Tag Archives: fantasy adventure

Book Reviews: Dragonbreath is My Tonic for a Pandemic Reading Slump

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Continuing my quest for books that are enough like cotton candy that I can handle them in the middle of a pandemic, I stumbled across the Dragonbreath series in late September, and was very pleasantly surprised.  This series has been my best pandemic companion so far.

Danny Dragonbreath, a dragon with an overactive imagination and a predilection for cult movie genres, living in a suburban American community of less mythical reptiles and amphibians, has to struggle through the trials of middle school—homework, bullies, questionable cafeteria food….  His best friend, Wendell, an iguana and a straight-A student, is by his side—despite the many adventures and trips to the emergency room.  The protagonists’ relationship dynamic is one that I enjoy a great deal: the impulsive, reckless daredevil and the worried, doubtful, loyal friend. 

The parents too are individuals.  I enjoy that they have their own lives and quirks and are not just vehicles for the plot, not just support for (or hindrance to) Danny, and I like that his two parents complement one another and seem to have a good, working partnership.  Also Mrs. Dragonbreath is me in the morning.

The books blend adventure with the school story, fantasy with nonfiction (they squeeze in factoids among ninja frogs and were-wieners, making me feel like I do learn and that the books aren’t total cotton candy), and prose with the graphic novel format, where the prose occasionally breaks for an often very expressive bit of illustration with dialogue in speech bubbles and the text is sometimes broken by a full or partial page illustration.  The color palette is simple: primarily black, white, and shades of green. 

These are pretty nearly exactly what I’ve needed during this pandemic.  They are light.  They are ridiculous.  But there is enough plot that I feel that there are stakes, that the story has a reason to exist beyond laughs.  I began reading these mostly at night on my phone while battling insomnia, but once I read all that the Libby app had to offer, I moved on to print copies in the daytime.

Although I think that they’d read fairly easily independently of one another, successive books reference early ones. The first five books teach 1) marine life and oceanic geography 2) ninjas and samurai 3) werewolf mythology 4) Zapotec mythology and bat biology and lifestyles 5) the fraud of spiritualism and ghost stories from around the world.

SPOILERS.

Dragonbreath, Book 1.  2009.

Danny Dragonbreath is given the chance to rewrite a paper, but no way is going to read a book to learn about the ocean.  Instead, he’s going to the mythical Sargasso Sea to visit his cousin the sea serpent.  And Wendell is coming too.  Edward takes the two on a tour of the ocean, a mostly educational foray until in a deep-sea trench they are attacked by a giant squid and the book becomes more of an adventure as they have to be saved by Edward’s friend, a sperm whale.

Book 2: Attack of the Ninja Frogs.  2010.

Wendell is crushing on the foreign exchange student, Suki, and Danny is less than pleased about Wendell’s attempts to coax a girl to join them in the lunchroom.  A scream in the park after school draws Danny and Wendell to the rescue—because the chance to be a hero isn’t to be ignored, and maybe they’ll find an adult to help them on the way.  They find Suki fighting off two ninja frogs, who when Danny and Wendell arrive flee, leaving Suki behind.  Suki doesn’t know what to do about the ninjas, who seem to be stalking her.  Danny takes her to mythical Japan to visit his great-grandfather and learn about samurai and ninjas. They allow themselves to be captured by the ninjas to lead a group of samurai to the ninjas’ hideout.

Although this parodies ninja films far more than any kind of Japanese history or even (I think) any Japanese mythology, Vernon still finds time to squeeze in a few factoids about historical ninjas and samurai. 

Although Danny’s views of girls are disappointing, I like Suki herself as a character.  Also disappointing was the implication that a boy identifying in a way that is historically feminine is worthy of derision.  I have not seen that called out as much as I have Danny’s aversion to associating with a girl.  It was only this one page, but rereading this book, that moment was a gut-punch.

Book 3: Curse of the Were-wiener.  2010.

The tale of suspect cafeteria food continues.  Wendell is bitten by a disturbingly red hot dog served to Danny in the school cafeteria.  He and many other members of the student body begin to sprout hair all over his body, which itches terribly.  Sneaking into the school kitchen, Danny discovers the packaging for the wieners, Transylvanian were-wieners that are known to have caused lycanthropy.  The company’s toll free number, however, provides them with little help but the information that they can cure Wendell and the others if they kill the alpha.  Danny and Wendell travel to the sewers to enlist the help of the animate potato salad that Danny released in the first book and get help from the rats that treat the potato salad reverentially and have been adding to its mass with tributes.  But their quest is a race against the clock because in three days Wendell and the others infected by the rogue were-wieners will be under the sway of the alpha wurst, determined to protect the alpha and unable to be cured of their lycanthropy.

Book 4: Lair of the Bat Monster.  2011.

In this Danny and Wendell rescue a bat from a pool drain, and not sure what to do to help it, Mrs. Dragonbreath sends them to Mexico and Danny’s cousin Steve, who researches bats.  While investigating the cave in the Mexican jungle that is the focus of Steve’s studies, Danny is carried off by a monstrously large bat who seems to be the Zapotec god Camazotz, leaving Wendell and Steve to track down the bat and rescue Danny, which of course does not go smoothly.  Wendell barely squeezes through the spider-infested crevice to get to Danny in Camazotz’s cave, and Camazotz is blocking the easier exit, so the two go deeper into the cave and discover the Camazotz who abducted Danny has a mate—and he’s hungry.  Bat species and behavior and Zapotec mythology are the areas of study in this novel.  I may be partial because I know a bat researcher and I didn’t know any Zapotec mythology, so I learned lots (and I love a good myth), but this has been my favorite so far.

Book 5: No Such Thing as Ghosts.  2011.

Danny Dragonbreath makes a Halloween special.  Dared by Big Eddy to enter a haunted house on Halloween night, Danny can hardly refuse when socially awkward, self-assured doubter Christiana agrees to go in—and Wendell follows rather than be left with Big Eddy.  Once locked inside, the three disentangle the explicable from the supernatural and turn around to scare Big Eddy with their knowledge of the house.  But even with Big Eddy fled, the three are locked in… and they may not be alone.  Still no one can explain how that creepy crying clown painting was replaced by one of a mundane flower vase, and the walls are oozing something that looks like… raw eggs….  And what is that in the doorway!?  I do not handle horror books well.  I managed to get through the creepy clowns and slamming doors, but… the thrills were atmospheric.  There were fewer factoids in this than in previous novels, though Wendell drops some knowledge of ghosts from around the world and Christiana briefly explains the scam of spiritualists. 

  —

I expect that I will finish this series if it is at all possible.  I currently have book 6 out from the library.  Episodic as these books are and as the reviews that I’ve been writing for them have become, I don’t want to subject you to a full review of all 11 in the series.  So maybe we’ll split them here, the first 5 and the last 6.  That I’m enjoying these enough to seek out the physical copies from the library really ought to be most of the review that you need, but if that isn’t enough:

These are a lot of fun.  They’ve been exactly the right level of nonsense and cohesive plot for me during this pandemic.  Read them.  Try one.  You don’t have to, it seems, read them in any particular order, so pick up whatever topic interests you most.

Objectively, the series overall is probably more of a

****

but during these weird times, when they have been everything I’ve needed in a series, it is tempting to bump them up to

*****

This review is not endorsed by Ursula Vernon, Dial Books for Young Readers, or Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Vernon, Ursula. Dragonbreath series. New York: Dial-Penguin Random, 2009-2011.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit the Penguin Random House for links to order and summaries.

Book Review: Friendship as a Superpower in Hilo

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Spoilers!

It was the jacket blurb on the back of the most recent (6th) book in the Hilo series that got me interested in this graphic novel series:  “Being a hero isn’t easy.  But Hilo had no idea it would be this hard.  Hilo came to earth because he was running from Razorwark.  But he’s done running.”

DJ Lim feels mediocre in the shadow his four siblings.  In the absence of his best friend, Gina Cooper, who moved to New York 3 years back, he feels alone.  Being friends with Gina was the one thing that he felt he was good at. 

Alone, he goes to investigate a fallen object and finds a pale-skinned, blond boy in metallic underwear in the crater.  The boy speaks English—or he does after a static shock occurs between him and DJ—but he knows nothing of Earth—not grass, not milk, not rice—and delightfully believes that humans scream at one another in greeting—nor does he know anything about himself or where he came from or why he fell from the sky.  He gives DJ no choice but to befriend him as he asks the way to DJ’s house and then leads the way there with a cry of “outstanding!”  Hilo faces anything short of life-threatening (and even a few things that are life-threatening) with exuberance.

Over the course of the book, Hilo begins to remember more about his life before he fell.  It comes to light that he is a robot who can shoot lasers from his hands and fly and that his mission is to stop Razorwark, a robot who destroyed the capital city where Hilo lived.  In his more technologically advanced parallel universe, robots do most work for humans, but some robots have become noncompliant and are seeking to destroy instead of serve humans.  Hilo was created to stop the noncompliant, “bad” robots, the most powerful of which is Razorwark (155). (Razorwark’s methods of rebellion, destroying the whole city, are extreme, but I’ll be interested in more discussion in later books about whether the cause itself is wrong.)

There is a great deal of action in this book, whole pages of battle without dialogue.  There are too many jokes about burping for my taste.  Although with Hilo’s photographic memory and ability to breeze through a dictionary and most of an encyclopedia collection in 20 minutes, Winick squeezes in factoids about Texas and some difficult vocabulary words like “octoped” and “astronomy” and “vacate.”

Although the titular character bears the appearance of a white male, I appreciate the diversity in this cast.  DJ, who I would argue is the primary POV character, is Asian American, and his best friend, Gina—who happens to return to town the same day that Hilo crashes there—is Black. 

I really appreciated the lesson about the elasticity of friendship and about what makes a person interesting: 

(p. 125 and 132)

DJ by protecting Hilo reminds Hilo that he was made to protect others.  DJ learns the strength and importance of his skill in friendship, although it is difficult to put on a college resume. 

Hilo returns to his universe to protect the people of this, his friends DJ and Gina and their families.  But it isn’t enough.  In the final pages, Razorwark comes through the portal through which Hilo fell, making quite a hook for book 2 in the series.

***

Winick, Judd. Hilo, Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth. New York: Penguin Random, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit Penguin Random for links to purchase, summary, sample, reviews, and author’s bio.

This review is not endorsed by Judd Winick, Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Ghosts’ Spirit Is Good But

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Raina Telgemeier is a name any children’s bookseller knows (even if I’m not sure how many of us—myself included—are sure of the pronunciation of that surname. I just checked myself, and I have been pronouncing it correctly!  Scholastic has videos on its YouTube channel where she introduces herself, like this one for Ghosts.).  Her books are frequently bestsellers, frequently were on company-mandated displays, are frequently requested, and Drama is also frequently on the challenged books lists.  Of her many books—Drama, the Smile series, the first set of the new Babysitters’ Club graphic novels, etc.—Ghosts is the one I was most excited to try, the only one, I believe, to have any element of fantasy—which, if you’ve spent any time on this blog, you’ll know to be my genre of choice.  I was excited too to see the representation of Mexican culture.

And so one night as I struggled for sleep, I found myself reading Ghosts in its entirety on my phone using the library’s most-nifty Libby app (seriously, Libby has been a Godsend during the pandemic, and I 100% recommend getting in touch with your library to see if they use it or something similar).

Cat, Maya, and their family are moving from a southern Californian town to a northern one called Bahía de la Luna.  Maya has cystic fibrosis, and the salt air of the seaside town is supposed to be good for her.  Cat is sad to be leaving behind her home and her friends.  Bahía de la Luna is foggy and cold and has a strange reputation for hauntings.  Their neighbor, Carlos, is a ghost tour guide, who gels with Maya almost immediately.  He and his family help Cat and Maya and their mother (who is a fully assimilated Mexican American married to a white man) reconnect with their Mexican heritage.  When with Maya’s prodding, he takes the girls to the haunted mission, the ghosts’ interaction with Maya, though friendly, brings on such a violent reaction that she is home-bound for the first months of the school year.  Cat gets to experience a life at school where others don’t know her sister, where she is neither beneath the shadow of her sisters’ illness nor sharing her friends with her sister.

Maya hopes on Día de los Muertos to be visited by the ghost of their estranged Mexican grandmother. Cat, far more nervous of the ghosts than anyone else, including Maya, has to be persuaded by Maya to attend the town’s midnight Día de los Muertos celebration at the mission and face her fears. Once there, she makes peace with the ghosts, who party with the living on that night, even bringing one of them, Carlos’ eight-year-old uncle, back to the house to meet Maya. With José’s help, Cat comes a bit more to terms with the possibility of her sister’s premature death, because in Bahía de la Luna, death is not a permanent goodbye. It is implied that their grandmother comes back to the family as a cat.

I appreciate the story of a family reconnecting with their heritage, but reviews tell me to curb my enthusiasm for Telgemeier’s representation here of Mexican culture and history.  I’m not the most informed voice to listen to there, and I’ll refer you to others’ reviews (Debbie, Kimberly, Booktoss). In sum, the main critiques seem to be that the history of the missions and the Mexican people’s experiences in missions is grossly misrepresented and that the celebration of Día de los Muertos is poorly handled and disconnected from the honoring of family, becoming instead a town-wide party that includes the living and the dead, where the dead interact equally with family and strangers and friends made after their passing.

Cat goes trick-or-treating and then to the Día de los Muertos party dressed as her namesake, La Catrina, a figure of Día de los Muertos, whom she learns about from her friends earlier in October. La Catrina is a Mexican cultural icons that is too often used as a costume, appropriated by those outside of the culture and who do not celebrate Día de los Muertos. It is better that Cat, newly learning about her Mexican heritage, dress as La Catrina than that one of her white or Black friends does, and La Catrina is an appropriate costume it seems for Día de los Muertos, but I still don’t know how I feel about seeing La Catrina as a Halloween costume, even on Cat.

As a note, this book came out the year before Coco, which brought Día de los Muertos even more into the public conscious and spotlight and, from reviews that I remember reading at the time, seems to have been better received by the community.

I also can’t speak to the accuracy of the representation of cystic fibrosis and will refer you to Sharon’s review on that or this by Gunnar Esisaon.  (I was an older sibling with a childhood illness that left me home-bound, but I am almost wholly unfamiliar with CF.)  I appreciate Telgemeier shining a light on childhood illness and on a less-often represented illness.  I appreciate that Maya’s illness is represented as something both that she has to manage, that does disable her and keep her from doing “normal” things sometimes, but also something that she has largely accepted.  Maya is neither a morose, bedridden figure nor the shining success story of a miraculous recovery.  Sometimes recovery isn’t possible, and management is the goal, and that’s hard, but that’s real. Cat struggles to accept Maya’s illness and struggles with the shadow of being Maya’s sister, of having to share her friends when Maya can’t go out to make any of her own. I appreciate the representation of Cat’s struggle both with being the sister to a chronically ill sibling and with the possibility of Maya’s premature death.

Ghosts tries to achieve a lot, and the story is good.  Where it falls is in its connection with the ghosts of the story to Mexican culture and tradition.  As much as this wouldn’t be a story of reconnecting with heritage if the parts about Mexican heritage and culture had been left out, I wish that more research had been done, more sensitivity readers consulted before the book’s publication.  It seems that a few fairly simple changes would have made this a far less problematic book. Perhaps even just the exclusion of the mission altogether.

The less than accurate representation does present an opportunity for learning in the classroom and for all of us though.  There were details that Telgemeier got correct, and those make a jump point for curious readers.  We just have to be curious enough to correct our impressions from the book.

I can’t quite offer this book four stars because it did fall too short too often, but it was also an impressive undertaking, so a medial three stars seems too little.

***1/2

Telgemeier, Raina. Ghosts. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2016.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit Scholastic for links to order, summary, preview, trailer, and discussion guide.

This review is not endorsed by Raina Telgemeier, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: The Wide World of Amulet Needs a Clear Path

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I ended up blitzing my way through the remainder of the published Amulet books in a week.  Each ends on a tantalizing hook for the next installment, making the series difficult to set aside, but reading the next book, it is difficult to judge how much time has passed between.  It seems like it’s meant several times to be months, so I don’t think that the series was ever meant to be read one after the other after the other as I read them.  The books felt rushed, and I don’t wholly attribute that to my rapidfire reading of them.  I am going to openly admit that this is a series rather than an individual book review.  I will have to look again at the books, I think, to even parse out what happened in each. 

SPOILERS!!

These books see the arrival of the Hayes to the planet of Alledia.  Alledia is Earth-like but larger and home to more races of sentient species, including elves and prophetic gadoba trees and a humanoid species.  Poorly understood science is taken as rampant magic in Alledia (and occasionally recognized as science by some): curses and Transpores, mushrooms that help people teleport, and stone amulets that give Stonekeepers telekinetic powers as well as allowing them the ability to enter and manipulate memories under some circumstances.  Alledia is being overrun by Shadows for whom Ikol, the voice that haunts and tries to manipulate Stonekeepers, is a servant.  Ikol has overtaken the corpse of the Elf King and has set the elven nation to conquering Alledia.  Ikol is working to ready Alledia and other planets for habitation by, I think, either the Shadows or the creatures traveling with the Shadows in hypersleep and en route, but I am a bit unclear on that.  

Emily Hayes becomes a Stonekeeper, one of only a few remaining on Alledia.  Her brother Navin is the prophesied commander of the resistance against the elven army and force that has overtaken their king.  Together the two are thrust into a fight to free Alledia from nefarious influences.

The prophesied arrival of a child of Earth to another world and the battles of those children for the worlds in which they find themselves is an old fantasy trope, but one that I find mildly disconcerting now and especially in this context where the Alledians have not been passive or deprived of hope yet.  There is an element of white savior-ism here.  It is worth noting I think too that the Hayes seem to be of nebulously European descent and that it isn’t until the fourth book in the series that we are introduced to a named Black character, present for only that one book, and then we meet another named Black character in the sixth, who is also only present for the one book.

The stories seem episodic, and the larger plot seems oddly to have taken a backseat to an individual adventure in many of the books, though as I’m writing this review, I can trace the larger plot points a bit better than I could do in the moment.  I still feel that I shouldn’t have to take two big steps back from the books to follow the plot’s trail.  I appreciate though that many of the characters that we meet have their own stories, are the heroes of their own stories, independent of the larger plot.  It brings an element of largeness and realness to the world, but it is also distracting, and I wonder if the inclusion of these stories would be less so in a different medium or in longer graphic novels.

The first books made it seem as though the climax would be a confrontation with the Elf King and the conclusion would be an end to the imperialistic expansion the elves’ rule, although perhaps I drew that conclusion influenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender, which finds echoes here with its exiled prince from an imperialist nation, who drew me first towards these books (in addition to their popularity).

Slowly and then far too quickly the Elf King is revealed to be a pawn in a larger war.  Emily alone swoops in and single-handedly deposes the king in a page spread, which was sorely anticlimactic.  Trellis, the king’s exiled son, branded I think a traitor to the elves for outing his father as a corpse, is not even present for the unmasking of the Elf King and his fall from power.  Never once do we as readers get to see the two interact.  I am seeking out stories right now about characters facing their abusers, and I had expected such a scene at some point within this series and missed it.

That I am eight books into a nine book series and unclear about the identity of the Big Bad is frustrating.  I am only just as of the eighth book beginning to understand the stakes—possibly to avoid being wiped out to make way for this invading alien race or to stop their invasion?—but even now I am uncertain.  I want to know the end goal of all of these fights.  I want to know towards what the characters are working.  That I don’t yet know any of this for certain seems poor storytelling.  Kibuishi has said that the series will end with one final book, and I struggle to see how he will satisfactorily conclude the series in one book when I feel that I don’t even yet truly understand who is the antagonist.

As the series has become more science-fiction than fantasy, there are possibly some echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse here too.  I wonder if these characters will too have to wrestle with the sentience of the Shadows and the obviously technologically advanced creatures that they accompany.

The illustrations, particularly the watercolor backgrounds against which the characters play, remain outstanding.  The spines of these books are definitely worth cracking just to enjoy Kibuishi’s artwork.

***

Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet, Books 1-8. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2008-2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7

This review is not endorsed by Kazu Kibuishi, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Tyrant’s Tomb and Writing an Asexual Character

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There are SPOILERS here, but about one character, and the spoilers here have to do with one really quite minor subplot of the novel.

So to follow up on my review of the previous book in this series, the prophecy did refer to Reyna and not Hylla.  And most of this review will be about Reyna.  (I don’t want to promise it, but maybe this book deserves another review about it more broadly.)

A conversation between Reyna and Apollo at the end of The Tyrant’s Tomb makes it sound like Riordan is suggesting that Reyna is asexual (405-406 for those following along).  I thought so when I read it in January.  A friend of mine in the community thought it too and mentioned it to me when she read the book later.  I see it again re-reading the novel in September.  But at no point in the text is the word used.

Finding confirmation took some digging.  Searching for “Reyna Avila Ramírez-Arellano” brings up only one Wiki site on Google’s first page that mentions her asexuality being confirmed as a footnote.  To find more sources of confirmation and the Tweet, I had to do a fairly specific Google search for “Reyna asexual.”  Thankfully one Tumblr user, Hazel the Writer (and if you find this, your cosplays are fantastic, but I haven’t got a Tumblr to show my appreciation on the proper platform), had taken a screenshot of the Tweet from Riordan on July 3, 2020 confirming that he sees Reyna as romantic asexual.  (I don’t know why… but as I write this Riordan’s Twitter feed has been cleared of anything prior to August 29, 2020).

When I first began this review I thought that a Twitter confirmation by the author would be enough to sate me, but I realized, writing this, that it is not.  Most Wiki fansites (except thankfully the first one to appear when you search her name) and official sites are not reporting Reyna’s orientation.  The tweet has been erased.

No one unfamiliar with the term “asexual” would do the search that I did to find the confirmation nor know that there was anything to confirm.  I was in my late 20s before a friend mentioned asexuality on Facebook.  (I’ve talked about this on the blog before.)  If I had found the term earlier, I think it would have spared me and others pain.  Asexuality just doesn’t have the visibility of other orientations and identities—and that invisibility hurts those aware and unaware of the term.

That said, I recognize that writing an openly asexual character presents a challenge with which too few writers have wrestled for me to have a clear idea of how it’s best done.  Characters of most other sexual orientations can be identified by the relationships that they engage in, by the physical interactions that they have with other characters.  (It occurred to me writing this that I’m actually uncertain whether the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” were ever actually used in the text of Riordan’s books, and it would be an extensive and difficult search to see whether they are.)  An asexual relationship may not include those same physical interactions (or they might; it is not the absence of physical affection that defines asexuality, as I understand it, but a lack of desire for such affection; some may be more willing than others to engage in those acts for various reasons).  

“Hey, I’m asexual,” isn’t always the kind of comment that comes naturally in a conversation, and Reyna, a woman caught for a while out of time while on Circe’s island for however long and so a child of I’m not sure which decade, might be less comfortable than some with the term, which frequently spawns confusion in those of other orientations confronted with it and does not always win a person’s respect. 

But conversations about sexual and romantic desire may be the only way to absolutely identify asexual characters that aren’t the POV characters.  Reyna talks with Apollo after he offers to be her romantic partner.  Nancy too becomes explicit about her expectations and disinterest when other characters begin to express interest in her in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway (the only book I’ve yet read to use the word “asexual”).  In The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue Mackenzi Lee has Felicity talk to her brother about to whom they are or are not attracted, and then Felicity, her asexual character, becomes her narrator in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy.  Lee confirmed Felicity’s orientation on Goodreads, but does not name her asexuality as such in the text.

The trouble is, without these conversations openly naming the orientation, they speak to those in the community and aware of the orientation, but not to those who don’t know or don’t understand.  They might represent a shared feeling and give a reader a brief sigh of relief and that feeling of being seen, but they give the reader no term to go to further research, no recognition of that there’s a community for those who have this feeling, that there’s a name for this feeling; it remains an unnamed and un-nameable experience, though an acceptable feeling. 

And maybe not every asexual character will be in a scene where such a conversation might realistically happen—or feel comfortable expressing themselves in such a conversation.

I appreciate Riordan’s desire to leave the interpretation up to the reader, but with an identity so poorly understood and so sorely underrepresented, I just don’t think it’s the most responsible option—especially for a writer of his popularity.  Alex in his Magnus Chase series gets to name herself (himself, whichever is appropriate in the moment) as gender fluid and transgender.  Why not Reyna too?

I’ve praised—and will continue to praise until corrected—Riordan for the representation in these books before (Riordan’s books include openly gay, bisexual, lesbian, gender fluid, and arguably pansexual characters), and I hope that other communities feel more seen than this almost representation has made me feel.

This book, this author could do so much for the asexual community by giving us this badass, already beloved heroine in a widely read series—but because of the orientation’s invisibility, I want him to do so explicitly in the text.  Because there’s only more book in the series (released today actually!) and Reyna is not likely to play a large role in it and I think Riordan has said he will be finished with this Greco-Roman story arc after this last book, I have little hope of this.

And hey! in case you want to read up on asexuality, check out asexuality.org, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), to start.

And if you know of any awesomely written asexual characters that I should check out, let me know! I’m always looking for more.

****

I want it noted too… I have read this book twice now… but I have never read this book while feeling healthy. One day I will, and I wonder if then this book will earn another star.

Riordan, Rick.  The Trials of Apollo, Book 4: The Tyrant’s Tomb.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2019.

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: Flora & Ulysses: An Unlikely Superhero Tale

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I have been struggling to read recently—struggling with all aspects of reading: the concentration required, the imagination required, having enough to pay the emotional and mental toll that a book can demand.  About the only books that I had been able to handle had been short, children’s, absurdist humor novels: Wayside School and Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment.  I reached out to experts (children’s leads working at Barnes & Nobles across the country) asking for recommendations like these, having exhausted my own library.

I was given many good suggestions, but the easiest for me to acquire (the one that was both available digitally from my local library and not currently checked out to anyone else) was Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery winner, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures.

As a Newbery winner it seemed like a book that I ought to read besides.  And despite this being DiCamillo’s third Newbery winner, it’s the first of her novels that I’ve read.

It was the absurd premise that drew me into Flora & Ulysses.  Flora is reading comic books—a genre banned by her mother, who is a romance writer—when she is alerted by a shout to the plight of her neighbor and the squirrel that her neighbor has accidentally sucked partway into her vacuum.  Flora, using the information that she has gathered from informational comics, rescues the squirrel, performing CPR.  The squirrel, once he has come to, has gained superior squirrel intellect and understanding and super-squirrel strength.

This book is more than that though.

Flora is caught between her parents’ strained divorce.  She feels ignored by her mother, awarded less attention than her mother’s career.  Her cowed and shy (and yes, slightly odd) father does not stand up for himself or for Flora.

The story is told in a combination of prose and comic.  Flora and the squirrel that she names Ulysses after the vacuum that nearly claims his life share primary narration. 

Flora’s mother, who dismisses comics as “idiotic high jinks” in opposition to “the bright light of true literature,” does not believe in the powers of the squirrel—or that squirrels ought to be allowed in the house (9).  She foists the job of killing the squirrel onto her estranged husband.  

He finds the courage to defy her, to help Flora, when the squirrel, impossibly, flies.  He recognizes in Ulysses as does Flora the possibility of the impossible.  He is, after all, the one who introduced her to superhero comics.

The squirrel Ulysses, the possibility of the impossible that he represents, opens the hearts of all of the Buckhams and their neighbor Tootie Tickham and her great-nephew William Spiver, temporarily blinded, he says, by the trauma of having been sent away from his home after he drove his emotionally neglectful stepfather’s truck into a pond.

This is a story of broken hearts repaired and shuttered emotions uncaged.  It’s the story of the characters learning to open themselves to each other and to the wonders of the universe through belief in an improbably magical squirrel.

Flora & Ulysses is the superhero Ulysses’ origin story—but not the superhero origin story that I had expected from the novel’s sample in Libby.  Ulysses is not using his might to battle super-powered villains.  He uses his heart, his vulnerability to battle the monsters of ordinary, human unkindness, and he defeats these villains by changing their hearts, not by besting them in combat.

I’m interested in the different traditions on which this story draws: contemporary fiction, family drama, superhero comic, literary fiction, but also the horse story, where a wild creature is tamed by a patient child whose parent tries to take away that creature, the creature standing in for the freedom longed for by the child.

From its cover I expected more of the horse story than anything else.

And as often happens, writing this review has helped me to suss out some of what makes this novel Newbery-worthy, but it has taken this review to make me see it as more than a novel to pass the time.  I expect there are more layers of this onion that I could with more time and more analysis peel back; I’m not sure that I’ve yet reached this story’s kernel.  If I’m absolutely honest, this book was more meat than the cotton candy that I was seeking, but was somehow also not the meat and potatoes either that I would have wanted at another time, lacking I think the action-packed plot that I would have liked:  It was too much at the time of my reading and too little for a hearty meal.  But I’ll be drowned out by its fans.    

***

Note: Page numbers come from the publisher’s default on my phone’s Libby app.  I think but do not know that they correspond to the print pages.

DiCamillo, Kate.  Flora & Ulysses.  Illus. K. G. Campbell.  Candlewick, 2013.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Kate DiCamillo, K. G. Campbell, or Candlewick Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Shelfie: September 17-23, 2017: Sacrifices and Those Left Behind

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It’s been a weirder and more stressful week than even has become the usual for 2020.  I had been listening to a snippet of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text‘s 6th season with my housemate as we drove in the dark.  As we pulled into the driveway, I saw the first flash of lightning—far off I thought.  Within minutes (just as long as it took the kettle to boil), the rain began lashing the house.

Storms have been speaking to me more than usual lately.  I have always enjoyed the ionized air and whipping wind that JUST precedes a storm and enjoyed the petrichor.  Lately I’ve enjoyed the feel of the rain against my skin.  Not just the fine mists that the wind whips onto the porch, but the hard drops that sting.

I was on the porch with the wind flinging rain sideways beneath the overhang.

I was thinking of myself as a widow—a sailor’s wife, staring out at the sea in a storm and not knowing if my husband would return—you know, as sometimes you just settle into the minds of historical figures (Others do this too, right?).  I was thinking of sacrificed lives and deaths and the ones left behind.  I was thinking of who makes the sacrifices and who gets left behind.

And I was thinking about this story.  I don’t know why this one in particular; I haven’t read it since 2017.  I was thinking about it before I remembered that it was the next photo set in my shelfie list.

But having thought about it, because it is the next in the set, I feel I ought to present you a series of photos that I took during my last read of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian.

Spoilers obviously.

Book Review: Friendship and Family Amid Violence and War in The Dragonet Prophecy

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Wings of Fire, Book 1: The Dragonet Prophecy: The Graphic Novel book cover

I’ve had the prose version of this story at home for years now, but it took being called on to lead a book discussion to goad me into reading this graphic novel version, which I knew I could read more quickly than the prose. I still haven’t read the prose version, so I can’t discuss this as an adaptation of a longer, prose novel but can only judge it as a novel and a story of itself.

While I can’t compare the two texts, I did find that the dialogue of the graphic novel felt sometimes forced. I suspect the details revealed in these forced lines either came more naturally in long dialogue or as narration in the prose novel. The protagonist, Clay the Mudwing dragonet, asks questions that seem for the sake of making one of the other characters explain some detail of their backstory or some detail lost when the narration was. Deutsch is perhaps relying on the belief that Mudwings are unintelligent to make Clay’s questions seem more probable.

Somehow, despite how many children and parents come to the store looking for this series, I’ve managed to remain relatively unaware of its plot. I knew that it involved a prophecy about chosen dragonets—well, the first book is called The Dragonet Prophecy—that would somehow influence a war, and that there were many species of dragons. And I think that was about it.  Dragonets I correctly assumed to be juvenile dragons, though if I now look up the term, it seems to refer to a type of fish.

This graphic novel was not what I expected it to be. It was more violent. The effects of the war on the dragonets of the prophecy and on the larger dragon cultures were more violent. Blood was shown.

This book delves into the politics of war far more than I ever expected it to do.

This book delves into prejudices and preconceived notions around race more than I ever expected it to do.

Like many of the best children’s stories about war, this one is about the power of friendship—despite all the violence that the friends endure.

It’s a story too about discovering and accepting yourself and about disentangling your self from the world’s expectations of you.

This is about what makes a family.

The later books especially I think will delve into fate versus choice and what being fated does to consequences and ideas of morality and goodness.  This only touches on these.

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SPOILERS! Many of them.

When we meet the dragonets, they are six years old but seem to be older adolescents and are being held captive by a society that has brought them all together as eggs and intends to use them to sway the war in their favor. The dragons are bullied, physically punished, and forcibly restrained by the older dragons who are their caretakers.

The dragonets, learning that one of them has been judged unfit and will be killed, escape from the cave that has been their only home.

They aren’t, however, past the threshold before they are captured by the queen of the Skywings, Scarlet, and imprisoned in her gladiatorial ring, made to watch combats between different dragons for the Scarlet’s amusement and later to become combatants themselves.

The queen’s champion fighter, a Skywing dragonet about the age of the dragonets of the prophecy, takes an interest in one of the dragonets, Clay the Mudwing, because she’s “never fought a Mudwing. You know, because we’re on the same side of the war. I’m so excited!” Peril tells Clay. (I forgot to get this page number before returning the book to the library.  Sorry!)

She visits Clay in his cell, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. When a trial that she is forbidden to attend piques the Peril’s interest, she hides in Clay’s cell to watch, and Scarlet’s story about killing Peril’s mother to save Peril falls apart. Peril rushes to her mother’s defense.

Peril’s is one of the more interesting plot lines to me because it’s a decent redemption arc, and she’s an interesting character with a complicated backstory. Having believed that Scarlet saved her from her mother, knowing that Scarlet has raised her and promoted her to a position of power and prestige, she struggles to disobey her, even as she befriends Clay, and Scarlet threatens Clay.

Freed, the dragonets set out to search for their families. Knowing where the society found Clay’s egg, they go there first. They find Clay’s mother, who dismisses her son, but they also find Clay’s siblings, who are more glad to see their lost brother. Clay learns about his family and his culture and then returns to his found family.

The war that the dragonets are destined to end is a Sandwing civil war in which several other species have taken sides. Three Sandwing sisters, daughters of the previous queen, vie for the throne. One is the strongest, one is the smartest, and one is the prettiest. The prettiest, Blaze, is also described as “about as smart as a concussed sheep” (18). I dislike that beauty in this war seems correlated with unintelligence. Two of the three queens are destined to die and one may live and learn.

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Humans—scavengers—exist in the world but are “endangered” (58), and I was interested to see that Black not white is the norm, the default. Pale skinned humans are so rare that one of the sisters keeps them in her collection of oddities.

***

Sutherland, Tui T. Wings of Fire, Book 1: The Dragonet Prophecy: The Graphic Novel. Adapted by Barry Deutsch. Illus. Mike Holmes. Color Maarta Laiho. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Tui T. Sutherland, Barry Deutsch, Mike Holmes, Maarta Laiho, Graphix, or Scholastic, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Goblet of Fire 20 Years Later

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

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out 20 years ago, 20 years ago as of July 8. 20 years ago, then, was my first midnight release party. This was the first book I brought home after midnight and stayed up late reading while a friend read her copy in the bed beside me.

This book is even before my most recent fight with Lyme disease, the last Harry Potter book that I would read without the mental handicap that the disease gave me.

The wait between this book and the fifth book in the series set me on the path to becoming a writer as I discovered that I could write stories to imagine what would happen in the sequel and that people would want to read those stories. I discovered self-insertion. Ugh. You all will never see some of those dreadful stories. Some of them are locked away in my closet where I dare not look at them either. But we all start somewhere.

To say that my relationship with this book comes with baggage for me is to under-represent it.

I had last read Goblet of Fire in 2015 (and if I remember, that was a slow, plodding read, taking many months if not more than a year).

A lot has happened to the world and to me in 20 years. A lot has happened in the five years since 2015!

SPOILERS! For this book and for those that follow.

I was struck re-reading this book in 2020 that it has now been as many years since I left high school—and coincidentally as many years since the release of the last Harry Potter book if you need a more fixed point in time—as between Voldemort’s defeat at Godric’s Hollow and his rebirth in the cemetery. It’s an interesting perspective, reading with such a clear marker of the passage of time. 13 years seems a lot longer when I have a distinct time to link it back to. I’ve managed to maintain friendships with only a few friends that I knew 13 years ago while not living near them, fewer actually than appear in the graveyard. How many friends do you have that you met more than 13 years ago? How many have you lost touch with that you thought you would never lose? (I did recently reconnect with a friend after 13 years, a mutual goal bringing us back together.) I suspect, though, if I were to send out an invitation to friends I haven’t spoken to in 13 years for a major life event—a wedding or some such—some of them probably would come.

How long is 13 years of relative peace? Is it long enough to make you feel safe from the threats that knocked on your door 13 years ago? I don’t think for me that it is. But then I say that in the midst of a pandemic that echoes one that we fought in 1918, 102 years ago, while we never came home from a region we invaded in 2001, 19 years ago. (International readers, yeah… I’m sorry for how little my apology can undo or change.)

2020 has been a year of upheaval, with one crisis or fight following on the heels of another. (You all know this.)

Re-reading “The Parting of the Ways” while living in the US in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s hard not to see Dumbledore as Dr. Anthony Fauci and other medical experts spelling out exactly how President Trump and the American people need to respond to the pandemic—Voldemort’s comeback in this fantastical world. And it’s difficult not to read Fudge as Trump, bluntly refusing to believe the experts and act upon their advice—even believing the conspiracy theories, printed in HP by Rita Skeeter—because the crisis will hurt his chances of remaining in office. Just. Ouch. I hope that this parallel can’t be continued much further than this scene because it sure seems a lot of people who followed Dumbledore die because of the ineptitude of Fudge’s inactions—but if that ain’t ever coming true now in real time.

I had this late-night revelation too re-reading “Padfoot Returns”: It took a genocidal cult leader rising to power and a power-hungry politician wanting the poll boost that being “tough on crime” gave him for the Aurors to be given permission to kill instead of capture. As we struggle here in the US with violent police, the idea that for so long the Aurors were denied this power (presumably until the height of Voldemort’s first rise to power) is comforting somehow. And it gives me hope that this is a reversible policy in the wizarding world, even if here I fear that the struggle will be harder. As we struggle with government forces being sent into cities to quell protests, it’s a chilling notion that the poll boost of being “tough on crime” was reason enough for Aurors to be given the power to kill.

One thing that I feel that Rowling did well was prepare us to see corruption and ineptitude in many forms within in the government.

But, this reading, I struggled with Rowling’s use of accents. The use of accents is something that I have come to be wary of in fiction. It is a way othering the speaker from whichever characters are not written with accents.

Rowling uses accents, actually especially before this book when wizards from outside of Britain first occur to Harry, on non- or part-human characters and to mark under-education.

British characters written as having accents are Stan Shunpike, Rubeus Hagrid, and Dobby and the rest of the house-elves.

Stan often appears as something of a joke and as comic relief when he does appear in the text. In Half-Blood Prince, he is arrested as a Death Eater, and Harry and Dumbledore both agree that it is unlikely that he would be, though he does in Deathly Hallows appear as part of a group of Death Eaters attacking Harry. His accent seems to denote him as laughable and under-educated, a non-threat because of it, despite evidence.  (I thought Rowling had revealed that he did not attend Hogwarts, but now I’m not finding any conclusive statement to that effect.)

Hagrid is the first major character to appear in the series and be given an accent. I know that Rowling proclaims Hagrid one of her favorites, but he is othered. He is “too big to be allowed” (SS 14). Harry finds him frightening at first when he knocks down the door of the shack by the sea. In Goblet of Fire we find out that Hagrid is not fully human. His mother was a giantess who possibly sided with Voldemort in the first war. And we know almost right away that Hagrid is not a fully qualified wizard, that he never graduated Hogwarts, though he did briefly attend. He is not meant by law to be able to perform magic.

The next major character to be given an accent or odd speech pattern is Dobby. And Dobby’s accent is even more problematic, particularly as we learn in Goblet of Fire that it is not unique to Dobby but is an accent shared among his race: house-elves. This accent is particularly problematic, I think, because house-elves live if they are not raised (we never see house-elf children) alongside wizards, meaning that they are exposed to a speech pattern that they could learn and adopt (like learning to code-switch, which shouldn’t have to be a reality but is), but that house-elves either choose not to or are unable to adopt the speech patterns used by wizards. Could it be a voluntary choice and a shared language that brings house-elves pride? Maybe. But so little seems to be a choice for house-elves. I think it more likely that Rowling uses the house-elves’ accents not only to other them as separate species from wizards but to mark their lack of formal education. Many slave-owners in the US limited the education available to their slaves. I think it likely similar limitations are imposed upon many house-elves by the wizards to which they belong. It’s even possible that they are forbidden from speaking as wizards do.

House-elves are problematic beyond the othering that occurs in the house-elves peculiar speech patterns. House-elves are a race of creatures born to enslavement. They are magically tied to the family, passed down in wills, magically unable to disobey a direct order from their masters. (I’m drawing here on things that we learn in later books as well, but the points stand.) They are a race bred to slavery, who claim to enjoy their enslavement (bar the odd black sheep, namely Dobby). The very existence of such a race, the creation of one in fiction, is worrying. Though Rowling always paints the abuse of house-elves as wrong and signals that house-elves are best treated with human decency and kindness and as individuals with all that that entails, the ownership of house-elves is something in which even Harry becomes complicit when he is left an elf in a will.

Hermione in Goblet of Fire launches a campaign to free the house-elves, inflamed by her realization that Hogwarts itself is serviced by this race, the students’ and staff’s meals cooked, their laundry done, their fires made, and their rooms cleaned all by enslaved creatures. Her quest takes on a distinctly white savior story line because she does this without asking the house-elves whether they want to be freed, and when she is told by them that they don’t wish it, she decides that she knows better than they do and continues to push for their freedom and even tries to trick them into accepting freedom by leaving clothes about the common room.  While her motivations are laudable, she would have done better to consult the house-elves to see how she could improve their lives rather than assuming that she knew how best to do so.  (I hope that the lives of house-elves do improve post-Potter, but the movement needs to be led by and done with the house-elves.)

Most of you are probably aware that many fans have broken with Rowling over her most recent virulence on Twitter. I include myself among them, though for all the reasons and more enumerated above, it has been difficult for me to sever my ties to the books (and I was in the middle of this one when her most recent incendiary tweets were published). This is the not the first time that Rowling has used her Twitter platform in particular to spout hateful rhetoric.

I feel I would be remiss to post any kind of review or reflection on a Harry Potter book now without addressing this—at least a little.

It saddens me that a woman whose books have been proven to increase empathy in their readers, a woman who spawned a fandom that has done so much good (look up the HP Alliance and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text), has become so distant from the very ideals that her books imparted to us.

I worry now that these books imparted more to us than we realized, and I hope we do the work—and trust that we can do the work—to untangle what is good and helpful and what is harmful.

For those who don’t know, the words that Rowling has recently been saying on Twitter (or was saying as of early June; I have since unfollowed her because I was saddened rather than heartened or informed by her tweets) have been harmful to the trans community. And this latest string of tweets and actions has been particularly brutal.

Rowling has long been called out for a lack of diversity in wizarding Britain and Hogwarts, particularly a lack of racial representation and an absence of relationships other than heterosexual ones. She has made some attempts post-publication to remedy this, with the revelation of Dumbledore’s and Grindelwald’s romantic relationship, very subtly hinted at in a line of text in Deathly Hallows, and the casting of Black women to play Hermione and her daughter in the original cast of The Cursed Child. (Neither of these moves I would argue has largely been seen as enough.)

The representation of Rita Skeeter in Goblet of Fire has been suggested as one of the strongest warnings we should have seen of Rowling’s anti-trans views.  Though not explicitly transgender, Rita is described as having “large, mannish hands” (307) with fake nails, a “surprisingly strong grip” (303), heavy make-up, and bright outfits, Rita Skeeter is a reporter who thrives on gossip and ruining reputations. She is generally ridiculed and disliked. She is also a shape-shifter, an Animagus. She is trapped in beetle form and kept in a jar by Hermione for at least a week at the end of Goblet of Fire. Few others in the wizarding world are described as having such garish make-up.

All of this complicates my relationship personally to these books that have done a lot to shape me, that have helped me through a lot of difficult times in my own life. I think it’s important that we question and interrogate what is important to us.

The media that we intake and the language and ideas that that media espouses, overtly or subconsciously, can effect our own views in subtle and less subtle ways.

Listen to those who say that they have been hurt. Learn why. Do better. Do the best you can.

But too. I think it’s important to be willing to speak up and be willing to make mistakes, be willing to be called out, be willing to make mistakes and then learn from them when you’re called out. “If you’re holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time” (454).

Rowling, J. K. Book 4: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000.

Intended audience: Grades 3-12.

*Page numbers are from a paperback copy of the US edition of Goblet of Fire and a paperback copy of the US edition of The Sorcerer’s Stone (SS).

This review is not endorsed by J. K. Rowling, Scholastic, Inc., or anyone else associated with the world of Harry Potter. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.