Monday, December 22, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is in just a few days! I can hardly believe it. It's such a wonderful time of year. It's a time for giving, for family and friends, and for remembering the best gift of all that was given the first Christmas.

Practically everyone in the blogging world (at least those I follow) is sharing lists of favorite books of the year and other sorts of lists. I wanted to share a list of my family's favorite Christmas stories that we try to watch every year.

11. A Christmas Carol

This one is more recent, being a more recent movie, and isn't even my favorite version of the story, but my sister really likes it. It's actually the closest to the book that we've seen, strange, coming from Disney. It's kind of scary, but a faithful adaptation of the classic tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge and the lesson he must learn about turning from his cruel, miserly ways.

10. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

I've been watching this every Christmas for as long as I can remember. My mom said that when she was younger she always looked forward to seeing it on TV. A few Christmases ago, we realized how incredibly rude Santa is in it. Strangely enough, this only amplifies the message. When people are mean, you still should be nice to them. Return cruelty with kindness. Running away doesn't get rid of your problems. It's not wrong to be different. And sometimes those differences will make you the most famous reindeer of all...if you happen to have a shiny red nose.

 9. Miracle on 34th Street

We always try to watch this on Thanksgiving Day. After all, that's when it starts. It's a sweet story about a man who claims to be Santa Claus trying to bring kindness and good will back into the commercialization of Christmas. And when he is accused of insanity, his friend Fred Gayley sets out to prove he really is Santa Claus. We always watch the original, originals are best, and Natalie Wood is so adorable in this movie.

8. The Santa Clause

We've never believed in Santa Claus, but always treated him like any other fictional character. Still, I'm picky about Santa Claus movies. They're so contradictory and not at all believable. The Santa Clause attempts to make it all really work. It's funny, too. An ordinary guy turning into Santa? Awesome. And we often quote Charlie's stupid, politically correct teacher, because she's fun to make fun of. "We don't say stupid. And we don't say elves. They're little people." I also like The Santa Clause 2, though I don't like the third one as much.

 7. A Christmas Story

This one is kind of stupid, has nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas, and now that we have to watch the DVD instead of the TV version, I wish we had ClearPlay or something similar to filter out the bad language, but it's a family classic. We always watch it on Christmas Day. It's hilarious and extremely quotable. The story of a little boy who wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas, it contains such unforgetable things as the leg lamp, the pink bunny suit, the tongue to the pole triple dog dare, and the Santa foot in the face. Peace. Harmony. Comfort and Joy...Maybe next year.

 6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas

We have a very large Grinch doll that we got from my grandparents many years ago. So you might say he's a part of every Christmas. The Grinch hates Christmas, so he sets out to steal it. He takes everything the Whos down in Whoville have. And the crumb that he left was even too small for a mouse. The three words that best describe him are as follows, and I quote, "Stink. Stank. Stunk." But the Whos were still happy. Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from the store. Maybe Christmas, he thought, means a little bit more. His heart grew 3 sizes that day, and he had the strength of ten Grinches, plus two. And he himself, the Grinch, even carved the roast beast.

 5. Scrooge

This is definitely my favorite version of A Christmas Carol. It does deviate from the book (which makes it less scary), but it is full of amazing songs. I can't think of a single one I don't like. I especially love the ones involving the Cratchits, and "Happiness," when Isabel is singing. Scrooge's past is so sad. I feel sorry for him. And in the future, I have to say, I really enjoy "Thank You Very Much." "Thank you very much. Thank you very much. That's the nicest thing that anyone's ever done for me." It's just an amazing adaptation.

 4. White Christmas

 White Christmas is a classic. It's actually a musical where it sort of makes sense for them to sing so much, since the main characters are all performers who write and sing songs all the time. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis meet the sisters of Benny Haynes "the dog-faced boy" Betty and Judy. Through Phil's conniving, they all end up in snowless Vermont at a hotel unbeknownst to them owned by their old general. Business is bad because of the lack of snow, so Bob and Phil decide to give the General the best Christmas gift they can. What do you do with a general when he stops being a general? What do you do with a general who's retired? Misunderstandings happen, and things don't always go so well, but the movie ends beautifully with the knight back up on the white charger.

 3. A Charlie Brown Christmas

This is my personal favorite Christmas special. Charlie Brown is having a difficult time getting into the Christmas spirit. Lucy suggests he needs involvement and gets him to direct their Christmas play. But Charlie Brown realizes that his real problem is that he doesn't know what Christmas is really about. "Can't anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?" "I know, Charlie Brown," Linus answers. And he does. He quotes straight from the Bible what the true meaning of Christmas is. Because it's not commercial. It's about Jesus.

2. It's a Wonderful Life 

Another classic, one of my parents' favorite actors, and one of the best Christmas movies ever. George Bailey led a selfless life. He saved his brother from drowning. He didn't deliver poisoned pills. When his brother Harry came back with a wife and a job offer, George let him take it and kept running Bailey Building and Loans, despite his lifelong dream of traveling. He's not perfect, though. He can be rude, and he certainly has a temper. He gets married, has four children, still runs the Building and Loans, and then Mr. Potter steals $8,000 from absentminded Uncle Billy. George is convinced everyone would be better off if he'd never been born. Clarence Oddbody, A. S. 2 is sent to help him, and he's given the opportunity to find out what things would be like without him. Mr. Potter, that warped, frustrated old man, always makes me really mad, but no man is a failure who has friends.

1. Luke 2:1-20

But of course, the best Christmas story is the original one. The one that started it all. It is the story of the only begotten Son of God, born to the Virgin Mary and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. A child born to be our salvation, to take all our sins upon Himself to the cross that we might not perish, but have everlasting life.

For unto us a child is born, and unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and he shall call his name, Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. The increase of his government and peace shall have none end: he shall sit upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to stablish it with judgment, and with justice, from henceforth, even forever: the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
--Isaiah 9: 6-7

Monday, December 15, 2014

Movie Review: Mockingjay Part 1

Mockingjay Part 1

Rating: PG-13 (Intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, and thematic material)

Recommended for: Ages 15 to Adult (Really, for teens, it depends on the person and the family, so I recommend parental judgment on this one. Some younger teens can handle it just fine, and some older may still have issues. You can go to PluggedIn for a content overview, though all in all, this one seems to have less content concerns than the previous movie.)

The worldwide phenomenon of The Hunger Games continues to set the world on fire with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, which finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in District 13 after she literally shatters the games forever. Under the leadership of Commander Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends, Katniss spreads her wings as she fights to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage.

I know the premise of the Hunger Games stories makes it controversial. I like them, so let me tell you why.

1. I'm a sucker for an evil government story. Yeah, growing up in politics has had its effects. And really, it's a lot more about fighting back against an evil government than it is about kids killing kids. That is never once condoned, and is one of the things they want to stop.

2. It alerts me to the direction America is headed and motivates me to do something about it. This is true for basically every dystopian I've read.

3. It doesn't sugarcoat the consequences of killing and war. Too many stories do, and don't get condemned for it. The Hunger Games stories actually got me to feel sorry for the stormtrooper that Luke Skywalker causes to slam into a tree and explode in Return of the Jedi. I'm serious. Knowing stormtrooper backstory, that stormtrooper had no more choice in fighting for the Emperor than the tributes do in going into the Arena. So it's made me more sensitive to violence rather than less.

4. Peeta Mellark. Sorry, I had to mention him. He's just so sweet and good, and then...spoilers.

So, now onto a more literary type analysis of the third movie in the series: Mockingjay Part 1.

Technical: 4.5/5

This was a well made movie. Now there were a small handful of instances of shaky cam that bugged me on a movie theater screen, but I should be able to handle it on a television. They didn't use it anywhere near as much as in the first film, which was good. It was a good and faithful adaptation, and, for splitting the book in half, it didn't seem too much like half a book. The special effects all seemed realistic, and the acting was really good. I mean, Jennifer Lawrence can portray a character that can't act at all while remaining fully in character for the character she is playing. If that jumble makes any sense. If you know the story, you can probably sort it out. :) And Josh Hutcherson has shown another side of his acting abilities. He didn't get much screen time, but...Peeta...

Setting: 5/5

The real worldbuilding credit goes to Suzanne Collins, of course. It's horrible, but brilliant and amazing, but horrible. I mean, who would really want to live in Panem? Um, no one. But it's such a perfect blend of futuristic technology and historical periods and modern times. It feels so real. Maybe it's because America seems to be headed in a similar direction. And it's awful. Panem is an awful place. Which is why they're kind of starting a war. I'm really in awe of her worldbuilding abilities. It was well portrayed on screen as well. Of course, things are very different now. The Capitol keeps bombing everything, so basically everything is a pile of rubble. It's pretty terrible. My only quibble is that they didn't really show what District 13 is actually like. It seems better than it was in the book. It was really very controlled and dictatorial, but it didn't seem as bad in the movie.

Plot: 4.5/5

There's a reason my friend leaned over to ask me if I was crying yet partway through the movie. The second part is going to be sadder, I'm pretty sure of this for multiple reasons, but there isn't an installment in the series that isn't sad. Like, beyond "happy for deep people" sad. It's been a while since I read straight through the first half of the book, but it was a faithful adaptation. It centers on Katniss's decision to be the Mockingjay, basically the figurehead for the rebellion. Also, there's the matter of Peeta, Annie, and Johannah's imprisonment by the Capitol. It was definitely action packed, and, well, a war is starting. The Capitol is showing more than ever just how ruthless they can be, and the rebellion is really starting. The cliffhanger isn't quite as bad as it would have been if they'd stopped it about five minutes or so sooner, like I thought they would have, they chose to explain a few things before cutting, but still, the last shot of the film is terrible. It did at times feel a slight bit like filler, but that may be because Peeta was barely in it, and because things weren't as sped up and condensed as they were for the previous two films.

Character Development: 5/5

Now, we had friends over for a movie marathon before going to the theater together, so I'm seeing this all more as a whole than just a part. The characters progress as one would expect them to in their circumstances. Katniss is being torn apart, but just wait for the next movie. I actually liked Gale better this time around than I ever have before, but I think that's mostly because I now think of him as Kaden Altair. Prim is growing up and going to be trained as a doctor, but she's still the same Prim who loves a raggedy old mean cat. It was around this point in the book that I started to like Finnick. Because you finally find out who he truly is. I won't talk about Peeta because of spoilers and because it would be awful anyway. He's my favorite character, let's just say that.

I know this is a really long review, but I have a lot to say and, to be honest, this review is a lot easier to write than Time Captives. The Hunger Games trilogy (or series, if we're talking movies) isn't for everyone, but there are valuable things to be learned from it. Like that it's not okay to kill people. It destroys you. That sometimes it is necessary to go to war, but war is still in itself not a good thing. Drowning yourself in alcohol won't ever get rid of your problems, Haymitch, as much as you may try, and never actually give it up. It's hard to rebuild from total destruction of things physical and emotional, and things will never be the same, but it can be done. And don't give up on people. Your first impression may be wrong, or they may not have realized that they hurt you, or they could have been tortured beyond repair and need you to help them begin to heal. And that's what I think of The Hunger Games and Mockingjay Part 1.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book Review: Becoming Nikki

Becoming Nikki by Ashley Elliot 

Disclaimer: I received this book as an advance review copy. However, the opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own. Cross my hearts.

Recommended For: Ages 10 to Adult (interest and reading level)

Rating: G

What would you do if you were given the opportunity to rebuild a broken relationship?

Alec and Nikki Scott are the perfect ice dancing duo, executing flawless technique and brilliant performance abilities each time they compete. No one doubts their camaraderie, not even their closest friends.

But looks can be deceiving. Off the ice, their relationship is in shambles. Ice dancing is the only thing they have in common anymore... and Alec wants to quit.

Just as Nikki feels like their relationship can't get any worse, an unexpected tragedy crashes into her life. She's left struggling with a difficult choice as her opinion of her brother slowly starts to change.

Whatever she decides, she knows her life will never be the same

This book is AWESOME!
Seriously! I admit, it wasn't quite what I was expecting, but I loved it all the same. Nikki was so likable and interesting, and so was Alec. Well, I didn't like Alec in the beginning, but later, he got...and SPOILERS. I don't read much contemporary fiction (for the reason I Don't Know Why), but I made an exception for this and am so glad I did. But I should probably get to my review.

Writing: 5/5
I must admit, the writing style was a little hard to get used to. But once I got used to it, it was great. And interesting. There weren't any technical issues as far as I can remember, except for a few typos, which should hopefully be fixed in the very final version. One thing I liked a lot would be the pop culture references, especially the Doctor Who ones. They were refreshing and light-hearted.

Setting: 5/5
This book is set somewhere in the United States in the modern times. The setting was very well done. There is a lot of ice skating stuff and ice skating places in it (DUH), which I am not very familiar with, but, from what I've read in books and seen on TV, it seemed pretty accurate.

Plot: 5/5
The plot in this book was done in a very unique way (because I can't say the concept is very unique. It's not.). SPOILER ALERT Most amnesia stories in books and on TV aren't done well and/or are cheesy. HOWEVER. This book was far from cheesy. And it was a lot more realistic than the bonk-on-the-head-and-you-have-amnesia, bonk-on-the-head-and-it's-gone stuff (thank goodness). That stuff is good for comedy, but not much else. This amnesia story, however....(AWESOME!!!) Very well done. END SPOILER ALERT I loved the plot and the way it was done. And it is something interesting to think about, as well.

Character Development: 5/5
Let me just say. The characters. (The most awesome part.) They were REALLY cool. Nikki's rollercoaster emotions at the beginning were a little hard to get to. But once I did (either that or they stopped being so rollercoastery), it was great. I ended up loving Nikki. And Alec. And I also liked: Dylan, Natalie, Sam, Bennet, Liam, Kate, and Nikki's dad (among others I may have forgotten). I didn't like Allie, or Alec (yes, the same Alec I loved. He's sometimes a jerk). The minor characters fulfilled their roles as minor characters correctly. And such.

You should really get this book and read it. It's good. You will not regret your choice.

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Find the rest of the Becoming Nikki blog tour here.

Ashley Elliott is a writer, reader, musician, photographer, tree-climber, and Leaguette. She speaks fluently in movie quotes and spends most of her time fangirling over her latest obsession. In her free time, she enjoys laughing with her friends, laughing over Christian indie films (but secretly loving them), and laughing with her five crazy siblings. Ashley is a homeschool graduate and is currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Humanities through CollegePlus. She lives in Georgia with her parents and siblings, and doesn't have any pets.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Review: Red Rain

Red Rain by Aubrey Hansen

Recommended for: 10 and up (scary situations and interest level)

Rating: PG

Government regulations said they had no choice. 17-year-old Philadelphia must stay on Earth in the care of complete strangers while her father is sent against his will to Mars. When a benevolent official allows her to accompany her father, Philadelphia knows she must keep her head down or be sent back to Earth. But when a search for her deceased brother’s Bible leads her into a hallway that isn’t supposed to exist, Philadelphia is faced with a question she doesn’t want to answer—the choice between returning to Earth or destroying it. 

Although I usually prefer fantasy over sci-fi, I enjoyed listening to this book. The story doesn't focus on the science but on the characters and the world they live in, which is something that I prefer in sci-fi. 

Writing: 4/5 

I listened to the audio book, so I know that it is written well for listening. I do have some trouble listening to books but I was able pay attention to this book. I was confused at the beginning at what was going on but other than that, the story was easy to follow.The story doesn't go in depth much, but it is good the way it is. 

Setting: 5/5 

The story starts out on Earth in a camp where all the Christians have been placed until they die or decide to leave their faith. I don't remember there being a lot of background on why they are there. The second place in the story is a base on Mars where scientists are sent to work on different projects for the government. Some of the descriptions of the base were confusing, but I think that they were supposed to be. There weren't a lot of details on the structure of their society but I hope that the sequel will have more. The story wasn't complicated but it was good that way. 

Plot: 4/5 

It is hard to say what the main plot of the story is. It has many different little events that are eventually explained. It was pretty fast paced and interesting and kept me on edge with some of the situations. The main character did go sneaking around where she wasn't supposed to be, which always makes me nervous. Overall, the plot was pretty good with some somewhat surprising twists. 

Characters: 5/5

The characters were really well developed but the most interesting part about them is that their personalities are like the churches that they are named after. For example, Philadelphia's personality is like the description of the church in Revelation. There are several different characters that are named after the churches. The characters do have flaws and none of them are perfect, but I still do like them. 

I enjoyed listening to this book and would recommend it for someone to read, even if they don't like sci-fi.