MG Book Review - The Great Cat-Nap by A.M. Bostwick - A clever take on noir for mystery lovers of all ages.

the great cat nap
the great cat nap

Take a clever, determined reporter who moonlights as a detective, a sidekick who spends most of his time flirting with the ladies, a kidnapped beauty, and a host of lowlifes who just might hold the key to unlocking the case and what do you have?  You have The Great Cat-Nap, a delightful middle-grade mystery in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. With cats. Yes, you read that right. Cats. And really, what better animal to have as a stand in for Sam Spade than a slick, black cat with green eyes? Reading this novel as an adult was pure pleasure. The cat puns are thick on the ground, but somehow not overdone. You'll find yourself laughing at loud at how Bostwick turns even the most pedestrian cat stereotype on its head, and sometimes into something vaguely seedy, but still age appropriate. Cats that need to switch to water from heavy cream late at night. Dilated pupils from too much catnip. A crazy-cat lady beloved by the cats she rescues from the streets. Then, Bostwick will throw in a reference to noir canon which will go over kids' heads but will have adults nodding their heads and laughing at its ingenuity.

"Of all the rundown newspapers in all the cities, she had to walk into mine."

But, let's not forget the kids. They will love this book. It's a clever mystery which will keep them guessing but is also so well laid out they might be able to come up with the solution to the mystery just before Ace does. Any child who loves animals will love this book. Cats, dogs, a mink and a rat all play prominent roles. There's enough danger to keep them on the edge of their seat and enough humor and cleverness to keep them engaged and reading. It's not hard to imagine children who have their own pets, cats especially, putting this book down and imagining their pet as the star in their own adventure.

The Great Cat-Nap by A.M. Bostwick

Ace is a hard-core newspaper reporter. He's tenacious, confident, and assertive. He's also a cat. When the famous show cat Ruby the Russian goes missing, Ace is on the story. But he bites off more than he can chew when he agrees to play detective and find the prize-winning cat, believed to have been kidnapped by animal smugglers. Calling on his feline friends, a few dogs, and even a boastful rat nemesis, Ace’s investigation will lead him from the most respected parts of town to the lowly haunts of the underground alley cat system. He’ll have to try to break a cat out of the pound for priceless information and get into a single-pawed battle with smugglers before getting his shot at solving the dangerous crime, culminating on a chilly October night in the gray and lonely streets of downtown.

The winner of the 2014 TOFTE/WRIGHT CHILDREN'S LITERATURE AWARD, this 55,000 word middle-grade mystery is filled with adventure, suspense, and humor -- all told from the point of view of a cat!

E-Book available from

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

Kobo

About the Author

A.M. Bostwick writes Middle Grade and Young Adult novels. An early draft of her young adult novel, Break the Spell was a finalist in the 2013 Wisconsin Romance Writers of America Fab 5 Contest. The Great Cat Nap, winner of the 2014 Tofte/Wright Children's Literature Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers, is her debut novel. Abigail lives in Tomahawk, WI, with her husband, dog and thrill-seeking cat. Follow her on Twitter @BostwickAM

Book Review: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

jasmine

There are a few things you can always count on with a Deanna Raybourn novel: a plucky heroine, stellar dialogue, wonderful descriptions, copious amounts of wit, a smouldering romance and a bit of history to ground it all in reality. City of Jasmine (★★★★) has all of that, as well as a textbook MacGuffin to keep the plot moving forward through the Syrian desert in 1920. Raybourne's greatest achievement might be always making me want to visit whatever setting she's selling. Since vacationing to Syria isn't an option right now, I'll just round up some friends and head to the hooka bar down the street. What I loved most about City of Jasmine, though, were the little connections to her Lady Julia Grey series, as well as her Africa novel, A Spear of Summer Grass. I can get easily bored by a series - the same characters doing the same thing over and over - but connecting her books through past characters (Tarquin March from Lady Julia, Ryder from A Spear of Summer Grass) gives readers the series they crave while keeping the characters, plots and settings fresh. Plus, sussing out all of the connections is like hunting for little Easter eggs. If I'm not much mistaken, Raybourn obliquely mentioned Nicholas Brisbane in the City of Jasmine denouement. These little tidbits make me want to go back and re-read her previous novels to see what other connections there might be. (It is also going to drive me crazy if I don't figure out how old Julia and Brisbane would be in 1920. Are they still alive? For someone who hates math, I am constantly trying to figure out ages and dates in novels. It makes my head hurt, but it weirdly makes me love a novel more.)

If I had one complaint, and this is a complaint I have for almost all Historical Fiction novels: there wasn't a map! Publishers listen up: It should be the Golden Rule of Historical Fiction to include maps, especially in novels where there's a journey. Please?

In short, if you are looking for a fun read with enjoyable characters doing adventurous things in lush settings, you can never go wrong with a Deanna Raybourn novel and City of Jasmine fits the bill nicely.

(I received an Advanced Reader Copy of City of Jasmine through a contest on Raybourn's blog.)

Reading Hitchcock - Psycho by Robert Bloch

Psycho-Overlook
Psycho-Overlook

The problem with reading a book after seeing a movie is constantly comparing the visual medium with the written. In the case of Psycho, the movie is so ingrained in the pop culture consciousness generally, and my mind specifically, it was impossible to read Bloch's psychological mystery fresh. And that's a shame, because it's a very good book with a nice twist. Hitchcock isn't known for faithful adaptations of source material but with Psycho, he stayed true to the book. That's probably because it's a damn near perfect psychological horror novel so well-written I can easily imagine the shock readers felt in 1959, when Psycho was published, when they discovered who the killer really was. As perfect as the movie is, as much as I loved the shock of the movie twist, I'm disappointed I didn't read the book first. For me, there is nothing better than a book that takes me by surprise. Fifty-five years on, with the movie as what people think of when you say "Psycho," and with the shower scene an iconic horror movie moment, there was no way to capture the happy astonishment you feel when a well-crafted story takes an unexpected turn.

Still, Psycho is well worth reading. The characters have a depth not shown in the movie and if you're a writer, you're bound to learn something reading Bloch's tight prose.

The Good Wife and The Mentalist - One show hitting its stride, the other changing its stride

the mentalist promo

good wife 100 Last year, amid the disastrous Kalinda/Nick storyline, I dinged The Good Wife for sucking. Not long after, due to my wonderfully, erudite post, they jettisoned that storyline and went back to what they do best, camouflaging a soap opera as a case of the week procedural. Since the second half of season four and into the first half of season five, which last night ended its 2013 run with it's 100th episode, The Good Wife has been on fire, creatively, dramatically, emotionally, hilariously and consistently. (Five adverbs in a row. YES!)

Even at its worst, which I will always contend the Kalinda/Nick storyline was, The Good Wife is the best hour-long drama on network television. If The Good Wife were on AMC, HBO, FX or some other cable network, I think it would be considered the best by most critics. Say what you will about the long form storytelling brilliance of The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and Mad Men, The Good Wife is better because not only do Robert and Michelle King know how to tell a long form story, they also brilliantly incorporate a case of the week into EACH episode. They have mastered the procedural and the novelization of their world at the same time. It is an epic feat to create the best drama on television within the commercial and FCC constraints the Kings work under.

At the end of season four, the Kings basically blew up their show. They carved Alicia and Carey out of Lockhart/Gardner, and left Kalinda, Will and Diane to nurse hurt feelings and pride. This season, the fallout has been fun to watch, with both L/G and F/A getting the best of each other. They are pretty evenly matched adversaries, much to Will and Diane's surprise. Alicia is ruthless, cunning and determined to win. My money is on Alicia, not only because it is The Good Wife, but also because she has experience in how to pick herself up from emotional devastation and triumph. Will may seem like he's in control, but he's floundering and if he's not careful, his ambition and drive will destroy Lockhart/Gardner.

Two quibbles, though: There still is not enough Kalinda. I do not understand her loyalty to Will and, as a huge fan of the Alicia/Kalinda friendship, I wish Kalinda had gone with F/A. I didn't realize until early this season she didn't even know Alicia was leaving with Cary. I wonder if she'd known that if she would have left anyway, despite lower pay. The second quibble: I don't want the entire season to be about L/G and F/A fighting each other. I'm already a little weary of the constant gamesmanship. It's a great dramatic well of tension that will be quickly dried up if they keep tapping it.

the mentalist blue

After five seasons and change, The Mentalist blew up its formula, but good last week. I was excited and anxious to see what the new version of The Mentalist had to offer. I have to say, My Blue Heaven lived up to my expectations. The dichotomy of Jane being a tortured vigilante for a handful of episodes each season while being glib the other episodes was always jarring. Now, Jane is out from under the cloud and we can see the lighter side of him all the time, as well as no longer dour Lisbon. This was a transition episode in the best sense of the word. I don't think Jane read anyone once. I wonder if his mentalist capabilities are rusty? That would be interesting to see. The most refreshing part of the episode was that Jane was bested, twice. Once by a woman, Kim Fisher, who manipulated him into returning to the states. The other time by Abbot, the stern FBI agent who refused to cower to Jane's demands. Seeing the shock on Jane's face, which he quickly masked, was absolutely brilliant. I can't wait to see this version of Jane play out, hopefully for many seasons to come.

The Walking Dead - It isn’t enough to survive, you need to live.

TV Show_The Walking Dead_436560

TV Show_The Walking Dead_436560I am a casual fan of The Walking Dead. I can take it or leave it most Sundays, preferring the real world drama and wonderful characterizations of The Good Wife. But, my boys watch it so, in an effort have a shared entertainment experience, I sat through two hours of a depressing vision of what humanity looks like when the world ends. I’ve got news for you: the worst part isn’t the zombies. Turn that frown upside down I’ve never seen a more downtrodden bunch of people in my life. Okay, sure. They’re surrounded by zombies and it is a struggle to survive. But, these people never smile. Ever.  Where are the moments of grace? Of hope? Of touch football or sandlot baseball? Where is the wise-ass character who finds the gallows humor in it all? They are so busy surviving, they’ve forgotten how to live. When there is nothing to live for but starvation, disease and fighting zombies, why even bother?

If I survive an apocalypse, I can tell you right now: I’m having sex “Fighting gives you a terrible cockstand.” Jamie Fraser, Outlander

You wouldn’t believe the search results Google returned when I tried to find the clinical name for Jamie Fraser’s post-battle boner. A friend suggested I call it “post traumatic sex syndrome” which is a nice, technical term, but I think I like post-battle boner. Is being horny after fighting/killing/surviving a fictional construct? Maybe, lord knows it is used enough to show manly strength. Just look to the end of Breaking Bad’s pilot episode. Skyler’s “Is that you?” line gave a pretty big indication to Walt’s virility after killing two drug dealers and barely escaping death himself. (Spoiler alert.)

So, assuming the post-battle boner is a fictional construct (which I don’t believe), why aren’t the people in The Walking Dead having sex? Besides the fact they’ve all forgotten how to have fun. Are they too afraid of bringing children into the world? Maybe, but procreation is human nature. After seeing death and despair on a daily basis, I would think finding a human connection would be the key to retaining your sanity, to reminding yourself there is something in the world worth living for. That the characters seem to eschew something so basic, so primal, especially when their lives have been reduced to the primal urge to survive, undermines what little reality a show about zombies has been able to illustrate. If the world ends, people aren’t going to stop having sex. They’re probably going to have more sex, if for no other reason than to remind them they are alive. But, the characters on The Walking Dead seem to go out of their way to eschew sex, or ignore its existence altogether. The apocalypse have turned them all into eunuchs. Even the couple who gets busy on a regular basis have turned gloomy, staring at each other as if it is the last time they will ever see each other instead of embracing the happiness they’ve found. I cannot think of a more depressing existence than one completely lacking in a physical or emotional connection.

Can someone please go on a run for clothes? I guess in lieu of being realistic when it comes to natural sexual urges, the powers in charge of The Walking Dead have decided to illustrate their dedication to reality with greasy hair and dirty, threadbare clothes. Gross hair and horrible hairstyles are a bugbear of mine, no matter the tv show or movie, but I can at least understand why The Walking Dead survivors have greasy, long hair. I don’t like it, but I get it. The clothes thing? That’s just stupid. Think of all the Wal-Marts in south Georgia, full of clothes. Clean clothes. Colorful clothes. Clothes without holes. Clothes without sweat stains. Considering the low number of human survivors, clothes is the one thing that they should have in abundance. So, why do they wear the same thing over and over? And, why do they always choose neutral colors? All the better to hide the zombie gore on, maybe? A visual trick of the costume designer to show that Things Are Bad? Newsflash: we get it. Rick did change his shirt this year but guess what? It’s frayed and full of holes. If I were a survivor and went on the run for medicine with Rick and Carol, after raiding the medicine cabinets and bedside tables, I would have raided the closet. Changed my bra and underwear. Used a toothbrush. Stolen toiletries. In fact, just writing about how nasty these people are makes me want to take a shower.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat But, apparently, there’s only three ways to kill a zombie: a bullet to the head, a knife or ax to the head, or chopping off the head. Some viewers argue there isn’t enough zombie time in TWD. I say there is too much. I’m tired of seeing zombies killed. Why? Because it’s boring.  Old. Trite. Been there done that. I’ve been so desensitized to it I’m not even grossed out anymore.

Isn’t it time they strive for more? I suppose the destruction of the CDC at the end of season one was supposed to end the idea these people would ever have the hope or the agency to solve the problem of the zombie apocalypse and put the focus solely on survival. But, taking that possibility off the table has measurably weakened the show. It has made it one note. There is no hope in their survival, no chance to change things, to bring on a better life. I suppose that’s good as a formula for a long-term, money-making drama for AMC. But, it has turned The Walking Dead into the zombie apocalypse version of a police procedural. The writers, directors and show runners have a formula for every episode - there is a problem, a run outside the prison is made, zombies are killed, objective achieved, return to the prison.  New characters are inevitably eaten by zombies. Main characters survive. Rick feels guilty because apparently his inflated sense of self-importance and responsibility will be the last things to die on The Walking Dead. Then, it all happens again next week.

#

Art imitates life. For the past half-decade or more, entertainment has reflected the social and economic upheaval of the recession and the ideological division rotting at the center of our society. From the white man’s entitlement of Walter White, to the end of the world doomsday of The Walking Dead, to the idea a superhero - a clear stand-in for God - will swoop in and save the day, we have been told over and over again that we have no agency. That our future is out of our hands. That there is no hope, this is just the way it is. Is it any wonder we believe it?

But, even during the Depression, when movie theaters were filled with gangster movies and over the top melodramas, with bread lines and fat cat businessmen taking advantage of the poor, there was a slice of entertainment hell-bent on making us forget our troubles, helping people who had little money and hope to escape for 90 minutes in a world where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced gracefully, where Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy and William Powell and James Stewart and Jean Arthur exchanged witty, rapid fire dialogue and fell in love. Sometimes, these movies had bigger points to make, but oftentimes their point was to make people feel better about the world they lived in. To make them believe there was a better future on the horizon. And, you know what? There was. It took a while to get there, and we will always vacillate between good and bad times. But, I fear as a nation, we’ve lost our belief that good times are around the corner.

The entertainment industry is in a unique position of influence. They can merely reflect the times or they can nudge us to a better tomorrow. I'm tired of being told all is lost. That there is no hope. And, if someone says "It is what it is" one more time, I'm going to pull out my sword and go all Michonne on their defeatist ass. It’s time the entertainment industry gives their characters something to live for, and its viewers someone to root for.

Three YA Book Reviews - The Rules for Disappearing, Stargirl and Twisted

What I've discovered the last couple of weeks as these three reviews have sat on my hard drive is, while I like YA well enough, I just don't have much to say when it comes to reviews. Which is why I'm lumping three very different YA books together into one post: a thriller, a message book and a parable. First up, the thriller.

 

rules

 

Synopsis: She's been six different people in six different places: Madeline in Ohio, Isabelle in Missouri, Olivia in Kentucky . . . But now that she's been transplanted to rural Louisiana, she has decided that this fake identity will be her last.

Witness Protection has taken nearly everything from her. But for now, they've given her a new name, Megan Rose Jones, and a horrible hair color. For the past eight months, Meg has begged her father to answer one question: What on earth did he do-or see-that landed them in this god-awful mess? Meg has just about had it with all of the Suits' rules-and her dad's silence. If he won't help, it's time she got some answers for herself.

But Meg isn't counting on Ethan Landry, an adorable Louisiana farm boy who's too smart for his own good. He knows Meg is hiding something big. And it just might get both of them killed. As they embark on a perilous journey to free her family once and for all, Meg discovers that there's only one rule that really matters-survival.

I love the premise of The Rules for Disappearing (★★★★) and especially love it is set in eastern Louisiana. Southern literature, for the win! There were a couple of questions left unanswered at the end, which was irritating until I saw on Goodreads there is another book planned. I'm not entirely sure how this works as a series but I liked it well enough I will read the next book, as well as recommend The Rules for Disappearing to teens I know.

*~*

Next, the message book.

twisted

Synopsis: High school senior Tyler Miller used to be the kind of guy who faded into the background. But since he got busted for doing graffiti on the school, and spent the summer doing outdoor work to pay for it, he stands out like you wouldn't believe. His new physique attracts the attention of queen bee Bethany Milbury, who just so happens to be his father's boss's daughter, the sister of his biggest enemy, and Tyler's secret crush. And that sets off a string of events and changes that have Tyler questioning his place in school, in his family, and in the world.

A writer friend insisted I read Laurie Halse Anderson during my month of YA and this is what I picked up at the library. Twisted (★★★★) is clearly written with an interesting central character that is just on the right side of likable, if barely. But, what teens aren't barely likable? I didn't feel the author show the suicidal tendencies of the MC clearly enough to make me believe he would really kill himself when it came down to it. That the book was from the MC's point of view didn't help with the tension, either. But, I liked how the character found his agency at the end and took charge of his life.

*~*

Next up, the parable.

stargirl

Synopsis:Stargirl. From the day she arrives at quiet Mica High in a burst of color and sound, the hallways hum with the murmur of “Stargirl, Stargirl.” She captures Leo Borlock’s heart with just one smile. She sparks a school-spirit revolution with just one cheer. The students of Mica High are enchanted. At first.

Then they turn on her. Stargirl is suddenly shunned for everything that makes her different, and Leo, panicked and desperate with love, urges her to become the very thing that can destroy her: normal. In this celebration of nonconformity, Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the perils of popularity and the thrill and inspiration of first love.

A parable is a short tale that illustrates universal truth, one of the simplest of narratives. It sketches a setting, describes an action, and shows the results. It often involves a character facing a moraldilemma, or making a questionable decision and then suffering the consequences. Though the meaning of a parable is often not explicitly stated, the meaning is not usually intended to be hidden or secret but on the contrary quite straightforward and obvious. (source)

I may be the only person that thinks of Stargirl (★★★★★) as a parable, but it fits the above definition to a "t." The universal truth in Stargirl is to be true to yourself, to be kind above all, to put others first and to meet hatred with love. If those aren't messages Jesus would get behind, I don't know what are. This is the summer reading requirement for sixth grade in our district and I can't imagine a better message for kids going into middle school.

Movie Review - Love is All You Need

love is all you need

pierce_2328456b So, date night last night. My husband and I were going to see The Great Gatsby but knowing how it all ends, boats beating against the current and all that, I made a last-minute audible and drug my husband to the Angelika and the Pierce Brosnan rom-com, All You Need is Love. Or is it Love is All You Need? Actually, it's neither. Literal translation of the Danish title is "The Bald Hairdresser," which is a ridiculous, horrible title. But, at least it's not hoary like All You Need is Love/Love is All You Need.

Why this movie? I read a review a few weeks ago stating it was a mature rom-com with good performances by Brosnan and Trini Dyrholm. Rom-com + European setting + happy ending = good time.

We sit down at the Angelika, surrounded by mature couples - read AARP members - and watch the previews of a bunch of movies we've never heard of. "If the previews are an indication of what this movie is, I'm not going to like it," my darling husband said. Then, the movie starts. And, it's subtitled. His expression of horror was pretty comical. I swear, I had no idea, I say, and mean it. I didn't know it was subtitled. Pierce Brosnan speaking Danish? I couldn't see it. Well, he didn't. It was a mix of English and Danish, sometimes subtitled, sometimes not.

The movie was decidedly un-Hollywood, that is to say it was subtle, didn't force its characters to have a personality altering epiphany due to love and eschewed wrapping every storyline up in a pretty little happily ever after bow. Dryholm had more to do with her role than Brosnan, whose only responsibility was to go from abrasive to slightly less so. Poor woman - cancer survivor, cheating husband, grouchy Brosnan and, a lost suitcase to boot. Dryholm somehow made Ida's essential goodness not seem like a cross to bear, or a trait to be polished away into a tough cynicism and world-weariness. Like I said, very un-Hollywood.

I can usually gauge my husband's approval of a movie if he talks about it afterward. I can't tell you the number of movies we've left where he answered the inevitable did you like it question with a one word answer. The answer for this one was, "It was decent." But, he talked about it a little and never complained about the subtitles. I count that as a win.

Other Thoughts:

  • Dryholm has the most amazing blue eyes I've ever seen. Blue was a dominant color throughout the movie, from the waters of Italy to the shirts and suits the men wore, to the bright blue crates of lemons.
  • Lemons were a motif as well, though I'm not entirely sure what they represented. Ida says lemons are her favorite fruit, which is peculiar. I love things made with lemons, but to say it is a favorite fruit indicates you like it on it's own. At least to me.
  • Did you know botanically lemons are berries? That's what Brosnan said in the movie. Not sure I believe it, but okay.

 

The Mentalist Season Five Finale Review - "Red John's Rules" or is it "Red John Rules?"

The Mentalist 4.19: “Pink Champagne on Ice” – we’re getting into the home stretch for season four and I honestly have no idea where they are going with Patrick Jane. From the description, this is a stand-alone so we probably won’t get any forward motion on Red John. But, we might get some Jane backstory. Why am I still watching this show? The mysteries aren't clever and Red John is now, basically, God. Red John is the most ridiculously over the top, unrealistic, omniscient serial killer ever created. Any ounce of believability was lost when Red John 1) read Jane's mind and 2) knew what Jane would do before he did it, i.e. narrow down the 1,300 people Jane has shaken hands with since his wife died to seven. These two events are so inconceivable I can't think of words to describe it. Red John, help me out here. What exactly am I thinking? What will I think in a few minutes?

I'll tell you what I'm thinking. Thank you, Bruno Heller for freeing up an hour of Sunday night television. There is no way I am wasting another minute watching your show. You have mishandled the Rigsby/Van Pelt relationship to the point where Cho is the bored stand-in for the audience. His antipathy toward the entire thing is exactly what your viewers think. We lost investment in them two seasons ago. Your law enforcement professionals couldn't investigate their way out of a paper bag with a gaping hole in it. You have had outside characters tell Jane, Lisbon and the viewer over and over this season about how they are "a little in love with each other" instead of organically building sexual tension between the two. I'm not going to waste time complaining about your pedestrian mysteries. I've wasted enough time on this show already.

I might watch the series finale, whenever that may be, just to see how it is wrapped up. I won't need to see anything before because I doubt the solution will make a bit of sense. Unless, of course Red John turns out to be Jane. If this was Showtime, HBO or even FX, that twist might be a possibility. But, CBS doesn't have the imagination to pull that off. I don't think there is any way for Heller to stick the landing. That's too bad, because the beginning was a promising start.