Book Review: The Underland Chronicles (5-book series)

Series: The Underland Chronicles
Titles: Gregor the Overlander; Gregor and the Prophesy of Bane; Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods; Gregor and the Marks of Secret; Gregor and the Code of Claw

Author: Suzanne Collins

Published: 2003 – 2007

Pages: 336; 320; 304; 352; 416 (from Amazon data, but I think these are based on small pages with a large type-face)

Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 9+ Swearing and sexual content is basically non-existent, but the books get progressively scarier and more violent. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!

Synopsis:

Gregor is an ordinary 11-year-old boy who lives in a run-down apartment building in New York City with his mom. Gregor’s father disappeared from his life two years prior, leaving behind Gregor, his mom, and his two younger sisters, Lizzie (7), and Boots (2). As the oldest child, Gregor feels immense pressure to help his mother care for his sisters while he watches bills pile up and the family struggles to eat.

One day, while helping with laundry in the basement of the building with his baby sister Boots, Gregor observes that she is playing perilously close to an old air duct. Too late, he dives after her, and just like that, they both find themselves plummeting… but the fall lasts far longer than it should. At long last, Gregor and Boots arrive unharmed in a cave at some unknown depth. Before he can stop her, Boots sets off exploring, and she abruptly finds some very strange company. Before he can catch his breath, Gregor and Boots are caught up in the midst of a prophesy, with the fate of thousands hanging in the balance. And maybe, just maybe, the possibility of a reunion with his long lost father.

Gregor soon learns that he and Boots have landed in the Underland, a realm where cockroaches are nearly as big as humans, and rats are a great deal larger. Not to mention vicious. And they hate humans.

The Underland is home to a lost race of humans who have been underground for thousands of years. The humans have been at war with the rats on and off for generations. Upon arriving at the human kingdom, Gregor learns that the rats have a particular aversion to “Overlanders” due to an ancient prophesy predicting that one would essentially bring about the end of the rat kingdom.

When the human  leaders learn that Gregor’s father had mysteriously vanished two years prior, speculation abounds that his father had been captured by rats, which means that Gregor may be “The Warrior” referenced in the prophesy who could save the human race. An expedition is launched (owing much to The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit) to find Gregor’s father, fulfill the prophesy, and save the Underland human race in the process.

Joining Gregor in his quest are Luxa, the young heiress to the human throne, her cousin Henry, their two bats Aurora and Ares (who are bonded to their human partners sort of like Han and Chewie, but in an official capacity), two cockroaches named Tick and Temp, and a gigantic rogue rat named Ripred.

Unfortunately for Gregor, his adventures in the Underland do not end with one simple quest. No sooner has he found himself home than he is drawn unexpectedly into further adventures, with ever more complications, as Gregor’s friendships and stature in the Underland both develop and deepen.

Final Thoughts:

While Suzanne Collins is now far better known for her popular dystopian Hunger Games series, she kicked off her published writing career with the Underland Chronicles back in 2003. This is a different type of story, but built on a framework with some obvious parallels.

Like Katniss, Gregor is constantly driven by his love for his family and his desire to protect them at all costs. Also like Katniss, Gregor’s extreme selflessness in furtherance of this goal sometimes lends him a mythical quality to those around him, even though his inward thoughts show his fear and innocence. Both characters have lost their father and felt the need to step up in his absence. Gregor is perhaps more reserved in his acceptance of violence as a means to an end. When Gregor discovers that he has a particular talent for fighting, he is sickened, literally, by the idea, and wants nothing to do with any prophesy that could refer to him as a “warrior.”

In the sarcastic and battle-toughened rat Ripred, we see perhaps an early template for Haymitch. In the cold and calculating human leader Solovet are shades of President Coin.

To me, where this series diverges sharply from Hunger Games is in world-building. Pan-Em was an almost completely abstract representation of society with its rigid lines defining zones with ultra-specific economic purposes. The Underland is not a post-apocalyptic vestige of mankind. It is a fully mature civilization existing alongside ours. While Underland areas are divided mostly by species, each species functions independently and apart from the others except for profitable trade exchanges. While the humans and rats appear perpetually at war with each other, creatures like the cockroaches spiders, and numerous others fall into something of a neutral territory. The idea of impartial observers in a global conflict is something that is generally absent in Hunger Games.

At times, Gregor’s indifference for his own well-being and efforts to help others belie his tender age and strain credulity. But, perhaps his years spent without a father have toughened him and forced him to mature far faster than an ordinary pre-teen. Again and again Gregor willingly throws himself into danger to save Boots, to help the rest of his family, and, later, to do right by his friends in the Underland. As an adult reader I could not help rolling my eyes at times when Gregor took on the aura of a superhero, and adults in the Underland willingly sent him into extreme danger for their benefit, as if no one at all is on hand to say, “Hey, isn’t this kid, you know, like 11 or 12? Maybe we should help… a little?” And yet, the earnestness with which Gregor engages in his adventures is constantly endearing, and makes this an appropriate venture for younger readers. We never lose sight of exactly why Gregor is doing what he is doing, and neither does Gregor waver from his sense of what is Right and Just in furtherance of his goals. It doesn’t make his decisions throughout seem terribly complex or weighty, but sometimes it’s nice to have a simple read, in a world of black and white.

Romance is almost completely absent in books 1-4, but it does make an appearance in book 5. Unfortunately, these passages are rushed and underdeveloped, and feel almost as if they were shoe-horned in to add some emotional stakes and provide some additional ties for Gregor to The Underland rather than his family. On the other hand, keeping in mind that Gregor is still only 12 at the conclusion of book 5, I’m not sure increasing the romance is the answer. Perhaps simply an unbreakable friendship would have worked better and developed more organically over the course of all 5 books.

Ah, well, but I am nitpicking here, because I did greatly enjoy my time with Gregor in the Underland, and I would gladly venture back if ever Collins opens the door to return. I read the series over a couple months and found it to be a fun and refreshing diversion from more serious novels. I give the series 3.5* out of 5 stars.

Have you read this series? Let me know your thoughts!

 

 

*For reference, I’d have given Hunger Games a 4.

Short Story: Mordred

When first I arrived, they made believe at being happy. Living meaningless lives, doing trivial deeds for small moments of levity. Truly loving no one but themselves. In their vanity, they all looked right through me, as if I were nothing more than metaphysical dust, sprinkled far and loose in the dark unseen spaces.

So I took away the sun.

Their reaction was swift, yet impotent. And how could it be anything more? They cannot fight what they do not see. What they do not even truly believe.

They came in droves with their war machines, wasting away their precious fuels in search of a cosmic Kraken. They found only death. Of course, they did not need me to serve it. I merely laughed at their impudence.

Such pathetic creatures, with their weapons of carbon and metal. What are these to me? A joke. Nothing more.

But I was merciful. I left them light, though it was a dark, bleak memory of sunshine. And I left them heat, though it was a faint cousin of warmth.

Their world grew cold, dark, and withdrawn.

For a time, there was respect. And for respect, properly shown, I do grant small favors. I am not unkind. A precious few became my blessed ones. I gave them far-seeing eyes, with which to enjoy the slow death-march of their kind.

But in others, there remained discontent. After several centuries, they adapted their infantile technology in an absurd attempt to master their lessened world. For them, their achievements were remarkable. Their lives approached a past normalcy and I was nearly forgotten.

So I took away the rest of the fuel.

How amusing, as the once-proud masses huddled in their once-proud homes for some last vestige of warmth. Seeking refuge from an unforgiving landscape in the only way they remembered how. Many did not remember. Their hands and their minds were too soft, and they withered away on the vine of their former lives.

But I am not unforgiving. I left them their wind. How amusing to watch their futile attempts to capture its energy, to warm themselves by the very thing making them cold.

For a time, their fear sustained them. A few blessed ones again found small favors of my affection. To them I granted heightened hearing, so that they could delight in the death-rattle of industry.

For a millennium, the tales of my power rang strong and true. Until an insolent few found their errant courage again. Though they did not know my name, they sailed out in massive ships of wood to lay me low, with vague ideas of recapturing their pathetic former glory. They screamed at the skies and stabbed with their knives. How silly they are. I stagnated the wind, but they rowed on. In search of what? Death? I was happy to provide it. But only on my terms.

So I poisoned the great seas.

I watched with rapturous delight as their boats slowly sprang leaks, disintegrated by the acidwater. They sank as they rowed to nowhere, and their cries of anguish turned to shrieks of pain and terror as their flesh melted away into the once life-giving water.

Those left behind on the shores were mostly the young, the weak, the infirm. Driven by the stagnant, fetid air and the evil waters, they sought shelter, cowering in the deep crypts of the world. There, they felt safe. Protected from the soured world by their comforting walls of dirt. So there I left them, minds and bodies rotting while they repented.

And I am merciful. I did not sentence them to death. I left them their underground aquifers.

For a time, there was respect. To a blessed few I granted unnatural sense of smell, so that they may sniff out the last gasps of civilization, and watch as it crumbled.

After two millennia, they again forgot my lessons. A few dug deep into the ground, hoping to find me unawares. They had not lost their senses of humor. I let them dig for a long time, enjoying the show as they dug tunnels deep, far, and wide. Rudimentary tools and conviction they had, but it was a slow affair, with thousands of meaningless deaths. At length, I grew bored of their pointless display.

So I sent the worms.

Great monstrous beasts of slime, hair, and scales, they woke from the depths and swallowed everything in their paths. The degenerates were driven from their precious earthen holes and back into the fetid air from which they’d sheltered. They found the air thick, and impenetrable. Many perished, lungs unable to cope with the prolonged effort.

But I am not unmerciful. I left their bodies intact, with which to enjoy the bleak, poisoned world that I allowed them to keep, in my generosity. To properly take in the fruits of their foul efforts against me.

But still some looked with disdain on the landscape. Unable to appreciate the world I had left them. They were blind to the brilliant gift of life that I allowed.

So I took their eyes.

How hilarious their dead, milky orbs looked, gazing aimlessly about. They would see no more. Do not think me unkind. I left them their ears, with which to hear each other speak to my glory.

But still some spoke out against me. Seeking to do with words what their creations could not. To defile my aura.

So I took their tongues.

I observed their sightless stumbles and as their shapeless cries of anguish faded into shapeless resigned mumbles, I knew that they had finally learned.

Then, they knew me as Mother.

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Book Review: The BFG

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

the-bfg

Title: The BFG

Author: Roald Dahl

Published: 1982

Pages: 240

Genre: Fairy Tale/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 6+ Click here for the Common Sense Media guide! The book may be a bit violent by current kid’s book standards considering the Giants’ general habit of eating humans, but it is not any more grisly than many traditional fairy tales.

Synopsis:

Sophie’s life as an orphan meets an abrupt change when she spot a massive figure roaming the streets at night outside her orphanage. Fearing for his own discovery, the figure takes Sophie hostage and transports her to a far-off land, where Giants roam.

Fortunately for Sophie, she learns that she’s been captured by the world’s only “friendly” giant. After learning a great deal about each other, Sophie and the Giant hatch out a plan to rid the world of the evil, man-eating Giants, once and for all.

Final Thoughts:

Whenever I talk about this book, I like to tell people that I literally read the cover off of my copy as a kid. Which is true. I loved the book so much that I read it several times, and eventually both the front and back covers took so much abuse that they simply fell off. It may say more about the age of the copy and my cavalier treatment of it than my readership, but I still think it says something. And there really is no doubt that I loved this book.

And still do. I was very happy to discover upon re-opening it this week, that the book still contains some of the magic that I so thoroughly enjoyed as a young reader. What’s more, some of Roald Dahl’s clever jokes, which undoubtedly flew right over my head as a kid, are now right on target. For instance, the BFG informs Sophie that Giants travel to Wellington to eat humans for their “booty” flavor, and to Panama when they want a taste of hats.

The BFG’s manner of speaking is endearingly mixed-up and silly, which is also fun for kids as well as adults, like when the BFG refers to humans as “human beans” and his favorite author as “Dahl’s Chickens.” He also has a favorite soda-like drink called “frobscottle” with upside down bubbles that induce a certain silly bodily function that the BFG gleefully refers to as “whizzpoppers.”

The BFG’s hobby is to catch and categorize dreams. He has a collection of many thousands of dreams in jars which he enjoys blowing into the bedrooms of young children at night. Sophie is very curious about the dreams, and both she and the reader will find a lot of fun in reading the BFG’s descriptions of the dreams he has caught. It is this very hobby that led to Sophie’s discovery of the Giant, and ultimately gives rise to their plan to do away with the evil Giant brethren that torture the BFG when they are not hunting abroad for dinner.

Near the end of the book, there is a very funny fish-out-of-water scene in which the BFG meets the Queen of England, and her butler becomes increasingly exasperated in his attempts to accommodate the BFG while maintaining his proper royal butler dignity.

All in all, I give it 5/5 stars, regardless of age!

Note: This book is set to be released as a live-action Disney movie on July 1, 2016. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the movie will star Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Bill Hader, and Jemaine Clement. Watch the first trailer, below!

the-bfg-uk-poster-2

Ancient history: Movie Review: The Princess Bride

Movie Review: The Princess Bride

            The Princess Bride is the hilarious tale of true love. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright star in the 1984 film, with acclaimed director Rob Reiner at the helm.

The film is the big-screen rendition of William Goldman’s 1970 book, The Princess Bride. The story centers around Wesley (Elwes) and Buttercup (Wright), two young lovers who are separated by poverty. Five years after their separation, Buttercup agrees to marry the prince of her land, with the assumption that Wesley–who never returned–is dead. Soon Wesley returns and immediately begins his attempts to retrieve Buttercup from the evil prince.

A spectacular cast highlights this very funny comedy. In one of his first roles, Fred Savage (Wonder Years) plays a sick young boy who is read the love story by his grandfather. Andre Rousimoff(also known as Andre the Giant), plays Fezzik, a big-hearted giant. Billy Crystal plays a hermit magician named Miracle Max. Mandy Patinkin (from Dick Tracy) plays Inigo Montoya, a drunkard master swordsman. Christopher Guest turns in a great performance as the villainous prince.

The soundtrack adds to the film with a well-written score. Singer/songwriter Mark Knopfler, of the band Dire Straits, created the music for the film. He also wrote a romantic song for the movie, called “Storybook Love.” The music does well to portray the story’s themes of love and violence. It is soft and romantic during touching parts, but loud and shrieking when fighting occurs.

Movie Review: Spirited Away

(Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets)

Spirited Awaycover

Title: Spirited Away

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Release Date: July 7, 2001

Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Adventure

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 125 minutes

Starring:

● Daveigh Chase

● Suzanne Pleshette

● Jason Marsden

Kid Friendly Rating: 9+. The movie features several spooky monsters and storylines, and some characters smoke and drink ambiguous substances. Click here for the Parent Rating Guide!

Personal Rating: 5/5

Synopsis: Ten-year-old Chihiro and her family are on their way to a new home and a new life, when Chihiro’s father spots a potential shortcut through a wooded lane. The family arrives at a mysterious dark tunnel in the road, and Chihiro’s parents decide to take a walk to see what lies at the other end. They discover what looks like an abandoned theme park in the middle of a grassy meadow. When Chihiro’s parents smell fresh food, the hunger from a long car ride sets in and gets the best of them, and they go off in search of the source, against Chihiro’s protestations.

Chihiro is unable to persuade her parents to leave, and when sun sets, she finds herself trapped in a resort populated by spirits who come from near and far to seek refuge. Chihiro meets a boy named Haku, who offers to help Chihiro find safety in the resort. Chihiro soon sets off on a quest to meet the leader of the resort and find freedom both for herself and her parents.

Pictures:

Spirited-Away-spirited-away-4372460-852-480 Spirited_away_05 Spirited-Away-spirited-away-4373410-852-480 Spirited-Away-spirited-away-4377302-852-480 Spirited-Away-spirited-away-4377088-852-480 Spirited-Away-spirited-away-4377743-852-480

Memorable Quotes:

Aogaeru: Welcome the rich man, he’s hard for you to miss. His butt keeps getting bigger, so there’s plenty there to kiss!

Zeniba: We’re identical twins and exact opposites.

Final Thoughts:

What a strange and wonderful movie! This movie has been on my must-see list for so long. It’s been around since 2001, so perhaps many people are already familiar with it, but it seems almost like Disney is content to just let it sit on the shelf for English-speaking audiences to discover on their own. With a two-year-old running around and my Netflix queue looking slim, I figured it was finally time to give it a chance.

The story shares quite a bit with Louis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It is full of all manner of silly and sometimes scary creatures, humorous moments, and sticky situations for the young protagonist. Chihiro starts out as a very restless and scared little girl, but you can see and feel her maturing and growing in confidence through each of her escapades.

My wife and I were both excited to find a great new movie to watch, but best of all, our daughter watched with rapt attention for a good hour! Granted, she was also tired, but this never happens!

Bottom line, this is the best kind of kid friendly movie: one the kids love, and the adults will like, too.

Movie Review: The Book of Life

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

the_book_of_life_1

Title: The Book of Life

Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez

Release Date: October 17, 2014

Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Adventure, Comedy

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 95 minutes

Starring:

● Diego Luna

● Zoe Saldana

● Channing Tatum

Kid Friendly Rating: A good Disney analog is the animated Hercules (1997). The film delves significantly into death and the underworld, but it is presented in a firmly fantastical manner. Light romance does not venture beyond courtship and tasteful kissing. Some dark monsters and violence may be scary for young children. Click here for the Parent Rating Guide!

Personal Rating: 3.5/5

Synopsis: The story begins with a children’s museum tour. At the museum, the tour guide tells the children a story from The Book of Life, a book that allegedly contains all stories that have ever been told. This story focuses on the mythical town of San Angel in Mexico. San Angel is celebrating The Day of the Dead, a day on which those who have been lost are fondly remembered. Observing the festival are La Muerte, kind ruler of The Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba, cynical ruler of The Land of the Forgotten. La Muerte and Xibalba observe two young boys, Malolo and Joaquin, striving for the attention of their young female friend, Maria. La Muerte and Xibalba decide to set a wager, each betting that one of the boys will marry Maria. If Malolo succeeds, Xibalba with cease meddling in the affairs of humans. If Joaquin succeeds, La Muerte will exchange rulership of the realms with Xibalba. The movie skips forward several years, when the three children reunite as young adults struggling under the weight of their parents’ expectations. After Malolo and Joaquin resume their good-natured rivalry for Maria’s affection, Xibalba’s continued meddling sets matters on a crash course.

Pictures:

0500_0100_0144_beauty5K_v001 Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman), who rules The Land of the Forgotten, makes a fateful bet with his estranged wife La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo), who oversees The Land of the Remembered.

book-of-life04

Screen-Shot-2014-08-07-at-10.08.10-PM-e1415300817253

Memorable Quotes:

La Muerte: The world keeps spinning, and the tales keep turning, and people come and people go, but they’re never forgotten. And the one truth we know, it held true one more time… That love, true love, the really, really good kind of love never dies.

Joaquin: Those are some big shadows we live under, hey buddy?

Fun Fact:

Ron Perlman, who voices Xibalba, is a veteran of several of producer Guillermo del Toro’s films, including Hellboy, Pacific Rim, and Cronos

Final Thoughts:

I’ve been intrigued by this movie since I first saw Guillermo del Toro’s name attached to it, and I don’t feel let down. This movie is a fun change from your typical animated fare. The animation style is unusual, but arresting. The immersion in Mexican culture also feels fresh, although perhaps not surprising given del Toro’s and Gutierrez’s roots as Mexican nationals. Parents will find that the movie touches upon several positive themes, including honesty, what it means to be courageous, and being true to oneself. The movie also does not shy away from more complicated topics, like family dynamics and the sometimes gray areas between good and evil. A bit of slapstick humor and dry wit helps lighten some of the dramatic and ominous overtones. The plot is a bit complicated, particularly in the beginning, so it may be better suited for adults (or children with patient parents), but as the story goes along it becomes easier to follow.  The adults in the room may also enjoy some Mexican-influenced versions of pop favorites like Radiohead’s “Creep” or Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” I think it’s a great change of pace for a family movie night.