Review: Insurgent

Review: Insurgent

Dec 30

Insurgent by Veronica Roth (2012)

InsurgentEven a vague plot explanation of Insurgent by Veronica Roth will spoil the first book in the series for anyone who might not have read it, so I won’t summarize. Read a review of Divergent and decide if that sounds good; then read that and come check out what I have to say about this one.

The best thing Insurgent has going for it is the continued development of Beatrice Prior’s character as she grows and finds her place in the struggle between the factions. Sections of the novel can be tough to get through; the factions are in conflict, and there are casualties, but our heroine, despite a few missteps, remains admirable and it is easy to cheer her on.

The worst thing about it is a repetitively unsatisfying romance that Roth spends far too much time on. It’s not only that seemingly endless pages describe the tension between Beatrice and her romantic interest, but the tensions follow similar patterns I find tiresome. As a high-school teacher, I have seen a lot of this in my years in the classroom, so in a sense the redundancy is kind of realistic. This doesn’t mean, however, that I want to keep reading about it in what’s otherwise a pretty good dystopian novel.

Although it is not quite as good as the first book, it’s still a page-turner, and some of the developments are rather unexpected. If you enjoyed the first book, you may as well read this one too.

3 of 5 stars (I like it!)

Review: Divergent

Review: Divergent

Dec 29

Divergent by Veronica Roth (2011)

divergentIt can take some time to get into a post-apocalyptic novel. There’s just so much new stuff to take in, and a good writer will kind of spread that stuff out so that early chapters aren’t long and explainy. Veronica Roth’s Divergent mostly avoids this, focusing on her narrator, a sixteen-year-old girl named Beatrice Prior, who has been raised in the “faction” called Abnegation, comprised of those members of her society who value selflessness above everything else. The other factions are Amity, Dauntless, Erudite, and Candor, who value peace, bravery, intellect, and honesty (respectively).

Beatrice and the other sixteen-year-olds take an aptitude test that will tell her (and only her) which faction she is most cut out for, information which will guide–but not dictate–which faction she chooses to spend the rest of her life with, whether that means staying with her family in Abegnation or choosing one of the others.

There is an unexpected result in Beatrice’s test, and her life is immediately in danger, no matter which faction she chooses. The rest of this novel follows her as she goes through training, meets new friends, collects new enemies, and struggles with romantic feelings for one of her trainers. Add some suspicious activity by the leadership of one of the factions, and you have a classic storyline of personal conflict superimposed on a much bigger issue: the possibility of revolution. Beatrice struggles to figure out what the sides are, and which side she’s on as she (by necessity) grows quickly into herself.

I’ve heard that Roth’s dystopian setting and plot are typical of the genre, and that may be true, but she still puts together a good story, with lightning-like pacing that keeps the pages turning, not to mention an admirable main character with relatable problems even in this far-out setting. She goes way, way too far into the romance part of it for my tastes, but I suspect this will be part of the appeal for a good percentage of her readers. Themes of family, loyalty, bravery, fomance, authority, and rebellion are fleshed out, and perhaps I’m putting some of my own beliefs into the mix, but I sense a message here about Christian denominations, although Roth spares us any direct, obvious symbolism.

Thanks to the success of The Hunger Games, there is a recent tsunami of dystopian fiction aimed at young adults, and a reader’s reaction against this movement would be understandable, but the ubiquity of the form doesn’t mean there isn’t some good writing among the flood. To miss this one because one is tired of the trend would be sad. It’s quite a good read.

4 of 5 stars (I really liked it!)

Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Dec 28

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

faultThis is my second John Green book, which I read mostly because the film was about to hit theaters and I really wanted to see it, but also because despite some of my problems with Looking for Alaska, I do admire its writing and I did enjoy reading it. I hoped for more of the same with this novel about teenagers with cancer.

The stuff I liked about Looking for Alaska I like again here, and the stuff I didn’t care much for in that novel doesn’t get better in this one. However, while I thought the themes of that novel were somewhat well-traveled, I guess I haven’t read many books about teenagers with terminal cancer falling in love with each other. There is a morbid color on every joke narrator Hazel tells, and the grin humor she shares with her friends kind of helps us see why she would have difficulty maintaining relationships with her non-cancer-stricken friends. They try to find ways to talk about anything else, while the constant presence of illness in Hazel’s life leaves little room for that anything else. It’s deftly handled, and Green writes it well. There are multiple laugh-aloud moments, including a scene where Hazel’s boyfriend Augustus helps a recently dumped friend get back at his non-cancer-having ex-girlfriend. Teenagers break up with each other all the time for reasons good and stupid, but this breakup feels like a slight on the whole loosely connected support group, and the vengeance they take is both pathetic and inspired, and it’s the funniest scene in a funny book. Not an easy feat to pull in a book about dying kids.

That plot takes a weird turn involving Hazel’s going on a trip, and although there’s good stuff throughout even this part of the novel, it’s just a strange choice, one whose payoff is a bafflement. It is the novel’s glaring weakness, and it probably keeps The Fault in Our Stars from being a better book than Looking for Alaska. It is a well-written book, and definitely worth the read. It just feels like it could have been so much more.

3 of 5 stars (I liked it!)

Review: Looking for Alaska

Review: Looking for Alaska

Dec 27

Looking for Alaska by John Green (2005)

lookingThere are powerful reasons not to want to read a John Green book. First, there’s the unbelievable popularity with the fifteen-to-twenty-two Tumblr crowd, with its unrelenting sharing of quotes pandering to a certain teen angst in (often) show-offy prose. Then there is the oft-heard complaint that teens, even smart ones, don’t speak the way Green’s characters speak, kind of like the teens in Jason Reitman’s film Juno.

However, Green’s popularity among the reluctant reader set, while kind of annoying, is even stronger a factor in favor of reading it. Because whatever the reason, the chord he strikes is getting young people to hang on to snippets of prose in a way that English teachers (like me) have begged students our whole careers to embrace. They are seeing in these lines something meaningful, something to savor, to pass along, and to cherish. I’ll take that no matter who the writer is.

The characters do speak with unrealistic charm, wit, and literacy, but you know what? When I was their age, that’s what I thought my friends and I sounded like. I know now that this is impossible, but it’s not a bad thing. We should want young people to picture themselves being smart and eloquent, capable of saying stuff like:

“I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.”

and we should encourage them to aspire to it.

Mike Halter, our main character in Looking for Alaska, has lived a life of quiet, inconspicuous, unremarkable being, completely unmemorable except for his collection of people’s dying words, little bits of ironic, inspiring, funny, and resonant language that give him a framework on which to hang his sixteen-year-old, still-in-development worldview. Moved by the dying words of Francois Rabelais (“I go to seek a Great Perhaps”), he transfers to the boarding school his father graduated from, where he meets roommate Sarge (a nickname) and gorgeous crush Alaska (not a nickname), who introduce him to new worlds of mischief and late-night philosophy.

The setup and plot development will feel familiar to most well-read grownups, but Green handles it well, letting his characters move the story in a pretty engaging way. He can get ostentatious, seeming to find it necessary to remind us that there’s a WRITER behind these words, but his target audience is more likely to appreciate it than roll its eyes, and I’m okay writing him a small pass because he really can put words together.

I can easily recommend it to teens, ‘though I would be surprised if it is loved by anyone over thirty, which is how I feel about Catcher in the Rye, and that’s pretty good company.

3 of 5 stars (I liked it!)

Review: The Witness

Review: The Witness

Dec 26

The Witness by Nora Roberts (2012)

thewitnessIt’s not that I ever made a decision not to read a Nora Roberts book. It’s that she’s so prolific and so popular, I figured she couldn’t be much better than a mediocre writer with little more than a knack for entertaining a certain devoted audience. With so much else to read, I did not see myself going out of my way to familiarize myself beyond an awareness of some of her titles and all of my assumptions.

Then a friend went out of her way to leave a copy of Roberts’s The Witness in my car, encouraging me to give it a try. I didn’t make any promises, but this friend had read several of the books I’d recommended to her, and while there is no law about reciprocity in book recommendation follow-throughs, there comes a time when at least making the gesture is the polite thing to do.

So I left it in my car for a day when I needed something to read and didn’t have anything else handy. That day did come, and I found myself sucked into the story of a teenaged girl who, in the one irresponsible night of an extremely responsible childhood, witnesses a couple of murders by Russian gangsters. It becomes necessary for her to hide, and we rejoin her as a young woman, a successful, independent, highly secretive woman with no friends and no meaningful romances.

Frequently on the move, our heroine is noticed in one small town where she takes up residence. A local lawman is drawn to her reclusiveness, her aloof manner, and her cafefully disguised physical beauty.

The Witness is about thirty-five percent suspense thriller and sixty-five percent romance, and much to my surprise, Roberts handles both well, giving us a main character impossible not to sympathize with, a romance we can see ourselves yearning for, and a plot that has us rooting against some horribly bad people. I had assumed some amount of storytelling skill, but what Roberts also does is create likable characters, in the foreground and in the background, and while some of the romantic should-she-or-shouldn’t-she stuff gets a little tiresome, especially in some of the flowery ways the main character swoons for her suitor, mostly everything else is paced quite well.

Color me impressed, and while I (again) don’t plan to explore Nora Roberts any further, I won’t turn my nose up if another of her novels should find itself in my car.

3 stars out of 5 (I liked it!)

Review: Frindle by Andrew Clement

Review: Frindle by Andrew Clement

Dec 17

Frindle by Andrew Clement (1996)

frindleNick Allen is one of those genius trouble-makers good teachers love and bad teachers don’t know what to do with. He questions just about everything his teachers say, especially stuff taught by teachers he dislikes for all the usual, stupid reasons fifth-graders find to dislike even the best of teachers. Convinced he is smarter than his English teacher Mrs. Granger, he asks an endless series of questions about words and their meanings as one of those delay tactics students think their teachers don’t recognize.

Mrs. Granger uses Nick’s questions to get him to learn even more than his obedient classmates, and when he realizes he’s being played, he comes up with one of his best plans ever: he convinces his classmates to start using made-up words for common objects, such as FRINDLE to mean PEN. Mrs. Granger wages a war on this practice, defending the existing lexicon while Nick challenges the establishment by wielding arguments about usage, context, and meaning.

The war escalates, and soon the whole town is involved. Administrators don’t seem to know what to do; the local media jumps aboard, and everyone takes a side in what becomes an absurd, runaway battle that escapes Nick’s or Mrs. Granger’s control.

Andrew Clements has a great idea for a story here, but in aiming his novel at middle-grade elementary students, he shoots a little too low, probably underestimating his readers’ ability to deal with irony and inference. He has a tendency to over-explain things, and then he resolves his story in very Sesame Street ways, tipping over into over-sentimentality. Young readers probably won’t complain, but they should. They should see themselves in the Nick role, smart enough to understand this story without any hand-holding, and Clements should push them in that direction. Instead, his story assumes his readers are in the middle of the pack, which will make for appealing reading. The result is something popular where it could have been something popular and great.

I was carrying this book in the cafeteria line at the community college where I work, and the college student who took my money said, “Oh, I loved that book when I was a kid!” There’s something to be said for this, so Clements is surely on to something. And it probably means nothing that the student added, “I can’t remember anything about it, but I remember I loved reading it,” but rather than be disappointed in the book’s short-lasting resonance, I just nodded and said, “I get it.”

2 stars out of 5.

Fiving at Three A.M.

Fiving at Three A.M.

Dec 13

From here.

  1. You are awake at 2:30 in the morning on a work night (or school night). What is the most likely reason?
    Well, thanks to increased work on job 2 (which is now job 1), I’m usually up at that hour because I’m working. I kind of set my own schedule, and I’m finding that I work best in the wee hours. If I’m not awake because of that, I’m probably awake because I’m old now and I have to get up and pee two or three times a night.
  2. Time Magazine says you are a candidate for 2014’s Person of the Year. What is the most likely reason?
    For singlehandedly keeping the local Starbucks in business, for my dominance in Scramble with Friends, for smiling at dogs and strangers, and for always making sure the toilet seat is clean and dry in a cafe restroom for whoever uses it after me.
  3. Your hometown is naming a geographical or civil landmark after you, as in Mary’s Creek or David’s Corner. What is the most likely name of this spot?
    Dwyer’s Hill is steep incline about forty yards in length, right in front of my house. I often walk up and down it for an hour or so, listening to podcasts late at night. I don’t have a treadmill and don’t really want one, so I use this hill the way I would use a treadmill if I had one.
  4. Your best friend from high school calls to ask a favor. What is the most likely nature of the favor?
    He hasn’t spoken to me in a while; I pissed him off somehow and don’t really know what I did, but I don’t doubt that it was highly offensive. I’m hoping the favor would be to help him, perhaps with some editing for something important, like wedding vows or maybe a paper for some class he’s taking. But most likely it would be not to come to one of the class reunion events (my class always plans a whole weekend’s worth of get-togethers to make it worthwhile for those who come home from abroad), so he could come and see everyone without having to deal with me.
  5. Twenty-four hours from now, you’ve got a great smile on your face. What is the most likely reason for this smile?
    That would be three in the morning Saturday night. I’m going to say it’s because I’m dreaming of the Raiders beating the Chiefs in a few hours, or maybe I’m dreaming of Julia Stiles buying me a cup of coffee so she can get to know me better.

I should really do the Friday 5 more often. Writing the questions every week isn’t super super super hard, but it is quite a task to try and keep the material fresh.

Roll Out the Barrels

Roll Out the Barrels

Dec 13

Just for fun (inspired by a recent purchase at the local drugstore): my favorite individually wrapped hard candies (lollipops excluded), in order.


  1. Li hing mui drops (pictured)
  2. Hard ginger candy
  3. Root beer barrels
  4. Cinnamon discs / Jolly Rancher Cinnamon Fire
  5. Peppermint starlites
  6. Coffee candy
  7. Butterscotch / butter-rum discs
  8. Strawberry Jolly Rancher
  9. Strawberry hard candy in strawberry-looking wrappers
  10. Tootsie Pop Drops

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and I seldom eat candy, but when I do, this is the candy that turns me on. Did I leave anything out?

Talking About a Revolution

Talking About a Revolution

Nov 25

I was twenty-three when the Rodney King verdict came down, and unlike many twenty-three-year-olds, I was still in college. It was spring, and I was living in a Christian off-campus dorm. Like everyone else, I’d seen the video a million times, and I was certain (certain!) that there would be convictions.

I was twenty-three, and so sure I was right. I have often lamented and I continue to lament the way I will likely never be as sure of anything as I was sure of everything at twenty-three, and when someone in the dorm lounge told me there was a verdict, I looked at the TV and saw the footage again, and then saw the officers walking free. I’m older now and realize that I was not privy to whatever the jurors knew, that I was completely sure of something in which I had no grounds for certainty. That video was just a few seconds long, and as horrible as it was, it wasn’t the whole story.

But I was twenty-three, and there was live video of people running mad in the streets, people chanting the refrain to a little-known Intelligent Hoodlum rap called “No Justice, No Peace,” and I was filled with a rage I don’t think I’d felt before, and have only felt a few times since. It was an irresistable desire to express myself, to join the anger in the streets and add my voice to the others: No justice, no peace; no peace, no justice. I remember running out of the lounge onto the beautiful front porch of the dorm, the kind of front porch you see in movies, with an actual porch swing and one of the nicest views of Honolulu you can get from within Honolulu. I looked out there and wondered if it would be long before our own streets would be filled with teeming throngs of angry citizens, and I yearned to be part of it.

When you’re twenty-three, you’re not only right: you are also invincible. I felt a little tinge of hesitation for my safety, but then I remembered the video of that man being held down and beaten, and I reminded myself that too many such men had been held down and beaten, their attackers free to go to their nice jobs and homes while those black men, individually and collectively, struggled to get back up and on their feet. I remember pacing restlessly on that porch, looking with longing at the city and thinking there must be something I could do to let the world know that I’d had enough, too.

I went back into the lounge to see what was up, and it wasn’t long before it got ugly. Fires. Looting. Overturned police vehicles. That wasn’t what I’d envisioned at all. And that pent-up feeling of rage, still there and still desiring release, was put down for a moment. The images on the screen were scary now, and I worried for my friends who were living in Los Angeles, and I wondered if this would spread to other large cities.

I thank God that I live in a town that’s generally mellow, one where taking things in stride is the norm. It can be frustrating sometimes, but this state has the longest life expectancy in the nation, and I attribute that to the mellowness. There was some protesting at the capitol for a couple of days, and then most of the furor died down everywhere but in California. I admit that at first, I felt slightly ripped off that I was never able to be part of the real protest. I got over it quickly, as did most of the country.

I write all of this to say that I get it. I get what’s going on in some cities where people’s lifetimes of feeling like they have had to fight for every uphill step have been strained to breaking; I get it because I remember feeling that way too, not on my own behalf but on the behalf of fellow citizens.

I’m not twenty-three anymore, and I am cursed with perspective and other maddening things that come with age. Compromise, selling out, and acceptance of a slower path to life’s getting better among them. And this: a complete and utter lack of certainty. I know how I feel about police forces having the armament and ordnance of military units, but I also know that I can’t possibly know what happened on the night in question and that most of the stuff attached to this very huge and very important issue have little to do with the issue immediately at hand: whether or not enough evidence exists to put one police officer on trial for one incident.

So my response to all of this, besides just being sad and confused, is to ignore just about everyone in my Twitter and FB streams who feels qualified to render verdicts of his or her own, to turn off the television and resist the shared videos, and just pray for peace and cooler heads.

Don’t you know? Talking about a revolution sounds like a whisper.

Review: To Catch a Thief

Review: To Catch a Thief

Nov 22

To Catch a Thief (1955)
Cary Grant, Grace Kelly. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by John Michael Hayes.

to_catchJohn Robie (Cary Grant) is a retired jewel thief, nicknamed The Cat. He has apparently paid his debt to society and is living in a country house where he tends his vineyards. When a recent series of thefts (mostly at high-end hotels) mimic The Cat’s style, the Parisian police come after him for questioning. Robie is sure he won’t be treated justly, so he avoids the police and attempts to catch the thief himself, seeing this as the only way to keep himself out of prison.

He becomes acquainted with a wealthy American widow (Jessie Royce Landis) and her impossibly beautiful daughter (Grace Kelly). Robie thinks they may be the thief’s next target, so he keeps an eye on them while pretending to be a wealthy something-or-other from America.

This is the setup for To Catch a Thief, and it takes up about a third of the movie. The middle third involves Grant and Kelly getting to know one another, in a series of witty exchanges and flirty activity. There is one sexually-laden scene in the water where the entendres fly about like a slightly (but only slightly) less crude episode of Wayne’s World, kind of a shocking thing to hear out of the ultra-civilized mouths of Grant and Kelly. It is the movie’s best scene.

a_thiefPursuing the thief while avoiding being blamed for it makes up the remainder of the film, but it only really exists so that Grant and Kelly can continue to do their thing: something, after all, must present itself as an obstacle to their eventually getting together. But it is all really a distraction; who the the thief is and how the thief is either caught or not caught is only mildly interesting, and if you’re into the film for its plot, you’re likely not going to think a whole lot of this film. If you’re in it to see two Hollywood icons set the cellulose on fire, however, here is a rather rewarding hour and forty-six minutes. Each actor is at the peak of gorgeousness, cool and sexy each in his or her own way, and it is a lovely thing to witness. I have said on occasion that Lauren Bacall is my favorite actress only because she got to me first. If I had seen Grace Kelly first, it almost surely would have been her. See this movie and you’ll see why.