Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Favorites: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Recommended for: Ages 8 to Adult (or slightly younger as a read-aloud)

Rating: PG

Orphaned Kit Tyler knows, as she gazes for the first time at the cold, bleak shores of Connecticut Colony, that her new home will never be like the shimmering Caribbean island she left behind. In her relatives' stern Puritan community, she feels like a tropical bird that has flown to the wrong part of the world, a bird that is now caged and lonely. The only place where Kit feels completely free is in the meadows, where she enjoys the company of the old Quaker woman known as the Witch of Blackbird Pond, and on occasion, her young sailor friend Nat. But when Kit's friendship with the "witch" is discovered, Kit is faced with suspicion, fear, and anger. She herself is accused of witchcraft!

This is another one of those books that my mom read to my sisters and me over lunch when we were young. It also became a family read-aloud several years later. The only other book I can think of that did this is Anne of Green Gables I loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond dearly even as a young child. I can remember stamping my foot and loudly declaring, "She's not a witch." It, with the same author's The Bronze Bow and Esther Forbes's Johnny Tremain, remain among my top favorite historical fiction books. At the moment, I can't really think of any other books that make it that high on my favorite historical fiction list.

Don't be put off by the title. There is absolutely no witchcraft involved in the book. What I generally say is that it's basically a Salem Witch Trial type book except they're not in Salem. They're in Wethersfield, another New England coastal town.

Kit Tyler has to leave her home of Barbados to live with her Puritan relatives. Watching her try to fit in is both hard and entertaining. She really knows nothing of Puritan life. It is a disaster at the dame school that finally drives her to the meadow, where she meets Hannah Tupper, who everyone assumes is a witch simply because she is a Quaker, not a Puritan. Then she accidentally drags little Prudence Cruff into trouble, trouble which only Prudence herself, with the help of Nat Eaton, can get them out of.

I dearly love these characters and their relationships. Kit is so easy to relate to, she is stubborn and not the least bit Puritan, but she wants to help people, namely Prudence. Prudence is ill treated, called stupid by her overbearing mother when really she is extremely smart. Hannah Tupper is a delightful old lady, and no more a witch than you or I. And I love Nat. He is no more perfect than Kit, but he's a good man and quite a wonderful character. Yes, there is some romance, but it's in the perfect place, a subplot, clean and sweet, and nothing which would turn off young children. It just makes the story even more wonderful than it already is.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a rich story, full of history, characters, story, and brilliant writing. It is such an amazing book. A lot of my favorite books are Newberies, I'm realizing that the only favorites that aren't are ones that are ineligible, for instance, written by a British author, or a recent book by an indie author that is for an older audience and/or wouldn't have been entered. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is no exception. It deserves the Newbery it won. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Movie Review: The Return of the King

The Return of the King by New Line Home Entertainment

Recommended For: Ages 13 and up

Rating: PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images)

The final battle for Middle-Earth begins. Frodo and Sam, led by Gollum, continue their dangerous mission toward the fires of Mount Doom in order to destroy the One Ring. Aragorn struggles to fulfill his legacy as he leads his outnumbered followers against the growing power of the Dark Lord Sauron, so that the Ring-bearer may complete his quest. Winner of 11 Academy Awards.

This movie is awesome! I don't think I'll ever tire of seeing this movie again. And this is the movie where Sam is at his noblest. Go Sam!

Technical: 5/5
Seriously, the special effects in this are really good. They're pretty cool. Especially Mordor. And Mount Doom. Everything else is good as well. And just a note, the music is great and very emotional. Thumbs-up to Howard Shore for doing a great job on that!

Setting: 5/5
The movie is set in Middle-Earth. Mainly, this movie takes place in Mordor, Gondor, Rohan, Rivendell, and the Shire. With some cool and completely unnecessary shots of mountains thrown in for good measure. The setting was very well-done and complex, thanks to J. R. R. Tolkein's whole world history for Middle Earth.

Plot: 5/5
The plot was very well-done and intriguing. It was very epic. Although, the screenwriters can't be credited with this as it was all J. R. R. Tolkien's books that had the story that made the movies.

Characters: 5/5
Ah, the characters. The best part. They are all unique and fleshed out, which is quite a feat considering how many characters there actually are in Lord of the Rings. Sam, the faithful and loyal gardener who will protect Frodo at any cost, Pippin, who is not smart and funny, Merry, Pippin's cousin, who is a mite bit smarter, Frodo, who is Frodo, and Legolas, who is cool, are among some of the best (and no, I didn't mention Aragorn. He's too perfect for me). Faramir, who was meaner in the movie than in the book, was another good character. Denethor was good to hate. The orcs were disgusting. And Sauron was evil.

The Return of the King is a great movie, the best movie of The Lord of the Rings, and should be watched by anyone who read the book and people that haven't.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: Firmament: In His Image

Firmament: In His Image by J. Grace Pennington

Recommended for: Ages 10 and up (interest level)

Rating: PG

It was supposed to be a routine check of a parched planet. That was what Andi expected when she joined the small exploration team, but when their shuttle crash landed, the unthinkable happened—they encountered intelligent life.

Now stranded on the stran
ge world, the team accidentally angers the iron-fisted leader of the village, and the compassionate intervention of a young native named Elasson may be all that's keeping them alive.

Their shuttle seems beyond repair, the oppressive heat is sapping their strength, and the local ruler is determined to execute them. Can Andi help find a way to escape before it's too late?

After listening to the first book in the series, my sisters wanted me to read the second book.

Writing: 4/5

The writing was mostly well done, but it was a little confusing at the beginning  as to where the characters were. I was a little disinterested with it until they landed on a planet. Once they got to the planet, the story was exciting and interesting. It would have been more suspenseful if I hadn't heard spoilers. There were hardly any typos, if any, and the dialogue was well done also.

Setting: 5/5

There are two main settings in this book: the spaceship, the Surveyor, and a desert planet. The ship is not a large part of this story but the main parts of the ship are sickbay and the bridge. The planet is good for sci-fi and is a desert planet with few plants. I thought that the settlement for intelligent life was a good representation of how people would live in that kind of environment.

Plot 5/5

The plot was well thought out and had plenty of mystery. I wasn't very interested with the parts on the spaceship, but it got more exciting and interesting as the book went on. There is time between different events to get to know the characters a little more. There is also some conflict with the main characters which makes the story more interesting.

Characters: 4/5

All the characters are well done and unique but they are not characters that I love or that I am attached to. The main character is Andi Lloyd who is the adoptive daughter of Doctor Lloyd. She is not a perfect person and so makes a good character. One character though, Crash, annoys me, though he became a little more likeable when you find out some about his past and what he is struggling with. Some of the characters are stubborn and hold strongly to their beliefs no matter what other people say. 

This is a good story that I enjoyed and anyone who likes science fiction should read it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Favorites: Never

Never by J. Grace Pennington

Recommended For: 13 and up

 Rating: PG-13 (mild violence, mildly disturbing scenes, and a murder)
Travis Hamilton never expected to be a killer. One day he was studying to become a schoolteacher in the little western town of Spencervale, and the next he was sentenced to ten years hard labor in the Dead Mines outside town--from which few return alive. 

Ross Hamilton is no detective. But when his brother is convicted of murder, he has no choice but to abandon his ranch and do all in his power to find out just what happened the night of the killing, and who is really responsible. 

 Neither brother is prepared to be stretched and tested to his limits and beyond by an adventure that is much bigger than either of them ever imagined. But in the next few days, they will be. The only way to survive is to never compromise.


I started this book with a very intriguing premise from my sister on my mind. A young man was convicted of killing somebody while he was asleep and was sentenced to work in the Dead Mines for ten years. His older brother quarantined a hotel to try and find out what really happened.

I must say, the book did not disappoint. I couldn't put it down (honestly, I was reading it when I should have been doing other things). I liked it so much I wanted it in physical form instead of e-book form, and asked for it for Christmas. Now I can pull it off my shelf and read it whenever I want (and I do often).

Never is a really, really good book. J. Grace Pennington is a really good writer. Her writing puts my writing to shame. She makes you feel as if you're really there seeing what the characters are seeing and feeling what they're feeling. This is very instrumental in drawing you in. And the plot. Up until the end I hadn't got it figured out completely. I thought I had, but I hadn't. I can't write mysteries myself (I've tried) so that made me appreciate this well-done mystery even more. Many mysteries I've read are cheesy and unrealistic. This was anything but. And yet there's so much more to it than the mystery aspect. It's a little hard to explain if you haven't read the book. Which is why you should go read it right now if you haven't. And read it again if you have.

I could go on all day about how much I love this book, but I really have other things to do. So I'll suffice to finish with this famous quote.

"READ NEVER OR OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!" as the Queen of Hearts said. What's that you say? The Queen of Hearts didn't really say that? Well, if she didn't, that's only because she was born before Never was written. If she had been born, she totally would have said it.

I know, I know, the Queen of Hearts isn't real. But Never is, which is why you should go read it.

Seriously, why are you still reading this? Go read Never now!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Play Review: The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall (25th Anniversary Performance)

Recommended for: Ages 13 to Adult

Rating: NR (I'm not sure what I would rate it, but it's kind of scary and dark, so I wouldn't recommend it for young children.)

A disfigured musical genius, hidden away in the Paris Opera House, terrorizes the opera company for the unwitting benefit of a young protégée whom he trains and loves.

Yes, I'm doing a play rather than a movie. We didn't watch an actual movie last weekend, just Phantom of the Opera on Netflix, and it's definitely worth reviewing.

I don't know how I missed out on The Phantom of the Opera for so long. I guess it just wasn't on my radar screen. I really was missing a lot by not having seen Phantom, because I immediately loved it. It jumped right onto my favorites list, and I've listened to the whole thing on Spotify several times since Friday night. And I found out someone I go to church with has seen it live, and so I'm jealous.

Technical: 5/5

It is a little odd to watch a stage play on TV. Fortunately, it didn't take long to get used to, mostly because I knew it was stage, and so that's what I was expecting. Of course, you can't expect CGI work or detailed locations, and the actors all wore microphones, but it's stage, not a movie. And it was a spectacular stage production. It's the 25th anniversary performance at the Royal Albert Hall, after all.

The music. Ah, such music. I think the music was what first entranced me. I have an extreme fondness for orchestral pieces, and this was performed with a full live orchestra. (Of course, it was taped by the time I got around to seeing it, but it was live then.) Sometimes they would even show a shot of the orchestra and I could see the violinists playing up in high positions. (And yes, I couldn't help thinking how the guy they showed had thicker fingers than me, which would make double stops easier for him, but individual strings and high positions easier for me.) The singing was also phenomenal. The Phantom has an amazing voice, and Christine really puts my out of tune Disney songs to extreme shame. She has such high notes to hit, but she nailed them. And the songs. I already knew "Think of Me" because my sisters and I have all played it on the piano, but pretty much all the rest were new to me. I think my favorites are "The Phantom of the Opera" and "All I Ask of You." And the overtures, because there's time to focus on the orchestra.

The ballet also deserves a mention. As a former ballerina who spent one year on pointe, I greatly enjoyed watching them perform. They were all excellent dancers.

Settings: 4/5

The Phantom of the Opera largely takes place inside the opera house, which makes the settings easy to create. The opera is performed on stage, after all. The transitions to the Phantom's place were a little confusing, and didn't seem to change things much, but that's really all the negative things I have to say about the setting.

Plot: 5/5

The story was slightly confusing at first, but I managed to get my bearings fairly quickly, and now I feel like I have a good grasp on the storyline. The ownership of the opera house is transferred over at the previous owner's retirement, and the opera ghost, also known as the Phantom, has a difficult time getting the new owners to follow his instructions. This escalates into a war between the Phantom and the opera house, as the Phantom tries to get Christine Daae into lead roles and always have box 5, but the owners push back against it. And the Phantom is not above using extreme measures to get his way.

I really loved the story, enough that I have started reading the book upon which the musical was based. It has intrigue and tragedy, love and despair. It seemed well developed, and definitely interesting.

Character Development: 4/5

The character development was somewhat lacking, but Phantom has so much else going for it, it didn't reduce my enjoyment one bit. The Phantom was very interesting, and the sort of character one doesn't quite know whether to hate or feel sorry for. And his voice. He can sing! I liked Christine. She seemed rather under the Phantom's influence, but yet scared of him and desperate to get away at the same time. I did like Raoul as well, though I wouldn't say I could give a description of his personality. I'm hoping the book will be better at developing the characters.

Something else cool about this edition is that Andrew Lloyd Webber comes out at the end to talk about it, and the original Christine and several different Phantoms sing. It's pretty cool. Though the part where the Phantoms sing reminded my family of the part of "The Day of the Doctor" where Ten and Eleven move in sync and trade off lines in a monologue. That only made it better, Whovians that we are.

If, like me, you  have been missing out on Phantom of the Opera, don't anymore. Watch it. This version is excellent, one of my friends said it was the best one. You won't regret it. (Well, unless you consider musicals the most horrible form of entertainment ever invented. But despite the unrealism, musicals are amazing.)

"He's here, the Phantom of the Opera."

EDIT: And it's even better the second time around.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Favorites: Gone-Away Lake

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright

Recommended for: All Ages

Rating: G

Summer has a magic all its own.

When Portia sets out for a visit with her cousin Julian, she expects fun and adventure, but of the usual kind: exploring in the woods near Julian's house, collecting stones and bugs, playing games throughout the long, lazy days.

this summer is different.

On their first day exploring, Portia and Julian discover an enormous boulder with a mysterious message, a swamp choked with reeds and quicksand, and on the far side of the swamp...a ghost town.

Once upon a time the swamp was a splendid lake, and the fallen houses along its shore an elegant resort community. But though the lake is long gone and the resort faded away, the houses still hold a secret life: two people who have never left Gone-Away...and who can tell the story of what happened there.

Gone-Away Lake is full of good memories. I remember my mom getting it from the library and reading it to my sisters and me during lunch. I have since revisited it and it's surprisingly good sequel countless times.

Gone-Away Lake is a fun story. The discovery of the abandoned summer homes and the people who still live there makes an intriguing premise. And the fact that the two people living there were some of the people who lived there during the summer at the turn of the century makes it even neater. Aunt Minnehaha and Uncle Pin, as Portia and Julian begin to call them, tell wonderful stories of their childhood when Gone-Away was still Tarrigo, a lake surrounded by beautiful summer homes. The story of the knife and the buttonhook is one I really love, and Mrs. Brace-Gideon's summer cats.

Portia and Julian have their own adventures exploring Gone-Away, and Portia's brother Foster is not left out either. Well, they try to, but it doesn't work out and they learn their lesson. Falling in the Gulper, the thunderstorm at Craneycrow, the Machine, A.P. Decoction, the Philosopher's Club, the Gulper's such a wonderful and eventful summer.

The characters are so well drawn, from Portia and Julian to Baby-Belle Tuckertown and Mrs. Brace-Gideon. I can't help but love them. Not Mrs. Brace-Gideon, though, or Tarquin Tuckertown's friend Edward Cleveland Bailey. But you aren't supposed to like them. The rest are simply amazing.

They have a beautiful summer, that comes to an end with yet another discovery, one that leads wonderfully into Return to Gone-Away. The Villa Caprice, guarded at the back door by "Baron Bloodshed, fallen on hard times."

And what adventures they have! Dumbwaiters, swimming holes, suits of armor, collapsed staircases, Baby-Belle's French governess, hidden safes...just as wonderful a summer as the one before.

Gone-Away Lake is a wonderful place. I just love it there. And the story of what happens there is so beautifully told. Elizabeth Enright is a Newbery Award winning author, after all.

I highly recommend the Gone-Away Lake books. They are delightful stories I can't wait to share with any children I have in the future.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Movie Review: Tangled


Recommended for: All Ages

Rating: PG (for brief mild violence)

"When the kingdom's most wanted- and most charming-bandit Flynn Rider hides in a mysterious tower, the last thing he expects to find is Rapunzel, a spirited teen with an unlikely superpower- 70 feet of magical golden hair! Together, the unlikely duo set off on a fantastic journey filled with surprising heroes, laughter, and suspense."

I have liked this movie since I first saw it, and it became my favorite Disney princess movie. Even after seeing Frozen, Tangled is still my favorite Disney princess movie.


As in most Disney animated films, the animation was well done. Tangled is a retelling of the story of Rapunzel, and I think that it was done in an interesting and funny way. The voices of the characters were done well, the voices expressing the emotion that the characters go through in the movie.

Setting: 4/5

The movie is set in what appears to be a fantasy world with a medieval Europe setting. There don't seem to be many settlements other than the city where Rapunzel was born. The tower is in a secluded part of  a the woods about a day's walk from the city. There is a tavern on the way to the city. There don't seem to be any farmers and their only means of food seems to come from the sea and exports.

Plot: 5/5
Rapunzel is stolen away as a baby so that Mother Gothel can stay young.  Rapunzel's parents then light floating lanterns every year on her birthday hoping that she will come home. Rapunzel grows up seeing the floating lanterns and feels that they are meant for her. She then gets the wanted criminal to take her to fulfill her dream by seeing the floating lanterns. I found the plot enjoyable, and funny with lots of adventure and excitement. It seemed well developed.

Character Development:5/5

As always, Disney does a great job with characters. Rapunzel is a naive girl who was raised in a tower knowing only one person. She was told that the world is a scary place and is scared easily. Flynn Rider is a wanted criminal trying to evade soldiers, who reluctantly takes Rapunzel to the city only to get what he stole back. For part of the journey, he tries to convince her to go back to her tower. He soon realizes there's more to life than stealing. There are other characters like Mother Gothel, and the animal companions Maximus and Pascal. They are all unique and well developed. Maximus and Pascal make great sidekicks.

This is a great family-friendly movie for any movie night

Friday, October 3, 2014

Friday Favorites: Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion

Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion by Julie Campbell  


Recommended for: Ages 10 and up (for interest level)

Rating: G

Trixie’s summer is going to be sooo boring with her two older brothers away at camp. But then a millionaire’s daughter moves into the next-door mansion, an old miser hides a fortune in his decrepit house, and a runaway kid starts hiding out in Sleepyside!

 My sister read this book to me several years ago, and I loved it, and went on to read all 39 books in the series. Although it is not the most realistic, it is still a good story.

Throughout the series, I came to love the characters. The main characters in the first book are Trixie, her neighbor Honey, and Jim, the runaway kid. There are also several other characters in the story including Trixie's parents and younger brother, and Honey's governess, and even Trixie's disobedient dog, Reddy. The book takes place in the summer in New York, where Trixie is bored with her older brothers away. She befriends her new rich neighbor, and they go exploring in the woods. They stumble onto a mystery and try to solve it. The end of the story leads right into book two.

As in most mystery series, it is not the most realistic, but the story does have some funny parts, like when Trixie and her friend Honey argue over whose family should adopt Jim. There is some excitement, but the book is not really all that scary. there are some emergencies, like a fire near the end. The characters are not perfect, and that is part of what makes them likeable.

I have loved mystery stories for a long time and this is no exception, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves mysteries.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Movie Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

 The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by 20th Century Fox

Recommended For: All Ages

Rating: PG (for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action)

When Lucy and Edmund Pevensie, along with their cousin Eustace, are swallowed into a painting and transported back to Narnia, they join King Caspian and a noble mouse named Reepicheep aboard the magnificent ship The Dawn Treader. The courageous voyagers travel to mysterious islands, confront mystical creatures, and reunite with the Great Lion Aslan and a mission that will determine the fate of Narnia itself!

I loved the Narnia books. So when I found out they were making movies of them, I was ecstatic. The first one quite lived up to my expectations, the second one...well, not so much. Then I heard Disney had dropped it and 20th Century Fox had taken it up. I was comparatively happy, happier than I would have been had there been no more movies. And while I enjoyed the movie enough to see it in theaters could've been better.

Technical: 3.5/5
There was nothing wrong with the camera, or the special effects, or the lighting, or the acting. It was the writing that fell short in this movie. To be fair, they did have quite a job reworking the book into a good movie, and Eustace was perfect. But still. It was too fast-paced and many of the lines, particularly Lucy's lines, felt contrived and unnatural. I couldn't enjoy it properly at the fast pace it was going. And there was the matter of Caspian. I agree, I'm not especially fond of the way he was in Prince Caspian, and it was done by a different company, but still. They could have made an effort to make him look the way he did in his first Narnia movie. They should've dyed his skin to the same tint and made him use the same accent. I get the different haircut, it had been three years in the books, but they should have made the effort to make him look and sound the same. When I first saw him on screen, I didn't even recognize him. It was very awkward. No one changes that much in three years as an adult.

Setting: 5/5
The setting was very true to the book. Dark Island, Dragon Island, Deathwater Island, and Coriakin's Island were a lot like the book, excepting the fact that Dragon Island and Deathwater Island were combined. The Lone Islands were quite a bit different, but I liked them all the same. I didn't like what they did with Ramandu's Island (especially cutting out Ramandu, what was that all about?), but it was done very well.

Plot: 4.5/5
The thing about the book was that the islands were more of separate adventures. While that worked well in a book, that would've stunk in a movie. The screenwriters sensed this, and added something to the plot to tie it all together. They expanded quite a lot on the Dark Island idea, and I must say, it was done very well. It was an intriguing plot, and did indeed tie all the islands together. It required quite a lot of changing from the book, which I didn't like, me being a bit of a book purist, but it was done well. Just too fast-paced. I did particularly like how they kept the best line from the end of the book in the movie, the one where Aslan says, "That was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, so that knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." Most movie companies would've cut that line. They didn't, and that was a huge point in their favor for me.

Characters: 4.5/5
The characters were very well done. Edmund was very consistent, Caspian was grown up and more mature, Eustace, it being his first appearance, was very well-done, down to his change of heart, and the minor characters weren't cardboard cutouts as they are in some movies I could mention. The only drawback was Lucy. I felt they completely changed her. Hardly any of the faithful little girl found in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian was there. She was just too different. It wasn't all that she had grown up, she was too focused on being pretty than the original Lucy would have been (while it was in the book, it wasn't that big a part of the book), and I noticed none of the strong belief in Aslan present in the other movies. And her lines didn't seem very real or Lucy-ish. One particular instance I noticed she was different was right before they went into Dark Island and were cheering "For Narnia!" Lucy started another cheer of "For Narnia!" whereas I felt the Lucy from the other movies would've said "For Aslan!" instead.

Most little kids probably wouldn't notice the things I pointed out. This movie would make a great movie for family movie night, and will be liked by any fantasy-lover or Chronicles of Narnia fan. I recommend watching this movie.