Thursday, September 15, 2016

Top 10 Movie Soundtracks (Non-musicals)

Since I'm between books at the moment and was at a total loss for what movie to review (my days have largely been consumed by preschool programming, courtesy of my 3 year old son) I decided I needed to take a break from visuals and focus on the auditory. (I have to get that "Three Special Steps" song from Special Agent Oso out of my head somehow!)

So, I'm going to share my top 10 movie sounds tracks. This is going to be specifically from movies that aren't explicitly considered musicals (because, let's face it, they'd dominate the list) so any movie where characters dance about and burst into song is excluded (sorry, Beauty and the Beast and Prince of Egypt).


10. Kung Fu Panda 2

Not the last time DreamWorks will be on this list. I specifically chose the sequel because while the original did have some nice bits, the sequel really shines in it's musical quality. DreamWorks upped their game from the first one and took what was originally a remarkably silly concept (a fat dorky panda learning martial arts) and turned it into a genuine story that's almost adult in its maturity. And boy does it have a score to match! This is the kind of music I'd expect in an actual Chinese kung fu movie. With a distinctly Asian flavor throughout and a general feeling of enormous size and weight, it's a joy to listen to even if you've never seen the film.


9. The Incredibles

Not the last time Pixar will be on this list, either. If you love the thrill of first generation Bond-era spy flicks, not only will you love this tenderhearted thriller, but you'll love the score that accompanies it. The music is fast paced and frantic, conveying all the energy and excitement that a superhero movie should. It's not so light that you can't take it seriously, but not so heavy that it doesn't have a fun quirkiness to it. Composer Michael Giacchino infused 60s jazz with so much enthusiasm and action, you can't help but call it incredible.

8. Brave

Told you Pixar would be back. This Celtic flavored gem accompanied a mediocre (by Pixar standards) film, but it many ways it far outshines its source. The first few songs and a couple later in the album are lyrical and the rest is instrumental score. But all of it is positively gorgeous. Julie Fowlis's vocals are simply stunning to listen to. I could hear "Touch the Sky" again and again and still want to get up and dance a jig every time. I just hear this soundtrack and picture myself running through green picturesque glades chasing will-o'-the-wisps under a bright blue sky.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy

I know what you're thinking: 'Finally, a movie that isn't animated!" What can I say? I like what I like. And what I like...is 70s music. Ok, I like a lot of decades. Blame it on being raised by 2 generations of people. The movie's now-famous Awesome Mix was even released on LP vinyl and audio cassette (when's the last time you saw one of those?) and still managed to sell over 2.5 million copies. Whether you're rocking to "Cherry Bomb", grooving to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", or jamming to "Hooked on a Feeling", I can almost guarantee that if you don't love this album...your parents probably will.


6. Home Alone

Yeah, the soundtrack is probably not the first thing you think of when it comes to this movie. Odds are you just picture a deranged psychopathic child inflicting untold pain (enough to kill his victims multiple times over, I might add) on a pair of bungling burglars. But if I played you the soundtrack and didn't tell you where it was from, you'd probably never guess until you got to the track "Somewhere In My Memory"...a song that will surely make you misty-eyed if you hear it around the holidays. Especially if you, yourself, happen to be home alone at Christmas.

5. Fireproof

An indie Christian film that most mainstreamers have probably never heard of or watched, Fireproof is more than just the story of one man's quest to become a better husband. It's also a movie with some really kickin' songs in it. Aside from the score, which is decent enough, there are some great songs you'll want to sing along to by some bands you probably already enjoy. Third Day's "This Is Who I Am", Casting Crowns' "Slow Fade", John Waller's "While I'm Waiting", Grey Holiday's "You Belong To Me" and Warren Barfield's "Love Is Not A Fight" will probably all find their way on to your favorites list by the time the credits roll. Sherwood Baptist's earlier film Facing the Giants might have had a good album, but Fireproof upped the ante and did it 10 times better.


4. Fantasia

Some of you may complain that this is technically a musical, but since no one gets to sing anything, I'm allowing it. I've already talked plenty about this movie previously, so I won't rehash it here. Suffice it to say, if you love classical music, you'll love this.

3. Back to the Future

I'm an 80s kid. So I'm naturally a bit biased about this particular film. My father wouldn't let Keith marry me until he'd seen all three films. It's a pretty big deal in our family. And the soundtrack accompanying the film just oozes 80s nostalgia. I remember the first time I felt really old in my life was when I was at a doctor's office and they were playing Huey Lewis and the News singing "Power of Love"...on the oldies station. I wanted to cry. Most of the rest of the lyrical songs are good, too. "Earth Angel" and "Johnny B. Goode" are classics of course. But the movie's theme itself is something else. This score just makes you want to go on an adventure. That's really the only way to describe it. It's fun, it's exciting, and it just reeks of adventure. If ever I see a DeLorean go by, this song is all I'm going to think of.

2. Pride and Prejudice

Another film I've talked about before, so I won't take too much time on it. If you want a soundtrack to take a long tub soak in...this is it. Enjoy those bubbles and a good book while you listen.


1. How to Train Your Dragon

This is by far and away my favorite non-musical movie score. I could listen to it over and over and over again. I literally never get tired of it. When I had a day job and felt like time was crawling, I put this album on and I was suddenly a LOT more motivated. It's got action, it's got danger, it has wonder and mystery...it's just awesome. The score just feels so huge and epic. There are pennywhistles and bagpipes and drums and just...gah! It's freakin' gorgeous! If you don't want to listen to the entire thing (and there's no reason on this planet why you shouldn't!) you should at least listen to the tracks entitled "Forbidden Friendship", "Test Drive", and "Romantic Flight". They're easily the most magical in the film.



And that's it! My top 10 non-musical movie soundtracks. I'll probably do one strictly for movie musicals down the road (bet you can all guess what #1 will be!) but this should tide you over for now. Enjoy the music and dance like you mean it!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book Review: The Glass Coffin by Kelly Martin

OK, so, we come to the end of Kelly Martin's Shattered Fairy Tale series (or is it...?) and it's...ok. Yeah, just...ok. I'll get to why in a minute, but first, let's get the formalities out of the way.
So, we started hearing about Gertrude "Trudy" Dodsworth all the way back in Betraying Ever After, but at the time she seemed like a throwaway character; she was just someone for Emma to bounce off of. But now, she gets her own book. We get to find out where she disappeared to and why William Haddington (Vaughn's BFF) was acting so strangely at the ball where Emma and Vaughn met. Seems old Frederick Dodsworth turned Trudy and her mother out of the house in order to continue exacting his nefarious revenge on some former "friends" who wronged him...or at least that's how he sees it. To go into all the whys would probably spoil a good chunk of the book (and the series as a whole, really) so we'll just have to leave his reasoning at that. Trudy and her mother have taken up residence in Everdale...which is unfortunately the same town where William has also drifted to. Only neither of them are the same person anymore.

Trudy has become engaged to the haughty and borderline abusive Lawson Stockwell, a wealthy earl, for the sake of her ailing mother. And William? Well, he's done unspeakable things. Become an alcoholic. Lost his virtue. Oh, and set the fire that disfigured Nicholas Wellington, Duke (or Beast, depending on whom you ask) of Ravenston. It was never Will's intention to harm anyone. He just wanted to spite Dodsworth for refusing his suit to Trudy. But that worked out all the better for Dodsworth, who used that knowledge to help accomplish his evil schemes. Will was hoping to start over, live out a quiet life in solitude.

But when he sees Trudy and Stockwell arm in arm, his bitterness gets the better of him, and he does...some of the stupidest things out of any of the male leads in the series. But more on that in a minute.
 
To complicate matters, Nicholas (thanks to Dodsworth's intervention) is hot on Will's trail, seeking his own revenge. Of course, he 's torn, too. In his thirst for vengeance, he may very well lose Elizabeth, the woman he's come to love. But still he doggedly pursues William and decides that what Elizabeth doesn't know won't hurt her. And he'll make sure she never knows.

Can William redeem himself enough for Trudy to forgive him? Can Trudy escape a lifetime of potential abuse and mistreatment by a man she doesn't really love? Or will Nicholas satisfy his bloodlust and destroy everyone's happiness? Well, everyone but Dodsworth's, that is.
I....wanted to like this book more than I did. It had a lot of good moments (the finale was EXTREMELY satisfying for...reasons. #DodsworthGetsHis) but it also had a lot of cringe-worthy moments. I get that William is dealing with a lot of guilt, and guilt (and booze) clouds your judgment, but dang. For a guy who was once so upstanding, he really lets himself go. I honestly don't think even Vaughn would stoop so low. Love 'em and leave 'em, maybe. But William positively slums with the lowest of women (sometimes more than one at a time) and lives in the bottle. I wanted to reach into the book and slap the guy.

Trudy's plight is rather more sympathetic. She's spent her entire life under her father's thumb and she's only trying to do what's expected of her. At least her motivations were selfless. She's still woefully naive, but at least there's justification for it.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the book is that it doesn't really follow the formula much. I mean, it's obvious that the first book was Cinderella and the second was Beauty and the Beast. It's rather unfortunate that a book that is supposed to reflect Sleeping Beauty, at least a little, really didn't fit with that concept. I mean, it tied all the ends up nicely enough. And it sort of picks up on the original story at the tail end. I guess I just expected it to be tied to the source material a bit better. It felt kind of shoehorned in at the end.

That being said, there's still a LOT to like here. Everyone has their own personal struggles to deal with. None of the characters are one dimensional or boring. Mr. Everett and Mrs. Bea were positively ADORABLE and I would have liked to see more of them. But I suppose they came into the story at just the right time and stayed only as long as they needed to. As I've said, the ending is very satisfying, they bring back basically all of the characters from the rest of the series, and...you'll never look at a stable the same way again.

I'm not gonna lie. As hot as the library scene was in Beast of Ravenston...that stable scene was en fuego. They never cross the line into actually having sex...but they dance on that line. Vigorously. So if you're sensitive to that kind of thing...you may need to skip a couple chapters.
All in all, it was a decent book and did a nice job of tying up everything with a nice bow. Could it have been better? Eh...yeah. But it definitely could have been a lot worse. Besides...it's hard to top Beast of Ravenston. ;)

For more of Kelly Martin's books, check out her website at www.kellymartinbooks.com. You'll find info on her, her books, links to all her social media (which you should subscribe to all of them, just so you can bask in her epicness in every possible forum), and all that other fun stuff.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Where in the World is Carm-...I mean, The Media Mom?

You're probably wondering why the blog went dark a few months ago. (Or no one actually reads this thing and I'm just talking to myself. In either case, HI!)
I know I've been as elusive as the infamous thief. But I can explain. Really!
To make a long story as short as possible, we sold our house (literally within 72 hours of listing it), packed up all our earthly goods, and moved a thousand miles away. That's not an exaggeration. It literally is a thousand miles away. That's right! This Florida city chick is now a certified North Carolina country girl. I mean, we got deer and everything.
In my yard, no less!
Obviously with packing a house, moving across country, unpacking a house, updating all the necessary stuff, and potty training a preschooler (yay, me), watching movies and reading books and writing about them totally got put on the back burner. And it took ages to find all my computer parts because in my rush top pack everything, some of it may have gotten disorganized. I still don't have speakers.

But, I'm back, the boys are on a (somewhat) normal schedule, and I even have a little time for pleasure reading again. (Not much, but some.)

So I'll definitely have all sorts of goodies coming down the pike for you. I still have to do a review of Kelly Martin's third Shattered Fairy Tale The Glass Coffin and I've got a few other posts in the works. Just bear with me as I try to put my life (and my PC) back together after so much upheaval. Your patience will be rewarded.
Because what isn't made better with an Alton Brown meme, amiright?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book Review: Wisdom to Know by Elizabeth Maddrey

When a pastor's daughter goes completely off the rails, she feels as though she's ruined her chances at life, love, and forgiveness. But God has a way of bringing His own back to Him, and sometimes He uses tough love to do it. The road back for a prodigal is never easy, and it's never a journey that can be completed alone. This is a lesson that Lydia Brown, her family, and her friends are going to learn firsthand.

*SPOILERS ABOUND*

When Lydia goes on a quest to marry the perfect guy (while completely ignoring the one right in front of her) she compromises her convictions and convinces herself that it was a worthy sacrifice if she ends up married to a powerful political hopeful. But when her pseudo-fiancé severs all ties afterward, and Lydia ends up pregnant, it seems there's only one option: abortion. It's an idea she's fought against her entire life. And now, it seems to be her only way out. If her friends and family knew she wasn't really the perfect Christian girl they all imagined her to be, they'd reject her for sure. And so she goes and does the most detestable thing she's ever done. It's the first of many compromises on a downward path to destruction.

Through it all, her best guy friend Kevin (who's only been hopelessly in love with her for practically forever) can't seem to figure out why Lydia is growing more and more distant. He's felt for ages that God had meant for them to be together. He's waited patiently as she's gone through boyfriend after boyfriend. But Lydia shows no signs of pursuing Kevin. And Kevin's all but given up pursuing her in return. Little does he know, he may be the only one able to bring her back from the brink.

Can Kevin ever forgive Lydia if he finds out her secret? Can Lydia ever forgive herself? Is there any sin so great that even God cannot forgive?

This book speaks to me on a lot of very personal levels. Primarily it is a book about one woman's recovery from the horror of abortion. But part of that process involves running away from life and burying herself in drug addiction. This hit very close to home for me, since my own father had been a drug addict for a number of years. Like Lydia, prescription narcotics was his drug of choice at one point. Many people talk about what the addict haS to deal with during withdrawals. But few touch on what the family has to deal with. The disappointment, constant worry, and fear that one false move could end a life weigh heavy on our minds. I think the book captures that essence brilliantly.

The book is also very accurate to the abortion recovery process. Having worked closely with a few pregnancy resource centers, I know full well the mental and physical consequences of abortion on a woman. Recovery is a tough road. But praise be to God, it is a possible one. There truly is no sin so great that our Father cannot forgive, if only we would ask.

And forgiveness has to come from more than God. On the one hand, family and friends must be willing to forgive. Of all Lydia's allies, Kevin struggles the most with the concept. It's understandable. After all, he's had Lydia on a pedestal for most of his natural life. It takes courage to step back and accept her as a flawed human being just as in need of love and forgiveness as any other. And such courage doesn't develop overnight. But Lydia, too, must come to forgive herself. And when you don't feel worthy of forgiveness, it's a bitter pill to swallow.

This is another area that hit very close to home. While I never had as severe a problem as drug addiction or an abortion, I did struggle with an addiction to perfectionism for years. Thinking that I was unworthy of forgiveness drove me into a deep depression, to the point of more than one suicide attempt. It took the Spirit of God to save me from myself and teach me what grace really was all about. I was right, of course. I was unworthy of forgiveness. But worthy or not, God was offering it to me anyway. Once I finally embraced that in my heart, I came to realize a very important thought: who am I to deny myself forgiveness if God doesn't deny it? Am I better than God? Why then should I presume to know better than He about who should and shouldn't be forgiven? That thought has made a world, nay, an eternity of difference in my life.

As interesting as Lydia's and Kevin's respective journeys are though...the most interesting couple in the book was their best friends Matt and Laura. I found myself wanting to read more about them! Their relationship history is only hinted at here and there throughout the book, but I'd seriously love a spinoff book about those two. It's rare to find such a true-to-life married couple in a work of fiction, and they were just oozing chemistry. They remind me very much of myself and my husband.

I do have one gripe, though. While the emotions portrayed in the book are very strong...the ending isn't. The last few chapters feel so rushed and predictable, I could see the ending long before I even got there. For a book that's supposedly all about drama and conflict, I was expecting the ending to have more drama than it did. As it stands, it's extremely anticlimactic. And that's a real shame. The finale had the potential to be something spectacular, but it just sort of fizzled out and came grinding to a halt. If I had my druthers, I'd rewrite the ending almost completely. It's a huge dent in what was an otherwise very good book.

Criticisms aside, though, if you're looking for a book that gives a painfully real exploration on what the after effects of abortion can be like, I recommend giving it a read.
For more books by and information about Elizabeth Maddrey, you can check out her website at elizabethmaddrey.com. And don't forget to stalk her (virtually, of course!) on Facebook.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Prince of Egypt: An Underrated Classic

Whether you're a Christian, a Jew, or some other faith completely, odds are you've at least heard the Exodus story. It's been portrayed in everything from a cinematic epic to a Rugrats episode to an animated musical.

I know what you're thinking. Death. Destruction. Large-scale natural disasters. Hardly Disney-esque animated musical fodder. (Then again, have you seen Bambi? Yikes.) But when fledgling DreamWorks animation decided to make their very first (well, technically second, but the actual first one is a rather long story for another post, so suffice it to say, their first original) animated film, that's the subject matter they chose. It was a bold risk. But did it pay off?

Did. It. Ever.

The result was nothing short of a breath-taking artistic masterpiece, and one that I feel is grossly under appreciated. So, just in time for Passover (this weekend, y'all), let's dive in to The Prince of Egypt.

If you've read the book of Exodus (or seen The Ten Commandments), you know the story. But I'm gonna rehash it again anyway. Because it's my blog, that's why. And because it's a story that's always worth telling again.

Pharaoh of Egypt feels threatened by the growing Hebrew population, so he sentences all the Hebrews to slavery and all their baby boys to death. But one mother saves her child by setting him adrift in a basket in the river. The boy is adopted by Pharaoh's daughter...or...wife, I guess, in this version. (The film has some glaring historical inaccuracies, for sure. Would I have appreciated having a more accurate film? Yeah. But... I'm not gonna chuck out the baby with the bathwater on his one. The left-out bits, slight truth fudges, and over exaggerations aren't enough to distract from the spirit of the story.) And Moses grows up in Pharaoh's household as a prince of Egypt, second to Rameses, his older brother.

As they come of age, Rameses is having difficulty gaining his father's approval while Moses seems content to be a care-free goof-off pulling pranks and getting into mischief. But despite his immaturity, Moses does truly want to see his brother succeed. They have a close bond. And even though Moses always ropes Rameses into his trouble, he's always around to get them out of it again.

But a chance encounter with Moses' biological siblings Aaron and Miriam reveals Moses' true heritage. He's not a prince of Egypt at all, but the son of Hebrew slaves. Moses flees to the palace but in the midst of his identity crisis discovers that it's all true and that the man he calls father really did order the slaughter of countless baby boys- a number Moses should have, by all accounts, been part of. Later, as Moses witnesses an Egyptian officer beating a Hebrew slave, Moses attacks and kills the official (by accident in the film, very much deliberately in real life). Fearing for his life, and convinced he could never really belong to the royal line given his ancestry, Moses opts to run away. He doesn't exactly know where he's going. He just sort of races into the desert.

Eventually he comes across the Midianites where he meets up with Tzipporah, a woman he had previously been introduced to in Egypt. She had been meant as a concubine for him, but he opted to let her escape, impressed by her fierce independence. He's accepted into the Midianite clan and becomes friends with Jethro, priest of Midian and Tzipporah's father. Jethro makes Moses into a shepherd, he and Tzipporah eventually develop a relationship and marry, and Moses settles into a quiet humble life with just his wife and his flock.
But Moses can't retire just yet. While watching the sheep one day, Moses encounters God. Not any Egyptian god, but the God of his ancestors. The Creator of the Universe. The Great I AM. True, at the moment...He looks an awful lot like a flaming bush. But stranger things have happened. God tells Moses that He has heard the cry of the Hebrews and is sending Moses to speak to Pharaoh and demand their freedom. Moses isn't too keen on the plan, but how do you say no to God?

And so Moses packs up his family, heads back to Egypt, and prepares for a confrontation with the man he once called brother. The most powerful man in the known world. Rameses.
It's quite a literal face-off.
I'm assuming you know how this story ends, but for the 1 person in the universe who hasn't heard it... oh, good grief! Just go read the book of Exodus and come back. All caught up? Yes? Good.

The two men who were once brothers are now forced to become bitter enemies. Moses is doing the work of God in trying to free his people. Rameses is trying to live up to his father's legacy of strength and unyielding power. It's a perfect standoff of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. But unlike the dead gods of Egypt, the God of the Hebrews can move mountains. And turn rivers into blood, flood the earth with frogs and flies and lice and all sorts of other nasties...heck, He can even make it hail fire. Let's see Ra pull that one off, eh?
Through all these plagues and more, Rameses hardens his heart and refuses to grant the Hebrews their freedom. But there's another plague coming. And this one hits very close to home. Just as Seti ordered all the Hebrew boys to die, the first born son of all the Egyptians will die. The Hebrews are charged to slaughter a lamb and paint their doorposts with its blood as a sign to the angel of death to pass over them. No one is safe unless they are covered by the blood (sound familiar, hmm?) even Rameses. Despite Moses' pleading with Rameses to surrender and prevent this horrible tragedy, Rameses holds his stance and determines that because of Moses' meddling, maybe Seti didn't go far enough with the slaughter of the Hebrews. Moses resigns himself to the fact that the catastrophe that follows is Rameses own doing.That same night, all the unprotected firstborns die. When Moses goes to see his grieving brother, who is mourning the death of his own son, Rameses bitterly tells Moses to take his people,leave Egypt, and never come back.

This should be a moment of celebration and victory of Moses. But it isn't. He's heartbroken that his brother has brought such destruction on himself and countless others and wishes he could have convinced Rameses otherwise before it came to this. He's frustrated that his brother's own stubbornness has caused such mass suffering. And he misses the heart of the best friend he once knew- a heart that has now turned cold as ice in hatred toward him.

The Hebrews gather their few belongings and make their way to the seaside for a brief respite. But it is not to last. Rameses has once again had a change of heart. Content to no longer simply let them be, he seeks vengeance. The Hebrews are helplessly trapped between Rameses' army and the sea.

I say helplessly. But that isn't true. For God is always a helper to His people. He blocks the army with a pillar of fire and parts the sea clear down the middle, allowing the Hebrews to pass over on dry ground. But it isn't long before the army is on their heels. As the Hebrews reach the other side, the walls of water begin to cave in. The army is drowned, and Rameses is thrown back against the opposite shore. With no more army and no more slaves, he has witnessed the downfall of the greatest empire the earth had known to that point. All he can do is curse Moses' name to the heavens.
I just wanted top put this gif here because it's awesome.
For his part, Moses' journey is far from over. He may have escaped the wrath of Rameses, but he still has several million people to lead through a desert to the promised land. He leaves his heart for his brother at the seaside and continues onward to a mountain where God Himself writes down some very specific instructions. Moses comes down from the mountain to deliver God's message to his people. But that's another film entirely. (One they'll never make, I'm afraid. Which is a shame because I'm sure given the nature of what really happened...and modern society's thirst for violence and irony, it would make a great movie. As far as Israel's history goes, the next 40 years would be repetitious as heck. Ok, more like the next 400 years, but who's counting?)
Oh, yeah. And...there's that.
There is so much to love about this film. It was an ambitious project from the get-go. The last time it had even been attempted on this scale was Cecil B. DeMille's classic The Ten Commandments. And that movie was huge, even by today's standards. To try and make an animated musical out of it...it took some serious guts. But the end result was brilliant. Like I said...there were some inaccuracies. The entire part of the story where Moses is nursed by his own mother thanks to Miriam's intervention was completely dropped, Moses' son was written out. His conversation with God was very abbreviated, as were his conversations with Rameses. But, on the whole, the message was still there. That God looks out for His people and can use anyone, even a man like Moses, who was likely spoiled, a murderer, a fugitive, and all-told, a bit of a screw-up. A man slow of speech and short of temper (it may not have shown in the film, but real-life Moses was VERY short-tempered. In fact, it was that very temper that prevented him from entering the promised land he'd worked so hard to get to. But that's another post.). And he became the most significant prophet the Jews ever had. (At least until a guy named John shows up a thousand-ish years later. But that's also another post.)

Aside from the story, the acting is great. Well...most of it. Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes both blow everyone else out of the water in this film. And Val not only had to play Moses, but God, too! Some of the rest of the cast...eh. I get that they were trying to bring a lot of A-listers to the table. But Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Patrick Stewart, Steve Martin and Martin Short....tried. You can tell they really did. But they just didn't seem to fit. They didn't "become" the character (which is particularly shocking since both Stewart and Bullock are GREAT at that in live action films). This is one reason why I much prefer to leave voice acting to the voice actors. They know how to wear a character vocally, a task not always easy to do, especially if you're used to acting on stage or screen, playing off of other actors, not recording your lines in a booth by yourself. People with acting experience know what I'm talking about. But their performances aren't enough to kill this film completely. It's a minor distraction. That's all.

The art in this film is positively stunning. I mean even the layouts are fantastic. It may be hand drawn animation...but it feels like an epic. Just look at the size and grandeur of this thing!


A real feast for the eyes. It takes a lot of talent to make ink and paint on a piece of paper look this huge.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about this entire film is the music. It is my second-favorite movie soundtrack. (The other, oddly enough, also belongs to another DreamWorks film. But that's another post.) First of all, they actually have real Hebrew in some of the songs which truly adds an authentic flavor to the music. The fact that Ofra Haza, an actual Israeli singer, plays Yocheved just adds to that fact. But everything from the opening chorus number "Deliver Us" to the joyous celebration that is the song "Heaven's Eyes" to the point-counterpoint of "Let My People Go" just fits perfectly within the frame of the story. Even the orchestral theme they use for God is sort of out-of-this-world. A mix of mystery, majesty and wonder. Usually whenever I watch the film, I can't get it out of my head for several days. So I'll pass that joy on to you. You're welcome.

All told, minor issues aside, this film is a classic. At least, it is to me. The music is great, the story is great, even the art is great. If you're not going to a Seder this Passover, or heck, even if you are, gather the family around and give it a watch. It's a great reminder that there can indeed be miracles when you believe, and sometimes, even when you don't. Because we serve an awesome God. And He can do anything.

Oh, and Pesach Sameach. (That's "Happy Passover".)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Culture Countdown: Top 10 Classic books

Apologies again for the delay in posting. Nature seems to be against it for some reason. First, an electrical storm fried our modem, then I threw my back out and had to be on bedrest virtually immobile for several days.

When one is laid up with nothing else to do, one finds oneself with a significant amount of free reading time. If you so happen to be in that position, have I got a list for you! While there are many, many, MANY modern authors that have written fantastic books over the last 50 years or so, there's nothing quite like a literary classic. A dusty old book that simply smells of adventure. So grab your library card and prepare for a journey through my favorite books/series that are currently considered "classics".

10.Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

In addition to being a big fan of the musical (again, another review for another time), I actually read the entire unabridged version of this book (all 1500+ pages of it) in high school. Because I felt like it. Yeah, I was that kid. If you don't have that kind of time (or fortitude), you can settle for the abridged version (a scant 300-ish pages) but a lot of the nuance will be lost.

In his tale of the life and trials of one Jean Valjean, a convict freed from prison, Hugo weaves a fantastic tale of one man's journey to redemption and forgiveness, first of himself, and then to others. Along the way, a neatly interwoven group of people come in and out of his life, all of them very much connected with one another...whether they realize it or not. There's also, to be honest, a LOT of historical exposition, so if you've ever wanted a history lesson on the Napoleonic Wars, this is probably a good place to start. Oh, and propaganda. Lots and lots of propaganda. But that's kind of what Hugo was famous for anyway. I mean, have you read Notre Dame de Paris? Yikes.

Political leanings aside, though, it's still a fantastic book, with descriptions so realistic, you'll feel as though you are actually there. Rumor has it that when Hugo sent the book to his publisher, he followed up with a telegram asking what the publisher thought of it. But he was short on cash at the time and so condensed his telegram to a single "?". The publisher responded only with "!". And that single punctuation pretty much says it all. 

9.The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I picked up my copy of The Count of Monte Cristo at a library sale for a nickel. The cover was half missing and the pages were dog-eared. Best 5 cents I ever spent. That book kept me entertained for a whole summer.

Alexandre Dumas (yeah, the same guy who wrote The Three Musketeers) tells a brilliant story of Edmond Dantes. Like Valjean in Les Miserables, Dantes also goes to prison, but unlike Valjean, he is a complete innocent betrayed by his best friend so as to steal Edmond's fiancee. He eventually escapes prison, uncovers a fortune in buried treasure, and starts life under a new name. Dantes uses his wealth and power to exact revenge on the men involved in the conspiracy to imprison him. But when his revenge goes too far, Dantes must atone for his sins and use his position and power to help others while at the same time learning to let go of the past.

The book is filled with so many memorable characters, twists, turns, and subplots, it's sure to keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.

8.Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Written by a man in prison (I'm starting to notice a theme, here), Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory that chronicles the life of Christian as he journeys from the City of Destruction to The Celestial City. It starts with him receiving the gospel, seeking to know more, and finding his way to salvation. But the story doesn't end in salvation, particularly in real life. The Christian life is one of trials, temptations, and tribulations. And just as we do daily, Christian faces Despair, Vanity, Wordly Wisdom, Demons, and even Death itself among many other troubles.

It's a bit difficult of a read because a large portion of it uses archaic language. If you can find an study version, it usually has footnotes and definitions of words and phrases we no longer use to help you get a better sense of context. But I can almost certainly guarantee that it has something for everyone, no matter what you're currently going through in your life.

7.Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Another story of a man wrongfully imprisoned (maybe I should have just called this the Top 10 List of Prison Books?), Judah Ben-Hur is a one-time Jewish prince betrayed by his childhood friend, the Roman Masala. After his assets are seized and his family is imprisoned, Judah is sent to work as a slave on a Roman warship. Eventually, his fortunes change, he becomes the adopted son of a wealthy Roman, and learns the arts of fighting, business, and chariot racing. He uses his newfound situation to learn the fates of his mother and sister and get revenge on Masala. But along the way, he meets a very particular Man. They cross paths several times during Judah's life. But it is their final meeting that really changes everything and helps Judah discover that if a man is to forgive his bitterest enemy, he's going to need a little (or a lot) of Heavenly help.

This is a book you really want to read. Don't just cop out and watch the movie (excellent though it may be, but that's another review for another day; and since they're remaking it, will probably be a Take Two review) but actually sit down, read, absorb, and digest this one. The very act of writing it changed the author's life. Who knows what it can do for you?


6.Silas Marner by George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans)

I'm not gonna lie. When I first started reading this book, I hated it. I was forced to read it for my high school literature class, and it was boring, boring, boring! And then, somewhere around chapter six, it got better. A lot better. A whole lot better. Once I finished reading all the way through, I went back and reread the first 5 chapters, and they suddenly made a lot more sense.

Silas Marner is a weaver in the small town of Raveloe. He's a loner and a miser, with his golden guineas as his only friend. Betrayed by his former religious order, he has taken to shunning everyone, marginally satisfied to live out his life in solitude, weaving and selling his fabric by day and counting his gold at night. But when a series of circumstances force him to become more familiar with the local townspeople, he finds the love of friends and a family that he never thought he would have. If you can muscle your way through the first 6 chapters or so, I promise, you won't be disappointed. It's a book you'll want to read again and again.

5.A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Speaking of misers, if there any miser more famous than Ebenezer Scrooge? I'll keep this one short because I've already said so much about it in the two reviews I've done of the movie versions. But nothing beats the original. The novel is very short, so it wouldn't take long to read in a single sitting. If you've seen the many movie versions but never actually sat down to read the book, you're missing out. A lot of the best parts of the story are actually in Dickens' quaint and quirky descriptions and asides.

4.The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Although it was originally meant to be a book for children, I think there's quite a bit for adults in The Secret Garden. The story is as much about Lord Craven and his inability to deal with his grief as it is about Mary Lennox and her quest to open the titular garden.

After a terrible disease leaves her orphaned, Mistress Mary is forced to leave her home in British-occupied India and seek a home at Misslethwaite Manor (the home of her uncle Archibald Craven) in the moorlands of Yorkshire. There she discovers secret after secret. There are things (and people) that the servants aren't meant to talk about. But Mary is a stubborn child used to having her own way, and if they won't tell her what's going on, she'll find out for herself.

As interesting as the main character is, my favorite characters are actually Mary's servant Martha Sowerby and her mother. They are just two plain and simple Yorkshire women who teach Mary much about life, God, and the simple joys of being a child (something that grave and dour Mary knows nothing about), but their impact on Mary is earth shattering. While Mary is used to the luxurious, exotic finery that the British elite experienced in India, Martha teaches her to be content with simple pleasures like sewing, gardening, and skipping rope. It's also a wonderful book for encouraging young children to get outside and play. In an age where kids reportedly don't get enough exercise, I think that alone makes it worth the read.

3.Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Another book I've already talked about in the movie review, I'll keep this one short as well. As I said, it's often overshadowed by its author's more popular book, Pride and Prejudice, but I think Sense and Sensibility is equally as good if not superior. Whether you're a hopeless romantic or more reserved in your emotions, you'll identify with either of the two protagonist sisters.

2.The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

What is better than a mystery? Why a dozen of them, of course! While I could have gone with Doyle's original novel A Study in Scarlet, I decided on his first anthology of Sherlock Holmes short stories for this list. Scarlet has some pacing issues that I didn't care for, and the sequel The Sign of Four was just all over the place in terms of plot. So...Doyle wasn't the greatest novelist. But he was a master of the short story (much like Leo Tolstoy, but that's another post) and none of his collections quite shines like his first. 

Whether he's matching wits with Irene Adler in "A Scandal in Bohemia", battling wild animals in "The Speckled Band", or solving a Christmas mystery in "The Blue Carbuncle", Sherlock Holmes is always on the case! With his faithful friend and chronicler Dr. Watson at his side, there's no mystery he can't solve, no case he can't crack, and so suspect he can't catch (well, maybe one...). So grab a copy and a cup of tea and take a trip back to Victorian London. (And just imagine it's Benedict Cumberbatch, if you must.)

1.The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

I know, I'm kind of cheating because this is a whole series and not just one book, but I can't help it. I can never, ever say enough good things about this series. If you're going to read them (and I know purists will give me hell for this) I suggest reading them in chronological order (the order Lewis preferred) rather than the order in which they were published. This means reading The Magician's Nephew before The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Suck it up, buttercup. You'll be ok. 

These books are simply magic. I go back and reread them every year or so, and I always get something new out of them. From Narnia's creation to its very last day, there is wonder, excitement, and adventure to be had. A little myth, a little magic, and a whole lot of awesome make this book series a true escape to another world. I still cry every time I read the last page of The Last Battle because it gives us such hope of the Kingdom that is to come, so clearly you can almost see it with your own eyes. Read them with your kids, read them by yourself, however you choose, just read them. Over and over and over again.

And that's my list of my 10 favorite classic novels. Were there any you felt should be on the list? Let me know in the comments. Maybe I;ll review them in future. Besides, I'm always looking for a good book to read!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Book Review: The Beast of Ravenston by Kelly Martin

When I said the sequel to Betraying Ever After was even better than the first book, I was being honest. It's a better book thematically, stylistically, and technically. But, I was also being a bit biased. See, it's based (loosely) on Beauty and the Beast. Which is my absolute favorite movie of all time. I don't care if it's a kid story. I don't care if the notion of Stockholm syndrome is the one thing everyone cites as a reason for the romance. I just flipping love it. The message that it's who you are not what you look like that matters is important to me because...well...I'm kinda homely. And I figure, if there's hope for the beast...there's hope for me. I guess I was right. I mean, I've been happily married for nearly a decade.

Besides. Who doesn't want that library, amiright?

But that's another review for another time. Today, we're all about the beast of a man living at Ravenston Castle in a book that's part Beauty and the Beast, part Phantom of the Opera, and part...The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton?
Master blackmailer Mr. Dodsworth makes good on his threat to send Elizabeth to serve Nicholas Wellington, the Beast...erm...Duke of Ravenston. In exchange for making Miss Beth's life a living hell, Dodsworth will reveal to Nicholas the identity of the man who set the fire that left his face permanently scarred. Nicholas is more than happy to agree since a) he wants revenge and 2) he always took a bit of pleasure in manipulating and intimidating people. It's why he was known as the Beast LONG before the fire.

But Ravenston Castle is full of secrets. The Duke is full of secrets. The servants (well, servant) is full of secrets. And Miss Beth? Well, as terrified as she is of the Duke, she's got some secrets of her own. When all of the secrets threaten to collide head on, pasts are revealed and futures are compromised. Will Beth survive a week with the Beast? Will Nicholas get revenge? And will Dodsworth be able to to deal with his plan backfiring in his face?

I. Flipping. Love. This. Book.

I want to see a movie of this.

Maybe it's my bias talking. But I didn't want to put this sucker down.

Beth is an amazing character. I kinda disliked her in BEA because I felt like she was a bit too delicate. I understand her situation. But even Emma had more of a spine than she did. Whatever happened between that book and this one, she grew a spine and then plated it with armor. True, she starts out the first couple of pages terrified of Nicholas. But that does not last long. Once she's settled in, her determination gets the better of her and she strives to make lemons into lemonade. Which is something Nicholas won't stand for.

His attempts at making her life miserable do succeed, to a point. They break her body. But not her spirit. Even in a fit of fever, while she's freakin' hallucinating and talking to people who aren't there, she's determined to do her job or die trying. And she very nearly does. Call it madness. Call it stupidity. I call it defiance in the face of the devil himself. And that takes tremendous courage.

It isn't long before the duke's more tender side comes out (and yes, there apparently is one in there somewhere) and he begins to care for the woman who is essentially his slave. Granted, it didn't start that way. It was all lust and anger and frustration. In some ways, a bit more risque than I like my romances, but expected considering the nature of the story.

Nicholas, for his part, reminded me very strongly of the Phantom of the Opera...if the Phantom had an even more tragic backstory than he already does. I've no idea what possessed him to do what he did to his first wife. Maybe it was his misguided attempt to spare her from pain. But regardless, it was a big, life altering, universe shattering mistake. He has no one to blame but himself for the aftermath. And blame himself he does. But then, that self-loathing projects on to everyone else until no one can stand to be around him. It just makes you want to reach into the book and give him a hug. And, uh...

Once again, Dodsworth is the villain you love to hate. Only this time, there was no satisfaction of cold cocking him near the end of the book. Instead, the obsequious weasel gets everything he wants and more, for the most part. True, he can't stop them from falling in love. But he can destroy their happiness by appealing to Nicholas's thirst for vengeance, something he knows Beth would most certainly hate. Things may not go exactly as he planned, but hey. As long as he gets his way in the end, who cares how he gets there?

The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I'm salivating while awaiting book 3, which is due out later this month (by the grace of God).

If you haven't started this series yet, for goodness' sake, what are you waiting for? Get yourself a copy and get to reading.

Oh, and keep a fan around for chapter 16. You're gonna need it.

For more of Kelly Martin's books, check out her website at www.kellymartinbooks.com. You'll find info on her, her books, links to all her social media (which you should subscribe to all of them, just so you can bask in her epicness in every possible forum), and all that other fun stuff.