Thursday, April 25, 2019

Just in time for Endgame: a review of Troy Kinney's 'Watching Movies, Watching Stories'

Title: Watching Movies, Watching Stories: An Interactive Guide for Engaging Culture Through Film
Author: Troy Kinney
Genre: Nonfiction, movies
Pages: 75

What Goodreads has to say:

If you love movies, then this is the book for you! It is a hands-on guide for those wishing to expand their enjoyment of movies. The book is embedded with over 90 film clips that can be viewed immediately on your smartphone or other internet connected screen. 

You will begin to watch movies with new eyes.
This book is useful for the individual or for small groups. It has indispensable helps on how to take what you learn and truly converse with those around you from a biblical understanding. 

Movie-makers are telling us about how they see the world. Learn to see and understand their messages. Take those messages and use that information to bridge the gap with others in order to share the gospel.

What I have to say:

I love movies and I love analyzing movies. When a writer or director puts a lot of thought into a film and creates something layered and beautiful, I love picking apart those layers and finding meaning within. I've even reviewed some movies on this blog, as faithful readers may remember! So needless to say, I found this book about how to watch and analyze movies very informative and interesting.

Some of it I knew already (having taken a couple film classes in high school and college), but I could definitely use a refresher. Other stuff I just hadn't thought about or didn't know. For example, the section about dinner scenes in movies was very interesting. I've never thought about the dinner (or any meal, I guess) scene as a recurring motif and the implications of it in different contexts. 

This book is full of insights along those lines--one eye-opener for me was the section on water, rain, and snow in movies. Sometimes these elements can have underlying meanings or, at the least, suggestions. The author used the example of the scene from the first Harry Potter movie when the First-Years ride across the Great Lake toward Hogwarts. Is it significant that they only do this in the first movie, their first year attending Hogwarts? Does the water signify some kind of baptism-like initiation? Whoa....

The first half of the book mainly points out the different tools filmmakers use to tell stories and convey meaning. This includes camera shots, angles, and movements. There's also discussion of the roles music, lighting, and editing play in movies, and how those elements can be used to create meaning.

If you're a visual learner like me (or if you just like watching movies, also like me), good news: there are lots of video clips throughout the book that the author uses to illustrate what he's talking about. And wow, does he pick good movie clips. For most of the clips, I'd either seen the movie and already love it, or was so intrigued by the clip that I now want to see it. Got a long watch list after reading this book.

The end of the book delves into Christian themes in movies: the good, the bad, and the ugly (incidentally, that movie shows up in a couple clips). This includes movies like Ben Hur and Narnia (both excellent films) that overtly convey a Christian message. It also includes movies like Harry Potter and The Matrix, that use the Christian "myth" or the hero's journey to tell a powerful story, without being a story specifically about Christianity (though I'm sure we could argue that point).

Then there are films like Evan Almighty. Yeah, IDK. But as I'm sure author Troy Kinney would point out, you could use Evan Almighty as a springboard for a very deep discussion!

This book is written with the goal of helping people use movies as a starting point for discussions about Christianity. It goes without saying that it's geared toward a Christian audience, and if you can't tell from the name of this blog and my frequent C. S. Lewis references, that includes me. If you're not a Christian, there's still plenty of good information about how to watch and analyze films, but you might prefer a different book. Then again, this one is very well written, engaging, and easy to follow.

I finished it just in time to go analyze the heck out of Endgame--which I'm watching tomorrow. I'll see you again on the other side.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Colonization sucks and squirrels are awesome: The Ghost of Crow Cavern

Title: The Ghost of Crow Cavern
Authors: Norman Mounter, John Wedlake
Genre: Fantasy? YA? Squirrels? IDK
Pages: 98

What Goodreads has to say:

A wave of delight and anticipation sweeps through a small community of red squirrels as they behold a vast fleet of boats carrying their distant cousins towards them. They will no doubt bring incredible wealth, wisdom and joy to the humble squirrels of Nutshaven.

However, the dream soon becomes a nightmare. Their distant cousins soon turn out to be enormous and brutish bullies of an ever-expanding Grey Empire. Shadowtail - the brilliant but intensely evil Grey leader - announces that their lives are about to radically change:

“Your colony is now ours, and we shall endeavour to use you and your resources to enrichen the imperial spoils of conquest and world domination.”

With their entire way of life now under threat, will the wisdom of old Normsk, the wits of young Cheswick and the might of Brutenuts the Brave be enough to counter such a dark and dominant force?

What I have to say:

So I'll just cut to the chase here: I freaking love The Ghost of Crow Cavern.

I love that the climax is a chess game; I love that the narrator is some unnamed future historian; I love that it's wickedly funny but also a little disturbing; I love that it's a story about colonization gone wrong; I love that it's all about squirrels.

Like squirrels are the best. Why are there not more stories about them? There's a lot of stories about mice, but squirrels are better because they live outside and have cooler tails. (Sorry, Reepicheep.*)

If we're on the subject of mice, this book could be compared to stuff like The Tale of Desperaux, The Secret of Nimh, and probably Watership Down but I haven't read that last one (yet) so that comparison is pending. (And yeah, I realize Watership Down is rabbits, not mice.)

It also has a little in common with Animal Farm in that it's a story about animals on the surface, but it has obvious political undertones. I found myself thinking about British colonization and the Holocaust--but don't let that scare you away from reading this wonderful little book. It's far from depressing; in fact, it's delightful and often hilarious.  

I'm pretty sure I read 75% of this book with a huge smile on my face, and I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud at a few points because I was in public. I especially loved Shadowtail's instructions to Scug concerning finding information on the rogue squirrel Cheswick: 

"Now listen up! I need to know more about this mysterious Cheswick character. Where he once lived, who his parents were, his education...and - most important of all - what kind of chess player he is."

Upon reading this, I may or may not have laughed out loud in a courtroom. (Court wasn't in session, don't worry.)

The narrative style almost gave me a Last Unicorn vibe (and if I compare any book to The Last Unicorn, you better believe I loved it). We aren't told who the narrator is, but he or she clearly knows how the whole story will play out from beginning to end, and throws in comments of a historical bent. 


"A squirrel by the name of Maria Dumplekin - who has since passed into legend - was gazing out from atop a tall forest tree. It was here that she caught sight of a curious cluster of glistening specks upon the distant horizon." 

There are also just some random things thrown in (as in The Last Unicorn) which add an element of delight and hint at other worlds outside that of the story. Like when the narrator talks about the Cerebri squirrels who have incredibly large brains and build sophisticated machines. And we jump between characters in a way that's fun but doesn't make the reader seasick. 

Having said that, I did get briefly lost in the first few pages as we switched between characters a few too many times in too few pages, especially considering that the story and setting themselves hadn't really been established yet.

Now here's my only real ask for this story:


The pacing is seamless and the story moves quickly--maybe a little too quickly: I read it in two hours.

It's not necessarily that the story needs more fleshing out--it's that fleshing it out could make a really good story a truly great one. The characters are all so well developed: Cheswick, Brutenuts, Normsk, Shadowtail, Scug. And it's not because they're undeveloped that I want this story to be longer, but because they're so well developed. I want more of them!

I can just imagine the conversations between Normsk and Cheswick as they hide out on the edge of Nutshaven and debate whether to intercede now or wait a little longer, as they discuss the devastation the grey squirrels have inflicted and wonder whether there's any chance of victory. And as they wonder whether, if and when they manage to save Nutshaven, there will be anything left to save.

I can just picture little Blossomtail and Felix and the other squirrel pups in their brainwashing lessons, struggling to make sense of what they're being told and deciding whether or not to believe it. I can see Blossomtail saying something wrong and Violet bravely defending her in front of the fearsome Auntie Gerta. I can picture a few of the little squirrel pups starting to succumb to Shadowtail's lessons, and a few others withstanding, maybe even forming a secret Dumbledore's Army-esque society.

And I can see the grey squirrels under Shadowtail engaged in a deadly power struggle of which Shadowtail himself may or may not be aware. I'm sure there are allies and arch nemeses among the ranks of the grey squirrels, and I'm sure there are plenty of nasty rumors and intrigues floating around.

Then, of course, there's Shadowtail himself, who is a fascinating character. I'm envisioning him pitted as Cheswick's foil: the two squirrels holding down opposite ends of the story yet sometimes acting in surprisingly similar ways. 

Various stories--each starring a different set of protagonists and antagonists--taking place simultaneously across weeks (maybe months, who knows?) until they all collide in a heart-stalling climax. Imagine the epicness!!!

(Of course, I'm not the author(s) and I'm not going to presume to tell them how to write their own book. It doesn't need to follow the script I've outlined above; in fact, a longer rewrite of this book by Norman Mounter and John Wedlake would probably be way awesomer than anything I could think up.)

See, the thing is, I loved this book a lot. But just as I realized how deeply I'd fallen in love, it was over. 

If this were a longer book that I could really sink my teeth into, I can imagine myself pouring over it for days, reading up late into the night, shirking errands and foregoing food and sleep to find out what will happen to the squirrels of Nutshaven. Upon finishing, I might add this book to the collection of my most cherished volumes, recommend it to everyone, and save it on my shelf to re-read in a few years.

And I'm aware that there's a sequel in the works (or at least, the epilogue def sets us up for that), but I'd rather have a meatier first novel before/in lieu of a sequel.

There's a lot to ponder in this book, and I'm still not entirely sure whether it's just a story or whether it's meant to be a political fable of sorts. I think if I'd had more time to digest it, I wouldn't feel so much like I'd just jumped off a roller coaster. (Though my post-book vertigo is a testament to just how powerfully this story took me for a ride.)

Long story short, I dig it. I just want more to love.


*Reepicheep is basically my all-time favorite character so I'll take him over a squirrel any day and now feel terrible for dissing his tail. Also why is this review so long? Wow I guess I had a lot to say.

Until tomorrow.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Going on an adventure: K.A. Thomsen's The Hidden Valley

Title: The Hidden Valley
Author: K. A. Thomsen
Genre: Middle-Grade Adventure
Pages: 154 

What Goodreads has to say:

Stacey and her best friend, country-wise Alexis, set out on a horse-packing trip through the Chilcotin mountains only to lose her beloved mare overnight. The clues lead them through a mysterious tunnel, which opens into a hidden valley full of prehistoric plants and animals. The mystery deepens when they are taken captive by a group of indigenous people that appear to be living a paleolithic lifestyle that has remained unchanged for centuries.


What I have to say:

“Always there has been an adventure just around the corner, and the world is still full of corners!”

Roy Chapman Andrews (the real-life Indiana Jones and my favorite paleontologist) said that, and his words evoke what lies at the heart of this book—and many others. 
The idea of there being another world just around the corner, or just on the other side of a rock wall, or just under our feet, or just across the sea, is such an enticing one that countless stories have been written about it. 

In my childhood, there were hidden worlds around every corner: behind the garden or inside the cluster of tall fir trees in my backyard, on the other side of the sewer drain at the neighborhood park, in the forest at the top of the hill. Fairies, dragons, cave trolls—who knew what could be lurking there?

Later in life, I knew I wouldn’t find trolls in the drain pipe, but I still loved looking for hidden worlds: exploring behind waterfalls, scoping out tidal pools at the beach, scouring the hillside for fossils that would prove there was another world just out of reach—hidden in another layer of time.

The Hidden Valley reawakened that young explorer, and filled me with an appetite for adventuring.

K. A. Thomsen has a talent for natural description. Using only words, she evokes a rich setting complete with sights, sounds, and smells. She’s equally adept at describing landscapes and animals.

In fact, the descriptions of nature and animals are far more in-depth than descriptions of human characters, and I’m not going to comment on whether that’s a negative or a positive thing, because I honestly can’t decide.

In a story like this, anyway, the setting and animals seem to be far more important than the characters themselves, and these rich, detailed descriptions make it very easy for the reader to put herself in the characters’ places. We can see, hear, and smell the landscape around them – around us.

This book doesn’t have a lot of conflict, though there are a couple intense scenes with a large prehistoric cat. Then again, considering the length and intended audience, maybe the story has enough conflict for what it is. 

There are emotional moments, there’s some very light romance (the main romance is probably between Stacey and her horse, TBH), and there’s enough danger and mystery to make the story compelling.

Author appreciation time:

In middle grade books, there’s a tendency to write characters who are supposed to be 11 or 12 but are really 16, 18, 27, or not human.

The teen and pre-teen characters in The Hidden Valley really feel like teens and pre-teens. Their interactions come off as authentic, their mood swings and emotions feel pubescent, and the dialogue isn’t stilted or unrealistic.

Stacey’s friendship with Alex feels very believable, and it’s sweet. They’re like sisters, and like sisters, they argue and don’t always see eye to eye, but they always have each other’s backs.

Stacey’s relationship with her horse, Appleby, is also very sweet. As I’ve never owned a horse, I can only guess at the deep bond that must exist between a horse and its rider, but Stacey’s bond with Appleby feels right.

That being said, I had a few unfulfilled expectations.

Here’s an example: when the kids hear that Donny has to hunt a mammoth to earn his right to enter the tribe and marry Kayla, I thought: “Oh awesome! We’re going to see a mammoth hunt!”

We did not.

Well, I asked, “Why even bring that up if we’re not going to see it happen?” Then I realized that this story is all about imagination—it prompts us to imagine what worlds could be hidden just beyond our doorstep. It prompts us to conjure up rich scenes that we assumed were lost forever, and tells us that they might not be lost after all. 

Ah crap, I’m waxing too poetic. I hate it when that happens.

The story in your head is almost always going to be better than real life. Tell me there’s going to be a mammoth hunt, and a shiver of anticipation runs up my spine. Describe the mammoth hunt for me in high detail, and I suspect I’ll probably end up bored, disappointed, or both. 

The mammoth hunt in my head will always be better. Besides, if you leave it out of the story, the mammoth hunt is always to come—but tell me about it, and it’s over.

I’m realizing a thing I do is to notice a “flaw” in a story, then do a 360 and accept it as a strength.

On that note, I was expecting Stacey to decide to breed her horse Appleby before the story ended. At the beginning of the book, she’s wrestling with this decision. She loves Appleby and knows her foals would be beautiful, but she’s worried about the toll giving birth might take on her horse. Plus, she has no experience foaling.

There was a hot stallion in the valley that Appleby could have had some sweet colts with. I kind of expected it to go that away—especially since Stacey finally got some foaling experience in the valley. But the story ended, and this question was still unresolved.

So then I exercised my special critic superpower and thought, “But that’s true-to-life. She’s 11.” Obviously Stacey is not going to have her whole life figured out at age 11. 

That’s really the whole nature of being a pre-teen on the edge of puberty: you feel like you’re in flux, and everything is up in the air. So it’s kind of perfect this way. I now love it.

The characters exist outside of the story, and their lives will continue after we stop reading.

Will Stacey decide to breed Appleby? Will Donny capture a mammoth and marry Kayla? Will the children ever visit the valley again? Will they ever tell anyone else about it? And how will this discovery—even if they keep it secret—change their lives?

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

(Besides this, I hear there’s a sequel in the works.)


Until tomorrow.