Sunday, December 30, 2012

Wrapping Up the Year with a Few Nonfiction Titles

My goal this year was to read 50 books, and I knew I was pushing it when I reached December and had yet to finish three nonfiction titles I was counting on to round out the 50. But I did it. Though each of these probably deserves its own post, I'm going to give myself a break and punch out shorter, but hopefully pithier, reviews all at once together.

One Thousand Gifts
By Ann Voskamp
I started to read this New York Times bestseller around the end of this summer. It was given to me as a gift, ironically enough, and I never would have guessed the impact it would have on me. I found it strange at first when I started reading. It was too poetic, a style of writing that was way over-the-top compared to what I normally read. I don't hate poetry but, you know, it's poetry. Voskamp's book doesn't appear to be poetry, at first glance, and it's not meant to be. It's definitely prose, like most other semi-autobiographical, inspirational, self-help books out there. But the way she writes, the images she uses, the turns of phrase and the word choice, all have a poetic bent to them. It's just how Voskamp is. She's this farm girl with a soul on the lookout for beauty, whether that be through her camera lens or in the very way she sees the world and expresses it verbally. It doesn't make her book easy to read, but perhaps the words stay with you longer. I managed to drag the book out over a third of the year, but it wasn't because it was a bad book. Rather, it was hard to read in more ways than one. I quickly got over the poetic nature of the book; that wasn't even the issue. It was a hard book to read because it made me cry. It challenged me. It met me where my soul was at. The beauty seeker in Ann found a match in me, and I needed time to let her words percolate and dissolve. And time is something I didn't have a lot of this year with two young children running around. That's why I was pushed to get 50 books read, this one included.

So, what is it about this book that gripped me so hard? It's really a very simple message, so simple you'd scoff unless you took the time to read it yourself. It's about giving thanks. It's about how counting the daily gifts God gives you leads to a fulfilled life, even if you are just a busy mother with no obvious "greater" calling from God. Count the gifts, even the ones that don't look like gifts. Realize God is in total control, ordering all the events of your life, the painful ones included. See God's love in it all. Let go. Live. That's what this book is about, and I challenge you to read it, too. As for me, my next goal is to count my own gifts. I believe it has the potential to revolutionize my life.

Night Light: a Devotional for Couples
By Dr. James and Shirley Dobson
My husband and I started reading this book at the beginning of the year. There are only 26 weeks of mostly one-page daily devotionals, but I'm not gonna lie, this was difficult to get through in 52 weeks. Maybe we were too busy. We probably could have taken the time. Instead, we were left to scramble through whole weeks at once in an effort to get this book done this year. Thank you, Nick, for bearing with me through this crazy 50-book goal! But despite the fact that we were busy, I'm going to just go ahead and blame the book itself. It isn't applicable enough. It isn't entertaining enough. It isn't always believable, and the questions are often textbook rather than thought-provoking. I have to confess that my husband and I often have a hard time finding marriage self-help books to be applicable to our circumstances, so where it doesn't match us, it might match you. But I can only tell my own experience.

Each week of this devotional has a theme. Sunday usually starts off with a story, often written by someone other than one of the Dobsons. Monday through Friday, the devotionals are followed by three or four questions and a prayer. Saturday is a recap day of sorts, often with some sort of story or insight from the lives of the Dobsons. This set-up isn't bad, but the content is sometimes filler stuff.

It just didn't always seems that applicable to us, and even when it was, the questions often required regurgitation of the message rather than self-scrutiny and application. Some weeks were better than others, and even some questions were decent. But overall, it didn't impress me.

I also had one other major problem with the stories shared. I wasn't always sure they were real. I am a writer, and there is a practice some writers have of embellishing the truth, especially for devotionals. I hate that practice. If you want to write fiction, own up to the fact that you're writing fiction! Don't pretend a story is true for the sake of a lesson! In this book, I'm not saying stories were made up, but I'm not sure they were always verified true accounts. In one case, the Dobsons make a point of saying they verified the story. But if they felt the need to clarify that in one instance, that makes me wonder how many times they just included other stories that have been passed along by word of mouth. For instance, one particular story they shared was something I'd heard in a different setting told a little differently. Maybe the Dobsons were the ones who had it right, but really, how do you collect so many perfect stories and anecdotes together? I just have that feeling that many of these kinds of stories are only based on truth. It really hurts your credibility if you can't even tell an honest story.

Anyway, I'm not sure my husband and I really gained anything from this book except the awareness that we really do need to spend that quality time together, albeit perhaps with different material.

New Testament (NIV)
It seems like cheating, but I'm counting half the Bible (and not even the longer half!) as one of my books this year. It was my goal to get the New Testament read through this year, and I was planning on counting it as a whole book if I was down to the line at the end of the year. Well, turns out I need it for the numbers. I'm not really going to review the Bible. If my readers don't know it by now, let me just say it straight out: I'm one of those who believes the Bible to be written by God through man, and I believe it's infallible and complete. It doesn't need my review or approval, but I do have an observation to make on my reading this year. Reading the New Testament in a year is easy. It requires five chapters a week. Even so, I had almost more trouble staying on task than I did last year when I read through the Old Testament as well. I guess, last year, I knew I didn't have room to skip. This year, I could read a whole week's worth in a day if I got behind. Granted, I probably needed the leeway this year (have I mentioned how crazy two little kids has made life for me?), but I don't feel like I got as much out of my reading as I did last year. I feel like I didn't spend as much time with God this year because, well, I didn't. I would like to try to read the whole Bible again next year. It's not just the content. It's the time spent. My soul needs both. What about yours? Want to take the challenge with me?

So, that's it then. Fifty books in fifty-two weeks. Next year, I likely won't be reading that many. No goals about it anyway. But I'll still be reviewing what I do read, so stay tuned!

The Sanctuary

Ted Dekker strikes again! The Santuary is a stand-alone thriller (not young adult, I should clarify, since most of the other stuff I read is), but readers will recognize its two main characters from The Priest's Graveyard. The Sanctuary doesn't have to be read as a sequel, but it does pick up where the other book left off, in a way. If you haven't read The Priest's Graveyard and want to, this review may contain unwanted SPOILERS. Thematically, the books are related, but the emphasis is different, and the two stories are separate and self-contained. I guess, however, that you could say the themes from The Sanctuary are a natural progression of the thoughts from The Priest's Graveyard. Although you wouldn't have to read both, I would recommend reading them together and in order.

Danny Hansen confessed to two murders he didn't commit in order to spare his wife a prison sentence, but Danny is by no means innocent. In his old life, he was a priest who took the law into his own hands. Now, Danny willingly pays the price, knowing he's become the very monster he tried to keep off the streets, but someone from his past doesn't think Danny and Renee have suffered enough, and the villain has concocted a game to get his revenge and expose Danny for the monster he is. Danny, however, has taken a vow of nonviolence. How hard will his enemy have to push him to break him? And can Renee rescue him before it's too late for both of them?

As usual, this latest Dekker thriller is hardcore and not for the faint of heart. Dekker is a Christian, but I think a lot of Christians would have a hard time reconciling his worldview with their own. As my husband puts it, Dekker likes to make Christianity "visceral." He uses extreme imagery to get across simple but deep truths about what it means to follow God. His thrillers may be fit for the secular market, but they are anything but cheap, shallow entertainment. Yeah, there's a lot of shock value, but it's there to shock us awake, which has to be a good thing.

In The Sanctuary, the main issue is violence. Is it wrong? What if the person you love more than life itself needs your protection? How do you stand up for the weak when the world is full of violent predators? What kind of justice does a murderer deserve? What does it mean to be human? What is grace? These are all questions that are tackled in a plot that delves right into the middle of some of the worst kind of violence. Murder, rape, torture; it's all in there, handled carefully but not lightly. Dekker likes to open up the black holes of the world and blast a floodlight on them. You've been warned. But time and again, the trip has certainly been worth it for me.

I have a shelf full of Dekker books, most in hard cover. My favorites among them I've rated five stars. The Sanctuary read quickly but didn't have quite the same impact as some for me, falling at about a three-star rating. Still good. And it delivered one of Dekker's famous end twists, which I really didn't see coming and which made me kind of want to go back and see how the book might read differently had I known what was really going on.


Speechless, by Hannah Harrington, was a nice surprise. I thought the premise was interesting when I originally got ahold of the book, but then I wasn't sure it could keep my attention. Happily, it ended up being a pretty fast read, which I needed as I neared the end of the year and tried to cram in the last of 50 books.

Speechless is about a girl who can't keep her mouth shut. She's a gossip, popular only because of her best friend. But when Chelsea's mouth is instrumental in nearly destroying the lives of several of her peers, she suddenly finds herself in a dark place. Not only are all her old friends her enemies, but Chelsea herself isn't so sure she likes the person she's become. So, ashamed by what she's done, she takes a vow of silence. Her old friends take it as an opportunity to rub her face in the mud without impunity, but she finds some surprising new allies, including an unexpected romance. When she speaks again, it has to mean something, but will she ever be able to pay for the harm she's done?

The book has a strong message with even a study guide included, but it mostly pulls it off well, meaning it's an enjoyable read and not so pushy it will turn readers off. On the other hand, from a Christian perspective, I do not totally agree with it. (Spoiler Alert!) The book, while secondarily being about gossip, is essentially about gay rights. Now, while I don't think a gay person is any less of a person than anyone else, on this blog I have clearly delineated my views on sexual content in books and movies. I don't think sex outside of marriage is right, and so I don't agree with the book's emphasis that there's nothing wrong with two young gay lovers. I wouldn't agree if they were straight either. This is my main problem with the book: it's acceptance of teenage sex. I totally realize it's a part of our world now, but that doesn't mean I agree with it or that I want to read about it outside of the context of addressing it as a problem. Now, I do agree with the book's stance on treating all humans as equals, just to be clear.

There is one other minor point on which I disagree with the book that I think is worth mentioning. Chelsea basically punishes herself for her sin, and even her new friends aren't willing to forgive her without seeing proof of her change. That's just not in line with my Christian worldview. Christians are supposed to forgive no matter what the other person does, even if that other person isn't repentant. That doesn't mean I would try to be friends with a dangerous lawbreaker (sins do have consequences, after all), but it would be my responsibility not to judge that person personally, even if the sin was committed against me.

I also need to nitpick one little point with the book that doesn't have to do with beliefs. It's just about something in the plot itself, the justification the author has for Chelsea to begin speaking again. Actually, the reason Chelsea begins speaking again is fine; I just don't entirely like the way the author has her do it. I guess it's realistic, but it feels like something is missing. It doesn't feel big enough. It's enough reason for Chelsea to start speaking again, yes, but at the same time, I feel like there needs to be something more, a weightier reason, a little more significance somewhere. When Chelsea speaks again, the reader doesn't quite believe she hasn't been speaking for a long time. She doesn't have quite as much hesitation as you'd expect. The silence doesn't seem to have changed her in any significant way. Don't get me wrong, she is changed, just not necessarily by her silence. I guess I wanted her words to be more significant, to mean something more, to be chosen more carefully. Instead the author almost purposefully makes her new words be nothing special. Chelsea herself expects to say more brilliant things, and she doesn't. It just felt odd to me. It cheapened Chelsea's experience for me (cheapened my connection and identification with her experience, that is).

But aside from what I felt was a somewhat unfocused and slightly less meaningful ending than it should have been, I mostly liked what the book had to say and how it said it. I thought the characters were extremely well-done. I wanted to know Chelsea's new friends myself! Chelsea herself is not a nice character when the book starts, obviously, but she grows as a character and grows on the reader. Overall, the book is an enjoyable, thought-provoking, three-star read with a relevant message for our culture. I'd read more Hannah Harrington.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Theaters Now

Oh, wow, where to start? By the way, that wasn't a good "wow," I'm sorry to say. The Hobbit left me and my husband, overall, disappointed. There were some great parts, I'll admit, and I'll get to those in just a bit. But, first, the "bad and ugly."

Perhaps my main problem with the movie is that it feels like a copycat of the Lord of the Rings movies. In fact, switch out a few characters, settings, and plotlines and you have The Fellowship of the Ring. A mismatched group goes on a quest, gets chased by orcs, visits the elves, gets caught in a storm (of sorts) on a narrow mountain path, and gets chased beneath the mountain (which is ludicrous; they fall continuously, even hundreds of feet, some of them getting smashed by a huge, fat goblin king, and come out unscathed). Now, isn't that line-up of events exactly The Fellowship of the Ring? Granted, some of that is straight out of The Hobbit, but a lot of the details aren't, my husband informs me. (It's been too long since I read The Hobbit for me to compare. My husband just re-read it.) And then as the flames rise and all hope seems lost, the eagles swoop in and save the day. My husband says a form of this is actually in The Hobbit, too, but I remember it best from The Return of the King movie, where Frodo and Sam are waiting to die, hot lava all around, after destroying the ring. Not much about this newest movie stands out from its predecessors, but it could have. It's not that The Hobbit is badly written, not at all! So, it baffles that Peter Jackson and his crew felt the need to change it so much, to add pieces of history from other Tolkien manuscripts but not even follow those correctly.

Now, had I not seen the other three Lord of the Rings movies, I would have thought this movie was beautiful. I don't mind the CG effects as much as others, my husband included, who would prefer a more realistic art and backdrop. I love the settings of Middle Earth...but I've seen it all before. The first few times Lord of the Rings panned over a straight line of travelers traversing a mountain ridge with breathtaking majesty behind them, I thought that was awesome. This time, it's just old...and time-consuming.

This movie does not need to be as long as it is, and The Hobbit certainly doesn't need to be three movies. It's a rather short little book, and it's very singularly focused...on a hobbit. It's not The Hobbit: The Fellowship of the Arkenstone. It's not The Hobbit: Thorin is the New Aragorn. It's not The Hobbit: A Dwarf's Tale. It's The Hobbit[: no addendum].

But where the movie went right, I'll admit, it went oh-so-right. I absolutely loved Bilbo. Perhaps it was partly my familiarity with the actor as Watson on the Brits' TV show Sherlock, but I was thoroughly enamored with his portrayal of Bilbo. He salvages a tiny bit of the movie and endears himself to us as well as any previously portrayed hobbit ever has. Bravo, Martin Freeman!

One part my husband and I agree goes particularly well is the chaotic dwarf supper at Bilbo's house. It's wonderful fun and adds life to a cast of characters that are otherwise unremarkable and interchangeable. I also enjoyed the capture by and escape from the trolls and the riddle exchange with Gollum, both memorable parts of The Hobbit.

But even I noticed places where details didn't quite match up with the book, such as the manner in which Bilbo discovers the ring. That seemed so iconic in the book to me that I wondered how you could mess with it. After all, it's been ages since I read the book, and I still remember it. His fingers stumble upon it in the dark. In the movie, however, Bilbo sees the ring fall from Gollum. It bothered me at first, but my husband actually argued in favor of the change, and now I can see why they did it for the movie. It helps establish that the ring was Gollum's, that he lost it accidentally, and even that the ring was looking for a new master. You'd only know the last by being familiar with the story already, but I suppose the movie's take is a more cinematic representation than simply discovering it underhand.

Aside from enjoying the few good, straight-from-the-book events, my overall feeling during the movie was one of boredom. The scenery shots were too long. The extra characters weren't essential to the plot (at least, not the book's plot). The elves were nothing new. Radagast was interesting but nonessential.

Now, contrary to my husband's feelings and despite what I said above about The Hobbit needing to be about a hobbit, I did enjoy Thorin's back story. I only wish it were more true to Tolkien's work, but my husband can tell you all about that; it's not my area of expertise.

My husband could even tell you that Bilbo wasn't quite right, that they tried to make him a hero when he is not, more purposeful than he actually is. Well, I didn't notice that so much during the viewing, but I thought it was an interesting observation worth noting.

My husband and I are not a case of opposites attracting, at least not in the way we think. I must say this so you don't think I'm just being a parrot. I think the people you watch a movie with can influence your take on it, but in this case, I gave Nick my thoughts before he told me his. And I'm refraining from including most of his complaints.

So, star rating? Oh, that's hard...because honestly, I'll probably go see how the story progresses and ends. It's Middle Earth, after all, and who doesn't love the place? I like to see it any way I can. But was this movie The Hobbit? No. Was it an Unexpected Journey? You bet. And for me, that wasn't a good thing. I think I'm rather alone in my views, so if you loved the movie, great! It's just my take.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Darkest Minds

[DISCLAIMER: I read this book before the school shooting in Connecticut and wrote some of this before that, as well. I do not mean for this review to reflect an opinion on the shootings or have anything to do with them, but some might find it in poor taste. For sure, the timing is bad. Please do not take my words the wrong way, and please do not read further if you have been personally affected by this tragedy.]

Just in time for Christmas, you can pick up one of the best books I've read this fall. It really pulled me in with its high-stakes danger and underlying theme about being afraid of one's own power. The Darkest Minds, by Alexandra Bracken, is the first novel in a new series for young adults. As the title suggests, there's a large element of darkness to this book. It's similar to the darkness of The Hunger Games, though instead of kids killing kids, it's adults torturing and killing kids, which might be worse in some ways.

Ruby is afraid of what she can do. That's why she's kept her true abilities a secret for six years, ever since her tenth birthday. Not that she could use them anyway. Her kind, meaning kids with powers sorted and identified by colors ranging from blue to red, are imprisoned in camps, forced to work, supposedly being rehabilitated for the outside world, though aside from some experimentation, the only rehabilitation going on is that of making sure they fear and obey the guards over them. All the others of her color are gone, disposed of. As far as she knows, Ruby is the only one left, and then her secret is revealed. No one escapes the camps, but with her life on the line, Ruby manages it. But has she gone from one form of control to another? Desperate to keep her identity a secret, scarred by memories of what she's capable of, Ruby is hesitant to let anyone in, even when her heart is longing for the friendships and romance being offered her. One thing is for sure, Ruby's old life is gone, and she will have to find her own way in a new world.

I like plotlines that are a little dark sometimes. Maybe that's why I like to read dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. But there's more to it than just the thrill of it. I don't like a book that has no hope. So maybe that's what I like about this kind of book: the trickle of light in the night, the hope that pulls the characters through, the triumph over the trials. The higher the stakes, the better the hard-won victory. I think that's part of the appeal.

Ruby goes through a lot of internal struggle, which I really like, too. It's more than teenage angst. Ruby is powerful, and rather than use that power, she wants to escape it. She doesn't want to be dangerous, but she is. That makes for interesting internal and external conflict.

The plot is fast-paced, a chronicle of one escape after the next with truly loveable companions and complicated bad guys with varying degrees of evilness in a semi-post-apocalyptic United States. I love where the book leaves off for the sequel to pick up at. I don't want to spoil anything, but I think I can give you this: the book leaves you with one tantalizing question: is it sometimes necessary to choose a lesser evil to combat a greater one?

I almost gave this book five stars, I really did. I liked it that much. After all, I gave The Hunger Games five stars. But I couldn't quite do it, so it stands at four, maybe four and a half. Though there were tiny annoyances here and there (like the fact that Canada and Mexico would close their borders to the United States, and the reason given is that they never liked the United States and just needed a good excuse...right), the main reason is that it is truly dark and horrifying at places without the balance of a faith-based worldview. It's not too graphic, but the imagination is afforded lots of room to fill in the blanks. So, be warned, this book may not be for everyone. I do think it's appropriate enough for its targeted age group, though.

It's really too bad this book is just coming out this Tuesday because I'm looking forward to the next book already! But anticipation is fun, too, so join me and let's anticipate this next great series together!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


This is not an advance reader's copy for once. I picked up a used copy of Starters from my local bookstore. If I didn't already have about 50 books to read (The goal of reading 50 books this year was to diminish that pile, not replace! Too many interesting books!), I'd be ready to read the sequel, Enders, right now. Unfortunately, the release date was pushed back from this month to next year. It appears this is a two-book series with some short e-books between. Very unusual for a young adult series these days to not have at least three novels, but I don't mind. I get to read only the first book of so many series. I'd be happy to read a young adult novel with a solid ending and no planned sequels. Bravo, Lissa Price, for changing things up a bit.

Starters is a little like a tamed-down version of Joss Whedon's TV show Dollhouse, from a few years ago. Callie is a Starter, a teenager at the beginning of her life. Those who aren't Starters are Enders, elderly people who have figured out how to extend their lives to 200 years. Everyone between about 20 and 60 is dead, unvaccinated against deadly spores released in the wars. Starters have no rights, especially if they are unclaimed by grandparents, and Callie is one of those. In order to make some sort of living, she is forced to consider illegal employment at the body bank, where Enders can rent her body for a limited time to live as young people again (Dollhouse-esque). Callie is supposed to sleep through the rental, but then something goes wrong and she finds herself in the middle of a plot to murder. As Callie pretends to be what she is not, hoping against hope to salvage the situation and meanwhile finding unexpected friendship, including a love interest, she becomes part of something bigger than she ever imagined, and there's no backing out now.

Lest you think I am swayed by the hype written on the cover of a book, let me tell you that this is certainly not the next Hunger Games, as this and far too many other books are claiming to be. The next Hunger Games will look so different from The Hunger Games that no one will see it coming, believe me. After all, there's not one single vampire in Katniss's story. Part of the success of big young adult series is their uniqueness.

But Starters is still a decent story that hit me at just the right spot after a month of not having time to read that I'm giving it four stars. It's not brilliant, but it's entertaining, suspenseful, intriguing, and surprising. And those who liked The Hunger Games might find some of the same appeal in this book. The end of Starters was not completely unexpected, but I liked where it was going as it led up to the sequel. It reminded me a little of this fall's half-season finale of the TV show Once Upon a Time, where everything seemed to be coming to a happy resolution until that final "Oh, snap!" moment when they set up the central conflict for the next half of the season. Starters ends that way.

This Christmas, if you need a good book series for a teenager you know (or, let's be honest, yourself), this is one of the better books I've read lately. The sequel comes out in 2013, but details have not yet been announced. For more information, you can go to

Stay tuned to the blog for an upcoming review of another great read, out this month.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Burning and In-law Bonding

So, I attended a book burning. In my defense, most (though, not all) of the books were advance reader copies, which cannot be sold. They were sent to my sister-in-law, who owns a bookstore, and in her defense, she'd given ample opportunity to her customers to go through them and take what they wanted. But there were still boxes and boxes...

My father-in-law was delegated to do the dirty work, but since I had the time and inclination, I volunteered to "help" or, really, selfishly salvage whatever I might have missed the first time around. Good father-in-law/daughter-in-law bonding time, right?

So, a few books made it into the fire. My father-in-law cringed every time he threw one in, and I warmed myself by their heat as I sifted through the rest. Soon, we were both reading back covers. The "trash" my sister-in-law had thrown out was easier to go through. Yes, we delayed the inevitable by scavenging. (Hey, I found some craft supplies for my three-year-old.) Finally, all that was left was books. We watched several volumes of old ACT workbooks burn (the boring texts weren't hard to get rid of), and suddenly, burning pages lifted into the twilight, drawing out a lone bat who thought he had company. The sky was full of black spots, and my father-in-law and I looked at each other sheepishly and agreed that burning more books would be too dangerous; surely someone would take free books, and then they wouldn't be our problem.

There's nothing like aborting a book burning with your father-in-law. (Did I just say that? On a book blog, no less?) Real life is sometimes stranger than the young adult fiction I read, and that's saying a lot.

Breaking Dawn, Part 2 in Theaters Now

I saw Breaking Dawn, Part 2 on its opening day. It speaks to how crazy my life with two toddlers has become that I am just now posting this review. (It's the last day of November, and I haven't even finished one book this month...which puts me a tad behind in meeting my goal of 50 books this year!) All those who were interested have already seen this movie, so I'm not sure whom I'm reviewing for at this point. At least my thoughts aren't as stale as this review's timing. Rest assured that I did get my initial thoughts down pretty quickly after watching the second part of Breaking Dawn.

Aside from the first Twilight movie, this finale was the movie I was most looking forward to because Bella has finally turned and there is no more angst about her giving up humanity or being a lesser being than Edward, and we get to see the gathering of all the cool vampires. There's a lot more action, not quite as much kissing (though that's in there, too). But of course, nothing could have quite lived up to the book in regard to the new vampires. There just isn't enough time in a movie to get into each character (it's quite a lot to absorb in the book, as it is). No, what really surprised me was not how cool the vampires were but my reaction to Bella's daughter and their family dynamics. As a mother of a baby daughter myself, I was really touched by those scenes. They made the movie resonate emotionally with me, whereas without them, I might have been disappointed. Baby Renesmee, with her knowing eyes, is so very cute. And the actress they got to play the older Renesmee...beautiful creature. That hair. Lovely.

There were a few things here and there in the movie that I thought were slightly corny or unbelievable, but then I had to remember that I was watching a movie about vampires and werewolves. Believability is out of the equation. In one case, it's more of a plot hole. That's when we are shown baby Renesmee's decked-out nursery, and then shortly after, we are informed that the Cullens will be moving because of the risk of Bella, who's supposed to be dead (and sort of is), being seen. If they knew they'd be moving immediately upon Bella's awakening, they would not have taken the time to set up a baby room. You could argue that they are rich enough to afford to make one baby room here and another wherever. That's true, too. It just struck me as odd. The movie really moves fast, so the details don't always flow together seamlessly.

(SPOILER alert--I have to say it, even though you've likely seen it or aren't going to) All you crazy fans out there bawling at the end of the movie, don't tell me you really thought they were all going to die. That's not how the book ends, is it? You think they'd butcher the book that badly? It's been awhile since I read the book, so I was kind of wondering what was going on. I figured the movie was taking some artistic license, but I knew who was going to come through in the end. So, I just figured nobody would be truly dead (dead again, I suppose I should say) until I saw the proof. After all, vampires can put their heads back on. That's why they burn them, too. Of course, there was some burning going on, which had me a little tense. I was, like, hurry up and win the fight so you can get those flames out! Ha! Well, as you know if you've seen it, they didn't do it quite like that at all. I admit, I was very surprised by the end. Maybe I shouldn't have been, but like I said, it's been awhile since I read the book. I couldn't remember exactly how things went down. To be honest, I felt cheated. Talk about pulling punches! But that's okay because it ends like it's supposed to, as it does in the book. For some reason, the book didn't make me feel cheated. Something must have been lost in translation.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. It has some beautiful scenery and decent acting. Plus, it's just fun to see book characters come to life on screen. But I missed seeing more of the dynamics between Bella and the characters. You just can't do that like you can in a book. At least they got Charlie's part right, but maybe that's due to Billy Burke himself. (Have you seen TV's Revolution? He's brilliant!) So, yeah, I enjoyed the movie, but it won't endure in memory. I'm already looking forward to the next movies of the season. And if you are sad to see this franchise end, don't be! The Hunger Games sequels are still to come, and sooner or later, another book series will grip us all, including the filmmakers, inspiring us to show up for the first seats at midnight (or 10:00 pm; what was THAT all about? Or at 2:40 in the afternoon on the release date so that we can still catch one of the first shows but not have to sit through it with screaming teenager fans; yep, that was me.). I'm not sad to be moving on.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Discover Your Windows

Our whole church has been reading this book, Discover Your Windows: Lining Up with God's Vision, by Kent R. Hunter. It's nonfiction self-help about returning your church to Biblical worldviews so that it (and you) can be effective in ministry. Hunter delineates ten windows we see the world and our church through. How we look through each of these windows, dealing with issues from finances to giftedness, reveals where our hearts are at and if we are aligned with God's worldview. For instance, the first window is that of Purpose. What is the primary purpose of the Church? Is it to be inwardly focused on the members, or is it to be focused on leading the lost to Christ? Two very different churches arise out of these two answers. This first window is the foundation of the rest of the book. If you can't agree with Hunter that the Church's mission is first and foremost to the lost, then you'll be at odds with him for the nine remaining windows, too.

I find nonfiction to be pretty dry, so I generally don't read it. When I do, it's either a gift to me or it's carefully selected, and the going is slow. I would never have picked this book up if it wasn't something our church was doing together. I pretty much agree with Hunter, and if I didn't, I wouldn't have picked up the book then either. But having read it, I do think it's a good book for a church to read together to get onto the same page, especially if your church seems to have lost its focus or become stagnant.

The book is biblical, as far as I know the Bible, and I really like that about it. It's straight forward truth-telling, not beating around the bush or sugar-coating anything. Sometimes churches need a wake-up call. Of course, if God isn't in it, they'll just turn over and hit the snooze. Books can't change you, but they can get you thinking, and in a group, they can get you thinking alike. There's power in that. So, I like what the book has to say. It needs to be said.

I'm not as fond of aspects of the presentation. I had a hard time, for some reason, wrapping my head around the concept of the windows. I get that a window can alter your perception of reality; that wasn't the issue. I understood the concepts but kept getting hung-up on the terminology. Each chapter ends with a review of the windows that have already been discussed. That was nearly useless to me. Simply by looking at each window summary phrased like this: "Window 1: Your Purpose Determines Your Mission," I couldn't always recall the central point. Something just wasn't clicking. Perhaps I needed a more visual metaphor, but maybe that wouldn't have been concise enough.

Hunter begins most of his chapters with a story, most likely fictional but based on what happens in churches today. I like storytelling, so that method of teaching worked for me. But one of the very first illustrations of the book has to do with football, and this is just personal preference, but that turned me off. Hunter asks you to imagine what it would be like to be in the huddle during the fourth quarter. Basically, that's jibberish to me, but I understand enough to know that that's not someplace I'd like to imagine myself ever! The point had to do with the fact that those football players don't focus on the stench of that moment; they're too focused on the goal. Unfortunately, I was grossed out and bored, so that particular illustration didn't work for me.

I think the book also needs an updated revision. It was published 10 years ago, when, apparently, audio tapes were still a valid listening option, as it references them for resources frequently. I'm guessing that there are also more recent books and other resources that would be more helpful for today's audience. Nonfiction goes out of style fast.

I might give an updated version of the book four stars, but this one gets three. It's still a solid church resource.


Breathe, by Sarah Crossan, seems to be one of those young adult post-apocalyptic dystopias that's hot on people's radar right now. The premise is that the world has run out of oxygen, which is sort of unique. I've read stories where the air is poisoned or where low oxygen is just one of many other bad things. But to have oxygen be as valuable as gold, where only the rich can even afford to exercise and oxygen use is taxed, that was a take I hadn't seen before. That makes this book stand out because, honestly, the rest of it is pretty run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic, dystopian plot. The people live in a bubble, literally. Their lives are regulated. There's a resistance. When so many stories are so similar these days, you have to have something that stands out. Regulated oxygen is a nice setting for a story, but the plot itself has to be engaging. It's not that this one isn't, but there were road blocks to my complete enjoyment.

First of all, the characters have to be intriguing. I have to care about them. I have to care about what they care about. There were two major obstacles I had to hurdle to get there.

One, the first thing you get to know about the characters is who is in love with whom. Quinn likes Alina, but Alina likes Abel. And Bea likes Quinn. Love triangles galore! It was once pointed out to me that the love triangle is an overused plot device, and the more I read young adult fiction, the more I agree. Even The Hunger Games, good stuff that it is, suffers from this malady. It does make for interesting conflict and can be done well (I'd argue that The Hunger Games has one of the better triangles.), but when you're already wary about it and it's the first thing you notice in a book, it's something that's hard to overlook. It's also not a very good way to introduce characters. If all I know about Bea is that she loves a guy who loves someone else, I'm going to think she's a fool. If I'm introduced to other aspects of her character first, by the time that bombshell is dropped on me, I'm likely to be more forgiving. The person you date does not define you. Let's not send that message to our young people. Okay, sorry, getting off the soap box now....

The second obstacle to getting to know the characters is the narration. The book is split into three separate points of view, different characters alternating the narration of different chapters. That's okay when the voices are vastly different from each other, when you begin a new chapter and know (without having to refer to the title name) that it's a new character. Quinn, Bea, and Alina narrate. I'm not sure Quinn is the best choice of name for a male character. The voice of his chapters does stand out more than that of the girls', so that helped, but I had to remind myself he was a he at first. His character's uniqueness is also helped by the fact that he is the only rich kid of the trio. Both the girls are from the poor sector, so it was especially hard to differentiate between them at first. One's with the resistance, and one is not, but even so, put them side by side and I couldn't have told you which was which. Later on in the story, it gets better. Each becomes her own character eventually; just the beginning is confusing. My husband thinks that if you are going to have different narrators, each should sound distinct. I agree.

Aside from narration and main characters, there are a couple of other little things I have problems with. One regards morality, mainly Good vs. Evil. I like the delineation to be clear. As per some other dystopian fiction (SPOILER ALERT for The Hunger Games, if you haven't read the whole series yet), the resistance is played as the lesser of two evils, sort of like District 13 in The Hunger Games. At least, I thought that was the direction the author was going with it, but by the end of Breathe, the characters act like it's no big deal that the resistance can be cruel, too, like it's just what it has to do to keep order. I feel like the characters start to make a statement about it when we're first introduced to the resistance, but later, any sort of moral commentary fizzles away. I don't like the resistance leader; she isn't a great Good Guy, but I don't think she is supposed to be a Bad Guy. She just confuses me. To top it off, I feel like the book resolves the conflict the characters have with her too cheaply. I really don't like the leader's young sidekick either, but she is a great character, one of the kind you love to hate. It looks like the series will continue with her development, which could be interesting.

Overall, is the book worth the hype? If you're reading for romance (minor SPOILER ALERT), the love triangles of the beginning resolve themselves without drama, almost so that you wonder what they were there for in the first place. The characters, romance or no, are so-so but likeable enough. It's dealing with the lack of oxygen that continues to be the most intriguing aspect of this story. And even though the story copycats some other similar reads, I was still entertained. Three stars.

Friday, November 2, 2012


Rachel Cohn's Beta, advertised recently in Entertainment Weekly, is another one of those young adult dystopian novels that are so popular now, but this one has an interesting protagonist: a clone, just days old, in the body of a female teenager.

Elysia might be only a few days old, but she's been programmed to act her age. She's got everything--looks, physique, manners--everything but a soul. Clones do whatever humans tell them to do. They are property. But they can have good lives. For one, they live in a beautiful paradise, only accessible to rich humans, and without souls, they have no wants and desires. As long as they do their jobs, which they are programmed to do, life is bliss for the humans and as good as it needs to be for an emotionless, unfeeling clone. So, when Elysia begins to want things, she knows something terrible is wrong with her, which puts her in grave danger. The clones that don't work are sent to the infirmary, where they are practically tortured in order to discover what went wrong. For a clone who feels things, that is a very undesirable fate. Elysia must hide her big secret, but maybe there are others like her out there. Maybe there is a life she can have. Because the one she has isn't enough. Slavery isn't a life.

This book is not the next best thing in YA fiction, but it's relatively entertaining. The moral question of cloning is tackled head-on. Can a clone have a soul? Is it right to clone? If we did, how would we treat clones? With a clone protagonist, the book obviously favors one side of the issue over the other. In reality, though, we don't know the answers because we haven't yet cloned humans (to my knowledge). But scientists keep trying to find a way to do it. If they succeeded, would God breathe a soul into their creation? Interesting food for thought.

As far as other morality in the book goes, slavery seems to be the author's main concern. Clones become whatever you want them to be, including objects of sexual pleasure (for humans, of course). The book's morals clearly don't agree with that, but as with many young adult books, teenage sex, as long as it is performed by two loving partners with mutual consent, is okay. The book doesn't actually go all the way there (though there is a rape scene), but the implication that it would be acceptable is presented. There is also drug use with a rather mixed message, in my opinion. Obviously, our culture agrees it's bad, and that comes across in the book. But in regards to the clones, it almost seems like a good thing. I won't spoil any more than that. There may be more revealed on that end further on in the series, of which Beta is the first.

It was unique to get inside Elysia's head, not knowing exactly what sort of species she is. She's not human because she was born 16, or so. But she has human emotions. She often expresses things in terms of her programming. In some ways, she seems like a robot. Overall, I wasn't sure what to make of her. I liked her, but I did feel like she wasn't human. And I don't know if she is supposed to be.

Other than Elysia's character and what she knows or discovers, there's not a lot of development of the dystopian world. But I guess that's to be expected when your main character is a teenager; a teen's focus is narrow. There's a lot that could be talked about in future novels. This book takes place in a dystopian paradise, but much of the rest of the world is less idyllic and more post-post-apocalyptic (meaning life has been renewed after Earth's destruction). I'm curious to know if we'll get to see more of this in a broader story.

I give the novel three stars for an intriguing heroine.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Lucky One on DVD

Lately, Nicholas Sparks book-to-movie adaptations have been striking out with me, so I wasn't too eager to see The Lucky One. But it kept crossing my radar, and since there's been little else out that I really want to see, I rented it. I was sort of pleasantly surprised; at least it was better than average.

The movie stars Zac Efron as a soldier whose life is literally saved by the discovery of another man's discarded picture. Logan returns from war an emotionally wounded man. To avoid hurting his sister's family and to try to offer thanks to the woman in the photo, he sets off walking across the country to Louisiana. He means to just say "thank you," but is that enough? Unable to find the words or even explain himself, he ends up with a job at Beth's dog kennel. Beth (Taylor Schilling) is still struggling from the loss of her brother in the war, and raising a kid as a single mom isn't easy, especially when  her former husband Keith, also the town sheriff, is making life more difficult. Quiet Logan does everything he can to help, and eventually he and Beth fall in love. But Logan can't keep ignoring the real reason he entered Beth's life. And Keith will do anything to get him out of it.

It's an interesting story, probably even better in the book. And neither of the two main characters dies in the end! (Sparks seems to like his romances to be partly tragedies, too.) There's still a lot of angst and true-to-life emotional trauma, but the romance is fairly solid.

I was impressed with Zac Efron, even though his character is stoic and seems to hardly require acting. Knowing what Efron is capable of (High School Musical), seeing him in this very different role was remarkable. He obviously has a pretty broad acting range. It can't be easy to pull off stoic and still make your character likeable and reachable; there's a lot of internal acting there.

I did say the romance is good, but unfortunately, there is a sexual aspect to it, shown in more detail (though nothing graphic; it's rated PG-13) than it needs to be. I would have preferred it not to exist, but it is Nicholas Sparks. Why does "good romance" automatically come with sex these days? We women like our Pride and Prejudice just fine. (Although, Fifty Shades of Grey seems to be the new thing. I wonder, do some of the same women like both? Can't they see the difference?)

Besides the sexual immorality, I had one other beef with the movie toward the end. (SPOILER ALERT) Do you know what deus ex machina means? It's a plot device where a god, or the equivalent, comes out of nowhere to save the day. Basically, it's a cop-out. Characters don't have to make the hard decisions. They are miraculously saved. That happens with Keith. He is nicely ejected from the picture so that Logan and Beth and her son can become a family. No mention is made of the effects this might have on the kid, who admires his no-good dad. It's played like it's supposed to be "happily ever after" from here on out. I guess the movie didn't want to dwell on the emotional fall-out when it was trying to wrap things up. Maybe the book does better, but in that case, I suppose it's somewhat of a tragedy, after all.

Otherwise, I generally liked the movie. Beautiful setting, lots of dogs, good acting. If only it wasn't Nicholas Sparks! I say that tongue-in-cheek, of course. But I do wonder if he's ever going to give us another "walk to remember." (Oh, wait, that was a tragedy, too, albeit one with morals and a hopeful, positive message at the end.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Looper in Theaters Now

I was so excited to see this movie that I even let my husband fork out the extra cash to see it in a nice theater in a big city on my birthday getaway. But what a disappointment!

Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in a science fiction flick about time travel and murderers-for-hire. I guess I missed the part about them being hired guns and was more excited about the time travel aspect and the actors. My mistake.

Joe is one of these Loopers. He takes care of criminals who are sent to him from the future, where time traveling is illegal. Killing people in the past leaves no trail to follow. When a Looper has served enough time, he is sent his own future self to dispose of, along with enough gold to set him up for the next (and last) 30 years of his life. Loopers close the "loop" by killing their future selves and then get to live in peace until it's time to be on the other end of that gun. Neat and clean (the process, that is; not the movie).

The movie is rated R. I think it should be rated higher, like NC-17 or something (I don't even know what the next level is). Looper is brutally violent, and there is far too much (any is too much) upper female nudity, which I wasn't expecting at all. And when children are murdered for the "greater good," that crosses the line for me in the violence department.

Besides the time travel thing, there is one other science fiction aspect, involving telekinesis. This barely affects the plot except where it has to do with the main bad guy. Otherwise, it's poorly integrated and feels like a superfluous plot device to make the bad guy simultaneously more evil and cool.

After such a depressing story, it's rather amazing that the movie pulls off some redemptive value. Looper is not worth paying the money to see, but if you did, by accident, you won't leave in utter despair. In the end, love wins, and not just any love...a mother's love. That's pretty powerful. It's just buried by a load of images that are powerfully harmful.

Sure, Willis and Gordon-Levitt do a great job acting like the younger and older versions of the same person. Emily Blunt also has a great role as a protective, tortured single mom. The acting is fine. Even the story could have been acceptable with little improvements here and there. There's just no moral center to it.

I heard this movie compared to Inception as far as its capability to blow your mind. In no way does it stand a chance against Inception. The time travel leaves questions that are mind-blowing, certainly, but that's because they just don't make sense. Time travel always seems to have a hole somewhere. Dr. Who has a name for this: it's timey-wimey. That's okay for Dr. Who. Dr. Who blows my mind with its goodness. What does Looper have going for it if not a tightly woven time travel history? Sex and gore, and those don't fly on this blog.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) on DVD

I was so hesitant to watch the Oscar-nominated and award-winning Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I'd heard mixed reviews about it and thought it might be trying too hard to push an agenda or too depressing. What the agenda might be I wasn't certain. That's what comes of only half listening to gossip and not researching yourself.

When the movie finally came through on my netflix, I still didn't watch it right away. But I finally had time and the inclination, and watching it was certainly worth it, if emotionally exhausting.

Based on the novel by Jonathan S. Foer but inspired by the events of September 11, 2001, the movie tells the fictional story of Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old boy who lost his father in the Towers that morning. As the year following his father's death comes to a close, Oskar feels he is losing his dad for good. He hangs onto the vestiges of his father's time on earth, including six heartbreaking answering machine messages his father left once the attack started. When he finds a key among his father's possessions, he believes his dad left him a last scavenger hunt and message, and he embarks on a journey all over New York City to find the lock. Oskar, who suffers from something akin to Asperger's Disorder, discovers a city full of faces and people, some eager to help and some not, but each with his or her own story to tell. For the boy who's afraid of so many things, the journey is sometimes overwhelming, but Thomas Schell told his son to never stop looking, and so he doesn't. Caught in the young boy's circle of pain are his loving but somewhat lost mother, his caring and quirky grandmother, and his grandmother's mysterious renter, an old man without a voice and with past hurts of his own.

Thomas Horn is one of the best child actors I've seen since Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, August Rush). This is complex, heartfelt, amazing acting for a kid, even if he's older than he looks. He was approximately 14 when the movie was released in theaters. He stars in a film with Sandra Bullock (who plays his mother) and Tom Hanks (who plays his dad in flashbacks), but Thomas Horn is the one who shines. His acting partner for much of the movie, Max von Sydow (who plays the Renter), complements him perfectly. Together, they make both the laughter and the tears flow.

And, believe me, this is an emotional roller-coaster ride, weighted more heavily perhaps on the downward side than the up. As a mother myself, watching another mother feel like she's losing her son and must let him go to save him was tough. Sandra Bullock plays those emotions beautifully, and I felt like I was looking into a mirror as I cried along with her.

But the movie is not altogether depressing, and the ending, while sad enough, is also hopeful. I don't mind watching sad stories if they have satisfying endings. Mind you, I didn't say "perfect," and this one's ending isn't. But it met my needs for the story on a foundational level. Sometimes the more "perfect" movie endings don't ring true. I'd rather have the ring of truth and something hopeful at the end. Hope always exists, and that rings truer to me than everything working out beautifully.

The movie is morally sound, rated PG-13 for a bit of language but mostly for disturbing 9/11 images. People who lost loved ones in the Towers should be aware that this might not be for them. On the other hand, it could offer a sort of cathartic healing, too.

I give this movie three stars for superb acting with difficult material. I'm not in love with the story, but I was certainly affected and touched by it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Last Dragonslayer

You'd think a book with the title The Last Dragonslayer would be high fantasy or at least sport a fierce-looking dragon on the cover. Not this one. There are various covers for this book by British author Jasper Fforde, but my advance reader's copy has an old-school VW bug on the front, and that's about it. The image doesn't match the title, does it? But that title and that image together match the book perfectly.

The story takes place in some sort of modern-day other-Europe where kings rule and magicians are losing power and one last dragon remains. Jennifer Strange is a foundling, raised by nuns and then sent for a six-year term of servitude to a magician employment agency. It's actually a good job for a foundling, and Jennifer does it well, managing the affairs of the kingdom's last magicians, making sure they fill out the correct magic-usage forms and getting the weakening magicians minor jobs here and there, mainly magical housework and repairs.

But when magic mysteriously begins to increase and a prophecy predicts the death of the last dragon by noon on Sunday, Jennifer suddenly finds herself in the middle of a hectic week dealing with greedy rulers, conniving knights, temperamental magicians, and a new apprentice or two, not to mention her own evolving identity.

In case you haven't felt the vibe yet, this is a quirky book. Part modern urban fantasy, part something-I-haven't-put-my-finger-on-yet, this book is surely unlike anything in its genre on the market right now. It's targeted toward young adults, but it doesn't quite feel like a young adult book. In fact, Fforde has written other novels, but this is his debut young adult book. The heroine is a teenager, but the storytelling style and narration feel geared toward a different generation, or at least a different set of teens than your standard readers of Twilight and The Hunger Games. It's more cerebral, a tiny bit on the literary side, with tongue-in-cheek humor only the more nerdy teen here and there might get.

It's refreshing if you can get used to the style. For me, it was kind of slow-going at first. I enjoyed it, but I didn't feel compelled to read it in one go. The end goes a little faster. The beginning has a lot of set-up, maybe too much, I'm not sure.

The morals are good. There's no romance (again, not your typical young adult). The story is unique in a sort of "what if" way. And if you like it, it's a series, though I felt like the book ended more satisfactorily than many series books, and I don't feel like I'd have to read more. That might not be the best thing for the author, but I liked having a solid ending. Final verdict: three stars, but I'm keeping it on my shelf because there just isn't much else like it out there.

The Artist (2011) on DVD

Overall, I was not impressed with The Artist.

Unless you live under a rock (and, hey, I'm not knocking the coziness and safety of a nice, solid rock), you know that The Artist won this year's Best Picture Oscar. I finally got around to watching it on DVD, mostly, I confess, because my husband wanted to. I'm not really into silent films, but I've seen some, as well as other good early film classics, so I knew what to expect.

It is a decent tribute to the end of the silent film-making era, but not great. The acting is spot-on, a little like theater acting with exaggerated facial expressions and large body movements. Once I got into that, I enjoyed it and found it quite humorous, as it was meant to be.

I generally like new faces in movies, but in this case, I wish the movie had more known actors in it because it's entertaining to watch an actor you've seen in modern movies, such as John Goodman, attempt a more theatrical old-school acting style like this. But Goodman was the only familiar face for me.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) The movie's depiction of the transition from silent films to "talkies" is clever, but it isn't as well-done as I thought it could have been. Most of the movie is silent, but as the transition takes place, we get to hear a few sounds and, at the end, even words. I think the movie-makers should have run more with that. It was such a little touch it felt more like the movie stepped away from what it was trying to be rather than that it depicted a transition from silence to speech in films. I would have preferred to have all the sounds and speech at the end of the movie following the transition, but instead, the movie goes back to a silent film for part of that. It needed to be "all in" or leave out the sounds altogether, I think, but maybe that's just my preference for modern-day films surfacing.

More than that, however, what I didn't like about the movie was the story, unfortunately. It's about a romantic affair and an arrogant actor who doesn't learn a thing by the end, even after losing nearly everything. Maybe affairs were a big part of the times, I don't know, but for me, morality sometimes makes or breaks a story. With no clear indication that the affair was a reflection of culture at that time, this movie's morality broke it for me. Nothing bad is shown, of course. It's an emotional affair rather than a sexual one. (SPOILERS END)

The MPAA rates the movie PG-13 for, and I quote, "a disturbing image and a crude gesture," which just makes me laugh. There's nothing your little ones can't see. It's more that anyone under 13 (or maybe 20), with the rare exception, just isn't going to "get it."

If you are not familiar with silent films, this could be a good introduction, simply because it's made today and not a century ago and the film-makers are aware of their modern viewers. But if you have no intention of ever watching a classic silent film, there's no reason to watch this modern one either.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Rise of the Elgen (Michael Vey, Book 2)

Rise of the Elgen is the second book in Richard Paul Evans's young adult series about Michael Vey, a teenager with electric powers, so if you haven't read the first, don't start here. Reading this review might spoil the first book, and if you read this book first, you'll be playing catch-up for a long time. Start with The Prisoner of Cell 25, which I've reviewed for you here. If you like superheroes and science fiction, you'll like this series.

Again, if you haven't read the first book, there will be some major SPOILERS ahead. Michael Vey and his Electroclan, other kids with assorted electric powers, are on the run. After shutting down the facility he'd been a prisoner at and recruiting some of the formerly-evil electric teens to his cause, there isn't a place on the globe that Michael can run to where Dr. Hatch won't hunt him down. But Michael isn't planning on running away. He plans on running toward the danger so that he can free his mother from Hatch's cruel hand. The rest of the electric teens, and a few friends who aren't, are deeply loyal to Michael, so he's not alone. His best friend is a brainiac. His girlfriend can read minds. Two former school enemies and bullies owe him their lives, so even though they're not electric, they're part of the group, putting all that aggression to good use now. Then there's Zeus, who shoots electric bolts; McKenna, who heats things up; Abigail, who can ease pain with a touch; and Ian, who's blind but can see living things better than anyone. And as time passes, Michael's own powers of electrocution become stronger. The Electroclan is a force to be reckoned with. But so is Hatch. He still has some very powerful electric teens on his side, and the methods he'll use to keep his people in check provide him with a very loyal and dangerous group of soldiers of his own: the Elgen. This second book of the series takes the action into the jungles of the Amazon basin in Peru.

You can get bogged down in names and details in this series, but at the same time, part is that contributes to why it's so good. Evans puts all his characters to use. None of them are just along for the ride or a pretty face (okay, except maybe Wade, poor secondary character). Each electric power comes in handy. Each character contributes, both to the physical plot and to the emotional development of the book.

There's also something very good about this series and Michael Vey, in particular. Michael wants to do the right thing. He has all this responsibility on his shoulders, but the power never goes to his head. The good characters are clearly good, and the bad characters are clearly whatever they are: truly evil or conflicted or coerced. There's in-fighting in Michael's group, but they learn to overcome it and even fight for each other, instead. It's a series about teens who don't have it all together but who do have these amazing powers they are willing to use for good, even if it terrifies them to confront evil.

That doesn't mean the book's remotely realistic, but when are superhero stories ever? Yeah, things are a little over-the-top. There are lots of helpful coincidences (a fact the book doesn't deny) and lots of impossible odds. Peru is definitely not as dangerous as Evans makes it out to be. I grew up in the Amazon rainforests; I should know.

Despite the goodness of the Good vs. Evil being really good (or maybe to balance it), the evil is pretty awful at times: torture, violence, and death. The good guys try not to kill in cold blood, but there are casualties as they defend themselves. The bad guys don't have any such scruples, of course, and I'd be disappointed in the book if it pulled punches like that. But the level of violence, particularly in the torture, may not be for everyone.

That said, however, Rise of the Elgen is a good addition to Evans's series and a book that older teens and adults alike should enjoy. Four stars.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Battleship on DVD

Wow, I just finished watching Battleship on DVD, and I'm so excited that this movie is so much better than I thought it could be. I mean, it's crazy to base a movie off a game, let alone this one, but whoever thought up the plot had a lot of fun and stepped outside the box (the game box, that is), while also leaving in one very clever nod to the game as we know it. I'm impressed.

What makes any war or alien invasion movie good is a narrow focus, especially on character, and Battleship does just that. For reasons we don't know (and are never really told), Alex Hopper has made one big mistake out of his life. As a last-ditch effort, his brother recruits him to the Navy, but even the Navy can't reform him. It's not until Alex is trapped in a bubble on the ocean with alien invaders that he has a chance to try to redeem himself and make a final stand that will count.

The talented cast of characters includes memorable roles from Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgard, Tadanobu Asano, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker as the love interest, and Taylor Kitsch as Alex Hopper, just to name a few. Battleship is rated PG-13, mostly for intense sci-fi action. People die, but thankfully, it's not a complete disaster movie where half the cast is left at the end (let me amend that to the cast we care about). It runs long at slightly over two hours but doesn't feel like it, giving us just enough emotional drama to make us care and then filling in the rest with weird aliens and lots of stuff blowing up.

Sure, to some extent, it's a popcorn movie. You probably don't want to think too hard about logistics. But if you're okay with Dr. Who (Great Britain's sci-fi show about an alien who saves the universe over and over again; if you've never heard of it, you're missing out), this won't bother you.

If you are familiar with Hasbro's Battleship game (And who isn't? Or am I dating myself here?), you probably think this is the corniest idea for a movie yet, worse than making one off a theme park ride. But I suggest you give it a try. One thing can be said for sure about this type of movie: it's pure entertainment. You might even want to dust off those old game pieces when you're done; it's that inspiring.

Three and a half stars.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Destiny Binds (Timber Wolves, Book 1)

First of all, thank you to my friend Nathan who picked up this book, signed and all, for me at Gen Con this year. It was very thoughtful of him, and it's right up the alley of what I read.

Tammy Blackwell's first book in her Timber Wolves trilogy, Destiny Binds, begins the story of a girl named Scout who thinks the weirdest thing in her life is her ghostly looks...until Alex and his dangerous-looking brother Liam come along. Then people start acting strangely. Her non-biological "twin" brother Jase and his cousin Charlie, Scout's lifelong crush, forbid her to go anywhere near Alex, which even though he's the hottest new thing in school, isn't a problem for Scout. After all, Liam scares her, too. But when, through circumstances outside her control, Scout gets to know Alex better, she realizes how much she likes him. What's more, he likes her...a lot. The fact that Alex turns into a wolf during the full moon isn't what makes Scout afraid. It's what her brother and cousin might do that worries her, especially since she hasn't quite decided if her love for Alex is enough to erase her love for Charlie.

The plot itself is rather standard for young adult paranormal romance (new kid in school, hot supernatural beings, love triangle, life-or-death secrets). And werewolves are a trend that has come and gone (to be fair, this book was published in 2011). Still, the book stands on its own two feet through well-defined characters readers can identify with.

One thing this book really has going for it is its focus on relationships. The ties between Scout and her loved ones are strong, well-developed, and believable. Scout isn't a loner who needs a boyfriend to fulfill her. She has an overprotective but caring brother, an annoying but loveable little sister, a close girlfriend who isn't just a prop, and peers with distinctive quirks (read the book's first line, and you'll know what I mean). The parents don't factor into this story much, but I suppose you can't have everything. Scout herself isn't one-dimensional. She's intelligent, studious, and athletic. She's into martial arts. She doesn't consider herself a beauty nor does she surround herself with people who are (it's a bonus that Alex is beautiful, but that's not what gets her).

I was pleased with the moral direction of the book. It doesn't pretend teenagers aren't hormonal, but neither does it cross the line. And every time it gets close to that line, the author has her teenagers think about what they are doing. Maybe that doesn't seem realistic in today's sex-driven culture, but I like it. What's unrealistic is accepting that teenagers can't help their sexual impulses. Hormones do not trump the ability to think. They make it harder, sure, but not impossible.

I know only a little about this author. I know she is a librarian who wrote the book for the young adults in her area. I don't want to assume anything about her, for instance if she's Christian or not. There are references to church in the book, which doesn't necessarily mean anything. What I'm getting at is that the book feels very family-friendly with the emphasis on family relationships, the mention of church, the kissing-only make-out sessions. Yet, I don't feel like it sacrifices anything by leaving out the sex. The romance is still as steamy as it needs to be (in fact, still more than I'm strictly comfortable with) for its young adult readers. I wish more authors would exercise this tact. I can't speak for the other books in the series, but this one, at least, passes the morality test.

Plot-wise, parts of this book made me skeptical. I thought, I've seen this in that book, and that in another. It didn't feel like anything new or unique. But as I read further, I got caught up in the lives of the characters, in the punchy dialog and Scout's humorous narrative voice, and in the secrets and drama. The end sets up the rest of the trilogy so tantalizingly, leaving me, at least, with burning questions! I can't share them with you because that would be spoiling. (What a terrible ending, and I mean that in the best possible way...I think. Aaagh!) But suffice it to say, I'm curious about where Tammy Blackwell goes from here. Luckily for us, the entire trilogy is now out, so if you read this book and enjoy it, you don't have to wait for more.

Tammy Blackwell's books are available on Amazon in paperback or for the Kindle, and you can look her up at

A solid three-star read.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Don't Turn Around

Don't Turn Around is a title that implies you won't be able to put this book down. I'm not sure it completely lives up to its hopes, but it's a solid, three-star young adult read with a steady plot that doesn't rely on romance to move forward.

Peter is a rich kid who hacks into secret files and subsequently gets a houseful of thugs making threats. Noa is on the opposite end of life. She's a foster kid, living carefully on her own, a member of Peter's internet hackers' group, when she wakes one day to find herself strapped to a lab table. Though they don't know each other by face or real name, they will have to trust each other to figure out what dark secrets they have unwittingly unearthed before their pursuers catch up with them.

This book is good enough for the first in a series, but author Michelle Gagnon will have to pick up the pace in following books. The danger is real enough. People die, after all. But the secrets behind everything need to be bigger. Stakes have to be higher. I confess, I wanted something a little bit more science-fictioney than what I got. Maybe I read too much paranormal now, but the answers just aren't quite crazy enough, weird enough, awe-inspiring enough. The end of the book opens a new set of problems, but is it enough to hook the readers? Only the sequel knows. This book is available this month.

Premium Rush in Theaters Now

If you like bicycles and going fast, you'll like the movie Premium Rush, in theaters now. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee (yes, like the coyote), a likeable and dynamic New York City bike messenger who'd rather ride with one set gear and no brakes at 50 miles per hour than wear a suit and sit at a desk. I mean, if you put it that way, who wouldn't? But one day, his job lands him in more trouble than he's bargained for. When a dirty cop tries to stop him from delivering a package across town, Wilee becomes involved in a race that's about more than doing his job. It's about saving lives before he gets a bullet in his own head.

Premium Rush is a popcorn movie. The plot is relatively simple, though somewhat unique, probably appealing most to sporty types. The issues at stake are almost bigger than the movie, but that gives an otherwise potentially ho-hum movie about riding bicycles at super-fast speeds between New York City taxis (which is cool, yes, but only for about five minutes) an extra edge. It's an action thriller with a bit of romance, the sweat and blood kind, which again probably doesn't appeal to everyone.

(Minor SPOILERS) At the end you can't think too hard about the movie because then you might wonder what the whole point was for Wilee to risk his life (because the person who sent him with the package arrives on the scene herself, so why didn't she deliver her own package and avoid calling attention to it by having a middleman?).

The movie is rated PG-13 but does have violence and language, including the f-word. It makes the police seem either stupid or evil, which I don't particularly like. Breaking the law becomes fine if you have a higher purpose, but that's very subjective. Who's to say that higher purpose is actually right?

So, the morals of the movie aren't great, and the action is so-so. There's no rush to see Premium Rush, but if you have the money, an hour and a half, and the inclination, it's as good an excuse as any to eat popcorn, especially during this time of year's movie "dry season."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting on DVD

In case you haven't picked up on this yet, I'm a very emotional movie watcher. I really get into my movies, and I don't mind a good cry. It's actually kind of cathartic for me. What to Expect When You're Expecting is one of the more emotionally satisfying movies I've seen in awhile. I bawled. I laughed out loud. And I did it again and again, back and forth, on a roller coaster of a ride. I'm not sure how this movie would affect people who haven't had kids or aren't mothers. I can't imagine it would be the same. Part of my reaction to the movie came from identifying with it in so many ways. I've suffered the miscarriages. I've waited years to get pregnant. I've had the embarrassing pregnant moments. And now I have the kids that make it all worth it.

To say this movie is based on the book What to Expect When You're Expecting is misleading. I think the book inspired a completely original idea for a movie, and the only thing the two really have in common is the title. One is a self-help book. The other is a handful of made-up stories about a variety of people encountering various pregnancy ups and downs. If there's any overlap there, it's only in the visual representation of some of the pregnancy scenarios you might encounter and the emotions that go with them.

This movie is a bit like another movie I recently reviewed, New Year's Eve, in that it's full of star actors, each with his or her own storyline. However, I think What to Expect When You're Expecting interweaves the stories better than New Year's Eve does. Each storyline also gets more time or, at least, involves the viewer more emotionally, so that the movie feels fuller and more complete.

Cameron Diaz, Matthew Morrison, Jennifer Lopez, Dennis Quaid, Anna Kendrick, and Chris Rock star. But those are just the actors I know best. There are five couples featured in this film, and all the performances are funny or heartfelt, including one by Elizabeth Banks just about every woman who's ever been pregnant probably identifies with.

Had I recently had a miscarriage and were I still waiting to get pregnant again, this movie might have been too much to handle. But having the distance I do now from the heartache, with successful pregnancies between, this movie was about perfect for me.

Sure, it's sometimes irreverent and at certain moments almost indecent. You can't have a discussion about the whole of pregnancy without at least alluding to the sex. But when you are trying to get pregnant, sex becomes more of a clinical thing. Therefore, the sexual aspect of this movie doesn't bother me as much as it does in most other movies. In fact, it offers room to discuss what it might mean to have sex outside of marriage. I was so happy to see the men in this movie stepping up and being willing to take responsibility with the women they impregnated outside of wedlock. Even though the movie reflects some of our society's moral degradation, it also shows some of the consequences of our actions. And though this movie might be TMI for some people, it's actually quite tasteful and not nearly as graphic as it could be. It's rated PG-13 for some sexuality, language, and mature thematic material. Sex is obviously implied, but not much is shown.

Speaking of too much information, I'm the type of person who can't stand to read all those books you're supposed to read before having kids. I let my husband do that, as he desired, and he passed along any critical information. I'm more of a tell-me-what-I-absolutely-have-to-know type of girl, and I'll figure out the rest. So, I appreciate the movie's nod to people like me when one of the characters is presented with a wall of information about pregnancy, and her partner says he'd rather not know what could go wrong. That is exactly what the book What to Expect When You're Expecting is all about: things that could go wrong! It was only a moment in the movie, but they hit it on the nail for me.

As I said before, I really don't know if this movie is for everyone. It might be one of those things where you have to have been there to get all of it. On the other hand, a couple who doesn't have kids yet told me recently that they thought it was hilarious, and there are certainly moments for everyone interspersed as a sort of comic relief among the more serious content. Overall, there's more comedy than tragedy, more to laugh about than cry about. But the balance of both is beautiful and deeply satisfying.

Four stars.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Spindlers

I must confess, I picked up middle-grade novel The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver, more because of the author than interest in the content. That's funny, too, because I didn't love her young adult novel Delirium as much as I do most other dystopian novels. I guess I figured I'd give her another try. In fact, I have another older middle-school novel of hers that's been waiting awhile on my shelf. Maybe it's time to give that one a shot, too.

The Spindlers starts out slow...and a little kiddy, to be honest. I felt like I was reading elementary school fiction, and that's the age group I would recommend this to, having finished it. But it picks up toward the middle and is downright compelling as it nears the end.

Liza is a normal girl who wakes up one day to discover that her brother's soul is missing. He's still there, pretending to be himself, but Liza knows the difference. Her babysitter (and here I'm thinking, really? How can I take this adventure seriously if it's put into the realm of the babysitter's ghost stories?) has told her of the Spindlers, spider-like creatures who rule the Underworld and steal souls. Liza knows they have Patrick, and with the grownups calling her a storyteller and fibber, it's up to her to go down and get him back. But the Spindlers aren't the only danger that awaits her.

Yeah, I wasn't too fond of the whole babysitter-tells-stories-that-end-up-being-true idea. It makes you wonder from the start if any of the adventure is real or if it's all just in Liza's head or dreams. Perhaps the author realized this because she makes a point of proving to the reader (and to Liza, actually) that it's all real. But if you really wanted to, you could say it all happened in Liza's head, and it would still fit the book. I don't think that's what the author meant to imply at all, but it could easily be read that way.

That certainly contributed to my dislike of the beginning of this book. It was slow, too, in getting to any real danger. Liza meets some vaguely interesting creatures at the start of her adventure in the Underworld, but I kept hoping for more. And finally, the book gave me more. The Spindlers are the ultimate dangerous goal, but Liza's journey there holds its own dangers and surprises.

I'm not sure how old Liza is, but she seems young, maybe only slightly older than Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The book is targeted toward grades three through seven, but I would recommend it to the younger side of that spectrum. From what I've observed, kids who read usually read above their age level.

I was pleased to see that as in The Chronicles of Narnia, there is real danger (as long as it's not all a dream) for Liza in the Underworld. It's good to expose kids to a healthy amount of danger in books. Notice, I say "healthy," and by that I mean a parent still needs to monitor a child's reading experience. But I would say The Spindlers is a pretty safe bet for most kids.

Three stars for turning out to be an imaginative adventure worth reading.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

All's Faire in Love on DVD

I had never heard of the 2009 indie movie called All's Faire in Love, but it must have come out on DVD only this year because it's still in the new releases section of the rental store. I happened to see the cover and thought, "It takes place at a Renaissance Faire, and it's a romantic comedy. I like Renaissance Faires (though I've been to only one). That just might be cool." I wasn't expecting much, and I knew it couldn't be much worse than some of the B-movies I've picked up. Perhaps it was because I wasn't expecting a lot that I enjoyed this movie. It certainly surprised me in some great ways.

The starting point of the movie is this: in order to pass a class he's not taking seriously and continue to play football, college football star Will must spend the summer working at a Renaissance Faire, per his professor's orders. Kate, fresh out of business school, really wants to be an actress, and instead of getting a big job with a corporation, she "runs away" to the Renaissance Faire to join a friend who works there. Will and Kate are newbies, so both get the lowliest jobs of fetch-boy and fetch-girl. I couldn't care less about their background stories. The fun begins when they get to the faire and have to deal with their eccentric coworkers, who perhaps take their roles a little too seriously.

This movie is so quirky, and I really had fun watching it. Sure, it's cheesy at times, particularly the music. The music is so very not original. They try to use a Christian song as a romantic song, and I just had to laugh. Of course, Christians have done the opposite. (Have you ever heard The Lion King lyrics sung as if they were about God? "He lives in you. He lives in me...")

I think this movie could very well have been too cheesy for me if not for the right actors. Christina Ricci and Owen Benjamin star as Kate and Will and, forgive me for gushing a little, they are so cute together. Though Ricci's name is vaguely familiar to me, I really don't know these actors from Adam, so I had no preconceptions. I took their acting at face value, and for these roles, they work beautifully. Their co-actors are fun to watch as well in all their loveable or ridiculous parts.

Again, I wasn't expecting much, so when the football player suddenly revealed what a superb piano player he was, I didn't shout "foul." I just took it in stride as part of this silly but absolutely fun and funny movie.

It isn't even as dirty as it could have been. When I visited a Renaissance Faire, I was introduced to how bawdy it can be. Innuendo and cleavage everywhere. This movie doesn't omit that, but it also doesn't go too over-the-top. (A curse on someone's balls and a chastity belt do come into play, however.) It's rated PG-13.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all for me was that I almost immediately recognized the location of the set. Yes, indeed, of all the Renaissance Faires to choose from, the one they chose for their set was the one I've been to in Michigan. Icing on the cake.

Three stars for a fun romp. If you've ever enjoyed a Renaissance Faire, this will take you back, costumes, turkey legs, and all.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New Year's Eve on DVD

I never thought New Year's Eve would be good. For one, it's a movie that immediately dates itself by taking place on the eve of 2012. Who's going to want to ever watch it again? Two, another movie, Valentine's Day, was supposedly similar with its large cast of characters but rather inappropriate, from what I heard. I never saw it and didn't want to. I was afraid New Year's Eve would be on the inappropriate side, being a romantic comedy, and I probably wouldn't ever have watched it had it not been for my curiosity in its cast, a huge ensemble of people I'm vaguely familiar with including in no particular order Zac Efron, Cary Elwes, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Hilary Swank, and Lea Michele, just to name a few. Finally, did you ever hear anything about New Year's Eve after it came out? I think, if anything, I heard it was a flop.

I'm afraid all that most movies like this have going for them are their casts. The movie is often a one-deal show that draws an opening weekend crowd just because of the names in it but doesn't have enough substance to stand on its own two feet. It makes sense. You get all these big names, all far too famous to get anything but the major roles in a story. So, instead of creating a single story with a lot of characters, you have to create a mishmash of interconnected stories, each with its own two or three stars.

And to an extent, that's exactly what New Year's Eve is: a mishmash. But it's a surprisingly clean one with some unexpectedly heartfelt, tear-jerker stories: real-life snapshots of lives on the cusp of starting anew. It starts out a little disjointed, and not all the stories intersect, which might have been better. But for about ten different plots going on at once, it works thematically and emotionally. As a storyteller myself, I actually kind of liked it. Because each story's normal two-hour movie slot is drastically shortened to fit alongside everyone else's, the stories have to stay focused and emotionally engaging. That's what works for the movie.

I may never see it again and it will likely disappear off the grid, but it wasn't a waste of time or even a bore. When the movie season is slow (like October's scare fest), remember this one. Three stars.

The City's Son

One of the weirdest books I've read recently is The City's Son (The Skyscraper Throne, Book 1), a young adult novel by Tom Pollock. It's written in Great Britain's English and has a very modern European feel even though it's fantasy, adding to its foreignness. But writing and author aside, this is still one of the odder ideas I've come across, an idea that, incidentally, works really well.

Beth is more than a tagger, but she does like to leave her mark wherever she goes, beautiful pieces of graffiti, works of art, all over London. Usually, her friend Pen is right beside her. But when Pen inexplicably turns against her, Beth finds herself alone on the streets in a London suddenly more wild than she'd ever imagined. It begins with the ghost of a train and leads to a boy with cement in his skin and oil in his veins, the teenage Prince of the streets. She's only human, something she took for granted before, but there's a whole city of non-human beings dying under the destructive forces of the Crane King, and Beth isn't about to turn her back on them, especially when she has no one else.

I confess, this book took some getting used to. It's dark and gritty and sometimes just plain gross. There's a creature who animates himself (sometimes herself) with garbage and vermin. The Prince sweats oil. Certain babies are born into stone skins, crying from hunger and thirst, not knowing why the world is dark and cold (as a mom, that got me the worst). But gross factor aside, it was rather fascinating to see the underbelly of a city like London come to life. Everything you might take for granted or downright ignore is what this book is about. A drunken bum actually plays an important role, and it has nothing to do with being drunk or a bum. This is imagination, and I haven't revealed the half of it. I wouldn't want to spoil it!

At the same time, I wouldn't recommend this book for everyone. It's dark. The presentation and ideas are sometimes mature. There's an implication of rape and another scene where two unmarried teens almost have sex (not nearly the same level as rape, but it's still on my list of moral degradation). There are gods and goddesses, but in this case, all that means is that they are super powerful beings who have followers and worshipers. (It's not really an attempt at explaining religion. For all intents and purposes, this is a strictly secular book, which I appreciate better than books that try to explain and rationalize the Christian God.) Finally, the dark roast icing on the espresso cake is one particular all-controlling, pain-inflicting villain I'd rather meet less than most other novels' bad guys.

If you're looking for something fresh, try this novel that conjures images of anything but. It's surprising, and surprises aren't so bad in a market inundated with trends.

Three and a half stars. Available in September.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty on DVD

Sometimes movies are just beautiful, especially animation from Miyazaki and Japan's Studio Ghibli. That attention to detail in a hand-drawn world is utterly captivating. You don't want to look away for fear of missing something, and that something can be as simple as a droplet of water falling off a leaf. In the case of 2010's The Secret World of Arrietty, it is.

I confess, despite prior enjoyment of Miyazaki's films, I was reluctant to watch this one. I didn't love Ponyo like I do some of his others, so I wasn't sure I would like this storyline. (My husband tells me this is not strictly a Miyazaki film. Miyazaki is apparently only a writer on this one. Does it make any difference? He influenced and helped create it, right?)

Arrietty is a borrower, a little person who lives under the floor of the humans' house and borrows and survives on things the humans don't need. At fourteen years of age, she is old enough to go on borrowing trips with her dad. On her first trip, the new boy who's come to the house sees her, an occurrence that usually has grave consequences in the borrowers' world. Arrietty doesn't know what to do when this boy seems so intent on just being her friend.

The plot isn't complicated, but it's simply engaging. Part of the magic of this film is looking at all the detail that goes into creating a miniature house out of big human items. The story matters, yes, but the details add a fullness that isn't there in many American animated movies with fast-paced, seizure-inducing action.

Having said that, though, I think this movie appealed to me more than some of Miyazaki's others because it is so Western. There aren't weird monsters in it or foreign ideas and themes. It's based on a Western book, much like the other Miyazaki film I love so much: Howl's Moving Castle. This made it accessible to me while it still captured the peacefulness of Eastern culture.

In addition to being aesthetically beautiful, this movie's inner beauty shines in its values. Arrietty doesn't always follow all the rules, but she isn't at odds with her parents. When it matters most, she obeys them, which I appreciate. How many movies can you think of where the kids don't break all the rules and get congratulated for it?

The Secret World of Arrietty is rated G and much more appropriate for kids than some of the odder Miyazaki films. Whether you're a kid or an adult, this is an hour and a half well-spent. Four stars.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mirror Mirror on DVD

Julia Roberts is a treat to watch in Mirror Mirror, which I just saw for the first time on DVD. The movie was released in theaters earlier this year. Of the two Snow White movies this year, the other one was the one I wanted to see. But since that one disappointed, I thought I'd try this. I wanted to like it, but cheese (people's teeth literally sparkle) just isn't my style. The movie was beautiful if you like that fake look. I cannot call the costumes beautiful, however. The gowns were even more cheesy than the movie. A concession: I did like Snow White's attire when she was with the dwarfs, and I liked the prince's clothes...when they were on him.

That's not to say there's anything inappropriate about the movie. The prince just happens to get mugged and stripped to his modest underclothes by a band of "giant dwarfs"...a couple times. It's definitely funny, but I admit, I like my fairytales to be more serious. I did think that the dwarfs were done well. I don't enjoy the original Disney dwarfs, but there's not much about the original Disney Snow White that I like. It's funny to me that this year gave us one TV show and two movies based on my least favorite Disney princess. I just don't get it. But I do keep watching. I suppose there's a part of me that wants to see if someone can just make the story more interesting and original. So far, TV is winning with Once Upon a Time (though the royal couple's affair isn't helping me like this princess any better).

Mirror Mirror does show a dark side briefly when the evil queen's mirror image magically attacks Snow White and the dwarfs with her marionette puppets. The mirror image queen is creepy, but the whole idea of the scene is just so ludicrous that it matches the tone of the rest of the movie.

I didn't dislike the whole production. I can take cheesy movies if they have serious characters or scenes to balance it out, but Mirror Mirror is all fun and games. Interesting enough to watch, but not a keeper for me. Three stars.