Saturday, March 31, 2012

Greetings from Kitsune Kon!

Greetings from Kitsune Kon!  My boyfriend and I are in Appleton, Wisconsin, this weekend for this small anime convention that's quite cheap and fairly close to home.  ($30 for at-the-door registration for the whole weekend.)

One great draw is seeing an old college friend and fellow blogger.  Michelle runs "Never Gonna Grow Up!" and also voice acts, which is why she's here as a panelist.  Exciting!

Next week I'll have more reviews to post.  Now, back to having fun.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hunger Games movie review

On Saturday afternoon I saw the Hunger Games movie with my boyfriend and some friends.  I was looking forward to seeing the movie for the special effects that I was sure could lend themselves well to this story, such as all the fiery costumes Kitniss wears.  Here's my full review.  With spoilers, if you haven't seen the movie or read the book.

Overall: It's pretty, but the book is better.

Acting: Excellent.  Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen was very good.  As other reviewers have said, she portrays so much with her eyes, while maintaining a poised exterior.  There are plenty of fabulous supporting cast as well.  Some were certainly chosen for their acting abilities rather than matching their literary counterparts' physical descriptions; Woody Harrelson was not the Haymitch I imagined, but was excellent in the role.

Costuming: Everything I could have wanted!  The stark contrast between the miners and the Capitol's denizens was depicted wonderfully.  I was waiting with baited breath for the scenes with Katniss on fire, and I loved the dress at her interview with Caesar.  Absolutely amazing.

Cinematography: Like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead - when it was good it was very good, and when it was bad it was horrid.  There are amateur movies with less shaky footage than what was used in District 12 and some fight scenes.  What were they thinking?  Seriously.  On the other hand, the disoriented shot when Katniss has been stung by a tracker jacker was very well done.

Accuracy: Reasonably good.  There was some streamlining, of course, which is understandable.  Some of the added scenes, offering explanations, were worthwhile.  Others, such as when they created the creatures for the finale battle, were basically spoilers.  I appreciate how true they were to main events, and to how most deaths were off-screen like they were in the book.
What I did not like, at all, was how they changed the ending.  And here comes the spoiler.  I am extremely unhappy that they left ambiguity in how Katniss feels about Peeta.  In the book, she tells him point blank that the relationship was an act on her part, and she's not interested.  But noooo, we get the potential for a flipping love triangle, thanks also to the footage of Gale watching the Hunger Games and reacting jealously to the kissing and such.  Argh!!!!
The point of this was obvious in the lobby after the movie, when some of our companions were asking a non-reader if she was "Team Gale or Team Peeta."  Poke me with a spork, I'm done.

Best outcome of the movie experience: My boyfriend is now reading my copy of The Hunger Games.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Yay for YA: Time Snatchers

It is always my goal to be as objective as possible with reviews.  Unfortunately, I am only human, with likes and dislikes, and a perception that is sometimes colored by preconceptions.  Time Snatchers by Richard Ungar was a book that really suffered from a case of "It's not you, it's me."  Let me tell you about it.
Checkouts: Not owned by the library
Typical reader: Upper elementary/middle school boys
Source: I found an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) at Snowbound Books.  The ARC was free and I am not paid for this review.

Synopsis: Caleb is a time snatcher working for Uncle, the man who raised him and several other children to steal precious items through time travel.  There's rivalry, a confused love interest, and a meeting that could change Caleb's life.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

When I picked up the ARC of this book, I thought that I had found something to recommend to my students who love the Artemis Fowl series.  The cover art suggested a similar genre.  Time-traveling teenaged thieves?  It sounds like it could be comparable.

It isn't.  Caleb is nowhere near as intelligent and cunning as Artemis.  That really disappointed me.  Don't get me wrong, Caleb is witty, but he's not a scheming, evil prodigy.  On the other hand, his humanity could appeal to many readers.  He's a nice kid.  His long-time snatch partner, Abbie, confuses him as he tries to figure out if they like each other as more than just friends.

While the novel gets right into the time traveling and snatching, I really didn't feel like the action got going until about 100 pages in.  And then it sometimes petered out.  This isn't a page-turner.  But, it's pleasing in the quality of writing and descriptiveness.

In sum, your mileage may vary.  I probably had too many expectations going into this book.  It really isn't bad, but it didn't wow me either.  I'll probably pass it on to one of my sixth grade boys that I think might be interested, and see what he thinks.  (Hopefully he passes it on to classmates, so I can get more feedback, too.)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Graphic Is Great: Laika review

Welcome to the newest feature on my blog, "Graphic Is Great!"  After much deliberation, I decided that this simple title summed up my intentions best.  Many graphic novels are great, and they are often unappreciated or overlooked.  They are challenged for their content by parents, and yet deemed unchallenging by teachers because they have pictures.  This week I sought the opinion of the middle school literature teacher on graphic novel biographies like Maus and Persepolis, to see if she would allow her students to write book reports on them.  The answer was a firm "No."  It's the same as when a student wants to write a paper based on an abridged version of a classic - except graphic novels offer the complete story with the use of different media.

I wonder how these teachers would feel about audiobooks.

Anyway.  Here's my review of Laika by Nick Abadzis.
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Graphic novel fans and animal lovers
Source: Donation

Synopsis: This is a fictionalized account of the life of Laika, the first living being sent into space during the Cold War.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This is one of the saddest stories I've read in a while.  Since this is based on history, I don't feel that spoilers are possible; you can verify it on Wikipedia or whatever source you prefer.  Laika was sent up by the Soviet Union's space program just a month after Sputnik went beeping across the night's sky.  Because of the time crunch in the schedule, those designing the space vessel did not make preparations for retrieval: the little dog was doomed to die in orbit.  When this plan was announced, I put down the book with tears in my eyes.

The story takes liberties with Laika's back story, and with the space program's dog handler, Yelena Dubrovsky.  Comrade Dubrovsky is a fictional character, as far as I can find, but she gives the dogs a loving voice.  She has the most conscience among the team about the dogs and their well-being, though one scientist did take Laika home to play with his children after she was chosen to be the dog sent up in Sputnik 2, and the book ends with a remorseful quote from scientist Oleg Gazenko about how the mission did not provide enough data to warrant the death of the dog.

This book is amazing, though.  It transmits the story of the star-crossed dog's fate (yes, pun intended).  A written narrative would not have offered the same portrayal of so many different points of view so well, without delving into fantasy.  We see Laika's actions, and Yelena pretends the dogs talk to her.  To cover this story in a different medium would have been difficult.

I'm honestly not sure what to make of the art.  While it does portray the story very well, I don't think I completely warmed to the style.  The dogs often look extremely emaciated, and clothing is rumpled and frumpy.  I'm also used to the trend of large eyes in Japanese works, which this certainly does not have.  At other times, the style worked fantastically.  Judging sequential art is very subjective.

Panel three of this sequence is particularly fine.
Laika could not have been written before the fall of the Soviet Union, because the details of the Sputnik 2 mission and how the dear little dog died were not released until afterward.  I do wonder how much of an impact this story will have on today's youth, though.  The Berlin Wall came down when I was in elementary school; my students are even further removed from the Cold War.  The significance of the Space Race may be lost on them.  On the other hand, children do enjoy learning about space exploration, and animals will probably always be popular.
The real Laika

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Yay for YA: Article 5 review

Ever read a book that you thought was awesome except for one character?  That sums up my experience with Article 5 by Kristen Simmons.
Checkouts: If I'd known this was an awesome book, I'd have bought it at the Scholastic book fair last month.  This shall likely be remedied.
Typical reader: Teen girls - there's a bit too much romance to appeal to boys, IMHO
Source: I found an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) at Snowbound Books.  The ARC was free and I am not paid for this review.

Synopsis: In a dystopian future of America, the Bill of Rights has been revoked and replaced with the Moral Statutes.  Martial law enforces these statutes.  Seventeen-year-old Ember Miller lives with her rebellious single mother and attends high school, putting up with math because she knows that the girls who follow her in school will likely never have that privilege.  But that all changes when soldiers show up to arrest her mother for being a single mother - breaking Article 5 of the Moral Statutes - and force Ember into a rehabilitation center.  And one of the soldiers breaking up the family is none other than her childhood friend and crush, Chase Jennings.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

My synopsis above is a summary of the teaser on the book.  Now, most teasers will give you a bit of the plot through the first couple chapters, or maybe even a good chunk of the book.  Not here!  That happens in the first 20 pages of text.  And the adventure never stops (except for tense breaks for what passes for romantic interests) for the next 300+ pages.  I read about half the book in one evening.  The plot, with all its twists and turns, really engaged me.  Ms. Simmons created a horrific future for America, and her timing with this book really gives some social commentary.

Let me summarize the Moral Statutes for you.
  • Article 1 denies individuals the right to practice or display propaganda associated with an alternative religion to Church of America.
  • Articles 2 and 3 define the family as one man, one woman, and their children.
  • Article 4 makes divorce illegal.
  • Article 5, the catalyst for this book, states that only children conceived by a married husband and wife are considered valid citizens.
  • Article 6 outlaws abortion.
  • Article 7 outlines rules for traditional male and female roles, including the subservience of the woman.
Huh.  Sounds like something out of Rick Santorum's presidential campaign platform.  Not to mention all the states that are making marriage and civil unions unattainable for homosexuals, or clamping down on abortions, or even, in the case of Wisconsin, trying to equate single parenting with child abuse.

But you're here for a book review, not political commentary, right?

I really enjoyed the prose that delivered this well-built world and tantalizing plot.  There are a lot of artistically descriptive passages; one that comes to mind spoke of a peach and raspberry sky.  That sounds beautiful.  I also appreciated the higher reading level this novel offered; it would be good for advanced readers who aren't ready for adult-oriented books.

If there was a flaw in this book, it was Chase.  After arresting Ember's mother and sending his old friend to a rehabilitation center, he shows up and rescues her ... or does he?  In his cross-country trek with Ember, he acts like he's the only person she can trust, the person she must rely on to safely get to their destination where she believes her mother is, and yet he keeps putting her in danger.  She has incredibly mixed emotions about him, being in love with the "old" Chase, while fearing the "new" hardened AWOL soldier that he's become.  He doesn't make anything easier for her in that regard, sending her incredibly mixed signals and acting like such a jerk that I could have thrown the book across the room.  If you're looking for an angst-filled, slap-slap-kiss relationship, you've got it.  And then there's what happens at the climax of the story ... but I don't do spoilers.

Despite Chase, this was a very good book.  I don't know when the sequel is due out, but I'd be interested.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Yay for YA: The Way We Fall review

What makes a great read on a snow day, when you're stuck at home due to treacherous road conditions?  An isolationist dystopia!  This is a review of The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe.
Checkouts: Not owned by library
Typical reader: Teens
Source: I found an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) at Snowbound Books.  The ARC was free and I am not paid for this review.

Synopsis: As the new school year starts, Kaelyn vows to change for the better, so that when her childhood best friend comes back to visit, she can feel good talking to him.  But then a mysterious, deadly virus strikes her remote Canadian island hometown, she must take it upon herself to be strong enough just to survive.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

Most dystopian stories take place in the future, it seems.  The Way We Fall is contemporary, which really helps to make everything believable and relatable.  This sort of thing could happen in the here-and-now.  An island could be stricken by a virus and easily quarantined by the government.  The way society can crumble when people have to worry most about survival is realistically shown in this book.  That's the most powerful thing about this book: It can happen, and it can happen now.

Also contributing to the realism are the characters.  The protagonist, who tells the story through her journal, is a very typical teen, having complex relationships with her parents and brother, being passionate about her interests, and trying to fit in with her peers.  She responds to all that is happening around her in ways that seemed very natural.

I had two small issues with the book.  The first is that I felt there could have been more description.  What does Kaelyn and her family look like?  We do find out that she's of mixed race, but it's never clear which parent her "darker" skin comes from.  It could have stayed subtle, with just something like, "My mother placed her light-skinned hand over my caramel-colored one," or some such thing.  Why was it ignored when we know that Tessa was a redhead and Leo was adopted from Korea?  Details like that could have enhanced the reading experience.

The other issue could be a fault of the editor's, or perhaps the market.  This is the first book in a trilogy.  Of course.  Everything has to be a trilogy now.  I felt like the story could have been wrapped up in another 20 pages or so.  Tie up some loose ends and call it good.  I understand that authors need to eat, and book deals are more lucrative when there are multiple books involved, but I'm a little frustrated.

The author replied to this review on Twitter.  She said that she felt the story needed sequels.  You can read her longer explanation, a "tale of a trilogy," on her blog site.  Thanks for the explanation, Ms. Crewe!