26 February 2013

Book Review: "The Jerk Magnet" ("Life at Kingston High," No. 1) by Melody Carlson

Author: Melody Carlson
Publisher: Revell
Originally Published: February 17, 2012
Synopsis: Chelsea Martin is a big-time geek.  Not only does she focus on academics and other "nerdy" subjects, but she is very socially awkward, and guys don't really take notice of her.  However, she is in for some big changes: Her widower father is getting married, and she is moving to San José, California!  To prepare Chelsea for her new life, her fashionista stepmother-to-be Kate gives her a makeover, which causes her to be the belle of the ball at her new school.  However, Chelsea's new-found good looks are attracting some of the wrong guys and causing some of her female classmates to despise her, and it's making her uncomfortable; with the help of her friend Janelle, they show everyone the real truth about physical appearance.

Story: 3.75/5
We've all seen the movies where the homely girl turns into a knock-out; anyone remember Princess Diaries and My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Still, instead of just using the female lead as a showpiece, this story makes a good point that I refuse to give away in this review.

Writing: 4.25/5
Though there were some rough spots, Mrs. Carlson's writing is just as good as, if not better than, it usually is.  I've read some of her other works--the first few True Colors books, every Carter House Girls novel except for the last one, and even some of her Christmas fiction--and this is right up to par with all of that.

Content: 3.25/5
If you have a "Y" chromosome, you might find some of the descriptions to be too much; if you don't, you'll likely understand where the characters are coming from.  Discussions of Chelsea wearing "skimpy" swimsuits, all of which are worn around guys, appear several times, though she is uncomfortable with it every single time, and ends up deciding not to do it anymore.  Also mentioned are overly tight bras and deep cleavage.  I realize that a twenty-five-year-old guy such as myself isn't exactly the target audience for this novel, and most female readers will likely laugh it off; still, I felt it worth mentioning.

Conclusion: After enduring some terrible novels, The Jerk Magnet was a breath of fresh air.  A captivating, engrossing story with great writing? How much better can you get? Though the book wasn't perfect--see above for why--it was still an amazing read that read like a Disney Channel Original Movie.  Fans of Christian young adult fiction should check this out immediately!

Score: 4.25/5

23 February 2013

Quickie Movie Review: "Snowbound"

Synopsis: It's 1990.  Jim and Jennifer Stolpa are en route to a funeral, when they and their infant son Clayton get stranded in the middle of nowhere.  Without today's conveniences--iPads, cell phones, Blackberries, etc.--they can only depend on themselves to make it out all right.  Jim's parents are worried sick, and contact the police department, but they aren't much help.  When Jim's father takes it public, people from all over reach out to find the young married couple and their baby...but will it be too late? Based on a true story.

Review: What a treat this one was.  Snowbound is both a testament to human survival and a portrait of a loving family.  Despite its age, this flick will definitely tug at your heartstrings, even more so because it's not fiction.  It's probably only worth a rental, but it's definitely a little-known gem that is worth seeing at least once.

Content Concerns: A scant few profanities, references to a place called "Hell's Creek," and discussion/implication of a woman nursing a baby are as bad as it gets.  However, some viewers might be repulsed by two scenes that briefly show a frostbitten foot, and the emotional intensity might be a bit much for some young children.  Nothing goes past "PG" territory, though.

Score: 4/5

22 February 2013

Movie Review: "Left Behind: World at War"

Rated: PG-13 for violence
Starring: Lou Gossett, Jr., Kirk Cameron, and Brad Johnson
Release Date: October 25, 2005
Synopsis: After a mass disappearance occurred all over the planet, Nicolae Carpathia rose as the world's new leader, promising world peace.  Every country on Earth handed over their weapons to him, and he promised to destroy the guns, bombs, missiles, and such to prevent war.  However, Buck Williams, his new bride Chloe Steele, and Chloe's father and new stepmother, all of whom recently became Christians, believe that Carpathia is the Antichrist, as Revelation predicted.  When United States President Charles Fitzhugh's VP is killed in a random drive-by attack, Mr. President learns of an attack against America.  He believes killing Carpathia will prevent it, but he will be in for a big surprise...

Story: 4/5
Yes, I know many people have problems with Left Behind's stance on "the end times," but much of Bible prophecy is difficult to interpret; you have to accept that this is just two authors' account of how it could happen, not necessarily how it will.  Still, it spins an action/adventure yarn that is better than Jerusalem Countdown's, and really kept me on the edge of my seat.

Production Values: 4/5
All of the actors did exceptionally well.  The action sequences were well-portrayed, though some of the special effects were a bit cheesy; one explosion even reminded me of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.  Still, the rest of the movie is so solid and gripping that you probably won't care.

Content: 3.5/5
The MPAA rated this "PG-13 for violence," and there are plenty of explosions, shootings, and other violent acts to go around...but this is inappropriate for young children for other reasons as well.  An extramarital affair is discussed with decorum, but talk of it will likely confuse young children, and Chloe promising her husband, "I will comfort you with my body," during their wedding might garner some questions from a seven-year-old that his parents aren't quite ready to answer yet.  Not only that, but even some of the non-violent scenes are creepy; one character has a rather frightening nightmare about Carpathia.  In this case, I would suggest taking the "PG-13" seriously, though, depending on the kid, it might be appropriate for preteens, too; still, anyone younger than ten should wait until they're older.

Conclusion: I was once a member on an online forum where a preacher said he didn't care for the Left Behind films because they lacked the action that the books had.  Apparently, World at War hadn't come out yet when he said that, because this film has plenty of intensity.  From what I hear, they're planning on remaking the Left Behind film series; at least the original one ended on a high note.  Fans of the Jenkins/LaHaye book series are in for a treat.

Score: 4.5/5

(This is my fiftieth review!)

21 February 2013

Movie Review: "The Imposter" (2010)

Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Kevin Max, Kerry Livgren, and Jeff Deyo
Released: March 23, 2010 (DVD)
Synopsis: Johnny C. is the lead singer of Grand_design, the most popular Christian rock band there is.  Unfortunately, his lifestyle doesn't match his songs; not only is he cheating on his wife, but he is also abusing drugs, and his narcissism only makes matters worse.  When his wife takes their daughter and leaves, and his bandmates kick him out, everything looks bleak...but Johnny isn't going to give up.  Will he make the right choice and give up his sinful ways, or will he keep going down the wrong path?

Warning! The following sections include possible spoilers!

Story: 5/5
We've all seen the movies where the protagonist simply starts down the right path, and all goes well for him/her, right? Well, this is not one of those films.  Though Johnny C. finds God, things don't immediately work out perfectly by the time the credits roll...but that's the beauty of this flick.  As a morality play, this one works really well.

Production Values: 4.5/5
The acting is good, though not always great.  Kevin Max and Jeff Deyo are musicians, not actors, but they still do moderately well nonetheless.  Some of the secondary characters, such as Johnny's wife, Tara, and Popeye, the homeless guy Johnny meets, are played by experienced actors, and it shows.  Where the film really shines is the music; when you have one member each of dc Talk, Sonicflood, and Kansas as your leads, you know you're in for a sonic feast.  Kevin Max also has a wonderful narrating voice; seriously, he should consider doing an audiobook. (Are you reading this, Mr. Max?) Unfortunately, the poorly done subtitles that seem to plague all Pure Flix DVDs are present here, too.

Special Features: 4/5
Along with a few previews, there are three great music videos and a commentary track.  The one problem is "Unmasking the Characters," which features good cast interviews, but isn't as in-depth as they make it sound, and suffers from an opening sequence that is repeated four times in less than nine minutes.

Moral Content: 3.5/5
You may have a young dc Talk or Kevin Max fan in your house, but this film isn't for little children.  Drug use is implied, and a "baggie" of pills is shown.  There is also discussion of Johnny "sleeping around" and "mentally undressing that woman," though he is never seen in bed with anyone.  Johnny gets beat up in one scene, and is left with a bruise on his face.  Drinking and smoking gets slight screen time.  All that may sound sinful--and it is--but the film vilifies it as just that.  Still, that may be a bit much for young kids.  Elsewhere, unkind terms such as "stupid fool" and "suck" are used.

Conclusion: As a longtime fan of both dc Talk and K-Max, this movie was a dream come true for me.  I was devastated when I found out that dcT's Free at Last: The Movie was nothing more than a documentary, and I've always thought Mr. Max's album The Imposter, which came out a few years before this same-titled film, had some songs that would work great on a movie soundtrack.  So, to have K-Max starring in a real movie, featuring his own music, is awesome.  Unfortunately, some people will either ignore this film, or avoid it because Mr. Max is in it; I once heard a friend describe him as "the guy from dc Talk who never really did anything."  Well, with this film, Kevin Max is back, and he did something that neither Tait nor TobyMac have done yet. (T-Mac's film credits are limited to soundtrack contributions and that dcT documentary, and Tait's are the same...minus the former.) The Imposter is a great movie with a wonderful story; what I wonder is: Does Johnny's turn-and-repent mirror what really happened in K-Max's life?  The world may never know.

Score: 4.75/5

20 February 2013

Movie Review: "Hidden in Silence"

Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Kellie Martin, Marion Ross, and Marc Warren
Released: March 6, 1996
Synopsis: Stefania "Fusia" Podagorska, a 17-year-old maid, is living in Poland during the time of World War II.  When the Jewish family she lives with gets taken away by German soldiers, the house is turned over to Fusia.  She and her little sister hide Jews to protect them from the Third Reich, but she is soon forced to leave her home.  When she finds a large house with a sizable attic, she realizes it would be great for hiding Jews...but, with the Gestapo looming, how long will they stay hidden? Based on a true story.

Story: 4/5
Though "true story" movies aren't usually my thing--I use entertainment as an escape from real life!--I have to say this one was quite involving.  It really illustrates the horrors of what happened during World War II.  However, the abrupt ending was a bit disappointing; I won't say anything more, as not to give away the plot.

Production Values: 3.5/5
This film was mostly well-done; it seemed to be shot on location, and everything looked pretty true-to-life. Still, the one rough spot was Kellie Martin, whose American accent seemed to appear randomly, despite the fact that she was playing a Polish girl.  On a positive side, the music sounded really good on my home theater system.

Moral Content: 3/5
The Holocaust isn't exactly a kid-friendly subject, but this movie does show a bit of restraint.  People are shot; a man is seen with bloody wounds on his face; a body is seen being carried out; and other deaths and violent acts are either seen or implied.  Though most of the kissing is innocent, peck-on-the-cheek stuff, there are two scenes with passionate smooching, including one with a nameless couple in bed; whether they are married or not isn't specified.  On the other side of the coin, Fusia's Catholic faith is portrayed in a good light, and she is even shown praying in a church; that's a far cry from movies like The Vow, that remove all the Christian content from their source material.  So, suffice it to say: If a kid is old/mature enough to understand the terrors that happened because of the Third Reich, then this would probably be appropriate for them; still, you might want to screen it first.

Conclusion: History buffs, rejoice! Hidden in Silence is a little-known historical drama that is not only a good yarn, but a true one as well.  It probably is one I won't be watching again, and would likely only be worth watching on TV or renting for most people; still, you could do a lot worse.

Score: 3.5/5 

17 February 2013

Quickie Book Review: "Rebekah" ("Wives of the Patriarchs," No. 2) by Jill Eileen Smith

Synopsis: We all know the Biblical account of Isaac and Rebekah, but there's a lot of details that God's Word doesn't mention. Why did Rebekah help Esau trick Isaac into blessing him instead of his firstborn, Jacob? What was Rebekah's life like before she met Isaac? Did Isaac ever tell his wife of the time where he was nearly killed as part of a sacrifice? Author Jill Eileen Smith draws back the curtain, and shares an account of the private life of the woman whose name meant "noose."

Review: Though this Biblical historical novel was mildly entertaining, it really wasn't anything special.  If you've never read a novel that takes place during Bible times before, I would suggest starting with the Thoenes' A. D. Chronicles or Francine Rivers' Mark of the Lion trilogy.  They're better than Rebekah, even though it isn't terrible; it's just middle-of-the-road fare.

Content Concerns: Discussion of breastfeeding babies, death, and violence.

Score: 2.5/5

Quickie Book Review: "Apocalypse" by Peter and Paul Lalonde

Synopsis: Helen Hannah is a veteran reporter for World News Network, but the news coming down the pike shocks even her.  First, the worst fighting ever breaks out in the Holy Land, complete with tons of missiles and other weapons of mass destruction; then, millions of people around the world disappear; and, to make matters worse, those still around are worshiping United Nations consultant Franco Macalousso as a Messiah.  Hannah and her co-host/love interest Bronson Pearl know the real truth: that the disappearances are because of the Rapture, and Macalousso is the Antichrist.  Still, Macalousso will stop at nothing until Hannah, Pearl, and all the others who refuse to submit to his belief system are either on his side or dead...but the Christians aren't giving up!  Based on the movie released by Cloud Ten Pictures.

Review: I got this movie novelization as part of a free book giveaway, so, frankly, I wasn't expecting much.  Still, upon reading it, I found that the writing was much better than usual for a book based on a film or television show; it actually felt like an original story.  I'd avoided the movie previously--I mistook it for Countdown: Jerusalem, which is supposed to be among the worst flicks ever--but, now, my curiosity is piqued for not only Apocalypse, but the rest of the film quadrilogy as well.  The one qualm I do have is that the book is short and ends abruptly; you should have either the remaining films or books on hand, because you'll definitely want to know what happens next.

Score: 3.75/5

Quickie Movie Review: "The Clique"

Synopsis: Claire Lyons, the new girl from Orland(ew), Florida, has the nerve to show up at Octavian Country Day school (OCD) wearing Keds and two-year-old GAP overalls. She is clearly not top Clique (aka the Pretty Committee) material and Massie, Alicia, Dylan, and Kristen have no problem letting everyone know it. Unfortunately, Claire's family is staying in the guest house on Massie's family's huge estate and the girls are stuck with each other. Claire's future looks worse than a Prada knockoff. But with a little luck and a lot of scheming, she might just stand a chance.
(Taken from the movie's Amazon.com page)

Review: I'm not even sure if I should dignify this movie by reviewing it.  When I first came across this DVD, I avoided it, but recently decided to give it a shot after reading on IMDb that Bridgit Mendler (Teddy from Disney's Good Luck Charlie,) Elizabeth Gillies (VICTORiOUS' Jade West,) and Samantha Boscarino (who played a secondary character on the short-lived Nickelodeon sitcom How to Rock) all starred in it.  After sitting through about twenty or thirty minutes of it, I turned it off in disgust.  The "clique" of girls was too bratty and annoying; the "humor" goes beyond the boundaries the movie's "PG" rating would imply; and, there was also some usage of profanity as soon as the first line was spoken.  If you're looking for a kid-friendly, female-fronted comedy/drama, check out The Princess Diaries, Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars, or Cadet Kelly.  Those are nowhere near as bad--artistically and morally--as this dreck was.

Content Concerns: Though I didn't watch it all the way through, here's what I saw and heard in what little I watched: About three or four profanities--including the first line, which is screamed by a teenage girl--and a gag that makes it appear that a young woman has started menstruating, complete with a text message about her "getting her '.'" Also, the attitude of the girls in the "clique" is rather unkind and not something a parent would want his/her kids to emulate.

Score: 0.5/5

15 February 2013

Movie Review: "Coach of the Year"

Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Robert Conrad, Erin Grey, and Red West
Released: December 20, 1980
Synopsis: Jim Brandon (Robert Conrad, TV's The Wild Wild West) went from NFL star to soldier, but a war injury made him a paraplegic and changed his life forever.  Though he wanted to get back into coaching, the big leagues wouldn't let him do it.  His nephew, Andy DeFalco (Ricky Paul), has gotten into trouble once again, and has been sent to a home for juvenile delinquents.  When Jim sees the ragtag group of guys, he believes he can make a football team out of them...but their lack of respect for pretty much anyone proves to be a large obstacle.  Still, Jim pits them against an undefeated high school team; do these young criminals even stand a chance?

Story: 3.5/5
This is what the film has going for it.  Though most of us have seen a sports-themed, underdog-coming-from-behind flick before, these guys, including their coach, are coming from severely dire circumstances.  However, there was one scene where the kids have an escape plot that fails, and it seemed a bit dumb.

Production Values: 2/5
Robert Conrad is an experienced actor, so it comes as no surprise that he did well.  However, an annoying soundtrack, some noise lines--on a DVD edition, mind you--and an overall lackluster feel kept this from being what it could have been.

Moral Content: 3.5/5
There are a few profanities, but the major concern is with the violence.  Football is a rough sport, and this movie shows how intense it can get, but these guys get in fights even when they're not on the playing field.  It even gets bloody a time or two.  Also, numerous scenes show most of the film's male characters, including nearly every kid and their coach, shirtless or with their shirt wide open.  One scene even shows the guys in the shower, and you see them remove the towels from their waists, though the camera never dips below their torsos.  Still, by today's standards, I think this film wouldn't even get a "PG-13".

Conclusion: Though I don't watch "ball games" in my spare time, I can appreciate a well-crafted piece of entertainment, even if it centers around sports.  In fifth grade, I chose to do a book report on Johnny Long Legs, a basketball novel written by prolific sporting author Matt Christopher.  More recently, I've watched other sports-themed flicks and enjoyed them.  However, I seriously struggled to finish this one.  If you're looking for a well-made pigskin film, I would suggest trying Hometown Legend, which is an all-around better movie than this one.  It's funny; I like old-school music, TV shows, and books, but, other than the original Star Wars trilogy, I find it hard to enjoy any film made before the 1990s.  Even some of the Kirk-and-crew Star Trek flicks were difficult to "get into."  Only absolute football fanatics will likely enjoy Coach of the Year, though.

Score: 1.5/5

Quickie Book Review: "Being Happy" by Andrew Matthews

Synopsis: In this successful humorous text, the author shares some fundamental principles that work towards improving the quality of life for everyone.
(From the book's Goodreads page) 

Review: Lately, I have been feeling quite a bit of despair.  It just seems like things haven't been going my way.  After expressing such emotions to a friend, she let me borrow this book, and it was quite informative and very entertaining.  Presented in an easily accessible style, Andrew Matthews uses both essay-style explanations and cute comic drawings to teach concepts that are easy to understand, but difficult to master.  I have no idea if this book is still in print--my edition is copyrighted 1990, which means it is almost as old as me--but it's definitely a treasure.  If you know someone who is down in the dumps, seek this book out on eBay or Amazon Marketplace--that is, unless you already have it--and let them read it.  You will be glad you did...and so will they.

Score: 4.5/5

Book Review: "The Mission" ("Worlds Without End," Book One) by Shaun F. Messick

Author: Shaun F. Messick
Publisher: Empyrean Books
Originally Published: April 26, 2011
Synopsis: Adrian Palmer was supposed to be the first human to set foot on Mars, but his NASA ship disappeared before he reached The Red Planet, which devastated Jake, the son he left behind. Twenty-three years later, Jake, who has since become a star pilot, gets notified by NASA that they have received a message from Adrian, intended for him. Jake engages on the same journey, and finds himself taken into a wormhole, which leads to a planet whose denizens look exactly like humans.  After reuniting with Daddy-O, Jake discovers that the planet is in the midst of a war.  Worse yet, the villains have plans to attack Earth.  Will Jake, Adrian, and friends be able to save their home planet and their new one, or will the oppressive empire squelch them for good?

Story: 4.5/5
What a riveting read! Though responsibilities prevented me from devouring this in one sitting, I still finished it as soon as I could, and it kept me involved.  It also discussed some questions I've always wondered about: Are we alone in the universe? If there are aliens, wouldn't they look just like us, and wouldn't they have the Bible and Jesus as well? It's almost like Mr. Messick read my mind when he was writing this.  Though the slightly lackluster ending prevents this from having a perfect rating in this department, it's still among the best science fiction yarns I've read in a while.

Writing: 4/5
The amazing story was matched by the great writing...to a degree.  Though the prose mostly flowed well, the edition I read via my iPad's Kindle app had some notable typos.  If Mr. Messick had used a copy editor, then the score above would be better; the writing is still great nonetheless.

Content: 2.5/5
This may be Christian fiction, but it is a bit edgier than Beverly Lewis' Amish stories or Karen Kingsbury's dramas.  Violence abounds, much of it involving blood and the infliction of serious wounds.  Some characters, including on the heroes' side, are even killed.  I don't recall any language, and sexual content is limited to a young woman pretending to seduce a young man as a means to escape the clutches of the main villain.  Still, discerning parents might want to read this book before handing it to a preteen or young teen.

Conclusion: After suffering through the terrible Chop, Chop, this was the kind of book I needed; it's novels such as these that remind me why I'm a book lover, and a fan of entertainment in general, in the first place.  If you keep the above in mind, this is one that Christian fans of Star Wars and/or Star Trek are likely to devour.  As of this writing, the Kindle edition is still free; if you have a Kindle or Kindle app, go find it and get it, now!

Score: 4.25/5

Quickie Book Review: "So Not Happening" ("Charmed Life," No. 1) by Jenny B. Jones

Synopsis: Bella Kirkwood is living it up in New York...until her mother's remarriage forces her to move to a small town and live on a farm with two unruly stepbrothers.  In frustration, she vents about her dire situation on a blog...only for it to be discovered by her entire new school, which causes them to despise her.  When Bella gets assigned to the school newspaper, she is told to do a story on the school's dumpster; however, while digging through the garbage, she overhears something that sounds stinkier than the trash she was wading in.  Will she get to the bottom of it? Will she even be allowed to try? Or will the new, fish-out-of water circumstances get the best of her?

Review: This may sound like strange reading material for a guy who is a quarter-century old, but keep in mind that I was raised in a house full of women, and have absolutely no qualms about reading such a book; hey, I watched Princess Diaries of my own volition, and enjoyed it every time I did! Anyway, though this book wasn't exactly spectacular, it was definitely entertaining and kept me involved until the end.  Fans of the "young adult" writings of other Christian authors, such as Beverly Lewis or Melody Carlson, will find plenty to like about So Not Happening.  The edition I bought at LifeWay was originally priced at $2.99, but was reduced to $1.47, which is an amazing deal on a new book.

Content Concerns: Some crude slang, mostly relating to either bodily functions or Bella's dad's occupation as a plastic surgeon.  Also, it is discussed that Bella's father is a bit of a womanizer, and the climactic finale is a bit violent.  However, none of it verges past "PG" territory; still, über-senstive readers should use a bit of caution.

Score: 3.5/5

12 February 2013

Quickie Book Review: "Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man: Triple Threat"

Synopsis: Three of Marvel's greatest superheroes are featured in this graphic novel omnibus.  Thor is struggling with revealing his true self to a woman who is in love with him...but thinks of him as only a mild-mannered doctor!  When villains cause a zoo exhibit to go awry, and only that Asgardian can stop it, will she find out who he really is?  Captain America is brought from days past to the current time; can he find out what his purpose is here? When a kid falls into a well and finds a Stark Industries piece of equipment, Iron Man is sent out to find out the truth...but even he will be surprised by the turn of events!

Review: Though each story arc is shorter than a Saturday morning cartoon, it still made for enjoyable, if quick, reading for this superhero fan.  Maybe, if I found some thicker, longer graphic novels, the stories would be more complex, but this one was good for what it was.

Content Concerns: Along with the expected violence, the Thor story has him battling a hideous monster, which might scare some kids.  You might want to screen this one before handing it to a little kid.

Score: 3.75/5

Book Review: "Chop, Chop" by L. N. Cronk

Author: L. N. Cronk
Publisher: Rivulet Publishing
Originally Published: July 12, 2008
Synopsis: Ever since Laci was a little girl she's been growing out her pretty, brown hair and chopping it off to send to Locks of Love. When Greg moves into town and finds out what she's doing, he thinks it's a great idea...so he starts doing it too! It's just one of the things that reserved, young David must tolerate as their friendship grows throughout the years. As they near adulthood, they grow not only closer to each other, but closer to God as well. David finds himself content in every way, but when tragedy occurs David must struggle to find his way back to God.
(Taken from Amazon.com's page for this book)

Story: 3/5
The story is a good one; kids growing up together in a small town, discovering God, the opposite gender, and heartbreak, both romantic and otherwise.  Though it's nothing really original, it still works.

Writing: 0.5/5
Oh, my goodness; where do I start? First off, the book moves too fast; in less than 200 "pages"--of large print and with plenty of blank space, mind you--we're taken through the characters' childhoods, teenage years, and the beginning of their adult life.  It felt like I was watching a DVD on a player with the fast forward button stuck.  Not only that, but most of the characters and places were vaguely described.  If they decided to make Chop, Chop into a movie--please don't, Hollywood!--it would be pretty much up to the producers as to the ethnicity, eye color, hair color, height, style of dress, etc., of the characters, because they get little mention.  From what I hear, Victor Hugo's writings--which I haven't read! I know; what kind of avid reader am I?--are notorious for their long, detailed descriptions; well, this is the polar opposite of that.  Seriously, this book is written like a elongated summary, a poor movie or TV novelization, or a middle schooler's account of what he or she did this past summer.

Content: 2.5/5
If this weren't a Christian novel, it would be higher.  Still, usage of profane phrases or words such as, "Oh, my G--!," "Good L---!," and "C--p!" were just too much.  True, some of those usages are vilified...but not all of them.  Talk about "think[ing] we're gay" muddles things ever further.  Also of note: The "tragedy" mentioned in the synopsis involves violence that may hit too close to home for many readers, in light of recent events.

Conclusion: The self-publishing business may be good for some, but Chop, Chop is one of the biggest literary disappointments I have ever experienced.  The end matter says that there are eight books in the series; seriously, how can this mess go on for even two or three novels? If you're looking for a well-written Christian drama, go find something by Karen Kingsbury; seriously, her novels are great, especially when compared to this garbage.  I'm glad this one was free for the Kindle; I may have wasted my time and iPad battery power reading it, but at least I didn't pay for the book itself.

Score: 1/5

Quickie Book Review: "Star Wars: Scourge" by Jeff Grubb

Synopsis: When Jedi Toro Irana is found murdered, his Master, Mander Zuma, searches for the truth behind his Apprentice's death.  To do so, Master Zuma must deal with Toro's sister, Reen, and venture into the world of the dastardly Hutts.

Review: This is a science-fiction/mystery novel, which smacks of some of the works of writer Jack McDevitt.  Unfortunately, Scourge pales in comparison to Mr. McDevitt's writings.  Though this Star Wars whodunit has its moments, taking Lucas' multimillion-grossing space opera and turning it into Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a stretch.  Unless you're a Star Wars fanatic, you should give Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict series a try instead.

Content Concerns: Contains some violence/violent references, and descriptions of drug use, albeit a fictional drug.

Score: 2.25/5

09 February 2013

Quickie Book Review: "Lost Empire" ("Fargo Adventures", No. 2) by Clive Cussler with Grant Blackwood

Synopsis: Adventurers Sam and Remi Fargo stumble across an old bell while vacationing in Zanzibar.  They soon discover that it was part of the Civil War battleship Shenandoah, which had been sold to Zanzibar's sultan and then disappeared.  Unfortunately, someone else wants that bell bad enough to kill the Fargos for it, and Sam and Remi's journey to find its secrets and save it will take them all over the planet.

Review: What a surprise! I had never read a Clive Cussler novel before, but this one was so much fun, I blew through all 498 pages in about an hour or so!  Plenty of action and intensity, along with only a small amount of objectionable content, made Lost Empire a great read.  I only wish I had read the first Fargo Adventure previously, but, oh, well.

Content Concerns: Small dashes of profanity, along with some intense action/violence, though it never goes beyond "PG" territory.

Score: 4.25/5

Quickie Book Review: "*batteries not included" by Wayland Drew

Synopsis: Frank and Faye Riley are an elderly couple; Faye's Alzheimer's leads her to believe that she sees her son everywhere, even though he died in a car crash years ago.  Marisa Esteval is a young lady who is expecting...and unwed.  They, and others, live in a building that is on the verge of being destroyed.  It seems that only a miracle can save them and their dwelling now...but the kind of miracle they get is something that no one would ever expect or even believe.  Based on a Steven Spielberg film.

Review: This was a weird one.  I've never seen the movie this book is based on, but I'm not sure I would want to do that now.  Though I love a good science-fiction/fantasy yarn, this doesn't seem to have one; it almost seems like the movie was sheer spectacle, just like Michael Bay's Transformers flicks supposedly are.  Those who are fanatical about the movie *batteries not included (sic) would probably enjoy this, but everyone else should just skip it.

Content Concerns: Contains about ten or fifteen profanities, some violent scenes, discussion of an unmarried woman being pregnant, and a scene with an alien being nearly dying.

Score: 1.75/5

Quickie Book Review: "October Baby" by Eric Wilson and Theresa Preston

Synopsis: College student Hannah Lawson's life has been fraught with health problems.  After fainting during her university's fall play, her parents reveal to her a shocking truth: She was not only adopted, but also the survivor of a failed abortion.  To find closure, Hannah takes a road trip with some friends in order to finally meet her biological mother.  However, doing so proves to be an arduous task.  Will Hannah ever find the woman who unwillingly gave birth to her? Moreover, if Hannah does find her biological mom, what will she say to her? Based on the film, and co-written by one of the movie's screenwriters.

Review: October Baby was my favorite movie of 2012, so I had seriously big expectations for its novelization.  Well, it lived up to them and then some.  Not only did it do the film justice, but it also included plenty of scenes that, for whatever reason, were not featured in the final cut of the movie.  It isn't even until several chapters into the book that you get to the movie's opening.  If you're a fan of the October Baby film, you should definitely give this novelization a try; I'm very glad that I did.

Content Concerns: The MPAA said that the movie was "PG-13 for mature thematic material." The book is pretty much the same way; the themes are not for children.  There are also mentions of alcohol.

Score: 4.75/5

Quickie Book Review: "Redwall" by Brian Jacques

Synopsis: The animal denizens of Redwall have heard the legend of Martin the Warrior, a hero from long ago, but are in need of him now after being attacked by the cruel Cluny and his evil army.  Matthias goes on a search to find out more about Martin the Warrior...but, it turns out, the answer to his quest is closer than he realizes!

Review: I know this is a classic juvenile novel, and it has an enjoyable story and good writing, but I still struggled to finish it.  I don't know exactly what it was; I can't pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it, but it still didn't feel amazing or even great to me.  Thankfully, this book has earned such "classic" status that anyone who would likely be interested has probably already read it; if you haven't, I would suggest borrowing this from your local library before shelling out big bucks on a box set of Brian Jacques' entire series.

Moral Content: Nothing worse than some Disney-movie violence and a scant few profanities.

Score: 3/5

08 February 2013

DVD Set Review: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles": Season One, Part One

Rated: TV-Y7
Starring: Michael Sinterniklaas, Wayne Grayson, and Gregory Abbey
Released: May 22, 2007
Synopsis: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello. Together, they are the Ninja Turtles.  Though they are strong and powerful, they must stay in the shadows because of their mutant appearance.  In this first half of their premiere season, they make friends with fellow fighter Casey Jones and the young and beautiful April O'Neil, have their first encounter with big-time villain Shredder, defend homeless people, and plenty more.  This series is based on the original comic book series from 1984 and features creative input from TMNT creator, Peter Laird.

Stories: 5/5
From the start, these episodes had me hooked.  Every story, including the multi-episode arcs, kept me wondering what would happen next.  Even though you know who will win, it still kept me guessing and involved.  No complaints in this department.

Production Values: 5/5
Nothing to gripe about here, either.  Excellent animation; wonderful voice work; amazing action sequences; just all-around great.

Moral Content: 4/5
This is where the set falters somewhat.  The Turtles' kindness towards the human race is great; they respect the homeless and forgive enemies to the point of letting them become not only friends, but allies.  There's plenty of violence--no surprise there--but it gets slightly intense in their battle with the Shredder; he repeatedly comes quite close to skewering each of the Turtles.  Other negative content comes in the form of using "shell" as a euphemism--even the opening song says, "It's a shell of a time!"--and female characters' outfits.  April O'Neil wears a bare-midriff outfit in almost every scene she is in, which even shows a bit of her backside when she is seen from the back once.  It seems that she was meant to be "eye candy" for young boys.  Other female characters show less skin, but still more than necessary.  Thankfully, the "cartoony" appearance of the characters makes it less sultry than it would be if it were live-action.

Conclusion: As a longtime superhero fan, it's no surprise that I would like something like this, right? Though this entire set is amazingly produced, I'm not sure why the makers chose to throw some unnecessary material into the mix.  Still, fans of action/adventure hero stories will certainly find plenty to enjoy about this.

Score: 4.5/5 

Quickie Book Review: "Love Finds You in Camelot, Tennessee" by Janice Hanna

Synopsis: Camelot is a city from old legends, but its Tennessean namesake is a rural town that happens to be struggling financially.  Steve, the mayor of the small town, teams up with Amy to work on staging a production of the musical Camelot, with the city's denizens as the cast.  However, it's going to take a lot of work to get both the actors and the city ready for a performance that Steve and Amy both hope will attract nationwide attention, and things get really interesting when there seems to be some romantic connections going on...

Review: Ever since I read her romantic comedy trilogy Weddings By Bella, Janice Hanna (aka Janice Thompson) has been one of my favorite authors.  Her light-hearted, cute, sweet romances have proved to be a wonderful break from intense historical dramas and intergalactic wars.  Though this isn't her best--the ending leaves a little to be desired--Mrs. Thompson has nonetheless delivered once again.  Anyone who has read and enjoyed other Janice Hanna/Janice Thompson works should definitely check this one out; it's a vast improvement over the first Love Finds You... novel I read, which was by a different author.  Even fans of sweet, cute, and innocent romances won't be disappointed by Love Finds You in Camelot, Tennessee.

Score: 4.25/5

DVD Set Review: "Superman: The Animated Series": Volume One

Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Tim Daly, Clancy Brown, and Dana Delany
Released: January 25, 2005
Synopsis: The sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed the planet Krypton, Kal-El, known by most Earthlings as Superman and/or Clark Kent, has powers thanks to his alien heritage that no one on our planet has.  Kent uses his powers to help people, but matters are made much more complicated when ill-minded individuals, such as mega-millionare Lex Luthor, alien criminal Mala, and radio shock jock Leslie Willis aka LiveWire, are out to destroy him.  Featuring tons of action, various baddies, and many acts of heroism, this first volume of Superman: The Animated Series is a treat for comic book fans.

(Warning: Possible spoilers below.)

Stories: 4/5
Most of the stories here are wonderful, and held my attention quite well.  However, it faltered with the episode "The Prometheon," which ends too quickly and doesn't explain itself very well.  Some people have a problem with the character of Superman, calling him "too perfect," but the episodes in this set prove that even a man from Krypton can't do it all alone; his falliblities are shown quite well, especially in the final episode, "LiveWire."

Production Values: 4.5/5
This is where the set really shines.  Amazing animation, great voice work, well-done action sequences...and that's not all! I did quibble a bit with the "A Little Piece of Trivia" special feature, which is the "A Little Piece of Home" episode with trivia added onscreen, which has some cool facts, like who voices the characters, but ventures into inanity: "Dinosaurs are cool!" Seriously?

Moral Content: 3.8/5
Superman is known for being an upstanding superhero, and, in this series, he definitely is.  He looks out for anyone and everyone, even saving his foes from death.  However, there is some content that discerning viewers might quibble with: misuses of God's name in some episodes, occasional immodest outfits on both men and women, some bloodshed in the opening episodes, and a slight sexual innuendo here and there.  Of course, there's the expected violence, and while there are plenty of explosions, hits, kicks, and such to be found, it is never graphic and only bloody that one aforementioned time.  This series was likely rated "TV-Y7-FV" when it was on TV, and I think that's about right.

Conclusion: Superman fans, rejoice! This is a great, well-made series that fans of the sole Kryptonian survivor will love.  Even the slight problems mentioned above didn't keep me from enjoying this series.

Score: 4.25/5

06 February 2013

Quickie DVD Review: "The Seven Decisions"

Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Andy Andrews
Released: December 27, 2005
Synopsis: Andy Andrews, author of best-selling books such as The Traveler's Gift, shares seven decisions one must make for personal success.  Drawing from history as well as his own life, and with a touch of humor, Mr. Andrews gives a lively stage performance that will likely both entertain and inform all viewers.

Review: The back cover of this DVD says that Andy Andrews has become quite influential in recent years; after watching this, it's not hard to see why.  Though solo stage performances aren't usually my thing, this is really well-done.  The special features include some extra stage sessions with Mr. Andrews, including an audience Q&A and his insanely funny account of flying a jet.  Unfortunately, the one low spot is the bonus CD, which is supposed to be Mr. Andrews going over the Seven Decisions, but has him reading too fast and repeating himself.  If you do decide to listen to the bonus audio disc, I would suggest copying it to your computer and using the half-speed function on your iPod or Windows Media Player to slow it down.

Content Concerns: Nothing worse than two misuse's of God's name and an occasional female audience member wearing a slightly low-cut or off-the-shoulder outfit.  However, some of the concepts may go over young kids' heads.

Score: 4.25/5

03 February 2013

Movie Review: "Jerusalem Countdown"

Rated: PG-13 for violence
Starring: David A. R. White, Lee Majors, and Jaci Velasquez
Released: August 26, 2011 (theaters); April 17, 2012 (DVD/Blu-Ray)
Synopsis: Shane and Eve are two longtime federal agents who have uncovered a doozy of a plot.  A potential terrorist has been captured, but he does nothing except repeat the entire book of Revelation again and again.  Eve's father, a preacher, believes that what's coming was prophesied in the Bible, and that it's a sign that the end is near...but Shane and Eve simply can't believe that.  Suffice it to say, the entire FBI, CIA, and the entire world are likely in for a huge surprise...

(There are potential spoilers below; be warned.)

Story: 4/5
Whether or not you agree with the Rapture theology presented in Jerusalem Countdown, you can't help but be engrossed by the film's story.  With all the twists and turns--there's one twist two minutes before the credits roll that really shocked me!--it's definitely a gripping one.

Production Values: 4/5
The acting, action sequences, and special effects are much improved over other Christian films I've previously seen.  There was one scene with hokey-looking flames, but, other than that, this is definitely not the schlock that was C Me Dance.  However, the lagging SDHs--which seems to be a problem that plagues all of PureFlix's DVDs--will likely be a bit of an annoyance to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as ESL/ESOL students who use them to better understand films.

Moral Content: "PG-13 for violence" is about right, as there's little else offensive in this film; though there's plenty of guns, explosions, hits, kicks, and other violent acts, as objectionable as it gets otherwise is a mention of drinking vodka.  Still, the violence and the convoluted plot make this inappropriate for youngsters; not only would the shootings and such scare them, but they likely wouldn't really understand what's going on.  It might be okay for preteens, though; you'd probably want to screen it before showing it to them.

Conclusion: It's hard to give a film like this an unbiased review.  No, I didn't have anything to do with making Jerusalem Countdown; I've simply been clamoring to see it for at least a year, but had to wait until I was able to request it from my local library, since I am unable to use Redbox, and didn't want to pay fifteen or twenty bucks to purchase it.  I'll admit: After finally watching it tonight--on Super Bowl Sunday, too! Yeah, I despise sports!--it does feel slightly lackluster.  In a way, the ending gives it a television pilot feel; it leaves some threads hanging that, given the poor reception the movie received in theaters, are likely to stay unresolved.  Not only that, but, even though there was action, at least a third of this eighty-five-minute movie involved people sitting around talking.  Of course, any cinephile knows that the story has to be set up before the action can start, but, in the case of this film, it starts off with a bang, and then spends the next seventy minutes explaining what led up to it.  I don't care for such a story-telling device.  Don't get me wrong; Jerusalem Countdown is an enjoyable, if not perfect or amazing, piece of film.  To be frank, I think my expectations were just too high; after all the anticipation that built up after I first saw the trailer online, it could have been as good as October Baby, my favorite movie I saw last year, or Spider-Man 2, which is my favorite movie of all-time, and I still would have been let down.  So, to sum it up: I recommend this one to fans of Christian cinema...with reservations.

Score: 3.6/5 

Quickie Book Review: "Forest Mage" ("Soldier Son Trilogy," No. 2) by Robin Hobb

Synopsis: Plague has ravaged the prestigious King’s Cavalla of Gernia, decimating the ranks of both cadets and instructors. Yet Nevare Burvelle has made an astonishingly robust recovery, defeating his sworn nemesis while in the throes of the disease and freeing himself—he believes—from the Speck magic that infected him. And now he is journeying home to Widevale, anticipating a tender reunion with his beautiful fiancée, Carsina, and a bright future as a commissioned officer.
But there is no haven in the bosom of his kinfolk, for his nights are haunted by grim visions of treachery—and his days are tormented by a strange side-effect of the plague that shames his family and repulses the lady of his heart. And as the still-potent magic in his blood roars to life, Nevare realizes a terrible truth: that the enemy who seeks to destroy everything he loves dwells perhaps not without but within him.
(Taken from Robin Hobb's official site)

Review: The sequel to an amazing fantasy novel, this second book in the Soldier Son trilogy is ruined by some serious content issues.  Not only does the book open with a rather lurid description of a dream that is both sexual and gruesome, but the protagonist/narrator describes having sexual relations with prostitutes twice in the first eleven chapters alone; because of that, I gave up when I got to chapter twelve.  It's too bad that Ms. Hobb chose to add sexual promiscuity into her tales of fantasy, magic, and action, especially after the first novel was amazing.  It deserves a small amount of points for good writing, though; that's why I didn't give it the lowest possible score.  Three words: Avoid this one.

Score: 1.25/5