Boost (Book Review)

Boost (Book Review)

Savvy is in grade 8, but she is already over 6 feet tall, making her someone with the natural gifts needed to succeed, and excel, at basketball. Moving across the country after her family experiences some financial problems, she needs to start again in a new city. Trying to make new friends, help run a farm, and most importantly, make an impression on a new basketball team.

She makes the choice to try out for the tough under-18 team, the Fire, despite her young age, and is forced to deal with rough teammates, a cute boy, and the pressure to be the best.

Along with the pressure of school on and off the court, Savvy is also forced to deal with her family issues: a hospitalized Aunt, forcing her to be in charge of the livestock, a hard-working mother, a former golf pro father who had to retire due to his crippling injuries, and a sister dealing with her own pressures to be thin and make the cheerleading team.

boost2Boost  has some highs and some lows, as far as YA novels go. There are moments when the book is pretty strong; especially during the basketball passages. The descriptions of the game are in-depth and well done. However, there are many flaws with the book, even for the younger reader. It is pretty predictable throughout, and is often too riddled with YA cliches. There are some groan-worthy scenes in the novel, seemingly ripped from the pages of Lifetime movie of the week script. The lessons being learned by the characters about relationships, and specifically about the use of drugs to get ahead in the sporting world are too overt and obvious. Even the most open-minded young reader could find them redundant and sounding like a health class pamphlet.

The protagonists and antagonists of the novel are also fairly cookie cutter. Think of any sports movie, and you basically have the set up of the Fire, the good team, and the Power, the plays-on-the-edge-for-a-tough-coach team that is full of villains. Essentially, it’s set up like a Mighty Ducks film.

While author Kathy Mackel has already published several YA novels, mainly focused on sports, parts of Boost read like she is a novelist still trying to find her distinctive voice. And to her credit, there are those moments in Boost where it feels like she has found it. It is unfortunately not sustained for the duration of the narrative, however. Her strength lies in the relationships that are built through the novel, specifically between Savvy and her volatile sister Callie, and between Savvy and the new herding dog the family must get in order to stave off coyote attacks on the farm. These are the moments that give Boost its heart and soul.

Overall, this is a solid read, despite being flawed. Young readers, specifically young female athletes, should like the novel for its competition and understanding of the pressures to be the best. Being an adult reader, it is easy to pick on some of the cliches, but it is often important to remember that many young readers are not yet familiar with these archetypes and situations that have become so common for those who have been reading for decades. Boost is a winner, in the end, and should definitely appeal to the niche audience it was written for.

Fish in a Tree (Book Review)

Fish in a Tree (Book Review)

Having been reading YA novels for some time now, it has become increasingly frustrating that there are only a handful of original stories out there, and then a slew of followers who are looking to copy the latest fad. The current crop of YA novels seems to be stuck in this cycle of repetition, and readers are beginning to feel burnout on dystopian novels, the supernatural, magic, kids will illnesses, and first love stories. While there are still a ton of good books that fit into these categories, enough it enough for a little bit. There has to be something else out there, something that is wholesome, and fun, and without the increasing amounts of sex, violence, and swearing that can be found in the pages of a YA novel now.

Fish in a Tree may be as nearly flawless a Young Adult book as I have read in a while.

It should be stated right off the bat, that Fish in a Tree is a true Young Adult book, meant for a younger group of readers. Our heroine is in the sixth grade, a far cry from our typical protagonists who are in high school and doing the things that high school kids do. Ally, our central character here, is still young, and still brings with her much of the innocence and frustration of being that age. While Fish in a Tree is geared for the younger readers out there, it can easily still be enjoyed by “older” YA readers as well.

The story focuses on young Ally, a troublesome student in class, since she spends most of her time fearing having to read and write, as she severely struggles with both. Once her teacher leaves the school for maternity leave, the new teacher, Mr. Daniels, becomes quite interested in her and the way that she learns. From here we are provided with a heartfelt tale of a teacher learning about his students, and helping them learn to the best of their abilities, regardless of what difficulties they may have.

fish2This is a story that is hopeful, and not filled with any type of doom and gloom. It is inspirational, and provides us with a great insight into the struggles that Ally feels before she can understand her learning differences, and that she is not dumb, just that her brain works a little differently from the other kids. We see her rising confidence, and understand what an impact it can be on a child to be so far behind the others in his or her classroom. Author Lynda Mullaly Hunt does a fantastic job of describing Ally’s plight, and how each and every day is a struggle, and how there were too many times when it seemed that all hope was lost in her attempt to succeed in school. It is quite heartbreaking to begin with, as we can understand the difficulties that she is going through, if only she would acknowledge them.

Ally takes abuse from her classmates, especially the vile Shay and Jessica, for all of her shortcomings. But as she grows in confidence, and is built up by Mr. Daniels, Ally becomes not only a kid who is learning to read, but a better person as well. She, and her motley group of friends (the sassy Keisha and the brilliant and awkward Albert), are forced to deal with, and stand up to abusive classmates, realize who they are becoming as young people, and thrive in the new world of learning that Mr. Daniels has created for them.

Honestly, it was refreshing to read about a teacher that cares in Fish in a Tree. Teachers are easily painted villains in any number of teen stories, but it was nice to see a tale in which they actually help the hero by caring about them, and making sacrifices for them. Too many people forget that there are many teachers out there who will sacrifice their own time to help out students when they need it, even if it is not actually required of their jobs, or even if they get little to no recognition for it. Mr. Daniels is a terrific example of the caring educator, taking Ally under his wing, and dedicating himself to building her up to the levels where she belongs. The things he teaches her would not just help her get through Grade 6, but through life.

Fish in a Tree is a very good, quick read. It is a one sitting book (for adults), but won’t need any sequels, and won’t make you feel sad and defeated at the end. It is about the good things that still remain in schools, and paints a realistic picture of a student struggling with something that so many people take for granted as something that everybody can learn how to do.

Liars, Inc. (Book Review)

Liars, Inc. (Book Review)

Things can really spiral out of control with one little lie.

Our narrator quickly discovers this in the Young Adult novel, Liars, Inc., when events get out of hand when it is discovered that his best friend has disappeared and died. It all began with one little cover story, but it ended up with a full FBI investigation in which Max looks to be the guilty party in the case of his missing friend.

Liars, Inc. is essentially the story of three teenagers: Max, the former homeless boy who was adopted as a teenager and is often happy to be a part of the gang with his richer, cooler friends; Parvati, his beautiful girlfriend who has a knack for distorting the truth, but is Max’s one true confidant; Preston, the rich son of a senator with a reckless side, who ends up missing and dead (not really a spoiler, this is revealed in the opening chapter). Their interactions together and friendships lead them to starting their own little business at school, which they call Liars, Inc. Through this money-making endeavor, they will create cover stories for parents, or forge signatures, all for a few bucks. Before long, they are making a pretty solid income, as there are no shortage of high school kids looking for a lie to help them out in one way or another.

liar3The problem, however, is that it makes lying too easy for all of them. And this will come back to haunt them as the novel progresses.

The central plot is Max being apparently framed for the disappearance of Preston. He is brought in by the FBI, and from the beginning, the clues are stacking up against him. It will be up to Max and Parvati to clear his own name. This takes us on an adventure in uncovering the clues that led up to Preston’s death. Uncovering and untangling all of the lies will take readers on many twists and turns, many of which will come as huge surprises to the intended teen audience. Author Paula Stokes explores the histories of Max, as well as the tangled past between Parvati and Preston, while taking a side journey on to the political issues of the senator father of Preston’s, before we are able to understand the truth.

Liars, Inc. is a YA novel, intended for teen audiences. As with so much current fiction in the YA genre, there is plenty of swearing and sex, which leads this novel to the higher age groups in the YA demographic. Nothing is too explicit, but enough is there that perhaps a parent would shy away from giving this novel to a 13-year-old. Aside from that, it is written in a quick enough style that should keep young readers engrossed, and many of the twists and turns will be unpredictable for them, and things they have never seen before, or previously read about.

liar2For adult readers, there is some entertainment in Liars, Inc., and it is not a bad book at all. We are able to see the story unfolding before us, but are still left with a few surprises. Some of the craziness from the end of the novel has been seen before, and many parts of the denouement of the book read like Stokes was throwing as many rehashed teen ideas at the wall as possible, and hoping that some of it would stick (I couldn’t help but make some comparisons to She’s All That at the end of the novel). The majority of it does stick. While it may have been a tad overkill as an ending, trying to explain everything away, and there are moments that work out too perfectly well timed to be realistic, it is still a fun read.

At times Liars, Inc., read too much like Stokes was trying to dabble with too many storylines, and ended up having to mash many of them together to make the story cohesive. There are moments that could have been expanded on, and moments that could have not existed, and the story would have remained the same. While this would cause the occasional irritation to me as a reader, in no way did it dramatically affect my views on the novel. It was still good, despite not being perfect.

For the teen reader, Liars, Inc. provides enough of everything to get them to the finish line: an intriguing story, a few twists and turns, some tender moments, some romance, some friendship, and plenty of lies.

Nightcrawler (Film Review)

Nightcrawler (Film Review)

Being an action news cameraman can be a pretty sleazy business. Constantly in search of the blood and guts that will get you paid, and get recognition on the news can be tough, especially as it is a very competitive business, and there are many others out there looking for the same thing. With only so many news outlets and channels that will pay for shots, it is imperative to be there first, and with the best, often most invasive, angles.

night2Nightcrawler tells the story of a man who survives by just getting by, stealing mostly, before he decides to become a cameraman chasing the grisly scenes of late night Los Angeles. As he gets the interest of a news director, he goes to more extremes in order to get the good shots that he needs to get the money and recognition he feels he deserves. This leads him to some pretty sketchy maneuvers, including a foray into making the news himself.

At the end of the day, Nightcrawler is actually a pretty predictable film, because we are given insight into the character of Lou Bloom right from the beginning. We know and understand that he is a survivor, and will do whatever it takes to get ahead. This film is based on the extremely strong performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, in perhaps the best acting of his career. He brings a creepy weirdness to Lou right from the start, and doesn’t let go until the closing credits roll.

Gyllenhaal shines with the script, delivering his lines in a slick, quick cadence that is able to make our skin crawl. He is a man with little soul, but a quiet brilliance at being able to manipulate those around him. He is creepy, and charming, and a little scary, all at the same time. It makes it clear from the start that things are going to end up badly in his pursuit for the ultimate grisly news story, which gives the film its predictability. It’s odd that a movie becomes predictable just because the actor in it is so good, but such is the case with Nightcrawler. It is not a surprise the way things are set up for the climactic scene, because this is something we would expect Lou to do, without a doubt.

night3The writing here, plot aside, is tight and sleek, and Nightcrawler received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, which is well deserved. A strong, clean, narrative along with very good dialogue will do that. The film did, however, fail to make any sustained commentary on the state of the news world, only focusing on broader attempts to criminalize the way a newsroom is run (I echo Richard Roeper’s thoughts on this). But as a film, it is dark and entertaining, again backed by the tremendous performance by Gyllenhaal.

night4Due to the acting, this film will continue to be propelled to high reviews, but due to some small plot issues, it will remain in the 3.5-4 star area for most people, I believe. Nightcrawler is absolutely worth watching, and it deserves much of the acclaim it has received. It may not be a film that sticks with you forever, but it is a good one, and a worthy use of a couple of hours of Netflix time.

Eating Edmonton: Izakaya Tomo

Eating Edmonton: Izakaya Tomo

I’ll be the first to admit that I am extremely picky about Japanese restaurants. Having lived in Japan, I want it to be as authentic as possible, without having to absolutely break the bank in order to get some good sushi, and other delicious Japanese cuisine.

In Edmonton, there are some very solid sushi restaurants. Many of them will annihilate your wallet before leaving, and others will leave you with a reasonable sushi experience, but nothing great.

tomoPrior to going, I had heard nothing but positive things about Izakaya Tomo, located on 99th Street, near 34th Avenue. It is pretty innocuous in a small strip mall next to a hot yoga joint.

Walking in, Izakaya Tomo provides a genuine izakaya feel. It’s not hidden booths and crammed with tables like many Western restaurants, but open, and filled with picnic-style tables, similar to the styles that would be more commonly found in Japan. The decor has it down, and if anything, that is a really good start.

There is an excellent selection of alcohol, including a good variety of beer and sake, and although the menu is not massive, there is a nice selection of Japanese fare to be had. Sushi, rolls, some rices, along with some traditional hot dishes make up for a good opportunity to do some sampling.

IMG_2811The best part about izakayas in Japan (izakaya simply means “pub style”) is that there is always a variety of food, and it is cheap, so that you can order a bunch and share. It is not typical to order yourself a meal. The idea is to order a ton of things, get to sample a little bit of everything, and pay a small price for each dish. Izakaya Tomo does most of this right. Some of the prices are a bit high here, and it is definitely easy to rack up a pretty impressive bill. Such is a problem with getting “foreign” cuisine at Western prices. People are willing to pay it, so there is no reason that it needs to be cheaper (for example, an order of maki rolls will set you back about $4.50, whereas this is generally filler food in Japan, usually to be had for little more than a dollar per order).

But, the food is worth it.

tomo3Everything that we tried as a group, was good. The negitoro was beyond delicious (to the point where we went through five orders of it), and the rolls were excellent (except for the California rolls, which used imitation crab, similar to what you would find at Safeway, making it the only disappointing thing about the restaurant). The fried rice was good (especially the one with the pickles in it- seems weird, but trust me). The okonimiyaki-style dish got rave reviews. The gyoza was solid. The beef tataki was fresh and full of flavour. The fish was fresh and tasty, making it a very good meal.

The atmosphere inside is nice, to along with the good food. It is a fun, laid back place, with a good hubbub from the customers, and a nice buzz to the place.

tomo5In the end, there were five of us, and we racked up a bill of over $170, including drinks (can’t say no to the massive beers!). At about $40/person, we ate until we were full and had enough drinks to keep us happy. Not the best deal in the world, but still, it is nothing out of the ordinary for dining out in Edmonton, especially on Japanese food. And again, the food is absolutely worth it.

Izakaya Tomo is now my favorite Japanese restaurant in Edmonton. It comes the closest to recreating the pub experience in Japan, the food is good, it’s a fun place to go, and despite the perceived high prices, it is really no more expensive than any other sushi joint in town.

I would definitely recommend Izakaya Tomo for anyone in Edmonton looking for a good evening, good drinks, good food, and a relaxed atmosphere.

Gone Girl (Book Review)

Gone Girl (Book Review)

The love story of Nick and Amy is definitely one that is memorable, if anything else.

After too long of delaying reading Gone Girl, and the hype that surrounded the dark, gritty, messed up movie release over a year ago, I decided that it was finally succumb to the pressure, and give the acclaimed novel a read. Strangely, it feels like it has been a while since I have read a really great novel full of twists and turns, unpredictability, and intrigue.

Gone Girl got that done for me.

gone3This is a really strong, and really entertaining, if not twisted, read. It was so well done in the way that the narrative completely shifts part way through the novel, once the second diary becomes the primary way for Amy to tell her side of the story (I will avoid spoilers, for the 3 people left who haven’t read the book or seen the film).

The story itself begins fairly simply. Nick and Amy were forced to move back to the Midwest after both losing their jobs in New York. Despite Amy coming from money, they were falling on hard times, and Nick made ends meet with his business, The Bar, while Amy struggled with adapting to the small town lifestyle. One day, Amy disappears, and the search is on. Nick, being the husband in a troubled marriage, becomes the primary suspect in her disappearance, and must spend the first half of the novel defending himself as the evidence of his guilt piles up.

One of the strongest elements of Gone Girl, is that both of the main characters are of questionable moral values. Are either one of them good people? Can either one be considered as the hero of this story? At the end of it, looking back over the pages of the novel, and the misdeeds they purported onto one another, I had to ask who I was actually cheering for. Was I Team Nick, or Team Amy? They are both deeply flawed characters, and irredeemable in their actions. It makes for an even more interesting tale, because in one way or another, they have failed themselves, and each other, and sometimes people like that just deserve to be together, in the misery of one another’s lives.

gone2I am curious to see the film version of Gone Girl, simply because it reads like it would make a great movie, and I am interested to see how they pull off the narrative switch halfway through the story. Because it gets pretty wild. While we, as intelligent readers, always sort of know that Nick is innocent, despite his lies and behavior that indicates the opposite, especially given that it looks like he will be locked up and there remains a couple of hundred pages of story left. We know that there has to be more, and author Gillian Flynn definitely takes us on that ride.

There really are two sides to every story, and Gone Girl demonstrates that so incredibly well. This book is fun to read, and Flynn definitely creates the suspense within the narrative and within the characters that makes us keep turning the pages for the further surprises to come.

New 49ers Uniforms

New 49ers Uniforms

Having loved the San Francisco 49ers since I started watching football as a little kid, seeing my all-time favorite player, Joe Montana, take the field in the iconic red and gold of the team, it has become increasingly difficult to cheer for this team, 30 years after I began to love them.

The next step in their own destruction is the introduction of their new alternate jerseys for the upcoming season.

They are black.

Like, all black.

49ers2Black is not a colour in the 49ers palette, and the whole uniform looks like it belongs back in the late-90’s, when everybody seemed to want a black jersey. This is a lazy design, and it simply doesn’t look good at all. The red numbers on the black uniform look like they will be difficult to see from a distance, and the complete lack of gold (aside from the tiny Nike swooshes) is an abomination. Not that I would ever agree with this team bringing in a black uni, but not having gold on it was a massive mistake, especially since the combination of black and gold is always a solid one (even if they may be venturing into the New Orleans Saints territory there). But if red was added on top of it, then there may have been something there, aside from this incredibly dull set.

My most significant beef with these jerseys is the way that they match with the iconic Niners’ helmets. Meaning, they don’t belong together at all. Without a hint of black on the helmets, it looks like this is a team that is actually wearing the wrong jerseys, or the wrong helmets. They are that mismatched, and out of place. I could understand it if there was gold on the uniform, or if the helmets were primarily red, but they are not. It looks terrible.

I get the idea that they want to sell more uniforms, and having an iconic look limits sales to either a red, or a white, jersey. But aside from the obvious money grubbing of this uniform move, I simply don’t understand it. It is such a move away from the tradition of the team, and it serves at stripping away the identity of the NFL’s great franchises. I’m simply not sure why anyone would do that.

My only hope for this uniform set is that they are used twice this season (the maximum number of times they can be worn), and then they fade into obscurity because there are enough fans that feel the same way I do, and don’t shell out a bunch of money to buy these things. Hopefully, in a decade, we can look back at lists of the worst uniform changes in league history, laugh at how there was that time the Niners tried to wear black, and then move on from it, happy that the 49ers still wear red and gold, as they should.

42 (Film Review)

42 (Film Review)

For any fan of baseball history, there are few moments more important to the game, and to the changing views of American society, than the introduction of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to even suit up and play Major League Baseball.

To this day, the MLB still celebrates Jackie Robinson day, a day in which every single player in the league wears number 42 on their backs to celebrate the trailblazer who changed the game forever when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It is completely unsurprising that there is a Robinson biopic, titled 42; it is more surprising that it took this long for there to be one.

42 is an all-around solid sports movie. It gives us our central characters, Jackie and Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers who was so focused on winning and making money, that he decided to be the first professional baseball owner to break the colour barrier.

424What 42 doesn’t do, however, is provide us with much of a supporting cast of characters. There are brief glimpses into the lives of the men who managed Robinson, in both Montreal (the Dodgers AAA affiliate), and Brooklyn, and there are glimpses of some of the Dodgers players. But that’s about it. We don’t get to know anything about them at all, and the moments of them finally realizing that Robinson is on their team, and that they need to stand up for him no matter what come across as fairly run-of-the-mill. There is the vitriol of some players, and coaches, and managers, and fans that exist, and Robinson needs to overcome these things.

But it all seems a little bit too Disney. I feel that the real story is much darker, much harsher, and much more impressive an accomplishment than 42 portrays. We still get it that he overcome the longest of odds to become a legend, but the whole story seems pretty cleaned up, when it could have been absolutely brutal. At times, it seems like the writers and director of the film were wanting to make something more, that transcended more than just the game of baseball, but were wrangled into making a feel-good sports movie that would appeal to the largest possible audience.

422And there is the fault of 42. There are a thousand stories to tell about the arrival of Jackie Robinson, including what could have been much more focus on his teammates, and the rise of the Dodgers as a powerhouse team after his arrival. We are given the broad strokes of an incredible feat, and an incredible career. His time in Montreal is given a quick flyby, even though it historically was extremely important. His interactions and friendship with Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese is glossed over to a few brief moments in the final film.

But those are superficial beefs, I suppose. Starting to watch 42, I knew that the film was not going to produce a gritty retelling of the legendary ascent of one of the game’s best players, and the revolution of the sport that happened after his arrival. I knew that it would be rife with cliches, and not offer the depth, or breadth, of the story that I would be hoping for.

Regardless, this is a strong film. It tells the story, which is the most important thing. For those who are younger, and don’t know his story, or the lasting impact that it has had, 42 is a good place to start. The film has good performances throughout, and allows us to get the general idea of what was happening in that time, and why this feat is so impressive.

423There are some really great moments in the film, those moments when you know that things are going to change, whether it is the attitude of the fans, or the owners, or the players themselves. The moment when Reese slings his arm over Robinson’s shoulders in front of a hostile crowd is one of those moments. And these moments are what make 42 so good: despite the desire to know more, and see more, we are given parts that really do justice to the story of Jackie Robinson.

At the end of the day, I liked 42 quite a bit. I don’t think it will soar to the heights of the greatest baseball movies of all-time, simply because I wanted more of the story. But it will stand as a good film about an important moment in the history of the game, and generally, it does a pretty good job of doing it.