Book Review for Chains

Title: Chains
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Year Published: 2008
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Fiction for ages 10 and up
Format: Listened to as an audiobook from
Rating: ****

In the spring of 1776, a twelve-year-old Rhode Island slave named Isabel is making plans for her new life as a free person.  Shortly before her death, Isabel’s master, Miss Mary Finch, granted Isabel and her sister’s freedom in her will. Those dreams of freedom are destroyed though when Miss Mary’s son refuses to honor the will and instead sells Isabel and her five-year-old sister to a haughty loyalist couple in New York. 

Now Isabel is thrust into the middle of the increasingly heated tensions between the rebels and the loyalists in the New York Colony. She meets a friendly slave named Curzon who is sure the rebels are a slave’s ticket to freedom and wants Isabel to help by spying on her loyalist masters.  Isabel isn’t sure what to do. The rebels are fighting for white men to be free, but would they fight for a slave girl’s freedom too?

While reading Chains I felt like I’d been transported into the start of the American Revolution with all the sights, smells, and emotions of the time.  Isabel is a smart likable character and her point of view and insight is one that isn’t usually voiced in Revolutionary War stories.  Chains would make an excellent choice for family or classroom reading since teachers and parents will enjoy Isabel’s story as much as their elementary and middle school aged children.

Reviews of Remakes: The Karate Kid, Skins, and Being Human

Last night I watched three different remakes. My philosophy on remakes is that they’re worthwhile if they offer a new twist on old material. So remakes of Romeo and Juliet often turn out well as each generation has different rules on what’s considered a forbidden romance. The Office is another example of successful remake material. Each country has its own business culture. A British Office and an American Office can tell a similar story but with the unique differences that speak to each country. Here’s what the three remakes I watched last night had to offer:

The Karate Kid (*** 1/2) – [2010]  I loved the original version of this movie. It was very California-based though, which made it ripe for a remake.  In this version, 12-year-old Dre (played by Jaden Smith) and his mom move to China to start a new life.  He meets the standard bullies, gets in the forced–but necessary–humiliating beat down by those bullies, and vows to learn to beat them fairly with the help of an older and wiser mentor.  

Jaden Smith is as vulnerable and charming as Ralph Macchio and adds a broader American definition to the role.  Jackie Chan is a solid replacement for Pat Morita and moving the story to China adds a global twist with stunning scenery during the crucial training montages. Though the romance of twelve-year-olds was a bit awkward,  I liked how the story was updated with more of a friendship theme where the boy and girl promise to support each other’s dream. It was especially nice to see the girl have her own talents and life instead of just being a handmaiden for the boy. 

At almost 2 1/2 hours the story is a little overlong but includes tons of wonderful scenes of China.  Overall, the new Karate Kid is a solid version for a new generation. [Watched on DVD rented from Netflix.  Also available for rental on iTunes.]

Skins (***) – The first two seasons of the British version of Skins were sublime.  In just 20 episodes Skins told a story of adolescence that was wild, unrealistic, bawdy, sweet, cautionary, and all too real. If you never saw the British version, GO WATCH IT. 

That said, the American version isn’t as horrible as I thought it would be.  Most of the cast is solid with a couple exceptions.  In the British version, Tony is a charismatic, manipulative alpha-boy who holds the group together. It’s not a easy role to nail and unfortunately American Tony doesn’t.  Instead he comes across as merely smarmy and bland. Some of the actors — the one who plays Chris, for example– offer a uniquely American take while still being the embodiment of the original character.  The one major casting difference is that Maxxie– the level-headed gay boy and talented tap dancer– is replaced by a lesbian cheerleader named Tea.  I haven’t seen enough of her to know what I think about  this change.

While it was nice to finally watch a show about working class American teens instead of yet another show about rich teens, the American pilot is line-for-line and scene-for-scene an almost exact copy of the British version. It’s not a bad show, just a lesser copy.  [New episodes on Mondays at 10/9c and available for online viewing  the next day at MTV online.]

Being Human (*** 1/2)  – Three twenty-somethings share an apartment together.  They just happen to be a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost.  I liked the first British season a lot but wasn’t too keen on the second season, so I’m more open to an American version of Being Human

The American version is very similar to the British version but not an exact copy.  The characters have different names and slightly different personalities and lines.  Like Skins, it’s refreshing to have a show about working class young people instead of the usual glossy wealthy characters that are the standard of American shows.  Aiden, Josh, and Sally aren’t as endearing as Mitchell, George, and Annie yet, but they’re interesting and different enough that I’ll keep watching to see what happens. [New episodes on Mondays at 9/8c on SyFy and available for online viewing the next day on Hulu.]

What I Did With My Winter Break

Life Highlights:
An Eloise Vacation – This winter break the daughterling and I decided to vacation inside the new hotel we watched being built near our house.  We studied their website carefully, wrote ourselves a schedule for our visit, packed up a few clothes, books, and toiletries, and walked over.

Our favorite activity was exploring the hotel, checking to see if the vending machine selections differed from floor to floor — they did — then gazing out each hall window and comparing the view.  The daughterling told me she’s glad to have a "childish mother".  "Child-like," I suggested.  That sounds better, doesn’t it?

We also ate dinner in the hotel restaurant and soaked in the hot tub.  The rest of our stay we lounged in our room, reading books, watching a bit of TV, and eating our room service dessert until it was time to cuddle up in our comfy beds and sleep.

Easy A (*** 1/2) – [2010] Socially invisible Olive (Emma Stone) starts with a simple white lie to spare her friend’s feelings and accidently invents an entire tale about an imaginary one-night stand.  The school gossip eavesdropping thinks the story is true and suddenly Olive is thrust into her high school’s spotlight.  When a gay friend asks her to pretend to have sex with him to keep him from getting bullied, she decides she might as well continue getting attention.  As Olive helps more guys build their credibility with fake sex sessions, she starts regretting the type of attention she’s getting.

Olive is a smart, fun character, as are her parents.  The movie does a fairly good job pointing out the hypocrisy in American sexual mores — though the introspection is more glib than truly thoughtful.  Also, the abstinence-only Christians are presented as pretty cartoonish villains.  Still, as mainstream teen films go, this one is smarter and more fun than most. [Watched as an iTunes rental. Rated PG-13.]

Going the Distance (*** 1/2) –  [2010] This is one of the few current romantic comedies that actually seems romantic versus just stereotypically bland and sexist.  Thirty-somethings Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) cute-meet while playing a video game at a New York bar and hit if off so well that they both want to continue the relationship the next morning.  Both of them know Erin’s only in New York for six more weeks — when her journalism internship ends and she returns to San Francisco to finish her degree — but they decide to see where the relationship will go anyway.  By the end of six weeks, they’re getting along so well they decide to try out a long distance relationship.

Going the Distance is refreshingly realistic about the pitfalls of being apart while managing to be funny and romantic at the same time.  Erin and Garrett seem like actual, well-rounded people and the movie takes both of their careers and points of view seriously.  Instead of the movie simply having the girl give up her life for her boyfriend, the couple grapples with finding a fair solution for both of them or deciding if they should just break up. 

The one flaw to an otherwise enjoyable movie is their stereotypical friends and family.  Though they’re completely unoriginal, they all are well-intentioned, actually seem to care for the main characters, and don’t take up too much of the movie’s time.  [Watched as an iTunes rental. Rated R for language and brief male nudity.]

Scott Pilgrim versus the World (*** 1/2) – [2010] A fun movie about a twenty-something guy (Michael Cera) figuring out relationships.  I never read the graphic novels the movie is based on, but from what I’ve read on the Internet, the movie pares the story down to just Scott’s point of view and leaves out the perspective of Ramona (the girl he’s pursuing). 

Though the women in the story are pretty much just goals or obstacles for Scott, the whole saga told as a video game is awfully charming and entertaining, as well as insightful.  It did go on about 10 minutes longer than my interest held, but I enjoyed its celebration of the 90’s indie music scene all the same.  The playful style reminded me of a modern Wayne’s World.  [Watched as an iTunes rental. Rated PG-13.]