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.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Novella Review: Nightjohn

Title: Nightjohn
Author: Gary Paulsen
Release Date: 1993
Genre: slavery, education, historical fiction, novella
My Rating: *
Official Rating: young adult fiction
Age Group: 16+ (depending on maturity of the reader)

Sarny is a young girl on a plantation. One day, a new slave is brought to the plantation. His name is John, and his back bears evidence of many horrible beatings. As Sarny struggles with what goes on around her, she eventually comes to discover a dangerous secret about John: he has come to teach slaves to read.

Word of Warning
  • People are referred to as "breeders" if they are going to be used in just that way.
  • Horrible bloody beatings. Descriptions of dogs attacking humans.
  • References to "the troubles" which is a girl's period.
  • One young woman doesn't take well to breeding, and is tied up and forced to comply (basically raped). She was a little crazy in the head before, but this pushes her over the edge.
  • A woman is beaten to protect someone else. Later, a man suffers the same fate.
  • Someone's toes are cut off.
  • A young man determined not to be old enough for the breeders shed sneaks away to a neighboring farm to meet with a girl, is caught, and then castrated (Sarny describes it as being treated like the cattle so there will be no more sneaking away to girls, but you get the idea of what's actually going on).
My Thoughts
This is a brutal, horrible book. Paulsen did his research well, and unfortunately this is the truth, the novella even based on a true story. While the story might be accurate, and might contain hope through education, I'd warn to be very careful about handing this on to youth readers. It's a short read, and I'd recommend reading it yourself before handing it to a student or one of your own children. Just make sure that what's in the book is something they are ready for. If not, it will come as a horrible shock and hurt them deeply.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Book Review: Flame of Resistance

Title: Flame of Resistance
Author: Tracy Groot
Release Date: 2012
Genre: historical fiction, romance, Christian, drama
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: adult fiction
Age Group: 18+
Awards: Christy Award

When Tom Jaeger's plane is shot down over France, he is rescued by members of the resistance group called the Flame and nursed back to health by a sweet old grandmother named Clemmie.
Greenland, the leader of the Flame, eventually forms a plan. Tom looks like the perfect German, so why not send him undercover? A few changes are made, and Tom finds himself going undercover to a Germans-only brothel to gain intel from Brigette, the woman who runs the house. Tom's not the least bit comfortable with this situation, but as long as all they have to do is sit and talk, he eventually gets over it.
But when the mission is compromised, will everyone managed to escape alive?

Word of Warning
  •  As mentioned above, there is a brothel. The author is very careful to carefully dance around anything descriptive, almost making sex itself a dirty thing (which was wrong).
  • Girls are catty.
  • People get hurt, get captured, and die.
  • Torture.
  • One young woman is captured and tortured, raped, and left for dead.
  • This is a war. Germans are horrible (though not all, as we soon learn). People die, people are starved, people are driven to horrible things just to survive. They ignore others and let them take beatings, they sell themselves into prostitution, etc. There is no sugarcoating here.

My Thoughts
The book was good. Well done, even. I enjoyed it, and I was hooked. The pilot is a compelling character, as is Clemmie, and even Brigette. It's a sad story, but a good one, and I think it sheds light on the truth of a horrible time in history that is far too often sugarcoated by our historical fiction. Well done, Groot. Well done.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Movie Review: Brooklyn

Title: Brooklyn
Author: BBC Films, Parallel Film Production
Release Date: 2015
Genre: Historical fiction, romance, drama
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: PG-13 (for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language)
Age Group: 18+

Eilis (A-lish) is stuck in Ireland with no prospects. Her mother stays at home, her sister works, and Eilis works too--at the general store down the street run by a crabby middle-aged lady. Rose, Eilis' sister, writes to Fr. Flood in America and soon enough Eilis finds herself on a boat to Brooklyn with no indication of coming back.
Brooklyn's nice enough, and full of Irish people, but Eilis misses home. And life in America isn't as easy as everyone says.
We hope Eilis can make it America, but making it isn't everything. Hopefully she can thrive.

Word of Warning
  • Eilis is very non-combative. This is fine, except it leads to many misunderstandings because instead of explaining or defending herself, she just remains silent and deals with the issues herself.
  • We see a sea sick young woman sit on a bucket since the bathroom has been locked. Later, she pukes in the same bucket.
  • Language: f*ck. There were others that were less problematic, but unfortunately I don't have a list of them.
  • A dead cold body is shown, found by the mother of the dead character. It can be very hard to see because it's so heartbreaking.
  • Eilis struggles with being homesick and lonely.
  • Eilis neglects to tell her mother about a significant development in her life. This causes all sorts of complications later on.
  • A young woman accidentally leads a young man on, then eventually this becomes less of an accident but something she just doesn't bother to clear up.
  • Two characters make love the day before they're to be married in a civil ceremony. While we don't see much as far as skin, the scene is very awkward and there is no question about what is going on. It isn't a long scene and easily skipped.

My Thoughts
It was a simple movie that you need to be in the right mood for, and honestly I don't think any of my brothers will ever sit through more than five minutes of it. But my sister and I enjoyed it. The movie moves slowly, simply, and feels honest and quiet. It feels like Eilis.
Somehow, they capture in film how she's feeling even though it involves no voice overs or camera tricks. This is just the story of an Irish immigrant in the 1950s. There is little to say about it, to be completely honest. It's just good and well done. It's not one of those films that exposes some tragedy or terrible thing that happened.
It just looks at the truth in an honest and simple way, and ends honestly and simply, and worth watching.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Book Review: Legion

Title: Legion
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Release Date: 2012
Genre: Adventure, drama, sci-fi
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: adult fiction
Age Group: 12+

"My name is Stephen Leeds, and I am perfectly sane. My hallucinations, however, are all quite mad."
Thus begins a mind-bending adventure in which we meet Stephen Leeds' hallucinations, or aspects, as he calls them. He's a brilliant man and essentially what happens is he has different characters in his head. One's a SEAL, one a therapist, another a history expert, then there's the one who speaks Hebrew...and so on until he has nearly all 47 rooms in his mansion filled.
Of course, no one can see or hear these aspects except Leeds, but he still gives them actual space, and thankfully so does his faithful butler Wilson.
Leeds is a recluse, hiding away from the scientists who want to figure out his "condition" but when a woman presents to him an interesting mystery, he agrees to go to Israel to try to solve it.
Afterall, why not try to find a camera that can take pictures of the past?
Well, one reason could be the terrorist group that wants to use it to destroy all major world religions. Or that could be a motivator. Either way, Leeds is off to Israel!

Word of Warning
Very few problems with this book. I think it's not put in children's or YA fiction just because it's not structured or targeted as one, but I think it really hits the three major areas (children, YA, adult) rather well.
  • Language: damn, "oh my God", and bastard. Each time these are used (as rarely as it is), one of the aspects kindly warns "Language!"
  • Terrorists. They attack, blow a car up, capture major characters, and torture/beat a man almost to death before shooting him. They also cut off his hand (but that's done before we meet him).
  • Speaking of shooting, there is an aspect, J.C. (the SEAL) who is practicing his aim by shooting at a picture of bin Laden. He tends to request "Can I shoot him?" quite often, but I'm not entirely sure he's serious. He does come in handy when the terrorists are in the heat of a battle.
  • Essentially, Leeds murders about five people in self-defense, but it's complicated by by the fact that he attributes this to J.C.
  • The goal of the terrorist group is to prove all major world religions wrong. This is nicely contrasted by another character who is trying to use the camera to prove Christianity (more specifically Catholicism) true. And it's not that this character doubts it, it's that he wants to prove it to doubters.
    • One of the aspects is very impressed by the man's persistence in remaining a serious scientist and a faithful Christian (probably Catholic). While this is really great, the aspect spends a few moments making it sound like these two things actually don't go together and should in a normal world compete. Eventually the aspect tries to conclude that they can work together, but the conclusion is a little weak when put up against his speech before it.
My Thoughts
It's a fast read, really only about 84 pages, mostly dialogue since Leeds spends a good amount of time talking to his aspects. It's fun, watching a character talk to compartmentalized information in his head that is manifested as characters. Plus the adventure is a fun, fast-paced story that isn't too complicated to follow but just enough to make you think, and just when you thought you had it, turns out you didn't.
And Leeds knows his aspects aren't real. He also thinks he can't live without them. But there's a mysterious woman who was teaching him how to control them, and himself, to get his life back into order. And he's torn between how much he loves life with his aspects, and knowing that he really needs something more from life, and something needs to change.
With something this easy and enjoyable to read, I can say two things: I'm off to find the rest of the series, and I'm interested to see where Leeds goes next.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Movie Review: Earth to Echo

Title: Earth to Echo
Author: Disney
Release Date: 2014
Genre: adventure, sci-fi, family, friendship
My Rating ****
Official Rating: PG for action, peril, and mild language
Age Group: 8+ (my only concern for this age group is the bar scene, mentioned below)

Tuck, Alex, and Munch. They're best friends, and suddenly, per a government ruling that a freeway will be built right through their neighborhood, they're forced to part. The boys are devastated and are pretty sure this is going to be the end of their friendship. But when their phones "barf" the day before they're all scheduled to move, the boys decide to have one last adventure together. They're going to figure out what is going on with the phones, no matter what it takes.
Tuck will, of course, film the whole thing. Always gotta have a good home video!

Word of Warning
  • The boys all lie to their parents about where they'll be so they can run off to the desert, alone. Later, they're joined by a girl, who also lies. Another issue with this is how easily the boys get away with this, and for how long. It's clear that while their parents probably do love them, they're not paid nearly enough close attention.
  • The group soon learns that in order to complete their mission, they need to break into various places where havoc results--not by their direct doing, but they do enable it.
  • One of the places the group ends up at is a bar. People are partying and drinking, and an older woman at the bar buys some of the boys drinks (they bravely resist, and are luckily able to escape before they're forced to drink).
  • One character goes on and on about how her father is a drunk (or an was hard to hear) and how she just wants to get away from him and her poor mother....All as a lie to distract someone whom she doesn't want asking questions. The whole story is completely made up and mumbled through fake tears.
  • Someone gets left behind and caught by a security guard. He's rescued, and nothing bad happens aside from a mildly-harsh scolding from the guard, but this experience is traumatizing for the kid who is an orphan and living with foster parents. He has a fear of being left behind, and this experience does NOT help matters.
  • The kids are eventually "captured" by government agents. They're questioned and while the most fearful of them breaks down and sobs out every answer asked for, the others don't seem nearly as scared. The agents themselves behave as children would imagine them to, not telling their parents and forcing them to do things against their wills.
  • One of the boys tells a story about how he and a girl at school kissed in the bathroom. He rates the kiss as ok, saying that "he's kissed girls in better places" but this comment seems much more related to the bathroom setting than it does to other possibilities.
  • One of the boys remarks that he'll be sleeping over, "In your mother's bed. Not playing video games", a comment meant to be inappropriate but honestly just really funny to an older audience because of how innocent and ridiculous it sounds.
  • The kids end up at a teen party where there is clearly under-age drinking, passionate kissing, and one guy is passed out in the bathtub (fully clothed, alone, no implications made).
  • Under-age driving.
  • The boys, having met an alien, decide to do whatever they can to rescue it. Sometimes this means just following a map, but eventually it means breaking into places, trespassing, and breaking various other laws. At the climax, they decide to trust the alien, at the risk of hundreds of human families, and give it what it wants. It's not clear whether they expect the alien to harm the hundreds, but they do know it's a very real possibility. While this might seem honorable in terms of friendship, it's childishly short-sighted.
My Thoughts
There are a few texts that I am honestly impressed with their make up or structure. Finding Neverland captures J. M. Barrie so well and has such a beautiful supportive structure that, as a whole, it's a wonderful work of art. Sea of Tranquility uses alternating narration to navigate difficult issues in a way that is very human but also honest and open. Chasing Shadows blends narration with comic strips to give a sense of urgency and intense emotions. Salt to the Sea uses multiple narrators, finally circling each other in a fascinating way, to tell a story so horrible and yet so full of goodness you cry at the end, even if you're not a crier for anything else. And The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society uses letters to tell a great story, adding an edge that the story could never have in classic narration form. While there are others, they are sadly few and far between.

But this movie joins those ranks. Tuck is proposed as the "author" of the story, narrating, filming, and apparently later compiling the videos to create the final product. We're given his camera, the other boys' cameras, and the alien's camera. We're convinced that these are just boys adventuring, and honestly, it's so genuine I don't even know how someone wrote this. It makes me wonder if they handed the boys cameras and said, "You find an alien and it needs help" and let them go from there.
I know that's not what happened, but that's how well-done this movie is. It fits well as a whole. The dialogue, the characters, the structure, the camera, the music, everything--it comes together as an incredible whole that is worth seeing.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Movie Review: Pan

Title: Pan
Author: Warner Brothers
Release Date: 2015
Genre: fantasy, family, adventure, Peter Pan, British literature, children
My Rating: ***
Official Rating PG for fantasy action violence, language, and some thematic material
Age Group: 10+

Poor Peter and his friends. They're orphans in a very miserable orphanage, as apparently all orphanages always are. He wants his mother, and he's positive that she'll come back for him. But with WWII raging on outdoors, doesn't he have bigger things to think about?
Unlike all literary orphanages, this one has a crabby old nun (wait for it, I promise this is different)...who sells the boys to pirates who fly ships across the sky.
Wait, what?
Peter and some of the boys are kidnapped by Blackbeard where they are forced to mine fairy dust and fight for their survival. But Peter still wants his mother, and his new buddy James Hook wants to go home, so why not work together?
Just when they're ready to take off though, Tiger Lily shows up spewing nonsense about a chosen one, a savior, someone called the Pan. And she's pretty sure Peter is it.
So is Blackbeard, and he'll stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Word of Warning
  • As mentioned above, Peter and the other boys live in a sad orphanage with a cruel nun character who is fat and ugly and basically a tyrant. She also sells the boys to pirates. She's just an all-around nasty character.
  • As with any orphanage, there are abandoned children.
  • The characters are not all together good, even though we're to believe they're on the good side. They break into places, steal, and do general mischief.
  • The PG rating comes from fantasy action violence and thematic material. We see scenes where characters fall to their deaths, bombs are dropped (on England and on pirate ships), characters are nearly crushed by a falling metal car, there is an animated war scene (shown as historical of Neverland), an animated battle scene shows a woman made of bubbles being stabbed and dying, a man looks possessed when attacked by fairies (and quite honestly, attacking fairies are rather fierce), and so on.
  • The mermaids apparently do not even wear shells. Their hair covers what is absolutely necessary. Tiger Lily wears a bandeau style shirt for significantly long parts of the movie. 
  • There is a light, somewhat playful, romance that never amounts to anything physical (not even a hug).
  • Blackbeard is using fairy dust to stay young forever. This can be (and should be) disturbing.
  • An old man is shot and killed. Other characters die as well, though some of these deaths are meant to be comical.
  • Brief mention of suicide, not as an action to take, but rather as a caution.
  • The animals of Neverland are creepy and dangerous.

My Thoughts
If you're looking for something accurate to the original Peter Pan stories by J. M. Barrie, this isn't it. It's much closer to the original feel than, say, Hook starring Robin Williams and a grown up Peter Pan (wait, isn't that a contradiction?). However, there is much focus on family, knowing where one comes from, and heroism for the sake of doing the right thing. This is very much not the vibe of the original book.

But if you're looking for a well done movie with little known actors who are incredibly skilled, a fun fantasy adventure romp, this is a great option. I enjoyed it in theaters, and I enjoyed it again while watching it for research. It proposes some interesting questions, and I'd like to see how it is connected, eventually, to the original Peter Pan. By the end of the movie, you get the feeling this is the first half of a prequel to Peter Pan. I'd like to see where it goes from here.
And even if it goes nowhere, it's still a good, well done movie worth watching and enjoying.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Movie Review: Hook

Title: Hook
Author: Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts
Release Date: 1991
Genre: Adventure, Peter Pan, fantasy, pirates, family
My Rating: *
Official Rating: PG
Age Group: 10+

Wendy Darling took the Lost Boys back with her and found them homes. That was once upon a time, long long ago. Peter Pan came back for Wendy, his "mother", only to find her all grown up with a daughter, Jane. So he took her to Neverland instead. That lasted about as long as Wendy's adventure did.
Then Peter Pan came to Wendy once more, only to find her an old woman. And in the little bed, her granddaugther Moria. Peter Pan fell in love--and decided to stay and grow up.
Now, Peter is a successful businessman in the US with two children (whom he never seems to have enough time for) and a beautiful wife. Off they go to visit Great Grandma Wendy and Tootles (who seems to live with her).
But when Hook kidnaps Peter's young children to take revenge on his arch enemy, Peter is confused. There is no Neverland, no Hook, no Tinker Bell. The police will find his children. Wendy's a sweet (but entirely crazy) little old lady.

Word of Warning
  • This is more explicitly dark than the original Peter Pan stories. Hook is clearly evil and spiteful.
  • The grown up Peter is focused entirely on his career and not on his family. This is often painful to watch.
  • A character (appears to be in his teens) is stabbed in the back and killed.
  • Mermaids are barely dressed, shells acting as bikinis.
  • People are killed, some shot and some stabbed, and much of it is for comic relief.
  • Language: ass, hell, damn, and God's name is used in vain a few times as well.
  • Being Lost Boys with no guidance, the boys throw some pretty Dahl-esque insults at each other (think rude, potty humor, and just mean).
  • In passing, someone says "I didn't do drugs. I missed the sixties. I was an accountant." This isn't dwelt upon.
  • There is a suggested romance between Peter and Tinker Bell. Which is all fine and rather accurate to the original (though it was very one-sided, as were all girls' crushes on Peter, for interesting reasons I won't go into here), but Peter at this point is married. Eventually Peter does refuse her offer of a kiss, but it still feels very unfaithful.
  • Women wear dresses that are a bit low in the front (this isn't counting the mermaids, mentioned above).
  • A grown man because disturbingly childish.

My Thoughts
Me while I'm watching, "That isn't right. That's not how it goes. That's completely contradictory to the original! Why are they doing that? It goes against the original intention" and so on. My siblings, who were watching over my shoulder, rightfully hushed me with a, "Just enjoy the movie."
In my defense, I was actually watching it for a research project I am doing for a class. So it was my job to analyze it properly.
Still, they had a point. The movie on its own wasn't all that bad. Probably not interesting for kids, because an adult is the main character, and it's much darker (explicitly) than the other Peter Pan stories. And maybe not for people who are very familiar with the Peter Pan stories (because yes, there were many, even by Barrie himself).
It wasn't a bad movie. It wasn't a great movie either. And it doesn't capture the spirit of the original Peter Pan or any of his stories.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Movie Review: Finding Neverland

Title: Finding Neverland
Author: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet,
Release Date: 2004
Genre: biography, drama, family, Peter Pan
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and brief language
Age Group: acceptable for 10+, enjoyable for 16+

Sir James Matthew Barrie, author of Peter Pan, or Peter and Wendy, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, or...suffice it to say there were many more versions of this story than the average reader is aware of. While that might be the case, the origin is all the same. Barrie befriended the Llewelyn Davies boys. They're young and adventuring in the local park when he first meets them. Apparently Michael has been put in jail by the evil Prince George. Well jail turns out to be Barrie's park bench, and when he finds out Michael was put there for being a younger brother, he calmly explains that he cannot help him, because there is no way around that sentence. Distracted by his conversation with the boys, Barrie doesn't notice when his dog Porthos wanders off. Mrs. Davies brings him back, trailing behind her her other two boys. Barrie offers a bear show starring Porthos. The boys agree. Thus begins a fantastic friendship.
Barrie imagines adventures and the boys follow along eagerly. Mrs. Davies is incredibly grateful for the joy Barrie brings the boys, especially so soon after their father's death. Peter is particularly hard to grow close to, but eventually even he becomes enamored with the games.
But wonderful things don't last forever. There is always sickness, or marital problems, or a crabby old grandmother.

Word of Warning
  •  There are suggestions (relatively veiled) that Barrie is having an affair with Mrs. Davies. This is far from the truth (even in real life), and he disagrees with these firmly (as does everyone else involved, except his wife, who isn't sure).
  • Barrie's wife does run off with another man, but this is done very discretely as well.
  • A veiled hint that Barrie is a pedophile, which is why he spends so much time with the Davies boys.  Barrie is very angry at this, and loudly counters that that is a horrible thing to say, that they are young and innocent children and that would be an evil thing to do. This entire conversation is very well handled, to the point where I highly doubt any younger viewers would understand it.
  • A character falls ill, eventually dying. this is very hard on other characters, especially given the context.
  • Social drinking, but nothing problematic.
  • Language: shit used twice, crap used twice (these are estimates, not exactly numbers)
My Thoughts
If you watch this movie, be prepared to tear up, possibly even cry.
And you should watch this movie. Not because it's the story behind the creation of Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, or any of its other titles). Not because it stars a very talented cast. Not even because it's the story of a famous and skilled author.
No, you should watch this movie because it's beautiful. Aesthetically, maybe. But the very story itself is beautiful. It's full of goodness amid the suffering, and it's the goodness that brings the tears.
It's full of beauty and goodness that you don't want to miss.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: Violet and the Pearl of the Orient

Title: Violet and the Pearl of the Orient
Author: Harriet Whitehorn
Illustrated by: Becka Moor
Release Date: 2014
Genre: friendship, mystery, British literature
My Rating: **
Official Rating: Childrens to middle grade fiction
Age Group: 8+

Violet Remy-Robinson and her best friend Rose have a good life. They like to play in the garden (Violet is a very good climber), visit the eccentric neighbor lady Dee Dee (she's from America), care for their cats, and they go to a nice school.
Then the Du Plicitous family moves in. Isabella is rude, and so are her parents. Dee Dee starts having trouble with them as her new landlords. Then one day Dee Dee's most valuable possession, the Pearl of the Orient, goes missing. Violet and Rose don't think the whole thing is being handled properly, and they set out to solve the mystery themselves. Now if they could just get someone to take them seriously....

Word of Warning
  • The Du Plicitous family is very very rude. 
  • Violet and Rose hatch several plans to escape from school. Eventually they do (but there are consequences).
  • Violet's parents like a good cocktail, or so we're told. There are several other drinks mentioned as well, and Violet is given a small amount in her own glass. Still, there is no drunkenness or anything I'd be worried about.
  • Violet disobeys her mother and climbs a tree she was told not to climb.

My Thoughts
I picked it up looking for a book to bring home to my younger sister--and because of the illustrations. They're fun, but my favorite part was how they interacted with the text. They didn't just give more detail to the text, making it easier to picture. They were part of the text, and often it was necessary to look at them closely in order to understand the story. It was fun.
The reason there are no more stars than there are is because nothing about this book stood out to me. It was good, and I will be gifting it after all, but it didn't do anything (aside from the pictures) to stand out above any other mystery novel written for this age group.
Still, it's a fun and fast read, and it has enough British English vocabulary in it to keep an American on her toes. Plus, the eccentric American woman was too funny.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Post Update

Hello all,
For the first time in a long time, there has been no Wednesday morning post. I apologize for this. I've been doing archival work in the UK for the past two weeks and decided to not stress about getting reviews out. I will be returning very soon, however, and am excited to share the many new books I've found here, as well as jump right back into watching TV shows and movies. And perhaps even some music! I haven't been listening to much here, so it's quite possible there will be something that catches my ear when I return.
As always, we do take requests. Just leave a comment on any of the posts with a request for a genre, a specific title (book, movie, TV show, song, etc), or any other suggestions.
Thank you for your patience, and your continued support. We will return shortly!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review: Hetty Feather

Title: Hetty Feather
Author: Jacqueline Wilson
Release Date: 2010
Genre: historical fiction, family, friendship, orphans, British literature, children's fiction
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: Children's fiction (middle grade)
Age Group: 10+

Hetty Feather's name isn't actually Hetty. That's just the name the Foundling Hospital gave her when she was abandoned there by her mother. She's pretty sure she actually has a really beautiful name, even though she's not quite sure that would match her appearance.
Lucky Hetty ends up with a loving foster family. Then, she's sent back to the Foundling Hospital at the age of six, as is required of all foundlings who were fostered. There, she learns her school lessons and sews. She's fed and has a home.
Hetty knows there is so much more in the world, and quite honestly, the Foundling Hospital isn't what it's all cracked up to be, and Hetty and her authorities don't get along very well.
Which is fine, because Hetty is dead set on finding out who her mother is and finding a real home at last.
What will happen to Hetty?

Word of Warning
I apologize that this list isn't as detailed as it could be. I had not intended to write a review on this book and had to read it for school in less than 48 hours, so did not have much time to keep a detailed list of problems.
  • Orphans, often hopeless.
  • Children are "beaten" as punishment.
  • Children sneak out when they're not supposed to.
  • Mention of a circus lady being "barely dressed". She is idolized for her skills as a horse rider by Hetty.
  • Children are mean to each other.
  • People die. Children die.
  • A man, probably a pedophile, approaches Hetty and speaks to her. For the innocent reader, all you can tell is that he's a creepy person. For the more mature reader, the signs are there for us to know what this man is without the story becoming graphic.
  • A drunken man beats his children (mentioned but never shown).
My Thoughts

This seems to be the Laura Ingles Wilder series of Britain. It has its own show, has become a series, is historical fiction, and is very popular.

It's well written. I didn't need the impish redhead on the front of the book to know this girl was sassy, cute, and just trying to make it with what she's handed. The narration is well done, and mature themes are handled very appropriately. They are serious, but because of the narrator's age the story moves past them quickly. This risks making serious things feel trivial, but such as not the case. Just as death isn't trivial for children in reality, it's not trivial here either. It's just dealt with at a different speed, with a different understanding, and in a different way than adult readers would tend toward in their own lives.

Honestly, this is a very well-done book. There were points where I skimmed narration (possibly because of the short time frame I had to read the book). There were points when my frustration as a reader could not be reconciled by my knowledge as a writer and literary critique (those moments when there really seems no good reason for that plot point/twist to have happened).
Overall, though, it was well done. I won't be giving this book away any time soon, except as a loan, and as such, to anyone who is willing to take it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review: Matilda

Title: Matilda
Author: Roald Dahl
Release Date: 1988? (hard to tell)
Genre: adventure, comedy, children's fiction, British literature, school
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: Children's literature
Age Group: 8+ (will probably require some discussion, not a read-alone book for this age)

Summary: Matilda is a very special little girl. She taught herself to read. She knows her times tables. She completely blows away her first year teacher.
Of course, her parents think she's stupid. But then again, they're not much better. Her father is a swindler, and her mother's goal in life seems to be to watch her programmes on TV. Her brother...well he doesn't even merit mentioning, aside from saying that her father seems to think the lad is very bright and has a future in the car selling business.
School, then, should be a safe haven for Matilda to really grow. It's not. With Miss Trunchbull as the headmistress, no child is safe at school. I mean that in a very literal sense. They get throw out windows and hung by their ears. Miss Trunchbull is a very mean woman.
When Matilda sees what Trunchbull does to the other children, and her beloved teacher Miss Honey, the little girl sets her brilliant mind to finding a solution and saving the school. Can she do it?

Word of Warning
  •  Understand that this is classic Roald Dahl. He has a very British sense of humor (snarky, slightly rude/crude). This particular book is full of great insults. None bad words (so far as I know, given my limited knowledge of British English), but some real whoppers, nonetheless.
  • Violence. Children are beaten, hung by their ears, and forced to do miserable things (eating a whole cake, standing in the Chokey (a torture device), and slapped about). This is cartoonish in terms of rules of the universe, which means everyone is fine and not injured, but it can still be rather concerning.
  • Matilda is a completely independent child it seems like. She is not even five years old at the beginning of the book. She goes to the library and reads numerous mature books. She goes off to her teacher's house. She decides to live with her teacher (this, for some reason, requires the consent of her parents).
  • Matilda's parents are stupid, and portrayed as such, and she likes to "punish" them for their stupidity by playing pranks on them.
  • There seems to be a huge role reversal here with Matilda being the "parent" and her parents being the "children".
  • It is implied that a man was killed by his sister-in-law.
  • A trick is played in which it is pretended that a man (who is dead) writes a message on a blackboard to his implied killer.
  • Roald Dahl tends to have a rather snarky slightly negative view of children, but in a more playful way than, say, Augustine's description of babies, or Barrie's description of children as happy, fun, and heartless. Still, one of the harsher words he uses to describe children is "scab" (something to be picked off as soon as possible).

My Thoughts
My first inclination as I was reading this book was to smile a bit and shake my head. Then I laughed a few times. Then I winced while laughing. Then I wondered what the target audience was, since it was getting pretty intense.
Overall, it was a fun book. Roald Dahl can be a bit crude at times when it comes to his language and stories, but he's still good entertainment, and Matilda is no exception.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review: The Five Children and It

Title: The Five Children and It
Author: E. Nesbit
Release Date: 1902
Genre: children's literature, fantasy, adventure, family
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: Children's Fiction
Age Group: 4+ (good read aloud)

While on holiday in their country house, five siblings decide to go exploring the gravel pit (going to it by the safe route). There, they find It. It is a Psammead (say: Sammy-add), or a Sand-Fairy. The Sand-Fairy is crabby and old and looks sort of like a furry monkey with snail eyes. If It's appearance is not enough for you, perhaps the fact that It can grant wishes will catch your interest. Yes, It can give you anything you desire, but whatever you wish is, it will turn to stone (or disappear) at sunset.
The kids try all sorts of things. They try for fun, they try for good things for their mother, and a lot of the time their tendency to say "I wish such-and-such" in everyday speech gets them things they never really wanted.
And what if you accidentally wish that everyone wanted your little baby brother? Or to live in a besieged castle? What then?

Word of Warning
There is very little here to warn about, which is why it makes such a good read aloud book for the family. I will say that even when things appear to be dangerous and the children in the book are worried, the reader never has that moment of panic and "are they going to make it this time?!" that other books can supply. It's not urgent, not scary, and more of a fun romp that offers instead the question of, "how will they wiggle out of this one?"
  • The kids are normal siblings. They clearly love each other, but they don't always get along.
  • There is a rather disrespectful representation of Native Americans. Not inappropriate, but rude. The same can be said for a band of gypsies.
  • Speaking of rudeness, while the children never swear, they are not above tossing out an insulting comment now and then to each other.
  • Kidnapping.
  • The kids are not always big fans of having to bring their baby brother with them.
  • It has been proposed that the representation of girls and boys in this book is lopsided and slightly sexist. I honestly see it more as little children just being little children, but it does merit at least mentioning.
  • The narrator is different from our usual American children's literature. This can be challenging for the readers to handle sometimes.
  • The children never learn their lesson. It feels like they just might, but then they don't, and they wake up in the morning and repeat the whole ordeal all over again.

My Thoughts
 It's fun. It's British. It's cute. It's a romp.
There are no obvious lessons or morals (though some are debated). This is not a preaching book. It's really just a fun adventure with British children as they enjoy their summer home. This is a fast read, and one you probably do not want to miss out on, especially if you have the opportunity to read it aloud to a younger audience.

Fun Facts
  • E. Nesbit was a rather controversial figure and would be considered so even now, let alone during her own life time. She preferred to write adult fiction, but her children's fiction sold better. Strangely enough, she wasn't a big fan of children.
  • The book was published as a serial novel in The Strand. This might be why it feels so episodic, to the point where you could reorder the chapters and have very little difficulty understanding the story.
  • Over the years, this book has been offered numerous sequels from many different authors. It was a huge hit in England and has shaped many aspects of children's fiction for a very long time. C. S. Lewis writes about how she influenced his Narnia series. There are also many film adaptions.
  • Since its publication in 1902, it has never been out of print.
  • Nesbit also wrote the children's classics The Railway Children and The Treasure Seekers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Book Review: Naughts & Crosses: a thriller


Title: Naughts & Crosses: a thriller
Author: Malorie Blackman
Publication Date: 2001
Genre: romance, thriller, discrimination, racism, tragedy, British literature
My Rating: *
Official Rating: fiction (adult)
Age Group: 18+

Callum McGreogor is a Naught, a "blanker", and he's white. That means he's at the bottom of the social ladder, as in, the very bottom of the social ladder. Sephy (Persephone) Hadley is a Cross, a "dagger", and she's black. That means she's at the very top of the social ladder, and since her father, Kamel Hadley, is headed toward being prime minister, well, she's at the very top of the social ladder.
In true Shakespearean fashion, the two fall in love. And as with every Shakespearean tragedy, things fall apart.
First it's Callum's attempts to attend a Cross school. He's let in, but really, did anyone expect him to be welcomed? Then his sister Lynette's demise. Father and brother joining the Liberation Militia, and the bombing of a local mall. An arrest. A hanging.
And let's not forget Sephy's attempts to reach her best friend. She tries to talk to him at school--and gets beaten up by the other Cross girls. Her mother has a drinking problem. Her sister hardly speaks to her. Her father has affairs and an illegitimate child and will do anything to remain in the favor of the public.
With everything working against them, and with society changing their views of reality, will Callum and Sephy make it, as a couple, or even as friends?

Word of Warning
  • Mrs. Hadley drinks and is almost constantly drunk. Her daughter also takes up drinking.
  • Mrs. Hadley overdoses on sleeping pills. One theory is she attempted suicide, but the majority believe she just did it for attention.
  • Broken families. Lots of conflict between husbands and their wives, and many mentions of separation and divorce.
  • The Liberation Militia will stop at nothing to defeat the Crosses. Bombings, kidnappings, murder. And their recruits? They are asked to do horrible things, twisting their minds to hatred and nothing else.
  • Mr. Hadley is one of those lying politicians who carefully constructs a public image we've heard so much about in the media as of late.
  • A young woman is mentally unstable. Later, when she seems to recover, she commit suicide.
  • A man is hanged. Another man is electrocuted when he tries to escape prison (this quite possibly was a suicide as well.
  • Violence. Racism. People saying and believing horrible things.
  • Sephy's genuine attempts to bridge the gap between her family and Callum's are scoffed at and she is scolded by Callum's family as well as her own. Later, the author tries to convince the reader she did these things to make herself feel better--and nobody's buying that explanation. This just negates all her actions and frustrates the reader.
  • Kissing. And I'm not talking a chaste kiss between a good couple. I'm talking drunken kisses, desperate and passionate kisses, all in first person. It's the kind of kiss that, shown in a movie, makes the viewer squirm uncomfortably and wish it was over.
  • An unmarried couple has sex, and while the scene cuts out at the last possible second, it still gets rather graphic. In addition to that, it's all wrong. The girl cries. This happens while she's being held prisoner by the LM. She becomes pregnant. Everyone (except baby's father) urges her to have an abortion, but she refuses.
  • A young man is accused of rape (see above described scene). He and the girl both insist it wasn't rape (though honestly, I think there is an argument for it actually being rape). People won't drop this issue and the word keeps getting brought up again and again. It is harshly dealt with.
My Thoughts
I wasn't sure about reviewing this one, because I don't want to sound racist. The reason I gave it one star is because the idea behind the story was important. Discrimination is a reality, in all sorts of realms, and I'm not talking about just racism.
Do I agree with what the author did here? No. Was it interesting? Yes. She flipped what society is calling its norms, and quite honestly, it wasn't any different for me to read it this way than it would have been to read it the other way around. It was an interesting idea though.
But I didn't like the execution of it. I didn't like the characters. The dialogue was incredibly painful, as was the narration. The writing style in general was painful. And this was no thriller.
I read this book for a class, and I started reading it very early on because I could only read a few chapters at a time before needing to stop. Not because it was heartbreaking. Because it was annoying to read.
It was a good idea. It was poorly executed, to the point of it being incredibly hard to read. I'd be interested in seeing this done again, but done well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Book Review: The Club of Queer Trades

Title: The Club of Queer Trades
Author: G. K. Chesterton
Release Date: 1905 (pre-conversion)

Genre: mystery, adventure, humor, morals
My Rating: ***
Official Rating: fiction (adult)
Age Group: 12+
Students' Rating: "confusing but funny"

A collection of G. K. Chesterton's writings about Basil Grant, this novel is more episodic than the classic novel we are used to. It revolves around men belonging to the Club of Queer Trades, where one must create an entirely new way of earning an honest living in a way that has never been done before. Basil Grant, likely a precursor to Fr. Brown, left his job as judge long ago, apparently having gone crazy. Now, he wanders about England with his brother Rupert (a mockery of Sherlock Holmes) solving apparent mysteries that, well, aren't nearly as mysterious and criminal as they appear.
Word of Warning
  • Mention of opium
  • Mention of adventures that involve going to different countries and killing animals for sport
  • Fist fights
  • Apparent danger, prisoners
  • Some slightly immoral businesses. Not immoral along the lines of inappropriate, but immoral as in not morally right.
  • There are lots of things that simply have to be interpreted a different way for them to be understood as not crimes but merely interesting ways of living.
  • Basil is a mystic and stargazer (among other random things)
  • Characters smoke

My Thoughts
Think the beginnings of Fr. Brown and Manalive. It's got enough misunderstandings, moral and philosophical murmurings, quirky characters, ramblings, bashing of others' ideas and authors (Darwinism, Doyle, etc), and Chestertonian-ness to be amusing and full of insights. These are fun little capers that are just quirky enough to keep you smiling and reading. Sure, there's a lot going on, and it's not the best of Chesterton's writings, and it doesn't hold together well. But it's still a fun read that can be thought provoking.
At the very least, it's very, very interesting to watch what new methods of work/income GKC can come up with. There really is no end to this guy's imagination.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Movie Review: Old Fashioned

Title: Old Fashioned
Author: PureFlix
Release Date: 2015
Genre: romance, Christian
My Rating: **
Official Rating: Unrated
Age Group: 18+

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is...
Chivalry makes a comeback.

So the front of the DVD case says. The movie starts with, "Love makes your soul crawl from its hiding place" credited to Zora Neal Hurston.

Amber comes rolling into town, where her car runs out of gas. So, that's where she settles. She rents a place from a guy who owns the antique shop below her little apartment. He's weird, doesn't talk much, and makes her sit on the step whenever he needs to fix any of the appliances in her apartment. Amber, on the other hand, is a free spirit. While Clay might have turned his back on his wild college days completely, Amber likes to have fun, though she's not a party girl, exactly. She just likes to have a good time and not tie herself down.
Really though, she just hasn't found a place she can call home.

Amber and Clay decide they like each other. Ok. So Clay says, "My rules" and Amber says "Sure, as long as you ask me out." He does. And his rules are weird. They get a marriage prep book from the local pastor. Their dates aren't normal, there is no kissing, barely any touching, and they are never to be alone. He says what they're doing isn't dating, because that doesn't lead to good things.
So what are they doing? And why?

Word of Warning
This section is going to be a little strange. Having given my age recommendation, my main concern isn't the content exactly, it's the philosophy. So while I'll briefly list the objectionable content here, I'm also going to share my concerns with the philosophy.
  • Radio. The radio has a lot of awful things to say about women. While there is a person behind the radio, the things said are quite disturbing and very sexist (and I don't usually use that word seriously, but I am here).
    • Mention of seductive ladies ready to win a bachelor; women are stupid, also a mention of "hot stupid women"; mocking of a sweet, faithful, good woman or man; mention of a "luscious body"; mention of a woman getting "knocked up"; the question "what is the point of marriage?" with no answer proposed by the speaker or even the movie
  • A man swipes a picture of a woman. The picture belongs to another man. (goodness, I had to make that two sentences to make it make sense and not sound wrong)
  • Clay apparently made old videos with college girls. We see the girls acting flirty for the camera, and later Amber watches a video and cries, but we don't see the screen. Everything is implied.
  • A friend asks Clay for the "story about the redhead that summer and her ______" (the blank is filled with what is meant to be a suggestive nod)
  • A friend mocks Clay's "I wouldn't do anything to her that I wouldn't want done to me" motto.
  • Quite a few veiled references to sex. It is also mentioned outright a few times, once when Amber claims that "sex takes practice" for one of the reasons one shouldn't wait for marriage.
  • Amber claims to be spiritual, not religious (logical contradiction there), and Clay has stopped going to church because of the hypocrites there.
  • A couple with kids is living together. The woman doesn't see the point in getting married and resists whenever it is mentioned.
  • The ideal honeymoon: not a single distraction from building intimacy with a life-long bride. (which is really sweet, but still something parents should be aware of)
  • When trying to understand why Clay is so weird, Amber's coworkers muse that he's gay, has a disease, or has a "tiny problem"
  • The question "how many sexual partners have you had?" is asked outright. Spoiler: the answer is not one.
  • Clay seems to think dating and the hook up culture are the same (they're not).
  • Careless mention of an extramarital affair.
  • On her honeymoon, a woman says she cried herself to sleep, trying to figure out why her new husband wanted to watch [pause] on TV than touch her.
  • A stripper starts to remove clothes (she gets as far as her scarf and jacket) at a bachelor party.
  • Drinking. Characters get drunk.
  • Interestingly enough, even with all this, characters are for the most part modestly dressed.
  • Divorce.
Amber's stove won't work. She calls Clay. He comes up to fix it, but tells her she needs to sit on the step while he does so. They can't be in the same house alone, he says. So she sits out there, wrapped in a blanket, and waits for him to fix her stove.
This is just one of Clay's many rules. Don't get me wrong, the rules aren't bad. It's just what he uses them for. Clay uses the rules to avoid facing any difficulties, to hide. No, I am not saying one should put oneself in a dangerous situation for the purpose of facing difficulty, nor that one shouldn't try to avoid it. I am saying Clay is using these rules to protect himself emotionally as well. Rules are good, so long as their purpose is kept in mind, and they are not followed blindly. Clay says no sex before marriage. Right on. He also says no kissing before marriage (fun fact: the Catholic Church, aside from warning against arousal, doesn't have any objections to a chaste kiss). Nothing good happens after 11pm, Clay declares. He's probably right.

But he's also wrong. He uses the rules to shut things out. This is not courting in the traditional sense (like the movie implies). It's dating, something Clay claims to be determined to avoid. But dating is not inherently evil, though the movie tries to convince you that it is. It tries to tell you that you're better than that, that you deserve more than dating. Clay says dating teaches you to be witty, charming, and romantic--and somehow these are negative things. But are they really inherently bad? No, they're not.
And, he uses his set of rules (a "theory" he calls them) to claim that it's not our job to seek a romantic partner, they just come to us and we do what we should with them. A soulmate, he explains. Fun fact #2: the Catholic Church doesn't teach that either. And it doesn't say there is anything wrong with looking. So long as it is done properly and for the right reasons and in the right way.

The basic idea of respecting women is wonderful. Thumbs up for that! But the way that idea is carried out is unsatisfying, and there's a reason for that: rules only work when they're based on something and when they can be looked at for their meaning. They must have a heart. Take the Ten Commandments. Suppose I decided to doubt them. You could go through and explain why they should still be upheld, even if I wasn't a religious person. This movie is like Josh Harris's I Kissed Dating Goodbye book. It's a nice idea, but without any grounding, and it's not really clear how to do the idea either. The beauty of the Catholic Church is that it has reasons for what it teaches, it can stand on something.
But Clay can't. He has ideas about how the world works, and for the most part he's right. Then he sets up rules based on the ideas, and these result in the very thing he set out to avoid: causing suffering to a woman he loves. For some reason, this is glorified.
It's not right. It's incredibly frustrating.

Rules are good. But they need a heart, a reason, a why that matches up with the rule. The rule should produce the result the why was pointing at. Clay's don't.

My Thoughts

"Life isn't all warm fuzzies."
"It's not all rules either."

But Amber's "warm fuzzies" don't really win out in the end. In fact, she's shown as the one doing the pursuing in the entire relationship. Clay's rules win. The movie tries to propose that there was a compromise, but if you look closely at the philosophy of it, there wasn't. Not really. Those fuzzies were squashed.
I don't disagree with the rules or the value of rules, particularly in a delicate situation like this. I do disagree with their approach to dating (see this article for a very interesting write up on courting).
Think of flowers as a rule. On Valentines day, that's when and how they're properly used. Now think of flowers on any other day of the year and how nice it is to get them out of the blue, because of what they mean.

But Clay's rules drive his girlfriend to seek drunken comfort in the arms of a man she has never met. They are the reason she begs, "Send me flowers. Bring me chocolate. Tell me I'm the most beautiful woman you have ever met, even if that's not true. I need to know that you want me!"
Clay has denied her something she desperately needs, and deserves. And we're supposed to believe one candlelit evening in a grocery store at the end of the movie means he's willing to bend?
No. Because he's not. He's hurting her.

It's weird. I'm struggling to explain it. By doing everything right, more so than necessary, he's doing everything wrong. The movie was slow, boring, but sort of sweet.
Mostly though, it was frustrating. Most of my notes are arguing with the movie's philosophy, not notes on the content.
That shouldn't be the problem with this kind of movie.

Allow me to end with this. John Henry Newman, the great Anglican convert to Catholicism, spends an entire book titled An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (a 445 page "essay") reasoning through how Christianity could get to where it was in his time after what it looked like to begin with. Basically, to put 445 pages in a nutshell (and that's quite daunting task, considering the work at hand), his aim is this: using "tests", he sets out to prove that the Catholic Church is indeed what it is claiming to be, the Church of Acts (and the Gospels, and the bible, and everything else).
But in the end, even as an Anglican, and later as a Catholic, he admits that these tests (read: rules) will only get him so far. And they can't be applied blindly, or you end up with the debacle the Vincentian method lands the Anglicans in (read: a hypocritical mess).
Sometimes, you need a little faith.
Sometimes, you need to send a girl flowers when it's not Valentine's day. Give her chocolate. Tell her she's the most beautiful woman you've ever met.

Because sometimes...sometimes application of rules, tests, and the Vincentian method land you in a more confusing and unfulfilling place than when you started.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Movie Review: Unbranded

Title: Unbranded
Author: N/A
Release Date: 2015
Genre: animals, wild west, friendship, travel, true story
My Rating: ** (not because it wasn't any good, but because it barely kept my interest)
Official Rating: PG-13
Age Group: 12+

Just out of college, four buddies sharing a passion for horses, decide to do something crazy to make a point. Mustangs are great horses, they insisted. So they decided to prove it by taking sixteen mustangs (and a donkey, to spice up the unit's appearance) from border to border. That's right, Mexico to Canada. Just four guys and their wild horses. All the way across the country.

Word of Warning
  •  Swearing. At least a few uses of f*** and s***, as well as others I did not write down.
  • Horses get hurt. Nothing graphic. A few get leg injuries. One tumbles down a hill, getting a few scrapes.
  • A dead horse is shown. They guys look in its mouth, can't find the cause of death, and cut off the tail. It's disturbing to know this isn't staged, it's a real dead horse.
  • The guys fight. No blows, but lots of angry shouting and plenty of swearing.
  • Guys talk about getting drunk.
  • Mention of suffering and starving horses eating dead horses, foul trying to nurse from a dead mother.
  • This isn't really a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of. To break up the traveling, experts from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) discusses the measures being taken to keep wild mustangs populations under control. They do give screen time to people who disagree with the BLM, but using arguments they basically paint those in disagreement as wrong.

My Thoughts
I watched it because a rather skilled horseback rider told me it was a good movie and she enjoyed it. And I figured that if she liked it, experiencing what she's experienced, knowing what she knows, then it had to be realistic and good.
And it was. I think. I don't know enough in the area to be sure if it was, but it sure looked like it. I learned a lot. It was interesting.

So why the two stars? Because it was boring. Because it took me three days, not consecutive days, to finish this movie, and the last hour was finished after a long exhausting day. Also because one of the guys on the trip really annoyed me for some reason, and he was the leader. He controlled everything and lost it when others wanted to throw a little something into the journey. He had these goals he was determined to meet, but unfortunately the goals required the others to do exactly what he had planned for them to do, and when they didn't, it didn't go over well.
And as pathetic as it sounds, that, added to the lack of hook, made it hard to enjoy the movie more than two stars.

It's not a bad movie. It just wasn't a super good movie. It was an ok movie.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

Super excited to welcome a new student author, reviewing, of all things, a contemporary movie which came out less than a week ago. For the future, if we do not have a review of something you're looking for, you can usually find something at Plugged In.

Title: Captain America: Civil War
Author: Marvel
Release Date: 2016
Genre: Action/Adventure, Superhero, Sci Fi, Fantasy, drama
My Rating: 4.5 Stars!!! (****)
Official Rating: PG-13
Age Group: 13&older

Helmut Zemo’s family was killed by one of the Avenger’s exploits, making him vengeful.  To try to get even, he devises a plan to tear the team from the inside, which would prove much more effective than trying to kill them himself.  When certain events happen resulting in deaths of innocent people (including the king of Wakanda), the world starts seeing Superheroes as more of a threat than a safety.  In an attempt to make things right, the United Nation’s government makes the Avengers decide between letting them govern their actions or to retire as a superhero.  The team divides themselves, with one side for the idea of the government judging whether an emergency is important enough for them to save people, and the other against.  After multiple epic battle scenes, Tony Stark finds evidence that the Avengers were framed just so they would fight each other.  Though there were multiple plots and countless twists, the Avengers managed to resolve it all without killing each other.

Word of Warning:
Swearing: Actually, not much swearing considering this is a Marvel movie.  Compared to most others, this one is pretty clean in this aspect.
Blood:  Lots of blood and gore. 
Violence:  Considering most of the movie is fighting, lots of violence.

My Thoughts:
Man.  This was a great movie.  I’d heard good things, I’d heard bad things, but nothing that prepared me to what I saw in the theater.  Sure, there was some questionable scenes where I was like, um, what just happened, but overall it was just a really good movie!  It had everything I wanted: Action, adventure, comedy, even some feels!  The fight from the inside had me on the edge of my seat, and although I was on Cap’s side, there was a couple times during the movie where I second guessed myself and thought that Iron Man had some pretty valid points with his argument.  Like any Marvel movie though, the pace was too fast and multiple times during the movie I was left with that feeling where you go, what the heck just happened, and then just forget it because the next scene is playing.  I loved how there were a lot of super heroes, ranging from Ant-Man to Spider Man to even Black Panther!  And as always, Marvel never fails to impress me with it multiple plotlines and how everything ties together at the end even though you have no idea what is going on in the middle.  This movie was really good, much better than I thought it would be.

Author Bio:
Hello!  I am a decent author, with a number of literature and writing classes under my belt.  In my free time, I like to experiment with my awesome tree power and my sweet Super Ninja Monkey Magical Dragon skills.  I have Master’s degrees in weirdness and eating sugar from the U of Me, and hopefully at least a minor in awesomeness.  Don’t know for sure about that one though.  You can find me fishing, hanging out with friends, being weird, eating sugar, practicing how to be awesome (have to take lessons), and perfecting my Super Ninja Monkey Magical Dragon.  My newest accomplishment is granting wishes.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Book/Play Review: Magic

Hello all! Super excited to offer another publication by one of my students on another of our texts. The bracketed information was added by me. As you can see, she's a good concise writer. She's actually the same author as the other review I posted before. I'm glad to have her back again! Any comments will be passed along to her, so feel free to send something her way.

Title: Magic – A Fantastical Comedy
Author: G. K Chesterton
Publication Date: 1914
Genre: Play
My Rating: 4 Stars ****
Age Group: I think you should be older than 13 years old to read this. I encourage this age because some of the parts are very deep and confusing. There is also some romance and minor swearing.

The famous author G.K. Chesterton writes his first play in Magic. This entertaining story is about a magician, called the Conjurer. A woman, Patricia Carleon, finds him doing magic tricks in her garden and calls him a fairy. All of her family thinks she has gone mad. The characters in the play find out that he is actually a magician and want to know why he tricked, Patricia. You will have a thrilling ride with this play. The entertaining characters include a magician, a beautiful woman, a crazy American, a Duke and his secretary, an unreligious priest, and a philosophical doctor. 

Word of Warning:
  • Romance [nothing inappropriate]
  • Minor swearing [d***, a**]
  • Magic tricks
  • [Spoiler: a character made a pact with the devil in the past, which allowed him to use dark magic, and not just the tricks we are used to today. The character does regret this deal.]

My Thoughts:
I think that Magic is a very creative and entertaining play to read. Chesterton gives numerous views on many things while the readers or the audience are having a good laugh. I thoroughly enjoy reading and performing this play with my G.K. Chesterton Literature class.

Author Biography:
Hey! I am a budding writer that has taken numerous writing and literature classes throughout my life. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, playing chess and card games, diving, swimming, skiing, acting in plays, and hanging out with friends. When I grow older, I want to be an actor or an airplane pilot! Thank you for reading my Text Review on Magic!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Movie Review: The Peanuts Movie

Title: The Peanuts Movie
Author: Twentieth Century Fox, Blue Sky Studios
Release Date: 2015
Genre: animation, comedy, romance, friendship, adventure, animals
My Rating: ****
Official Rating: G (all ages)
Age Group: family movie night!

Charlie Brown is a failure. I mean, seriously, we all know him because he's always messing things up and we can, unfortunately relate to that all too well.
But when a new kid moves into two, Charlie's excited to have the chance to start over. He doesn't have a reputation with this new kid, and he's looking forward to that opportunity. He has high hopes.
Then he discovers that the new kid is a girl, and the stakes rise considerably.
So when Charlie suddenly becomes a hero, what does that do to our good old Charlie Brown?

Word of Warning
 These are going to be extremely nit-picky, because this film was incredibly clean.
  • Comic scenes of violence and failure. No actual injuries are incurred. (think cartoon mishaps used for laughter)
  • Characters gloat and are sometimes rude to one another. Flirting, insults...think Lucy.
  • Charlie desperately wants someone who will just love him for who he is and not judge or give advice. That isn't really a good friendship though, and his best friendship (with Snoopy) involves all sorts of advice and judgement.
  • The age old Peppermint Paddy being called "sir" takes on a new connotation in our day. The movie doesn't give any reason for the viewer to think this, but we bring social connotations to every text we consume.
  • Snoopy has a few battle scenes with the Red Baron.
  • Charlie "stalks" the Little Red Haired Girl. This is supposed to be sweet, but it's really a little weird.
  • Charlie faces the "I'm nothing" and "she's something" conflict and believes it.
  • Words: rats, good grief, stupid, blockhead
  • Someone remarks "it was written in the cards" when names are drawn for a final assignment.
  • In Snoopy's stories, a female dog is kidnapped and held prisoner (this isn't very dramatic).
  • Adults are not visible and barely participate. This is classic Peanuts, but still odd.
  • Snoopy shouts, "Curse you, Red Baron!"

My Thoughts
I had a huge grin on my face the whole movie. Except when I was sad for Charlie Brown. Or when I was laughing.
I had been expecting, with dread, the modern film industry to ruin this classic by making it modern. It didn't. This was Peanuts like it has always been. A little more hopeful, but still Peanuts.
Snoopy made a great best friend, one everyone wants to have. Charlie Brown did the right thing, which lead every one to think poorly of him--twice. Once, out of integrity. Once, for his sister. Charlie Brown, when he is at his lowest point, finds himself by helping another (interesting theological points could be made about that).

There isn't much to say about the movie. It was simple. It was the Peanuts. It was good. It was family friendly.
So go ahead. Borrow or rent it and enjoy a family movie night without worry about bad words or veiled inappropriate references. For the first time in a very long time, you can watch something made by mainstream movie producers after the year 2000 without holding that remote at ready.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: Sea of Tranquility


Title: Sea of Tranquility
Author: Katja Millay
Release Date: 2013
Genre: romance, coming of age, YA fiction
My Rating: *****
Official Rating: YA fiction
Age Group: 18+

Nastya is dead. Or so she says. She continually refers to herself as the girl who died. We meet her at the beginning of her senior year at a school she has never attended before. She lives with her aunt even though her family is alive and well in a different city. She's that problem student who doesn't care, doesn't socialize, and dresses like a slut. She's not destructive or violent, but still.
And she doesn't talk. No, she actually doesn't talk. Nastya has not spoken to anyone in over two years and it looks like she doesn't intend to start any time soon.
What Nastya does do is run. Every day, she runs until her body can't take it anymore. One night, having puked up the contents of her stomach after a long run, she comes across a curious garage. She approaches to find a boy from her school. He's a woodworker, according to his tools and materials.
But it isn't Josh's woodworking that captures Nastya's attention. It's the fact that everyone in school just leaves him alone. That's what she wants. So, she decides to watch him and figure out how he does it.
But you can't just watch, as Nastya and Josh eventually find out. Sooner or later, someone breaks the awkward silence with an awkward question which turns into an awkward one-sided conversation.
And then one day, that one-sided conversation suddenly becomes two-sided, and horrible secrets come out.

Word of Warning
  •  We have the stock characters of high school. The jerk, the nerds, the angry ex-girlfriend, the player, and so on. This in itself isn't bad, but some of these roles (like player) are.
  • Violence and graphic injuries. A character is beaten near death and details are not spared for the reader.
  • Serious language issues. Teens swear. A lot.
  • Teens refuse to listen to adult guidance, when they really really should.
  • Minors drinking and becoming drunk. Also, use of drugs by minors (though any use of drugs would be bad).
  • Teen sexual intimacy. For the most part, we're merely aware of its existence but are able to avoid any sort of descriptions. However, there is one poetically graphic scene. By "poetically graphic" I mean no specific biological terms are used, but there is no question as to what is going on.
  • Hints of depression. The main character may very well be depressed, as some of the others may be as well. While none of the characters consider suicide, it is mentioned that a character did commit suicide. This character is a minor character who accidentally spurs some of the biggest events in the book, but the suicide happens before this book starts. Basically, the suicidal teen's world is separate from the book's world except for one bridging character. I apologize if this is too cryptic, I am trying to avoid giving away the story but still warn you of the contents.
  • Attempted murder. I will assure you that none of the characters proposed as main characters does this.
  • Death. One character in particular is surrounded by death, with this character's entirely family being dead before this character is a legal adult. This is emotionally very hurtful, as I'm sure you can imagine.
  • Attempted rape. Not successful, but still a disgusting and disturbing and horrible scene.

My Thoughts
And if you're not judging me at this point for giving this book a rating of five stars, I am a little worried. Nevertheless, let me explain.
I came across this book by accident, and the biggest problems (sexual content) did not show up until I was greatly invested in the characters' journeys. Now, that doesn't make reading it ok, but the way the objectionable content was dealt with is honestly beautiful, especially for YA fiction. I think my favorite scene is after two characters have sex. They both realize they've ruined the beautiful relationship they had by doing such a thing before marriage. The "before marriage" part isn't explicitly stated, but is implied. They're heartbroken and have to figure out how to rebuild a relationship with this white elephant in the room.
Now even that isn't enough to read the book. Thankfully, the things that are bad are treated as bad. Still, this book is a beautiful study of humanity. Nastya starts out as barely human and becomes human through her actions. Objectionable content is faced head on by characters and author and hashed out as best they can before coming to the conclusion that there is an answer, but it is out of reach of the characters (perhaps because they have no religious beliefs to stand on?).

And the whole thing is an interesting journey from the uncomfortable gritty aspects of life, progressing to beauty even when surrounded by dirt.

Do I think everyone should read this? Absolutely not. I myself would not normally read something like this. But do I think the book has redeeming qualities? For sure. And way more redeeming qualities than the average YA novel. In fact, it was far too deep of a study on humanity for me to feel comfortable calling it YA fiction. There was just something more to it that I can't explain.

Below is a more extensive description written for an education course of why the book might be acceptable for select audiences in case you are curious to read more.