Tag Archives: audiobook

Book Review: A Good Cast Triumphs in Taggerung

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I can't find a link to audiobook but click to visit the Penguin Random for links to order the paperback and ebook, summary, and author's bio.

I was introduced to the world of Redwall long ago and grew up with my mouth watering for candied chestnuts and deeper ‘n ever pie and strawberry cordial. Brian Jacques (RIP) has a flare for description that I have always admired and continue to admire. No one writes a feast like Jacques, and he paints such beautiful pictures of the country in which his novels take place, pausing with his creatures beside a river to describe the flora and fauna, the flight of a dragonfly and the drape of wild strawberries down the sharp embankment into which the river cuts to create a sheltered ledge (I’m inventing my own landscape now rather than quoting or describing any of his, but you get the idea).

I’ve read and remember reading fewer of the Redwall novels than I would have thought. There are apparently 22, and I am now certain that I’ve read 5 of them, though I think I’ve read more that I’ve forgotten.

Jacques’ view of the creatures of Redwall and the surrounding country is starkly divided into good and evil. Badgers, hares, mice, otters, moles, squirrels, hedgehogs are good—just inherently, irrevocably good, as this tale proves. Rats, stoats, ferrets, weasels, foxes are irrevocably, inherently bad—cruel and viscous, the Orcs of Mossflower Country, though they are given far more personality and character than Tolkien ever gave the Orcs. I tend not to enjoy such stark divisions of good and evil (“the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters”), but I admit that rarely it is nice to escape into a world where a creature’s nature and alignment is possible to determine from a glance, to be given the excuse to think less, emphasize less, and still be able to be on the side of right.

In this novel, the otterbabe Deyna is kidnapped by the leader of a vermin clan and his father killed because Deyna is prophesied to be the Taggerung, an unmatched and unmatchable warrior, the most feared throughout all of the vermin clans known collectively as the Juska. Deyna is rechristened Taggerung and is raised as the clan chief’s son, but though he grows into an impressively strong and skilled fighter, Tagg refuses to kill. (Because of this I think too little is made of his first kill of an anthropomorphized creature later in the novel, admittedly a weasel who attacked Redwall, was hunting him with intent to kill, and hurt his own clansmen, including his chief, but early in the novel, Tagg refuses to kill one of the vermin members of the clan that raised him, beginning his banishment and his adventures, so one would think that this weasel’s death would still weigh on his conscience. Before even that he does kill an eel that is terrorizing a shrew clan, but the eel is more animalistic than humanized.)

This novel rambles more than some of the others in this series, perhaps because it has multiple protagonists in different parts of Mossflower Country as well as the regular competing plot that follows the villain. The book follows the life of Deyna, though it focues on the time after his banishment from the Juska, his long and roving return to Redwall Abbey. Having been banished from the Juska clans as a fifteen-seasons-old otter, he is hunted by his clansmen, meets a plethora of amusing families of voles and shrews and hedgehogs and one ebullient mouse named Nimbalo the Slayer, who becomes his travel companion and best friend. Meanwhile at Redwall, Deyna’s sister Mhera is trying to unravel a riddle that will determine the next abbot or abbess of Redwall. Honestly, there are several times I thought that the story ought to have come to an end (though if I’d thought about the series’ formula, I ought to have known that I would have to wait for an epilogue by the Abbey Recorder). Deyna’s story wrapped up quite well by the time that he was healed and back at the Abbey, Gruven’s story had not, and Jacques decided to end both plots and end the Juskarath before closing the novel.

The cast of this audiobook, though, sells the story, singing whenever necessary, with unique voices and accents appropriate to the character and species of each beast—and I was willing to follow them through whatever escapades Jacques had concocted. The “full cast” is not given nearly enough credit for their work—in fact, I can’t find their names anywhere on the case for this CD set—and I want to know their names. Jacques himself does the narration, which I always appreciate because you know then that you’re hearing this story as the author intended, each line precisely nuanced and inflected as he would have wanted and each word pronounced correctly.

The audio recording itself is probably a full 5 stars, but the story itself is merely a three.

****

Jacques, Brian. Taggerung. Recorded Books Productions, LLC-Haights Cross Communications Company, 2003. Audiobook, 11 CDs.  First published by Redwall Abbey Company Ltd 2001.

This review is not endorsed by Brian Jacques or any of the full cast of this audio recording, Recorded Book Productions, LLC, Haights Cross Communications Company, Redwall Abbey Company Ltd, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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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 Review: Ender’s Game Alive Springboards My Dive into the Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, behind the scenes videos, and full cast list.

Time for one more reader’s confession: I’ve never before read an Orson Scott Card novel (though I did once read a book of literary criticism about Severus Snape to which he contributed). I was only vaguely aware of the plot of Ender’s Game. The novel and Ender’s Shadow have been sitting on my bookcase for years, but they never seemed to be the books that I wanted to read. As I work through the Valley libraries’ collections of audiobooks, I am also working my way through the books and authors that I probably ought to have already read.

When I found this version of Ender’s Game, Ender’s Game Alive, rewritten by Card as an audioplay, I couldn’t resist. During my brief stint as a London resident, I became fond of radio dramas. My host mother sometimes left the radio on, and I would enjoy snippets from the lives of fictional characters while I cooked or ate. Where that was written to be enjoyed in snippets, to catch a listener up quickly if she’d missed a few episodes, Card wrote Ender’s Game Alive to be enjoyed as a collected whole (more what I expect from an audiobook than a radio drama). Had I skipped a few segments of Ender’s Game, I think I would have been wholly lost.

I was however able to follow and enjoy this dramatization without having read Ender’s Game or having had any other introduction to Ender’s world.

My roommate will tell you that I quite a few nights came home complaining about this dramatization. I was annoyed at the ickiness that the physical fights made me feel, the squeeze of my stomach at the groaning, squelching, cracking, grunting, ringing sound effects. I was distraught as I realized what was happening before Ender did. I was disconcerted by the similarities between Peter’s intentions for Locke and Demosthenes and the nationalism and demagoguery of today. All of that probably means that I really enjoyed this drama and disliked being away from it when I had to turn off the car.

For those who are unaware as I was of the plot Ender’s Game: After Earth’s first two wars with an alien species called the Formics, genius children from every country are monitored to determine their usefulness to the International Fleet (IF). Ender Wiggin is one of these geniuses, the third child in his family, allowed by the government despite a law limiting families to two children because his two siblings both showed such promise before being ruled unfit for combat. Because one officer, Colonel Graff, decides that the Ender is the One, he is taken to Battle School at a younger age than is average and proves himself again and again a creative and unbeatable commander of the other children in their mock battles against rival commanders and armies despite the odds being continually stacked against him by Graff and the other adults in order to speed his training. He rises very swiftly up the ranks, ultimately joining Commander’s School, where he is eventually reunited with some of his friends from Battle School, and they are tested with a string of rigorous battles, each commanding fleets, and Ender commanding the commanders.

By contrasting Ender with Mazer Rackham, an independent thinker who operates best alone and with all of the less successful commanders in Battle School and with his two siblings who were never given the chance to try, Card says an amazing amount about the type of commander that he believes is best. Ender is an independent thinker, but operates best with a team of loyal friends, whose trust he has earned, and with whom he spends time and maintains relationships.

At some point within the novel, Graff admits that it is Ender’s capacity for love (for his sister and for humanity) that make Ender the One leader that humanity has needed. He values friendship and values cooperation more so than many of the other leaders of Battle School. Soldiers become friends and become loyal to him instead of merely obeying his orders out of fear or duty. As often as he can, he will avoid conflict, but when he does fight, he is calculating and vicious, making sure that battle need only happen once and that he will be victorious.

The ending of the book reminds readers that war is always a tragedy, that diplomacy should always be attempted, that the defeated of any battle are not nameless nor faceless nor without their own victories and histories, that winners of wars are not left untainted and unscarred by their victory.

This version of the tale is largely “narrated” by Colonel Graff and Major Jayadi, a character who seems to have been created for this dramatization (again, this is my introduction to Ender’s world), and whose role seems mainly to be as a child psychologist. The two bicker over Ender’s care and dissect his thoughts and actions from videos from his feed and then from surveillance videos at Battle School. It’s an excellent way to get around not having any actual narration, a way to show both thoughts and action while the reader is allowed only dialogue and sound effects—although such a go-around is largely only possible within a science-fiction such as this. With a huge cast and no dialogue tags, that each character has a specific voice actor helps to keep the cast straight. The child voice actors don’t sound as young as the characters that they claim to be, but this is much as films and television series almost always cast characters in adaptations as older, particularly when these children are asked to take on adult problems. The different accents here help not only to keep the voices distinct but also to underline the I in the IF. I appreciate that Card’s wonderfully diverse cast, that he didn’t let the chance at international cooperation slide past (despite knowing that after this novel, the countries of the world descend again into chaos). One of Ender’s commanders is one of only a few girls in the IF. One of his commanders is a Muslim from North Africa who references Allah and uses Arabic within the text. Another is Jewish and Israeli. Another grew up as an urchin on the streets of Rotterdam. One of the first children in Battle School to be kind to Ender is Japanese. The values and histories of each character’s home nation are allowed to inform the character.

I was struck in this book by Card’s decision to give the kids of the novel power through language. Ender denies his given name, Andrew, in favor of the name that his sister called him before she could say Andrew. The adults of the novel recognize that Ender is the name that he calls himself and so use this name. It’s the children’s Battle School slang that gets adopted by the adults as they spend more time with Ender. His team, for example, is called a jeesh, a term first used and defined by Alai, an enemy of Ender’s who becomes one of his closest friends.

I think because of how this story echoes today’s politics, I can’t let it go. I continue thinking about it, two weeks later, and am drawn to Card’s newest book, Children of the Fleet, despite not having read any intervening novels. I’ve begun another of his audiobooks already.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game Alive: The Full-Cast Audioplay. Exec. Prod. Steve Feldberg and Wil Snape. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle de Cuir, and Mike Charzuk. Dir. Gabrielle de Cuir. Skyboat-Brilliance with Audible, 2013. Audioplay, 7 CDs.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Skyboat Media, Brilliance Audio, Inc, Audible, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audioplay.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: African Myth and an Adult Hero’s Tale in Anansi Boys

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

Reader’s confession time again: Anansi Boys is the first novel of Neil Gaiman’s that I have ever read. And I didn’t even read it, really; I listened to Lenny Henry read it and give voices to each of the characters while I drove my car back and forth across town.

While Anansi Boys is sometimes billed as a sequel to American Gods, I can attest that it works just fine as a standalone as long as one is prepared to accept that the old gods live still. And I am more than used to the idea, being a fan of Rick Riordan’s.

I’m familiar with Anansi as a trickster spider god from Africa. I think it was Reading Rainbow that first introduced me to the character (but now that I’m looking, I can’t find any reference to such an episode). Much beyond that, I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, but Anansi tales are woven into the text, making any background on the character unnecessary. Gaiman even gives some of the evolution of the tales, explanations of how some people sometimes think that Anansi is a rabbit, how Anansi’s tales became African American Br’er Rabbit tales.

Because according to the novel all stories are Anansi’s, I think of this almost as much as a story about stories and the crafting of a story as it is about the way that the characters maneuver through their complicated and twisted relationships and situations, particularly because stories and songs are given such power in the novel. As a hero’s journey, as someone who reads primarily children’s and teen’s literature, it’s nice to read a bildungsroman for an adult where the everyday complications are bosses, difficult clients, worries about money, worries about adult relationships, and future in-laws. All of that is becoming more relevant to me than worries over turning in homework on time, seeing school bullies between classes, my tier in the social hierarchy, difficult teachers, or parents being unsupportive.

In this tale, Anansi dies of a heart attack while singing karaoke and flirting with young tourists in a bar in Florida. His son, Fat Charlie, who is embarrassed by his father whom he thinks made it his mission to humiliate Charlie, flies from London for the funeral. The only other attendees are a few old women, neighbors of Anansi’s and Fat Charlie’s and his mother’s when they lived in Florida. One of the older women reveals Anansi’s godhood to Fat Charlie and also reveals that Charlie has a brother about whom he has forgotten. She tells him to tell a spider if he ever wants to contact his brother.

Back in London, Fat Charlie continues at his job as an accountant for the Grahame Coats talent agency. Charlie and his fiancée Rosie continue wedding preparations, and Rosie insists that Fat Charlie should try to reach out to his brother to invite him to the wedding.

After drunkenly whispering to a spider that it would be nice if his brother would visit, Spider shows up, moves into the house, and begins an initially perhaps well-intentioned but increasing hostile takeover of Charlie’s life, house, and girlfriend.

I wish the ending of the romantic tangle had been a little less obvious.

I was mostly entwined in the story of the mystical coexisting with the everyday—and before Spider, Fat Charlie’s life is very everyday—the way that Spider’s powers manifest, the way that Tiger manifests in the world, the spirit journeys that Charlie takes with the help of the older women.

Maybe because it’s taken me so long to read a Gaiman novel, maybe because many are saying that this is one of his least, I was not as blown away by Anansi Boys as I maybe even wanted to be. I enjoyed it. I think Lenny Henry’s voices may have done much to keep this story exciting. But I didn’t love it, though I did rave when given the opportunity the morning after I’d finished it to a willing party.

I think this would be a good read for those who want to learn a little mythology without reading mythology straight—though I’m not sure why anyone would want not to read the mythology straight. I doubt Riordan will ever touch African mythology—though someone from his imprint might. I do wonder how someone from the African diaspora reacts to Gaiman’s take on their mythology. I wonder if Anansi is still a god anywhere in the world. I wonder if Gaiman should have taken on this subject, as much as I enjoy it. Most of the characters are from the Caribbean, members of the African diaspora, and to my knowledge, Gaiman is neither. He seems to have handled the mythology well, but I’m not the one to decide.

****

Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. Narrated by Lenny Henry. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. Audiobook, 9 CDs. First published 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Neil Gaiman, Lenny Henry, HarperAudio, HarperCollins, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: We Need to Talk About Alex Fierro and Magnus Chase

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

We need to talk about Alex. And we need to talk about the Magnus Chase fandom.

Having enjoyed the first audiobook in this series, I found the second too. This second book is narrated by Kieran Culkin. I didn’t love the voices that Culkin did for these characters as much as I loved Guetig’s, but I found his Magnus more palatable, so I was not displeased. Of the voices that Culkin does for the characters, Blitz’s is most memorable. He has a strong accent that actually sounded more like a Brooklyn accent than a Boston accent to me, but Boston is a diverse city, and Blitz is from Nidavellir, so really he can have any accent that the narrator fancies and who can tell him that he’s wrong.

I went running to find the audiobook after the announcement that this book had won a Stonewall for 2017. The Stonewall Book Award is given to books that best relate the LGBT experience. Usually this award ends up going to books that could be qualified as issue books, books that set out with the primary intention of relating the LGBT experience. I would argue that that is not The Hammer of Thor’s primary intention. This book remains—as all of Rick Riordan’s middle grade novels have been—an action/adventure story, a quest, and a fantasy adventure, but Alex Fierro is gender-fluid, sometimes using he/him/his and sometimes she/her/hers. Alex’s experience as a central and primary character in the novel is highly visible, but the story is not wholly his/hers nor is his/her story the focus; preventing Loki from starting Ragnarok is the focus. I was impressed that any book that isn’t an issue book could win a Stonewall. I was going to probably eventually read this story anyway because I do very much enjoy Riordan’s adventures and they are perennial bestsellers that are easier to discuss with customers after I’ve read them, but my pleasure at this surprising win did push me to search harder for a copy to listen to.

Alex says openly to Magnus that he/she does not want his/her story to be taken as the story of every trans, queer, or gender-fluid person. I highlight that because I think it important to recognize that there are different experiences within the LGBTQIA+ community. Riordan explicitly uses Alex to represent but not to define the LGBTQIA+ experience.

The primary characters of the novel are all fairly accepting of Alex’s gender fluidity. The einherjar at large and several of the gods are less so. Alex like Magnus comes from a well-off family but has spent time on the streets.

The more time I spend on Pinterest and the more pins about Magnus Chase that I find the more that I fall in love with Magnus. Other fans (particularly I credit Tumblr user magnusglows for these revelations) have noticed some of his more loveable quirks, like his tendency to refer to friends as “his.”  The series has made a point of discussing found family. Magnus is wonderfully supportive and respectful of his friends’ choices and feelings, and its wonderfully heartwarming to have a hero who is no less heroic for being so and no less heroic for being associated with healing and sunlight.

The more time I spend with this series the more disappointed I am by the first two Percy Jackson movies and particularly Riordan’s reaction to those movies. The representation in this series is so important, and I want this story to reach as many people as possible, but I know that Riordan will probably never allow another film to be made. He seems more supportive of the Percy Jackson musical, though, so maybe there’s hope for a filmed staged version.

*****

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

Riordan, Rick.  Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor.  2016.  Narr.  Kieran Culkin. Listening Library-Penguin Random, 2016.

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

Book Review: Thanks for Magnus Chase, Rick Riordan

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9781101916988So I thought that I knew Norse mythology, and now I’m realizing that I knew as much about Norse mythology as Magnus Chase did before finding out that he was a demigod: to paraphrase a book from his childhood and quote a chapter title: “Freya is pretty! She has cats!” (274) Yep. That, and then what I gleaned from the “ridiculously inaccurate” Marvel movies (27). Did you know that Bifröst is supposed to be pronounced more closely to “beef roast” than “by frost”? I’m actually very pleased that I chose to listen to this book on audio because looking at the Norse names, I think I would have stumbled and fallen out of the book often. Tanngnjóstr, Hlidskjalf, even einherji… no kids book or Marvel movie ever prepared me to pronounce these. Mjolnir is hard enough. I stumble over the Hammer’s name like Darcy does in Thor: The Dark World (though after listening to this audiobook, I’m stumbling less often).

I waited a long time for this series. I’ve wanted it ever since I heard a rumor that Rick Riordan might do a series about the Norse gods. I knew enough to know that in Norse mythology, the gods lose, they die, the world ends, and I wanted to see how Riordan could play with that (—admirably, very admirably). Then somehow I was late purchasing it. I think I put it off till I could get a deeper discount, and now, I’m only getting to it a year later because I felt pressured to have read the first book before I began selling the second (I missed my self-imposed deadline but only by five days) and because I found the audiobook at my local library and decided that a new Rick Riordan book would likely make my road trip drive fly past—and then when I got sucked into another book during my road trip, I let it help speed my commutes.

I really enjoyed the different voices provided by Christopher Guetig. I enjoyed everyone’s voice—except Magnus’, which is somewhat problematic. The voice Guetig provided for Magnus seemed too high-pitched and young to believably be 16. Moreover, I felt that Magnus warranted more bitterness and flat delivery than Guetig did. Magnus’ lines were delivered flippantly, breezily. I thought of Magnus as much more careworn, as hard and bitter, his lines dripping with hard sarcasm. I can’t say which of us is right in our reading, and it probably doesn’t matter because a book can be read differently by different readers, but that disconnect kept me from being enveloped as deeply as I could have been in the world. Luckily, Blitz and Hearth and Sam and Loki and Fenris and T.J. and Mallory and Otis the goat were there to help draw me in when Magnus couldn’t. Their characters were all much improved I think by Guetig’s reading. (I found myself the other day adopting Otis’ tone and voice.) I loved that Hearth, a deaf elf who speaks through sign-language was given a unique voice by Guetig. Thank you.

While we’re talking about Hearth and his deafness, can we talk about how Riordan deftly, I think, described the struggles that Hearth had being accepted by his family and peers, how he had come to cope, and his deafness not even seem to be any kind of impediment to him in Boston, and then on the quest how it became the very strength that the team needed? And can we also talk about how rare it is to see any character who is deaf and speaks through sign language? I can think of one other, a recurring but not main character on The West Wing and was reminded by a Google search that there was a character in a two-part episode of Doctor Who, season 9. I just need to thank Riordan for including this awesome character and for bringing light to this often unseen community.

And for shedding light on the homeless community too, presenting homelessness in honest, real terms: the fear but also the ingenuity, the community and the alienation. I feel that most homeless characters that I encounter in children’s literature—and I can think of very few—are either saints and angels in disguise (sometimes literally), demonized, or are background characters there to add realism to a place but not as characters.

And I want to thank Riordan and Guetig too for not caving to the pop culture/Marvel versions of the gods. Guetig could have tried to imitate Tom Hiddleston’s accent when presenting Loki, but he didn’t. Riordan specifically distances his Thor from Marvel’s Thor:

“I couldn’t help it.

“When I heard the name Thor, I thought about the guy from the movies and comics—a big superhero from outer space, with bright Spandex tights, a red cape, goldilocks hair, and maybe a helmet with fluffy little dove wings.

“I real life, Thor was scarier. And redder. And grungier.” (353)

I understand that to reclaim Norse mythology from the Marvel franchise was probably part of Riordan’s mission, but I still appreciate that he didn’t take the easy way in this novel, but gave us something new and less familiar.

I’m thanking Riordan for a lot here. I haven’t even mentioned Sam, an Arab American with immigrant grandparents from Iraq in an arranged engagement but in love with her betrothed and caught between wanting a normal life with him and wanting to be a warrior and a Valkyrie, who wears a hijab but only when she wants to do or when she feels like she should. (Oops. Now I have.) There is so much diversity here. And the presentation here is so much better than it is in The Hidden Oracle where Riordan seems to shout, “LOOK AT THESE DIVERSE CHARACTERS JUST HERE TO REPRESENT OTHER CULTURES!” That might not be fair. But yeah, maybe it is. These are characters—characters I can care about. The diverse characters in The Trials of Apollo seem more like props (though admittedly, some of that I might be able to believe is because Apollo narrates, and Apollo believes he is the sun around which everyone else dances, but it does not excuse that sense).

Riordan was more subtle than I thought he would be too when I heard that Magnus was going to be Annabeth’s cousin.  Yes, Annabeth is a character here, but she is not obtrusive, though I do sense that we’ll see her again–and with her more of the Greco-Roman crew.  After a quick Pintrest perusal I too really want to see Nico and Magnus meet.

And I ought by now to be prepared for Riordan to pull the rug out from under my feet at the last moment, but I was unprepared and caught gasping and wanting the second book.

So look for that.

Because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this series, but I can’t let that plot twist rest. Not forever.

I’m teetering on the edge of giving this book a coveted five stars, and may revise it later, but for now… let’s stick with

****1/2

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2015.

Riordan, Rick.  Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer.  2015.  Narr.  Christopher Guetig. Compact discs. Listening Library-Penguin Random, 2015.

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

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Book Review: Five Big Stars for The Blackthorn Key!

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blackthorn-key-9781442388536_hrKevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key, starts with the words “Let’s build a canon.” A promising beginning.   One that had me reading the paperback of this book—newly out—as I walked it back to its place in the store. Then when I got home I remembered that I had a sample of the book, and read the first two chapters through, and debated more seriously still purchasing the paperback.

Then I went on a road trip, and having recently been reintroduced to audiobooks by a friend who started me on Huck Finn, I decided to go to the local library and see what audiobooks I might be able to bring with me to make the hours pass—and I found this book. The first leg of my trip was 4 hours to the first stop and another 6 hours to the second stop. I spent a good bit of that time (the whole recording is 7 hours and 21 minutes) in Restoration London with an apothecary’s apprentice and his best friend, the baker’s son, Tom.

When I’d reached my first stop, I was raved to the friend that I visited about the book that I was listening to, telling her to go and buy the thing, even though I was only maybe two or three hours into the story. Getting into the car when we had to part ways was not as hard because I knew that Chris, Tom, and the mystery into which they’d been thrust were waiting for me.

By the time that I arrived at my final destination, I was raving to my mother, telling her about the whirlwind adventure I’d just been on, and how the dark back roads of Pennsylvania hadn’t seemed so long or so lonely with this book for company.

The codes and charts and solved puzzles were harder to understand in audio form, but that was my one rub with the reading itself. Lines like

img_0725aloud are just as perplexing, but… lengthier. It’s the sort of thing that the eyes can glaze over and gather the gist, but a reader has to take time to say. And a chart such as

img_0724

is equally lengthy and confusing. Mind, the printing of the chart in this Find Your Hero Chapter Sampler is actually more confusing for its set up than was Panthaki’s reading (A 22, B 23, C 24, etc. is how it was read in the recording), but that may have been fixed in the final layout.

Otherwise, it took me maybe only a few minutes to be on board with Ray Panthaki, a London-born, British actor (producer, writer, director, Renaissance man), as a narrator, who was subtle about the voices that he gave the characters, for the most part, but who did provide me with voices, which helped to liven the dialogue I’m sure and also helped to keep straight the various characters when dialogue tags were not something I could see for myself. No one seemed overblown and no one stood out unduly from the crowd, which is, I feel, one danger in narrating with voices.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, and this story is set a little late in history for me to gravitate towards it (I tend to say—and it’s not entirely a joke—that my knowledge of history ends right around 1600), but there was plenty to keep me entertained and engaged, sitting—especially those last few hours as the mystery raced towards its reveal—on the edge of my seat and clinging to the wheel in front of me: action, mystery, politics, heart-wringing circumstances inflicted onto characters that I grew fairly quickly to care about, magic (or science; here apothecary, potions-maker, woodswitch, and alchemist are all only so many steps from one another—and that is all addressed in the text), the uplifting story of an orphan escaping abuse and poverty to find love and riches and purpose, loyal friends, children getting the better of adults…. Now that I’m listing them I see that those are a lot of the same elements that make Harry Potter so enjoyable.

And I know from working in a bookstore and trying to help customers find books to suit school assignments how difficult it is to find historical fiction—or mystery for that matter—for that 8-12 range. I am going to hope that most teachers will accept this as historical fiction. Certainly I learned some about the time.

My one reserve about the text itself is that Sands doesn’t shy from gore or cruelty or torture. That’s fine but maybe not for the youngest of ears. In Barnes & Noble, this book lives in a section marked for ages 7-12. The audiobook warns that it’s recommended for ages 10-14. I know some 10 year olds who would be squigged out by some of the more gruesome injuries inflicted on the characters. Parents, use caution. As always, I recommend reading the book before or with your child. Know what they’ll be able to handle, and be ready to talk to them if they need reassurance or have questions.

*****

Sands, Kevin. The Blackthorn Key.  2015.  Narr. Ray Panthaki. Compact discs. Simon & Schuster Audio, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Kevin Sands, Ray Panthaki, Simon & Schuster, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Reviews: A Few More Morals and Misadventures From Berk

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The lesson of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, the fourth book of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series, is that fate can be altered and your own luck can be made by you—which is interestingly contrasted with the prophecies scattered throughout these plots and the patrilineal monarchy of the Viking tribe of which the book’s hero, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, is a part.  Hiccup will (unless something happens to him) become chief of the Hairy Hooligans.  If Hiccup does not survive to take up the chieftaincy, his cousin, Snotface Snotlout, will take his place. I’m interested to see if, as the series, progresses, Cowell plays with this newly introduced concept of creating luck and altering fate against the seemingly fixed destiny of her hero, whom the reader from the beginning knows will become a famous Viking hero, the series being written as a set of his memoirs, and the elder Hiccup telling “this story as if it happened to somebody else, because the boy [he] once was is so distant to [him] now, that he might as well be a stranger” (Prologue, How To Twist a Dragon’s Tale).

Probably the star here is the ludicrous ideas of a medieval culture that believed that the world was flat.  Hiccup seeks the vegetable-that-no-one-dares-name, a potato, a strange probably imaginary plant from the mythical land of America.  Yet, only a potato can counteract the deadly poison of the Venomous Vorpent, and Hiccup needs that cure badly.

The book does teach readers to stand up for, protect, and cling to friends, which ordinarily I would think to be a incontestably good lesson, but Hiccup clings to Fishlegs against his father’s command.  While children need to learn whom to befriend and whom they should not, and parents can misjudge children, parents often have a good sense about whether or not their children’s friends are positive or negative influences, and I’m not sure that teaching children to flout their parents’ judgment is ideal—however flawed Stoick the Vast’s judgments have proved in the past—and they have proved to be quite poor, and I would have Hiccup cling to Fishlegs, especially in lieu of his father’s suggestion that Hiccup befriend his bullying cousin, Snotlout.

****

Before I could finish a review of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, I went ahead and listened to the audiobook, read by David Tennant, of the fifth book in the series, How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale, so now I can answer some of the questions that I was posing in the review of book 4.

As yet, Cowell has done little with book 4’s lesson about the opportunity to change fate, other than to remind that readers that it’s never too late to do something heroic.  I suppose the primary moral of this tale is best summed up by Stoick the Vast: “WE WILL NEVER SURRENDER!” (69).  The primary quest of How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale is one to stop a volcano from exploding and hatching a flock of rare and particularly vicious Exterminator Dragons.

How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale sees the return of Hiccup’s arch-enemy, Alvin the Treacherous, still not dead, and it introduces a very Harry Potter-like element to Hiccup’s and Alvin’s conflict (with Alvin having created his own worst enemy in Hiccup, and yes, I fear that concept was used by Rowling first).  We also learn more about Hiccup’s mother, a very shadowy woman, mentioned previously really only by name and as possessing an “extra-strong, heavy-duty bra” (How to Train Your Dragon 169).  She still does not make much of an appearance and seems to be a rather absent parent, being too busy questing to be at home with her family, but her back story and Stoick’s is delved into.

Cowell plays with the western fairy tale/hero story clichés, having riders on white and black dragons.

This is the first of her books where dragons are ridden.  Still no Night Furies, but Hiccup now has a lame Windwalker, too young yet to fly, but he will carry Hiccup along the ground.  Could this be the inspiration for the half-tailed Toothless of Dreamworks’?  Hiccup’s Windwalker is illustrated more darkly than other dragons, so I’m supposing that he is black.  The Windwalker as yet has no name.

The illustrations are particularly emotive.  I after listening to the audiobook, opened the book that I had and looked at the illustrations.

I especially enjoyed David Tennant singing with the many voices of the Vikings in this book.

****1/2

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon, Book 4: How To Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.  2006.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2010.

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon, Book  5: How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale.  2007.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2010.

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 5: How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale.  Narr. David Tennant.  Hodder Children’s Audio: 2007.  Audio recording.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, David Tennant, Hodder Children’s Audio, or Little, Brown, and Company, part of Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Hiccup’s World Expands in How To Speak Dragonese

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Here there be some spoilers.

I began the third in Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series, How To Speak Dragonese, by listening to the audio recording read by David Tennant.  Halfway through that, I stumbled upon a hardcover copy of the book at my local used bookstore.  I couldn’t leave it there.  I began the book again, enjoying the visual and textural stimulation with which the audio recording could not provide me.  When I had caught up to myself, I passed myself, and I finished the print copy before finishing the audio copy (and have yet to finish the audio and may not).

Though I enjoy the voices with which Tennant reads these stories, they worked against Cowell in this tale, alerting me to one of the plot twists too early.  I was unable in rereading to tell if I’d have guessed the twist at the same point without Tennant’s voice acting.

Visually, I appreciate very much Cowell’s use of formatting as well as her illustrations.  Always, the Viking’s Norse has been distinguished from Dragonese by its font, but now these are distinguished by their fonts again from Latin, and the nanodragon Ziggerastica’s Dragonese distinguished from all of these by its smaller font size.

This time Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III has to battle Roman legionaries hoping to cause trouble among the local Viking tribes, particularly Hiccup’s Hairy Hooligans and the Bog-Burglars.  The Bog-Burglars are a tribe of female warriors led by Big-Boobied Bertha (yeah, you read that correctly).  It’s really nice to finally be introduced by Cowell to some female characters.  No Astrid, but now we have Camicazi, Big-Boobied Bertha’s daughter and heir to the Bog-Burglars.  Camicazi is a small girl and spunky (to say the least).  She considers herself a master escaper and unlike Hiccup and Fishlegs does not sit waiting for a rescue but acts to better her situation.  She convinces Hiccup and Fishlegs to help her with her first escape attempt, but Hiccup and Fishlegs give up after the first failure—and while this might be amounted to wisdom and common sense as Camicazi’s escape plans become more and more absurd and her punishments become more severe, culminating in several days in solitary confinement, the Vikings won’t escape the Romans by passively waiting, and these characters demonstrate a nice reversal of the too long stereotypically gendered passivity and action.

It is, however, eventually Hiccup’s wits and his ability to talk to dragons that save the trio and Toothless—and Camicazi’s wits and boldness when Hiccup’s getaway boat sinks.

This is definitely a tale that lauds “the little guy,” making it especially tailored to its middle grade readers.

I did not like this book as well as I liked the previous two, but I very much enjoyed Cowell’s representation of the Romans, which while twisted to fit her dragon-filled alternate history, really captures the nastier aspects of the Romans that I didn’t learn about till much later in my life.  In middle school, for example, no one told me about the Romans’ habit of making themselves vomit so that they could eat more.

This was perhaps also the most inward of the two books, partially because of the passivity of the protagonists previously mentioned and their confinement, but also because it deals more with Hiccup’s fears that his father might not think him a worthy heir (a theme from the cinematic adaptation How To Train Your Dragon) more than the others have done.

It should also be noted that this is probably the first of the books that really relies on its predecessor; here the books become books in a series and not a book series.

****

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon, Book 3: How To Speak Dragonese.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2005.

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 3: How to Speak Dragonese.  2005.  Narr. David Tennant.  Audio recording.  Hodder Children’s Audio: 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, David Tennant, Hodder Children’s Audio, or Little, Brown, and Company, part of Hachette Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.