Saturday, 30 August 2014

Blue is for Nightmares: A Young Adult Novel That Isn’t A Nightmare To Read!

A Review By: Amelia

Young adult novels can be a treasure trove of awesome characters, unique plotlines, and a few hours of good times. Of course young adult novels can also be a breeding ground for crappy authors just looking for their fifteen minutes of fame and a quick buck–we can all thank Stephenie Meyer and her shit Twilight series for that! Luckily for me, Blue is the Nightmares was not just a Twilight copycat but a young adult novel actually worth checking out!

Stacey Brown, a 16 year old Junior at Hillcrest Boarding School, is a hereditary Wiccan through her grandmother. She wants to have a normal high school experience, but things begin to crumble around her when she starts having terrifying nightmares about the death of her best friend and roommate, Drea. It is not the first time she's had these prophetic nightmares as, three years ago, a girl she used to babysit was murdered. Stacey had ignored her nightmares then, but now she’s having them again and, after the last time, she knows they’ll come true.

The author of Blue is for Nightmares (and the three novels that follow in the series) is Laurie Faria Stolarz. Her work always features teenage protagonists and blend elements of mystery and romance. The magical/Wiccan elements found in her books are influenced by her home city: the one and only Salem Massachusetts, known widely for the Salem witch trials of 1692.

The cast of characters in Blue is for Nightmares is a group of teenagers with a staple stereotype from each group. There’s Amber the eccentric crazy one, PJ the punkish class clown, Drea the diva, Stacey the regular girl next door, and Chad the all American athlete. Each character fits a stereotype but each character is also a human: they’re fleshed out and deeper than they appear at first glance. Chad is an athlete but is also an intellectual, Amber is strange but she’s incredibly loyal, and Stacey–the main character of the piece–is a practicing witch, having learned witchcraft (or Wicca if you prefer) from her grandmother, and as it turns out, isn’t as normal as she appears. The story may take advantage of the old teenage typecast standbys, but instead of becoming bogged down in them, Stolarz puts them to good use as a solid foundation to build upon.

The location of Blue is for Nightmares takes place completely on the campus of an American boarding school and I don’t know about the rest of you, but before this book, I’d never read a book that took place at a boarding school. A rich private school yes, but never a boarding school–it was a nice change on the stereotypical teen high school drama (just like the characters). What makes the boarding school so interesting a location is that the story must take place within these confines. In the usual private school setting the students don’t live there–they can come and go off campus as often as they like and when scary shit happens on campus, they can go home and ‘be safe’ (even though we all know that’s not how it works). When the scary shit happens on campus at a boarding school though, you live there–you can’t leave. It heightens the suspense and adds an extra level of danger to a plot that–if it were happening anywhere else–would be a little hum-drum.

With a unique setting and great characters, Blue is for Nightmares is something special compared to other young adult novels. The only thing I found myself not liking were the conversations that happened between groups of the main characters. They seemed like the sort of thing that adults think teenagers say instead of things that they actually do–but that’s the case with almost all novels about teenagers.

My final thoughts on Blue is for Nightmares is that it’s pretty good. It’s not the best young adult novel I’ve ever read, but it’s by no means the worst. It’s a young adult novel that gives more than most of that genre do with characters that you think you know, but don’t, a location that seems familiar, but is brand new, and a plotline that’s a little bit supernatural, but is just real enough to be truly creepy!

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Listen to the Wind: Collage and Life Lessons!

A Review By: Amelia

I’m a very empathetic soul. I am, in fact, so empathetic that sometimes all it takes for me to get all choked up and teary eyed is a touching commercial. Now, you’d think someone stuffed full of as much empathy as me would avoid sappy things like the plague, but you’d be wrong. Sometimes I actively seek out things that I know will tug on my heart strings. It’s how I found the kid’s book Listen to the Wind. It’s the story of how one man changed the lives of thousands of kids and if that’s not enough to make you teary-eyed just thinking about it, I don’t know what is!

Greg Mortenson stumbled, lost and delirious, into a remote Himalayan village after a failed climb up K2. The villagers saved his life, and he vowed to return and build them a school. The story of Listen to the Wind is about how he kept his promise. It’s told in the voice of the village children, and illuminates the humanity and culture of a relevant and distant part of the world.

Greg Mortenson is the co-founder of non-profit Central Asia Institute, Pennies For Peace, and co-author of New York Times bestseller ‘Three Cups of Tea’ which has been published in 39 countries, and a New York Times bestseller for three years since its January 2007 release. Of course, there has been some drama concerning the man’s charities. Mortenson got into some trouble a few years back about misspending his charities’ money and, although no criminal misuse (fraud) was found and he was cleared of all charges, he had to make one million dollars of restitutions for bad book-keeping and step down from being involved with CAI (Central Asia Institute). All that doesn’t necessarily make him a bad man, but it is information that should be known before you decide to check out this book!

The illustrator and co-author of the piece is Susan L. Roth and she’s been involved with young peoples’ literature for most of her career with forty books under her belt. Roth’s primary artistic medium is collage.

The whole point of this little story is about how one person really can make a difference and that communities working together can create a lot of good. Whether or not you admire Mortenson (or had admired him before his book-keeping scandal) it’s still a great story to tell kids as its lessons of charity and the importance of education are universal no matter who you are. A story like this will help kids feel closer to children in other parts of the world, and will help them develop into a more empathetic soul.

The artwork in Listen to the Wind is mixed media, collage style art which Roth is primarily known for. Roth
used a variety of materials to create the colourful collages on each page. An artist's note in the back explains that Roth was inspired by actual artifacts from the region, in which nothing ever goes to waste. A woman's hat was “…like a sculpture of cloth fragments, bright colored yarn and metal accents.” It’s a beautiful and very striking style and the materials used for the mixed media collages make you feel like you can actually feel the soft clothes of the clothing or rough texture of the terrain.

My final thoughts on Listen to the Wind are that it’s a cute little book. Both Mortenson and Roth are respectful of the culture and Roth’s collage art is beautiful. The story will help kids become more world aware and maybe give them a little spark for charity. Don’t focus on Mortenson’s bad business decisions if you ever stumble upon this book, there are many good things still to be found in Listen to the Wind besides that! 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Kingdom Hearts: Final Fantasy and Disney Combined To Make Gold!

A Review By: Amelia
When I first started playing Kingdom Hearts, I thought there was going to be no way that they would combine Final Fantasy and Disney (two of my favourite things) into something that didn’t offend me in one or another. I was SO wrong! Kingdom Hearts combines Final Fantasy characters with Disney worlds and leaves me squeeing in pleasure! Since its introduction to the world in 2002 it’s spanned nine original games and two HD remakes. It’s a huge franchise with tonnes of merchandise and even a manga series, which is why we’re here today!

Kingdom Hearts is the story of Sora, Kairi, and Riku, three teenagers bored with their existence on a small island. Believing there to be bigger and better worlds out there, the three build a raft to sail the seas. The day before they set sail, a world-crushing darkness invades and separates the three: Kairi and Sora are innocent bystanders swallowed by the darkness, but Riku willing goes. Now, this is where the story really begins. Sora is found by Donald Duck and Goofy (that’s right, the Disney characters) and becomes the Keyblade welder. The Keyblade has the ability to restore worlds and ‘lock’ them so further attacks can’t happen, so Sora becomes a hero of all worlds (all the worlds are Disney worlds, by the way) all the while searching for his messing friends and hoping to return home. Mixed in with that storyline is not only the Heartless’ story: the heartless mindlessly steal hearts and leave people as empty shells and they’re led by Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty), and the Nobodies story: their led by a secret organization called Organization 13 whose hope is to build ‘Kingdom Hearts’ so that they might have hearts themselves (Nobodies are created when a strong willed person has their heart stolen by a Heartless). Still with me? I know it’s pretty complicated, but bear with me–it’s worth it!

The author (or should I say adaptor?) of Kingdom Hearts into a manga series is Shiro Amano. He’s a Japanese manga artist who’s worked on several manga projects, the most popular of which being Kingdom Hearts. He’s also worked on several Dragon Quest games as a character developer.

The characters in Kingdom Hearts is a large and varied cast of characters. There’s Disney characters with Donald and Goofy being Sora’s allies, Disney princesses being the cosmic keys, and Disney villains being the combined force of evil you battle against. Then there’s the Heartless and Nobodies that are nameless foot soldiers (so to speak) and although they’re what the good guys fight so hard against, they hold little important to the story other than being part of this massive fighting force that just keeps coming no matter what! Then there’s neutral to good characters that belong to the Disney worlds that Sora visits like Tarzan (from Tarzan), or Genie (from Aladdin), or Aerith (from Final Fantasy VII–yeah, Kingdom Hearts doesn’t go by Final Fantasy canon so she’s not dead!) The most important characters of the whole piece are Sora, Kairi, and Riku. They are completely original characters but they do draw some of their personalities, physical forms, and motivations from a mix of what Disney and Final Fantasy have done in the past. Or at least how that seemed to me–it’ll probably seem completely different to someone else! All in all the characters are great and very well rounded. Take Riku for example. He cares for his friends well being but he’s also jealous of a relationship he thinks he sees between Kairi and Sora. He wants adventure and power and he’s not afraid to reach into the darkness to get it. Then there’s Sora–the hero of the piece. While Riku finds solace in the dark side, Sora struggles against the odds to save his friends hearts and put everything back to the way it was. He’s scared of change–especially change that happens between him and his friends–and yet, to save the day, he has to travel to places he never even dreamed existed. He sacrifices bits of himself to help everyone else. Needless to say, the characters are an interesting blend and never fail to please.

The art style in this series is adorable. Just adorable. The whole damn premise of is adorable but Shiro Amano found just the right style to make this go from a six on the ‘aww’ scale to a full ten on the ‘squee-look-at-them-they’re-so-cute-I-just-want-to-squeeze-them-til-they-explode!’ scale. The faces are very minimal with small noses and mouths and big, big eyes. Character clothing and weapons are very detailed however and it’s a stark contrast to their faces. Exterior landscapes are detailed to the extent that they need to be but I found a painful lack of any interior shots that were detailed. Most of what happened indoors was just a blank white background with whatever characters were there doing whatever it was they were doing!

There’s a great many things going on in the Kingdom Hearts manga series that make it a very compelling and interesting. There’s great artwork, an amazing (although sometimes hard to follow storyline), themes of love and lost, friendship and betrayal, which, if you ask me, are pretty in-depth and intuitive of something most people will write off as childish.

My final thoughts on the Kingdom Hearts manga series are that it is wonderful! Do you have to be a fan of Disney or Final Fantasy in order to jump right in a enjoy it all? I certainly don’t think so (although it would help). Beyond what originally sold this game franchise for me (namely Beauty & the Beast!) is a great story of adventure and friendship and never giving up despite the odds! It’s got great artwork that will appeal to any manga fan and it’s just plain fun! I mean, Donald Duck and Goofy are in it–all other arguments should be invalid!

Saturday, 2 August 2014

American Elsewhere: Aliens and String Theory and Inter-dimensional Travel – Oh My!

A Review By: Amelia

I want to say this right of the bat because it’s been bothering me as I write this review: American Elsewhere is a hard book to review without giving away its many plot twists and unexpected surprises. And with it being a newer book I’d hate to spoil it for anyone. All that being said, this review might seem a little less in-depth than ones I’ve done in the past, but I’m going to try my damnedest to get us all through this without too much confusion!

American Elsewhere is part supernatural, part science-fiction, part fantasy novel about a small town, in the middle of a desert, in the middle of a mesa. When Mona Bright inherits a house there, she thinks she’s finally found a place to settle down but Wink isn’t exactly how it appears. Wink is home to a strange pink moon, violent thunderstorms, a forest you shouldn’t enter at night, and a strange observatory where strange stuff happened many years before and may be the cause of all the weird stuff still happening...   

The author of American Elsewhere is Robert Jackson Bennett and American Elsewhere is his fourth novel. His first three novels have made huge waves in the world of American gothic/speculative thriller and horror and it’s obvious from his writing style that he’s a master at what he does.

There a tonne of characters throughout this six hundred and sixty-two page epic, but the main one–the character that all other characters are tied to–is Mona Bright. She’s an ex-cop who has spent the last little bit of her life drifting around aimlessly. She’s a really interesting mix of a person. She’s a hard-ass cop before moving to Wink but she had never fired her gun with intent to kill at anyone. She’s jaded and cold, but it’s for a different reason then we, as the readers, and even Mona herself, realizes.

The location of this rather strange novel takes place in Wink. It’s a small town, not marked on any map, and it’s also a place that opens up into a different dimension–a sort of rip in space and time that allows more than one kind of weirdness to enter but not leave the small desert town. I really like the setting of American Elsewhere because having it all set in this seemingly normal but completely unexplainable, inescapable town creates such an encompassing theme of helplessness. It creates a solid tone throughout a novel that’s so completely un-solid in everything else it presents to the reader!

My final thoughts on American Elsewhere are that it’s a really good book with a lot of crossover appeal. There’s inter-dimensional space and time travel, a creepy town filled with creepy people, and it keeps you out of the loop just enough to keep you reading because you need to know what happens next. It’s really weird and is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but overall, I think a lot of people could pick up this book and enjoy it!