Books & Reading · Commentary · Story & Characters

Reading Pet Penchants

In my last post, I highlighted my top six reading pet peeves. So for this post, I’m going to share my top six reading pet penchants – story elements that I enjoy! These are things that, for me, can take a good story and make it great and, hence, make it worth reading over and over again.

6. Hero with a Change of Heart

While all heroes should be flawed (though not outrageously flawed), I tend to enjoy heroes who start off with some less than desirable traits yet evolve and mature, eventually smoothing out these rough edges. One of the best examples for me is from Jane Eyre. When the novel begins, Jane is a cold, hard-hearted young girl and she can be a little difficult to relate to. However, over time, she allows her heart to soften and adopts a mature outlook on life, even finding it within herself to forgive someone who wronged her years before. Jane is clearly a flawed heroine to start but she doesn’t stay that way. Overall, a hero with a change of heart makes for a great redemption story, and there’s nothing better than watching a hero strive for positive personal change.

5. Immersive Worlds

As a reader of fantasy and science fiction, I’m accustomed to in-depth, detailed worldbuilding. But for me there’s worldbuilding and then there’s worldbuilding. I love being made to feel like a story’s world really could exist, as if you could visit it by some invisible portal. Story worlds that possess their own history, important figures, cultures, environments, rules, and even terminology make the space the characters populate come alive. Two story worlds that, for me, epitomize worldbuilding are Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Rowling’s Wizarding world. Both feel like they could be real places as they possess not only realistic, functioning settings but also workable cultures and histories that add a sense of depth and realism to the story. While a story’s setting shouldn’t trump its characters, it’s important for me to have a world I can immerse myself in so that each time I read the book, it’s like I’m paying it a long, welcomed visit.

Unlikely Heroes
Some of my favorite heroic characters are usually the least likely persons you’d peg with saving the day. There’s something deeply touching about seeing a character rise from obscurity or overcome obstacles to become a brave but humble savior. Without a doubt, one of my favorite unlikely heroes is Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings and, for me, Frodo is a paragon for this character type. First, he’s a Hobbit, a race of little notoriety in Middle-earth. Not to mention that being a Hobbit also means he’s not exactly from the tallest or strongest of races – quite the contrary. Likewise, Frodo is more suited to a quiet, simple life, not for grand quests; therefore, he lacks the powerful presence of, say, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Elrond. However, in the end, it is little Frodo who willingly and humbly accepts the task of seeing the One Ring to its doom. Probably the number one reason why I love unlikely heroes is that they’re easy to relate to as well as root for: they’re good people who are worthy of being called heroes yet they’re not born heroic – they are made heroic by their choices.

3. Meaningful Messages
Sermonizing in a story is one of my reading pet peeves, but that doesn’t mean I automatically dislike all stories that have a message. Every story has a moral to share because no story is separate from its author’s worldview, which inherently permeates whatever that writer composes. However, the difference is that well-crafted stories don’t sport this on their proverbial sleeves. I appreciate stories that display the importance of virtue over vice, the rewards of perseverance, the elevation of the underdog, and the triumph of true love (not mere infatuation or superficial sexual attraction). All of my favorite books contain subtle messages that move me and ultimately exalt virtuous actions. However, most of these “messages” don’t come across using direct tactics but, instead, employ implied strategies. A direct tactic is a means by which to openly convey a message. For instance, if Bob says, “Stealing is wrong,” to a thief named Tom, that’s a direct tactic because the message is obvious and clear (i.e. “stealing is wrong”).

In contrast, implied strategies use character actions and the operation of cause and effect to convey messages. To revisit the previous example, if Tom gets arrested for stealing, then character actions and the sequence of cause and effect indirectly communicate the message that stealing is wrong (i.e. Tom was arrested for stealing, hence he was punished for his actions, ergo the message is that stealing is wrong). Granted, most books utilize both techniques, but for me, implied strategies show readers a greater respect by allowing them to determine a moral for themselves and apply it personally however they wish. By means of comparison, I love the moral in Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost as the message of being mindful of the influences you allow into your life is delivered chiefly through character action and cause and effect, not open exposition. In contrast, In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang openly touts a protest-laden social justice message in a very direct way that leaves nothing for readers to uncover or personally apply. I believe poet Emily Dickinson said it best: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind,” meaning sometimes the most potent truths are those that aren’t directly in your face.

2. Not-100%-Evil Villains

I love a good, compelling villain, someone who is on equal footing with and makes for a suitable challenge to the hero. A stupid or lazy villain provides little to no challenge, and a villain who is too smart or too powerful ensures no victory for the hero. So a happy medium is best. However, as much as I love rotten to the core, 100% pure villainy bad guys (like Harry Potter‘s Lord Voldemort), nothing beats a baddie who isn’t all bad and who might redeem himself in some fashion, even if he doesn’t make a full transition from villain to hero. Two such villains whom I place among my all-time favorite baddies would be Negan (from The Walking Dead comics) and Grand Admiral Thrawn (from Timothy Zahn’s sundry Star Wars novels).

While both of these figures are undoubtedly villains, they’re not utterly evil or always doing bad deeds. In fact, both of these characters possess traits and skills that, under different circumstances or utilized differently, would actually make them good guys! Negan is more than capable of holding his own in a fight as well as acting as a rallying point for his followers. Likewise, he has an established social structure in place that, despite its ethical standards being sorely askew, still reflects a system where “rules keep [people] safe,” and – oddly enough – Negan later aligns himself with the story’s protagonists. Concerning Thrawn, his key traits would certainly elevate him to heroic status were it not for the fact he’s an Imperial officer. He displays a high level of intelligence, incredible foresight, astute military tactics and strategies, a distaste of brutality for brutality’s sake, an ability to command respect, and a curious mind that appreciates and analyzes art. Thus, were it not for his alignment with the Empire, Thrawn would undoubtedly have been a hero; but even as a villain, Thrawn still isn’t actually evil. Thus, I enjoy villains who aren’t entirely or always bad; however, it’s their choices that decide on which side of the hero-villain fence they reside.

1. Happy Endings

It may seem cliche in a postmodern age, but I gravitate to, relate to, and obtain the most enjoyment out of stories with good payoffs for both their characters and readers. That isn’t to say nothing bad should happen in a story, that characters can’t make mistakes, or that everything is wrapped up neat and tidy. It’s in dire, dramatic moments where characters flourish and test their mettle. After all, if characters don’t experience and endure trying events then the ultimate payoff isn’t as sweet. I agree with Tolkien that the most meaningful stories don’t end with catastrophe but eucatastrophe. Rather than focus on the bad, eucatastrophe emphasizes the hope of a good future – the hero triumphs over the villain, maybe even some of the minor baddies are redeemed, the star-crossed couple is reunited at last, and the wayward child comes home. Happy endings don’t undermine everything a character goes through; instead, they function as a reward, a payoff where everything a heroic character endured was worth it and, by proxy, was worth it for the reader in terms of a cathartic experience.

The best example of this for me is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which marks the conclusion of the Harry Potter series. While each book ends on a relatively happy note, it’s the final novel’s ending that rings the sweetest. It’s an understatement to say that Harry goes through a lot throughout the course of seven books as he endures so much grief and anger that readers hope the ending is worth the pain. Rest assured, it is! Harry and many of his comrades are given happy endings, not the sort that make you gag on their sweetness but the authentic type that allows you to put a smile on your face.

Overall, happy endings are my number one reading pet penchant because they reflect what I think most of us, deep down, inherently believe: that everything we go through will be worth it in the end and that evil and darkness don’t triumph forever.

Books & Reading · Commentary

Reading Pet Peeves

Reading pet peeves – gotta (not) love ’em!

These are the little – or big – things that get under your skin and ruin, or nearly ruin, the reading experience. While I trust must of us bookworms have our own reading pet peeves, in this post I’m going to share my top six. (Just to note, these are all my opinions based on my personal reading preferences and aren’t intended to criticize readers who do enjoy these elements.)

6. Love Triangles

I don’t immediately hate love triangles provided they’re not the plot’s principle support structure. (By way of example, I think the love triangle in The Hunger Games works because the books don’t hinge on it.) However, what I don’t like is when a love triangle is employed as a lazy way of inserting tension into a story and for no other reason. I sort of blame Twilight for reviving love triangle-based plots as love triangles in and of themselves aren’t contemporary inventions. While romantic drama can be compelling, there are other methods of generating tension and raising characters’ stakes. However, I sense the love triangle is the most convenient to use and the most popular to market. But that doesn’t mean I’m always in love with it.

5. Aimless Narratives

Most fiction can be divided into two basic categories regarding plot focus – action-driven narratives and character-driven narratives. As long as characters are given something to strive for or accomplish by the story’s end, then however an author elects to get there – by either focusing on physical action or character life events – is fine. But what irks me is when a story has characters do random stuff that ultimately leads nowhere. Aimless stories, for me, are the literary equivalent of A Tribe Called Quest’s song, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” where a bunch of friends go on a road trip, come back, only for one of them to discover he’s lost his wallet…and that’s it. One of the most damning lines in the song is “We had no destination/we was on a quest,” but to quote the Rap Critic, “If you don’t have a destination, you’re not on a quest.” In other words, if you don’t know where you’re going or where you want to end up, then you can’t be on a search for an elusive something or someplace. In the same way, characters in a story need to have an end goal to accomplish or reach, but they can’t do that if they’re given nothing to do that leads up to it. And if a story ultimately has no point, then I see no point in reading it.

4. Flawless Hero/Too Flawed Hero

This pet peeve is two-sided. A flawless hero is akin to the “special snowflake” trope, a character in whom there are no discernible flaws. It’s hard to emotionally or mentally connect with a character who makes no mistakes or who is always right as that doesn’t generate a cathartic reading experience; so, I cringe when I encounter characters who are too good to be true. On the flip side, a too flawed hero is one who commits atrocities more befitting a villain. A hero should be flawed but not so flawed that he or she becomes despicable. For instance, in Jane Eyre, the titular protagonist starts off as a cold-hearted young girl, but in time she matures and forgives those who wronged her. Jane is flawed but her growth as a character and change of heart make her relatable, and her flaws aren’t so grievous that they transform her into a monster. In stark contrast, Thomas Covenant of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series is a flawed hero, but his biggest flaw (and it’s a BIG one!) is that he rapes a female character, skirts justice, and only feels a little remorse later on. Again, some flaws are forgivable and cause readers to be sympathetic to the character, but other flaws are just too deplorable to be forgiven.

3. Clueless Characters
Stupidity for the sake of comedy is fine, so I’m not against goofball characters in general. But what gets under my skin are characters who are stupid, not for the sake of making readers laugh, but because they genuinely are dumb and quite possibly TSTL (“too stupid to live”). These types of characters are more frustrating than funny as, while it’s okay for characters to make mistakes, readers still expect them to use some common sense.

Two characters I despise for their lack of brains are Bella Swan from the Twilight series and Nick from Gone Girl. Bella makes rash decisions devoid of any ounce of common sense, even for a teenager. From intentionally putting herself in harm’s way to establish a telepathic connection with her beloved Edward, to insisting on being turned into a vampire on a commercial jetliner, Bella is not the sharpest crayon in the box. Nick, on the other hand, is a despicable soul who engages in behaviors that to everyone else (including the reader) make no sense yet he’s supposedly smart. While sometimes he feels guilty for doing dunderheadish things, more often than not he’s not the one who reaches this conclusion. It’s usually someone else who has to wise him up to the fact that maybe some of his actions aren’t good ideas (such as having an affair after his wife is presumed to be missing and he’s the number one suspect). Clueless characters such as these are a wet blanket on any story and can quickly turn even a mediocre read into a definite DNF.

2. Sermon Disguised as a Story

Stories are stories and sermons are sermons, and it’s best not to mix the two as sermonizing always sacrifices story. In my view, writers should seek to tell a story first and foremost, and a message (if any) will implant itself naturally as the story inherently reflects the writer’s worldview. I’ve noticed that the two biggest sermons writers try to preach are either some type of social justice message or a “religion is evil” rant. Concerning the former, the most effective stories for me are those that don’t wear their intentions on their sleeves. Rather than preach about injustices, writers should pen a good, compelling story that pits characters against said injustices and gives them an admirable goal to reach. Focusing more on the characters and less on trying to preach a sermon makes for a more meaningful story.

Concerning the castigation of religion, it seems to me that any time religion is utilized in a story and it’s intended to be the “villain,” it’s almost always a form of Christianity. But that’s a horrible way to define an entire belief system. This is my biggest problem with the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. I give The Golden Compass a pass because if you ignore the religion-bashing that comes later on, it’s honestly a fun adventure story. But The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass are nothing shy of anti-Christian propaganda. In contrast, Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu shows both sides of the religion coin as it paints a patriarchal Christian sect as flawed in terms of doctrine but contrasts it with Christian characters who live out correct Biblical teachings and a Christian church that correctly interprets and teaches Scripture. However, this is demonstrated through characters’ actions and interactions with others, not through long passages of exposition (read: sermonizing). When writers opt not to to preach a sermon or seek to demonize religion, they’re showing readers respect as their characters’ actions speak for themselves and, thus, readers exercise the right to draw their own conclusions rather than being spoon-fed a takeaway “moral.”

1. Dumped-in Diversity

Diversity is all the rage these days it seems, but I immediately go on high alert when an author touts how “diverse” his or her book is, slathering #WeNeedDiverseBooks or #OwnVoices all over the marketing because, for me, there’s a difference between a genuinely diverse book and a book of tokens. A diverse book puts another culture or ethnic group at the forefront and examines that group’s culture as inherently part of the story and, thus, doesn’t call attention to it. But when an author sprinkles “diverse” characters into a story – essentially employing token characters – that’s what I call dumped-in diversity as it’s inserted solely for the sake of appeasing a particular reading audience. In the end, usually the element making these characters “diverse” has no real bearing on the plot, so it feels like it’s there just because.

By way of example, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees is set in the segregated South and features a White child being raised by three Black sisters. This novel doesn’t club readers over the head by touting how diverse it is; instead, the story showcases characters who just happen to be Black and White – no fanfare needed. What makes this a genuinely diverse book for me is that the characters’ backgrounds and cultures tie in with each other, their lives, their interactions with other characters, and the story as a whole. The Black (and White) characters aren’t tokens and no social justice message is preached as the characters take center stage and any messages about racism and the like are left to unfold organically in the background, respecting readers’ right to read as much, or as little, as they want into the story.

In contrast, Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare inserts a plethora of “diverse” characters but their “diversity” never comes into play in terms of the actual story. One character, by way of example, is a Hispanic female Shadowhunter working among non-Hispanic Shadowhunters in a predominantly non-Hispanic cultural backdrop. But her background and culture are never relied upon to show how she approaches her line of Shadowhunter work as opposed to her non-Hispanic counterparts or even how she engages other people aside from occasional smatterings of Spanish to cement the fact she’s an ethnicity other than White. In the end, she becomes a smart-mouthed Latina stereotype and nothing is done in terms of trying to explore why her background is even remotely important to her interactions with others or her environment.

Other times, “diversity” is so blindly inserted that one would be hard-pressed to even determine what’s unique or different about the “diverse” characters in question. For instance, the lead female character in Fate of Flames by Sarah Raughley is supposed to be Black, but until reviewers pointed it out, I honestly couldn’t tell as nothing in the way this character conducts herself, talks, relates to others, etc. makes her “diverse” other than her skin color isn’t white. That’s not true diversity: that’s just “diversity” dumped in to appease certain readers who would be up in arms if the lead character was White. Similarly, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest randomly inserts a gay character for no decipherable reason other than to assert the book is now “diverse” because it features a token gay (though I, personally, don’t consider the inclusion of gay or similarly classified characters as qualifying as “diverse”).

Therefore, dumped-in diversity is my number one pet peeve because, much like trying to use a story to preach a sermon, these narratives try to appeal to readers by touting that they’re hip to the whole social justice/”diversity” scene when really all it’s a cover for is a thinly veiled lecture about inclusion, tolerance, acceptance, etc.

I, personally, don’t feel we need “diverse” books. What we, as readers of all ages, need are stories with heroic characters who display, not so much “diversity,” but classic virtues such as integrity, compassion, courage, hope, and selflessness that cross cultural lines. These, more so than having social justice sermons crammed down our throats, will have a far more lasting impact on personal character and make for far more meaningful, edifying reads.


Descendants/Descendants 2 Review

While I’m not in the target audience for most of the Disney Channel’s programming, I was drawn to the Descendants chiefly due to its concept: what if some of Disney’s top baddies had children and those children were given the choice to do good – would they take it or turn up their villainous noses?

This premise becomes the backbone for both entries in Disney’s Descendants franchise, which also consists of an animated show (which I’ve never watched) and a book series (which I have read) by Melissa de la Cruz that, to date, consists of three books – The Isle of the Lost, Return to the Isle of the Lost, and Rise of the Isle of the Lost. While these are separate from the movies, they help develop the characters and are rollicking, clean adventure stories. (Just to note, Isle of the Lost is a prequel to Descendants, Return to the Isle of the Lost is a filler story, and Rise of the Isle of the Lost serves as a prequel to Descendants 2.)

I first became aware of Descendants back in 2015 thanks to iTunes when it featured the first movie’s soundtrack on the store homepage. The idea of a story about the children of some of Disney’s worst neer-do-wells sounded intriguing and I listened to and liked some of the music; so I decided to check out Descendants in 2015 and its follow-up, Descendants 2, in 2017. But how do these two teen films stack up, and is there anything for an older audience to like?

[Content Note: Descendants and Descendants 2 were both given a TV-G rating for mild fantasy violence.]

[SPOILER NOTE: While I won’t reveal major spoilers, there may be some minor spoilers discussed or mentioned.]

Descendants (2015)

The first entry’s premise is fairly straightforward: characters from various Disney tales are split into two worlds with all of the good, noble, heroic figures residing in the United States of Auradon (yes, USA for short) and all of the villainous folk doomed to dwell on the Isle of the Lost where their ability to use magic is forever hindered. For years, these two groups have lived separate lives and, thanks to a magical barrier, are unable to cross to the other side. All of that changes when Prince Ben (Mitchell Hope), son of King Beast and Queen Belle, decides to allow some of the villains’ children to attend Auradon Prep and be taught how to be good. His handpicked villains-to-be are Carlos (Cameron Boyce), the cynophobic son of Cruella De Vil; Evie (Sofia Carson), the beauty and fashion-obsessed daughter of Snow White‘s Evil Queen; Jay (Booboo Stewart), the thieving son of Aladdin‘s magical malefactor, Jafar; and Mal (Dove Cameron), daughter of Maleficent, the most evil fairy on the Isle and its self-proclaimed leader.

Conflict ensures as Mal, Evie, Carlos, and Jay aren’t exactly keen on the idea of learning to be good, but they will take any chance they can get to leave the Isle. However, Maleficent (Kristen Chenoweth) commissions Mal with finding Fairy Godmother’s wand and bringing it back to the Isle so she can become its feared ruler once more, only with magic in hand. At first, Mal is more than happy to make her mother proud, so she enters Auradon Prep with ulterior motives. However, over time, she, Evie, Carlos, and Jay find their place among their peers and begin to question whether a life of villainy is really the best path or if being good is a better way to live.

Overall, Descendants is just flat-out fun! It has an energetic cast, its soundtrack is frothy and bouncy, its story is easy to take but offers good food for thought, and its production value is impressive for a made-for-TV film. The target audience is definitely pre-teens and teens, but I’m an adult and I had a blast! (Of course, knowledge of Disney lore helps, so if you’re not familiar with any Disney characters, then this probably won’t hold much appeal.)

To start, the four leads look like they are having a great time in their respective roles, and I commend actors for that. If an actor or actress looks like he’s bored or she’s just reading lines for a paycheck, then I’m not going to be too invested in their performance. But to Cameron’s, Carson’s, Boyce’s, and Stewart’s credit, that’s not the case. Each one of them brings a healthy dose of youthful energy and charming quirks that make them stand out, and their characters are each given a chance to shine in unique ways: Mal has to deal with the pressure of being Maleficent’s daughter, Evie tries to make her mother proud by trying to land herself a prince, Carlos contends with his fear of dogs, and Jay does his best to prove he can put his street smarts to the test. It’s these little traits and inner conflicts that make the cast fun to watch both as individuals and as a whole. And while the lip syncing during the movie’s musical performances might not be the tightest, for me it’s the performances that count more so than trying to fake singing along to a musical track, so I’d still award an A+ to each of the young leads.

Speaking of music, Descendants boasts an upbeat, frothy pop soundtrack that is fun to listen to even on its own. Granted, it’s tuned for the Radio Disney crowd but that doesn’t mean it’s a weak mix of songs. For me, the standout tracks would be the first ensemble number, “Rotten to the Core,” which injects dubstep into its poppy confection; “Evil Like Me,” a bouncy, boisterous, Broadway-esque track that allows Chenoweth to channel her inner Maleficent; and “If Only,” the movie’s only ballad that lets Dove Cameron fly solo, and it’s my favorite song of the bunch. Granted, there were two songs I thought were a bit cheesy: “Did I Mention” is a goofy puppy love song that accompanies an equally goofy dance number and the remix of “Be Our Guest” is appreciatively brief. However, I sense those tracks might appeal to a younger crowd and they are by no means awful.

Lastly, the plot to Descendants is easy to follow but still entertaining thanks to the young leads and the plethora of Disney Easter eggs, some admittedly more cleverly included than others. The production value, too, is impressive as the sets are large, colorful, and do their best not to come across as low-budget or cheap. That being said, some of the special effects are a bit weak but, considering this was made for TV and not for cinemas, it’s forgivable. If I had any criticism, it would be that some of the plot hinges on a love story that becomes insta-love (though, to be fair, magic is involved to intentionally speed up the process). But even when magic is removed from the equation, the attraction between two characters is very much like what you’d see in a standard – but clean – YA love story. It’s not cringe-worthy, but, as an adult, it’s hard for me to hear teens proclaim how deep their love is for one another at the ripe old age of not-even-20. But to the movie’s credit, it’s sweet and chaste and the male love interest is a genuinely good guy, not a brooding bad boy or a low-down creep.

Even though the plot is lightweight, it does present good messages about giving people a second chance and carving out your own path in life. Prince Ben is a noble character who believes that even a villain deserves to be treated with kindness and compassion. In the same way, Mal, Evie, Carlos, and Jay initially balk at the idea of changing their ways but eventually discover that they don’t have to follow in their parents’ footsteps – they can stand on their own, and while that doesn’t change where they came from, they can decide where their lives go in the future.

Overall, I’d give Descendants a solid letter grade of an A. It’s an enjoyable made-for-TV flick that, as a whole, is akin to summertime cotton candy: deep down it might be empty calories but it’s still colorful, delicious, sweet, and leaves you with a cheerful, sunny feeling inside.

Descendants 2 (2017)

Unfortunately, I have to give its sequel, Descendants 2, a solid C grade. That’s not to say this is a bad followup, but much of what made Descendants work for me was lacking this time around.

While Descendants had a definable plot, Descendants 2’s story is onion skin thin almost to the point of being non-existent. Rather than opening with a scene that sets the primary conflict, much like the opening scene in Descendants, this sequel kicks things off with, essentially, a music video for “Ways to Be Wicked” (a number clearly trying to recapture the feel and tone of “Rotten to the Core”). However, even though it’s a catchy song and it’s one of the soundtrack’s standouts, it doesn’t do anything to set the stage for the story. It’s as if the plot didn’t have a good way to work the song in, so it decided to tack on a music video at the start of the movie. This lack of initial focus plagues the plot as, for about the first hour, it seems as if the central conflict will be that Mal feels she doesn’t belong among the good people of Auradon and decides to return to the Isle of the Lost. Mal actually spends a lot of time bemoaning her “I-just-don’t-fit-in” state. While she manages to not become too annoying, her angst was something relatively unseen in the first movie, so it brings a bit of a damper on things here.

For about an hour, it seems as if the antagonist is going to be Mal herself and her existential crisis of sorts, despite the fact that, this time around, we’re promised some new faces in the form of three new villains’ children: Uma (China Anne McClain), daughter of Ursula; Harry Hook (Thomas Doherty), son of Captain Hook; and Gil (Dylan Playfair), the slightly meat-headed offspring of Gaston. These new faces don’t show up until the first hour is nearly spent, which is a shame as these new characters are fun albeit they are a bit one note. Likewise, as Uma is played up as Mal’s arch nemesis in the trailers, nothing early on in the movie itself really explains why the two girls are rivals other than they just are. (In fact, Uma’s backstory in Rise of the Isle of the Lost is more helpful to this effect.) Thus, once Uma tries to make a play for becoming boss of the Isle of the Lost, it doesn’t feel like a takeover but a convenient plot device because there was nothing else for Uma to do. If her story would have been introduced sooner and with more background, I think I would have found her character more enjoyable and relevant to the story as a whole.

One aspect that helped ground the characters in Descendants but is decidedly absent here is the presence of the villainous parents. Even though their roles were minor in the first movie, we were still treated to scenes involving Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, Jafar, and the Evil Queen. These interactions provided background details for Mal, Evie, Carlos, and Jay as it helped audiences see who their parents were and how their parents treated them, which made the young leads’ transformations all the more striking. Plus, it added for some great comedy as these notorious Disney neer-do-wells haven’t exactly gone to seed, but they’re not at the top of their game anymore and it’s funny to watch them contend with that.

However, in Descendants 2 we never see any of the young leads’ parents save for Maleficent in lizard form (so Ms. Chenoweth makes nary an appearance). We don’t even get introduced to the three new young villains’ parents, so Captain Hook, Gaston, and Ursula never show up except for a CGI tentacle and an off-screen voice actress as a fill-in for Ursula. Instead, it’s the youngsters ruling the roost here, and while it probably wasn’t necessary to show Mal’s, Evie’s, Carlos’s, and Jay’s parents again, it would have been helpful to feature Uma interacting with her mom and Harry and Gil with their respective dads. As a whole, the plot feels like it would have found its feet if it was forced to be at least forty minutes shorter than its near two-hour running time. Instead, the movie plods until the third act, which finally introduces some much-needed action.

Likewise, the tone is a little less fun and lighthearted than the first go around. As stated, Mal spends quite a bit of time being distraught over her place in the world, and while such a conflict would have been fine, it’s dragged out and brings in a dash of angst that was absent in Descendants. That’s not to say Descendants 2 is depressing as it’s not, but it seems like it’s trying to appeal to an older teen bracket as opposed to the bright, colorful, and more youthfully cheerful Descendants. There were a few other little bones of contention that I didn’t have with the first movie, namely a feminist message involving a very minor character that felt like it was inserted just because and the near-constant reliance upon a “be yourself” mantra. Again, overt messages are fine in media for youth, but to constantly have characters spout lines and sing songs about being yourself started to wear thin and I appreciated the more subtle messages about second chances and good choices from the first film.

All of that being said, Descendants 2 does have its bright moments. The lead cast features the characters’ original actors who seamlessly step right into character. Uma, Harry, and Gil are welcomed additions despite being slightly one-note: Gil is a bit of a dunderhead but he’s not so stupid that he’s cringe-worthy, Harry Hook exudes a cocky self-confidence, and Uma is just plain fun as McClain looks like she’s enjoying herself every minute she’s on screen. Not to mention this young lady has some serious vocal power, and her rousing signature musical number, “What’s My Name,” is thrilling to watch and it would be right at home in a Broadway show.

Production-wise, Descendants 2 has fancier sets, one of which includes a ship where a climactic sword fight between Mal and Co. and Uma and her crew of scalawags takes place. While the special effects aren’t always up to par, they avoid looking too cheap. Lastly, the soundtrack, while not my favorite between the Descendant movies, still boasts some decent tunes, namely “Ways to Be Wicked” and “What’s My Name.” While the former is more fun to listen to on its own as its incorporation into the movie is a bit forced, the latter is actually more impressive watching it performed by McClain. “Chillin’ Like a Villian” is also a bouncy little pop ditty that’s worth a mention for its bubbly production. And an honorable mention goes to “Space Between,” which is a pretty duet between Dove Cameron and Sofia Carson, but it’s an obligatory ballad that tries to mimic “If Only” in terms of being a serious, self-reflection song. It’s by no means bad and serves its purpose but it’s not the most unique offering on the soundtrack. Lastly, for me, the weakest song is the movie’s closing number, “You and Me,” which sounds like a ripoff of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” in terms of theme as it hammers home more vague messages about “being yourself” and “changing the world” and lacks the lighthearted, vibrant energy of Descendant‘s closing tune, “Set it Off“.

Thus, I’d award Descendants 2 a C letter grade as it’s solidly average. The novelty from Descendants is gone and, in its place, are characters who are not so much intent on having adventures but bemoaning about not fitting in. In the same way, the paper-thin plot meanders, never truly finding its footing, and the music is fairly generic save for the rousing “What’s My Name.” That being said, it has its entertaining moments but I didn’t feel the same sense of cheer that I did with Descendants. Thus, Descendants 2 is less like cotton candy and more like pink lemonade: it’s still colorful and fun with a hint of sweetness but it has some noticeable bitter notes though it’s not unpalatable.

The Run-Down:

As a whole, the Descendants franchise is definitely tailor-made for a teen audience, but that doesn’t mean we adults can’t enjoy the show. I could definitely see teen girls – especially young teen girls – absolutely loving these movies, and that’s great! Content-wise, it’s clean and the messages in general are good and well-intended. Likewise, Disney aficionados of all ages might enjoy checking this out for a creative spin on some classic Disney mythos and figures (though the books of the Descendant series do a stronger job in this regard). Overall, I’d definitely recommend checking out Descendants and, for curiosity’s sake, watch Descendants 2. While this series might inherently hold more appeal for teens, there are enough clever homages, good music, cool characters, and fun adventures all around to satisfy the Disney kid in all of us.

book tags · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Tag – 2017 Mid-Year Reading Recap

I found this book tag on Carissa Reads it All and decided to give it a try (though I made changes for my own purposes). (You can read the original tag here.) Just to note, I’ll be discussing books I’ve read this year in general, so I’m not limiting my choices to books that were released in 2017 as some were not.

So with that out of the way, let’s get started! 🙂

1. Best book you’ve read in 2017 so far.
Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
Honestly, I would lump together all of Zahn’s Thrawn-related novels (meaning any novel that featured or mentioned Thrawn as a character). But if I had to choose, I’d go with this most recent work, which serves as Thrawn’s origin story (concerning his Imperial service, that is). Grand Admiral Thrawn is an outstanding character all the way around thanks to his tactical expertise, sharp intellect, careful attention to detail, unique appreciation for art, and intriguing cultural background. It almost makes you feel bad that he’s considered a villain because he possesses a lot of attributes that would have made him an awesome good guy. Not to mention that, despite his incredible smarts, Thrawn isn’t all-knowing, and I enjoyed this aspect to his character here as it keeps him from becoming too good to be true or too larger than life. Also, as a quick side note, I liked how Zahn used a light hand when it came to depicting the prejudice Thrawn occasionally faces because he’s a non-Human. Zahn could have ruined the story by overplaying this; instead he incorporates it as an inherent aspect of Thrawn’s development and leaves it at that, not trying to use the novel as a social justice soapbox. In fact, I was so impressed by Thrawn that he now has claimed the number one spot as my all-time favorite book villain. Yes, Grand Admiral Thrawn has officially bumped the Dark Lord himself, Lord Voldemort, out of first place! 🙂

2. Worst book you’ve read in 2017 so far.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
I hated this book and not for the reasons you might expect. While I don’t automatically have a problem with books that tackle hefty issues like bullying and suicide, I do take issue with stories that don’t present good moral takeaways about those topics. I appreciated how the novel attempts to show how our actions or lack thereof can impact others, but there was too much here that I didn’t like. For starters, Hannah was a terrible person as she’s mean-spirited and lacks good common sense. While there was no excuse for her to have been treated the way that she was, she could have spared herself much grief by not allowing herself to be in compromising situations in the first place. For example, in one scene, Hannah is raped in a hot tub by a male classmate. But had she decided beforehand not to go to that particular friend’s house and NOT to get into a hot tub (wearing only her underwear) with a boy she knew was trouble, the assault probably would have never happened. There are other instances like this throughout the novel that caused me to have a strong dislike for Hannah as she could have kept herself out of a lot of situations where trouble was just waiting to happen. Likewise, there are no redeemable adult characters here and parental figures are either faceless or non-existent. Worst of all, Hannah’s caustic attitude is devoid of any sense of forgiveness, any sense of personal responsibility, any indication that she learned anything from her mistakes, or any common sense. In short, while I can see how this novel might serve as a conversation starter for some teens, I, personally, couldn’t immerse myself in it and didn’t find much (if any) good to take away from it.

3. Best sequel you’ve read in 2017 so far.
Wires and Nerve, Vol. 1 by Marissa Meyer
While this book technically doesn’t count as a direct sequel to the Lunar Chronicles series, it still picks up the stories of the series’ main characters, so I count it as sequel-ish. These characters transition well from novel to graphic novel, and I think this new medium allows for Meyer to continue their stories in a more serialized fashion while not sacrificing what I’ve come to know and love about my favorite characters (which would be all of them!). This particular volume showcases Kiko, Cinder’s robotic comrade, and it gives her a great chance to shine and step up from just being a cool sidekick character. Overall, I thought this was just a good, fun adventure story and I definitely look forwarding to reading more. (By the way, the cover is gorgeous in person as it has a nice shine to it and the colors are very saturated, vibrant, and eye-catching.)

4. Worst sequel you’ve read in 2017 so far.
Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
I enjoyed this trilogy’s first novel, Shadow and Bone, despite the fact I’ve seen that type of plot done before. But the world building, magic, and the sinister yet alluring Darkling (who I kept envisioning as Kylo Ren from The Force Awakens – not a bad mental image, by the way) kept me engaged. However, its follow-up novel, Siege and Storm, was a disappointment as it resorted to the usual YA fantasy cliches I’ve read a million times over. Unfortunately, it was enough to discourage me from reading the final book, so I read a plot summary instead. Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t bother with Ruin and Rising as it sounds like I would not have enjoyed that at all. As a whole, I think I’m done with YA. While I don’t mind reading books with teens as lead characters, more often than not the plot devices and elements that probably attract teens only infuriate or bore me because they’re either rife with drama or are nothing new or unique.

5. Most anticipated release for the second half of 2017.
Here’s Negan by Robert Kirkman
This is a collection of the previously released series of short comics for Image+ that detailed the backstory of The Walking Dead‘s most notorious villain. While I’ve managed to read some of the comics online, I haven’t been able to find them all, especially the later ones; so when I saw they were all going to be released in a single volume, I was super-excited! Negan ranks in my top three favorite book villains of all time (in proud company with Grand Admiral Thrawn), so I can’t wait to read his backstory in full. (Based on what I’ve seen so far, some of who Negan is in the principle comics and even the TV show makes a lot more sense in light of who he was before the apocalypse.) I know I’m not supposed to root for a villain, but I can’t help myself. #TeamNegan 🙂

6. Biggest disappointment of 2017 so far.
Hunted by Meagan Spooner
I wanted to like this one but just couldn’t. First, I don’t care for Stockholm Syndrome-esque “love” stories because they’re all shades of questionable (and what ultimately made me sit this aside was when the Beast blurs the lines between hate and love, torment and affection). Likewise, the lead character is a card-carrying feminist as she sees marriage and children as traps to be avoided rather than lifestyle choices that are perfectly legitimate, and the story’s pacing (despite this being a short read) was too slow. Lastly, the author’s response to one reader’s legitimate quesiton about content in this novel was in bad taste, and I just can’t respect a writer who treats her readers in such a snarky manner. Even if Ms. Spooner doesn’t see the value in knowing about a novel’s content (something an older thread on the comments above reflected but has since been deleted), some of us readers (myself included) like to know what to expect, especially in terms of sexual content, before we dive into a story lest we inadvertently spend good money on smut. Her attitude, in my opinion, was not cool and, for that, I will never read anything penned by Ms. Spooner in the future.

7. Best surprise read of 2017 so far.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
I normally don’t peruse Westerns: not that I harbor hatred for the genre but it’s just not something I gravitate to. Yet the cover attracted my attention and the blurb intrigued me, so I decided to check it out. I’m so glad I did! This falls into an on-the-road type of story where Captain Jefferson Kidd, a grizzled war veteran, assumes temporary guardianship of a young girl who has recently been rescued by the Army after she had been captured by an Indian tribe years ago. The set up is what you’d expect: Captain Kidd is a gruff, tough, weathered man (my mind kept conjuring up images of Sam Elliott), and his young charge is completely ignorant of the ways of White civilization. Both struggle with their shared predicament as they venture to reunite her with relatives, and it makes for some awesome drama and genuinely touching moments. I loved their relationship as it is initially based on a sense of respect and loyalty to each other but later evolves. (And, no, absolutely nothing inappropriate happens – their relationship stays strictly a paternal figure-daughter-figure pairing.) The ending was exactly what I was rooting for and it warmed my heart. This was a surprise for me because, even though it’s technically a Western, it’s not the typical cowboys-and-horses type of story. Instead, it’s a touching tale about two unlikely souls who find solidarity in an ever-changing world.

8. One book you read this year (so far) that made you sad.
Dividing Eden by Joelle Charbonneau
Seeing as this is yet another YA fantasy (a genre that finally struck out for me this year due to its share of massive disappointments), I wasn’t expecting much. But I love it when I’m surprised! What made this novel work for me was its focus on a brother-sister pairing rather than the usual love triangle or worst enemies-to-love interests tropes. This was a speedy read and the dynamic between twins Carys and Andreus cranked up the tension. Also, there were some surprises lurking about, especially regarding one of the twins, that I wasn’t expecting. What makes this novel sad for me is Carys and Andreus’ strained relationship. Without revealing spoilers, I’ll just say that their bond is fraught with secrets that must be kept out of the public eye. However, while one twin works tirelessly to ensure the other twin isn’t exposed, the protective twin’s sacrificial nature and good heart are often taken advantage of by the protected twin. Normally, YA fantasy-lite court intrigue is a guaranteed snooze-fest for me, so I was thoroughly pleased with and surprised by this book.

9. One book you read this year (so far) that made you happy.
The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery
I’ve read Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series a long time ago and I had no idea she penned stories for adults (meaning the lead characters are adults rather than children or teens). This novel appeared in my GoodReads recommendations and the blurb intrigued me, so I decided to check it out. This was one of those rare novels where I found myself standing almost shoulder to shoulder with the lead character. Here, Valancy is an older single lady who does her best to fight her frustrations over being single and in her dealings with her stiff upper lipped family and small town. In order to escape her depression and daily disappointments, Valancy creates an imaginary world where she dwells in her self-created Blue Castle and falls madly in love with imagined suitors. However, after being diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, Valancy decides to make a change in her life. This coaxes her from her self-created bubble as she’s free to let her dreams soar. A sweet love story comes into the mix but I won’t divulge anything further lest I spoil the story. Overall, this novel will undoubtedly be in my top three favorites for the year. This is a classic, delightful story that was a joy to read, and I literally hugged this book upon finishing it.

10. Worst book cover of this year so far.
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
To be fair, I wouldn’t label this cover the “worst” but it’s visually annoying to me. (Just to note, this is the hardcover edition as the paperback edition looks vastly different.) At first glance, it seems as if the image of the model can be seen in full if you remove the red dust jacket. However, the dust jacket’s cutouts are not actually cutouts but imprinted into the paper itself (at least that’s how my copy was designed). That’s a shame because I think the cover would have been more effective either just showcasing the model or having the cutout design alone. But to have the central image obstructed from view struck me as a weak design decision.

11. Best book cover of this year so far.
Roar by Cora Carmack
After learning that this YA fantasy novel was penned by a romance writer, I wasn’t expecting much. However, I was pleasantly surprised as the magic system is creative and most of the characters are fun (though some of the romance-driven scenes linger a tad too long and border on becoming sappy). However, it was the cover that really caught my attention as it’s one that looks better in person. For starters, it has three dimensional elements to it so the title stands out, which is always a nice touch. Also, though you can’t see it here, the art is actually a panorama that wraps around the entire dust jacket so it’s one continuing scene rather than a solitary snapshot. Likewise, I love the organic color combination of pink, purple, green, grey, and white, and I think this works to establish the story’s overall tone and magical setting, which is chiefly outdoors. Overall, the story itself was good but the cover is excellent!

And, last but not least…

12. Fictional crush of 2017.

Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Because why not! 😉

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “The Casual Vacancy”

Overview [from GoodReads]:
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils – Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

My Take: Being the Harry Potter fan that I am, when news first broke that J.K. Rowling was releasing another book, I went straight to Amazon and placed a pre-order. Honestly, I didn’t care what it was – I just wanted another book by her! Now, to be fair, I knew this venture was not going to be anything like Harry Potter, wasn’t fantasy, and was going to be exclusively for an adult audience. That description certainty fits The Casual Vacancy, which doesn’t entirely disappoint, but some adult Potter fans who are used to Rowling’s wit and whimsy might not be too keen on it.

This novel is set in a modern fictional British suburb called Pagford where the town is in political turmoil after a parish councilmen dies unexpectedly. I did find the depiction of small-town politics on-the-nose because, despite it being British, it possessed striking similarities as to how small-town America can be run. The novel introduces a plethora of characters, ranging from well-to-do factions of society to rebellious teens. I will give Rowling credit for tackling some ponderous social and socio-psychological issues such as addiction, child abuse, self-harm, adultery, poverty, suicide, rape, welfare, and issues related to social class (primarily who does or does not possess a “voice” or a say). Needless to say, it’s a heavy read that you won’t finish overnight.

To be honest, I struggled with this book. I wanted to at least like it, but at slightly over 500 pages (in hardcover form) the plot sagged multiple times. It feels like a long read that, page count-wise, really isn’t. But with the cast, multiple story threads, and hefty social issues, it’s rather weighty. Granted, I have to admit I really don’t like ensemble novels because there are so many characters to keep track of and I end up losing count. That happened to me quite often with The Casual Vacancy and I sometimes forgot who I was reading about and why I needed to care about them.

If one character stood out to me, it would be Krystal Weedon, the rebellious teenage daughter of a drug-abusing mother. Krystal epitomizes everything the novel seeks to depict – how dysfunctional, discouraging, and destructive modern society is. She herself abuses drugs; was raped by her mother’s drug dealer; endures living in a fractured home; engages in premarital sex; and ends up suffering greatly after losing the only person who seemed to strike a compassionate nerve in her. Be aware: Krystal is no role model and can be downright disgusting at times, much like most of the cast. But the fact she cares about at least someone close to her and tries to rise above her station in life makes her slightly likable.

Writing-wise, Rowling definitely has no issues with execution, character development, or plot. My only complaint is that there are so many plot threads that it can become tedious trying to shuffle through them. I understand why she wrote this novel in this manner, but I still struggle to connect with books featuring an ensemble of characters as opposed to one or two central figures combined with a secondary cast. But she does have a way with words in terms of dialogue and description that makes you feel transplanted into the thick of the action.

In short, no one in this book is a model citizen, either in public or in private, and I sense that was what Rowling was going for. She wanted to show contemporary society as it is minus the façade we construct to hide or pretty up serious social, psychological, and political matters. More importantly, every character here possesses an internal vacancy, whether it concerns money, social status, sexual fulfillment, or personal achievement. They try to fill this void with something material or another person (who is just as messed up as they are) but it doesn’t truly satisfy. Hence, I feel what Rowling was trying to say was that money, sex, drugs, and the like are not modes of redemption for society’s erroneous ways or personal sins. People have to look beyond the superficial and beyond themselves in order to find hope and a purpose.

Unfortunately, the book stops shy of becoming a spiritual metaphor, which I think would have enabled me to give it a full pass and would have redeemed or at least excused the existence of some of the content issues. Instead, The Casual Vacancy presents its latent messages in the form of negative positives – don’t be like these characters or you will end up just as miserable. However, reading about miserable people in a miserable world does, at times, make for a miserable story which, ultimately, is what caused me to not give it a hardy thumbs up.

Content: This novel is NOT for the young Harry Potter crowd! While not “adult” in the sense that it’s erotic, this novel deals with issues and contains content too mature for a young audience.

Language – Strong profanities are utilized by most of the characters, especially the teens who don’t blink an eye in letting F-bombs, as well as other profanities, fly.

Violence – Graphic violence is non-existent but we do see unabashed instances of physical abuse, including rape, that are depicted in a non-graphic manner. Drug use and self-harm are also shown and described though not in a way to encourage said behaviors.

Sexual Content – Sexual content ranges from sex-related dialogue to references to and descriptions of sex acts, including rape. Nothing ever becomes graphic but some instances do involve teens, so some readers may not feel comfortable perusing blunt sexual talk or reading sex scenes involving minors. Overall, The Casual Vacancy is for mature readers only. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed by some of the content, but it is not done for shock value nor does it occur on every page. But if you have concerns about certain content issues, you’ll probably find yourself skimming through or skipping more than a few pages.

The Run-Down:

Overall, The Casual Vacancy is a passable read and, for me, this isn’t a story I would revisit. It’s dark and peels back the layers of society to reveal its sinful, immoral underbelly, and I applaud Rowling for being brave enough to tackle that in a way that feels authentic. Thus, The Casual Vacancy isn’t a bad book, but I do tend to suffer some disconnect with ensemble-focused narratives. Likewise, it’s a lengthy read that tried my patience more than once as this is more of a character-driven story rather than an action-driven story. Furthermore, some of the drug abuse and sexual material might be turn-offs to readers though their usage is strictly to prove how such things never make a person feel whole. Hence, for anyone interested in reading a slice of modern British life, this novel is an okay pick; but the sundry plots, multiple main characters, and persistent focus on political schemes and scandals just never became my cup of tea.

Books & Reading · Story & Characters · Writing Insight

The Complete “Guardian” Trilogy

About The Guardian Trilogy:
The Guardian Trilogy delves into the harrowing trials of Alexander Croft, a security guard and seemingly average 30-something-year-old man, whose life is forever changed in a violent instant. After being accused of a series of heinous crimes he didn’t commit, Alex is sentenced to life in a hellish prison.

Or so his fate seems.

Because unbeknownst to him, Alex is no ordinary man. He is a Voror, a magically-gifted being commissioned with the protection of the Realms – and nothing can keep him from his true destiny.

In The Guardian Trilogy, follow Alex’s life-changing and life-challenging journey, from his training at the Voror Council in the least-admired Task of all, to a chance at love and romance with a woman whose people have wronged him, to his encounters with an enemy who has stalked him since birth, to his personal mission to clear his family name and protect the Realms from encroaching darkness. As evil rises, Alex must stand to meet it or watch everyone he has grown to love be destroyed.

Books in The Guardian Trilogy:

Book One: The Guardian

Description: Ever since Alex Croft was little, robed beings have shadowed his every move. But after he is wrongfully incarcerated, the robed strangers have apparently abandoned him. Or so it seems. When Alex’s true identity is revealed, he enters a world he has always seen but never really known. A realm where he learns how to protect the innocent from an evil that desires to control everything in its path. Especially Alex. As he trains as an apprentice within the Voror Council, Alex uncovers a sinister secret seeking to destroy him. To save himself and others, he will have to endure the same darkness he sought to escape. In this first installment of The Guardian Trilogy, Alex Croft will not only learn magic-infused Words and make strange, new allies but also discover the truth about himself and his past. A truth that will become either his destiny or his downfall.

Direct Link (Paperback):
Direct Link (Kindle):

Book Two: The Guardian Prophecy

Description: Handler Apprentice Alex Croft is invited by Sunniva, the Council’s Head Healer, to accompany her on a journey across the Realms as she seeks out an exiled Voror. Along the way, Alex encounters old friends, new enemies, and discovers a growing attraction to the hauntingly beautiful Niobe of Ryncheon. Yet the threat of Belial of Rastaban’s forces shadows their every move as they race to uncover a truth that many have desired to conceal – a truth Rastaban has killed for in order to obtain. Past grievances come to seek vengeance as Rastaban’s rebels seek to set up their own regime. And the only way Alex can hope to stop them is to make the ultimate sacrifice. In this second installment of The Guardian Trilogy, Alex Croft learns what it means to fulfill his destiny as a Guardian, which may cost him everything.

Direct Link (Paperback):
Direct Link (Kindle):

Book Three:
The Guardian Wars

Description: After miraculously surviving torture at Rastaban’s hands, Handler Alex of Croft knows the hour grows short as war among the Realms draws closer. Mustering his friends and unexpected allies, Alex assumes the role of the prophesied Halcyon and decides to cut off his enemy at the place where it all began, the infamous prison Erebus and home to the Gates of the Dead. The Guardian Wars concludes Alex of Croft’s  journey as a man of divided bloods.  But can he be a shining light in a dark place or will the darkness finally consume him?

Direct Link (Paperback):
Direct Link (Kindle):

Background on The Guardian Trilogy
The Guardian Trilogy is project over a decade in the making and started with a rather odd mash-up of ideas. As the author puts it, One summer, I was reading the “Harry Potter” novels and watching reruns of the Fox drama series “Prison Break.” The two stories merged in my mind as I thought, “What if Michael Scofield [chief protagonist on “Prison Break”] was a wizard?” That sparked a mental chain reaction and I had to write it out. Eventually, it evolved into The Guardian Trilogy.

Thus, The Guardian Trilogy is a fantasy series that hopes to pay respects to classic hero quest epics while remaining an entirely original piece, chiefly through the introduction of the Vorors, a magically-gifted race charged with protecting the Realms, and the Sangres, a vampiric people who are siblings to the Vorors. Both worlds collide with Alex Croft caught in the middle.


Movie Review – “People Like Us”

I have been on a Chris Pine kick as of late (but, come on, ladies, can you really say you blame me?) 😉  All superficiality aside though, I honestly am impressed with his acting and, while I probably won’t watch everything he’s done, I am determined to view most of his major films. Doing so has nudged me out of my cinematic comfort zone and into other genres I probably would have never touched (case in point: Hell or High Water). In this film’s case, normally I avoid family dramas because they tend to be generic and/or unbelievably unrealistic. Seeing as People Like Us is very much a family drama, and very much not my typical cup of tea, how did it stack up? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.

The Story: [from Rotten Tomatoes]: From DreamWorks Pictures comes People Like Us, a drama/comedy about family, inspired by true events, starring Chris Pine as Sam, a twenty-something, fast-talking salesman, whose latest deal collapses on the day he learns that his father has suddenly died. Against his wishes, Sam is called home, where he must put his father’s estate in order and reconnect with his estranged family. In the course of fulfilling his father’s last wishes, Sam uncovers a startling secret that turns his entire world upside down: He has a 30-year-old sister Frankie whom he never knew about (Elizabeth Banks). As their relationship develops, Sam is forced to rethink everything he thought he knew about his family – and re-examine his own life choices in the process.

My Take:
I had this movie in my iTunes rental queue for a bit before I finally decided to check it out. I’m not sure why I put it off, but I suspect it had something to do with my apprehensions about this genre in general. My viewing experience with family dramas has been slim as I tend to shy away from realistic stories and focus more on the fantastical and purely fictional. Not to mention I’m not an openly emotional person, so watching films that make me feel like they’re trying to force me into soaking tissues with tears rubs me the wrong way because I don’t like a story trying to guide my feelings with as much subtly as a maestro conducting an orchestra.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by People Like Us and my preconceived notions were all but entirely dashed. One thing that works in this movie’s favor is its solid script. Not only does it tell a coherent, cohesive story that focuses on a small cast, it’s also adequately paced and allows its actors to emotionally go where they feel led. Concerning the inspiration for the story, this was apparently based on the real-life story regarding the film’s director, Alex Kurtzman, and his own long-lost sister. Despite this being based on a true story, nothing here feels like it’s trying too hard to reenact actual events. While I can’t say how closely the film follows Kurtzman’s personal journey, I can say that, for me, the story stands on its own even without knowing details of the director’s story.

I also appreciated the fact that the cast was small, which not only keeps the story’s mechanics simple but also gives viewers a chance to get to know the characters. Most of the story focuses on Sam trying to reconnect with his sister, Frankie, while also striving to fly under the radar so she doesn’t suspect anything. You can tell he is struggling to comprehend it all, learning that, after all this time, he has a sister as well as contemplate when the best time would be to reveal his true identity to her. To Frankie, Sam is a kind male friend who has taken her son, Josh, under his wing but who displays no romantic interest in her whatsoever. Therefore, their dynamic is fascinating thanks to Frankie’s ignorance of the truth and Sam’s reluctance to reveal too much too soon. While some of this did require me to suspend my disbelief at times, it came across as mostly genuine.

Naturally this sense of authenticity comes down to the actors themselves, who you can tell seriously invested themselves into their respective characters. As always, I have to give props to Chris Pine, who I feel is a bit of an overlooked talent. I’m glad he wants to branch out and take on a variety of roles rather than being typecast or resigned to being an attractive face who gets cast in anything that comes along. While not everything a good actor does turns out perfect, I have noticed that Pine does his best to salvage whatever is asked of him in a script (such as his performance in the average spy action movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). In this film’s case, Pine didn’t have to mine very far to find good material to work with as People Like Us has a solid script that allows its actors to portray their respective characters as they see fit.

One quality to Pine’s acting that I’ve noted before is that, regardless what type of character he is playing, he is always able to make me feel like his character could be a real person. Nothing ever feels overdone or half-hearted; instead, Pine delivers a good balance. This is especially true here where Sam struggles with a myriad of emotions but never comes across as hackneyed or pathetic. Sam’s pain is our pain, his joy our joy, and he seems like a real person, someone who could actually exist. Only part of this can be attributed to the script because it takes an actor to make a character three dimensional, and that’s what Pine does: he creates a fully fleshed out character who reacts to situations in an organic fashion. In short, if I can believe the character an actor is playing could actually exist, then he’s succeeded as an actor. Pine does just that here, and I thought this was great casting and a great role for him.

Concerning the other lead, Elizabeth Banks, I’m not very familiar with her as an actress outside of her portrayal of Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games films. Thus, I don’t feel I can be a good judge of her performance here, but I thought she did a good job. Was it be enough to get me to intentionally seek out her movies? No, though I couldn’t find much fault with her portrayal of Frankie except that, at times, she did seem to over-act, causing Frankie to behave in a slightly overly dramatic way that clashed with Pine’s more balanced performance. However, Banks never becomes hammy and stays in character in a way that’s believable but just a touch over-dramatized. The final performer of note is Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Sam’s mother. Again, I’m not overly familiar with Pfeffier’s filmography (having only seen her in three films, excluding this one: Dangerous Minds, Scarface, and Batman Returns), but I thought she handled her character well and made her struggles and desire for some secrets to remain hidden very believable.

In terms of the film’s look and feel, this is physically a bright/naturally-lit film that, while classified as a drama, avoids becoming dismal. It might have been tempting to turn this into a dark family secrets type of tale but, instead, People Like Us maintains an upbeat tone, which helps carry it through the story’s more morose moments. Smatterings of comedy also break up the more somber scenes, and these are smartly integrated and never feel inserted strictly for the sake of trying to get a laugh. Likewise, the soundtrack and score (which was composed by A. R. Rahman) were also incorporated nicely, combining a quiet, string-driven orchestra with classic rock and alternative tracks. Seeing as some of the movie’s focal story points are musicians and music, this presented a good balance of sounds and, for the most part, blended seamlessly into the story.

All of that being said, People Like Us does suffer from a few minor flaws, none of which are deal breakers. The first is that, at times, the movie does try to intentionally elicit an emotional response from the audience chiefly through music choice. Sometimes during a happy scene, the music seemed a little too perky, and sometimes during a quieter moment, the score was a little too melodramatic. This is nitpicking but, for me, I think some of the movie’s best moments would have been just as effective, if not even more so, without music.

In the same way, the film’s running time seems unduly long. This movie clocks in a few minutes shy of two hours, and it feels like a nearly two hour-long movie. I think it could have been shortened by thirty or forty minutes and wouldn’t have lost its emotional integrity. If anything, it might have been stronger with a shorter running time. I confess there were times throughout the film that I started to mentally withdraw as some scenes tended to drag on a tad longer than what felt necessary. But again, this is nitpicking and it’s not like the film becomes a weakened story because of a two-hour running time, but it does feel stretched thin in spots.

Lastly, the film’s trailer misrepresents the final product to a certain degree (as most trailers do, one way or the other) as it makes it appear that Sam reveals the truth about his connection to Frankie early on, and this is what I kept expecting. Yet the story drags this plot point out and, while it builds tension and causes Sam’s dilemma to appear more realistic, I would have liked to have seen the truth brought out sooner, which might have helped shrink the running time. In the same way, and to further nitpick, I felt that some of Frankie’s reactions to particular situations bordered on being unbelievable at times. Her friendship with Sam (who, by all rights, is a total stranger to her and her son) seems to blossom and become too open too quickly even though she knows very little about him. Similarly, we learn that Sam is facing a legal inquiry on his job yet this is never resolved, which felt dismissive as if the script forgot to add a proper conclusion. But, again, this is fiction, which allows for the suspension of disbelief, though sometimes it feels like the film asked for a little too much suspension.

All of that being said (and, honestly, most of the negatives are just me being picky), People Like Us is a good, solidly constructed, well-acted story. While at times it can feel like it’s trying to be slightly emotionally manipulative, it’s never over-done. On top of its other positives, there were good messages here about being loyal to family as well as acting selflessly for the good of others. While Sam starts off as a selfish jerk, he doesn’t stay that way as his heart begins to change once he learns the truth about his family and sees that living life just for himself isn’t the best way to go. Though the story might seem a bit predictable, the ending does reveal a genuinely sweet surprise, which I won’t discuss it as it counts as a spoiler. But I thought it was a great note to close out on despite not wrapping up some of the other plot threads. In the end, I really liked People Like Us as it’s an uplifting story that shows how family bonds can withstand both long distances and the test of time.

Content Breakdown: People Like Us was given an PG-13 rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is relatively infrequent but does employ PG and PG-13 words (chiefly the sh-word) and one f-word as well as a few obscene gestures (both of which are spoken by and delivered by kids).

Violence – None. There are a few tense family moments (including arguing and some characters being slapped but not abused), but nothing ever becomes violent and no one comes to any real harm. Elsewhere, Josh gets into trouble at school but no one ever comes to harm because of his antics.

Sexual Material – Essentially none save for a brief scene where Frankie and a neighbor try to have spontaneous sex, but they just fumble around fully clothed while standing up. Elsewhere, it’s a known fact that Sam and Frankie’s father fathered a child out of wedlock, but nothing further is ever discussed to this effect. Lastly, there are mild innuendos (some of which are spoken by a pre-teen character) but nothing graphic.

Substance Abuse – Sam’s father was taking medical marijuana to manage pain, so Sam eventually decides to smoke a leftover joint and his mother smokes one as well. Elsewhere, Frankie works as a bar tender at a trendy hot spot where alcoholic drinks abound (yet she herself has struggled with alcoholism and attends recovery meetings). A few other characters drink to get intentionally drunk.

Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe People Like Us stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):

Children – Not recommended, chiefly due to the film’s story and content as there is nothing here that would be interesting to young viewers.

Older Children & Teens – Recommended for older teens (age 16 and older) rather than anyone younger for the same reasons above – the story and its themes are tailored towards a mature audience and, unless teens are fans of anyone in the cast, I doubt they would display much interest.

Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for persons looking for a family drama that, to its credit, doesn’t take itself too seriously and focuses more on family dynamics as opposed to dilemmas.

The Run-Down:
Overall, People Like Us is a well-told story that has clear aims for its characters, sports a good cast, and has a tightly-constructed structure and appropriate tone. For anyone looking for a uplifting story about family that focuses more on the good things while not sidestepping the bad, this makes for a good pick. While the movie does feel like it pushes itself to make its two-hour running time and can run a little too melodramatic at times, it’s ultimately a refreshing watch and certainly worth checking out.

Final Verdict:
happy star movies ratinghappy star movies ratinghappy star movies rating
(Three out of Five Stars)