Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ida (2013)

I saw this, 2015's Best Foreign Language Oscar-winner, almost a month ago, and yet it has continued to haunt me.  The story takes place in post World War II Poland, and follows a young novice named Anna, who is about to take her vows when her abbess sends her on a journey to meet a long estranged aunt.  The aunt, Wanda, tells her that she is Jewish, and that her parents were killed during the war.  Anna decides that she must find their graves and pay her respects, leading both women on a journey that uncovers a dark secret and causes Anna to question whether she should live a spiritual or secular life.

The stylistic choices of director Pawel Pawlikowski are stunning throughout;  shot in black and white with an unusual aspect ratio for a feature film of 1:33 : 1 (meaning the frame is almost square rather than the more typical widescreen rectangle favored today) this is a movie in which each image is composed to reflect either the psychology of the character being framed or the underlying emotion of a scene.  The film is contemplative and deliberate, and yet so compellingly told and acted by the leads, Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, that I found myself mesmerized by the tale. As it drew to its conclusion, I found myself wanting to go back to the beginning and watch it all over again.  I highly recommend this to fans of the arthouse cinema of the 1950's and 1960's, which was a clear influence on this work, as well as those who have enjoyed books like Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries or Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer.   -BR

Reserve this movie

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

The world as we know it has changed. Some humans have evolved. Known as the Silvers, they have been gifted with God-like powers. Some manipulate elements. Others can read minds. Some can even control a person’s body. All Silvers are brought up knowing that they are special, and that they are better than the Reds. A lowly race, Reds bleed red blood, and have no special powers. They are resigned to menial duties, forced into servitude for the Silvers.

Mare Barrow, a thief, is also a Red. Jobs are scarce, and with no special skills, she is forced to spend her days roaming the streets, stealing what she can for her family. When a freak accident in front of Silvers causes her to realize that she also has a special ability, she is placed into hiding by the Silver nobility. Terrified at what this will mean for the precious Silvers and their elitist status, that a Red can be special, the King forces her to pretend to be Silver, and betroths her to his younger son. With the threat of death for her and her family if she disobeys, Mare becomes Maureena, a long lost daughter of Silver nobility. In order to survive, she must play her part well. But with an impending Red rebellion looming, and Mare’s desire to help them take down the Silvers, she will soon find herself betrayed by those she trusts the most.

I picked this YA book up after seeing an advertisement for it in a magazine. It’s got a very compelling cover in my opinion, and an interesting premise, though there are quite a few books out there right now with this similar plot: lowly boy/girl discover that they have super powers and work covertly to bring down the Big Bad. I would definitely compare this book to Red Rising, which is another book I have reviewed for this blog. Red Rising is considered an adult book however, while Red Queen is definitely YA. There are, of course, multiple love interests for Mara, and instead of a love triangle this book has a love quadrangle. I had the big twist figured out pretty early on, but it was still interesting to see the protagonist on her journey. Mara is definitely a flawed character who constantly makes dumb mistakes, but she is young, and I am interested in seeing her development as she matures in later books. Victoria Aveyard is a new author, and it reflects in her writing. This isn’t great literature, but it was a good story, and I am looking forward to seeing her writing improve in the sequels. I would recommend this book to fans of Kiera Cass,    
Cassandra Clare, Richelle Mead, Rick Riordan, Scott Westerfeld, or Leigh Bardugo. - LT

Friday, June 19, 2015

Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy

If you’re someone like me who likes to follow the natural world in the news, then you may have heard about Deep Blue, the TWENTY FOOT Great White shark that has recently caused an internet stir via a video where she is seen getting a gentle push from a shark expert who exited his shark cage in order to keep her from hurting herself on the cage’s edges.  Deep Blue is estimated to be more than twenty feet long (!) and around fifty years of age.  The oldest recorded Great White was a male shark about 73 years old and about 16 feet in length, which scientists believe to fall within the average lifespan and size for Great Whites.

My point is, I love reading about sharks!  So naturally, I was thrilled when I came across (quite by accident) this gem of a young reader’s nonfiction book:  Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands by Katherine Roy, writer and illustrator.  Nonfiction books often get poo-poo’ed by readers as being “boring”, and I challenge readers to label Neighborhood Sharks in such a way.  Roy immediately attracted me visually through her dramatic, realistic illustrations and her storytelling style.  She begins with a calm, average day at sea…and then the action hits!  Literally.  Roy introduces the biology of the Great White – through their lunch menu – and then moves on to describe how the sharks spend the rest of their time (migration and reproduction), before ending the book where it began – with a calm sea followed by lunch.

I understand if seeing pictures of sharks makes readers uneasy, there’s something about the shark that circles slowly in the deep, cold waters of our human psyche.  On a global scale, 60-70 nonfatal shark attacks are recorded yearly.  However, humans are responsible for killing over ONE HUNDRED MILLION sharks every year and I appreciate that Roy takes time to caution readers of the rapidly dwindling Great White shark numbers (yes, they are endangered) while encouraging responsible stewardship of our planet.

If you have a budding marine biologist at home (or just love sharks like I do), I highly recommend reading this book together.  -JW

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen

This is a weighty title, I know.  It's a book about fandom by two professors that has the word "shame" in its subtitle, and features images from the tv show Supernatural on its cover.  Its first chapter is called "Lost in Space:  Participatory Fandom and the Negotiation of Fan Spaces."  Please don't let any of that scare you away!  If you are a fan of any mass-media text, or if you are at all curious about the increasingly visible state of modern fandom,  you will likely find this book illuminating and entertaining. 

Starting by acknowledging the authors' own immersion in the Supernatural fandom and their intent to talk about various aspects of fandom using their inside point of view, the book covers both the positive and the negative sides inherent in this "space".  Fans can be found in online forums like discussion boards and writing fanfiction on Live Journal or Archive of Our Own, on social media outlets like Twitter, and at fan conventions;  Zubernis and Larsen use their personal experiences to explain how fannish activities in these outlets can have a therapeutic affect for their participants, and how and why transformative works (aka fanfiction or fanart) can exert a powerful and creative fascination for many fans.  They also talk about the ever more porous nature of boundaries between the fans and producers, writers and actors, and how both sides police these boundaries.  With this particular fandom as their test case, they bring in thoughtful, sometimes heartbreaking and often funny insight from the show's fans and creators to illustrate facets of their arguments. 

If you have some passing knowledge of the show, you may get a bit more out of this book.  It features quite a few photographs of and interviews with its stars and behind the scenes talent; however, this understanding is not necessary, since many fandoms share similar online spaces and practices.  It's no secret that I am a fan of this show (my first review for this blog was for Supernatural, and at that time I hadn't even caught up with the show's 10 seasons!) as well as other programs and book series.  As a fan, I felt like these authors "got it" and so are able to talk about their subject from a unique, informed but never condescending perspective.  I highly recommend it both to fans and to observers of fandom.   -BR

Reserve this book.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King by Mike Pitts

Summary: The events of Richard III's reign and his death in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth are known worldwide, made popular by Shakespeare's most performed, filmed and translated history play, but his burial site was lost after the reign of Henry VIII.  In 2012, archaeologists found the grave of Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester, England.  The search took years of preparation followed by intensive archaeological study and almost no one had expected a result. Finally it was announced that a skeleton with a curved spine and battle wounds had been found and was thought to be that of Richard.  Subsequently, analysis of anatomy, DNA, high-resolution scanning, and a digital facial reconstruction led to the conclusion that the skeleton was indeed Richard III, England's most disputed monarch.  The skeleton was re-buried with royal honors in Leicester Cathedral on March 26th, 2015. 

The dig site, shown soon after excavation began
Review: This book was published in early 2014, before the re-burial of the king, and it is the publication of an archaeological dig, with an explanation of how the dig came to take place.  It is not a detailed history of Richard III, but there is enough of that to put the dig in context. It is not a detailed history of the politics of urban archaeology in Britain, either, but that also comes through. It is clearly written, and the science involved is explained for laypeople without being either too simplistic or overly technical. It recounts one of the most amazing finds in archaeological history in a very engaging way. -LP