Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sara's Library: Splintered

Splintered by A.G. Howard
Amulet Books 2013
YALSA Teens' Top 10 2014

Summary from Goodreads: Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now.

When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, Alyssa must pass a series of tests, including draining an ocean of Alice’s tears, waking the slumbering tea party, and subduing a vicious bandersnatch, to fix Alice’s mistakes and save her family. She must also decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.

This book is everything that Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland wanted to be.  The Wonderland Ms. Howard creates is a darkly haunting place, where all of Lewis Carroll's creations have been transformed into maniacal and murderous creatures that cannot be trusted.  Gone entirely is the sense of whimsy seen in the original books and the Disney adaptation, as well as any sense of satire.  As such, purists may not care for this "sequel" of sorts, but it does have its merits.

This novel's greatest strength is the amount of intricate detail that Ms. Howard puts into everything from the scenery to the clothes that the characters wear.  As someone who is not particularly visual, I appreciate when writers have a distinct vision of their world and painstakingly describe it to their readers.  However, some might argue that too much focus is put on these details and not enough focus is given to the characters themselves.

I would probably agree that, creative and altruistic Alyssa aside, the main characters are one's standard YA fantasy tropes: the bad boy (Morpheus) and the stalwart friend-turned-lover (Jeb).  I found both of these love interests to be problematic, albeit for different reasons.  Morpheus manipulates Alyssa for nearly the entirety of the novel and is known to be quite the womanizer.  Jeb, on the other hand, while loyal, often treats Alyssa like a kid sister and doesn't respect her autonomy.  While teenage readers will likely swoon for both of them, Alyssa (and the readers) deserve better.

As publishers are wont to do these days, two more books have been written to form a trilogy.  However, Splintered resolves itself pretty neatly, and I'm content to leave the characters as they are, rather than leave myself to the possibility of disappointment with another superfluous sequel.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sara's Library: Mort

Mort by Terry Pratchett
Book four in the Discworld universe
Victor Gollancz 1987

Summary from Goodreads: In this Discworld installment, Death comes to Mort with an offer he can't refuse -- especially since being, well, dead isn't compulsory.  As Death's apprentice, he'll have free board and lodging, use of the company horse, and he won't need time off for family funerals. The position is everything Mort thought he'd ever wanted, until he discovers that this perfect job can be a killer on his love life.

I'm not a very funny person.  My humor tends toward dry wit and pop culture references, and most attempts others make at comedy tend to fall flat when performed or shown to me.  It's not surprising then that the first time I read Mort, I saw nothing more than a pleasant diversion.  I recently reread it (aloud to my husband), and I enjoyed it much more when spoken.  So much of humor relies upon delivery that I think silently reading prose to oneself automatically inhibits the humor, but perhaps that's just me.

The plot is delightfully absurd.  After being apprenticed to Death, Mort botches one of his first jobs by letting a beautiful princess live.  In the days that follow, two timelines begin to converge, and Mort must come up with a plan to reset reality.  Meanwhile, Death tries his hand at various other occupations, forgetting he is essentially a cosmic force that cannot be replaced, regardless of who he might train for the job.

While I don't know if I'll invest any time in reading other Discworld novels, Mort is an enjoyable stand-alone story that should appeal to fantasy readers of all ages.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dream Factory: How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Director: Dean DeBlois
Original release date: DreamWorks Pictures 2014
Rating: PG

Summary from IMDB: When Hiccup and Toothless discover an ice cave that is home to hundreds of new wild dragons and the mysterious Dragon Rider, the two friends find themselves at the center of a battle to protect the peace.

Five years have past since the events that transpired in the first film.  As the story begins, Stoick is grooming Hiccup to replace him as chief of the village, but Hiccup focuses instead on traveling with Toothless to create an expanded map of the area.  He has also been tinkering with a set of wings for himself, although each practice attempt has resulted in a crash landing thus far. 

On one of their journeys, the duo encounters dragon poachers, but are rescued by a mysterious masked dragon rider.  Once Hiccup learns more about the poachers, he must rally his friends before the poachers capture all of Berk's dragons.

Those who are fans of the first film shouldn't be disappointed with this installment.  While the film has a number of serious moments, the trademark humor is still present in the side characters, such as Ruffnut and Fishlegs.  And the animation quality has only been improved since 2010.

What I most appreciated was the attention dedicated to a major secondary character's death.  Many family-oriented films will skim over such death sequences, but the writers here respect their audience and the scene they've created.  The scene in question is one of the most emotional in either of the films, not only because of the death, but because of how the death affects the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless.  Even though attentive viewers will see the foreshadowing of the death in earlier scenes in the film, it still stirs the emotions, which is a sign of how strong the writing is here.

My only real complaint with the film is that Hiccup is the only character who is given time to develop over the course of the film.  Astrid and his friends are very much side characters here, and the relationship between Hiccup and Astrid seems tacked on.  I haven't watched the TV show, so maybe it was developed more there?  If not, I hope the next film allots some time for other characters to mature and change.

I'm not sure why this film hasn't been doing better at the box office, as it's a solid, well-animated installment.  Fans of the franchise and of animation in general should definitely see it at the cinema.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sara's Library: Hollow City

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
Book two of the Peculiar Children series
Quirk Books 2014

Summary from Goodreads: Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children was the surprise best seller of 2011—an unprecedented mix of YA fantasy and vintage photography that enthralled readers and critics alike.

This second novel begins in 1940, immediately after the first book ended. Having escaped Miss Peregrine's island by the skin of their teeth, Jacob and his new friends must journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. Along the way, they encounter new allies, a menagerie of peculiar animals, and other unexpected surprises.

Complete with dozens of newly discovered (and thoroughly mesmerizing) vintage photographs, this new adventure will delight readers of all ages.

This installment picks up at the exact point where the previous one ended: the Peculiars and Miss Peregrine (trapped in bird form) row away from their island.  It doesn't take long before the Hollows are reintroduced and our heroes are on the run, not only searching for safety but for another ymbryne who may be able to reverse Miss Peregrine's avian state.  With only three days to find a solution or risk losing Miss Peregrine's humanity, this second volume keeps up a rollicking pace for its duration.

One of my chief complaints with the first book was that, Jacob aside, there was little character development.  The majority of the characters fit neatly into an archetype, usually influenced by their power, and were paper thin.  I'm sad to say that there's not much more attention paid to characterization this time around.  It's very much a plot-driven installment, so if you're not interested in mutant kids fighting monsters in the 1940's, this book is not for you.

That being said, it is an entertaining diversion, and I enjoyed the world building through the peculiar animals and the fairy tales.  The photographs didn't seem to enhance the story this time and felt shoehorned in, almost gimmicky.  I'm curious to see how Mr. Riggs uses the photographs in the next volume and hope it will be more like those in the first book.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dream Factory: Maleficent

Director: Robert Stromberg
Original release date: Walt Disney Pictures 2014 
Rating: PG

Summary from Rotten Tomatoes: Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king's newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.

As both a fan of fairy tales and Disney villains, I was excited when Maleficent was first announced a few years ago, albeit apprehensive given the last few live-action films released by Disney.  And while the critics have given mostly mixed reviews to Maleficent, I thought there were some great elements in it that just needed to be elaborated upon.

One of my major concerns, other than the story itself, was the special effects.  In recent years, there has been an increasingly apparent shift away from practical effects towards CG ones.  Sometimes those CG effects blend seamlessly with the live-action shots, while more frequently they are obvious and seem hollow.  The effects here are somewhere in the middle ground.  They're not perfect, but they're also not shoddy.  Being a practical effects enthusiast, I would have preferred to see the faerie realm as depicted by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, but considering that the majority of creatures were CG, they still managed to convey themselves as creatures with souls.

Fans of Eleanor Audley's portrayal may be a bit disappointed, as Angelina Jolie creates her own interpretation of the character for the most part.  The only Audley-esque scene is the christening of Aurora, which replicates much of the dialogue from the 1959 film.  Those expecting a rehash of the animated film from Maleficent's perspective will be surprised, as much of the latter half of the film is completely different, rather than just presented from a different viewpoint.

Some things worked well, while others did not, though at the risk of spoiling things for those who haven't seen the film, I won't elaborate.  Maleficent's motivation for revenge was justified, but in her rage, she harmed those who were innocent of the betrayal.  I thought this was portrayed very realistically and greatly enjoyed Maleficent's quest for redemption through her role as "fairy godmother."  Both she and Aurora were much more complex characters here than in the 1959 film, while the three "good fairies" were relegated to the role of comic relief.

While I applaud the attempt at not only introducing feminist themes to the work, but also the parallelism of the sleeping victims (Maleficent and Aurora), I found some of the narrative problematic.  Namely, the lack of positive male characters.  It's important that when empowering female characters, we don't villainize the male ones, but that's what happened here.  I'm not trying to excuse the actions of Stefan, as they were abhorrent.  I'm just pointing out that the film would have been more balanced if there were a good male to balance out Stefan's evil.  I think they attempted that with Philip (attempted being the operative word), but he's barely in the film so he doesn't do much to counteract Stefan.  I should note that I'm also not calling for Philip (or another male) to be the hero.  Aurora and Maleficent do a fine job of thwarting the king themselves.  I just want balance in the portrayals of characters of both sexes.

All in all, an enjoyable attempt to retell a classic fairy tale from a different perspective, even if it has its flaws.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sara's Library: The Precious Stone Trilogy

The Precious Stone trilogy by Kersten Gier
Consisting of: Ruby Red, Sapphire Blue, and Emerald Green
Original German editions: Arena Verlag 2009 (books 1 & 2), 2010 (book 3)
US edition: Henry Holt 2011 (book 1), 2012 (book 2), 2013 (book 3)
Translated from German by Anthea Bell

Summary of Ruby Red from Goodreads: Gwyneth Shepherd's sophisticated, beautiful cousin Charlotte has been prepared her entire life for traveling through time. But unexpectedly, it is Gwyneth, who in the middle of class takes a sudden spin to a different era!
Gwyneth must now unearth the mystery of why her mother would lie about her birth date to ward off suspicion about her ability, brush up on her history, and work with Gideon--the time traveler from a similarly gifted family that passes the gene through its male line, and whose presence becomes, in time, less insufferable and more essential. Together, Gwyneth and Gideon journey through time to discover who, in the 18th century and in contemporary London, they can trust.
When every-girl Gwyneth discovers she carries the rare time travel gene, rather than her perfect cousin, she's confused and uncertain what to do.  While Charlotte has been studying foreign languages, history, dance, and etiquette, Gwyneth has spent most of her leisure time watching romantic comedies with her best friend.  As such, the secret organization that has been overseeing such time travelers for centuries is less than confident in her abilities.
Ms. Gier writes a fluffy, plot-driven series of novels that will appeal to teen girls, even those who normally stay clear of genre fiction.  Although there is a talking gargoyle and discussions of alchemy and the philosopher's stone, the series is, at its heart, a romance, albeit it a sloppy one involving insta-love.  While the story is spread across three novels, the plot takes place over the course of a week, so it is rather unbelievable when Gideon professes his love for Gwyneth, even taking into account the perils they survive together in the past.
Gwyneth herself is likable enough, but she's primarily a stand-in for the reader.  What she manages to accomplish is all thanks to her best friend, Lesley, the gargoyle, and a ghost who haunts her private school, the latter two visible thanks to a handy ability to see and speak with spirits.  Everything that happens just seems entirely too convenient, and there's no character development to speak of.  Over the course of three novels, that's unacceptable.

If one is looking for a featherweight romantic fantasy, this might make a nice choice.  But anyone searching for something beyond a few hours of entertainment should look elsewhere.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Dream Factory: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland
Original airdate: October 2013 - April 2014
Original US broadcaster: ABC
Episode total: 13
Availability: No DVD release date announced, episodes available for download purchase through Amazon

Summary from Rotten Tomatoes: "In the first and only season of this spin-off from Once Upon a Time, a young Victorian Englishwoman named Alice (Sophie Lowe) is taken to an asylum after sharing fanciful tales of a magical world on the other side of a rabbit hole. Just before she's about to have an operation to make her forget about these tales, the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) saves her and transports her back to Wonderland. Upon returning, she tries to reunite with Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), the genie with whom she fell in love. But the reunion is not easy, because Wonderland is populated with its share of villains, including Jafar (Naveen Andrews) and the Red Queen (Emma Rigby)."

The summary alone should indicate that this show was a bit of a trainwreck and suffered from many of the same issues as Tim Burton's 2010 Alice film: the writers seemed to have no knowledge (or respect) for the original work.  Wonderland became a generic fantasy world where its bizarre flora and fauna were frequently treated as threats to our maudlin protagonists.  Merging the Wonderland characters with Agrabah and Jafar only confused the writing more.  It's still unclear to me why the writers chose to combine these stories to create one convoluted plotline.  If they had focused instead on making a Wonderland heavily rooted in the work of Lewis Carroll, perhaps it would have fared better.

The CG for this show, which is used in the sets and any non-human characters, was some of the worst CG on television.  Instead of creating a unique world that the audience would want to visit, its quality was so hokey that it was laughable.  It was the CG equivalent of visible wires.  If a show doesn't have the budget to use good CG effects, then I'd much rather have constructed sets and puppets.  Well-made sets and props will age much better than low-budget CG.

Unfortunately for the show, the CG quality was the least of its problems.  In addition to distractingly bad hairstyling (at least in the first few episodes), the writing was lackluster.  The romance between Alice and Cyrus was disgustingly saccharine for no apparent reason.  They made Snow and Charming seem like a normal couple, which is saying a lot.  I understand that the producers likely thought that a romance would induce viewers to keep watching, but I found it to be superfluous and completely unrelated to the original work.  It was obviously shoehorned in, as was the relationship between the Knave and the Red Queen. 

That being said, the Knave was one of the only likeable characters on the show, with the other being Jafar.  I'm not sure why the Once writers have such difficulty writing believable good characters, but it's only the villains and neutral characters that seem to have any depth.

To be honest, I kept watching each week with the hope that things would improve, but instead I found myself MST3king each episode.  It was the worst show I watched this year, and I'm glad that it was canceled so I don't have to find time for it each week next season.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sara's Library: Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin

Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff
Knopf 2013

Summary from Goodreads: "In a magic kingdom where your name is your destiny, 12-year-old Rump is the butt of everyone's joke. But when he finds an old spinning wheel, his luck seems to change. Rump discovers he has a gift for spinning straw into gold. His best friend, Red, warns him that magic is dangerous, and she’s right. With each thread he spins, he weaves himself deeper into a curse.

"To break the spell, Rump must go on a perilous quest, fighting off pixies, trolls, poison apples, and a wickedly foolish queen. The odds are against him, but with courage and friendship—and a cheeky sense of humor—he just might triumph in the end."

Another entry into the crowded reimagined fairy tale villain pool, Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin introduces readers to an orphan boy with an unfortunate name who happens to be able to spin straw into gold.  This is a far cry from the Grimms' version, or even the fan favorite Rumpel from Once Upon a Time.  This Rump knows next to nothing about magic, where he came from, how he came to have powers, or how to use them.  And yes, this makes up the backbone of plot development.  Because he knows so little about his special skill, he accidentally makes a bargain with the queen for her firstborn child, then spends the remainder of the book trying to undo said bargain.

Ms. Shurtliff writes an appealing protagonist, although her writing is not quite ready for primetime.  The majority of the book is marked by telling, though given the conversational style in which the book is written, perhaps this was intentional.  The only character with any dimension is Rump himself with everyone else existing only to further the plot, whether it be for good (Rump's aunt) or ill (the miserly miller). Despite its flaws, it is still an enjoyable, if a simplistic, read.

One thing Ms. Shurtliff does well is concoct new stories for familiar mythological creatures.  In her world, trolls are friendly, magic-sensing creatures and pixies attack like hornets if gold is nearby.  While those with knowledge of German may be annoyed with her erroneous etymology for rumpelstiltskin, the majority of readers will enjoy the new spin given to the character.

While it's not the most innovative or best written fairy tale retelling around, Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin is sure to please young fantasy readers in search of a quick, enjoyable read.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Sara's Library: The Fire Chronicle

The Fire Chronicle by John Stephens
Book two of The Books of Beginning trilogy
Knopf 2012

Summary from Goodreads: "It's been six months since Kate, Michael and Emma confronted the Dire Magnus, but the trail to their long-lost family remains cold. Then Michael and Emma find the man who was the last person to see them. He knows about a secret map of a distant, mysterious land - maybe this is the clue that will lead them to their parents...

"Meanwhile, Kate's connection to the Book of Time grows ever stronger, and when a dangerous trick traps her in the past, she must find new friends to help her return home. 

"Once more the children must embark on a daring and perilous quest to find the second Book of Beginning and harness its power. But will it be enough to save them all?"

Some readers may remember my enthusiastic review of the first installment of the series.  While that volume had some minor issues with genre tropes, it was a fast-paced entertaining ride that somehow felt genuine, rather than something cobbled together from better elements of fantasy literature.  Not so with The Fire Chronicle.  

I don't have a perfect memory of the last volume, but I thought Mr. Stephens's writing regressed here.  Telling comprised at least two-thirds of the book, rather than showing.  I realize this is a children's novel, but children are intelligent and intuitive.  They don't need the author to constantly reiterate the characters' feelings.  
This installment also read like every successful fantasy element was thrown into a blender in an attempt to sell books.  In addition to the time travel introduced previously, elves, dragons, an evil immortal wizard (a.k.a. Voldemort), and a book with the power to heal were all included, as well as the cast of Oliver Twist and an unnecessary star-crossed love interest for Kate.  I feel like Mr. Stephens should have chosen the most important elements and left out the rest because this really has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feeling to it.  I found it all to be rather disappointing, especially after the first book.

So what was good about book two?  Due to events that lead the three siblings to be separated, there's some decent character development, primarily with middle child Michael.  While he retains his geeky traits, he also matures and shows himself to be a confident, caring brother when given the opportunity.  For the most part, Kate is still the maternal figure and Emma is the loose cannon.  I think it's doubtful that this will be remedied in the final book, but at least there was some effort with Michael here.

Will I read The Black Reckoning?  Of course.  I've invested a decent amount of time into this series, and I'd like to see how it resolves itself.  That being said, it will not be with the same feelings of anticipation I  had after finishing The Emerald Atlas.  What once had great potential has become something merely mediocre.