Friday, December 30, 2011

Under the Never Sky

The title is great: Under the Never Sky. The book cover is decent, if a little run-of-the-mill for young adult fiction these days. But Veronica Rossi's debut novel details a dystopian world that is beautiful, while frightening, and a story that is simply fun to read.

Aria has a voice to match her name, but nobody knows about it because she lives most of her life in a virtual world where anything is possible and true talent isn't required. In reality, she lives in a Pod, where life is boring but safe from the Death Shop, as the outside world is called. The virtual Realms are a means of coping with Pod life.

Peregrine lives on the Outside, the product of generations of evolution under a dangerous sky. He has heightened sight and smell, sharp canine teeth, and a family that's practically royalty in his world. His brother is Blood Lord of their tribe, and if Peregrine ever challenged him, he could be Blood Lord instead.

When Peregrine's nephew is kidnapped by the Pod dwellers and Aria is tossed into the Death Shop, these two strangers bred to hate each other must help each other restore their honor and get back the things they've lost. If it isn't too late already....

I might as well tell you, this is a pretty standard romance from a purely plot-oriented point of view. Two people who can't stand each other eventually fall in love after forced time together. But what makes it worth reading are the details. The story implies that it takes place at a time in our future, on our own world, but because of the evolutionary changes, there are elements of fantasy. The world is detailed beautifully, and one can see how the author was an artist before she became a writer, as she admits. The characters are fascinating with intriguing motivation behind their actions, and characters usually are the main reason I like or dislike a book. Granted, these characters are more attractive than most people are in real life, which panders to young adult vanity. A minor flaw to some eyes, perhaps.

There are other flaws which don't make the book less interesting but which do make it less well-written, I suppose. There is more than one scene where someone comes to the rescue just in time and kills all the bad guys. It happens enough to make it seem like the author is pulling punches, adding as much danger as she can and then bringing in someone with special powers to take care of it all...bordering on Deus ex machina happy endings. It cheats the reader a little.

Morally, the book is not as sound as I would like it to be. Though nothing is graphically depicted, the main male character, 18 years old, is portrayed as something of a ladies' man. He has slept with at least two other girls that we know about with no intention of anything more serious because he believes he has to marry a girl with the same heightened senses as his in order to keep the blood lines strong. This casual attitude toward sex, particularly in a young adult novel, always bothers me. It's not right in the real world, but even though it sometimes makes a weird kind of sense in a dystopian novel (and I'm not saying it does in this one), that doesn't make it right in fiction either. People, girls particularly, live vicariously through what they read, and that kind of stuff gives them a desire for something that's not good.

One other thing I noticed was the amount of violence and killing in the book. This makes more sense in this kind of story, but our 18-year-old hero was killing people left and right, including (SPOILER ALERT) an important relative. It didn't sit right with me, particularly at the end of the book. That one bothered me the most. Trying to be mildly vague here. Normally, I wouldn't mind too much, particularly in fantasy where the villains are truly evil. In this case, the killing was done partially to survive, but what bothered me was the killing done mostly for cultural reasons. It just wasn't right.

Well, this is one of those books where the romance comes to a mostly satisfactory end but the plot does not, indicating a series is to follow. I am interested in reading the rest of the series, despite the book's flaws, because it really is a fun story with plenty of danger, adventure, and romance.

Four stars for readability, brought down to three stars for questionable morality. Comes out in February 2012.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Super 8 on DVD now!

If you are looking for a fun Christmas gift for someone this year, Super 8 is one of those movies to own. My husband thinks it might be the best movie of 2011, but he grew up loving E.T., The Goonies, and such. Super 8 fits in right along with the best of movies starring children. I find it somewhat funny and ironic that though Super 8 was made this year (unlike those other child-star greats from the 1980's) it takes place in 1979. And though J.J. Abrams is the director, Steven Spielberg had his hand in the making of this movie, too.

Super 8 is the story of a group of kids making their own movie when they witness a train crash with inexplicable the teacher who was there to make sure the train crashed or the soldiers who followed and tried to clean up the mess quietly without local police involvement or the disappearance of certain people and all dogs. When their film reveals the truth behind it all, the kids rally behind Joe Lamb to become the town's heroes in a truly Spielberg-like grand finale.

Here's a nod to the kids who pull off this brilliant acting job: Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb, Elle Fanning as Alice (Amazing!), Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, and Zach Mills. While Joel Courtney is brilliant throughout, it's especially interesting to watch Elle Fanning (Dakota Fanning's sister) turn on her acting for the kids' movies while she's still in character as Alice. She's acting on two levels then!

Super 8 is rated PG-13 appropriately. Be warned that the kids swear all the time. It's wrong, yeah, but it comes across as funny because you get the sense that the kids are trying to be cool and grown-up. There's also some intense sci-fi action and violence. The movie trailers were never too clear, but I think by now, even if you haven't seen the movie, you've heard and I'm not spoiling it to say that this movie is about extra-terrestrial life. But then again, it's not. That's the cool thing about Super 8. There's a story for the big screen because of what happens with the train, but the real story is all about the kids and what's going on in their lives. It's about kids needing their parents and parents being too caught up in their own grief to see it until it's almost too late. It's about kids being kids. It's hilarious and heart-wrenching, and it might just take you right back to your own childhood. If the swearing doesn't bother you and you don't mind suspense (oh, and a little fake zombie gore), you can't help but love Super 8.

Five stars!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Water for Elephants on DVD

If you haven't read the book Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen (which I have not), then all you might know about the movie adaptation is that it stars Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson (the heartthrob of the Twilight vampire movies). That's all I knew, at any rate. Also, the book had been recommended to me, but lacking time to read, I opted for the visual medium instead.

Visually, Water for Elephants is a delight. It's a period piece, so the costumes and sets and 1930's Depression atmosphere combine to transport you to not only a different era but a different world of sorts. The circus is its own world with its own rules and government. So discovers Jacob, who loses his Polish parents and future veterinary career in one day. With nowhere else to go, he hops a train, not realizing it's a traveling circus. There, he finds work, friends, and even love. But his salvation could easily be his undoing as Marlena, the woman he falls in love with, is the wife of August, the circus manager, a man used to getting his way by force and brutality. When an elephant becomes the circus's new star attraction, Jacob is thrust into the middle of a dangerous game as he attempts to train the elephant for Marlena and protect both Marlena and the elephant from August's temper.

The movie is brilliantly acted with Robert Pattinson as Jacob, Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, and Christoph Waltz as August. Witherspoon is always fabulous, and Pattinson proves he has more than vampires to offer. The minor characters are all loveable as well, providing a fully entertaining movie in both the major plot and subplots.

I can't compare the movie to the book, not having read it, but I occasionally like to see a movie adaptation without the benefit of already knowing the story to see how it holds up by itself. I think Water for Elephants as a movie does a pretty good job of standing on its own feet. I thought it moved a little fast, perhaps. I'm sure the events of the story take place over a longer period of time in the book, but you have to compress time or at least make it feel like a lot of time is passing quickly when you make a movie. It's not that the movie is rushed. I was just caught off guard by how quickly Jacob made it into the circus and then how quickly things started to come crashing down. But, otherwise, the portrayal of events moved at a good pace.

Now, to the moral aspects of the story, and there, I do not have such glowing opinions. In fact, I cannot decide if I actually like the movie, and there are two reasons why. One, from the very first, I wasn't sure I liked Jacob. The movie starts with him as an old man telling his story, and almost the first thing you find out about him is that he's all alone in a nursing home because his five kids won't take care of him. So, my immediate thought was, what kind of man raises five kids who can't take care of him when he's old? I didn't like what that implied. Second, the whole romance and plot of the movie revolves around a man having an affair with another man's wife. I can't condone that at all. It bothered me, even though August was a brute of a man who didn't deserve Marlena. Still, adultery never flies in my book.

The movie ended well and was not as sad as I kept expecting. Actually, it was a great happy ending, but for me, it was tainted by the moral dilemmas of the story.

The movie is rated PG-13 and contains a sex scene and some violence, part of which is done to animals. I was warned about the animal cruelty and so expected it to be worse than it was. But it's bad enough. I appreciated the movie's subtle message that cruelty toward animals is no worse than cruelty toward men. In our society, it often seems like animals get preferential treatment. Such would certainly not have been the case in 1930's America.

Overall, my opinion is that this is a great period piece, but though I usually love romance, this romance, however realistic is might have been, just didn't sit right with me. I think I would average out the rating to three stars.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Breaking Dawn, Part 1 in Theaters

I went out to a movie by myself a few nights ago. After a month of never being alone, it was nice, and I enjoyed myself. The movie was Breaking Dawn. Now, I may already have lost some of you a sentence ago, but hear me out.

I have been a fan of the books all along, and I've enjoyed the movies, however different from the books they have been. Twilight has been my favorite book of the series, with Breaking Dawn right behind it. Though others were put off by Bella's moodiness, I didn't mind it. In fact, I sort of empathized. Maybe I would have a different view now, re-reading the books, I don't know. But one thing has changed. I noticed Bella's sadness and depression in this movie like I hadn't in the ones before, perhaps because I've been surrounded by people pointing it out to me, and finally, I grew tired of it. I guess I must admit, I've been drinking the Kool-Aid, and my taste buds are looking for something new.

I still enjoyed myself, and I am still very much looking forward to Breaking Dawn, Part 2, which will correspond to my favorite part of the book anyway. I expect Bella, also, to be a changed person, but maybe that's just my hopes and not reality. The second half of the story is much more about vampires, and (SPOILERS for those of you who haven't read the books or seen this most recent movie), Bella makes a cool vampire. I think audiences will appreciate the high-stakes danger of the last part of the story, which while still about love, goes deeper than human infatuation with perfection.

I guess Bella's depression has never bothered me as much as certain aspects of her relationship with Edward. I never completely jumped ship to the Jacob fan club, believing that for Bella (as opposed to any other teenage girl), Edward was really the best choice. But I did have a problem with some of Edward's possessiveness and the way, in Bella's eyes, he could do no wrong. Undeniably, if this were a romance between two humans, we would call it a dangerous and potentially abusive relationship. And I acknowledge, Bella has never been a great role model for girls. No problem for me since I'm not looking to Bella for advice on life, but I suppose many teenage girls might be, and that is definitely a problem.

In Breaking Dawn, specifically, my attention was called to the fact that Bella is not excited to be getting married. That always bothered me. I don't have a problem with her marrying young, like some do, but she should be happy with her choice, not letting it be made for her. I did appreciate Bella's protectiveness of her unborn child. She begins to take responsibility and made her own decisions, and I don't think she should be put down for that.

I'm not thrilled about the sex scenes in the movie, PG-13 as they may be, but if they have to be there, I'm glad they take place after marriage. Small concessions. And, finally, a word about the gruesomeness of the last scenes of this first half of Breaking Dawn. The book was bad, and I was afraid of what the movie might recreate. Honestly, it wasn't as bad as the book, but for the visual media, it was bad enough. Bella grows skeletal, and the birth scene is gory. Not as much blood as you might expect, but the ideas portrayed on and off the screen tell a tale of absolute horror. Edward rips the baby out with his teeth, for instance (off the screen, but still...). I don't have a problem suspending disbelief that such a birth situation is even possible. A big deal was made about that in a magazine issue of Entertainment Weekly. So what? It's fiction. It's vampires. In that fantasy world, it makes enough sense to get away with it. But I mention the gruesomeness because it's on an R-rated level in a PG-13 movie (which probably shouldn't have been for the sex alone). I'm not sure younger teens should be going to see this, and I'm betting a lot younger than that are.

So, as a Twilight fan but not a fanatic, my overall impression of this movie was that it was slow, sometimes inappropriate, yet vaguely enjoyable on a first watch. I'd even give it three stars, but that rating is for Twilight fans. If you aren't one, don't go see this.

Friday, December 2, 2011


Well, it's been a month since my daughter was born and over a month since I last posted here. My site is in need of new pictures, I see too.

I've managed to watch a few movies, whose reviews will hopefully make their way onto my blog, but I managed to read only one book in all those weeks, so I thought that should take priority. If I leave it too much longer, I may forget what it was about, let alone my first impressions.

Legend, by Marie Lu, is not quite that forgettable, to be honest. It took me awhile to get started, but that was more about me having a baby and less about the book itself. Once I really started reading it, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This young adult novel tells the story of two teenagers, one born into privilege and one born to be a criminal in a dystopian society in an undeterminable point in America's future where the Republic rules half of what was once the United States and is at war with the Colonies of the other half.

The book alternates between the two narrative viewpoints of Day, the Republic's most wanted criminal, a boy of 15 years who failed his Trial at age 10, and June, the Republic's prodigy, the only person to ace her Trial, on the fast track through school and into the military. Day and June are on opposite sides of the spectrum, but when Day is accused of murdering June's brother Metias, June vows to find the boy that no one could ever find before, and if anyone could do it, she's the one. But along the way, June and Day discover that they are involved in conflicts far bigger than feuds and revenge. They are pawns in a war.

It takes a little time to get into the switching viewpoints. In fantasy, it's common to have many different viewpoints, but in young adult fiction, the story is usually very narrowly focused on one person, though that's not always the case. But the characters are intriguing enough that though there are two different stories slowly converging, the reader doesn't get lost switching from one story to another. Both are entertaining.

As far as dystopian novels go, the dystopian aspect of this one isn't a major focal point of the book until perhaps the end. In that, it's somewhat unusual, at least in comparison to what I've read. The book really focuses more on a story than on the world it's built in. I appreciated that, even though I also enjoy reading about dystopian worlds. The dystopian aspect of the book is almost taken for granted by the characters. They aren't trying to escape it or compare it to tales of something better. They don't know any different world. The difference only slowly becomes apparent with the revelation of fascinating critical details.

It's not a book that will attract a huge fan base or that you might put at the top of your favorites list. Still, it's worth the read for its great entertainment value. And it's a clean read, appropriate for teens. There's some militaristic violence and bloodshed, particularly near the end, so I wouldn't recommend the book to anyone younger than middle school and, even then, with caution for sensitivity to violence.

Three and a half stars for a surprisingly interesting story with great characters and detail.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Priest's Graveyard

Ted Dekker strikes good again! Actually, I'm a little late on reviewing this book, which came out in the spring. I read and reviewed his fall release first since I got an advance reader's copy in the summer. I like to receive Dekker for my birthday (he does write at least one book a year these days), so I waited on the spring release.

Lately, Dekker has been writing murder thrillers, geared toward a mainstream audience, and The Priest's Graveyard falls into that category. But no matter how crazy his books get, I always find gems about God and what it means to be a true believer within the pages of his crime stories. Really, that's why I keep reading. I absolutely love the way Dekker sees the world and God. He's not preachy, but oh, is there always a message! And a very good story. The message wouldn't be much without that first and foremost.

Dekker's surprises don't jump out at me as much as they did in his earlier books. I guess I know too well what to expect now! I could see some of the ending of The Priest's Graveyard a mile away, but what mattered was getting there, and it was worth it. In comparison to his other recent murder thrillers like Boneman's Daughters and The Bride Collector, The Priest's Graveyard is perhaps less dark but more soul-gripping. A book that makes you identify with the killer is a fascinating read, especially when it deals with issues we all struggle with, in this case, justice for evil. In those other two books, the villain is truly the villain, evil and psychotic, but the priest in this book is a man whose heart might match many a Christian's. He just takes justice into his own hands rather than leaving it to God or even to the law.

The priest is Danny, a survivor of the religious war in Bosnia, an immigrant to the United States. He meets a formerly abused woman, Renee, with justice and revenge on her mind, and the two form a bond over their mutual interests. I'll leave the plot at that for the benefit of those less familiar with Ted Dekker's twists and turns.

My husband often asks me when I finish a Ted Dekker novel how it compares to his others, particularly my favorites. Unfortunately, when I was first getting to know Dekker and he was first coming into his own, he had some really crazy story plots that I read with the proverbial rose-tinted glasses, so I don't know if anything he could ever write now would compare with those first impressions. But some are definitely better than others, in my opinion. The Priest's Graveyard is one to read, and when I rate Dekker novels between three and five stars and give this one a four, that's no average rating to scoff at.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Real Steel in Theaters Now

I must preface this review with an observation. I wouldn't be surprised to look back at all the reviews of the past few months and find that many of them are emotion-based. I am pregnant, after all, and pregnancy, I hear, often leaves women with more of an emotion-based memory than a fact-based one. And here in the home stretch with about two weeks until delivery, I have got to be at my emotional peak.

So, it's no surprise that Real Steel affected me emotionally. But having seen it only today, I feel fairly certain that I can give you a well-rounded review with all the facts intact.

Real Steel stars Hugh Jackman (love that actor!) and young, new talent Dakota Goyo as an absentee father and his recently half-orphaned son, respectively. Charlie is a washed-up past boxer who now boxes robots in a world only a few years removed into the future from ours. But Charlie doesn't believe much in himself, and he tends to find himself on the losing side of things. Max is his eleven-year-old son whose life Charlie has invested nothing in. When Charlie's old girlfriend, Max's mom, dies, law dictates that Charlie gets first say on whether he wants the kid or not. Charlie is more than ready to pass the buck on, but his need for a little extra cash gets him an unwanted son for the summer.

The two antagonize each other at first, but quickly, they discover their mutual love for the sport of robot boxing, and no matter how unwilling a father Charlie is, he can't resist the pull on his buried emotions.

This is an underdog story, a story of failing and getting up again, a tale of broken relationships staggering to be made whole, a combination of sports and science fiction genres put together in epic scope for an ending that will make you cry the good kind of tears. I absolutely loved it.

The movie is rated PG-13 for some intense robot action and mild cursing. There is a scene where the dad gets beat up in front of his kid, which as a mother, I found heartbreaking to watch. PETA might get upset over an odd match between a robot and a bull (yes, you read that right). The antagonism between the father and son might bother a few conscientious parents, but it turns out as it should be. I would simply discuss the parental issues with younger kids. I think the main issue would be the robot violence, so just be aware of what your kids can handle before taking them to see this.

An interesting, mostly unrelated side note: two of TV's Lost characters appear in this movie, Evangeline Lilly as Charlie's old friend and love interest (extremely downplayed) and Kevin Durand (Lost villain Keamy), playing a villain once more.

Other interesting facts: this movie is based on a short story from the 1950s, "Steel," by Richard Matheson (who also wrote a novel called I Am Legend), and one of the executive producers is Steven Spielberg (no surprise there), who seems to have had his hands in several of this year's blockbusters.

I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone, but let me just say, what sort of movie can make you cry happy tears in the middle of a boxing match between two robots (if you're not a man, that is)? A good one, that's what.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Wisdom's Kiss

Wisdom's Kiss is a very different sort of young adult novel, just out in September. It takes place in the world Catherine Gilbert Murdock created in Princess Ben, which I also read and enjoyed, some decades after the events of that book.

In Wisdom's Kiss, Princess Wisdom has selected a husband-to-be based purely on her wish to see the world. Trudy is an orphan maid at a small-town tavern, her only friend a boy named Tips who's gone off to be a soldier, so his letters say. Wilhemina is an ambitious duchess with plans to see her son wed a queen and, therefore, have a chance at eventually ascending to the throne of the whole empire. And Ben is back, the queen mother of Montagne, grandmother to a queen and a princess about to be married. Add to this colorful cast of characters a cat who seems almost human and a few royals who have vowed never to use magic again, and you have an intriguing, adventuresome tale.

But the book is unique for another reason. Most books you read are pure prose, separated into chapters, telling a story from a certain point of view or several, but all in one format. Wisdom's Kiss combines diaries, plays, encyclopedia entries, letters, and memoirs to piece together one whole humorous tale. If you are having trouble picturing what that would look like, I'll try to explain. Each chapter is a piece of the puzzle, but each chapter takes the form of one of the above. One chapter might be like a Shakespearean play. The next is a very serious encyclopedia entry of pure facts with an obvious disdain for anything fictional. The next is Princess Wisdom's own diary entry, full of the emotional angst of a young woman on the verge of marriage. And these entries keep coming up every few chapters so that when you look at the whole book, you have a full picture of what's going on. It could be confusing, but it works, for the most part.

I have to say "for the most part" because, personally, I don't love the style. I'm a traditionalist when it comes to stories. I like to be drawn in from the start so that I hardly even realize I'm reading a story and not part of it, but the very nature of a book like Wisdom's Kiss keeps the reader somewhat at a distance. You feel like an outsider piecing together history. I imagine it was a fun exercise for the author to write the story this way. But from experience, I know that what an author enjoys writing and what people enjoy reading can be two different things. Still, the more I got into the book, the less the various storytelling styles bothered me because the story is really a good one.

Three stars for Wisdom's Kiss, a very creative fairytale, to say the least.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25

You may begin to see fewer reviews from me as it gets closer to my second baby's due date. I have just a month left, so I've been "nesting" and cleaning and not doing a lot of reading. But when I finally got around to starting the next book on my list, it didn't take me long to finish it. Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25, by Richard Paul Evans, was recommended to me by my father-in-law and brother-in-law. They'd read it after hearing about it from conservative radio and talk show host Glenn Beck, whose publishing house, along with Simon Pulse, had printed it.

Michael Vey is young adult science fiction with a male teen protagonist who should draw in a male readership (although, I enjoyed this book, too). Michael Vey, himself, is a seemingly average kid whose only apparent differences are that he has Tourette's syndrome (which manifests itself in involuntary facial tics rather than swearing; I didn't know it could do that) and an unlucky penchant for drawing notice from bullies. He's picked on wherever he goes, and he's been around. He's been in this town long enough to have a close friend, a brilliant, though nerdy, kid named Ostin, so it's imperative that he keep his secret from getting out. And what is his secret? He could stop all the bullying in every school he's been to, if he wanted, if he dared...because Michel Vey is electric. He can electrocute someone with a touch, which is just what he does when he finally gets sick of taking the abuse. But this mistake draws the exact unwanted attention his mother has been trying to protect him from all these years. Someone has been looking for the electric kids, all seventeen of them, and when he finds them, he has the power to force them to obey his will. Michael's bullying problems have really only just begun.

This is a fun mutant/superhero story. The idea is creative and sounds well-researched, even if it might not be. Michael is the sweetest kid, but he has steel in him, too. The story is a fantastic example of real good versus evil, not this wishy-washy become-evil-to-fight-evil stuff. With great power may come great responsibility, but that doesn't mean you sacrifice your morals along the way. Michael Vey doesn't. And the book has great themes of forgiveness in it.

All around, it's an awesome story for teens, and it has little for me to complain about. The only thing I have is something a writer would notice. The book is dialog heavy and probably more detailed, especially in the dialog, than it needs to be. Seemingly nonessential dialog is often included, probably to make it seem more realistic. But aside from being noticeable, it doesn't slow down the story much. At the end, there was a lot of detailed action going on, which could have been a problem if I had tried to understand it all. Instead, I just kept reading, and I got the whole gist of it. It's all very logical, but sometimes the reader doesn't need to see exactly how you get from point A to point B. But this is also a writing style, and just because it's not my favorite doesn't mean the story isn't good. And it is good.

So, get on down to your local bookstore for Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25. This book would make a great gift for any teenage boy. Or, if you don't know any teenage boys, your dad might like it, too.

Additional Note: I apologize to my readers that I haven't been able to post book pictures or links to Amazon recently. My easy little widget for adding those things quit working, so I may have to start doing it the old-fashioned way.

ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention the first time that this is the first book in a series, so while it has a satisfactory ending for the beginning of the story, it doesn't end the story.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love. in Theaters

In this movie-drought time of the year, if you've gone to the theater, chances are you've seen this one already. But it's not out of theaters yet, so if you haven't seen it, hopefully this will help you decide whether to take the plunge or wait for the good ones coming out soon.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. stars Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, and some pretty good child/teen actors. It's a bit of a mix of genres, but mainly Romantic Comedy rated mostly appropriately at PG-13. Having said that, though, I do have to mention that there are some wildly inappropriate parts. Ryan Gosling plays a hunky ladies' man (Jacob) who stalks the bar and takes home women just for sex. Although no sex is seen, the innuendo is all there. Also, the F-word is used.

But the story has a message, which in many ways balances out the negative aspects. Steve Carell plays Cal Weaver, a husband and father who's grown so used to life that he takes his wife for granted and doesn't love her with any sort of fire anymore. His wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), in turn, cheats on him and asks for a divorce, which he gives her like an old dog rolling over to die, passionless. But he misses her so badly he can't stop talking about her at the bar, which gets the attention of ladies' man Jacob. Here, the story gets really muddy morally. Cal, who's never had sex with any woman but his wife (which I wholeheartedly applaud), proceeds to follow Jacob's advice to his detriment. This whole part of the movie is mixed with a lot of humor, making it less unpleasant to watch, but it's still wrong. In time, however, Cal looks better, has learned how to get the spark back, and realizes he has only one soul mate.

But there's a whole lot more to the end that I don't want to spoil. Suffice it to say, it's laugh-out-loud funny with great, quotable lines. And the outcome is happily satisfactory. There's more than one romance (some of it inappropriate), but it all connects in the end. You are probably wondering what role Emma Stone gets to play, but I'll leave that as a surprise. It's hard to explain without explaining too much.

The messages I don't like about the movie are these: you need to experience more than one woman to be good at sex, sex is part of a premarital relationship but means more if you just don't do it the first night, masturbation is okay if the person you are thinking about gives you permission. Those are the big ones, and let me just emphasize again: I DON'T agree with the above.

Now, the messages I really appreciate about the movie: you can love just one person all your life; you can get back together after divorce; you can still love your spouse even when you think you hate him or her; marriage takes effort, but the effort is worth it.

So, you weigh the negative against the positive to decide whether or not this is a movie worth watching. I can't exactly recommend it, but at the same time, I can say that it didn't leave me feeling dirty, for all that it could have. Knowing what it contained, I might not have chosen to watch it, but having watched it, I can't say I regret it.

Three stars.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Source Code on DVD (2011)

This was one of those movies that I stumbled upon while browsing Netflix, and it just sounded interesting to me. Source Code is science fiction, telling the story of an army pilot, Colter Stevens, who wakes in a spacey-looking capsule to find an unfamiliar face on a screen giving him orders to re-enter the dream he's just had. In fact, his mission is to re-enter the 8-minute dream as many times as it takes to find the bomber that exploded a train in Chicago earlier that day and is planning another attack. The dream takes Stevens into the mind of one of the men on that train just before the explosion.

But here are the catches. Stevens doesn't remember how he got into the capsule or where he is, and his mission controllers aren't giving him many hints. And then there's the pretty woman he keeps waking up to on the train. Each 8 minutes that he has, he gets to know her better, and he wants to save her life. But the source code, where his mind goes to solve the mystery, isn't like that, he's told. The events have already happened; he can't save her life. As Stevens begins to realize the truth, he finds purpose and focus and rises to the challenge of what he must do.

This movie is a little like a serious version of Groundhog Day, where one man keeps living the same scenario over and over. But it's fascinating, not boring. Each time is a little different, especially as he makes different choices. And the characters are fantastic. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Stevens. Vera Farmiga plays Goodwin, the lady behind the screen who sends him on his missions and begins to get attached, despite all efforts to maintain distance and secrecy. Michelle Monaghan is Christina, the girl on the train. And the set is minimal: mostly the train and a couple rooms in a top-secret military operations base. It all adds up to great sci-fi...until the end. The end is better than I thought it would be, but at the same time, it's a little "timey-wimey" as the Doctor would say. And while Dr. Who can get away with that, a serious hour-and-a-half movie cannot as easily. My husband and I have differing viewpoints about what really happens in the end. Regardless, it's an interesting, fun sci-fi thriller with a PG-13 rating for intense scenes, violence, and just a little language. I found the rating appropriate. Three and a half stars.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

From My Own Pen: The Day After

Here's another self-published book I contributed to this year. It just became available to the public this month.

The Day After is a short story collection with a broad focus spanning several genres: spy comedy, science fiction, zombie horror, and gothic horror. Essentially, each story has something to do with "the day after." In this particular collection, two of the stories are fairly dark in theme, one is dark but told more comedically, and one is pure lighthearted fun. The latter is mine, a spy comedy that stretched my storytelling skills beyond my comfort zone in some ways but was totally me in other ways, and when I say "totally me," I mean that if you took out the spy and hotel job parts, you'd basically have my life.

This book is a promotional tool for me, my husband Nick, and our friends: Nathan Marchand and Keith Osmun. It's a sampler of our work, and it's meant to draw an audience to our various websites and projects. The print version is available for $6.99 at, and the ebook is just $1.99 on

And now, the back cover copy, to whet your appetite:

Natalya is an American mom and wife with a Russian name working as a spy for the Brazilian government in a Midwest American town. Balancing dual identities is dangerous–and sometimes comical–especially when her husband hasn’t a clue.
Morana is on a suicide mission to transmit a bestial virus to her enemies when she encounters a smalltown family with the potential to break through her boundaries of hatred. But in the end, will it make a difference, or is it too late for redemption?
Peter, a photojournalist, returns home late to meet his newborn son…but just in time to rescue his family from a national zombie infestation. As they travel toward safer ground, trying to maintain a modicum of normalcy, Peter has the urge to document the disaster, but at what price?
Jacob is trapped in an endless maze of a house that appears to have no exits to the outside world except for a noose in his bedroom. He meets a mysterious stranger in the darkness and discovers pieces of letters he doesn’t remember writing. Who knows how long he’s been there? The noose is tightening.
Four stories, four writers, four genres…one connecting thread. What happens when the main focus of your life is stripped away and all that’s left is the day after?

From My Own Pen: Destroyer

Although this blog is mainly a review site for books and movies that are new to me, it's only fair to myself that I include published pieces I have written or, in the case of Destroyer, co-written. My friend Nathan Marchand self-published a novella he co-wrote with Timothy Deal and me. It's a monster story, and here's the gist of it straight off the back cover:

The American Alliance Army recruits scientists Dr. Steiner and his daughter Eva to build a superweapon to end the long war with the Russo-Chinese Coalition. The towering cyborg they create possesses the image of a dragon, the brain tissue of a once-living T-Rex, and the weaponry of an entire army.

Dubbed “Rex-1,” the cyborg’s mission is to destroy military targets in Moscow. Closely followed by its creators and military commanders and controlled by telepathic technology, Rex-1 wreaks havoc on the Russians, smiting them like a demonic god.

Then the unthinkable happens. Rex-1 goes berserk, defying all orders, and attacks the ship transporting the Americans.

Crashing behind enemy lines in the heart of Moscow, Dr. Steiner and his group are caught in the middle of Rex-1′s rampage. Now with distrust and madness tearing his fellow survivors apart, Dr. Steiner has only one goal:

Destroy Rex-1!

There it is. I don't typically read monster stories, so it was a stretch of my skills to help write one. Nevertheless, I used my strengths to help create the sort of in-depth characters I love to write. I can hardly review my own work, so I'll leave it at that.

You can buy this book in print from for $6.99 or as an ebook from for only $1.99. If monster stories appeal to you, please check this one out!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Crossed is the sequel to the dystopian young adult novel Matched, by Ally Condie, which I must have read before I started writing reviews on this blog. If you plan on reading Matched first, don't read this review as it might contain SPOILERS.

Cassia and Ky met in the Society in Matched. As an Aberration, Ky was not supposed to be in the matching pool, but by accident, Cassia saw his face on her screen before she saw the Society's real match for her, causing her to doubt the Society's choice and pursue a friendship with Ky. A complicated love triangle ensued.

Crossed is alternately narrated by both Cassia and Ky as they try to find each other again in the outer reaches of the Society, where they have been sent. Rumors of the Rising, a group outside the Society's boundaries working against it, have Cassia intrigued, but Ky wants nothing to do with them after what happened to his parents. If they can escape the Society's hold, can they survive alone? And, more importantly, can their love survive, or were they never really meant to be together, after all?

I may have enjoyed this book more than the first, but the truth is, I can't remember much of the details of what happened in Matched. However, both books are entertaining additions to the dystopian genre and are good, clean teen reads. They, perhaps, don't have the desolate feel many other dystopian novels like The Giver or Pure have. They are a little lighter in tone. But they are fun and unique and better than a lot of stuff out there. If you want interesting, clean stories, try these.

Three and a half stars for Crossed, available in November.

ADDENDUM: Thank you to my sister-in-law Summer for getting me a signed copy of this book!

The A-Team (2010) on DVD

I didn't really know what to expect when I sat down to watch The A-Team. I'm not very familiar with the original TV series. But when I saw the previews for Knight and Day and Wild Target on the DVD, both of which I really enjoyed, I began to suspect that the movie would be entertaining.

Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper (whom I best know from Alias) do great acting jobs in this action-packed thriller/comedy. They star with Quinton Jackson and Sharlto Copley, two actors I don't know. Their four slightly off-kilter characters make up the A-team, a group of military survivors who join forces to become the best secret ops team the military has until they are set-up on a mission that goes bad and end up in prison. To clear their names, they must escape and finish the mission right this time, but a few unpleasant surprises await them along the way.

I don't know how this interpretation compares to the original look and feel of the first A-team, but 2010's version is chaotic and over-the-top in believability. Still, as my husband pointed out to me, it's consistent within itself. It's always jumping over those boundaries of believability, from beginning to end. Why it works, I think, is because of the great characters. They are crazy, but they are crazy good, too. You really get the feeling that they can beat all odds, and they are mostly clean, moral people (except maybe for Face, Cooper's character).

The A-Team is rated PG-13 for intense action, violence, some swearing (including just a couple uses of the F-word), and the kicker: smoking. I always laugh a little when a movie is rated for smoking. I don't smoke, and I think it's a serious health risk, sure. And just maybe, smokers who are trying to quit would have a hard time watching other people smoke. But if kids are going to smoke, they're not learning it from the movies. I just think it's a silly thing to rate a movie for when all the good, clean classics are full of people smoking. Anyway, that's a side note.

Though the movie is unrealistic and maybe a tad long for the popcorn sort of movie that it is at almost two hours, it offers at least three and a half stars of enjoyment value.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Jane Eyre on DVD (2011 Adaptation)

Just so you know, I have never read Jane Eyre. *Gasp* I know. How can I even call myself a book reviewer? Even my husband has read it. But I am not totally unfamiliar with the story. I did see the 1997 made-for-TV movie with Samantha Morton as Jane Eyre, and I must say, 2011's adaptation was more enjoyable for me, if "enjoyable" is the correct word to use in regards to such a depressing story!

I mean, seriously, why is this story so beloved? Don't get me wrong, I cried a bucketful myself watching this one. But Rochester is old (though not too old in this version), rude, cruel even to Jane at times, and deceitful. What is the appeal?

I'll try to answer my own question. He engages Jane's mind and lets her be herself in a world that has treated her very badly. He's passionate, and Jane's own natural passions have been beaten nearly out of her. He's mysterious, tall, dark, and handsome (at least in the 2011 movie version), which helps modern audiences fall in love with him, too. I don't know if he's good looking in the book, but he has tall, dark, and mysterious going for him for sure. He's essentially the stereotypical "bad boy," who gets his hooks into Jane's innocent spirit and then is somehow softened by her, though the opposite is likely to be true in the real world. For a girl, this kind of domineering, forceful man seems romantic. In the courting dance, where girls play hard to get, they want someone who will play harder to win them. I get that. But I don't think such a match turns out so happily in real life, and I think books like this encourage the belief that it does.

Perhaps I'll read the book one day and be just as enamored as the rest of its fans, but from somewhat of an outsider's viewpoint, this is a strange story, indeed.

Now, as I said before, I did enjoy the 2011 adaptation with Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre and Amelia Clarkson as a young Jane. It helped, too, that Michael Fassbender is a totally better looking, younger Rochester than Ciaran Hinds from the 1997 movie. I felt for Jane, loved her even. I was intrigued by Rochester, felt his magnetic pull on Jane working on me, too. I was thrilled when they finally got to kiss. (Though, is that in the book? I know Austen never had a kissing scene.) I cried when Rochester broke Jane's heart and when they were finally reunited. The story, undoubtedly, has an emotional appeal.

I give the book this praise because it's true, but also to appease those of my readers who might be tempted to assail me with cries of outrage. I don't want to offend, but I do seek to be honest. And stories are meant to be interpreted as the reader will. Some will resonate with Jane Eyre, and others, like me, may hold less favorable opinions. I still acknowledge that this is a classic piece of art, and this movie, in particular, was well done.

Four stars.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Let me just say to start off with, I'm not going to recommend you ever watch Metropolis, a 1927, German-made, two-and-a-half-hour silent film. I'm thoroughly surprised I made it through the whole thing, myself. Nick wanted to watch it for his shared podcast at; an in-depth discussion of it will be on an episode you should be able to listen to soon. I watched it with him because it was two and a half hours of TV in my living room; what else was I going to do? Thankfully, we split it into a two-night show.

Now, to be fair, it's an amazing film for its time, but you have to know how to appreciate silent films. Honestly, they just aren't my thing: the jerky movements, the exaggerated make-up and stage actions, the sparse dialog written on black screens, the pound-you-over-the-head lesson of the movie. In this case, it was something like "The mediator between the head and hands is the heart!" It's really almost comical. But when you think about the movie from the standpoint of the people viewing it at the time, it was probably both remarkable and as fast-paced as it should have been. Since then, we've learned to watch movies differently, as my husband pointed out to me. Our movies are faster, chaotic, but they've gotten so by degrees, matching the pace our lifestyles have set. We expect movies to be unrealistic and as realistic as possible. We accept the impossible in the blink of an eye. In 1927, they were used to seeing plays, so the movie was a glorified play, slowed down so that you could process the unbelievable things portrayed in the movie, things that could never happen so comparatively realistically in a play.

Metropolis is actually science fiction, believe it or not, a vision of their future and our current times. We laugh now, but think about our fantasies for the years ahead. Humans like to dream the impossible, and usually we shoot both too far and too little ahead at the same time. Their vision was much more industrialized; who could have predicted the digital world? But they also envisioned whole cities underground and flight between buildings. The plot is essentially about a young man, Freder, from the upper, wealthy city, who falls in love with a prophetess who is trying to help the laborers of the underground city. He switches places with a worker and learns how miserable life below is, all for the benefit of those above. Meanwhile, a mad scientist creates a double of the prophetess out of a robot to destroy the life and work of his nemesis, Freder's father Joh Fredersen, the creator of the city of Metropolis. Surprisingly, there is a happy ending to the madness. I don't think our movies today would have gone in that direction.

The timing of the movie is interesting. Think about it: 1927 in Germany...right before Hitler. Portions of the film were lost, and then years later, some of those were retrieved in Argentina, of all places. The movie remains incompletely recovered to this day, but any missing pieces are filled in by written narration on black screens.

I guess this movie inspired generations of film makers after, and you can see why, but just take my word for it. Unless you are a film school student or an avid watcher of the classics, this movie has no need to cross your radar...and I apologize for making it cross yours. But if you are like my husband, you might be glad to have seen it, once it is over. Some people can appreciate such things better than I can, movie-lover that I am.

Sucker Punch

When I first saw a preview for this movie, I was sure it was something I'd never watch. But when later previews revealed that it was more than just scantily clad women beating up monsters, I reconsidered.

Sucker Punch is actually about a girl trying to escape an insane asylum, using two fantasy worlds to do it. It's similar to Inception, actually, in that most of the plot takes place in one of these two fantasy worlds and you have to remind yourself that she's actually still in the asylum. Also similar to Inception, the fantasy worlds are like levels in the mind, one within another, time expanding as you go deeper.

In the real world, Baby Doll, as the heroine is called, is about to get a lobotomy. She enters the first fantasy world, which is just a glorified version of her bleak situation in the real world. In this fantasy world, she's been sold to a brothel, and there, she meets four girls who are willing to try to break out with her. These four girls are also inmates in the asylum. In the brothel, she's being saved for a high roller, and she is ordered to create a dance that will entice him. Each time she dances, she enters the second fantasy world, one where she wears leather, wields a sword, and kicks butt, essentially a video game world. We never see her dances, only her fights. Her four friends enter this world with her and battle monsters, dragons, and villains, searching for five items that will allow them to escape. These five items exist in each fantasy world and in the real one.

It's a very interesting concept for a film, and I was thoroughly intrigued by it. Having said that, however, I do have disclaimers. The movie is rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, and mostly mild swearing. I would bump that rating up to an R. There is no actual sex, just the existence of the brothel with its scantily clad women, but the very idea that it takes place in a brothel seemed too mature to me for PG-13. But the brothel is not simply a ploy of the producers to get more viewers. Its existence makes sense in the context of the film, whether I condone it or not. Baby Doll is sold to the insane asylum by her stepfather after a series of tragic events, one of which is that he tries to rape her and her younger sister. This takes place at the beginning of the film and was impressive to me cinematically (not morally) because it's all told visually. There's little narration or dialog. As to the existence of the brothel, in light of this beginning and the lascivious asylum worker who takes the money, it makes sense for Baby Doll to imagine that the asylum is a brothel.

I don't want to spoil the end for you, but I'll say its bittersweetness worked for me. It's mostly sad with a ray of hope, and I would have preferred a slightly happier turn of events. Nonetheless, it wraps up neatly with some nice parallelism. As Baby Doll says, it's not her story, after all.

As fascinating as it was, the movie also disturbed me enough that I'm not sure whether to recommend it or not. The sexual element is pervasive, obviously, and that creates a moral dilemma for me. On one hand, you have a really creative movie with meaningful themes, something different from the norm, which as an artist myself, I really appreciate. On the other hand, the disturbing sexuality of this movie would normally have me ranting against it. I will say, this movie pushed the limits I would give it, but never quite far enough to lose me. There was never a moral ambiguity; the brothel was clearly a place of evil. You have to view it at your own discretion and certainly not with younger kids. I would steer teens away from this, too, except that many of them probably play video games that are far worse, unfortunately. The video game fantasy world of this movie, however, is probably the one safest for your kids to watch.

So, readers, as always, you are free to have your own opinions and make up your own mind, but I've tried to give you something to work with here. Two stars for pervasive scenes and themes of moral degradation. Four stars for originality and creativity.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Vespertine

The Vespertine, by Saundra Mitchell, is another of those books I got as a door prize for the GTOTW tour that stopped at Summer's Stories. I believe it may be my favorite book of the bunch so far, but I have one more author to read of the four on the tour.

It's historical fiction, with a fantastical element, for young adults. It takes place in 1889, in the United States, alternating between the early part of the year in Baltimore, Maryland and the autumn in Maine. Amelia is visiting Baltimore to find a husband since pickings are scarce in Maine. While there, she makes a close friend in the daughter of her chaperones and discovers an amazing gift. In the vespers, when the sun sets, she can catch glimpses of the future. When her predictions begin to come true, her talents are sought by all the ladies of Baltimore. Meanwhile, Amelia enjoys dinner parties and dances, where she meets an artist far below her station and, therefore, unworthy of her attention. But she can't get him off her mind, and when they are together, it's as though nothing else in the world matters, especially when he seems to have secrets of his own.

But not all of Amelia's predictions are happy ones, and when bad things happen, the blame falls to her. Amelia's bright summer is not going to end well because by the time autumn arrives in Maine, she will be entirely ruined.

I wouldn't spoil that last bit for you except for the fact that the book starts in Autumn, and the very first line says what I've just told you. I guess the mystery is how she gets there.

I really liked the style this book was written in. Even though it's for young adults, it always reminds you of its Victorian influences. But unlike some Victorian novels I've read, the young people still seem like the same young people everywhere. They have dreams. They stray from the rules as much as they are able. I have a feeling the author took a few liberties other Victorian novelists would not, but I thought it all worked together very well, this mix of old and modern.

The ending was, in some ways, both better and worse than I feared after reading the first line of the book. "Ruined" in Victorian terms usually means one thing, so I guessed but didn't know exactly what to expect. I'm happy it turned out the way it did, yet it wasn't a particularly happy ending altogether. In addition to that, the fantastical element of this book, though very light, is almost out of place and rather haunting, giving the story a ghost-like, off-kilter feel.

Nonetheless, this is a unique young adult read, and I can recommend it with three and a half stars.

Monday, August 29, 2011


Nope, this is not a personal blog post (although I am expecting again). Babies is a 2010 French documentary, detailing the lives of four children from birth to about one year of age. The babies are Ponijao from Namibia, Hattie from San Francisco, Mari from Tokyo, and Bayar from Mongolia.

I'd been wanting to see this for some time, ever since I saw it advertised in the theater. Never, before I had a child of my own, would I have wanted to see such a documentary, but something about the previews just reminded me of my own son and, therefore, touched my heartstrings. But that was the preview.

The documentary itself did not impress me much. It is rather slow. There's no narration or even subtitles, and when there is English (San Francisco), you couldn't care less what the people are saying (almost wish they weren't saying anything). But that's not to say the filmmakers aren't trying to make a point of some sort. It's not always obvious. I'm not sure they are saying one way of raising children is necessarily better than another, but they are obviously comparing for some reason. Maybe they're just saying there's no one right way.

What bothered me most about the film was actually the parenting, particularly in San Francisco and Mongolia. In San Francisco, the dad takes Mattie to a parent/child class where they chant something bordering on worship to Mother Earth. At another point, when Mattie purposefully slaps her mother across the cheek twice in a row, her mother simply smiles at her with an "Oh, Mattie," like that's going to tell the child she was wrong.

Mongolia was worse, at least for the well-being of the child. Although the parents of these four kids aren't the main show, they are almost nonexistent in the Mongolia parts, which is odd since the family lives in a remote home in the middle of a huge plateau with a bunch of cattle for neighbors. Shots of the Mongolian baby mostly show him either alone or with his abusive toddler brother. In one shot, the brother alternates hitting the baby across the face with a scarf and looking directly at the camera, as if to say, "Are you going to stop me? No? Fine, look what I can get away with." His little baby brother cries as the scarf hits him. In another shot, the toddler pushes his baby brother in the stroller a little ways away from the house to where the cattle are and leaves him out there as he returns to the house. The toddler treats their pet cat even worse, and certain scenes indicate that the younger baby will follow in his brother's footsteps.

The most different culture is Namibia, Africa. The natives live in mud huts surrounded by drought conditions, constantly covered in dirt. The women are naked above the waist. While surprising at first, the nudity is less and less disturbing as the movie progresses. It's a very cultural thing, not in the least sensual. The documentary is rated PG for this cultural and maternal nudity, also in some of the other countries' parts to a much lesser extent. What's most disturbing about the Africa scenes is the dirt and grime and flies. These people seem like they're from an era long past, the way they live completely off the land and seem to be extensions of the land itself. They sit in the dirt. Their babies crawl in the dirt, putting their faces in it and lifting rocks and old, bleached bones to taste, as any baby would with his surroundings. The difference for our culture is that dirt is outside and we can control what our children get into. This scene of the baby putting a dirty bone in its mouth is followed by a scene of one of the San Francisco parents vacuuming cat hair off the carpet and then using a lint roller on the baby. Again, I don't think the movie was commenting that one way was better than another, just comparing. In Namibia, if the baby pooped, the mom wiped its bottom on her knee and then cleaned her knee with an old corn cob. I thought that was quite smart actually. You wouldn't want to wipe the baby's bottom with the rough cob. To clean the baby's face, the Namibian mother licked it and then spit away the dirt.

You'd think that Namibia is the worst of these four places for a baby to be raised, and certainly, in some ways, it is. But the mothers were always there in the picture, sitting and talking near their babies, even if their babies happened to be in the dirt. In Mongolia, perhaps the baby was slightly cleaner, but the mom was nowhere to be seen. I appreciated the community evident in Namibia, and the baby was obviously happy.

I don't have much to say about the Japanese baby and her family. They seemed the most normal and well-adjusted. Both parents seemed to interact in equal amounts with the baby.

My inclination is to say that I did not enjoy this documentary, though parts of it were very interesting, particularly the different ways these cultures took basic care of their children. I give it two and a half out of five stars.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil

Yes, it's clever, full of puns, and funny, and yes, it turns familiar fairytales upside down. But Hoodwinked Too! didn't capture me the same way its predecessor did. Maybe the novelty has worn off, or maybe it was just too chaotic this time around. I just wasn't impressed.

In Hoodwinked Too!, Red hasn't yet finished her training with the Sister Hoods when she is called upon by the Happily Ever After Agency to rescue Hansel, Gretel, and Granny from an evil, kidnapping witch. But the lesson to be learned here is that people aren't always quite what they seem to be. The story takes us from the dark woods to the remote Asian-looking mountains of the Sister Hoods and finally to the city. Characters from the first Hoodwinked reappear while a slew of new characters join the fray. It's too fast-paced for younger children to appreciate, and it's rated PG for some rude humor, language, and action. This is another animation for an older audience.

Hoodwinked Too! is full of famous voices, which are oddly introduced as beginning credits on a dark screen. Seems like the movie was trying too hard to be something. The cast includes Glenn Close, Hayden Panettiere, Patrick Warburton, Joan Cusack, Bill Hader, and Amy Poehler among others. In the first Hoodwinked, Anne Hathaway voices Red, but the difference isn't noticeable. Although Close and Panettiere do a fine job, the show belongs to Hader and Poehler as Hansel and Gretel. I won't spoil the surprise there, but just remember this is not the story you are familiar with.

Three stars for a semi-entertaining but rather mediocre sequel.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Implosion of Aggie Winchester

I really disliked this book when I started reading it. What kept me going was that it was a nice hardcover I'd won for free from the authors of the Girls Taking Over the World tour at Summer's Stories. I thought I'd give it a chance.

Lara Zielin's The Implosion of Aggie Winchester is a young adult novel about a high school principal's daughter, Aggie, who is Goth, angry, afraid, in love with the wrong guy, and pretty much messed up. Within the first few pages, there is bad language, including the F-word, and innuendo. And it doesn't get better. The further I got into the book, the worse Aggie and her Goth friend, Sylvia, were. They were the opposite of everything I like in characters or want to read about.

But I also got a sense from the author that she wasn't condoning their behavior. She was telling the story of a girl who was going to have some dramatic stuff happen to her and, therefore, become a better character. I just wasn't sure if it was worth wading through all the garbage to get there. Still, I kept reading.

What really bugs me in some books (and it happened in Nocturne, too) is when a teenager and her parents completely miscommunicate and just get angrier and angrier with each other, resulting in the parents alienating their child and the child rebelling even further. I'm not saying it isn't realistic. It's too realistic, and I read books, in part, to escape that.

But aside from Aggie's flawed family relationships, Aggie herself drives me nuts. What kind of role model is she for a teenager reading this book? Characters in books can certainly have flaws. In fact, I think it's usually better for the story if they do. But, as my husband pointed out, Anna Karenina is a Russian classic all about an adulteress, and you never actually see her have sex. You never need to. I think some young adult books (adult books, too, for that matter) are more gritty than they need to be. I don't need to see the F-word every few pages to know that, yeah, Aggie's not a great person.

As I suspected, the book turns Aggie around, but not before she goes through a lot of pain. It's rough reading, watching characters' emotions spiral out of control when the answers are right there but no one will listen to each other. There's a scene I particularly like between Aggie and her mom, but it comes after a lot of awful stuff. Aggie also manages her boyfriend problems happily in the end, but I feel like I'm repeating myself here: it comes at a price. She never has sex, but she does practically everything else, almost negating the value of her abstinence.

The end somewhat makes up for all the story puts you through, as the reader, but I'm still not sure I would recommend it unless you know someone just like Aggie who could use a dose of reality to get her life straightened out. For me, however, it didn't cut it. It's just not happy reading. It's like reading about your local high school's gossip and scandal. However fascinating it may be, it's not uplifting or satisfying. It's rather horrifying, like a train wreck you can't stop watching.

But it's a good, solid, positive ending, so I'll dish out two and a half stars.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Fracture, by Megan Miranda, is a young adult novel with an interesting concept. Delaney is a normal girl, a friend of popular people but not quite popular herself, until the day she dies. Under freezing water for eleven minutes, she should have died...and did. But she came back, and she didn't just come back. She awoke from a coma without seeming to sustain any brain damage despite the bright, unnatural spots on her MRI that should have put her in a vegetative state. But Delaney knows she's not right. When people around her are close to death, she feels it. Her body shakes, and there's an irresistible pull toward the dying. What's more, a mysterious guy named Troy shares her ability to sense death, and Delaney is drawn to him, despite not knowing what kind of person he might really be.

I suggest this book be read by older teens. It's somewhat dark. Delaney feels sometimes that she never really came back from the dead, at least emotionally, and it puts a disturbing spin on the story. Mature concepts are discussed, such as whether a person close to death should be allowed to escape their misery early. It's kind of depressing...but still fascinating. I almost couldn't put it down.

On the positive side, there's a little romance (though much of it is frustrating), a decent ending (though still somewhat dark), and in-depth themes to think about. For instance, Delaney's mother escaped an abusive home life, and Delaney struggles with her mother's sometimes overbearing attempt to not be like her own parents. Fracture might make a good book club book for older teens.

There's some language, including the F-word, which I find especially inappropriate for teen books. But it sort of fits the tone of the book. Just use your discretion in recommending it to teen readers.

Three stars. Available in January 2012.

Limitless on DVD

The idea of Limitless is fascinating. Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper from Alias), a straggly-haired bum with a serious case of writer's block, stumbles onto a drug that lets him unlock one hundred percent of his brain at once. The average human uses something like twenty percent. So, he becomes incredibly intelligent, able to remember facts he picked up in passing and never realized were still in his brain, able to assimilate fighting techniques he only ever saw on TV. With such power, he has the ability to get rich quick, to maneuver his way to the top of society, perhaps even to become president if he so wishes. All he has to do is keep taking the drug on a daily basis or he goes back to his old bum self.

But the drug is obviously addictive and, therefore, extremely dangerous. Others have taken it before him, and they are now all dead or dying. Someone keeps hunting him down and trying to kill him. Not to mention the thug who gets ahold of one of his pills and then blackmails him to keep supplying. Eddie has a complicated life, and somewhere along the way, it's going to crack.

I thought this was an intriguing concept and a good, though exaggerated, way to get across the message that drugs are really, really bad. But the end kind of ruined the message, and I have to give SPOILERS here, so if you plan to see the movie, I strongly caution you against reading the section in brackets.

[The drug has severe side-affects if you stop taking it, leading to sickness and often death. But if you take too much and don't watch your health in other ways, the drug makes you lose hours of your life, not knowing what happened or where you were. When Eddie gets to the point of collapse, he realizes he has to dose down slowly, but by then, it's almost too late. His pills are stolen, and he's being chased by another guy who's on them. There's no way he can win. Through a very disturbing scene you will undoubtedly cringe away from, he drinks blood filled with the drug and manages to escape torture and death.

Then the movie skips ahead twelve months to Eddie running for senator. The basic gist of the end is this: Eddie beats the drug and manages to retain an incredible amount of intelligence without being on it. He wins, which is what you want your hero to do, right? But it doesn't feel right. For one, Eddie was never really a hero; he was a druggie. He didn't just get off the drug; he manipulated the recipe so that when he finally did get off, his brain would still function at those high levels. He still used the drug to get higher up in life, and in the end, he became something he wasn't, something no normal human is supposed to be. It's kind of cool, but it's also wrong and sends the opposite message about drugs than I thought the movie was sending: if you're smart enough, you can beat the drug. So not true.]


So, even though this movie is science fiction, I would use caution in letting younger viewers see it. It's rated PG-13, but there is some sexuality, violence (stabbing), disturbing imagery (drinking blood, for one), and language.

Three stars.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Nocturne, by Christine Johnson, is the sequel to Claire de Lune, reviewed here. I finished this book pretty quickly, not so much because I loved it but because it was so emotionally painful I had to see how it would end. If you plan on reading Claire de Lune, don't read this review. It will contain SPOILERS.

In Nocturne, Claire is a full werewolf, but one more ceremony remains to see if she is a complete werewolf. Incomplete werewolves are so rare that the others in her pack even joke about it, believing she will have no problem showing off all her new skills. But they don't know that Claire can't start a fire in the werewolf way, an elementary skill, and if Claire can't get it right by her New Moon Ceremony, she will become an outcast. To complicate matters, her mother avoids any part of her human life, and her boyfriend, a secret-keeper for the all-female pack, doesn't seem to want to have anything to do with her werewolf life. When her best friend, Emily, finds a new friend to hang out with, Claire believes it might be for the best, since if Emily ever found out the truth, the pack would have to kill her. But Claire can't bear to give up her human life and friends entirely. Torn between two paths, Claire becomes alienated from everyone she loves, and if she doesn't start a fire, that will be her life forever.

You see? Emotional pain. That's what this book is about. I have occasionally come across books like it, not that all books don't have a little of it. This type of emotional pain is unique. It involves a teenager who is trying to do the best she can with no one listening to her or helping her. The odds are so stacked against her that all the reader wishes for is that the end will even things out and bring her some vindication. But the process of getting there is painful, especially because the girl keeps all her problems to herself and seems not to even try to fight the alienation. It's rather frustrating for the reader. I felt a little of this reading Claire de Lune, too, but that was resolved mostly satisfactorily.

I didn't feel quite the same about the end of Nocturne. I felt a little cheated, even though there was certainly emotional resolution, enough to bring a tear to my eye even; it just wasn't the resolution I was looking for. Just as in Claire de Lune, in Nocturne there are a lot of mother/daughter issues, but I confess, I understand the daughter far better than the mother. Claire's mother is kind of cold. She's Alpha of the pack, so she has to keep the rules. But I feel like she always treats her daughter as a Beta wolf and never as a daughter, especially since she's not interested in Claire's human life. The Alpha has her reasons, but they don't resonate with me on an emotional level. While Claire and her mother come to an understanding by the end, I feel like Claire just accepts how things are without ever receiving the support that she needs and that the reader desires for her.

It's the same with the boyfriend. He explains himself in the end, but I don't buy it. I take Claire's side on the issue and don't understand how she can put aside her feelings without at least one of the characters saying, "You know, you're right." The other characters do tell her she's right about her decisions in the end, but not about her feelings. It's just unsatisfactory, and Claire's reaction is not quite believable. But maybe she's just a bigger person than I am. I fully admit, Claire makes her own mistakes. In every relationship, there are two sides, and just as her mom and boyfriend don't understand her, she doesn't understand everything they do. Yet, I feel she has a better grip on their lives and shows more concern for them, especially for the boyfriend, than they show for her.

Aside from the plot and story, there are other issues to be aware of in this book. I noticed the cursing in the first book, but I noticed it even more in this second. It might be considered minor cursing, but I'm not a fan. Also, there's more sexual foreplay, for lack of a better term, in this book. The characters never go all the way, which I very much appreciate, and nothing is ever graphically described, which is especially great for young adult fiction, but I still found it was too much. Claire and her boyfriend are always alone together, and they're all over each other. I just didn't think it set a great example for young, even teenage, readers.

I will still give Nocturne three stars for being a fun, semi-unique werewolf story, and I'm curious to see where the author goes from here. Book 1 is about becoming a werewolf. Book 2 is about defining what a werewolf's life entails. I would like to see Claire evolve more in following books. I'd like the stakes to be raised, and I'd like to see a more confident heroine involved in more meaningful, satisfactory relationships. Because, with that, this series could be good.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Claire de Lune

This is not an advance reader's copy, for once. I got this book at a book signing for the Girls Taking Over the World Tour, four female authors with new books out for young adults. My sister-in-law sells them at her bookstore: Summer's Stories in Kendallville.

Claire de Lune, by Christine Johnson, is the first of two novels in a series about an all-female pack of werewolves. Claire never knew about the pack until her sixteenth birthday, when her mother took her to be initiated into the group as the newest werewolf and learn about her true identity. It turns Claire's world upside down because all she wants is to be a normal girl who doesn't have to lie to her best friend and who can date any guy she chooses. Now, as if being a werewolf didn't complicate her life enough, she's fallen in love with the son of a man who hunts werewolves to give them his bogus "cure," and there's a rogue werewolf on the loose, terrorizing and killing people. It's up to Claire's pack to find the rogue werewolf, and it's up to Claire to protect her pack from her new boyfriend's dad.

There are some unique twists to this werewolf story. For one, unlike in Meyer's Twilight, people are aware that werewolves really exist. Two, these werewolves are all female, and in fact, no male werewolves exist in the world. They pass down their lineage through daughters, conceived with normal human men.

The plot is pretty basic but should appeal to teenagers who are fascinated by all things paranormal. It's just a fun story with decent morals and a somewhat surprising ending, though if you're looking for it, it probably won't be a surprise at all. I think what I appreciated most about the story was what it had to say about mothers and daughters. At first, I thought it was going to be one of those stories where the girl rebels against her mother and is right for doing so, but at the risk of spoiling some of the surprise, I'll just say that was turned around quite nicely.

There's some weird religion stuff. Claire always says "God" as an expression (not in prayer), and her mother tells her to say "Goddess," instead, because the werewolves believe in a Goddess who gave them their powers. I could have done without all that, including the cursing. The b-word is also used a bit, which sort of fits since wolves are related to dogs, but if you don't like cursing, I'm just warning you.

Overall, it was an entertaining read, and I will be reading the second book in the series now, Nocturne, which I received as part of a door prize at the book signing. Nocturne is available at Summer's Stories now but doesn't go out to the full public until later this month.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Never Let Me Go on DVD

Lately, I've picked some really depressing movies to watch. Never Let Me Go is definitely that, but it also has a certain tragic beauty to it that appeals to me. The book club I take sporadic participation in read the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and then saw the movie together. (Kazuo Ishiguro was an executive producer on the movie as well.) I did not read the book and, therefore, did not go see the movie with them. But I was interested in it, so after many months, I decided to watch the movie on my own. I have mixed feelings about it.

First of all, I might have enjoyed it better had I read the book, but maybe not. A movie should stand on its own, and I had too many questions watching this one. Let me get into the plot, and then I'll explain (but be prepared for spoilers, which I will try to keep vague and at a minimum).

The story starts in the 1970's, which I found odd, considering that it has a somewhat futuristic, science fiction aspect to it. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up on a glorified organ donation farm. Together with other children, they attend classes and live as though at any other "normal" boarding school. The exception is that they are being carefully monitored health-wise so that when they are of the appropriate age, they can begin a process that will let them donate up to four vital organs, one at a time, after which they will die. The only way to defer their donations is by becoming Carers. For a few years, Carers care for Donors, and then it's their turn to donate before they get too old. That's the background story, but the main story focuses on these three children as they grow into teenagers (played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley), fall in love, fall apart, and try to live normal lives within the confines of their very abnormal existence.

I just had a hard time buying the story or the characters' reactions, mainly because of one question. How do you grow up knowing you are going to die young and not realize at some point that people can't do that to you? The characters attempt to defer their donations in whatever way is presented for them, but it's like they can't think for themselves. And maybe they can't. Maybe they are so brainwashed that this is the realistic outcome. But they never once try to escape. The whole movie shows them scanning their bracelets every time they leave or enter a building all their lives, and they don't question it once. I felt like they should, but maybe that's where I'm missing what the book has to offer. I wanted to know why these farms existed, why the author felt he had to put something futuristic in the past, why the kids accepted it without question. It didn't sit right with me at all, and I don't believe it was supposed to. But I don't like the unsettled feeling, and I wanted a little more explanation about the logistics.

I'm very curious now to hear what my fellow book club members who actually read the book have to say. I want to know if the book did the story more justice.

Aside from the intriguing but confusing premise, the storyline is somewhat unsatisfactory as well. There's a love triangle, and it's annoying because on top of their crappy lives, these characters can't even enjoy a simple love. I like when they get it right, but that enjoyment is short-lived as the story ends predictably and realistically (for the type of plot). Maybe that's why I can't enjoy this story; it's too realistic. I like happy, or at least hopeful, endings. Stories should be a form of healthy escapism from the realities of life. I can appreciate a more realistic ending, but I get true enjoyment only from something that's bigger and grander than the real world.

And yet another strike against the movie: it's rated R for some nudity and sexuality. It's done much more tastefully than some movies I've seen. The only real frontal nudity is the tops of women in a magazine. There are a couple sex scenes, which are fairly careful not to show parts (you might catch a glimpse if you look closely, but I don't, so I can't tell you for sure). The sex scenes are all about lust, and the one time there is a closer connection between the people, they don't show the sex scene. That's fine by me, but why do that? Did the movie makers think that it was more sacred, or something, because it was true love? News flash: sex is sacred. Period. They understand only the half of it.

My final take. I thought the movie was mostly well-done, emotional, and heart-wrenching. From a cinematography viewpoint, it's beautiful. It has a historical feel, while being weirdly futuristic, an odd and interesting mix, to be sure. But I can't say I enjoyed the movie. It's hard to enjoy something so hopeless.

I'm really quite torn about what star rating to give this movie. I didn't hate it, but I'm not sure whom to recommend it to either. Probably best to start with the book, unlike me, and go from there. Let's just draw the line down the middle at two and a half stars.

ADDENDUM: Above, I stated that my book club read the book and then saw the movie together. I was wrong. They did read the book, but as of this post, they had not seen the movie together yet. I apologize for the error.