Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Wow, was I ever surprised by this book, an angel book...that I actually enjoyed! And here, I think, is why I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Unearthly, by Cynthia Hand, tells the story of Clara, a quarter angel. But here's the difference between her and other angels I've read about in other novels. Clara isn't a reincarnation. She isn't a teen who's really thousands of years old. She isn't a supernatural being who has immediate access to God. Her family doesn't even go to church. She's basically a mostly regular teenage girl who, because she is part angel, has one purpose to fulfill on earth, and when she's done it, supposedly, she can go on with her mortal life. I liked this version of the angel. I can't buy the angel who's lived previous lives and is trying to figure out who she is. I can't identify with that even one bit.

I generally have a hard time with the concept of angels in fiction. For one, I believe angels are real beings, unlike vampires or werewolves. And because of their position with God in reality, I have a hard time reading fiction in which angels seem to have all these kick-butt powers but aren't really in tune with God. Unearthly is different because Clara is only partially descended from angels. Her mom is half angel. Her dad is human, making her a quarter angel. Eventually, if her descendants kept marrying humans, the angel line would practically die out. It seems more realistic in some ways. It seems doable. After all, the Bible does talk about the sons of God sleeping with women, which some translate to mean angels and humans interbreeding. Clara's world is based on a real concept but far enough removed from reality that I can buy Clara like I can buy a vampire. So, all that to say, Unearthly works.

As for the plot, I found it entertaining with lovable characters. Clara's purpose is revealed to her in partial visions. The visions seem to indicate she will save a boy from Wyoming, so her family moves from California. But the boy from the vision isn't all that interested in getting to know Clara, and another boy is. Clara is torn between her heart and her purpose, but for a little while, she is able to enjoy just being human. The humanity of Clara and her family helps this book a lot.

Because this is a secular book, albeit about angels, I wasn't too bothered by the lack of faith and belief in the story. God is mentioned, of course. Clara doesn't know what she believes about him, but her friends go to church. Clara is mostly human with superpowers, so I'm not bothered about her lack of communion with God anymore than I would be with a fully human character. If they were real, it would bother me. In secular fiction, I don't expect to find faith. This is another reason angel books tend to repel me, because the very concept of an angel begs the question of faith. But this book feels at least a degree removed from a full angel book, and that somehow made it easier to accept as fiction.

I genuinely liked Unearthly, and I am looking forward to reading its sequel whenever it may come out. Three stars for being an angel book, but four stars for being good anyway.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Prisoners in the Palace

Michaela MacColl's Prisoners in the Palace is a beautiful piece of young adult fiction and a perfect example of why young adult fiction is often superior to adult fiction. It takes place in the 1830's and gives a fine picture of the times and customs without overburdening the reader with detail as many adult novels would.

Prisoners in the Palace is based on the true story of the young princess Victoria before she became Queen Victoria of Great Britain and heralded in the Victorian age so often written about now. The main character of this novel is Liza, a fictional orphan who falls from her position when her parents die and leave her in debt, reducing her to accept work as a maid, though a maid for a princess. 

Although the large events of the story are true, including excerpts from Victoria's diary, MacColl imagines that Liza plays a crucial role in helping Victoria overcome the obstacles to becoming queen. Victoria's mother is under the influence of the scoundrel Sir John who plans to make Victoria seem weak so that he can rule through Victoria's mother as regent. Liza meets a dashing young reporter and passes along news to be printed in the papers to undermine Sir John's plans. Liza is recruited by both Victoria and Victoria's governess to act as spy, but it's dangerous work and Liza can only hope Victoria will learn to appreciate her so that she doesn't end up like Victoria's last maid, ruined and forced to prostitution on the streets.

This novel has intrigue, danger, romance, and historical interest. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to any age. My sister-in-law Summer currently has the book in her bookstore's young adult section, so be sure to check it out if you're ever there.

Four and a half stars for this lovely read, and I assure you, I wasn't influenced by the fact that the book is signed by the author to me. But it is nice to have one signed that I absolutely love.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Red Riding Hood (in theaters now)

This review follows from another one you can read here. Red Riding Hood, while based on an old fairytale, is an original screenplay. Catherine Hardwicke, who also directed Twilight and The Nativity Story, directed this movie and offered the screenplay to a friend of hers to make into a book. So, in this case, the screenplay came first, but the book was out before the movie. If you'd like to hear more about the book, see the review mentioned above. However, I think you'll want to stick with the movie, especially since it's the original.

I didn't love the book, but the movie was really well-done. I'm afraid the book colored my view of the movie at first, but I tried to shove the book out of my mind, knowing it was an elaboration on the screenplay; when the movie really started to move, I was able to appreciate it, finally, for itself.

I really enjoyed it. From what I've seen of Hardwicke's films, she loves to create atmosphere. Whatever flaws you can find in Twilight, the movie has awesome music and really creates a feeling in you. The set of Twilight is darkened through special use of lenses, and the setting is beautiful. Hardwicke outdoes herself in Red Riding Hood. The setting is medieval, a little village in the middle of a great forest of thorny trees. It's beautiful and quaint. The beginning shots of the film remind you vividly of Twilight as you zoom over the trees, but then you see castles and villages and waterwheels, and you feel like you've entered another world. So, the setting is perfect.

The music did not disappoint either. There is a party scene in which the drumbeat and horns have a beautiful, eery effect, different from most things you usually hear in mood-setting music. While the music sets up the scenes in this movie, it doesn't just hide in the background. Sometimes you want music to hide, but in this case, it's like another character. I loved it.

Amanda Seyfried does a fine job playing the heroine, Valerie, whose grandmother gives her a red hooded cloak. A few other familiar faces make appearances among the villagers.

The basic plot is this: Valerie is the daughter of the town drunk, a woodcutter. She is engaged to be married to the blacksmith's son; his is the wealthiest family in their village. But she loves a woodcutter like her father, a boy named Peter. Valerie is set to run away with Peter when her sister is murdered by the local werewolf that demands sacrifices from the villagers every full moon. This time, the wolf wants more. The villagers band together to try to kill it, and the local priest calls in reinforcements from a renowned werewolf hunter. Soon, it's revealed that the werewolf lives among them, and the unrest and distrust begin.

In my book review, I compared the atmosphere to that of M. Night's The Village, and while there are minute similarities, Red Riding Hood is not as subtle and has a much richer fairytale feel to it. There's no subtle suspense here as in The Village. All the suspense is in seeing the wolf attack and knowing it will attack again and again.

I liked the end of the movie so much more than I did the end of the book. The book disappointed and didn't actually give any secrets away, but I'm glad it didn't. It allowed me to appreciate and enjoy the movie better without comparing. The movie doesn't leave as much guesswork as the book did. The answers are there, and they make a lot of sense. I won't spoil it for you; that would be cruel. You'll have to enjoy finding the answers for yourself.

Seeing this movie with my husband may have been a mistake. He thought it was well-done but didn't appreciate it as much as I did, trying to find holes in the logic. As we left the theater, I was silently trying to relive and pinpoint just what I liked about the movie while he was telling me the little parts that didn't work for him, things like pacing or logic jumps. We decided that because Hardwicke focuses so much on mood and atmosphere, she doesn't always care as much about minor logistics, which doesn't bother me. For instance, in The Nativity Story, a beam of starlight falls in just the right place to illuminate Mary and baby Jesus. That probably didn't happen in real life, but the movie is creating a scene and establishing a mood. We don't usually go to movies to see real life anyway.

I agree with Nick a little bit about the pacing, some odd jumps between scenes, particularly at the beginning of the movie, but I'm afraid my judgment was a little colored by the book at that point, too. Once the real action began, I didn't find problems with the pacing.

So, if you find yourself interested in this movie and plan on seeing it, here's a little piece of advice. If you have a Twilight hater in your family, don't go with that person unless they really love you and can back down and admit the movie was decent (thank you, Nick). Preferably go with a girlfriend of two. After all, we women tend to think emotionally, and I think Hardwicke has more to offer us than the guys.

I do have one moral disclaimer. There is a hot and steamy scene that looks like it is going to go too far, but it is interrupted just in time, so don't worry. Nothing to cover your eyes at.

Also be prepared for the Church to take a bad rap. I did like the local priest and thought that though he was naive, he was a good man and meant the best for the people.

A few last words on the movie as compared to the book. The book is somewhat boring and delves more than one really wants into the emotions and motivations of the characters. The movie, as movies should be, is must faster and not boring at all. Perhaps you don't get enough of the motivations of the characters, but you can read between the lines.

Finally, I mentioned in my book review that the end was morally ambiguous. I'll try not to be too spoilerish, so this may sound vague. Valerie makes a choice that I don't understand or appreciate in the book. Nothing to do with sex, more to do with throwing caution to the wind and living without caring about consequences. In the movie, the choice she makes is underscored by the answers the book leaves out. So, you understand her better in the movie, and it doesn't feel like she has such a devil-may-care attitude. The motivations are clear, and the choices make sense and feel right. I was very happy with the end.

This is a movie that will have you mesmerized from the beauty of the beginning to the very last dangers. I recommend you leave the book alone and enjoy the movie for what it is!

Four stars for entertainment value and awesome setting, atmosphere, and characters in Red Riding Hood!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vertigo (a 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film)

Here's another one of those classics my husband thought I might enjoy. For once, I'm not sure.

Undeniably, it's well-done. As Nick says, there's an underlying note of tension throughout the movie, and I agree with him. The music and mystery set up the plot beautifully so that by the end you really have a feeling of dread.

James Stewart (of It's a Wonderful Life) and Kim Novak (I'm not familiar with her) star in Vertigo, a suspense/crime thriller about a retired detective recently diagnosed with acrophobia (a fear of heights he developed on his last case) who is hired to follow a friend's wife. The friend says he believes his wife becomes another person, is somehow inhabited by someone else, but he wants to make sure before he sends her to the loony bin. John Ferguson (James Stewart), against his better judgment, takes the case and is soon obsessed with the beautiful Madeleine (Kim Novak). She does, indeed, seem to have a fascination with a woman who's dead, sitting before her portrait in the museum, visiting her graveyard, seemingly unaware that she is doing so. When she tries to take her own life and John rescues her, he falls in love. But there's more to the story than John knows. He's being played, but it might be too late to recognize it.

Really, about half the movie is what I described above, and I can't tell you the other half without spoiling it, so I won't. Why am I not sure about this one? I thought the suspense was great. (And the movie's even in color!). I guess I just didn't like the pay-off. I expected something more, perhaps due to my husband's prodding that probably raised my expectations too high. Maybe I just like happy endings.

If you watch Vertigo, enjoy it for the suspense and the craft. Hitchcock truly is the master.

The Dark Divine

I don't know what to think of this young adult book. I was very surprised to find it in a secular market. I'm not sure if it was written by a Christian or a Mormon (she lives in Utah) or what, but the author, Bree Despain, has a fairly solid understanding of the typical pastoral family and what grace means in a sinful world. But from what I can tell, The Dark Divine was published by a secular market. I'm just surprised. Can that even be done? I mean, we're talking about Christianity here. It's like the forbidden religion. It's intolerant and all that...

But sarcasm aside, I kept wondering if I was reading a Christian book, and it threw me off a little. Okay, I have a confession to make. Though I am a Christian, for a long time now I've thought that some Christian fiction, especially Christian fantasy, is too preachy. I have some favorite Christian authors, but mostly, I avoid the genre. It's probably hugely unfair of me, and I suppose I could be called hypocritical for it, but the thing is, I like good stories. Stories can have messages in them, sure, but when you try to stuff a modern Christian worldview into a fictional created world, you lose something of the suspension of disbelief you are trying to create. That's why I don't often like Christian fantasy. Lewis and Tolkien manage it well, but hey, they're Lewis and Tolkien.

Okay, so I went off on a little soapbox of mine there. Getting back on track (but my above-stated views are relevant to this review), let me give you a summary of the main plot before I tell you what my final feelings are toward this book.

Grace Divine is the daughter of the local pastor. Lots of symbolism in her name. Perhaps too much. More than she feels she can live up to. She lives with lots of rules, including number one: never keep a secret. Grace doesn't break the rules. She can't. She's a pastor's daughter. But while life seems perfect for the Divines on the outside, there is one secret that haunts them and that they won't talk about. Grace just wants to know the truth. Why did her best friend Daniel, the boy her family cared for when his dad abused him, leave and never try to contact her again? Why won't her family talk about him? And why does her saintly brother hate him? She's about to get some answers because Daniel is back, and Grace can't stay away from him, even when everything about him screams danger and secrets and all that a pastor's daughter should not get herself into, especially when he turns out to be a werewolf.

Werewolves and theology. What will they think of next? (Oh, yeah...angels.)

So, what did I think of this interesting mix? I kept expecting to see blatant errors about Christianity, but all I saw was humanity. Humans make mistakes. Christians make mistakes. It's how they deal with the mistakes and challenges of life that's important. The Divines aren't perfect, and I don't know a pastor's family that is (speaking from experience). They try to look like they are, and that's true to life, too. In the end, though, I was impressed that they weren't completely broken apart by their faith, as often happens in secular portrayals of Christianity. Oh, they were certainly broken apart, but in the end, Grace, both the figurative and the literal, the message of Christianity and this book's heroine, won the day, and I was pleasantly surprised at the positive vibe I got about faith.

I was intrigued by the plot throughout the book, but I'm not certain I liked the heroine. In some ways, her life just happens to her. She seems like a goody-two-shoes, not daring to break the rules, and then she lets "dark and mysterious" sweep her off her feet. She doesn't feel like a strong character, and perhaps she wasn't meant to be. By the end, her strength comes to her, but in the beginning, she feels a little like the cardboard cut-outs Christian novels sometimes use.

I liked Daniel, and I liked Grace's dad, the pastor. I'm really happy that he came across as a good guy and not a fake. The werewolf plotline is vaguely entertaining but doesn't have much pay-off until the very end.

The Dark Divine is the first book of a series, and actually, I think the concept of the second book intrigues me more, though I haven't read it. You need The Dark Divine for set-up, I guess, but Grace seems to be a stronger character in a sequel that ups the stakes. The Lost Saint, book two, seems to take you a little further from the church and into the streets. It would be interesting to see that transition, but I'm not sure I will.

Still, I give The Dark Divine three stars for keeping my attention.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Pirate Captain's Daughter

If you want a plain, old-fashioned pirate story with all of the "Arg," sweat, and grime, I suppose The Pirate Captain's Daughter, by Eve Bunting, is just that. There's nothing much special about it. Fifteen-year-old Catherine loses her mother and decides she wants to join her father's pirate crew, but no one can know that she's a girl. It's bad luck to have women aboard. So, she becomes Charlie and quickly realizes how unromantic a pirate life can be. There's no privacy for a girl, and the fighting is terrible. But to complicate matters, some of the pirates are after a piece of treasure her father possesses...as well as their own chance to be captain.

I'm going to include a bunch of SPOILERS here because I can't give you an accurate picture about how I feel toward the book without including the end. A cabin boy named William discovers Catherine's secret, and they begin to form a relationship of sorts. When the truth comes out, the captain dies trying to protect his daughter, and William and Catherine are marooned on a bare rock island. They fall in love as they are dying, but at the last moment, a ship comes to their rescue.

Like I said, there's not much to this story. It's a short, simple tale of a girl who discovers that being a pirate isn't actually all that great and barely escapes with her life. The romance is underplayed, so don't read this book for that aspect. The book ended kind of abruptly, at least on an emotional level. The physical ending is fine. They are about to be rescued, end of story. Why drag it out? But I wanted more emotional resolution, and perhaps that's what was lacking throughout the story. There's no emotional depth, and I had a hard time really identifying with the characters or caring where the story went.

But pirates aren't emotional, so if it's a good pirate yarn you're looking for, you might find The Pirate Captain's Daughter to be a fun ol' romp.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Twisted Thread

I realize it has been a long time since I reviewed a book on this blog. For awhile, I had a new book review up every week, and then I started reading a book thats a bit outside my typical arena of interests. I still haven't finished that book (though I plan to and don't think it's a bad read), but I did read and review another in the interim. Now I have read one more since starting that book, and I suspect For the Win will have to wait a little longer while I squeeze some fast, light reading in over the next few weeks (hopefully!).

The book I just finished was not fast, light reading. Actually it is similar in one way to For the Win, that being that the point of view switches each chapter to another person, and there is nothing that slows down reading for me like that. Switching point of view offers a natural break, and you are more inclined to slip your bookmark in and leave it for another time or day. You lose the sense of urgency that keeping to one point of view gives you. Now, it can be done well, this switching, if each character is fascinating and adds valuable pieces to the puzzle.

But The Twisted Thread (out in June of 2011, no cover yet) wasn't an example of that. Charlotte Bacon's novel is adult mystery. (For once, I didn't read a young adult book, and as you'll see, it only confirmed for me why I prefer young adult.) Why adult fiction thinks it has to be so literary and verbose I don't know. By "literary," in this case, I mean the attempt to create depth and evoke color out of the most mundane aspects of life, usually by giving far too many completely boring details. Young adult fiction, on the other hand, knows it has to work hard to keep its audience, so it's more snappy, more to the point. Occasionally, the slower pace of adult fiction is pleasant, but in that case, there has to be a real spark in the author's writing to keep you hooked.

The Twisted Thread lacked spark, but what it mostly lacked was pay-off. I found the concept interesting enough to read and keep reading, despite the many breaks due to changes in point of view. The book begins with the discovery of a teenage girl's murder on an elite boarding school campus. An intern named Madeline, one of the book's points of view, sees the body and realizes the girl has just given birth, but no one knew she was pregnant and the baby is nowhere to be found. The school is used to solving its problems in-house, and everyone clams up when the police get involved. Everyone seems suspicious, and as Madeline discovers a secret girl club called the Reign of Terror, she realizes there are many things wrong with Armitage Academy, on many levels.

If that sounds as interesting to you as it did to me, let me save you a lot of wasted time. I'll even tell you the end, I'm that confident you don't want to read this book. So, obviously, SPOILERS. The Reign of Terror ends up having almost nothing to do with the end. The murdered girl was their leader, and they had disagreements. But they didn't kill her. It turns out the girl, Claire, was just a spoiled rich kid who found out the head of her academy once loved her mother. Angry at the life she felt she'd missed out on (despite being rich already), she slept with the head's son as a kind of payback. But then she got pregnant and realized she could use that to ruin Armitage and the head's family. So, she carried the baby secretly, and when it was born, she got her boyfriend (not the boy she'd slept with) to hide the baby. The baby's father, the head's son and a senior at Armitage, accidentally kills Claire in a fit of rage.

What I couldn't understand when I finally read this disappointing revelation was why everyone who knew anything kept it secret. It just didn't seem...well, big enough. I mean, it was tragic, and I can understand why the head would be reluctant to turn in his son. In fact, he tries to tell the police he did it instead of his son by the end, but the whole book basically convinces you that the head's a decent guy. At the end, you still feel like he's a good man, and so you're just left wondering why he tried to cover things up. And you wonder why the people taking care of the baby or the boyfriend who hid the baby don't come forward. They all have their reasons, but none of them seem good enough. It might have been logical, and it might have been how something like that would really go down. But it didn't make for a good story pay-off. Am I saying I wanted more scandal at the end? For this book, yes. The book seemed to be leading up to it, and then it wasn't nearly as bad as you'd been led to believe. Strangely enough, morality conscious that I am, I wanted something a little more edgy at the end. But rather than edgy, I got a different kind of immorality.

Morally, the book wasn't too bad until the end. The F-word was used a few times, but in adult fiction, I'm not too bothered by it. What really disgusted me was that at the end, Madeline, who has been attracted to two men the entire book, sleeps with one and has a summer relationship with him and then decides his life is going in another direction and begins a relationship with the other one. Okay. So, that, sadly, happens in real life. It's more messy in real life, but it's there. The thing is...this is a book! This is a story that should be bigger than life! I don't want my heroine to sleep with one guy and then agree to have dinner with another one at the end. What's romantic or happy about that? What's satisfying about that? Yuck.

So, I didn't like this book at all. The only reason I even give it as much as two stars is that it grabbed me enough to want to know the outcome. I shouldn't have expected the outcome to be any more interesting than the rest of the book.

I'm looking forward to reading some good young adult fiction again next.