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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Fantasy Audiobook Spotlight: Kings or Pawns expertly blends intrigue, humor, and heart

When it comes to high fantasy, author J.J. Sherwood wastes no time in bringing her audience right into the heart of the action in Kings or Pawns: Steps of Power:The Kings, Book 1, ushering in a new saga whose threads of intrigue would challenge even the elaborateness of Game of Thrones. 

The story takes place Elvorium, the capital of Sevrigel, which, as the name suggests, is inhabited by elves that has been corrupted by terrible leadership for decades. These elves are a far cry from the ethereal, felicitous creatures of Tolkien's world however; these are hard-fighting, hard-partying souls. Indeed, despite having a large cast of characters, Sherwood (who looks a bit elvish herself) takes the time to flesh them out fully and meticulously. Jikun Taemrin for example is one of my favorites with his frosty exterior, his long white hair and "azure eyes" marking him from the north, and yet inwardly he's a big softie. In one of the lighter moments towards the beginning of the novel his friend Navon finds Jikun's journal of terrible poetry which he begins to delightedly recite aloud, much to Jikun's dismay. Navon is a good foil for Jikun's stuffy nature, always encouraging his brother-in-arms to try to live a little...and maybe dabble in the occasional necromancy, which is illegal in Sevrigel.

Author J.J. Sherwood
The other major plotline running through the book is that of Hairem, the idealistic and naive elvish king of Sevrigel who finds turning the tide of deep-rooted corruption in his kingdom will not be so easy. Add in a fierce warlord hellbent on laying waste to their world and it becomes downright impossible. Of course, no great fantasy epic would be complete without some supernatural darker forces whispering their way towards wreaking havoc...

I found the audiobook much easier to dive into than the printed version mainly because of the good-humored way Matthew Lloyd Davies voices the characters in his polished British accent, fostering empathy and successfully interpreting the quick wit that Sherwood imbues within her solid writing. Some narrators have to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear as the old saying goes, but Sherwood is so confident in the tale she has to tell and her sentence structure so spot-on that reading this aloud must have been a true joy. Sherwood also credits her editor, the unsung heroes of the publishing world, on her website for making Kings or Pawns as polished as it is.

Davies also has great pacing, speeding up during moments of high tension but generally keeping a measured tone throughout. His crisp enunciation and consistency bouncing between so many different characters also helped me as a listener to keep track of who's who and what exactly is happening. I particularly enjoyed the self-depracating tone he gives Jikun (I had flashbacks to Stephen Fry's vocal interpretation of Marvin, the depressed robot, in his narration of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) , which is in direct contrast to Navon's more light-hearted inflections, further highlighting their "odd couple"friendship. Hairem's timbre is posh but uncertain, which is perfectly suited to his situation.

This is a mostly male-driven novel and I would've preferred a few more warrioresses sprinkled throughout, but Alvena, the mute handmaiden to Hairem that he has a particular affection for, proves to be an unlikely but essential plot device as the tale begins to weave its intricate tapestry.

Jackaroo sez: Audiobook was easier to delve into, but plot picked up quickly. Would've preferred more cats involved, but overall, a solid debut of a new series with excellent writing!

Like the sound of this? Enter to win your own signed  hardcover copy of the book and other fantasy swag here!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Audiobooks: My Accidental Life-Long Friend

Audiobooks have always been a cross between a happy accident and something that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. To close out this year's Audiobook Month, I decided to oblige the Audio Publishers Association by writing about what makes them so special - and have others weigh in.

My father, a semi-retired folklore professor, used to read to me as a little girl novels such as Tolkien's The Hobbit and Roald Dahl's The Witches with rising and falling inflections, inhabiting the characters and bringing the books to life for me. As a folklorist, much of what he teaches in his classes is histories of oral traditions in various cultures and the art of storytelling. I remember long car rides down to my grandmother's from Pennsylvania to Virginia, long before smartphones and IPads, armed with the latest collection of Calvin and Hobbes and trusty cassette player, headphones, and recorded stories told by such greats as Laura Simms. My mom is a brilliant writer and storyteller as well; we always say the three of us are a bunch of frustrated actors and our family holidays together are never boring.

Perhaps it is not so strange that in 2010 I literally stumbled into a job as an audiobook proofreader/editor. I hadn't thought about audiobooks very much up until that point - they had only recently recaptured my interest, listening to Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company in my car to and from work at my old position as a journalist for the prestigious nationwide publication, Soundings. To listen to audiobooks and fix them up for a living was a career I had never imagined for myself  - but one that has forever shaped me as a person and as a writer.

Around this time, I was struggling for a way to keep my fledgling blog sustainable and relevant. I'd review a few movies here and there, and friends and family would dutifully read it, but I needed a spark - a drive. Since I was listening to audiobooks all the time, it dawned on me I could review a few that were particularly interesting in addition to my movie reviews! I had plenty of material to choose from. Soon, I began to learn more about the people that belonged to the voices I kept hearing in my head all day long and some of the greats like Xe Sands and Tavia Gilbert, whom you'll hear from below, became dear friends. I quickly learned that sometimes the right narrator can elevate even the most mediocre material into something quite fun. When my manager at the time suggested I apply for a chance to be a reviewer for AudioFile Magazine - the premiere publication in the audiobook world - I jumped at it. Three years later and I am still writing away!

Though life has since moved me onto other professional opportunities, audiobooks remain a huge part of my life, love, and livelihood and I will always be grateful for the vibrant and incredible community of professionals they have drawn me into.

Why Audiobooks? Industry Professionals Weigh In 

 Although I absolutely love books, picture books through adult novels and non-fiction, I fell in love with listening to audiobooks while working in libraries. My very first listening experience was Jim Dale in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and I was hooked. I can't go anywhere without listening to a book, because it ignites my wild imagination and paints word pictures across my brain and explodes. Now I work daily listening to audiobooks in quality control and proofreading. I love the stories listening invokes. - Deborah D Fleet MLIS, professional audiobook proofreader 

 Audiobooks have been a lifeline in times of loneliness and despair; partnership throughout hours while caring for my home and body; entertainment during healing from illness and injury; companionship during solitary commutes; a rich shared experience while traveling with loved ones. The best performances elevate and uplift my mind and spirit and connect me all of humanity via the most powerful tool a human has to make sense of the world around them — through story. A great audiobook is a magical and transcendent experience. - Tavia Gilbert, award-winning audiobook narrator, writer, and producer 

Audiobooks are...

That precious time and magical distraction with my daughter when she was young, speeding to places we didn't want to go.

That voice in my ear, telling me stories I might otherwise never have read, about Nabakov's house and finding Bernadette, about sentient zombie children and John (who Dies At the End), about female pilots and fierce wartime friendships, about how video games save the future and how a marriage might be saved by a ruse...and so very many other exceptional stories I might have passed right over in print.

The unbelievable combination of luck and audacity that allows me to do something I could only dream of back in that car, during that precious time with my daughter, wishing so hard I could be that voice in some other mother's car, distracting and inspiring and bringing bits of laughter and joy.
- Xe Sands, award-winning audiobook narrator and poetry aficionado 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

DVD/Streaming Spotlight: Zootopia is a Modern-Day Aesop Fable

Mom and Pops Hopps with Judy. Image courtesy of Disney
Every once in awhile I see a film that is so thoughtful and complex that gives me so much food for thought that my brain keeps turning it over and over until I am forced to write down my thoughts because it is just THAT GOOD. Zootopia is one such example. Its brilliance lies in that "It is an adult movie with a kid-friendly veneer," as my fiance put it. 

 The premise of Zootopia is that in an alternative universe not that different from our own, anthropomorphic animals have evolved to live in relative harmony with one another, predator and prey alike. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore commented that they live off of bugs, vegetables, and fish, which are deemed to be non-sentient beings. Of course, it doesn't mean that everything is zippity-do-dah all day every day. Judy Hopps is an enterprising rabbit from the country town of Bunnyburrow with big city dreams of becoming the first rabbit cop on the Zootopia. Mr. and Mrs. Hopps - who get the award for best parents of the year for being genuinely concerned about her future while concurrently caring for her other 275 siblings - are simultaneously wary and supportive of her life choices. When her dreams come true and is assigned to Zootopia, it is only the beginning of a series of sobering realizations - living in a crappy apartment with terrible neighbors, a boss that underestimates her capabilities, and a world that is much bigger and more complex than one could ever imagine.

This is not so different to what happened after I graduated from college, and I'm sure many can relate to having the real world fall very short of the great expectations often formed by higher education and our own delusions of self-grandeur. And this is only the start of the film. What follows is a film noir detective story tracking down missing residents of Zootopia, all of whom happen to be predators. Hopps is forced to align herself with a fox named Nick Wilde, a fast-talking hustler whose cynicism over life in the big city and initial disdain for Hopps' wide-eyed newcomer enthusiasm is embodied in the voice of Jason Bateman (whose praises I just recently sung in my review of The Family Fang).

"Do we HAVE to take a selfie?" Nick Wilde with Judy Hopps
What I find particularly intriguing is the intricate relationship between Hopps and Wilde. By the end of the movie, there is a suggestion that there is far more than just a friendship built on mutual respect for each other's capabilities. Evidence of this being in the creator's mindsets is shown in a deleted scene where Judy brings Nick home to meet her parents, and her father (for the purposes of the test scene voiced by director Rich Moore) exclaims "Sweet cheese and crackers he's your BOYFRIEND?!"

Much of the dynamic of the film focuses on predator and prey relationships, and of course, there is the undeniable reality that historically, foxes have eaten bunnies for breakfast. Her parents even give her what is akin to a can of pepper spray called "Fox Away" before she starts her new urban life. And all of this got me thinking that while there is the undeniable commentary on minority groups and tolerance, there is also very much a strong message being made to adults regarding predators of the sexual nature.

I don't want to get all Freudian on everyone here - but as I was walking home this evening with my take-out Chinese what has been intriguing me for days about Zootopia is that many of the main characters in the "prey" species are female, including the overworked and underappreciated Bellwether, a sheep an assistant to the Mayor of Zootopia who is - what else? - a lion magnificently voiced by J.K. Simmons.


There is a scene towards the end of the film where Nick reverts back to his predatory nature and turns on Judy. It is a tense, uncomfortable scene, and it dawned on me days later that from an adult audience viewpoint, there were undeniable notes of sexual aggression in that moment. In my days as a full-time audiobook proofreader, I read more romantic fiction than I'd care to admit. Terms like "predator" and "mating" were standard vernacular - I would venture to say that the filmmakers were pushing the envelope here to put in some thoughtful commentary on gender relationships and the importance of those relationships - particularly close, personal ones  - being built on mutual love, respect, and honesty.

There are pop culture references aplenty to lighten the mood and the animation is by nature stunning. It is incredible how far CGI animation has come in creating believable textures, and supporting character Clawhauser, an overstuffed, donut-loving cheetah, is so fluffy one could almost reach out and stroke his fat bespeckled head. And let's face it, going all the way back to Disney's reimagining of Robin Hood with woodland creatures (1973), they have always cornered the market on creating wonderful foxes.

It is in every way a fable addressing serious issues of our current world in an enjoyable and accessible way. With well-rounded starring and supporting characters, an ingenious plot and a solid screenplay to weld it together, Zootopia proves once again that animated movies can be adult-friendly, too. 

Jackaroo sez: Another modern classic to add to Disney's impressive collection, Zootopia is smart and funny in equal measures, purrfectly straddling the line between accessible joy for young ones and thoughtful, accessible commentary on modern society for older children and adults.

Friday, May 6, 2016

In the Projection Booth with Kevin Wilson, Author of The Family Fang

Wilson  at the Sewanee Union Theatre
We don’t get to choose who are parents are - but we love them anyway...right? The Family Fang is a bittersweet film based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kevin Wilson, professor of English at The University of the South based in Sewanee, TN.

Wilson was kind enough grant me an interview in the projection booth of the Sewanee Union Theatre, where the film premiered (outside of New York) on Monday, May 2. It is now playing nationwide! We discuss the unusual journey of Fang's adaptation from page to screen, family issues, and the joy and challenges of being a successful writer.

Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman star as Annie and Baxter Fang, two adults who are dogged by the dubious fame of being part of their eccentric actor parents’ bizarre art displays and impromptu public stunts when they were young children. When Baxter gets badly injured by a potato gun – don’t ask, just watch – the whole family is brought together and old wounds reopened, causing the elder Fangs to stalk off. Annie and Baxter figure they’ll cool down, but when the police come knocking at their door, the question remains – is it another elaborate hoax, or is it the real thing?

Both the book and the film bring up important questions about family dynamics and the challenges of parents to see their children as their own independent entities, rather than as carbon copies of themselves. Christopher Walken plays Caleb Fang, the eccentric and tyrannical actor father who finds that his artistic endeavors don't have the same appeal after his children grow up and are no longer involved. In the novel, Caleb sees his children as only a means to an end, being downright ferocious at times, but Walken makes him more accessible by bearing a little less "fang," while still staying true to the spirit of the character. Maryann Plunket plays the long-suffering Camille Fang, whose wide, deer-in-the-headlights eyes give the impression of someone whose gotten herself on a lifetime roller coaster that she cannot ever get off of - the perfect submissive counterpart to Caleb.


Jackaroo, the guest Critic Kitteh sezs: What gives "Fang" its true bite in both written and screen form is that it does not shy away from the darker aspects of family life, but rather depicts them through a lens of compassion. 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Big Rewind: Where Nostalgia Unfurls the Mystery with Heart and Snark

Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins
Mixtapes are a thing of great beauty. Music has often been called food for the soul, and when someone takes the time to compile a customized album, just for you, it is nothing less than magical. They are mailing their heart to you on polycarbonate.

I have made several mixtapes (in the form of CDs) for people over the years, but the only person who ever returned the favor to me was my dear friend and college cohort Libby Cudmore, who recently published her first novel, The Big Rewind, through HarperCollins. (She occasionally contributes her talent to this blog as well - check out her snarktastic review of Sin City: A Dame To Kill For.) And naturally, the plot revolves around solving a murder through the only major clue - a mixtape.

The Big Rewind is a gumshoe detective novel told from the perspective of a struggling young professional writer rather than a hardened private eye - Jett Bennett, along with a slew of snarky hipster friends ("lumbersexuals"- brilliant). Cudmore expertly captures the hustling, mercurial lifestyle that is the Big Apple. You can go from zero to hero and back again in the blink of an eye.Whether the reader is intimately familiar with good old New York, NY or has just seen the city lights from afar, Cudmore puts you right in the eye of the storm: 

"In the fashion show that was the L train, I was wearing my laundry-day T-shirt from the 'Save our Bluths' - themed run last fall for Habitat for Humanity, meaning that I was completely invisible in a surging tide of seafoam Tom and ModCloth skirts."

 The book also realistically depicts the challenges of city living, as Jett tries to keep her nose above the water working for a freelance agency - which includes some dubious "favors" for her boss - and counts her pennies in the process of sleuthing out the killer of her friend and neighbor, the charmingly bohemian and retro KitKat. This ain't no Sex and City fantasy island, where a weekly columnist can afford her own apartment and Manolo Blahnik heels twice a month.

Sailor Mars is so right.
We humans often turn to nostalgia to remind us of less stressful moments of our lives. For Jett, that nostalgia comes in the form of a "Boyfriend Box" that hold mementos from her past relationships - "The box had traveled, unopened, with me every time I moved. As long as it was there, I didn't have to think about it - like it was the Dorian Gray picture of my heart." Interspersed with the sleuthing is a great deal of resolving the past, which at times distracts from the main narrative, but Jett becomes less of a caricature and more multidimensional as facing her past makes her whole again. Her best friend and current major crush Sid smooths off Jett's rough edges with his Southern gentleman charm while simultaneously rankling her with his typical male obliviousness to her affections. This theme of the past clarifying the present plays into the personal development of Jett as a character and the development of the overall plot.

This review would be remiss if I didn't discuss the other major character in the book besides Jett - the music. What is wonderful about reading this book is if you keep your smartphone or laptop handy, there are so many great references to songs both implicit and explicit that you can look up after reading a chapter and enjoy. In fact, you could make your own "Big Rewind" mix tape and it would be the raddest thing ever. The chapter titles are snippets of song lyrics or song titles, and I was super excited to discover one was "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" which references a classic Pet Shop Boys song, my favorite band and a group we discovered together back in college. I would never would've discovered this obscure jem of a song by a band called the Lightning Seeds without this good read. 

 As the narrative began to resolve itself, I got the same sad sensation of leaving something dear behind - a good journey coming to its inevitable conclusion, but one I would never regret having made.

Guest Critic Kitteh reviewer Jackaroo sez: Just like a mixtape, The Big Rewind can be a bit too nostalgic for its own good at times, but overall a solid debut. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sir Toby is Dead, Long Live Sir Toby

Toby on our front porch in Tennessee, June 2015 
"One helluva cat you got there Liz. One helluva cat." - my landlord Allen Buck

It is with a heavy heart that I write this modest obituary on the life of an extraordinary feline, Sir Toby, who has been the mascot of this blog for the last six years. He was diagosed with kidney failure, and passed away peacefully on February 12, surrounded by people that love him.

It feels weird to have it be the night of the Oscars and my fluffy fellow couch potato and critic, gone to that great catnip ranch in the sky. He got so much joy out of curling up next to me, watching movies. Many people have asked, "Did he really watch them with you?" He sure did, and you can bet that first night my fiance Casey and I settled on the couch to watch some Star Trek without that familiar warm fluffball, I was inconsolable.

Toby came into my life in the spring of 2005 when he was living with my friend Chris in an apartment in New Haven, CT at the time, right down the block from my aunt and uncle's house. I had just graduated from Binghamton University of New York and was starting out my career as a journalist for a local community paper in the area. Chris traveled a lot for his work, and Toby (he came with the name) was his ex-girlfriend's cat. She had moved out and was going to "come get Toby later" when she found a new place. I started catsitting him while Chris was away and in the meantime we fell in love with each other's company. I'll never know how old he was really - he was a rescue that had already lived with at least one other family, but we estimated him to be around 3 at that time.

Soaking up the sun. 
Six months later Chris's ex told him that she couldn't successfully find an apartment she could afford that would allow her to have a pet, so he was on his own with Toby. He didn't feel it was right to keep him considering all the traveling he was doing but didn't want to throw him in a shelter. At the time, I was not in a financial or practical position to take on a cat,  but he had basically become mine anyway, so I found a more pet-friendly situation and made it work.

I'll never forget when I came to pick him up for good. He was very nervous in his little carrier and he mewed and mewed and mewed. That is, until I threw on a Billy Joel album. I was just getting into Billy at the time and apparently Toby agreed with my taste in music because he quieted right down and was visibly more at ease. Later, when we decided to forego the carrier for a harness (significantly less stressful of the two options), I'd always make sure to have a Billy Joel or Sting album handy if we had to travel. It never failed to chill him out.

I would soon discover that Toby was a great lover of people, and he could win over the most devoted cat hater with his rough tongue kisses and dashing good looks. Put him in a bowtie and he was irresistibly dapper. He loved parties and being the center of attention and was a total ladies man. He was an incredibly empathetic creature, right by my side whenever I was lonely or afraid and purring and sporting half-closed eyes kitty smile of his when he was "picking up the good vibes" as my Dad would say. He was also amazingly tolerant of new situations. We moved eight times together over the course of 10 years. It never really bothered him - as long as he had me and I had him, anything was possible. We lived together for four years, just the two of us, in a 425-square-foot studio apartment in East Haven, and he was a huge amount of company, especially during major life transitions (i.e., breaking up with ex of seven years, losing my job).

The last big move was from Rhode Island to Tennessee in the summer of 2014, and even then, he just rolled with it. He LOVED our house in Tennessee, and I'm so happy his last few years on this plain of existence were spent there instead of a cramped apartment, with a big front porch to roll around on during supervised outings (he was mainly an indoor cat). I made him a promise, that no matter how bad the situation was, I would never, ever leave him. And I never did. Not even at the very end, when he mustered up one final headbutt as I stroked his forehead and I felt his soul slip through my fingers into the great beyond.

Nothing can prepare you for the huge cement truck of grief that comes along and dumps it all on your doorstep when you come home and that friend is no longer there to greet you (which this article my friend Marian sent me that you can read here describes with laser-point accuracy). What is even more extraordinary is the lack of understanding many give to the loss of a non-human companion. Like somehow it is less of a loss. In many ways, I would argue it is more in the case of dear Toby. What other being has been the first to greet me the morning after an endless night of hopelessness to bat me on the head lightly and say in his own way, "Hey, life sucks, but that food bowl ain't gonna fill itself, sugar."

Toby gave me a purpose, and was a huge inspiration for this blog. On my best days he gave me someone to hug and kiss and on my worst days, slept next to my head, licking me gently, giving me the will to go on. Many people have been asking if I am planning to get a new cat, and what I will do with the blog now that Sir Toby has passed on. There will be a new Critic Kitteh, eventually, but not for a little while as we process the grief that Toby's passing has left us with. In the meantime, I've decided to leave the blog and the rating system as-is for a little while in tribute to him. I thank all my family, friends, fans, and followers for sharing in my sadness and offering me hope and encouragement during his sad time. Now and always, you help me to "keep on keepin' on," as the great Bob Dylan once said. I hope you enjoy this memorial video that showcases the best moments over the last 11 years of my funny friend and me.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Guest Review! The Call of the Wild: The Revenant shows the human heart in all its aching rawness

  Alejandro G. Iñárritu directs a tense moment with Tom Hardy & Leo
Every once in awhile, I like to encourage other voices to contribute to this blog because it is always fascinating to get a fresh perspective on what other cinephiles take away from the magic that is a well-crafted motion picture, especially one so majestic as The Revenant. My friend Debbie Blinder, owner of Full Circle Candles and self-professed "movie freak" spoke so passionately to me about seeing this film (currently nominated for 12 Oscars, including Best Picture), that I encouraged her to write about it. She even agreed to have her Russian Blue, Jackaroo, give Toby a break and rate the picture at the bottom. Without further ado, here is her review!

What does "revenant" even mean? many people have asked. It matches the story perfectly.

rev·e·nant: a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.

Walking into the theatre after being warned that I might not be able to take the gruesome parts of the
movie, I found myself hesitant. However, being a longtime fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and knowing what he went through in this role, I still decided to brave the film as the intrigue and support outweighed the concern.

This movie was no doubt raw, but no part of it ran me off. It is a simple story of family love, survival and ultimate revenge mixed into the incredibly rough wilderness. What captured me right from the beginning was the way it was artistically filmed. Camera angles, natural lighting mixed with incredible acting, were in my opinion, the heroes from the start. It is a work of art.

Debbie with her daughter Autumn 
The scenery is impeccable. Beautiful and harsh all at the same time. I noticed scenes in which there were no footprints, not a hint of any human presence in these deep, snowy areas. Just the actors taking the first steps in uncharted territory. I knew going into the film that the choice was made to film not using artificial lighting. Genius! Evening scenes, lit from fire, stars, or the Aurora Borealis, illuminated the actors and landscapes beautifully. From morning till dusk the suns angles permeated the forest trees taking the audience on an eye-catching adventure. The senses were indeed awakened.

With all this said, the parts I was warned about were indeed intense. There is no going around that, but it is so well directed, filmed and acted that through the story I found myself intrigued by what would happen next and an understanding that the basic techniques for survival is a necessity. There are some slower moments, but they allow you, the viewer, to soak in the beauty before your eyes. Also, the Native American energy intertwined in this story made the intensity all the more sacred. I have great admiration for what the actors had to endure. (The Insatiable Critic's note: The Revenant was filmed in Canada, Argentina, Mexico, and Arizona. According to Entertainment Weekly, some of the crew complained about having to travel 12 hours to film 90 minutes of the movie, as well as being limited to the time constraints of natural lighting). Braving the environment seemed to be impossible and yet it was realistic. The Revenant is very much worth seeing and again, especially (if you still can) on the big screen to get the full experience of the rustic environment.

Jackaroo's Oscar predictions: Cinematography should be one for sure in addition to Best Actor for Leonardo's amazing performance.