Book Review: Haunt Me Still by Jennifer Lee Carrell

My review of Haunt Me Still is available here. If you want a refresher, have a look back at my review of Carrell's first Kate Stanley novel Interred with Their Bones here.


Movie Review: Toy Story 3

Featuring the Voice Talents of: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Timothy Dalton
Directed By: Lee Unkrich
Written By: Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
Pixar Animation, 2010
G; 103 minutes
5 stars (out of 5)


No one does nostalgia quite like Pixar. The team there--writers, animators, directors, producers--all seem to understand the process of looking over one's shoulder at the past and the warm feelings that can engender. Perhaps it's part of being in the animation business, which itself has a long history and by nature builds on what came before. Pixar has looked back at "Main Street U.S.A." in Cars and it's done revisited childhood repeatedly in the first two Toy Story movies as well as Monsters, Inc. And in Toy Story 3 they do it again.

For all that, it never gets old.

Being that I have a 5-year-old son, a 2-year-old daughter, and a 10-month-old baby boy, I am perhaps primed for the emotional overdrive that Pixar serves up in the third Toy Story installment. The opening moments feature a young Andy and his little sister Molly playing with their beloved toys in home video footage. This hits so close to home in my current experiences that I could not help but tear up a bit. And then it is revealed that Andy is now 17 and going away to college. Those beloved toys--the ones we the audience have become so fond of over previous films--have been whittled down to a core few that haven't been played with in years. They sit unused in a toy chest in Andy's room, plotting ways to get Andy's attention in the hopes of being played with again, or maybe just held for a few moments.

As Andy readies himself for college, he begins to empty out his room, and the toy story really begins. Will they be consigned to the attic or (*gulp*) the trash bin? Mishaps occur and the toys end up donated to a day care center, thus setting off on new adventures.

I won't give anything else away, but while I didn't 100% understand the day care center toys' motivations for doing some of what they do in the film, I did 100% enjoy the movie. And I did cry some more at the end.

As for my 5-year-old (who saw the movie with my husband and I), he says he liked it, but he "likes the other numbers better" (meaning the first two films). This may only be because of the 3D element involved in this one, though, since my son says he didn't like things "going in his eyes." I could have done without the 3D myself, as I didn't find it necessary to the story or even particularly amazing in design. Mostly it gave me a headache.

But the movie itself was touching and fun, which is what I've come to expect from Pixar. Like Peter Pan in Never Never Land, the animation studio roots itself in a refusal to grow up (in heart, though its technique only gets better with time), and in turn the audience keeps coming back if only to feel young again themselves.


Blogcritics Book Review: The Lady in the Tower

I used to write for the Blogcritics.org site, and I've decided to take it up once again. So here is a link to my most recent article, a review of The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir.


Peanuts on Planes

Admittedly, this is not a media review, but whatever. I just need to comment on this movement to have peanuts banned from airline flights. Apparently there are a number of people who don't fly because they or their children have acute peanut/tree nut allergies? And they're terrified that being on a plane with people eating peanuts will cause a major health crisis or emergency?

A few things come to mind here, so let's just lay them out:

  • (A) If you have a severe allergy, don't you have something (an EpiPen or some such) in case something does set you off?
  • (B) If you have this allergy, do you avoid any and all places there might be nuts? The grocery store, all restaurants, etc.?
  • (C) Only about 1% of the population has this allergy, yet they are collectively asking for preferred treatment--because they classify it as a "disability" and therefore serving nuts in their vicinity counts as some kind of "discrimination." This seems high-handed and rings false, since they surely frequent any number of places where nuts may be or may have been present.
  • (D) Even if they succeeded in having nuts banned from planes, how would they keep passengers from carrying on their own trail mix snacks and such?

Now let me be clear. I don't even like nuts much, and I wouldn't be sorry to have them replaced with pretzels or something. But I find this pushiness and overwrought concern annoying, and it makes me disinclined to want to accommodate these people. Show me a list of people who have suffered and/or died from being on an airline flight in which peanuts were present. Because I'm pretty sure there have been people with allergies on those flights. You're not special because you have an allergy. Don't try to give me the one-up line of, "But I'm SO MUCH MORE ALLERGIC than anyone in the history of the world!" Because that's how you sound when you whine about it. And nobody cares but you.

It's the burden of people with allergies like these to take care of themselves. To read labels and avoid nuts. The extent to which you opt to avoid them--including the decision not to fly for fear of peanut dust--is your concern. Not the government's and not population at large's.


Book Review: The Girl Who Chased the Moon

Sarah Addison Allen
Bantam, 2010
276 pages
hard cover


I read Allen's Garden Spells some time back and really liked it. So then I tried her second novel The Sugar Queen and couldn't get into it at all. Never finished it. With such a 50-50 history, I wasn't sure what I'd think of The Girl Who Chased the Moon, but decided to give it a shot.

In a nutshell, the story is two-fold. The A plot line is about Emily, a teenager who comes to Mullaby, North Carolina, to live with the grandfather she's never met. Emily will learn about her deceased mother's childhood and will discover "strange and wondrous things." The B plot line is about Julia, who had been a contemporary of Emily's mother, and who had left Mullaby but was dragged back by her own father's passing. Julia has a two-year plan to take care of her father's restaurant until she can sell it for a small profit and leave town. But she starts to find herself ensnared by the past.

A quick read, and a good one. Allen is now at 66% in my book.

If you like the Southern hospitality genre (think: Miss Julia books by Ann B. Ross) or the semi-magical sorts of things Alice Hoffman is known to tackle, you'll probably like Allen's work. At least some of it.


Television: Lost finale

So last night the television series Lost came to a much heralded conclusion. Don't read any more than this if you haven't watched it yet and don't want it ruined for you.

Locke and Ben find Desmond—who was rescued from the well by Bernard and Rose, who have kept Vincent as a pet, just in case you wondered what happened to all of them—and are taking him to the center of the island (where the light is) to destroy it. Desmond is, as Jack would later put it, a kind of weapon. Apparently his natural resistance to electromagnetism has something to do with it, but whatever. (I can't help but wonder what Widmore planned to do with Desmond?)

Jack, Hurley, Kate and Sawyer also catch up with Locke, Ben and Desmond and it ends up coming down to Jack and Locke and Desmond going to the light and sending Desmond down to—as best I can figure—pull a giant drain plug. Which causes the island to begin falling apart, but slowly enough that Jack and Locke have time to fight it out on the cliffs overlooking the sea. Jack wins that one, and he sends Kate and Sawyer off on Locke's (which was Desmond's) boat to the other island so they can catch the plane with Miles, Richard, and Lapidus—and have just enough time to convince Claire to come along too.

Since the island, meanwhile, is still disintegrating, Jack leads Hurley (who refused to leave) and Ben back to the place where the light had been. Jack intends to go down and fix things; basically, he's going to go put the plug back in the Drain of Doom. Hurley is left to become the next new Jacob, with Ben as his sidekick. While Jack is at it, he ties the wounded but not dead Desmond to the rope so Hurley and Ben can lift him to safety and (hopefully) get him home.

As an aside, I just want to say, I thought the light/drain mythology bit was dumb. I like fantasy and Indiana Jones as much as anyone, but that was . . . I don't even have the words. Navel of the World tourist postcards forthcoming, I suppose?

Back in the sideways world, Desmond is working double time to pull everyone together so that they can trigger their island memories of one another. I won't get into all the ways it happens, but I will say Claire's and Charlie's moment made me tear up. Jack is the one left out of all this, or maybe he's just the most resistant to it. A moment with Locke after having done spinal surgery, another with Kate when he arrives too late for the concert . . . She then leads him to the church where his father's body has been sent after Oceanic's temporary misplacement of it. But Jack will discover that the coffin is empty. He'll see his father again and realize he himself is dead. And he's come to the place where he's being reunited with his loved ones. Which isn't to say they're all dead (yet, in "our" time, if there is such a thing in the show). But apparently the lovely thing about this "Heaven" is that they're there regardless, just as you best remember them. Because love is eternal and knows no time.

For the most part, I liked the ending. I found it hopeful and uplifting. Warm, really. I enjoyed some of the imagery, like opening the show with the progress of Christian Shepherd's coffin: a symbol for laying the show itself to rest. And I totally called it that the final image would be Jack's eye closing. The writers of the show certainly show a liking for symmetry.

As for the island side of things, I can only say I hope that (a) Bernard, Rose and Vincent suffered no ill effects from the earthquakes as the island was breaking apart, and (b) Desmond was able to get home to Penny and Charlie. I was really glad that Claire and Kate both were able to go back to Aaron; a nice balance against the fact that Sun and Jin did not get to go home to their daughter.

I originally wanted to believe that the sideways timeline was an alternative option for those who didn't get happy endings on the island. I haven't quite decided if it was or wasn't. Whether it was Jack writing all of that in his head or something bigger. One theory suggests that the moment of Jack's death occurs during the flight, at the point where Rose tells him it's okay to let go after the turbulence. But that might also just coincide with the moment Jack gets back to the island via Ajira and does let go, as in ceasing to attempt to control things or be the leader. My media studies degree notwithstanding, I'd have to go and watch a lot of stuff over again before coming up with a solid answer for myself.

But like Jack, I don't necessarily feel the need to do that. I've let go of Lost, and am happy to just let the experience of it wash over me . . . Like a bright, warm light.


Television: Bones

My favorite television show had its season finale last night, so it's time to take stock yet again.

Basically the episode set up the coming season as a time jump of one year. This is because [almost] everyone found something else to do for a year--like summer vacation only extended. Brennan agreed to head an anthropological site on the island of Maluku, and Daisy was going with her, leaving Sweets behind. (He had the option to go with her and decided against it--also deciding against "waiting" for her, so it'll be interesting to see what happens there). Booth agreed to go back into the Army for a year to teach the troops some sniper and tracking skills. Jack and Angela decided not to hang around and wait for all their friends, so they were skipping town to spend a year in Paris. Cam and Caroline were evidently left to hold down the fort.

At the end of the episode, as Brennan and Daisy said their good-byes to everyone at the airport before flying off for Maluku, Booth turned up in uniform and made a pact with Brennan to meet at the Reflecting Pool near the coffee cart in one year. This makes the opening for next season painfully predictable in that a year will have passed and Brennan and Booth will be awkward with one another, having changed and yet not changed . . . Like seeing an old college buddy or something. OR, alternatively, one of them won't show. At that will set off some other thing, what-have-you. I'm hoping the writers will surprise me and that neither of these things will actually happen. Though I'm not sure what else could happen.

Meanwhile, I still have questions about the beginning of this season and Booth's brain and such. Apparently all of that was dropped without notice at some point. I mean, if Booth had been having trouble remembering how to handle simple plumbing jobs, can he remember how to shoot and track well enough to teach Army recruits? As for being in love with Brennan, well, they dealt with that in the 100th episode, though the idea of it being a false feeling generated by his brain was never followed up on, either. This is me throwing my hands up and saying, "Are we just pretending none of that happened?" That's fine by me if we are, since I thought all that was a bit hokey anyway, but I'd like to know for sure one way or the other.

Certainly, I think the idea of a year away is a good one. A lot of shows are doing that kind of thing lately, so it may seem that Bones is jumping on a bandwagon here, but they needed to do something to keep things fresh. Or rather, to refresh things. So here's hoping for interesting developments in absentia. See you in the fall.

Book Review: The Red Pyramid

Rick Riordan
Hyperion, 2010
528 pages
hard cover


So if you've read Riordan's Percy Jackson books about how Percy is really the son of Poseidon, making him a half-god with cool powers, then you can substitute a brother-sister team for Percy and Egyptian gods for the Greek ones, and you've pretty much got The Red Pyramid summed up.

Carter Kane is 14 and travels the world with his Egyptologist father. His sister Sadie is 12 and lives in London with their maternal grandparents. Carter and Sadie only see each other twice a year, so they aren't particularly close. Until . . .

Riordan's books are formulaic, but that's not to say they aren't good. Though geared towards ages, oh, let's say 9 to 12, adults can find them entertaining as well. They aren't nearly as deep and involving as the Harry Potter books, but they hold their own.

The Red Pyramid is the first in Riordan's new series The Kane Chronicles. As the portal, so to speak, it does a fine job of setting up the rules and introducing the major players. Having Carter and Sadie alternate as narrators is a nice way to fill in perspective, though the gimmick of the author's opening and closing notes about having "found a recording that he's transcribed" falls a bit flat.

If you (or your kids, students, what-have-you) liked the Percy Jackson books, you'll probably like this too. Though you run the risk of getting bored with or tired of it, since it is so very similar. But Riordan has had a winning formula in the past, and has clearly decided not to tamper with what works.


Television: Happy Town

Why aren't you people watching this show? If you liked Twin Peaks, or The X-Files, or American Gothic, you should be watching Happy Town.

While Lost and FlashForward are good, they tend to be intense. Happy Town has all the dark drama but tempers it with quirk.

If you've missed out on the first couple episodes, they're available online. But to summarize: small town haunted by the disappearances of several residents. The locals refer to the perpetrator as "The Magic Man." A murder--of someone many suspected to be The Magic Man--turns the town on its head, even as the arrival of a strange new resident coincides with a delirious turn by the town's sheriff.

Now the sheriff's son turned acting sheriff is trying to solve the murder (well, he did that in Episode 2, but--) even as other strange things begin to happen . . .

Happy Town is definitely taking a few pages from the Twin Peaks play book, and Sam Neill is especially fun as a cinephile with something to hide.

The show, meanwhile, is in imminent danger of cancellation, though ideally ABC will let it play out over the summer at the very least. A boost in viewers would be helpful!

Book Review: Shades of Grey

Jasper Fforde
Viking, 2009
400 pages
hard cover


I love this book.

Like all Jasper Fforde's novels, it takes some toe-dipping to get into, but Fforde has earned the patience of his readers. His standard MO is to write completely unintelligible things for the first couple chapters until the reader starts to understand it and it begins to make some kind of strange sense. Think of it as cultural immersion, the same way a person might learn a new language by being surrounded by it. It always works out in the end, so long as you have the gumption to stick with it.

Fforde's track record with the Thursday Next series, and the Nursery Crime books, opens the door for him to write this completely unanchored novel, itself the first of a trilogy. Without giving too much away, I'll simply note that it takes place in a future where everything's gone a bit retrograde and status is determined by color—not of one's skin, but what color (and how much of it) one is able to see. Society labors under strict and strange rules handed down by a man named Munsell, and poor Eddie Russett strives to be good in a world populated by people who are bent on being bad.

The question becomes: is circumventing an oppressive government—breaking the rules—a bad thing? It depends on one's motives . . .

Fforde is as clever as ever here (though I have a couple questions for him, which I've posted on his Web site's forum—if you please, Mr. Fforde). He's created a world any parageographer could be proud of, and his characters are thorough, even if most seem beyond redemption. The reader feels Eddie's frustration, and in many cases finds him- or herself frustrated with Eddie in particular. But the main character's cluelessness is the perfect mode of travel for the reader, who is new to all that Eddie takes for granted and joins him on his learning curve.

Call it a tale of opening one's eyes after suffering blind faith in the system. A tale for the ages, and the kind of thing they'll be teaching in high school along side 1984 in another decade or so. Well worth a read, and certainly more satisfying if you can get a book club to take it on and discuss it afterward.


Book Review: Under the Cajun Moon

Mindy Starns Clark
Harvest House, 2009
332 pages
trade paperback


I'm not Cajun. Not technically, anyway, because my family didn't come through Nova Scotia. Instead, in the mid-1700's our ancestors sailed directly from France. Which makes us French Creole, although nowadays people usually think more "mixed blood" when they hear "Creole." We're probably that, too, by now.

At any rate, I know from South Louisiana because I come from that particular pot of genetic gumbo. Which ingredient my family is or was doesn't much matter now, since it's the flavor that counts.

Clark's Under the Cajun Moon tries very hard--almost too hard--to give readers a taste of South Louisiana. It's liberally sprinkled with Cajun French (stuff I recognized from my own childhood) and vivid descriptions of the bayous and of New Orleans. In fact, the title and cover art are the reasons I picked this one from the library shelf, even without reading the description.

Well! That's the other thing. If I'd looked at the publisher, I'd have known, but this is one of those Christian books disguised as a mystery. Somehow I've yet to read one that, no matter how hard the author tries, doesn't make the reader feel like he or she is being beaten over the head with a sermon. (And if Christians are reading these things, aren't the authors and publishers just preaching to the choir?)

The publisher was, in fact, a big factor in my problems with this book, though not because of the religious angle. That doesn't actually bother me, except when the storytelling grinds to a halt so someone can whip out a Bible and pray. The book was simply badly edited and contained many typos. Also, the use of "Prytaria" instead of "Prytania"? Seriously? Someone couldn't look that up and make sure it was correct?

As for the story itself, for a mystery it wasn't much of one. Clark telegraphs her punches, and I--as an avid mystery reader--had the bad guy fingered almost as soon as he appeared on the scene.

I'm underwhelmed as a whole, but here's the thing: I wouldn't say no to trying one of Clark's other books.

And I'm wondering if I insert some sermonizing into one of my manuscripts, will Harvest House publish it?


"That's My Program"

The title of this post is taken from one of the lines from last night's episode of Modern Family, which is one of the two sitcoms I watch. I wanted to give a sort of encapsulation of my current television preferences, if only to situate readers in a way that allows them to relate to me and the kind of person I am.

Here is my current television schedule:

   House (FOX)

   Lost (ABC)
   V (ABC)

   Modern Family (ABC)

   Bones (FOX)
   Flash Forward(ABC)
   30 Rock (NBC)

I don't watch anything on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

On Mondays, we used to watch 24 but gave up early this season when we realized we just didn't care any more.

I only just started with V at the behest of my husband. He likes it a lot more than I do, I think. I don't mind it, but I find myself playing Bookworm on my iPhone while it's on. A show that doesn't require my full attention is only a time-kill in my way of thinking. That's how it started with 24, too--I ended up messing around on my laptop while it was on and then started wondering why I was even bothering. While my husband's devotion to V may hold, mine doesn't seem likely to.

Thursday is, as you can see, the "big TV day." We'll usually save either Bones or Flash Forward on the DVR for a Friday night viewing. We're too old and have too many children to stay up that late otherwise.

You'll notice a lack of reality television on my list. Once upon a time, we did watch Survivor and American Idol. But they got old fast. I just don't care to give those fame-seeking pissants [reality show contestants] the satisfaction of my time. I'd rather have professionals [script writers] do the job. If I want to watch an idiot attempt to do things he or she clearly has no idea how to do, I'll go stand on the street corner and watch the local drivers. (Especially the ones in Dodge Caravans and Grand Caravans. WTF is wrong with those people?)

I may also be biased in that I have a screenwriting degree and always wanted to be a television writer. Just throwing that out there.

People have said we should look into Justified. It seems promising, but then so did Burn Notice, which we liked but not enough to make it part of our "appointment programming"--and we found we didn't have the time to catch up later, either; it was filling the DVR. We also gave up on The Tudors at some point. We do still pick up Entourage and Mad Men when they come back every summer.

That's the sum of it. We don't watch nearly as much television as we used to, and that's probably a good thing. After all, how much Blind Date or Bridezillas can anyone really ingest? I'm certainly not sorry to have cut the fat from my TV dinners!


Book Review: Angel Time: The Songs of the Seraphim

Anne Rice
Knopf, 2009
288 pages
hard cover


I've loved Anne Rice's work for a long time, ever since I checked Interview with the Vampire out from my high school library. And not just her vampire books, though there are more of them than others: I enjoyed The Witching Hour and Servant of the Bones and Feast of All Saints, too.

I did try to read Rice's Christ the Lord books, but I couldn't get into them. It's not a religious thing; I grew up religious enough and have no particular disdain for religion or spirituality or any of that sort of thing. A lot of people do, and then a lot of people don't think about it one way or another, but I do. Which isn't the point, of course. The point is: I have no bias for OR against such stories and works.

Still and all, I couldn't immerse myself in Rice's Christ the Lord books. But angels! I love angels, too, and was hoping for something really great in the kick-off novel of Rice's planned new series.

Alas, I fear my expectations were set too high.

Angel Time isn't terrible. It just isn't as good as some of Rice's other work. Something about it suggests she might have been in a hurry while writing it. And it's more like listening to Rice tell a story than having her characters do so.

What I mean is, all the characters in the book sound the same to me. I find little distinction in their voices. It seems to me that a hardened assassin should sound somewhat different from an angel, and that they should both sound different still from a Medieval Jewish woman. And yet . . . here, not so much.

The story itself is good enough. Pretty simple and straight-forward, which may be why the book is not especially long. But I still had some trouble digging in, as I found the characters more likely to tell me what to think and believe than show me through their actions or dialogue. For some characters, such bravado works (hello there, Lestat); for some situations it works (interview any vampires lately?). But here again . . . not so much.

Maybe Angel Time is just a weak start to something bigger and stronger? Maybe the main character--assassin Toby O'Dare--will develop into someone more interesting than the seemingly colorless person he starts out as. (On the flip side, assassins do need to blend as opposed to standing out . . . but Toby's lack of personality goes a bit too far in that the reader has a tough time caring much about him.) I'm hoping for a better outing next time.


Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Written By: Quentin Tarantino
Universal Pictures, 2009
R; 153 minutes
5 stars (out of 5)


In film school, we were required to view Reservoir Dogs. I hadn't wanted to see it, but I ended up really liking it. Which surprised me, since I generally dislike anything with gratuitous bloodshed.

That said, there haven't been many other Tarantino films that I've seen and enjoyed. I disliked Jackie Brown and found Four Rooms uneven at best. I didn't even make it through Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill; they bored me too much. Sacrilege! But how can I apologize for personal preference?

I was beginning to think Reservoir Dogs had been a fluke. But I did want to see Inglourious Basterds. All the Academy Award hubbub, PLUS: Brad Pitt! Whom I've loved since Interview with the Vampire. And I'm pleased to say that this movie did not disappoint. The violence was not so over-the-top as to disgust me, and the grimness of Laurent's turn as a vengeful Jew was nicely balanced with Pitt and Waltz, who added an odd, offbeat humor to the whole affair.

In short, Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, who helms a small band of American soldiers known as "The Basterds." They stalk Nazi-occupied France and ambush Nazi squadrons. Meanwhile, Laurent plays the sole surviving member of a Jewish family that was massacred at the hands of Waltz's SS officer Landa. She has changed her name and now runs a cinema, and when her venue is singled out for a Nazi film premiere, she decides to use her dubious windfall as the jumping-off point for some serious payback.

It all comes together in the end, and I won't give it away. But Pitt is fun to watch, especially with his thick accent. I only wish he'd had more screen time. Waltz is surely the shoo-in for his Oscar category; he plays Landa with the perfect mixture of light-minded delight and megalomania, wrapped in self-assured narcissism. The viewer simultaneously wants to (a) invite him to a dinner party, (b) lock him in a cage and force him to perform like a trained monkey, and (c) put a bullet through his head. That takes talent. I'd be glad to see this movie win the whole kit 'n' kaboodle, but I'll take a trophy for Waltz at the least.


Book Review: New Moon

Stephenie Meyer
Little Brown, 2008
564 pages
trade paperback


Well, one thing makes New Moon markedly better than Twilight, and that's the absence of Edward throughout the entire second act of the story.

Otherwise, it's all still pretty bad.

New Moon reminds me of fan fiction, only the characters are original to the author. But the main character--Bella Swan, who narrates--comes off as some kind of Mary Sue for the author (and perhaps, by extension, for the tweenie readers). At any rate, the "production value" of the writing (characters, plot) is low. Which is what I tend to find in the fan fiction community as well, so maybe that's why New Moon reminds me of fanfic.

Loosely, the plot this go-round is: What does Juliet do while Romeo is away? Apparently she becomes even more obnoxious than before, if that's even possible. Or maybe she's just as obnoxious but in a completely different way. Bella (our Juliet) spends most of her time going on and on about the "hole in her chest" that Edward's leaving has left her with. She spends a lot of time clutching her chest and gasping for breath, thereby showing us that Edward's leaving has been physically painful for her. She starts doing daredevil stunts because in the midst of danger she's able to remember Edward's voice--basically he scolds her for being stupid and reckless. And she starts hanging out with a werewolf.

It would be one thing if Edward's leaving had been a true breakup. But of course, Romeo and Juliet must have TRUE love, and so we're not allowed to question their devotion. Oh, Bella does question it, but Bella is ridiculously insecure in that way of adolescent girls--especially those who have guys all wanting to hang out with them and date them. But Bella and Edward are required to have a pristine relationship, and so even when they're apart it's simply a matter of each of them suffering terribly without the other.

So what we end up with is a hyperbolic example of love and devotion, in which each party is SO devoted to the other that it passes realistic and reasonable and goes on to be stunningly stupid. And once again the same conversations occur over and over:

     Bella: I will love you forever! I can't live without you!
     Saber-Toothed Tiger: I will love you forever! And I can't live without you, either!
     Bella: Then turn me into a saber-toothed tiger like you, and we'll be together forever!
     STT: No. Instead I'll wait for you to get old and die, and then I'll kill myself and we'll be together forever in the afterlife!
     Bella: This is because you don't really love me and don't want to be stuck with me for eternity, isn't it?
     STT: Of course not! I will love you forever and can't live without you!
     Bella: Then turn me into a saber-toothed tiger.

And round and round we go.

The truth is, the "real" relationship here is between Bella and her best friend/werewolf Jacob. They have actual conversations and enjoy doing things together. Bella can pour her heart out to Jacob. This is more than we've seen in her interactions with Edward, and this relationship seems much more grounded. It has more chemistry. And maybe that's simply because we get a better look at it than we do the one with Edward, which we're evidently supposed to take at the author's word. What I mean is, we see Jacob and Bella associate in more organic ways (although we're still hounded by Bella's selfish and inane internal commentary as well). Meanwhile, in dealing with the chief relationship in the series Meyer presents us with only: Bella loves Edward; Edward loves Bella; they are meant to be. Really? Then show me. Don't assume I'm going to take it at face value. Because as it stands, it lacks the chemistry you're trying to force me to believe exists.

The one other really egregious problem with the book is the way characters are forced to explain things--either why something is the way it is, or the plot in general. Again, this is a flaw one finds in bad science fiction or fan fiction. It's clumsy. It's the author's way of answering potential questions the reader may have, as if to say, "I know you're wondering why or how, so my character will ask another character and you'll get this answer." There are ways to do this that work. Meyer's way of doing it . . . doesn't. It only underscores (a) how stupid her main character really is, and (b) that Meyer herself didn't appear to think through her own plot or faux world systems.

The sum total, then, of New Moon is that it's better than Twilight. That's about all I can say for it. Will the trend continue with Eclipse? We'll see.


Food: Sifers Valomilk

For those who don't know, if you buy a package of Valomilk, you're buying a sort of Reese's cup-like item (two in a pack), wherein the chocolate cups are filled with marshmallow instead of peanut butter. However, a Valomilk is not at all like a marshmallow cup. Which sounds confusing, but I'll do my best to explain.

For one thing, Valomilk is not something you can pick up in the typical candy aisle at a grocery or convenience store. I buy it whenever I happen to find it, usually at well-stocked candy stores or, as recently, nostalgia-based "general" stores (i.e., the store attached to a Cracker Barrel restaurant).

The detailed history of the Valomilk cup is given on their Web site, but in short the product is the happy result of a production error. Which is why Valomilk cups aren't like typical marshmallow cups. Instead, it's more like having that yummy, runny marshmallow topping from the ice cream parlor inside a chocolate cup.

Now the chocolate part of a Valomilk is not terribly exciting. I love chocolate, and the Valomilk chocolate wouldn't do it for me as a solo bar or whatnot. But it's sufferable when filled with the yummy marshmallow because the chocolate-to-filling ratio is a good one.

Valomilk is messy, so I don't recommend eating it (a) around anything you don't want to soil (electronics, nice clothes), or (b) without a napkin or some such handy. And have a drink nearby, as it'll leave you thirsty.


Book Review: Twilight

Stephenie Meyer
Little Brown, 2006
544 pages
trade paperback


My intent was to avoid this book--this series of books--for my entire life. But I teach middle schoolers at a summer camp, and when they asked for class suggestions, like a fool I said, "They're into vampires these days. Maybe a pop culture class on vampires?" Tag, you're it! Which of course meant that I have to read these things, maybe even watch the movies.

So now I've read the first one, Twilight, from which the series borrows its name. It mostly reads like a seventh-grader wrote it, which may be why so many seventh-graders like it. The narrator is a 17-year-old named Bella who moves to a place she hates to live with her father because (as best as I understand it, but there's a lot I don't understand about Bella) her mother is dating a baseball player? I'm not clear on how this necessitated a move from sunny Phoenix to rain-washed Forks, Washington, but whatever. The point is clearly to get Bella to a place where she can meet vampires, and since they don't live in Phoenix because they're too sparkly and shiny for that, Washington state it is.

Okay, now Bella is ostensibly "special" (not as in "special ed," though I'd argue that's a distinct possibility that has yet to be fully explored). It's unclear why she's special--aside from her utter clumsiness that goes far beyond the bounds of realistic, as well as a hardwired idiocy that puts her in really bad situations that most people with any kind of sense (common, intellectual, evolutionary survival instinct) would avoid. But for some reason, even though Bella is supremely antisocial, people like her. Bella doesn't like parties, doesn't like dancing, doesn't want to talk on the phone and gossip with other girls, doesn't have close friends, doesn't want to celebrate her birthday or get gifts (yeah, I just started the train wreck that is New Moon) . . . How does anyone relate to her? She's thoroughly unlikable. And no, it's not that I think she should party or be on the phone or whatever, I never did those things either, but Bella takes it to an unnatural degree. She's a one note tune, and that note is: Edward, Edward, Edward.

Who is Edward? He's the 17-year-old vampire hottie in Bella's class, of course. He affirms that Bella is special, so special in fact that she is allowed to get to know Edward and his vampire family more intimately than anyone else in their tiny town. (And she's also the only one who knows they're vampires, natch.) According to Edward, Bella "smells" different. And she's more observant than the other students at their school, given that she notices when Edward's eye color changes.

The gist of the entire book is something like:
  • Bella gets into trouble.
  • Edward saves her.
  • They talk/bicker.
  • Edward goes away for a while and Bella is sad.
  • Bella gets into trouble . . .
What was really painful while reading this book was the repetitive nature of (a) Bella's thoughts and (b) Bella and Edward's conversations. Looking at (a) first, let's just say that Edward is beautiful and perfect. All the time. In every situation. Even when he's angry. Also, his breath smells really good. As for point (b), Bella could have similar conversations with, say, a saber-toothed tiger:

Bella: I love you, Saber-Toothed Tiger!
STT: You shouldn't. It's not safe. I could turn and maul you any minute.
Bella: You'll never hurt me, STT!
STT: I'll protect you. But I'm not safe for you!
Bella: I want to be a Saber-Toothed Tiger like you!
STT: You're special and I love you, but you can never become like me.

And so on and so forth, over and over, ad nauseam.

As if to add some kind of intrigue, members of a local Native American tribe (who happen to be friends of Bella's dad) attempt to warn Bella away from Edward and his kin. Not that it makes an impact. Nothing seems to impact Bella, who is stubborn beyond belief--and I mean that literally; her character just doesn't ring true in any kind of way. She's so much a device and not a person, and having to live in her narration to get at the story is almost intolerable. I'm not sure if it's bad character development or just bad writing that's the culprit, though.

The lack of real conflict between Bella and Edward is also unpleasant. I'm hoping that in the remainder of the books their unflinching devotion is honestly tested, because it's gag-inducing the way they simply fell together and into each others' arms (a la Bella's Romeo and Juliet fixation) with nary a qualm between them, all their problems being external and situational. I want Bella to be jealous of Edward's past loves, I want break-ups and second-guessing. The steadfastness of their feelings for one another is so far very uninteresting, rather like being served baby food when one would rather have steak.

Will the other books prove better? Don't tell me! I'll get through them . . . somehow . . . and let you know.


Television: Bones

We all know I love Bones; I generally count it as my favorite television show. I like the characters--their interactions, their chemistry. The ensemble cast is fantastic.

This is not to say, however, that this show doesn't sometimes go off the rails. Why do the Christmas episodes always play out like bad fan fiction, for example? Daring the two leads to kiss? Finding reasons to strip Booth down and create tension? It's just dumb. I feel like I'm being pandered to in those situations. As in, We know you want them to kiss, but we can't mess up their relationship, so here's how we do it: we get the D.A. to dare them to kiss. See?! Um, thanks, but an overly contrived situation is not what I want at all.

This season--at least at the start of it--was about how Booth had sort of "fake" fallen in love with Brennan while in a coma. His brain had created some parallel life in which he and Brennan were married and were expecting a baby. They owned a night club together! All the best buds were there! Again, can anyone say "fan fiction fodder" three times fast?

And the origin of this fantastic voyage? Brennan's own Mary Sue story, a book which she wrote, read aloud to Booth while he was in his coma, and then deleted.

Of late they've seemed to drop this particular plot point. They've also dropped the whole Booth-can't-remember-basic-stuff subplot as well. For a while there, Booth couldn't remember what kinds of clothes he liked to wear, how to fix plumbing . . . Stuff he evidently knew before. He'd come out of the coma a changed man; Brennan found him distinctly different in a variety of ways. That served a purpose for a handful of episodes then abruptly disappeared, as best I can tell. I'm not sorry that it did, but I can only suppose it'll have to come back sooner or later. I'm just having a hard time visualizing the context, seeing as how they've ignored the situation for so long now.

I still love Bones, of course, and I'm not going to stop watching. Yet. We'll see where this season ends.


Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog

Voices By: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Jim Cummings, Jenifer Lewis
Directed By: Ron Clements & John Musker
Written By: Ron Clements, John Musker & Rob Edwards (screenplay)
Walt Disney Pictures, 2009
G; 97 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


Disney decided to take a step back with The Princess and the Frog, returning to the old-fashioned 2-D animation of past classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. But Disney also decided to take a step forward by creating the first African-American "princess."

I put princess in quotes there because Tiana isn't one. Nor does she particularly aspire to become one--unlike her friend Charlotte, the pampered Garden District-dwelling daughter of "Big Daddy" (John Goodman). Charlotte and Tiana are friends only because Tiana's mother was hired by Big Daddy to create a wardrobe of princess dresses for Charlotte when both Charlotte and Tiana were children. Charlotte's big plan, enabled by her father, is to marry visiting Prince Naveen. The union is supposedly suitable to both: Naveen is a spoiled and disowned prince with no money, and Charlotte has money but desires to be a real princess.

Meanwhile, Tiana is a hard-working girl holding down two waitressing jobs in the hopes of saving enough money to open her own restaurant some day. Friends invite her out for a night of dancing, but it's clear that Tiana is all work and no play, the concern being that she's frittering away her youth and happiness by being too focused on her goal. The returning theme is that love and family should mean more than anything.

The plot is somewhat thin. Naveen runs into Dr. Facilier, a "shadow man" (Voodoo practitioner, one supposes, though it's never said) and is turned into a frog. Like the old fairy tale, he needs to kiss a princess to be restored. Alas, he mistakes Tiana for such and she reluctantly agrees to kiss him--which turns her into a frog, too. Long story short, Naveen's laziness doesn't jive with Tiana's workaholic ways, but they're forced to work together to achieve the goal of getting back to being human.

The standout here is Jim Cummings' turn as the firefly Ray, a brave, loyal and likable sidekick.

The music is also very good, though I was sorry they cut short the Zydeco-inspired "Gonna Take You There."

The writers are also careful to balance Dr. Facilier's "dark" magics with Mama Odie's lighter ones.

It's a little bit fun to see Disney poke at the princess-loving girls by sidelining Charlotte--whose enthusiasm is a tad over-the-top. But young girls going to see this movie are probably not going to understand it. After all, in their eyes most of the movie is about frogs. Beautiful clothes and tiaras get only a passing nod. The departure can be applauded on a certain level, but my guess is this is also the reason The Princess and the Frog hasn't had better box office results.