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REVIEW:  Altered by Jennifer Rush

REVIEW: Altered by Jennifer Rush

Dear Jennifer Rush:

I’m glad young adult novels have started to move on from the dystopian craze. After all, there can be only so many books about oppressive future societies whose citizens don’t necessarily recognize as oppressive and the teens who fight the system. To be honest, I’ve been yearning for more action-based thrillers. Your debut novel, Altered, scratches that itch but still left me wanting for more.

altered-jennifer-rushAnna lives a secretive life. Homeschooled, she spends much of her time helping her father with his work. What’s his work, you ask? Four boys living in their basement.

The boys are living experiments. They’ve been genetically engineered and Anna’s father monitors their vitals and runs test to examine their progress. But when the agency in charge of the project comes to retrieve the boys, they escape. And because her father urges her to accompany them for her own safety, Anna goes with them.

On the run from the agency, Anna and the boys piece together the memories of their past. You see, none of the boys have any recollection of their time before living in Anna’s basement. But as they uncover secret after secret, it becomes apparent that Anna is connected to their past and may not be who she thought she was at all.

This is a difficult book to review. It’s flawed in so many ways but I enjoyed reading it. The plot moves at a fast clip and I found myself unable to stop turning the pages. Because of the fast pace, it’s easy to get swept up in the story and fall into step with the narrative’s internal logic. But when I finished the novel and returned to the real world, I realized so many things do not make sense.

For example, Anna first encounters the boys at the age of thirteen when she wandered into the basement beneath the family farmhouse. Now I don’t know about you but if I were to discover four boys living in cells beneath my house, I’d have screamed bloody murder. These aren’t little boxes either. This a high security facility, complete with an access code required for access, and not to mention all the equipment necessary to run blood tests and a battery physical and psychological exams. On top of that, she soon becomes her father’s assistant when it comes to treating the boys. That is hardly normal and Anna taking it all in stride requires a huge suspension of disbelief.

Even though it’s revealed early on that the agency indulges in mind control and memory alteration, those two details remain huge questions for a large portion of the book. I can see this going either way for readers. It may propel some people through the book in the hopes of finding more answers. Others may get frustrated because nothing about that makes sense. Who recruits their thirteen year old daughter to assist in experiments upon genetically engineered soldiers? Right from the get-go, something is not right. I will say it’s explained late in the novel but that might require more delayed gratification than some people are willing to tolerate.

Most of the plot is devoted to Anna and the boys fleeing from the agency while trying to find out their connections to it. As you’d expect from this sort of story, there’s lots of running, hiding, near-captures, and dramatic escapes. It’s very much like a TV show in that respect.

But maybe because of that, the characterization is shallow. Each boy has a defining trait: the hot leader love interest, the one who’s like a big brother, the antagonistic one, the comic relief with a bottomless stomach. But other than Sam, the leader of the boys, I didn’t see it going far beyond that despite some rudimentary attempts to flesh out their backgrounds.

The romance between Anna and Sam is rote. She’s been fascinated by him ever since she was thirteen but I thought it could have used more delving. After all, there’s a huge difference between being a thirteen-year-old girl crushing on a hot boy who will forever separated from you by a glass wall and being a seventeen-year-old girl interacting with that hot boy in close, personal quarters. To make that romance work, the issues arising from that change really need more exploration, especially when you take into account certain revelations from Sam’s past.

Despite enjoying the breathless pacing of the book, I’m left with many questions and wish certain things had been explored. The boys have been genetically engineered. They are killing machines whose services are sold to the highest bidder. Their memories have been wiped multiple times. Some characters have had new memories implanted. There are forms of biological control at play. These are heavy topics. Or should be. It’s a little disappointing that the ramifications of these things aren’t given the weight they deserve.

Even though I found the story very flawed, I did enjoy Altered. It’s a good choice if you’re in the mood for action and cat and mouse chase scenes. Just don’t expect much attention be given to the worldbuilding and the issues that arise from it. B-

My regards,

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Friday Film Review: Die Hard

Friday Film Review: Die Hard

Die Hard (1988)

Genre: Action Adventure

Grade: B+

Three years ago I did a group review of some of my favorite Christmas movies. A number of you listed your own holiday standbys and for many of you “Die Hard” seems to top the list. When I was thinking about what movies to review this year, I wondered if I’d have enough to fill out the month of December. Turns out I’ve got too many and here’s the second one for this year – a day before December but what the heck. Yippee – kai – yay, motherf*ckers.

NYPD Officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) is traveling to LA in the hope of reconciling with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). He arrives as her employer is throwing the company Christmas party in the as yet unfinished Nakatomi Plaza Building. As the party continues, John and Holly argue about the state of their marriage before Holly is called out of her office to give rousing speech to the troops. It’s then that a group of European terrorists headed by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) take over the almost empty building with surgical precision and ruthless efficiency. Their goal is the hundreds of millions of dollars in company bonds locked in an insanely hard to crack safe.

Mistakenly thinking they have either killed or captured everyone in the building, the terrorists are stunned to discover that there’s a lone wolf on the loose. Things turn personal when the first terrorist John tangles with and kills turns out to be the brother of Karl (Alexander Gudonev), one of the most coldblooded of the original twelve. Knowing he can’t take them out by himself, John desperately tries to get first the LAFD and then the LAPD involved in what’s going on. Though it takes a dramatic “welcome to the party, pal” event to get his attention, Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is soon on John’s side and with him in fighting against the Idiots in Charge (aka the rest of the LAPD and later the FBI). As John’s cat-and-mouse-with-firearms game with Hans & Co continues, can he thwart the terrorists, elude the authorities and manage to save the lives of the 30 hostages?

It takes about 20 minutes to set up the story and kick things off but once the 23 minute mark is past, “Die Hard” is off to the races and unstoppable. When we see John carrying his sidearm on the plane trip to LA or listen to the chauffeur who picks him up at the airport going on about how the limo has VHS!, it’s also clear that this is a 24 year old movie. The shoulder pads Holly and the other women wear are a dead (oooh, forgive the pun) giveaway as well. I wonder how much an airline today would charge John in carry on fees for the giant stuffed bear? Still, it’s aged fairly well considering the number of sequels and “Die Hard on a _____” ripoffs that it spawned. I think the decision to make the whole thing about nothing but greed instead of politics is perfect as it allows the viewer to sit back and enjoy the show instead of being caught up in any issues or on any sides.

First trivia question – How much did a gallon of gasoline cost according to the prices listed at a gas station in one shot of the movie?

John and Hans are two well matched adversaries who can both toss out witty one liners – thus establishing their coolness – under pressure. Willis creates in John McClane an American Everyman whom people can identify with. He’s actually the antagonist of the film in that he has to fight against the establishment as well as the terrorists. His battle with the morons of the LAPD and the cowboys of the FBI (“It’s just like Saigon!”) can be seen as our daily struggle against the clowns in charge of … whatever. We know we’re right. We can’t dump a terrorist body on the hood of a squad car to get our point across but we know those in command usually don’t have a clue. McClane is Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, and our last hope even though he can make mistakes and isn’t perfect. But he’s going to fight to the end and kick ass trying.

Alan Rickman can play such a wonderful villain. From what I’ve read, his spoken German may be mangled but he’s menacing in a debonair, intellectual way all the same. McClane is the irreverent smart ass while Gruber is a smooth, civil, amoral bastard. You just can’t help but get a little frustrated along with him when his ever decreasing band of Euro trash henchmen – they’re Fabios with automatic weapons! – can’t seem to kill McClane. Yet, he’s got charm which keeps me from loathing him all through the film. He’s smart and interesting. Still when his time comes, it’s great. Even though he and his long haired bad boys might be there to steal over $600 million, the look on his face when he goes down —> priceless! Of course if he hadn’t stopped, in this case to laugh instead of the usual villain monologuing, it all might have ended differently.

Second trivia question – what is the name of the candy bar that one of the terrorists debates about before finally stealing and eating it?

The people in charge of the movie do a great job balancing the action with the humor. The DVD I watched has two interesting commentary tracks – a vocal one and a text one that has a wide range of the people involved in the film both in front of and behind the camera. Director John McTiernan says that the movie has faced the type of scorn that we’re used to receiving as romance readers. Oh, it’s *that* type of movie. But he managed to convert some “I only watch depressing European indie films” friends, getting them to watch it and admit that it’s a well thought out thriller that doesn’t cheat as it delivers its yowza. Does the movie totally manipulate us and our emotions? Sure it does. Does it fall off the knife blade of believability? Watch the bit with the fire hose and make your own decision. But it delivers what it promises and is a hell of a ride. I’m a convert now!

Third trivia question – what item found in any US post office ends up allowing John to trick and beat Hans Gruber?