specials

Screen Stories: Reviewing the Polly Pocket Movies

I spent time working on this last summer while I wasn’t feeling well. Movies are stories, too, right?

I grew up with Polly Pockets. Not the freaky mutant ones that are out today, or even the minuscule ones that fit very snugly in your pocket. I’m talking about Fashion Polly dolls, slightly larger dolls with many rubbery clothing options. They were the highlight of Christmases, birthdays, and going to the toy store with Grandma and Grandpa. There was nothing like the pure joy of opening up a new Polly doll and thinking of all the wonderful new styles and adventures to be had, feeling the rubbery, buttery newness of the doll’s fresh outfits. Sometimes, I’d have to play with it immediately upon opening it, even if we were celebrating Christmas at a house that wasn’t my own and Polly had no other friends to play with at the moment. The possibilities!

Man, the world we created with these was so complex we could have actually made a TV show of them. So imagine our joy when DVDs came out. (Polly World is past my time, and technically so is 2 Cool if not for the fact that I played with these things longer than I should have; I had to go and watch Polly World more recently.) So today, I thought I’d go where no one else has gone before and review them. Someone has to do it, right? And let’s face it: I love the Nostalgia Critic, but he’d tear these apart. What the reviewers don’t know is that good, fun doll movies have a place too. So I’ll be taking that stuff into account.

Mattel came out with two DVDs and a full-length movie. I will not be discussing the poorly animated online webisodes. Not only have I not seen them but they look hideous. I’m sorry to have to be that person, but it’s true: my generation’s Polly was better than your gen Z version.

To rank them, then, I will put each DVD in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place. They will get 3 points for first, 2 points for 2nd, and one point for third.

Story

Generic “Polly Pocket!” DVD (came with a playset): Polly and friends are assigned a science project on the eclipse. To get a great grade for Lila (who will be banned from playing in the band at the school dance if she does as poorly as her last project), they travel to Pocket Island to get good pictures. But what if mean girl Beth tries to sabotage their project first? And what if a dolphin rescue mission distracts them from their photo taking? Will they still ace their project so the band can play at the dance?

2 Cool at the Pocket Plaza: For the opening of Polly’s dad’s new hotel, Polly and friends will be staying in the penthouse suite over the weekend and will perform the opening number for Eric Wilder’s concert. She invites her British cousin Pia to come too, and when Pia asks to join the band for the performance, they of course say yes. But chaperone Miss Throckmorton isn’t so sure. Maybe if Pia and Polly dress and act alike, they can just switch places in rehearsal when Miss T isn’t around. But things get complicated when Polly’s dad needs Polly to give the dedication speech, and when Beth finds out about the plan–and tries to expose Polly so she can become the most popular girl in school instead.

Polly World: Polly and her classmates are headed to the Polly World amusement park for a scavenger hunt competition. Together they’ll hit all the rides and take part in a few contests to try and get the win. Disrupting the weekend is Polly’s dad’s girlfriend Lorelei, who is jealous of Polly–and it sounds like Polly isn’t a fan either. When Lorelei teams up with mean girl Beth to get rid of Polly, does the weekend stand a chance?

***

As with all these types of movies, there’s a lot of wish fulfillment here that allows viewers to delve into a different world for another day. Polly and friends go to amusement parks, try on clothes, live in fancy houses, and just have fun together. Some of the scenes are just devoted to these things, as one should expect with girly doll movies. However, the target audience will be fine with this. Sometimes you just need plain fun, and you’re probably not looking for much more in 20-minute DVDs (one of which comes with a playset). In the generic DVD, though, the fun wish fulfillment actually helps to fill in the lackluster plot of completing a school project. It’s just fun to watch the girls have adventures at home and on the island.

2 Cool definitely had the most solid story, if not with some logic flaws that really present themselves once you’re an adult. (Miss Throckmorton isn’t angry with Pia for dying her hair, or somehow doesn’t even notice that Pia was literally just speaking in her accent before and now is impersonating Polly’s American one? Pia just starts randomly giving a speech about following her dreams instead of the dedication speech that was supposed to happen?) Pia is instantly likable, and the idea is a lot of fun that we haven’t seen a lot before (at least not before Hallmark’s Princess and the Pauper trope took over years later). But it also tries maybe a little too hard to throw a moral about being yourself in. When Pia ends up on stage playing violin, something the girls didn’t want her to do at first, Polly says that it would have been better if they had accepted Pia right from the start. But they kind of had to disguise her anyway, because of Miss Throckmorton’s disapproval. And the central story really wasn’t about what instrument Pia played? Oh well. That’s super nitpicky.

Polly World lost me with some of the fantasy-esque storylines…how many more evil stepmothers do we need? And the idea of her conspiring with Beth was just silly. Never mind that Polly’s dad enrolls her and de-enrolls her in boarding school in the span of an hour, under the recommendation of a woman who doesn’t even know Polly. Lorelei’s story seemed a bit far-fetched as they are engaged without Polly even having met her yet. Also cliche was the girls not winning the contest, despite the fact that Beth’s team forfeited and the boys had their final act ruined. Whenever there is a contest in a movie like this, the leading ladies typically don’t win, maybe to promote the idea that fun and teamwork are more important. It just didn’t make sense here; they were clearly in first place. And despite, or maybe because of the long running time, a considerable amount of the movie is filler. On the other hand, the idea of going to a theme park for a contest is much more interesting then working on a school project. This is a movie you appreciate because it’s fun, not because it’s logical.

The general DVD could have had a snooze-worthy plot, but it is actually saved by the”fun” scenes that also bring some conflict. It’s a fun escapist story without the crazy drama, but there’s also not a lot of solid plot holding it together. Like, basically none. Despite Polly World’s corny subplotting, I would much rather watch the girls go to an amusement park than work on a project. Of course this too has its share of silly things, from traveling around the world and back in a day, a three-minute montage of watching everyone enjoy a water park, and a dolphin rescue mission.

Still, long story short, there is a clear order.

1st place: 2 Cool
2nd place: Polly World
3rd place: Generic DVD

Animation

Easily the best-looking of the three is 2 Cool. The girls look exactly like their animated drawn counterparts and it is obviously a Polly Pocket film. The colors are nice and everything is very well drawn. Of course, you have to look past people standing still in the background and a random cut to a guy holding a violin, but you know.

Polly World is… not bad, I…guess. But the non-people of color are very washed out. They hurt to look at and Lea actually looks like a ghost. A couple of Beth’s friends appear to be albino, but I don’t know if this was because they were or because the animators wanted to give them a different skin tone that happened to be light. So are some of the backgrounds. This is the same drawing style that the later playsets used, but it doesn’t come off well on TV. Note to animators: “peach people” are better than “white people.” Another problem I had with Polly World was some character appearances. Polly’s dad and future stepmom look like characters in a Disney movie. Dad has the “dapper guy walking around in 1900s Central Park” look going on and Lorelei looks like the villain in a princess movie. They just don’t look like real people. The scenery is also a bit blurrier here.

And, oh dear, the generic DVD. I honestly wondered if this was made by a different company. The backgrounds are lovely and saturated and remind me of some children’s books I used to read. But they really screwed up on Polly’s design….the animators could have decided she was Barbie and it wouldn’t have made a difference, because they are both equally far from this character’s design. She does not look like Polly Pocket. The strange part? Nearly everyone else, including Beth and Polly’s butler Samuel, looks like a Polly universe character. It’s only the five girls who ran into design mishaps for some reason. Ana probably looks the best of the five. However, the generic DVD doesn’t hurt my eyes when I look at white people, and the colors are again nice…and most of the other characters are fine there. I can probably even forgive Polly’s friends, who aren’t spot on either, because they still resemble the characters. I’ll have to give the edge to the generic DVD for second place, because the colors are much better and in the end, the girls don’t look *that* much different than they do in Polly World.

1st place: 2 Cool
2nd place: Generic DVD
3rd place: Polly World

Music

I have to say, the music here is pretty fun for these types of movies. Each one features the song “Perfect Kind of Day,” a peppy song that Polly’s band performs in the first DVD and is used for background music in the other two. Songs performed by the band include 2 Cool’s Work the Angles and Polly World’s Rock This Town. Concert scenes themselves are again wish fulfillment, but that’s to be expected and they’re not bad songs. And it’s not like they don’t have a purpose; they all fit into the story. The lead singer’s voice is quite good in both.

2 Cool also has Not Just Make Believe as a background choice, but it’s not memorable and is literally straight from a Disney Princess DVD. Polly World has several tween pop selections too, none of which are extremely interesting but fit the spirit a little better. As such, I’ll give a slight edge to Polly World here because Rock This Town is so solid and because the music fits the tone. I don’t have a lot to add regarding the generic DVD because there isn’t much at all.

1st place: Polly World
2nd place: 2 Cool
3rd place: Generic DVD

Acting

You can thank Polly World for having me select this as a category , because the voice acting was so awful here. It was just bad. For one thing, most characters’ voices were squeaky, super girly, and high-pitched. Beth and Lorelei’s actors didn’t know how to read a script, though they did speak just like cliches, and Beth especially was super dumb here. I couldn’t believe them as people for a second. Don’t believe me? Look at her conversations with Lorelei and on the big screen at the concert.

Also, let’s talk voices. Everyone is so high-pitched and squeaky. Maybe that’s one reason why Polly World feels more like a generic doll brand movie–more on that later.

2 Cool and the generic movie were better. I don’t have complaints about either.

1st place: 2 Cool and generic DVD
3rd place: Polly World

Characters

Yeah, you’re looking at Mary Sues here. For sure. But again, that’s the kind of movies these are supposed to be, so they’re on even ground in that respect. Polly and friends don’t have a ton of time to gather personality in any, but we still pick up tidbits. Ana and Lila are good artists, with Lila being snarky, Shani is funky, Ana is shy, Polly is a levelheaded leader, etc. They’re all equally developed. In all 3 is also Samuel, Polly’s butler/driver/chaperone. He could be bland, but you learn to care about the guy because of their good relationship. So mostly, I’ll be taking a look at the side characters.

So what makes them different? Polly World obviously gets points here for having more time to develop the main characters and probably does the best job of the three. However, it again loses points for very bland side characters-. Beth is very one-sided and cares only about popularity and fame and nothing else over the course of the movie. I think her lines are meant to be funny but end up being pretty cringey. Lorelai too is a very one-dimensional villain and cares about–what else?–getting Polly’s dad’s money. These things hurt the movie a bit.

And Polly is WAY too perfect here. She literally catches Lorelei tangled in a plot to get her dad’s money and decides not to tell her dad because “he’s happy with her.” Gah. Points off for Polly World.

2 Cool introduces side characters that do have personality in Pia and Miss Throckmorton. Miss T is strict but also caring, and Pia is somewhat insecure and idealistic. On the other hand, the Polly friends aren’t developed as much, but they’re still there. We do see Shani with a goofy fangirl personality, Lila as somewhat sassy, and Polly as levelheaded. But Pia and Miss T do it well, and I am placing more emphasis on side characters here. The characters here, in general, also seemed the most real.

There were no particularly bad characters except in Polly World, so that one gets last place. Overall, although there wasn’t a ton of development, they did a good job.

1st place: 2 Cool for overall for best job
2nd place: Generic DVD for being neutral
3rd place: Polly World for slightly stronger main characters, but with bad side characters

A winner here? Congratulations to 2 Cool for being the winner with 13 points. The generic DVD was second with ten points and Polly World winds up with seven. I guess that’s pretty fair. 2 Cool was obviously the most accurate to the franchise in looks, personalities, and everything else. The generic DVD wasn’t a bad first effort; the characters were true to self but the animation and plotlines were clearly ones that you’d put into a DVD you were including with a playset. That’s exactly what they did, so no harm there I suppose. Quite frankly, for what it’s worth, it was pretty good quality. Polly World wasn’t terrible and tried to do something new by coming out with a longer movie. Actually, it’s even an enjoyable watch for a Polly fan. The original music was well done, but the animation (literal white people!!!!), plot, and characters were a little bare-bones for it to be considered great. It also felt a little more like a Barbie or Bratz movie, whereas I felt the others were more authentic to the Polly universe.

specials

Book Tour: Luckiest Girl Alive

Welcome to Fictionista Book Tours, where our job is to take you on a journey into the real-world locations behind a book and your job is to sit back, relax, and take it in.

Upon picking it up, I was so excited to find out that Luckiest Girl Alive took place pretty close to me. The author so clearly based it off her own experiences that even street names were the same. So I knew I had to do a Book Tour! (This used to be referred to as Exploring Setting in the inaugural post, but now it’s a Book Tour because it sounds better.) Now unfortunately, she does name a lot of roads and such that don’t have a lot of spottable locations. Others I couldn’t find (such as “The Spot” which had later been torn down) because they were probably fictional. There is also no Google street view for Nantucket, where they vacation, so that is omitted as well.

Disclaimer: Screenshots are grabbed from Google Maps and are an attempt to make a setting more authentic. Allegations to fictional places are not necessarily true and some are just speculation. Images of buildings or businesses does not mean endorsement or lack thereof.

First, we’re going back to school. Our MC TifAni attended the Bradley School, but in real life the author attended the Shipley School, a school that my middle school used to play in sports. I’m almost positive that she based her experiences off of it, even down to the school colors. The mansion-like main building, which in real life is probably administration, is shown below:

A lot of the private schools in my area didn’t exactly fit the stereotype exactly (what school does?). I never had an evil clique ruling the school, and if you were ever nervous about lunch it was because you just needed someone, anyone, to sit with. But given the ritzy area, I’m sure there are some not-so-nice, spoiled kids as well. Isn’t this when you think of when you think “private school?”

TifAni goes to a diner with some “friends” at one point in the novel. Minella’s is real, and there is a Chili’s next door as described in the novel. It was here that she asked her mom to come pick her up.

The documentary project meets near a Starbucks that’s described as being next to a “sad looking pub.” I haven’t found that arrangement yet, but there is a beer shop behind this one, so perhaps this is where that section was based on?

TifAni stays at the Radnor Hotel when she comes to town to film the documentary (it was more of a demand that they put her up). I was shocked to see that it looks like a dump; apparently it looks nicer in the front but the streets here are so winding that it’s hard to find a front view of anything! It was very hard to find the front of the place to begin with, as it’s tucked away between some businesses. It’s not a place I can imagine adult Ani staying.

Ani somehow convinced her mom that she needed an entirely new wardrobe to impress her classmates so they took off to the King of Prussia mall for new clothes. I still haven’t been to this giant mall, but I’m sure it’s an adventure.

Speaking of Ani and her mom, one of their “things” to do was go to a Chinese fusion place. Yangming also plays a part near the end of the novel where Ani is tricked into having dinner with her mom. She also has a last talk with her former teacher in this parking lot.

Although not a major point of interest, the train station is below. Ani often took a train to school (hard for me to imagine personally). It’s also where she first noticed the Planned Parenthood.

Probably the inspiration for the school where Arthur transferred, Archbishop John Carroll is located in the next town over. That clearly didn’t work out well for many people.

I would probably have a hard time adjusting to NYC life after going to school in Bryn Mawr. However, that’s exactly what Ani did. While I don’t have any images from there yet (it’s been a while since I read the book), perhaps they’ll be here in the future.

Thank you for taking another journey with Fictionista Book Tours. If you have requests for any other destinations, let me know in the comments!

specials

2019 Fictionistas Unite Book Awards

Happy almost-New Year and almost-year-of-the-presidential-election!!! I hope you all had a wonderful year and if you didn’t, may the next year be filled with blessings for you.

Anyway. One of my favorite things to do in December is look on all the things I did that year.. Books are no exception. So now I present to you my second annual Book Awards. I want to give you a quick rundown before we get started. New this year, too, each book will get to wear its award badge on its review. If you are reviewing a book that one one of my awards, and are looking for award graphics or blogger testimonials to put with it, you may use the images I provide so long as you don’t white out the name of this blog. Links, of course, are appreciated.

Check out my 2018 Book Awards here!

Check out the list of all the books I read this year here.

For a few more books that were not reviewed on the blog this year, visit my Instagram to see what I thought!

Eligibility
-The book had to be read, and finished in, the year of the awards. It may be any genre. Young adult books are eligible. DNF books are also eligible, typically if they win something it will be for “Worst Overall” or “Best Cover.”
-The book must be a full-length novel or novella. Short story collections are eligible as long as they are all by the same author.
-The book must have been read for the first time. Thus, books that I’ve read before that I re-review this year, such as Picoult’s Storyteller, are ineligible because I read them beforehand.
-The book does NOT have had to be published in the year of the awards.
-The book may win multiple awards.

Keep in mind that earning very few awards won’t stop a book from becoming Best Overall. Most books won’t fit into all categories and it’s very possible that the Best Overall winner will hardly have awards at all.

I give out the following awards. The first two are given because they are my favorite genres and can usually be counted upon to be plenty represented in my library each year.
Best Women’s Fiction
Most Suspenseful
Character Development Award
Best Plotting
Best Non-Fiction
Most Unique Story
Best Writing
Most Likely to Become a Classic (current classics are not eligible; Pride and Prejudice, for example, would not win).
This category answers several questions. Is it timeless? Could anyone, regardless of gender or older young people, read it and find something to enjoy? Will the messages endure? Does it age well? All these are the makings of a future classic.
Worst Overall Book
Best Overall Book

The three new awards include:

Best Cover
Best Cast of Characters- Main (Eligible characters generally include narrators, the MC, main, antagonist, the closest friend, and significant other, though this is subject to change)
Best Cast of Characters- Supporting (Eligible characters include secondary best friends, less important classmates/coworkers, side parents, anyone who plays a lesser role than the above characters)

Other nominees: Christmas at the Cupcake Cafe, Things You Save in a Fire

This was a hard one this year. I wasn’t thrilled with most of the women’s fiction options; while most sat at a solid 3 stars, there were enough problems that few of them were anything to write home about. I did find myself enjoying the world of Cafe by the Sea. It has the highest ranking of mine at 4 stars, and follows the Colgan formula while also providing something just a little different. It’s an entertaining story of finding new opportunity and returning to your roots.

Other nominees: Nine Perfect Strangers, Cafe by the Sea, A Dog’s Promise

Through the course of this novel, we watch Eleanor naturally grow from an awkward woman (well, maybe she still is, because being an introvert is not a character flaw) and start to thrive in social environments, becoming a happier person. It’s a pretty inspiring story.

Other nominees: Woman in the Window, The Babysitter, Watching You, Behind Closed Doors

Just because you can guess a book’s ending or the”who” or the “why” doesn’t mean it’s bad or predictable. In fact, that can often means that the author does a great job laying clues and plot for you. I didn’t love this book at first as it seemed like a bland straight-up mystery, but as I got invested in these characters and asked myself about possible motives, I found myself figuring things out faster and ultimately coming to my own conclusion, coming away with a new respect for mysteries. Overall, an entertaining story.

Other nominees: Lock Every Door, Woman in the Window, The Babysitter, The Perfect Girlfriend

Holy moly. This is a TOUGH category this year. I read some of my favorite thrillers of all time. This should really be a four-or-five-way tie. However, because it doesn’t stop from start to finish, Behind Closed Doors is the winner. The novel’s narrow focus really helps readers to focus in on these problems and the protagonist’s fear. I can’t say much without giving it away, but WOW. This is a hard book to put down. And like I’ve said, since this is possible (with a bit of work), it’s one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.

The first book I read this year was also a clear contender for Best Non Fiction. Even in January, I thought, “yeah, this is probably going to be the winner.” Ghostwriter or no, this is a very well-written book and never stopped entertaining me from start to finish. It was thought-provoking, interesting, and all sorts of good stuff. On top of everything, she is a good writer too! It’s just not fair! I kid, of course. Highly recommended for all.

Jenna Fischer’s book about acting was unique, but didn’t have quite the staying power of Michelle’s book. Jacob Tobia, too, should be commended for coming out with their story, but the writing wasn’t nearly as strong there.

Other nominees: Becoming, A Dog’s Promise

In some cases, dropping tons of references really doesn’t work. However, for the atmosphere in Woman in the Window, it works and only adds to the Hitchcock-like atmosphere. While it has a similar title, it’s not the same story, and an unpredictable plot will keep readers guessing.

Other nominees: A Dog’s Promise, Woman in the Window

The idea of a lonely, socially awkward woman is something that we can all relate to. So is the pursuit of a relationship, or even just friends. These ideas will keep Eleanor on the shelf for years to come.

Other nominees: Luckiest Girl Alive, Life on the Leash, The Kiss Quotient

I love the playful, vintage feel of this cover. It communicates well what the book’s message is. There are also textured spots of glitter. Overall, a very cool and stylish cover design, reflecting the author themselves. It also gets the book’s message home: gender need not be taken so seriously.

Other nominees: The Actor’s Life, Behind Closed Doors, Woman in the Window, Luckiest Girl Alive, Sissy

Yay to Jenna Fischer for doing something totally new with the memoir genre! She tells her story, yes, but its her acting story. She tells it to us through giving advice to her readers, and she actually paints a fairly straightforward portrait of a not-so-straightforward lifestyle. It makes acting look easy. We have very few down-to-earth acting guides out there, and Jenna writes hers as if she is talking to a friend. This book has gotten positive reviews and many people are picking it up just because they’re interested, not because they want to get into acting.

Other nominees: A Dog’s Promise, Perfect Girlfriend, Things You Save in a Fire, Nine Perfect Strangers

I said it above and I’ll say it again: this series has wonderful characters. Issy I love; she’s a strong woman character who isn’t a typical, in-your-face strong female character: she loves to bake! Her coworkers Pearl and Caroline are wonderful too, and we get to hear lots about them this time around. Austin, as bloggers might know, remains my favorite love interest. So there you go.

Other nominees: A Dog’s Promise, Cafe by the Sea, Woman in the Window

Moriarty does it again with her unique group of characters! One strength of hers is that she never goes too over-the-top in her characterization. From Jessica the influencer to Lars the lawyer to Zoe the teenager, I cared about this group of people, especially when they were interacting with one another.

Other nominees: The Kiss Quotient, The Endless Beach

Here we go: the Razzie of my awards. 2019 was a record year in that I didn’t finish three books, and almost quit a fourth, which typically earn 1 star by default. I rarely DNF, ever.

Now as for those other nominations: first The Endless Beach by Jenny Colgan. I had problems that weren’t necessarily the book’s fault (but also were). You needed to be acquainted with a certain short story from the author in order to get the most from this. I gave it no score. The Kiss Quotient didn’t earn it because the diverse characters were a plus, especially so because they weren’t constantly playing the race card, even though it was a very boring book and too erotic. So the winner is The House Swap.

It was a boring novel. Twists were insanely predictable. It was very, very, very repetitive. I learned nothing about these characters and didn’t even care for them anyway. We’ve seen this concept done a LOT and it brought nothing new to the table. I mean, nothing. I actively dreaded picking it up, and when I keep going to Instagram to take breaks, that’s a bad sign. It went the same way: husband and wife plan a day together to try and fix things, wife freaks out, awkward evening, they try again tomorrow. The past focuses simply on scenes of the wife’s affair that did nothing to drive the plot forward except create useless sex scenes. This was a bare-bones novel that needed so much more. I believe that Fleet will be putting out better in the future.

Let’s end on a positive note! Before I announce the winner, here are the five nominees:

A Dog’s Promise, W Bruce Cameron: This endearing tale of a dog’s love as he wraps up his life’s purpose is sweet and sentimental in all the right ways with Cameron’s usual well-done insight.
Behind Closed Doors, B.A. Paris: This extremely suspenseful tale isn’t too far fetched with the exception of some of the planning behind it, making it much scarier than the average horror tale about dolls or clowns.
Lock Every Door, Riley Sager: This is another horrifying book. Despite how people say it’s too over the top, I am inclined to disagree because it works. The subject matter in the book really does exist, even if not to this degree, and it’s a very unique take on an arguably overdone plot.
The Woman in the Window, AJ Finn: The atmosphere and writing style made this thriller stand out in a crowded genre.
Becoming, Michelle Obama: This entertaining and insightful life story makes me wonder how Michelle is a first-time author.

And the winner is…

This surprised even me! What’s there to say, other than that it’s well-written, deep and thoughtful without being pretentious, entertaining, and meaningful. Even that character development is great! The first book I read in 2019 was the best one, and that’s what I have to say about that. But I read so many good books this year that this was a hard choice, and if I had a Best Fiction award, Behind Closed Doors would win it. (Maybe I’ll entertain that idea next year…) I recommend both books to everyone.

See you guys in 2020! I would love to get back to blogging, but my entries mean nothing if they’re not being read and liked by you. It’s thanks to you guys that I have been able to review books. But without any traffic, this won’t be able to continue. With the risk of sounding like a PBS special, I hope that you will continue reading and supporting this book blogger for a long time to come so I can keep sharing my ideas without sounding like I’m shouting into the void. Help me come out of hiatus by stopping by once in a while. Happy New Year!

specials

My Favorite (and least favorite) Thrillers This Year

Happy almost Halloween! This means that it’s time to take stock of my spooky books over the last year.

I love the thriller genre. Some of you may be getting sick of seeing so many on the blog. But part of me is also picky. If the ending is weak, if a character is boring, if it centers around yet ANOTHER boring affair or someone else’s missing father, I will be at least slightly let down. I mean, sometimes they do get formulaic.

To me, the best thrillers are the ones I can’t stop thinking about. But what are they, and which ones could I live without?

Best Thrillers

The Woman in the Window

This was a great choice, not just because of the storyline, but because of the atmosphere. I really enjoyed the experience of reading it and “listening to” the author’s voice. It feels like a classic thriller movie and the MC liked classic movies as well, which was an interesting aspect.

Behind Closed Doors

I almost didn’t pick this one up, feeling it would just be a normal domestic abuse story. I was so wrong. OMG THIS WAS FREAKING INTENSE, PEOPLE. With preparation, this could absolutely happen in real life. I don’t understand the lukewarm Goodreads reviews. This is a strong candidate for not just Best Suspense, but for Overall Best Book in my December 2019 book awards. I just lent it out to a coworker and she feels the same way I do! Cannot recommend enough. Sometimes, simple plots are better.

One Perfect Lie

This was a different and exciting one! I like to think of it as taking place in thirds, at which points the story moves in a different direction. It’s hard to take all of these moving parts, and Lisa Scottoline does it pretty well. One problem though: it didn’t need the forced romance.

I am also currently reading Lock Every Door, which obviously I haven’t reviewed yet. However, it is looking good so far…

Perfectly Fine Thrillers:

Before She Knew Him

Okay, this was decent. I did figure out the ending, though, and I didn’t remember much else about it. A good story, but not an especially memorable one.

Best Day Ever

This was another book I enjoyed for the voice. Paul, our narrator, is authentic and creepy. It’s a slow burn but I went in prepared, and I liked the story more for it.

I Know Who You Are

An actress’ husband disappears, leading to a great mystery and even better backstory. Hmm, the backstory was more interesting…is that good or bad? The ending, which although Hitchcockian and creepy, left a LOT of questions.

Obsession

I hadn’t heard of this one before it was on a “recommended” shelf at a local bookstore. Huh. Cheating, cheating, and more cheating. We’ve seen this before…plenty. There were chilling moments for sure, but I also felt that characters acted rashly out of nowhere to keep the book moving. The title is also misleading.

Watching You

I didn’t always find the plot thrilling, but ultimately I connected to the characters. Also, I solved it, and that was super exciting. Not as much of the watching and stalking aspects as I hoped for, but it was still an interesting and well-written book.

With You Always

This was a unique twist…a Christian thriller! But the guy in question is so seemingly perfect that the first third of the book is boring, and again, there are a ton of unanswered questions here. It needed an epilogue.

Someone We Know

This one started out boring me. It was a murder mystery and not much else with regards to substance. However, as things picked up, I connected more and more with the characters and ultimately solved this one as well. It has the honor of being the first mystery I solved before the book ended. I bumped this one up from 3.5 stars to 4 stars just because it got better as it went on and I cared about these characters.

The Affair; Sheryl Browne

A lot better than I thought it would be, honestly. It came with The Babysitter, another novel by the author, so I had to read it. It was a surprising twist on a kidnapping, essentially.

The Babysitter

Like the book above, this is another tale of family hardship and getting the kids involved. I despised this villain, and I worried if she was going to get away with everything. The characters, too, are great, and I would love to see more about these detectives.

Disappointing Thrillers

The House Swap

A couple moves into another person’s house and gets the sense that someone is watching them. Fascinating concept perfect for me even if overdone…but it was very poorly executed. This book was so boring I couldn’t even finish it. It was very repetitive with the same actions taken over and over between the couple. The “twists” were insanely predictable except for the ridiculous one at the end. I also didn’t like the preachy “alcoholism is bad” aspect to it. If you’re going to address issues, do it naturally. And I just can’t get down with protagonists who cheat. Ever. It was a clear first time effort though; maybe we’ll see better in the future.

The Night Before

It was okay, and it had a solid ending unlike so many I’ve read recently. I just didn’t like the main character who constantly reminded us how messed up she was. Overall it felt disorganized and tried to take on too many twists that didn’t relate to the central story. Not terrible, but still somewhat of a letdown.

Looker

Me, Goodreads, and everyone on Goodreads’s brother agrees that this is NOT a psychological thriller. This was such a marketing misfire that I’m not sure it’s 100% the author’s fault. Truthfully, though, it was still pretty boring. There’s a main character, everyone hates her because she can’t have children (so messed up), and so she takes out her sadness on having affairs with her students and though watching an actress–not even doing anything, just making observations. If you want 180 pages about watching a character complain and do basically nothing else, this is it right here.

Did you read any of these? Which choices do you agree/disagree with?

specials

USA Road Trip!: Celebrate Independence Day With These Books Across The States

First of all, I am not dead! I realize I have not posted in almost a month. My apologies. I haven’t bought any new books, nor have I had the motivation to do any of the other posts lined up., and then I got sick. No worries; posts are on the way!

Below is a selection of books, each one taking place in a different state that’s obvious in the novel’s context or outright stated. Sadly I don’t have 50 books for the list, and a considerable amount that I own actually take place in Britain. Still, this is a good place to kick start your literary road trip. All summaries are written by me unless stated otherwise.

Qualifications for this list:
I have read every book here. For my book lists, each garners at least a 3-star rating.
One book per state with the exception of New York because another state is involved too.
All books must strictly take place in the U.S.

Colorado: A Dog’s Way Home

Bella begins her eventful life as a stray puppy in an abandoned building. She lives with a litter of cats, including a mother, and likes her life just fine. When the building is about to be demolished, she is rescued by new owner Lucas. In her new home, she loves playing games like Tiny Piece of Cheese and Go Home. Other times, she enjoys visiting the local VA hospital and bringing cheer to the patients there.
Then one day, Bella is picked up by animal control because pit bulls (or dogs that even look similar) are banned in their community. After sneaking out of her new owner’s fence, Bella finds herself in the big Colorado wilderness alone. The only thing to do, she knows, is to find her way home.

Connecticut: I Know This Much is True

Unfortunately I can’t find an official summary of this book anywhere. It’s been a while, but the premise is that Dominic looks after his mentally ill brother Thomas and struggles with the relationship between him and his father. A lot of the book explores what it means to love one another and familial bonds through the decades…and countries.

DC: Life on the Leash

Cora Bellamy loves dogs. She loves them so much, in fact, that she’s started her own dog training business. Based on a philosophy of love and understanding, she wants to prove the harsh well-known trainers that they’re wrong. So when she gets the opportunity to audition for a dog training TV show, she jumps at the chance.

There’s still one thing standing in the way: her latest client. He’s charming, handsome, and seems to like Cora back. The problem is that he’s taken. What’s a girl to do? Luckily she has the acquaintance of another client to help her. Eli is a great assistant, and little does Cora know that she may be attracted to him as well. 

Florida: Zeta or Omega

It’s late summer in Florida and a new school year at Latimer University is just beginning. And three girls are about to have the time of their lives…maybe.

VERONICA: Wants to escape her snobby parents once and for all in Boston. She wants to discover who she really is without the designer labels or the fancy family name. She’s already disappointed her parents by not choosing Harvard, so what has she got to lose? Maybe a sorority will give her the family she truly needs.

LORA-LEIGH: Would much rather be beginning her fashion career at FIT, thank you very much…except for that her father is making her attend the local university first. She is dying to get out of there and is only going through sorority rush because her mom wants her to join Tri-Omega, her own sorority.

JENNA: At Latimer on a band scholarship, Jenna doesn’t really care about rushing either, but her roommate is excited about it, so she’ll join in. But even if she does get some wonderful sisters, will her diabetes get in the way? Or will everyone see her as “Sick Jenna” like they did in high school?

When the three girls meet during recruitment, they become close friends and ultimately enjoy going through the process. But what happens at the end of recruitment? Will they find themselves separated? Or will they even get into a sorority at all?

Georgia: TTYL

Zoe, Maddie, and Angela are ready to take on sophomore year by storm. Through their instant messages (or text messages in later editions), they share the ups and downs of high school. When Zoe gets into a flirtationship with a teacher and Angela is dumped by a jerky guy, they stand with each other through thick and thin. But it’s when Maddie tries to go too far for popularity that their friendship is really tested. Will the winsome threesome make it through the year?

Maine: Fudge-A-Mania

Peter Hatcher’s summer is in trouble. First of all, his little brother Fudge has just announced that he wants to marry Peter’s sworn enemy Sheila Tubman. Then it gets worse: he learns that he is going to share a summer house with Sheila’s family for three whole weeks! But between baseball games with old greats, new friends, and trips into town, maybe the summer won’t be as bad as Peter thinks. Real life locations make this a must-see on your bookish road trip.

Massachusetts: Before She Knew Him

It was supposed to be an ordinary dinner party.
But on the day she meets their new neighbors, Hen discovers something she shouldn’t. The item in question is reminiscent of a murder case that Hen followed intently a while ago, and she can’t help believing that her next-door neighbor is a killer. But the last time she accused someone of being a threat just before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she really hurt someone. So would anyone think to believe her? What do you do when you live next door to a killer?

Meanwhile, Matthew is keeping a dark secret, but he knows it was for the greater good. He also knows that he saw Henrietta looking at his shelf, but that doesn’t mean anything, right? He knows that he wouldn’t want to hurt Henrietta, but there is still a threat lurking. And little do they know that Matthew might not be done killing just yet.

New York: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

It’s New Year’s Eve in 1984, and Lillian Boxfish is putting on her mink coat and preparing to head out to dinner. But she has some walking to do first, and more even later. 
As a young adult, Lillian began writing copy for Macy’s and worked her way up to become the highest paid copywriter in the country. She became friends with one of the illustrators and eventually married a man who also worked in the store. Years later she would deal with marriage troubles, have a son, get a divorce, and battle depression. Many of these things happened against the backdrop of New York City, so as she goes on her walk, she’ll pass all the familiar places and think back to the events that happened there. But this is the 1980s and the city is gritty and scary. However, Lillian never let anything stop her before, and she certainly won’t tonight.

New York/New Jersey: Royal Wedding

Princess Mia’s life is finally becoming a fairy tale as she prepares to marry longtime boyfriend Michael. But with all the wedding preparations and Grandmere wanting to plan everything her way, getting a wedding together isn’t as easy as it seems. Then a royal scandal hits that has implications for Mia’s family life as she knows it. Add in a royal stalker and you have a can’t miss royal conclusion to a timeless series.

Ohio: Best Day Ever

Paul and Mia are heading to their idyllic lake house to spend their “best day ever” together. To Paul, this house represents everything he has in life: a wife, two boys, an impressive job, and a great life that everyone envies. In fact, Paul has big plans up his sleeve for this weekend, ones that could change the course of his life–and Mia’s– forever. But it doesn’t help that the neighbors keep getting in the way, and it’s not long before they find themselves asking: how much can they trust the other, really?

Pennsylvania: One Perfect Lie

In a small town, there is a threat looming that nobody knows about, especially three members of the the high school baseball team in a quiet Pennsylvania suburb.

Susan loves supporting her son Raz in his role as starting pitcher, but worries about how he is coping with the loss of his father. Mindy, the wife of a surgeon, has a comfortable life but isn’t aware of the things that her husband and son Evan are keeping from her. And Heather is proud of her son Jordan but worries about his relationships with other boys on the team.

Then there’s Chris. A newcomer to town, he’s taking on the roles of history teacher and baseball coach. He looks like the perfect addition, but everything about him is a lie. He’s only here to use some of the baseball players as a pawn in a bigger plan. So what is he really trying to accomplish? And how far will he go to get what he wants?

Tennessee: Pupcakes

Brydie Benson’s life isn’t going so well. She’s living with her best friend and is reeling from a bad relationship. So when she gets the chance to start over, she gladly takes the chance. She gets to live in a great house, rent free, as long as she takes care of the owner’s dog. She takes a job in a bakery, and off she goes.

On the path to rebuilding, she meets many people along the way, including a handsome doctor, people at the dog park, and Pauline, the owner of the dog and house she’s taking care of with a mysterious past. Soon the puppy becomes a bigger part of her life than she could have imagined and even finds that she is a great baker for pets, gaining her popularity in the pet community. Maybe starting over isn’t so bad after all.

Washington/Oregon/California/Minnesota: Wild

Cheryl’s early 20s were a period of insecurity. Dealing with parental losses and much more, she decided to set out on a journey to hike parts of the Pacific Coast Trail. With no hiking experience or outdoor experience minus her time in Minnesota, she is left to her own devices and can barely even lift her backpack. Still, she survived many miles of hiking, sketchy hikers, wildlife, and more, all while discovering a resilience she didn’t know she had. A great memoir of the American spirit.

West Virginia: The Rocket Boys

In 1957 a young man watched the Soviet satellite Sputnik shoot across the Appalachian sky and soon found his future in the stars. ‘Sonny’ and a handful of his friends, Roy Lee Cook, Sherman O’Dell and Quentin Wilson were inspired to start designing and launching the home-made rockets that would change their lives forever.

Step by step, with the help (and occasional hindrance) of a collection of unforgettable characters, the boys learn not only how to turn scrap into sophisticated rockets that fly miles into the sky, but how to sustain their dreams as they dared to imagine a life beyond its borders in a town that the postwar boom was passing by.

A powerful story of growing up and of getting out, of a mother’s love and a father’s fears, Homer Hickam’s memoir Rocket Boysproves, like Angela’s Ashes and Russell Baker’s Growing Up before it, that the right storyteller and the right story can touch readers’ hearts and enchant their souls. -Official Summary

Happy independence day! What are your favorite U.S. books?

specials

Exploring Settings: Judy Blume’s Fudge books

Heads up: I recommend viewing this on a computer.

In a recent post I wrote about my love for Judy Blume’s Fudge series and how I once looked up some of the locales in the book.

I want to show you how fun it can be to dig deeper into novels by looking up the setting. This particular post, though, may make more sense if you’ve read the books. Even if you haven’t, I encourage you to read the post and see how building a setting off existing places can be an interesting concept.

Disclaimer: Screenshots are grabbed from Google Maps and are an attempt to make a setting more authentic. Allegations to fictional places are not necessarily true and some are just speculation. Images of buildings or businesses does not mean endorsement or lack thereof. Additionally, both brief quotes are taken from Fudge-A-Mania and Double Fudge, both by Judy Blume, used for review purposes, and I take no ownership of them.

The Family’s Vacation Locale

In book 3, Peter’s family travels to Maine for three weeks with Sheila’s family, a classmate that Peter does not always get along with. The result is a highly realistic, funny novel. They end up in a town called Southwest Harbor.

The island is located a very long drive from my own house. One could probably even fly there. Peter said that it took ten hours for the family to get there from NYC. I believe it!

Peter described Southwest Harbor as a tiny town that had a main road surrounded by a few shops. You’ll find that to be Route 102. A lot of the businesses in the book are, in fact, fictional, because the owners play roles in the books. However you can see the locations which may have inspired Bicycle Bob’s (Southwest Cycle) and Ickle’s (Quietside Cafe). Looking at the book, I’m 99% sure that these places were the inspiration. And the book never actually says that the shop was CALLED Bicycle Bob’s…hmm…

Southwest Cycle aka Bicycle Bob’s

Peter then describes pulling into a dirt driveway and pulling up to a house near the end of it. Assuming that the house is a very short bike ride from town and walking distance from the beach (context clues are given), it could have been one of these three. (EDIT: This is now moot, because the family “took a left” presumably off 102, so it would be on the other side of the street; one surrounded by trees because there was a path through them to the beach. They didn’t have to cross a road to get there, I believe. However, I am not sure if these beaches are public or private, so this is hard to say. Perhaps this was a detail that got made up.)

When Fudge lets Uncle Feather out of his cage, they think he’s escaped the house and Peter and Fudge must go asking around if anyone has seen him. There they meet the neighbors, Mrs. Apfel and her visiting daughter Mitzi. They supposedly walk through a path through the woods and come to a beachfront house. I would assume their house to be one of these below. It’s probably expensive, but considering what Mrs. A’s husband used to do, they could afford it I’m sure…see below.

Now, paths are very hard to find (supposedly they took a path through the woods and most of the paths on the map lead to private property), but assuming that their vacation house is down one of the driveways I found, I find that this is plausible.

Here is another(actually probably better) possibility I found down the road:

Now let’s go back to town again.

“We went to town the next afternoon. The gears on Dad’s bike were stuck so he dropped it off at Bicycle Bob’s shop for repairs. Bicycle Bob is a big, friendly guy who wears a T-shirt that says I’d Rather Be Biking. Then we went to Sawyer’s Market for groceries and to Oz Books, where Fudge and I each got two paperbacks.” (24-25, p. 1991 Yearling edition)

Oz Books does not seem to exist. But…ba-bam! Sawyer’s Market is an 100% real place still operating today. A front view:

The library is right next door, just as described in the book later on. The exterior was described as a building that looked like a house with flowerpots at the entrance. Here is the inspiration for the building where Fudge demands a book about himself and where Peter falls in love with the librarian. I wonder if any copies of Fudge-a-Mania are there?

Peter, Jimmy, Grandma, and some of the Tubmans go on a sailing adventure. The group that went sailing wasn’t on the water for more than three/four hours. It is easy to believe that they got a boat at one of the marinas in this area, like the one on the far left, and set up camp at one of these islands, perhaps Sutton. But I don’t know how far you get in an hour of sailing, so…take it with a grain of salt.

Here’s a pond where Mom and Dad may have taken baby Tootsie to see the ducks:

There is also a rocky beach to the other side of the pond where the gang spends some time, so I wonder if my second finding really is the location of the Apfels’ place because it’s so close. The only qualm is that it’s so close to the road. Perhaps a lot of the beach areas that stretch down farther really are public, or are for the sake of the book.

Weekly baseball games took place at the high school field. Everyone took part in them, including former baseball great Big Apfel who lived down the street from the rental house. This is the only high school in the area, so I assume this to be the field.

And as a bonus, here is the place that served as the turning point in Book 4 in Washington D.C. Money-obsessed Fudge goes on a tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where they run into long-lost cousins. I have heard rumors that the tour location has moved or is different now or something but in 2002, this is where they were.

Other tourists in the building. Could Cousin Howie be among them? Thanks to Google user ajques for the Maps image.

The Hometown

Peter’s family lives in NYC, where two of the books take place.

The apartment was easy to find. 25 West 68th. But does it have at least sixteen floors, as mentioned in book 4? Hard to tell. Fun fact: it’s right across the street from where Michael Hobbs went to school in the movie Elf, further proving a theory of mine that they live very close by. (Though the real life school is Jewish, the area looks exactly the same as the shot in the movie, down to the brownstone steps Buddy is sitting on.)

Some of the view down the street. Times Square it ain’t. Heck, I could probably even manage living there.

In a previous post about these books I stated that I couldn’t find a Harry’s shoe store on Broadway. There is one. (Two, actually…the adult Harry’s is just down the street.) This is where Fudge had a tantrum after not being able to buy the several pairs of shoes he wanted.



There is also a vet’s office on 62nd between York and the FDR Drive just as Blume said. Cousin Howie drove the boys there when Uncle Feather crashed into the window.

Um…I’ll stick to my vet’s office in the suburbs with easy parking, thanks.

And finally, does anyone remember what happened at this subway station?

Well, let Peter explain…

“It wasn’t until we got off the subway at Spring Street that I noticed Fudge was wearing just one shoe….”Where’s your shoe?” I asked him. “What shoe?” “The shoe that’s not on your foot.” “Oh, that shoe.” Dad said, “Put on your other shoe, Fudge.” “I can’t.” “Why not?” Dad asked. “I took it off to itch my foot and now its gone.” “Gone?” Dad said. “Yes,” Fudge said.”That was one of your new shoes,” Dad told him. “I know, Dad.” “And now you’ve lost it.” “I didn’t lose it. I know where it is. It’s on the subway.” “The subway?” Dad said. “Yes,” Fudge said. (Double Fudge, pg 50, p. 2002, Scholastic)

Lesson learned: don’t take your little brother anywhere.

Detailed settings are a testament to how knowledge of your setting can make a richer book. Judy Blume does a wonderful job and has clearly been to all the locations.

Let me know if there are any other books you’d like to see an exploration of in the comments. They should take place in the United States, and also need to be a book I’ve read. I definitely want to do more of these posts in the future, and hopefully for adult books that more blog readers will be familiar with. Let me know, and thank you for taking the inaugural journey with Fictionista Book Tours.