Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Silence of the Lambs

I just watched The Silence of the Lambs for the first time. I think it could now rightly be called a classic as it celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. An interesting fact I was not aware of is that this movie is based on the novel by Thomas Harris.

I would never watch Hannibal or the Saw movies, and I mistakenly lumped this movie in with those for a long time. Some time ago, a friend detailed for me the basic plot, since I told her I wouldn't be watching it, and since then, I've actually been interested. I was told it was more suspense than horror, and while there are horrific R-rated elements in it, this statement is true.

The Silence of the Lambs is about getting into the head of a serial killer...or him getting into yours. Clarice Starling is an FBI student who has been recruited to interrogate one-time psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter in his cell, where he has resided the past 8 years. There are strict rules about seeing him. Don't go near the glass. Don't accept anything from him. Don't give him anything but soft paper, not stapled together. And don't tell him anything personal. But from the beginning, Lecter controls his conversations with Clarice, and when he offers to help her capture another serial killer, she begins to play a dangerous game with him.

There are still elements you will want to be cautious about seeing in this film. Those include flayed skin, images of the naked backsides of murdered women, the brutal beating and murder of two security guards (perhaps the most gruesome and graphic part of the movie, though the worst is done off-camera), and a man dressed in a naked women's skin (which caught me off-guard but wasn't quite as disturbing as it sounds). There's also bad language, including the F-word, but it's used infrequently.

I do not recommend this movie unless you are interested in psychology and behavioral science or you are a student of film. I give it three stars for being well-crafted. It probably deserves more, but my moral objections stop me there. This movie interested me, and I do not regret watching it, though there are images that may take awhile to fade from memory.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Girl in the Steel Corset

I haven't read very much steampunk, but I was intrigued by the title and attracted by the cover of The Girl in the Steel Corset, a young adult novel by Kady Cross, the first in her Steampunk Chronicles. My sister-in-law got a signed hardcover copy for me when she went to the book expo in New York City.

The story takes place in Victorian England, though a slightly different England than we are accustomed to, with machines and magic and the regular steampunk contraptions that are similar to modern technology but powered differently. Finley is a ladies maid, a 16-year-old girl with an extremely dangerous dark side, literally. When she is angry or threatened, it comes out as a completely different personality with supernatural strength and senses. She's the female Jekyll and Hyde.

Then there are Griffin, Sam, and Emily, a group of friends with their own extraordinary abilities, trying to discover the identity of The Machinist, a criminal who is creating machines that might have the potential to think for themselves. Sam's already been in the way of one of these machines, and now he's not fully human himself since Emily had to fuse him back together with metal. When Finley comes into their lives, the group isn't sure what to do with her. But one thing's for sure: sooner or later, someone's going to get hurt.

I enjoyed the setting and the characters of this novel, though at times I wished the narrator would stop switching viewpoints and let me stay in one character's head. That's just personal preference. It's very common to jump heads in fantasy and science fiction; it's less common in young adult but still happens. I think it was harder, then, for me to identify with the heroine since half the story didn't immediately revolve around her. However, I did like her, particularly as her character changed and evolved.

There wasn't as much romance as I had hoped for, though there are several love triangles, which are interesting. I think the author must be saving Finley's romance for later books in the Chronicles. The set-up is in this book, but not much comes of it.

Although there was nothing inappropriate in the story, I didn't really feel like I was reading young adult fiction. All the characters felt older. Maybe that's due to the setting in the late 1900's. I thought of the characters as older than teenagers the entire time I read the book. But other than that, this is a great young adult book, sure to be enjoyed particularly by the female steampunk audience.

Three stars for an enjoyable read.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

127 Hours

I watched it. Oh, yes, I did. I'm not typically a fan of watching people cut their own arms off, but I am a fan of incredible, beat-the-odds, true stories. 127 Hours, a 2010 film now on DVD, was nominated for Best Picture, with James Franco nominated for Best Actor. The film was directed by Danny Boyle, who also directed Slumdog Millionaire, another great film.

The filming itself didn't impress me. I think it received those nominations because of the unbelievable, jaw-dropping story of Aron Ralston, who loved being out in nature so much he went into a set of canyons in Utah without telling anyone where he was going and ended up getting his arm pinned under a rock. He spent five days trying everything he knew to free himself and to survive on a meager supply of snack bars and less than one water bottle.

Yes, it's a painful movie to watch, not because of the gore, which comes only at the end, but because of the courage and determination of a man who never gives up, even though he fully expects to die.

It's rated R, appropriately and understandably so, and contains light nudity (mostly backs of people), the F-word (which I found completely understandable under the circumstances), and a scene of a man breaking his own arm and then ripping through skin, muscle, tendons, arteries, and finally nerves with a dull pocketknife. I watched that entire scene with a hand over my mouth, but I didn't look away. And, to be honest, bad as it was, it could have been worse. You'd expect that part to be full of screaming and pain, but either due to the choice of the filmmakers or due to the actual experience and shock of the man himself, the pain seem downplayed. The worst part is the severing of the nerves.

Though it wasn't really part of the story, I would have liked to see the aftermath of all this, Aron Ralston arriving at the hospital, telling his family, some sort of closure to the emotional drama. What we do see is him escaping the canyon and finding some hikers who call in help so he can be airlifted by a helicopter. You'd think severing his arm would be bad enough, but then the guy has to get himself out of there, and his sheer willpower is amazing.

I'm glad that I watched this movie, just to see that. Some might say, "Look how great the human body is, what it can endure," but I say, "Look how great God is, and what he made our weak little bodies capable of."

If you'd rather read about it than watch the gore, the autobiography (which I have not read) is 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Lord of the Flies was an intriguing book to me, and because of that, I love to pick up young adult books that remind me of it. Gone, by Michael Grant, was one of those, and Variant, a novel by Robison Wells, is another.

Variant kept me interested purely through suspense. It's a dystopian, somewhat futuristic novel about a double-walled private school for teenagers. Benson is sure that his sad life moving from foster home to foster home is over; he's applied for and received a scholarship to Maxfield Academy. But things go from weird to horrific quickly. When he arrives at the school, he finds it heavily secured under lock and key with cameras everywhere, but what's worse is that there are no adults to be found. Maxfield is run by kids. They cook, clean, repair, and teach the classes. Certain groups have monopolies on the good jobs, including security. The only adults they see are the lady who brings the new kids by car and Iceman, who appears on a screen to give them commands. The scariest thing of all is that broken rules have severe punishments, including detention, which nobody comes back from...ever. Benson has just entered a prison, and he's determined to get out, even if it means risking his life.

As the horrors build up, Benson realizes just how much danger they are all in and, as the book's tagline aptly puts it, that he can "trust no one."

Pure entertaining suspense. I really liked this book...until the very last page. Wouldn't you know, it's only Book 1, so there was an ending of sorts but not the one I was hoping for. Worse, the end totally confused me. I must have reread that last page ten times, looking for what I'd missed. And every time I read it, I found another interpretation. I can't tell you about it because it's a huge spoiler...well, I think it is, at least, from what I can tell, it's that vague. But for certain, you don't want to read the last page first if you are the type of despicable person who does that (ha, ha, just kidding, but you are weird).

This book only comes out in October, so I'm not sure if I can go online yet to see what other people think of the end. Regardless, I couldn't tell you even if I found out. So, all I can say for the book is that if you like suspense, with endings akin to something the TV show Lost used to produce, this book is great. But I think Lost endings never had me quite as lost as Variant. Check it out for yourself, and then we'll discuss (in private, of course, wouldn't want to spoil anything).

This book has violence most appropriate to age 15 and older.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Although I like to think of young adult fiction as the best storytelling out there, as with any other genre, there are sometimes pieces that are pure wastes of time. How dare I say such a thing about art, but at least for me, I find this to be true. If a work of fiction does not leave me happy, satisfied, entertained, or even one of those, I don't see the point. If I want real, dirty life, I don't need to pick up a novel to see it.

Fury, by Elizabeth Miles, was such a waste of time. I thought it might get better, have redeeming value...okay, you've heard that from me before, but I really do try to give every story a fighting chance. It's just really hard to enjoy a book if you hate the characters, if they are so bad or so wrong you can't remotely identify. Maybe some people can identify with stealing a best friend's boyfriend only to find out he's a jerk, using your best friend and you. I sure don't.

Fury is about two teenagers in a little town in Maine, Em and Chase, who have each made their own separate mistakes. They don't know about furies, the witches who arbitrarily choose who deserves to be punished, but the furies know about them and are here to make them pay, eye for eye.

Besides being about people I couldn't summon enough camaraderie with to like, the odd thing about this book is that it's really two stories that barely ever join together. Em and Chase are acquaintances at the same school, connected only by the odious Zach. They briefly befriend each other, though in the end (do I even have to say SPOILERS here?), one of them pays more dearly than the other, but basically, both of them lose out. Yep, it's a disappointer up to the very end. I suppose the author thought there might be room for a sequel, I really don't know. Sounds like I care, too, doesn't it?

Oh, and don't even get me started on the morality of this book. Let's just say there's a lot of teenage nudity, not graphic but just there, standing stupidly, perhaps trying to raise the reader's dwindling interest? There's no sex, but there might as well have been. Why go that far and not all the way? (If you've never read my blogs before this one, please, please note the sarcasm and that this is not a statement to be taken at face value.)

Don't be seduced by the beautiful cover with the lovely redhead staring out at you hauntingly, begging you to pick her up. Don't mess with the furies. Great cover; it does just what a fury would: lures you in to wreak havoc, mess with your mind, and leave you feeling very badly...or very bad, take your pick.

True Grit on DVD

Normally, I like Westerns okay, and True Grit is very Western, but it was just a little too strange for me. The characters were fascinating but perhaps overdone. The whole premise of the movie was kind of dark, although from a certain standpoint, it was lawful and right. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross hires a marshal, and gets a Texas ranger in the bargain too, to hunt down the man who killed her father. Her stipulation: she goes along to make sure justice is served. Her obsession borders on revenge but seems to mostly be about justice when it comes right down to it.

Why is it that every Western is in shades of brown? I guess that's how the far American West is, even today, but it's such an iconic image: a horse and rider traveling over a vast, treeless expanse of brown grass. Of course, True Grit takes place near the beginning of winter, I believe, so that affects the scenery.

The ending of this movie could have turned my viewpoint toward it slightly had it been different, but I found it rather sad and not entirely satisfactory. The title of the movie, however, says it all. There couldn't be harder people in this story than these.

The movie stars Jeff Bridges as the marshal and Matt Damon as the Texas ranger. I didn't really recognize either of them, although I wondered, briefly, if Damon's character was a famous actor. His face was different enough that I couldn't pinpoint him. Hailee Steinfeld is the 14-year-old actress who plays Mattie, and she does an excellent job.

True Grit is a remake of a 1969 John Wayne film and is based on a 1968 novel by Charles Portis. It's rated PG-13 for Western violence, including hangings, shootings, and stabbings.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Thor in theaters 2011

Thor was great! Who'd have thought? Not me. I don't think I ever saw a preview, and I've never read the comic. I knew nothing, but I'd heard good recommendations. So, as a belated Mother's Day outing (not Nick's fault; we just delayed until the timing was better), we ate at Casa's and then saw Thor in the theater, and it was a perfect evening.

I didn't think I'd ever be able to see another movie with Natalie Portman in it because of Black Swan, but she proved once again that she is actually a good actress, in a completely different and likeable role. Chris Hemsworth, whom I've never heard of, plays a very tall, ripped, dashing and appropriately godly Thor. Anthony Hopkins, whom I barely recognized, and then only by his eyes, plays Thor's father, Odin.

I'd been told that some of the settings for this movie were beautiful, and it was true. Asgard, the home of the gods, is a fantastic computer-generated landscape of golden, non-linear skyscrapers. It is an interesting contrast to the desert of New Mexico, the Earthly setting of the movie.

We saw Thor in 2D, and I don't think we missed a thing by skipping the 3D. Honestly, I don't understand the fascination with 3D. The movies I've seen in the new 3D haven't been improved with it (The Last Airbender, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). I think it's just a gimmick to make more money. I hear Avatar (with the blue aliens) was great in 3D in the theater, and that makes sense. A lot of it is computer-generated with beautiful colors and settings. Maybe Asgard would have been cool in 3D, but I doubt cool enough to make it a must-see.

Basic premise of Thor: Thor's about to be made king, but he's arrogant, and a threat from an evil race of ice giants interrupts his ascension. He nearly causes war and is banished to Earth, powerless, to learn the error of his ways. There he meets a young, attractive scientist (Portman) who is fascinated by him and the storm that sent him to Earth. Meanwhile, there's trouble in Asgard, and King Odin is dying, leaving Thor's embittered brother to take control.

I know, it sounds a bit hokey, but it's well-done and, therefore, an enjoyable and satisfying movie. If you liked Iron Man and are at all interested in The Avengers or Captain America, this movie is a tie-in you won't want to miss.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Long, Long Sleep

Almost missed this gem in the long and lovely stack of books my sister-in-law brought back from the book expo in New York City. The cover was pretty enough with thorny roses, but not captivating. The title didn't intrigue me much. Who wants to read about sleep? But, for the sake of giving each book a fair chance, I read the back cover copy. It was somewhat interesting, but what made me actually take the book home ended up being a misconception. The heroine is not an actual princess, as I had supposed, but the heir to a financial empire, spanning worlds. If I had realized that, I probably wouldn't have picked up the book. But, happily, I started reading and gave the book a thorough chance to entice me, and it did.

A Long, Long Sleep, a debut young adult novel by Anna Sheehan, could be described as a futuristic adaptation of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty. Yet it's anything but a fairytale. I would call it a post-post-apocalyptic story, if such a term exists. Post-apocalyptic usually involves a world still in turmoil after world-wide devastation. This story occurs even later, after the world has rebuilt itself and the technology is even more advanced than we know now.

Rose awakes from stasis after a 62-year-sleep, the longest ever known, sleeping through the Dark Times of her world's destruction through epidemic. Lost in a sub-basement, her reappearance is huge because she's the heir to UniCorp, a business empire that basically runs this world and others. Everyone assumes she was put in stasis to protect her from the Dark Times, but all Rose knows is that everyone she loves is dead and she is alone, 16-years-old, born one hundred years earlier. Only Rose knows that she was put into stasis many times before the one that stole 62 years of her world away.

Rose is stricken by the loss of her parents who guided her every step, but she is haunted by the loss of her boyfriend, her only friend. The boy who woke her up from stasis attracts her, but the past won't let her go enough to pursue a relationship with anyone. The executives at UniCorp are reeling from her discovery and what it might mean to their precious positions, and a very old terror has awakened to find and eliminate her. Not to mention she's suffering from stasis fatigue and can't even control her own body without the help of nanos in her brain. Rose is up against more than she can handle.

Once past my cover prejudices, this story captivated me beginning to end and had me in tears for at least the last 50 pages, though there was humor to be found as well. It's definitely one of those, but it has a good ending, if not a completely satisfactory love story. The love story is more about Rose's old love, revealed in memories, than any new loves. Nonetheless, you don't want to miss it just for that. It's a complex story, different from any I've read recently. Definitely not the same-old, same-old vampire, werewolf, angel, or even post-apocalyptic young adult fiction. This is one to pay attention to.

Four and a half stars. Comes out in August.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


This is the first time I've ever had the pleasure of reviewing a Ted Dekker book that wasn't yet released. I normally have to read my Ted Dekkers in hardcover because I can't wait, but this time, my sister-in-law brought back an advance reader's copy of a book I've been excited about for some time. It comes out in September and is co-written with Tosca Lee, author of Demon: A Memoir, reviewed here. I heard Dekker and Lee speak about a year ago. At that time, I had no idea who she was, but Dekker was excited to be working with her and praised her books highly. If you don't remember me mentioning this before, Ted Dekker is one of my favorite authors for the way in which he pushes the boundaries of faith in fiction. I hesitate to call his works Christian fiction, not because he isn't Christian but because they are so different than Christian fiction, so much more in-depth and real and meaningful...while also being excellent thrillers.

Forbidden is the first in The Books of Mortals Trilogy, one book being released each year, starting this September. It reveals a world 500 years in the future from ours, a world in which emotion has been eradicated, except for fear, allowing there to be Order and peace worldwide. No one feels anger, so there is no war and there are no weapons. Everyone lives in obedience for fear that they won't receive Bliss when they die. There is no passionate love, only a sense of duty and loyalty to family members.

But there is a vial of blood that has the power to return some of these emotions to whomever drinks it, five portions for five people. Rom is thrust unwillingly into a position to protect the vial, and curious about its importance, unknowing of its power, he drinks a portion and seems to wake from the dead. When it becomes clear that there is more to fear than losing Bliss, that there are guards who will kill people with weapons that aren't supposed to exist for even knowing about the vial of blood, Rom runs, but in order to convince his friends that he's not crazy, they must drink too. Thus, five people wake from the dead and become embroiled in a plot to keep the throne of the world from another man who's been woken by other means, a man who feels anger, passion, ambition...but no love.

As usual, Dekker hasn't written just another thriller. With Lee, he has explored in new ways one of the deep truths of Christianity: Love and what it would mean to the world to live without it. In this case, his interpretation is that we'd all be walking dead. Forbidden is a love story, a thriller, and a statement of faith without once using the names God or Jesus. I'm sure it would rub some Christians the wrong way, but I love that about Ted Dekker. No other author I know tries to shake up and wake up the Church like he does. His novels aren't always even written for the believers. They're meant to bring everyone to an understanding of who God is, stripped of all we call religion.

Faith aside, on a purely fictional level, this is not my favorite book of Dekker's. He's been known to give surprise endings and twists or to take his characters to the lowest places of depravity, creeping the reader out with grotesque images of sin. This book is still plenty dark, don't get me wrong. I'll just have to see what I feel about the series when it is over. It's certainly a worthy addition to his collection, and Tosca Lee seems to be a great partner. Best Dekker or not, I highly recommend it to all readers.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Mao's Last Dancer on DVD (with notes on Gulliver and Jack Sparrow)

I've seen several movies recently, but two of them hardly seemed worth reviewing. I will mention them here, although my main purpose for this post will be to write of the third.

Gulliver's Travels
First, Gulliver's Travels just came out on DVD. It's rated PG, but the Lutheran school my husband teaches writing at didn't think it was appropriate for sixth graders. Although there's nothing huge wrong with it, I agree with that assessment, having seen it myself. Some of the humor is crude (straight out of the book, from what my husband tells me), and it's just not quite the thing a church school should be showing to young, impressionable sixth grade minds. Now, if it's something these kids see at home with their parents, or something you might show your kids, that's another matter. But here's my suggestion: don't bother with it. It's not that funny, despite being Jack Black. It's actually kind of boring. Maybe you just have to be with the right crowd, watching at a semi-late hour of the evening, I don't know. I didn't get it. Maybe you have to have read the book.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Second, I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in the theater the other day. If you like the Pirates movies and you like Captain Jack Sparrow, which I do, it's enjoyable enough. But again, I couldn't muster up enough enthusiasm to review it on its own. People seem to disagree with me here, but I miss Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan. I appreciated the characters of the missionary and the mermaid in this fourth Pirates movie to provide the missing balance, but at the end, I was disappointed even in that. It seemed to me that the missionary traded in his faith in God for faith in love, a very Hollywood-like idea but, obviously, disappointing to a true believer in God. Nick saw it a little differently, that the missionary's faith was renewed by love, but even he admits that perhaps that was wishful thinking. Good popcorn movie, but don't expect to be wowed.

Mao's Last Dancer
Finally, tonight I saw a movie I wanted to review. You've probably never heard of Mao's Last Dancer. I hadn't, but frankly, a preview of this movie on the disc for Black Swan was the one good thing I got out of that waste of time. Mao's Last Dancer is rated PG and is clean, linked only to Black Swan by the ballet, I guess. If you enjoy true dramas and beautiful, heartfelt dancing, you should definitely see this fascinating movie that passed under the radar just last year.

Li grows up in communist China under Chairman Mao's rule, the sixth son of a peasant, selected out of his small village school to train as a ballet dancer for China. He overcomes his small build and weakness to prove himself good enough to represent China in the United States. But the United States is not the picture he was painted in China, and he will have to make choices and sacrifices to pursue what he loves.

I suspected that this true story, based on Li's own autobiography, would be sad, and parts were, but it was amazingly, beautifully happy at its end. Though I know real life isn't always so neatly packaged (and perhaps some artistic license was taken to make this movie so), I am so much more satisfied and happy with a good ending, especially if a character struggled to get there. If this sort of story interests you at all, don't pass up the opportunity to see Mao's Last Dancer. It's a decent family movie, if you like to expose your children to other cultures and if they can sit through drama. The B-word and S-word are used briefly, and there is a short discussion on sex when two characters are kissing. It comes off as humorous since the Chinese boy doesn't understand the girl, but for those who are very selective in movie watching, you would want to at least be careful of which children see it.

Of those three, Mao's Last Dancer is the one to see, and it's the cultured, elegant pick, if you ask me.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Nick and Tim's Podcast: Young Adult Episode

There is an interesting discussion on young adult trends and my opinions on the latest, best young adult fiction on my husband's podcast with his friend Tim Deal. They asked me to be a guest and speak on what I know best, so if you are interested, here's the link to the young adult podcast on their Derailed Trains of Thought website. Enjoy!