Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review: Penumbras by Braden Bell

For starters, I'm going to announce here that I soon plan to put up several articles about how to write comedy. My goal is to get those started by September, so if you don't see anything by then, remind me because I get easily distracted. But for this week, I have a review for you.

Penumbras, the sequel to Braden Bell's middle-grade fantasy The Kindling, is a fun book that can carry readers, young and old, through an exciting new world of mayhem, magic, and middle school. It continues the tale of three thirteen-year-olds, twins Connor and Lexa Dell and their friend Melanie Stephens (who has a super-cool last name), as they come to grips with their “kindling”. When they kindled, they discovered that they had command of various magic powers and the ability to talk to each other through a kind of telepathy.

The story continues when they are on a field trip and, as usual around these three kids, things get a little wonky. Here's a blurb from the book:

Connor Dell didn't mean to blow up the school bus.
Or the bathrooms.
In fact, he only wanted to go to sleep and possibly dream about Melanie Stephens.
But explosions had a funny way of happening when Connor and his friends were around.

Connor Dell wants to be good--he really does. But he is terrified that he might be turning into a Darkhand, especially when new powers start to surface. What's worse, the Stalker is following Connor, but no one else seems to be able to see him. The Magi think he might be hallucinating, the guilt of what happened in the Shadowbox keeps weighing on him, and his relationship with Melanie Stephens is complicating things. Even for a Magi, Connor knows is life is anything but normal. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I like stories with lots of action but that also show us growth in the characters. This book does both. Not only that, it is a clean read and I have no reservations about recommending it for any age.

The main character arc belongs to Connor Dell as he struggles with the age-old question of whether he is turning evil or not. Will he be able to do good even when more and more “Darkhand” powers are manifesting themselves within him?

And then there's Lexa's growth that happens at the end of the book. At first, she seemed a little obnoxious. Finally, something happened to her that I've been through many times myself. I completely knew the feelings that she was going through. I've also been in the same position as Dr. Timberi, their mentor, and have had to make hard decisions when choosing between students. I know I'm being vague, but you'll have to read it for yourself to see what I'm talking about. Let's just say that Braden did an excellent job of setting up the situation and creating a powerful emotional experience. Whether you're in music or not, though, there is a powerful lesson there about how we treat people and deal with our disappointments in life.

I recommend both the first book, The Kindling and now the sequel, Penumbras, to any reader who likes action, character development, and a clean read that provides good morals. I should mention that the story arc for the book is complete, but it also ends on a cliffhanger. Now we have to wait for the third book. 

Okay, Braden, no vacation time for you until it's done. You hear me?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Show me the evidence - Common Core

I generally try to stay away from hot topics in my public dealings. It's not that I don't have opinions, it's just that I want to keep my relationships civil. Getting into political topics often opens up a lot of emotions that can injure friendships, which I don't want to do (which is mainly because I have a personality that doesn't like conflict). But there are times when I feel like certain things need to be heard and I don't feel like the message is getting out there. Of course, I know I don't have a huge influence on the world, but if I can at least spread the information to a few more people, I've done something.

Okay, here's my beef. It's this thing that the government wants to push upon our kids called Common Core. Now, I'm not an expert on this, but I'm hearing many things that concern me. Instead of getting into the nit-picky details, though, I thought I'd talk about my three main concerns about it.

#1. If this is such a great new educational system for our kids, why did the government try to sneak it through without parental feedback? When they've tried to install this under our noses, this raises many red flags for me. Why does this have to be put through so quickly? I just saw a video the other day of one of our local school officials who had no idea this was even being implemented until this year. Shouldn't they, of all people, have had some kind of heads up from their higher-ups? So, let's slow down and get a look at what Common Core entails before whole-hardheartedly subjecting our children to it.

#2. Money. How much is this going to cost the taxpayers? They haven't told us yet. They are only charging us a little bit at a time. So far, our school district has only budgeted $54,000 for teacher training on Common Core. Looking at the overall budget, that doesn't seem like much, but what about all the new text books and computer systems that will be needed to implement this? How much is that going to raise our taxes? By my humble estimation, it will probably be in the thousands of dollars per classroom. Add up all the classrooms (which I have no idea how many there are in our district) and I'm sure we will be into the millions of dollars. Who's paying for this? Oh yeah, we are. Did we get a say in it? No. If nothing else, that's taxation without representation. It seems like I remember that as being something that really ticked off our founding fathers.
[Addendum: I heard that the feds want to add a $5 per line tax to all phone lines as a way to help offset the cost. How much will that impact your family now?]

#3. We don't even know if this new educational system will work. Have they tested it? Not really. And what little testing they did in New York turned out disastrous. They want to overhaul our whole educational system because they have a new theory? Shouldn't it be tested first to prove that the system is better? You'd think so. An analogy I thought of is this: what if someone had a theory that sucking on swamp water would cure cancer. Without testing it first, they get government approval to scrap all other cancer treatments and initiate a nationwide mandate that all people doing cancer treatments now have to suck on swamp water. Does that sound smart? Who knows, maybe sucking on swamp water will cure cancer, but shouldn't we test it on a smaller scale first to make sure it works before making everyone have to do it?

Now, I'm not even getting into the other details. Things like data mining, tracking, and potential emotional damage to children. The materials that are coming to light also seem bent on breaking family ties apart and teaching a specific political agenda.

This is what I call on all parents to do: get informed. Get involved. Maybe after you do some research, you might feel this is the best thing for your kids. Fine, but at least find out what our government has planned for them. No responsible parent should be unaware of what their children are learning in school. Find out about Common Core and see if it meets your family's needs. And if it doesn't, let your voice be heard before it's too late.

Here are a few websites that have more info, some for and some against:

Friday, May 17, 2013

Into Dorkness

Saw Star Trek Into Darkness today. In short, the movie was awesome. I'll need to see it a few more times to be sure, but I think this might be the best Star Trek movie ever. In my top 10 list of all-time, Star Trek II still holds a place. This one might replace it.

I'm a little surprised by this admission. I still have mixed feelings about J.J. Abrams's first installment. The main thing that bothered me about it was the whole changing history into a new time-line. I understand why Abrams did it, but that motif has been used and overused in the Star Trek lexicon already. I don't know how many Voyager episodes never actually happened because everything was changed and no one but the viewer remembered. I'm also a little nervous about Abrams taking over Star Wars. The two are such different animals. But this movie settled some of my concerns.

Now as far as Into Darkness, they did a great job of not giving too much away in the trailer. There are some awesome twists in there that I don't even want to hint at. Suffice it to say, I think people who are not familiar with Star Trek lore will enjoy it, but people who do will get an extra special kick out of it. The only hint I will give is that for a while, I thought Abrams's third Star Trek film would be subtitled, 'the Search for Kirk'.

There were a couple of dire situations that I accurately predicted how they would get out of, but I think that is partially due to me being a writer. Things have to be set up to avoid the dreaded 'deus ex machina'. I don't mind the predictability of those things, though, since there were so many pleasant surprises to counterbalance.

Also, this movie was more about people than some kind of geeky cast reunion. We get to see some character development in Kirk, as well as another side to Spock. I wish they put a little more McCoy in there, though, because Karl Urban knocks his portrayal out of the park every time. I also wish they would do some cameos of the old series actors. Have them play other roles, of course, but for a long-time trekkie like me, it would be fun.

There was a little bit of language in this one, plus a couple of very brief 'scantily clad' scenes, so be warned if you want to take kids. I would suggest screening it if you are concerned.

I give this movie two big toes up. Way up.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Iron Man Versus the Curse of the Three

When was the last time you saw the third installment of a superhero movie and came away loving it? I'll give you a minute. Superman III? No. Spiderman 3? Nuh uh. X-men 3? Actually, I kinda liked that one but most people didn't. And let's not even get into the old Bat Man movies. Of course, the third Nolan Bat Man from last year wasn't half bad, but that was the exception.

But then the super powerful Iron Man took on the heartless Three monster last weekend. Could he prevail where so many others failed miserably? The answer is a resounding 'yes'.

Kudos to Robert Downey Jr. who has managed to keep not three, but four film versions of Tony Stark fresh and entertaining. For instance, as much fun as we had with Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates movies, after the first film, we pretty much had seen everything Jack had to offer. Not so with Tony. His quick wit, one-liners, and comedic arrogance are still surprising and funny.

One thing that the Iron Man franchise is doing right is giving Tony's character some personal challenge he needs to overcome in each movie. In this case, it's PTSD from his experience fighting the aliens in Avengers. Where a lot of other movies by the third installment have nowhere left for the character to go except to go thump on bad guys, these films keep us cheering for our hero's self-improvement.

What really impressed me was how surprising the story twists were. I won't say anything here because I don't want to spoil them. Suffice it to say, the trailers don't prepare you. The trailers were awesome and got me salivating like a vampire in a blood bank, but they expertly left out key details that would have let us know what was really going on in the story and who the villain really was.

I still haven't decided if I like this movie better than the first, though I will say it is better than the second. If this one becomes my favorite of the Iron Man movies, though, it will be because of Harley. I won't say anything else for those who haven't seen it, but Tony's interaction with Harley added a new charm.

Is the movie kid safe? Mostly. The violence does get pretty intense in places, though it's still of the 'comic book' variety. I don't remember anything that made me cringe. There was some mild swearing. Supposedly there were some harsher words but I didn't notice them. There were also a few scantily clad scenes with a little innuendo. If you are at all uncertain about your kids seeing it unfiltered, I suggest you go see it first. I give this movie two big toes up.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Storymakers 2013


For the last four years, I've been attending a fantastic writing conference sponsored by the LDS Storymakers. This years conference will be at the Provo Marriott (the hotel, not the place where they shoot those orange orbs into baskets). If you are a writer, I cannot express enough how beneficial this conference can be to your writing skills. There are tons of highly informative classes, lots of like-minded people to meet, and tremendous speakers. This year's special guest is none other than the great and award-winning author Anne Perry. And to hear her keynote address, you don't have to be a writer or go to the whole conference. Tickets are available to hear just her. There are several other special guests, too, including agents (the writer kind, not the secret kind) and editors: Michael Bourret, Hannah Bowman, Victoria Curran, Alyssa Henkin, and Michelle Witte.

To register for the conference, visit:

There is also a promotional contest called 'Show Your Love'. If you are attending the conference and want a chance to have dinner with the special guests, as well as a chance to get some feedback on your writing, let people know about this conference. You can find out more about this contest here:

Don't just think about it, do it. It's well worth your time.