The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Film Review)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Film Review)

There can’t be much worse than splitting one book into two films, if only to grab a little extra cash at the box office. This has become far too common, with teen novel adaptations being the primary culprit. Harry Potter and Twilight both split up their final installment, and now The Hunger Games has followed suit, with the recent Netflix release of the first part of the final part of the series, Mockingjay Part 1.

mock4And Mockingjay encounters all of the problems with a story that is ripped in two: nothing much really happens. After the quarter quell, the survivors of District 13 are ready to start a full on war with the Capitol, and want Katniss to be the centerpiece of their revolution, to help rally the increasing unrest in the districts against their oppressors. Of course, this means that Katniss will have to rise up, and be the person that the person that the people need her to be.

For just over two hours, we are provided with a lot of talk, and the primary goal of rescuing Peeta and the other victors from the clutches of President Snow. Outside of that, very little actually happens in this film, which makes it far less worthwhile than if they had managed to complete the story here.

mock3There isn’t much further development of the characters in this edition of the series, as they are mostly just carrying on from where they left off, as expected. There are a couple of new people here, such as the President of District 13 and a camera crew that is set up to follow Katniss around as she fights and tours the damage inflicted by the Capitol. They goad her into saying revolutionary lines, when she appears too much to be the reluctant hero that the people of Panem need. Jennifer Lawrence is still highly likable as Katniss, even though she spends much more of this film being weepy than she does in the previous ones.

While Mockingjay isn’t a bad film, it’s just one that has no real start, and no real end, which makes it more of a nuisance than anything. Of course it is needed to set up the events upcoming in Mockingjay Part 2, but it really does have that feel of just killing some time until all of the good stuff can happen. There are a couple of small battle scenes that provide a little bit of entertainment, but nothing like the excitement of being in the arena in the first two films. Much of this film falls flat, and one has to wonder how long studios will be able to pull this off, by splitting up films, before people become sick of it, and start to skip the first half of the final piece.

mock2For massive fans of The Hunger Games, they of course will not be missing this film. For casual viewers, it really would be possible to read a two-sentence synopsis of Part 1, and go into Part 2 without missing a beat.

A very average film.

Go Set A Watchman (Book Review)

Go Set A Watchman (Book Review)

How can it be possible to fairly review a novel that has been 55 years in the waiting? One that is viewed as a follow up to perhaps one of the most important works in American literature, in the timeless and widely read To Kill A Mockingbird?

Either way, Go Set A Watchman is never going to get a fair shake with critics and readers. It is too important a piece of literature, and connected to something too culturally, and personally, significant to people. Even the idea of how to read it is a tad confusing. Do we take this new novel as an add on to Mockingbird? Do we allow it to change the way we view the original text, or take them as two separate stories, connected by the author and the characters alone? Do the events of Watchman need to impact the way we see, and re-read, Mockingbird?

watchman2There is so much to say about this novel…it is a tough one to review, for so many reasons. There will be some mild spoilers in here, but nothing that hasn’t been printed in the myriad of other reviews that are already out for the novel.

  • there are many indications that this very much is an early draft by Harper Lee. There are edits that need to be made, in terms of having the stories of both books, work together perfectly, including a detail of the Tom Robinson trial that is different in Watchman.
  • While there are some parts of the book that don’t seem needed, Harper Lee still manages to provide some exceptional lines in the novel. She is able to craft certain things so perfectly, indicating her natural gift for writing. But there is work that could have been done on this novel, which is perhaps one of the reasons it went 55 years before being published.
  • It is pretty amazing that from this original text, which was written before Mockingbird, provided some editor with the idea that Lee should write about the characters as children, instead of as the adult version that Go Set A Watchman provides.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed Scout as an adult. She maintains many of the qualities that made her such a memorable character in the first place. She is not of her time, and intelligent beyond her years still. She has the same fire that she had when she was a child, and that makes her continue as an endearing character.
  • There are some surprises here, such as what happened to Jem. We find out very early in the novel that he is dead; he died suddenly and unexpectedly as too young a man. Part of the novel is Scout trying to come to terms with this fact, and her ability, or lack thereof, to move on past this.
  • Go Set A Watchman doesn’t really have a plot, in the way that Mockingbird did. The story is pretty simple, that Scout is coming back to Maycomb for a visit from her life in New York. There, she must deal with love, loss, and the new realizations about her father and her childhood. There isn’t really a centrally driving story line to put everything together, and have her come of age.
  • A lot of the dialogue, especially in the second half of the novel, becomes surprisingly political, and often reads like a debate, instead of characters having a discussion. While the points are intelligent and important to the novel, it is not Lee’s finest writing.
  • The novel provides added context to the original story. Knowing more about the characters that we grew up with, and loved, adds to what we know from the original. We get the rare opportunity here to see what happened to the kids that we cared so much about as we read about them so many years ago.

watchman4It’s time to talk about Atticus Finch. One of the greatest literary heroes ever written, he was the symbol for all that was good in the world, even if the world was not a good place. He was an example of morality, of kindness, and he did everything for his children so that they would grow up in the right way, to be good people.

Go Set A Watchman changes all of that. In this follow-up, we are provided with another view of Atticus, one that could dramatically change the way we perceive the man that so many readers saw as the ultimate father figure. There is another side to Atticus, and it is one that is very difficult to read. My greatest fear about picking up Watchman was that it would drastically change something, specifically related to Atticus. What if he wasn’t as good as we had originally thought he was? What if Lee has him die in the novel? What if this book ruins him as the epitome of goodness, and as the moral compass that we all loved so much?

Well, we see some different things about Atticus in this book. Not good things. Things that are tough to swallow, and things that are upsetting. For that reason, I will take Watchman as a separate entity from Mockingbird. Because I don’t want anything to change with how I view him. I see this as an original view of the man, not the one he would have actually ended up as, had Lee actually written this book as a sequel, instead of as the original jumping off point for her tale of Maycomb. Had she intended this as a sequel, and there is much debate as to the origins of this novel- was it the first copy, prior to Mockingbird, or was it a failed sequel- I feel that she would have kept Atticus as pure.

watchman3On the flip side, there is a reason behind the different view of Atticus. There is a reason for it, and it is to help Scout become the adult that she needs to be. In a way, she needs to be broken. Atticus himself states that, “I’ve killed you Scout. But I had to.” (or something similar to that). It is heart-breaking to read, but we know that there is a purpose for Atticus to be the way that he is, in order to help his beloved daughter, and last surviving child, to grow up.

Which really, is what it is all about. Is it impossible for somebody to be as good as Atticus was? Even if he has a darker side, does it change any of the lessons that he taught Scout as a precocious child? Is it possible to be everything to everyone, even if you aren’t perfect yourself? The answers provided in Go Set A Watchman are perhaps not the ones that we want to know. Not the answers that could have been left unanswered forever.

While some people will read this novel as a complete, and actual, sequel to Mockingbird. However, I take is as an important piece of context for the original story that will never be able to taint the genius, and beauty, of the book that we have read and re-read so many times. As a book on its own, it is not that strong. There are plenty of flaws in it, as a novel, but not enough to ruin the whole thing. It gives us the chance to know what Lee thought of her characters, and where she saw them going in life. For that reason, Watchman is an important, if not great, piece of literature. Of course we would want it to be perfect, because it is the long-anticipated and wondered about follow ups to one of the greatest books of all-time. It isn’t that, and it could never live up to the enormous expectations placed upon it.

For me, it is more a piece of interest than cold, hard facts about the characters we loved so much.

Especially Atticus.

Gone Girl (Film Review)

Gone Girl (Film Review)

As much as I hate to do it, I am going to have to become one of those people that cannot discuss a film without mentioning that I have read the novel first. Such is going to have to be the case with Gone Girl, recently added to the list of shows on Netflix Canada.

I was late to the game with Gone Girl, and only recently read the novel, and absolutely loved it. So I was pretty excited to watch the film, especially since it has already come with such incredible and glowing reviews, widely considered to be among the best films of last year.

girlReading the book, I figured it would be difficult and interesting on how the narrative would shift, once the secret is revealed half way through the story. How would a screenwriter and director be able to create the amazing suspense, and then completely flip the narrative, basically starting the story over again, from the point of view of Amy? The task was difficult, and the film only mildly succeeded at doing so. It never felt as thought Nick’s world was crashing down on him, as the evidence against him killing his wife piled up against him. He just never really seemed that guilty in the film, whereas he was very much portrayed so in the book.

girl3As for the film itself, it is very well directed by David Fincher. The guy knows how to direct a dark film, and he pulls out all the stops in his guidance of Gone Girl. The film is quite morose, from the very beginning, taking away from the ideas that there really were some good times between Nick and Amy, instead focusing on the glumness of it all. The soundtrack plays along, creating ominous tones throughout the film, keeping us well aware that this was not a happy film. It definitely evoked a mood, but it took away what little levity there was in the story to begin with. Even the charms of Nick’s twin sister, Go, were muted down due to the dank atmosphere and deadpanned deliveries.

The actors here are very straightforward. At points, it was like they were trying to out-morose one another, to be as deadpanned as humanly possible. I found that there is very little life behind them, and well aware that this is part of the point of the performances, I found it difficult to take at times. I just wanted a little bit of inflection!

It is understandable that someone as cold and calculating as Amy speaks in such a cold and calculating voice all of the time, but during the first half of the film, it makes her difficult to like, which is the point of the first half of the novel. There could have been more here, to make for a more dramatic shift part way through.

girl4But I digress. Gone Girl is a very good film. It really is. It easily is a 4/5 star movie, and despite my random pickings at it, it is a very good thriller. For those who have not read the book, it will definitely keep you interested until the very end, to see how everything will turn out, including the wild ending that lacked a couple of key parts (as husband and wife write their respective stories, essentially racing against one another to get it done- I thought that was a great part of the resolution of the novel). For those who have read the book, it will be impossible to not compare it to the original text, and nitpick the details that you would have wished were included in the film, or omitted, or whatever.

I somehow feel that Gone Girl should have gone in reverse for me. I kind of wish that I had seen the film before reading the book. Then I could have the one, very strong version, and then use the novel to fill in all the gaps, and get even more of the story. Either way, Gone Girl is a strong adaptation, and should be seen as what it is: one of the better films, with some of the best twists and turns in recent memory.

Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell (Book Review)

Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell (Book Review)

I can’t get enough Veronica Mars.

Following the wildly entertaining three season long television show, fans have been lucky enough to see the continuation of the life of the edgy, vindictive, sleuthing Veronica in the Veronica Mars movie, and the fun follow-up novel, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line.

Well, for fans, things keep on rolling with the latest novel about the exploits of our favorite heroine, in Mr. Kiss and Tell.

vm2This time around, Veronica is put on a case where a girl was the victim of a brutal sexual assault at the Neptune Grand Hotel, the centerpiece of wealth in the seaside town of Neptune. She is hired to try and find out what really happened, since the girl can be seen entering the hotel on video, but never leaving it. From here, the mystery unfolds, and we are swept into a seedy world of abuse and prostitution.

As with the first VM novel, this one brings back the familiar cast of characters from the show, that we all know and love. There is the perfect amount of exposition, explaining the role that each person played in Veronica’s life, which makes the novel accessible for those who are new to Neptune and looking for a casual book read. Also, it is not too much for the hard-core fan, who of course remember the youngest Manning girl, or the importance of Leo in Veronica’s teen life. It was a good balance, to appease the old fans, and the new.

vm3As for Mr. Kiss and Tell itself, it is a similar beach read to The Thousand Dollar Tan Line. The mystery itself doesn’t offer as many twists and turns as the show, film, or first book offered, but the majority of the time was spent with Veronica knowing who did it, and trying to figure out a way to catch him. It provides a suitable amount of intrigue, even if it is not as good as the first book, overall.

Part of the charm of the first book was that Veronica’s voice was captured perfectly, and it was tough to read without hearing her voice in your head. The sharp-edged sarcasm always came through in the dialogue. That is lost a little bit in Mr. Kiss and Tell, and some of the dialogue comes across as quite un-Veronica. Maybe she is mellowing as she approaches 30?

There are the secondary story lines, as well, which push forward the general narrative of the lives of the people of Neptune. There is the romance between Logan and Veronica that is continued on in this book, and the developing story of the partnership between Keith and his daughter as they continue to grow Mars Investigations as a team. There is of course continued battles with Sheriff Lamb, and an upcoming election to decide his future. Some of the extra stories were a little underdeveloped and almost thrown in, but it doesn’t really take away from the overall enjoyment of this read.

Mr. Kiss and Tell is another fine addition to the growing universe of Veronica Mars. Fans can only hope that they will continue with the novel series, as it really does offer nice, light reads, that provide interesting mysteries, some laughs, and a group of people that we have known for a decade now.

And the best part, for those who are fans of the show and get it…Veronica gets a puppy. And names it Pony.

vm4Perfect.

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.