Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Unbroken in Theaters Now

After reading Unbroken this year, I was pretty excited to see the movie. It's just such an incredible story of a man who endured weeks adrift on a raft at sea only to end up being tortured in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. The book goes into so much more detail about the kind of man Louis Zamperini was and how that affected his outlook during his trials than a movie ever could, so whether you see the movie first or not, I highly recommend you also read the book.

As much as I like Angelina Jolie, I admit I was a bit worried about her directing this film. She's fairly new to directing, and she's a woman (*Gasp* Did I just say that?). I don't think I'm being biased to say that women generally have different viewpoints than men. We're wired differently with different interests and concerns, and I wasn't sure how that might translate to the condensed and adapted telling of a survival story. Granted, a woman wrote the biography and did a fantastic job.

When I saw the movie was rated only PG-13, I wondered even more. It's not that I necessarily wanted to see all the torture, but I felt that to be true to the book, the story warranted a stricter rating. After having seen the movie, I am conflicted about the rating it was given. I do feel like the hardships of the POW camp were downplayed (or perhaps it was just that the sheer amount of them described in the book couldn't make it into a 137-minute movie, thereby easing the intensity of the whole ordeal), but I also think the subject matter was intense enough to justify an R rating.

Bottom line, the movie is accurate but just doesn't convey how impressive this story really is. In that way, it is like a PG-13 version of the book. Whether that's due to directing or the medium the story is told in or the time constraints, I don't know. Where I think Angelina Jolie and the actors did a fine job is in bringing out the characters and the emotions of the story. Jack O'Connell is a great Louis Zamperini, and the story hones in on the key aspects of his character that got him through the war.

(SPOILER alert) Before the movie came out, I'd heard that it didn't portray Zamperini's faith enough. And his faith, especially at the end, is kind of what seals the deal on this book for many. It's that last punch that makes a believer like me giddy with emotion. But I think the movie did it just right. It foreshadowed it and then ended where it needed to at the end of his physical trials, leaving a footnote on a black screen to tell you about how his faith enabled him to survive and forgive after the war. I thought it actually made a pretty big impact like that.

If you want a story that's a celebration of life in the midst of some of the worst life has to offer, a true tale of courage and heart with a solid redemptive finale, take it from a fiction reader...fiction has nothing on this.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Hacker is the third installment of The Outlaw Chronicles, a young adult series by Ted Dekker. See my reviews of the other two books here and here. Each novel generally focuses on a new person, but in Hacker, we get to see the continuation of one character's story from Eyes Wide Open, the first in the series, while we are also introduced to Nyah, a seventeen-year-old girl who hacks corporations to blackmail them into giving her a job. Basically, she shows them their weaknesses by hacking them and then fixes the problem, all to provide for her mother, mentally impaired in a car accident. But when Nyah messes with the wrong people, she is forced to run to a person who turned his back on her, to Austin who is dying from a brain tumor. Together, they attempt the impossible to find a cure for Austin and Nyah's mother. It's the biggest hack of all, and the clock on each of their lives is ticking.

For whatever reason, this book didn't impact me as deeply as the other books from the series or as much as most Ted Dekker books do. Don't get me wrong, it was still entertaining and meaningful. But the message from each of these books (yes, Dekker always has a message, but his books usually don't feel preachy) is essentially the same with only little variances. And I got the message better in the other books, especially in Water Walker, which is perhaps my favorite of the three, the message being one about identity and who we really are beneath the costume of appearance, intelligence, or whatever else we define ourselves by. Maybe I didn't get into this one because of the hacking terminology. It intrigued me but was a little over my head. Maybe it was character. I didn't identify with Nyah as much as with some characters. Maybe it was the plot which, while it moved fairly well, lacked a certain edge I've come to expect from Dekker's books. Maybe all those were fine, and I just wasn't into it this time. I haven't been doing as much reading here toward the end of the year. My mind is on other things.

Regardless, the series is good, and if you really want to get the full picture, start with Outlaw, which is awesome and kind of sets up the series, though it's also a stand-alone book. I'm looking forward to reading A.D.30 next, also a recently published novel from Ted Dekker but one that I expect to be quite different from anything of his that I've read before. It's the perfect time to read the fictional account of a person who lived through Jesus' days as we head into Christmas. And even after reading Hacker, I'm expecting quite a lot out of this next one.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Movie Quick Takes

Movie-wise, here's what I've been watching lately: lots of post-apocalyptic (I'm also into the CW show The 100), a generous helping of science fiction, and plenty of adventure. Life has been hectic, but I didn't want to let these go by without at least a few words.

Interstellar (In Theaters)
The world is dying, overrun by dust storms. People survive by farming, but crops are still dying out. A group of explorers goes through a mysterious wormhole in space in search of a new planet to call home. A father must choose between his daughter and the survival of humanity. Cool science fiction taken at a slow pace that does not feel labored, and at three hours, it doesn't feel too long either. Explores love's power over even the dimensions of space and time. Great acting! Stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and a host of other A-list names, some appearing only briefly. Definitely one to see in theaters, but hurry before it's gone! PG-13.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (In Theaters)
Katniss must choose whether or not to be used as a weapon against the Capital as she joins the rebellion in District 13. Meanwhile, the Capital's weapon is the boy she loves: Peeta. The movie is well-made and provides an interesting look at propaganda. (We watch a movie about people who create propaganda for TV, and we get to watch them watch their own propaganda and see the fallout of it. And isn't the message of these movies a sort of propaganda in and of itself? Have we got the message, or are we just glorifying everything the story is supposed to be against?) It's true to the book, which means it's also very depressing. The politics are interesting, but the movie just doesn't have the action appeal of the other two. Jennifer Lawrence and her co-actors are great, as always. I could watch Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks in their roles forever. I was slightly distracted by any scenes containing Philip Seymour Hoffman, remembering how he died before filming ended and wondering which parts were affected by that. PG-13. Two hours.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Now on DVD)
In the future, the X-Men have nearly been exterminated by unstoppable robot creatures created using mutant biology. The only way to stop them is to ensure they are never created in the first place. So, Wolverine is sent to the past to Professor X and Magneto's younger days in order to stop loose cannon Mystique from making a costly mistake. Fun romp. Great characters. Needed more Quicksilver. Enjoyed it very much, but a month or two later, I don't have lasting impressions. PG-13. Just over two hours.

Snowpiercer (On DVD)
The world is frozen over, and the only people alive ride a 1000-car (supposedly 1001, at least in the graphic novel, but in the movie, it looks much smaller) train that never stops and completes one circle of the globe every year. A group living in the slums at the back of the train tries to force its way to the front. This two-hour movie is rated R and is dark, disturbing, and graphically violent (but no sex). Its bleak ending has the barest sliver of hope. I wouldn't watch it again, but I found it intriguing. What would a world like that do to a person's psyche? Everyone is just a little touched by insanity. Chris Evans (known for his role as Captain America) stars as a much dirtier, darker, grittier kind of hero.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Jewel

It's been a couple weeks since I read The Jewel, a young adult novel by Amy Ewing (busy month for us!), so this review will mostly be overall impressions. What attracted me to the novel in the first place was a pretty cover and a fascinating premise: teenage girls sold to rich women as surrogates to birth their babies for them. In addition, these girls have magic powers (the why of this is never quite explained...maybe a topic to be covered in future books of the series?) that allow them to manipulate the color, shape, gender, and growth of the babies. All this takes place in a world separated into tiers of wealth, with the rich at the center of the city, a ring of merchants after that, an industrial ring, a farming ring, and finally a ring for the poorest of the poor, from which the magic surrogate girls come. It's a pretty nice set-up for a dystopian world.

(SPOILERS follow.) The thing is, some of the subject matter is a bit...adult. Teenage pregnancy is still kind of frowned upon in modern USA (though maybe less now than it used to be). Though it's been a part of other cultures for millennia, it's not something our kids are really prepared for. Violet, the main character, does manage to avoid pregnancy in this book despite her enslavement, but she does undergo doctor's appointments and tests that my younger, teenage self might have found a little freaky to read about. Fortunately, nothing is overly graphic, so I'd still consider it teen-appropriate material.

I was more bothered, really, by the other morally degraded content of the book. Girls are not the only ones forced into certain lives. Teenage boys can sell themselves as companions who entertain rich females in every way except the actual sexual act. But since the mothers buy these boys to entertain their daughters, some of the mothers are a bit proprietary toward the companions and use them to meet their own sexual needs (again, not graphic; this is only spoken about and not depicted at all).

In The Jewel, Violet falls in love with Ash, who is one of these companions. Both of them find themselves slaves in the same household and reach out to each other. At least that's the way the book tries to sell it. I had a hard time buying Ash's "slavery" since he basically chooses to lead this kind of life. While the surrogates have no choice and little freedom in their new lives, the companions are paid and are even considered acceptable company in the upper echelons of this world. I had a hard time respecting Ash as the love interest (I had someone else in mind, actually) and rooting for the romance. I never like it when the teenage love interests of a book have sex, but when a character is basically a male prostitute, whatever the book is trying to say about the wrongness of that gets a little muddled when he has no problem having sex with a girl he gets to choose. I get the difference there, but I'd rather see more realistic repercussions to an enforced lifestyle of prostitution. I didn't want the sex to be there at all, but if it had to be, difficulty being vulnerable with Violet, difficulty giving her more than he might give a paying partner, would have been more realistic. I just didn't buy it.

One other minor moment in the book bothered me because it was cheap conflict. Violet is a slave, and she knows that Ash is essentially one, too. After they have an intimate moment together, she sees him with the girl he's been paid to be a companion to and she gets mad. It just annoyed me. She knows what he does, knows he doesn't have a choice (according to the book, at least). Her anger comes off as petty in this situation. If he doesn't have a choice, she doesn't really have a right to be mad at him. If anything, she should understand him and forgive him because they are both being forced to do things they don't want to do.

Without the companion parts, I would have liked this book more. It was different and intriguing. It offers a lot of interesting moral discussion without being too over-the-top. (For instance, the girls are impregnated in a lab by doctors and not by having to sleep with their owners' husbands or anything too heinous like that.) So, I give it three out of five stars.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The One (A Selection novel, #3)

After reading and reviewing The Selection and The Elite, by Kiera Cass, I just have a few thoughts to add about The One, which ends this trilogy. I admit, I enjoyed the series...more than I thought I would. It's odd because I'm not really into pageantry and I've never watched The Bachelor. I do, however, enjoy an occasional reality TV show (more along the lines of Survivor), and I do love to read dystopian young adult fiction. This series combines both, but to read more about that, start with my reviews above. (I was rather negative on The Selection, but as I read the other books, I was proven wrong about a few things, including the heroine's name.) Obviously, this review may SPOIL the earlier books of the series, so if interested, don't read on here.

In this third book, the Selection comes to a close. One girl, just a commoner, is chosen to be the prince's wife. It's almost like a fairy tale, except this one comes with the politics of a world dying for a change in leadership. You would think--I would think--it would be mostly fluff, but it doesn't come across that way.

(This paragraph definitely contains SPOILERS.) But I didn't give it five stars. As usual, I come to the end of a series and find something lacking. Actually, this time, I am pleased with the end. Some might find it too neat and happy, despite a few deaths, but I like the overall turnout. No, the end is not the problem, but getting there is a little bumpy. Throughout the three books, the main character, America, has been hiding a lingering love interest from the prince. At the end of the second book, she makes her decision between the two men in her life, but in the third book, the effects of hiding one from the other linger. The conflict comes to a head when the truth is revealed near the end in a close that feels both a bit rushed (multiple people die quickly and without much fallout) and a bit tacked together for the sake of added drama and angst. I would have preferred a more mature approach to the revelation at the end, both characters realizing the irony of the situation (the prince was allowed to date 35 girls at once, but America would have been in serious trouble if her one other love interest was discovered).

Other than that, I was mostly pleased with the book and, aside from the annoying love triangle, the series as a whole. Three stars.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Outlander (the book)

I got interested in Outlander through the advertisements in Entertainment Weekly. I'm always interested in TV shows that are a little (or a lot) out of the ordinary. First, the pictures attracted me, and then I watched the free first episode on the Starz website. I was a little worried about the amount of sexual content the show would have, being on Starz, and my worry was warranted. When I finished the first episode, I had mixed feelings. I was undeniably curious about where the story was going, but I was put off a little by the sexual gratuity. I would have continued to watch more of the show anyway if I could have, but I don't have access to Starz on TV. So, the show was done for me, at least until DVD. But fortunately for me, it was based on a book, and I figured that was a better way to satisfy my curiosity anyway.

The attraction of the story lies in this: Claire is a war nurse from 1945 who, while trying to reconnect with her husband on a trip to Scotland, finds herself transported through time to 1743. There, she becomes captive to a Scottish clan and is eventually forced to marry. It's certainly an interesting premise. But that's not all the story has going for it. Once I started to read, I was fascinated by the land and people that the author, Diana Gabaldon, describes so well. There's a wealth of detail in this book.

There's also an intriguing moral question. If a person is married, and happily so (though that doesn't affect the morality of the question), but finds herself two hundred years in the past with no knowledge of whether or not she will ever get back, is it right to get married again and essentially be married to two men at once, though in two different times? I'm not sure the book gives a satisfactory answer, though it is certainly addressed.

(SPOILERS ahead.) The shock value of this situation is not singular in this story. And I have mixed feelings about this, too. Gabaldon seems to rely on providing as much shock value as she can throughout the book. While this pulls the reader further into the story, I think it also hinders her story in two ways. First, the story seems a little less likely. (I mean, it was never that likely to begin with, but all the details do create a fairly believable world.) Second, the shock value often goes hand-in-hand with moral depravity. For instance, Claire encounters a predecessor of her 1945 husband in 1743. He looks nearly identical to her husband but ends up being the villain of the story. He attacks Claire, creating a link between her first husband's face and violence. He's a sexual sadist and gets pleasure particularly out of violating men, both body and spirit. All that seems a little over-the-top. Speaking of sadism, the one scene that almost stopped my reading was toward the middle of the book when Claire's new husband (1743) whips her with a belt. It's to punish her for nearly getting him and his men killed, but he gets some pleasure out of it, too. The book does a remarkable job of explaining the situation and relating the fallout of it (I did keep reading, after all), but it made me so mad. I won't spoil every instance of shock value for you, but these should give you an idea.

And unfortunately, on top of a lot of shock value, Gabaldon is at least as graphic as the one episode I saw of the TV show, though the TV show added details that weren't in the book. Now, I've never read Fifty Shades of Grey and don't plan to, and I'm not really comparing the two books, but I doubt Fifty Shades could be much more graphic. There are pages and pages of details about Claire and her 1743 husband's sexual explorations. Later in the book, there are details about the villain's homosexual sadism. Not much is left to the imagination. As far as the sex scenes involving Claire go, I was at least happy that she was married. Morally, that is acceptable. But is it morally acceptable for a person to read all that explicit sexual content? Perhaps there are people out there who can read it with impunity. Their consciences are whole, and they are unaffected by what they read. I admit, I can't. And I think a lot of people who do read that stuff shouldn't. I think it hurts us, raises expectations that can't be met, causes us to long for a fantasy that isn't real. It's not harmless. Our culture says it's harmless, and we've become much more sexually "free," or so we believe. We give our hearts and souls away for nothing. We are free...to lose everything. And through books like these, we numb our consciences until we believe the lie.

Soap. Box. Sorry. But it needed to be said.

Outlander begins an eight-book (eight major books so far, but there are also extra related books) series. The first book was published in 1991, and the latest book was published this year. So, there's quite a lot of content. But as interesting as some of the details about Scotland and the livelihood of people from the 18th century are, I think I am already done with this series. Perhaps it's just that these are very long books, and it took me awhile to get through Outlander, and I'm ready for something else right now. But also, I think I need to be careful about searing my conscience with images that are meant to shock and entice. From what I know of the latest book, I don't think that aspect of Gabaldon's books goes away. I do know the series continues on years into Claire's future (in the past), and I'm sure there's a lot of great stuff in there. But for now, it's not for me.

I give it three out of five stars.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Maze Runner in Theaters Now

I loved the movie adaptations of The Hunger Games and Divergent, and the preview for The Maze Runner (PG-13, 113 min.) had me pretty excited. But much as James Dashner's endings in all the Maze Runner books fell short of my expectations and hopes, this movie disappoints. I think, perhaps, if I'd not read the book (especially as recently as I have), I would have liked the movie better. But watching the movie first and finding out the ending would have ruined the mystery and tension of the book. So, I guess my recommendation is this: If you are a movie person, watch the movie first. If books are always way better than movies to you, read the book first. Enjoy the story first in the medium you like best, and if you must, check it out in the other, too.

The story is this (taken more from my memory of the book than from the movie, though they are relatively the same). Thomas awakes in an elevator box of sorts, moving slowly and mysteriously toward an unknown destination, but the worst of it is, Thomas remembers nothing about his life. He knows how life works and the names of objects. He just can't remember anything specific pertaining to him except his first name. But everything is about to get stranger. When the box opens, he finds himself in a community of teenage boys who are all like him, no memories, and who are stuck in a giant maze full of monsters. Thomas is supposed to do what he's told, have a good cry if he needs to, and adapt to his part of making their community work. But Thomas is too curious for his own good, and he's not just going to sit by and do nothing.

The premise was fascinating to me. I like stories such as Lord of the Flies, and the TV show Lost. And out of this whole series, The Maze Runner, most similar to those, is my favorite book. The ending is decent enough in that it provides some answers without needing to resolve everything (overall, I don't like how Dashner resolves everything in the series, but if you take this first book by itself, it's fine). I figured the adaptation to a movie would be pretty straightforward, and I was excited to see the story come to life in that way.

Now, hear me out. I know you have to change things when you adapt a book into a movie. Things have to be shortened, focused. If a story takes place in a character's head in the book, you have to figure out a way to translate that to a medium that's largely outside the character's head (unless you provide character narration, which some movies do). So, I get it. I'm not one of those who swears the book is the only way to go. This blog is about books and movies because I really like both, and I love to see adaptations. Now, the adaptations don't always work for me, but I can generally see a movie as a separate entity from the book and not be too disappointed.

But...(you were waiting for it, weren't you?), The Maze Runner movie annoyed me just a tad. It started with small details here and there, different from the book. I was prepared for the big cuts, but the small changes were surprising. They seemed unnecessary and made less sense than the way the details were written in the book. I will try to avoid major SPOILERS here, but if you are concerned, stop reading now.

Some of the changes didn't hurt the movie, but I don't think they helped either. They were just inconsistencies that bothered me, especially when I couldn't see the point of the change (for instance, in the buildings the boys built for themselves). One of those rather minor details that I do think does hurt the movie, however, is the presentation of the mysterious medicine vials. In the book, the medicine comes up in the shipments of survival goods the boys periodically receive from the Box. When they are attacked by the monsters, the boys use this medicine. In the movie, another character arrives with two medicine vials in a pocket, and the movie uses them conveniently for two major characters. Aside from that seeming very coincidental and accidental in the movie, it changes the story and doesn't make sense, to boot. It makes more sense for the boys to already have medicine they use as needed.

Okay, so I'm going to have to go into SPOILER territory (more for the book than the movie, though). If you were braving it out until now, congrats but you've been warned. One thing that really bothered me is that the sci-fi technology is dumbed down. There are some really cool things in the book like telepathy and invisible portals. That's not a spoiler for the movie because those things don't exist in the movie. So, yay, I didn't spoil it for you. The movie only spoiled the book. I can't figure out why the tech was changed. Some things in the book are just not explained. Could that be it? They wanted a more believable world than what the book presented? But that change is going to affect the rest of the story even more than it did the beginning. Stripped of some of those details that make this world so interesting, they're going to have to make up stuff that isn't in the books just to fill in the cracks in future movies. I already thought the pacing was a little slow for this movie, and now some of what makes the book more interesting is gone. And if they bring it back, it will seem inconsistent and have me wondering why they took it out in the first place.

Perhaps my biggest complaint is that the way the kids get out (and that's not spoiling because you knew they would) is totally different from in the book. Okay, "totally" might be an exaggeration, but it's enough different that it affects the story. And it's another change that just doesn't make sense with the way the maze is supposed to work and the answers we discover at the end of the story.

Well, I could go on. Even some of the last shots of the movie get details wrong, but those I actually do understand. It was done for the movie audience to have a better visual that the book doesn't provide. It was a change made for the movie to make a better movie. If you haven't read the book, it works. If you have, it's just one more way the tech is changed that disappoints.

Aside from being annoyed by detail changes, I do have one moral concern to share. The book and the movie have some pretty violent moments. Kids are killed, and the worst part is that hardly anyone stops to mourn or seems to care, except with the one character who's played up to get the audience to care. But PG-13 is an acceptable rating.

Having said all that, I'll admit I didn't dislike the movie entirely. It was enjoyable to watch one time and see the characters, like Newt!, come to life, though there weren't too many other stand-outs, even so. Here was a chance for the movie to improve upon a book that had a few faults of its own. It didn't. So, I give it a shrug and a throw-away three out of five stars.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Ring & the Crown

The Ring & the Crown, a young adult novel by Melissa de la Cruz, mixes fantasy and Victorian genres. The idea of magic competing against a sort of scientific and industrial revolution (not steam but electric) is an idea I've not run across a lot. In fact, it was unique enough that a group of my writing friends (myself included) created a world with a similar idea at its starting point. Our plot differs drastically from anything Melissa de la Cruz would write and was conceived far before I picked up her book, but the idea that magic is a sort of science is the backdrop of both stories. (Ours changes even from that. If you want to know more, check out childrenofthewells.com.)

The Ring & the Crown has a large cast of characters. Most young adult books stick to one or two to narrate the story, but this book is a step removed from the immediacy of first-person narration with a third-person limited viewpoint which is interchanged among five different major characters. Though the characters are appropriate for young adult, the writing style bridges the gap between young adult and fantasy or even historical fiction.

I didn't like all the characters. There were really only two I was rooting for, though I wasn't entirely antagonistic to the others. The setting of the plot both intrigued me and contributed to why I didn't like some of the characters. By at least by the end, I was sympathetic to most of them.

The setting is this: a war has come to an end by the soon-to-be alliance of Prince Leopold and Princess Marie whose interests lie in different directions than each other. Meanwhile, Wolf, the younger brother of the engaged prince is trying to find his own direction, be it in girls or fistfights. Leopold's lover, Isabelle, must sign away her engagement to him so that the royal wedding may progress. The American girl, Ronan, must find herself a rich husband in London to save her family's financial situation. And the magician Aelwyn must choose between a life of independence or a life of service to her childhood friend Marie.

The magic history bears remarking on as it appears to be related to a version of the stories of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Merlin, taking place perhaps near a thousand years after those events. Whether this book would claim that story to be the same one we know or whether it's all part of an alternate universe is not addressed but would be an interesting thing to ask the author.

I'm not sure if this book is part of a series, as most young adult books are, or if it is meant to stand alone. It feels like a standalone book, particularly at the end, which attempts to resolve all the characters' lives. The end is abrupt and unexpected. Looking back, I saw a few hints of foreshadowing, but there didn't seem to be quite enough time taken to set everything up. In fact, characters end up explaining the end to one another, an end that is interesting but that feels a bit like the cliff notes version. I certainly had mixed feelings. I generally liked how things were resolved overall, but I felt like not everyone's story was told adequately...and forget happily. I know stories don't have to end neatly and happily to be good (though I prefer happy, or a really good reason not), but when half your main characters fade into obscurity at the end of a book, it's not satisfying. Fortunately, they were the characters I didn't care about as much, but like I said, once my sympathy was aroused, I thought they deserved better. Maybe that's what a sequel could be for.

This book gets three stars from me. Morality plays a small factor in that rating. There was the sensuality I expected just from the nature of the book's content, but the details were mostly implied. There were places where it fit the story and other places where it didn't need to be there but was just added to give some wildness to a character, which could have been done in other ways. On the other hand, I appreciated the interweaving of story lines (until the end) and the way that the world felt like it had some history and depth, and I did enjoy the read despite the odd end and character complaints I have.

Friday, September 5, 2014


This review contains a few SPOILERS.

I have been a big fan of some of Scott Westerfeld's work. I loved his Uglies series way back before young adult fiction was popular. The world he created in that book was just so different and surprising, and the plot hooked me through the physical and emotional changes the main character underwent. It was quite different from anything I'd read before. Since then, I've read a lot of dystopian young adult stories, so the novelty has worn off. But that series still stands out to me.

That's why I was so excited to receive an advance reader's copy of his latest book, Afterworlds, and so disappointed when I finished it. Westerfeld continues to try to push boundaries, but Afterworlds tries so hard to avoid all the stereotypes that it sabotages itself into becoming something predictable. Think of what's popular in culture right now: paranormal romance (romance is always popular, but if you can throw in a unique creature as a love interest, all the better), homosexuality, not being American (Americans are selfish and bad!) or at least not being white, individuality in youth, making your own living and being dependent on no one but yourself. (It's popular to not be stereotypical, which is sort of ironic, isn't it?) All these elements are thrown together in Westerfeld's story about an 18-year-old gay, Indian girl living on her own in New York City off the extravagant advance she gets for writing a paranormal romance. Like I said, it's so non-stereotypical it's predictable. The only truly unique thing I found in Afterworlds is that it is two stories in one. Every other chapter switches as you follow two plotlines: that of Darcy Patel's writing woes in New York and that of the manuscript she has written, a rather blasé love story between a girl whose experiences in a terrorist attack (the most interesting thing about the whole book) make her see ghosts and the boy she meets in the ghost world.

Westerfeld's characters are usually fairly complex, not wholly good or bad but an intriguing mix. Even in the Uglies series, I didn't always love them, but they fascinated me. In Afterworlds, I didn't like either of his protagonists. I couldn't find a reason to root for them. Darcy is naive, swayed by others' opinions, clingy, and a spendthrift. Though the novel points out her flaws, it doesn't help me like her better. Lizzie, the protagonist of Darcy's novel, is infatuated at first sight-and-kiss with a boy she meets in the middle of a terrible disaster. Though her deathly experiences supposedly give her a new role and purpose in life (and death), she muddles around for awhile, directionless. She is largely defined throughout the book by her connection to the boy she's kissed, and she doesn't have a lot to do on her own. SPOILER ALERT! But when she purposefully murders someone late in the book, any connection I thought I might have been forming with her was severed. The book doles out consequences for this murder, but none of it seems like enough, and the fact that the murder is committed at all just turns me off.

I gave this a two-star rating on Goodreads because on their five-star rating system, two stars means the book is okay. I didn't completely dislike it. I did read it through, after all. But I was disappointed in the story and the morals. I've already mentioned the murder. In addition, though there's nothing too graphic, Darcy's girlfriend does live with her, and the rest is implied. I won't go into the ethics of homosexuality here, but I will reiterate how culturally attuned this novel seems to want to be. By hitting on all our current cultural prejudices and preferences, this book just appears to be trying too hard. You might almost think it was mocking these aspects of modern culture, but it's too serious about itself for that. If this is the direction YA fiction is going, it's going to lose me. I love young adult fiction for its stories, but when they fail to engage or surprise me or when they become commentaries on culture, some of the innocence and simplicity of the genre is lost. They have grown up. They have become too self-aware....

But let's shake off the ghost of the future, shall we? We aren't there yet. This is just one book, and there are at least 30 books on my to-read shelf, half of which have to be at least a little interesting, right? Time to browse my ARC library and stow the cynicism. Forgive me for having a little fun with this review. There always seems to be more to write when there's negative feedback to give. Please remember that I do highly recommend Westerfeld's earlier Uglies series.

Friday, August 29, 2014


I am way late to add my two cents to the raving reviews of Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, but I am just in time in terms of the movie being released on Christmas of this year, especially if you haven't read the book yet. Encouraged by my in-laws, I had this book on my back burner for quite awhile, though I was having trouble tracking down the copy being passed around. Then I heard that the movie was coming out at the end of the year, so I made it a goal to read it before then. Finally, I saw a movie preview, and the book bumped right up to the top of my list.

The genre is certainly not what I would typically read now, though I read a lot of biographies when I was younger, but I look for good stories more than anything. A good story is a good story, and I confess, sometimes the true ones can be the best. This is one of those.

To give you an idea of how good I found this book, I read it on vacation. Big deal, you say? Well, here's the thing about me: I don't read on vacation. Weird, I know. If I do read, it has to be unusual and fascinating enough to trump all the other out-of-the-ordinary aspects of vacation. That doesn't usually happen to me. Of course, I always take books with me in the hopes I will be tempted, but I'm usually not. The only time I can really remember reading on vacation and enjoying it was when I was pregnant with my first child. I was tired, and it was easier to just sit by myself in a cool room and read than go out into the sun and water. I read two fun YA books that week and relaxed more than ever. That was about five years ago. This trip was not quite so relaxing...fifteen people camping together with an RV and a collection of tents...the responsibility of two active children...but I managed it. Unbroken is not a small book, and aside from the first 50 pages, which I read before we left home, I read the whole thing on our trip. I'm sure you've heard this from others by now, but it's an amazing story.

Louis Zamperini died this year, but before that, he had the chance to form a friendship with the movie director of his life story, Angelina Jolie. Knowing this, I'm very excited to see the finished product. But even without Jolie, I'd be interested, especially after reading this book. Louis was quite a character from the beginning, a rebel of sorts. You could say that that very quality in him helped him through a lifetime of trials. He became an Olympian and then a soldier. He survived a plane crash and weeks adrift at sea, and then he became a prisoner of war under the cruel Japanese in World War II. Hillenbrand has collected his stories and the stories of many others, as well as conducted careful research, to piece together Louis's history and the history of the world he lived through. It's fascinating stuff, and it just gets better as the story gets more and more improbable. But the cool thing is that all that improbable stuff really happened and is well documented.

I won't give details about the end, but the end really clinched it for me. The end made this a truly inspirational story. I don't know if Hillenbrand is a Christian. She just tells the facts. But I think I can appreciate this story more as a Christian than if I'd come at it from a faithless background. The end brought me to tears in a wonderful, joyful, unexpected way.

If you are worried about reading a boring biography, don't be. There's nothing to bore. If you are worried about the size of this thing, don't be. It only gets more and more interesting. If this story was written as fiction, people would scoff at the improbabilities. That it's true is not even the most amazing part. It's in the details, and those I won't spoil. I love this story and give it a full, hearty five stars. Totally recommended!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy in Theaters Now

I got to see Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13, 2 hours) the second day it was out, but I was on vacation and away from computers and just haven't gotten around to reviewing it until now. That means this will be a short one because my first impressions are mostly lost.

Personally, I prefer my heroes a little more serious. But I had quite a few good laughs and enjoyed the cheesy lightheartedness of this film. I especially loved Bradley Cooper's Rocket Raccoon. He was by far my favorite character, and I love seeing the variety of Bradley Cooper's work. The plot was so-so, but I wasn't expecting a lot. I am interested in seeing these characters incorporated into the rest of the Marvel movie universe. I think the play of comedy against serious in the right doses could be really entertaining, although some of the other Marvel heroes are already balancing serious and comedic well enough.

For sure, this style of superhero movie is surprising and unique, and that's what it really has going for it in the sea of superhero movies we are now inundated with (not that it's a disagreeable inundation...yet). So far, Marvel keeps getting it right, but I hope their style and stories continue to evolve. The next Guardians tale won't have novelty going for it anymore. Three stars.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Gravity on DVD

When you don't get to watch a lot of movies, it can take awhile to get to the more serious ones. Of course, 2013's Gravity won quite a few Oscars, including Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron, so I knew it was a quality film (which is not quite the same as a good movie). Additionally, I'd heard good things about it from people I knew, so I thought it would be interesting, too. When given the chance, I confess that for awhile I chose more lighthearted things to watch over this one, but I decided it was finally time to see what the fuss was all about.

Deserved fuss, by the way. This is definitely an impressive film. Tight and short (91 min.) and highly focused with just enough of an emotional center to make you invest in Sandra Bullock's character (she got a Best Actress nomination), played opposite George Clooney (Fortunately with no nakedness involved this time! Anybody seen Solaris? Don't. We have a long-standing joke about this in our family.). The cinematography is just brilliant, but I was deep enough into the movie to not pay it too much attention. With every shot, the director makes you begin to feel the enormity and terror of being lost and alone in space. My husband is right that this movie would have been awesome to see in the theater or, better yet, in IMAX.

There are a lot of noteworthy aspects one could talk about in Gravity, but one of the things I really thought made it superb was its simplicity. It isn't a complicated film like Inception (which was great, in its own way). Instead, everything but the basics is stripped away. A mission in space goes awry, and the goal becomes straightforward: make it back home. I guess that was the goal in 1995's Apollo 13, too, but this is more pared down. There are no flashbacks or scenes of other people on Earth. It's all about right now and the reaction to what's happening and the fight (or not) to live. Even the theme is very simple. The tagline is: "Don't let go." And that's exactly what it's about. Physically, hang on for your life. Emotionally, decide what's worth hanging onto, even if, ironically, that means you do let go.

Despite the movie's simplicity, or perhaps because of it, this sci-fi thriller is intense. It's rated PG-13, which I find appropriate. There is an instance where the F-word is spoken, and it's a circumstance one can forgive. There's also a scene of a guy with a hole through his face. Mostly, it's rated for scenes of high-stakes danger, and that's what keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Wish I'd seen it in the theater, but even on my small computer screen, its gravity pulled me right in. Four out of five stars.

Friday, July 18, 2014


If you've heard of the name Brandon Sanderson, you've probably heard he was the writer of the last few books of the late Robert Jordan's 14-book Wheel of Time series. My husband grew up on that series, the ending of which was just published a year and a half ago, so it was from him that I heard about this author. When I saw an advanced reader's copy of Steelheart, a young adult science fiction book by Sanderson, I picked it up both for the name on the cover and for the premise about superhumans crushing the rest of humanity with their powers and about a group of rebels determined to take them out one by one. Coincidentally, my advanced reader's copy has a praising quotation from the latest author I've enjoyed, James Dashner. And when my husband read the book first and thought I would really like it, that sealed the deal.

Happily, I was not disappointed. Sanderson knows how to write characters, and he knows how to write action, both a must for a story like this one. David, the book's narrator and central character, is an awkward and single-minded but endearing character. His eventual companions all have quirks of their own so that even when the action lags the entertainment does not. If there's any character I liked less than the others, it's the girl, probably because she's written from a male perspective and we don't get to see into her head.

Sanderson is good with the big picture, with what the world would look like with all these evil supervillains, or Epics, controlling it. And he's good with the details: the powers and weaknesses of each Epic, the idiosyncrasies of each character (like David's bad metaphors or Cody's wild Scottish tales), the logistics of a small fight scene or a big battle. It's a pretty large book but actually rather short compared to what Sanderson normally writes. I read it fairly quickly, despite the size.

The set-up for the book is this: Epics are powerful and evil, but they have weaknesses. David is the only person alive who has witnessed Steelheart's weakness, on the day David's father was killed in front of his eight-year-old self. Over the last ten years, Steelheart has ruled as the master of Newcago, where he turned everything to steel and enlisted the help of another Epic to make it always night. Steelheart appears invulnerable, but David believes all the clues are locked away somewhere in his mind, and if he can find and join the Reckoners, a group of rebels who are the only ones defying the Epics, he will attempt to take out the greatest Epic of all.

Sanderson delves into themes of heroism and revenge without coming across as preachy. With just a dash of romance but a lot of heart, this story is more than teenage boy escapism. It's shallowly fun where it needs to be but deep enough not to feel cheap. It's a story that should have appeal for both genders and all ages.

Admittedly, I don't read a lot of books like Sanderson's. For all I know, there's a lot of other similarly good stuff out there. I've read pieces of The Wheel of Time but have been reluctant to dive into that due to the sheer volume of the thing and the world-building. I prefer quicker stories. But this young adult story ended up being just right in length and detail, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy when it comes out. There is also a short novella between the events of Steelheart and Firefight (expected publication in early 2015) called Mitosis, which I enjoyed.

Four out of five stars for Steelheart.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Maleficent in Theaters Now (but barely!)

I almost don't know what to say about Maleficent (starring a fabulous Angelina Jolie) except, "Go watch it." To reveal anything about the plot would be spoiling, and I'm impressed at how well the trailers hid the details of the story. If you enjoy fairy tales, especially retold fairy tales, don't miss this one.

Do you think I'm exaggerating? Is my praise too high? Perhaps. I don't think everyone will love this movie. If you like realism and cynicism (traits that define many movies today, particularly Oscar winners), the catharsis of tragedy, and Grimm-style fairy tales where not everything works out so well for the heroes, you might not appreciate this retelling. You might think it too neat, too perfect, too clean, too upbeat. Sure, it's not overly complicated. It's simply a beautiful fairy tale in a lush setting with fun, fantastical characters and the age-old conflict of good versus evil. It's traditional, but in its reimagined form, it's surprising--in the best sort of way.

You've probably seen the trailers, and if you are at all familiar with Disney fairy tales, you know the character of Maleficent well. She's the villain of Sleeping Beauty's tale. She curses the baby and later appears as a dragon before being vanquished. She's quite utterly evil, not an ounce of heart in her. That's the old tale. This one delves a bit more into Maleficent's backstory. What might possibly give rise to such evil in a person?

While certain people I know (ahem...you know who you are) are rather fascinated with Maleficent as a character, I was more uncertain about the movie. I saw the trailers and was interested enough. I'm into complicated characters, and the TV show Once Upon a Time has done a great job of creating some really interesting villains who aren't all bad to the core, characters who start out with some good in them and who one hopes by the end might be redeemed, not undone. That's one direction I thought this movie could go, and I was interested in seeing that, though unsure of what the outcome might be. As for where it actually went, I will not say.

Honestly, when I saw the trailers and then heard what the movie was rated (only PG), I was flabbergasted. Maleficent is a scary villain, and I couldn't believe anyone in this day and age wouldn't take advantage of that fact to create some really scary special effects. Having seen it, I'm still surprised at the rating, but at the same time, I understand it. With our rating system, what do you rate a movie that doesn't have sex or language and isn't even all that violent? There were certainly a few scary parts (though not like you'd expect), bits of thematic darkness and a couple CGI-enhanced battles. But compared to what it could have been, I suppose it was rather tame. I wouldn't take my four-year-old to it (though he'd probably love it more than I'd want him to), but a ten-year-old? Eight-year-old? I guess it depends on the kid.

I wish I could say more about the story (and about its themes) because there's so much there to talk about. But I want you to be as surprised as I was. I have to say one thing, and it's almost SPOILING to do so. You've been warned. Just this: it's not what you're expecting. Even in this review, I've tried to give nothing away but what you already know, perhaps even mislead you once or twice. But if you are wary about going to a movie starring a villain, there's less need for caution than you think. I loved it, and I don't understand the fascination with Maleficent. (Sorry, You Know Who!) I'm curious to know what the villain's fans think of this movie. They might have a different reaction than I do, but I'm betting that if they love the character of Maleficent (weirdos!), they love good old fairy tales and will love this one, whatever their expectations are.

I barely saw this in the theater but am glad that I did. There was an epic quality to it that the big screen enhanced. If you have a chance, see it in theaters before it's gone. Otherwise, be sure to look it up on DVD. It makes more sense than Snow White and the Huntsman, is as fun as Jack the Giant Slayer (Oooooh, I've turned you off, haven't I? People hated that one, for some reason!), and will likely go on my shelf next to Ever After.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Eye of Minds

I've been on a James Dashner kick, or at least I was when I read his Maze Runner books in quick succession. I was a tad disappointed with the end of that book series, so I didn't bother to read the prequel, which was about different people anyway. But I saw The Eye of Minds, also by Dashner, on the library shelf alongside those other books, and intrigued by the premise, I thought I'd give it a try.

The book was interesting enough. I think it just hit me at the wrong time. I went on a four-day camping trip shortly after starting it, and here's something about me that you might think odd...I don't usually read on vacations. The only vacation over which I remember doing some lovely reading was the one where I was pregnant with my first child. I left the sun and water be and stayed on my bed in my air-conditioned room and just read. Ah, it makes me happy just to think of it. I read two whole books that week! And though I could do that at home, it was quite the accomplishment to do it on a vacation. I know that sounds opposite, but that's how I work. So, you guessed it, I did not read on my camping trip, and after that, summer whirled in like a cyclone: birthdays, holidays, outings, the World Cup! (Having spent my formative years in Brazil, I root for them, even against the USA should it get to that.) I knew the summer would fly by, but now in the eye of the storm, I'm still blinking in confusion and wondering how I got here.

This week, I finally got to the halfway point of the book, and then it was smooth and quick reading from there. The first half of the book took me all month. The second half took a couple days. And like I said, I don't think it's all the book's fault. But I think I'm over James Dashner...for now (not that there's much else to read, though there is a fall movie I'm looking forward to). As always, his premise is intriguing, and once he gets the action rolling, his books are hard to put down. But I'm never quite happy with his endings.

In The Eye of Minds, Michael is a gamer and hacker who spends much of his time in an immersive virtual world with his two best friends whom he's never even met in real life. While his body is nourished and his senses are stimulated in the "Coffin," as he calls it, he is able to taste virtual food, feel the sword slash in battle, and even experience death without real repercussions (like, obviously, staying dead). But when players begin to die in the game and not return to their bodies, Michael's hacking skills earn him the dangerous job of tracking down whomever is tampering with and controlling the virtual reality.

Aside from summer's interruptions, this book's timing was interesting because I was simultaneously introduced to the anime Sword Art Online, the first season of which I am almost through watching (short review here: the first half is better so far than the second). The main similarity is the all-immersive aspect of the virtual realities in both. In Sword Art Online, however, the characters are stuck in their virtual reality, and the only way out is true death (even in the physical world) or beating the game. The Eye of Minds begins differently, in that regard, but as the book goes on, the similarities are even greater. I won't spoil it more than that.

Due to the nature of virtual reality, you'd expect a lot of gratuitous sex and violence in a book about it, but I'm happy to say that Dashner steers clear of the sex. At one point, there's a lot of violence, but it's not made light of. The main characters, at least, don't do it for the fun of it, and there's some commentary on why anyone does it at all (though I'm not sure the author ever gives us a clear answer). The real interesting moral questions come at the end of the book and lead into its sequel, which will be available later this year. Most anything more I would say would spoil the book, so sorry. Only this: it doesn't have to do with sex or violence, but it was one of the things that made me unsure about the book. It's interesting but unsettling.

I give the book three stars because, overall, I enjoyed the read. I might even read that sequel some day. But for now, I need something that isn't quite such a downer at its end, so I part ways with James Dashner.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

12 Years a Slave on DVD

My interest in the Oscar nominees has grown over the past few years. I believe I watched nearly all the Best Picture nominees from last year. This year, however, I wasn't so excited about the options. There were only a couple I was really interested in seeing, and even then, I'm taking my time to get around to them.

I just watched 12 Years a Slave, and I'm not sure I can say that I liked it. It was certainly well-done and deserving of its Best Picture award. My husband did some research and found it was mostly pretty accurate, horrifically enough. I wasn't necessarily surprised by what I saw, being familiar with some of the details of slavery, but it was pretty amazing (and not in a good way, as Brad Pitt's character says) that it all happened to one man. It's based on the true story of Solomon Northup, an educated, free black man who was kidnapped and enslaved in the mid-1800's. He wrote a memoir about his experiences, and the movie is based on that.

I can't say I like the movie because, well...it's brutal stuff, vividly depicted in a visual medium. It's rated R for obvious reasons, among which are violence, nudity (not sexual), and some sex scenes (they are not too graphic, but they are disturbing). Just because something is hard to watch doesn't mean you shouldn't, but each person must take into account what they can handle. In some ways, I'm glad I've seen this movie, but at the same time, I don't think it was necessary. I'm not changed because of it. It disturbed me but didn't impact me. I'm not sure I would really recommend it to anyone. I keep wondering what the purpose of this movie was. Is our culture still so racist that we need this reminder? Will anyone who is racist actually see this movie, and if they do, will it change them? Slavery is awful. What was done shouldn't have been done. But I wonder if we dwell on the past too much when the present has enough injustices of its own. The past is "safe." What's that saying: "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission"? It's easy to say "I'm sorry" for something that's over. It's harder to stand up for our beliefs and put them into practice right now.

I'm not saying it's the movie industry's job to speak out on modern-day issues (though I'm sure they could certainly figure out a way to do so to great effect, as can be seen with the way they've pushed gay rights). It's not the movie industry's job to fight injustice, but if that was not the purpose of this movie, what was? Surely not entertainment. Perhaps it was to acknowledge an astounding true tale. I can accept that. But if we as a culture are trying to fight injustice, we need to start in the present with the sex trade or abortion, for example. It seems to me that we applaud recognition of our past failures (if I recognize it, I must be better), but we, myself included, merely gasp in horror at the news feed and then silently move on.

In addition to the movie's murky agenda, I didn't think all the nudity was tactfully depicted. You can get the sense of nudity from a person's back. Even bum shots (we all look the same from the back) are better than full frontal nudity which, to warn you, this movie contains. I didn't see the point of it.

One thing, neither bad nor good, that I thought was interesting in the cinematography is that the scenes are long. They are much longer than in most movies, long to the point of being uncomfortable, which I think was the point (and which makes me think there was some moral agenda behind this movie). The beatings are horrifically long. At one point, the main character hangs from his neck, his feet barely touching the ground, for an extended time, not just in terms of hours the man actually hung there in the story but in terms of seconds on the screen. The creators of this movie took time to tell the story well and to make the viewer pay attention. It is only a little over 2 hours long (134 minutes). In terms of how much suffering you can handle, it might feel long, but it is not too long in the sense that it was dragged out.

The music, by Hans Zimmer, is also very dramatic at times, more in keeping with something from Inception (which he also did) than with a period piece, but similarly to the purpose of the longer scenes, I think the purpose was to arouse a sense of foreboding in the viewer.

The acting is superb. Chiwetel Ejiofor (whom I previously knew as the villain from Serenity) is Solomon. And of course, Lupita Nyong'o won Best Actress for her role as Patsey. Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt, among other known actors, make small appearances. And the despicable (and way insane) slaver villain is played by Michael Fassbender.

I obviously have mixed feelings about this movie. While I agree that it has all the makings of an Oscar winner and deserves what it got, I don't think it's for the masses. Honestly, I'm not sure whom it's for. Obviously, not someone like me. The critics out there might call me racist or too prudish, but I can only give my opinion, regardless of how people may misconstrue it. I may be the last one to see this, but if you were considering it still, hopefully my review can help you make a better-educated decision about whether or not to see it.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Maze Runner Trilogy, Books 2 and 3

I will try to be super vague about these books by James Dashner since they are sequels to a book you probably haven't read and might want to. This review is mostly my feelings about the sequels and won't contain details. If you want to know what the series is about, read my review of The Maze Runner.

The Scorch Trials (Maze Runner #2)

I had a hard time getting into this sequel. The end of The Maze Runner bothered me a bit, perhaps because the answers to the riddles of the maze were not quite what I was looking for. And those answers are kind of what the second book is about, so I just wasn't as interested. Also, the book seems to meander around a bit without focus. I guess the first book didn't feel like it was meandering because it was mysteriously building up to the reveal. In this installment, Thomas and his buddies are still looking for answers, but their environment is less controlled; perhaps that is then reflected in the writing. I did really get into the end of the book, though, and that happened in The Maze Runner, too, despite the unsatisfactory answers. Dashner is particularly strong when his characters have a mission and goal, when everything is action-oriented. Everything moves quickly then, and the books are hard to put down at the end.

The Death Cure (Maze Runner #3)

Though The Maze Runner is still my favorite book of the trilogy, I enjoyed this last book more than The Scorch Trials. By this point, I knew more or less what the author's big picture was, so I was able to enjoy the journey a little more. There weren't as many surprises, maybe, but the action, Dashner's strong point, was good. If I rated The Maze Runner four out of five stars and The Scorch Trials three stars, you'd think I would rate this book four also. Sure, there are minor flaws in all three of the books. For instance, sometimes when the reader might have a question about something happening in the book, the author appears to address it, but sometimes it feels like an afterthought, like (and I'm clearly paraphrasing), "Thomas wondered why so-and-so did such-and-such," but that's all we get. The reader wondered. The author acknowledged that we were wondering by also making Thomas think about it a bit, but no real answer was given. Like I said, that's a minor flaw that might take you out of the action for a second but that doesn't ultimately matter. A bigger issue I had with the books is that Dashner kills off a lot of his characters (in all the books, not just this one), and though Thomas is particularly sensitive to a few of the deaths, there's a certain "Oh, well" feel about the rest. I understand why Thomas feels the way he does (he's on a mission, and there will be sacrifices), but I wish there was more commentary on the whole thing. (SPOILERS to the end of the paragraph.) By the end of this third book, Thomas has had enough. He feels most of the deaths have been for nothing, so we do get some commentary but nothing that really feels satisfactory. In fact, the end of this book is a big reason it gets only three stars from me. It feels a little cheap, like the author couldn't fix the problems he set up. The idea is: "We can't save the world, so let's scrap it." I guess it's a consistent philosophy throughout the books (I can't save those kids who just died, so I'll push on.), but again, it's not satisfactory.

A Final Note on the Series: At this point, I do not plan to read the prequel to the trilogy, The Kill Zone, which is about different characters. But The Maze Runner is still an attention grabber, and I do plan to see the movie, out in September. The setting itself is fascinating, and that's probably what attracted me most to these books. Unfortunately, that setting is almost exclusive to the first book.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Wolves, by local author Tracy Kolberg

"Jill and Cody have always been country neighbors. Slowly, they become more than friends and grow to love each other. Jill easily becomes a part of Cody’s family and circle of friends, a group of people who can turn into wolves and who live by certain rules. But it’s a dangerous life being a wolf. Cody’s family has many enemies, and Jill is in danger just by being with them. Can their love survive? And though Jill is tough, is she tough enough to live the rest of her life with wolves?" -- Back cover copy of The Wolves, by Tracy Kolberg

I had the pleasure of helping Tracy, a friend and fellow Taekwondo black belt, to edit this, her first book, a romantic young adult novel. I'm very impressed with what she has been able to accomplish. Those who know Tracy know that she's funny and fun. She has a different perspective on the world, and that shows in her writing. She shapes her story in a very straightforward way, more similar to how early novels were written than to the way modern fiction often goes. And while she clearly enjoys stories like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, Tracy's ideas are her own. She has a very romantic and old-school view of love. A clever story within the story keeps resurfacing to help tie the romance all together. Tracy also enjoys danger and drama -- a wolf fight begins the book, and more fighting occurs frequently throughout -- but in the midst of that, her characters remain steady and good. Family plays an important role in the book, and the wolves are deeply respectful to their elders. In addition to that moral stability, the best parts of her story reflect Tracy's own humor. Her wolf characters are always playful (much like real wolves, which Tracy loves) and enjoy some fun back-and-forth banter, food fights, and good old bets.

Those who know Tracy will find her personality stamped all over this book and will be best able to appreciate her unique story. You can find The Wolves at Summer's Stories, which will be hosting a book signing for Tracy this Saturday, May 24, from noon to two o'clock. Come eat cake and get your copy!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Maze Runner

If you haven't yet been surprised by the preview for The Maze Runner movie, out this September, look it up! That might make you want to read this series, as it did for me. I'd heard of The Maze Runner book, by James Dashner, but for some reason, I'd never read it and didn't even really know what it was about. Actually, when I first started hearing hype about it, I thought I'd already read it. I mistook it for another book. Anyway, I missed it, but now I'm jumping on the bandwagon with everyone else, it seems.

So, is it worth the hype? I've been asked this question by others intrigued by the trailer, as I was. The short of it is, I sped through the book and am still interested in seeing the movie. It wasn't everything I was expecting, maybe, and I'm not yet sure how I feel about the revelations at the end of the book. But the journey is mysterious and suspenseful, the danger is life-or-death, and the characters are, for the most part, likeable and complex. I've already got my hands on the sequel in the four-book series (actually, a trilogy and a prequel, and I'm uncertain if that's it or if there are more books coming).

The Maze Runner is about a boy who remembers nothing from his life but his first name, Thomas, as he is slowly lifted in an elevator toward an unknown destination. He arrives, the ceiling of the elevator opens, and he is met by a bunch of boys who've been expecting him, the monthly newbie to their small, organized, self-led civilization. None of the boys know where they've come from, but they quickly find out what they are supposed to do. When Thomas steps into the light, he discovers that he is in a large field, of sorts, surrounded by high walls. The community of boys is mostly self-sustaining with supplies delivered weekly from the "Creators." But all is not harmonious. Even though the boys have strict rules and seem to live a relatively stable, productive life, they are prisoners in a maze, where maze runners daily search for a way out, dodging evil machine-like creatures who rule the night. Little do they all know, Thomas included, that his arrival will change everything.

Intrigued yet? I was. The set-up of the all-boys community and the hierarchy of leadership is well thought through. The creatures are revolting and terrifying. The mystery of what the maze is and what the boys are there for, especially since they don't remember anything, just begs you to read on. With such drama and mystery, there's bound to be some disappointment upon getting the answers. Remember the TV show Lost? I loved it, beginning to end, but a lot of fans hated where it ended up. Part of what made that, and makes this, so entertaining is not knowing what to expect. But don't get me wrong, I'm pretty excited about reading the next book, The Scorch Trials. This series hasn't let go of me yet, not by a long shot.

Go check out that movie trailer now. If you aren't interested yet, you aren't going to be, but if this review already piques your curiosity, I'm betting that will clinch the deal.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Water Walker

Water Walker, by Ted Dekker, is the sequel to Eyes Wide Open in the Outlaw Chronicles. Like Eyes Wide OpenWater Walker was released episodically in four parts before the paperback became available. Since I knew I was going to own the book anyway, I waited to read it. Technically, you can read the book by itself, but if you want to read everything that relates to it, you have to go all the way back to books like Showdown and Black. And you'll want to take a look at Outlaw, another "stand-alone" book that sort of kick-started the Outlaw Chronicles. As usual, everything in the Dekker-verse connects. Having read Dekker's other books, it's so interesting to see all the connections, to know Alice's history even though she doesn't. But it doesn't really affect this book at all because Alice narrates most of the book, and what she doesn't know doesn't matter to the story. One thing that differentiates the Outlaw Chronicles from the majority of Dekker's books is that they are targeted to the young adult audience, but aside from teenage protagonists, Dekker's style remains pretty much the same, which is to say highly readable, suspenseful, emotionally engaging, and thought-provoking.

In Water Walker, Alice begins as a thirteen-year-old who remembers only the past six months of her life when she is kidnapped by a man who says he knows her real mother. It might be spoiling to say any more, but I feel like I have to dangle another little tidbit out there. (You've been warned.) Alice soon finds herself immersed in a world of rules and religion, essentially what we might view as a cult, though Alice is too unfamiliar with the world as a whole to recognize it as such. And Alice soon becomes Eden. There's a lot more there, but it would be spoiling to say more.

All the Outlaw Chronicles books have a lot to do with identity. This one links identity with forgiveness, and the message is mind-shattering, though it's not the first time we've seen it in Dekker's books. Outlaw, particularly, goes into a lot of detail on this. One of the things said in Water Walker that especially strikes me and fills me with wonder is that true forgiveness believes there is no offense. Nothing wrong has been done; therefore, there is nothing to take offense at. It's both complicated and simple. It's so hard to grasp in practice, but the idea itself is so elegantly simple. Dekker explains it beautifully and clearly in a way I can't. For instance, one character says, "You will live in terrible suffering, all because you can't bring yourself to let go of your offense." It has a lot to do with water walking, with letting go and trusting in something beyond what our human minds can understand. And this message is so powerful because it is true.

Though part suspenseful thriller (less so than Dekker's hardcore thrillers), much of the journey is spiritual, obviously. The physical circumstances are impossible to overcome until the spiritual ones have been dealt with, and even then, the physical isn't resolved in a matter that one would expect. I love how originally Dekker's books illustrate that "God's ways are not our ways." I guess you could say that these young adult books are tamer than Dekker's usual thrillers in that he doesn't explore pure evil to the same extent (there's evil, yes, but the face of it is not quite as stark). On the other hand, I think these books go deeper thematically. You never forget that there's a purpose behind the story. So, does that lessen the impact of the storytelling, to be a step removed from the action? Is it less entertaining and immersive? It kind of depends on your viewpoint. I'll admit, some of Dekker's books have been more exciting to me, harder to put down. But I'm not sure I got as much out of those books as I do out of these. And really, either way, Dekker doesn't write a boring story. After reading so many of his mainstream, almost "secular" novels, I appreciate the turn his writing and ideas have taken now. For sure, he isn't in a rut, and he always has something new to offer.

I'm excited to read a book of his coming out in October, the story of Jesus from the perspective of a woman of that time. But before A.D. 30 takes us into the life of Jesus, the third book in the Outlaw Chronicles, Hacker, is available June 10.

My Top YA Series (Tie-in Post from Children of the Wells)

Some of you may not know that I am involved in a web fiction project at www.childrenofthewells.com. I prefer to keep this blog site separate from other personal projects since it's primarily for reviewing other people's works. But Children of the Wells is not just mine alone. We are a group of writers and editors interested in sharing our ideas in a single fantasy world we created. My job is mostly content editing, but so far, four other authors have contributed their own novellas along two main story lines that, when put together, make up a much bigger picture. You should check it out! Meanwhile, I wrote a blog post for that site that ties in perfectly with this one, so here it is, slightly tweaked and re-posted.

I am a reader, specifically a YA fiction lover. Why Young Adult? I like the stories. I don’t care much about being wrapped in the details of a world (high fantasy) or about putting clever words together (modern adult fiction). I realize I’m generalizing, and there are some really good examples of those that are completely enjoyable, too. But primarily, I’m looking for a good, fast-paced story. I don’t want to be able to put it down. The idea has to be fascinating: relevant but also different, familiar but new. It shouldn’t be dumbed-down, but it doesn’t need to be complicated either. Young adult trends capture all of that so well. The relevance is in the ideas and themes. The familiar is in the emotions of youth (we’ve all been there).

As for different and new, young adult books aren’t afraid to push boundaries and take you to places adult literature is too “mature” for. Young adult novels can be any genre, but there’s a simplicity and straightforwardness about them that sweeps you right into the heart of the story. Normal science fiction, for example, can get bogged down in science (that’s not to say there’s not some great stuff out there), but young adult science fiction remembers that the story is as much about the character as the science-y stuff. Perhaps that’s part of it, too: young adult fiction is always about the characters first and foremost. The setting is the icing on the cake.

Maybe that’s why I am a part of Children of the Wells. We aren’t hardcore here about details. That doesn’t mean we don’t try very hard to think through the repercussions of everything that happens in the world we’ve created to give the most realistic outcomes (not to mention, make sure all our authors are consistent in presenting the world), but we always make sure to focus on our characters.

I’m sure there are a lot of other great character stories out there, but I will share with you what I know best. This post is my suggested reading list, if you will. These are my favorite young adult series from the past several years, series I have paid money to read, even though I have access to enough free advance reader’s copies to not need to buy another book for years.

By Scott Westerfeld
This series is comprised of three main books and a fourth book that is a sequel of sorts to the series but features a different heroine. It takes place in a dystopian, futuristic world of enclosed societies, where the modern world we know is an ancient relic. In order to keep balance and control in the new world, teenagers are gifted with a full-body makeover on their sixteenth birthday. Tally wants nothing more than to be beautiful, but of course, beauty comes with a price. This series has both captivating characters and a wonderfully imaginative world that pulls you in with fun tech, original dialog, and thrilling high stakes.

Poison Study
By Maria V. Snyder
When I started this trilogy, I didn’t really know I was reading young adult fiction. I don’t know if it was classified as that back then before YA took off as a genre in its own right, but it has all of the characteristics. Snyder’s world toes the line between young adult and pure fantasy with a lot of attention given to detail, but the world is so lush and inventive and dangerous, and the characters are so compelling, that it’s a fast and exciting read all the way through. In a world full of magic, Yelena finds herself leaving one prison for another. A criminal for justifiable reasons, Yelena is given the option to die or to face the possibility of death every day testing foods for poison. The dramatic and romantic tension are superb. If you like the Poison Study books, Snyder has more from this world in her loosely connected Glass Study series.

The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins
Well, obviously this one. I loved it from the very first advance reader’s copy I got my hands on. It’s a dystopian world where rebellion is beginning to boil in the fringes and kids are offered up for gladiator sport. Katniss is a rebel who, though she is forced to play, will play the game her way.

by Veronica Roth
I was early to The Hunger Games frenzy, but I finally cracked open this three-book series just before the last book was published. This one genuinely surprised me. I wasn’t intrigued by the idea at first, but when it kept popping up on my radar, I caved and was hooked. Five factions based on five human traits live in relative harmony in a futuristic, dystopian Chicago, where Tris defies tradition and her selfless faction in a selfish move to join a faction where she must leap off moving trains daily to prove her bravery. Perhaps more than with any other heroine in this list, I identify with Tris. As a Christian, I feel that pull to be both more selfless and more brave. Tris, as a character, appeals to me on a fundamental level, but the crazy training she goes through and the rumblings of discontent in the factions make for a great external set-up as well.

Cinder (Lunar Chronicles)
by Marissa Meyer
The fourth book of the Lunar Chronicles is due out next February, and ever since I picked up an advance reader’s copy of that first book, I’ve pre-ordered the sequels and anticipated every February release. These stories are based on fairy tales, but a modern science fiction spin puts the characters into a world where Earth is in danger from the powerful Lunars. Cinder tells the story of Cinderella, as though she were a cyborg. Scarlet tells the story of Red Riding Hood, where she falls in love with a Lunar mutant. Cress tells the story of Rapunzel, a girl trapped in a satellite over Earth, spying and hacking for the Lunars but secretly longing for a human prince to snatch her away. Winter (any guesses?) is next.

Ted Dekker
I don’t even need to list a specific book here. Anything will do. I read just about every book of his that I can get my hands on. I almost can’t keep up. I request his novels for my birthday and for Christmas. I enter all the drawings for giveaways (no luck yet!). He is my favorite author and has been since I randomly picked up Blink in a bookstore about ten years ago. Now, he’s not a young adult author. He writes thrillers and fantasy, primarily, but I am more interested in his ideas, themes, and theology than his genre. (I don’t read anyone else’s thrillers.) But he does also have some young adult books, including the series I’m currently reading that begins with Eyes Wide Open and continues in Water Walker, which I just finished this week. I say that the series begins here, but actually, since all the worlds of nearly all Dekker books seem to connect in one way or another, you might say the series began in Showdown or perhaps even in Black. Dekker is a true believer who’s not afraid to tackle the deepest and darkest questions about human nature and God. He inspires me as no other fiction author does. This latest series deals with teenagers who have no memory of their first thirteen years (there’s a whole different series about those books) who are placed in seemingly impossible situations, like being kidnapped into a cult or mistakenly trapped in a mental institution, where they must discover who they really are deep inside.

So, that’s the cream of the crop for me. I could list other books that have made an impression on me, but these are the series I followed, or am following, to the end. Until the next installment, what’s on my short reading list? I saw the preview for The Maze Runner movie and wondered how I missed that one, so that’s first. (I enjoy this latest trend of book-to-movie adaptations.) Second, though it’s not young adult, I’ve heard there’s enough story in Unbroken to rival most fiction, so I’ve got that true narrative on my list. Must read both of these before the movies come out! Perhaps there’s also a re-reading of Catching Fire in the line-up (though two and a half shelves of advance reader’s copies tells me I don’t need to be reading any old stuff). The thing is, I haven’t read Catching Fire in years, and though I liked the movie and purposely didn’t read the book again so that I would see the movie through fresh eyes, I’m curious about how close to the book it actually is.

Yes, obviously, my reading list and viewing list are closely related at this point. They combine the two leisure activities I prefer. If you’ve mildly enjoyed what you’ve read here in this post, you might also enjoy what we are creating at Children of the Wells. There's time for you to read the first five novellas as we change from serialization to releasing full novellas all at once. We are currently working on our first non-serialized novel, but in the meantime, new short stories related to our world are coming soon!