Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Have I ever said how much I love Ted Dekker? (Okay, okay, I know...how many books does he have now? 25? 30? It's about that many times.) I realize he's not everyone's cup of tea. He's an intense guy who's intensely passionate about God and whose intensity bleeds out of the pages of his books into your own heart as you read. Lately, I'd started to find a lot of his books, mainly his thrillers, similar. Still good, but not my favorites. Still intense and meaningful, but not hitting me in quite the same way as earlier novels. Still worth reading.

But Outlaw is brand new. It's not strictly a thriller, more of a drama, but it has many of the elements of Dekker's suspenseful stories, and then some.

It's, perhaps, a more personal story for Dekker, who grew up as a missionary kid in New Guinea where this novel is set, among a native cannibalistic people from whom he no doubt drew much inspiration for the fictional Tulim natives of the book. Dekker admits as much in an author's note. As the daughter of missionaries myself, I have long wanted to hear more of Dekker's personal story, and while this isn't quite it, it's closer than ever before.

Outlaw, which, let's be clear, is still fiction, is a story about a woman who follows a dream to the other side of the world only to find herself captured and enslaved by a savage, proud people, a tribe of undiscovered headhunters in the most remote and inaccessible corner of the earth. Alone, reeling from the loss of her two-year-old son (as a mother of two young ones myself, I ached with her), terrified, she believes the dream was a fantasy and that God has forsaken her. Slowly, difficultly, she bows to the laws of her new world, knowing she will never escape it.

I don't want to tell you the rest of the story, but of course, with Ted Dekker, you know it doesn't end there. This is a story about identity, who we are, or think we are, versus how God sees us. This story is rich with beauty on so many levels. My grandparents worked with a tribe of natives in the jungles of Peru, and I have always had trouble seeing the beauty in a culture that is so primitive, even though I've lived on the mission field (though not with natives) myself. When Outlaw began, I felt the same way, but somehow, through the journey, I began to see differently. Dekker makes his characters accessible, even when their whole system of beliefs is foreign, but of course, it helps that he uses a main character who is much more familiar to us.

Even more than the beauty of the culture and the land is the beauty of Dekker's insight into life and God's heart and eternal values. As Dekker puts it in Outlaw, the person we think we are is actually just a costume that goes insane with the fears of the world, but our souls, who we truly are, stripped of our bodies, are perfectly safe and perfectly loved.

Dekker puts it all together into a fascinating story of blackest evil versus purest light, his signature stamp, but with powerful new themes to explore and a terribly beautiful new setting to immerse yourself in. For fans and newbies to Dekker alike. If you've never read Ted Dekker, here's a good place to start. Five stars.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The War of Art

You read it right. I just finished a book called The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. It's still about war, just a much different kind, the kind we all face day to day though we might not even know it. Pressfield calls the force we are battling moment to moment Resistance, and Resistance challenges every person who's ever felt a higher calling or desired to be better (Section 12). Writers call it writer's block, but it's not something unique to writers. Resistance hits when the path toward bettering ourselves in any manner requires just a little bit of work. No one is exempt, but not everyone knows about this war, and if you don't even know you're fighting, how can you win? This book seeks to show us what we are up against, giving us a detailed yet succinct picture of what Resistance is.

I saw myself a lot in this book. I'm a writer, so I could identify with the examples from Pressfield's life. But the book isn't targeted to writers, and my Taekwondo instructor thought it worthwhile enough for his students to give us a little incentive to read it. Mostly, I just recognized how Resistance has often beat me down, and I understand now what I've been up against.

There are so many pithy nuggets to glean from this book. I bought the e-book and wish I hadn't because it's a book to underline and dog-ear. I ended up writing out thoughts on post-it notes. Here are a few quotes:

From Section 18: "Rule of Thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it."

From Section 20: "The battle must be fought anew every day."

From Section 24: "Resistance is most powerful at the finish line."

The biggest thing I came away with from this book is that the only way to beat Resistance is to jump right into the work. Resistance will always be there every day. We will fight the war all our lives, battle by battle. Some days, we might not do so well, but every day is new. Every day is another chance to win. All we have to do is sit down and work, Pressfield says. That's the hardest part. By doing that, we've already beat much of Resistance.

Resistance takes many forms, and it helps to be aware of them. It can come from our friends, who feel guilty about their lack of success in comparison to ours and who try to make it seem like we aren't doing the right thing. Resistance can be food. It can be our culture: Facebook, Twitter, anything on the Internet, movies, games, books. Resistance can take the form of a very good excuse, too: I'm sick, I'm too busy, my family needs me. Whatever stops us from the work is Resistance.

Pressfield gives some great tips for beating Resistance. My favorite is the simplest and foremost one: just work. You can't rely on other people to help. The best way a friend can help another beat Resistance is to be an example, not coddle him, give him advice, or help him brainstorm. Though those seem like very good excuses to not do our own work (I'm helping someone!), ultimately, we are only wasting time on both sides. Neither one of us is working.

I found it a little humorous that Pressfield says writer's workshops are colleges of Resistance. The best example I've seen in my personal life of someone who can beat Resistance is my husband. He hates writer's workshops and would much rather just put in his time and write those requisite million words of junk in the hopes of finally producing something worth reading.

As a martial artist, I appreciated Pressfield's point that we have to fight through the pain. He says, athletes can't give up when they get hurt, and he's right. If that was the case, the Taekwondo school I attend would be empty. I wouldn't be there either. There's going to be pain. Let yourself know that, and be prepared to keep going. In some cases, the only way to healing is through the pain.

Pressfield also says, let fear guide you. If you are afraid of moving forward, you are probably on the right track.

Finally, I liked Pressfield's idea that we need to become professionals in our higher callings. Professionals don't need fame and reward. They just do the work. I thought it was interesting that Pressfield advises separating yourself from the work by making it more of a job, something you show up to at a certain time every day, something you get paid for, and something you move on from when you are done. The common belief among young fiction writers is that they have to make it big to be anything. Everyone dreams of having the next bestseller. Pressfield cautions, don't wait for success, and don't invest yourself too much in one project or you will paralyze yourself with the fear of failure. He says, loving your work too much makes you choke. It makes sense.

Pressfield separates The War of Art into three "Books," where he defines Resistance, tells you how to fight it, and finally speaks about inspiration. Book 3 is where he gets kind of messy and discredits himself a bit. It kind of makes me sad. The guy obviously has talent and genius and offers some valuable insight into pursuing our higher callings, and then he goes and attributes it all to weird, half-true theories about divine inspiration. He believes in a god of sorts (though nothing like Christianity's) and in angels and the Muse, explaining how Zeus had nine daughters called the Muses. And I just find it hard to take him seriously when he's attributing genius to mythology. He correctly assumes there has to be something divine at work inspiring us, and he allows room for each of us to call that divine inspiration what we want. But earlier in the book he tries to discredit fundamentalism, which I'm sure Christianity falls under, and he says fundamentalists only look backward to a purer world, when in fact Christians are the most forward-looking people on the planet, looking toward a purer future! He comes across as not knowing what he's talking about when he spouts religious theories.

Some of his science is a little iffy, too. He believes organization is built into nature when in reality, the very laws of nature are that anything we don't put work into gradually de-evolves into a state of disorder (the law of entropy). He says this organization points to the existence of something otherworldly and divine. And I say, yes, yes, it does. There is a God, and if there's order in the world, it's because of him, but not a hocus-pocus, whatever-I-imagine-and-want-him-to-be deity.

Aside from nearly all of Book 3 (though there are still truths mixed into the mess), I agree with Pressfield's ideas on Resistance, and I think this book is a great motivator for anyone who knows they are not living at their full potential. This book will open your eyes to what can make that possible.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Monsters University on DVD

Though I liked Monsters, Inc. when it came out (hard to believe it's been 12 years!), I was not in a hurry to see Monsters University. Maybe it's because the movie is a sequel (technically prequel), and in the animation business, sequels are usually made for the kiddies, unfortunately translating into cheaper rehashes of the same old thing, when what worked the first time was its very newness.

I'm happy to report that Monsters University is its own thing, and it's not old at all. For starters, it's a prequel rather than a sequel, so there's no baggage or fallout from the first movie to deal with. Anything can happen in a prequel. You don't even need the same characters, and we get to see a lot of fun, new characters (in addition to one or two old ones with minor roles that nod cleverly to the movie we are already familiar with).

As for the story itself, is it just a ho-hum copy? Mike and Sully are still Mike and Sully, though younger, more flawed version of themselves...but oh yeah, they aren't friends. The rest of the plot is fabulous monster world stuff, but different than we've seen before. Different and similar, because the setting is a university, and while that may be different for us to view in Mike and Sully's world, it feels just like what most of us are familiar with from our world.

And where Monsters, Inc. surprised us with a different look at the world behind our closet doors, Monsters University digs deeper to surprise us with what it means to go through life the untraditional way. I don't want to spoil it for you, so I won't give details. But the end went in a direction that was pleasantly different than what I was expecting.

There is one disclaimer I have about both Monsters movies. Though rated G, they aren't necessarily for young kids, who are so impressionable and who happen to be just like the real kids in the stories: afraid of the monsters under their beds. I don't let my toddler and preschooler see them yet, and I'll probably wait at least another couple of years. Aside from that, I think these movies are great for select children and adults alike: silly and fun enough for the kids, thematically mature enough for the adults.

So, is Monsters University a good sequel/prequel worthy of our time and love like its counterpart? With some of the best of what made Monsters, Inc. unique and also a few significant changes, I would venture to say yes. It's another worthy Pixar film with Pixar's signature stamp of beautiful animation and unique storytelling. Put it on your shelf.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in Theaters Now

Though I've been excited to see Catching Fire, I find myself, surprisingly, with little to say after having watched it. I feel like I need to watch it again to fully absorb it. I really enjoyed it, but another pass or two might help me to fully appreciate it.

In some ways, this sequel didn't grip me the way the first movie did. Nothing has really changed; just the newness has worn off. But I don't think it is inferior to the first movie. I thought this new director would change the feel of the movie, but he manages to capture the weight of the first movie while also adding his own flair nearly seamlessly.

As for keeping close to the book, I don't remember well enough. I read it years ago and purposefully did not read it again so that I wouldn't compare too closely. But now that I have seen the movie, I can say this: it felt right, and it just made me want to read the book again, which I will now allow myself to do. If a movie adaptation can be entertaining and make you want to read the book again, I'd say it's done its job.

One change from the first movie to the second that I thought was well-done, and perhaps even an improvement from the first, was the layout and action in the arena. Granted, the second movie had more to work with from the book. The 75th Hunger Games are special and meant to be extra "exciting." Catching Fire captures this change with a more fascinating, tighter arena and heart-pounding suspense. Although I loved the first movie, the arena itself didn't seem all that high-tech and other-worldly. It didn't matter so much because the focus was on the characters and their fight to the death. (SPOILER alert) In Catching Fire, the dynamics between the characters are much different than in The Hunger Games, less cutthroat, so you almost need that special arena to heighten the stakes.

Another change I heard about was that Peeta was going to be a little tougher in the movie than in the book. I thought that was kind of a cheap Hollywood thing to do, but somehow the movie actually keeps his character intact. Having not read the book recently, the change was not blatant to me. Peeta is still soft and caring and protective in his own way--everything that makes him who he is. If he's now also a little more handy with a small weapon and a little more sure of himself, I don't think that takes away from his significance.

One thing I do love about the movie, as I did in the first, is its characters, all played with so much feeling. I can't list them because then I'd have to list all of them. No one really felt off to me. And the way those characters interact...well, that's really the author's doing, but the movie captures it poignantly.

Catching Fire is rated PG-13 for, obviously, violence, disturbing themes, and some language, apparently. I think the language is probably a low concern next to the violence. A boy, probably ten years old, was sitting behind me in the theater, telling his mother he was going to "literally die" as he waited for the movie to start. Ironic...but more importantly, he was only ten. This is a mature book and movie series, whose popularity, unfortunately, has probably created something of a culture the author was actually speaking against. Readers and viewers don't always use their best judgment and sometimes seem to mindlessly absorb whatever they see. My blog is a teeny tiny revolution against that. (And I bet you thought I had nothing in common with Katniss.) I do believe there is value in such books and movies, even as entertainment, but they should be approached thoughtfully and with a concern for discerning right from wrong, something that does not come as easily to those younger viewers. (Cue stepping off soapbox.)

I would like to see this movie again. I would like to own it. I am very pleased with how this series has been adapted to the screen, and I'm curious as to whether or not they will be able to keep it up with the controversial last book.

Four stars.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Although I will try to avoid major SPOILERS, for those of you interested in reading Veronica Roth's Divergent series, you'll probably want to stop reading this review.

I was really impressed by Veronica Roth's story when I began this series with Divergent, reviewed here. Now that I have read Allegiant, the conclusion to the trilogy, I have mixed feelings. Divergent has not lost its luster. And there were aspects of this final novel that still impressed me. I'll get to those in a minute. But overall, Allegiant just wasn't as easy to read for various reasons. There's not as much movement and danger as in the first two books. There's a lot of sitting around thinking. The book is also narrated differently, by two main characters rather than just Tris. And the biggest cause of my mixed feelings is the end. It's so daring (like the Dauntless!) and something that's just not done (or rarely) in young adult fiction, but I'm not sure whether or not it actually works.

Allegiant has a lot to wrap up. I won't go into the details of the first two novels. You can link to my review of those above. Let's just say that in this novel, the world gets bigger. It's no longer just a place that was once called Chicago. The characters are thrust into that bigger world, so the effects of that are part of the story. But they are not completely cut off from the world they left behind, quite the opposite actually.

Identity is a big thing in this book. The factions have been terminated, but when you are raised to think along very narrow lines, that's not something you can simply shed. Tris and Tobias narrate and offer insight into this whole process of change as they come up against new injustices and have to decide whether or not to bring the revolution they began on the inside to the outside.

While I enjoyed the characters and was intrigued by the changes they were going through, this book is not particularly fast-paced. What I do like about it is that this slower pace offers the chance to really delve into some moral questions. Roth is a Christian (or, at the least, a believer in God), and though her books wouldn't be labeled as "Christian," I think her worldview really shows if you care to look. One of the big moral questions of the book is, are genetically deficient humans inferior to those with perfect genes? It's certainly not the first time such a question has been asked, but Roth puts a new spin on it. And she doesn't tackle fixing the problem with the usual simplistic, one-can-be-sacrificed-for-the-many, nihilistic, existential answers. She has characters who have those viewpoints, but she also offers something different, something more complex, maybe not as easy but better.

I was especially impressed by Roth's portrayal of broken relationships and the realistic repercussions of them. She offers a mature way of dealing with such brokenness. Both Tris and Tobias have a lot to forgive and a lot to be forgiven for. They aren't perfect heroes, and they have to live with the consequences of their choices, some of those consequences being more real than we readers might like. And in Tris and Tobias' relationship with each other, a romance that has seen the harsh light of reality, we get more of the author's perspective on what real love is and what a mature approach to love is. You don't see that often in young adult literature. Sure, there are the physical moments and romantic parts teen readers supposedly crave, but Tris and Tobias have whole conversations that are about more than their relationship and about more than their immediate trials. They think. It's refreshing.

It's clear the author wanted to present a thoughtful, meaningful story as much as she wanted an entertaining one. I appreciate that, so I wish I could give the book a higher star rating. But a few things hold me back. For one, sometimes I had a hard time remembering who was narrating. At times, Tris and Tobias sound a lot alike. Their characters and the way they deal with things are not alike, but their inner thoughts sometimes tend to be. Context did not always help me distinguish between them, and a couple times, I would think I was reading one's thoughts when it turned out to be the other's. Then, there was one morality question the author left kind of vague that I wish she hadn't. At no point does she say that Tris and Tobias have sex, and she often makes a point of saying they don't. But there is one time when she leaves it vague, seemingly leaving it to the readers to interpret what happened according to their preferences. I'm not sure of the author's beliefs on this point, but of course, I wish she had leaned toward complete abstinence, the reasons for which I have named in other blogs and won't go into detail about here. Much of the morality addressed in this book is actually quite complicated, and Roth deals with it well, but in this simpler thing, I was disappointed.

The last unfortunate thing about this book is the ending impression. I won't spoil it by concretely revealing what happens, but as I mentioned above, it's an unusual ending for young adult fiction and I'm not sure it works. Many dystopian novels end a bit sadly, if they are being honest to how life really works (or how a dystopian world would actually work). The Hunger Games series is one example of this. But the Divergent series ends on a different kind of sad note than we are used to. For the book, it works well enough and makes sense. The author does handle it in a careful manner. But it wasn't what I wanted and hoped for. It didn't satisfy me on the level I'm at when I read a book, that escapist level that honestly doesn't want the book to end just like the real world does.

Though I'm impressed by Veronica Roth's insight and depth, Allegiant just didn't resonate with me as much as her first book did. I can give it only three stars. But if you want to get in on the action, that first story is well worth it and is in process of becoming a movie, which I am very excited to see.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World in Theaters Now

I got to see Thor: The Dark World last night on its release date. (Or should I say, the 8:00 pm showing which used to be the midnight showing the night before its release date? Hey, I'm not complaining about the time; I just think it's funny.)

My husband and I like to joke about the fact that we would never have guessed Thor to be interesting fodder for the movies. I mean, come on, he's a god with a sledgehammer. (And I'm aware that all the fans out there are saying, "Yeah, he's a god with a sledgehammer!") Well, I stand corrected. I loved the first Thor, and this second is an excellent follow-up, especially with the help of the tie-in movie The Avengers. Really, Dark World is our third time getting to watch these characters on the screen, and I'd be happy with more.

So, what is it about this world and these characters that brings us all back again and again? Is it the tightly written script (A lot happens in just under 2 hours!), the exquisite look of Asgard (with more detail even than the last movie), the high stakes (All the realms, including Earth, are in peril!), the unequal romance of a god to a mere mortal, the humor and quick wit of some of the dialog, the superb acting, or the mixed motivations of a villain we begrudgingly root for? All of these things impact us, I'm sure, but right now, I think the biggest factor is the last.

Tom Hiddleston's Loki is the perfect villain. In this movie, his scheming takes second place to a larger threat, but he's still there, lurking magnificently in the shadows. The thing about Loki: you just don't know who the real guy is. He's an illusionist. He's something of a victim, and we feel that, but what he's done with his anger is wrong, hence the title "villain." Does he have room for love in his heart, or are revenge and power all he seeks? He's a charmer, willing to pretend and say whatever you want to hear, but sometimes we hope he means it, even though we know we should know better.

The media loves him. The fans love him. I think I even love him. And I'm not sure I should. He's the bad guy, right? He's done terrible things. A smile here, a good joke there, and a little emotion we viewers can identify with don't change the fact that he's bad. But I think part of the reason I love him is that I am always hoping for character redemption. It's the same reason I love characters like Ben Linus, from TV's Lost, and Regina, from Once Upon a Time. There's more to those characters than just one-dimensional evilness. They are complicated, like us.

Having said all that, I also think there's a danger in that belief. We more easily overlook the truly awful things such characters have done. It's difficult to process a character like Loki morally, and I'm not saying I have the answers. It's just something to consider and something that needed mentioning on this blog.

Of course, there's a lot more to this story than Loki. There are darker villains, and oh, yeah, the heroes are pretty great, too. Thor may be a little too perfect now, unlike in the first movie, but I'm not going to complain about a good hero. In a superhero movie, it's probably best to keep a clear definition of good versus evil, especially when you have bad enough evil characters. There has to be good to balance it out. And morality is plenty murky in our world as it is.

Thor: The Dark World is appropriately rated PG-13 for some dark sci-fi action and violence, but it's nothing you wouldn't expect in a comic book movie. In short, if comic books and superheroes are your thing, this movie has it all and is worth seeing in the theater. Four and a half stars.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Pacific Rim on DVD

When I first heard about a movie called Pacific Rim, I had little interest in seeing it. I wasn't impressed by the Transformers movies (Sorry! I know I have readers who are fans. I'm not trying to be a hater!), and Pacific Rim looked too much like those. But then I started hearing things about it. It was getting good reviews. People I knew liked it. I put it on the back burner to see when it came out on DVD, and now here I am, converted.

If this movie had been just like Transformers and all about the huge fighting machines, I don't think I would have liked it. But it's not about the machines at all. Sure, they are essential to the plot, but they aren't the plot. The story is more about the characters (which I always love), and when characters are at their rope's end with nothing more to lose, that's when you can tap into and draw out the rawest of emotions and reach a level all humanity can identify with, no matter the external differences.

The plot itself...completely far-fetched and ridiculous, but with good characters, I didn't much mind. And okay, I admit, it was a tiny bit cool to see gigantic robots being controlled by two little humans, linked mind to mind and unafraid of the weaponry and alien creatures around them.

There was one nitpicky thing I didn't like about the movie's characters. Two of them (not the brothers at the beginning) looked so much alike that I often had trouble distinguishing between them at first, but it didn't hurt my understanding of the basic premise much.

This movie obviously calls to mind other famous monster movies like Cloverfield and Godzilla, for instance. But though it takes itself seriously enough, I like that it sort of pulls its punches. Normally, I wouldn't say such a thing. But not being a big fan of total annihilation disaster movies, it was refreshing for me to see so many characters survive to the end of the film. There were a few who I was sure were goners but that happily came out alive at the end. Of course, that's not to say everyone survives. The numbers were just higher than I expected. And though the stinger is hardly worth waiting around for (the advantage of DVD is that you don't have to) there's yet another example of a punch pulled.

Altogether, I was impressed and satisfied by this movie from director Guillermo del Toro, with Charlie Hunnam as the lead. It's rated PG-13, mostly for sci-fi action and violence, and just over two hours long without feeling dragged out. Maybe my satisfaction is due to the fact that I wasn't expecting much, and yeah, it's basically just a good popcorn movie. But nothing's wrong with popcorn...or a fun movie to watch as you eat it. Three stars.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ender's Game in Theaters Now

I read the book Ender's Game in preparation for watching the movie, so with that semi-fresh in my mind (read that review here), these are my thoughts on the screen adaptation.

I'm not going to go into exactly what the story is about. For that, you can read my book review or stumble upon it just about anywhere on the Internet. This will be more of a comparison review of book to movie, with emphasis on the movie.

Overall, I thought the movie stayed very true to the book with the exception that befalls all movie adaptations: that much of the book had to be compressed. Impressively, this movie is very tight and moves the plot and the action right along, clocking in at under two hours. There's no drag. On the other hand, such speed of plot leaves little room to draw out depth of character and emotion, and that's what I found lacking in the first half of this movie. If you don't already know Ender from the books, you cannot possibly grasp what he is going through in the movie. The book takes us deeply into Ender's heart and mind, and it's extremely difficult to translate something so internal into something external and visual.

(Minor SPOILERS follow in this paragraph.) I'm not sure a true translation would have been possible in the first place without making a much longer movie that might have included more of the set-up of Ender's isolation. The movie cuts out the constant set-backs Ender faces in his quest for acceptance, and without those, you don't feel his plight nearly as strongly. The movie tells us he's purposely being isolated, but it skips the parts that show it, narrowly focusing instead on the opposite: how Ender attracts his followers. Without seeing the agony of his losses, we can't fully understand the significance of his victories. In fact, if you only had the movie to go by, you would think that Ender's superior, Colonel Graff, fails in his mission to isolate Ender, but that's not quite the case in the book. So, the first half of the movie, while true to the spirit of the book, lacks some of the soul of the book.

However, the second half picked up some of the lost emotional threads I was looking for and tied them into a fabulous ending, made all the more powerful by what I already knew from the book. This is one case where I am very glad I read the book first, though sometimes I am not so finicky about that. It is possible that I read more emotion into scenes because I knew what the book contained. Even so, Asa Butterfield, except for being taller than I thought he should be (and he's definitely older than the character in the book, but to get an actor with any depth, he'd have to be), is a fantastic Ender, and he plays the emotions beautifully.

(Very minor SPOILERS in this paragraph.) In fact, I was happy with nearly all the characters. Valentine, perhaps, didn't match up with how I envisioned her, especially in the latter half of the book, but she's in the movie so little that it doesn't matter (she and Peter's roles from later in the book were one of the sacrifices made due to time constraints). Harrison Ford as Graff and Viola Davis as Anderson seemed just right. Granted, I wasn't expecting Anderson to be a woman, and Davis brings a more motherly (though still military-tough) approach to the character that I never would have envisioned from the book, but somehow it works. At least, I liked it. The other trainees with Ender don't get a ton of screen time, but we still get to see a few of the book's key moments in which certain ones become something more to Ender. However, there's no time in the movie to deal with the complications those friendships go through in the book.

Just a note about morality since that's one of my big things. I don't have anything really bad to say about the movie, but I do want to give you the basics. It's rated PG-13 for some violence and heavy thematic material. (In short, if your kid's as young as Ender is supposed to be in the story, he's probably too young to watch this!) There's bullying, manipulation, questioning of authority, calculated violence. But the whole story is one big dialog of right and wrong. For that reason, with parental guidance, of course, I think some younger ages (middle school especially) can handle, or even should be allowed to handle, this. There's a lot to talk about.

Finally, I just enjoyed the look of the movie, the tech, the battle room, the aliens. It was all well done, and nothing seemed too amiss when compared to what I had envisioned in the book.

Though the first half of the movie leaned more toward three stars for me, the second half brought it overall to four stars. When the credits finally rolled, I had shed a few tears and just needed time to process the whole thing. There's this beauty to the story that the movie manages to capture a small part of, and it's timeless too. Several decades since the book's first publication haven't lessened its relevance and impact. I'm happy to see this story on the screen, despite being only a very recent fan, but I do highly recommend that you enjoy the book first.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Elite

I am almost embarrassed to say that I read The Elite, a young adult novel by Kiera Cass, in two days. It's the second installment of a series that began with The Selection, which I read and reviewed here. As you'll notice after reading that review and then this one, some of my impressions remain the same, though my overall impression seems to be improved. (I confess, re-reading that review, I seem to be a little harsher on the book than it deserves.)

But why embarrassed, exactly? The Elite has aptly been compared to reality TV. It's about young women vying for the attention of a prince as they compete toward the end goal of becoming his wife and, eventually, the queen of his country. It's like a beauty pageant meets Cinderella. And while this premise calls out to the little romantic girl in each of us (girls), it's a rather silly and shallow idea.

Granted, Cass adds depth to the story through the politics of the world she has created. Her heroine, named America (perhaps this is a callback to the freedoms of life as we know them here in the United States; the story takes place in a future world where the United States no longer exists), comes from a mid-level caste in a society where your caste is your world. America has been fortunate enough to change her caste simply by being selected for the opportunity to win the prince's hand, but questions are raised about those who are not so fortunate and what opportunities for change arise when one is in power, if one dares to take them. So, the story is not quite as much of a guilty pleasure as it initially appears on the surface.

I like the characters. They are developed and alive, even minor ones, and the major ones have concerns I can identify with. Perhaps I like the characters too much because, like America, I can't decide which boy she should end up with. And here's where the story gets annoying. Love triangles are entirely too common in young adult fiction. Maybe that's on purpose, to reflect the choices real teenagers are faced with. But in this case, the exciting possibilities of falling in love with a prince are overshadowed by America's lingering feelings regarding her former love, a guard who works at the palace. Both are great choices, even though one is poor. I like that the author makes it clear that one is just as good as the other as far as love goes, that being rich doesn't make one a better choice than the other. But the fact that there is a choice at all when America has willingly submitted to this process of trying to get the prince to love her, saps some of the excitement. It's dangerous, not fun, and though the book acknowledges this, I just couldn't shake the feeling of wrongness about it.

I'd hate to SPOIL anything, and I won't, but if you are at all worried, don't read the following line. America's dilemma ends up better than I expected it to at the end of this book. I'm not 100 percent happy with it, but I'm still interested in the story and anticipating Book 3. With my feelings on this book pulled every which way, it averages out to an enjoyable three-star read.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Icons is my first Margaret Stohl novel. She writes young adult fiction and is the coauthor of the Beautiful Creatures series, the first book of which is now a movie (I didn't read Beautiful Creatures, but I saw the movie and was not too impressed; then again, I'm not really into witches and should have known better).

Icons is quite a different type of story, though still paranormal. Dol and Ro are not normal teenagers, and it's not just because they no longer live in a normal world. When they were infants, everything changed on The Day, when the Lords invaded from space and killed everything in 13 major cities across the globe. The survivors knew there was no hope in resistance. But Dol and Ro are special. They have abilities no one else has, abilities that feel more like curse than blessing. Dol feels everyone's emotions, and on Ro comes a rage so strong he becomes an unstoppable physical force. Only Dol can calm him. They've managed to stay out of site of the Icons and the Lords so far. But the truth of their existence is about to be revealed, and they will have to face their fears and the power of their emotions.

I enjoyed this book for the most part. The setting, though post-apocalyptic, manages to be different than what I've read before (though, granted, not much detail is given), and the paranormal powers are surprisingly (since so many books use them) unique in their presentation and use. I was intrigued about what Dol, who narrates, could or would do with her power, and information about her power is strung along little by little to pull the reader deeper into the story. Between chapters there are "classified memos" that relate to what's going on, often revealing an outside perspective to Dol's. Sometimes the memos' significance doesn't become clear until later. The story is interesting, particularly as new significant characters are added, broadening the plot.

But there was something lacking for me at the end. (Minor SPOILERS may follow.) I felt like there was the story and there was the ending: two separate things that didn't mesh well together. From a character development standpoint, it was fine. Dol got from one point to another, and all the connections were fairly clear. What wasn't as clear was the plot resolution. Not enough clues were provided on that front early on. The end just happened, and not everything necessarily followed from what had transpired earlier. Sorry for being vague, but I really try to avoid spoilers. So, there was that, and (this might be the SPOILER you want to avoid), I didn't like how the romance ended up. There's a love triangle, and I'm not sure Dol picks the right boy. It didn't make the best sense to me. I wasn't convinced of it working out that way, and I didn't understand it. So, the ending was a little rough for me.

I didn't have issues with the morals of the book, though no great attempt seems to have been made to discuss issues of morality. The biggest question raised is whether to risk lives for a chance to do greater good, but even that is not satisfactorily answered. Overall, the morality of the book is neutral, but there's nothing too offensive.

Other than that, I thought the story was unique and enjoyable and a worthy three-star beginning to a new series. Icons was published this past spring. Idols (Icons #2) will be published next summer.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Quick Overview of Seven Young Adult Books I Read This Summer

The following young adult novels were all released this year, most of them this summer.

The Eternity Cure (Four Stars): I haven't read a lot of vampire stories, but I read the first one in this series, The Immortal Rules, by Julie Kagawa (author of The Iron Fey series), because it sounded intriguing and clean (a big must for me). I like that it leaves sex out of the story and deals with questions of right and wrong. The Eternity Cure is the second installment, and it doesn't disappoint. Allison is a young vampire who must team up with those who want to kill her in order to rescue her sire, the vampire who saved her and taught her how to survive this cruel world. She wonders, is there any hope left for the humanity in her, or will she be overcome by the monster within? Definitely worth reading if you like more edgy stuff but don't like the mixed morals that often come too.

The Testing (Four Stars): This novel, by Joelle Charbonneau, is so similar, in some ways, to The Hunger Games that some are calling it a rip-off. I think it's different enough to deserve its own credit. After all, The Hunger Games was not the first book to pit kids against one another. In The Testing, outstanding students are selected to be Tested for a chance to go to the University and get the best jobs in a post-apocalyptic/dystopian world. Cia is thrilled to be part of this opportunity, until she receives warnings from her father and others about what may be in store for her. Is there a darker reason that no one who's passed through a Testing is supposed to remember what transpired? And what happens to those who don't make it? If you are a die-hard Hunger Games fan, you will probably compare too much, but if you never got on the Hunger Games bandwagon, try this.

Reboot (Four Stars): Wren is a 178. That means she was dead for that many minutes before she was brought back as a Reboot, a weapon and a prisoner, considered less than human by the soldiers who give her orders. Dead the longest, she is also the least human, the most weapon. People fear her. She does what she's told and believes she's nearly incapable of emotion. Why, then, is the new 22, a number so small he's practically human, so intriguing to her? Reboot, by Amy Tintera, delves into what it means to be human, and it carries many of the same themes as dystopian novels (though I wouldn't consider this to be one). Still, though similar thematically to what's out there, it has a unique plot premise and is an enjoyable read.

Pivot Point (Three Stars): Addison is a member of a small community where everyone has a special mind power. Hers is to be able to see the two diverging paths a choice could lead her on and choose accordingly. But now the biggest choice of her life so far is upon her. Her parents are getting divorced, and she gets to choose whom she wants to live with: her mom within the hidden confines of their paranormal community or her dad out in the world where everyone is normal and no one uses powers in everyday life or even knows about them. In order to decide, Addison will have to go weeks into each future. The problem is, when she's there in her mind, it feels like she's there for real, and she might not be able to tell the difference. And then there are complications within each choice, decisions that will affect friends and people she's never even met...and of course the choice to erase from her mind the memories of her mental excursion into the future, once she's made her decision. How does one choose between parents and loves and evils?

I thought the premise of Pivot Point, by Kasie West, was a neat idea, and I really got into the book, especially as it wound toward the conclusion. It has a little bit of an Inception vibe to it: dream within a dream...what is real? It's a bit darker than I was expecting, and that's probably why I gave it only three stars when I read it earlier this summer.

Reached (Three Stars): This is the conclusion to Ally Condie's Matched trilogy. I enjoyed the dystopian series, though I didn't find the plot to be quite as intriguing as that of some other dystopian novels I've read, hence the three-star rating. In this third book (and I wouldn't recommend reading any further if you haven't read the other two yet and plan to; SPOILERS possible), Cassia is still undecided about the two boys she loves, but the three of them are scattered across the Society, each playing a different role in the overthrow of the Society and the beginning of The Rising. Cassia works underground for the Archivists, treasuring contraband pieces of writing. Ky is a pilot. Xander is a Medic. But a new form of the Plague causes more chaos than anybody could have dreamed, resting the hope for a better future on shaky ground.

There isn't just one reason I can pin down as to why this series wasn't outstanding to me. The love triangle annoyed me because both guys are perfectly good choices, and I hated that one of them would be disappointed and that Cassia wouldn't just make up her mind. Granted, she's more decided in this book than in the other two. Also, I thought the main characters were rather passive. They don't do anything particularly impressive. They are simply in the right place at the right time. Ky and Xander are more heroes than Cassia is and get their fair share of the spotlight, yet the central character really is Cassia, and all she can do is sort data. It's just kind of blase. Still, it's a popular series for a reason. The world is complex, and the way the Society functions and controls people is interesting.

In the After (Four Stars): In this post-apocalyptic novel, by Demitria Lunetta, the population has been nearly wiped out by an alien-looking species that's rather zombie-like in presentation. But unlike zombies, they are super fast with super hearing, and if you make even the tiniest noise, they descend as a pack and eat you to death. After three years, Amy is a seasoned survivor. She knows how to get food. She knows how to stay safe. She even has a companion, a little girl she found and took home and calls Baby, communicating through signing. She hasn't spoken aloud in years, and she's seen just enough people to know that she and Baby are better off alone. But everything Amy thought she knew about the After is about to change. I thought this was a particularly clever and well-thought-out book, even though I did anticipate the ending. The book is suspenseful with just enough mystery and clues to keep you guessing. Well written and fascinating.

Twinmaker (Three Stars): In Sean Williams's dystopian future, Clair and her friends daily go to school across the globe and can visit any place they wish in a matter of minutes. Technology can produce anything they want automatically per their specifications. Who needs to own possessions when you can get new ones exactly the same or better, if you wish, anytime you want? This instantaneous gratification is made possible by a technology that d-mats (dematerializes) objects, including people, and produces them exactly as they were in new locations. The one rule is that people must rematerialize exactly as they were, so everyone believes Improvement (a circulating note that says you can improve your looks by following specific instructions in d-mat) is just a prank...until Clair's friend Libby tries it and appears to succeed. But Libby is different after, and Clair's determination to find out why is about to d-mat her entire world.

I liked the concept. The suspense and mystery were interesting. I found the final revelations and explanations to be a little nonsensical, a little wibbly-wobbly or timey-wimey, as the Doctor (Doctor Who) might say. The story didn't come to a strong, believable resolution for me. There were logic gaps I couldn't make sense of in my mind. But getting there is half the fun, and this is quite a good journey.

Monday, September 30, 2013


I read a decent number of good books this summer, but I don't know if I'll get to review those for you. For now, I'm going to try to keep up with what I'm reading at the moment.

I just finished Blackout, a young adult novel by Robison Wells, which I picked up not only for its sci-fi premise but also because I enjoyed another book by the same author: Variant. These two books aren't in the same series, and though I'd like to, I haven't yet read Feedback, the sequel to Variant.

Blackout is not quite as suspenseful as Variant, but it's intriguing nonetheless. The book is about a virus that attacks only teenagers, giving them superpowers as well as some not-as-nice side-effects. It doesn't take long for the whole country to go on high alert as teenage terrorists attack power and landmarks across the entire continent. When the army steps in, Jack and Aubrey are caught in the middle, two teenagers who don't know what's going on even though they are being treated as criminals already. But the questions they must answer are, who are the terrorists, and who is the real enemy?

I enjoyed this book well enough but found that there were too many reveals along the way for the end to really have the impact I think the author wanted. I wasn't all that surprised by it. What I did find kind of interesting, though I'm not sure of its purpose, was that parts of the book were from the terrorists' viewpoints. I didn't mind getting in their heads, but I couldn't quite understand what I was supposed to do with the info. Was I supposed to feel a sort of sympathy for them? Was I supposed to identify with them? I didn't. I couldn't understand them at all, really. Getting in their heads also lessened the suspense for me, I think. All the big reveals were essentially given through their thoughts before the end.

I also didn't initially care a lot about or identify with the main characters, Jack and Aubrey, one of whom uses her abilities to shoplift and be in with the popular crowd, but the characters grew on me as the book progressed. Obviously, the author isn't a proponent of Aubrey's criminal activity or treatment of her not-as-popular friends but is just showing the more social side-effects of obtaining these powers.

Overall, it was a fun read with interesting powers and a nice caveat to being able to use them (the more virus-like symptoms that appeared with the use of the superpowers). Three stars.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ender's Game

I'm back! It's been a crazy busy summer, and though I've been reading less than normal, I still have a handful of books and more than a handful of movies to potentially review. For now, I will start with the latest book I've read and possibly work backward from there, if life permits.

After enjoying Pathfinder, by Orson Scott Card, some friends encouraged me to also read Ender's Game, by the same author. But I confess, though I put it on my list, I didn't get seriously interested until I knew a movie adaptation was going to be made. Then, the only question was, should I read it beforehand or after? There are distinct advantages to each for a person who loves both movies and books. I opted for the book first this time, wanting to get into it and be surprised as I read, rather than getting the surprises out of the way in two hours and then going back and reading about how it all took place. I don't like spoilers. Having read it this close to when the movie comes out, I suppose I will probably be slightly disappointed with the movie. It's best to put some time between a book and a movie, I think. That way, you can enjoy both more fully and give the movie credit for being its own thing, rather than comparing two different story mediums that really aren't meant to be the same. On a side note, that's why I'm not going back and re-reading Catching Fire before the movie comes out in November. I don't remember much of the book, so the story will be fresh for me again. Then, I'll go back and enjoy a more leisurely pace through the details of the book afterward.

Ender's Game did not disappoint. It's an interesting genre, definitely science fiction but not necessarily young adult (and for sure not middle school), even though the story is about a young kid. Often, when you have a young protagonist, the book is automatically categorized as young adult, and perhaps that exactly what Ender's Game is to some, but it's a good example of a story that transcends both age limits and, almost miraculously for sci-fi, time periods. For instance, it was written in the 70's, but there's a very good grasp of the possibilities of computer technology and virtual reality. It's also just vague enough not to date itself, at least not too much.

Ender's Game is about a six-year-old boy, nicknamed Ender, who's a genius selected for training in Battle School to defeat a race of aliens called Buggers that almost wiped Earth out at one time. The theory is that a child with an adaptable mind is needed to confront the enemy, who anticipates actions and adapts quickly itself. So, little boys are monitored, and if they qualify, they are sent to space to train in battle games and learn how to work together or, in Ender's case, to lead. The odds are purposefully stacked against Ender to draw out his strengths as quickly as possible because the final war with the Buggers is nearly upon them, and it's kill all or all be killed.

What sets this book apart from young adult is that it's not written to a six-year-old audience. It's barely written to a young adult audience. In fact, Ender thinks and speaks like a middle school child at only 6, and there's precious little for same-age readers (even middle schoolers) to identify with in his character. Yet, we do identify with him. He's not just a machine. He's a boy who grows up too fast and lives with the weight of the planet on his shoulders but who doesn't want to end up like his evil older brother. He knows he's not a child. He knows it's not even really a possibility. But he does long for friends, and he hates the way he's forced to dominate his competition, isolating him from his peers. This book is powerful on both thematic and emotional levels, drawing tears to my eyes as I read. There isn't even romance, which is the typical tear-jerker stuff for me. It's about the bonds built between boys and peers and the bond of brother to brother and brother to sister and teacher to student and boy to duty. It's deep and heart-wrenching. It's intellectual. It's suspenseful. It's fascinating.

For its relatability to a different generation (which is extremely difficult to achieve in science fiction), for it's innovative ideas (before kids killed each other in the The Hunger Games, little children trained their childhood away in order to eventually command starships and fight aliens), for its emotional depth, and for its compelling tale, I give Ender's Game five stars and look forward to seeing how they pull it off in the movie this November, knowing it can't possibly be the same, by a long shot. However you choose to order your story mediums, be sure that if you watch the movie, you also read the book. In this case, I believe the experiences are going to be quite a bit different, and you want to get the full story, trust me.

ADDENDUM (9-25-13): If you have already read this blog once, you might notice that I changed a line in the last paragraph that could have potentially been a spoiler. I figure most people will avoid reading a review of something they are already intending to read or see, but for those of you on the line, I don't want to give away too much.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Unremarkable Squire (Available Now!)

In honor of the publication of my husband's latest book, The Unremarkable Squire, I am re-posting for your viewing pleasure a piece of the review I wrote when the book was still a manuscript. The original review can be found here. The Unremarkable Squire is published by Barking Rain Press and can be found on Amazon or on special request from your local book dealer for $13.95 in paperback or $5.95 as an eBook. You may also get the book directly from the publisher and sign up to read the first four chapters free!

If you know Nick and would rather get a signed copy straight from him, contact him on The Works of Nick Hayden Facebook page, and visit worksofnick.com to keep updated on book signings and the like.

We've all read or watched or heard the stories of knights and princesses, fantasy tales with strong heroes and beautiful heroines. The Unremarkable Squire is like the behind-the-scenes version, casting all the extras and misfits as its main characters. The squire himself is Obed Kainos, a boy approaching manhood, who lives a simple life and keeps to himself and is thrust into service quite accidentally.

What follows is high adventure, taken on by the lowest and humblest (or not) cast of characters, comprised of servants, thieves, bumbling guards, and monsters. Though much like a spoof with the driest of humor liberally flavoring it, the plot is also serious, kept so by the deeply introverted Obed, who swears a squire's oath and means to follow it to the letter, no matter what. He fights mages and thieves, even death, as he learns what it means to be a squire and what it means to be human.

Obed is unique because, unlike other heroes whose motivations for acting the way they do are obvious, Obed isn't really motivated in the normal way. He is a boy who does what he must because he said he would. An apparently boring character becomes a fascinating hero as nothing deters him from his mission.

Nick Hayden can't write a normal story, and that's why you should read him. You will find yourself intrigued by the simplest of people and laughing until the very last line.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

When We Wake

What might the world look like a hundred years from now? In When We Wake, the first novel in a young adult series by Karen Healey, Tegan gets to find out. After getting shot and dying, she is reawakened from an experimental cryonic stasis 100 years later. To Tegan, mere moments have passed, but the world around her has changed and all her loved ones are long gone. She might as well be starting life over. There's a lot to catch up on. Some of the world has changed for the better, but the oceans are still rising and the planet is still heating up. There's new technology and different laws and new social outcasts. But adjusting to a different way of living isn't Tegan's biggest problem. She's technically government property, and her leash is tight. Can she begin her life anew and live like a normal teenage girl, romance included, or is she destined to be a human guinea pig in a world where everything may not be quite what it seems?

When We Wake has a partially similar premise to A Long, Long Sleep in that both deal with characters waking up from stasis a lifetime later. But that's the only similarity. Each book takes its plot in far different directions. Personally, I enjoyed A Long, Long Sleep's version better, and you can read a review of that here.

Preferences aside, I found the premise of When We Wake to be interesting, and the delivery is decent. Tegan narrates, and as you get further into the book, you realize she's telling her story to someone (besides you, the reader, that is). The story takes place in Australia in a world suffering from global warming, so the setting is kind of different than your usual young adult fare. I enjoyed the book for the most part, but there were a few things that made my reading experience less than optimal.

I'm just going to say it: I'm skeptical of global warming. Yeah, I know, I'm one of those people. I realize this is fiction, and I can't make a big deal about this when I'm perfectly fine with other types of apocalyptic scenarios in other books. I just don't believe any of those are likely to come true, and while I also don't believe the earth is going to burn up anytime soon, this story feels a little too close to today's politics, like it's pushing an agenda: here's what the earth will look like in a hundred years if we don't do something about it, and here's what we need to do. (I can't believe Australia would be the place everyone would want to go, but admittedly, I'm not too familiar with topography.) The book might feel preachy because many of its characters are activists working for change, but I can't fault the author for choosing those characters to write about. Activists are people, too! (*gasp*) So, at least the author has created a consistent world where her characters are entwined with the politics of the times. I appreciate that. I'm just not a big fan of people trying to be so politically correct.

The book is fairly clean as far as morals go. The F-word is used, but not very much. There's no sex, but there are a lot of references to gay relationships and one instance of a sex change. Again, I felt like the book was pushing agenda: equal marriage rights and sexual freedom. Yep, I'm one of those people, too. I love you, no matter your sexual orientation, but I still think we were created to be male and female and that is the natural way of things. Are people gay? Yes. Are they immoral? Not necessarily. It really depends on what you do with yourself. Is it natural to be gay? Obviously not: look at how our bodies are created. I'm just saying, the natural order of things is male and female.

So, one hundred years from now, will we all be accepting of our differences and learning to deal with the effects of our large biological footprints? We can't really know, but I doubt it. What I don't doubt is that there will always be societal problems and natural disasters to deal with, and people will always speculate about the aftermath. So, annoying as I found the preaching to be, I still enjoyed the book as quasi-dystopian, border-post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, speculative fiction. Three stars.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Iron Man 3 in Theaters Now

I've heard mixed reviews, but you know, I really loved Iron Man 3. I love superhero origin stories foremost, but next to that, I like to see my superheroes suffer and stumble in the dark and still come out triumphant. I can't relate to them when they are flying about saving the world. But I can relate to them when they are doubting and hurting, confused, alone. I'm not a masochist, really! Sure, I like to see that raw edge, yet at the same time, that grittiness means nothing if it's not followed by victory, or at least hope. Iron Man 3 nicely balances its depiction of raw humanity, groaning against the earth, with a triumphant goodness that makes you want to pump your fist in the air.

In Iron Man's origin story, I liked him well enough. He was funny and cool. I didn't like his morals much, but he started to change. In Iron Man 3, I love him. He's still rough around the edges, but Pepper Potts has centered him. He doesn't chase other women or act like a rich, spoiled brat (well...okay, less so than before, at least). He and Pepper have a great love story (though a little modern for my tastes--there's been no mention of marriage). He still aggravates her and makes mistakes, but in the end, she's the most important thing in the world to him. And he's learned to apologize...sort of. Pepper, on her part, is a hugely forgiving woman. She knew what she was in for when she became Tony's woman, and she can handle him because she's her own woman, too. She can wear the suit and kick butt. She's not a complainer. She's a doer. And she can roll with Tony's sense of humor. If you didn't like Pepper before this movie, I don't know how you can't after it. She's totally sweet and totally tough. She doesn't get a ton of screen time, but she uses it well.

Of course, I'm talking about the actors as much as the fictional characters. To me, Iron Man is Robert Downey Jr., and Pepper Potts is Gwyneth Paltrow. I can't picture anyone else in those roles. Robert Downey Jr. brings such a crazy energy to his character. His lines are fast-paced, sort of mumbly, hysterically funny, and so well-timed. His interaction with his machines (Jarvis) and the suits is believable (within the world) and humorous, especially when putting on his newest creation involves a high-speed, piece-by-piece, body-bruising, groin-punching, airborne suiting up. Great physical comedy, which I love!

The story of Iron Man 3 works for me, but Tony Stark's personal journey through his anxieties and distractions to what really matters: being the hero and keeping Pepper safe, is what struck all the right chords. I'm not at all familiar with the Iron Man of the comic books, so if this story diverges from that or not (which I know now that it does) doesn't matter at all to me. I enjoyed the plot and the villains and the twists. I enjoyed seeing the heart underneath Iron Man's bravado exterior. The kid Tony interacts with is a brilliant touch for humanizing the Iron Man.

And I absolutely loved the short little punchline at the end of the credits. I don't want to spoil it for you. It's a little different than the usual fare you might expect. It's not really a preview of movies to come. But it's funny, so be sure to stick around for the last laugh.

Iron Man 3 is rated PG-13, mostly for action and violence. (I did not find it appropriate for the four-year-old girl sitting in my row.) Most middle school kids should be fine. Incidentally, I had a lot of great previews in front of my showing of Iron Man 3. Marvel has its own corner of the movie market, and they are doing brilliantly, though DC's new Superman was also previewed. Superheroes are definitely in.

Iron Man 3 just came out this past weekend, and if you've been on the same Marvel bandwagon as the rest of us, support some little town's local theater (Cheaper tickets! Everything said, $10 is still an awful lot to pay for the big screen.) and see it now!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Life of Pi on DVD

I'm going through quite a few of the Best Picture nominees from this year's Oscars, as you can see if you've read my blog recently, and though Life of Pi was lower on my list, I still thought it would be worth watching (I heard it was beautiful, especially in 3-D). I haven't read the book, by Yann Martel (but I'm not sorry I haven't), and I went into it pretty much not knowing anything about the story, just that the book has been a bestseller and is sometimes read as school literature. I did not see it in 3-D, but I can see how it was filmed for it and could have been even more visually stunning than it already was. I have not been converted to 3-D yet, and I rarely see a movie in that form. (Didn't even see Avatar that way.) So, I find it somewhat annoying when I'm watching a movie and something comes straight toward the camera in a move that is designed for 3-D. It looks set-up and fake in the 2-D experience. I was especially annoyed by it in Oz the Great and Powerful, but it was done at least more tastefully in Life of Pi.

(SPOILER alerts about the ending to follow.) And it's true: Life of Pi is a visual treat. It's a beautiful story (thought I don't agree with the religious morals of it) right up until about ten minutes from the end. The story should have stopped there, but it goes on to pull the rug out from under everything you've believed about what you've been watching and it tries to tack on some feel-good, religious meaning to the whole thing. I was almost loving the movie until then. When I explained what it was about to my husband, he sort of chuckled drily and said it was an appropriate choice for an Oscar nominee. If you've read my review of three other Best Picture nominees this year, you know my opinion of what normally goes for Oscar bait. It's usually the depressing stuff, and though I've enjoyed some of the other nominees this year, Life of Pi fits the usual Oscar fare, unfortunately.

Now, for those of you who, like me, haven't read the book or seen the movie, I will give you the plot premise without spoilers you wouldn't be able to deduce fairly easily if you've ever seen the book's cover or the movie poster. Pi, an Indian boy whose father owns a zoo, is crossing the Pacific with a boat full of animals when the ship sinks. Pi gets stranded on a lifeboat with several other wild animals, including a dangerous Bengal Tiger. Thus, the stage is set. And it really is an amazing story. I assumed Pi and the tiger would hit it off like a happy Disney movie, unbelievably becoming fast friends, but that's not the case, and I'll leave any plot details at that.

I was so disappointed by the ending that I have to warn you, at least, though I won't give spoilers. It ruined it all for me. So, if you want a visual treat and aren't too concerned about where the story might be leading you, it's kind of fascinating. But if you don't like being misled, take it from me: skip this one. And I really hate to say it, too, because there are some beautiful scenes, and Pi's resourcefulness is fascinating.

As I alluded to before, the other thing I don't like about the movie is its religious message. Pi is a Hindu, so he believes in all kinds of gods, including Jesus and Allah. The message seems to be that belief is what counts, but as a Christian, I know it's more than that. It's whom you believe in that matters. It's a nice idea to think all religions can agree and are essentially the same, but it's simply untrue.

If I could somehow cut off the end of this movie, I might give it the high end of three stars. As is, I hate to rate it and do it a discredit because the art of it is beautiful, and the performance by Suraj Sharma as Pi is heartfelt and emotional. But as a whole I didn't like this movie.

Life of Pi is rated PG for emotional content and scenes of peril as well as normal predatory animal interactions, and it's just over two hours long.

MILA 2.0

I wasn't sure I could suspend disbelief fully enough to enjoy MILA 2.0, a young adult novel by Debra Driza. I was simultaneously intrigued by and wary of the premise: a teenage girl suddenly discovers that she is not quite human and that the life she thinks she's lived is false. Robots who can think for themselves and who have emotions are intriguing, but I find the idea of them really hard to buy into. After all, as much as we like to play what-if and pretend it's possible, technology isn't human and never will be. And, great, now I sound like the bad guys in I, Robot and all those books and movies that keep exploring the idea of sentient machines. The thing is, I have no problem suspending disbelief for other types of fantasy with creatures I'm sure don't exist. I wonder if the difference in my perception is based in my belief system. I believe I have a soul created by God, and I don't like the idea of Man creating sentient beings because I'm not sure God would gift those beings with souls, too. Still, we're talking about science fiction here; it's not real. So, I do suspend disbelief as much as I am able, and despite my misgivings, I can say that I did enjoy MILA 2.0's exploration of what it means to be human.

(This paragraph contains some SPOILERS related to the first quarter of the book. Read why in the following paragraph.) The story begins with Mila and her mother adjusting to a new life in a cozy town in Minnesota. They are grieving the death of Mila's father and trying to move on, even though parts of Mila's memory are missing. Aside from strict demands from her mother, Mila is enjoying her new life and making friends when an accident turns everything upside down. As her strange abilities surface and her identity comes to light, she begins to unravel as she realizes everything she's known is a lie. But losing it is not an option when her secret leaks to the wrong people, forcing Mila and her mother to go on the run.

This is all the set-up of the story, and much of it was vaguely revealed on the cover of the advance reader's copy I read. Also, the book's title, MILA 2.0, is rather revealing. But the set-up takes nearly 100 pages, and it's only then, for sure, that Mila finds out who she is. So, there's some heavy dramatic irony throughout the whole first part of the book since the reader begins the story knowing more about Mila than she herself does. I almost didn't want to tell you anything about the plot because it all feels like spoilers. But I can't be spoiling much more than the cover of the book already does. And I kind of understand the need to advertise the book as being about a robot; you sort of want to know that up front. So, then, the author and her editing team were left with a dilemma: reveal some spoilers and let the character's journey toward revelation, and what happens afterward (which is plenty), carry the book or shroud the book's genre in mystery and reveal the secrets slowly. I, personally, think I would have liked to be surprised as I read because I hate spoilers. But that begs the question: would I have picked up the book in the first place? Can't say for sure.

Regardless, once you've established that Mila is, indeed, a robot, the most unique aspect of the story is the way Mila's emotions come into play. She thinks and feels like a regular teenage girl. She fully believes she is human and can't come to terms with the fact that she's not, even after there's proof. After all, no one can manufacture feelings, right? They are hers and hers alone, and how is that not human? She must face the question: can a machine love? Does she deserve a normal life, or must she fulfill the purpose she was made for? The book explores these questions very believably. In short, despite my misgivings about the book's premise, it was handled in a way that didn't turn me off and that was entertaining, as well.

MILA 2.0 reminds me of another young adult book I read last year about a cloned teenage girl, born already grown in a lab, who suddenly discovered she could think for herself. Though that book, Beta, was an enjoyable 3-star read, I didn't want a repeat, and I'm happy to say this book distinguishes itself. I wouldn't mind finishing this trilogy as it is released. MILA 2.0 is the first and came out in March. But due to the spoiler-ish way this book is advertised as well as the moral snag of whether machines might be able to have souls or not, I give this one only three stars, as well.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Catching Up with the Oscars: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo

Though I don't pick my movies based on the awards they receive, I am always curious to see who the Oscar winners are. I don't know why I care, because the Academy and I don't really see eye-to-eye on what makes a good movie. But the Oscars aren't about popular opinion, and I'm sure they have very good reasons for preferring sadistically nihilistic narratives over good ol' superheroes saving the day. However, the past couple years have surprised me for nominating a few movies people actually care about and have seen.

Though I wasn't able to see many of the nominees in the theater, I was interested in them. So, now that they are coming out on DVD, I'm able to catch up and see if the hype is really worth it. Below, I'll review three Best Picture nominees (one of which is the winner) that I've had the opportunity to see recently. Interestingly, these three are rather similar in that they all contain heavy thematic material (they did make the Oscars, after all) dealing with aspects of politics and the treatment of humanity.

This is probably the most accessible, family-friendly, positive movie of the three. (It's also rated only PG-13.) Who doesn't like Lincoln for what he did for the equality of man in this country? The movie's subject matter had broad appeal to begin with, and the performances are definitely top-notch. Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his portrayal of Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field were both nominees for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively.

Everybody raved so much about Day-Lewis's performance that I was that sort of skeptical you get when you wonder if something can possibly meet, never mind exceed, your expectations. When I finally saw him in the role, I was both surprised and not. I knew he would be good, so I wasn't surprised there. But I was surprised by how much I liked him, despite constantly being drawn out of the character as I wondered what exactly he did differently than other actors to make himself stand out and meld simultaneously. Nick loved him, too, and now wants to read a biography about the guy. (I didn't care that much.) Lincoln is fascinating in this telling, and I wonder how close all of it is to the truth. Was Lincoln such a great storyteller? Day-Lewis captures that back-in-the-day vibe you get from some older men and grandfathers who always have a story to tell, and the stories always seem like they are from another world, even though they are just from an older time. You can't help but love those guys, even when they annoy you by interrupting your busy life with a tale of slower times. Even the way they talk is slow and measured, as if they still lived in those times. How do you recreate that? Day-Lewis does.

I could go on about the other actors. Many are memorable, and the dialog, especially in Congress among the State Representatives, is lively and entertaining (otherwise, the politicking would have bored me to tears).

I did find the movie's start to be a little slow. I'm not all that into politics and war in movies, and this one is full of both. Once it got going, I was invested, though I still found the politics of it all to drag on a bit. Perhaps that's how it felt in real life, as Congress fought seemingly endlessly over the very thing the Civil War was all about. It had to drag on for them, too. I know movies take some artistic license, so I don't know how much I should be trusting this movie as a history lesson, but I hope they got it right historically, because they got it right on the emotional cinematic level and it would be disappointing to discover they were making up details to garner interest or heighten cinematic tension.

Lincoln is two and a half hours long. As my husband joked the other night, can a Best Picture nominee even be under two hours? I found it a tad long and was somewhat disappointed that the actual shooting that led to Lincoln's death isn't even shown, but I can see how including it might have sensationalized that evil too much. After all, the movie is about the kind of character it takes to free a nation of slaves from selfish, wicked men. And what a character he had and was.

Zero Dark Thirty
Of the three, this may be my least favorite, perhaps because it's just so brutal. Torture is sickening, even if the person being tortured is evil. It's also a huge moral issue, one I'm not sure where to come down on. Is it right to torture some to save others? It's obviously something common individuals should not do, but when it comes to the government, what is right or wrong? Turning the other cheek is one thing when you yourself are under fire, but when should our duty to protect the innocent, the orphan, and the widow come into play? Is it then permissible to fight fire with fire, so to speak? Or should we still be humane? It's a question our government had to deal with during the 10-year search for Osama bin Laden, and this movie asks it but doesn't fully answer. How could they? It's a tough one.

But the movie is a fascinating watch for one reason: the woman behind the death of bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays the obsessed agent, Maya, who spends 10 years, her entire career out of school, following a lead nobody else would consider in the belief it would lead her to the man responsible for over 3000 American deaths on September 11, 2001. Chastain was nominated for Best Actress for this role, and if you aren't convinced she deserved the nod, watch her ditsy but loveable performance in The Help. What a difference of characters!

I can't say how much of the movie is fully true or, again, how much artistic license is taken. The scene where American soldiers finally get bin Laden is likely the truest part, as it's well documented. The rest is a combination of character study and political maneuverings, which are more subjective. But if the real woman behind Chastain's character is anything like what the movie portrays, I feel sorry for her, enmeshed in all that brutality, surrounded by evil, alone. Where do you go after ten years of that? Essentially, that's the last question we are left with, which is a downer on a movie about finally beating the bad guy. At the end, we all sigh with relief, but we don't feel better because it was an exhausting long haul of a ride.

And as an audience, we get to experience in a fraction of a way just how long the journey was as we sit through over two and a half hours of this heavy stuff. Not surprisingly, with such content, the movie is rated R for some language but mostly for disturbing violence and imagery.

Argo won Best Picture (and doesn't even top two hours!) this year against Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and others. Of these three movies, it is the one I would have picked, too. Where Lincoln drags on a bit, Argo keeps moving. Where Lincoln's focus becomes rather broad (ending a civil war, freeing a race of slaves), Argo's remains narrow and to-the-point (getting six people out of Iran before they are caught and executed as spies). Plus, I enjoy tension and suspense more than politics, but that's just me.

Though all three movies are based on true events, I think Argo's story intrigued me the most for being so-crazy-it-just-might-work. In order to get six American embassy employees safely out of the country without raising suspicion from the Iranians as to their real identities, the CIA concocts a far-fetched plan to disguise them as Canadian filmmakers. The cool thing is, in order to make it believable, they buy a script, set up a film company with a bigwig to back it in Hollywood, hire actors, draw up storyboards, and advertise. Once the set-up is there, one CIA agent (Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, also the director of Argo) goes into Iran. His mission: transform the six Americans into a film location scouting crew and get them out. Everyone loves movies, even Iranians, and who wouldn't like their own backyard to be the location of a movie set? It's rather brilliant, but oh, so dangerous. With the Iranians working double-time to figure out the identities of the hidden Americans and the U.S. government balking at the plan, even after things are set in motion, the pressure is all on Tony to make it work and not get anyone, including himself, killed in the process.

I'm always a bit skeptical when someone wants to take the lead role in a film he or she is directing. I don't know why a person would do it. It seems kind of arrogant, but perhaps, in this case, Ben Affleck simply wanted to take on all the responsibility of getting it right. It does seem like the details are as close to the truth as possible (though I can't say for sure and only suppose that because of the remarkable effort taken to make the actors look like their real-life counterparts), though I'm sure events are slightly condensed and embellished to add cinematic tension (minor SPOILER alert: I'm thinking of the chase at the end here). Whatever the reasons Affleck chose to simultaneously direct and star, it works. He underplays his character outwardly, but Affleck's face speaks more than his character ever needs to. So much can be conveyed in that man's stare! He brings depth and humanity to his character and to the plight of the Americans he is sent to rescue. Though the story is about saving the embassy employees, it centers on Tony, the guy who believed a fake movie could make it happen. He is the anchor of the plot.

The movie is rated R for violence (much less so than Zero Dark Thirty) and language. The F-word is used in a rather unique way, and I have to admit, it even got me (who hates the word) to laugh. Humorous moments like that exist to give relief to the otherwise heavy tension pervading the story. The movie balances the tension so well that even though it's sometimes dark, you don't feel utterly drained and hopeless like you do watching Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, Argo is rather hopeful.

Of the three nominees reviewed here, Argo is the most rewarding to watch, combining an awesome true story (a movie about making a fake movie!) with CIA agents, suspense (it is a life-or-death rescue mission), daring odds, a little Hollywood drama, a foreign setting (the Middle East is always intriguing in one way or another), and gripping characters. I don't want to give any SPOILERS, but I think the cat's already out of the bag: this one even has a feel-good ending! (Is Hollywood going soft?) Argo also won in the Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, so you know it is well put-together. It has good flow and kept my interest throughout.

So, did Hollywood actually get it right this time? In Argo, they found a story compelling to us all, one with emotional gravitas and a real-life superhero! I'm gonna say it: kudos to the Academy! And if the Academy and I can agree on something, it just might be worth your time to check it out!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mind Games

I liked the premise of Kiersten White's young adult novel Mind Games. You don't see a lot of novels that focus on sisterly relationships, and while an almost-love-triangle exists in this book, it's not the primary emphasis. In fact, though there's room for romance to develop in future books, you could really say this book isn't a romance at all. It's more of a science fiction thriller and character study at the same time. Though one genre seems fast-paced and the other slow, they meld together pretty well.

Both Fia and Annie narrate the story, but the book is more about Fia, the girl with instincts so good she can almost never choose wrong, the girl who could be a weapon in the wrong hands. And, man, is Fia ever in the wrong hands. Her handler is a boy who she knows is bad and dangerous but who she wants to fall in love with anyway. He, in turn, is the son of an even more dangerous and mysterious man who collects women like Fia and Annie in order to control and use their special mind powers. Most of these women are Seers, seeing the future (like Annie), or Readers, reading minds, or Feelers, feeling emotions. Fia is none of that. She calls herself the hands. With special training and perfect instincts, she is the most dangerous of them all, a killer. And she has to remain a killer if she wants her sister to live.

The dynamics of the relationship between Fia and Annie are what this book is all about, but personally, I didn't really take to Annie. I can't say I loved Fia either, with her obsessive, angry thoughts and stream-of-consciousness narration, but she is clearly the character the author wants you to care most about...not that the reader isn't supposed to care about Annie. The reader is supposed to care about what Fia thinks of Annie, and Fia will do anything to protect her older, blind sister.

The book took longer than some young adult fiction takes me to get through, probably due to switching narrators but also due to flashbacks. That's why I said the story was part character study. We get a lot of background on Fia and Annie leading up to the present. It's an interesting way to tell a story. We get thrown right into the action, and then slowly, the specifics unwind. Interesting, yes, but I didn't love the way the story was told.

Still, having said that, what I really did enjoy was the concept of an unwilling human weapon. My husband can tell you that I love stories with powerful female protagonists. Under very different circumstances, I could have been a feminist, I'm sure. I love to see girls kick butt, and I'm a second degree black belt myself. But I also find it intriguing when a girl is powerful yet doesn't want to be. It provides for fascinating internal struggle, and in this case, it raises a lot of moral questions, too. How do you do detestable things to protect a loved one and still save your own soul? I wish there was a little more about that particular question in the book, but Fia is beyond believing she has a soul to save. Her hopelessness is understandable in light of the story, but it gets a little depressing. I do, however, like the way this first book of the series resolves itself, and I hope there is some interesting moral exploration in the books to come; the set-up is certainly perfect for it.

Three stars.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Quick Takes on Five Recent Theater and DVD Releases

Oz the Great and Powerful (in theaters this month): I enjoyed it, but not as much as I enjoyed Jack the Giant Slayer, which was unfortunately released the week prior to Oz and lacked the same historical and classical background. I liked Jack for its straightforwardness. Oz is a bit too convoluted and busy and has very surface character development. The visuals, however, are beautiful. Three stars.

Wreck-It Ralph (animated feature on DVD this month): I watched this with my husband who, being familiar with similar old-school games, was quite a bit more taken with it than I was. It's pretty clever, but only a certain audience can truly appreciate it. I was, however, invested in the conflict, which centers on the main character's identity struggles. Three stars.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (rated PG-13, adapted from a novel, on DVD February 2013): Though the movie has some heavy thematic material and characters with loose morals, it surprised and impressed me (I have not read the book, so I can't compare.). The quality acting (by Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Ezra Miller, among others) is poignant and soulful, coaxing the viewer deep into a twisted story of pain and friendship. I was happy that the story didn't end on a completely depressing note, and while I wouldn't recommend this to just anyone, I'm glad to have seen it. Three stars.

The Master (rated R, on DVD February 2013): Skip it. This story, which is led by a handful of well-known and mostly respected actors and takes place in a cult shortly after World War II, is pointless and vile, containing an emphasis on sexual addiction and prolonged scenes of full female frontal nudity. I thought the cult aspect of it would be intriguing, and it was. But the immorality outweighed everything else for me. One star.

Anna Karenina (rated R, on DVD February 2013): I have not read the Russian Tolstoy novel, but my husband, who has and who watched this with me, was able to clarify any details I didn't get. It's a rather depressing story about adultery and its sad effects on the main character. The redeeming value of the movie is the genius of its filming, as though it takes place on an elaborate stage, and the transitions between scenes, which are fluid with the ever-evolving set. The style takes a bit to get into at first but leaves the viewer somewhat spellbound and awestruck. Also, hurray for Levin and the simple life. Three stars.

(Note: The three-star rating spans such a wide range of movies for me. Though I've rated most of these three stars and cannot easily rank them due to the huge difference in genre and target audience, I can categorize them according to morals, widespread appeal, and pure artistic beauty. Anna and Perks have troublesome morality issues and sex scenes, but surprisingly nothing is too graphic, even in Anna. Both of those are for specialized, mature audiences. Oz and Wreck-It have a much larger audience appeal and are family-friendly, but in my opinion, they are less artistic.)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Forgotten Garden

It's rare that I step away from my fast-paced, short-but-sweet young adult novels to read a lengthy piece of regular fiction, particularly one that spans several generations and jumps between character stories. But occasionally, I find myself wanting a delightfully long read that's not over in two days, and since my sister-in-law had recommended The Forgotten Garden to me several times (shocked each time she asked me if I'd read it that I had not), I picked this one, knowing absolutely nothing about it.

But the young woman who discovers on her 21st birthday that she is not the person she always thought she was, whose life is turned upside down in an instant, and whose granddaughter inherits her unsolved mystery captured my full attention. The story spans a century, from the early 1900s to 2005, and two continents, taking place in Australia and England. The characters include Nell, the woman left on a ship by herself when she was only three or four years old; Cassandra, Nell's granddaughter with her own life trauma and baggage; Eliza, the mysterious and captivating Authoress; and a wealthy, selfish, merciless English family.

Normally, descriptive passages slow me down, but author Kate Morton knows just how to hook her readers along, leaving bread crumbs here and there, enticing them to read just a little further to solve just a little more of the mystery. There's a bit of a haunting, magical feel to the story, heightened no doubt by Eliza's fairytales, a few of which are included in their entirety. If anything slowed my reading of this book more than normal, it was probably the character jumping. One chapter might be about Cassandra in 2005. Then we're back to Eliza in 2000. Then we're with Nell in 1975. Some of those points provided too easy of a break at which to put the book down for awhile. However, I was never tempted to leave the story too long. Quite the opposite. I found myself stealing moments during the day to open those 500-plus pages, even when my son was competing for my attention! The last 200, or so, pages were especially difficult to put down. By then, I was starting to piece things together and making guesses about the ending (some of which were right and some of which weren't quite). I put a key piece of the puzzle together approximately 150 pages before the end, but even then, there were discoveries to make and moments to question what I thought I knew.

The Forgotten Garden is a book to delve into at the expense of all else. Kate Morton is a storyteller with a spellbinding gift. This is certainly some of the best adult fiction out there. Five stars.