THAT big of a deal

Despite 3 years of German classes and having actually acquired my German minor, my German is not good. At all. And I'm such an awkward human. Like, I can barely speak coherent English. So, yeah, it's really daunting to move to a country where you don't know the language very well. BUT, pretty much everyone in Europe speaks English, especially in a professional setting (they're employees at a store or restaurant). They really do appreciate people who are at least trying and they are typically very patient with people who don't speak their language well.

Yes, I still panic when I have to interact with German-speakers, but at the end of the day, I've managed to survive for over a month now. And quite honestly, you'd be surprised by how far very basic language skills will get you.

2) Grocery shopping is terrifying

Maybe by the time I leave Europe I'll be able to make a trip to the grocery store without having an anxiety attack. Maybe not, though. This is the most unexpected source of stress for me. I'm used to lazily strolling down the aisles of Walmart and grabbing whatever strokes my fancy, but things are different here. For one, if you ever go grocery shopping in Europe, make sure you bring your own bags or be prepared to pay for your bags if you don't. But that's not really a big deal. Grocery shopping is hard because, for one, I have NO IDEA what products I even like here. Is this brand of frozen going to taste like cardboard? Let's find out! There's such a learning curve, and the only way to really figure shit out is to make decisions and hope for the best.

Anyway, grocery shopping is tough because NOBODY is playing around. People will straight up bump into you and nobody cares if they're in your way. You just gotta assert yourself.

People aren't there to hang out. They're trying to get their shit and get out. So you better be prepared in the check out line. You better bag your groceries as fast as the cashier can scan them and also have your form of payment at the ready immediately and be ready to get the heck out of the next customer's way. I swear to you, grocery shopping is like an Olympic sport I have not trained for. I never thought I'd miss Walmart, but here I am.

3) Not every single moment is rife with excitement and that is okay

I think I had these foolish expectations that my life was suddenly going to turn into a YA novel and there was going to be adventure around every corner. Not true. A country is just a country and people are just people and I'm still me. This experience is what you make of it. Some days I go out and explore and I'm amazed, and other days I watch Netflix for 12 hours. Excitement isn't looking for me, which is okay because that might get exhausting. It's there when I go looking for it, but you really have to be in the right state of mind to appreciate what the world has to offer. One thing I've realized, though, is that it's important to seek out genuine joy, rather than do what you think you "should" be doing or what other people say is good for you.

4) Food isn't the same, which is both good and bad

I've put some heckin' delicious things in my mouth and discovered some new favorites (currywurst in Austria, kurtoskalacs in Hungary, cream cake in Slovenia, to name a few), but foods I thought I could trust, brands in the US that I love--they do not taste the same! I was appalled when I tried a Kit-Kat bar in Austria. I was not about it. Now I try to avoid brands I'm familiar with and have developed a general rule when in a restaurant: Don't obsess whether or not you'll like it. Who the heck knows. It's better to just try it and learn from your mistakes.

And, okay, yeah, I'm forever going to be bitter that I can't get pizza rolls here.

5) Photos are never going to do anything any justice 

I've seen beautiful buildings and churches and landscapes and no matter how hard I try, no photo I take will ever be able to show the true beauty of what I see. Of course, I still try. And I do think taking photos is VERY important, but I also think it's important to take your photos and then step away from the camera so you can really take in the beauty before you.

Really, that's just a few things. I could go on for days. This past month has been so transformative. I have learned so much and I have grown so much and I cannot wait to keep you guys posted on all my adventures. I hope this post is informative for anyone interested in studying abroad. It has some supremely tough moments, but if there's one thing I've learned more than anything it's that I'm capable of way more than I realized and that I can face any obstacles that arise.

If you'd like to read more about my journey, I write a weekly column for my school newspaper:
Welcome to Graz, Austria
Dancing Americans

And here are just a few photos of me living it up!!

This is me at the top of Schlossberg, a mountain in Graz with a gorgeous clock tower. The path was icy but I still managed to climb it in a dress and heeled boots. 

Me in Budapest, Hungary. I absolutely loved Budapest!!! I can't wait to go back.

Me at Miramare Castle in Trieste, Italy. Visiting Italy has been a lifelong dream of mine, and I cannot believe I've achieved it.

Me in front of an island castle in Bled, Slovenia. I never really had the burning desire to visit Slovenia, but I really did love it! 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Movie Review: The Greatest Showman

Please note: This review was written weeks ago and previously published for my university's newspaper The ArkaTech. 

As a person with a profound fondness for musicals, circuses, and Zac Efron, I suspected before even buying a ticket that Michael Gracey's "The Greatest Showman" would be a hit for me, which was a mostly-accurate assumption. In a lot of ways, this film imbued me with a shining delight. There were a few aspects, however, that I found to be distinctly underwhelming.

"The Greatest Showman" is a largely-fictional biopic of P.T. Barnum, a 19th century showman and circus owner. It is the classic rags-to-riches story. As a young boy, P.T. Barnum falls in love with a girl of higher social stature, and though her parents make every effort to keep them apart, they find each other again when they are older. Barnum promises his bride, Charity, that he will take care of her and give her a good life. As the years progress, Barnum grows increasingly dismayed by their poverty, thus forming his show of curiosities, recruiting the outcasts of society from their time period. The movie is punctuated by pop musical numbers that I haven't been able to stop listening to in days.

If I had to assign a single word to describe this movie, it would be "sensational," which I'm sure would please Barnum's character, as that is what he strove for in his own show. The visuals are absolutely stunning, the musical score is energetic, the choreography is compelling, and the narrative is heartwarming. It was a pleasure to sit back and witness the sensation, to see dreams come true right in front of me. When I left the theater, I was beaming and already aching to watch the movie again.

The film was not without flaws, though. Unfortunately, it fell flat in one very important area: characterization. The actors put on an incredibly convincing performance, so I was still able to become emotionally invested in all the characters, but the only dynamic character present is Barnum. His tough background, his aspirations, his flaws—they're all laid out for the viewers to see, and the same cannot be said about any other character in the movie. The so-called curiosities that Barnum has selected to star in his show are arguably the most fascinating aspect of the film, but they are underutilized. We hardly get to know them, and we don't witness much growth from them. Their presence provides little more than fodder for Barnum's emotional journey.

There is also a major subplot in the movie that was nothing but a waste of screen time. The romance between Barnum's assistant Carlyle and a trapeze artist in the show is rushed and unnecessary. While it does demonstrate the racism and toxic attitudes of the time, that could have been achieved in a more economical way. Instead of squeezing in another romance when there is already a much more developed, complicated one unraveling, I would have liked to see the other plotlines expanded.

"The Greatest Showman" took my breath away, but upon deeper inspection, this film suffers from the same problem for which Barnum's shows were criticized: It's an illusion. It appears brilliant and dazzling, but it lacks a certain substance. Gracey tried to cram too much into one hour and forty-five minutes. Even still, "The Greatest Showman" is a charming cinematic experience that I absolutely ate up despite all of my critiques. While it might not be the greatest show, it certainly makes an impression.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lefty's Lowdown: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett

Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett
Published: April 3, 2018 by Simon Pulse
Source: I received an eARC of this novel through Netgalley. That has not affected any of the opinions stated in this review. Every thought is my own.
Summary from Goodreads:

Ever since last year’s homecoming dance, best friends-turned-best enemies Zorie and Lennon have made an art of avoiding each other. It doesn’t hurt that their families are the modern day, Californian version of the Montagues and Capulets.

But when a group camping trip goes south, Zorie and Lennon find themselves stranded in the wilderness. Alone. Together.

What could go wrong?

With no one but each other for company, Zorie and Lennon have no choice but to hash out their issues via witty jabs and insults as they try to make their way to safety. But fighting each other while also fighting off the forces of nature makes getting out of the woods in one piece less and less likely.

And as the two travel deeper into Northern California’s rugged backcountry, secrets and hidden feelings surface. But can Zorie and Lennon’s rekindled connection survive out in the real world? Or was it just a result of the fresh forest air and the magic of the twinkling stars?

This novel was everything I needed. Bennett's last novel Alex, Approximately, was one of the big contemporary titles last year, and while I really enjoyed it, I don't think I connected to it the same way other people did. It put Bennett on my radar, but I wouldn't list it among my favorite contemporary novels of all time. 

Starry Eyes, though. This novel gave me all the heart flutters and goofy grins I wanted from Alex, Approximately. I was in a hell of a reading slump when I cracked this baby open. I hadn't read anything for over a month, and I hadn't read anything that truly stole my heart since the beginning of January. But the moment I began Starry Eyes, I was hooked, wholeheartedly devoted to the story. 30 pages in I had already fallen head over heels with the love interest and had an unwavering smile plastered on my face. 

First and foremost, who doesn't love a good "trapped in the woods with the guy who broke my heart" trope? Because I do. I certainly do. You know the intensity is going to be through the roof and the sexual tension is going to be sizzling off the pages, which is absolutely true about this novel. And Zorie, the protagonist, has no idea why their friendship dissolved and how they started to hate each other, and it was a heck of a journey making these discoveries alongside her. 

So let's talk about the characters. Zorie is obsessed with planning things and ensuring that everything goes according to plan. Lennon, the dark brooding outcast with two moms who own a sex toy shop, is smart and full of surprises. I love them together and I love them separately. They both have some annoying traits, which I thought was excellent characterization on Bennett's part because she gives them annoying traits without making them annoying. They were both so well-developed and relatable. Even better, though, is that the secondary characters were well-developed, too. Some of them were absolute shitheads, and I'm so glad that's addressed, and some of them are rays of sunshine, like Lennon's moms, who persistently treat Zorie like family despite the feud with her father. 

The setting was really interesting too. I thoroughly enjoyed following Zorie and Lennon on their wilderness expedition. This novel kind of made me want to go on a long ass hike and become one with nature, which is quite the feat, considering I hate the outdoors and any sort of exertion. Anyway, I think some novels that have journeys like this can drag because there's a lot of description and focus on the journey itself, but Bennett finds a nice balance of journey, character development, and plot progression. Every scene has intrigue. 

I also think it's important to note that Bennett addresses, sometime subtly and sometime explicitly, some really important matters: safe sex, healthy sexual attitudes, consent, cheating, bigotry, toxic friendships, nontraditional families. It's good, friends. It's so, so good. 

I could not tear myself away from this novel. It's over 400 pages and I devoured it in one sitting. I stayed up until 7 am reading it. This is a solid read for contemporary lovers out there. One of my new favorites! 


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Top Ten Books That Surprised Me

(This meme is actually hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl now, but I am far too lazy to make a new graphic)

As devoted readers, I think that we tend to have a pretty good idea of which books we will enjoy and which books we won't, but occasionally a book comes along and surprises us--which can be a good thing or a bad thing. I present to you five books that I liked much more than I expected and 5 books I disliked more than I expected. 

1) Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman - Whenever there is a lot of hype surrounding a book, I try to brace myself for disappointment, but this novel exceeded my expectations. It is addicting and fun and I fell in love with the characters. 

2) Coming Up for Air by Miranda Kenneally - I'd read some of Kenneally's other books in this series, and while they were okay, they were nothing worth raving about (for me--other people adore them!). However, I really enjoyed this one! I thought it had depth and lots of kissing and really good messages. 

3) Caraval by Stephanie Garber - This is another book I was hesitant to read because of the hype but it completely stole my heart. It was an emotional roller coaster. The whole novel kept me engaged and eager to find out what happens next. 

4) Aftercare Instructions by Bonnie Pipkin - I didn't know what to expect from this one, but it was gritty and interesting and had fascinating, unique formatting. 

5) And I Darken by Kiersten White - This one was completely unexpected. I'm not really one for historical fiction or dense YA novels, which this one definitely is, but I fell so in love with the characters and the story. I couldn't stop talking about it for months! 

1) Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher - I can't even put my finger on what was disappointing about this. I ate it up in like one sitting, but, in retrospect, it just wasn't that riveting. 

2) The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder - I was expecting something beautiful and poignant with a premise that sounded interesting and magical. That's not what I got. The emotion in this book was unconvincing and the protagonist was infuriating. I was completely unsatisfied at the end of this novel. 

3) Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard - I thought the first book in the series was really interesting and I was invested in the characters, but this sequel was boring and painful to get through. The ending picked up a bit, but not enough. 

4) Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs - This book just reeks of creepiness and darkness and FUN, but it was really slow. And not really creepy. 

5) A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas - Maybe it's my fault for letting the hype get to me, but I was completely underwhelmed by this book. Again, the ending was pretty good, but it was such a struggle to get through like 2/3 of it.