Category Archives: Review

Book Review: Camaraderie Evades All the Crooked Saints

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order and summary.

I’ve begun rereading Blue Lily, Lily Blue, and I think I’m finally ready to talk about Maggie Stiefvater’s latest, All the Crooked Saints, which I finished back in early December.

If you’ve been with me a while, you’ll know that I fell and fell hard for The Raven Cycle, that I adored The Scorpio Races. I can’t say the same for All the Crooked Saints—the only other of Stiefvater’s novels that I’ve read, and as a later novel, one that I thought would build on the best elements of the other books that I’d read.

This was a different novel for Stiefvater. This was one of those deeply personal novels that she needed to write. (She has written a lovely, insightful piece on her Tumblr about this novel).

Stiefvater’s unique command and beautiful use of language was still on full display here as was her grasp of magical realism, that sense that, yes, this is real, but there is fantasy too, and the two don’t make either one any less true. This is the first of her novels that I’ve read (that she’s written?) with a predominantly non-white (in this case Mexican-American) cast. This is the first that I’ve read (that she’s written?) that can qualify as historical fiction, set in 1962 Colorado with talk of German POWs who work the farms during the previous generation’s childhood, and the music and pop icons of the day. There was lots that I thought that I would love—and I did love—but it lacked one crucial thing:

What I think kept me on the outskirts of All the Crooked Saints was the characters themselves. I fell for the “blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening” friendship of the boys and Blue, and like Blue “now that she’d had this kind, she didn’t want the other.” The protagonist of All the Crooked Saints, Beatriz, claims to be a girl without feelings. She has a difficult time relating to anyone and is forbidden to even talk to the people in her community who are not family. That kind of easy, “all-encompassing” friendship cannot exist for Beatriz (BLLB 103).

Beatriz is a lonesome in the way the Stiefvater defines lonesome herself in Blue Lily, Lily Blue: “a state of being apart. Of being other,” a philosopher, a genius thinker, a rationalist, scientist (28). In her case, this lonesomeness seems mostly self-imposed, a prison built of her belief in others’ cruel words about her having no feelings. I enjoyed her insights, but I missed others. She learns. The whole book is about achieving the miracle of overcoming one’s own worst faults, and Beatriz learns that she does have a heart and that faults can only be overcome in an accepting relationship, with love. But she learns slowly, and it’s not till near the end of the book that she has learnt this truth.

Beatriz’s otherness and lonesomeness were sort of the point, but it also kept me from feeling close to this novel and the characters in it—even Beatriz herself.

As an exploration of overcoming, of exploring and confronting the deepest, ugliest parts of ourselves, this book is important, this book means a lot to me. But I just didn’t enjoy it in the way that I wanted to enjoy it. I’m so glad that there are others who did. A second reading later may alter my perception of it some.

I did enjoy the languages. I enjoyed the scant scenes of the camaraderie—especially between the petitioners stuck with one miracle but not the second.

***1/2

Steifvater, Maggie. All the Crooked Saints. New York: Scholastic, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

 

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Book Review: A Christmastime Rebellion in the Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

This is my third book in the Enderverse. I found the rereleased hardcover at Barnes & Noble and got so excited. It was nearing Christmas when I did, and I am a sucker for Christmas fanfictions, so a canon Christmas novella in a world that I’m just falling in love with was near irresistible. So I ran to the library.

This happens mid-Ender’s Game/Ender’s Shadow, when Ender is newly transferred to Rat Army, but the majority of the novel does not revolve around Ender.

Zeck Morgan is rescued from his ultra-religious father, a Puritan minister who whips Zeck to make him more pure. Zeck has a perfect memory, which his mother believes is from God, though she warns Zeck to hide that memory from his father, whom she thinks will believe it from the devil. The IF sees that memory as a useful asset in a soldier—and it seems implied that the soldier who comes for him believes that he is rescuing Zeck from his abusive household, though Zeck resents being drafted.

In Battle School, Zeck maintains his father’s preached pacifism and won’t fire his weapon, though he enters the Battle Room and does the school work for Battle School. He is disliked by the students.

A homesick Battle School student, Flip Rietvald, sets his shoes out on Sinterklaas Eve, and Dink Meeker, noticing the childlike gesture, gives him Sinterklaas gifts, a silly poem and a pancake shaped into a F.

Religious observation is banned in Battle School and Zeck’s father has preached that Santa Claus is a manifestation of Satan, so Zeck complains to Commander Graff about the Dutch boys’ observation of the holiday. The punishment that Flip and Dink receive spurs Dink to begin an underground celebration—not in the name of Christmas, but in the name of Santa Claus (in all his forms), whom he argues is not a religious figure but a cultural icon, his day celebrated even by the atheists of countries where he exists, and nationality impossible to ban. Children begin to give one another gifts with a sock attached so that the gift is known to be in Santa’s name.

The battle brews. Zeck stirs up trouble by convincing one Pakistani soldier that prayer is a national observation as much as is the celebration of Santa because Pakistan was formed as a Muslim nation, and so Muslim identity is national identity. When this results in several Muslims being led away in handcuffs for religious observation, the Santa Claus celebration stops; the fight becomes too serious, the consequences too dire; it ceases to be fun, and the celebration ceases to be in the spirit of Santa Claus, “compassion and generosity […] the irresistible urge to make people happy […] the humility to realize that you aren’t any better than the rest of us in the eyes of God” (78).

Because this series is Ender’s story more than any of the others’, it is Ender who gets to give the last Santa Claus gift of the book and demonstrate the team-building prowess that makes him such an astounding leader. He corners Zeck and convinces him of the error of his father’s protestations, battling Zeck Bible verse for verse and sharing secrets about his home-life and his abusive brother.

This story mostly provides an interesting platform to discuss national observations versus religious observations, particularly around the Christmas holiday but around all religions—though only Christianity and Islam are discussed—the intersection and dissonance of nationality and religion, religious tolerance, and the fake religious proclamations of those whose words are not reflected in their actions.

It ends on a happy note, which I almost require of my Christmas fanfiction but has even more substance than I’m used to expecting from a good Christmas ficlet—for which I was not ungrateful. I like more of a Christmas meal than Christmas fluff.

Ultimately, this was a good diversion while I prepped and then survived the Christmas holiday.  It was good food for thought.  It was not the cleanest and tightest of Card’s writings, but it was interesting to spend more time with Dink and more time with some of the previously nameless Battle School students.

***

Card, Orson Scott. A War of Gifts. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty-Macmillan, 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Tor, or Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

My 2017 in Books

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I really enjoy the infographics that Goodreads provides at the end of (and I found out this year at any point in) the year.  And since this is Goodreads‘ second year of providing such graphics, we can compare my stat’s to last year’s!

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There are at least two 10-page books that I read this year, Salina Yoon‘s A Pirate’s Life came up another time that I visited this site. Is 10 the required number of pages for a book?  Last year’s shortest book, Perfect Pets, was the same length.

I read more–just more–this year.  The longest book that I read is 273 pages longer than last year’s, The House of Hades.  I read 69 more books.  I read 6,819 more pages.  Those books were on average 5 pages longer.

I read a lot of picture books both years.

Other observations?  More people should read A Letter to Daddy.  I gave it a solid 4 stars.  How have more people read the 7th Harry Potter book than have read books 5 or 6?  Have that many people really decided that they can skip to the end, or is it merely that more people have marked it as read on Goodreads?  P.S.–DON’T skip to the last book.  The last book isn’t even the best book, contrary to what the average ratings suggest.

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My average rating remained steady over these past two years.

This year, I read 13 books by Gene Yuen Lang, all of them Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels, which are written in sets of three slim paperbacks for each storyline.  I read 9 picture books from Mo Willems.  I read 8 novels from Rick Riordan.  I read 5 of Maggie Stiefvater‘s novels.  I read 4 books from J. K. Rowling (if we include The Cursed Child), and 4 picture books from Ryan T. Higgins.  I read 3 Dr. Seuss books, and 3 picture books each from Dan Santat, Marcus Pfister, Norman Bridwell, and Sherri Duskey Rinker.  I listened to 2 audiobooks from Orson Scott Card.  I read 2 books too of Neil Gaiman‘s; one was a picture book, but another was an audio book of one of his adult novels.  I read two picture books each from 19 different authors.  I started listing them, but the list became too expansive, and it didn’t account anyway for illustrators, which I know would make the list longer.  When I want to create a theme for a story time, I often choose multiple books by a single author or a single illustrator.

If you’re interested in seeing all of the books that I read this year, check out the Goodreads infographics page for yourself.

Book Reviews: Best of the Best of 2017

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Time for the end-of-the-year reflection: If you’ve been with me for more than a year, you’ll know this has become something of a tradition. I believe that the books that receive from me that coveted 5-star rating deserve some extra recognition. And it’s always fun to get in on the act of guessing who might win which awards. 

TODDLERS-KIDS (AGES 0-8)

Qualified for This Year’s Awards

Several of these picture books could deserve a Caldecott, but none so much as Sarvinder Naberhaus and Kadir Nelson’s. Nelson has deserved the Caldecott several times over. He is like the Leonardo DiCaprio of the Caldecott. He has two honorees but no winners. This was a timely book with beautiful, touching, imaginative, realistic, and diversely populated illustrations. Both Not Quite Narwhal and Trains Don’t Sleep I think the Caldecott committee might decide are too much fluff, especially given the winners of the last two years. This Beautiful Day by Jackson and Lee might be in the running, but I feel like it didn’t generate hardly any chatter when it was released; I just enjoyed it a lot, and pushed it at our store. Ditto to Trains Don’t Sleep. That being said, the Caldecott winner last year, Radiant Child, was a book that escaped almost everyone’s notice and was out of print before it was awarded the medal; it’s since been rereleased. It still doesn’t sell, maybe because it’s a biography and not a fiction book, so it is not shelved where people often look for Caldecott winners, but Barnes & Noble Corporate has learned to display Finding Winnie, a history book and 2016’s winner, among fiction books, and it does sell from those displays. 

I reread a few classics that I didn’t feel capable of fairly rating, and a few books by authors towards whom I know I’m largely blind in favor of their stories.  Not rated this year were How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Goodnight Moon, The Story of Ferdinand, then the Elephant and Piggie books, Watch Me Throw the Ball! and I Broke My Trunk!.  It’s possible all of those deserve a 5-star rating, but I feel unqualified to say.  None of them, anyway, can win any awards this year.

MIDDLE GRADE (AGES 8-12) 

Neither of these are really Newbery material, and only The Ship of the Dead would be eligible for any awards this year. The Hammer of Thor did pull off that surprise Stonewall award win last year. Could The Ship of the Dead do the same? I don’t think the committee is likely to choose a second book from the same series a second year in a row.

I reread a whole bunch of middle grade fiction this year that I didn’t feel able to rate objectively: books 5-7 of Harry Potter, two older books of Riordan’s, and C. S. Lewis’ first in the Chronicles of Narnia (fight me), The Magician’s Nephew. All of those subjectively might receive a 5-star rating from me, but I can’t separate the stories themselves from my nostalgia and author blindness.

TEEN (AGES 13-19)

The Hate U Give has already won a bunch of well-deserved awards: a National Book Award nomination, a Boston Globe Horn Book Award, a nomination for the Kirkus Prize, two Goodreads Choice Awards…. Who knows what else is in store for it? A Coretta Scott King Award perhaps? It’s more teen than middle grade or elementary, so I think it’s disqualified from the Newbery, but I would have thought that picture books were disqualified too, and the committee proved me wrong there. (I half-hope they don’t do so again; it causes quite a bit of confusing when shelving.)

I also finished reading but didn’t rate every available issue of the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, which are more teen than middle grade simply because these kids past the end of the series have grown definitely into teenagers and arguably into adults, ruling countries, forming governments, or becoming business partners.  I love these characters, and I love this world, but the comics don’t have the same continuity or comedic timing of the television show.

ADULT (AGES 20+)

I really read hardly any books for adults this year, and none of them received a 5-star rating from me.  The only books for strictly adult audiences that I read were:

Arguably, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game Alive (2013, Ender’s Game first published 1985) and Shadow of the Hegemon (first published 2000) could be adult fiction, particularly Shadow of the Hegemon, which I think I would hesitate to recommend to younger teenagers particularly, but mostly because I’m not sure they’d be interested in the subject matter than because it’s inappropriate for younger teens.

These all received from me 4 stars, except for A Place at the Table, which I gave only 3, and Wodehouse’s which I didn’t review or rate; too much time had passed after I had finished it and I no longer felt confident in my recollection of the books (it was enjoyable in the way that all Wodehouse’s satires are, with loud, large characters and ridiculous situations probably caused by the rich having too much leisure time). None of the adult books that I read this year are qualified for any of this year’s awards.

Book Reviews: November & December 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Gift-Giving

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.

River Rose and the Magical Lullaby by Kelly Clarkson and illustrated by Laura Hughes. HarperCollins, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

River Rose is so excited to be going to the zoo the next day. Her mother tucks her in and sings her a lullaby. That night, magic balloons show up outside her bedroom window and transport her to the zoo, where she has a party with the animals, none of whom are confined to their compounds. I like that at some point in the night she asks her friend, Joplin the dog, what he wants to do. At the end of the night, when the polar bears tell her that they need sleep, she snuggles up with the bears and sings the lullaby that her mother sang to her to the bears. She ends up back in her bed, glad for her adventure, but glad too to be home.  Was it a dream?  Was it real?  Does she go again to the zoo the next day and is she disappointed when she sees the reality of the zoo in the daylight?  The book doesn’t say.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Everything Is Mama by Jimmy Fallon and illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 1-3.

Like with Fallon’s first book, there’s not a lot here. In this, presumably mostly maternal animals try to teach their children new words, only to have them reply “mama,” with a reversal at the end with the trite ending “but you are everything to mama” (expect to fit the rhyme, the sentiment is phrased more awkwardly than that). I think very little of it, but I caught a mother reading it to a young child at the store, and the child giggled at every page, so there is an audience for this, and maybe neither my story time toddlers nor I are not it. My audience lately has comprised of children 4 and older.

**

Lessons in Sharing

Click to visit Goodreads for summary and reviews.

Clifford Shares by Norman Bridwell. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2012.

There’s not much to this little board book either, just a few pages and a few sentences in total, but Clifford is a familiar friend. Clifford shares his water. He shares a bench. And then everyone shares with Clifford at a picnic. There’s just not much here to rate. There’s nothing remarkable about this book, really, good or bad. There’s a vague idea of reciprocity: Clifford shares so others share with Clifford, but the book’s real draw is Clifford.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks by Jan Berenstain and Mike Berenstain. Zonderkidz-Zondervan, 2009.

This was a long story time book, but one of my regulars showed up early, and I promised to read one book—whatever book she picked out. The prose in this book is prettier, more descriptive, the story more fleshed out with detail than what I usually read for story time, which was a nice change.

But this is a problematic book, relying too heavily on whitewashed history and doing little if anything to correct or clarify the narrative.  Papa trades some furniture for a turkey from Farmer Ben—a living turkey. Ben’s named the turkey Squanto after “a Native Bear who helped the Pilgrims plant their corn when they settled in their new home.” I mean, I guess, Ben. Sister Bear doesn’t like the idea of meeting her Thanksgiving dinner while he’s alive. She wants to keep Squanto as a pet. She visits him at the farm as the weather grows colder. To distract Sister from the idea of eating Squanto, Mama Bear proposes a costumed show of the legend of Thanksgiving. “We’ll need feathers for the Native Bears’ headdresses.” No you won’t, Mama Bear. Honey Bear represents Squanto the Native Bear with a full headdress of turkey feathers and speaking broken English: “Me, Squanto!” her only line. Admittedly, Honey Bear is not portrayed as speaking good English, and I suppose the cast is limited to the preexisting characters, but…. “He speaks English! What a miracle!” Miracle it is not, Cousin Fred, though maybe there is some miracle in Squanto finding his way back to his own land if not his own village after all his trials. The whole legend of Thanksgiving as told in this story is the whitewashed imagining that we hear “in school over and over again every November” (or we did when I was in public school; I hope today’s tellings are a little more nuanced, a little more accurate) with no discussion of the horrors visited on Native Americans by the European invaders.

That doesn’t even begin in on the problems of reminding children that our Thanksgiving feast features a once-living bird, and that it might be possible to persuade their parents to skip the bird and to keep the bird as a pet instead because Squanto the Turkey survives, is given a new pen in the Bears’ backyard. Parents should be prepared to answer questions that Sister Bear’s feeling for Squanto might stir.

It’s difficult to avoid religion when discussing the First Thanksgiving, and this book does not, the Bears’ prayer even included in the text.

**

Click to visit Goodreads for reviews.

Plush by Louise Myers. Tiny Tales-Whitman, 1949.

A friend bought me this pocket-sized paperback because the pony Plush looks a quite a bit like my own pony. The animals of the farm (all anthropomorphized, though Plush less so than the others) take a pony cart, pulled by Plush, to the Fair to sell their goods and spend the money that they make. There’s an element of an animal sounds primer in the text, with the pony’s hooves clippety-clopping, the hen cackling, the duck quacking, the lamb baaing, and the pig oinking. The friends all buy gifts for Plush with their money. It’s a sweet story of gift-giving, expressing thanks, and retail.

****

Christmas and Wintertime

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and author's and illustrator's bios.

River Rose and the Magical Christmas by Kelly Clarkson and illustrated by Lucy Fleming. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Of the two River Rose books, this one my audience unanimously liked better. Now admittedly, we read this story December 16, just 9 days from Christmas morning, so I’m sure that timing and the already swelling excitement for the holiday tinged their reactions to the story. I’m going to be recommending the other more frequently because it is far less seasonal and far more universal. Not every child is excited for Christmas (not all of them celebrating the holiday), but I think that most children are excited to visit a zoo—particularly a zoo without enclosures and with no supervision but a polar bear mama as is the one in the first River Rose book. In this River Rose sneaks down the stairs to hand-deliver her letter to Santa, but she’s missed him. Instead the magical balloons from the previous book are waiting in her living room. She and Joplin take the balloons to the North Pole where they are greeted by the elves and Mrs. Claus, who plies River Rose with a wealth of sweets, the book becoming a numbers primer. She is near sleep when Santa returns. Santa makes one last trip to bring River Rose home, and she hand-delivers her letter to him—which is not a list of requested gifts, but a simple thank you, which touches Santa. This new illustrator does a good job continuing in the tradition of the previous. I didn’t notice the difference, and don’t think I’d have noted it expect that I write these reviews and am always sure to credit the illustrator too. Fleming’s palette is maybe a little more muted and her lines a little crisper than Hughes’.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and author's bio.

Outside by Deirdre Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Deirde Gill illustrated Trains Don’t Sleep, which I read and loved in October. I went exploring to see what else she had done, and found this story, written and illustrated by Gill. A bored boy leaves the house and explores the snowy outside. His brother won’t join him outside, so he makes himself a friend—an enormous snowman, who comes to life to help him build a castle. And what do castles attract? Dragons of course! This one is thankfully friendly. His brother finally does come out to play, after the boy’s adventure in the snow is done, and together they make one last snowman. Because the brother stays inside staring at screens, he misses his younger brother’s adventures. There’s as much a lesson about leaving screens to play outside as there is a lesson about the wonders of the imagination and the outdoors and free play. These illustrations are everything I hoped for. The colors, the landscapes, the characters are amazing! There’s not a great deal of text, most pages comprising of only a sentence or two. Some have only a sentence fragment, and some have no words at all.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, preview, trailer, reviews, and author's bio.

A Loud Winter’s Nap by Katy Hudson. Picture Window-Capstone, 2017.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-1.

The friends from Too Many Carrots are back, this time with Turtle as the protagonist. I feel this turtle on a personal level. He doesn’t like winter. He just wants to hibernate through it. But his friends are having fun in the snow and being noisy nearby no matter where he makes his nest and despite his sign. Eventually he accidentally stumbles into some winter fun of his own, not realizing his newest napping spot is a sled primed at the top of the hill. He enjoys racing downhill, and in the end joins his friends on the iced-over pond where his sled stops, skating and drinking hot cocoa and generally enjoying the winter with his friends.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and sample pages.

Santa’s Magic Key by Eric James. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.

I don’t think that I ever truly believed in Santa Claus, but I did grow up in a house without a chimney, and I wasn’t unaware of the myths surrounding the man. I think I questioned less how Santa would get into our house when we had no fireplace and more how we would communicate in J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world without a fireplace to connect to the Floo Network. How Santa did all that he was supposed to do were more for me questions of filling in gaps in the story than worries about whether or not I would receive any gifts.

The tagline for this book suggests starting a new family tradition—which makes it sound as though Eric James is hoping to appeal to the same audience as participate in the Elf on the Shelf tradition. As far as new holiday traditions go, I’d be far more willing to go along with James’. A) It requires action only one night out the year. B) It does not require me to suggest that an inanimate doll is 1) animate, 2) always watching and judging my child’s behavior and 3) reporting that behavior to a boss who will reward or punish a child based on that behavior. James’ story is less preparation for a police state and more assurance that your house can be visited by Santa despite your house lacking an element seemingly present in every Santa myth.

James’ book is long, but better written, and his illustrations are beautiful, hazily but realistically rendered full-page spreads rather than the cartoonish characters lacking much setting that accompany the Elf on the Shelf.

Despite all this, James is not likely to create the empire that Aebersold, Bell, and Steinwart have because he doesn’t self-publish and he didn’t create a character who can be dressed in different outfits, have pets, and have accessories, and whose pets can have accessories.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

Olaf’s Night Before Christmas by Jessica Julius and illustrated by Olga T. Mosqueda. Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

Frozen’s Olaf becomes the protagonist of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, and Julius rewrites Moore’s text for Olaf. Familiar lines of Moore’s are echoed in the new text. Anna and Elsa make guest appearances, Olaf mistakes the “eight tiny reindeer” for “eight little Svens,” and at first he thinks that Santa might be Kristoff. There’s a lot more humor in this new version, the language is more modern and simpler than Moore’s (“His boots were all black and his pants were all red. But where was the rest of him? Where was his head?”). Olaf, a simple snowman not familiar with Christmas traditions, makes a delightful new narrator for this twist on the classic tale. The illustrations are bright with nods to the film in the style and in the details, but plenty of familiar, traditional Christmas details in them to almost erase the fact that this is a Disney product. There’s tradition, there’s extra sweetness, there’s the familiarity of Disney characters.

*****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: Everything I Love is in The Dark Prophecy–But So is Apollo

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order and description.

That title seems harsh, but it is nonetheless true.

Some spoilers!

This is a story of overbearing fathers or fathers who overshadow their children—Marcus Aurelius, Nero, Zeus, Midas, Apollo himself, maybe even Ssssarah’s father should be included in the list (is that Tartarus?)—the weight that they put on their children, and the right and wrong ways to react to that weight.

Apollo seemed to me less annoying in The Dark Prophecy, whether because this is a god much humbled or because the supporting characters are larger, helping to balance him better. Here is Leo, already well-developed and greatly loved, and Calypso with him. Their relationship, one in which I was fairly invested prior to the beginning of this series, serves as a good breaker of a subplot to Apollo’s narcissism. Jo and Emmie, new characters, are large characters too (and if you want to give us the continued or previous adventures of Emmie and Jo, Uncle Rick, I won’t complain). They loved each other so much that they left the Hunters of Artemis and its accompanying immortality. They are also not just lesbians, but an older, married and settled lesbian couple, particularly underrepresented in children’s literature maybe partially because adults are so rarely the heroes in children’s literature. I’d love to see more teen and child heroes raised by two women in love—or two men in love.

Riordan has introduced another new character that I want to keep an eye on: Olujime (Jaime). Olujime is descended from the Yoruba people of Western Africa. He is a graduate student in accounting, working as a gladiator to support himself. He fights using Gidigbo and Dambe, both West African fighting styles, and lightning, which I and Apollo in this writer’s world take to suggest godly parentage or patronage. I am both excited and scared that the appearance of Jaime suggests that Rick is researching for another series. I’m not sure that it’s his place to explore Yoruba myth and tradition, but I’d be interested to read such a series–and I already know that I’d love the style if Riordan wrote such a series. Moreover, I love the idea of a adult hero from Riordan, suffering the horrors of graduate school while also having to battle monsters and gods–probably with a good sense of humor and a passel of friends.

Apollo is really attracted to Jaime but backs off when Jaime lets slip that he has a serious girlfriend. We get to see Apollo’s bisexuality not as a long-ago myth as with his labeling last book Hyacinthus as one of his greatest loves (the other being Daphne)—not just through his attraction to Jaime but also through his broken relationship with Commodus, a relationship we visit in its prime in flashbacks that Apollo experiences. This book more than in the previous one Apollo’s past comes back to haunt him.

I’ve said a lot about Leo and Calypso in this review. For all that, their relationship was a bit of a letdown. Given that Leo quite literally died to rescue her and that Calypso has been waiting eons to leave her island, I expected and wanted a glorious ship. But their relationship was built on a few weeks when Leo was stuck on her island and spent most of that time devising a way off for himself and, a good bit of that time, the pair spent sniping at one another, neither wanting to be stuck with the other’s company. Calypso softened to Leo during that time and Leo to her, and he left, vowing as most heroes seem to do, to come back and rescue her. They had not seen each other again until Leo landed, having narrowly escaped death, to rescue her. They’re relationship now is tense. They are discovering that they don’t really know one another, and Calypso particularly is discovering that she doesn’t really know herself. I hope soon that Rick will leave them alone to discover life outside of monsters and quests and new foster homes. Maybe I expected too much of them. Still, I was glad to have them here. I was especially glad to have Leo here. He made a good balance for Apollo.

This novel still for me though does not hold up to the sort of love that I have for the rest of Riordan’s series, though this far more than The Hidden Oracle, climbed near them. In fact, I think if that first book had been as good as this, I would be completely on-board with this series, but The Hidden Oracle drags this down because this one cannot stand well without it.

Here again are more human villains, a more relatable foe for the reader than the gods and Titans and giants of previous series. Leo and Calypso are here. Grover will be here!  Apollo was one of the gods I was most excited to see whenever he showed up in Percy Jackson in the Olympians, though more because he made me laugh with his horrible, egotistic haikus than because he was a solid character.  There’s so much potential here.  I just struggle so much with Apollo himself and his narration.

****

Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Shadow of the Hegemon: Political Thriller in a Sci-Fi Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

The sequel to Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, follows Ender and the colonists that he heads decades in the future on a distant planet, encountering a new alien race. That’s all well and good (I assume), but following Ender’s Game Alive, I wanted to know what happened to all of the Battle School students, not merely to Ender, so I sought out something a little closer to Ender’s Game in time and space. I skipped over Ender’s Shadow, which happens simultaneously with Ender’s Game, and jumped to the second in that sequel series, The Shadow of the Hegemon. This book deals with the immediate aftermath of Ender’s Game (and Ender’s Shadow), specifically what happens to the jeesh once they arrive back on earth, though it focuses pretty solely on Bean and Petra, and on Peter Wiggin’s quest to attain the title of Hegemon.

I want to start by saying that I don’t read many political thrillers—or not books that would be primarily classified as political thrillers (I suppose Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire could be classified as such). I’ve never read Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, Brad Thor, or any of those other household names in the genre. But I was sucked into this one, which disguises itself as a science-fiction book by virtue of association with the other books in its series. I won’t pretend to judge this book against others in its genre, but I do qualify it as more of a political thriller than a science-fiction book. Card describes this as being inspired by the board game Risk, a game of global domination through alliances and wars (I think; I’ve also never played Risk).

I say this is more political thriller than science-fiction because all of this book happens on Earth and its drama is in the geopolitics and the child geniuses who are pulling at the strings, toying with world leaders and directing the militaries of various countries.

Shortly after arriving back in their own countries, the entire jeesh is kidnapped—except for Bean, who is meant to be killed with his family in an explosion, which he escapes using a superior “Spidey” sense for danger. For a while, the book becomes an Earth-wide whodunit with every major country and political group as a suspect. I enjoyed this part of the book a lot. I enjoyed the mystery, and I enjoyed the insights into each country’s desires and assets. I enjoyed (and was horrified to find) that I could recognize the seeds of Card’s future-Earth geopolitics in my mediocre understanding of the political aspirations of today’s superpowers, that I found myself nodding along as the characters laid out the clues.

Petra having gotten a message to Bean, and Bean having gotten a message to Peter Wiggin, the three reveal that the architect of the jeesh’s capture is Achilles, a character from Bean’s past (I have not read Ender’s Shadow or I’m sure I’d know more about Achilles, but I picked up enough through Shadow of the Hegemon to know that he’s a dangerously smart, savvy, charismatic psychopath who has killed in the past and will kill in the future). Only Petra remains captive after that, Achilles interfering directly with her rescue and whisking her away to India, where she is forced to take part in the planning of a war for Indian expansion into Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, though her intelligent plan for guerilla warfare is ignored for reasons that only become clear as the novel and Achilles’ complicated plan to sew chaos unfolds.

Bean meanwhile goes to Thailand and earns the trust of Suriyawong, another Battle School graduate and a member of Ender’s Dragon Army and now the nominal head of the Thai military’s planning division. With his knowledge of Achilles and Petra and military strategy in general, Bean helps to predict and to thwart what can be thwarted of Achilles’ plan, though Bean’s larger goal is always to save Petra.

Achilles is playing the nations against one another, but he is also pitting himself against Bean, working to destroy Bean.

This is Bean’s story (spoiler in white) and ultimately Bean’s victory to paraphrase the novel.

I loved to hate Achilles. I loved his dialogue, his speeches. And that’s of course how charismatic dictators rise to power, but—thank God—this kid is fictional. He’s at his best when he is convincing the Pakistani president to join a ceasefire with India and move Pakistani troops away from the border.

I loved the back and forth, the squabbles of Peter and Bean, two kids too bright for their own good.

I loved that Petra had so much more agency in this novel, so much more of a role, that the women (not only Petra, but Carlotta, Mrs. Wiggin, and Virlomi), who were largely absent in Ender’s Game even with the insertion of Major Jayadi in the audioplay that I listened to were here and were bigger parts of the plot.

I have some reservations about this audiobook, however. Some of the cast of the audioplay that I listened to for Ender’s Game reunited (I say reunites because I listened to this book second, but this book was actually produced first, so really they reunited for Ender’s Game Alive) for this audiobook, but not all of them, and this was a full audiobook, narration included. The voice actors took different parts and read different sections. But they could not decide how to pronounce Achilles. Though Peter had to hide that he knew that it should be pronounced A-SHEEL to avoid sounding more knowledgeable about current events than his parents. By the end of the text, even Bean’s voice actor had caved to the anglicized Greek pronunciation, ə-KIL-eez. That could be intentional. Perhaps Achilles remade himself into the Greek Achilles, adopting the more prominently used pronunciation as he became not the leader of a street gang but a puppet master on the global stage. I had thought that the voiceover of the word Hegemon was some weird conspiracy, something done to give the name importance and prominence, and it actually didn’t occur to me till reading a review on Goodreads that this was a poorly dubbed voiceover of a mispronounced word—which makes me wonder more about the conflicting pronunciations of Achilles. In the last few bits, when most of the primary characters were again sharing the scenes, the voice actors returned to more of an audioplay format, with everyone voicing the dialogue of their primary characters; I like that format better, and I liked to see its return, but it makes me question: why not do that sooner? Achilles and Petra share most of the book, yet lines of dialogue where they shared a scene were voiced by one or the other of the narrating voice actors.

Retrospectively, maybe this is one to read and not to listen to on audio. Maybe.

But this was a story I wanted and a story that I liked a lot with compelling characters.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Shadow of the Hegemon. Narr. David Birney, Scott Brick, & Gabrielle de Cuir. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki. Audio Renaissance-Tor-Holtzbrinck, Sound Library-BBC Audiobooks America, 2006. Audiobook, 11 CDs. Shadow of the Hegemon first published 2000.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Audio Renaissance, Tor Books, Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC, Sound Library, BBC Audiobooks America, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: September 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and sample pages.

Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt and illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. Scholastic, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I sort of already reviewed this book when I was reviewing bell hook’s Skin Again because I read within a month of each other these two books about diversity and seeing beyond outer appearance and skin color. Oops. Alko and Qualls’ use of primary characters and a grounding location (a city) in the illustrations help to make less abstract the ideas that Britt is portraying. It gave the book another focus—the characters and their questions—rather than the focus being solely on the reader and the reader’s perceptions. By posing questions that I think all of us—as adults, yes, but also as children—have wondered, the story has a universality that draws a reader to it—or it did so for me. Universality is certainly some of the lesson of Britt, Alko, and Quall’s book.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, activity sheets, and author's bio.

It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton and illustrated by Marla Frazee. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Marla Frazee’s illustrations are definitely the true champion of this book by Hillary Clinton. The text of the book is simple—what is needed (a vision, teamwork, the proper tools, kindness, sharing, play, and rest) to create a community—but the illustrations make this the story of a community coming together to build a playground because of the vision and dream of a child or three.

***

Click to visit the series' page for links to order, summary, preview, and activity kit.

Pete the Cat and the New Guy by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2014.

A new kid moves into the neighborhood. Pete immediately notices that he and Gus the Platypus are not alike, but immediately accepts that being different is “cool,” which is wonderfully refreshing. Gus can’t do the things that Pete and his friends do. It makes Gus sad, but Pete keeps assuring him that there’s something everyone can do. Finally, they all bond over music.

***

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, sample pages, and interview.

Animal Homes ZXA: An Out of Order Alphabet Book by Barbara Gibbon. Mascot, 2017.

There’s so much to this book. This animal and alphabet primer groups the animals by their habitat, very basically defined in the text and illustrated, rather than alphabetizing them and highlights some more unusual animals rather than sticking only to the tried examples. By rearranging the letters, the book and the alphabet are less predictable, and those learning the alphabet can rely less on memorization of the sounds and have to put together more assuredly the shape of the letter and the sound it represents. Including unique animals (zebu, quokka) in the text helps to eliminate the same memorization technique. The illustrations include both lower and uppercase examples of the letters and beautiful animal portraits to associate with each letter. The endpapers are illustrated to show the animals and the letters that they represent reorganized alphabetically so as not to lose that element of instruction, which adds an element of familiarity and closure to the book.

*****

Click to visit the book's page for links to order, summary, activities, and authors' and illustrator's bios.

Princesses Wear Pants by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim and illustrated by Eva Byrne. Abrams, 2017.

Told in rhyme, this princess Penny is known for her gowns and tiaras, but she prefers pants when she exercises, when she gardens, when she flies her plane, when she judges the science fair, and when she relaxes. A conservative lady, Lady Busyboots, is sure to be at the ball though, and Penny doesn’t want to be subject to her wagging finger. She decides she doesn’t want to go if she can’t wear pants, so she hides her swim trunks beneath her gown. When Penny’s cat, Miss Fussy, falls into the moat, Prince Phillip can’t save her because his suit will get wet; he’s not properly dressed. But Penny pulls off her dress, beneath which she’s wearing her swimming trunks, and hops into the moat to save the cat, winning the admiration of her subjects for her bravery and also Lady Busyboots’ approval of pants as a practical garment. Some of the text is a little heavy-handed in its message of female empowerment through fashion choices, but on the whole I approve. I liked that Penny’s royal duties extended to flying in the air force, judging science fairs, and helping to feed the hungry—duties that really are part of today’s expectations for royalty but which are rarely acknowledged in children’s books. It helped make this princess story feel more modern. The illustrations are bright and playful with many pineapples worked into the details. I’m giving it only four stars though because there were places where consistency seemed to be an issue. In the beginning, Penny doesn’t mind dresses, but she minds them when she should wear one to the ball? And she wanted to wear pants to the ball not swimming trunks.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar and illustrated by Ross MacDonald. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is one of those times when I have to argue with the publisher’s listed intended audience. My toddlers didn’t get it. The audience member who laughed with me was nearer 7 if not older than that. This book is filled with wordplay and math puns, and most of that seemed to sail right over the heads of my toddlers. 7 Ate 9 is a noir detective story, where Private I, a garish pink letter I in a striped tie and a fedora, has to solve the mystery of 9’s disappearance when 6 comes into his office screaming that 7 ate 9. No numbers were actually eaten in the making of this picture book.

***

Click to visit the book's page for links to order, summary, video of the author reading, news, and author's bio.

The Book with No Pictures by B. J. Novak. Dial-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this and how much my kids enjoyed this because I always enjoy and often judge a book by its pictures. Like Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Book! (one of my favorites), this book explains and then relies on the reader reading everything that the book says—no matter what. So where Gerald and Piggie laugh hysterically at the reader being forced to say “banana,” this book makes the reader say things like “My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named Boo Boo Butt” and “The kid I’m reading this book to is the best kid ever in the history of the entire world” and sing and read a whole page of ridiculous nonsense words. Asides—complaints about what’s coming, comments on the ridiculousness of what’s been said—are included in the text, and while the are fun to read aloud, in places—especially toward the beginning I feel—they are a bit too intrusive. And I want to read the book again, but I’ve just been made to say please don’t ever make me read this book again. Overall though, this was a lot of laughs.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperCollins, 2005. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Nancy likes fancy things and using fancy words, but her family doesn’t understand. She puts an ad on the fridge for fancy lessons, and the whole family obliges and comes. They dress up in a wealth of fancy accessories and decide to go for a fancy dinner. It’s all going very well till Nancy, carrying a tray of ice cream sundaes, trips and drops the tray, splattering the whole restaurant in ice cream and whipped topping. Nancy’s feeling upset.  They go home, get cleaned up, and have ice cream in their pajamas. She thanks her parents for being fancy, and they all exchange “I love you”s, which can be said no fancier or better way. Nancy’s parents are A+: showing up when they’re requested, showering her with love, appreciating and encouraging her interests. There’s some fancy vocabulary to give this book more of an educational feel. This is all around a good book.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, preview, awards list, reviews, trailer, and author's bio.

After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) by Dan Santat. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This whole of the book is narrated by Humpty in the past tense as though he is telling you the story while sitting in front of you.  Humpty loves sitting up high on the wall. He likes to be up near the birds. But he fell off that wall.  The kings’ men put him back together again—physically—but they can’t heal the emotional scars he carries from his accident. He’s scared of heights now, and he can’t enjoy the things that he used to. It affects everything, even his sleeping and eating habits. He settles at first for watching the birds from the ground, then creates a paper airplane, crafted to look like a bird, so that some part of him is with the birds.   But accidents always happen, and his plane lands atop the wall from which he once fell.  Instead of walking away this time, he climbs the wall to retrieve his plane.  Having conquered his fears, he cracks apart, and becomes a fully-fledged bird, finally able to fly with the birds that he loves—finally one of the birds that he loves. That first reading, there was something off-putting about the end for both me and for one of the parents who was there when I was reading it.  It seemed less off-putting a second time for me, maybe because I knew it was coming.  I’m not sure how much of the recovery from trauma my toddler audience understood.  The illustrations are amazing—as Santat’s always are—saturated with clever use of space and color with impressive attention to detail.  It’s the sense of off-ness I got the first time–and that was expressed by another at the reading–that prevents this from getting five stars.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, awards list, activities, and author's bio.

Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2009. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Ed, Ned, Ted, and Bob rhyme all the time. Or Ed, Ned, and Ted do. Bob does not. Ed, Ned, and Ted take turns rhyming with one another, but Bob is too distracted by the end that’s coming towards them and doesn’t rhyme. Neither Ed, Ned, nor Ted realize that Bob is trying to warn them and is not playing their game, so they correct him, chastise him for his warnings not rhyming. This is a good lesson on paying attention to your friends, on listening, and on rhyming. The illustrations are simple, really just four fluffy monsters each a different color but surprisingly expressive and a few simple lines on a few pages for setting.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and sample pages. 

A Pirate’s Life by Salina Yoon. Price Stern Sloan-Penguin Random, 2007.

This is a super-cute lift-the-flap book about pirates with a surprising number of facts and tidbits of history. Pete prepares you—the reader—for your first voyage, making sure you’ve packed all the necessities, including sunscreen, fresh underwear, cured meat and fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s a list provided and a challenge to find everything on the list on the page. The second double-page spread tours the ship and establishes some pirate rules. The third spread is rhyming instructions to find the treasure and a map. Then, the treasure found, it’s time to party with another scavenger hunt. The last page declares you unanimously the new captain. There are stickers and a captain’s hat for you in your new quarters on the last page spread.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: Let’s Talk About The Ship of the Dead

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, excerpt, trailer, and activity kit..

This review contains some spoilers. The worst of the spoilers are in white and can be seen by highlighting those sections.

We need to talk about The Ship of the Dead. We need to. This. Book. Is. Amazing. For all of the social conversations that it facilitates, for its timeliness. For the miles I walked in others’ shoes—so many shoes in so few pages. For not seeming to preach when it’s facilitating these conversations nor seeming to hide its darkness behind humor, but balancing the two wonderfully—better, I’d even argue than many of Riordan’s novels; this was one of the more somber of Riordan’s novels that I’ve read. One of the funniest scenes that I remember was T.J. walking through modern York and thanking every Englishman for remaining neutral in America’s Civil War.

Speaking of T.J., we need to talk about T.J. Thomas Jefferson Jr. is a Union soldier who died in the Civil War. He’s the son of an escaped slave. T.J.’s mother gives young T.J. the same talk about appearing at all threatening that too many mothers must today give young African American children: “‘You don’t get to play,’ she snapped. ‘You play-shoot at a white man with a stick, he’s going to real-shoot you back with a gun’” (186). That line reverberates across the pages and across the decades between that scene and today; it shouldn’t. It should be a historical peculiarity at most. Riordan’s inclusion of that conversation highlights its source in the undeniable racism of slave-ownership in America and the Civil War. And it’s important that we all hear that speech. I am a white cis woman. My parents never had that dread, never sat me down to warn me about walking down the street. But I need to know that there are parents who do have that dread, and I need to hear what they say, and to understand how that knowledge, that fear curtails the childhoods of too many children. I need to hear it till it does become a historical peculiarity.

We need to talk too about Sam. We need to talk about an Arab American, hijab-wearing, Muslim protagonist whose faith is important to her, who fasts for Ramadan and believes that doing so will make her stronger despite her friends’ and her fiancé’s fears and their reminders that she does not need to fast for Ramadan if doing so will be harmful to her as they fear it will be. We need to talk about her strength in completing this perilous journey, confronting all of these foes while fasting. We need to talk about her being right, that fasting and observing the religious holiday does make her stronger and better equipped for the final battle of the series. We need to talk about the positive, well-researched representation of Islam and of Ramadan.

We need to talk about Alex—again. In this story, Alex’s Mexican (Tlatilco) heritage becomes more central to his/her story. In today’s America, under this presidency with this rhetoric, positive, respectful, well-researched representations of Mexican Americans are especially important. The Fierros are wealthy businessmen, founders of a successful company that creates high-class, luxury goods and American jobs, further turning about the stereotypical, racist image that the president and others reinforce. His/her Tlatilco heritage further informs his/her views of gender fluidity, duality masks and figurines with two connected heads but one body being among those artifacts from the Tlatilco that have been found. Positive, well-researched, respectful representations of members of the LGBTQIA+ community are also important.

Hearthstone continues to be important. The other protagonists’ reaction to and willing accommodation for Hearthstone continues to be important. Each of the main protagonists from the former books (Magnus, Sam, Blitz, and Alex) uses sign language with Hearth but also with each other. It has become another language in which the friends can communicate. Hearth’s reclaims his othala rune in this story, facing his father and the memory of his brother both.

Magnus, sweet Magnus, is the glue that holds this group together in some ways. He is the narrator and the protagonist and his propensity to protect his friends makes him the primary warrior in the final battle despite the obvious challenges that he faces. His weapon becomes friendship and kindness and love and affirmation, and that ultimately trumps the trash talk that has historically been victorious in this particular battle form: a flyting. Riordan again turns the narrative around, replacing hate and cruelty with love and showing that love trumps hate.

I also need to thank Riordan here.  I knew going into this novel (because it’s all but stated at the end of the second book) that Percy Jackson was going to make an appearance.  Percy swoops in like a deus ex machina in the first book of The Trials of Apollo, the first series within the world of living Greco-Roman mythology where Percy is not a main protagonist.  I feared that he might be overbearing here too.  He was not.  He was subtle.  He was just enough to remind us that the Greco-Roman and the Norse mythologies live and breathe side by side, enough to be fan service but not a primary character or even much more than a footnote, a proper cameo in the novel.

It should also be noted for those following my journey through this series that I did not listen to the audiobook of this novel, and I did not falter on the names.  I have now learnt enough Norse mythology to be comfortable with all the primary characters and make decent guesses at the names of some of the new faces.  So yeah, I guess these books are educational in that sense too.

Magnus Chase means a lot to me.  Magnus as a hero–for his kindness and his compassion and his empathy, a demigod blessed with healing and disarmament rather than skills to be used for fighting (though Jack does a lot of the fighting so that Magnus doesn’t have to)–means a lot to me.  His friends all mean a lot to me too.  I’m glad to have spent these three books with them all.  I hope–and think–that we haven’t seen the last of them, though this series has come to a fitting close.

*****

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.