Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel

Title: The Scarlet Pimpernel
Author: Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Published: between 1903-05 (that's a bit unclear)
Genre: action, adventure, romance, historical fiction, war, politics
My Rating: *****
Official Rating: Historical fiction (adult fiction)
Age Group: 14+ (for reading difficulty. It's probably appropriate, though not much appreciated, for 10+)

Horrible things are happening in France. All those who once had power are being tracked down and killed at the guillotine.
There is, however, a man in England who will not stand for this. He is known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and he will do whatever it takes to rescue French aristocrats before they lose their lives.
But Chauvlin, one of France's best, is going to track down that man, and he is going to bring him back to France, and that man will pay dearly.

"They seek him here,
They seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That demmed elusive Pimpernel!"

Word of Warning
  •  The biggest challenge I see with this book is that it's considered a classic, and is written as such. This means as far as reading goes, it can get a bit long, it can get a bit confusing. It also has French words in it that are not translated.
  • One of the nobles tends to favor the word "demmed"
  • Blackmail.
  • Kidnapping.
  • Two men are hit on the head, knocking them unconscious. There is little to no drama in this scene and everyone is fine.
  • A young man was beaten for sending a love note (know this is before the French Revolution, so the note was probably appropriate for any eyes) to an aristocratic young woman. This all happens in the past, before the book begins.
  • Parents are reported as dead (in the past). One man's mother apparently went insane.
  • People are in danger of being killed quite often, but this is more of a theme and less of a dramatic reality (such as one would get if there a knife or gun in play).
  • A main character is beaten brutally by soldiers. This scene is narrated by a woman who can only hear the man's cries but cannot see the beating.

My Thoughts
The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Virginian--my two biggest literary crushes.
Both married.
But once upon a time, Stacy and I found the English language particularly constricting and redefined/clarified "crush" as an attraction to the God-given beauty and goodness in another human being, and a desire to partake in it (of course, that lead us to creating a whole bunch of "crush" subsets, but that's irrelevant).
Yes, I know neither of those characters is a real human, but they were created in the image of humanity and given beauty and goodness by an author who (whether knowing or not) was influenced by God.
My point? My point is that this is a fantastic book about fantastic adventures undertaken by a truly awesome character.

On a more literary note, it's interesting that the author chooses to tell the story from the perspective of a character who is not the Scarlet Pimpernel. It makes it especially tricky to really figure out who is and also pin down the personality of that character. But it's very well done and, honestly, a brilliant choice.

Fun Facts
This being a book my British Literature students read, I did more research on this book than I usually do. Might I add that this (and Prisoner of Zenda) were very popular among both the boys and the girls?
Interesting things about the author:
  • Hungarian immigrant to Britain.
  • Wrote short stories of a woman working for the Scotland Yard, similar to Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, these stories never took off.
  • Novelist, playwright, and artist
  • Her crime stories were based on real-life instances
  • Happily married woman with one known kid. This son (John Montague Oczy-Barstow) wrote  a book titled The Life and Exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel (also known as "The Gay Adventurer") which is meant to be the biography and family history of the man who is the Scarlet Pimpernel. He published this under the name John Blakeney, and his mother wrote the forward.
Interesting things about the book:
  • Often seen as the inspiration for today's espionage heroes (think James Bond, Jack Ryan, etc), as well as our dual-identity superheroes (Arrow/Oliver Queen, Flash/Barry Allen, Batman/Bruce Wayne, Superman/Clark Kent--hopefully I didn't ruin any of these for you).
  • Originally written as a play. The Baroness's husband helped with the writing.
  • Sequels were not as popular.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Movie Review: Tomorrow, When the War Began

Title: Tomorrow, When the War Began
Author: Caitlin Stasey (Lady Kenna in Reign series), Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lincoln Lewis, etc. Basically people I recognized by face, but not name. All with awesome Australian accents.
Release Date: 2010
Genre: war, drama, romance, coming of age, action, adventure, survival
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: R (according to IMDb, but that seems a little high, which is odd given MPAA ratings tend to be too low in my opinion); proposed rating: PG-13
Age Group: 16+ (could be 14+ if not for mention of teens having sex)

Seven unlikely friends go camping in the beautiful wilderness of their native Australia. Two best friends from childhood, a boyfriend, the rich (but sweet) girl, the town trouble-maker, the boy whose family owns a restaurant, and a church girl (because the parents wanted 8 to go, but they decided 7 would be fine as long as one was a church girl--keep them all in line and whatnot).
They're having a great time on their last big hurray before graduation and moving on to bigger responsibilities. Sure, there are deadly snakes and they have to hunt rabbits, but really, small price to pay for such a great adventure.
Then they go home. And no one is there. The kids eventually learn Australia has been invaded and everyone has been rounded up into camps. Trying to avoid being killed themselves, the kids flee back to their campsite, bringing along yet another unlikely member (a sweet guy who smokes pot).
Guilt eats at them. Finally, they decide to wage guerrilla warfare on the enemy until help comes.

Word of Warning

As noted above, I find the MPAA rating a little high. Granted, I advised the movie not be watched by anyone younger than 16 (mainly because of my first bullet point below), but I am used to MPAA ratings being a bit young. What I see in this movie is horrible, yes, because it is war, but not what I've seen in the very few R rated movies I've seen.
  •  Two girls at the beginning of the movie talk about sex. There is nothing graphic. One girl says she and her boyfriend did it, and the other girl responds. Both seem excited, and nothing negative is said.
  • Clothing. Low cut shirts, short shorts, and a girl wearing a bikini (a guy ogles her unashamedly).
  • Kissing. The couple mentioned above is seen kissing a few times. One girl says she kissed a member of the group and claims he is "a really good kisser." Another kiss is shown that starts to get passionate (and, quite honestly, is grossly loud with headphones on).
  • Injuries. One kid gets shot in the leg (we don't see it, only blood, and the healing is fast). A girl cuts her leg pretty badly. One kid is shot in the abdomen and is rushed to a hospital (that is the last we see of this character). A person is shot through the head, scene is a far-off shot but still very disturbing.
  • This is war. There are guns, people get shot at (and hit sometimes), buildings are bombed, and things blow up. The kids barely escape more than once.
  • In a heartbreaking scene the most innocent of the group mows down three enemy soldiers with a semi-automatic to save other members of the group.
  • One character lights a stick on fire and causes an explosion that lights several enemy soldiers on fire. We see one soldier in a close-up, her face melted, and she presumably dies. The character who caused the explosion rightfully has a very hard time getting over this.
  • A dead dog is shown, eye clouded, flies buzzing about. I realize in the grand scheme of this movie, this really isn't a big deal. But the scene is disturbing and startling based on where it is put in the movie.
  • A car chase involving a garbage truck and two to three little zippy cars (no clue what to call them). Cars blow up and flip and the chase is rather harrowing. It's also a good point, because really, a garbage truck and speedy car chase?
  • One character smokes pot. In one scene he talks about being stoned, but he's clearly still high.
  • Kids lie to their parents, particularly a religious figure.
  • Language. I didn't write down the words or the numbers. I hadn't even intended to review the movie originally. Basically, if you deem the other stuff in this list appropriate, the language content should be fine too.

My Thoughts
The movie took a little while to get anywhere, which frustrated me. Then again, they were dealing with seven (then eight) characters, so I can understand why it took a little while to establish any character development. When it does come, I appreciated the raw look at killing and how it changes the soul. The poor teens propose different views of this but ultimately cannot come to a conclusion: only that it seems to be necessary given the circumstances, and that it's awful. Who gets to decide who dies? Why is one person's life more valuable than another? Good moral questions, and the movie does not shy away from them.
My biggest objection (aside from the completely unnecessary mention of sexual intimacy at the beginning, and the apparent glorification of it) is the ending.
Which simply isn't.
I realize this is a movie based on a book series by John Marsden, and this is probably how the first book ended. But still. If you watch it, you'll see what I mean. However, don't avoid the movie just because of the dissatisfying ending.

Fun Quote:
"That a good book?"
"Yes. Better than the movie."
"Books always are."

Friday, December 11, 2015


Hello all,
Having fiddled with the Archives page again (I can't seem to just leave it be), I discovered something rather shocking. We have almost no Marvel or DC reviews.
Now that's only shocking because superhero movies and TV shows tend to be a guilty pleasure of mine. Yes, the secret I have been unintentionally keeping from the blog has at last come out.
And I'm sorry. Stacy and I will work harder to review these, since we do tend to watch quite a few of them. I suspect the reason there are so few reviews is because we see these in theaters, and people give you the "what are you doing?" look when you bring a notebook (actually, it's just hard to take notes in a theater. too many distractions, no pause button, etc).
But that is no excuse. I'm going to get right on this, probably over break.
Thank you again for all the visits! And as always, we're happy to take suggestions.
God bless!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Book Review: The Prisoner of Zenda

This book, like Peter Pan, is one of the books I have included in the British Literature course I am teaching. I hope that, even if I do not have much time to review books I have read in my free time, I can always turn to the literature courses I am teaching for material.

Title: The Prisoner of Zenda
Author: Anthony Hope Hawkins (commonly just "Anthony Hope")
Release Date: 1894
Genre: action, adventure, drama, fiction, Ruritanian Romance (like The Princess Bride!), politics, romance
My Rating: *****
Students'* Rating: Unanimous "Awesome!"
Official Rating: fiction
Age Group: 12+

Rudolf Rassendyll has never done anything productive with his life, and his sister-in-law can't take it anymore. Go see the crowning of the king of Ruritania, she says. Go rub elbows with the big shots. Have fun.
Fine. To keep his sister-in-law happy, Rudolf wisely heads off to Ruritania. However, on the way, he finds himself caught up in a political war and impersonating someone, the threat of death always upon him.
Best (worst?) of all? He falls in love with the woman he is courting--while impersonating her real betrothed.
Will Rudolf be caught in his impersonation? And how to rescue the man he is impersonating?
And what is he to do about Princess Flavia?

Word of Warning
  • Characters get drunk. We don't see them acting drunk, they just are drunk.
  • A character is drugged and kidnapped.
  • People get hurt, but nothing graphic and usually not serious.
  • A few chaste kisses.
  • Sword fights. Guns. Excitement!
  • A character impersonates another.
  • Someone dies.

My Thoughts
This is possibly one of my favorite books of all time, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when my students liked it too. Maybe I wasn't biased after all!
No, in all seriousness, this is a fantastic tale. It's so good that it established the Ruritanian Romance genre (courtly romance in a fantasy setting). There is danger, impersonation, sword fighting, break-ins, and very interesting moral musings about what is right and what is not.
It's not the easy-going style of more contemporary writing, but it is intriguing enough and not too complex, making it readable, just a bit of work for younger readers less experienced in the classics.
The main character is fun, witty, and a great adventurer. And while he might start of careless and fun, he develops into a self-sacrificing man who ultimately does the right thing, no matter how heartbreaking that ends up being.

Fun Fact(s)
In addition to establishing a whole new literary genre, Hope/Hawkins earned the praise of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island.
Anthony Hope Hawkins is much better known as simply Anthony Hope, it is fun to note that he has the same last name as Stevenson's protagonist Jim Hawkins.
Though he wrote 32 works of fiction in addition to plays, Hope/Hawkins is best known for The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau.

*Students in this particular case range from grades 8-12, class contains nearly even number of boys and girls.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Album Review: Under the Arches

Hello all!
To usher in the beginning of a new church season, and because my ears are so very happy at the moment, I thought I'd do an interesting review of some music. Interesting because I am reviewing a cover album, so in a sense I am double-reviewing (reviewing the lyrics of the original as well as the covering artist). This will change the format a bit, of course, but hopefully it is still relatively familiar. Here I go!

Title: Under the Arches
Author: Summit Singers
Release Date: 2015
Genre: pop, country, classic, A Capella
My Rating: *****
Official Rating: N/A
Age Group: 6+

Summary: Summit Singers is an all male A Capella group based out of the University of St. Thomas. While they have been performing for a few years now, this is their first album. Below are the songs they covered and a review of the lyrics, as well as their renditions.
Their Website
Music Video of I Lived 
Updated to add: O Holy Night

My Thoughts
My one critique is that the balance between the main singer (the person with the lyrics) and the backup (the people with the music) needs some work. Far too often, the main singer is drowned out by the others. And along the lines of the main singer, they do not always pick their best singers to play that part. Which sometimes is actually a good choice given the song (lyrics, meaning, feel, etc), but sometimes can be a big frustrating.
Other than that, these guys are fantastic. Listening to their music, well, honestly I shouldn't be trying to use words to describe something like this, no matter how much we English majors value them. Words fail here. There is little to say except these young men are very very skilled and I hope you have the chance to enjoy these great songs not only in their original form, but in this A Capella rendition.
And one other thing: as fantastic as this CD is, it does not do this group justice. Someone else who has heard them live said the same thing. This is fantastic, and I love having it in my car so I don't have to wait for the biannual concerts, but as amazing as the CD sounds, they sound even better in concert.

As with all my music reviews, I've added a break here because the post is so long. I encourage you to click and read on!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Movie Review: Schindler's List


Disclaimer: I watched this movie for a theology class titled "Christian Faith in the Management Professions." Basically, it's a class about theology in the business world (and a fantastic class at that!). Because of this, I was paying close attention to the business aspects of the story. I realize there is more to the story than that, and I have tried to highlight it in my review, but if I miss anything, or say something hurtful or offensive, I apologize. The Holocaust was a horrible event in history, so horrible movies and books cannot begin to address it, but we need to start somewhere.
With that said, I humbly present my review of this stunning movie.

Title: Schindler's List
Author: Steven Spielberg, Liam Neeson
Release Date: 1993
Genre: Drama, true story, historical, WW II
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: R
Age Group: 18+

World War II opens up a whole new world of business for eager entrepreneur Oskar Schindler. Finding that he can hire Jews much more cheaply than any other workers, the man makes a serious profit off Jewish labor while the Jews are kept in a Ghetto. His accountant/manager Itzhak Stern (also a Jew) takes the opportunity to make "essential workers" of people otherwise considered by the Nazis as useless. A one-armed man. Older people. A teacher. A little boy. The list goes on.
Slowly, Schindler starts to see the horrors that are happening around him and his little business. During the scene titled "Liquidation of the Ghetto" he finally sees reality and has no idea what to do.
Eventually, Schindler creates a good business that keeps Jews safe. When the camps begin to kill the Jewish people living in them, Schindler makes a list of all his workers. They are essential, he says, and he doesn't have time to train new ones. The little girls' fingers help clean out the shells of bullets, he argues, and they must come too. He pays the camp officials for his list of Jews and brings them to his home town where they work in a factory.
None of this, however, happens without struggle.

Word of Warning
 I'm going very general here. Let me say this: the movie is rated R and it has every reason to be. Personally, I regret seeing some of the scenes of this movie. It was very intense.
  • Death. People die all the time. Most are shot in the head. A head blows to pieces, blood spurts from wounds, etc. Most of the violence is non-graphic and almost calm in an utterly disturbing way.
    • Most memorable and painful death moments: a young child is killed and more young deaths are implied; the man's head being blown off; a whole "cabin" of men is lined up and every other man is shot; about five men are lined up and shot with one bullet, those remaining standing are shot individually; a man is hanged; a hospital shooting where everyone there is shot (the nurses killed the patients beforehand secretly); little boy shot while being held up by soldiers; the random killings by Goeth which are shown from affair but sudden an unexpected
  • Nudity. Both Schindler and Amon Goeth (camp official) have mistresses. Goeth's mistress is seen completely topless more than once, but as far as I can remember not in a purposefully sexual way. It's usually just morning and she is lounging in bed. Jews are told to remove all clothes and forced to run about the camp for a physical evaluation--men and women are shown completely nude. This is non-sexual and usually brief. Women are shown completely nude going into a giant shower house. Again, non-sexual.
  • Schindler is a player. He has a wife but is not at all faithful to her, and she spends most of the movie living elsewhere. He has a regular mistress in addition to flirting with other women and, in one scene, kissing a whole bunch of different women.
  • An official mocks a young women who is barely dressed, beats her, and leaves her for dead.
  • Drinking. One character is shown drunk.
  • Burning of dead bodies.
  • Language is an issue, but not to the point where it detracts from the movie. Considering how, when, and who uses it, I think it makes sense. It's just not appropriate language for younger children, but they should not be watching this movie.
  • This movie is considered a relatively accurate representation of the Holocaust.

My Thoughts
This is a horrific masterpiece. I'm not sure how to describe it. The music, the acting, the black and white film, the dullness and simplicity, everything. It all adds up to show a beautiful story in the midst of something utterly horrific.
In the midst of it all, Schindler is oblivious at first, just as the girl in the red coat. But as he watches the girl, he comes to a realization: he can't be clueless anymore. She remains so, and dies. Schindler decides to live purposefully--and not just for money.
Money isn't the greatest good anymore--people are.
My heart broke more than once as I watched this movie. I don't regret watching it, but it was very very painful--as it should be.
Wonderfully done. Beautiful horrible story.
Praise God for giving us people like this in our times of need, to rescue the few they can.
And praise God for giving us film makers like this who can share the story and touch hearts all over again.