The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

The Land of Stories: The Wishing SpellAlex sat up and looked around her room and finally found what was making the noise.  It was coming from inside The Land of Stories on her nightstand and, to her amazement, the pages were unmistakably glowing.” (The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell, 61)

Many classic fairy tales end with the characters living “happily ever after,” but what does that really mean?  Does each character never have a single worry ever again?  In this week’s book review, I look at The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, a fantasy novel that explores what really happens to classic characters beyond the pages of their own tales, and shows that some stories never truly end.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is about a pair of twins: Alex, an over-achieving yet friendless bookworm, and her brother Conner, a student who is often in trouble for his laziness.  The book begins with the children and their family still trying to put their life together after a recent death, but the children find new hope on their twelfth birthday.  Their grandmother gives Alex and Conner a book called The Land of Stories, a collection of classic fairy tales that acts as a portal into a realm where the tales actually happened.  The twins are quickly whisked away into the new world, but soon discover that returning home is far more difficult.

The Land of Stories is the debut novel by Chris Colfer, who is more widely known as an actor rather than an author.  He currently portrays Kurt Hummel on the television series Glee, but he has recently used that success as a springboard for other creative pursuits, such as writing.  Aside from The Land of Stories, Colfer has also been working on films and television shows of his own.  Actors who branch out into other art forms are often met with skepticism and that’s understandable (Colfer would have had a harder time having this book published if he were not already a celebrity).

However, for the most part, Chris Colfer shows promise as a writer in The Land of Stories.  He adds humour throughout the book and, other than a few examples, his jokes are pretty effective.  His writing style is simple and unremarkable, but it works, because the story is allowed to happen without distractions from poetic language or unnecessarily long descriptions.  Colfer’s book does have some mistakes, though.  Some sentences or paragraphs in The Land of Stories have the same word repeated too much.  While fantasy authors have used repetition in order to make a story whimsical, Colfer does not appear to be doing it on purpose.  Likewise, he has a habit of building sentences with the structure “something happened as something else happened.”  This might have been the fault of the editor, but the repeated use of “as” in this way can be distracting, especially in one instance where he used two sentences in a row with the same structure.  Of course, these are minor complaints when considering the entire book, which is otherwise entertaining and well-written.  For a first novel, The Land of Stories is better than average and shows potential for Colfer as a writer.

The Land of Stories might not appear original or unique at first glance.   The idea of expanding classic fairy tales has been very popular in recent years, from films such as Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror to the television series Once Upon a Time.  Despite its resemblance to these other works, The Land of Stories is successful due to Chris Colfer’s strength in weaving the story and developing the characters.  On their journey, the twins come across a variety of classic characters, with Cinderella, Snow White, and Jack (the one who climbed the beanstalk) as some examples.  Each of these characters has grown and matured since their original stories, which makes them more complex.  I have never been a huge fan of the Goldilocks story, but I really like the direction Colfer uses for her in this book.  All of these characters live in the same land, so each character has a history with another, and it’s interesting to see how these relationships play out in the second half of The Land of Stories, when many of the characters come into conflict with each other.  Chris Colfer also should be praised for the character development he gives to certain villains, making them more sympathetic than they are in their original stories.

I have some other minor problems to mention.  In certain early scenes of The Land of Stories, a character will explain how certain modern versions of the fairy tales remove the darker nature of the stories.  When a character does this, he or she will say something along the lines of “actually, in the original version…”  While I’m sure there was a first version of each tale at one point, most of these stories have had so many different variations over the years and, from what I understand, none of the stories have a specific version that can be identified as “the original version” with any certainty.  I’m not sure whether that kind of error would bother everyone, but I did find it a little annoying, especially because the character usually acted like a know-it-all when his or her information was actually wrong.  One other problem was that many of the plot twists in The Land of Stories were easily predictable, but this is a bit more forgivable because the book is mainly written for children, who might not guess the twists before they happen.  The novel also has many other entertaining aspects that make it worth reading, so it does not lean too heavily upon the surprises to encourage the reader to continue.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is a fantasy book worth reading.  Even if you’re an adult, the story is sure to keep your attention if you like fantasy or fairy tales.  I wasn’t a fan of every fairy tale included, but the way Chris Colfer develops the characters made me appreciate the stories more.  However, the story and style of the book are simple because children are the intended audience, so if you’re looking for more complex or adult storytelling, this novel might not be the right fit for you.  Some problems aside, The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer is an entertaining and accessible book, which I give a 4 out of 5.

The Cabin in the Woods

"You think you know the story."

“You think you know the story.”

Searching for a weekend retreat, five young men and women travel to an old cabin, far from the reaches of civilization.  Little do they know that a mysterious force is at work in the house, ready to threaten their lives.  Does that sound very familiar?  Just wait.  At the same time, two men who seem to have knowledge of the cabin arrive at a strange facility an unknown distance away.  Who are these men?  What is their job?  These questions and more are answered in the film The Cabin in the Woods.

The best advice I can give for people who want to watch The Cabin in the Woods is to know as little as possible before you see it, so I’m trying to avoid spoilers in this review.  I can say that, while the original premise of the film intentionally uses a cliche where the main characters are isolated from the outside world, the movie quickly moves beyond the concept and into richer territory.  The size of the story keeps growing until it has a scope far larger than any other horror film I’ve seen.  Although I did want to watch the movie again immediately after finishing it the first time, I do think a big part of the initial experience is the excitement of discovering the truth behind the cabin and that can be ruined if you know too much about the story before seeing the film.

The Cabin in the Woods was directed by Drew Goddard, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joss Whedon.  If you’ve read my review of the Avengers you know how much I love the works of Joss Whedon.  He knows how to tell a story like few other writers do, adding wit and humour to his shows and films without diffusing the weight and power of his dramatic moments.  Whedon’s talent is clearly at work in Cabin, but one cannot disregard the talent of Goddard as well.  Goddard not only worked on Whedon’s television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but also some great episodes for two of my other favourite shows, Alias and Lost.  With these two fantastic filmmakers collaborating on The Cabin in the Woods, it’s no wonder that the film turned out so good.

"Let's get this party started."

“Let’s get this party started.”

Whedon and Goddard designed The Cabin in the Woods to work both as a standard horror movie and as a satire of the genre, which was a challenge to accomplish, but they succeeded.  Some viewers of horror films are quickly exasperated by the illogical decisions made by the characters or the story elements that are overused within the genre.  Cabin finds humour in these tropes and offers explanations within the story.  If you’ve ever been frustrated by the weak storytelling of horror movies, you can find comfort in the film’s take on the genre.  On the other hand, if you simply enjoy horror movies as they are, The Cabin in the Woods is entertaining in this regard as well.

Of course, the fact that The Cabin in the Woods can act as a regular horror film does come with its own set of problems.  The film is tame compared to other recent horror movies, such as the Saw or Hostel films, but it does have enough violence and gore to turn away certain squeamish viewers.  In addition, some of the characters who act out the cliches of the genre are by necessity not developed as well as others.  The best and most complex characters of the film turn out to be the ones who satirize the horror genre the most: Fran Kranz, who also appeared in Whedon’s show Dollhouse and his upcoming film version of Much Ado About Nothing, plays a stoner named Marty who regularly points out the absurdity of the situation at the same time he tries to survive it; Kristen Connolly plays Dana, a girl who transcends her stereotypical role in the horror film; Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) appear as the mysterious men who control the fate of the young people in the cabin, bringing a dark humour to the film while referencing certain horror tropes.

The Cabin in the Woods is an well-designed and entertaining film that revives a stale premise.  The movie satisfies with a variety of humourous and surprising moments, but there is a deeper meaning to all of it.  The movie leaves you asking many questions:  What is the nature of humanity?  Why do we watch horror films?  Is it evil to find entertainment in the deaths of characters?  These philosophical questions combined with such an entertaining story make The Cabin in the Woods one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen and one of the best movies of 2012.  I give the film a 5 out of 5.  Watch the trailer for the film below:

Who I Am by Pete Townshend

Who I Am“As I raised the stuttering guitar above my head, I felt I was holding up the bloodied standard of endless centuries of mindless war. Explosions. Trenches. Bodies. The eerie screaming of the wind. I had made my choice, for now.  It would be music.” (Who I Am, 62)

I should reveal my bias right away: I consider the Who the greatest band in rock and roll history. At the height of their career, they were revolutionary, always pushing their creativity and musicianship beyond expectations and into new territory.  Aside from technical innovation, the Who were also fantastic performers, constantly infusing their music with an explosive energy that few other bands could match.  Years after I originally heard the band, I still have chills when listening to certain songs.

Considering my fanaticism for the band, my decision to read an autobiography by Pete Townshend, the guitarist and principal songwriter for the Who, might be one of the easiest choices I’ve ever made.  I didn’t simply want to read Who I Am, I needed to read it.

In Who I Am, Townshend describes his entire life and career thus far, from his troubled childhood and socially awkward teen years to his rise to fame and his life after the dissolution of the Who.  As a fan, the sections about the band and their music are more interesting to me, but I did enjoy reading about the origin of such a legendary songwriter.  In interviews promoting the memoir, Townshend discussed the sexual abuse he experienced as a child at the hands of his grandmother, but he wisely avoids specific details in the book itself, focusing more on the effect it later had on his creativity and life.  This omission works well, because he garners sympathy without shocking or unsettling the reader.

Being a non-fiction book, Who I Am does not have characters in the regular sense, but Pete Townshend is able to describe the people in his life in a way that gives them complexity.  One of the reasons the Who had such explosive energy is that the four members had such distinct personalities; whenever they played, each member competed with the others, trying to pull the music in a certain direction.  Townshend based his rock-opera Quadrophenia on the differences between the members, so he takes some time in that section to address the chemistry of the band.  Likewise, he has opportunities to provide depth to the individuals.  For example, the late drummer Keith Moon had a reputation as a party animal, but Pete explains that the parties were a way for Moon to cope with the jealousy he felt about his girlfriend.  Small details about the band are revealed throughout the memoir, which makes the book worth reading for fans who might not know everything about the Who.

Of course, Pete Townshend includes details about people other than his band mates.  While some rock stars might remember their wilder days fondly, Pete shows regret for many of his actions, especially the ones that hurt his ex-wife and family.  His remorse might take the fun out of the book for some readers who want to read about the hedonism of rock and roll, but for me it made Townshend more human.  It also reminded me about why he’s one of my favourite songwriters: he’s very thoughtful and intellectual.  He’s always critiquing his own decisions and considering how he could have acted differently.

Pete Townshend adopts a very journalistic style in Who I Am.  He is very direct and tries to sound objective when describing moments during his life.  The style can be a little dry occasionally, but for the most part, it’s very effective.  There are some sections where I wish he would have elaborated more upon the creative process, such as when he talks about recording my favourite album Quadrophenia, but that’s simply based on my personal taste.  He goes into more detail about Tommy, which makes sense because it was a bigger moment in the band’s history.  My only other complaint is that Townshend spends a lot of time detailing the recording equipment in every home studio he made.  I’m sure those details are important for historical purposes and interesting for those who are knowledgeable in recording, but they mean little to me.

I rarely read memoirs or non-fiction books unless I’m very interested in the topic, and Who I Am easily fits the bill.  The Who is my favourite band and I enjoy reading about the stories and people behind the music.  Aside from some small complaints, I really loved the book and I recommend it to anyone who also likes the Who or wants to read about Pete’s rock and roll lifestyle.  Clearly, the book isn’t for everyone, because each person will have their own opinion (or lack thereof) regarding The Who, but as a fan who waited a long time for this book to be released, I’m satisfied.  I give Who I Am4.5 out of 5.

What does everyone think about biographies?  If you have read some, what was your favourite?  Do you read non-fiction books often or rarely?  Let me know what you think below.

Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year.  I’m returning today with a review of the novel Solar by Ian McEwan.  I have previously read two of the author’s other books, Saturday and The Innocent.  I had very different responses to those two novels: I found Saturday boring and pointless, but I really appreciated The Innocent.  Solar, in terms of quality, falls between those two extremes.  It is entertaining enough, but lacks the great story and character work that made The Innocent so good.

The main character of Solar is an aging physicist named Michael Beard, who develops new methods to harness social energy while he tries to manage a deteriorating personal life.  Beard’s problem is that he is driven entirely by physical urges and desires.  He moves from one woman to the next, saying and doing whatever it takes to seduce them.  Likewise, he gradually grows more overweight as the book continues, because he cannot control himself from eating unhealthy foods.  Beard does not truly care about anything beyond the satisfaction of his own needs.  Even his mission to help the environment by using solar energy is based on his selfish desire for recognition, instead of a belief that he can benefit the world.

If you are a reader who cannot stand unlikable characters, then Solar isn’t for you.  Michael Beard is just one among many characters in the novel who have little redeeming value.  I can only think of one minor character near the end who has a positive influence on those around her, but she barely has an impact on the story.  All of the other characters are either destructive, decent but make wrong decisions, or simply pointless.  McEwan clearly wants his audience to find humour in the detestable actions of the characters, especially in the case of Beard, but that charm can only last so long.  I enjoyed the absurdity of Beard near the beginning, when he reacts immaturely to his current wife’s adultery (which was revenge for his own infidelity), but by the second half of the book, I was tired of his limited view of the world.  His reluctance to make better decisions made him more annoying than amusing to me.  McEwan does lead the novel to an interesting conclusion, but not one where I could sympathize with any of the characters.

McEwan’s choice to make Solar about the current energy crisis made the book seem interesting to me before I read it, but unfortunately, that side of the book is never quite developed.  Perhaps because the problem is ongoing, the author does not offer any real commentary on the subject or reveal whether Beard’s research will be successful.  I wouldn’t expect a novelist to know enough about social energy to save the planet, but I would have liked it if he made some statement about the crisis.  McEwan could have at least used the concept as a metaphor for Beard’s personal flaws, but he never bothers to do that, either.  It sounds like all of the science in the book is accurate, but solar energy is ultimately a subplot that could have been removed or replaced with an entirely different field of research.  McEwan’s use of the topic appears to be a failed attempt to remain current.  It reminds me of his novel Saturday, which didn’t have a story because he was too busy making references to current events.  In ten years, both Saturday and Solar will just seem outdated.

Compared to other novelists, Ian McEwan has an intellectual writing style that many consider pretentious.  I’m a little undecided on his style, because I do appreciate more sophisticated prose, but it can also seem dry at times.  If I try to read his work for more than about twenty or thirty pages at a time, I can find it difficult to concentrate.  I can forgive his style when the characters or story are interesting, but unfortunately, Solar does not have a strong plot as an incentive.

The title Solar reminds me of two Latin words: sol, which means “the sun,” and solus, meaning “alone.”  The most intriguing concept I found in the book is the conflict between those two ideas.  Michael Beard and other scientists want to use solar energy to save the world, but they are still flawed humans, driven by their desire for immediate personal satisfaction.  The idea that those who work for the planet’s survival may be even more corrupt than the average person is interesting to me.

I found Solar a decent enough story, but very little about it stands out as exceptional.  The plot, characters, and writing style are not necessarily weak, but they’re not memorable either.  I give Solar a 3 out of 5.  I wouldn’t really recommend the novel to anyone unless they have already read and enjoyed Ian McEwan books before.  If you have any interest in the author, I would suggest The Innocent as a different starting point, because that’s the only book I’ve read from that I would consider great.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

"I am looking for someone to share in an adventure."

“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure.”

I have to apologize for the lack of updates in recent months.  I was busy with my final semester of college, which didn’t leave a lot of time for blog entries.  Now I’m done with school and I have plenty of time, so I should be posting more regularly for the foreseeable future.  I’m excited, not only because I have returned to the site, but also because my first entry in months is a review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

How can a journey be truly unexpected when one has been waiting years for it?  The Hobbit is easily the film I’ve anticipated most this year. I’m a huge fan of the book, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and Middle-earth in general.  Considering my enthusiasm for the material, there was no way I could approach An Unexpected Journey with an objective eye.  My review, then, should be seen for what it is: a fan who enjoyed every second of the film.The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey begins essentially in the same way as the novel.  The hobbit Bilbo Baggins is enjoying a peaceful life when he is approached by the wizard Gandalf and a company of Dwarves, who whisk him away on an adventure.  The Dwarves are on a journey to the Lonely Mountain, where they had a powerful kingdom until a dragon named Smaug conquered it, stealing their treasure.  The scenes taken from the book are mostly rendered faithfully, and they are the best scenes in the movie.

Where An Unexpected Journey might have been derailed is in Jackson’s decision to connect the movie to his Lord of the Rings film trilogy, making The Hobbit as a “prequel” rather than a story on its own.  He added cameos from Rings actors, created a subplot that foreshadows the trilogy, and even constructed certain Hobbit scenes to resemble sections from the Fellowship film.  I have some criticisms about these aspects of the movie, especially because they take time away from Bilbo’s story, but on the other hand, I like The Lord of the Rings and I’m interested to see how Jackson will develop the connections in the next two movies.  I wish I could have seen a version of The Hobbit without the additions, but ultimately, the new scenes are worth seeing.

Thorin Oakenshield is the leader of the Dwarves, and the driving force behind the journey.

Thorin Oakenshield is the leader of the Dwarves, and the driving force behind the journey.

An Unexpected Journey is inhabited by Hobbits, wizards, Dwarves, Elves, Goblins, and even hedgehogs, but the film is notable because it completely lacks human characters.  Considering the assortment of creatures could have alienated the audience, the actors should be commended for providing the characters with such human emotions and concerns.  Martin Freeman is a fantastic Bilbo, capturing both his humour and his doubt about his own heroism.  Not all of the Dwarves are developed yet, but those who are have been given distinct personalities:  Thorin is the bitter, driven leader who wishes to regain his homeland; Balin is both a warrior and an advisor, wise in his old age; Kili and Fili are the youngest Dwarves, providing youthful mischief and comic relief.  Those are just some examples that stood out in the first movie.  I’m interested to see how Jackson will continue to develop the company of Dwarves in the rest of the trilogy.

Other actors in the film besides Bilbo and the Dwarves give excellent performances.  Andy Serkis once again brings Gollum to life through motion capture, managing to portray both the dangerous and the sympathetic sides of the character successfully.  Ian McKellen is still the perfect choice for Gandalf.  McKellen didn’t originally want to play the wizard again, but I’m glad he changed his mind, because no other actor would have worked.  Sylvestor McCoy joins the cast as Radagast the Brown, a wizard connected to nature.  Some have criticized Jackson’s quirky additions to Radagast’s character, but the changes help to make him separate from the more serious wizards and he fits the light-hearted tone of the book.  The only weak acting I noticed came from Christopher Lee, who returned as Saruman.  I was happy that he could be in the film, but it almost seemed like he was just reading his lines.  Saruman was always a bit dry, I suppose.

One of Peter Jackson’s more controversial decisions when filming The Hobbit trilogy was his choice to shoot it at 48 frames per second, a frame rate twice as fast as most films.  Even before the movie came out, people were criticizing the technology.  However, I have been excited about the frame rate since it was announced and I definitely wanted to see the movie at that speed, especially since Jackson believes it to be the best way to watch the film.  Luckily, I was able to see the 48 frames per second version at the theatre nearby and I loved it.  The motion seemed a bit weird initially, but my eyes adjusted after a couple minutes and everything looked better.  Everything from the actors to the locations appears more real, as if Middle-earth exists in front of you.  The natural environment of New Zealand is especially amazing at the higher frame rate.  Some people have criticized the technology for making the special effects, costumes, and set look fake, but I was enjoying the experience too much to even think about that.  That said, the time it takes to adjust to the high frame rate seems to vary depending on the viewer, and it could be distracting when you first see the film.  I should also mention that I saw it in 3D, which was very good, even if it wasn’t necessary for every scene.

Despite Jackson's additions, Bilbo's journey is still at the heart of The Hobbit.

Despite Jackson’s additions, Bilbo’s journey is still at the heart of The Hobbit.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an immensely satisfying adventure that features great characters, an amazing atmosphere, and exciting visuals.  If you revel in stories of Hobbits and wizards, the first Hobbit film will be a welcome return to the land of Middle-earth.  For people unacquainted with Tolkien’s world, Peter Jackson’s artistic direction and the spectacle of the battle scenes should be enough to keep them entertained.  I give the film a 5 out of 5, because I enjoyed it far too much to give it anything less.