Category Archives: Reviews (because we like to write)

Reviews of books, films, television, and other media we happen to come across or enjoy.

Fall 2018 StudyCon

by Kristi R. Johnson

StudyCon returns tonight for students at the San Antonio campus of Our Lady of the Lake University. The Academic Center for Excellence will have food, games, workshops, and, for the first time, a Foam Dome! Feel free to take out all of your test-taking anxiety on your friends in a massive Nerf Battle.  And as always, your friendly resident tutors and consultants will be on hand to provide the usual academic assistance.

The StudyCon book raffle and giveaway will also be returning with popular books to be given to students at the event, along with other various prizes. Be sure to stop by and browse the titles.

This semester the books include Star of the North by D.B. John (Contemporary Fiction), The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA), Dry by Neal Shusterman & Jarrod Shusterman (YA), The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (YA), and the complete Sea of Ink and Gold series by Traci Chee (YA/Fantasy).

But that’s not all: This semester, there will also be a grand mystery prize near the end of the night for anyone who entered the raffle, but had not won anything. One lucky student will receive a mystery bag containing a gorgeous decomposition notebook, a $25 gift card to a local bookstore, and a series of comic books. Which comic books? Well, I’ll just say that the hero is from the Marvel Universe. Let the wild speculations commence!!!

See you there!

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My Summer in Books – 2018 Edition

by Kristi R. Johnson

It was a hot one for those of us in south Texas this summer. So what better reason, other than the brutal summer heat, to stay inside under the air conditioning reading books? I gladly stayed inside and whittled down my ever-present ‘to read’ pile, but only to end up adding many more for the fall. It is every book nerd’s curse (and blessing).

First up is From Twinkle, With Love, Sandhya Menon’s follow-up to last year’s When Dimple Met Rishi. This time, readers follow Twinkle Mehra as she attempts to elevate her status in the minefield that is high school. One way for her to do so would be to present an awesome movie at the upcoming Midsummer Night Arts Festival. Another is to finally gain the attention of one of the most popular boys in school. Ultimately, this is a story about the insecurities that come with being a teenager, and how sometimes people are not as they present themselves.

David Arnold follows up Mosquitoland and Kids of Appetite with The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik. An avid David Bowie fan (he refers to himself as a “believer”), Noah has many obsessions, or what he prefers to call his “strange fascinations.” Then one night, everything seems to change, except these fascinations. His once DC obsessed best friend now suddenly prefers everything Marvel. The family dog is no longer slow and dying, but energetic and lively. And Noah’s mother now has a strange scar on her face that was not there before. If you can ignore the sense that a twist ending is inevitable, then you’ll have a good time with this one.

If you are looking for a story that is pure fun and a bit of a wild ride, I highly recommend My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma. It is Winnie’s senior year, and she is ready to use her manic energy to chair the annual film festival, and hopefully solidify her entry into NYU’s highly competitive film program. She may be looking forward to NYU, but she is also looking for the love of her life that will give her a happily ever after. Completely obsessed with all things Bollywood, Winnie lives her life as if it is a dramatic film and a dance number could break out any moment (and at one point during the book, it does).

The Summer Children by Dot Hutchison is the third installment of what has easily become my favorite horror/thriller series going today. Each book of The Collector Series has dealt with a serial killer, and this time, the murderer has a habit of killing abusive parents, and leaving their scared and confused children on the front porch of Detective Mercedes Ramirez. What follows is a race against time as more people die the longer it takes Mercedes and her team to figure out what is going on.

Chris Soules’ The Oracle Year is one of those books that seemed to be in every Facebook and Goodreads ad. It also does not hurt that it was chosen as a pick for the Book of the Month Club. Armed with 108 predictions about the world, struggling musician Will Dando decides to create a website and strategically publish some, while selling others to major bidders. Naturally, this makes him a target for some people, and a prophet for many others. I have mixed feelings about this one, but ultimately I think sci fi lovers can find some enjoyment in the story.

I am always so happy to pick up another collection of drawings from Sarah Andersen. Her third collection, titled Herding Cats, is just as witty and insightful as her first two, Adulthood is a Myth and Big Mushy Happy Lump. Once again, Andersen’s explores the struggles of the modern woman, the sorrows of a procrastinating artist, and the inner workings of an introvert. A good time will be had by anyone who reads this.

There was a great deal of buzz behind Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” and rightfully so. Inside this short but powerful book is a collection of conversations between Hurston and Cudjo Lewis, who in 1927 could tell Hurston the story of the last slave ship to make the transatlantic journey to America. At 86, Lewis still had a remarkable memory that could recall harrowing stories about being captured and sold by his own people in Africa, the journey across the Atlantic, and being a slave in a strange land. Using Lewis’ own words and vernacular, Hurston lets him tell his own story. Slave narratives can be difficult, but mercifully, that is not the case with Barracoon.

Most people know of the name Lisa Genova from the award-winning movie Still Alice, which was adapted from her book of the same name. I decided to pick up Every Note Played, which follows the story of an accomplished musician who has been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. As a classical pianist, Richard has always depended on his hands, until the muscles no longer work. Slowly, every muscle in his body begins to fail him, and the only person who can take care of him in his final months is his ex-wife, Karina. Yeah, there is crying involved when reading this one.

In 2016, Michelle McNamara, a crime blogger and wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, tragically passed away in her sleep. Two years later, her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, is published. Also in 2018, the killer she had been searching for would finally be caught. McNamara details the many crimes committed by the Golden State Killer, including a few that many attribute to him though conclusive evidence has not been found. Any lover of true crime will appreciate this book.

For me, Star of the North by D.B. John was the book of the summer. I typically stay away from thrillers, specifically political ones, but somehow I ended up reading a book that deals with North Korea and the tense political climate surrounding it. And what’s even crazier, is that I loved it! Jenna Williams has spent her academic career studying North Korea, and several years ago, her twin sister disappeared off of a beach in South Korea. Jenna has never believed that her sister drowned, and knows she is still alive somewhere. Her story will intersect with that of Colonel Cho, a man who has just been promoted as part of Kim Jung-Il’s inner circle, and Mrs. Moon, a brave older woman who has decided to take her chances on the North Korean black market.

As a lifelong lover of The Simpsons (and I can truly say lifelong and mean it…the show is about to start its 30th season), it was a dream come true to read Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime of Writing for The Simpsons by Mike Reiss, a man who has four Emmy’s over his career on the show. The book is just as hilarious as any Simpsons lover could hope. It naturally follows the creation and evolution of the show, as well as Reiss’ work on other projects, and of course, a few anecdotes about just a handful of the many guest stars that have been on the show.

And finally, there is Legendary by Stephanie Garber, the second book in her well-loved Caraval series. While I was not crazy about the first book, and honestly, I am not all that gaga over this one either, I did like it a lot better and enjoy it more. It could be the shift in focus from Scarlett to her little sister Tella, who is much braver, though just as naive. The twists and turns can be exhausting, as well as the constant smoldering looks and casual touches and rapid heart-beats and on and on and on. But I will say this, Garber goes for it and does not hold back, which is what ultimately makes this a fun ride.

This may not be every book I read this summer, but they are the ones I look back on most fondly, and each one had something that made it stand out from the sheer amount published that book nerds had to choose from for that always enjoyable summer beach read. What were some of your summer favorites? And perhaps more importantly, which books do you plan to pick up this fall?

My Summer in Books – 2017 Edition

by Kristi R. Johnson

Once again I find myself in the beginning of September, which means my favorite time of year has come to an end. Despite living in south Texas, I love summer and pretty much everything about it. Even the heat brings a kind of comfort to me. And as per usual, I spent time working, some traveling, and of course, reading. Below are some of the books I was able to discover.

American War by Omar El Akkad tells the story of Sarat and her part in the second American Civil War. The North and South are fighting once again, but this time it isn’t about slavery, but the use of fossil fuel. If that weren’t enough, different groups within the South are fighting among themselves. Sarat decides she doesn’t want to simply be a bystander, or worse, a victim. But her desire to take a more active part in the war may lead to her being used as a weapon by someone with their own interests.

My one regret from the 5th Annual San Antonio Book Festival is that I missed the panel discussion that included Kelly Jensen, a contributor and the editor of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World. With 44 different voices all in one book, all discussing various aspects of feminism, there is bound to be something for everyone to learn from or relate to. My personal favorite were contributions from actress Amandla Stenberg, and young adult author Courtney Summers.

Earlier in the year I read the first collection by Sarah Andersen, Adulthood is a Myth. This summer, I was able to read the follow-up, Big Mushy Happy Lump, which is just as hilarious. It includes a comic that perfectly describes many readers who will insist on being frugal when buying clothes, or necessities like groceries, but seem to lose their minds once they enter a bookstore. It may have hit a bit close to home…

I love that I am able to count on author Sarah Dessen for at least one new book every two years. This time it was Once and for All, which is the story of Louna, the daughter of a jaded wedding planner, and serial-dater Ambrose. While I adore Dessen, and YA is one of my favorite genres, this particular book just didn’t quite do it for me. It was pleasant enough, and sweet enough, but perhaps it was all just a bit too nice. But Dessen did mention that her previous book was a bit on the dark side, so this time around she wanted to lighten things up.

My decision to tackle Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, in all of its nearly 900-page glory, came from its premise. It is essentially the life of Stanley Ferguson told in four different ways, with each Ferguson’s life taking a different direction. Some things remain the same, mostly the people he encounters, but the level of involvement varies, along with the paths he will take; even his time of death will change. Each chapter switches to a different Ferguson, until the full life story is told for all but one. It is a long book, and it is often tedious, but it is also worth it.

If I could make an award for Best Hard to Read Book of the Summer, I would give it to The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. It is an absolutely fascinating story about the women who painted clock faces using radium, which at the time was advertised as a “wonder” material. Because of the technique the women were trained to use, which involved them putting the brushes they used in their mouths in order to achieve the perfect point, all of them ended up with – surprise surprise – radium poisoning. And despite the mounting evidence that radium is harmful, the dial-painting companies refused to acknowledge the danger involved in the profession. Meanwhile, their workforce was literally falling apart, with many women losing their lives.

Jenny Lawson’s You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds is one of those books that I will return to over and over again, mostly because it is part self-help, part essays, and part adult coloring book. On the pages not made for coloring, Lawson includes stories about her own struggle which depression, which is how most of the coloring pages came to be in the first place. Drawing them helped her when she felt she could not do anything else, so now her hope is they will serve to bring comfort to her readers.

Last year, Paula Hawkins’ Girl on the Train delighted, and also disturbed, many readers. This year she published Into the Water, and while it is indeed suspenseful, it does not quite live up to her debut. The mystery is there, as a town investigates what appears to be the suicide of a local woman who was not that well-liked, and the characters are all suspicious and sketchy enough to keep you guessing. And perhaps it is the fact that every character is hiding something, or is dislikable for one reason or another, that sort of cast a shadow over the whole book.

There was only one historical novel I was able to get to this summer, and it was The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. As a member of the Akha tribe, and the only girl in her family, there are certain expectations Li-yan is expected to live up to. But as her life progresses, it becomes clear she will be taking a different path than the one previously laid out for her. But something that is always in her life is tea, and the art of making it. This was my first Lise See novel and I am excited to read future historical fiction from her.

And for my one science fiction novel, I managed to pick up Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. Rachel and Wick scrape out an existence in Balcony Cliffs. During one particular scavenging trip, Rachel finds Borne, a mysterious being that consumes and learns quickly. While Wick doesn’t trust him, Rachel becomes extremely protective of Borne, refusing to acknowledge how dangerous he may be. With Earth’s cities destroyed, and everyone under constant threat of being killed by one of two beings attempting to control the area, Rachel hopes Wick is wrong about Borne, and ignores her own growing uncertainty.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandyha Menon is a YA novel that tells the story of driven and ambitious Dimple Shah, a Stanford-bound girl with a love for computer coding, and Rishi Patel, a young man who would love nothing more than to marry the girl his parents pick out for him, and honor them by becoming a respectable corporate business professional and raising a family. When it comes to their future goals, Dimple and Rishi could not be more different, but their parents arranged for them to meet and hopefully fall in love, much to Dimple’s annoyance. Lovers of YA and diverse voices will thoroughly enjoy this story of two people who, on paper, would never be able to make it work.

And there they are. Eleven of the books that helped fill my free time this summer. I am excited to see which ones end up nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award, and of course, what I am able to find to fill my time in the fall.

 

My Summer in Books – 2016 Edition

by Kristi R. Johnson

Once again, I find myself lamenting the end of another summer. The fall semester always seems to come back around a little too soon for me, and I rush to finish up any last-minute projects that I know there will not be time for once classes start. Although I work full-time throughout the year, the beginning of the fall semester still means a little less free time and a tighter schedule. This could be because I work at two different universities, both of which are naturally much more calm in the hotter months.

This summer I was once again able to read a wide variety of books from different genres. A couple of these books are titles that most are familiar with due to their ability to stay popular decades after they were first published. But there are some debut authors in this group, including one local author, and even a veteran that the reading community lost early last year.

Steinbeck2East of Eden

Somehow I wasn’t forced to read East of Eden in high school or college, so I decided now was the time, despite its length. I am happy to say that I was not at all disappointed, even if it took me longer than I had hoped to finish it. John Steinbeck’s novel about two families essentially reenacting the fall of Adam and Eve, and the tension between Cain and Abel is certainly worth the time and effort it requires to finish it.

Fledgling

I adore Octavia E. Butler almost only on principle, mostly because in an interview, she tells the story of reading as a young girl and realizing that she could write a better story than what she had in front of her. However, Fledgling was difficult for me because it involves warring vampire families, and at the center of it all is Shori, a young vampire who has lost her memory, but is obviously in grave danger. When it comes to most things involving vampires I am most decidedly on Team Van Helsing, but I couldn’t help but cheer Shori on.

PatienceClowes

It was easy to decide to pick up the latest graphic novel by Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame. I am always looking for graphic novels to pick up that are not part of a series, and Patience  fit the bill nicely. Time travel, murder, lost love, and troubled youth all come together for a fascinating story told in glorious full-color pages.

The MemoDi Maiory of Us

Camille Di Maio is a local San Antonio real estate agent who has achieved her hard-won dream of becoming a published author. The Future of Us is a historical fiction novel loosely based on the song Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles. I actually had the chance to speak with Di Maio regarding her writing and publishing experience; the time she met Sir Paul McCartney, and why she and her husband chose San Antonio as their home. You can read the full article as published by The Rivard Report here.

Thanks for the Trouble

Last year I picked up Tommy Wallach’s We All Looked Up, and I thoroughly enjoyed his take on what the last few days on earth would be like for four high school teens. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I enjoyed Thanks for the Trouble quite as much, mostly because of one particular character that could be identified as a manic pixie dream girl. Aside from her, the plot is good, the other characters are interesting, and the action is there.

ShelterYun

I have decided to recognize Shelter by Jung Yun as my favorite book of the summer. It asks the difficult question of what obligation do we have to a family that has a history of abusing us? What are we to do when the people who caused us so much pain now need us the most? It is an incredibly heart-breaking tale on the complexities of human relationships and the destructive cycle of abuse, and I recommend it to everyone.

The Shining

Many people have read Stephen King’s The Shining, and many more have seen the movie, which often tops many lists containing the scariest movies of all time. It is arguably a masterpiece of horror, and has been scaring people for decades. And as fantastic as that piece of cinema is, I still have to say – well, not really, but I will anyway – the book is better. So much better. I can’t even.

The Mirror Thief

Of course, not every selection across a three-month stretch can be a gem, or even decent. Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief is decidedly my least favorite book of the summer. And honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been so upset about it if it weren’t so long. After 500+ pages, the payoff just wasn’t worth the trouble for a story that ultimately went nowhere with characters I couldn’t bring myself to care about.

HomegoingGyasi

Many of us who attended school here in the US are well aware of the horrors and atrocities that were inflicted upon Africans forced to be a part of the slave trade, removed from their homeland and brought over to work someone else’s land in a strange country. But what about those who remained in Africa? Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing explores both scenarios, following two branches of the same family tree. One side is captured and sent over to the US, while the other remains in Ghana. Neither side is free from oppression, and all involved must decide whether to follow the path laid out for them, or attempt to go their own way and suffer the consequences.

Outrun the MoonLee3

Stacey Lee follows up last year’s Under a Painted Sky with Outrun the Moon, the story of a Chinese-American girl determined to receive a better education than what even the best of San Francisco’s Chinatown has to offer. But it’s the early 1900s, and convincing an all white girl’s school to admit a Chinese student is not going to be easy. Once again I enjoyed Lee’s approach to historical young adult fiction and her ability to create approachable characters in seemingly hopeless situations.

The LongPratchett3 Cosmos

This one was a bit bittersweet for me as The Long Cosmos is the fifth and final installment of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth series. Although Pratchett died in early 2015, the pair had actually finished the series long before that. I simultaneously looked forward to reading the series conclusion, and was also sad and a heartbroken knowing that there would not be anymore new books coming from Pratchett. Granted, there are still many of his books I haven’t read, but still.

Lilac Girls

Martha Hall Kelly’s historical fiction novel about World War II is told from the point of view of three different women in three very different situations. Lilac Girls follows Caroline, Kasia, and Herta as they navigate life, beginning when Hitler invades Poland, to well into the late 1950s. I do my best to avoid historical fiction that deals too much with war (something that is incredibly hard to do given humanity’s history), but something intrigued me about this book and I was ultimately glad I picked it up.

Tuesday Reviews-Day: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

by Sabrina Z., who knows this is being posted on Wednesday instead of Tuesday. Sorry, I am late. 

By now, just about everyone in the world has seen The Force Awakens. I base that statement on the billion dollar marker the film just passed.

But if you have not see it yet, then do NOT read ahead…SPOILERS!

**Actually, since this is posting later than I intended, I am expecting everyone to have seen the film. It will be released on DVD and in Digital Format in April.**

It is no secret to the members of the Student Success Center (the main division over The ACE) that I am a Jedi. I state this proudly. It is a title that I have worked many years for, and I try to live my life as a Jedi.

On December 18, 2015, I walked into Santikos Palladium with my sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and good friends to watch the premiere showing of Episode VII. I was humming with excitement, unable to speculate what was going to happen in this film. I had spoilers running through my head, fan ideas (both good and bad), slight expectations…my brain was counting down to a complete meltdown!!

And when the movie started, I nearly died from pent-up excitement!

I will not go into a full review, as this movie has been picked apart by countless reviewers and film blog sites. But I will cover what I enjoyed and my own speculations about the coming episodes.

1.)  Abrams played it safe. We all know that. And I don’t blame him for making this long-awaited opening to an expansion of the Star Wars universe as similar to the original as can be. Why?? Because if he had botched this first film, the world would never forgive him. The fans hated Lucas for the prequels (THEY WEREN’T THAT BAD, PEOPLE!! GET OVER IT!), and I can imagine Abrams was fearful of the same reaction. Nevertheless, it was a safe re-introduction into the universe and I loved it. It was simple, classic, and had the right balance of story elements. Some genuine shockers too! (You know what I am talking about! Was not expecting that to happen in the first film.)

2.)  Rey, Finn, and Poe: The Next Generation. So I am all for female heroes, and I loved the development of Rey in this film. The mystery around her is just as intriguing as her force sensitivity. Finn and Poe are a great bromance, reminiscent of classic Han and Luke from the OT (original trilogy). I am curious about Poe Dameron’s role in the next two films. There was a lot of hype about this character, and something tells me we will get to know his full story in Episode VIII.

The inclusion of the beloved original characters, Han, Luke, Chewie, and Leia, was what really drew me to the film. I wanted to see more of them, especially Leia’s force abilities (she is force sensitive, though not as strong or trained as Luke). I knew they were going to keep Luke a secret for most of the first film. That line of the story, I think, will take on a whole new life in the next two films.

3.)  The mystery of the force-strong survivalist, Rey. There are so many fan rumors going around about who Rey is and who are her parents. I too have participated in several conversations about this mysterious young woman, and my take is that she is Luke’s daughter. At least I am hoping she is. I get the want for new force-sensitive characters that are not related to the main characters, but this is something is building to an epic battle that I have longed to see since reading books from the Expanded Uni–sorry, Star Wars Legacy (why they changed the name, I do not understand).

4.) Kylo Ren, the emo bad guy who stole hearts…and cut through a few of them, maybe. Kylo is not fully immersed in his villain status, at least I thought so for the majority of the film. Then that one scene comes up and I am starting to think he really is the guy we are all going to hate. Most do hate him by the end of the film. But there is something else to this Vader “fanboy” that makes me think he will NOT be able to match Vader.

Alright, kids! I am stopping there. I spent most of this on characters, because that is what is important in a semi-recycled story line. The story is classic, and stable, but it is HOW it introduces new individuals into the universe that should get the attention. These characters are going to become heroes to a new generation of Star Wars fans, and I am very excited to see how it progresses.

On a side note, I am a major fan of Star Wars: Rebels and I recommend that fans check this show out for new adventures in an old universe that we know and love.

Sorry this has come so late, readers. But I am reading some new books that will be reviewed in the coming months.

Happy Writing and May The Force Be With You All!!