Saturday, July 21, 2012

Such a Rush

Occasionally I come across books that are interesting and read fast, but I still don't like them. Usually, that's because my complaints with the book are on moral grounds. In the case of this month's release Such a Rush, a young adult novel by Jennifer Echols, I am torn about what rating to give. I liked it enough to read it quickly and finish it. I liked certain aspects of it, like the fact that a teenager learns to fly airplanes. That's just different than a lot of other stuff out there right now. It's not paranormal or futuristic or post-apocalyptic. It's contemporary but unique.

The parts I didn't like were those where the girl dressed inappropriately (yes, it matters even in a book; I can still visualize it, and it still sends a message) or where teenagers had sex or even just groped each other. Whenever I come across that in a book, I will always red flag it, particularly in young adult fiction. I'm not naive. I know young adults are having sex. It doesn't mean I agree with it, and it doesn't mean their books should be filled with it.

In this case, there's more to it than a girl just throwing her body around carelessly. She comes from a dysfunctional family, has lived in poverty all her life, and has developed a way to cope with her situation. She's not promiscuous, though you might at first think that from the way she dresses and talks. She's only ever slept with one person once, and because she doesn't want to get pregnant, she's concerned about condoms and safety. I wish the emphasis was on abstinence rather than protection. Showing concern that the teenage protagonist has only protected sex seems like pandering to the audience to me. What it looks like is that the author wanted to write about teenage sex to impress her readers, but because she didn't want to send the wrong message, she had to be sure she put it in the "right way."

I'm not saying that was the author's primary goal. If the author had an agenda here (besides just telling a good story), I don't think it was to promote or emphasize sex. She was simply being realistic as she presented a message of hope, showing that circumstances can be overcome. I, however, would still have liked to see less sexuality, or if it had to be there to make a point, it could have been less graphic. (SPOILERS to follow.) But some of the sex definitely seems to be there just because the author knows that's what people want to read. There are sex scenes between the girl and the nice, upstanding love interest of the story. Sex scenes that are there for pure sensationalism bother me. They send a message that teenage sex or sex outside of marriage is okay, and though I know I'm in the minority here, I don't agree. (If you've read previous reviews from me, you've heard this many times.) My objections are about more than teenage pregnancy. They are about a person's spiritual and emotional health. (But I've talked about this before and won't go into it at length now.)

Besides the sex, there's a lot of language. Leah and her best friend call each other "b----," and though I know that goes with the territory in a novel about dysfunctionality and poverty, reading that kind of thing is not for everyone. There is also the use of synonyms for female prostitutes, among other scattered uses of foul language.

What this book does well, though, is tell a story. A girl pursues her dream, and through hard work, she lifts herself out of her circumstances. At fourteen, after a recent move (one of many in her life throughout South Carolina but never out of the state), Leah gets a job as a secretary of sorts at the small local airport. There she meets a man who sees the spark and potential in her and teaches her to fly. From afar, she falls in love with one of his twin sons. When disaster strikes three years later, she must decide how high a price she's willing to pay to keep her dream alive.

Although it's an intriguing story, my qualms about the lack of morality in the book allow me to give it only two and a half stars. In other words, I enjoyed parts of it, but I can't recommend it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man in Theaters Now

I went to see The Amazing Spider-Man last night. In my opinion, it's too soon for a reboot, but I was interested in seeing it, all the same. I really love Emma Stone (who plays Gwen Stacy), and the previews looked pretty awesome.

Overall, I enjoyed it. Not that it matters, but I got some great previews beforehand, all movies I'm excited to watch (The Dark Knight Rises, Breaking Dawn 2, and Total Recall). The beginning of the story was a little slow for me. I'm one of those who didn't know anything about Spider-Man before I watched Tobey Maguire play the part, so I didn't know what to expect when I saw those Spider-Man movies, which is part of the fun. I love being surprised in a story, and I generally don't like spoilers. So, this time around, with the story relatively fresh in my mind, I was a tad bored. I knew what was coming. Peter Parker gets bullied. Then he gets bitten, and suddenly he's the top, spider. His uncle dies. I wanted all this set-up to move along...although it was done differently than in Tobey Maguire's version, which I appreciated and enjoyed.

But what makes this movie stand out from previous Spider-Man movies are the characters. Yes, there's a new villain, but that's not even what I'm talking about. The actors are good, but the characters are unique. Actor Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man is still a good person (as Peter Parker is supposed to be), but he also has a rebellious streak that never quite goes away. He's a younger, edgier, saucier, leaner Spider-Man. And it works. Gwen Stacy is a different love interest, a smart, sweet girl who gets to know Parker's secret right away.

The second half of the movie picks up with a complex villain, one we haven't seen on screen before, a doctor experimenting with science to recreate his own lost limb. But the experimentation goes awry, and the doctor's evil side comes out.

I noticed, particularly, that the Spider-Man swinging sequences were different in this movie than in the Tobey Maguire version. I didn't get the same stomach-dropping feel I got watching Maguire's Peter Parker experiment with his abilities for the first time. Also, in this version, Spider-Man doesn't manufacture his own webbing. He needs special equipment to make it. Nonetheless, the special effects are great, and there are a few beautiful, iconic shots of Spider-Man in action.

Be sure to stay after the initial credits for the set-up for the next movie.

Three stars.

Winnie the Pooh (2011) on DVD

I have a two-(almost three)-year-old, and I recently rented the new Winnie the Pooh movie for us to watch together. I had let him watch a couple Veggie Tale feature-lenth movies before, but other than that, this was his first "real" movie. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I figured Winnie the Pooh had to be pretty harmless.

My son was so excited about his "movie." And he loved it! He watched all 63 minutes and then wanted to watch it again (but I allow him only about an hour, max, a day). There were parts that were a little over his head. Owl uses particularly big words, and there are plays on words. But since Pooh doesn't understand big words either and since some of them get explained in smaller words, I figured it didn't matter too much. I'm not sure how much a two-year-old gets anyway (but I bet it's simultaneously more and less than we'd think). There are also humorous moments meant for older kids or the adults watching with them.

The only thing I was worried about was the monster the Hundred Acre Wood inhabitants think kidnapped Christopher Robin. This monster is called the "Backson," a misunderstanding created by a note Christopher leaves, which says he'll be "back soon." Adults will obviously get the mistake, but I'm not sure what my two-year-old thought. He didn't seem afraid of the music or dark woods, but that's something to watch for if you let your little ones see this.

Altogether, I thought it was a very appropriate introduction for little kids to Winnie the Pooh. The fact that it's a book is emphasized creatively with actual words and letters being part of the narration and story. At one point, the characters use letters (fallen off the page) as a ladder. It's rather clever but also very simple, and that goes for the whole story, too. Three stars.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A World Away

Nancy Grossman's A World Away, a young adult novel, is perhaps the first novel I've read about the Amish that isn't from a Christian perspective. It's a secular book, but the difference isn't really apparent until you get to the "English" parts of the book, and even then, it's rather subtle. There's just the lack of anything religious in the English world: prayers before meals, church, etc. Otherwise, the basic plot is very similar to other books I've read about the Amish: a girl, hungering for the outside world, leaves her community, lives among the English, and must then decide which world she wants forever, because among the Amish, you can be a part of only one or the other.

Eliza has just reached the age where those in her community are given the opportunity to run wild. The Amish lifestyle is not forced. It's one you choose after a time called Rumspringa. But choose you must. There's no living with a foot in both worlds. Eliza is desperate to be given more freedom for her Rumspringa, but her mother is cautious about letting her go, to say the least. Put in an impossible situation, knowing they'll lose her if they don't let her go on her own, her parents send her to be a nanny for an English woman named Rachel. Eliza is ready to try everything and anything. After all, she only gets this one chance...unless she decides to stay. But she doesn't have to figure that out for a whole summer, a summer of fun, delicious boredom, an attentive new boy, and firsts of just about anything she can imagine. There's nothing so wondrous as trying something for the first time.

Grossman's familiarity with the Amish lifestyle is obvious. She didn't just write a book, imagining life inside the Amish world. She studied it thoroughly and presented a more detailed transition from Amish to English than I had seen before. She answered questions I wouldn't have thought to ask. If the author wasn't once Amish herself, either she must have had a lot of close contact or she must be similar to the book's character Rachel. I won't say how because that would be a spoiler.

In some ways, I missed the religious discussion that Christian novels about the Amish provide. But in other ways, I didn't. It was interesting to have the focus be on the difference in lifestyle, especially between a person whose life is wrapped around religion and one who has no religion at all. I wonder if the novel could have been just the tiniest bit better with something more said on the topic, but I don't know.

What I do know is that this is a beautiful book. It made me cry so many times. It's all about relationships and the mistakes we must live through ourselves even though those who have gone before try so hard to keep us from making them. I was impressed that even the friendships that Eliza has with minor characters we barely see in the book feel real. I love books that make every character count even when their roles are small.

There is a love triangle in this book, but the story is not primarily a romance. It's about two worlds colliding, though they aren't supposed to. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I have to say it resolved itself far better than I could have imagined. Four stars for a book that takes a common experience in another world and presents it beautifully for our understanding.

Would You Say That to My Face?

I've been getting a lot of attention lately on a review that I now wish I'd written differently. Sometimes I have written reviews forgetting that people outside my circle of friends and family, people who don't know me, will read them. My goal is to be professional about how I present my opinions regarding the books I read and movies I watch, even if I don't like them. This is especially important to me when I write book reviews because I know that movies are a bigger industry with no one person to pin blame on but books are very carefully crafted by a single person.

As a writer who enjoys writing a bit of fiction myself, I understand that an author puts a great deal of him or herself into a book. Many of the books I review are advance reader's copies, which often means they are by first-time authors. There are only so many reviews out there about them, and I imagine my blog might pop up here and there as people seek information about these books. It's possible even the authors might find my blog while searching for reader feedback.

That's why I'm rather embarrassed about one or two reviews I've written. I didn't like the books, and I poured out my sarcasm on them in my reviews, knowing it might entertain my acquaintances but forgetting, or perhaps not daring to hope, I would reach a larger audience. I'm humbled and grateful to know that strangers read my reviews, but I do want to apologize over one in particular. Last I checked, when I searched for the middle school novel There's a New Name in School (The Ashleys, Book 1), my blog was near the top of Google's list. Immediately, I wanted to erase the review and hide in shame, not because my opinion is any different now about the book but because of the way I'd written about it. But I also felt like that would be cheating somehow. It feels dishonest to remove a review. I wrote what I wrote. People have read it, and it is what it is.

I'm sorry I wrote the review the way I did, and if the author should ever stumble across my blog, I hope she reads this post and accepts my apology for being so undiplomatic in describing my reactions to her work. Even if I don't like a book, I appreciate the work that went into getting it published. I'll freely admit it's far easier to be a critic than to create.

With these things in mind, I need to be careful from now on about how I craft my reviews. I'll still tell you if I don't like a book and what I found wrong with it. Hopefully I'll even entertain you as I do. But what I want to avoid is being downright hurtful and mean. It's easy to be mean on the Internet. I see it so often, especially when I read comments. When there's no face to speak to, we think we can get away with saying anything. But not only does the person we are speaking to read what we say, it's also exposed for the world to see, and it reflects badly on us. I want to be different. I want to be better. I want to be the person that, even if you don't agree with me, you'd be happy to have a conversation with face-to-face. It's the small things that make the world better, and I hope you think of that the next time you're posting something to the unknown universe. I know I will.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Eventide (Tales of the Dragon's Bard, Book 1)

Eventide (Tales of the Dragon's Bard, Book 1), by renowned fantasy writer Tracy Hickman and his wife Laura, is one of those rare books I read that are not young adult fiction, books that appeal to me because they contain well-told stories about subjects more fascinating than everyday life. Ironically, Eventide is about a ho-hum cast of characters from a little fantasy village. Nothing much more exciting than winning pie contests happens to them. Yet, there's more to the village than meets the eye. And the one who will bring out those stories is none other than the ridiculous, ostentatious Dragon's Bard.

When Edvard, the Dragon's Bard, arrives with his scribe Abel at the village of Eventide, he is on a quest to collect stories to entertain the dragon who let him go. He meets Jarod, a shy accountant who secretly loves one of the wish-women of the town's broken wishing well, an old centaur farmer, a talented but underestimated dwarf blacksmith, a leather tanner who can't smell his own stinky work, and a gossiping river fairy, just to name a few. When Edvard tries to liven up their lives for his tales, the sleepy little town is in for not a few misunderstandings and a bit of troublesome adventure!

Eventide is fantasy, but it's not about the princess or the knight or even the dragon. It's about people like you and me, but it's interesting because it takes place in a world where all the above exists, too.

The main character is actually not the Dragon's Bard but the accountant Jarod, though other characters get bits of their stories told as well. It might be hard to enjoy a novel about only silly people, so it's nice that Jarod and his father are among the more polished and intelligent occupants of the town, thus allowing the reader to identify with and root for Jarod.

Read my review of my husband's soon-to-be-published novel The Unremarkable Squire because it's a very similar piece of fiction. My husband loves to use misfit characters and has enjoyed Hickman's books in the past because of theirs. Tracy and Laura Hickman's Eventide is all about misfits, though perhaps they are not as misfit as they at first seem. Many of the characters have quite a bit of depth once the story delves into their lives a bit, and maybe that's the point. Tales can be found anywhere. Romance can be epic, even in a tiny village. Everyone has a secret at one point or another.

This novel is relatively short for fantasy. It's clean and funny and doesn't bog you down too much in fantasy detail (but is slower-paced than young adult, still). I think I'll keep this one on my shelf at home. Three stars all around.

The Wee Free Men (Audio CD)

I recently took a long car trip and needed something wonderful to hurry the tedious miles away. Of course, I had my wonderful children needing something every other minute, but that's not exactly what I mean. When I wasn't attending to my children (and when they would let me and not try to compete for volume), my husband and I listened to The Wee Free Men, a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett. If you've ever read any Terry Pratchett, then you know this was a perfect choice. If you haven't read him, stay tuned.

The Wee Free Men stars a little girl of nine years of age, a much younger protagonist for once in Pratchett's fantastical Discworld. Tiffany is the youngest daughter of a shepherd, but she wants to be a heroine in a novel, or if she can't be that (because her hair and eyes aren't the right color), she wants to be a witch. Witches are always misunderstood in books, she thinks. Why are they so wicked? Just because they look old and funny and do odd things? The thing is, Tiffany is a witch, and she's about to find out. When her brother is kidnapped by an evil queen, Tiffany discovers she is the only one who can do anything about it...well, she and the little blue warrior men with brilliantly funny names who speak in a deep brogue and fear only anything written on paper.

As my sister-in-law who lent me the audio book pointed out, The Wee Free Men may be better listened to than read. The narrator, Stephen Briggs, has a delightful accent, both for the normal narration and for the dialect of the Wee Free Men, called Nac Mac Feegles. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, you can't even understand the Nac Mac Feegles, but then again, neither can Tiffany. An interesting voice always helps an audio book and adds something regular reading can't. I prefer to read books, but if you have to listen, you need a good narrator.

Unfortunately, this is another story with witches. I'm just not fond of witches. I'd be more comfortable if they were called something else and especially didn't have the trappings of real-world witches: pointy hats, broomsticks, etc. But from what I know of Pratchett, he enjoys taking real-world things and turning them on their heads, whether it's evil or good, witches or religion. Not much is sacred or out of bounds to him. This makes him a good comedian but not a good conversationalist on theology.

(Very minor SPOILERS in this paragraph.) Other than the witches, the only thing I had trouble with in the book was the muddled dream-like world Tiffany goes to for the climax. I won't say more than that, but let me just tell you, when it's midnight and you've been sitting in a car all day and your eyes keep falling shut (my husband was driving!), it's particularly odd to listen to a book about a dream. You don't know if you've missed something because the book's jumping around like a dream does anyway. So, I can't say for sure that I actually listened to every word of this book, though I desperately tried. And perhaps that's why I liked that portion of the book less than the rest.

However, as far as good storytelling and humor goes, this audio book gets a solid three stars. The reading level is for middle schoolers though this novel takes place in Pratchett's established Discworld and will appeal to anyone familiar with Discworld.

Pixar's Brave in Theaters Now

Brave seems like a different kind of movie for Pixar (the princess theme being more in line with what Disney has always done), but it is still full of Pixar flair and originality. And with scenery out of Scotland, the animation is absolutely beautiful!

In Brave, Princess Merida is a tomboy, much more comfortable on a horse with a bow in hand than in a corset, learning courtly manners from her mother. Her red, unruly hair characterizes her spirit and the spirit of her land: untamed, wild. When the three clans under her father's rule come seeking her hand in marriage, Merida fights back against tradition. But the manner in which she chooses to do so may cost her dearly.

In several aspects, Brave could have ended up a mediocre movie, but unsurprisingly, Pixar pulls it out of that class just in time. I'll explain.

As with nearly all Disney princess movies, there is a witch. In Brave, she is there as a catalyst to the plot and doesn't play a major role. Nor is she the villain. Nonetheless, I wish the movie had avoided the whole witch thing. I understand why it makes sense to use a witch in a movie set in Scotland. The land is steeped in mythology and ancient paganism. But that, for me, makes it almost worse. Anything that approaches reality where witches are concerned bothers me because I know how dangerous real witchcraft actually is. However, I appreciate the way this movie downplays the witch's role and avoids making her a main character. And the way Merida must solve the problem the witch gives her is both more complex and more true-to-life than many Disney movies portray, carrying a strong message about what it means to be family.

I must admit, I really don't like movies where the kid or teen is rebellious and ends up being "right." Disney does this far too often. Without spoiling too much, I think I can say that this movie handles the issue beautifully.

Another problem, as I see it, that comes up in certain movies is the role of the dad. Dads are often given the shaft or made to seem like bumbling idiots while their female counterparts are intelligent and beautiful. Usually, this is done for comic effect, and Brave is somewhat guilty of this plot device. However, one thing I really appreciate about Brave is that the dad is not simply a fool. He's loving and loyal to his family. He's playful when he needs to be and a fierce warrior when he needs to be. In other words, while Merida's dad sometimes fits the overused stereotype, Pixar diverges, as usual, from the norm and creates a more complex character. This is just one example of why Pixar is a notch above anything else in the animation world.

Altogether, I was very pleased with Brave. Granted, it's a more traditional type of story, not as fully original as WALL-E or Up. But, really, there's no new plot under the sun. I'm happy with a good story, and Pixar knows how to give me that. Four stars.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Act of Valor on DVD

Well, if you want to know what it's like to be a Navy SEAL, watch Act of Valor, just out on DVD, starring real SEALS and detailing real tactics (just the actual plot is semi-fictional). But if you are looking for a feel-good movie, this isn't it. It's rough. There's torture and heartache, and the end (minor SPOILER alert), while making you proud of the men who serve our country in this way, also makes you glad you aren't married to one of them. As a mom, this hit me particularly hard, but perhaps I'm already saying more than I should. Just, if you choose to watch this, be warned.

This movie's wow factor is based all on the fact that it's real stuff. The movie itself, however, lacks a little polish. The SEALS' lines are kind of stilted, and the actors are almost interchangeable, making the climax a little confusing. I cared about the people involved. I just wasn't sure which actors they were on screen. An attempt is made to get audience sympathy for certain characters, but all the main characters are these muscled jocks who, under uniforms and helmets, are barely distinguishable from one another. In fact, someone seemed to realize this and tried to make the distinction more visible through the ornamentation on a helmet, but even that wasn't enough. I needed to see more character quirks, not soldier cut-outs. Besides the tear-jerker ending, this was my main problem with the movie. But I totally understand, at the same time, that since the actors are actual Navy SEALS, they have more than enough to do without learning all the nuances of acting.

Act of Valor is rated R. The worst part is when a woman is being tortured, and though it isn't too long, the people I was watching the movie with fast-forwarded through it, which had no effect on the understanding of the rest of the movie. There are also suicide bombers, an off-screen bombing of a group of children, and lots of quick scenes where people are getting shot through the head and blood is spurting out. Otherwise, there is no sex (just a few scantily clad women, briefly), and the language is not over-the-top.

I have a hard time recommending this movie, but I was impressed by the tactics. I think men will appreciate and understand this movie better than women (not necessarily in every case, but generally), but this movie also has the potential to make even men cry.

Three stars.

Brief Takes on Man on a Ledge and Chronicle

Here are my brief takes on a couple movies I've seen recently. They aren't worth full reviews, but because interest in them might be high, they warrant a few comments.

Man on a Ledge (2012 drama thriller out on DVD now, rated PG-13): don't bother. From the previews, it seems kind of cool, but really, nothing much happens, and what does happen is forgettable. Premise: an escaped convict (and former cop) will go to any lengths to prove he is innocent of diamond theft. I guess going to any lengths means he'll enlist the help of his brother and brother's hot girlfriend. The only reason they pull anything off is sheer luck. Believability rating: one star.

Chronicle (2012 sci-fi thriller out on DVD now, rated PG-13, 84 minutes): depressing and messed up. The cool factor of this movie comes from the way it is filmed: entirely through personal video cameras, security cameras, and phones. It's very much like Cloverfield, only less jumpy. Premise: three teens get superhuman powers and begin to experiment with what they can do. Message: if you are a loner who's bullied by both father and peers and lacks social skills, getting a new handle on life doesn't make the anger go away. This is not a feel-good movie about superheroes. It's more about self-destruction. The creative filming sucks you in...right a black hole. Positivity rating: one star.