Wednesday, February 20, 2013

John Adams

Director:  Tom Hooper
                (based on the book by David McCullough)

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience:  High School juniors and seniors

This 7-episode HBO series released in 2009 provides a quality look at events that formed our nation--not just war, but the rule of law, the development of our Constitution, and the delicate balance between freedom responsibility.

History buffs and AP students will benefit most from this careful study of John Adams, a frequently overlooked Founding Father.  He suffered bouts of temper and pride, but never wavered in his dedication to the law, public service, and the need for a free people to be guided by wise government.

The Book of the Dun Cow

Titles:  Book of the Dun Cow; Book of Sorrows

Author:  Walt Wangerin, Jr.

Rating:  0 stars out of 3 possible, "D" or "F"
            Not Recommended

Audience:  Youth, Adults

Book of the Dun Cow was the worst book I've read since Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, or Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.  Disjointed, obscure, and slightly bizarre.

Sometimes the Literati bless these things with National Book Awards and rave reviews, but they just don't translate to Joe-Reader and Joe-Reader's children.

I tried hard to like Book of the Dun Cow.  I really did.  I've enjoyed many animal fantasy-allegories.  And I've read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, so you'd think I could make the transition.  But honestly, it was just weird.  And given the small amount of time we have to read with our children, I believe time is better spent on something like the Redwall series or The Hobbit.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Judy Moody and Stink

Titles:  Judy Moody (11 titles, plus tie-in items)
           Stink (7 titles, plus tie-ins)

Author:  Megan McDonald

Rating:  0 stars out of 3 possible ("D" or "F")
            Not Recommended

Audience:  2nd-4th Grades

I've often thought of developing two rating systems in life, even as I talk about movies or restaurants with my husband and friends.  It goes like this:  "Well, if you're a picky person, it was a disappointment.  But if you're not too picky, it was okay."

This is mirrored by my husband's more easy-going temperament.  If you ask him how a particular diner or pub visit fared, he'll usually say, "It was good." or, our personal favorite:  "I enjoyed it."

Not, "it was fantastic," or "I loved it!"

Now, if I'm going to spend my time and money on something, I like to hope it will be at least above average or, hoping against hope, excellent.  Whenever my husband says something was "good," not only do I know it was not great, I probably wouldn't even think it was average!  This works out pretty slick, because I don't have to go to a restaurant or movie until Steve says it was great!  Then I'm pretty much guaranteed a good and possibly great return on my investment.

So, my reaction to Judy Moody and her brother Stink is:  If you're a picky person, you'll be disappointed.  But if you're not too picky, you'll think it was okay.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Les Miserables (book and movie)

Author:  Victor Hugo  (book)
              Tom Hooper  (movie)

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible for the book, "B")
            **  (2 stars out of 3 possible for the movie, "B")

Audience:  16 years and up

First of all, understand the book is almost 1500 pages long and I haven't even finished it! It is divided into 5 sections, each of which is around 300 pages.  A reasonable goal is to read a section every month or so and take a few weeks break before forging on.  Although, I know one of my friends (a mother of 3, including a 9 month old) finished the entire book in one reading, utilizing maximum library renewals and only a 2-day late fee!

Reading the first section will give you a fine background for the musical or movie, as well as insight into Hugo's themes and philosophies.

I liked the movie better than I expected.  It was well-executed, extremely well-acted and reasonably well-sung.  A lot of reviewers seemed ultra-picky about Russell Crowe's singing ability, but I felt he passed.  Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried (young Cosette) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) were outstanding.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter shined as the evil, yet comic-relieving Thenardiers.  Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche was both entertaining and heart-breaking.

The Hobbit (book & movie)

Author:  J. R. R. Tolkien (book)
             Peter Jackson (movie)

Rating:  *** (3 stars out of 3, "A" for the book)
             0 stars out of 3 ("D" or "F" for the movie)

Audience:  6th grade and up

You just knew I wasn't going to like it, didn't you?!  While I fall far short of being a Tolkien purist, I was extremely disappointed in this movie from Peter Jackson.

Orcs.  Not in the book.  Not necessary.  Save them for Lord of the Rings.

Radagast the Brown.  Not in the book.  Not necessary.  I think Jackson found him in some unpublished Tolkien papers.  Leave him there.

PG-13.  Not in the book.  Not necessary.  Overdone violence, beheadings and orcs (see above).  Plus the humor, poetry and general feel of the book was mostly ignored, save perhaps for the initial dwarf scene at the hobbit hole.

Three movie sequence.  A big media ploy and entertainment rip-off.  Two movies I might have fallen for, but not three.  TimeWarner will only get rental income from me for the next two sequels (if they're that lucky)--no full price tickets for this family.

Production Quality.  Outstanding.  That I'll give to Mr. Jackson.  Which only makes a fan more wishful for what might have been.

It's useful to differentiate between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  They are very different books telling very different stories for very different audiences.  The Hobbit is really a wonderful place to introduce your children to the epic journey and epic storytelling.  Full of songs and poems, adventures, maps, description, humor and character development, it stands fine on it's own, or as a prequel to LoTR.  I consider it a "must-read" in children's or youth literature, while LoTR can be reserved for teens willing to further explore the fantasy genre.  Don't misunderstand me:  LoTR is wonderful, but many people are happy to stop at The Hobbit.  Just make sure you stop at your local bookstore, not the movie theater.

City of Ember

Titles:  City of Ember; People of Sparks; Prophet of Yonwood; Diamond of Darkhold

Author:  Jeanne DuPrau  (pronounce "Jean DuPro")

Rating:  **  (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience:  Middle School Readers

For this review I read City of Ember and Diamond of Darkhold.  As is often the case, sequels have trouble maintaining the creativity and energy of the original.

I found City of Ember to be an engaging adventure accompanied by a word puzzle to captivate thoughtful readers even more completely.  DuPrau has created an interesting setting and society, as citizens of Ember been underground in their self-sufficient city for as long as any of them can remember.  Unfortunately, their food stores and power systems are beginning to crumble, and as life becomes more difficult, two young teens, Doon and Lina, need to do more than just solve a mystery to save their city.

If this sounds a bit apocalyptic, it's because it is.  In a more gentle tone than Hunger Games, but along the lines of Gregor the Overlander, DuPrau has the reader consider the big questions of life and human conscience.