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.