Tag Archives: fantasy adventure

Book Review: The Surprising Sweetness of Dog Man

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Click to view the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.

This was my first Dav Pilkey novel. I missed the Captain Underpants books when they were coming out during my elementary school years; I didn’t have any interest. I never had any interest in Dog Man either as an adult and a bookseller despite their popularity among the children. Then I was asked to throw a release party for the 8th novel in the Dog Man series, and I thought I had better at least introduce myself to the characters and the story.

Lucky for me, the 7th book at least begins with a recap of the story thus far. In sum, a police dog’s head is surgically attached to a policeman’s body when the two are in a horrific accident (a bit of a creepy premise, but okay). The two become Dog Man. Dog Man continues to protect the city from evil, which seems to come primarily in the form of other even more anthropomorphized animals, because Dog Man himself doesn’t talk.

Among his foes is Petey, a cat inventor, and Piggy, an evil mastermind who was shrunk with his henchmen to the size of a flea prior to the start of For Whom the Ball Rolls.

Petey’s heroic deeds in the previous novel earn him a pardon from the mayor at the beginning of For Whom the Ball Rolls.

Petey comes to claim his son/clone Lil’ Petey from Dog Man and 80-HD, who have been parenting Lil’ Petey during Petey’s incarceration.

Lil’ Petey is conflicted about leaving his found family to live with his father/clone Petey, but Petey insists, though he does quickly compromise by saying that he will allow Lil’ Petey to spend weekends with his found family if he can have weekdays.

This is what first sold me on Dog Man. How many other books are dealing with incarcerated parents right now? While I wish such books weren’t needed, there is a need. I can think of few other fictional parents who have been incarcerated and released (Lucius Malfoy, the Titan General Atlas) but no books that have at all dealt with a child’s return to a formerly incarcerated parent’s custody.

Ultimately, I think this book was about the meaning of family. Lil’ Petey, Dog Man, and 80-HD have become a family through proximity that becomes love and a bond. Petey believes at first that his blood bond with Lil’ Petey gives him more claim to Lil’ Petey. With that lesson, Lil’ Petey discovers that Petey doesn’t know his own father and sends 80-HD to retrieve the tomcat. Petey’s father remains critical and curmudgeonly as he was in Petey’s youth. He steals all that Petey and Lil’ Petey have, and Petey explains that it is okay that his father won’t be in his life; his father’s blood bond with Petey and Lil’ Petey does not promise him a place in their life. Petey as promised leaves Lil’ Petey with Dog Man and 80-HD for the weekend, and Petey goes home to his empty house with his love of Lil’ Petey to keep him warm.

Lil’ Petey is this story’s heart and conscience, though here he briefly falters and has to be uplifted again by Petey.  Love, Lil’ Petey espouses, sometimes must be an act before it can be a feeling.  So too good acts prove goodness; good intent without good acts are not enough for goodness.

The book is ridiculous. There’s no denying that. We’re introduced to a superhero this book whose superpower is less a superpower than a compulsion to eat cupcakes and knock over whatever baddies stand between him and the treats. But there’s also a great deal of sensitivity and positivity in this book.

Petey sees the mud and the pollution and the weeds but with Lil’ Petey’s help he learns to see the beauty in the world. He learns that a world that is shared with those he loves is never only horrible.

This was such a short book that I was able to finish it in the time that it took for my 20 oz of brewing tea could cool to lukewarm (maybe 20 minutes?). Do you have 20 minutes to spare? Perhaps while waiting for a cup of tea to cool or a pot of water to boil into spaghetti? Perhaps like me you’ll feel good about having completed a book in so little time. Perhaps like me your soul will feel just a bit better, the future will look just a bit brighter, and you’ll trust a bit more that the littles know good literature when they find it.

****

Pilkey, Dav. Dog Man, Book 7: For Whom the Ball Rolls. Graphix-Scholastic, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 7-10, Grades 2-5.

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

Book Review: Adventure, Asexuality, and Fighting the Patriarchy with A Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

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

Spoiler in white.  Highlight the text to reveal it.

I skipped over the first book in this series, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, (I will almost certainly return to it, especially as this series has just been announced to be continuing with a new book in August 2020) because I discovered that the second in the series, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, features a protagonist who is asexual like me. And that excited me. This is the first book that I have ever read about an asexual character. This is the first book that I have read that includes any asexual person. Though no such term existed in British English in the 1700s, and it is never used in the text, Mackenzi Lee confirmed it in answering a question on Goodreads, and it is made clear in the text.

Seeing myself in text—and without the whole story being about asexuality—was so important, so fulfilling to me. Reading a teen novel in which the protagonist isn’t at any point seeking a relationship—is in fact seeking not to be in a relationship—is so refreshing.  Felicity does have to consider whether or not to settle with a man that she doesn’t love in the way that he loves her, and that undercurrent runs throughout the book, but that actually rings fairly true to my experience with asexuality too unfortunately, despite the 300 or so year difference filled with advances in women’s rights and autonomy between Felicity’s story and mine.  (Lee never specifies the year in which her book occurs, but I have determined it to be later than 1726 as that is the year of the founding of the Edinburgh School of Medicine.)

Felicity Montague is living with a Scottish baker when the book opens, and he fumbles a proposal that she flees, going to her brother and his lover in London. She has been turned out of meetings with every hospital board in Edinburgh. She is turned away by another in London, though one of the doctors afterwards suggests that she query her idol, Dr. Alexander Platt, who is currently in Stuttgart about to marry a childhood friend of Felicity’s with whom she had a falling out over their diverging interests. A Muslim sailor offers to fund Felicity’s travels to Stuttgart if Felicity will ask her no questions and will get her inside the Hoffmans’ home. Despite misgivings and her brother’s warnings, Felicity accepts Sim’s help, and the two embark across Europe.

Neither Felicity, Sim, nor Johanna Hoffman are happy with their lot, with the lot of women in the 18th century. Felicity wants to study and practice medicine. SPOILERS Sim wants to inherit the rule of her father’s pirate fleet. Johanna wants to become a biologist. All three seek to enter fields dominated and controlled and policed by men. Felicity writes a note to herself­—“You deserve to be here. You deserve to exist. You deserve to take up space in this world of men.”—words that still bear repeating by women today, taught to keep compliant, subservient, and quiet.  That these thoughts echo Tumblr and seem equally comfortable there as in a book set in the 18th century reflect on the slow pace of progress of women’s power.

The women’s attempts to overcome the obstacles of a patriarchal society were as much fun for me as was the chase across Europe and Africa and the possible fantastical turn that the book takes.

I finished this book in August, and I have put copies in the hands of several customers looking for something different, something fun, something to inspire hope since.  I have not bought myself a copy yet, but I intend to do so, as I am already wanting to read this book again—and I don’t intend to wait until the book is available in paperback.  I’ll look forward to catching up with these characters in August.

*****

Lee, Mackenzi. The Montague Siblings, Book 2: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. Katherine Tegen-HarperCollins, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 13+.

This review is not endorsed by Mackenzi Lee, Katherine Tegen Books, or HarperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Utopia of Lucille in Pet

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

This is a drawing I did for 2019’s Inktober challenge.

One brief, very vague spoiler in the review, one in the content warning at the bottom of the page, both marked with a SPOILER warning.

I fell pretty deeply in love with the world created by Akwaeke Emezi and with the town of Lucille within the first few pages. “It was the angels who took apart the prisons and the police; who held councils prosecuting the former officers who’d shot children and murdered people, sentencing them to restitution and rehabilitation. […] the angels banned firearms, not just because of the school shootings but also because of the kids who shot themselves and their families at home; the civilians who thought they could shoot people who didn’t look like them, just because they got mad or scared or whatever, and nothing would happen to them because the old law liked them better than the dead. The angels took the laws and changed them, tore down those horrible statues of rich men who’d owned people and fought to keep owning people. […] Instead they put up monuments. Some were statues of the dead, mostly the children whose hashtags had been turned into battle cries during the revolution. Others were [lists of names] of people who died when the hurricanes hit and the monsters wouldn’t evacuate the prisons or send aid, people who’d died when the monsters sent drones and bombs to their countries (because, as the angels pointed out, you shouldn’t use a nation as a basis to choose which deaths you mourn; nations aren’t even real), people who died because the monsters took away their health care […]” (1-3). Are you hooked yet? I was. Really, I didn’t even need to get to pages 3! This is the world remade as I have longed to see it. And Emezi was going to show me whether or not they believe it will work. They were going to let me live there for a little while.

It only got better and more inclusive from here on out.  This is a book that might make many feel seen.

We learn that the protagonist, Jam, is a transgender girl. Her only tantrum was when she let her parents know that she was a girl, and her wonderfully supportive parents helped her transition. Sometimes she finds it easier not to voice, so her parents taught her sign language, which they and her best friend Redemption, and her best friend’s uncle Hibiscus all learned to support her.

Redemption seems to live with his extended family, aunts and uncles and cousins along with his own immediate family of three parents, one of whom uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns, and a little brother. Redemption’s whole family is a rejection of the heteronormative family structure of one male and one female parent with their offspring living in a single-family house.

Jam’s father peppers his speech with Igbo, and the Igbo isn’t distinguished in any way from the English text, not italicized, not marked out as different.  The dishes that he cooks are inspired by recipes from Africa.

The local librarian uses a wheelchair and turns out to be a pretty amazing human, wonderfully fighting the good fight against censorship.

I love too that Jam and Redemption are oppositely gendered but never is there any mention of even niggling romantic feelings. Their relationship is wonderfully, beautifully platonic.

And that’s all just the human characters, the reality on this plane of existence! I haven’t even mentioned Pet, but I think maybe you should discover Pet for yourself. Pet is difficult to imagine, difficult to succinctly describe without spoilers. I have given you my attempt at a few character sketches of Pet though.

I think I might have loved Emezi’s world for itself, but Emezi’s writing is dazzling too. I have not so fallen in love with an author’s way of casting words so fast since I first discovered Maggie Stiefvater in April 2016 (and Patrick Rothfuss in May 2014 before that. Here are my new Big Three, though I probably ought to go read something else of Emezi’s before I include them in this lofty company).

This is a short little novel, only 208 pages. That was a welcome change from the 400+-page novels that I have lately been struggling to complete. It was a good feeling to finish something that was not a graphic novel or an audiobook, and something that I wasn’t reading at work’s suggestion. This is too I think a standalone novel, so there’s no commitment past those 208 pages.

I did foresee the twist—or one of the story’s twists. I did not like the story much less for having foreseen that twist though. Any other twist, I think, would have felt like a betrayal of the story’s inclusive cast or a betrayal of the rules of good fiction writing, so this was the best outcome available.

The town of Lucille is a beacon to me. It isn’t perfect. Its characters aren’t perfect; they are flawed as humans are. But it revolted against the oppressive and cruel world. It became better, and SPOILER it improves again. The cycle of systematic violence is broken in Lucille.

I want to shove this book into the hands of so many because I so enjoyed this writing and this world, but I have yet to find the right way to market it to others; I hope this longer review does better than my minute long pitches in the store. I have been describing this as an Afrofuturist fantasy that shares a great bit with magical realism. Have you read it? How would you classify it?

I read an ARC of Pet, but the book is available now in stores.

****

Emezi, Akwaeke. Pet.  New York: Make Me a World-Penguin Random, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Akwaeke Emezi, Make Me a World, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Content warning also a SPOILER: off-screen child abuse

Book Review: More Depth Than Expected in Emily Windsnap

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

Spoilers are in white. Highlight to reveal. 

I had always dismissed this book and this series as too fluffy to try, one of those that I would find too juvenile to be enjoyable, being well past the age of Kessler’s intended audience—or too girly, too concerned with the little dramas of middle school and flirtation, but a recent event for work sent me scurrying to quickly read it to be prepared to lead a discussion. I didn’t find any available copies of the printed book at my local libraries, but I came home with a copy of the audiobook, read by the appropriately named Finty Williams.

This is not a fluff read. This was a good mystery, which I failed to solve entirely (I did solve pieces of it).

This was a story of the power of love: familial, romantic, and platonic.

Romance is a thing in this first novel left to the adults, which was refreshing.  I don’t hardly remember any mention of school-aged boys, human or merperson.

This was a call against making non-traditional marriages illegal. I read this at first as a metaphor for interracial marriages, but its lessons could just as easily be applied to homosexual marriages (as I write this, the US Supreme Court is hearing arguments for and against allowing employment discriminating based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity); in the story, of course, it is a merperson and a human SPOILER ALERT (in this case, a woman and a merman, twisting Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” tale type).

This is a story about friendship and finding friends and the promises of friendship. Emily has just started at a new school, Brightport High (she’s in Year Seven, approximately America’s 6th grade), but she has been struggling to make friends, one of the more influential girls at the school leading others away from Emily because Emily accidentally got Mandy in trouble with her parents.  Emily finds a friend outside of school in Shona, a mermaid who likewise feels isolated from her classmates, who resent the teacher’s appreciation of Shona that Shona wins through her dedication to her classes.  Emily and Shona wrestle with what is owed to a friend and with what their friendship means to each other.

This is a book in which a girl is bullied and ultimately decides that she is comfortable and proud of herself as she is and stands up (or swims up) proudly before her bully.

This is a delightfully British setting (enhanced in my reading probably by Williams’ accent, but Kessler too is British and hers is the dialogue). Emily and her mother live on a moored boat in their seaside town, her mother working in the nearby bookshop. The lighthouse keeper comes over ever Sunday for tea. All this sounds like a life about which I could daydream, and I could have probably happily read about life in Brightport even without the added drama and excitement of merpeople.

I think Finty Williams improved my experience of this book with her personable representation of the first-person narration by Emily and the memorable voices that she gives each other character.

All of this to say: Don’t let the pastel covers, shine, and swishy tails mislead you. This book is worth your time, with just enough meat and just enough innocence.

I’ve been listening these past few weeks to Finty Williams’ reading of the second book in the series, Emily Windsnap and the Monster from the Deep, and though quite different from the first book, it too is proving fun while still tackling more challenging ideas.  More on that book when I have finished it.

****

Kessler, Liz. Tail of Emily Windsnap, Book 1.  Narr. Finty Williams.  Listening Library, 2009.

The book was originally published in 2004.  The audio CDs are no longer in print, but Penguin Random House has a digital version of the audiobook available.  The link attached to the cover photo will take you to that version.

This review is not endorsed by Liz Kessler, Finty Williams, Listening Library, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

The cover photo is one that I took for the header for the Facebook event for the event that I led.

Book Review: What Again, but Better Needed to Do Better (and Why it Wasn’t for Me)

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book cover

Spoilers have been whited-out.  Highlight to read.

I was the wrong person to read this book, but this was another that work required.

I wasn’t aware of Christine Riccio as a booktuber, so I could not be blinded by stardom.

I read an ARC that, thankfully, was line-edited once more before being published because there were some spellings errors in my copy that grated on me particularly as someone once hired to edit to match Rowling’s canon (Horcrux was misspelled several times, but the misspellings were fixed in the final printed edition).

I don’t read many books that would be shelved as romances. I’m ace; romance tends not to interest me; it’s not my lived experience and not the constant, humanity-defining story that most think that it is. I don’t like that romance is so especially pervasive in teen literature—in any and every genre. I can, for example, read an adult or middle-grade fantasy and escape a romantic subplot, but I’m hard-pressed to name a book marketed as for teens without such a subplot. I am especially bored by white, cishet romances, which Riccio’s is here.

I too studied abroad in London—and only a year before the protagonist Shane does in this story. I’ve been to Rome. I’ve been to Edinburgh (though I haven’t gotten to climb Arthur’s Seat). Riccio had to convince me that she had been to all these places too. And and the first British person with whom Shane interacted (on the plane on her way to London) acted so aggressively against the British code of conduct that I was thrown out of the book, my disbelief animated, and Riccio struggled to draw me back. (This woman later is revealed to be an important, recurring character, which at least explains to some degree her trashing of cultural norms, but I think Riccio could have waited to introduce this character until Shane had at least interacted with one other British person—or had this woman not be British—and I would have been better able to suspend my disbelief for her.)

For all that Shane describes herself in the beginning as painfully socially inept and awkward, she makes friends quickly, she takes more initiative to travel than I did while abroad, she drinks more often than I did with friends, she dances in clubs, she makes up excuses to see friends. She rarely studies. She is not socially inept. She is a social butterfly and party creature compared to me when I was her age and studying abroad in London. I did my homework, went on trips with my classes, and I explored the parks and the museums on my own—and I enjoyed myself. (Admittedly, travel and engagement with London and with England was far more a part of our international program curriculum than it seems to have been for Shane—or for most international students studying in London.)

I never found Shane or her friends particularly relatable though Riccio tries painfully hard to make Shane so through popular culture references (not all of which I could catch), making her a Lost fanatic, a Potterhead, and a voracious reader as presumably is the person reading the book or following Riccio as a booktuber. I also didn’t find Shane particularly likeable. Though I can understand her desire to escape her parents’ expectations, her solution is so extreme that I don’t find her parents’ reactions entirely unjustified. [SPOILER] Certainly by showing up unannounced in London [END] her parents demonstrate a certain lack of thought for Shane’s plans, but their hearts seem to be in the right place. To justify Shane’s lie to her parents perhaps I needed to meet them prior to her betrayal of their trust. Or perhaps I am showing signs of adulthood, relating more to the adults than the child heroes, to Triton more than Ariel.  Pilot, her love interest, I was ambivalent towards too at best.  He seemed supportive, and he and Shane seemed at times very well matched, but he lacked emotional maturity and avoided his problems to such an unhealthy degree that I couldn’t consider him a healthy romantic partner for anyone.

The writing style (a close first person present)—especially in the first half of the novel—is somewhat juvenile. It’s possible that in the first half of the book especially this immaturity is intentional as the second half of the story revolves around the question of returning to old circumstances with new wisdom, but this makes the writing no more enjoyable to read—especially not knowing that maturity (or lack thereof) is going to become such a key part of the books’ plot.

Riccio did something a little different by adding an element of fantasy to this otherwise realistic, contemporary romance (set in 2011 and briefly 2017), but it wasn’t nearly enough to win me back. What it seemed to do was allow Riccio to play out two sets of mistakes for Shane and for Pilot.

Shane when the magic occurred didn’t react in a way that I found believable. [SPOILER] With her mind, soul, person thrown into the body and circumstances of her self from six years earlier, she didn’t seem to realize it, to realize that her body felt different, didn’t hurt as much, she was less tired, that her hair was probably different. These are the cues I think that I would recognize if someone were to shove me back to my college-aged self. Mostly I think I would notice that my body hurt less. [END]

A younger me might have enjoyed this story more, but present-me did not.  And really, what was the lesson?  You can’t have both career success and love without magic and more time than is available to anyone without magic?  That’s not what I want to hear, true though it might be.  Few I think read fantasy or romance books to lose hope; it’s certainly not what I seek in my escapism.

**

Riccio, Christine. Again, but Better. Wednesday-St. Martin’s-Macmillan, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 12-18.

This review is not endorsed by Christine Riccio, Wednesday Books, St. Martin’s Press, or Macmillan Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Selfishness Mars The Wizard of Once

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, samples, trailer, and a drawing tutorial with the author.

Spoilers are in white.  Highlight to read.

I read nine of the twelve novels in Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series between 2011 and 2015. Then I sort of stalled. I had hoped that this, the first book in her newest series, might help to springboard me through those last three novels by reminding me of all that I had originally so loved. Comparison between the two series is for me truly unavoidable because it is in fact what I was seeking.

And I don’t think that this series was able to accomplish what I’d hoped that it would.

I stalled on this book too. I began reading it on a plane in October 2018. I finished it in June 2019.

This very British story is set in a Britain before it was Britain, during a fantastical conflict between magical Wizards and iron-wielding, fortification-building Warriors; even setting aside the magic of the Wizards, I’m finding no exact historical matches for these cultures to set the story at any historical point (the Bronze Age Beaker culture vs the Iron Age, hill fort-building, Celtic Britons maybe being the nearest since the Wizards can’t bear iron, and the Warriors definitely have iron).  This seems more to me more like a mythic version of Britain, Arthur’s Britain maybe before even he was born (though Arthur’s Britain has a more concrete place and time than this) than a representation of the actual Britain.

As in How to Train Your Dragon, the narrative here is peppered with some fantastic lines, particularly oaths that build her world such as “by ivy and mistletoe and green things with long, hairy whiskers” (183) and some very choice descriptions like “a splintering scream like the death agony of five hundred foxes” (60)—I wish I had marked them as I read along. The text too is littered with allusions to British and Norse myths and British literary canon. Finding those allusions was a fun game. But I don’t think the prose was enough to carry me through what I found most difficult about this novel:

I just don’t like Xar. He’s not a very likable hero. He is arrogant. He puts his followers in danger. He is willing to break the rules to achieve his goals, and his goals are selfish. It takes the imminent death of a friend (follower? pet?) before Xar feels any responsibility or regret or humility. He then does try—he really tries—to save his friend, and that is admirable. But even that quest is not wholly unselfish for in achieving it, Xar can save himself as well.

Xar and Hiccup are near enough one another in circumstance if not in personality that the comparison is fairly unavoidable. Both’s fathers are the leaders of their peoples. Both boys lack the characteristics that are valued in their societies. Xar has a lot more growing to do before he becomes as likable as Hiccup was in the first book, let alone in the later books when Hiccup is becoming more and more the King of the Wilderwest who will unite the Vikings. Hiccup pushes back against his society’s standards when they are wrong (he promises to free the slaves, promises to free the dragons, speaks to dragons in their own language instead of shouting at them in the Vikings’). Xar seeks to conform even knowing that what he does endangers others as well as himself.  [SPOILERS] Xar leads his father to believe that Wizard society needs a place for the magic-less but without ever setting out to do so, then he lies again to his father and his people and he uses his accidentally retained Dark magic without guilt. His reward is not being accepted into the society as he is but rather obtaining that which he no longer needs to be accepted—and perhaps at great personal cost. [END]

Wish is a bit more likable. She is a Warrior who does not live up to the expectations of her mother, Queen Sycorax. She should be fierce and orderly and tidy but is instead disheveled with an odd eye over which she wears a patch and has a big heart, even keeping a secret pet of which her mother definitely wouldn’t approve. Wish wants to make her mother proud but always comes up short. She can be brash.  [SPOILERS] She does show her mother in the end that she can be fierce by standing up to her mother. [END]

Bodkin I liked best, but he is the sidekick and isn’t given the page-time that I would have liked him to have. He is nervous, anxious, cautious, fainthearted. He is trying to protect his charge as an Assistant Bodyguard. He wants to make his family proud too.

***

Cowell, Cressida. The Wizards of Once, Book 1. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2018. First published 2017.

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

Book Review: The Enormous Scope of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

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

SPOILERS included in an attempt to linearly layout the story.

I have meant for a while to dive into Salman Rushdie’s canon. He is a man whose conviction I greatly admire. For the Satanic Verses, his execution was ordered by an Iranian Ayatollah, leading Rushdie to hide under an alias on British soil.  But he has stood by his publication and continues to write about religions and the big questions.  He has used his fame to speak out on a vast number of social and political issues of our time and to benefit nonprofit programs and generally (to borrow a term) “decrease world suck.”

This is nevertheless the first book of Rushdie’s that I have read.

Rereading The Golem and the Jinni recently ignited in me new interest in the jinn, the mythology of which I think could be useful in my own writing. Finding this book on audio CD at the local library when the book that I’d gone for was missing seemed a sign, and I took it.

The bulk of the story told is about a near future but is told from the perspective of a historian or storyteller 1000 years past the main events, a period of 1001 nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty eight days—that is known as “the time of the strangenesses.”  The story spans from the time of Ibn Rushd’s exile from the court at Cordoba when he lived in the mostly Jewish village of Lucena (c. 1195) until 1000+ years past our present, a stunning scale (1825+ years).

By Rushdie’s account, during Ibn Rushd’s exile, he loved a girl called Dunia, who bore him many children, which Ibn Rushd, when his favor in court was restored, largely cast off along with Dunia. Dunia, awakening the dust of Ibn Rushd long after his death, around our own present, reveals herself to be the princess of Qaf in Peristan, the parallel world that is home to the jinn and other lesser magical creatures. With the veil between the two worlds loosened, other jinn return to the world of men, including the grand ifrits, dark jinn. This sparks a rash of “strangenesses,” unexplainable plagues that affect humanity, and broadly, the return of magic to men. Dunia’s and Ibn Rushd’s descendants have multiplied, and the jinn magic within several of these descendants is awakened by the strangenesses and by Dunia. She deputizes several of these descendants as warriors in her fight against the dark jinn and the grand ifrits. Much of the story focuses on the lives of a few of these deputized warriors, which include a failed graphic novelist who finds himself possessing the powers of his imagined superhero, a woman with lightning’s electricity, and a widowed gardener. These three are viewed as among the human heroes of “the war of the worlds” by the account of the narrator, and they participate in the final battle between Dunia and the last of the grand ifrits. After the closing of the gaps in the veil between the worlds following that battle, according to the narrator, the world is reborn into an age of rationalism, absent the fear of gods or religions or the supernatural, but humanity loses the ability to dream.

It’s a complicated story without a strict linear telling, with many point of view characters, and an omniscient narrator who sometimes interrupts with his opinion and many asides on the nature of the jinn and the nature of humanity.  The action takes place across our globe and in Peristan too.

Mostly I read (or listened to) this story as a fantastical telling of a battle between mythological creatures that takes place mostly in our world, and I was pleased. It is a good action story, a battle between good and evil with a host of characters from around the world and pieces of history thrown in for good measure and grounding. But it is certainly a reflection on the nature of humanity and of the nature and reality or fantasy of a god or gods. It is a warning against prejudice and the creation of the “other.” The world is saved by a several immigrants to the US. It is at once an examination of the worst instincts of humanity and a praise of humanity’s endurance and stolidity. Certainly it is a tale of human reason and ingenuity versus unreasonableness, irrationality, and magic.

This is one of those stories definitely for a much older audience. There are graphic depictions of violence and lots of discussion about sex, consensual and otherwise, if those acts themselves are never described in much detail. I at several times questioned whether I should be playing this audiobook with the windows down at a stoplight, not knowing if young ears were open in cars with open windows around me.

Allusions are dense on the ground in this book, its scope of art almost as vast as its scope of time. I missed many of them but was pleased when I did catch a reference.  I learned more about philosophical texts and ideas than I brought knowledge of philosophy to the book.

Robert G. Slade does voices if not maybe distinct for every character then certainly for some of them who stand out.

****

Rushdie, Salman. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days. Narr. Robert G. Slade. Random House Audio-Penguin Random, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Salman Rusdie, Robert G. Slade, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Individual Trials and One Light Jog in These 9 from the Nine Worlds

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

Spoilers are written in white.  Highlight the text to view the spoilers.

I’ve just reread this short story collection in one sick day. The first time I read it through I was disappointed by the fluffiness of these stories. Reading it a second time, I found them not as excessively airy, still treated with the lighthearted tone with which Rick Riordan writes most things, but on a second reading, I was more into it, less annoyed by it.

Full disclosure: Rick Riordan is currently, easily one of my favorite authors, perhaps even topping that list.

This book hasn’t the tightness, intricacy, urgency, or gravitas of any of the series or even of the Demigods and Magicians, another short story collection, but rather than a plot to instigate war, overturn the cosmic order, or become a god, these stories are connected by a jogging route. Specifically Thor jogs implacably, unswervingly through the Nine Worlds in too tight, leather, running shorts, listening to the sounds of rocks and farting “like a sputtering engine” (99).

These nine stories take place over the course of maybe 24 eventful hours, the time that it takes Thor to loop through the Nine Worlds. Thor’s run through the Worlds affects each of the stories in a unique way, sometimes the cause of the story’s trouble and sometimes the answer to a hero’s quandary.

The individual dangers that the heroes overcome are more serious than Thor’s jog. [SPOILERS] Odin needs to find a leader for the Valkyries. Amir escapes a sorcerer. Blitz saves Thor.  Hearthstone saves Inge.  Sam does some intelligence gathering in Jotunheim.  TJ helps Hel. Mallory escapes Nidhogg. Halfborn fights dragons. Alex faces off against Surt.

Starting with a food fight in the Great Hall in Hotel Valhalla (a story narrated by Odin) and ending with a foiled meeting in the palace of Surt in Muspellheim (narrated by Alex Fierro), [END SPOILERS] each story is written in first person from the POV of one of the side characters of Riordan’s Magnus Chase series. The narrative style of each story is fairly similar to every other, though Riordan does do a good job peppering each story with perspectives unique to the character’s backstory, which help to distinguish the voices, though I did often have to look back at the title halfway through the first page to remind myself who was narrating.

Most of these are solo trials. There’s not a great deal of interaction between all the characters of Magnus, and there’s no Magnus (he’s away visiting Annabeth during this jog). The characters are great individually. There’s a sort of intimacy in interacting with these characters away from their friends. But it is different, and I don’t think that I prefer it, especially when I feel like these characters all have fairly similar voices if they do have diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and especially when Magnus was so much about ultimately the power (dare I say, the magic) of friendship (I see a great bit of parallel actually between Magnus Chase and the modern incarnation of My Little Pony).  The final line of this anthology is that same “friendship is magic” chord that I so enjoyed, but it seems an odd last note almost in a book where so few of the characters sought help.

All in all, it was enjoyable to spend some time with these characters again, to learn a little more about them and about the Norse cosmos. I just kind of wish that there had been higher stakes and more that connected the stories to one another; I expect both of these from Rick Riordan, and Demigods and Magicians taught me it was possible even in a short story collection.

Minor complaints that these are, they bear mentioning: I don’t like ragged pages, and the glossy pages of illustrations are oddly placed, intersecting two stories, the first time even interrupting a sentence. That was distracting and a) interrupted the flow of the stories and b) had me hurrying past the illustrations to find the end of the stories, but then because of the ragged pages, struggling to find the illustrations easily again to peruse them at my leisure.

****

Riordan, Rick.  9 From the Nine Worlds.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

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

Book Review: Flat Characters and Assumed Context in a Hole New World

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

I read A Hole New World to be better equipped to run a corporate-organized book discussion that used this and three other young reader titles as its jump points. I read the book in a day (after finishing Odd Gods). I am not its intended audience. I have neither played Minecraft (or really any other video games past a few rounds with friends) nor watched the PopularMMOs YouTube channel. I think I missed a lot of this book’s context. There was not a great deal of explanation of… anything. I know enough about Minecraft to have recognized Bomby as a Creeper when he appeared in the illustrations at last, but I haven’t any knowledge of what a Creeper is and what characteristics of Bomby’s persona are typical or atypical of its species.

I feel like I was being told what these fairly flat characters are like rather than being shown how they are. Jen is bubbly but clutzy; Pat says early that she often falls into the craters that Bomby makes. I did like that Jen is portrayed as a great swordswoman and bubbly and pink.  She and Pat are a steady (maybe married) couple.

Pat is the Hero™. He uses his sword to get out of most situations, but is somehow also the more cautious of the couple, looking down instead of forward and so avoiding falling into holes.

Carter, the one dark-skinned character, is a rival for Jen’s affection that Jen likes as a friend despite Pat’s protestations. Maybe he and Jen were previously in a relationship; maybe they were not. Pat is almost unsettlingly antagonistic towards Carter in his “defense” of Jen. Writing about this gets weird because I don’t know how close the characters in this self-insertion fiction are to their real counterparts, so I’m not going to write about it anymore, but just remind everyone not to let your partner try to distance you from your genuine friends.

The villain Evil Jen excuses her desire for world domination and causing a zombpocalypse with a tragic backstory about being thought unattractive for having overlarge lips. (Otherwise she looks “just like” Jen. What?? Making a trait deemed typically attractive unattractive does not a feminist or a body positive message make, just as the “real women have curves” slogan excludes another group of women from womanhood instead of creating a more inclusive view of femininity.)

Every other character passes in a few pages, which is almost a shame because how can you only wave at characters like a grumpy boat captain named Captain Cookie who we are told previously rescued the protagonists or a rebellion leader named Mr. Rainbow who is a rainbow-wooled sheep with access to magic loot boxes and a palatial hideout?

With Carter’s help and Mr. Rainbow’s help, Pat and Jen fight Evil Jen’s zombie minions to venture deeper into this hole new world, seeking to rescue their friend Bomby from Evil Jen.

All in all, I felt like an outsider reading this. The whole thing felt jagged and unfinished as a book detached from its webseries. But I think—I hope—that fans of the webseries won’t find it so without context, seeing the whole book as more of a tribute than as a separate entity. It’s a rare film that stands up to its original book. Maybe that goes backwards too.  But I definitely wish there had been more character-building and more “show don’t tell.”

**

PopularMMOs, Pat and Jen. A Hole New World. Illus. Dani Jones. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by PopularMMOs’ Pat or Jen, Dani Jones, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.