Tag Archives: boys’ book

Book Review: A New Leaf for Hiccup in A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons?

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Click to visit the series' page for links to order, summary, and excerpt.

There be some spoilers ahead.

And now we have arrived at the sixth in Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series, A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons. I had expected, from the title, for this book to be less adventure and more encyclopedia, so I was pleasantly surprised to find our heroes engaging again in acts of burglary and thievery (though a small bit of encyclopedic knowledge is included in the back). In this Toothless in a common tantrum burns the book that Gobber the Belch has stolen from the Hairy Scary Librarian’s library.  This book becomes the subject of a bet between Hiccup’s father, Chief Stoick the Vast, and Camicazi’s mother, Big-Boobied Bertha.  The competition between the two parents and the two tribes is fierce.  Hiccup does not want his father embarrassed and so decides to hide his dragon’s naughtiness by going on a quest to steal a book himself from the Hairy Scary Librarian. With his friends Camicazi and Fishlegs, Hiccup sets off for the Meathead Public Library (which is not so public). Books are banned in Viking society, and the Hairy Scary Librarian guards all of that knowledge and believes it all to be his.  As always, Hiccup’s un-Viking noodling saves the day, albeit in an unusual way for the series. His schemes in this book are much less elaborate than in previous tales, consisting more of applying knowledge and thinking on the spot, and have far more to do with avoiding a fight than escaping or winning one.

This book introduces us to new villains, the Murderous Tribe and their leader, Madguts the Murderous, and more personally to the Meathead Hairy Scary Librarian, mentioned before and previously a referee at The Thing (How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale). Previous villains with the possible exception of Norbert the Nutjob (How To Cheat a Dragon’s Curse) have been aggressors filled with greed for what is not theirs. In this (and How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse), Hiccup and his friends are thieves, and the villains might be seen as reacting to wrongs inflicted rather than attacking without provocation.  Madguts and his tribe, from whom Camacazi’s mother has stolen, do not meet Hiccup and company till the very end of the book, and when they do, Madgut’s threats are diverted by Hiccup’s words alone rather than by any weaponry, and Madguts in fact becomes the deus ex machina that helps Hiccup defeat the Hairy Scary Librarian.  The Hairy Scary Librarian, from whom Hiccup and his friends come to steal a book, is squashed by a dragon and then dragged off to the Uglithug Slavelands by Madguts.

I’ll be interested to see if these books have marked the turn of Hiccup towards more Viking-like heroics (raiding). It is interesting to see him not wronged but wronging others.  I should be probably a bit disturbed by this turn, but the brutality and cruelty attached to the very names of those he wrongs still makes him seem more a traditional Jack (and the Beanstalk) or maybe more Odysseus than a criminal.  Always, Hiccup has good reasons for stealing (better reasons in fact, I would argue, than does Jack).  From Norbert, he needed the potato to save his friend. From the Hairy Scary Librarian, he wanted to steal to protect Toothless.  Moreover, Hiccup liberates the books and their knowledge from the Hairy Scary Librarian, which especially while reading a book, is difficult to fault.  Hiccup only borrows the dragon that Big-Boobied Bertha has stolen from Madguts then defends Bertha from being punished for her crime, which is perhaps not so morally clear, but Bertha is his friend’s mother.

The more I look at these past three books (How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale, and A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons), the more I think that swapping books four and five would have led to a better series flow, a more cohesive character building.  The narrative thread seems to have been dropped just a tiny bit too by the exclusion in this book of the Windwalker from Dragon’s Tale, whom I had expected to start playing a larger role, but perhaps because of his similarity to Dreamworks’ Toothless I am giving him too much weight. Separately, I still enjoy all of these books.

***1/2

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 6: A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2010.  First published 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Hachette Book Group, Little, Brown and Company, or Cressida Cowell.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Review: Artemis Fowl: Dark, Twisted, and Maybe a Bit Misguided

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There aren’t all that many books for children that follow the antihero.  I’m puzzling over whether I can think of any more.  (Any of my readers know of others?)  Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is an antihero in every sense.  Son of a rich crime lord, descended from a line of crime lords, young Fowl has been left in charge of the family business and the family estate.  The first book of his series, Artemis Fowl, opens with the Fowl family in financial trouble and Artemis having taken his manservant, Butler, to Ho Chi Minh City with a scheme to restore his fortune.  Artemis poisons and then bargains the antidote with an addicted fairy, convincing her to break the laws of her people and let him see the Book that describes the rituals governing the People and the People’s magic.  Artemis takes pictures of its pages and leaves the fairy with a detox medicine.

This is a book that I have ignorantly recommended as popular for young readers who have also enjoyed fantasy adventures.  I am withdrawing my blasé recommendation having read it and will now not recommend it unless I have been able to question the parent or grandparent about how much they would like their children exposed to certain aspects of the darker side of humanity.  Addiction, alcohol, drugs, insanity, violence, criminal masterminds who might be mistaken for the hero of the tale, and potty humor are all potential topics that parents might prefer were avoided.  The potty humor in particular and perhaps also Artemis’ age mean that this is a series that finds its shelf in the children’s department of Barnes & Noble, but I think most of its content and the grayness of its protagonist make it more appropriately a teen novel.

The initial portrayal of Artemis is one of a cold and calculating individual who has no pity for other beings and will do anything if doing so has the potential to help Artemis further his own goals.  It was the cracks in this façade that helped me to push through the book.  The tale of Artemis’ Moriarty-like criminality was broken by moments of domestic heartache, reminders that Artemis is despite his cleverness and ruthlessness a mere boy of twelve, including a brief shattering of Artemis’ confident wit that left him seated on the floor muttering that he doesn’t “like lollipops” (216).  That he truly does pine for his father, presumed dead, and his mother, driven mad by the loss of his father and infrequently able to recognize her son, made Artemis pitiable if not likable, and the familial reasons behind his crimes do not excuse them if they do for a moment soften me towards Artemis, even as I recognize that his actions are still purely selfish.

Against Artemis are arranged the armies of the People, a people that includes all the creatures of mythology living below ground in a city of modern and magical technology.  The People that we meet in Artemis Fowl are mostly either members of the police force or the criminal underworld and while Colfer uses potty humor and sibling teasing to try to lighten the People, they remain gritty and steeped in politics.

I recognize that I am supposed to like Captain Holly Short, the first female member of the LEPRecon Unit, who subdued a troll, was caught because of her carelessness, and later fought to defend her captors.  But even as she planned her own escape and defended those in danger, Holly did not for me seem to merit my attention, and maybe that was partially Artemis’ bias, but it felt like Colfer’s.  Holly felt like the token female painted as strong for the sake of being feminist but not proving to me either her femininity or her feminism.

Of all the characters that we meet, Artemis’ manservant, Butler, was to me the most likeable—loyal to his master, whom he also considers a friend, surprisingly gentle, brave, and greatly protective of those he considers his responsibility (Artemis and even more so Butler’s younger sister, Juliet)—and yet his role within the text was as a minion to the villain.

I want there to be a hero, and I can’t find anyone but a minion that I particularly like.

Colfer’s is a dark view of humanity.  It is not a world for those who want a happy ending, though this was happier than I expected, and it’s not one for those who want to live in blissful ignorance of the darkness of people’s souls.

I personally like to have clearer though not faultless dividers between right and wrong.

Artemis Fowl seems to me to be trying to appeal to readers of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon who have grown older and more world-weary but perhaps not much more mature.  I prefer Cowell’s hero to Colfer’s antihero, Hiccup’s diplomacy to Artemis’ cynically-motivated crime.

***

Colfer, Eoin.  Artemis Fowl.  New York: Hyperion, 2002.  First published in 2001.

This review is not endorsed by Eoin Colfer or Hyperion Books.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: January Picture Book Roundup: Part Two

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Freddie & Gingersnap by Vincent X Kirsch.  Hyperion-Disney, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I wanted to be so much happier with this picture book than I was, partially because its art is amazing and vaguely reminiscent of the art from DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon, which predisposed me towards it, but also because coworkers of mine had been lauding it.  Despite its pink protagonist (and why does the female protagonist have to be pink?), it is a boys’ book filled with growling and snapping of teeth and clacking of claws.  Those bits would be a lot of fun to dramatize in a story time with one’s own kids.  In a story hour, I worried that they might be a bit too scary for some kids and a bit too violent for some parents.

Freddie wonders what it would be like to touch the clouds.  Gingersnap tries to fly but falls with style right on top of Freddie.  They chase one another—right off a cliff, but Gingersnap catches Freddie, and the two of them land gracefully enough.  And as J. K. Rowling has said, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).  Another, I think, is falling off of cliff.  Gingersnap helps Freddie to fly and feel the clouds as the other dinosaurs cannot.  Interesting to note here that, though pink, Gingersnap is the one that enables Freddie’s dream rather than it being the other way about.

There’s nothing particularly thrilling about the story, but I do love dragons, and while I wish she weren’t pink, I like that Gingersnap is the one to help Freddie.

***

Snuggle-Me Stories: Butterfly Kisses by Sandra Magasamen.  LB-Hachette, 2007.

This book comes with a finger puppet butterfly for the reader to wear.  The book describes the actions and sounds of various animals but reminds readers to stop and listen to the whisper of butterfly wings, a message I really like now and I think I’d like as a parent to impart to children even as a toddler if they might not understand the metaphor then and might think that it means a literal whisper of butterfly wings… which I guess with sonic hearing and a sterile environment it would be possible to hear.

***

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister.  North-South, 1992.

This is an old favorite of mine as I told my story hour friends.  Most of them knew it too.  This is a story about sharing and about how beauty is not merely physical.  I think even in the first grade or so when I read this first I understood that it did not mean that I should go about giving away locks of my hair.  I’m pretty sure that never crossed my mind or there would be some good stories from my parents.  Asked to share, the Rainbow Fish cruelly rejects the plea, and for doing so, he is shunned by the other fish.  After seeking the advice of a wise, FEMALE octopus, he decides to give sharing a try.  He gives away his unique, glittering scales.  In giving of himself, he becomes less uniquely beautiful but gains friends by making others as beautiful as himself.  If I wanted to do so, I could find the negative message in that: the Rainbow Fish must self-mutilate and change his appearance to gain friends.  I choose to accept the story as I understood it in my childlike naivety.  The pages of The Rainbow Fish have always been something to enjoy for their sparkle, which even now is still rather unique among picture books.

****

Santa!: A Scanimation Picture Book by Rufus Butler Seder.  Workman, 2013.

This scanimation book, while it is still novel to watch the illustrations move as you turn the pages, lacked the message of Gallop, Seder’s first scanimation book.  As such, I was underwhelmed.  Also it’s very much a book that is stuck within a particular season of the year.

**

Hold and Touch: Wake Up by Belinda Strong.  Hinkler, 2013.

This touch-and-feel book didn’t excite me very much.  It’s touch-and-feel pages were not much more than a little bit of felt and this was not even on every page.  Its plot takes the reader through the routine of waking up.  Words are paired so that “wake up” is side by side with “sunshine” (one of its possible causes) and “breakfast” is paired with “yummy” (one of its possible reactions).  Some of the illustrations are of anthropomorphized animals acting as a young toddler might, with a colt in a high chair, for example, while some are of animals acting as animals.  Each page features a different animal, so the book could be used as a bestiary and will likely provoke exclamations of “horsey!” and “kitty!”

**

Disney’s It’s A Small World: Hello, World! by the Walt Disney Company and illustrated by Nancy Kubo.  Disney, 2011.  Intended audience: Ages 1-5.

This book has a page for greetings from each of ten languages with a simple illustration for each.  Each page includes the proper spelling as well as a phonetic pronunciation in parentheses.  That part of the book I enjoyed, but the illustrations propagate cultural stereotypes and that I find rather disheartening.  People in Brazil don’t generally go about bare-chested with a necklace of string about their necks.  Of this I’m quite sure.  Nor do all Irishmen wear green suits with clovers in their green top hats with buckles around the brim.

**

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I Am Going! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2010.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I always enjoy Elephant and Piggie books.  Elephant Gerald and Piggie remind me mercilessly of my protagonists in their childhood.  In this one, Piggie says he has to go, and Gerald freaks out.  Go?  Why?  He can’t go!  He can’t leave Gerald!  When Piggie can finally get a word in, he tells Gerald that he’s only going to lunch.  Gerald joins Piggie for lunch.  And it is “a good day.  Just like yesterday.”  Like many of Elephant’s and Piggie’s interactions, this one for me seems particularly realistic.  I’m pretty sure I’ve done just as Gerald does in this book when told before that a friend was moving—before I learned that it was only across town.  It’s also nice too to see two friends just enjoying one another’s company without having to do anything as they are at the beginning of the book when it is first declared to be “a good day.”

****

Penguin and Pinecone by Salina Yoon.  Walker, 2012.

This book is one in a series of books about Penguin by Yoon.  I read another of them in February.  In this series, Yoon features a penguin protagonist who loves to knit.  I know of several mothers who come to mind immediately as ones who would enjoy such a protagonist.  Penguin finds a pinecone.  The pinecone looks cold.  Penguin knits it a scarf and travels far to return the pinecone to its home where it can be happier.  Penguin has to leave Pinecone in the forest and return to his own home.  After some time has passed, Penguin returns to the forest to visit his friend and discovers that it has grown into a mighty pine tree.

The story and the illustrations are all very endearing.

Yoon uses speech bubble asides, which give the story an even more whimsical feel somehow.

The knitting in this story is used more effectively than it is in one of its sequels, Penguin in Love.  In this story it is used mostly to show the passage of time, though Penguin’s skills as a knitter allow him to knit his friend a gift.

*****

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: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes Is a Bildungsroman and Issue Book for All

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Let me preface this review with a life update:  I’m back in grad school!  I’m about to embark on my first ever online course: ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless, a literature class taught by the Hillary Homzie.  We will be reading books where the writer has given voice to an otherwise voiceless child or teen, whether that child is physically incapable of speech, she is forced to be silent by adults, or her situation is such that her voice cannot be heard, and examine the techniques and forms used by these writers in trying to genuinely capture a voiceless voice to be able to emulate these in our own writing.

This class is going to consist primarily of realistic fiction, and a lot of it will be darker.

Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is not the first book on our reading list, but it was the first that I was able to get my hands upon, again, having found it at my local used bookstore.  It is a hard read.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is narrated by Eric “Moby” Calhoune, a once fat middle school student, now a somewhat slimmer high school swim team star.  Eric’s best friend is Sarah Byrnes, a tough and clever girl who has been outcast because of the severe burns that mar her face.  Those burns she claims to have gotten when, as a toddler, she pulled a boiling vat of water off the stove.  At the beginning of the novel, Sarah Byrnes (who goes only by her full name because she is aware of its irony and would prefer others to ridicule her on her terms to her face rather than behind her back) has ceased talking and ceased responding to the world at large.  She is living in a psychiatric ward, where Eric visits her.

The bildungsroman follows Eric as he tries to negotiate the secrets that he learns and the pain that he experiences.  Apart from Sarah Byrnes’ apparent withdrawal from the world, Eric is in a new class where they discuss relevant contemporary issues (abortion and religion are the main issues to which Crutcher devotes scenes), is striving to ready himself for the state swim championships, gains a girlfriend as his mother gains a boyfriend….  Issues that arise in the class force him to reevaluate his rival, who is a legalistic Christian.

Crutcher incorporates more of a villain and more of plot into his bildungsroman than some (Salinger) have done, and I greatly appreciate that for its good-versus-evil battle familiarity.  I think that this and the broader spectrum of issues with which Crutches deals (abortion, child abuse, the dangers of a narrow worldview and a worldview that allows only perfection, suicide; issues that should be talked about, dealt with) make Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes more readable than some others and rescue Staying Fat from the casual label of “boys’ book” that I would throw at it on the grounds of it being a bildungsroman from a male perspective.  I believe that Staying Fat is readable, enjoyable, and helpful to both genders.  Another “well done” to Crutcher.

As per giving voice to the voiceless:  Crutcher uses voicelessness in two ways: first as a disability or effect of abuse (as with Sarah Byrnes, Jody Mueller, and Mark Brittain) and second as a shield against abuse or hurt (as with Sarah Byrnes and Carver Middleton).  This paradoxical dichotomy lends an original voice and complexity to the very idea of voicelessness and makes the novel both more enjoyable and interesting.

The epilogue resolves what it can and allows for a generally happy ending to a heavy and dark read, while acknowledging that high school and the beginning of college are a time of flux and it cannot be tied in a neat bow.

***3/4

Crutcher, Chris.  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTempest-HarperCollins, 2003.  First published 1993.

This review is not endorsed by Chris Crutcher, Greenwillow Books, HarperTempest, HarperCollins Children’s Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  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.

Book Review: Hiccup’s Adventures Continue in How to Be a Pirate

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I’ve been feeling ill these past few days and several weeks ago a friend had been listening to the How to Train Your Dragon series on audio and recommending them to me.  I remembered this recommendation one night when I didn’t want to watch anymore TV and didn’t feel as if I had the focus to want to read but wanted a story to distract me.  Having already read How to Train Your Dragon, the first in the series of “memoirs” by the Viking hero Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, I found an audiobook of the second in the series, How to Be a Pirate.  Cressida Cowell’s books are read by David Tennant in his natural Scottish accent.  Having David Tennant read to me a book filled with humor and adventure in voices such as my parents never managed was a true blessing while I was miserable.

A great fan of the film done by DreamWorks, in my mind the main characters are even more fleshy than those illustrations offered by Cowell in the prequel to this story—and Hiccup is a brunette rather than a redhead, though Toothless’ film incarnation and book illustration I am able to separate, remembering that when I am reading or listening to the book, Toothless is a green Common or Garden dragon about the size of small kitten.  I did not for these familiar characters mind the absence of Cowell’s illustrations necessitated by the audiobook format.  But for new characters—in particular Alvin the Poor-but-Honest-Farmer, who is the catalyst of the adventure—I was surprised to find myself missing the sketchy illustrations by Cowell (though when I found her illustration of the man, I preferred the image of Alvin that my mind had cooked up).

I worried that the series might be one of those the adventures of which became repetitive.  Two books in, I can’t fault the series for that.  This second book was different enough from the first to be just as interesting and just as funny—if not more so.  I think Tennant’s voice acting may have added to the humor of the book.  Certainly, he made the sarcasm in Hiccup’s tone more palpable.

This second book continues Hiccup’s challenge to be accepted as Hope and Heir to the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligans.  He combats bullies and Viking ideals, to which he does not conform.  Hiccup again leads the Hairy Hooligans, but not in the obvious ways that he does in How to Train Your Dragon.  There, Hiccup won the Hooligans’ admiration through action.  Here, he won my admiration through inaction.  He shows that he is not only clever and brave but wise, [SPOILER] foregoing glory and riches for to protect his people from a danger they cannot see and from a danger that they desire and covet. [END SPOILER]

This is still technically a boys’ book, even more devoid than the last of a female presence, the only female figures being a dragon or two, but even while I recognize Cowell’s intended audience, I still object that I am a woman and I enjoyed the book.  (Categorizing books into boys’ and girls’ requires pigeonholing and often involves adherence to a should-be-dead system of bias and prejudice whereby girls must become housewives and child-bearers and boys can be adventures and heroes.)

****

Cowell, Cressida.  How to Train Your Dragon, Book 2: How to Be a Pirate.  2004.  Narr. David Tennant.  Audio recording.  Hodder Children’s Audio: 2004.

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

Book Review: The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman Wins No Tournament

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Click for links to order, excerpts, and the official summary.

First, I should say that my relationship with Scrabble is like Nate’s with the game—or really April’s in reverse, and so I was probably never fated to like this book however well it was written.

I wish that I could say that I agreed with Sharon Creech (author of Walk Two Moons), who praises the “polished prose” of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

Perhaps this novel is outside of bestselling author Meg Wolitzer’s usual style. Or perhaps I really should find my middle grade plot quickly. Hopefully The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman underwent fierce editing before being published.

The novel follows a number of young Scrabble players (Duncan Dorfman being only one) as they prepare for and compete in the annual national Youth Scrabble Tournament.

The characters are a collection of—well, every character that a sports story, from The Mighty Ducks to Yu-gi-oh needs, as one friend to whom I was complaining commented. There’s poor, new in town Duncan, who wants the prize money and popularity; and his partner, Carl, the bully. There’s Nate, pushed into the sport by his father, who seeks to use his son to reclaim his missed chance at glory; and his friend, soon to be love interest, a rather flat character whose name I can’t even remember. Then there’s April, who goes to the tournament to prove to her sports-obsessed family that Scrabble is a sport and that she, April, does belong in the family. April also hopes to find some boy that she met three years ago whose name she doesn’t even know, an obsession so strange that I have difficulty taking April seriously as a character representing any possibly real person. Her friend and partner, Lucy, is just another sidekick.

I think that Wolitzer intends to interest her readers in tournament Scrabble, but the only character that I truly sympathize with is Nate, who is the only one to give up the sport entirely. Again, that may be my relationship with the game interfering.

So, what can I critique without bias? Style.

Particularly early in the book, Wolitzer forgets her purpose—storytelling—in favor of explaining the rules of Scrabble and makes several stylistic mistakes in so doing, most notably including four full pages of two-letter words in list form (an appendix would make for far more natural prose). She also over-explains minor details of the game that matter little to the story and holds the readers’ hands through the characters’ thoughts to make sure they don’t lose a single step that could be assumed.

Wolitzer has made me question the use of the omniscient voice. At first, I thought I just disliked omniscient, but Tolkien uses omniscient. Wolitzer’s problem is that she uses the omniscient to enter everyone’s minds whenever the fancy strikes her with often no transition between character’s points of view. It’s confusing at times. Multiple limited points of view would have served her far better, I think.

All of the characters are marred by awkward, unnatural dialogue. It is not constant, but frequent enough to make me frown.

If you’re looking for a middle grade boys’ book lauding the mind over brawn, about trying to fit in, about strained family relations come to reconciliation, I suggest you go read How To Train Your Dragon instead.

*

Wolitzer, Meg. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. New York: Dutton-Penguin, 2011.

This review is written from an advanced reading copy of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, which I got from a family friend, Mrs. Guest, who is thanked in the acknowledgements for her support and wisdom. It has not been corrected by the author, publisher, or printer, meaning that there might still be hope. Anyone who has read a copy of the final print, please do tell me what was edited. (I intend to find this book on a self and flip through, but I won’t buy it.)

This review is not endorsed by Mrs. Guest, Meg Wolitzer, Dutton, or Penguin. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: How To Train Your Dragon: Time to Un-Banish the Book for Lighthearted Fun and Important Lessons

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Berk.  “The only problem is the pests.”  Right?

In Cressida Cowell’s book How to Train Your Dragon, first in a series of “memoirs” by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, dragons are not pests; they’re pets, cat-like creatures about the size of leopards with the same duties as hunting falcons.  Sorry, all.  No one’s riding Toothless.  The only thing remarkable about Toothless, a Common or Garden dragon (who knows where DreamWorks got the idea for a Night Fury), is his very, very small size (Terrible Terror-sized maybe).

Hiccup is still the sarcastic only son of Chief Stoick the Vast.  He is still an unlikely hero, who doesn’t look or act like a “proper” Viking should.  His best friend is the allergy-ridden Fishlegs, also not likely to be nominated most likely to succeed.  Snotlout is there, arrogant, but bullying and now Hiccup’s cousin with designs for the chieftainship.  He does not reconcile with Hiccup by the end of the book.  Hiccup would be left without a rival for the remainder of the series if he did.

Stoick and Hiccup’s relationship is still rocky because Stoick clings to the traditional Viking way, and Hiccup is “a talking fishbone,” but Gobber is no go-between, and the restoration of a loving father-son relationship takes back-seat to Hiccup’s unlikely heroism in the book’s plot.

How to Train Your Dragon is a boys’ book through and through.  You will find no Astrid or Ruffnut.  Sad, I know, but I’m a girl, and I still enjoyed it.

For fans of the movie, reading through the book and matching the bits of scrap fabric from which DreamWorks’ quilt is made is a fun challenge.  Many of the pieces are there, but they aren’t always what they seem.  It’s a brilliant adaptation in that way.  Moviemakers might be interested in the book for the same challenge.

Independently of the movie or beside it, the book is enjoyable.  It’s lighthearted in the main, lighter than the film, illustrated with childish drawings (some are better than others) and splattered with… ink? blood?  It’s humorous, though relies more on hyperbole, the unexpected, undergarments, and bodily functions than the sarcasm of the film.

The film retained the books’ main message: that you needn’t be the strongest or loudest or an adult to win friends and fight enemies, that cleverness and diplomacy and understanding can conquer monsters, that what seems heartless (dragons and people) may be only misunderstood.

I have my doubts about Cowell’s writing style.  It did not seem entirely cohesive.  Sometimes it seemed to be Hiccup’s first person voice, sometimes a close third, and sometimes an omniscient third, but I think that most readers may not even notice in the exciting plot, jokes, scattered drawings, plentiful capitals, and inkblots.

I appreciate the nods to Viking culture, though I do think that her representation is probably highly stereotyped.  Still, the presence of Thor, seers, Hiberno-Saxon designs, and Beowulf all add to the setting.

This is definitely a book to recommend to the boy who feels like he doesn’t fit in, the boy outside of the popular crowd, the boy who likes adventure, the boy of average boy humor, maybe even the boy who might be a reluctant reader (cinematic adaptation ought to help that, right?).

And yeah, the rest of us can enjoy it too.

****

Cowell, Cressida.  How To Train Your Dragon.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2003.

This review is not endorsed by Hachette Book Group, Little, Brown and Company, or Cressida Cowell.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.