Review of Dominant Race by Elisa Nuckle

Title: Dominant Race

Author: Elisa Nuckle

Genre: Fantasy/Scifi

Where I Got It: bought a Kindle copy

Score: 3 out of 5

Dominant Race is a novella by Elisa Nuckle, one of my blog and Twitter buddies and a fellow Houstonian.  It is the first in a series about a race of genetically modified humans who have been spliced with various animals.  Dominant Race focuses on Lilia, a wolf modified who leaves the safety of her family’s cabin hidden in the woods in order to help a modified militia that includes her love interest, Avari.  The modified militia faces enemies on two sides: the normal humans who fear and sometimes oppress the modified, and Sanders – a rogue modified who kills humans and modified alike in his crazed pursuit of war.

What I Liked:

The premise of this novella is intriguing and fun.  Genetic modification is a subject I find absolutely fascinating, and it can usually make for some cool stories and fun characters.  The dystopian setting was also interesting.  The way Elisa took American city names and deconstructed him (like Neyork, for instance), and also made mentions of “old” technologies and customs throughout the story was a nice touch.

The main character, Lilia, was likable and easy to relate to.  She’s feisty, stubborn, and intelligent.  I always like tough female characters, and Lilia fills the role nicely.  There is a point near the end where she behaves in a way that seems out of character to me, even given the extenuating circumstances of the scene, but for the most part she is a consistently-written and enjoyable character.  You’ll definitely be rooting for her.

What I Didn’t Like:

Okay, the basic idea of the plot works well for the most part, but I think it suffers from its length.  I really believe this story needed to be a full length novel rather than a novella.  There is too much going on too quickly, without enough exposition or description, and with too many character names floating around, attached to secondary characters that are sometimes fine and sometimes just don’t have enough description or importance attached to them for me to keep track of everyone.

I think the novella as a whole should definitely be decompressed, as it were, with a little more exposition and description here and there, a bit more space between events for the reader to sort through what’s happened and who’s been introduced and where its going next.  Still, the first two-thirds of the novella are manageable, and were certainly still interesting enough to keep me reading.  However, the last part of the novella, Chapter 14-18 to be exact, were very difficult for me to read.  I had to re-read a few sections several times to make sure I’d understood what had just happened.  And while SOME of that may simply have been my fault for reading too quickly or something, at least some of it could have been helped by slowing down the prose a bit.  Things sometimes jumped from one sentence to the next without enough concrete description.  And the appearance of at least two characters is so sudden and without any kind of foreshadowing that they felt a little too “dues ex machina” (or even non sequitur) for my taste.

As for the love sub-plot: it was… okay.  There was some effort to develop the relationship between Lilia and Avari in a natural way, rather than having them fall into instant lust.  But I don’t feel like I know enough about Avari and why Lilia would love him, for it to completely work for me.  He’s also out of the picture for a good chunk of the story, and their reunion is just a touch too easy to be entirely believable.  But, again, I think much of this is a problem of the length.

I know the “What I Don’t Like “ section is a quite a bit longer than the “What I Like” section is, but I really do think most of the problems with this story could have been solved by simply making it longer and more detailed.  With more time/space to develop the characters and relationships, to bring in more description and more transition from one plot element to the next, the interesting premise could have been a much stronger story.  However, I think the intriguing premise and the likable main character are able carry a lot of the weight of the problems.  Dominant Race is an admirable first effort, and the world-building is interesting enough that I will be back to read the next installment in the series.  I’m really looking forward to watching Elisa Nuckle grow.

Please check out Elisa Nuckles’ blog, and the page for Dominant Race, with all the options for buying.

New Release News: Dominant Race

Hello folks! I got back from my Yellowstone trip late on Tuesday night, but I haven’t had a chance to really sit down and get caught up with the blogging yet.  I spent July 4th with my family, of course.  And then I spent most of Thursday and Friday reading, replying to, and deleting more emails than I could shake a stick at.  I also got some writing in yesterday, which was nice.

I hope to have organized all my photos from my trip and have some highlights posted here within the next couple days.  Until that happens, however, I want to share some news of a blog-friend of mine.

Elisa Nuckle, whose blog I follow joyfully, has just released her novella, Dominant Race - a fantasy about genetically-modified humans, and one Modified named Lilia who is trying to save her race.  For more info, a look at the cover art, and links to all the places you can buy it, go here to Elisa Nuckle’s blog: Dominant Race.

On top of that, Natasha McNeely of the blog Natasha McNeely’s Guide to the Beyond has posted a lovely review of Dominant Race and is doing a book giveaway for commenters.  Please go here to check that out and leave a comment on her blog!

I hope to have a copy of Dominant Race soon, and I’ll definitely post a review as soon as I read it.

In the meantime, I need to finish reading the books I’m currently working on: This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin (which is awesome, by the way) and Grave Peril (Dresden Files #3).  Hopefully, you’ll be hearing from me about those two books soon.

See ya later, folks!

Wizards and Wolves: Review of Fool Moon, Dresden Files Book #2

Title: Fool Moon (Dresden Files Book #2)

Author: Jim Butcher

Genre: Urban Fantasy/Detective

Where I Got It: Borrowed from my mother

Score: 5 out of 5

So, my mother’s been reading The Dresden Files for a few years (though she’s a few books behind now).  Back in 2007, when the tv show came out on Scifi Channel, I watched it, though I hadn’t read the books, and I really liked it.  I know some fans of the books don’t much like the tv show, but I really enjoyed it.  I like Paul Blackthorne, the stories were fun, and I was sad when it wasn’t renewed for a second season.  Still, I knew I needed to read the books eventually, and last winter break I FINALLY got around to reading the first book (which I did not write a review for, sorry).  Though I can tell you this, I like almost everything about the book better than the show (especially Karrin Murphy – I have no idea why they changed her so much in the tv show), EXCEPT for Bob.  I miss Bob from the tv show. *sigh*

Anyway, I finished book 2 almost two weeks ago (I know, I know, it took me long enough to get around to the review), and I thought I’d share my thoughts on it, though it is far from a new book for most everyone else.

For those who aren’t familiar, The Dresden Files series is about Harry Dresden, a real-life wizard who lives in Chicago and works as a private investigator of a sort.  He will find missing people and things, take care of hauntings, etc… but no, he will NOT do love potions.  Of course, most people think he’s a crackpot, but Detective Karrin Murphy of Police Special Investigations believes him just enough to often ask for his help on cases that just don’t make conventional sense.  There is also the problem of the White Council, a ruling body of wizards with very strict rules about how wizards should behave – who don’t like Harry much.  There’s way more, of course, but I won’t go into now.

So, we come to book 2, Fool Moon, which finds Harry helping Karrin to investigate a series of extremely vicious murders that he suspects may be the work of werewolves, while also trying to keep ahead of the FBI, who have come to take over the case, don’t trust Karrin because of her past dealings with Harry, and don’t like Harry much at all.  Things get extra complicated in this book, as Karrin and the rest of the police begin to suspect Harry might be behind the murders, at least three different people want Harry dead, and he realizes that there are at least FOUR different kinds of werewolves involved.

What I Liked:

This book is so fast-paced its just ridiculous! I mean, my God, good luck catching your breath on this one! (I’ve just started reading book #3, Grave Peril, and that one looks to be the same way.)  I’ve mainly been reading YA so far this summer, this reading a more mature, darker, more fast-paced urban fantasy has been a joy.  I love how smart and dark this series is as a whole.  Butcher balances the fantasy elements and the detective story elements very well – because The Dresden Files ARE as much detective story as they are fantasy, and it’s obvious that Jim Butcher has a great love for both (and you all should know by now that I love both as well).

This books throws a lot of information at you very quickly, and runs through some pretty intense action scenes very quickly as well, and respects the readers enough to assume you’re going to keep up without having to slow down too much or over explain (though I do actually think there are one or two points where Butcher does over-explain, they are few and not too intrusive).

I did find in the first book of The Dresden Files, Storm Front, that it was obviously a first book.  Not to say that Storm Front isn’t a good book, because it is, but it was still obviously a freshman effort, so to speak.  I also had to take some time to get used to the first-person narration.  While first-person is common in some detective novels, it’s not so common anymore in fantasy, so that threw me off in the first book.  However, it is obvious that Butcher’s writing is improving steadily as he dives into Book 2, and I was more prepared for the first-person narration this time around.  I suspect each book will be just a bit better than the last.

Of course, I adore the main character, Harry Dresden.  While the plot lines are exciting and fun, and all the magic trappings are interesting and well thought-out, the real appeal, the only real reason people continue to read these books, is because of Harry Dresden.  He is a fantastic character: intelligent, gritty, sarcastic, chivalrous, very self-aware.  He’s self-deprecating, but he also has at least a basic idea of his own worth and skills.  He’s often scared, but brave enough to work past it.  He’s powerful, but not so powerful that everything comes to easily for him.  He’s endearing and sweet, and a hilarious bungler with women.  He’s honorable to a fault, despite himself.  And all the smart-ass remarks he either says or thinks, are just plain funny.

But,  of course, the plot – fast-paced, complicated, filled with dark motives and crazy-strong magic – was awesome too, but it’s hard to talk about without giving too much away, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

What I Didn’t Like:

Actually, I can’t think of much.  Again, there are a couple points when I think the narration falls into over-explanation, but that only happens a couple times.  And I do think the “wrap-up” chapter at the end is a bit too fast and cut-and-dry and sort of like reading the summarized conclusions of a science paper (okay, that’s a bit mean, but you get my drift).  But other than that, this book was pretty damn fantastic.

I have no doubt that many of you are already on board the Dresden Files bandwagon – I was a bit late to this particular party.  But still, if you haven’t read any of these books yet, I definitely recommend them. They are an absolute BLAST.  Here’s the Goodreads page; and here’s the Amazon page. Have at it!

As I mentioned, I have started reading Book #3 now, but I’m reading 3 books at once right now, and I’m also going on a trip at the end of the week, so it might be awhile before I finish it.  I’ll post a review of it whenever I do, though, I promise.

You can expect a review of Disney’s Brave tomorrow or Wednesday.  Til then, Bye!

These Aren’t Your Disney Mermaids: Review of Lost Voices by Sarah Porter

Title: Lost Voices (Lost Voices Trilogy Book #1)

Author: Sarah Porter

Genre: YA fantasy

Where I Got It: Bought It

Score: 4 out of 5

This summer of big reading lists has gotten off to a good start. I ended the last couple days of finals week re-reading Chalice by Robin McKinley because I needed something short, light, and sweet to get me through grading.  Then I dove into The Hunger Games trilogy at the behest of my friend (which I reviewed here).  And now I’m beginning the long haul through all the books I’ve bought or received since the semester started.  Purely on a whim, I started with Lost Voices by Sarah Porter, which came out in July 2011 (but I didn’t buy it until it came out in paperback about a couple months ago), and which is the first in a forthcoming trilogy.

In Lost Voices, fourteen-year-old Luce is abused by her uncle and ignored by her classmates and other adults in the little town in Alaska she has been stuck in since her father (who was a thief, but still a good father), died in a shipwreck.  Finally, her heart grown cold by her uncle’s treatment, beaten and left for dead on a cliff over the sea, Luce falls into the water and transforms into a mermaid.  There she is gathered in by a tribe of mermaids, all young girls who were abused, abandoned, or unloved by the adults who were supposed to care for them, including their queen Catarina – the most beautiful and best singer of the tribe.  Luce loves being a mermaid, loves the beauty and the freedom and the joy of it, but she is tortured by the fact that mermaids feel a compulsion to sing to ships, causing them to wreck and then killing all those on board.  She loves her new-found voice, but she doesn’t want to use it to murder humans, no matter how badly they may have treated her and others like her.  As she struggles with this, things grow increasingly more tense and violent among the tribe, loyalties are questioned, and Luce must make choices about what she will follow: the rules of the tribe, or her own conscience.

What I Liked:

This was a very enjoyable book, and a fast read.  The premise is classic: a cross between the mermaid myth and the siren myth, in which beautiful unearthly mermaid-girls sing to men on passing ships and lead them to their deaths.  These mermaids are not the innocent, peaceful creatures from The Little Mermaid.  They are beautiful and unearthly, but they are also angry, bitter, and often violent.  The moral dilemma of the story is pretty gruesome, though Porter does not dwell in descriptions of gore or death (this is a YA novel after all), and the fact that even the main character participates in several of these murders makes the morality even more complicated and uncomfortable.

But Porter balances these elements fairly well in the character of Luce who realizes what she is doing is wrong but feels a physical compulsion to participate, and is desperate for some way to fight it.  And I like Luce as a character.  She’s sweet and intelligent, and she is at heart still a good person despite the things she does.  She’s also very naïve, and is pretty slow on the uptake when things start to go seriously south and others are plotting against her.  It was frustrating, because the reader sees it all coming and she never does, but it was also a believable trait in a girl who is barely fourteen, and did not have the best socialization before she became a mermaid, let alone after.

The most important secondary character, the mermaid queen Catarina, is also a very intriguing character.  Not likable, exactly, because she’s jealous of power, paranoid and suspicious, and a little unstable.  But she is also beautiful, powerful, protective, and passionate.  Catarina is a hard to pin down, and hard to like, but she was interesting to read, and her unpredictability kept both the other characters and the readers on their toes.

Almost all of the other mermaids, on the other hand, were just irritating.  Bitter and angry, for understandable reasons one-dimensional degrees; or whiny, selfish, and brainless.  Take your pick.  Except for one, who was also conniving and a text-book psychopath (but I won’t tell you about that one, you’ll see her coming if you read the book).

Parts of the novel where also beautifully written.  For instance, this bit right after Luce has changed into a mermaid and doesn’t yet understand what is happening:

“Up above, the moon was golden and wide-eyed, and it watched Luce tenderly.  Its light gleamed like floating coins all over the tops of the waves, and a slab of shining ice bobbed past.  A misty glow covered the smooth side of the cliffs just behind her, and then Luce realized that all those dreaming people were on a ship, and that the ship was coming toward her, and toward the cliffs, as fast as a train driving out of a tunnel.  Still the music throbbed on, coating the night with its bliss, while the ship’s sharp metal prow sped straight at her forehead.”

However, the writing is also uneven and inconsistent.  Parts of it are very lyrical and beautiful, and other parts are a little awkward and clunky.  This is a clear sign that this is Porter’s first novel (which it is).  But it’s not the end of the world, and doesn’t completely ruin the novel or anything like that.

What I Didn’t Like:

Okay, so the clunky prose isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but it’s not too big a problem.  The insert of dream sequences, on the other hand, bug me a bit.  They are, like all dream sequences (even the ones I occasionally find myself writing) unavoidably overdone, and in this case, don’t really do anything for the plot.  Yes, they are meant to show Luce’s state of mind, but her state of mind seems pretty well explained without the dream sequences.  Once in a blue moon, a dream sequence is either so well-written or so informative that it cannot nor needs to be avoided.  But in most cases, including in my own writing, they should usually be left on the cutting room floor at some point in the editing.

Again, most of the other mermaid characters were WAY one-dimensional, and REALLY irritating.  I imagine at least a couple of them should be fleshed out some more in the book #2, but only time will tell.

Also, the ending SUCKED.  Okay, this is the first of a trilogy.  I get that.  Really, I do.  And some kind of cliff-hanger is often unavoidable in a series.  But this ending was just plain ridiculous.  It just sort of STOPPED.  In the middle of nothing.  With no real point, no direction, and no hint at what might be coming next.  Drove me nuts!  It really did a lot to ruin the experience for me.  I still like the book, and I do recommend it.  It was fun.  But the ending really bothered me.

In conclusion: Yes, I recommend the book.  Especially if you like mermaids and don’t mind a darker twist in the premise.  And yes, I will be buying the sequel when it comes out.  I just want to make sure you’re all aware that this book is not perfect.  It has some flaws.  You’ll still enjoy it, though, I promise.

(For the curious, the next book on my agenda: Fool Moon, book 2 of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher)

Fire is, in fact, catching: A Review of The Hunger Games Trilogy

Title: The Hunger Games Trilogy

Author: Suzanne Collins

Genre: YA Dystopian

Where I Got It: Gift

Score: 5 out of 5

So, one of my best friends bought me The Hunger Games series boxset for Christmas, and because I didn’t have enough time to read it during the semester, I promised him that I would read it first thing when the summer started.  And I did.  I started the first book a couple weeks ago.  And I just finished Mockingjay (the 3rd book) last night, by which point I was seriously depressed, because the ending: Seriously depressing.

I thought, instead of doing separate reviews for each novel, I would do one review for the whole trilogy.  Partially because I think these books work best when you keep in mind the build up of the whole series, and partially because I simply don’t have the energy to write three separate reviews.  I will try my best not to give too much away, however: a) its hard to talk about a whole trilogy without at least spoiling parts of the first couple books, b) even if you haven’t read the book, you probably saw the movie, and c) I realize I’m seriously behind the curve and practically everyone else has read the books already, so it probably doesn’t matter much anyway.  In other words, yes, there will probably be spoilers.

Briefly: The Hunger Games is a YA dystopian about a girl named Katniss Everdeen, who in the first book volunteers for the Hunger Games (a brutal, televised bloodbath in which children are sacrificed for the entertainment of the Capital) in order to save her sister, and accidentally becomes a symbol of resistance to the government.  In the second book, Catching Fire, having survived the Hunger Games, Katniss is paraded around in attempt to calm the masses, and then is thrown into the Quarter Quell, which is essentially an uber-Hunger Games in which former winners are pitted against each other.  Finally, in the third book, Mockingjay, Katniss takes up an active role as the face of the resistance, as things get crazy and complicated.  In the midst of all the fighting, blood-letting, and political intrigue, there is a growing-up story (as Katniss tries to figure out who she is, what she wants, and what she believes in), and a love triangle.

Now, before I say anything, I would like to make it clear that I definitely enjoyed these books.  They were fun, (mostly) quick-paced reads.  That being said, I am a little baffled by some of the people I’ve heard talk about these books, or some of the comments I’ve read in various places online.  A lot of people rave about these books like they are the best thing ever, as if they are brilliant writing on par with some classic piece of literature like… I don’t know, Farewell to Arms or something.

Maybe I’m simply more critical than most people (I’m a PhD, so I can get away with that), but I’m sorry, these novels are NOT brilliant prose.  The prose itself is decent.  It’s clean, it’s simple, it keeps the focus on the story and does not get in its own way too often.  That’s the most that can be said for it.  But that’s OKAY.  Because I’m not reading a YA novel because I expect or even want beautiful, poetic, brilliant prose.  If I want that I’ll go read Rikki Ducornet or Margaret Atwood or something.  What I want from a YA novel is a fun, entertaining story, a quick plot, and likable (or at least relatable characters), and THAT The Hunger Games gave me, absolutely. Let’s just not pretend it’s the next great American classic or something like that, okay?

So, What I Liked: 

The story.  Now, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about how The Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale.  And I’m not denying the similarities in theme and basic premise.  But the people who are angry and ranting about it (I could name names, but I won’t…) need to get over it and themselves.  The premises are similar, especially in the first book, but the basic premise also has similarities to Lord of the Flies, Ryan Gattis’ Kung Fu High School, a variety of Star Trek episodes, and of course reality television and ancient Roman gladiators (which Suzanne Collins cite as main influences).  Battle Royale can just as easily be seen to be a rip-off of Lord of the Flies and, as Stephen King once pointed out the similarity: the Survivors reality tv show.  The POINT is that all of them begin with a very common premise/theme that is a deep part of human culture, and go off into many different directions, with different end goals and messages in mind.

So yes, I liked the story.  I thought Collins took a common, oft-explored trope and made something interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining out of it.  The amount of thought that went into the world-building and the logic behind the government workings was impressive.  I think it was highly important that Collins made the resistance’s own possible corruption a part of the plot as well.  The love triangle sub-plot is not strictly necessary but is a common and accepted element of many (perhaps even MOST) YA novels that I just have to learn to deal with it.

And, of course, I loved the characters.  My friend who gave me the books prefaced the gift by telling me I would love the main character, Katniss Everdeen.  And I definitely like her.  She’s a complicated, strong-willed character who grows a lot throughout the series.  However, she’s not my favorite character.  Peeta, one of her two love interests, is by FAR my favorite character. BY FAR.

Now, let me make something clear: I like flawed characters.  I saw some complaint a while ago about how people don’t seem to like flawed female characters.  For me at least, that’s not true.  I like flawed female characters.  And Katniss is definitely flawed.  So flawed that it really started to frustrate me after awhile.  But not in a way that means I don’t like her as a character – her flaws are what drive the story, her flaws are necessary and fitting for both the story and character.  Her flaws did, however, often make me very frustrated with her as a PERSON.  There were many times I just wanted to SMACK HER.  HARD.

Peeta, on the other hand, though still flawed, was the real moral compass of the series.  The kindest, wisest, and most moral person in the whole series.  And I adored him for it.  Even though it got him screwed over several times over.

(A couple of my other favorite characters: Finnick and Johanna.)

Which brings me to, What I Didn’t Like: 

Starting with Gale, the other love interest in the triangle.  H really rubbed me the wrong way.  While he certainly had many good qualities, and Collins meant him to be likable (and he probably is to many others), I found him pushy and morally questionable.  He makes some very dubious moral choices.  And while Collins tries very hard to still make him sympathetic, to couch all these choices in the necessities of war and the understandable rage of recent loss, it was not enough for me.  I really REALLY disapproved of the character, and I don’t think Katniss (or Collins) does enough to demonstrate that Gale’s choices were WRONG and SHOULD be disapproved of.

In fact, Katniss’s inability to articulate the wrongness of many of the choices in the novels bothered me as well.  She often had a vague FEELING of their wrongness, but she could almost never actually say WHY they were wrong, or really confront anyone about them.  I get that its just one of those flaws in her character.  And I get that some people in real life often have trouble with things like that. But I feel that by the third book, after she’s been through SO MUCH, she would have be able to more clearly SEE what was wrong with some of things that are going on (and I’m trying very hard to be vague so as not to give too much away).  In her defense, she does rectify this in the end, but it still really bugged me.

(Also, Katniss’s mother really pissed me off. Like REALLY.  REALLY REALLY.)

Most of the other things I don’t like have to do with the writing itself.  For instance, at a number of places in all three books, Katniss is rendered unconscious or whatever and then when she awakens, both she and we as readers are gifted with an enormous info-dump, often with things that feel rather too deus ex machina for my liking.  This felt like lazy writing to me.  I feel that more of the info could and should have been incorporated into the action of the story, rather than as some kind of report giving to Katniss because she missed it all while she was sleeping.  On that same note, some times the descriptions of things often felt rather clunky to me, and I found myself skimming over whole sections of setting description without any problems or confusion later on.

AND all three books have excruciatingly slow beginnings.  Most “experts” will tell you that beginnings are IMPORTANT.  If you don’t hook someone quickly enough you could easily lose them completely.  Honestly, if I had just picked up The Hunger Games (the first book) in a store to skim through the first couple pages – without it’s having a reputation in the media or among readers, and without the recommendation from my friend – I probably would not have kept reading.  Obviously, I would have been missing out, because I did really enjoy the series after I got through the first few chapters of each book, but STILL.  When all three books have painfully slow openings, that’s a bit of a problem.

And then there’s the ending. Well, it’s not that I don’t like it exactly.  I mean, from an emotional standpoint, I DON’T like it; but from a narrative standpoint I think it’s appropriate.  I knew going in that with the subject matter and tone that there could not be a “happy” ending.  At least, not if Collins knew what she was doing.  A nice, everything-is-tied-in-bow, happily-ever-after ending would have been inappropriate, inauthentic, and an insult to the tone of the series as a whole.  STILL, the ending was DEPRESSING.  Good grief, was it depressing.  There was a war, of course there were going to be casualties, but some of the deaths surprised me, and some pissed me off, and some just did not seem necessary for the story.  I really do think the last really horrible death (if you’ve read it, you know which one I mean) was really only put there to resolve the love triangle, and I think that’s cheap.  In fact, now that I think about it more, I really DON’T like that part of the ending.  The rest of it, while depressing, was appropriate.  But that last important-character death felt like cheap writing to me, like it was the only way Collins could figure out to resolve who the hell Katniss would end up with – rather than letting it come out of the character development, she had to use a cheap plot device.

*deep breaths* Okay, I’m all right now.

In any case, while I definitely think there are some flaws in the writing, overall, I really enjoyed the series.  It was a blast to read, I was able to relate to many of the characters, and the story had a lot of interesting things to say about how and why governments function, the ability to humans to turn anything into entertainment, and become inured to violence, pain, depravity, etc.  It also says a lot about courage and duty and doing the right thing for the right reasons.

All in all, I highly recommend The Hunger Games – except, of course, that I’m probably the last person to actually get around to reading them so there’s no need for me to recommend them anyway. :D

(Also, I apologize for the egregiously excessive use of capitalization in this post.)

Arrietty’s Secret is She’s Boring

So, I finally got around to seeing The Secret World of Arrietty, and as you may be able to guess from the title of this post, I was not less than impressed.

For those who aren’t in the know, The Secret World of Arrietty is a Japanese animated film, produced by Studio Ghibli, based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton, with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki (of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle fame), directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and distributed in the U.S. by Disney (as most of the Studio Ghibli films have been).

Now, I’ve never read the original book, which may or may not be a good thing in trying to evaluate this movie, so everything I say is based purely on the movie and Miyazaki’s adaptation, rather than the novel itself.  I’m going to skip an involved summary because I think most people know the basic story, but generally: it’s about Arrietty and her family, the tiny Borrowers who live in the floorboards of a house and “borrow” things they need to survive.

As always with Miyazaki, the animation was gorgeous.  Simply GORGEOUS.  He and his production crew have an amazing eye for color and detail and depth – every scene is lush and vivid and inviting, full of life and color and a strong feeling of nostalgia.  That has not changed with this movie.  I think I will always be impressed and awed by the art direction in all of Studio Ghibli’s movies, and nothing can change that.  For example, check these out:

The problem starts, for me, with the voice acting.  I have grown quite sick of Disney’s management of the Studio Ghibli films they bring to the U.S.  Their casting choices are often horrendous.  I hated most of the voice-acting in Ponyo, and I hated ALL of the voice-acting in Arrietty.  It was astoundingly bad.  Not only did they cast a couple annoying, talentless, Disney Channel “actors” (Bridgit Mendler and David Henrie) but even Carol Burnett (whom I usually adore) did an atrocious job.  And Will Arnett, who played Arrietty’s father, was so flat and lifeless I thought for sure they had actually hired a zombie version of him.

To make matters worse: the SINGING!  Normally, Joe Hisaishi composes the scores for Miyazaki’s films, but this time they hired a French songwriter/singer named Cecile Corbel.  I’ll say this, she is a good composer.  I liked the score, and the songs with lyrics had nice melodies.  Sadly, I don’t understand WHY she’s a popular singer, because her voice was so tinny, infantile, and cloying I wanted to throw up every time she started singing.  And she did at least three times through the course of the movie.  In comparison, Bridgit Mendler’s song during the credits was almost bearable.  ALMOST.

What’s really sad though, is that even if Disney had cast better voice-actors, and even if Cecile Corbel had found someone else to do the singing for her, it would not have been enough to save this movie.  The plot was, sadly, really REALLY BORING.  It was slow and dragging.  By the end of the first half-hour I was tempted to turn it off.  It lacked all the depth, liveliness, and touches of humor that Miyazaki’s films normally have.  And after  Ponyo (which was cute, but fairly forgettable) and THIS, I’m really beginning to worry that Miyazaki has lost his touch completely.

And if that’s true, it’s a sad sad day in cinema.

The Avengers KICKED ASS, and other films worth considering

Hi folks! I’m being a bad bad student… I should be working on a paper that’s due next monday, but instead I’m here.  But I just had to share a few things.  So give me a few minutes and then I’ll be out of your hair and back to work.

Thanks to my brother, who is a film production student and can get a hold of these things, I was able to go to an advanced screening of The Avengers last night.  The advanced ticket passes did not guarantee entrance, so we had to stand in line for 2 1/2 hrs, and the event was BADLY organized by the AMC people and the Disney reps.  So much so, that I was really REALLY beginning to regret going to thing as I finally sat down in the 2nd row of the theatre.  Half-way through the movie: I wasn’t regretting it anymore.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I want to take a few minutes to sing this movie’s praises.

First of all, The Avengers was visually STUNNING.  I saw it in 3D, which I’m not usually a big fan of, but this 3D was done very well.  They didn’t overdo it, and a few times I was actually impressed by the depth it added to the image.  The special effects were AMAZING.  And the fight scenes were AWESOME.  So well choreographed, so well done by the actors, stunt-men, and FX people, and for the most part very cleanly filmed.  You know how sometimes in movies the fight scenes get very blurry so you can’t quite tell what’s going on?  This is a problem in a lot of Christopher Nolan’s films, for instance, because of the way he shoots things: too close to the action, too many close-ups on faces and various body-parts, lots of zooming around with the camera, so you can’t tell who’s doing what.  This movie did that one or twice (every action movie does), but for the most part it was very easy to keep track of what was going on.

Second, the moment I first heard Joss Whedon would be directing and writing the screenplay, I was pretty much sold.  I knew he would do a good job, and I was SO right.  Whedon put his signature on this film.  Lots of little references (Galaga, for one), and, of course, really really snappy funny dialogue.  The dialogue was HILARIOUS.  And, thanks to good acting and good direction, the dialogue worked really well in the movie.

And that’s the third big thing: the actors were fantastic.  Of course, I already loved Robert Downey Jr, and Chris Evans had done a good job in Captain America so I was okay with him, but I was pretty skeptical about Mark Ruffalo – especially because Edward Norton had done such a wonderful job as The Hulk, and I was pissed that Marvel had kicked him off the project merely because they didn’t want to give him the credit he deserved.  But Mark Ruffalo did a good job, and made the character his own.  And everyone else was marvelous (hehe) as well.

The plot was fun and quick paced.  The ending was satisfying.  There was so drama, but lots and LOTS of laughter in the audience last night.  The dialogue seriously had the whole theatre in stitches.  People, you seriously need to see this movie.  It was absolutely FANTASTIC.

Okay, time to switch gears for a moment.  I’m still talking about films here, but these are two Kickstarter projects I would to give shout outs to.

For those who don’t know what Kickstarter is: it’s a crowdsource funding site.  People pots projects on Kickstarter in order to ask for pledges/donations, and offer various awards for different price levels.  You can donate as little as a dollar, but of course the more you donate the cooler the awards.  The thing is, Kickstarter puts a 30 day limit on all fundraising events, the project must indicate a minimum price goal, and if that goal is not met by the end of the 30 days, they don’t get ANY of the money pledged so far.

Both of the projects I’m talking about today are ending on May 6th.  They only have a couple days left, and they are SO close to meeting their goals, but are having trouble making that final push.  I have donated to both, and I REALLY want to see how they turn out, so here’s me hoping some of you will consider checking them out and donating something.

#1: Dust, a scifi/fantasy film by indie company Ember Labs.  Check out their fundraising video:

Check out their Kickstarter page for more info, and to donate.

#2: Even Though The Whole World is Burning, a documentary about American poet W.S. Merwin (who has won the Pulitzer twice, and is also a political and ecological activist).

I couldn’t get the embedded video to work for this one, so please check out their Kickstarter page to watch their fundraising video and get more info.

I hope you all will consider donating a few dollars.  I think these are both very worthy projects.  If you aren’t impressed after you see the videos, well… I worry for you. ^_^

Okay, folks, that’s everything.  Time for me to get back to the scramble through final papers.  See ya later! Thanks! 

Nightmares and Beasts for Children

The 2012 “Books That Made Me Love Reading” Challenge: February Edition

Hello all! It’s been a while since the last time I posted anything on the blog. I’m sorry I’ve been so absent, but I’m seriously drowning in work right now. BUT, I decided to give myself a bit of a break today. I’ve caught up on a tv show a started watching a few weeks ago, called Lost Girl (totally fun show, by the way), and I made myself an enormous sub sandwich for lunch, and now I’m taking the time to write a couple blog posts.

For today, I have two more books for the “Books That Made Me Love Reading” Challenge.  Like last time, they are picture books (they’re short and quick to read in what little spare time I have, and I just love them).

Fore info on the Challenge, see Emlyn Chand’s post: “The Books That Made Me Love Reading Challenge.”

For January’s edition, see “How Alexander and Garfield’s Terrible Days Made Me a Writer.”

First, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer:

Let’s be honest: EVERYTHING Mercer Mayer does is completely awesome. I love every picture book he has ever done.  But I think this one might be my favorite.  My mother read it to me so many times when I was growing up, I could probably STILL recite most of it.  This book, about a boy who decides to confront the scary monster in his closet only to discover it’s as scared as he is, is so easy for children to relate to, and so adorably illustrated, how could you HELP but love it?

The funny thing is, I don’t remember EVER being afraid of monsters in my closet or under my bed.  Maybe it’s because my mother read it to me at a young enough age that I learned that monsters were scared of me before I was even old enough to be scared of them first?  I have no idea.  I was, admittedly, always scared of the possibility of things being right outside my window (and still am, quite frankly), the whole monster-under-the-bed (or in the closet or basement) thing never really occurred to me.  *shrug*

I just sat down to read this book again (I bought a copy at Barnes & Noble recently expressly for this purpose, as my mother’s original copy was destroyed in a flood, like many of our books, a few years ago), and it’s as wonderful as I remember it.  I like to think that this book has helped many children learn to not be afraid at night over the years.  It’s hard to tell how much a book really helps with things like that.  Maybe it’s more about how the parents deal with such situations.  But it’s still nice to think books like this help.  In any case, this book still makes me smile.

With pictures like this, is it any wonder?

For the curious, Mercer Mayer also wrote There’s An Alligator Under My Bed, and There’s Something in the Attic, which are along the same vein, and both equally adorable.

Second, Beauty and the Beast, retold and illustrated by Jan Brett:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love fairy tales.  I’ve read many, many versions of Beauty and the Beast (and seen many film and tv versions as well), but Jan Brett’s rendition is still one of my favorites.  Brett was mainly inspired by the version of the tale as told by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, which was published in 1910.  The story itself doesn’t change too much from the version most people are familiar with (merchant cuts a rose from the beast’s garden and Beauty goes back in his place, etc etc etc).  What really makes this version so special are the illustrations.

For me, a picture book is ALL about the illustrations (it’s a PICTURE book for cryin’ out loud!).  Obviously, the story should be good or cute or easy for kids to relate to, but I will not by a picture book that doesn’t have outstanding art.  And this one (like everything Jan Brett does) has it.

Don’t believe me? Here:

Picture books like this, with detailed, luscious, colorful, elegant, BEAUTIFUL art, opens my mind up to joy and wonder and possibility just as much as a story does.  A good picture book reminds me of the wonders and beauties of the world, of people, of imagination.  This picture book (as well as many others) is the reason I really wish my artistic skills were more up-to-par.  I really want to write and illustrate a picture book someday.  My drawing skills are… okay… but not great, and finding the time to improve (on top of the million-and-one other things I do) has proven difficult.  I’ll probably have to cave in and collaborate with an artist if I ever want to get that picture book idea off the ground.

But I guess we’ll see.

So, there a couple more of my favorite children’s picture books.  There’s plenty more where that came from, but I think these are the last ones I’ll do for the “Books That Made Me Love Reading” Challenge.  Maybe I’ll get around to sharing more from my picture book collection one of these days.  In the mean time, which picture books do you still love?

New Books Added to My TBR Pile

New Books Added to My TBR Pile

I got some new books in the mail today, that I ordered for Amazon.  Having a box of new books waiting for you on your doorstep at the end of a long day is one of these things that really lifts my spirits and makes me happy.  I never get tired of it.  And after a very long, brain-draining sort of day/week (and another such day awaiting me tomorrow), and after sitting in a traffic jam for 2 hrs, and not getting home until almost 8pm, and still needing to eat dinner, take a shower, etc etc etc…, it was REALLY nice to have these books waiting for me.  Here’s what I got:

I bought the Best New Poets 2011: 50 Poems from Emerging Writers because one of my friends and fellow graduate students is featured in it.  If you’re curious, her name is Janine Joseph, her poem featured in the anthology is called “Wreck,” and she is completely awesome.  I plan to get her to sign the book.  I fully expect her to be a huge famous poet some day (or at least as famous as poets get nowadays — speaking of, it’s so strange that poets were once practically the “rock stars” of American culture, and now only other poets and English majors know who they are).

I bought a YA historical fiction called My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson, which I bought pretty much on a whim.  It’s about the treatment of Eskimo and Native American tribes and the children sent to “white” Catholic boarding schools to essentially be brainwashed.  This novel takes place mainly in the 1960s, but this kind of thing had been going on since at least the 1800s, and continued until late into the 1960s or early 1970s.  It sounds like a really fascinating book, on a subject area I don’t know a LOT about, but am very interested in.

Next: I FINALLY got around to ordering a book I’ve been meaning to buy for about a year now.  It’s called Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins, it’s by Emma Donoghue (now known as the author of Room), and it’s collection of re-imaginings of fairy tales (which, as I’ve mentioned a few times by now, I absolutely LOVE).  I cannot wait to sink my teeth into this book (possible literally… ^_^).

And last, I bought The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.  I cannot tell you how many amazing reviews I’ve read of this book!  I cannot tell you how amazing this book sounds to me!  I also cannot tell you how hard it was to get a hold of.  I got a couple Barnes & Noble gift cards for Christmas, and planned to buy this book with one of those gift cards.  But I went to TWO Barnes & Noble bookstores, and neither had this book.  So I finally just caved and ordered it on Amazon instead (yet another example of why brick and mortar bookstores are going to continue to suffer despite my own willingness to continue supporting them).  I absolutely cannot WAIT to read this book (though I will probably HAVE to wait, at least a month of two).

Emily Casey’s The Fairy Tale Trap Blog Tour

Emily Casey’s The Fairy Tale Trap Blog Tour!

Hello, folks, Emily Casey invited me to be one of the hosts for her blog tour, promoting her YA fantasy novel The Fairy Tale Trap, and I agreed to do a review for the occasion.  So, without further ado:

Title: The Fairy Tale Trap (Ivy Thorn #1)

Author: Emily Casey

Release Date: December 2011

Genre: YA Fantasy

Where I Got It: received ebook copy from author in exchange for honest review

Score: 4 out 5

(also, don’t you just LOVE the cover?)

I’ve said this before (and I’ve even mentioned it on my page about my book reviews), but I’ll say it again: I LOVE stories that re-imagine fairy tales.  I loved it when Robin McKinley did it in Beauty, Rose Daughter, and Deerskin.  I loved it when Anne Sexton did it in her poetry collection Transformations.  I love it in the tv show Once Upon a  Time.  I loved it in Kait Nolan’s YA fantasy novel, Red.  So when Emily Casey approached me with a synopsis of her book, asking for hosts for her blog tour and for reviews, I jumped on the chance.

The Fairy Tale Trap, book 1 in the Ivy Thorn series, introduces us to the main character, Ivy, a “military brat” who has just moved again with her mother, while waiting for her father to return from overseas.  Ivy has a strange phobia: she is scared of mirrors, she has even been taken to doctors because she believes she sees things moving in the mirror sometimes.  “It’s just stress,” her doctors tell her.  Then, while unpacking, Ivy happens to look into a mirror, and someone else smiles back at her.

Suddenly, she is pulled through the movie and into a forest, into a world of magic and fairy tales.  Pushed along by an obnoxious pixie who seems to know a lot more than he’s letting on, and trapped in a forest spelled to keep people inside, Ivy finds herself stuck right in the middle of the story of Beauty and the Beast.  The Beast, strangely kind at first, turns deadly due to a mistake on Ivy’s part.  Beauty, as beautiful as can be, seems a little to vapid to help herself.  And somehow, Ivy has to figure out how to fix the mess she’s made, and find her way home.

What I Liked:

So, like I said, I love stories that re-imagine fairy tales.  And this story is no exception.  I love the premise.  Emily Casey did her homework, researching many different variations on the Beauty and the Beast tale, drawing details from different versions to make the story and the world intricate and strange.  The amount of work she put into it is obvious and will be very appreciated by people like who me who are similarly obsessed with fairy tales and folklore.  I also loved the way the story is twisted because of Ivy’s involvement, as a plot that should be simple according to what we know about the tale becomes a bigger and bigger mess.

The main character, Ivy Thorn, is wonderful.  I really enjoyed this character.  She’s believable and easy to relate to.  I myself am a “military brat,” so I could appreciate that characterization.  I also liked the way Ivy’s love of running and track background contributed to her ability to survive in this fairy tale world without being eaten – literally.  And her intense fear of mirrors makes for a unique character trait that adds interest to an otherwise “normal” (though intelligent, and somewhat sarcastic), teenage girl.  The fact that we even get some explanation of WHY she’s afraid of mirrors makes it even better (but I won’t say anymore on that, you’ll just have to read and find out).

There are only a small handful of other characters: Beast, Beauty, the obnoxious pixie, and couple other very minor characters.  The pixie is a strange character with some very strange motives.  It was a smart choice on Casey’s part to reveal only little bits of his agenda, and I’ll definitely be reading the next book in the series, if only to better understand what the hell he’s up to and why.  The other characters, however, lead me into…

What I Didn’t Like:

I really wish the other characters, namely Beast and Beauty, had been developed a bit more.  Beauty got some development and characterization, essentially to save the character from becoming the flat cliché vapid princess type.  She does have a few chances to show some facets to her character, but I would have preferred more in-depth characterization.  The same definitely goes for the Beast.  We get a little characterization through a few journal entries that Ivy finds and reads, but these journal entries don’t really work well – the Beast character lacks a distinct voice, and the journal entries give us a little to go on about his personality except for self-pity.  I really wanted to feel something for that character, and I didn’t.

A lot of this, I think, comes down to the writing style.  It’s not bad.  It’s competent, let’s say.  But there is definitely room for development and maturity.  While there are some spots of wonderful description, and I enjoy the voice of the main character, the overall writing is perhaps overly-simplistic.  It doesn’t go deep enough – into the setting, into the characters, or into the complexities and implications of the situation.

Because Casey is so determined to stay truthful to the fairy tale, she misses the opportunity to go past the simplistic construction of the tale (because let’s face it, for all that we love them, most fairy tale plots are very simple), and delve deeper into how real people, with complex personalities, and real problems might respond in these situations.  For one example: in the fairy tale, we don’t really bother to question WHY Beauty would fall in love with the Beast, but in this novel, I would expect some kind of character development to explain the switch and attraction beyond the answer we get, which is: because that’s how the story goes.

This book was rather short, and could easily have been lengthened by at least another half, still keeping the plot and prose tight while also giving us more depth.

Over-all, I definitely enjoyed it.  It was a fun, light, quick read that I finished in only a three sittings, in between coursework and lesson plans.  I really like the premise and the main character, and I feel pretty confident that I will read the second book when it comes out.  So, if you’re looking for something fun and like fairy tales, I can definitely recommend The Fairy Tale Trap.

You can find it here, at Goodreads or on Amazon.

Please check out yesterday’s blog tour stop at Death By Chocolate.

Then check out Friday’s blog tour stop at E.J.’s Library.

And, for more information about the author and her books, go to Emily Casey’s blog.