Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fables: Legends in Exile (comic)

I believe Fables: Legends in Exile is the first comic book collection I've ever reviewed. I'm counting it toward my 50 books this year even though Volume 1 is only one hundred and some pages, most of which are full of pictures. However, it does seem to have a lot more to read than the average comic book these days, at least that I've seen. And it has a great prose story, explaining some of the background, at the end of the volume. I would go so far as to say Fables is more of a graphic novel than a comic book. Volume 1 tells a complete story and isn't episodic.

The whole series, however, is sort of episodic. I believe each volume focuses on different characters, though they all live in the same place. The idea is all about fairy tale characters who fled a great evil in their worlds and ended up in the only world the Adversary wasn't interested in: ours.

Now, I was hesitant to even review this story because I really don't think it's for the audience I have here. It's kind of dark, though that doesn't bother me as much as the prolific swearing (constantly the F-word) and a bit of sex and sexual innuendo. In this first volume, at least, no nudity is shown. But this is not the typical thing I would read and like.

Having said that, I think there are great things about this story, too. I like the idea that these fairy tale characters are stuck in our world, eternally young, in hiding, waiting for the day they might be able to return home. After one thousand years of life, things change. The characters become a little like the people of the world they now inhabit. They become hardened. "True Love" fades. It's sad but sort of interesting, too. I think the series has potential.

It has minor similarities to TV's current Once Upon a Time, but overall, they are not at all the same. Once Upon a Time is far more innocent. In Fables, King Cole is mayor of Fabletown, a secret community in New York, and Snow White is his right hand. She does all the dirty work. In Volume 1, Snow's sister, Rose Red, appears to have been brutally murdered, and the Big Bad Wolf, as sheriff, must solve the crime. Among others, we meet the detestable Prince Charming, Snow's ex; Beauty and the Beast, whose thousand-year love waxes and wanes; Jack of beanstalk lore; the villainous Bluebeard; and Cinderella. The characters are supposed to live in harmony after the Amnesty, old sins forgiven no matter how heinous. The Big Bad Wolf as sheriff is proof that anyone can reform. But when there's a murder to solve, one-time villains are under the spotlight again.

My husband liked aspects of the comic but didn't particularly like the style of the short prose story at the end. I, however, really enjoyed the short story. It's an in-depth look at the Wolf's history, and it hints at romance to come in future volumes of Fables.

One other thing in the comic that was a bit of a slap in the face, as my husband put it, is that it has the Adversary killing the "Great Lion" of one world, which can only mean Aslan.

Fables is dark, gritty, a little trashy, and not remotely for children (or even some adults!), but it's an interesting idea. And as a writer, myself, I see some redeeming value in it. But not enough to recommend it. So, unless you are a huge comic book reader and are used to the trashy stuff, which pops up now and then in many comics, just know this is out there and spend your time on more worthwhile reading.

Three stars for what it is. One star for morality.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Well, I didn't have high hopes for this book after noting on the cover of the last book I read a quote from this author, Sarah Prineas, saying that The Cabinet of Earths was the best thing she'd read in a long time. If you read my last book review, you know my thoughts on that book were far different. But, happily, Winterling exceeded my expectations. It is also a middle school novel, aimed at grades five and up, available this month. It's much more of a fantasy than The Cabinet of Earths, which is based more in the modern world and has only small fantastical elements in it, and maybe that's part of why I like Winterling better.

Fer (short for Jennifer) has never fit into her world, though she didn't know her world was even optional until the night she accidentally opened the Way into another. Now, armed with the herbal healing magic of her grandmother, she's on a quest to discover the truth about her parents' deaths. The beautiful Lady of the land wants her loyalty, and Fer is on the edge of giving it when she realizes that something doesn't feel right in this new world. There's a stain on it, and Fer is determined to find out why and what it has to do with her family. But her closest ally is a shape-shifting Puck with a powerful thrice-sworn oath to the Lady...the Lady whose secrets might be at the heart of the winter that's only overturned with a blood sacrifice. True spring may already be lost forever. And Fer is just a young girl, seemingly without power.

Although I really like romance, the nice thing about middle school fiction is that it often doesn't have any and, therefore, can focus on the story (not that it always does very well; see my last book review). Winterling is great storytelling. Interesting. Creative. Narrowly focused. An adventure with a heroine who grows up in some ways but is still a kid. It's age appropriate but not boring for older readers. I suppose the thought processes that guide this heroine are still a bit more simplistic than in young adult fiction; I don't particularly see a need to do that, but since the rest of the story is strong, I can call it "being focused" and let it go.

There are, perhaps, minor plot holes here and there. For instance, the biggest one I can think of is that Fer's grandmother, who seems to be fully of this world (unlike Fer herself, as we find out), teaches Fer healing magic, and you don't ever know where the grandmother herself got it from. It's just something you're supposed to accept.

I've already said the book is clean by virtue of completely eliminating any romantic storyline. For younger readers, just be aware that the evil Lady (or Mor, as she is called) is sort of witch-like, though she isn't ever called that, and she kills creatures that aren't fully beasts. The book is also obviously magical, and Fer does healing "spells." These magical elements seem harmless to me, but I know some people are conscientious about the use of magic in books. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then I'm not talking to you here.

Anyway, Winterling is a hitch in my theories about middle school fiction, and I'm glad for it. If you are looking for a simple, good adventure without all the romance to potentially muck it up, this is a decent one.

Abduction on DVD

Someone really needs to riff (Check out what I mean at www.rifftrax.com!) Abduction. Taylor Lautner, the werewolf love interest of the Twilight movies, stars as a teen who discovers his picture on a missing persons' website and, as a result, becomes the target of three different groups in a life-or-death chase.

I can already hear the beginning riff lines as the movie opens with a shot over trees (big Twilight vibe!), and then Lautner plays a part that reminds you a lot of his character (post-werewolf transformation) from Twilight. So much to make fun of!

I wanted to see this movie after seeing the trailer, but when I finally got to watch it on DVD, I didn't like Lautner at first. He's initially portrayed as a wild kid, on his way to a party, and he's a bit disrespectful to his parents when caught. But then his parents start to be cool, and their relationship shows some depth. I just wish the movie would have shown that you can be crazy and cool without going to parties and getting drunk or doing anything illegal. I'm glad his parents do punish him.

The movie goes back and forth between cheesy and intense. When the plot is being driven forward, the movie stands strong, but when the plot lags and the love interest shows up, it gets a tad painful. This is an action flick with a romantic side that kind of stumbles along and slows your heartbeat to a dull hiccup amidst the shooting and martial arts. Lautner shines best when he gets to show off his moves, but on the love side of things, he kind of plays a one-note tune. He's sweet, but his syrupy half-smile was already used in another movie. I'd like to see something different.

And then there's the title: it's completely misleading. No one is actually abducted in the movie! I guess the implication when Lautner's character finds his picture online is that he was kidnapped as a child, but you quickly figure out that's not quite the case. I won't spoil any more, but the title is all wrong.

Abduction is rated PG-13, and I find that rating acceptable. Though a sex scene is started, it isn't finished, and most of the clothes stay on. There's shooting and fight scenes. People die. Normal PG-13 violence: not too bad. I guess there's brief language, too, but I don't remember hearing it.

Overall, it's a decent movie, if you don't mind mushy, awkward romantic scenes. Three stars.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Cabinet of Earths

In my quest to clean up my bookshelves, I found a couple middle school novels coming out this month. One is The Cabinet of Earths, by Anne Nesbet, for grades five and up.

Maya and her five-year-old brother, James, have been uprooted from their American friends and home to spend a year in Paris because of their dad's job and because it's their mom's dream...their mom who has cancer. James makes friends wherever he goes, but thirteen-year-old Maya misses home, worries about her mom, and is used to being a background fixture. She's unprepared for the mysteries that find her in Paris: an intricately carved door with a salamander handle that moves, though no one else can see it; a beautiful-looking man who lives behind that door and shows far too much interest in Maya and her brother; a distant cousin who's literally hard to see; and an old man, also a relation, who keeps a cabinet of earths with a magnetic pull on Maya. Maya doesn't want to acknowledge that she might be needed to play a critical part in her magical ancestors' secrets, but when it's her family members' lives on the line, she'll do whatever it takes to protect them.

I don't typically read middle school fiction, and this book is a good example of why. They read fast, so that's a plus. But maybe they read so fast because not enough happens in them. I know that they are for younger readers, but I have a hard time believing that at the middle school level, kids can't read more complex books. I read The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas, when I was in middle school. The Cabinet of Earths is just too simplistic. It might be fine for an even younger audience, though its length might not then be appropriate, but it's not a spell-binding, edge-of-your-seat read. And for this type of book, a magical mystery of sorts, that's what I wanted. Daniel Handler, in his Lemony Snicket books, knows how to write good middle school fiction. This was dull in comparison. 

The idea was actually intriguing: a cabinet that stores people's mortality in the form of earth so that they can live like immortals. The book is a clean read, which it should be at the middle school level. (Maya is referred to as a witch, but it's in the sense that she has magical powers, not that she's evil.) And it's not even a terrible read, really. One thing I liked about it was that it dealt with some heavy emotional material, primarily Maya's feelings about her mother's cancer. In that, at least, the book had depth. The book was well-written, as well. It was just the story that disappointed me. It could have been so much more. I'll generously give it three stars.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Touch of Power

I first found a Maria V. Snyder book in a box of advance reader's copies, and I have been hooked ever since. My favorite series of hers is the Poison Study series. She also has a Glass series that takes place in the same fantasy world. I was less fond of Inside Out, the first book of a science fiction series that seems to take place in an enclosed community in outer space. There is a second book in that series that I have on my shelf but have not read yet. Snyder shines brightest in her fantasy worlds, I think. I found Inside Out boring in comparison to her other books.

Touch of Power is her ninth book, unrelated to her previous fantasy novels but a new fantasy novel that appears to be the beginning of a new series. It looked good, but when I started reading it, I was initially bored. Perhaps that had something to do with being in labor at the time...ha, ha...because when I picked up the book to read this time, I realized I hadn't gotten more than a chapter in and I'd quit right before it all got interesting.

In Touch of Power (I'm less impressed with the title than the book), Avry is the last healer, a magician who can take a person's sickness or wounds onto herself and heal herself ten times faster than the average human. Sounds like she would be in high demand, doesn't it? But the healers are blamed for the plague that ruined the Fifteen Realms, so Avry is on the run for her life. If only she didn't have a soft spot for healing kids. When she's finally caught, her only options are execution or imprisonment at the hands of her mysterious "rescuers," who want her to heal a prince she hates. As she journeys with them, she causes a lot of trouble, learns how to defend herself properly, makes new enemies and friends, and even sort of falls in love. It's great adventure, intriguing magic, and memorable characters that make me love Snyder's fantasies.

There are a few weaknesses in this one. I caught a turn of phrase that was reminiscent of the main character in the Glass series, and it was so exactly like what she would have said that it caught me off guard in this book. Otherwise, Avry is typical of Snyder's strong heroines but also a character all her own. Her traveling companions are all interesting except that Vinn and Quain, two less important characters, could be interchangeable. The villains are great. Snyder likes to vilify her heroines' love interests at first and then have the heroine get attached to them...a little Stockholm Syndrome going on there, but it works. Mainly it creates romantic tension. I thought the end was a little mushy. Not trying to give much away here, but you wouldn't be up for having sex if you were dying, would you? I mean, come on.

And now I come to Snyder's greatest flaw: character morality. I guess it's called Fantasy for a reason. So many fantasies kind of just throw certain aspects of morality out the door. After all, if you create a world where STD's don't exist, why not have characters sleeping together left and right? Snyder does it in all her fantasy books. She's isn't particularly graphic about it, which I appreciate, but she treats the subject like it's no big deal, which I guess it isn't to many people nowadays. We're talking sex outside of marriage here. When I read her first series, it was targeted toward teens. I assumed her Glass series was young adult as well but then noticed it wasn't advertising itself as such. Touch of Power also does not advertise itself as young adult. Though it's probably mostly okay for teens, I'd agree that it's not specifically for them. The Glass series, on the other hand, had some very mature themes in it, and after I'd read it, assuming it was young adult, I was kind of shocked until I realized I'd been assuming something that wasn't necessarily true. However, even the Poison Study series gets darker in the third book. Touch of Power is tamer than both.

So, maybe Maria V. Snyder is my guilty pleasure, but fast-paced fantasy that doesn't bog you down in details and stars independent, strong-willed, stubborn female characters seems like it's hard to come by. If I'm wrong about that, let me know! (And here my husband is telling me for the thousandth time to read Wheel of Time, but honey, I'd have to read all the boring male parts, too.)

Three and a half stars for a good (but not the best) Maria V. Snyder fantasy romance.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I apologize that I still present reviews on Paranormal Romances for your consideration in a market inundated with it, but the concept was intriguing enough to arrest my attention. If you are looking for top-quality fiction and your reading time is limited, skip this one, but if you are a fast reader craving quantity as well as quality, Everneath is not a bad choice. A young adult debut novel by Brodi Ashton, Everneath seems to be a stand-alone novel for once.

Nikki is a Forfeit. Because of unbearable pain in her life, she willingly chose to go with an Everliving to the Underworld for him to Feed off her soul for one hundred years. Now she has six months to say good-bye on the Surface, where time passes differently than in the Underworld, before she has to return for good. How do you say good-bye to the boy whose face kept you sane for one hundred years? And how do you resist a charming Everliving who wants you to be his queen at the price of your soul, especially when your only other alternative is to go to the Tunnels where the Shades will Feed off the remainder of your emotions until you are nothing?

There's a bit of teenage angst in this novel, but Nikki surprised me in some ways. Her dad thinks she's been in rehab for the past half year (all the time that's passed on the Surface), so he puts special demands on her when she returns. Nikki bears them all patiently in her desire to leave her family with good memories. Of course, she can't tell them the truth because who would believe her? If you don't like martyrs or people who keep themselves closed off from others, you won't like Nikki. But I think she might grow on you, especially when she attempts to fight her circumstances to the best of her ability. Her actions are realistic in light of the story.

I was also surprised to find this book to be fairly clean. For one hundred years, Nikki is entwined with the Everliving Cole, but there doesn't seem to be anything sexual about it. I did not like that Nikki's boyfriend on the Surface seems to have slept with quite a few girls and even seems to put a little pressure on Nikki at one point. He's supposed to be this nice boy she was friends with for years before he asked to be her boyfriend, and even though he and Nikki don't have sex, his image was tainted for me. Aside from that, he's the boy you want her to end up with.

I'm glad that the book doesn't play with the love triangle much. Nikki always recognizes that Cole is bad, or at least that he's manipulating her emotions, no matter how nice he is to her. For once, the human girl doesn't long for, or end up, with the paranormal being! So, I don't know if this would technically be considered Paranormal Romance, but that's about the closest thing it resembles, I think.

I do have to comment on the end of the book, though I will try not to spoil much. I didn't particularly like it. It's rather sad and a little mumbo-jumbo-ish. It implies the future could be better with this vague hopefulness. So, be prepared for that. Perhaps it's like that to leave room for a sequel, but I don't think so. Except for that, the book felt complete to me. I don't know where the author could go from there. It's nice to read a stand-alone young adult novel for once, not one meant to be a series, but it's annoying that the book had to substitute another modern story problem: the less-than-happy ending. I like a little tragedy in a story now and then, preferably in short stories. If I spend the time to read through a whole book, I'd rather have it be rewarded with something more satisfying.

Still, this story is interesting enough that if you are looking for quantity, as I said before, this isn't a bad one to put on your list of books to read. It makes no attempt to conceal the fact that's it's somewhat influenced by the story of Hades and Persephone, but it distinguishes itself, too.

Everneath is available this month. Three stars.

ADDENDUM: I read somewhere that this might be a series. Though that would make the ending better, I'm a little disappointed. Honestly, I don't know where the series would go from here. There's not enough at the end to interest me in reading more.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Two Princesses of Bamarre

As I mentioned in my last review, I was reading a Gail Carson Levine novel, and I finished already because she writes good, quick young adult books (that aren't always part of a series!). This one was an older one of hers from 2001: The Two Princesses of Bamarre. Though Levine often writes fairytale retellings, I couldn't see that this was based on a fairytale, or at least not on one I'm familiar with. I kind of think it's a fairytale she made up herself, the idea of which I love as much as retellings.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre is somewhere between a middle school and a young adult novel. The heroine is sixteen but has much more of an innocence to her than most teenagers do these days. Her sister is one year older, and though the book is about both princesses, it is primarily Princess Addie's tale.

The princesses live in a country of cowards, but they celebrate the epic tale of Drualt, their most famous warrior, who battled dragons, gryphons, specters, and other monsters and who knew the fairies. Nowadays, nobody has seen the fairies, and all the monsters run rampant over the land. The Gray Death takes the poor and rich alike, and even the elves and sorcerers don't know the cure.

Meryl is determined to be a warrior and find the cure and fight monsters in grand adventures. Addie is afraid of spiders and makes Meryl promise not to leave her until she is married one day. But when Meryl succumbs to the Gray Death, Addie must find her courage for her sister and her country.

When the book started, I wasn't sure what I was getting into. Some of the turns of phrases seemed too kiddie for young adult, especially since the book is narrated by Addie and starts with the princesses at a younger age. The innocence of Addie makes her seem young when she's older, too, but Levine's storytelling is worthy of all ages. And by the end, when Addie's grown some depth of character and fallen in love, the story feels more like a young adult novel.

Fairytales often come with witches, and I'm not a big fan of witches at all. This one substitutes sorcerers for witches, and they are not at all the same. Though the sorcerers have a little power and magic and can fly, they aren't scary and are portrayed as good helpers with an interesting mythology behind their existence. The other monsters, including a very entertaining and intriguing dragon, are far scarier. The book is age-appropriate for middle school and up.

The adventures and the realistically flawed but loveable characters are why I love Gail Carson Levine. If fairytales are your thing (and who doesn't love a good fairytale now and then?), I don't think you can go wrong with Levine, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre is as good a place to start as any.

Friday, January 13, 2012


I love fairytales, particularly fairytales that are retold in some unique way. I love Gail Carson Levine for that, and in fact, I'm reading one of her stories now. But I just finished Cinder, a young adult debut novel by Marissa Meyer, and Cinder is based on the story of Cinderella, except that it takes place in our world at some point after World War IV when the whole world is united under an Emperor and on the brink of possible war with the people of the Moon, the Lunars. Earth is a world of humans, androids, and cyborgs, a mix of the two others: humans with machine parts in them. Humans and cyborgs battle a plague for which there is no cure, and cyborgs are drafted to be test subjects. In this world lives Cinder, a cyborg with a metal hand and a metal foot and machine parts in her brain and other places, comprising 36.28 percent of her make-up.

Cinder is a mechanic whose life changes the day Prince Kai comes to her market booth, urgently requesting that she fix his android. But Cinder is not a free agent. She is a ward, owned by a stepmother who will take any excuse to get rid of her and does when Cinder's most sympathetic stepsister gets the plague. Her stepmother volunteers her for plague testing, and that's when Cinder finds out that she is special, but she doesn't know the half of it.

I appreciated how loosely this story was based on Cinderella. You can recognize the key elements of that fairytale, but Cinder's story takes place in such a different world with different motivations that you still feel like you're reading a unique story. However, the part that most diverged from the original fairytale is the part I wish hadn't: the end. So many young adult debut novels these days are the first of a series, and since I read them as advance reader copies, I usually don't see more than that first book unless I love it and keep up to date with the sequels. Cinder is the first of a series, so I'm going to tell you, folks, she doesn't end up with her prince...at least not yet. That is frustrating, and I feel like you should know it right up front so that you aren't disappointed. However, there's more evidence than with most series that this author knows where she is going and will wrap up everything satisfactorily. For instance, we already know that the series will be four books long, and we have titles and release dates, too, one a year through 2015. Cinder is good enough that I'm looking forward to seeing how it all ends, and believe me, there's enough plot there that it's not going to be just a simple, "Here's your prince." But it's a fairytale, so yes, I do expect and hope for "happily ever after."

Whether or not this series will be popular I don't know, but it's one to watch out for. And I don't have any complaints yet on moral appropriateness. I'm all for this one.

Four stars.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cars 2 on DVD

Although I normally love Pixar movies, I was dragging my feet on seeing this one. Cars is so over-popularized with all its little toys and accessories. Kids absolutely love it, so I guess I got it into my head that Cars was more of a kids' show even though I saw the first one and enjoyed it myself. Plus, I'm not a big fan of sequels. Sometimes they can be great, but in general, they try to do what the first one did, which is old news. But it was Pixar, so I got the DVD on Netflix.

I have mixed feelings about Cars 2. Overall, I wasn't impressed. It's a decent movie for a sequel but not on the same level as most Pixar movies. As my husband says, it lacks emotional gravity. The storyline is different enough from the first Cars. Lightning McQueen and Mater have a misunderstanding in their friendship, and when Mater accidentally gets involved with a group of spies, the distance between them widens. Meanwhile, as Lightning McQueen gets ready to try to win the World Grand Prix with a new environmentally friendly fuel source, a group of angry old cars attempts to destroy him and force all cars back to the dark ages of oil. It's up to Mater and his new spy friends to save McQueen and defeat the old cars' evil plot.

For all that plot, the spark that fills movies like Up and Wall-E and even Toy Story and its sequels just isn't there. But there's more to my ambiguous feelings. This movie is one that a lot of young kids will want to see or, really, have already seen. And I don't think it's a kids' movie. It's like a kiddie version of an adult spy movie. It's kind of violent at times, which surprised me. As an adult movie, it would be fine. My husband thinks maybe it was made for the first generation of Cars watchers, and since those kids have grown up some, the new movie was made a bit more grown-up for them. But if that's what the movie makers did, they blatantly ignored the fact that a whole new generation is watching Cars because it's inundated the toy market. My nephew is five and was so excited to see the new movie, but there are parts that really aren't appropriate for that age. There's violence and murder. One car falls to its death in the ocean and is broken into tiny pieces. Another car is tortured to death, though the torture element is greatly underplayed. It just doesn't seem right for a kids' movie.

The entertainment value is there but does not outweigh the PG violence (though the movie is somehow rated G), the lack of depth, and the preachy oil message in my mind. But it's still better than most animation. The attention to detail is amazing. Japan feels just like Japan (according to Nick, who's been there), and I'm sure the other two countries represented are similar. This isn't a bad movie for interested adults. Just be careful about exposing sensitive children to it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol in Theaters Now

My husband was dying to see this, and though I'm not as big of a Mission: Impossible fan, I thought it would be fun, too. So, we went to Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol for our anniversary. By the way, the first movie we ever saw together in theaters was Minority Report. I swear (though not literally), we don't have a thing for Tom Cruise, great actor that he may be. We do, however, have a thing for good action. M:I-4 is awesome action, and not the kind that's totally unbelievable either. I mean, it's "impossible" stuff, but in the confines of the movie, it comes across as real enough.

I'm not going to compare it to the other M:I movies because, honestly, I don't remember them much. There are iconic scenes still in my mind, but I don't know if I even watched the others in theaters.

In M:I-4, Ethan Hunt is in jail for unknown reasons (to us, anyway). He's broken out by the people who become his team for an unsanctioned mission for the rest of the movie. Four people against the world. It involves stopping nuclear war, but that's hardly important, just the construct for a bunch of mind-blowing stunts, which is what Mission: Impossible has mostly always been about. If you like more realistic stuff than the average nowadays, M:I-4 still has bodies getting knocked around far more than fragile flesh and bone should be able to endure, but the stunts seem possible in their own way. And the nice thing about the fight scenes is that our heroes don't come out unscathed. But even broken, they continue to fight. Whether or not you're a fan of realism, that's still cool.

I do have to mention that at the beginning of the movie, I saw an actor I recognized from the TV show Lost, which I loved. The wonderful Josh Holloway, who played Sawyer. I was so excited. I was, like, "Hey, Josh Holloway's in this movie! Oh...no he's not." Because by then he was shot. But it was still great to see him on the big screen for a few seconds.

Besides the cool stunts, Mission: Impossible is great because the good guys win. And this ending is good. I don't want to spoil the surprises, but some highlights to watch out for are a chase in a sand storm, a climb on the outside of a crazy-tall hotel that would have anybody scared of heights, and a fight in a car garage in India. Great stuff.

There's a little cleavage, but otherwise, this is a clean movie, rated PG-13 for intense action and violence. It's awesome. It's funny. It's even a little heartwarming. And it's certainly a nail-biting thriller. At least, I'm down one.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Way We Fall

This is my first book review of the year. I plan on there being 49 more books to follow. See more about my goal here.

So, to kick off 2012, I picked a really happy one. An encouraging, this-is-gonna-be-a-great-year one. An inspirational, life-is-great one. Not really. Not at all.

The Way We Fall, by Megan Crewe, is ultimately a tragedy. It's a young adult novel about an island that gets quarantined when a mysterious virus starts killing people. I knew, sort of, what I was getting into. I like stories where people beat the odds, where there's real danger but the characters eventually kick it in the teeth. This wasn't quite what I expected.

Kaelyn is the narrator of the story, writing it as a journal to a childhood guy friend she fought with and, hence, hasn't spoken to in two years. I didn't like the very first page because I was confused by the tenses and timelines, since it was immediately addressed to Leo and talked about how she'd just seen him leave on the ferry and was remembering him waving to her leaving five years earlier and how she hadn't talked to him in two years. Confusing. But once I sorted it out, it wasn't quite so bothersome that the book was written as a journal to him. For the most part, it's a first person narrative where she tells her story daily, which is interesting because she (and, thus, the reader) never knows what's going to happen next.

Kaelyn is determined to change. Leo said it was her fault that she didn't have many friends, so even though it made her mad once, she's sorry now and ready to be as friendly as she can be. But, ironically, when the disease hits, it messes with the brain, making people more friendly than they ought to be, and Kaelyn's dad, a doctor and scientist, makes Kaelyn and her family stay home to avoid the disease. But it's not enough, and then people start dying.

There were parts of the book that were particularly painful. A little seven-year-old girl witnesses her dad get shot right in front of her (of course, when you have mysterious diseases, other societal problems come along with it), and I thought of my own children. But the book is written so engagingly that I read on, hoping to see how it would all be resolved. Except, it isn't.

(SPOILER ALERT) Kaelyn's mother dies, her brother disappears, and then Kaelyn gets sick but recovers, one of a very few in her position. The whole island is dying, but miracle of miracles, Kaelyn's boyfriend and her dad never get sick, though they are often in close proximity to the disease. Kaelyn's dad ends up dying another way, and I was scratching my head wondering what the sense of it was and why he didn't get sick in the first place when Kaelyn was as careful as he was and had fewer encounters with the disease. But I guess viruses are just like that, I wouldn't know.

Now, I have to tell you that the copy of the book I read is an advance reader's copy. The book comes out this month. But there are some major errors and overlooked plot holes in my version that I hope they iron out by final publication. The main thing is that all the chapters are headed with a date, as in most journals, but according to the dates, Thanksgiving takes place in the middle of October (the author is Canadian, or at least lives in Canada, so maybe she doesn't know...ha), which would make Christmas a month later. There's no mention of Christmas, and the book goes through December 23, so even moving the dates wouldn't make a lot of sense. I could easily see skipping Christmas in an epidemic like that, but you'd think it would at least be mentioned, since Thanksgiving is, after all.

And then, there's the end. I'm doubting this book is part of a new series. The idea seems like a one-book kind of thing. But the end is a little like the end of the first book in a series. There is some emotional resolution. The character learns about herself through her journal, and that, at least, feels complete. But the plot is not entirely, or even mostly, resolved. (SPOILERS AGAIN) Her brother never turns up. The disease is not cured, though it appears to no longer be spreading. Kaelyn gives her blood to save her little cousin, but though the story implies it might work, we never get to see if it does. We don't get to see Leo's response to the journal, although, I admit, that wouldn't make sense if she did, indeed, give the journal to him. It seems like the romance at the end is there more to make the book feel complete than to contribute to the plot, and it seemed a little tacked-on to me. I like the romance in the book, but the part at the end just doesn't mesh with the rest of the book. The story feels open-ended, like more could follow, you want more to follow, but you don't expect it to. However, the book does give fair warning with a title like The Way We Fall and not The Way We Fall and Rise Again. Still, I wanted more.

The F-word is used a few times in the book, but understandably so. Because of it and the nature of the story, I'd recommend this book only to more mature young adults. Otherwise, there's a little violence, but the book is mostly morally sound.

It seems like I've complained a lot about this book, but I actually did enjoy the characters and, eventually, the way it was told through Kaelyn's journal. If this type of story appeals to you, this is a decent one to read. Three stars.

Goal: Read 50 Books This Year

I've made it one of my goals this year to read 50 books, which comes to approximately one a week. In a good month, I can do this no problem. But knowing how I go in spurts and droughts, the task before me still seems a little daunting. But I keep accumulating more books than I read. I have at least 50 already on my shelf, not including the ones I'm bound to pick up this year. So, I need to get them moving off of there, and what better way to do it than to set a goal? This is not a New Year's Resolution, by the way. I've learned through Taekwondo, of all places, that goals are better than resolutions, particularly if you keep them S.M.A.R.T. Specific. Motivating. Achievable. Relevant. Trackable.

So, here I come, 2012. One week done. One book read. (Review to follow this post.) Forty-nine books to go!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Captain America: The First Avenger on DVD 2011

I actually saw Captain America: The First Avenger on DVD a couple months ago, but let's see...that was about the time I was learning to juggle life with a newborn and a two-year-old, so by the time I had time to review it, I couldn't remember exactly what I wanted to say anymore. But I saw it again a few days ago, so here's what I think on a second viewing.

There are things about this movie I love and others I dislike. I'm sorry to all the superhero and comic book fans out there, but I think Captain America's outfit is totally dorky. I'm not saying Superman's isn't, but when big-muscled, soft-hearted Steve wears his stage costume in his first military rescue, well...I had a hard time taking it seriously.

On the other hand, I love Steve as a character. He's everything this blog I write is about. He's morally right, and that's why he's chosen to get a body upgrade. By the time he has muscles, he's the perfect soldier: tough on the outside and compassionate on the inside. I love it! Because of his character, his desire not to kill but to see justice done, I'm excited to see him come back in The Avengers this spring. And I have to say, I liked the way his costume was upgraded by the end of the movie (it grew on me), and though I didn't think it possible, he made a shield look cool (the round one, that is). I saw a neat special feature on the DVD about his costume development and how he made the shield work. However, I was disappointed that the special features on the basic DVD did not include how he was transformed from skinny and short to tall and muscular. I know the feature exists somewhere since I saw something about it, but I guess it was too cool for the basic DVD package.

So, Steve as a character is what I love about this movie. If you could separate Steve and Captain America, I'd have to say (sorry to all those fans, again) that I like Captain America less. I realize it's not possible to separate them, really, so let me explain what I mean. I like Batman Begins because it tells about how Batman becomes a superhero, and I like the logical progression of his training. I think Captain America is a less well-done superhero origin story because once Steve has his muscles, it's like he can magically do all these stunts (with the exception of his first run, perhaps), and how does a round shield boomerang anyway? I have to suspend disbelief too much. I'm not against him being so super-cool. I just want to see how he got there with no military training whatsoever. I wasn't aware that the serum gave him any fighting skills, just better cells.

(SPOILER ALERT) I also thought the death of Steve's best friend was a little lame. It added nothing to the movie, so it didn't have to be there. It was too sad, and really, they could zip line off a mountain down onto a speeding train and not slip off, I might add, but Steve couldn't use some of those awesome, unlearned moves to rescue Bucky off the side of the train?

The end was really sad, too, and I hope it was there to give depth to Steve's character for the next movie, because why have it be like that, otherwise? On a related but more positive note, it was refreshing to have a romance not go further than a kiss.

Overall, Captain America was entertaining to watch, even two times, it was funny, and I have one more superhero tucked under my belt for trivia. Last year was the year for that, wasn't it?

Three stars.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan on DVD 2011

Again, this is a book I haven't read and wasn't actually interested in, but I saw the movie preview on another DVD and liked the look of the movie enough to Netflix it. It's a terribly sad story in some ways, but it's also very moving and beautiful, too. For me, the good outweighed the dark and heavy.

The story takes place in two separate generations. In modern times, two girls become friends in China and decide to become laotongs (heart sisters for life) like one of the girls' ancestors, Snow Flower, and her laotong, Lily. But when Sophia becomes comatose after an accident, Nina realizes how far apart they have drifted, and she's brought back to her heart sister through Sophia's written account of her ancestor Snow Flower and the secret fan. In 19th century China, Lily is a poor girl whose circumstances change the day she gets her feet bound in the hideous tradition of the old Chinese world. With perfect, tiny feet, she can reverse her circumstances, and the matchmaker finds her a wealthy girl, Snow Flower, to be her laotong and help bring her up in the world. And Lily's fortunes do, indeed, change, as much as a Chinese girl's could. She marries into a wealthy family at the cost of a loveless marriage and a domineering mother-in-law who doesn't let her visit her laotong. Meanwhile, Snow Flower's fortunes are also reversed, and she marries a butcher and lives in poverty in the country. But the two women still find ways to communicate through a secret fan, and risking much, they even meet secretly. When their sisterly love is tested, they discover what real, sacrificial love is. And so does Nina as she reads their story.

Knowing nothing about the story myself, I wasn't sure what I was getting into. Something like Memoirs of a Geisha maybe, with too many sexual overtones? It was nothing like that at all. There is nothing homosexual about the laotong relationship, at least as portrayed in the movie. It is the simple, beautiful love of two friends who are closer than sisters. Two friends, I might add, who don't even get a choice in the matter of their friendship. It's a lot like an arranged marriage. But through their pain and suffering, they learn to love together. A lot of marriages could learn from that.

I know very little about the custom of binding women's feet, so this was an eye-opener. I expected it to be painful, of course, but it actually made me cry to see children, just seven years old, getting their feet bound until they bled, calling for their steely-eyed mothers who watched, and having to walk and toughen up immediately, a rite of passage for sure. It broke my heart to see them calling out in pain for their mothers from their beds at night. I'm more sensitive this way since having children of my own.

Another scene that deeply affected me and had me sobbing was the death of a boy about my son's size, and as if that isn't enough heartache for a mother, the father blames and beats the mother and won't let her hold her son's body or see where he is buried. Grief upon grief. I wouldn't be able to bear it. But these women are strong, perhaps made so by the very thing that causes them pain all their lives, the binding of their feet. Definitely not saying we should seek out hardship or condone abuse for the sake of growing strong, but it's undeniable that hardship has the potential to make us that way.

Bingbing Li acts as both Nina and Lily, and Gianna Jun acts as both Sophia and Snow Flower. They do such excellent jobs that I didn't even realize they were playing two parts until the credits.

With a very heartfelt performance, this amazing, though fictional, story comes to life, detailing a world that did exist and that we can barely imagine. If you can stand the grief, I highly recommend the movie Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It's rated PG-13 for minor sexuality and some violence. The book is by Lisa See, if you'd prefer to experience the story that way, but I can't comment or compare since I haven't read it.

Four stars!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in theaters now

You gotta love Robert Downey Jr. He makes Holmes's character. I know nothing about the Sherlock Holmes books, and I suspect these movies are nothing like them...but still: great movies. I enjoyed the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, and several people have told me as enjoyable as the first was, this one is better. I think I agree: better bad guy in this one. But on the other hand, I had to suspend disbelief a little more for A Game of Shadows. In upping the intensity of this film, they upped the danger and death-defying stunts. More and more action movies are doing that, and the result is something like fantasy. Or maybe it's just that we had a year full of superhero movies (where the action is supposed to be a little overdone), and this one fits right in, though it's not technically about a superhero. Holmes redefines that word with his brilliant mind and fighting skills to match.

In A Game of Shadows, Holmes and Watson (played wonderfully by Jude Law) are up against Professor Moriarty, a man who might rival Holmes for genius. In order to protect Watson's future with his new bride, Holmes must defeat his toughest enemy in a game of chess-like proportions. The gray and sepia color tones of the first movie are back, as well as the slow-motion fight scenes Holmes rehearses in the seconds before he takes out an enemy. But this time, Holmes is not always quite so successful. The best of these fight scenes takes place early on in the movie when Holmes must rescue a gypsy woman from an assassin in a gentleman's club during Watson's bachelor party, which Holmes is responsible for and completely botches. The humor is back, too.

In contrast to that brilliant scene is one where Holmes and company run through the forest with gun shells exploding around them. While every other instance of slow-motion interspersing the action is purposeful and takes place in Holmes's mind, this time is purely for the look of it and has no purpose in the movie at all. While fun, it's inconsistent with the rest of the movie. Another fantastic but overdone scene takes place on Watson's honeymoon train.

But aside from over-the-top thrills, a few nearly indecipherable lines of dialog due to accent and speed of speech, and a few almost-too-perfectly-executed rescues, Sherlock Holmes is a fantastic movie to see in theaters! It's relatively clean and rated PG-13, mostly for violence. If you want to see it in theaters, hurry before it's gone!