Monday, April 30, 2012

The Peculiars

The Peculiars, by Maureen Doyle McQuerry, is a somewhat interesting gothic steampunk tale for young adults, though I don't think the book quite fits the target audience. The style matches young adult fiction, but the characters are a little old. Aside from that, I found the book to be a tad slow-paced and simplistic, but it's sort of pretty, too, in its own kind of dark way.

Lena's family thinks she is half goblin from her father's side, her father who abandoned them when she was a child but left her a short letter and a surprise gift upon her eighteenth birthday. Lena, herself, is afraid of what she might be. She has the physical characteristics of a goblin: long, tender feet and an extra knuckle in each finger on her hands. But goblins are also supposed to be evil, base creatures. Since Lena wants and enjoys things most girls her age don't, she is afraid her evil side is coming out, so with the money her father left her, she leaves home for the wilds of Scree where convicts, outlaws, and supposedly other Peculiars (if they even exist) live. She's determined to find her father and discover who he truly is and what that might mean for her.

But before Lena gets to Scree, she's waylaid in a border town where a mysterious marshal stirs her heart and asks for favors, where a young librarian seeks an escape from his family obligations and shows a genuine interest in Lena, and where an inventor hides a great secret Lena believes needs to be exposed to the world. Goblin or not, Lena can't help being thrilled at the prospect of an adventure, but she may be in more danger than she realizes.

It's a fun book, certainly not boring. There's mystery, adventure, romance, and danger. It's sort of a slightly post-Victorian paranormal romance with a bit of science fiction thrown in, but none of these genres fully encompasses or describes the book. I liked it well enough, but I thought there was just a little something missing. Higher stakes maybe. A more complex plot. A more satisfyingly romantic end. It was good, but not great. Still, it's not a bad story, and the idea is clever, if not fully fleshed out. Where the book's adventure really gets going is in the final third. Until then, there's a lot of internal conflict, some unnecessary, as Lena wonders whether Peculiars are even real and if she is one. Three stars.

This book is available in stores in May.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hugo on DVD

I didn't know what to expect when I rented Hugo. I'd heard good things. I knew it was first a book told primarily in pictures. But I didn't know the story. Having not read the book, I can't compare the two, so this review is based solely on the movie.

Hugo is about a boy who keeps the clocks running in a train station in Paris in the early to mid 1900's. All he has left from the life before his father died is an automaton his clockmaker father and he were trying to fix. The automaton is a little robotic man that is supposed to write something when it works. Hugo's thievery leads to an encounter with a toy shop owner and his young ward: a girl who loves books, wants to go on an adventure, and has never seen a movie. Together, Hugo and this girl fix the automaton and discover a secret with the power to heal a broken, old man and give a lost boy a purpose and a home.

It's a beautiful little story, slowly and artistically woven together to recreate the old magic people felt when watching movies for the very first time. In fact, director Martin Scorsese leans heavily on early movie-making history to leave the viewer with something akin to nostalgia for a time most of us aren't old enough to have memories of, something the book could not have done in the same way.

I did not see Hugo in 3D (as it was in theaters), but this is one case (and there are very few) where 3D might have added to the wonder of the film. There is a scene where a train rushes at you from the screen, and just as the first people to watch a movie jumped in fear that they were about to be run over (never having seen a movie before, what would you think?), a modern audience might jump a little with the 3D effects. The movie is full of these subtle nods to early movie-making history.

A lovely cast of characters (Christopher Lee, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Jude Law among others, including two brilliant child actors) playing charming roles are the icing on the cake, helping to make Hugo a little masterpiece. No wonder it was up for Oscar nominations. It's a heartstring-pulling, sometimes sad yet ultimately happy tale of love, life, and purpose. Of course it appeals to us on a fundamental level.

It is a little slow, but that's part of the magic of this carefully crafted work of art where slices of life in an old Paris train station make you laugh or want to cry, ache with pain and then with joy. If you find the plot to be a little lacking, the emotional depth should make up for it. Four stars.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Invisible Sun

I had a hard time getting through this one. Invisible Sun, by David Macinnis Gill, is young adult science fiction and supposedly a stand-alone companion novel to Black Hole Sun, which I have not read. I almost hate to say this because it's terrible stereotyping, but this book is so obviously written by a guy. It's loud, meaning not subtle, and it's very pulpy. What's wrong with that? Nothing, I guess, if it's your cup of tea. Now, doesn't that phrase "cup of tea" just about say it all when it comes to the relationship between me and this book?

My husband asked me what it was about. I had a hard time telling him. There is a plot, of course, buried somewhere beneath a lot of stuff being shot and blown up. It might even have some emotional depth, if you don't get bogged down in sci-fi terminology on the way to discovering it. And, oh my goodness, is this book ever not subtle. Instead, it's full of snarky dialog that always goes one step further than necessary to explain its own humor or even just to explain what's going on. I really felt like I was being beat over the head sometimes. As a writer myself, I find this type of writing painful. Nobody likes a joke over-explained. Hearing "Get it?" is annoying. The writing style felt a little like this.

As for "stand-alone," yes, I suppose you don't need Black Hole Sun to figure out what's going on eventually, but it's all part of the same story. Invisible Sun is the sequel to Black Hole Sun, and there will be at least one more book after that. I don't get calling it a companion novel.

I'll give a shot at explaining this book's plot, however, so that you can decide for yourself (male readership) if my bias is what it is because I'm a woman.

Jacob Stringfellow, better known as Durango, is a gun-for-hire on a personal job with his partner/girl-he'd-love-to-date Vienne. And, by the way, he has an AI girl flash-cloned to his brain, and she's constantly talking to him. He's looking for information and getting shot at along the way. The info he wants is really just a backdrop for the plot, so much so that I can't particularly remember what it is (though I finished this book two days ago). Along the way, he meets Vienne's "family," a group of fighting monks, and his plans coincide with helping rescue farmers from a madman's chemical fire-starting spree. Meanwhile, one of the monks tells him he has a choice to make, but what that might be is not really clear to him or to the reader. Apparently, though, it's important to the politics and future of Mars (yes, the planet).

(SPOILERS) In the end, he's responsible for the death of a beloved member of the monks' family and the ruin of Vienne. There's some hocus pocus bit about finding spiritual bliss, but there's no emotional resolution. The end of this book is very open-ended, stand-alone though it is, and it's rather depressing. Durango has a hero's complex and blames himself for the mess he's made, and that about sums it up.

On average, this book has been given four stars. I can't see why. I'd give it one or two. I almost quit reading it, but then I wouldn't have felt right reviewing it for you. It's brand new, just out this month, but just because Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games) put a favorable quote on the cover of it doesn't mean it's the next hottest thing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Descendants on DVD

I promise I am not on a mission (yet) to watch all the 2012 Oscar Best Picture nominees, as I was last year. Nonetheless, several of them sparked my interest before they were on that list, The Descendants being one of them. It just looked like one of those tear-jerker, heartfelt dramas I occasionally go for. And it was, painfully so.

George Clooney plays a man in the midst of a family crisis as his cheating wife lies dying in a hospital bed while his two daughters seem determined to live destructive lives. Complicating an already hectic week, as he attempts to tell family and friends of his wife's wish to be taken off life support, he must also decide whether or not to sell some virgin Hawaiian land entrusted to his family.

Did I mention it was painful?

I cried so much watching this movie, and at the end, I couldn't decide whether it was a cathartic experience or just unnecessary torture. There's a LOT of heartache. This isn't a movie about a woman who miraculously recovers from a coma. It's about a family saying good-bye to Mom and dealing with anger over her betrayal with another man. But it's also about that family turning from a splintered wreck into a self-comforting unit, and for that alone, it is beautiful.

Emotion, however, isn't the only thing making or breaking this movie. Clooney and the two actresses who play his 10-year-old and 17-year-old are brilliant. And care was taken to make the minor characters multi-dimensional, too. The setting is Hawaii, but as Clooney's character makes clear in the opening lines, that doesn't mean they get to be on a constant vacation from life.

The movie is rated R, mostly for being sporadically peppered with uses of the F-word. I don't normally go for that type of thing, but if any situation might call for it (and I'm not sure any situation does), it's this one. I can take it in this setting, as an adult viewer. I'll even admit, the language provides some much-needed humor in the story, for example when Clooney's character keeps ineffectually telling his daughters to stop the bad language when the audience knows it's right on the tip of his tongue, too.

The Descendants is not a family movie, despite the family message at the end...unless you have this type of family yourself. But it's more hopeful than it could have been, and for that I can give it a higher rating than I might have otherwise. Three stars.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Three Musketeers on DVD

The 1993 version of The Three Musketeers, starring Tim Curry among others, was one of my favorite movies growing up, so I was pretty excited to see this version, crazy as it seemed it might be with fantastical elements, including airships. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed. There were things I liked about it, but overall, the dialog was a little cliche, the plot was overly simplistic (almost like a spoof of its 1993 counterpart), and the action lacked spark. The costumes were colorful and the characters were funny, but that's not enough to carry a movie. It's not a terrible rendition (I've been meaning to read the book for years but haven't yet, so this comment is based on what I know from the 1993 movie.), but it feels a bit like a modernized rerun of an earlier movie and not a story that got its source material from the book.

Since it stars Orlando Bloom among others, you almost get the sense (right or wrong) that the producers were hoping for a wild ride along the lines of Pirates of the Carribean, something that would grab the viewers like those movies did and create a franchise. Have you heard anything about last year's The Three Musketeers since it came out? Me neither. Obviously, if that was the plan, it failed, but I'm only speculating.

The music was reminiscent of the new Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr., which was fun, but again, it felt like it was copying and not being original. Perhaps the most original work of the film was the king's character, played by Freddie Fox, a more childish and ridiculous king than his counterpart in the 1993 version. I didn't like it at first, but it grew on me, particularly as we got to know the king a little better and saw that he did have at least one deep side: his love for his new queen.

In fact, vibrant characters, many relatively unknown, is what this movie has going for it. Athos (played by Matthew Macfayden, who played Mr. Darcy in the most recent Pride and Prejudice), Aramis, and Porthos are played well (if not with much depth of character), and D'Artagnon is young and played completely cocky, more so than I would have thought would work, but it did. The two-faced Milady de Winter, however, is more annoying than genius. She's played sexy, even when no one on screen is watching, which I found unnecessary. I must confess, I didn't recognize Orlando Bloom through the movie, though he plays a fairly big part, but I wasn't looking for him either. Many faces in the movie seemed familiar but weren't placed until the credits rolled.

It's rated PG-13 for "adventure action violence," according to (where, incidentally, I always look for ratings information), but there's a lot of cleavage and a scene with Milady where she acts like she's dancing on a stage rather than repelling down a wall.

Overall, it's an okay movie if you've nothing better to do. I'm sorry if you paid the money to see it in theaters, and don't hurry down to the movie store to rent this one next. But for a little entertainment and an excuse to eat a bowl of popcorn on a lazy day, it's not terrible. Almost three stars.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

I was pretty sure I was never going to see the movie The Adventures of Tintin, but that was because I had no idea what it was. It's based on an animated TV series from the early 90's, but I didn't know that. I thought it was an animated feature for kids about a kid with a dog. I thought the dog's name was Tintin, due to the unfortunate coincidence of a recently released biography about a dog named Rin Tin Tin. I confess, I was completely wrong, and I would be wrong still if not for that family convention of sitting down to a movie for the sake of togetherness regardless of each individual's movie watching preferences.

The Adventures of Tintin is really rather remarkable, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. This is not your typical animation, in any sense. It's basically a live-action film that just looks animated because that's what they did. They used real people in motion-capture technology, much like they did to create Gollum in Lord of the Rings (in fact, Andy Serkis helped make this movie, too), but rather than creating creatures to use in a realistic-looking world, they animated both the people and the world. I don't mean that you will see any faces of actors you know done up in some caricature (although there are a few that resemble people you might know), but there are real people behind the animated movements you see on screen. And until you see it yourself, you won't believe what a difference it makes in the look of the film.

The story itself is on a level with Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Carribean. Animation lets it be a little over the top as far as reality goes, but weren't those movies a little over the top in live-action? And it's no more a kids' movie than those are. Tintin is a journalist (young, but not a kid) who stumbles onto a big story when he purchases a model boat and then has it stolen from him. The adventures just keep piling up as Tintin, with his smart dog tagging along, uses all his story-sniffing skills to solve a mystery as big as any Jones chased down.

It's completely entertaining fun for adults, though I suppose (grudgingly) kids might enjoy it, too. Ha! It's a perfect family movie (rated PG for action, drunkenness, and smoking) but not the kind you're forced to sit through on a Sunday evening. This is one you all should enjoy!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Grave Mercy

Here's a good young adult read that just came out this month. You may have already noticed the cover in bookstores: a girl in a heavy, medieval-looking red dress. It's perhaps not a very original cover, but that dress is certainly eye-catching all the same. And once you pick up the book and read the back cover, you will definitely be intrigued.

In Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers, Ismae is convent-trained to be an assassin (you read that right) for her god (and father, no less), Death (it just gets weirder and weirder, doesn't it?). In this medieval world similar to ours with a political backdrop that could almost have come right out of history, the handmaidens of Death are sworn to protect the interests of their country, Brittany. Ismae has no reason to love men, having only ever been abused by them, first by her father, then by the man she was forced to marry at only 14. When her turn comes to leave the convent on a mission to protect the young Duchess and see her to the throne, she is well-prepared to take her revenge on mankind, all according to the will and plan of Death, of course. But teaming up with a nobleman named Duval complicates things. The convent wants her to spy on him, and Ismae would rather cut his throat than trust him. If only she could find an ounce of disloyalty in him, she would get the job done and return home to her sisters. But soon, Ismae finds her heart and her duty and her country embroiled in one gigantic mess.

This book was fascinating, yet I had a hard time wrapping my head around the genre. It appears historical but doesn't seem to be trying to recreate any particular historical moment (aside from France being at war with Brittany). It has elements of fantasy: Ismae's father is a god, and she has certain supernatural gifts, like the ability to see Death's marque on her victims or her immunity to poisons. The trappings of medieval religion are there, but the religion itself is all mixed up with a variety of "saints," who are known as gods to true believers, and elements of Christianity. To a Christian like me it ends up feeling very pagan, but because I see it as fantasy, I'm able to put that aside for the most part and enjoy the book. Nonetheless, it's odd.

(This paragraph contains SPOILERS.) The whole weird religious and questionable moral tone of the book drop what might have been five stars down to three and a half, maybe four, so you see that my opinion of the book is still high. There are the unfortunate morality issues. The convent assassins are trained to do whatever it takes to get in close to their victims, including becoming mistresses, if time is needed to discover if a person truly deserves assassination. Ismae, herself, is supposed to act as a mistress, and she ends up sleeping with someone near the end of the book. Yes, she falls in love with him, and I guess our society thinks that makes it okay. And our society's morals aside, that time period was rather bawdy. Think of King Henry and his six wives. Fortunately, this is no The Other Boleyn Girl, and for what's there, it's kept very clean. Still, I will never say it's all good and well when it comes to extra-marital sex. It's just not right.

But if you can ignore the messy religious juxtapositions and mostly just the morals at the end of the book, what you are left with is a solid story full of mystery, danger, political intrigue, subtle but passionate romance, historical detail, and colorful fantasy. Ismae seems like a simple girl to begin with, but she grows up and grows on you. I feel like Grave Mercy is a novel targeted to young adults because it has to be (the heroine is 17) but written for an audience that's a bit older. So, if you are an adult (particularly female) who loves young adult fiction, this book is just right for you!

Grave Mercy is Book 1 of the His Fair Assassin series. Its sequel, out in the spring of 2013, will be about one of Ismae's convent sisters.