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,'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 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!