Tag Archives: contemporary fiction

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: Importantly Diverse Cast of Relatable Characters in Hello, Universe

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

This review contains minor spoilers.

We were lucky enough to have an ARC of Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe show up at our store. Isabel Roxas’ cover art caught my eye, and then I enjoyed the first chapter or two that I read quickly on a lunch break, but it was the wonderfully diverse cast of minority and under-represented characters that made me hug the book to my chest and stuff it into my bag.

The story opens with Virgil Salinas, a Filipino-American. He is a self-described “grand failure” and it’s not till several chapters in that the reader discovers why: because he failed to talk to the girl that he is crushing on and with whom he believes he is fated to be friends. He is very shy and lonely. He is a black sheep in his outgoing family, teased and misunderstood by his parents and brothers, closest to his Lola (grandmother) and, of course, to his guinea pig, Gulliver.

The following chapter introduces us to Valencia Somerset. Valencia has been having a repeated nightmare. She is lonely too, isolated by her impairment (she is deaf in both ears and wears hearing aids to help her interact with the world) and her mother’s lack of understanding. Valencia wraps herself in observing nature, taking detailed notes in her notebook and hoping to be like Jane Goodall. She seeks solace in religion but lacks any religious schooling and so has pieced together her own religion, centering mostly on Saint Rene, a martyr who was deaf, whom the Canadians believed was hexing a boy instead of blessing him.

Next comes Kaori Tanaka, whom I suspect is Japanese-American from the name alone, a self-proclaimed psychic with colorful past lives, whose assistant is her younger sister, Gen.

Last of the POV characters is Chet Bullens, a bully from Virgil’s and Valencia’s school, who comes by his prejudices and fears of others honestly.

Because this book takes place at the very onset of summer vacation, the problems and drama of the book are less about school and more about family, friendships, and budding romances, personalities, and overcoming fears.

There is danger and action and heroism.

Virgil goes to rescue his guinea pig, and Valencia, Kaori, and Gen come to rescue him.  And to quote another book in another genre entirely, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.

It wasn’t till after I’d finished the book and was pondering the title that I realized that what I’d taken as a writer manipulating a plot was meant to be a helpful and caring universe manipulating lives and interactions. That’s a clever way to hide a writer’s work in plain sight, Kelly. Every action the characters take is leading the three—Virgil, Kaori, and Valencia—towards friendship.

There are still choices that Kelly made that I don’t yet understand fully, even though I now am confident that she has a good reason behind what she does. Only Valencia’s chapters are headed with her name, every chapter but her last, which is called “Messages.” Every other character’s POV chapter is headed by a more traditional chapter title. Each POV character is assigned a particular illustration instead to denote that the chapter is from his or her point of view: a snake for Chet, Gulliver the guinea pig for Virgil, a songbird with her nest for Valencia, and an astronomy chart for Kaori. I didn’t actually notice till another reviewer pointed it out that Valencia is also the only one to have her POV chapters written in the first person, so close is the third person writing of the others.

I think it particularly important to have brave, strong, no-nonsense Valencia as a heroine and shy, quiet Virgil as a hero, no less so because he is so shy and quiet.  Though Virgil is changed by his experience, having gained more self-confidence from facing danger and his worst fears and at the end of the novel does stand up for himself both to Chet and to his family and does talk to Valencia, he is still shy, still quiet, and not faulted for being so–at least not by Valencia and it seems not by Kelly, who allows him to still mutter and avoid eye-contact.  This book is important for those who will see themselves in its pages, see examples of their cultures, of their struggles—and for those outside of those cultures to both recognize the unique perspectives and struggles of those others and to see their own struggles—of loneliness and shyness and hardheaded parents and feeling an outsider—in these characters from other cultures. Moreover, these were characters I enjoyed spending time with—all except Chet. I felt for them all, hoped for them all, enjoyed their perspectives and observations. I’ve already begun recommending it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and school stories.

****

Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Erin Entrada Kelly, Greenwillow Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

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Book Review: Quick Thoughts on Blue Lily, Lily Blue

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

This book… I struggled through a little bit. And I don’t know why. I don’t know what caused it. But I suspect the fault is somehow mine and not the book’s. It took me more than a month. I started it sometime around January 9 and didn’t finish till February 16, and you see how long it’s taken me to even begin the review. I love Maggie Steifvater’s writing no less. I love Henrietta and its surrounding settlements and wilds no less. I love these characters no less, and I may have found new favorites in this book. (“She drifted toward the bedroom, on her way to have a bath or take a nap or start a war.” That’s the moment I decided I would love this character despite her very glaring faults. And then of course “I AM JESSE DITTLEY. DID YOU NEVER EAT YOUR GREENS?” Maybe not as many of them as I should have done, Jesse, and I’m sorry, Jesse.) I still sent a flurry of photographs of fantastic quotes that spoke to me to my friend Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master (or at least took the pictures. Did I send them to you, Gwen?).

I don’t know why it took me so long.

This book does not so narrowly focus on a single one of the quintet the way that Dream Thieves did. We are given glimpses into each character’s psyche, though perhaps Blue’s and Adam’s most vividly as each has a more personal quest (or two) here that intersects with the search for Glendower.

This story is about madness and sanity. This is about magic and mundane, past and present and future. It is about the line and the crossover between these “divisions.”

This is about friendship and family and love: the different expressions of each, the irrevocability of each, the growth and loss of each.

Like in the last book, the prologue is creatively laid out. There are three parts and three perspectives to the prologue: Above, Between, Below. This pattern was not repeated in the epilogue, and I was a little surprised and upset that it did not—but not really, because the epilogue. Three has always been and is explicitly an important number for this story. Which makes me wonder and worry about the five in our quintet. One of whom, I suppose, is already dead, so four. That’s still one too many, but I suppose if the prophecy of book one cannot be outrun or outmaneuvered: three. Oh gosh! Is this a series about winnowing down to three, about the sacrifices necessary to make three?

As I’m sitting down to write this review, and skimming back through the book, and thinking about all that I read, I’m falling more in love with this book. I really can’t wait to finish this series so that I can reread this series (one more book to go!).  It didn’t hurt me as much as the previous book did do, but the quest moves forward, and the players advance, coming out of the shadows.  This might be a set-up book, but I expect the final moves of the game will be bone-chilling in the best way.

Update: I stumbled back into The Raven Boys after writing this review, and that book at least is every bit as magical and wonderful and relaxing and awe-inspiring to re-read as I hoped it would be.

****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue. New York: Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

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

Book Review: Dream Thieves: I Couldn’t Wait, and I Didn’t Wait (Long) Afterward

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Click to visit the publisher's teachers' page for links to order and summary.Note: I try not to do so, but this time, I just couldn’t resist: I started reading the next book in this series before finishing my review of this book, so there may be some bleed from book three into my review of book two. But I can definitely tell you that I loved book two.

I started this second book in The Raven Cycle pretty immediately after finishing the first, which is usually for me an accolade for the previous book, but The Dream Thieves I loved even more than The Raven Boys. The only reason I think that I didn’t continue on to book three straightaway after putting The Dream Thieves down is because a few books that I had been waiting for were released (ironically, I have not started the one that I paused this series to read, because I fell into a deep well of favorite rereads while waiting for that book to actually arrive—thinking of course that I’d be able to put those rereads down in the middle).

I was a bit surprised that I loved The Dream Thieves so because Ronan, arguably the primary protagonist here, is spikier than I usually like my characters, though in this story we got to see past some of that caustic, tattooed armor to the mushy, homesick, heartsick center—the Ronan that Gansey knew before and which the books reference rather frequently.

The story begins, “A secret is a strange thing. There are three kinds of secrets,” and the epilogue begins that way too. I would have been all over that if I hadn’t been hearing so forcefully the echoes of “The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.” I remember my burbling excitement when I first realized the circular echo that Rothfuss was employing in The Name of the Wind and then used again in The Wise Man’s Fear. Rothfuss definitely did it first (The Name of the Wind was published in 2008), but I want to believe—and do believe—that I’d have been as excited to see Stiefvater use language this way and employ this particular device as I was to see Rothfuss do so if I had seen Stiefvater’s first. It is a beautiful technique and a wonderful way to frame a story and a trick that requires a great deal of finesse and mastery.

Without dropping lots of quotes into this review, I really can’t explain to you why I have come to so love Stiefvater’s prose, her poignant observations and vivid, succinct images. While reading book three, I have taken so many pictures of wonderful lines that I wanted to remember. For this book, I took just one for this line: “His mind was a box he tipped out at the end of his shifts.” That line. I get that line. It captures a feeling that I never would have thought to describe so, but it describes that feeling with such cutting accuracy that I immediately conjure the feeling, the aches and pains and exhaustion.

The Dream Thieves introduces us to more magic. Such wonderful, awesome, terrifying magic. Magic that’s difficult to control, that comes at a terrible price.

While The Raven Boys, I’d be comfortable handing off to a mature 13 year old, this book introduces some darker and more mature topics: homosexuality, drugs, explosive, uncontrollable anger, suicide, murder, more of a romantic subplot, redemption, identity, love in its many forms…. This is a book for an older teen: maybe 14. Maybe. I asked Gwen whose opinion on such matters I trust, and she guessed maybe better to introduce the book to 15 or 16 year olds. As she said, there’s a lot of violence in this book, and an appreciation of the “shades of violence” is important to an understanding of this book’s plot and themes.

*****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Cycle, Book 2: The Dream Thieves. New York: Scholastic, 2014. First published 2013.

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

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Book Review: Sheep Investigate Humanity and a Murder in Three Bags Full

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9780767927055Set in rural Ireland in the 1990s, I never would have suspected this to be a German work. Admittedly, I’m not overly familiar with German crime novels or rural Ireland in the 1990s, but I had always suspected this to be an Irish import because there are a few puns here that I assume work better in English than in German—Miss Maple a nod to Miss Marple but named for the syrup that she steals from George’s pancakes; Ramses the Ram—but also because of the intimate portrayal of the setting.

This is a book I read and enjoyed ages back now—probably in 2007, almost a decade ago (isn’t that terrifying). It’s traveled with me since, but it’s only now that I returned to it, caught between books and not wanting to get sucked into anything too gripping and confined only to what I could reach without displacing my cat.

And I enjoyed it at least as much. It was almost good that that long time had passed because I’d forgotten important details like the identity of the murderer—though I was surprised what details I found myself however vaguely remembering.

Told mainly from the perspective of a flock of sheep whose reclusive shepherd is found dead in their pasture on page 1, this novel winds its way through the sordid histories of a small and insular town—romantic rivalries, past and present sins, rumors of drug runners among them—as well as the sheep’s own histories and prejudices and superstitions. The sheep in their sheepiness only comprehend so much of the human stories. Their misunderstanding, partial understanding, and incomprehension give the human reader time to reflect on the actions and beliefs of the human characters and all human characters by extension, to see them with an outsider’s eye as sometimes confusing or incomprehensible, while laughing at ourselves and at the sheep.

The depth of Swann’s immersion into sheepy thinking and culture was perhaps one of the more impressive aspects for me of the story.

The story rollicks between quaint and racy all while alluding to famous works of literature from Agatha Christie to Shakespeare to Emily Brontë.

For example, “A play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king!” the sheep cry—or no, they don’t, but like Hamlet they concoct a play in the hopes that their dramatics might bring about a confession or an arrest—“justice” they actually do bleat repeatedly throughout the novel. Miss Maple, the cleverest sheep in all of Glennkill, concocts a play wherein Zora as George dies spectacularly, Maple plays the killer, and Mopple the Whale brings forth the clues to the killer’s identity that the sheep hope that the humans might understand.

I was amused this time around to discover that the sheep in the corner is not only a flip book illustration set but a barometer of the level of danger the sheep feel at any given point in the text.

I’m not sure how well I can judge this book as a crime novel or a mystery; I read so few books in that genre, but as a work of fiction, I do really enjoy it. It’s so wonderfully different, and it kept me guessing, and it kept me thinking both about the plot and about humanity and reality.

****

Swann, Leonie. Three Bags Full. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Doubleday/Flying Dolphin-Doubleday, 2006. First published 2005 by Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag-Random.

This review is not endorsed by Leonie Swann, Anthea Bell, Doubleday, Doubleday/Flying Dolphin, Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, or Random House.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

It seems that Penguin Random is now the US publisher.

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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: Maybe Too Much in Too Little of The Raven Boys

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Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle is another recommendation from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master. She already you might remember introduced me to Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. I left that book enamored with Stiefvater’s writing and happy to try more.

The Raven Cycle—or at least the first book in the series, The Raven Boys—is set here, in Virginia, not more than a few hours’ drive from me, and in the same mountains that I call home. Another friend of mine who doesn’t even know Gwen raves to me about these books too. She’s a local. She says that she knows the mountains that Stiefvater describes and communities like Henrietta and loves how well she has captured the atmosphere of this region.

Well, I expected to like—no, I expected to love this series. When I found out that we were dealing with Welsh mythology, I expected to love it even more. I expected to fall hard.

And I fell. I texted Gwen reactions when my feelings could not be contained and my poor mother got snapped at when she quipped at me for rebuking one of the characters aloud (sorry, Mom). But I didn’t fall as hard as I would have liked to do, and I think I know why:

This hit buttons—different buttons—for Gwen, Katie, and I. It contains independent story threads and independent goals from at least four point of view characters—and the background characters, those who don’t get to narrate, are reluctant to be background characters; how could they be when every woman in the Sargent household is larger than life and every member of Gansey’s found family is inseparable from the others? The story tiptoes along the blurred lines of several different genres: fantasy quest, romance, ghost story, realistic fiction bordering on issue book for grounding…. It was—perhaps—too much to put into one book. There’s something of this book that reminds me of a television season written when the writers expect to be cancelled.

This series is shelved in romance in our store, but it seems an odd choice. It begins with the promise of a true love, and then a second promise that Blue is either Gansey’s true love or his killer (jury’s out on that one), but it feels as if Stiefvater was least interested in the romance in this series. Or maybe I was least interest in the romance. I see the prophecies about Blue and her true love to be like the pressures I feel and see that are slowly killing the population’s ability to have a platonic relationship with members of the opposite sex. It almost seems to me that the romance and the prophecies exist perhaps primarily because of the pressure exerted on writers to include romance and love triangles in their teen fiction.

I would put this in fantasy and choose to focus on the quest and hope that it inspires people to pick up dowsing rods and wander the woods around my home instead of hoping that it inspires girls to long for two boys competing for their attention.

I feel like I’ve come down hard on this book, that I’m focusing too much on what I didn’t like and not enough on the fact that I did tear through this book, I did long to return to it when I had to put it down, did read it whenever I had a moment, and did get emotionally invested enough in the characters to chide them aloud and be hit with at least one reveal hard enough to leave me reeling—even if I sensed that some reveal was coming.

I just wanted more time–more time to spend on the individual threads of this story and with the individual narrators of this story.  Luckily, there are another three books.  I finished this book on September 24, and I’m already anxiously awaiting the return of book 2 to my store’s stock so that I can return to Henrietta.

****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Cycle, Book 1: The Raven Boys. New York: Scholastic, 2013. First published 2012.

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

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Book Review: Difficult Characters and Prose Hide a Wicked Twist in The Hidden Oracle

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1484736672Spoilers have been written in white.  Highlight the white space to view.

Rick Riordan has begun his fifth series, The Trials of Apollo, a sequel to The Heroes of Olympus which is itself a sequel to Percy Jackson and the Olympians. For those keeping score at home, this makes The Hidden Oracle, first in this series, the eleventh story to follow in Percy Jackson’s story in an easy chronological fashion (several side stories exist including The Demigod Files, The Demigod Diaries, and Demigods and Magicians, which are harder to place). Percy is not our hero this time, but he and his friends from The Heroes of Olympus—particularly Nico di Angelo, are perhaps more heroic than the hero—the god Apollo, punished by his father Zeus for the third time by being made a mortal. This time though his mortal body is young and scrawny and saggy and pimply. He is, as Apollo puts it, average.

We’ve met Apollo in his godly state on numerous occasions throughout Percy’s story. Interestingly, Apollo first appears in The Titan’s Curse, which is the book that introduces us to Nico too. There he is confident and boastful and full of really awful haikus.

When we last spoke to Apollo in The Blood of Olympus he and his twin sister Artemis were trapped on the island of Delos because it was the one place where they remained unaffected by the paralyzing confusion of being torn between their Greek and Roman personalities—a confusion that incapacitated most of the Olympians.

Flung into the garbage when he falls from Olympus, Apollo is promptly accosted by two bullies and rescued by a young girl clad in bright, mismatched clothes and spectacles. Meg at Apollo’s behest takes him to Manhattan, where we first meet up again with Percy Jackson and we learn that there is a new Blofis on the way. Riordan takes time in this book to create a reunion between the Heroes of Olympus and the readers, to check in on everyone by word of mouth or in the flesh. In some ways the attention given to old friends detracts from the new story. That may be reader error, but I looked forward to seeing them almost more than I did learning about whatever new danger awaited Apollo and Meg. That being said, Riordan does a good job working the old characters into the new plot—for the most part. That Percy needed to return to defeat the Colossus seemed a bit… I don’t know, pander-y. We can’t have a new expert fighter rising from the ranks of campers? Leo and Calypso I was happy to see and because they came only at the very end—after the action—it seemed less obtrusive—that, and I won’t mind a little Team Leo time in the coming books. I was going to be seriously upset if Nico was not involved in this story with his boyfriend, Apollo’s son Will, but while I got a few cute lines of banter, I didn’t get a lot of growth from their relationship; it sort of seems like Riordan skips to the part where they are comfortable and perfectly at ease with one another and the other campers with them—even though the very idea of coming out to just one modern demigod and one god of Love who already knew was making Nico leak death shadow not but two books ago (less than two months ago?).

Another reason I may have looked forward to the reunions more than the driving plot was because both protagonists of this book—Apollo and Meg—are kind of obnoxious in their own way—Meg I think mostly because she was never developed in a way that I found particularly compelling and Apollo because he is self-centered and narcissistic (that was far less annoying when it was a few pages of dialogue with other more honorable characters and Apollo had the godhood to back it up). Apollo’s voice—the whole book is of course first person narration by Apollo—is short and clipped and riddled with references to pop culture that will be dated soon or are dated now. I won’t say that those pop culture references did not make me laugh because they did because they are relevant now but it speaks to Riordan’s either lack of interest in creating a book with staying power or disregard for creating such a book. This book will I think feel like a time capsule in maybe even 5 years.

The true worth of this book comes at the end as the plot itself is really taking off and the quest such as it is (having stumbled their way to Greece, the action actually all takes place within the parameters of Camp Half-Blood—a first for Riordan) is beginning. Really I only felt like the book came to fruition when the villain appeared in the flesh. That climax I loved. I look forward to reading the resolution in coming books. The climax connects this book to the others and gives extra weight to past books—which I wasn’t really sure was possible. For that I like it. I like adding a more human element to the villainy I’ve already lived through, because fighting a god, well that’s the stuff of legends, but fighting a megalomaniac with too much power—that’s the kind of fight to which I can relate. Getting to the climax, to the quest—getting Apollo to move away from whining to heroism—that… dragged more than I wanted it too. I can’t say it was slow, because the tone doesn’t allow it to be slow, but there was just not much happening.

Overall, this is not Riordan’s greatest work—not for me. I wanted to like Apollo’s voice; I was excited for Apollo’s voice. I was glad to see the haikus as chapter titles because that has been the most memorable thing about Apollo in previous works. But this was just… too much narcissism. And after the depth to which Riordan plunged with The Heroes of Olympus, this whole book, like Apollo’s worldview, seemed shallow. But I will stick with the series and see what happens.

***1/2

Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo, Book One: The Hidden Oracle. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

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

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Book Review: The Thing About Jellyfish: Unique Voices, Creative Structuring

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e5b0ba3de84b3a8ad46bca1e4fe49f9dThis is a review of an ARC of Ali Benjamin’s middle grade novel, The Thing About Jellyfish.

I read it right after Looking For Alaska and promptly named January the month of books about kids who die too young. I became excited about this book only a few pages in. Benjamin’s writing is beautiful—and if you’ve been with me for any amount of time, you’ll know that I love poetic writing with clever descriptions and new ways of using old words. One of the things that excited me most was the relationship between the narrator’s older brother and his boyfriend. Yes, boyfriend. And no one was uncomfortable with the relationship, no one was upset by it, it was a non-issue—just a beautiful, loving partnership between two consenting adults. I thought at first that I was even reading a book with an African American narrator where her race was a nonissue and that made me doubly if not triply excited; I later determined from little things like sunburns that I was not and tried to contain my disappoint and enjoy Suzy as a white, middle-class American.

The jellyfish is both metaphorical and a real feature of the plot and of the text. Benjamin has done some serious research for this novel, and the text is seeded with many facts and thoughts about jellyfish–fascinating and sometimes horrifying. For the narrator Suzy, jellyfish become a constant worry, a constant threat, even though she does not seem to live at the seashore. Twenty-three people are stung by jellyfish every five seconds, Suzy finds out, and she spends several pages counting the number of stings, the number quickly growing.

Told in both the present and in italicized flashback, the almost yearlong story investigates the friendship between Suzy and Franny as Suzy processes the reality of Franny’s death, investigates the possibility that jellyfish were the external cause of Franny’s premature death, grieves her friend, and moves forward in her life. As Suzy moves nearer a resolution, the flashbacks move nearer a shattering, so the text seems like Suzy constantly unsettled. The interspersion of the past and present, though at times it is difficult to determine how far back Benjamin has taken us and where in the timeline a particular scene fits, works well to build a completed picture of Suzy’s and Franny’s relationship and does not feel like heavy-handed exposition. The book is divided into sections headed as a scientific report, echoing Suzy’s assignment, echoing Suzy’s private investigation, and offering a framework and lens through which to examine the various sections of the book. This in particular I think helped the story to maintain structure even with the fractured and disjointed timeline caused by interspersed flashbacks.

Suzy is presented as a seventh grader, but reads as younger. She fixates on science and on facts to the exclusion of the other interests and the interests in one another that her peers are developing. She has difficulty understanding or accepting the change that occurs in her friend Franny as Franny grows and grows apart from Suzy. She seems to have difficulty predicting others’ reactions to her actions—particularly in one instance involving Franny, which I won’t spoil. For these reasons as well as several instances of perseveration and Suzy’s impressive organization, I wonder if Suzy might be a child on the spectrum, though Benjamin never says so directly and it is never discussed.

I was impressed by the book more than I enjoyed it. It is difficult for me to enjoy an exploration of grief for a best friend and for a friendship fractured, but this book was uniquely structured and its facts were interesting. It explored marginalized voices without making an issue of the marginalization and fostered an environment of openness and acceptance and understanding. It explored death and grief and jellyfish and relationships and change. It did all of this in a succinct 339 pages.

If you enjoyed this story, I’m tempted to recommend, Betty Hicks’ The Worm Whisperer. Even though it’s been years since I read Hicks’, I feel like there are some palpable similarities between the two books in tone and in their surprising depth.

*****

Benjamin, Ali. The Thing About Jellyfish. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

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