Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: Mississippi Trial, 1955 by Chris Crowe

Mississippi Trial, 1955--Chris Crowe
May 2002 by Dial
240 pages--Goodreads

At first Hiram is excited to visit his hometown in Mississippi. But soon after he arrives, he crosses paths with Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who is also visiting for the summer, and Hiram sees firsthand how the local whites mistreat blacks who refuse to "know their place." When Emmett's tortured dead body is found floating in a river, Hiram is determined to find out who could do such a thing. But what will it cost him to know?

I learned about the Emmett Till trial just a couple of years ago and it surprises me that this isn't included in our general education about the Civil Rights Movement.  I think it's something that needs to be discussed in our conversations about race and equality and injustice.  I think Mississippi Trial, 1955 does a good job of framing the trial and the events leading up to it, but it misses the mark on a couple of other things.

What bugged me most was that Hirum pulls a 180 about halfway through the book for no apparent reason.  First he hates his dad and can't see eye to eye with him on anything.  Then, poof.  He sees his dad's side of things and becomes too forward thinking for his time period and his previous actions.  This turn around should have been preceded by a number of small things that made Hirum question his belief system before he made his full transition rather than happening in one fell swoop.  

As the title indicates, this book focuses on the trial rather than on Emmett Till himself.  I'm not sure if I liked that or not.  It did highlight the fact that while most Mississippians did not kill Emmett, they did support the system that promoted the behavior and thinking that allowed the murder to happen.  But I would have liked to know Emmett more as a person.

I really like that this book confronts the fact that good, normal people are capable of doing horrible things.  Not many of us are willing to face that fact.  We like to think of evil as something that exists outside of us.  But I firmly believe that there are very few full-on monsters out there, just a lot of partial ones.  Mississippi Trial makes us face the partial monsters within all of us.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans

The Prisoner of Cell 25--Richard Paul Evans
August 2011 by Simon Pulse
326 pages--Goodreads

My name is Michael Vey, and the story I’m about to tell you is strange. Very strange. It’s my story.

To everyone at Meridian High School, Michael Vey is an ordinary fourteen-year-old. In fact, the only thing that seems to set him apart is the fact that he has Tourette’s syndrome. But Michael is anything but ordinary. Michael has special powers. Electric powers.

Michael thinks he's unique until he discovers that a cheerleader named Taylor also has special powers. With the help of Michael’s friend, Ostin, the three of them set out to discover how Michael and Taylor ended up this way, but their investigation brings them to the attention of a powerful group who wants to control the electric children – and through them the world. Michael will have to rely on his wits, powers, and friends if he’s to survive.

The Michael Vey books are super popular at my school, especially with students who don't normally read, so I figured that as a responsible teacher, I should check them out.  I can see why they're popular with all my students, but they're not the books for me.

The Prisoner of Cell 25 seems to have been written specifically for some of my short attention span reluctant readers.  It is quite fast paced.  Boom.  I have powers.  Boom.  I can't tell anyone.  Boom.  I told Taylor.  Boom.  She has powers too.  Boom.  Now people are chasing us.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  Boom.  There wasn't any set up or space to breath between events.  The book is made of short chapters and very, very short sentences.  Come on, vary your sentence length at least a little.  Don't write down to teens, Evans; they're capable of more than people give them credit for.  

The villain is a bit too mustache-twirly, crazy, and evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil for me.  Yet, he can't come up with anything more evil than blackmailing airline companies?  He makes stupid mistakes like running a metal pipe from Cell 25 and the cell where Taylor and the other electric powered kids are being held when he knows that electric powers can be conducted through metal.  And the reason Hatch and company are scary and unbeatable is because "They have private jets and hidden compounds" (pg 156)?  I had to giggle a bit at that line.

The kids are way overpowered.  I'm fine with them having electric powers, even strong powers.  But no police department anywhere is going to let a 14 year old interview a violent suspect because, you know, he might just get more information out of the guy that we have, despite the fact that we've been specially trained and do this as our livelihood.  The final fight seemed a bit unrealistic too, though I can't speak about it in detail since I got bored and skimmed through it.  Beyond being overpowered, the characters are rather unoriginal.  We've got the cute, popular cheerleader; the overweight, genius friend; and the bullied kid with secret powers.  They don't grow throughout the novel.  And Zeus's 180 at the end is just unrealistic.

And Meridian?  If you've ever driven through the West, you know for a fact that there are more obscure, tiny, out of the way places to hide out than Meridian, Idaho.  And how big of a coincidence is it that two electric kids just happened to go to the same school?

The Prisoner of Cell 25 is basically brain candy.  It reminds me a lot of The Maze Runner and all the reasons I didn't like that book much either.  I know some of my students think Michael Vey is the best series ever, but I just don't know if I can in good conscience recommend it except to my reluctant reader when I know there are better written books out there with complex characters and logical plots.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

A Tale Dark & Grim--Adam Gidwitz
October 2010 by Dutton Juvinile
252 pages--Goodreads

In this mischievous and utterly original debut, Hansel and Gretel walk out of their own story and into eight other classic Grimm-inspired tales. As readers follow the siblings through a forest brimming with menacing foes, they learn the true story behind (and beyond) the bread crumbs, edible houses, and outwitted witches.

Fairy tales have never been more irreverent or subversive as Hansel and Gretel learn to take charge of their destinies and become the clever architects of their own happily ever after.

A Tale Dark and Grimm was a very quick read; I finished in two days.  It was fun to hop through some lesser-known fairytales, and Gidwitz does not Disney-ify them.  They stay creepy and gruesome and Grimm.  This book might be a bit much for young, young readers, but most 10 year olds would like it.

I loved the narrator.  He pops in frequently to urge you to make sure the children can't hear the next part because it's just too scary for them.  He also points out some of the huge logical fails that fairytale characters make, such as why would Gretel have to cut off her finger for it to work as a key.  This book is a tribute to the Grimm tales, but it is a tongue in cheek tribute.

I wish Gidwitz had done more to flesh out Hansel and Gretel.  Their characters were never really developed.  They started as caricatures and never moved far beyond that.  I get that Gidwitz wrote the book to explore the stories rather than to explore the characters, but I still would have appreciated a bit more depth.  I never felt like I knew Hansel and Gretel as people.

A Tale Dark and Grimm is a fun, quick read with a beautiful cover (I'm a sucker for silhouettes).  It's definitely worth a try for any fairytale lovers.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why Sandition Was Not as Good as LBD

I loved the Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  Like many of you, I sat in eager anticipation for each new episode and then watched the episode multiple times, squeeing and over-analyzing each move the characters made.  I supported the crew in the Kickstarter and was super excited when they announced they would run a miniseries of Austen's Sanditon this summer.  I hadn't read Sanditon, but I trusted the team to do as good a job with it as they did with LBD.

And then they didn't.

Don't get me wrong, I still love Pemberly Digital, I am watching Emma Approved, and Sanditon wasn't awful.  It just wasn't as good as LBD was.  And here are the two main ways where Sanditon went wrong.

1.  They chose an unknown, unfinished Austen novel as their source material.

I know that a lot of people who hadn't read Pride and Prejudice or seen the movies watched and loved LBD.  However, there is a wide cultural understanding of the general plot of Pride and Prejudice.  Even if you have never read the book or seen the movies, you know it's about guy and girl who hate each other and then fall in love.

Sanditon does not have that same cultural presence.  Because Austen died before she completed the novel, most people have not read it.  Even after seeing Welcome to Sanditon and reading the summary of the novel on Wikipedia, I still don't know what the story is about.  With LBD you knew Lizzie and Darcy would get together in the end; the question was how.  With Sanditon, I couldn't figure out what was supposed to be happening, and I'm still not entirely sure.  What was our end-goal supposed to be beyond Clara and Edward getting together?  Were we ever supposed to resolve Tom's hijacking and re-branding of the town's businesses in a false sense of progress?  Was Clara supposed to have a story arc?  She didn't change like Elizabeth, Anne, Emma, and Elinor did throughout their novels.

And what was with the the spin gym side story?  It was introduced during the last third of the series and then didn't go anywhere.  You don't introduce things that late in the game.  Or if you do, it better be important.  But it wasn't.  It created a negligible amount of romantic tension and then...nothing. 

2.  They sacrificed core content for filler content, specifically the fan videos.

Don't get me wrong, I love the community that sprung up around LBD.  I love that we swapped theories in the comments and created gifs and wrote reaction posts and experienced LBD together.  However, these fan reactions should never take prescient over the professionally written content.  I don't subscribe to see four minutes of fan videos every week.  These videos didn't move the plot along at all.  At least in LBD when we had filler episodes, we got to know the characters better.  The Sanditon fan videos, not so much.  

A better way to do "filler" episodes was Clara's ice cream videos.  Even though they didn't move the plot forward much, we got to know Clara.  

I don't know if Pemberly Digital was just trying to stretch out the series to make it last longer because Emma Approved got delayed or what, but I would have preferred a shorter, fan-video-less series.  I think the community is great and the fans are great, but we are not the central content.  The story is.

I did like Tom and Ed and Clara.  I loved the late night conversation between Clara and Ed.  I loved seeing more of Gigi and her growth as a character beyond her brother's expectations.  Pemberly Digital made some big mistakes with Sanditon, but I think they learned from those mistakes and will avoid them with Emma Approved.  I'm excited to see where this new series will go.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Vlog Adaptations of Classics

As you can probably tell from some of my posts this spring (1, 2, 3), I love the Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  I'm a huge Austen-ite.  I've read her books and seen the movie adaptations more times than is probably healthy.  I thought I knew the story of Pride and Prejudice, but The Lizzie Bennet Diaries took the story in a whole-new-while-still-true-to-the-book direction.  The writers brought a depth to Lydia's character that I didn't know was there.  It is a fantastic adaptation that totally deserves the Emmy it won, and I'm sad that it's over.  However, while LBD may have reached an end, it has inspired a bunch of new vlog adaptations of other classic novels.  I prove my English nerdiness by freaking out every time a new episode comes up in my subscription feed, which is pretty much every day considering how many adaptations I'm following.  Today I am sharing these adaptations with you.  

The Autobiography of Jane Eyre--episodes on Wednesdays and Saturdays

This is probably my favorite adaption.  The actress is Jane.  She totally channels Jane's contemplative seriousness without being gloomy about it.  This Wednesday's episode was the best so far.  Meanwhile, Rochester is a rude, inconsiderate, jerk.  This is more a problem with the source material than the adaptation.  Rochester is supposed to be that way, but it's more problematic in a modern setting than it was in the 1800s.  So far the writers have kept him true to character without making him too easy to hate.  However, I don't see how they're going to deal with some of the issues later in the book.  

For example:  Bertha.  Today's mental health care is words better than what was available in the 1800s.  Back then, it was merciful for Rochester to keep Bertha in his attic where she would be well cared for and comfortable rather than banishing her to an asylum where she would be, at best, horribly neglected.  But modern Rochester could easily find quality care for a crazy wife.  This makes me think that Bertha's not going to be crazy, but then what will the insurmountable Bertha problem be? 

An even bigger adaptation challenge is Jane's flight from Thornfeild.  People can't disappear anymore, not in our internet-saturated world.  But she has to do so without losing viewers.  Jane can't go internet silent, because viewers would get bored and we'd miss all the St. John story and we can't miss that.  If she changed to a new channel, she'd lose the viewers who would miss the memo and Rochester could still track her down.  I can't figure out how they're going to make this work, but I can't wait to see how they do it.

Nick Carroway Chronicles--episodes on Mondays 

I think The Great Gatsby is one of the classic novels that most naturally translates to vlog form since the book is basically Nick telling us what happens to other people.  He's a built in narrator.  Since there is only one episode per week, we're still at the very beginning of the story and have hardly seen Gatsby, but I'm liking it so far.  Also,I love Jordan.  She's hilarious.  I don't even know how to describe her.  She's not goofy, just funny.  This series deserves way more attention than it's gotten.  

Emma Approved--episodes on Mondays and Thursdays

This series comes from the same team that made The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Sanditon (Sanditon has its own post here).  Emma Approved just premiered on Monday, so it's way too early to judge whether this will be as good an adaptation as LBD, but so far it looks promising.  Emma's characterization is perfect.  She's confident to a fault.  She thinks she reads people better than she does.  She's self centered and falsely concerned about other people.  She's so Emma Woodhousey.  I was unduly excited about this when it premiered on Monday.  

Also, does anyone else think Alex Knightly is very Edward Denhem-like?  His voice and personality seem very similar.

The Emma Project--episodes on Tuesdays and Saturdays

I discovered this one just the other day.  It will be interesting to watch this series and Emma Approved at the same time.  They've done a good job of setting up the class distinction with the college seniority and Emma would totally be a psychology major.  I love that Robbie Martin is a farmer going to to community college; we totally get why Emma would think Harriet is above marrying someone like that as well as why Emma a jerk for thinking that.  And we've started seeing more of Emma influencing Harriet in her decisions.

However, The Emma Project doesn't have the same professional feeling that the other adaptations have.  I'm not talking about lighting and sound.  I can ignore that.  I mean that instead of coming across as Emma the character telling us about her life, it feels like an actress reciting memorized lines, so it doesn't feel as real.  They also seem to be rushing through the story rather than taking time to establish the characters.  I'm still interested in it, but it's not the best adaptation I've found.

Notes by Christine--episodes on Tuesdays and Fridays

I found Notes by Christine just today.  I like it so far, but I haven't had time to see how well I like it.  They're taking a risk by having episodes that are just Christine singing opera music.  It's true to character and the story of Phantom of the Opera (book not musical), but it doesn't move the plot forward at all.  So it'll be interesting to see whether or not Youtube audiences latch onto it.  Also, the opera ghost has his own channel where he, without showing his face, offers Christine private lessons.  So that's creepy.  It'll be interesting to see where they take this story.  They could really play up the creepy stalker aspect by making him an internet predator.  We'll see. 

Anyways, go check out these series for yourself and let me know what you think.    Also, are there more vlog adaptations of classic novels out there that I missed?  I must find them all!  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind--Patrick Rothfuss
March 2007 by DAW Hardcover
662 pages--Goodreads

Told in Kvothe's own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet's hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.

The Name of the Wind was fine, but not amazing.  It has a nontraditional premise, and I congratulate Rothfuss for pulling it off.  I mean, how many authors could write a trilogy where the main character sits in an in and tells the story of his life for three days straight.  And that's it.  And the publishers buy it and readers give it some of the highest ratings I've ever seen on Goodreads.  

One of my biggest problems with the novel is Kvothe's obsession with Denna.  She's just dull.  If she wasn't such a big part of the book I could ignore her, but Kvothe keeps mooning over her and it gets very boring.  Seriously, Kvothe; stop moping about your crush and go learn magic.  Denna did show some more depth near the end of the novel, so maybe there's hope for book two.  I don't need her to be a great or even a good person, but I need her to be a real person with goals and motivations.  For now she's just a pretty face.  

It's a very slow burning novel.  Not boring, but not terribly exciting either.  I liked Kvothe's time in the forest and the city.  And I want to see more of the female loanshark.  She's a much more interesting character than Denna.  Why can't we spend more time with her?

So, it's good, but not the best book I've ever read.  I will get around to reading book two eventually, but I don't feel a driving need to finish the series now.  Especially since book three isn't out.


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