Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: The Gates by John Connolly

The Gates (Samuel Johnson, #1)The Gates by John Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Samuel Johnson is a curious kid, in more than one sense of the word. Curious as in inquisitive, and curious as in just a little bit odd. This year he decided to get a jump on Halloween by trick-or-treating a few days early, to beat the rush and maybe get the best candy. Unfortunately, the adults in his neighborhood didn’t find his initiative as charming as this reader did, especially the Abernathys. Mr. Abernathy shooed Samuel off the front stoop as quickly as he could; and then returned to the spell-casting in which he and Mrs. Abernathy and another couple were engaged in the basement. When their spell is an unexpected success and they accidentally open a portal into Hell (simultaneously causing an issue with the Large Hadron Collider), Samuel, still lurking about outside the house, noticed. And the demons who jumped through the portal noticed Samuel noticing.

And then all Hell proceeded to break loose.

Written in a light quirky child-like voice, this is a quick, fun read filled with humor and memorable characters. First in a series, aimed at a YA audience, but entertaining enough for adults.

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Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: Son by Lois Lowry

Son (The Giver, #4)Son by Lois Lowry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, here’s the truth. I read this book only because I have a compulsion to finish a series once I start it. It’s true I have bailed out of some series (Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake series, for one), but generally speaking, I am a completist. And these books were short enough that they wouldn’t waste too much of my time.

Son takes us back to the community that first appeared in The Giver and retells parts of that story from another perspective. Additionally, we discover more of the inner workings of that “utopian” village (view spoiler).

I have the same criticism of Son that I have of all the other novels in this series: gaping plot holes, two-dimensional characters, and in this one particularly, a rather stereotypical “bad guy” that must be vanquished. In some ways, though, this installment is the strongest of the four. Claire’s search for truth and for her son leads her into danger, but she doesn’t flinch. She carries on and makes her choices and accepts the consequences as they come. As a wrap-up to the series, Son satisfies.

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Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: Messenger by Lois Lowry

Messenger (The Giver, #3)Messenger by Lois Lowry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This third installment introduces us to another community within the world of The Giver Quartet, a community that once welcomed refugees from other communities with open arms, but recently has changed its mind and decided to close its borders. Matty, a young man who can travel the hostile forest with impunity, is sent out to warn other villages to stop sending new residents; he is also supposed to find and bring back the daughter of his village’s leader. Messenger takes characters from the first two novels and ties them together so the reader begins to see the whole of the picture Ms. Lowry is painting.

Definitely a YA book, but with just enough provocation of thought that the adult reader doesn’t feel too cheated by the two-dimensional characters and occasional plot hole. Worth reading once.

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Book review: Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue (The Giver Quartet, #2)Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in the same world as The Giver, Gathering Blue provides a look at a way of life far different than that of the previous novel. Kira lives in a rough-and-tumble village with no technology and a ruthless intolerance for weakness or deformity. Kira, born with a malformed leg, is lucky to be alive at all and, now that her mother has died, she fears she will either be killed outright or driven out of the village to starve and die in the wilderness. But Kira has a gift for weaving and embroidery that the village leaders find valuable; thus, she is taken into their care and set to work repairing the Singer’s Robe. As did our young protagonist in The Giver, Kira soon discovers all is not as it appears, and the leaders of the community are keeping secrets from the general population.

I enjoyed this story more than I did The Giver; this time my expectations were lower and I read it for what it was: a story aimed at young people. It’s still simplistic; the characters are still undeveloped; and the plot is paper-thin; but for an audience of, say, 12-year-olds, it’s perfect. Like the other books in this series, this one is scarcely the length to call a novella, and was easily read over the course of about two, maybe three hours on one evening. As such, it was a pleasant way to pass the time. I’ll get the rest of the series from the library soon.

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Posted in Life in general, Movies and TV

R.I.P IX applies to movies and TV, too!

RIP 9 Peril on the Screen
I almost forgot I pledged to join “Peril on the Screen” too. Luckily, spouse’s and my general TV/movie viewing choices tend to fall into the mystery/horror/thriller/suspense categories anyway. I can’t recall all the way back to September 1 by myself, so we’ll check the Netflix “recently watched” list and get started.

Actually, no. First, let’s talk about TV!

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Naturally, The Walking Dead season premiere was avidly consumed this past Sunday, and it took up almost immediately where last season left off. I was rather surprised by the way the episode turned out with regard to a certain threat, but I’m awfully happy to see Rick putting the band back together. I’m so glad this show is back, even if it’s more gory than ever! Yeah, I usually watch a good third of each episode through my fingers. Love the story but the blood? Not so much. But I’m looking forward to the rest of the season, regardless.

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Then there’s Sleepy Hollow, back for its second season. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are still approaching: what will Ichabod and Abby do next to thwart their plans? Spouse and I both love this show not only because of a distant family connection with its source material, but because it’s so well done! The storyline is utterly implausible, of course, but the acting is wonderful, the stars very easy on the eyes, and all the supporting players are superb. I don’t quite know what to think about the newest character, Nick Hawley the “antiquities” hunter, but I’m sure his loyalties will be revealed soon. And let me just say this: I’m extremely happy to see a mainstream network (which Fox is now) series featuring a woman of color in a powerful leading role without making her a racial stereotype (at least, not so far as this middle-aged Caucasian woman can discern).

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Speaking of Fox, we’re also rather impressed with Gotham, the network’s take on the origin stories of Batman, Catwoman, Penguin, and so forth. Thus far, young Bruce (played by David Mazouz) is rather whiny and self-involved, which is understandable due to his age and trauma, and Fox has wisely limited his screen time, preferring to concentrate on the adults in the series and the events that will give rise to the Caped Crusader and his sworn enemies. The bad thing about young Bruce’s limited screen time is it also limits the screen time of the loyal Alfred, played by Sean Pertwee (yes, the son of the Third Doctor and a marvelous actor in his own right).

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Finally on the “small screen” is Fox’s Gracepoint, a nearly shot-for-shot remake of BBC America’s Broadchurch, aired earlier this year, and featuring David Tennant reviving his Broadchurch role as a detective brought in to investigate the murder of a boy in a small town. I wasn’t sure I was going to watch this, not even for the pleasure of Mr. Tennant’s company (and his partially successful American accent), since I’d already seen the BBC America production, but then I learned it would have two or three more episodes than the BBC show, and possibly a different ending. Thus far, nothing new has been revealed, but the casting is good, the acting is very good, and the location (northern California coast, ostensibly Mendocino or Humboldt County) is gorgeous.

The Last Days on MarsOn the big screen (which, in our house, means movies we watched at home because we seldom go to the cinema), Netflix must serve as a reminder. In September, we saw The Last Days on Mars, which to tell the truth I remember virtually nothing about except that it starred Liev Schreiber (yum) and had a bunch of folks in spacesuits running around trying to kill each other. According to Netflix, I gave it three stars (for “I liked it”) so it was at least enjoyable.

A Japanese film with English subtitles caught me by surprise. The Doomsday Book is a sci-fi anthology flick: three separate stories, three separate takes on an apocalypse (actual or implied). In the first segment, zombies. Second segment, robots. Third segment, death from the skies. Of the three segments, I think the zombie story is the least successful. I loved the Zen robot in segment two; and the third story was quite good and funny, but left me scratching my head (which means I should probably watch it again because obviously I missed something). The subtitles are only a marginal distraction from the gorgeous cinematography. It’s not rated, but I wouldn’t call it family-friendly by any means.

How I Live NowHow I Live Now (based on the YA novel of the same name) was another post-apocalyptic flick that came as a pleasant surprise. Daisy, an American teenager, is sent abroad to spend the summer with her English cousins. Shortly after she arrives, nuclear war breaks out, leaving Daisy and her cousins alone in the countryside to survive as best they can. In the beginning, Daisy is clearly a bitter, self-entitled, selfish little beeyotch; she’s as unlikeable as a character can be without murdering someone. As the film progresses, though, we learn just a little about what made her that way, but more importantly, we watch her grow up as she is forced to care about someone other than herself. Some truly heart-rending scenes and lovely acting by all involved.

Solomon KaneAnd finally, Solomon Kane, an historical horror story that gets its history all collywobbled, but still manages to be entertaining. The title character is an evil mercenary who plunders and pillages and murders at will in what appears to be the Middle East (circa 1600). But when he’s confronted by The Devil’s Reaper come to claim his soul, he escapes to his native England and takes up residence in a monastery to atone for his lifetime of sin. A year later, the abbot tells Kane his destiny does not lie within the abbey walls, and he must leave his sanctuary to seek his true path. Naturally, his true path leads to encounters with witches, demons, and other types of evil. It’s actually rather silly, and I suspect the historical context is there only for the mud and the blood and the general societal belief in witchcraft, because English Catholicism is awfully conspicuous for events taking RIP 9 Portraitplace in the last few years of Elizabeth I’s reign. Still, the film stars James Purefoy (yum) and features the marvelous Pete Postlethwaite (may flights of angels sing him to his rest) and equally marvelous Alice Krige in crucial character roles.

And that’s it thus far for Peril on the Screen. Click that badge over there to be whisked away to a list of other R.I.P. IX blog entries.

Posted in Book review

Book review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Three of five stars

The Quarter Quell is over, District 12 is destroyed, and Katniss finds herself at the center of a revolution she gets credit for starting. She and her family are safe — so to speak — in District 13, while Peeta has been captured by the Capitol and seems to be serving as their mouthpiece against the uprising. To counter his influence, Katniss is asked by the rebel leaders to take advantage of her status as the symbol of the Revolution by being their public face. Hijacked broadcasts of strategically timed photo-ops become the order of her day; Katniss’ growing rage and rebellion at this stricture drives her in directions that could cripple the budding independence movement forever.

The action takes place largely in the underground District 13 headquarters of the rebellion, and the reader can easily understand the increasing sense of entrapment and claustrophobia Katniss feels at being confined and closeted away from the fresh air and outdoor life that largely defined her days in District 12. She has nothing to do but be prepped and primped for the camera, while both her mother and little sister have real work, useful work, to fill their days. So when the opportunity to join an actual fighting unit comes along, Katniss jumps at the chance.

The final installment of The Hunger Games trilogy is just as fast-paced and easy a read as its predecessors. Given the plot-driven storyline and breakneck speed, it’s not surprising that world-building details and character backgrounds are given a cursory nod and then left alone for the reader to make the best inferences possible. Not necessarily a bad thing in a YA novel, but somewhat frustrating for an older reader more accustomed to savoring those little background details and nuances of character. Rebel leader Coin was particularly cartoonish and flat, even when Plutarch, another one-dimensional character, took time to explain to Katniss the reason for Coin’s animosity toward her. Katniss herself was, upon occasion, so arbitrarily contrary that I wanted to smack her. She grows, though, much more in this novel than in the previous two, and by the end, I liked her again, and wished her peace and happiness on her chosen path.

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Book review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Three of five stars

After their stunning Hunger Games double victory, Katniss and Peeta return home to District 12 and try to get back to their old lives. Being the victors, however, means their lives will never be their own again. As they are being prepared for the Victory Tour of all districts, Katniss is stunned to realize she must continue the pretense that she and Peeta are in love. But is it entirely pretense any longer? Katniss isn’t certain.

Rumors of rebellion, spurred by Katniss’ dramatic public defiance of the Capitol’s authority during the Games, leak out. Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, the Capitol announces the names of this year’s Hunger Games tributes will be drawn from each District’s surviving victors. As the only female victor from District 12, Katniss knows she’s going back to the Arena. The only question is, will Haymitch or Peeta be accompanying her? And which one of them will she need to kill to survive?

The followup to The Hunger Games covers much of the same territory as its predecessor, but provides a somewhat deeper background for the world Katniss and her fellows inhabit. As Katniss and her victory entourage travel the Districts, I got a better sense of Panem’s history: still no real details, but I could see some of the blank spaces starting to fill in. I was much more satisfied with this section of the book than when Katniss and her partner re-enter the arena. Really, one visit to the kill zone of the first book was plenty. And, although this arena had an entirely different — and more intriguing — setup, there’s only so much slaughter this reader can take. Even if it is mostly “offscreen”. And the novel’s final twist felt contrived and arbitrary.

While it’s worth reading on the whole, I think Catching Fire suffers from Middle Novel Syndrome, a failing shared by the second novel of most trilogies — the story contains information necessary to set up the final novel, but the reader knows that final novel is where all the good stuff will finally happen. This is the chief reason why I haven’t re-read The Lord of the Rings in many years. I love The Fellowship of the Ring but I just can’t bear to slog my way through The Two Towers again to get to The Return of the King. It’s a personal failing, that.

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Book review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Four of five stars

Once upon a time in the not-too-near future, the United States lies in ruins, and in its place is Panem, with a glittering Capitol City at its center and 12 outlying districts supplying the City’s needs. Life in the districts is hard, and nowhere is it harder than in District 12, where 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives with her widowed mother and little sister Prim.

All Katniss wants to do is provide for her family, and so she hunts illegally in the forest outside the district fence. She works tirelessly and lives in fear each day of being caught and punished. But, more than being caught poaching, she fears being chosen for the Hunger Games, a mandatory annual competition in which 24 teenagers, one boy and one girl from each district, are selected to fight to the death on national television.

Outwit, Outplay, Outlast, my Aunt Fanny: Survivor ain’t got nothin’ on the Hunger Games.

When 12-year-old Prim’s name is pulled from the box, however, Katniss volunteers to go as tribute in her place. She and the other tribute, baker’s son Peeta, travel to Capitol City to take their place in the arena, and face what is likely certain death for both of them. Their mentor, Haymitch, the only winner District 12 has ever produced, has other ideas. And an unlikely strategy that just might give them an edge.

But the rules state that there can be only one winner. Victory. Or death. Those are the only options. Because she’s our heroine, we know going in that Katniss must come out the victor, but how she gets to the winner’s circle is a harrowing, fretful journey indeed. And one entirely worth taking along with her.

I started The Hunger Games on a Friday evening and finished it the next day by mid-afternoon. I can hardly wait to start the next book.