Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Five Nights at Freddy's review

I grabbed this book to read over the holiday break because it was flying off the shelves during the Scholastic Book Fair. According to the blurb on the back, it takes place in 1995, ten years after a series of children were kidnapped and murdered at Freddy Fazbear's. Freddy's seems to be a fictitious sibling to Chuck E. Cheese's, with the arcade games, animatronic entertainment, pizza and rides that are described.

It sounded like the makings of a great story, especially for a reader who's a child of the 80's and 90's. Not only was Chuck E. Cheese's THE place to go for birthday parties and Friday nights, but the danger lurking in this story is one that was very real to children of that generation. For kids nowaways, there are all sorts of epidemics that they hear about: obesity, bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, etc. But when I was young, the big theme of our school presentations and our parents' lectures was Stranger Danger. The kidnapping and death of Adam Walsh brought every parent's worst nightmare into the national limelight, and it seems that every region had its own sad story of a child vanishing. I always say that the engine of a horror story is the reader's ability to relate. It's not really that scary if we know it could never happen to us. But accepting the grim reality that horror can strike anytime is what makes the genre so exciting and taboo.

I was expecting to really enjoy this book.

But I commented more than once to my husband that I don't understand why the middle school students were so eager to buy this book. First of all, it's almost 400 pages, which is pretty long for some of them. But it's not merely the length, the action unfolded at a dinosauric rate! Based on the description of kidnappings and murders, I expected to be catapulted right into the heart of the story. Instead, I found myself being introduced to an entire cast of characters, suffering through a very juvenile budding love story and trying to figure out how much I'd need to suspend my grip on reality. Like, why are the crayon lines on the old drawings moving? Is the character imagining it, or is there some sort of supernatural evil at work here, in addition to an actual human murderer? And I quickly tired of the intentionally vague exposition. For example, someone would ask Charlie (the main character) if she stays in touch with her mom, and she'd think "Too much grief hung between us." I had no idea she even had a mother because that detail wasn't mentioned for the first 100 pages or so; I had just assumed she never had one.

It's a long book, and there's a lot of description, and a whole cast of characters, and yet it seemed like I wasn't getting the whole story.

I did just a little bit of research and found out why; this book is based on a video game.

Five Nights at Freddy's is horror-themed video game series, a indie that's available to play for free online. That is probably why the kids already knew about it and why they were so eager for it. The storyline in the book is similar to the one that's revealed during the course of game play. The game utilizes jump scares, similar to horror films, by having the villains 'pop up' suddenly in the gamer's view.

Now that I know how this novel came to fruition, I can appreciate it more in terms of what it's doing for the horror genre and the story's multi-media presence, and I am going to include it in the Horror Reader's Advisory page that I maintain for the library, but I am going to note on it that it's probably more enjoyable for readers who are already familiar with the story.  I have a section in my Readers Advisory that is specifically for books with multi-media appeal, like the popular Skeleton Creek series, and the Sunshine Girl novels, which were created by a popular YouTuber, whose videos create a series of paranormal stories that star her.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls

I don't read many murder mystery stories. I find forensic science fascinating, and I watch a lot of television shows and documentaries on how murders get solved, but I don't read them often. Perhaps the reason is because I prefer ghost stories, so when I try to read a story that involves death, I'm waiting for the ghost to come back and take revenge, or at least scare the crap out of someone. If I know that a ghost isn't going to show up, then it's hard for me to stay motivated to keep reading.

I guess that might be the reason why it's taken me so long to complete this book. I've picked it up several times, but it seemed I always got distracted and put it aside, probably in favor of a ghost story. But I resolved to read it because it's one of the only books by Mary Downing Hahn that I hadn't read yet, and I had plenty of time during the long drives we did at Christmas time to visit relatives.

Reading this book reminded me why I fell in love with Hahn's story-telling. It speaks to me. The first book of hers I ever read was Wait Till Helen Comes, and I remember how much I enjoyed the character Molly's narration because it was filled with the kind of thoughts I had myself regarding Death. That great unknown filled me fear and awe and led me to question what I'd been taught; furthermore, it validated everything that I thought and reassured me that I was not the only kid who considered that maybe there are other possibilities than just dying, sprouting white wings  and floating up to Heaven.

Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls is not a ghost story, but it is an examination of death. How it affects a community and why people sometimes jump to the easiest explanation and also how it can shake the belief systems that we have always taken for granted. After her friends Sheri and Bobbi Jo are senselessly murdered one day while walking to school, Nora struggles to understand why it happened and what it means in terms of the Catholic beliefs she was raised on. How can something so tragic be part of a "master plan"? How can she believe that their deaths are not in vain if their murderer is never found and punished? Why did a ten minute difference in the walk to school determine two girls' fate while she and her other friend continued on to school without a clue as to how that horrible day would unfold?

Whenever something tragic happens, we are left asking ourselves "Why did this happen?". Some people take comfort in the belief that whatever injustices or hardships we suffer during our time on Earth will be balanced out afterwards with a reward of eternal life. And some people struggle to believe that. I liked Wait Till Helen Comes because it didn't talk down to its intended audience by explaining away the idea of a ghost with a ridiculous Scooby Doo type ending, like "Oh, it wasn't a ghost, it was just a sheet flapping on the clothes line the whole time!" It allowed the reader to believe that maybe the afterlife is more complicated than angels and Heaven. And I liked Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls similarly because it doesn't have a neat ending, with a dramatic confession from the killer or a crack team of cops that locate the most unlikely suspect. It reminds me that life is more complicated than we like to believe, and the most obvious idea, the one's that's most convenient to believe, isn't necessarily the correct one. We always hope for justice when terrible things happen, but sometimes we need to be satisfied with accepting the terrible things that happen, without understanding them. It's the only way we can retain some semblance of peace.

A Dog's Purpose

I’ve long become accustomed to long car rides, and now I look at them as an opportunity to catch up on my reading (but not while I’m driving obviously). Going to see my family in Western NY for Christmas meant a long car ride, 11 hours in the car. Fortunately I had just received one of the books I ordered from the library.

I devoured A Dog’s Purpose.  I saw the trailer for the movie a couple months ago and it looked good, but when I learned it was based on a novel I knew I had to read it first. I’m always a sucker for animal stories, especially ones about dogs, and I don’t think I’d read one so fast and furiously since Marley and Me was first published.

Marley and Me is the story of a special dog as told from a human’s view, and A Dog’s Purpose is the story of a special dog told from the dog’s point of view. What drew me to this story is the idea that this dog is not just one dog, but that the spirit of this dog is reborn in different  bodies throughout a few decades. Everyone has, I hope, a special pet. The one that no other pet can compare to because they filled our life with such joy and meaning, and when we finally have to say goodbye, it wrecks us. A Dog’s Purpose offers we who have been wrecked by the death of a special pet hope because it allows us to imagine the possibility that our faithful friends are never really gone, they just come back in different forms.

The dog begins his journey as a nameless mutt. His feral mother fears human contact and shuns people, but he is taken in by a well-meaning woman who cannot close her door, or her heart, to any dog. Unfortunately, this leads to his demise because when the authorities are called in, and they take note of his situation and his deficiencies, his fate is sealed and he is euthanized. It’s sad to imagine an animal so young fall victim to circumstance, but that’s why the reader ca so eagerly believe that he gets another chance at life. In order to enjoy this book, the reader needs to imagine that it might be possible. He is reborn as a golden retriever who is taken in by a loving family, specifically a boy named Ethan. He lives his life as Ethan’s constant companion, seeing him through all the trials and tribulations of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. When his physical body finally gives out, he is lovingly cared for and he receives the dignity that his previous life, and death, did not afford him.

Although the boy showed him what love is, the dog’s purpose is not yet fulfilled. He comes back in a couple more bodies, sharing his life with other people who need him and he begins to understand that his rebirths are not random; rather, each life he has is connected to the next. In each body, he learned something that made him purposeful and worthwhile, and his worth to humans is what allows him to keep coming back.

I’ve already given some spoilers away so I don’t want to ruin the ending, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves dogs or animal stories or just good character development.

I will say that I have a special dog. Maybe she never learned any fancy tricks like the one in the book, but that alone does not determine one’s worth. She was the dog that no other dog will ever be able to compare to. I never wanted to say good-bye to her, and now that I read this book I indulge myself by thinking that maybe I didn’t. Maybe she’s around right now, in a different body, making someone else happy. When you fall in love with a dog, like Ethan fell in love with Bailey, or like I fell in love with Jasmine, it makes it difficult to see yourself getting another dog . But I know someday I will. Someday I’ll walk into a shelter, and I’ll walk up and down the aisles of kennels, looking in on the dogs. I’ll look into each dog’s eyes, and maybe one will already know me.

                                               me and Jasmine in 1992                 me and Jasmine in 2007

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Snow White graphic novel review

Warning: Even though everyone knows the story of Snow White, there are some spoilers here in terms of this particular rendering of the story and the artist’s vision of it.

Yesterday at work I saw one of our new graphic novels on display, so I picked it up for some light reading. It’s an adaptation of Snow White, and I love seeing fairy tales reimagined and reinterpreted so I knew it’d be interesting at least. I ended up falling in love with this rendition of it.

Matt Phelan has set the story in the 1920’s and 30’s in New York City, and the novel’s format is reminiscent of film noir from that period. In the classic story, Snow White gets her name because her mother pricks her finger while sewing and admired the way the color looks against the black trim of the window and the fresh-fallen snow upon it (and then obviously she dies while Snow White is still very young).  That element is still present in Phelan’s book but instead her mother succumbs to tuberculosis and the red blood spots are on her handkerchief, which contributes to the updated setting of the story. Most of the pictures are black and white, and the red punctuates the visual narrative.

The essence of film noir is that it is a stylized genre of cinematic story-telling which conveys a mood of mystery and menace. It was utilized in detectives stories and thrillers and featured stock characters such as femmes fatale and cynical cops. Samantha/Snow White’s father is a Wall Street millionaire who falls in love with a Ziegfield starlet, a beautiful but narcissistic woman.

The illustrations of her resemble well known stage and film actresses from the time period such as Louise Brooks or Theda Bara. When the crash hits her husband’s interests hard, she “fixes him a drink.”

Samantha/Snow White flees for her life and makes the acquaintance of seven young boys who reside in a local Hooverville, and they take it upon themselves to look out for the beautiful, naive young lady with seems so out of place in their world.

Staying true to the text, Snow White falls victim to a poisoned apple that is sold to her on the street.

Notice the red again

The heart-broken boys don’t know what to do with her body, so they place her in a beautiful store-front window that’s decorated like a winter wonderland, and the window replaces the traditional glass coffin. And since there weren't any European princes roaming around Manhattan at the time, it's the young detective who sees her laid out and instantly falls in love with her who kisses her.

Because the fairy tale is so well-known and doesn’t require much explanation, the text is sparse and the illustrations do most of the story telling. There are pages which precede each chapter that are modeled after silent film screen credits.

The illustrations are pencil sketches with watercolor details which are beautiful on their own, even without a well-known fairy tale behind them. It's a quick read because of the minimal text and because everyone already knows the basics of the story, but most readers will go back again to look at the illustrations. A great pick because of its potential for historical fiction discussion and visual literacy lessons.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Transcendentalist Ideals of Love and Marriage in 1994's Little Women

My loving husband gave me one of my Christmas gifts early last night. The soundtrack to the 1994 film adaptation of Little Women. I've been listening to it, and thinking about how much I love that movie. I know that this film is not the most faithful to Alcott’s text, but that’s mostly because the storyline was condensed and the tone of the film seemed a little more modernized. It doesn’t matter to me though because this film is the reason I fell in love with the story, and with the concept of Transcendentalism.

In short, Transcendentalism was a movement that came about in the first half of the 19th century in New England, and it professed that divinity is found in all aspects of nature and humanity. It was a progressive movement, especially in terms of women’s rights. As Professor Bhaer tells Jo “We throw off our constraints and come to know ourselves through insight and experience”, meaning that we can better ourselves by reflecting on what we have done and making conscious efforts to improve our future actions.

During her life, Alcott was flooded with letters from young girls who desperately wanted to know why Jo had not married the boy next door when he was so obviously in love with her. As I think more and more about my own ideas of love, and how they have matured as I have grown and become a married woman, I have my own theories about the theme of Transcendentalism and how it’s at work in the love/marriage plot points of Little Women.

Meg: Meg is the oldest girl, and unlike her sisters, she can actually remember what it was like when the family had a disposable income. Although she tries to make the best of her family’s situation, and tries to be a positive role model for her sisters, she is disappointed that she misses out on the finer things. In the film, she looks wistfully at the Lawrence house and says “I shouldn’t mind living in such a fine home and having nice things.” And of course there is the infamous scene at the Boston debutante party, during which she sips champagne and flirts and wears a much more revealing dress than she would otherwise, imagining what it must be like to have “four proposals, and twenty pairs of gloves”.

While it’s clear that she would enjoy a life made easier by money, she decides to marry for love. When Jo insensitively criticizes her fiance, John Brooke, Meg defends him: "He’s a good man. He’s kind and serious, and I’m not afraid of being poor.” Meg goes on to marry John Brooke, and later welcome their twins, Daisy and Demi.

Amy: Amy, being the youngest girl, is a little spoiled.

She is like Meg in her desire for a fine home and fashion trends, but because she is the youngest, she has never had to act as a role model for anyone, and thus she has not matured like Meg must have, years beforehand. While Amy is studying painting abroad, she is courted by Fred Vaughn, a Harvard chum of Laurie’s. Laurie learns of their courtship during a chance meeting in France, and when he questions her about her hopes she informs him that she expects a proposal “any day now.” He intuits that while she respects Fred, and certainly enjoys the prospect of a life of wealth, that she does not actually love him. Although he had been haplessly wandering around Europe, while spending money and courting women of his own, Laurie decides to make himself worthy of proposing to Amy, and goes to London to establish himself in his family’s business, asking her to not to do anything they might regret (like, marry someone else). It would have been very easy for Amy to marry Fred Vaughn, certainly a respectable man, and go on to live a life of ease, but Laurie’s request forces her to reflect on her options. Perhaps rather than choosing the easiest, and surest option, she should consider one that will take longer and might not bring as much money as the other, but represents love rather than security.

Laurie: Laurie enjoys a friendship with the March family from the beginning of his time in Concord. He plays with them, helps them, even spoils them a little, and most of his actions are in the spirit of brotherly love. When Meg confides in him that she envies the other girls at the debutante ball, he whole-heartedly tells her : "You're worth ten of those girls." He proposes to Jo, claiming to have fallen in love with her from the moment he clapped eyes on her.

She tells him that even though he is her dearest friend that she cannot marry him. Basically, she loves him, but she’s not in love with him. And when I think about the story, I’m not sure that Laurie’s really in love with Jo. To him, Jo is perfection, and I don’t think that equals true love. If Laurie and Jo had married, I’m sure they would have had alot of fun, but since they’re not in love, they never would have tried to improve themselves for the sake of each other. Laurie needed Amy, and the idea of losing her, to push himself into entering the family business and make himself a providing husband.

Likewise, Amy needed Laurie to make herself understand that being in love with someone is not easy.

Jo: Jo is obviously the March girl who becomes closest to Laurie (at least at first). Their friendship develops easily and naturally and is marked with much playing and laughing and good conversation. It’s no wonder that she refers to him as her dearest friend.

But Laurie accepts all her flaws without question, and when he proposes to her, she is still far too young to understand the realities of adult love and marriage. It’s not until she makes the acquaintance of Friedrich Bhaer that she finds a man who is going to challenge her and inspire her to grow. Not because he demands it, but because she loves him and wants to grow with him. Now, instead of doing the same things she’s always done, like ice skate and act out plays, she writes a novel and attends the opera and begins making plans to found a school, alongside someone who has taught her.

With Jo’s own maturing ideas about love, she also becomes more accepting of others. She first criticizes John Brooke for being “dull as powder” and and brattily asks Meg “Can’t you at least marry someone amusing?”, and later she realizes that a good marriage is more than having fun.

Falling in love is perhaps the easiest thing; it happens without us even trying or thinking about it. But being in love with someone, whether you’re actually married or not, is something that requires a great amount of effort. The practices of Transcendentalism are at work not only in the actual dialogue of the movie, but can also be interpreted in the more subtextual elements regarding the themes of love, courtship and marriage. In each character's story, they had to look within themselves and decide to overcome a shortcoming or a flaw, and make the conscious choice to grow in order to enjoy happiness in love.