Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Book Review: The Outsiders

Title: The Outsiders
Author: S. E. Hinton
Release Date: 1967
Genre: young adult, friendship, family, gangs, drama, crime, death
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: young adult fiction
Age Group: 16+, 18+ (depends on maturity and past exposure)

Summary: Ponyboy Curtis and his older brothers Darry and Soda are Greasers. They have long hair, are tough, and live in the hood. They belong to what they refer to as a gang, though really it's more of a band of brothers. They run with shoplifters, school drop-outs, players, and abused friends of various ages. Unfortunately, in addition to whatever life throws at them, the Greasers are in constant battle with the Socials.
The Socials are rich and have it all. And for some reason, they like to harass the Greasers. So the Greasers fight back with all they have.
The war as been going on for as long as anyone can remember. But a night at the movies changes everything. Suddenly Ponyboy (14) and his buddy Johnny Cade (16) are thrown into a mess that is far bigger than the two know how to deal with. Will everyone make it out alive? Can they hold the gang, and the family, together?

Word of Warning
  • Various forms of crime. Shoplifting, stealing cars, mugging, and even murder.
  • The author does a great job of writing about tough kids and their lives without becoming too graphic or inappropriate. We know, for instance, that Dally and Two-Bit are probably doing things with girls that they shouldn't be, but we are never given the details. The boys probably all swear like sailors, but the language in the book itself is very mild to non-existant.
  • Death. Destroyed families. Near-death experiences.
  • The law is looked at as a villain, and law enforcement avoided at all costs.
  • Three very disturbing deaths.
  • A character becomes delirious. Later, someone under extreme distress construes events in a way that shifts the blame and ignores a reality that this character finds too hard to face.
  • Family struggles involving fighting, shouting, and resistance to authority.
  • One character's parents abuse him physically and verbally. We never see this, but we hear a few stories about it.
  • Drinking (presumably under-age)
  • Cigarettes are smoked by all ages constantly
  • Someone mentions considering suicide. Later, someone does (essentially) commit suicide.
  • Other, more minor issues also exist in the book.

My Thoughts
Honestly, rereading the summary and list of warnings, this book doesn't sound very appealing at all. I didn't expect to like it. And yet I gave it four stars, and I'm ready to reread it. And I have to ask myself: why is that?
The story is honest/open, moves at an ambling pace, well-narrated, addresses major struggles of many different ages (and shows many different aged-characters dealing with these struggles). The author writes with an honesty that is refreshing and heartbreaking. Difficult topics are very well handled. I honestly think that was my favorite aspect. It took on concepts I myself was barely ready to conquer, and showed the unfortunate truth that kids have to deal with these sometimes, and what happens when these kids are stuck between a wall and the horrors of reality.
The book's honesty, combined with the author's tact and grace, make this a valuable read, one that I'd highly recommend.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Update: New Pages!

Hello all,
Take a moment to check out the new pages up at the top of the blog. The categories where were formerly on the Archives page (which no longer exists) are now their own pages for ease of finding what you are looking for.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Book Review: Frindle

Title: Frindle
Author: Andrew Clements
Release Date: 1996
Genre: children's fiction, school, friendship
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: children's fiction
Age Group: 8+
Awards: 2016 Phoenix Award  

Nick isn't a trouble maker. He just has good ideas. He's also a pro at the teacher-stopper question, that question asked right between the end of the lesson and the giving of the homework.
So when he tries this on the notorious 5th grade English teacher Mrs. Granger, he's expecting success.
No such luck. Nick ends up giving a lengthy report on the creation of dictionaries. But this report isn't a waste of time. He learns something about words and where they come from.
Then, he launches an experiment of his own. What does it take to make a word?

Word of Warning
Little to be concerned about here except perhaps the stubbornness of all involved. Nick ends up waging "war" with Mrs. Granger over the word, and various students join in his rebellion. They keep using the new word despite orders not to, and end up serving many after school detentions.
It is explained multiple times that Nick doesn't intend to cause trouble, he just wants to see if he can create a new word. He is a respectful boy even during his "war" with Mrs. Granger, and as we see later in the book, Mrs. Granger was well aware of that.

My Thoughts
For a teacher, at first this book is a little sad. Mrs. Granger tries to squash the good ideas of Nick Allen. But Nick Allen is trying to hijack Mrs. Granger's lesson time. So maybe she's justified?
Then things become more intense, until you reach the end of the book and realize the truth: Mrs. Granger, like all good teachers, helped Nick. Not only did she teach him a valuable lesson about words, society, and what one person can do, but she believed in him enough to wage war with him.
Then we learn the power of words, and how even though the world will continue to change around us, the power of words will never go away.
And as a teacher who has encountered many Nick's, and a writer who believes in the power of words, well, this simple little romp of a book made my heart melt.
Short, sweet, and truthful. This one isn't worth missing.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Blog News: Archive Update

Hello all!
I'm excited to bring you two new sections on the Archives page: Author/Actor, and Publication Year
I have also updated/added a few genres.
The authors and actors section is not complete. Recently I have been tracking authors and actors (well known ones) and putting them as labels so I could link to them later. This does not mean that I've listed every big name who participated in something I reviewed. I'll continue to keep this up, and slowly go back and add to the past posts which do not include this.

I've noticed the Archives page is getting rather long. Vote on the sidebar on whether I should break each section into its own page to make it easier to search please.

Thank you for continuing to read, even in this barren time where posts are few and far between!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Book Review: Maniac Magee

Title: Maniac Magee
Author: Jerry Spinelli
Release Date: 1990
Genre: children's fiction, family, adventure, cultural fiction, racism
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: Children's Fiction
Age Group: 14+ (probably good for 12+, just keep in mind the drinking problem)

Summary: Jeffrey Lionel Magee. His parents died in a train crash, and he spent the next eight years with his aunt and uncle. They couldn't share, so they had two of everything, except, of course Jeffrey.
Well Jeffrey eventually tired of the fighting and being shared. So he ran away. He ran very far away.
One day, Jeffrey wanders into the town of Two Mills. A huge war is going on, just below the surface, but he doesn't even realize it. Instead, he waltzes right in and crosses the boundary from one side to the other as he pleases. This causes all sorts of problems, and eventually Jeffrey has to face what he believes to be a complete lie: the difference between the people on West End and the people on East End.
Tensions rise. Jeffrey continues to wander. Until one day when he finally decides to bring the war to an end--so he brings a friend to a birthday party.

Word of Warning
  • Racism. The people on West End are white, the people on East End are black. Each side thinks poorly of the other, almost considering them to be sub-human and forbidding any interaction between either side. Probably the most outlandish example of this is the McNabs, who build a "bomb" shelter from which they plan to attack the "enemies."
  • Drinking. Neglect. Death. Divorce. Families for real, and families torn apart.
  • A character sleeps in a zoo.
  • A character dies a rather heartbreaking (but calm and peaceful) death.
  • Characters are rude to one another.
  • Someone hits a frog with a baseball bat (we're assured the frog is not injured).
  • Lying, bribing, cheating, screaming, whining, all the stuff that kids will do from time to time. For the most part, they don't get away with it.
  • "Trash talk". No actual words, but Jeffrey apparently learns trash talk while playing football, and is quickly told that is not to be used in the house but only on the football field.

My Thoughts
Right up there at the top of my list, this book. The author ingeniously chose the perfect narration style for a tall tale like this one, and it worked wonders on the story itself.
The story itself? It's a wild tale of a boy who completes crazy feats, sometimes for a cause, sometimes just to do it. It's an insane cast of characters who are just unique enough for you to fall in love with them (no matter how crabby), and yet just common enough for you to match them up with all of your own neighbors.
It's also the story of differences. Spinelli creates a mirror world in East End and West End, something a careful reader will notice. This mirror world is eventually forced to face the other side, and even that confrontation is well done.
Honestly? It's just a great book.

"They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept. They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else. They say....
But that's ok, because the history of a kid os one part fact, two parts legend, and three parts snowball. And if you want to know what it was like back when Maniac Magee roamed these parts, well, just run your hand under your movie seat and be very, very careful not to let the facts get mixed up with the truth."

With a beginning like that, how could it not be?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Book Review: Homeless Bird

Title: Homeless Bird
Author: Gloria Whelan
Release Date: 2000
Genre: children's fiction, India, cultural fiction
My Rating: *
Official Rating: children's fiction
Age Group:14+

Summary: Koly's family is poor, and as soon as she's of marriageable age, her wedding is arranged with a young man she's never met. Koly is thirteen and hungry for knowledge.
But her wedding doesn't go as she'd hoped, and Koly finds herself nearly alone in the world, a young woman now seen as unfit for marriage but without any support and no way of getting back home to her family. When Koly finds herself out on the streets in a huge world full of both good and bad people, how will she survive?

Word of Warning
  • Child-marriages, so to speak. These are arranged, as tradition requires
  • As for marriage itself, it seems to be understood more as a social contract and less of a union of man and wife. What I mean by this is that Koly, until she is much older, never even sees the intimate and sexual side of marriage, nor does it even get mentioned. Even later, when she is older, it's not mentioned explicitly, but simply assumed with a sense of innocence.
  • Young women are essentially sold into marriages.
  • Widows are abandoned, no longer useful since they have no husbands, and really just a hindrance to whomever they are living with.
  • Characters drink and do drugs (but not in those words).
  • Koly is essentially abused by her stepmother. She's yelled at and barely cared for.
  • A man tries to trick Koly into coming home with him. It's implied, though never stated outright, that he intends to take advantage of her sexually.
  • Lying, cheating, stealing, abandonment, anger, cruelty, tough situations, etc. We see it all.

My Thoughts
The book was interesting, but it felt too simplistic to really take on such a big topic. I understand that it's Children's Fiction, and the author is trying to convey something very serious and big to a young audience. The problem is, can that audience truly understand the topic at hand? And I don't mean do they understand what it means to "sell" a young woman into marriage. They might be able to understand that factually. But can they really know what it means, what it entails, down to the depths of a soul.
No, I'd argue, they can't.
Does it mean we shouldn't try to explain it anyway? I'm not sure. I think it depends on the topic and the person.
But that's the source of my gripe with this book. It took something too big, too deep, and it tried to cut it down for a young audience. In the act of cutting it down, it destroyed the very mission it was seeking to accomplish: spreading understanding of the lives of young women in India.

It was a fine book. The writing was fine, the story-line was a bit on the wandering side, and the characters were okay, but not great. Honestly, there wasn't a whole lot wrong with the book itself, aside from it not being great.

But adding that to the issue with the content and topic, and, well, you get something that sort of fell flat.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Movie Review: The Prestige

Title: The Prestige
Author: Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, Michael Cane
Release Date: 2006
Genre: drama, mystery, sci-fi
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images
Age Group: 14+

Every magic act has three parts: the pledge (where something apparently ordinary is shown), the turn (when something extraordinary happens), and the prestige (when the ordinary thing is brought back). Or so Cutter claims.
Two young magicians, Robert Angier (the showman) and Alfred Borden (the gifted illusionist) are friends and partners on stage, working under the main magician. One night, something goes horribly wrong, and the two men are forever set against each other.
One rises to success and fame, then the other. They are constantly fighting to find out each other's secrets. Sometimes, it seems as though they will go to any ends to find out the methods of those three parts.
But what happens when you find out that they've both been living their acts? That the story itself has a pledge, a turn, and a prestige?

Word of Warning

Allow me to begin by explaining that while many of these things are present in the movie and the story, they are not present. It's incredibly hard to explain, but some of the more difficult things are not what they appear (this is a movie about magic shows, after all). This does not detract from the bad things that do happen, but it does make some things that seemed horrible much less serious. Little more can be said without risking majorly spoiling the movie, and that's something I absolutely do not want to do with this one.
  •  People drink. There are a few scenes where characters are drunk, all portrayed in a negative light.
  • Multiple people drown during magic tricks, apparently gone wrong.
  • A young girl's future is threatened.
  • A husband kisses his wife's calf during a trick, discretely but noticeably.
  • Husband and wife kiss passionately, fall onto bed, scene cuts.
  • A bird is killed during a magic trick, its crushed body is shown.
  • A man tries to drown himself, does not carry through. A woman hangs herself, we see her limp body hanging by a rope around her neck.
  • Someone mutters "Oh my God" but it sounds more like a prayer and less like a disrespectful use of His name.
  • Man is shot in the hand, screams in pain, fingers are missing in a later view. Another man is shot in the arm, while quite a few are shot in the abdomen later on (and die).
  • Women in magic shows wear provocative clothing complete with short skirts, tight waists, and very low necklines (think circus performer).
  • A man falls, breaking his leg (we hear the crunch)
  • Implication that a man is cheating on his wife. This is later confirmed, sort of. We get a scene of a couple in bed together fully clothed, nothing happens and the scene is quick, only meant to share information and nothing more.
  • Man is captured, nailed into a coffin, and buried alive but given the opportunity of escape via blackmailing his partner.
  • Various things (objects, animals, people) are "electrocuted".
  • A man is sentenced to death and hung. We see the floor fall out, his body drops, no movement, his neck apparently broken.
  • Man chops off fingers with a chisel.
My Thoughts
At the end of the movie, I stared at the screen for a good ten minutes, shocked. Calculating what I had just seen. Processing, going over the story again, seeing the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Heartbroken. Impressed. In awe.
It's a movie that is incredible the first time, and I suspect absolutely brilliant the second time. It's the kind of movie that can, and should be watched at least twice.
It was well done. How could it not be, with such a director working with that cast?
But it was more than well done. This is one of the few movies out there today, created in the last ten years, that is genuinely a work of art.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review: Hatchet

Title: Hatchet
Author: Gary Paulsen
Release Date: 1987
Genre: young adult/children's fiction, survival
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: Young Adult Fiction
Age Group: 12+
Awards: Newbery Medal, Dorthy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award

Brian is on the way to visit his dad via plane. He's working up in Canada in some remote location, and a small charter plane is going to take Brian there for the summer. Because Brian's parents aren't together anymore. Because of the Secret. Because of what Brian knows.
Brian knows about his mother cheating with that man. He saw them kissing in the car across the street from where Brian and his friend were playing. Brian didn't tell his father, and neither did his mother. But that didn't stop the divorce from happening.
At age thirteen, that's a tough thing to handle. Honestly, at any age that's a tough thing to handle.
But when the pilot has a heart attack over an unidentifiable wilderness, and Brian does what he can to fly the plane himself, things get a whole lot worse.
Especially when Brian crashes the plane.

Word of Warning
  • Brian's parents are divorced. His mother cheated on his father (all the detail we have is that they were kissing) while they were still married.
  • A very well-known survival story, filled with the elements of survival: struggles for shelter, food, and against the elements.
  • Brian has to kill animals for food.
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, sickness in general.
  • Injuries, an attack by a moose (nothing too deadly or graphic)
  • At a very low point, Brain tries to slit his wrists. His attempt fails, and in the morning he wakes up more determined than ever to live.
  • Fighting against the elements, including a dramatic experience with a tornado.
My Thoughts
It was decent. I think my all time favorite survival book will always be Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain, but this is also a pretty good book. It gets a bit long, and the writing style isn't something I'm a big fan of (particularly the sentence structure), but there's nothing necessarily wrong with it.
My biggest objection is that it just gets too long. I realize Brian was stuck in the wilderness for a long time, but I just started to lose interest after a while, especially since, knowing the genre, I had no doubt that Brian would somehow survive.
It's a rough adventure for Brian. He goes through a lot. But he makes it, and he's smart. In our ever-changing society which is becoming more and more paved, it's nice to still have a good wilderness adventure book standing strong and still being eagerly read by a variety of readers.