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Review: Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo June 29, 2011

Posted by kmcalear in Book Review, Inspiration, Life, Religious.
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I don’t tend to read “religious inspirational” novels all that often, as I prefer to stick to the bible and the homilies of my priest at church. Many of these type of novels tend to have a “preachy” or “conversional” aspect that I dislike. That, alone, is one of the strengths of this book. Todd Burpo never tries to convert anyone openly. There’s simply an aspect of ‘telling a life story’. In fact much of the story deals with the trials and tests of faith that the family goes through dealing with the illness of their son. It can be, at times, hard to read the raw honesty the pastor relates even knowing there’s a “happy ending” but seeing a Pastor go through the same “What are you doing to me God?” questions many people ask in his situation can be a source of comfort and camaraderie. One of the book’s messages, at its core is: Pastors and priests are human too, after all, and doubt and disbelief are a part of the human makeup as much as faith and trust.

That said, I found the book thouroughly enjoyable and I simply couldn’t put it down. I read it all night long. The prose is very readable and the human interest story holds your attention without becoming maudlin or weepy. As a practicing Catholic I found the child’s claims interesting and thought provoking as well as to what heaven may be like. You don’t necessarily have to believe what Colton says in order to have an interesting discussion about the child’s interpretation. After all, if his claims are true they are being mediated through the understanding of a child. If they’re not, it still leaves you with interesting idea to consider. I particularly liked the inclusion of the Akiane painting of Jesus, which is both a beautiful painting and another interesting point to consider. All together I think this novel is an interesting, and thought provoking Christian inspirational story. 

Genre:  Inspirational, Religious

Age: Adult, Teenager

Content:  Scary scenes of illness, Themes of death, resurrection, miscarriage, apocalypse

Overall:  4.5/5

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Series loyalty or just insanity? June 28, 2011

Posted by kmcalear in Book Series, Critiquing, Musings, Rants, Urban Fantasy.
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I noticed, recently, that a new Anita Blake book had come out. This one was entitled Hit List. Anita Blake was one of my first “urban fantasy” series and can be argued as one of the first that created the genre. Therefore, those of us who enjoy reading and writing in the genre are indebted to her. As well, the first 5 or 6 books were very good, the characterization was intriguing and the mysteries were engaging. Before the werewolf/woman/vampire triangle of Edward – Bella – Jacob there was the Anita – Jean Claude – Richard triangle, which spurred just as many vehement book-lover’s debates!

But then Hamilton decided to change her novel from paranormal fantasy to pointless pornography. I’m not a puritan when it comes to book content, but if it’s in the book have a danged point! You can write a pointless scene about baking a cake or a drawn out pointless sex scene and I’ll snarl equally, because I feel scenes in a novel should always advance either characterization or plot.

Which leads me to my point, why are people still reading Anita Blake? The reviews I see on amazon are negative and decry the lack of plot, novels of pure filler information, the dreadful characterization, the incomprehensible scenes and yet… they KEEP BUYING THEM? Why? Every author can have 1 or 2 duds in a series, but when you have 6 or 7 duds it’s time to give up the series and find something new.

There are so many aspiring, and GOOD, authors out there, after all. Use the money you would spend on a series you dislike and buy something you’ve never read before. You can always keep following the previously good, now bad, series at the library  on the slim chance it gets better.

This does, of course, lead me to a final question. When is series loyalty just too far? Do books really manage to get better after a set of duds, like tv series can sometimes do? (Case and point –> Battlestar Season 3, Farscape season 3 and Star Trek: TNG, season’s 1 and 2, they got better later). But at least, for tv, it’s generally free. Not so with new “episodes” of books.

Movie Review: X-Men First Class June 7, 2011

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Last night the hubby and I went with a big group of friends to see X-Men First Class.  I’ve been excited about this movie for a while, though I admit it was excited mixed with trepidation.  After X-Men III I was in a horrid mood and rather loudly reviewed the movie with a big “I hate you” both in the theater and in writing later.  The characters, the storyline, the plot hole you could drive a mac truck through were all just about enough to make me swear off X-Men movies forever.

Then earlier this year I started doing some freelance article writing for the Deseret News and one of my assignments was to give a beginners guide to the X-Men for viewers who were new to the X-Men universe, but wanted to see the movie.  It was a fun article to write and required quite a bit of research into the new movie and reviewing things I’d known, or hadn’t, about the comics.  By the time I was finished with the article I was cautiously excited about the movie.  This version looked like someone had taken time to really explore the characters and to create a storyline that was consistent to itself and true enough to the comic book world that it would be fun.

Well…all of this was entirely right.  The movie was charming and satisfying to the array of people who came with us, from hard core comic book fans to those who has very little comic book background or interest.  I very much enjoyed the characterizations and the exploration of characters that we didn’t have much specific information about before.  Such as seeing Charles Xavier doing his thing as a Ladies Man.  Hysterical.  Also they did a good job at tying this into the existing movie continuity by using things like the recurring chess board motif and building powerful relationships which make the betrayals in future movies all the better.  I love the exploration of personal character motivations and how each personal story ties into the greater plot.

If I think about the film too hard there are things I can think of which didn’t totally work, but most of those are minor and in the end…  Best X-Men movie so far!

Jana

Book Review – Right Hand Magic by Nancy A Collins June 3, 2011

Posted by Realitybypass in Book Review, Book Series, Romance, Urban Fantasy.
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I finished Right Hand Magic a couple of weeks ago, and I have to admit I found it charming.  It it the best, most dramatic urban fantasy I’ve ever read?  Nope.  But it was engaging and really fun, and sometimes fun is exactly what I’m in the mood for.

In Right Hand Magic we meet Tate, who is a trust fund baby defying her socialite parents by choosing the path of an artist, in her case an artist who builds sculptures out of metal.  When the book begins Tate has recently broken up with her boyfriend and is looking for someplace new to live, particularly if the rent price is right and she finds the right rent in the area of the city known as Golgatham.  We’re not given a LOT of background about how magic came into the world, but it’s enough to know that the supernatural exists and that it is untrusted and generally confined within Golgatham.  Usually humans aren’t welcome there, but Tate is desperate for change and at $750 a month she figures it’s worth trying something a little weird.

From this beginning Tate meets her witch born landlord, his obnoxious winged cat familiar, a cellar dwelling seer and a new housemate in the form of a were cougar escaped from the underground fighting pits.  The plot is fairly predictable, but I didn’t mind going on the journey to see just how it’d be achieved.  Tate is a really fun heroine with a spunky attitude, that never crossed over to being mean.  She is not a ‘kick ass’ heroine in the traditional UF sense of killing everything that gets in her way.  More she’s just confident in herself and works hard to achieve her goals and to take care of the people around her.  At one point she’s captured by the protagonist and even though she can’t do much, she does take the opportunity to stomp his foot and kick him in the shins, which is pretty much what I think most people would do.

Likewise the romance is cute and sweet.  You can tell it’s coming, but Tate and Hexe are cute together and it’s satisfying.   I appreciate Hexe’s characterization and his strength of person as well.  In fact the majority of the secondary characters are well done, which really rounds out the world and makes the bits that would be less believable something I’m willing to suspect disbelief for.

The magic system is fun consisting of natural abilities that come with race and then the witches, who practice Right Hand Magic, Left Hand Magic or some combination of the two.  Right Hand Magic is gentle magic, usually used for healing and blessing and undoing dark magic, where Left Hand Magic would be the a fore mentioned dark magic.  Most witches tend towards Left Hand Magic or the middle ground, but Hexe has chosen a path of only Right Hand Magic, no matter how hard it is to hold that road.

This book read fast and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Genre:  Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance

Age: Late Teen/Adult

Content:  Very mild Sexuality, violence, language

Overall:  4/5

Book Review: Of Saints and Shadows April 29, 2011

Posted by Realitybypass in Book Review, Urban Fantasy.
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Of Saints and Shadows by Christopher Golden caught my eye as it was an urban fantasy series with a male protagonist.  These are often too rare and I loved the cover and the description of a series that combined a different take on the vampire mythos with secret societies and the underground life of the Vatican.

The set up intrigued me and the writing is good.  It flows well with some interesting characters and ideas.  However…after about 130 pages I’m putting this book down and it will be a do not finish for me.

You have to understand that I consider myself a fairly open reader and most content doesn’t bother me overly much, except I dislike gratuitous and explicit gore or sex.  in some books if I can easily skip said content I’ll finish the book anyway and just note it here for other readers.  In the case of Of Saints and Shadows the main antagonist gets off on killing other people and the more graphic and artistic it is the better.  As well it, thus far, has all the horror themes of sex=death and never go anywhere alone ever.  After seeing the death methods escalate really fast from guns to demons sucking off men’s genitals and crawling up to gore out eyeballs…  I’ve had enough.  I’ve done some forward skimming and the plot looks like it picks up from where I’m at, but I’m just not willing to wade through more blackly exploding bellies and doggie guts to get there.  Particularily not when my TBR pile is deep with books I really want to read.

For some people it may be their cup of tea and I wouldn’t say the series is unreadable, but not for the faint of heart, or those that don’t like their UF served with a large helping of artistic death al la slasher films…I’d give this one a miss.

Genre:  Horror/Urban Fantasy

Age: Adult

Content:  Sexuality, violence, language, explicit killings and torture

Overall:  DNF


Book review: “Como agua para chocolate/Like water for chocolate” April 13, 2011

Posted by kmcalear in Book Review.
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I read this book for the first time, although it’s almost sacrilege to say so as a Spanish literature major.  There were elements I enjoyed about this book, particularly how the recipes were tied into the seasons and the storyline, and Laura Esquivel’s masterful use of sensory and sensual imagery, but it’s not one of my favorites of the Spanish language canon.

I have a tough time identifying with any of the characters, as all of them are extreme examples of their characterization. Now, the extreme characterization is a stylistic element important to the social commentary in the novel. “Like water for chocolate” is an examination of the ways that mothers continue to promote anti-female social systems.  I can appreciate the message Laura Esquivel is trying to get across and the innovative twist on the dangers of denying “true love” for foolish reasons is brilliant, but I found the book to be painful to read.

The extreme emotional reactions of the women and the antagonistic but dutiful relationship between the mother and daughters is integral to the purpose of the novel, but it limited my ability to identify and like any of the characters. The plot, as well, was a painful tale of abuse, self-denial, loss, and suffering. Which all contribute to the overall point of the novel.  Of course,  in general, I don’t tend to like soap operas, heart-breakers and Lifetime Channel tragedies of unrequited love and abuse, while many other people love them. However, I also feel that this is one of the novels with which any well-read student of world literature should  at least be familiar. I can’t say I like “Great Expectations” or “The Red Badge of Courage”, but the social messages and the glimpses into a situation different than our own is the value of these novels.

Genre:  Adult fiction/Romance

Age: Adult

Content:  Sexuality and sensuality

Overall:  3/5

Electronic versus Paper April 9, 2011

Posted by Realitybypass in Musings.
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I love the written word.  I really do.  I like writing.  I like reading.  I prefer communicating in email or IM over telephone for the most part as I can take a moment to think about what I’m saying and how I want to say it.

I like books.  I like books to the degree that dear hubbie and I must buy yet another bookcase because we already have books double stacked and now a pile is growing next to his bead and it’s possible it may eat someone soon.

I like ereaders.  I like the convenience of having the newspaper on my computer screen.  I love my Kindle app and quick access to books when I’m on the go.  I love the idea of being able to have a print on demand option at my local bookstore.  Select what I want, hit the button and have a book pop out, or ready to download to a thumb drive.  It’s an exciting world we live in.

Sometimes I’m asked which I love best and which bandwagon I belong on.  Shall I cling to my paperbacks until someone pries them from my fold dead fingers?  Or shall I dance around a book bound bonfire while praising the name of Kindle and Jeff Bezos?

Honestly…neither.  I see a place in my home for both at least at this time.  For me the swing factor, if there must be one, hinges on three factors.

1:  Size and carrying convenience.  My favorite paperback size is mass market and we’re seeing a swing towards releasing books in trade size (around 12 bucks) or this obnoxious size somewhere between trade and mass market (around 10 bucks).  This size does NOT fit conveniently anywhere.  It takes up too much space in a purse and won’t go neatly into a jacket pocket or coat pocket.  It’s not quite as much pain as a hardback, but I want the convenience of pocket books: lightweight, sized to carry and simple to fit in two layers on a standard bookshelf.  On the other hand an ebook reader is lightweight and easy to carry, but the nice woman on the airplane makes me turn them off for the first and last parts of a flight.  And if I’m somewhere without immediate access to a power cord and my batter runs out I’m simply out of luck.  No amount of begging will make the machine turn back on and give me my book back.  Both formats can work well…but still leave me wondering.

2:  Price.  I am as price conscience as anyone else out there, at least I believe I am, and when it comes to selecting my entertainment I do watch where my dollars are going.  As far as I’m concerned buying books is rarely a bad use for good money and I don’t mind a reasonable price where I feel like I’m receiving a good value for my money and that the author and publisher are both getting their cuts.  The reason I worry about these folks is that they are the ones who keep producing the content I want to read.  If authors are too poor to eat they’re not going to write and then I can’t have their books.  Likewise if publishers are too broke they stop taking chances on new authors, which I’m hoping to be, or midlisters that I love and we see a focus on more celebrity books and popular culture offerings that bring in good money but which I will never personally read.  The right price point for me ranges between 4-8 bucks on a paperback book and or an ebook.  I don’t mind paying less than that, but I don’t insist on the 0.99 model to be happy.  I’ll do the dance of joy when I find a great book for less, but I don’t fuss over picking up my ‘must read’ authors at normal price.  I don’t buy hardbacks for the most part because I don’t like carrying them around, see point one, and I do not see enough value in an ebook copy of something to pay hardback prices for something I download to my computer, using my internet connection, which I may or may not be able to lend to my friends or give away for a contest or sell.  I just won’t do it.

3:  Availability.  This is a place where ebooks tend to shine.  For most books finding them available in many different ereader formats is easy.  Takes a few minutes to download and you’re curled up on the couch with a new option.  Paper books are available at my local brick and mortar based on what they think I might like or what’s seen as hot and new.  Sometimes this works out and I can walk out of a bookstore with a pile of books.  Often, however, I end up frustrated because for each series I want I can get books 2, 4 and 62, but nothing inbetween.  I hit this when I was getting a book for a gift and could get 2, 3 and 4 of the series, but not 1.  I can’t start someone halfway through the series.  That’s…mean…and it doesn’t make much sense.  If I’m not in a hurry I can order a lot of books online through indie places, the big two, ebay, or at wonderful trade places like paperback swap.  This appeals both to my sense of not wanting to go out in the snow and I can often get a deal on my books, but it does mean waiting, so only works when I don’t need a book for myself or others right now.

In the long run I think everyone involved in the publishing industry is in for interesting times.  I don’t think we’ve reached the end of life for paper books, not by a long stretch, but I do think things are changing.  I think the most important part though is that we will always crave things to read and the experience that comes from being immersed in a story.  People have always craved stories and the things they teach and the escapism they offer.  That won’t change…whether it comes from the mouth, on a scroll, in a paper book, or written between the stars…if you write it they will read.

Book Review: Fairest – Gail Carson Lavine April 1, 2011

Posted by Realitybypass in Book Review, Fantasy, Uncategorized.
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Whew…another month almost over.  I don’t know how it happens so fast…no one asked my permission.  Though here in Utah the winter is stubbornly holding on and it’s still freezing and cloudy.  Spring in Utah is a fight between Winter and Summer which Summer will eventually win, usually in about a 48 hour turn around from cold to scorching.

Anyway…bookwise I’ve been listening to many books on CD or MP3 lately as the job requires a bit of a commute.  This last week I listened to Fairest by Gail Carson Lavine.  I was in the mood for something light with a happily ever after kind of thing after reading a lot of darker bits.  I kinda wonder if that’s partially because I’m so ready for spring and happily ever afters tie into good weather in my brain.

Fairest is a retelling of Snow White and takes place in the same world as Lavine’s Ella Enchanted retelling of Cinderella.  The maid Aza is abandoned as a baby and raised by an innkeeper and his family.  Unlike the usual spin on step families the family truly loves her and she truly loves them.  (As a step mom meself it appealed immensely to me to see a happy step relationship.)  Physically Aza is an ugly kid, both in her own eyes and the eyes of other, and that theme of chasing beauty and what it means to be beautiful on the inside and the outside is really what the book is about.

The language is not overly difficult save for some of the names, the fantasy spellings are occasionally horrid, but easily readable by around 10 and up.  In a month where I just needed a little ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ this was a fun feel good listen.  The one problem I had with the audio book is that they sing all of the singing parts, which are abundant.  Initially it was kinda cute, like listening to a Bollywood film, but some of the songs are LOONG and I didn’t like the melodies they’d chosen enough to listen.  I became grateful for the fast forward button at a few points.  Despite some of that annoyance, I do really like the full cast audio for this type of book.

A great book for a lazy sunny afternoon or while on vacation.

 

Genre:  Young adult fantasy/retold fairytale

Age: pre-teens and up

Content:  Very minor violence, one character gets turned to stone but recovers, a plot for poisoning

Overall:  4/5

Book Review: Song of the Lioness series March 30, 2011

Posted by kmcalear in Uncategorized.
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I am a big fan of Tamora Pierce books. When I was a teenager I read the Wild Magic series and absolutely fell in love with the heroine, Daine, and of course her lanky, intelligent, handsome and powerful teacher Numair. 15 years later,  I still re-read the Wild Magic books when I’m sick, or down, or particularly when I’m having Man Troubles. Numair would probably be my “Fantasy Man” I’ve managed to hold onto for years as a nice little romantic ideal.

That said, I hadn’t read Tamora Pierce’s first series in its entirety and my roommate brought me the books as a gift. She had found the entire set at a used book sale.

It’s a great series, although you can definitely see the “new writer” aspects in the writing. Some of the sentences are a little bulky and the heroine is “Just Better Than Everyone” and “Has Cooler Magic Stuff”, the common fantasy tropes. Now, I do like that she does have to work and practice to earn her accolades and even hone her skills, which makes her a great role model for children. The other characters are well presented, although the supporting characters are a little static apart from Thom and Jonathan, which is another sign of developing skill in a writer. You can see a clear progression from the first to the last book in characterization.

I also particularly like how much more daring Tamora Pierce was in the themes she presents in the Alanna series verses the Wild Magic series. Female sexuality is explored with frankness, but tastefulness and a lack of preaching. The title character goes through a very natural coming of age in understanding her womanhood and her sexuality, which you don’t often see in books geared at young adults. There’s nothing at all explicit, but it’s handled in the same frank way as “Are you there God, it’s me, Margaret”. For that, alone, I think the book is a great one for young girls to read and discuss with their parents, because all of Alanna’s fears are those I can remember having at her age as well.

Genre:  Young adult fantasy

Age: pre-teens and up

Content:  Violence, sexuality (but a very ‘frank’ mother to daughter sort of manner, if you want a specific explanation feel free to e-mail me and I’ll detail it out)

Overall:  4/5

I’d give it a 5/5 save for the stylistic complaints.

Love letters and literature… March 10, 2011

Posted by kmcalear in Inspiration, Life, Musings, Romance.
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I’m taking French, one of the many requirements for the PHD. I recently was able to read a passage from L’education sentimentale by Flaubert in its native language and found it captivating. It got me thinking, though, of a lost art: the love letter. With the speed of e-mail and texting, we have a lot of electronic-flirting, but some of that is the ‘gut instinct’ communication. But… do people still write love letters? I know a few friends who try to do love notes in their relationships, but what about actual letters. We see romance on tv, we read about it in books, we sing about it in songs, we celebrate it on Valentine’s day, but in our personal lives do we truly take those risks?

I know that I pulled over on the freeway to listen to love letters read on NPR from an author to his sweetheart. I don’t remember the author, but I remember the letters were so compelling I couldn’t focus on the drive. Working in Special Collections I have discovered the power of reading letters between friends and lovers, and the beauty of the prose and turn of phrase you can find in them. People used to read them as literature, as well, but I don’t recall being given any in my education. In Women’s Studies there is an argument that the ‘letter’ and the ‘diary’ is a form of literature that has been ignored because it may have been more the province of ‘the sentimental’ rather than the ‘cerebral’ which is celebrated in literature.

How many of you have written or received a love letter? In my life I’ve received one, when I was 15 years old. I kick myself for not keeping it, even though it terrified me. I wasn’t emotionally ready for such a thing at the time. I have now, at 28, written my first love/goodbye letter. It was liberating, it was fun in a way, it was self-educating… and it was terrifying. But it was also gratifying to hear from the few close friends I asked to ‘edit it’ for me, that they found it touching. What more can a writer ask for?

And… as writers and artists, aren’t we asked to fearlessly bare our subconscious to the world? So… if you haven’t written a love letter, why not try it! If you don’t have someone in your life right now that you’d write to, why not try to writea “friendship” letter to a friend, explaining the value of your friendship? And I’d love to hear about some of the best/worst love letter experiences others have had.