30 April 2013

Quickie Book Reviews for April 2013

House Party (That's So Raven, No. 17) by Alice Alfonsi: I usually find books based on television episodes to be inane, but this one was better than others I have read.  It's written in a fun style, and the characters' thoughts and feelings are explained more fully.  Fans of Disney Channel's sitcom psychic should definitely try this.

Score: 4/5
Love Finds You in Bethlehem, New Hampshire by Lauralee Bliss: The Love Finds You... series must be a success, or else the publishers wouldn't keep releasing one locale-themed romance after another. Though this one isn't the best of the series, it was still enjoyable, especially for fans of mail-order bride stories such as Sarah, Plain and Tall. If you're new to LFY, though, I would suggest reading the ones by Janice Hanna first, which are the best ones I've read so far.

Score: 3.25/5
Stephanie (Daughters of Courage, No. 3) by Donna Fletcher Crow: The finale of the Daughters of Courage trilogy, Stephanie is easily the best one.  The writing and story are much improved over the first two, and I found it much more involving and easier to follow.  It was definitely worth investing my time in the series to reach this conclusion.  I would say that the ending leaves room for a fourth novel, but, if you do the math, Mrs. Crow would have had to have Stephanie's daughter living in the future to keep the time frame consistent.

Score: 4/5
Fantastic Four: Come Out and Fight Like a (Molecule) Man!: Like an episode of an Saturday morning cartoon, Come Out and Fight Like a (Molecule) Man! is a quick, kid-friendly superhero tale with plenty of action and a smattering of humor, though it lacks the profanity and sexual content that plagued the two Fantastic Four live-action movies. Comic book fans, whether young or young at heart, will no doubt enjoy it, though its mere twenty-four pages make it not worth the purchase for anyone other than collectors.

Score: 3/5
The Hunting of the Last Dragon by Sherryl Jordan: Though the story of this book was decent, the style was awkward, and I really didn't care for the way that God's name was misused throughout. Fans of dragon lore should stick to the writings of Anne McCaffrey, Donita K. Paul, and/or Bryan Davis instead of reading this mess.

Score: 1.75/5
Nightshade (Discarded Heroes, No. 1) by Ronie Kendig: Both a piece of military fiction and a tale of a marriage gone south, Nightshade dishes up plenty of drama, action, and intensity.  I did find it to be a bit harder-edged than Christian fiction usually is; some of the violence bordered on extreme, and the usage of the term "bull" in a profane way was slightly bothersome.  Still, those who are looking for great Christian military fiction will find it here.

Score: 4/5
The Chance by Karen Kingsbury: It's been a while since I've read anything by the queen of Christian fiction, but this book made me realize that I need to get back to reading Karen Kingsbury.  An involving story, great characters, excellent writing...it's exactly what fans of hers--such as myself--have come to expect.
I must note this: The themes--womanizing, extramarital pregnancy, etc.--are not for children, even though they are vilified like the sins they are.

Score: 4.5/5
The Zucchini Warriors (Bruno and Boots, No. 5) by Gordon Korman: Gordon Korman was my favorite author as a kid, even more so than Roald Dahl and Judy Blume, though I did enjoy their works, too.  Though I never have been a sports fan, I read The Zucchini Warriors in fifth grade, and liked it.  However, reading it now made it feel slightly lackluster.  It does combine elements of a Disney Channel Original Movie and a Nickelodeon sitcom, and deserves praise for that...but it still feels a little generic.  Nonetheless, fans of kiddie literature, no matter their age, could do much worse.

Score: 3/5
Freeze-Frame (Spy Kids Adventures, No. 8) by Elizabeth Lenhard: If Hollywood had decided to make a Saturday morning show or Disney Channel serial based on the Spy Kids movies, the episodes would likely be in the style of Freeze-Frame. Exciting and full of action, it is also forgettable and mindless. Young fans of the movie will surely enjoy this, but even older Spy Kids lovers who watch shows such as Kickin' It, VICTORiOUS, or Austin and Ally will likely find it to be fun reading.

Score: 3/5
Good-Bye, Dressel Hills (Holly's Heart, No. 7) by Beverly Lewis: When Holly's uncle/stepfather announces that their family will have to move to Denver because of his job, she is devastated. All her friends are in Dressel Hills! Will she have to leave Andie, Paula, Jared, and all her other lifelong friends? Though Holly-Heart's grief is understandable--sometimes even adults don't like being forced to move!--I felt that the ending was a bit too neat and realistic.  Still, this is better than the last book in the series; hopefully, it'll get back to what it once was before it ends.

Score: 3.5/5
Straight-A Teacher (Holly's Heart, No. 8) by Beverly Lewis: When Holly-Heart falls in love with a new student teacher at her school, he seems to have fallen for her, too.  Will love blossom between the two of them? Like an episode of Lizzie McGuire, Holly's eighth literary outing deals with teenage crushes in a humorous and moral fashion.  This is the best one in the series in a while.

Score: 4/5
The Thorn (The Rose Trilogy, No. 1) by Beverly Lewis: Yet another Amish book by Beverly Lewis, this one depicts a culture clash in 1985.  After a Amish girl marries an outsider, her parents are shocked to discover what her daughter--that is, their granddaughter--is exposed to.  The Amish girl wants to come back to her native soil...but will she be accepted again? If you've read any of Beverly Lewis' Amish books, you know what to expect, and that's what you'll get from this book.

Score: 4/5
The Judgment (The Rose Trilogy, No. 2) by Beverly Lewis: The story in this one is a little bit better than usual, but everything else is just more of the same, though that isn't a bad thing.  I'm curious to see how Ms. Lewis will wrap the series up in the series' finale.  As I said in the above review: "If you've read any of Beverly Lewis' Amish books, you know what to expect, and that's what you'll get from this book."

Score: 4.25/5
The Mercy (The Rose Trilogy, No. 3) by Beverly Lewis: A fitting conclusion to The Rose series, this one has yet another engrossing story of two different worlds colliding.  Discussing the events of the book would give away the plot, so I won't do that; I will say that this book proves why Beverly Lewis is considered the queen of Amish fiction.  Anyone who has read other Amish books should definitely check out this trilogy, though I would suggest starting with the beginning.

Score: 4.25/5
Comes a Horseman by Robert Liparulo: Though this book has an intense, gripping story, and tight writing, the violence is a bit over the top.  It definitely isn't for kids, and even some teens and young adults might be shocked at the amount of blood and gore; I know I was.  If you're not too squeamish, though, this might prove to be a good read.

Score: 3/5
Powers that Be (Petaybee, No. 1) by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough: Anne McCaffrey may be one of the best-known names in science fiction literature, but this book was merely mediocre. The plot was okay, but it wasn't as engrossing as it could have been, and the writing felt lackluster. If you're new to this author, I would suggest reading The Dragonriders of Pern first, though veteran McCaffrey fans might enjoy this to a degree.

Score: 2.75/5
Heroes Proved by Oliver North: History isn't and never has been my strong suit, so the controversy surrounding war veteran/Fox News correspondent Oliver North is all Greek to me. What I do know is that he and Joe Musser have cranked out some rollicking good military espionage novels in the past. Though Heroes Proved isn't terrible, it is easily the worst of the four. A low amount of action, some usage of profanity, awkward writing--seriously; refraining from mentioning Madame President's name like she is Lord Voldemort?--and a plot that is merely mediocre makes this pale in comparsion to the earlier Oliver North works. Those who have enjoyed Mr. North's writings up to this point should think twice before purchasing Heroes Proved.

Score: 2.75/5
DragonQuest by Donita K. Paul: The second in Ms. Paul's Dragon allegory series, this has everything that made the first one in the series great.  Anyone who enjoyed DragonSpell should definitely read this one.  The story, the writing, the fantastical world...what's not to like?

Score: 4/5
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch: Mr. Randy Pausch's Last Lecture gained quite a bit of media attention, but, in my opinion, this book didn't seem to live up to the hype. Though the authors' intentions are good, the first part reads like a biopic DVD set on shuffle and fast forward. The last half has some great suggestions for life, but it still bounces from topic to topic too quickly. I'm sure millions of people will continue to read this, no matter what me and other reviewers might say, but I have a feeling right many of them will end up disappointed.

Score: 2.25/5
Jedi Trial (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) by David Sherman and Dan Cragg: Many Star Wars Expanded Universe novels are loved by legions of fans, such as Timothy Zahn's Thrawn books.  Others are almost unanimously despised, such as The Crystal Star by Vonda M. McIntyre.  Jedi Trial is right in the middle; not amazing, but not terrible either.  I wouldn't suggest it for anyone who is new to Star Wars books, but those who are veteran SW readers might mildly enjoy it.

Score: 3/5
The Gospels Come to Life, narrated by Michael W. Smith: Since audiobooks and printed books are usually lumped together as one, I figured this was the best place to post this review.  I hate to sound harsh, but this is easily the worst audio Bible I have ever heard.  Michael W. Smith's narration is passable--though nothing special--but the music overpowers it so much that it makes the words hard to hear, which defeats the purpose of having a Bible for listening.  If you're looking for God's Word on CD, I would suggest The Bible Experience, Zondervan's Audio NIV, or anything put out by The Word of Promise.  All it took me was three chapters, and I deleted the entire thing from my hard drive.

Score: 1.5/5
Waking Hours (East Salem, No. 1) by Lis Wiehl with Pete Nelson: A well-written, involving novel that is betrayed by its cover image.  Longtime readers of Christian fiction would likely expect this to be in the vein of Frank Peretti's Darkness books, but Ms. Wiehl's book, though all about murder and criminal activity, never describes any demons or angels fighting.  It's still a good read anyway, but these two are no Frank Peretti.

Score: 3.5/5
Darkness Rising (East Salem, No. 2) by Lis Wiehl and Pete Nelson: I'm glad I stuck with the series; this is what I expect from a novel of spiritual warfare.  A chilling tale of angels versus demons with humans caught in the crossfire.  Excellently written, enthralling, gripping...what's not to like? The cliffhanger, Empire Strikes Back-style ending, though, will leave you panting for the next one.

Score: 4.5/5
Specter of the Past (Star Wars: Hand of Thrawn, No. 1) by Timothy Zahn: Timothy Zahn may have been the one that kicked Star Wars literature into high gear with the original Thrawn trilogy, but his writing style has always left something to be desired, in my opinion.  The story itself is as involving as the movies, and has a great cliffhanger ending; still, some folks may not find it worth trudging through Mr. Zahn's awkward prose to do it.

Score: 3.75/5

Quickie Movie Reviews for April 2013

Rated: Not Rated (Dove approved for all ages)
Starring: Ruby Marie Lewis and Jefferson Moore
Released: September 15, 2007 (DVD)
Another Perfect Stranger: The sequel to 2005's The Perfect Stranger--not to be confused with the Halle Berry film--features Nikki Cominsky's daughter all grown up and at her own spiritual crossroads.  While on a plane ride to a art college's campus, she starts up a conversation with a guy who seems to share her disdain for religion...but is he who he seems to be? Anyone who liked the first film will likely enjoy this one, and it serves as a conversation starter as well.
Parents might be concerned with the fact that a date rape is discussed.

Score: 3.5/5
Rated: Not Rated (Dove approved for all ages)
Starring: Natalie Grant, Michael Rosenbaum, and Rusty Whitener
Released: October 16, 2011 (Gospel Music Channel premiere) / March 6. 2012 (DVD) 
Decision: When Jackson's father dies in a terrible accident, his life begins to unravel.  His classmates are bullying him; his very pregnant mother, Ilene, is struggling to make ends meet; and, to make matters worse, his principal comes to his house and announces that he will be held back a grade.  To help him out, Ilene sends him to live with her father for a while, to get himself back on track.  While Jackson is with his Grandpa, they both learn some very important lessons.  Though the movie is well-made, some plot threads are not resolved by the time the credits roll, and Jackson's turn-around seems too quick and unrealistic.  Still, it would make a good diversion for a night, if you can find it at your local library.
The only concerns I can think of are a small amount of mild violence and a little emotional intensity, as well as a discussion of a girl getting pregnant at the age of seventeen, which might confuse some kids.

Score: 3/5

Rated: PG (for reasons unspecified by the MPAA)
Starring: Dan Aykroyd and John Candy
Released: June 17, 1988
The Great Outdoors: I saw this movie on some family-oriented network--either Pat Robertson's Family Channel or the Disney Channel--as a kid, and thought it was great.  When I saw it on DVD at a local yard sale, I picked it up...only to be offended almost as soon as I started watching it tonight.  In the first five minutes, there were at least three or four profanities, and a scene that alluded to sex that implied a woman was topless while people other than her husband were present.  This is one of those old-school "PG" films that is definitely in need of a "PG-13" instead.

Score: 1/5

Rated: TV-G (Dove approved for all ages)
Starring: Candace Cameron Bure, Jeannie Neilson, Erin Bethea
Released: December 4, 2011 (Gospel Music Channel) / October 16, 2012 (DVD) 
The Heart of Christmas: I bought this at an after-Christmas sale at my local Christian bookstore; I thought it looked interesting.  What I didn't know was how emotional, gripping, and heart-wrenching it would be.  More than just a mindless Yuletide flick like Fred Claus or Jingle All the Way, The Heart of Christmas shows one family's struggle against unthinkable odds, and the effects it has on the entire planet.  That may sound vague, but I really don't want to give away any of the movie; it's as involving as it is heartbreaking.  I don't even feel that my normal categorical assessment would be right in this case, which is why I'm doing a "quickie" review.
Though the Dove Foundation may have approved this for all ages, I would caution parents that it is emotionally intense, which could be a bit much for some kids.  That's to be expected, though, given the subject matter of the movie.

Score: 4/5
Rated: Not Rated (Dove approved for ages twelve and up)
Starring: Aaron U. Brown, Jaycee Lynn, and Samuel Potter
Released: May 27, 2008 (DVD) 
Overcome: This movie was of particular interest to me, as I like most Christian films, and the Apostle Paul is one of my favorite people from the Bible.  Though the details are a little bit different--in what verse do you read about Paul becoming best friends with a tennis star?--the movie was still an enjoyable Christian drama that makes some very good points, and made me realize something I didn't before: Saying "sorry" doesn't mean anything unless you take some sort of action to make amends.  Some people may quibble with how quick the lead guy and girl go from non-friends to best friends, though.
Content concerns include a car crash--non-graphic--some depictions of bullying, drinking, and other sinful behavior--though all of it is vilified--and usage of terms such as "jerk" and "shut up".

Score: 4/5
Rated: TV-G (Dove approved for all ages)
Starring: Paige Turco, Shawn Christian, and Barry Bostwick
Released: April 17, 2010 (DVD)

Secrets of the Mountain: Another film made as part of the "Family Movie Night" venture by Wal-Mart, this one features an action/adventure story reminiscent of Indiana Jones.  The good news is that the content in Secrets of the Mountain is milder than any of Indy's celluloid adventures; the bad news is that the first half of Wallyworld's film is a bit pokey, and the ending is too pat and abrupt.  Those two extremes put this movie into mediocre territory.  Renting it would be a good idea, as it's not something that one would likely watch again and again.
As for content concerns, there is a bit of violence; two characters get into a literal firefight--that is, with real flames--and one character punches another in the face.  Along with the expected peril, there is a scene of bullying, and a creepy sequence that featured decaying skeletons; one has its skull crushed by a foot.  Nothing goes beyond "PG" territory, though.

Score: 2.5/5
Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Christopher Daniel Barnes, Sara Ballantine, and Roscoe Lee Browne
Released: April 30, 2002 (DVD) 
Spider-Man: The Ultimate Villain Showdown: It seems that Marvel is in need of better titles for their television-episodes-turned-movies.  The first one I watched, Daredevil Vs. Spider-Man, actually had the two of them as allies, and the former superhero was actually absent for the last third of the film.  This one features plenty of action and heroism, but still doesn't live up to its title.  The first part, where Doc Ock causes Spider-Man to have amnesia, is great; so is the second part, where the human arachnid battles the Green Goblin.  Not only are they exciting and well-made, but the origin stories are different that what you see in the theatrically released films.  Unfortunately, the last part, which has Peter Parker battling against these weird criminals with advanced technology, completely falls flat.  The back cover of the DVD edition I had implies that Spidey battles Kingpin, but that wasn't so; though Kingpin is mentioned and seen, he and the wall-crawler never come to blows.
Content concerns: Along with the expected violence--the TV-Y7-FV variety, of course--there is a female character featured in the first part who wears a midriff-baring outfit in every scene.  Some kissing is also present.  The biggest concern, though, is the character of Madame Web, who is a fortune-teller that uses some tarot-like cards.  Quite a few parents would likely quibble with that.

Score: 3/5
Rated: Not Rated (Dove approved for all ages)
Starring: Lexi Johnson, Levi Bonilla, and Kody Brown
Released: February 2, 2005 
The Sugar Creek Gang: Episode One: Swamp Robber: Based on a popular kids' book series, this premiere episode has the feel of a TV pilot...with none of the satisfaction of a full-length movie or series.  By the end of the movie's seventy minutes, many plot threads are left wide open, and even the resolution is tedious and doesn't make as much sense as I would have liked.  I doubt I'll be watching any more from this series; mystery fans should stick to The Boxcar Children, Agatha Christie, or Scooby-Doo to get their whodunit fix.

Score: 2/5

27 April 2013

Movie Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two"

Rated: PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson
Released: July 15, 2011 (theatrical) / November 11, 2011 (DVD/Blu-Ray)
Synopsis: In the epic finale, the battle between the good and evil forces of the wizarding world escalates to an all-out war.  The stakes have never been higher, and no one is safe...but it is Harry who may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice as he draws closer to the climactic showdown with Lord Voldemort.  It all ends here.
(Adapted from the back cover of the single-disc DVD)

Plot: 4.5/5
I have to be honest; Deathly Hallows was by far my least favorite of the Harry Potter books.  When I read it, it seemed like Ms. Rowling simply rushed through it so she could say, "Here; it's done! Now leave me alone!"  That was mostly due to the writing style, and the makers of this movie deserve kudos for finding an actual compelling story in that mess.  As emotionally gripping and intense as it is, some mildly inane parts--heaven looking like a train station?--keep it from being perfect in this department.

Production Values: 5/5
Just like the original Star Wars trilogy, the Harry Potter films are meant to be involving while being a feast for the eyes, and this one was just that and then some.  The special effects and action sequences were spot-on; the actors all did amazingly; and, frankly, I can't think of a single complaint in this department!

Moral Content: 3.5/5
Everybody knows about the usage of magic in this series, so, I'm not even going to bother discussing that.  However, I will say that this movie is quite intense and a bit scary.  Beloved characters die.  A man is attacked by a snake.  A school building is torn to pieces.  People regularly get their faces and arms bloodied.  Voldemort's mere presence is frightening.  That's really about all I can say without spoiling the movie.  In other areas, there were a few "PG"-level profanities, and a little bit of kissing among the kids.  On the positive side, there are themes of heroism, loving your enemies, giving up power for the greater good, and one man's sacrifice to save many people.  I would suggest taking the "PG-13" seriously in this case, especially if you plan to watch it on a big screen.

Conclusion: I was a bit late to the "Boy who Lived" party, but I had read all of the books before Deathly Hallows was published, and I still found it disappointing.  This movie version of the last half of that novel, though, was quite exhilarating.  Anyone who has followed the saga up to this point, even if you've just watched the movies, should definitely check this one out, no matter how you felt about the book.

Score: 4.25/5

26 April 2013

Album Review: "Where I Wanna Be" by V*Enna

Synopsis: Before feeling the call to serve God in other ways, Lucy Britten and Sharnessa Shelton were V*Enna, a Christian pop duo.  Their sole album, Where I Wanna Be, has a teen-pop vibe with nothing but positive lyrics.  Songs about wanting to be in God's presence (the title track,) having a close friendship ("Best Friends,") or wondering why a former significant other was let go ("Why Did I Let You Go?") are just a few of the great songs on this CD.

Production Values: 5/5
Every single song on the CD is worth a listen; no joke.  Whereas some "classic" albums have a bad track or two, there is not one on Where I Wanna Be.  The pop stylings, the vocals, the harmonies...it is all amazing.

Moral Content: 5/5
There is also nothing potentially objectionable on this CD, either.  Of course, that's to be expected, right?

Conclusion: I first heard the title track to this album on a WOW CD, and liked it so much that I had to seek out the rest of the album.  When I got it through a special request at my local library, it was so awesome that I had to buy it; eBay turned out to be the only option, as iTunes and Amazon MP3 didn't have it.  Where I Wanna Be may prove to be hard to find, but it is definitely worth it.  I would say that it is a shame that Ms. Britten and Ms. Shelton never made any more music, but, if God called them to other ministries, who's to say they're wrong for heeding His call?

Score: 5/5

Album Review: "Stereotype Be" by Kevin Max

Synopsis: Kevin Max, one-third of mega-popular Christian band dc Talk, branches out on his own with this solo debut.  Whether he is singing about being yourself ("Be,") crooning a love song to his wife ("On and On,") or proclaiming God's totality ("You,") this is decidedly different from Jesus Freak or Nu Thang.

Production Values: 4.5/5
This has been one of my favorite albums since 2001, and many of the songs on it are great.  "Dead End Moon," "Return of the Singer," "I Don't Belong," and hidden track "You" are amazing tracks.  Where it falters a bit are the poetry readings, especially "I Went Over the Edge of the World," which is slightly annoying.  Still, for the most part, the music is wonderful.

Moral Content: 4.5/5
This may be a Christian album, but some people might find quibbles with a lyric or two.  Mr. Max addresses a woman--not his wife--as "baby" in "Existence" and "Angel With No Wings".  "Shaping Space" has a lyric that says, "And the woman at the endless well? She's drawing water from the mouth of hell."  "You" uses the analogy, "You are the drugs that kill the pain."  I can't think of anything else anyone could have a problem with, and even those are minor issues, in my opinion.

Conclusion: Whereas some bands/artists--ApologetiX, Relient K, and Hilary Duff come to mind--have had songs come and go from my playlists, dc Talk and the solo acts have stayed in my music library since Day One, and I don't think they will ever leave.  This album's tracks continue to get spins on my iPod, just because of how good they are.  Is it different from dc Talk's works as a group? You betcha; however, that doesn't make it bad.  Stereotype Be is definitely worth a listen.

Score: 5/5 

Album Review: "VICTORiOUS 3.0: Even More Music From the Hit TV Show"

Synopsis: It's the end for Tori Vega and friends! Before signing off, Tori, Jade, Cat, and AndrĂ© have some songs to share with you.  Whether they're lauding guys who live in Los Angeles ("L.A. Boys,") expressing honest love ("365 Days,") turning down someone's advances ("Faster Than Boys,") or just being rebellious ("You Don't Know Me,") this EP is the last hurrah (music-wise, anyway) for the kids at Hollywood Arts!

Production Values: 4.25/5

I'll do this track by track:
  1. "Here's 2 Us": A rocking, yet sweet, song. 4.5/5
  2. "L.A. Boys": Great, but not excellent. 4/5
  3. "Bad Boys": A bit mediocre. 3.5/5
  4. "You Don't Know Me": The best song on the album. 5/5
  5. "Faster Than Boyz": Probably the second best track. 4.75/5
  6. "Cheer Me Up" (Wal-Mart Exclusive): More of a ballad-esque feel, but still pretty good. 4.25/5
  7. "365 Days" (Wal-Mart Exclusive): Just as middle-of-the-road as "Bad Boys". 3.5/5
Moral Content: 4.75/5

Again, track by track:
  1. "Here's 2 Us": Completely innocent. 5/5
  2. "L.A. Boys": Same as above. 5/5
  3. "Bad Boys": A line about "touching" may raise a few eyebrows; other than that, good.  4/5
  4. "You Don't Know Me": A bit rebellious, but still innocent. 4.5/5
  5. "Faster Than Boyz": Rejects a guy without getting nasty. 5/5
  6. "Cheer Me Up" (Wal-Mart Exclusive): Completely innocent as well. 5/5
  7. "365 Days" (Wal-Mart Exclusive): Same as above. 5/5
 Conclusion: This farewell album for the VICTORiOUS is better than its predecessor in some ways, but not it others.  Fans of the show should pick it up, but I would suggest getting the Wal-Mart "Zine" edition, which comes with two extra tracks and a bonus mini-magazine.  I don't know if Wallyworld still has any in stock, but eBay probably has some available.

Score: 4.5/5

Book Review: "Peculiar Treasures" ("Katie Weldon", No. 1) by Robin Jones Gunn

Synopsis: Katie Weldon caught the bouquet at her best friend Christy Miller's wedding, which, as tradition would have it, means that she will be the next to get married.  Unfortunately, Katie is sans boyfriend right now; though she has some feelings with her "almost boyfriend" Rick, both of them are unsure whether or not to take their relationship to the next level.  Katie also has a new job: a dorm counselor at a Christian college.  Add in stresses over her mother, who couldn't care less about her, and Katie has got a lot on her plate...but things are about to get even dicier!

Plot: 3.5/5
The core story is relatively interesting, but it suffers a bit from too much bickering between characters, especially Katie and Rick.  If they keep doing each other wrong, why would they be interested in a serious relationship? It'll be interesting to see where Mrs. Gunn takes Katie and Rick; for right now, they're arguing like Tim and Jill Taylor, but without the laughs.

Writing: 4.25/5
Robin Jones Gunn continues to do what she did well in her previous "young adult" series.  There was a rough spot or two, but the prose flows well, and the writing makes the story easy to follow.

Moral Content: 4/5
Morally correct talk of sex is present, as is a scene where Katie is asked if she is pregnant; she truthfully says she isn't.  No profanity, violence, drug use, nudity, or anything of that sort.

Conclusion: I've read the entire Sierra Jensen and Christy Miller series--twelve books each!--in the past year or so; since I enjoyed them, of course, I would want to read this sequel of sorts.  Though this premiere episode wasn't all it could have been, it still interests me enough to make me want to read the next one; now, if only I could find it!

Score: 3.75/5

23 April 2013

TV DVD Review: "Sonny With a Chance": Volume One: Sonny's Big Break

Rated: TV-G (US); G (Canadian Home Video Rating)
Starring: Demi Lovato, Tiffany Thornton, and Brandon Mychal Smith
Released: August 25. 2009 (DVD)
Synopsis: Sonny Munroe (Demi Lovato) is about to have her dreams come true! Her favorite show, the sketch comedy So Random!, had a contest, and she won, which means that she will be the newest cast member! Unfortunately, it's not what it seems to be on TV.  Sonny's roommate, Tawni Hart, is a diva, and the two guys, Nico and Grady, are nothing but goofballs; the rivalry with the cast of Mackenzie Falls, which is a drama filmed in the same studio, makes matters even crazier! Whether Sonny is playing musical chairs to win back a parking space, mediating between a feuding Grady and Nico, or doing a "Check It Out" skit with Tawni, hilarity and insanity are sure to ensue!

Plots: 4/5
While the storylines aren't anything special, they allow for plenty of hilarity.  Longtime watchers of the Mouse network know what to expect from their situation comedies, and they definitely get that here.  There's not much else to say in that department.

Production Values: 4.5/5
Nobody, and I mean nobody, makes a sitcom like the Disney Channel.  The talent, humor, and all-around fun and quality that have been present since the days of Lizzie McGuire are more than present here.  The only complaint I have is that the closed captioner got the title of the theme song incorrect in one episode; most viewers probably won't even notice that, but I still found it annoying.

Moral Content: 4.5/5
Many people think of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon productions as being the same, but they're not; not only are the companies that own those networks completely separate, but the Mouse network's shows and movies usually have somewhat cleaner content than Nick's do, and that's true here as well.  The worst the language gets is "butt" or silly names such as "Ivana Tinkle" or "Smelma Pitts."  Violence is purely slapstick.  No sexual content, and the young ladies wear nothing more immodest than sleeveless tops.  Better yet, the episodes make good moral points: Don't fight with your best friend over something stupid.  Don't cheat on a test, no matter how bad you need to pass it.  Don't give up on your friends.  How can you get any better than that?

Conclusion: The above may all sound positive, but I'll tell you why you should not purchase this: It's the only American Sonny With a Chance DVD ever released, and all of the episodes of the show, including the ones on this disc, are available on iTunes for $1.99 each (standard definition).  I have no clue why Disney Channel has always been hesitant to release season sets of their shows; most of their sitcoms have only gotten themed single-disc releases, if even that.  The only exception to that rule that I know of is Lizzie McGuire, and that was a four disc "Volume One" box set, but there was never a "Volume Two".  There is a benefit to this disc, though; if you can borrow it from your local library, or rent/buy it for really cheap, it will give you an idea of what the show is like before charging ninety-plus dollars to your iTunes account for the entire series.  I found this DVD at my local Five Below for a mere five bones; if you search, you might find it cheaper, too.
As with some other series--VICTORiOUS, anyone?--this one ended prematurely; due to Ms. Lovato having to bow out due to health concerns, the show abruptly shifted to just being So Random! We'll never know what the series could have been if it had gone on to its intended end, but that doesn't make the episodes that were filmed any less entertaining.  If you are completely unable to access the iTunes Store, then this is probably the best you can do.

Score: 3.5/5

22 April 2013

DVD Season Set Review: "VICTORiOUS": Season One, Volume Two

Rated: TV-G (US television rating); PG (Canadian Home Video Rating)
Starring: Victoria Justice, Leon Thomas III, and Avan Jogia
Released: November 1, 2011 (DVD)
Synopsis: Tori Vega may be settled in at Hollywood Arts, but crazy times are still to come! Between an overbearing sponsor of a stage play, a singing competition with two karaoke "queens" who sound like Yoko Ono, roasting in a trapped RV, and plenty more, Tori and her friends/acquaintances Beck, André, Jade, Robbie, Cat, and Sinjin, as well as her insane older sister Trina, have quite a few misadventures with plenty of hilarity and a bit of singing!

Plots: 3.5/5
Most of the plots are truly funny and involving, such as the one with the karaoke "queens" ("Freak the Freak Out") or the one with the "reality" TV show ("The Wood").  However, the set loses serious points with "The Great Ping-Pong Scam," which has a dumb setup that seems to only exist to lead up to a performance.  (If you've ever seen the VeggieTales video/DVD The Wonderful World of Auto-Tainment!, you know what I'm talking about.) The iCarly crossover special isn't as bad as that unfortunate episode, but it's not as "epic" as one would expect.

Production Values: 4/5
If you've seen Victorious, whether the first part of the inaugural season or any of the later seasons, you know to expect great musical performances...and that's what you get.  Unfortunately, some of the humor is stupid rather than funny, and it loses points for that, too.

Moral Content: 3.25/5
The first VICTORiOUS DVD set got a Canadian Home Video Rating of "G"; this second set got a "PG".  That may not sound like much difference, but keep in mind that the Canadian raters are usually more liberal than the MPAA.  Though this DVD set never reaches a high level of obscenity, here are the content issues worth noting: Language includes misuses of God's name and euphemisms such as "waz" and "chizz".  The immodest outfits that plagued Season One, Volume One have an increased presence in this set, ranging from off-the-shoulder tops to fishnet stockings to tiny shorts to bikinis to even shirtless guys.  Controversial celebrity Perez Hilton makes an appearance in "Wi-Fi in the Sky."  The song "Give It Up" isn't all that squeaky clean, and some might be bothered by the title of the song/episode "Freak the Freak Out".  There are references to young ladies being "hot," and other mildly suggestive quips.  If any of that would bother you, I would suggest seeking out episodes of Austin & Ally and avoiding this set; still, this show as a whole is a far cry from Friends, Will & Grace, or pretty much any other sitcom that has aired on the major networks during prime-time in the past decade or so.

Conclusion: VICTORiOUS fans likely already own this set or have gotten the episodes from iTunes, so the only people who would be reading this are those who are curious about the series as a whole, or parents who wonder what their kids are watching.  Due to the content issues, I can't recommend this for the very young, but older kids and teens--who are really the target audience anyway--will likely enjoy it, and the adults will probably find themselves laughing, too.  Still, I do have to say that the episodes don't exactly warrant repeat viewings; if you can, borrow this DVD--does your local library have it?--before plunking down cash on it, unless you see it super-cheap at a yard sale or thrift store.

Score: 3.5/5

03 April 2013

Movie Review: "Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow"

Rated: PG for sci-fi action violence and some mild language
Starring: Noah Crawford, Aidan Drummond, and Brenna O'Brien
Released: September 2, 2008 (DVD)
Synopsis: The Avengers--Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye--were the world's greatest heroes...but, when Ultron invaded our planet, all of them either died or disappeared.  Before the end of the Avengers, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, rescued their kids, who happen to also have superpowers or other special abilities.  He trained them to defeat Ultron, but Ultron's is so evil that he manipulated robot versions of the late Avengers to do his own vile bidding.  If those kids will ever defeat that intergalactic robot, they're going to need some help, including from a very green source...

Warning! Spoilers below!

Story: 1.5/5
It's cool to see the Avengers' kids carrying on their legacy...but the greatness of the plot stops there.  Why would anyone create robots as a defense when the enemy is a known manipulator of all things digital? The kids in the film spend much of the time acting bratty, and the final battle comes down to Ultron against a geriatric Hulk.  Seriously, what were the makers thinking?

Production Values: 2.5/5
The voice work in this film is good, but not really anything special.  As for the animation...well, it's quite a mixed bag.  Though some sequences are quite well-done, others of them look terrible.  Even a few of the visuals are both freaky and weird, which hurt this film even more.

Moral Content: 4/5
Though the movie may not be well-made, at least the content was relatively clean.  There is violence, as one would expect, but it is completely bloodless, which is largely thanks to having robots for villains.  Some of the 'bots are sliced in half, though.  I know the MPAA mentioned "some mild language," but I didn't hear/see any profanities, even with the closed captioning.

Conclusion: I hate to say it, but Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow has to be the worst animated superhero film I've seen since All-Star Superman.  Whereas the latter wasn't very well-made, the former suffers from annoying characters and a dumb story.  If you're looking for a superhero fix in between comic book movies, I would suggest trying out Superman: The Animated Series, the 2003 remake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or especially the Avengers cartoon on Disney XD.  Even a free comic book--a Best Buy exclusive--still didn't keep me from feeling like I wasted my money.

Score: 2/5

01 April 2013

Quickie Movie Reviews for March 2013

Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Sean Astin, Elijah Alexander, and Kenton Duty
Released: November 6, 2012 (DVD) 
Amazing Love: The Story of Hosea: Sort of a Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie for an older audience, this movie tells two stories: one about some Christian teens who are in need of God's help but don't realize it, and the Biblical story of Hosea.  The film takes liberties with the Old Testament account, and Sean Astin's character even admits that as he shares it with the teens, but the core story is still intact.  Though Amazing Love has a great message, the ending may be a bit too pat and Hollywood-ish for some viewers.
As far as content concerns go, this movie is not for young children; not only is Hosea's wife a prostitute, like the Bible says, but many of the themes and implications would simply confuse little kids.  The MPAA would have likely given it "PG for thematic elements".

Score: 3.75/5
Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Dan Kruse, Emilie Jo Tisdale, and Terry Jernigan
Release Date: 2000
Escape from Hell: This movie strongly reminded me of the Bill Myers novel Threshold, which also features an experiment that causes a young man to literally experience hell.  On the one hand, the acting was great, the plot engrossing, and the movie makes clear that eternal punishment is no joke.  However, the ethics of the film's characters are questionable, and the special effects make this look like something made around the time of the original Star Wars trilogy.
What content concerns are there? As you'd expect, the scenes of hell are freaky, and one man has a rather freaky nightmare about it which literally makes him ill.  Also, the lead actress spends most of her time in an off the shoulder top, and the male protagonist has his shirt unbuttoned for much of the film.  I would not recommend this movie for kids at all.

Score: 3.5/5
Rated: TV-G
Starring: Kellie Martin, Brady Smith, and LeVar Burton
Released: July 16, 2010 (NBC premiere) / October 18, 2010 (DVD)
The Jensen Project: Made as part of a joint venture between Wal-Mart and Proctor & Gamble, The Jensen Project features an ensemble cast, a great plot, clean content, and some sub-par special effects.  Though nowhere near as bad as what you're likely to see on Mystery Science Theater 3000, the production values could have been a bit better.  As for content, though there is no profanity or sex, some of what the MPAA would call "action violence" is present.  Also, a scene where a man's heart rate is increased to unsafe levels might scare some kids, and seeing a doctor remove a gummy worm from a boy's nose could be unsettling to a few viewers.  Still, Wallyworld and P&G wanted to make a "family movie," and they pretty much did.

Score: 3.75/5
Rated: G
Starring: Debi Derryberry, Patrick Stewart, and Martin Short
Released: December 21, 2001 (theatrical) / July 2, 2002 (DVD) 
Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius: I don't usually do Nickelodeon animation, but I like most of the Pixar and Blue Sky films, and iCarly and VICTORiOUS enthralled me in a way that no shows had done since Disney Channel's Lizzie McGuire and That's So Raven, so, when I saw this on the cheap at my local thrift store, I bought it.  What did I think? Well, the animation was great, and there were some hilarious moments.  Unfortunately, some of it was just plain silly, and the writers relied too much on bathroom humor, though the target audience for this movie will likely laugh at loud at such jokes.  Unless you're a fan of other Nickelodeon cartoons such as SpongeBob Squarepants, CatDog, or Rocket Power--and, no, I am not--then you likely should find something else to watch.  It's definitely not as bad as other flicks I've had the displeasure of sitting through. (C Me Dance? The Black Hole? Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit? Yeah, they make mediocre fare like Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius look like Spider-Man 2 or Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars, two of my favorites.)
Parents might be concerned about some of the scary content and intensity, both of which seem a bit much for a "G" film.

Score: 2.8/5
Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Chris Krstevski, Eric "Kuno" Maliepaard, Troy Payne, and Gretchen the car
Released: July 6, 2010 (DVD)
The Road Trip U.S.A.: An hour long documentary that chronicles the cross country voyage of by three Christian guys.  Along the way, they share Jesus with everyone they meet, visit numerous tourists attractions, act crazy...and one of them even finds love.  I'm not much for documentaries, just because they tell true stories; I prefer movies and books that are fictional, if only because they serve as an escape from the real world.  Still, this video journal of a modern-day Paul and Silas is funny, touching, and all around enjoyable viewing...though only once.
When it comes to content, most of it is mildly objectionable.  Shirtless guys and brief glimpses of women in swimsuits, along with three bleeped profanities, won't likely bother most viewers.  However, seeing some kids on the street smoke and talk about drinking was a bit unsettling, though the guys use it as an opportunity to share Jesus with them.  Also, since the Christian guys are still college-age, they engage in some dangerous immature acts such as taunting crocodiles that weren't really necessary to even show.

Score: 3.25/5
Rated: Not Rated
Starring: Elisha Cuthbert, Timothy Busfield, and Gabrielle Boni
Released: January 17, 1999 (Showtime premiere) / November 23, 1999 (VHS)
Time at the Top: A Showtime original movie that later became a Blockbuster exclusive rental, Time at the Top is an above-average family movie about a teenage girl who accidentally discovers a way to travel through time.  Some of you may be thinking, Showtime...making something family-friendly? They did, though; it's pretty much as cute and innocent as Cadet Kelly or High School Musical.  Though Susan Shawson, the protagonist, was mostly a nice girl, I did have a problem with her character: After she accidentally let the family from 1881's cat out in modern times, she lied to the young boy when he saw his kitty.  Instead of admitting her mistake, she simply covered it up.  Other than that, I can think of no complaints, though I doubt anyone will likely watch this again and again.
Were there content concerns? Yes...but very little.  About two or three profanities and one scene where a little girl's shirt rises up, showing her midriff.  The most serious moral problem was actually before the movie; a preview for a "PG-13" romantic comedy appeared on the VHS edition I watched, and the content showed why it got that rating.  Discerning viewers should fast forward through the trailers.

Score: 3.5/5
Rated: TV-G
Starring: Selena Gomez, Jennifer Stone, and Jake T. Austin
Released: March 15, 2013 (Disney Channel Premiere)
The Wizards Return: Alex Vs. Alex: After Alex becomes the family wizard, she uses a spell to cast out all her bad traits...only to create an evil Alex that attempts to take over the world and destroy all the mortals with the help of evil wizard Dominic.  Though I haven't seen that many episodes of Wizards of Waverly Place--I know; what kind of Disney Channel fan am I?--I still enjoyed this one and understood it well enough to follow it.  The content is as clean as one would expect anything from the Mouse network to be: no profanity, violence that is mild at worst, barely anything even resembling sexual content, and no drug or alcohol use, though there is a scene that involves stomping on grapes.  Selena Gomez shines in her dual role of good Alex and evil Alex; to me, that alone made it worth watching.  The fact that Jennifer Stone gets a lot of screen time is just icing on the cake.

Score: 4.25/5

Quickie Book Reviews for March 2013

The Adventures of King Midas by Lynne Reid Banks: Based on the ancient legend that I originally found out about from Wishbone, this easy-reader retelling is fun, but a bit simple for older/advanced readers such as myself.  It's diverting entertainment for a short while, but nothing terribly special; you might as well watch the PBS Kids version that stars a Jack Russell terrier.  Parents might be concerned with the fact that fairy-tale magic plays a prominent role.

Score: 3/5
Honestly, Katie John! by Mary Calhoun: Before Nickelodeon or Disney Channel, it was books like Honestly, Katie John! that entertained the young people of America.  Reading this 1960's book in 2013 is like a window into the past; that alone makes it entertaining, but I enjoyed it for another reason: it was a fun, well-written chronicle of a little girl who is hesitant to grow up.  Many readers, even now, would likely feel Katie John's pain, whether they are feeling it now or did in the past.  That gives Honestly, Katie John! an appeal that transcends time.

Score: 4/5 
The Best Friend (Life at Kingston High, No. 2) by Melody Carlson: Featuring a different leading lady than the previous Kingston High novel did, this one also deals with much headier topics than its prequel.  Sex outside of marriage, alcoholism, and date rape drugs are mentioned--and vilified--throughout.  Like all of Melody Carlson's "young adult" works, though it has an important message, it is not for young children.  Teens and some "tweens" can appreciate it, though it may be "preaching to the choir" for many of those who are likely to read it.

Score: 3.75/5
Burnt Orange: Color Me Wasted (True Colors, No. 5) by Melody Carlson: Each of the volumes in Mrs. Carlson's True Colors series deals with a specific problem that plagues many young people today; this time, it's alcoholism.  The book does a great job of portraying the problems that drunkenness can cause, and the ending hammers the point home even further.  Still, some people may be a little unsettled by it.

Score: 4/5
Last Dance (Carter House Girls, No. 8) by Melody Carlson: It's graduation and prom time for DJ and her housemates.  Everyone is excited…but life starts to change rather quickly for more than one of the girls.  It's been a while since I read the penultimate Carter House novel, so, this feels more like a reunion movie than a series finale.  Still, the writing, story, and such are as good as usual from Mrs. Carlson.  As with the other books in the series, the themes are not for children…but, by now, that's to be expected.

Score: 3.75/5
Kathryn (Daughters of Courage, No. 1) by Donna Fletcher Crow: First in a series that spans numerous decades, Kathryn features a narrative that moves a bit too fast.  (SPOILER ALERT!) At the start, Kathryn is a seventeen-year-old girl adjusting to a new location; by the end, she has wed her sweetheart in Scotland and has come back Stateside to have his child.  All that happens in about 250 pages.  (END SPOILERS!) For such a convoluted plot, Mrs. Crow should have written a bit more.  Granted, I have read worse--much worse!--so that doesn't make Kathryn terrible, but it keeps it from being what it could have been.

Score: 2.5/5
Elizabeth (Daughters of Courage, No. 2) by Donna Fletcher Crow: Elizabeth, the daughter of Kathryn (see above review,) faces heartbreak, the Great Depression, and college life in this second part of a trilogy.  Instead of being "more of the same," Mrs. Crow improves by not making the story as rushed this time around.  I still wouldn't call it "excellent," but it's a great improvement over the series' start.

Score: 3.5/5
The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey: Though George Lucas' space opera is easily the best-known science fiction work, intergalactic tales were alive and well before Star Wars, and The Runaway Robot is an excellent example. Narrated from the android's perspective, it's a well-written, fun, and cute story of a 'bot who doesn't want to lose his best mate. The book may prove hard to find, given its age and "out of print" status, but I'm sure any young science fiction fan would adore it.

Score: 4/5
The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer: What was supposed to be a sweeping fantasy ended up being an overly long, poorly written, and Christianity-mocking piece of garbage.  I seriously struggled to finish this one, and was no better when I actually did.  Fantasy fans would be better off sticking to Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings then even attempting to read this mess.

Score: 1.5/5
The Mayan Apocalypse by Mark Hitchcock and Alton Gansky: A Christian novel about the Mayan predictions of the end of the world? My curiosity was piqued, and, though I somewhat enjoyed the novel, it wasn't anything spectacular. Those who have enjoyed Alton Gansky's other works will likely like this, though. Discerning readers may be bothered by the character of Candy, who is every bit the temptress her moniker would imply.

Score: 3/5
The Vanishings (Left Behind: The Kids, No. 1) by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye: I tried reading the adult Left Behind series, and was turned off by the writing style. Though The Vanishings isn't perfect in that department, it is a better deal than its well-known counterpart. Though not for the very young due to mentions of smoking, drinking, and such, preteens will likely enjoy this.

Score: 4/5
Second Chance (Left Behind: The Kids, No. 2) by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye: Not just "more of the same," this one shows the kids beginning to work together and has a little intensity, along with a cliffhanger ending.  Even if you felt The Vanishings was slightly lackluster, you should give this series a Second Chance by reading this book before leaving the series behind.

Score: 4.25/5
Through the Flames (Left Behind: The Kids, No. 3) by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye: This third outing ups the ante with more intensity and the death of a character introduced in the first book.  Though I didn't feel that it "kept me on the edge of my seat until the end," as the back cover said it would, it was still a good addition to the series.  I'm curious as to where it will go from here.

Score: 4/5
Facing the Future (Left Behind: The Kids, No. 4) by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye: This fourth outing starts in right where part three left off.  Though the story is good, some readers might be unsettled by the description of a fatal gunshot wound.  Of course, the whole world that Jenkins and LaHaye have created is quite freaky, so that's pretty much par for the course.

Score: 4/5
A Wizard Named Nell (The Keepers, No. 1) by Jackie French Koller: An old-school fantasy quest, A Wizard Named Nell is set in a fantastical land full of spellcasters and mythical creatures.  It's the typical "girl outdoes all the prior guys" tale that many of us have seen a thousand times before, but it still works moderately well.  Some parents may quibble with a guy pretending to be Nell, and dressing up as a girl, throughout much of the book.

Score: 3.5/5
Faking Grace by Tamara Leigh: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Shakespeare's timeless words are proven in the story of Maizy Grace Stewart, who lies about her religious beliefs to get a position at a Christian newspaper in order to uncover some gossip.  Maizy isn't a good liar, though, and it isn't long until every fib she has told catches up with her.  Like Splitting Harriet, another book by Tamara Leigh--whose real name appears to be Tammy Schmanski--this is a female-fronted romp through Christian culture that is sure to make many readers laugh and smile.  Some discerning readers may take issue with the gossip-worthy material that is discussed throughout, though.

Score: 3.75/5
Second-Best Friend (Holly's Heart, No. 6) by Beverly Lewis: Holly Meredith's sixth literary outing has her in competition with a visitor from a foreign country to be Andie's best friend.  Though the story and writing are as good as usual, Holly's attitude, as expressed through her first-person narration, is a bit troublesome.  Though she does learn her lesson by the book's end--come on, is that really a spoiler?--the opening felt like I was reading a Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars novel instead.  Also, the ending was a bit too pat; can such a solution really happen? For those reasons, I feel that, although not terrible, Second-Best Friend was Holly-Heart's worst so far.

Score: 2.5/5
Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord: When a Maine island's school is threatened to be shut down by the state's government, the residents of the isle adopt kids in an attempt to save their schoolhouse.  Narrated by 11-year-old Tess, the story is as innocent as a Disney Channel Original Movie, and even portrays hymns, a preacher, and Christian faith in a positive light.  However, some discussion of "wishing" superstition is odd, given the rest of the book.  It's nothing special, but Touch Blue was a mildly enjoyable read nonetheless.

Score: 2.5/5
Zoey 101: Pranks for Nothing! by Jane Mason and Sara Hines Stephens: Though I love most of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon's live-action productions, novels based on them are usually far from stellar, and this is no exception.  Of course Zoey 101 addicts will love this, but everyone else should just seek out "Webcam" and "Prank Week," the episodes on which this book is based, on iTunes or elsewhere.

Score: 2/5
Odyssey by Jack McDevitt: Jack McDevitt is one of my favorite authors, not only because of his great writing talent, but also because he paints a future where religion, including the Christian faith, still coexists with the rest of society.  Unfortunately, this is among the worst of his that I've read.  An entire subplot focuses on a student who was allegedly made mentally ill by going to a Christian school.  Add a main, oft-quoted character who is a bit of a jerk, a higher profanity count than usual, and even an implied extramarital affair, and this is one McDevitt I can't really recommend.

Score: 2.25/5
The Third Millennium by Paul Meier: This was a weird one.  I'm not sure I agree with how Mr. Meier presents the "end times," but the strangeness of it all was simply gripping.  Readers beware, though: There's plenty of violence and scary content to go around, as is typical with apocalyptic novels.

 Score: 3.5/5
Supernatural War by Bill Myers: A supposedly true account of Bill Myers engaging in spiritual war that reads more like an episode of Touched By an Angel.  Whether or not you believe Mr. Myers' claim that it really happened--and who's to say he is lying?--it's a convincing, if short, account of one man's encounter with "this present darkness".

Score: 3/5
DragonHeart by Charles Edward Pogue: Based on the 1996 blockbuster movie, DragonHeart is a novelization that reads like a regular novel.  Though there are some content concerns--occasional profanity, a little blood--the fantastical story is great and makes a good point about sacrifice.

Score: 4/5
A Distant Melody (Wings of Glory, No. 1) by Sarah Sundin: A woman in the 1940's is about to be forced into a marriage to a man she doesn't love...when she meets an Air Force pilot who she knows is her soulmate.  Her parents are very unhappy when she announces her true love, and threaten to forsake her if she doesn't marry the guy they want her to.  Will true love win out, or will she be unhappily married? A captivating story, great writing, and a bit of fun along with the romantic historical drama.  I loved it, and am very glad I have the sequel on hand.

Score: 4.5/5
Fireproof by Eric Wilson: Most people say that the book is always better than the movie, but I'm not sure in this case.  Though there are some great extra details, including how Caleb and Catherine ended up married in the first place, one plot thread not seen in the film messed things up.  (SPOILER WARNING!) Catherine's mom goes on a special version of Wheel of Fortune and wins a boat for Caleb, which didn't sit well with me.  Too many times, I see stories where a hero gives up something only to get immediately rewarded in return.  I don't like that, because that's not how real life works.  Caleb not getting the boat, yet still being happy, shows a true sacrifice.  (END SPOILERS!) If that doesn't bother you, then you should read this, unless you didn't like the film.

Score: 3.75/5