Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Who Are We?" (Reflections on The Walking Dead, Season 4)

The Season Four finale of The Walking Dead attracted 15.7million viewers, 10.2 million of whom were in the 18-49 demographic. It shattered previous records (the Game of Thrones season finale garned 5.4 million; Duck Dynasty reached 6 million; Breaking Bad’s Season Four finale recorded just under 2 million, and the final show of the entire series hit 10.3 million).

In other words, The Walking Dead is a cultural phenomenon. A lot of people are turned off by the gore (and it’s certainly gruesome), but The Walking Dead offers a gold mine of philosophical, moral, religious, and cultural talking points. I’ve written elsewhere about these issues (see links at the end). What caught my attention at the end of Season Four was the way in which Carl brings up one of the most important questions of all.

Michonne, Rick, and Carl are walking toward Terminus, a fabled place of sanctuary and rest in the midst of the apocalypse. As they get closer, Carl asks, “Will we tell them what we did?” Rick responds, “We’ll tell them who we are.” And Carl asks the right question in response: “Who are we?”

Part of the brilliance of The Walking Dead is that we are constantly challenged to ask what we would or would not do, what we could live with and what we could not. In the end, it all boils down to Carl’s question: Who are we?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dean Koontz's "Innocence"

Dean Koontz is perhaps the most famous Christian author alive today. He has sold over 450,000,000 books, with 17,000,000 added each year.  He's sold more books than Stephen King, which is no small feat. Since he’s not published by a Christian publishing house, he flies under the radar in Christian circles. That’s a shame. He is writing about horror, hope, good, evil, nihilism and purpose in a way that is captivating, true, and broadly accessible.

His latest novel, Innocence, is yet another highly acclaimed novel of beauty and hope in the midst of a dark, dark word. Rather than working my way through the plot (I really don’t want to give away the ending), I will let Koontz's own words (from the book and from interviews) reveal why his message has resonated so deeply with so many.


“According to my mother, my real father loved freedom more than he loved her. Two weeks before I was born, he walked out and never walked back in, off to the sea, she said, or to some far jungle, a restless man who traveled to find himself but lost himself instead.” 
“You’re too high a price to pay,’ my mother declared on the afternoon when she sent me away. ‘I’ve lived by my own rules, and I expected a cost, but not this. Not you.’”
Koontz’s childhood was troubled to say the least, but he made the best of it. He told the National Catholic Register, “As a boy, I yearned for a normal family life, but later I understood that the darkness of my childhood was in a strange way a gift. Because of the poverty and violence of those early years, I have a depth of experience to draw upon that enriches my work.”

No wonder he writes poignantly of the perils of childhood. In a world increasingly characterized by the fragmentation of families and the damage that comes from rejection, criticism, and abuse, Koontz’s novels offer both empathy and hope. Our history is real, but it’s not our destiny.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The 100

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Kass Morgan's The 100. Ms. Morgan studied English and History at Brown University before pursuing a Master's Degree in 19th Century Literature at Oxford. She currently works in the publishing industry. In other words, even though this is her first YA novel, her training and credentials have prepared her well.  

In spite if the popularity of The 100, not all the reviewers are overly enamored.'s reader reviews are decidedly middle-of-the-road; plenty of Goodreads' readers have expressed surprise that a show is being made from a book that didn't rate that highly on their site. Nonetheless, the TV version premiers on the CW on March 19, 2014.

It’s been one hundred years since mankind decimated the planet through nuclear war. A remnant living on the Ark - twelve space stations linked as one -  have been waiting for the planet to become habitable again, but nobody really wants to find out first-hand. Meanwhile, life on the space station is falling apart. The original 400 has turned to 4,000, and oxygen and supplies are running down. The need to control the population has brought about severe social stratification, excessive capital punishment and draconian birth laws.

The solution is to send underage criminals awaiting execution on their 18th birthday. These kids are going to die anyway –why not let them die for the greater good? That’s the 100 – doomed juvenile delinquents  sent to earth as a scouting party. What could possibly go wrong? If you thought, “Pretty much everything,” you were correct.

I’ve heard it said that our culture’s stories confirm either what we fear is true or what we hope is true. If so, The 100 offers some interesting - and frustrating - insights into this generation’s hopes and fears.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

After having a book published while still in high school, Kenneth Oppel earned a degree in cinema studies and English at Trinity College at the University of Toronto before becoming an editor at Quill and Quire, the trade magazine for the Canadian publishing industry. (Thanks, Wikipedia, for compiling all that for me.) 

In other words, he understands books, films, and the publishing industry in general. His experience and training have served him well. His writing has received both popular and critical acclaim, and at least one book - This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein - is on its way to the big screen.

As might be inferred from the title, Mr. Oppel is writing a prequel to the classic Frankenstein that was grounded both historically and stylistically in the life and writing of Mary Shelley, the author of the original story. He notes in the discussion guide:
“Victor’s parents I actually based on Mary Shelley’s real parents, the radical writers William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft, so my Frankenstein household is very liberal for its time. Mrs. Frankenstein writes pamphlets on the rights and education of women; Mr. Frankenstein is a fair magistrate who insists on his own family making the servants their Sunday dinner as a gesture of egalitarianism (a concept that was sweeping through Europe in the late 1700s).”
I was prepared to be disappointed. I am a fan of Shelley's classic, and I was concerned This Dark Endeavor would be a cheesy intro heavy on shock value and silly romance. How delighted I was to be wrong.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Vampire Academy

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy.  Ms. Mead's MA in Comparative Religion from Western Michigan University fits well with her love of folklore and mythology; it's no surprise that Vampire Academy combines both. 

The series won the 2010 Teen Read Awards, the 2011 Kids' Choice Awards, and the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. As of 2013, the series has sold 8 million copies in 35 countries. Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters has just hit the big screen. The critics aren't impressed, but the target audience seems to be.

Lissa is a Moroi, a living vampire who wields elemental magic (earth, wind, fire, water, or a combo platter of sorts). It’s part of the Moroi nature, a gift that connects them to the world. The Moroi live in fear of the Strogoi, the undead vampires who have an existence “dark and twisted, the greatest of all sins, both against the Morio way of life and nature itself.” The Strigoi lose their vitality, gifts, and heart as they enter a soulless world devoid of light and life. Literally.

Rose is Lissa’s guardian. Her father abandoned her, her mother is totally uninvolved in her life, the girls in her school think she’s a slut, her teachers don’t trust her, and the boys just want to take advantage of her. But she is also Dhampir, half human and half vampire, and she lives to protect and serve Lissa to the point of giving her life (and sometimes her blood) for her.

The Moroi and their Dhampir protectors are always close, but Lissa and Rose have an unusual connection: Lissa brought Rose back from the dead. Now, Rose is one of the Shadow-kissed, bonded with Lissa in a way that allows her to feel her emotions and see through her eyes. It’s not a pretty sight.* The more Rose sees the world through Lissa’s eyes, the more her mission clarifies: “Save her from herself.” And when she thinks of herself as a savior, she’s not kidding. “I don’t believe in angels. I believe in what I can do for myself.”

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The 5th Wave: I Am The Battlefield

“I may be the last one, but I am the one still standing.  I am the one turning to face the faceless hunter in the woods on an abandoned highway.  I am the one not running, not staying, but facing. Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity. And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.”

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave.  It has received starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus; the New York Times and Goodreads both listed it as one of the best YA books of 2013. Entertainment Weekly thinks it might be "the next big thing." If the trailers for the upcoming movie are any indication, it might be.

The 5th Wave is an ambitious alien invasion story written for both YA and adult audiences, packing not just one but five extinction events into one book. Aliens have been waiting patiently for decades to take over east, infusing their essence into unborn babies and lying dormant until the right time for an invasion. They begin their attack with Four Waves of disasters that obliterate most of humanity. 

At this point, the embedded aliens manifest in their human hosts to infiltrate – and then eradicate -  the remnant of humanity in a decisive 5th Wave of human/alien hybrid assassins. These Silencers have brought the sucker punch. Up to this point, humanity had feared the aliens. Now they have to fear themselves. 

It's certainly an ambitious book, perhaps more memorable for what it attempts to do than what it always accomplishes. However, it has resonated strongly with a huge audience for good reason. Mr. Yancey has tapped into some of the deepest hopes and fears of this generation.