Book Review: Conspiracy 365 – January (Gabrielle Lord)

And now for something completely different … not sure why I decided to pick this up – I think it’s a combination of my love for serialised stories and it’s a nostalgic throwback to the types of books I used to consume in large quantities from my local library when I was a teenager.

This is a new series by Australian crime writer, Gabrielle Lord, for young adults with an interesting premise – it takes place over the course of a year from 1 January to 31 December (thus the title of the series is Conspiracy 365) and broken into twelve volumes, one for each month. Also interesting is that it’s on a publishing schedule of coming out one volume per month, so you can’t actually buy anything more recent than the May volume at this stage. I’m not sure how well it’s selling amongst young people, but I think these kind of publishing stunts are great fun, and I wish they’d do them more often. (It reminds me of how much I enjoyed reading Stephen King’s The Green Mile back in the 90s, which came out serialised in six episodes.)

So what’s the story in this one? It reminds me very much of 24 for teenagers. 15-year-old Callum Ormond is walking along the street on 31 December when a man runs up to him and tells him that he has to hide from “them” for 365 days till 31 December next year. Before we find out any more, an ambulance pulls up, some guys jump out, inject the mysterious man and drag him away. All Callum knows it that it is something to do with his father who returned from a trip to Ireland the previous year and died. In his last days, his father wasn’t able to speak, but left him with some mysterious drawings.

Once that happens, it’s on for young and old. Over the course of the next 31 days in January, Callum gets shipwrecked in a sabotaged tinny that leaves him floundering in shark-infested waters, has continuous run-ins with his Uncle Rafe (his father’s unpleasant twin brother), gets himself kidnapped by a criminal gang, gets framed for attacking his uncle and sister, goes on the run from the law and ends up literally up to his neck in trouble as 31 January comes to a cliffhanger ending.

You have to suspend an awful lot of disbelief with this story – especially the fact that Callum really wouldn’t say anything to his Mum about what was going on, but when I was 15, I was completely prepared to suspend that disbelief, so I can still do it now. I’m not suggesting any adults out there would want to read it, but if you have young teenage boys, they’re going to love this series. And certainly I’m going back for more. Where else do you get sharks, two groups of criminals and mysterious drawings in less than 200 pages?

3 ½ out of 5.

Book Review: Boundaries (Henry Cloud and John Townsend)

The premise of this book is rather simple, but has very far-reaching consequences – in life, some things are our responsibility, and some things are other people’s responsibility. We need to have clear boundaries in our lives so that we’re quite sure what is in our court and what is not.

For example: If you find yourself with an acquaintance or friend who is always pushing you around and calling the shots in the relationship – and you find yourself giving in all the time, and resenting it – you both have boundary issues. Your friend has an issue with respecting the boundaries of others by always trying to get their own way. You have a problem with boundaries, because you’re scared of putting up a boundary of saying “no” to your friend, in case something bad will happen.

The book is laid out in a fairly straightforward way – the first half sets out what boundaries are, and what they should look like, and then chapter by chapter, the authors take us through some of the outworkings of boundary problems in various areas of life. The kind of topics are: People who are grown adults, but still feeling under the thumb of their parents. Parents learning how to enforce boundaries with their toddlers. Friends learning to set boundaries with each other. Husbands and wives learning how to set boundaries to work out where loving your spouse ends and putting up with a selfish person begins. Work boundaries – knowing the difference between doing a great job and becoming a workaholic because you can never say no to your work colleagues or bosses.

As someone who struggles with being a people pleaser (ie my natural instinct is to say “yes” to anything anyone asks me), this is one of the more important books I’ve read this year. If you have no trouble saying “no” to things, then this may not be for you. But if you have ever felt like you’re giving and giving and you’re exhausted, it may be that you have trouble saying “no”. In which case, learning about boundaries will be really helpful. I certainly wish I’d been thinking about this stuff several years ago.

The only real concern I have with the book is that, being written by Christian psychologists, they are trying to emphasise the Christian part as much as possible by putting lots of Scripture references in the book. I’m not against Scripture references, but often the book feels like it’s trying to stretch Bible verses to fit their boundaries model, rather than fitting the model to the Scriptures. Of course, I think this is done in all sincerity – if I was to ask Cloud and Townsend, I’m sure they, in all seriousness, think they’ve handled the Scriptures correctly. I’m not so sure.

With many of these books written by psychologists that you can pick up at Koorong or Word, I’d be more happy if they just said, “Look, these principles aren’t strictly found in the pages of the Bible. But we’re comfortable that they don’t disagree with the Bible, and they’ll provide a useful framework for how you can relate to others.”

But that aside, I think the advice in this book is great, and will affect many, many portions of your life. Pretty much, if you answer “yes” to either of these questions: Do I always feel like I’m giving and I’m resenting it? or Do I have trouble saying no to people and it’s overwhelming me? then I can guarantee you’re going to get a lot out of this book.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: 2012

I thought this would be a fairly straightforward review – big dumb action film, great special effects, cheesy plot. 3 ½ stars if it was fun, 2 ½ or 2 if it was dead boring.

But I actually found myself sucked in a lot more than that. Even though, without doubt, the whole thing is clichéd. The story, in case you don’t know, is one that you can work out pretty easily from a look at the front of the DVD case. In the year 2012, the world falls apart. If you want the particulars (in so far as I could follow it) the sun has had some particularly nasty solar flares, which have sent extra neutrinos into the earth, which have heated up the earth’s core a lot more than normal. So much so, in fact, that earthquakes and volcanoes galore are about to break out, breaking up the earth’s surface so that the everything’s going to be shifted around. Did I mention tsnunamis as well? Well, there’s tsunamis as well. Apparently, the idea came from the Mayan calendar that famously runs out in 2012, but this film tries to stick to the scientific side of things, rather than give too much credence to old legends. (Sorry, for those who were hoping for some old Mayan connection.)

So what that means is that our extensive cast (and it is the standard sort of ensemble for this type of thing) that are set up in the first 30 minutes, are going to spend the remaining 120 minutes running, jumping, sinking, flying and driving very fast to escape said earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.

The reason you go to see any of these films is, of course, the special effects, and once the action kicks in, it’s one jaw-dropping spectacle after another all the way to the end credits. And CGI is so good nowadays that who can tell it’s not real any more? The only reason you know it’s CGI is because you know there was no way anybody had the money to destroy that much California real estate in one hit.

The film is directed by German, Roland Emmerich, who is competing in the Master of Spectacle space currently dominated by Peter Jackson and Michael Bay (and every second Ridley Scott film). He’ll never compete with Jackson, because Peter Jackson always picks gold class stories to turn into films. (You can’t really get much bigger and famous than The Lord of the Rings.) However, I think he deserves to give Michael Bay a run for his money, because while Emmerich has clichés in his films, they’re clichés that connect with people.

Let me pause to talk about clichés for a minute. I know it’s standard for reviewers, when seeing these types of films to talk about how clichéd the script is. That’s fine. It’s true. But why do filmmakers use clichés so much? I think it dates back to the old silent film principal – back then, when you didn’t have any dialogue and couldn’t really do much in the way of subtlety, the best directors (D.W. Griffith, etc) would portray scenes and characters that would straight away get an emotional reaction from their audience. A mother having a baby taken away from her. Lovers being separated. A parent dying. These are things that immediately resonate with anyone who’s ever been part of a family or ever had someone in their life that they cared about. So, yes, while the Children in Trouble, and the Separated Loved Ones are stock-standard movie clichés, they continue to appear, because they tap into something within us.

So when comparing this film with say, Transformers, while both are big action films, when you strip away the action from the Bay film, there’s really only some teenage humour, flash-looking cars and voyeuristic camera angles on Megan Fox.

But what I liked about 2012 was that the action was kept alive on the strength of emotional situations that nearly all of us could identify with. John Cusack plays a father who ruined his marriage by being so tied to his computer that he ignored his family. Now, he’s desperately trying to reconnect with his kids and his ex-wife, all complicated by the presence of her new boyfriend. Chiwetel Ejiofor (don’t even ask me how to pronounce that), the scientist who makes the discovery about the disaster known to the White House, worries about his father, an aging jazz singer playing on a luxury liner in peril out on the ocean. And then there’s Danny Glover, as the President of the United States, who is concerned about everyone.

There’s a sense in which this film is just a mix of all Emmerich’s other films (the President part reminds me of Independence Day, the family part reminds me of The Patriot and the eco-disaster part is just The Day After Tomorrow expanded out to an even bigger scale), but this one seems to work the most successfully. And I kind of like the fact that his characters aren’t marines with guns (the James Cameron specialty) or otherwise testosterone-fuelled men using violence to solve the world’s problems. The heroes in this film are more ordinary people that we can identify with. (Though there is a brief nod to Arnold Schwarzenegger…)

So, in conclusion, if you hate this kind of movie, you’re not going to like it. If you like this sort of thing, I think this is a very engaging way to spend 2 ½ hours on a film that is surprisingly pro-family. If you get a few good action sequences, and increased motivation to make sure you let those close to you know that you love them – that’s worth the price of admission, isn’t it?

My only negative about this film is that it seems to have been shot using a few different types of cameras. So in certain sequences, the image suddenly looks like it’s come from a digital camera instead of film. (E.g. in the opening sequence where Chiwetel goes to India – once he gets in the lift and goes down to the computer room, it suddenly looks digital.) I found this rather irritating and it tended to take me out of the film. (I didn’t see it at the cinemas, so I don’t know how noticeable this would have been there, but believe me, you’ll notice straight away on DVD projected on a wall.)

But that aside, it’s a 4 out of 5.

Book Review: Tomorrow, When The War Began (John Marsden)

Tomorrow When The War BeganIt’s becoming a shameful reality of my life that nothing will move a book more quickly from the Plan To Read One Day list to the Read This RIGHT NOW! list than if said book is about to be made into a movie. In same cases, this doesn’t bother me, but a lot of the time, especially if there is a lot of hype around the story, I want to be in there first to know how faithful the film is to the book.

This is why I have just now turned to a novel that I’ve bought and owned for something like five years, always planning to read it one day. And even then, I was thinking about reading it for several years before that.

Anyway, enough of my slackness. On with the review.

Somebody once said that anybody who was a teenager in Australia in the 90s would be familiar with the Tomorrow series (this novel is the first in a series of 7). That’s not quite true (I missed out), but certainly, it was hard to ignore. In fact, the first time I heard about it was when a Christian writer in Australia was critiquing it, strongly recommending that Christian parents keep their teenagers away from it – or at least be aware of what’s in it.

I still remembered that article when I started to read this book, so I was rather curious to see whether it was As Bad As All That. Now that I’ve finished it, to be honest, I can understand the guy’s concerns. However, I also have to admit, that – despite being written for young people – it’s a remarkably well-written novel that would have a wide appeal and deserves to be remembered as one of Australia’s great novels.

So for those who’ve never heard of it, it’s set in the fictional town of Wirrawee, which I can’t remember if it’s mentioned where it is, but feels like it’s in rural Victoria in the south of Australia. While being fictional, Marsden’s description of small town life is spot on. What made me especially nostalgic while reading it, is that it’s set in the early 90s – in other words, just before the arrival of mobile phones and the internet. The fact that these technologies don’t exist give the story a simpler air, which is really refreshing. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-technology, but it was different back then. That was the day when you picked up the phone and rang someone if you wanted to talk to them…)

The story is narrated by a girl named Ellie, and tells of a time when her and her friends decided to go away camping for a week in the summer time (just after Christmas). The friends have great fun hanging out for several days, but when they head back to town, they discover that a foreign army (you’re never told which country they are from) has invaded their town, cut the phone lines and rounded up everyone as captives. So from then on, the teenagers are forced to be guerrillas, hiding out and fighting for their freedom.

This is a story that could easily have become a clichéd action story. As it is, for those who just want a bit of gung-ho action, there’s plenty of car chases, near-escapes, explosions. But what makes it stand out is Ellie’s first-person narration. In a very clever move, Marsden’s tale unfolds with all the excitement you want – but none of the mindlessness that could easily creep into a story – and this is largely due to Ellie’s thought life. As well as giving a very realistic portrayal of the sheer terror of coming back and finding that life as you know it has completely disappeared, Ellie is always weighing through the moral and philosophical elements of what she is doing. (This is when she’s not trying to work through her troubled love-life, where she finds herself caught between two boys, and not sure which one she likes.)

What does it mean to take a life? Is it justified in war? It’s certainly not pleasant. In the end, it is these very human thoughts that elevate this story to greatness.

However, it is also this element that makes the story problematic. Marsden wants to use this as an excuse to get us to buy into a very post-modern concept that, in a war, nobody’s wrong. So Ellie and her friends might be fighting for their freedom, but the other side might be fighting for something as well. While I’m all in favour of having an open-minded approach to war where we understand the other side, Marsden is taking it a step further to say that nobody’s wrong.

In a striking sequence, Ellie watches a grasshopper eat a mosquito. She decides that from the mosquito’s point of view, the grasshopper’s action was evil. However, hasn’t she killed mosquitoes as well? So she concludes that good and evil are merely a human invention. In the end, about the only thing she’s certain about is that she loves her friends and wants them to be safe.

So back to where I started – I can understand why Christian parents might be worried about their kids reading this story. Certainly, the philosophical side of things is problematic – but I think the issues raised are great things to discuss. In fact, given that nearly all major conflicts that we see reported in the media are reported in mostly black and white, good vs bad terms – I think it’s a good idea to step back and consider the bigger picture of war.

The other issue would have been the language and sexuality of the teenagers, which is certainly noticeable, but quite mild compared to how teenagers are portrayed today. Also, none of it has the the gratuitousness of modern storytelling for teenagers.

In conclusion, if the movie manages to be remotely faithful to this story, it’s going to be one of the most exciting contemporary war stories in a long while. How much of the philosophy and strong characterisation of the story makes it into the film will be interesting to see. And, certainly, I’m keen to read the other six books and see how everything turns out.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: Within Our Gates

Continuing on with another dip into the 1001 Films Which I’m Not Sure I’ll See All Of Before I Die (am I being too pessimistic?), we come to this most rare of films, Within Our Gates. When you have to buy the film off eBay, and it comes on a plain white DVD in a plastic case with no cover art whatsoever and the DVD is lifted off a video from 1989, you kind of know a film is rare.

However, I’m glad I tracked it down. Within Our Gates is the earliest surviving African-American film in America, and offers a really interesting glimpse – not just into African-American film – but into independent filmmaking at the time.

In 1919, when this came out, DW Griffith would have been cranking out his expensive melodramas for the white audiences. Meanwhile, there would have been cheaper films coming out covering topics that were important to other segments of the country.

The film this reminds me of most is the recent Precious, which again features a distinctively African-American story, not just for entertainment, but as an encouragement for African-Americans. This was clearly the aim of Within Our Gates as well. It aims to show these audiences the real social issues they were facing, while at the same time, offering them hope for the future.

As a story, the film is a bit basic and doesn’t work so well. It follows a black woman, Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) from the Southern states and seems to move through three broad sections, for no particular reason. It starts with a sort of romantic melodrama as she visits her cousin in the north and waits for her fiancé to visit her. However, her cousin gets jealous and manages to instigate a break-up.

After this bit of soap, the film then shifts to Sylvia trying to raise money for a school for black children in the deep south, and the prejudices she runs into while trying to raise said  money.

Then, in a third section, Sylvia’s new love interest talks to the rat cousin from the first part of the movie, who tells Sylvia’s back story. This then launches the most confronting parts of the movie, as we are confronted by racism and lynching.

Overall, I thought the whole thing was a bit chaotic and didn’t hold together well as a film. But the issues that the film raised were really fascinating, and would have been immensely relevant to audiences at the time. For me, the most tragic part of all was a character called Old Ned, a black preacher who would hype his excitable congregation up about Heaven and the afterlife – so that they never questioned the hardship and lack of education that they were going through now.

I guess I’d always liked to think of Christianity as a blessing of sorts to African-Americans, and to realise that it was also used as a force to keep them from questioning the status quo was quite sad. It also raises an issue that atheists have been confronting us with for a while – our current brand of Christianity seems to be all about ignoring this life in favour of one after death, thus making us not care at all about what’s going on in the world around us. It’s certainly a far cry from traditional Christianity which both deeply cared about the world and looked forward to a better one.

So overall, Within Our Gates doesn’t hold up so well as a story, but anyone with an interest in the social issues of the day or African-American cinema should check this out.