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1.26.2008

Best Books of 2007



I'm a month late with this, but better late than never, right? (Ah, the motto of the perpetually tardy. I should embroider it on a pillowcase.)

My favorite book last year was, of course, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I've been a big HP goober nerdball fangirl for almost a decade now. So this was basically my favorite book before I even read it. And although I loved it - LOVED IT - I'm not going to discuss it here further because either: (A) you've already read it or (B) you're waiting to read it aloud to your children or nieces or nephews.

Or (C) You think Harry Potter is satanic, and in that case, probably don't read my blog anyway.

Now, on to my less obvious selections!

I'm quite passionate about young adult literature, especially fairy tale re-tellings, and last summer I had the pleasure of discovering Juliet Marillier's first novel for teens, Wildwood Dancing (she has several for adults, and is a contributor to my favorite writing blog). Oh. My. Bedazzler. This book had me kicking my legs in the air and squealing like a seventh grade girl at a rock concert.

"The Twelve Dancing Princesses" is my all-time favorite fairy tale (cough, cough - this one). I've wanted to turn it into a YA novel for years, but I couldn't figure out how to do it. I mean, we're talking about TWELVE sisters here, and thus the major challenge is preexisting: How to make each princess a separate, interesting individual? Add to this the fact that there's not much actual plot, just a lot of fancy dresses and dancing, and the novelist is really up Poo Creek. I've seen this story attempted a few times, and it's never worked. Until now.

Cut twelve princesses to six. Add a dash of frog prince, a Transylvanian forest, and well, other native Transylvanians, and you've got a kicky little story for any girl who's ever wished she were a princess. Best. Fairy tale. Ever. And you KNOW there's a good love story if I'm recommending it. Who knew amphibians could play the hero so convincingly?

The other standout this year was Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. It's a compelling, page-turning monster of a historical fiction. The Tudors - Henry VIII in particular - were like the GREATEST SOAP OPERA EVER. You probably already know the plot, since the movie is opening soon and the amazing trailer is up and running.

Or maybe you already know it because you paid closer attention in history class than I did.

The first fifty pages made me nervous. Mary Boleyn is young and self-absorbed, and I wasn't sure that I could swallow a Very Large Novel from her point of view. Thankfully, once Mary realizes the trap that she's in, she quickly matures and the whole thing just EXPLODES into this delicious world of devious ladies and terrifying uncles and handsome men (beneath one's station). And, like all good historical fiction, when it was over I only wanted to learn more.

Speaking of more . . .




More great adult fiction:

Atonement by Ian McEwan - So you know that library scene in the movie? Even hotter in the book. I still cannot for the life of me figure out how he did it - wrote the sexiest scene in all of literature, that is. This book is a work of art. (Not to mention, a fascinating meditation on the power of writing.) The whole thing was like Mrs. Dalloway meets The Things They Carried. But better.

I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle - Okay, so it's not Great Literature, but by golly, this one is hilarious. Doyle is a former writer for The Simpsons, and the rapid pace and snappy dialogue prove it. It's practically a screenplay for the next Harold and Kumar. Very funny, fluffy reading about an uber-nerd and his crush on a hot cheerleader. Example: "Denis jerked his face to the side--universal body language for 'Yes, I was staring at you'--while maintaining his casual yet defiant pose against the wall. It made him look like a male underwear model, except not."



(Lots) more great YA:

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli - Why oh why did I wait so long to read this? I am so insanely jealous of Mr. Spinelli's talent. The plain truth: I wish I had written this. A great story about individualism vs conformism, with a memorable (and very real) narrator and a memorable (and very unreal) title character. The desert has never been lovelier.

The Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer - For people who find comfort in Pirates of the Caribbean. Meyer knows naval history and puts it to good use with his spunky, strutting, trouble-making narrator. Jacky is a rollicking gal who makes as many friends as she does enemies. The first few chapters of the first book throw some off (especially children) because they are written in Street Urchin English, but once aboard ship, Jacky quickly adapts to a more grammar-friendly way of speaking. Fun, fun, fun.

Stoner and Spaz by Ron Koertge and Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr - These two gave me a serious case of the Gotta Know What Happens Next. I read each one in a single sitting, late at night. Stoner and Spaz was memorable because it avoided the usual cliches that come with teen drug novels, and it gave me a startling insight into cerebral palsy (plus it was funny - really, really funny). Story of a Girl was memorable because it wasn't easy. The main character was caught having sex when she was thirteen and is still dealing with the repercussions at seventeen. It's heartbreaking and hopeful, and it's about shedding your past and moving on.

Girl at Sea by Maureen Johnson - Ignore the cover art (to paraphrase the author, she once remarked "Oh yeah. Because that's what my books are about. Girls with hot abdomens.") and just enjoy. It's a fun Mediterranean adventure story with a very likable protagonist. I'm a big fan of Maureen (and her hilarious blog).

Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn - I can't stop thinking about the main character. Or her super-hot, super-short boyfriend Shrimp. The only way to describe this was that it was the most Weetzie Bat book I've read since Weetzie herself, and that, my friends, is no small potatoes.




Great Nonfiction:


I didn't read much nonfiction this year, and only two really struck me: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and Can I Keep My Jersey?: 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond by Paul Shirley.

I wish everyone would read Kingsolver's book about her year of eating only locally grown food. Ambitious in nature, it succeeds in producing a strong argument for the local movement. I found especially interesting her reasons for eating meat after years of being a vegetarian (she raises and slaughters her own chickens and turkeys), the chapter on making her own cheeses, the columns written by her teenage daughter, and the delicious recipes and menus.

Paul Shirley's book will only appeal to sports fans - I picked it up because he is a former member of The Only Team I Follow - but it's a hilarious journal of his first four years in professional basketball. It's biggest strength is that Shirley comes across as someone very normal, someone you'd want to share a cheese pizza with. Plus, I will never think of benchwarmers in the same way again. Or tall people. Or anyone who has to work in freezing-cold, middle-of-nowhere Russia just to keep the job they love. Shirley also gets a nice dig in about my arch nemesis, Kobe Bryant, and several about the strange relationship between God and ego in superstar, super-rich athletes.




Short lists:

Best Picture Books (published in 2007): Mo Willems' new Elephant & Piggie series are the greatest easy-readers since Frog & Toad. There are four so far, and all are GENIUS. Willems proves once again why he's the best thing in picture books right now. My current favorite is My Friend is Sad.

Best Children's Novels: The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. The Midwife's Apprentice won the Newbery in 1996 and Catherine, Called Birdy won a Newbery Honor in 1995. Both are set in medieval England, but Midwife is grittier and Birdy is funnier (a bit like The Princess Diaries, really). I loved them both.

I also loved The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, which - amazingly - won the Caldecott this year. I say amazingly because it's a NOVEL and this is the first time that a novel has won the coveted illustration award. Of course, it's not a novel novel by any means, nor is it a graphic novel. It's a unique hybrid (lots of wordless pictures, then lots of text, then lots of wordless pictures), and it's fantastic that it's been noticed. I was especially charmed because it introduced a new generation to the crazy, beautiful world that is Georges Méliès, one of my favorite silent film directors.

Best Short Story Collection: The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot. I don't normally read short stories, but Boudinot's were so dark, so outrageous, and so hilarious that I couldn't resist. The stories ranged from a serial killer entertaining the kiddos at his son's school (with quips about his "job"), to a zombie working at a frozen pea factory, to three young field hands raising money to attend a Dr. Who convention. I don't use the word "original" very often, but there it is.

Best Graphic Novel: Blankets by Craig Thompson. I devoured this (bio)graphic novel like a hot fudge sundae at the Ghirardelli chocolate factory. Thompson has a legion of devoted fans, for good reason. So beautiful and so sad and so funny and so perfect. I'd recommend this to anyone who wanted to try a graphic novel for the first time.

Best Novel About an Artist or Painting: Couldn't help myself. This is an oddly specific subject that has really taken off in the last few years. My favorite this year was I Am Rembrandt's Daughter by Lynn Cullen. Like all good art novels, I walked away with a new respect for the artist and his place in history. The Amsterdam setting was vivid and alive, the father-daughter relationship was spot on, and - yes - there was a very sweet romance.

Most Read Author: For the second year in a row, Meg Cabot wins! Of course, she releases a new novel every other month, so it's only natural, but still. I love her, and I love her smart female protagonists. My favorite this year was Jinx, the first book in a new series for teens.




AND MY FAVORITE NEW AUTHOR IS: Shannon Hale!

This year I read everything she's written, something that I rarely do. Usually I spread out books by my favorite authors to make them last longer, but I couldn't wait with her. I mean, fairy tales (The Goose Girl) AND Jane Austen (Austenland)? What's not for me to love?

Shannon is so talented that I get all squirmy and happy just thinking about her. She's firmly on the literate end of the YA fantasy scale, always combining beautiful language with a definite sense of place. Her Bayern series is fantastic - I think the third one, River Secrets, is probably her strongest novel. Or perhaps it's Princess Academy, a very non-traditional princess tale about quarries and education and mountain flowers (which won her the Newberry Honor in 2006).

Oh, for goodness sake. Read them all!

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Thus concludes my Longest Post Ever. Yikes. I'm going to bed.

1.23.2008

You've Been Warned: The One-Panels

Strange and happy news. A colleague of mine enjoyed my James Patterson You've Been Warned first sentences-thingy and posted about it recently on her (considerably wittier and more popular) blog. And it seems that people are getting a kick out of it! I found out today that super-talented Linda Causey is working on a series of one-panel cartoons based on each sentence. Here are my favorites so far:






Hurrah! This makes me so happy!

And speaking of, here are two more reasons why I have the tingly stomach jitters:




So how much am I LOVING Masterpiece right now? (Apparently they have dropped the "Theatre," as if that actually makes a difference - it's like Lil' Bow Wow dropping the Lil'. Whoopity-freaking-do, says I.)

But back to the question at hand - just exactly how much am I LOVING the Jane Austen-athon?

SO MUCH, people. SO MUCH.

1.13.2008

GASP!



Tonight at 9:00 ET, Masterpiece Theatre is starting the Greatest Thing Ever Aired On Television:

THE COMPLETE JANE AUSTEN

I know, right?

If I were a Yorkshire terrier, I'd totally be piddling the floor right now.

PBS is airing an adaptation of all six novels, plus a new movie called Miss Austen Regrets ("Courtship she knew well; only the last act eluded her. A film biography that dramatizes Jane Austen's lost loves."). Frankly, the Austen biopic sounds de-press-ing (I'd much, much, much rather see this), but it's all very exciting nonetheless.

Tonight they're showing the 2007 version of Persuasion. I'm especially excited because I've never seen an adaption of this novel before, nor one of next week's Northanger Abbey. Hurrah!

Here is the complete schedule:


January 13: Persuasion
January 20: Northanger Abbey
January 27: Mansfield Park
February 3: Miss Austen Regrets
February 10, 17, 24: Pride and Prejudice
March 23: Emma
March 30, April 6: Sense and Sensibility


Naturally, P&P is the Colin Firth version, which is As It Should Be. After all, it is the definitive Jane Austen adaptation.

Although . . . I have a confession.

While it's quite true that I love (and own) the Colin Firth version - and have seen it way too many times to be considered healthy - I prefer the Matthew Macfadyen version. Which I know admitting this in a JASNA conference would get me stoned, but there it is.

I prefer this wet Darcy:




To this one:




So sue me. (Except don't.)

Ah hem. Well, now that I've managed to post TWO pictures of wet Mr. Darcy, I think it's safe to say this blog entry can get no better. So without further ado - on your mark, get set, TIVO!

Or if you kick it old school like me - on your mark, get set . . . VCR!

1.12.2008

The Top Nine (Part Two)

#4: Juno



Like the rest of the world, I'm in love with Ellen Page and Michael Cera right now. The main character is sweet and biting like expensive chocolate, and her semi-almost-kind-of-ex-boyfriend steals every scene he's in. (Not that this surprises fellow Arrested Development fans - George Michael rules!)

Every character is quirky, but screenwriter Diablo Cody doesn't let them cross into that over-the-top realm, and she backs up every fun weirdness with emotions and actions grounded in reality.

Plus, it's got a killer indie folksy soundtrack. I know I wasn't the only person humming The Moldy Peaches at work this week.


#3: Across the Universe



Speaking of fabulous music, I spent two years of my life listening to The Beatles and nothing else. I know, I know. I'm a dork, but there it is. I may not be a child of the sixties, but The Beatles still mean an awful lot to me. Therefore, it was with extreme caution that I approached this movie. How dare someone make a movie using only Beatles music and then NOT EVEN HAVE THE BEATLES SING THE SOUNDTRACK?

Well. Julie Taymor sure showed me. Across the Universe was so crazy cool it actually made me rethink their music. She treated their material with a loving respect while simultaneously deconstructing and refashioning it in a spanking new psychedelic package that was, at the same time, very very familiar. Which sounds confusing, but really, it's near-perfect.

The opening shot of this movie was my favorite in years. It gave me goosebumps to hear Jim Sturgess - an incredible find - sing the most haunting version of "Girl" ever recorded.


#2: Becoming Jane



Here's another movie not on any critic's list this year. But why, I ask? I know I'm not the only woman sent into severe fevered lust by James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway's We Hate Each Other/We Love Each Other/We Have To Be Together/We Can't Be Together performance. Above all things, I am a romantic, and this movie was far and away the most romantic of the year.

The costumes, the cinematography, and the acting (Maggie Smith! James Cromwell!) were all top tier. And that's what's important in historicals, right? Well, that's what is important to me. And this is my list.

Jane Austen is always tricky territory because her fans are so passionate (cough, cough), but I wasn't bothered by the historical re-imaginings of the plot. I don't think it's wrong to wish that my literary heroine had at least one great love affair.

This is being released on DVD next month, two days before Valentine's Day. Appropriate, no?


AND MY NUMBER ONE FILM OF 2007 (!) IS . . .


#1: Sunshine



I suffer from extreme director lust. Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Anderson, Pedro Almodovar - these names are enough to send me into ecstatic fits of happiness and agitation. But no film director means more to me than the wonderful, innovative, Director Supreme of My Universe: Mr. Danny Boyle.

I've been enamored ever since I secretly watched Trainspotting at one a.m. at a friend's house (my parents were strict about R ratings, and would never have let me watch it - unless it had been rated R for violence and not sex, and then in the American Way, they would have been totally okay with it). That night, sitting on her parents' retro cowboy-covered couch, the wheels in my brain turned and clicked, and I realized that Movies Can Be Art.

Boyle can do comedy (Trainspotting), romance (A Life Less Ordinary), thriller (Shallow Grave), family (Millions), and horror (28 Days Later...). And this year, Sunshine proved he can do science fiction too.

Sunshine is spectacular. It stuns and scares and saddens and I've never seen visuals like this before EVER. Some critics complained about the far-fetched plot, especially in the third act, but I don't think it matters. At all. The real shame is that this movie won't look nearly as impressive on a television set as it did in the theater - giant screen and surrounding darkness and thumping, pounding, pulsing score. I saw it twice in the theater, because I knew it would never, ever be this good on DVD.

But if you haven't seen Sunshine yet, by all means, you should still rent it. Watch it at night with your lamps down and the volume up. And remember to be easy on it, because it was born for the big screen.

1.10.2008

The Top Nine

Tra-la-la! Here's the rest of the countdown, as promised yesterday. I'm on the edge of my seat fo' reals, yo.

Actually, not fo' reals. It's just fun to type that.

Anyway . . .


MY TOP NINE FILMS OF 2007


#9: Death at a Funeral



Okay, so this is one that you won't find on any critic's best list. So what? It's a great ensemble piece, and one of those stories where a bad situation gets worse and just builds and builds and builds upon itself until it can't go any further. And then it does anyway.

Jarrod and I saw this in a packed theater on a sunny afternoon with an audience that came Ready To Have A Good Time. And perhaps that's why I've got such warm and fuzzy feelings for it, but I'm telling you, that crowd totally gets my Awesome Audience award. I wish I could see EVERY comedy with them. (Hey, Death at a Funeral peeps - call me. Let's do Juno.)


#8: No Country For Old Men



So, how scary was Javier Bardem? Jeez, Louise.

Plain and simple: The Coen brothers latest film rocks.

Normally, I'm all about the soundtrack, but this movie was notable for its complete absence of score. Little noises off-camera (I'm thinking of a certain metallic clang on a creaky wooden floor here) were given special attention and, man, I wish more directors would work this. Up until now, I thought foreign filmmakers were the only ones willing to gamble with silence. Not so! It's worth watching this movie just to see how they pull it off.


#7: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street



It's no secret I'm in love with the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film marriage. Honestly, it wasn't even remotely possible for me to NOT enjoy this movie. I'm serious. They could remake Sleepless in Seattle, and I'd be like ALL OVER IT.

Can you imagine? Helena Bonham Carter sitting around a radio, peeling an apple into one long twist, while Johnny Depp spills his weepy guts to a DJ voiced by Christopher Lee? That'd be messed up, dude. Anyway.

So. Sweeney Todd. GREAT MOVIE. Blood! Lots of blood! And questionable meat pies and Alan Rickman and goths in swimsuits! What's not to love?

And while I'm on topic, what was the deal with those people who thought Johnny wouldn't be able to carry a musical? Didn't they see Cry-Baby, the greatest John Waters film of all time? He can sing just fine, thanks.*


#6: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix



Also not a surprise to those who know me. After all, Harry Potter is kind of the center of my universe. He lives in a big house in my brain called Pemberley where he and Ron and Hermione play hopscotch with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in the library.

I really liked this adaptation. Better than number four and SO MUCH better than numbers one and two. Alfonso Cuaron (number three) still wins the HP directing prize, but David Yates is more than welcome to keep the series going.

Order is darker and more complex than the others - as it should be - and the acting by the kids has improved. In fact, Daniel Radcliffe did a flat-out fantastic job. Yay for Harry!


#5: Enchanted



It is SO not hip for me to admit how much I love this movie. (And this is coming from someone who just admitted to worshiping a boy wizard.) I mean, come on! Not a lot of indie cred when it comes to Disney.

But Amy Adams, gosh darn it, was just so adorable and cute and charming. Not many people could be this over-the-top and not make you want to barf. Who says Academy Awards should always be given to downer suicidal performances? (Ah hem, Nicole. Ah hem, Hilary.)

Enchanted was sweet and funny and the kind of perfect family film that doesn't come around nearly as often as the movie studios would like us to believe. I'm looking forward to seeing this one again.



* = Edit: He did NOT sing in Cry-Baby. Whoops. A guy named James Intveld did. This makes me sad. But weirdly enough, Johnny & James look a LOT alike. See?




Okay. This is taking longer than anticipated.
The rest of the list tomorrow! Or the day after!

1.09.2008

It's (almost) too late to reminisce about 2007...

but I'm doing it anyway. Because, frankly, time on Planet Stephanie runs a little bit slower than Earth's Universal Time.




And you know what else? I don't do top ten lists either. I mean I try, but sometimes that top ten standard is awfully rigid. I wanted to create a Top Ten Films list, but there were so many movies I loved this year. And even after narrowing down my longlist (veeeeery looooong) to a shortlist (tiny!), I still had three too many. What to do?

After grappling with this dilemma for a time much too lengthy to be admitted publicly, I gave up trying to cut them. After all, it's my list, right? So instead, I proudly introduce:


My Top NINE Films of 2007 (+4 bonus)

Nine, because the last four are equal in Stephanie Excellence and cannot be ranked. Not all of my choices are Fancy Pants Critically Acclaimed Films, but these are the nine (plus four) that I enjoyed the most. That I talked everyone's ears off about. That I'm going to talk your ears off about. Right now.




+ Four (in alphabetical order)

Atonement - Loved the book, loved the movie. Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorites, and I was eager to see his second film. Heart-thumping romance? Check. Gorgeous cinematography? Check. Ridiculously good score? Check. Not as many critics are talking about this aspect of the film, but Wright teamed up again with Dario Marianelli to create an incredible soundtrack of solo piano and keyboard typing. Crossing my fingers that they team up for a third film. (And fourth. And fifth...)

The Darjeeling Limited - Either you're sick of Wes Anderson or you are not. I am not. Naturally, I enjoyed this movie (and its short, Hotel Chevalier) as it was just like the others. Matching Luggage + India + Jason Schwartzman = Awesome.

Once - First of all, it's got the best soundtrack in years. Second of all, it's so simple: Boy (unnamed) meets girl (unnamed). They talk. Hang out. Make music. That's it. And it's all you need.

Stardust
- This is the kind of movie that will see some serious DVD rotation in my house. It's a nice combo of light and dark humor, making it perfect for a sick day or a lazy afternoon or any other moment in which romance, adventure, and magic are needed.


MY TOP NINE: Coming Soon to a Blog Near You!
That is, to say, this one. This blog right here. Hi.

1.02.2008

The View From My Porch



"There is something marvelous about returning home at the end of a long day, even if there is tuna fish for dinner." - Lemony Snicket


I'm home from work and snow is falling and life is beautiful. Happy New Year's, everyone. Later this week I'll post a list of my favorite books of 2007. It's a long list, as per usual.

Perhaps there will be list of favorite films too. Because: (A) Movies rule, yo and (B) So do lists. One can never have too many.

 


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