Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Lost Code (Book 1 of The Atlanteans)

The Lost Code (Book 1 of The Atlanteans), by Kevin Emerson, is a fun post-apocalyptic, dystopian adventure that advertises itself too cheaply. Since when did The Hunger Games become the new standard for violence in young adult fiction, making anything "tamer" be geared toward a younger audience? That makes it sound like anything other than hardcore is boring, and in my opinion, if it's too boring for young adult, it's probably too boring, period.

Here's the deal. There is some discussion going around on whether or not The Lost Code is for younger teen readers than many other popular young adult novels. For instance, it's being compared to Gone, which is about kids who are of a similar age, but which has, perhaps, heavier thematic content and scarier danger. Supposedly, it's for a younger audience than Gone is. I disagree. They may be for different audiences, but it's misleading to say a book is for a younger audience. That implies that older teens won't enjoy it, which simply isn't true. I can understand if a teen isn't mature enough for some books. In that case, perhaps The Lost Code is better for younger readers than Gone is. However, readers shouldn't automatically infer that it works in the opposite direction: that some readers are too old for a book. If a book is written well, nobody should be too old for it. I'm fast approaching the end of three decades (Sheesh! That makes me sound old!), and I love young adult novels. It's because they are often good stories, and good stories are universal.

I think one reason people are saying this book is for younger readers is because Owen, the main character, does sometimes seem like a younger teen. He's not immature, but the other kids his age around him are pretty immature, making you wonder just how old he might be. I don't believe the book ever gives an exact age. There is a notable difference between the mind of Katniss (Hunger Games) and that of Owen (though Owen and Gone's Sam aren't that far off from each other), so I can see why someone might say The Lost Code is for a younger audience than The Hunger Games.

The issue, though, seems to be more about the book's content than the age of the kids in the book. The Lost Code is not as violent or scary as The Hunger Games or Gone, granted. But advertising it as tamed-down adventure might lose it some readers who might have actually enjoyed it (almost lost me). There is actually a scene as gruesome as some in more hardcore books, although The Lost Code isn't kids pitted against other kids, which adds a certain horror and ups the stakes, perhaps. I don't think a book should be considered only for a younger audience just because it's on the lighter side, and on the other hand, I don't think young readers should always be protected from reading heavier stuff (though that should be determined by parents on a child-by-child basis). It's my belief that the important thing is story, and this story holds its own.

In The Lost Code, Owen gets to go from his underground community to summer camp in one of only a few specially designed domes, protecting people from the end-of-the-world conditions and radiation outside. He immediately fails the swim test and drowns; only, he doesn't. His body adapts to his surroundings, and suddenly, he finds himself part of something much bigger than he ever dreamed could come out of summer camp: an ancient secret related to the location of the domes and the very genetic make-up of his DNA. To say the least, things aren't what they seem at Camp Eden.

Evoking summer camp nostalgia, Emerson creates a world desperately trying to pretend everything isn't falling apart. This juxtaposition, along with bits of romance, science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, makes this an intriguing, entertaining read. As the plot develops, it gets more complex, and the end promises more high-stakes danger and adventure to follow in future books. Summer camp seems so mundane for a book about the end of the world, but I think that's why the story is so interesting and strong. It's the familiar juxtaposed against the future, and who doesn't love to speculate about that?

The Lost Code is available this month. Three stars.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Darker Still

Darker Still, by Leanna Renee Hieber, didn't intrigue me as much as some young adult novels. It's a sort of gothic romance that takes place in Victorian-era New York City. That much was interesting to me. But the story is about a young English Lord, imprisoned in a painting, and the mute girl who attempts to rescue him. I didn't see a lot of action, or even plot, coming out of this scenario. But I kept the advance reader's copy on my shelf (it was released last November), and now that I've read it, I admit that the plot was decent, for being about such a seemingly restrictive subject.

But I still don't love the book. I think it was the manner in which it was narrated that turned me off. It's narrated by Natalie, a selectively mute girl who hasn't spoken since her mother died, in her diary. Since the story is meant to be a bit of a mystery, this didn't work for me because any suspense there might have been was taken away by the fact that the girl was writing about it later. I never really feared for her life. When the climax comes, she indicates the ending before even writing about it, which completely spoiled the surprise. I just love book endings to be a complete surprise. I'll read a back cover copy, but I will never open a book just to read the last page (unless I know for certain I'm not going to read the book). I hate spoilers, and I rarely include spoilers in my reviews unless I simply can't talk about the book otherwise, in which case I warn the reader. So, the diary didn't work for me. A more traditional first person narration would have piqued my interest more and would have helped me read this book faster. As it was, it took longer than usual because I just wasn't intrigued enough to pick the book back up very quickly.

Another aspect of this book that would typically turn me off but that is handled fairly tastefully is the magic. It borders on the occult, which I don't like to read at all, believing that stuff to be dangerous and have real-life applications. This book has ghosts and talks about spiritualism, seances, and spells (stuff I usually avoid), but the main part of the magic seems to be just that: magic. There is a curse, but it feels more like black magic than real occult stuff. And that just sits better with me.

The romance is sweet, but even that bothered me at times. It gets a little inappropriate for a Victorian-era novel, but at least it doesn't pretend that it's normal. It explains itself in that the circumstances are so strange that the main characters lose inhibitions. Okay. That makes sense. Still, it's not what you expect to read about in Victorian times and was a little off-putting.

So, I give this novel somewhere between two and three stars. You aren't missing anything if you don't read it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

This Means War on DVD

I was disappointed with this movie. It could have been such a good one, but I kind of suspected it might rub me the wrong way. This Means War is about two secret agents who fall in love with the same girl and then battle it out to try to make her fall in love with one of them over the other. I was expecting a rather light-hearted, funny action romance, but with this type of film, you usually get a bit of garbage, too. Sadly, with romantic comedies, I find myself going into them wondering if I can ignore the sexual stuff enough to like the movie. And in this one, the answer was "no."

The movie has some good things going for it. It has a unique premise. It's really funny, even at the totally inappropriate parts. It has a good actress: Reese Witherspoon. Chris Pine (Kirk in 2009's Star Trek) and Tom Hardy (in Inception) star opposite her. I don't know them as well, but you gotta love a British accent!

But then it also has raunchy language and demeaning sex talk (it's rated PG-13), and (SPOILERS!!!!) the bad boy wins the girl! I was rooting so much for Hardy's Tuck (and not just because of the accent!). He is the better choice. He is the one who is interested in her from the beginning. He's sweet and genuine and romantic. Pine's FDR, on the other hand, sleeps around and can't stand Lauren at first. Of course, I knew immediately that the storyline would push FDR, even though it pretended to be about Tuck. And sure enough, a not-so-subtle emphasis on FDR followed.

(SPOILERS continue) But to the end, I hoped she would end up with Tuck, simultaneously knowing she wouldn't. And when she didn't, I was so disappointed. FDR didn't deserve her. I hated the whole process of how she ended up with him, too. Her sex-driven older sister gives her horrible advice, including sleeping with the two men to determine who's better. Lauren (who seems like a decent girl who doesn't do that sort of thing) sleeps with FDR and subsequently believes him to be The One. (I hated the message that sent.) Then she decides, against her better judgment, that she should at least try the other guy. Tuck proves she doesn't deserve him. Fortunately for Tuck, his ex-wife and son wait for him at the finish line, suddenly interested in him because it turns out he's a spy rather than a travel agent. (Are people really that shallow?) And unfortunately for this story's happy ending, it turns out that FDR really is a scumbag who'd slept with Tuck's wife at one point in their shared history. But of course, that revelation is just to add a last touch of humor, and we all know that Lauren changed his life and set him on the straight path. (Hollywood must think we are stupid.)

I was so, so disappointed in this movie. If you want to see a movie about spies and romance, go re-rent Mr. & Mrs. Smith from your rental store's Favorites section. (Or dig it out of the back of your collection!) There's more heat and much more class.

SWATH in Theaters Now!

Based upon what I'd seen in the previews, I was pretty excited to see Snow White and the Huntsman (known as SWATH on the web). I knew it would be dark, so there were no surprises there. I expected amazing costumes and visually stunning cinematography. But there were a few other surprises, both good and bad.

SWATH actually follows the original story of Snow White (at least what I know from Disney) fairly closely. I guess I expected something that diverted a little more since the title, after all, wasn't Snow White and the Prince. Perhaps the biggest surprise, which isn't a surprise if you know the story well, is Snow White's affinity to animals, drawing them to herself, being able to calm them. I just wasn't expecting it in this story where the previews have focused on Charlize Theron's evil queen Ravenna. But the magic is somewhat balanced in this telling. On one side is the evil queen's black magic and poisonous control, which has killed the land. On the other side is a sanctuary of good magic where Snow White communes with the fairies and animals and the land is still verdant. This sanctuary reminded me strongly of The Chronicles of Narnia, with its "old magic" feel. It surprised me so much to see that aspect that I didn't like it much at first. It was beautiful, but I kept thinking it was a knockoff of Narnia, and a cheap one at that. It has grown on me since watching it.

Kristen Stewart (known for her role as Bella in the Twilight series) and Chris Hemsworth (known for his role as the comic book god Thor) star as Snow White and the Huntsman. The Huntsman is a drunk who gets tricked into hunting down Snow White in exchange for the return of his dead wife. Hemsworth does a fine job of portraying a giant of a man, lost in deep sorrow. Stewart plays a darker Snow White than Disney's, but it works in this tale of a girl imprisoned for many years in a tower of her own castle. Snow White is sad and serious and very dirty. It's almost funny that under all that dirt is the most beautiful woman in the land. Unfortunately, perhaps, for Stewart, her previous role as Bella colors viewers' opinions of her in SWATH. She plays a similar sort of character. But Twilight aside, Stewart fits the dark, sad princess she's meant to portray here.

I enjoyed this retelling of the story. I liked the visuals and the behind-the-scene ideas. I liked the way this portrayal fleshed out the original story. But thematically, SWATH falls short. The themes certainly aren't bad in and of themselves, but they lack cohesiveness. At the end, they need just a little something extra to tie them all together and wrap things up for the viewer, but instead, the end just leaves you feeling a little bereft and slightly confused.

(SPOILERS follow throughout the remainder of the review.)

Despite the suggestive title and movie poster images, SWATH is not a love story. The Huntsman is grieving over his dead wife. Snow White depends on his help, and he comes to admire her. He even says she reminds him of his wife. But despite a kiss, there's no sense that a romance is blossoming except what the viewer's preconceptions put there. The kiss awakens Snow White, but here's where the mythology of the story and the thematic elements get a little confusing. We don't actually know why the kiss awakens her. It doesn't seem to be true love. I don't think it's even meant to be, unless there's something in the subtext I missed.

There is actually a Prince of sorts in this story, though the title might lead you to think otherwise. In this telling, he's actually a Duke's son and Snow White's closest friend when they are children. He eventually joins her party and regrets that he did not know she was alive sooner, but there's no romance there either. This story is more about war than love, so that makes sense. But if you are looking for romance, you'll be disappointed. Snow White doesn't get her Huntsman or her Duke. Both kiss her, and I guess if you are pulling for one or the other, the Huntsman wins, but it's a rather anti-climactic love triangle. Absolutely nothing happens. Actually, it's kind of refreshing if you are sick of love triangles and forced, cheap romances. The problem is not in the lack of romance, but as I said before, it's in the lack of any solid, unifying themes. I'll try to explain.

Snow White is innocent and pure, which is why she can defeat the queen. The Huntsman tries to teach her to use a knife, and she says she could never do that to anyone, which is consistent with the whole innocent character thing. This Snow White may be a fighter, but that doesn't mean she needs to wield a sword. That's great. That's the idea I got at the beginning of the movie. Then Snow White eats the apple and dies, which by the way, isn't very smart of the queen. As explained in this movie, Ravenna needs Snow White's fresh beating heart in her hand in order to become immortal. So, why does she do all that pretending with the apple? Why not just carve the heart right out of the girl? Anyway, Snow White returns to life with a kiss (the meaning of which, as I explained above, isn't clear), and suddenly, she is a new person. She gives an impassioned speech and then leads her army against the queen. I think I could have believed it with just a tiny bit more explanation, something to tie the loose ends together. Because, sure, dying changes a person. That's believable. But the why of it should be clear. You're a bad person; you die; you come back to life: you realize you'd better get your act together. You're a good person; you die; you come back to life: you become a fighter? It's not the obvious sequitur. I would have more easily believed that Snow White's purity gave her greater powers when the queen killed her. Instead, it's like she all of a sudden "grew up." She was running from destiny before, and now she's ready to face it. I guess that works, too, but it's kind of lame for a movie with so much cool magic and mythology. Why not use the mythology to its fullest advantage?

Snow White ends up stabbing the queen. In the end, it isn't her purity that kills the queen. It's the Huntsman's advice that she initially turns down, presumably because she is too good to do something like that. I couldn't figure out if the movie was telling me that Snow White's innocence and purity were good or that Snow White was just naive at the beginning. It seemed like it was saying both, and that simply doesn't work.

Snow White's last words to the queen are, "You cannot have my heart." But she says it with tears on her cheeks and this compassion she seemed to have all along for the queen so that I kept waiting for the implied "but" in the sentence: "You can't have my heart, but...." A few more words there could have been the clincher. It could have been the explanation for why one magic was more powerful than the other. But actually, I don't think the movie makers were trying to say one magic was more powerful. The only reason I can see, according to the movie, that Snow White defeats the queen is that a prophecy says the queen can only be defeated by someone more beautiful than she. If that's the case, why show us the good magic or go on and on about how Snow White is "The One," as though it means something (more than beauty, that is)? Granted, it fits the story of Snow White, which is about one beauty winning out over another, but the way the story is played in the movie, it seems like they were trying to make it be about something more.

So, there is no thematic resolution and no romantic resolution to this movie, only a slapped-together emotional resolution that doesn't follow logic and seems to rest more on revenge. Again, that alone would work for some movies. This movie just had so many things it was trying to do that it couldn't pull them all off together.

The best part of this movie is definitely Ravenna, and more than anything, I think the producers were concerned about making a cool-looking movie. Her costumes are gorgeous, if you like skulls and that gothic look, and at one point, she turns herself into a flock of ravens, which when they return and form her body again is grotesque but visually stunning. This movie was made to jar the senses, and I knew that before I saw it, just from the trailers. It's rated PG-13 for graphic fantasy violence.

One scene perfectly illustrates the entire movie for me. Ravenna dips herself into something that looks like thick milk, and as she comes up, crown on but otherwise naked (nothing shows), the mud is dripping beautifully down her face and neck, making her look like a sculpture. The scene is fantastic, but you don't really know what's going on. Mud bath? With her crown on? She'd just eaten a bird's heart, so magic ritual...? An illustration of her evilness and the extent of her poison that she bathes in this while the people outside are desperate for the leftovers of her bath going down the drainage pipes?

This movie is beautiful (in a very dark kind of way), but it kind of leaves you wondering what exactly it's about. Three stars.