Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Burning and In-law Bonding

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

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

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

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

Breaking Dawn, Part 2 in Theaters Now

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Discover Your Windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 2, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

I give the novel three stars for an intriguing heroine.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Lucky One on DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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