Monthly Archives: July 2013

Movie Review: The Smurfs 2

smurfs-2-posterFans of the original Smurfs will probably eat up the Smurfs 2 like a bunch of Smurf-berries.   Detractors of the original will most likely want to lob the Smurf-berries at the screen.

The Smurfs 2 isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen this year (that distinction still goes to the Evil Dead reboot), but it certainly won’t make my top ten either.  It’s a pleasant enough way to spend ninety or so minutes, but the film must doesn’t’ work as well as other family-targeted summer fare like Despicable Me 2 or Monster’s University.

Thanks to the power of YouTube, Gargamel has become a world-famous magical act, packing in audiences across the globe.   There’s just one problem – his act’s magic is power by Smurf-essence and he’s running low.

In order to replenish is supply, Gargamel plots to kidnap Smurfette and force her to reveal the formula that turned her into a real Smurf at the end of the last movie.  His plan is helped by the fact that in their enthusiasm to plan a surprise party for her, the entire Smurf village has made Smurfette feel unappreciated.

He’s helped by his two grey-skinned “Naughties” who were created at the same time as Smurfette.  The trio bond and Gargamel seeks to exploit this to move forward his nefarious plot.

In order to rescue her, Papa Smurf, Clumsy, Vanity and Grouchy all head back to the real world (first New York, then Paris) to convince her to come back home again.

And hilarity ensues.

There’s nothing patently terrible about The Smurfs 2, but there’s nothing patently great about it either.

Of course, I say this having only had to see the movie once and not having children who will demand to watch it over and over again when the film eventually hits home theater.

There were a few amusing moments peppered throughout the script, most of them involving Azrael the cat being smarter than Gargamel.  The film’s theme about family is nicely done though a bit heavy-handed at times.

As I said before, not the best movie of the year, but certainly not the worst.

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Review: Star Wars: Crucible by Troy Denning

Crucible (Star Wars)

I gave trying to keep up with the extended chronology of the Star Wars universe a couple of years ago when I realized I was far too many books behind to ever fully catch up.

That doesn’t mean that every once in a while I’m not browsing the local library or bookstore and come across the latest Star Wars novel and I don’t feel a twinge of wanting to spend some time with old friends again.

In many ways, reading the extended universe novels, I feel like that person who moved away from a group of friends but has dropped by again after a couple of years for a visit. I recognize them but I don’t really know them anymore. They’ve continued to grow and have a certain code that I can’t or don’t understand simply because I wasn’t there to experience things with them.

That’s kind of how I felt about Star Wars: Crucible.

I recognized my old friends, but we’d grown apart. And while they were willing to fill me in on the broad strokes of what had happened since we last visited, there were still nuances I was missing. And that led to my not necessarily enjoying this novel as much as I could or should have had we kept up a bit better.

There’s some interesting stuff going on here with Luke, Leia and Han all stepping in to help out Lando. But so much of the backstory went over my head that I got frustrated and ended up skimming large chunks of the novel. There are some nicely written action sequences and the story moves at a brisk pace. But I couldn’t help but feel a bit left out of things.

I also am not sure how much of an incentive I feel to catch up on what’s gone before now simply because I have a feeling a lot of this continuity will be tossed aside when the new movie opens in 2015.

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Review: Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

Kiss Me First

We’ve all seen or heard those commercials warning us about predators just waiting and luring on-line to steal our identity.

But what if instead of stealing your identity, you wanted someone else to assume your identity to protect your family and friends from the truth that you’d decided to shuffle off this mortal coil?

That’s the premise of Lottie Moggach’s fascinating novel Kiss Me First. An avid World of Warcraft fan, Leila is used to the idea of on-line role playing. After discovering the philosophical discussion forum The Red Pill (referencing The Matrix trilogy), Leila begins to make a name of herself in the on-line community and is approached by its mysterious founder and podcaster with an opportunity. Leila will assume the on-line identity of Tess, a young woman who wants to take her own life but doesn’t want to cause her family or friends any pain or suffering. Leila’s task is to study Tess in every detail and then assume her identity on-line — Facebook, e-mails and other social networking connections — all while Tess removes herself from the world. The idea is that Tess will move far away and Leila will provide status updates and responses to friends and family to help put their mind at ease that Tess is alive and well.

Leila accepts and spends several months trying to get to know all about Tess. Then, Tess decides it’s time to go and Leila steps into the role of playing Tess.

All goes well for a while, until a romantic entanglement from the past resurfaces — one that Tess didn’t give Leila many details about. As Leila and the long-lost boyfriend connect, Leila slowly begins to take more and more chances in connecting with members of Tess’ life, leading to some fascinating consequences.

As a page turning thriller, Kiss Me First delivers in spades. The chapters are divided between Leila’s search for where Tess really went and the truth behind her disappearance and flashbacks to Leila’s work to assume Tess’ on-line identity. Questions of just how well we can really know someone we only interact with on-line abound and in the light of the reality series Catfish and the real-world situation with former Notre Dame player Manti Te’o last year, there are some fascinating questions raised and implications pondered.

My one grip is that while the novel explains the title and its significance, the cover art isn’t fully explained or justified by the novel. With this novel and The Shining Girls hitting the market and my shelf this summer, I couldn’t help but wonder if having flies on the cover of your novel is the latest trend in publishing.

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Summer Reading Review: Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland

Stephen King’s latest offering to the Hard Case Crimes series feels more like an episode of Scooby Doo than it does a noir novel.

But it makes absolutely no difference because Joyland is an absolute joy to read.

Seeking to escape the memories of his first love, Devin Jones signs on for the summer at the Joyland theme park in North Carolina. Jones quickly finds himself immersed in the park, making new friends and curious about the history of one of the rides that is reportedly haunted.

Part coming of age story, part supernatural story, part mystery, King’s Joyland is a pure, character driven delight. As with the best King stories, everything is foreshadowed early and paid off before the novel’s final page is turned.

Joyland is one of the most compelling and page-turning novels I’ve read this summer. It’s King doing what King does best — telling a hell of a story, making you want to read just one more page, one more chapter and then feeling a twinge of regret when you reach the end. One of the most satisfying novels I’ve read in a long time and it only goes to show that King hasn’t lost that magic touch.

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Review: Taking Chances by Molly McAdams

Taking Chances (Taking Chances, #1)

Every once in a while my lovely wife encourages me to read something outside my comfort zone.

She’s a big fan of romance novels and is always extolling their virtues to me, trying to encourage me to pick one up and give it a read.

And while I didn’t want a bodice ripper or a paranormal romance (I found myself wishing in later installments of Twilight that Buffy would please show up and just stake every single supernatural creature in the novel already), I decided I would follow her advice and give a romance novel a try.

Browsing my local library’s e-book selection, I stumbled across this novel by Molly McAdams, which is advertised as a coming of age romance story. The cover blurb sounded relatively painless and the cover photo seems to indicate that the standard cliche of a romantic triangle will be at the front and center of the book. It all seemed harmless enough so I decided to take a chance on Taking Chances.

Boy, do I regret that decision.

After growing up under the thumb of her military officer father, Harper decides that for college she wants to move as far away from dear old dad as possible. So, she decides that since he’s on the East Coast, she’ll go to college on the West Coast in sunny California. And so it is that Harper packs her bag and goes west.

She arrives at school knowing no one and being a bit sheltered. Thank goodness she meets roommate who instantly takes Harper under her wing and helps her embrace her inner wild side. A bit of shopping and a quick make-over and Harper is the new hottie on campus, attracting the interest of several suitors including her roommate’s brother, Chase and his frat buddy, Brandon. Of course, Chase is a bad boy, love ’em and leave ’em type of guy while Brandon is…well, pretty much defined by being a)hunky and b)a participant in the local MMA ring.

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Review: Ask Bob by Peter Gethers

Ask Bob

Reading Ask Bob, I couldn’t help but think that writer Peter Gethers was tapping into the same pool as Jonathan Tropper. Tropper’s novels are about flawed men and the people who love them. With Gether’s novel, the people who love them is extended to not only those of the human variety but also Dr. Bob’s animal companions — both those who helps cure and those who are an intimate part of his life.

Living in New York City, Robert Heller has a thriving veterinarian practice and is the popular writer of a weekly newspaper column (think “Dear Abby” for pets). But unlike the works of James Herriot, Ask Bob is less focused on the animals he treats as it is on Dr. Bob himself — his life, his loves and his family.

Each chapter begins with a column from the syndicated newspaper feature, which will reflect on and foreshadow some of what is to come in the proceeding chapter. And as the novel expands the circle of Bob’s universe, several chapters also some with an essay on a person or pet that Bob encounters in his New York practice.

And while Dr. Bob may seem to have it all together in his newspaper columns, perception is not necessarily reality when it comes to his personal life. It’s not that Dr. Bob is a mess by any means. It’s just that he’s human with all the quirks and foibles that comes with it.

The novel is divided into two halves, reflecting on Bob’s life and his family before and after a life-changing event. To reveal more about the event would be to give too much away, though sharp-eyed readers may deduce the event long before Gethers get to it on the printed page. Whether you figure it out early or not doesn’t make a huge difference because Ask Bob is a character study — and a compelling, amusing, funny and fascinating one at that.

As I said earlier, much of this novel reminded me of what Jonathan Tropper does with his flawed male protagonists. Gethers does a great job of making Bob and his world feel authentic and lived it. There are times when we love Bob and times we’re disappointed in him, but as the story unfolds we’re shown that Bob is uniquely human and flawed — just like the rest of us.

Told with warmth and humor, Bob’s story is one that will enthrall you and may even tug on the heart strings a bit. It’s got humor and it’s got pathos and all of it is equally earned.

Ask Bob is a low-key, enjoyable novel. I’m glad I got the chance to meet Dr. Bob and spend a couple of hundred pages with him.

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Summer Reading: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist (Rithmatist #1)

One of the more intriguing trends in the publishing world is authors from one targeted demographic attempting to crossover and target another demographic. For example, J.K. Rowling recently published her first “adult” novel with The Casual Vacancy while Elizabeth George went after a young adult audience with The Edge of Nowhere.

And while I’m not one who judges a book by the section of the bookstore or the library where it’s shelved, it’s intriguing to see what happens when an author gets out of his or her comfort zone.

You can add to the list of best-selling authors who are looking to expand their audience writer Brandon Sanderson (who given how much output he has and the sheer length of his novels, I am beginning to wonder if he somehow has figured out a way to write a novel using telepathy and while he’s asleep). Every publisher is looking for the next big fantasy series along the lines of Harry Potter and given Sanderson’s pedigree in the fantasy genre, a young adult series from him seems like a good idea.

Enter The Rithmatist.

All of the strengths of a Sanderson fantasy novel are on display — a magic system that has clearly defined rules and limitations so it can’t be used to write himself out of any situation or peril that comes up as well as having characters have different degrees of ability within the magical system. Like all talents or traits, there are some who have a better grasp of some elements of the system while others have a better grasp of others. In this case, the magical system is one that brings chalk drawing to life and they do battle. There are various ways in which battles can be won and there is a skill and a strategy to it. Sanderson spends a lot of the novel laying out the rules and strategies of his new magical system, but he also allows them to play out on the printed page and for the reader to see the system in action.

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