Thursday, October 28, 2010

Avatar: The Last Airbender (all 3 TV seasons)

Just finished the last episode of the last season of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Wow. Incredible. Sometimes you just have to love animation for its shear ability to do what no other visual medium can do. And when you have wonderful characters and an epic plot on top of a stunning visual feast, nothing compares.

That's why the real-life movie disappointed Avatar fans (and let's just be clear: this series has nothing to do with huge blue alien men). There is too much life in the series to crop it down and fit it into a little box of a movie. You just can't capture all the emotion, the humor, the beauty, the epic grandeur combined with moments of raw heartache or fun impishness in a two-hour film. Sure, you can duplicate special effects and find look-alike actors who can lay down some wicked martial arts moves, but the TV show is about so much more. I can't completely disrespect what Hollywood tried to do with its movie adaptation: The Last Airbender. As a stand-alone movie for the uninformed, non-Avatar-watcher, it was stunning in its own way.

But let me put it this way. I just sat through two hours of the animated finale, as long as a full-length feature film, and enjoyed it more than I could enjoy any movie out there. That's because there's so much depth and history to the characters, and a movie just can't set that up and get it right. Also, wow, the music of the ending was just perfect.

So, I haven't given any actual details about the show because I wouldn't want to spoil a minute for anyone. You can stream the show on Netflix, but if you want it for your own collection, it would be money well spent.

Five stars for absolutely everything.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Storm Glass

Storm Glass and the Glass series follow Maria V. Snyder's Poison Study trilogy in the same fantasy world and setting, taking place about four years later. It's not strictly necessary to read the Study series first unless you are like me and can't stand to have the ending spoiled. Then you should start with Poison Study and work your way through to this book because certain major outcomes from the Study series are revealed in Storm Glass, and characters reappear or are alluded to. Otherwise, if you do read Storm Glass first and enjoy it, you must read Poison Study. You'll love it, spoilers or no.

I read Storm Glass and am already in possession of its own sequels, Sea Glass and Spy Glass, because I loved the Study series. In Storm Glass, Opal Cowan, a minor character with an important role in the Study series, is a glass magician. But she thinks of herself as a One-Trick-Wonder. She hasn't been able to access an ounce of magic outside of the magical life she breathes into the glass animals she makes. When she is selected to accompany a Master Magician on a mission to investigate the deaths of Stormdancer magicians from shattering orbs of glass, she doesn't feel worthy. But her involvement puts her life in danger when the Stormdancers reveal their secret glass ingredients. Opal has experienced kidnapping and torture before, and the fear of it happening all over again is crippling. In Storm Glass, Opal deals with feelings of inadequacy, fear of the past, and romantic inclinations toward two very different men, one a moody Stormdancer and one a rejected glass maker, like herself.

Although the character of Opal didn't capture me quite like Yelena in Poison Study, she grew more interesting to me, partly as her powers and the dangers surrounding her increased. I love a good danger and romance-packed adventure! I love the world Snyder creates. It's very magical and full of variety. The glass making is intriguing, and Snyder's knowledge on the subject is obvious without being boring. And if the beginning of the book didn't hook me, the end made up for it. I couldn't go to bed until I'd finished reading. If you like magical fantasy and powerful female leads, you will like what Maria V. Snyder has to offer.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Star Crossed

I love it when I find a new book (particularly advance reader's copies) from an author I've read and enjoyed. That's what happened when I found Elizabeth C. Bunces's new young adult novel Star Crossed. I'd read A Curse Dark as Gold, an adaptation of the fairytale Rumplestiltskin, which was rich in its re-imagination and full of fascinating characters and vivid description.

Star Crossed is not a fairytale but a new fantasy world of the author's own, and I was slightly disappointed at first because Bunce had done so well reinventing a fairytale the first time and I was looking forward to more of the same. They are definitely not the same, but that's not to say her newest novel is an unworthy addition to her name.

I admit, I had a hard time getting sucked into the story. It unfolded a world of religion versus magic, of seven moons and the seven gods and goddesses built upon them. The author had to introduce me to her main character, a thief for hire named Digger (but she's a girl), as well as create a sense of the world she lived in, and I was getting bogged down in history and weird fantasy names. I've found that most young adult fantasy isn't hardcore fantasy with all the detailed world-building, and even this story probably wouldn't be classified as hardcore fantasy, but it was somewhere in between and almost losing first. But the characters were enjoyable, and once Digger changed her role and name and became a lady in waiting named Celyn, uncovering forbidden magical mysteries for a blackmailing aristocrat, then I was hooked.

Surprisingly, this is not a romance. The romantic interest supposedly dies at the beginning of the story. I kept expecting something else to develop (actually, I'm a sucker for that stuff, and I was hoping), but nothing did and, honestly, it didn't matter. Now, if the author ends her series without even one hint of romance, I might be kind of sad. Yes, it's a series. Star Crossed is the first book, newly released, so fans will have to wait awhile to read Liar's Moon.

Three and a half stars out of five for a story of adventure and intrigue that ended up being interesting after all. I, for one, am looking forward to the sequel.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Red in theaters now

I managed to see a new movie for once! I was splurging for my birthday.

Red is hilarious. Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Richard Dreyfuss, and Mary-Louise Parker star in this action comedy based on a DC comics graphic novel about four Retired and Extremely Dangerous (RED) CIA agents who must pull out their old skills to avoid assassination and find out who's on their tails after all these years. Bruce Willis is Frank, a retired operative who's in love with a woman he's only ever talked to on the phone (Mary-Louise Parker), when he fakes losing his retirement checks in the mail. After an assassination attempt on Frank, they are both in danger and head out across the country to gather the old team and make one last stand together.

It sounds funny, and it is. But it's not PG13 for nothing. Violence (but not gore), killing, and a few instances of foul language come in the package. It's a movie that's so far over the top of reality that you laugh at the violence when if it were at all plausible, you would not. Truthfully, I almost felt bed laughing at moments, and you'll want to be cautious when taking younger kids to see this glorification of murder and mayhem. But mature audiences will appreciate the physical and verbal comedy and enjoy watching a stately, queen-roleplaying actress like Helen Mirren get down and dirty with a big gun.

The guys all love this one!

Three stars for a great, laugh-out-loud popcorn movie.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Three Quarters Dead

This is a ghost story, plain and simple. I've never read Richard Peck, so I can't compare this to his other numerous books. His style in Three Quarters Dead is kind of stark and bare-bones. The plot is fairly straight-forward and narrowly focused, though you don't completely understand what's going on until the very end. Kerry, a sophomore in high school, is his main character, and he gets in her head. It's a short book. I read a little one evening and finished it quickly the next morning. The book definitely pulls you in and holds you there. But I can't say I loved it.

Kerry is a sophomore, new to high school, no friends. At lunch, she sits alone at the end of a table, near, but not with, three beautiful, magnetic upperclassmen girls. Then one day they invite her into their group. She wants to be a part of them so badly that she'll do anything. She lives for lunch, where time seems to stretch as she listens to the girls plot and gossip, especially Tanya, who rules the roost. For Halloween, she helps the girls make a statement to the rest of the high school about who's in and who's not. And then Kerry's friends die, and that's where the ghost story begins.

This was a unique story, but it's still following the current trend, obsession really, of supernatural teen lit. It's interesting that a book can hold you so well but that at the end you can look back and say the book was basically about nothing. There is a moral to the story: do you just follow the crowd or live your own life? And if you want to read 190 pages about being popular, taking revenge, and prepping for prom, you'll really like this book. Such a vapid plot has never been so interesting, honestly. But having read it, do I feel like my time was well-spent? I was entertained, but was I emotionally satisfied? Not particularly. At least it was short, huh?

Three stars for entertainment value. Two stars for being worth the read.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010)

Perfect! Just like the old movie...and completely different. Loved it! Jaden Smith is a miniature Will Smith. He reminds me so much of his dad, and he has the talent to back it up! Way cooler martial arts than the first movie, too. If you haven't seen it yet (yes, I know I'm probably the last one), rent it now. You'll probably like it enough to buy it for your collection.


Interesting title, huh? I doubt I would have ever looked at this book except for the fact that it was recommended by Ted Dekker, who is coauthoring with Tosca Lee a book series to be released next year.

Demon is a Christian novel, the fictional memoir of a demon named Lucian, who tells his story to editor and divorcee Clay. Clay's name is symbolic, as we discover when Lucian retells the familiar story of the Fall of angels and humanity and the Redemption of the "clay people." But don't dismiss the story for its supposed familiarity because Tosca Lee writes from the viewpoint of a demon, reshaping and transforming all you ever thought you knew about God's incredible love for humankind. Yes, despite the words being from a demon, this is ultimately a love story, a retelling of the greatest love story of all time, a true love story. I'm a Christian, and I make no apologies. Although Demon is fictional, I believe in the story Lucian tells.

Essentially, it's this. Angels lived in perfect harmony with God, their creator. Then some rebelled, led by Lucifer. Lucian was one of those who followed Lucifer. One mistake, one sideways glance, so to speak, and they were doomed to the ticking of time, to an eventual end in Hell. Then God created creatures of clay, mud. He breathed his very own life into them, and he called them his children. From a demon's viewpoint, this was amazing and so, so unfair. They'd never been or pretended to be anything close to God's children. And then the clay people turned against God...again and again and again through the ages. Mistake after mistake, not once but innumerable times. And God forgave them, ultimately becoming a perfect sacrifice so that they would be forgiven for eternity. Where do the demons come in? They were jealous. For one mistake, they were doomed. And they were flabbergasted at how humanity took their forgiveness for granted, even within the church. It made them angry, and so all they could do was try to doom as many humans with them as possible.

I, at least, had never considered why demons are the way they are. They rebelled. End of story. But it's not, really. As Lucian points out, their story is really our story. They hate us because of our privileged position, and we take it all for granted too much of the time. This story will make you think, and for that, it's worth the read.

But if you are looking for a novel, this isn't really it. C. S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. Fictional, but not a novel. Demon is slightly more novel-like in that it also tells the story of Clay, who's writing down the demon's memoir, but mostly, you'll feel like you're reading an expanded account, the dark side's account, if you will, of Biblical history. Great for provoking thought, but misleading if you think you're getting a spellbinding, entertaining story. Although it was interesting enough, it didn't hold me like a novel usually does. I don't like to know the ending of books, and I kind of knew where this one was going.

I had one argument with the author's portrayal of demons. Lucian seemed to be able to read Clay's mind, and I'm not sure I believe demons can do that. God can, of course. He's omniscient (all-knowing). It sometimes seemed that Lucian was too, but that was explained by the fact that the demons know each other's minds and Lucian wouldn't have had to be at Clay's side all his life to know the most intimate details as relayed to him by the Legion. Also, his ability to predict occurrences in Clay's life is explained by the fact that Lucian has observed the entirety of humanity's existence, leaving him with a pretty good hold on predicting what a human will do next. I buy that. Perhaps Lucian only appeared to be reading Clay's mind, by the same trick, but the author isn't clear on that point.

Another thing my husband pointed out is that the angels weren't tempted to rebel, while humans were. That, at least, is one distinction that Lucian didn't acknowledge as he complained about God's injustice in forgiving the humans again and again. However, the author notes her research at the end of her book, and it is undeniably a well-thought-out piece of fiction.

Two stars for story. Four stars for provoking thought.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hachi: A Dog's Tale on DVD

I watched the most depressing movie today. It made me cry, and normally I like to cry at movies. But this cry wasn't cathartic. It was more despairing. And it wasn't just a few tears rolling down the cheeks. It was sob-out-loud sad. Why, oh, why would you make a movie like that?

Now, Hachi: A Dog's Tale really is an amazing story, don't get me wrong. This dog falls so in love with his owner that when the owner dies, the dog sits and waits for the five o'clock train every day for the next ten years. Talk about loyalty. But that's the kind of story I'd much rather hear about or maybe even read about than watch in detail. I don't really want to see a dog grow old, wasting its life, never loving another owner, just waiting for ten long years. Sadly, this story is based on a true story that happened in Japan, and there's even a stone dog memorial to mark the spot where the poor dog waited. Amazing story, yes. Amazing movie? No.

You know what you're getting into when you start this movie, so there're really no spoilers to be had. So, let me tell you exactly why I can't recommend this movie. When the dog's owner dies, the wife moves out of her home, and the dog goes to live with the daughter and her family. But as soon as the dog can, it escapes and follows the railroad all the way back to its previous home and then on to the train station. Although the daughter finds the dog, she realizes Hachi isn't happy with his new family and releases him to be on his own. Hold it right there! Really? I suppose this dog was as close to human as an animal gets, but no one would "release" a beloved pet to the elements without shelter or care to supposedly fulfill the animal's desires. You don't reason with pets just like you don't reason with two-year-olds. The adult knows better. The human knows better.

So, the dog goes to live under a train car, through snow and rain, for the rest of his life. And does anyone notice? Of course they do! People feed the dog and talk to it. The daughter even mails money to the train station worker to care for the dog. How thoughtful of her. But no one seems to be thinking, "Hey, this dog probably needs a new home, maybe closer to his beloved train station, but still." I get that the dog might not have accepted anyone else's home, like he didn't accept the daughter's. But realistically, the humane shelter would be all over that.

So, it happened in Japan, and it's a true story. Cool. (By the way, the movie is all American.) But I didn't need to see it. I thought there might be redeeming value when I chose to watch it. And, yeah, the story is cushioned in a little boy's school presentation about his hero, his grandfather's dog Hachi.

But all I could think was poor, poor dog, waiting for ten years, living under a train car. Clearly, the dog was miserable, and awful as it sounds, it might have been more merciful to put him out of his misery. Sorry, PETA.

Other than that, the acting is great. The dog is beautiful. The movie has potential, but the truth of the matter is, it's just too sad.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Nancy Werlin's novel, Impossible, was so beautiful that when I had the opportunity to get an advance reader's copy of Extraordinary, I was thrilled. Perhaps what enthralls me most about her young adult novels is that they don't follow the pattern of other books of that type. One book had faeries, and one had an evil elf, so they were similar to each other as far as both being about magic in a modern, everyday world. Lots of books nowadays are about fantastical creatures: fairies, elves, vampires, werewolves, fallen angels. But Werlin's take on the trend feels unique. Her plots are about a young woman who is in some way cursed by the fantastical creatures and must find the inner strength to be herself and not let a curse determine her fate.

In Extraordinary, Phoebe is one of the wealthy Jewish Rothschilds, descended from many extraordinary ancestors. But Phoebe is also just another teenage girl, trying to make the right friends, wanting to be loved for herself and not for her family name. When Mallory comes along, Phoebe believes she's found the perfect friend, but Mallory's keeping a deadly secret. Phoebe is completely unaware of the faerie world her ancestor Mayer Rothschild stumbled upon and the dangerous deal he bargained. Now the faeries are running out of time, and they will do anything to shape Phoebe into the ordinary girl they need.

I appreciate the refreshing realism of Werlin's stories, despite, or maybe because of, the fantastical elements in them. In her worlds, the fantastical is just out of place as it would be in ours. The characters don't even believe it when they are faced with it. The author also really delves into what it means to grow up and change. Her characters start as girls and become women. It's not a cheap transition either. Sometimes they've almost sold their souls before the transformation. Phoebe gives up nearly everything, sacrificing innocence, for the love of a man. I appreciate that the author doesn't go all the way and have Phoebe lose her virginity, although the result is almost the same in this case. In Impossible, the heroine's loss of virginity is a crucial part of the plot. But the author isn't graphic, and the scenes are relevant to the story in ways other teenage novels do not usually depict.

I don't need a book to always have a moral, and I'd rather a book didn't if it's going to try to hammer me over the head with it. But Extraordinary weaves depth into the plot so effortlessly and meaningfully that it's both an uplifting and an intriguing, entertaining read.

Although I've talked about both Impossible and Extraordinary as almost one book here, I don't mean to say that if you've read one, you don't need to bother with the other; I'm saying only that if you like one, you will most likely enjoy the other. Both stories are unique and stand well apart from one another, and I recommend both.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Letters to Juliet on DVD

I want to love Letters to Juliet, and I did enjoy it. It's imperfectly done, but with likeable characters full of heart and soul. Perhaps the plot is unbelievable and too good to be true. I don't know if there really is a wall where people write letters to Juliet asking for advice. The movie, at least, makes it seem possible, and for that reason among others, the story works, contrived as the romances of it may be.

Sophie is played by the lovely, doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried of Mama Mia. She finds and responds to a 50-year-old letter from Claire, beautifully and heartfully played by Vanessa Redgrave. Claire's grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan; you might know him as the brother of Eragon), doesn't like Sophie leading his grandmother on a possible wild goose chase, and so the sparks begin to fly. My favorite parts are the scenes of antagonistic banter between Sophie and Charlie, and Claire pulled my heartstrings; I couldn't help but love her.

Despite the sometimes awkwardness of the plot, I could have loved the movie more fully had not it been yet another tale of a woman switching guys. At least it made sense for her to leave the one, although she should have done it far sooner. What didn't make any sense remotely was why she was with him to begin with. He wasn't necessarily a jerk...well, he was more wrapped up in food and starting a restaurant than he was in anything that interested his girlfriend at all, but she wasn't all that interested in his restaurant, so that goes both ways. This movie is clean, but I hate the implication that always comes with these types of plots nowadays that the heroine is living and sleeping with the one guy she's going to dump in the end. (In this case, she's on a pre-wedding "honeymoon"!) I mean, I'd really prefer she didn't sleep with anyone until she was married, but that she does with the "wrong" guy, even if only implied, just adds insult to injury. It makes me value the main characters less.

But Character is ultimately what carries this movie, and a beautiful setting in Italy doesn't hurt. This is, in the end, a cute story with a semi-cheesy but utterly happy ending which makes the watching worthwhile.


What NOT EVER to Watch

Just so you all know, I won't always be reviewing books or movies I thoroughly enjoy. Sometimes they will be mediocre, and sometimes they will be terrible, movies more often than books because bad books take more effort to get through, and I usually won't review a book I don't finish. Movies are short enough that I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, sometimes to my great loss. I almost didn't want to include this review for shame, but I watched part of a movie so bad I feel compelled to warn you about it. And since it's also a book, I will recommend you avoid that too.

I decided to see what all the hype of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was about. But I didn't want to devote a lot of time to it since I have a stack of books I'm eager to read, so I went for the R-rated movie. Bad, bad decision, but to be fair to myself, I had no idea what I was getting into. (I don't mind R ratings for violence or even language.) I should have stopped at the first perverted scene. My mistake was to keep watching. I REALLY should have stopped at the second one. I guess it's a little like a train wreck; you can't look away. Only...comparing it to a train wreck is a little like comparing finding an old leftover meal in the back of your fridge to eating it.

I was eating that gaseous, smelly, blue and white fuzz-encrusted What-Was-That? from the deep, murky recesses of the fridge when I watched the third scene. Seriously, what was I thinking after two of them? Sometimes movies will have that One Scene and then have redeeming value. No matter whatever supposed redeeming value this movie might have, it is not worth that. I cannot even take credit for turning it off alone. Lucky for me, my baby started crying in the other room, and I finally shut it down less than halfway through...for good. Let me tell you, I felt like I shouldn't even be holding my son after I should shower.

See, half of the movie revolves around this girl who's in over her head and is stupid, besides. She walks herself into these bad situations with her sicko probation officer. The other half of the movie is about this journalist who's investigating a 40-year-old murder case. That part intrigued me and may be the reason this series of books is so popular now. I hope it's the reason because any other doesn't say much for the standards of American readers. But I'm not judging the book. I haven't read it, and for all I know, this Swedish film deviated from the book in ways an American film might not have. (Oh, yeah, I was watching with subtitles. How extra sad is that?) Regardless, I'm recommending you stay far away from the trend and hype on this one, movie or book. But if you're too curious for your own good, go with the book. Reading it won't sear the images to the back of your eyelids like watching, and you'll be grateful for that, trust me.