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Book Review: Japanese Fairy Tales for the Casual Western Reader

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Click to visit the WorldCat listing for the book for a summary.

This Dover edition has only five of the stories that Yei Theodora Ozaki published in 1903, selected and edited by Philip Smith in 1992.

I got a distinct sense that these were Japanese tales written up for a Western audience. The tongue-cut sparrow for example is described here as a fairy, but fairies are British; the fairy has no directly correlating Japanese equivalent. So what type of creature is the sparrow? Yōsei is the Japanese word that I can find most closely related to British fairies, but this doesn’t seem the right word for the sparrows of this tale any more than does fairy. Without the proper terminology, digging deeper into the folklore was difficult, though I tried to supplement my reading of this skinny paperback several times. The Westernization at once made this translation more accessible but also less complete, somehow lacking. I don’t know a lot of Japanese folklore. After reading this, I feel a little more informed but skeptical too about how much this textbook was altered for a Western audience and of how much I might be missing.

A few words were translated either in parentheses or via footnotes, sometimes smoothly within the text as “Momotaro, or Son of a Peach,” but the choices of which words to translate seemed odd. Sake, for example, was translated as a rice wine. Several titles and names were within the same story translated only sometimes (O Jii San as old man, daimios as lords, Suzume San as Miss Sparrow, Murasaki as Violet, Ojisan as Uncle). These were rarely names that needed translation for the story to have meaning. Particularly Murasaki only lived for the span of two pages, and violets played no part in the whole of the story (“Princess Hase”). “Princess Hase” itself is an odd phrase to have translated and oddly translated besides. Within the story, she is known primarily as Hase-Hime meaning Princess of Hase. Tamtate-Bako is translated as the Box of the Jewel Hand. The translation here lends no more to my understanding of Tamtate-Bako than would a good description. O kage sama de was not translated at all, which was an odd choice (that phrase I was able to look up). Dokoisho was translated with a footnote, and this I liked because knowing that this is an exclamation used primarily by the lower classes helped me to better grasp Urashima Taro’s character.

In these five stories there are many themes and characters that are familiar from Western/European stories. In “Momotaro” there is the child born already overly mature of a piece of fruit to a kindly old couple (Thumbelina-type but also Disney’s interpretation of Hercules). This child, like Hercules, is excessively strong and defeats monsters. There’s a nagging wife in “The Tongue-cut Sparrow.” In “Princess Hase” there’s a jealous stepmother who tries to kill her stepdaughter (that’s “Snow White”). In “Urashima Taro” there’s a creature saved from harm that turns out to be royalty and who offers itself to its rescuer in marriage (I recognize that actually most from Yep’s The Dragon Prince, which calls itself a Chinese Beauty and the Beast story). Several of these stories, “Urashima Taro” and “Tongue-cut Sparrow”, feature boxes that the characters are warned never to open like that given to Pandora. The “Ogre of Rashoman” reminds me of Tailypo, “The Headless Horseman,” and other nightmare creatures that come through campfire stories searching for their severed body parts.

Though of course it is difficult and probably inaccurate to generalize Western heroes too much—and certainly my sampling here of Japanese fairy tales is not broad enough to do so—these five bear as much similarity to the Grecian mythologies as Western fairy tales.  In Western fairy tales, most masculine heroes seem to be tricksters who outwit villains. The women—no, the girls—are gentle and kind; grown women are more often villains—or die. Here the masculine heroes seem either to be strongmen and warriors, or they are kind and compassionate. “Princess Hase” offers the only feminine heroine in this group.

Ozaki was uniquely qualified to bring these stories to a Western audience. Her parents were Baron Saburō Ozaki, one of the first Japanese men to study in the West, and an Englishwoman, the daughter of one of Ozaki’s teachers. Yei Theodora was raised in England but went to live with her father in Japan as a teenager. As an adult she split her time between the Japan and Europe, and eventually married a Japanese politician who shared her last name and who kept receiving her mail accidentally prior to their marriage.

So she was uniquely familiar with both cultures.

In all, I was glad for this introduction to Japanese fairy tales—I enjoy fairy tales—but I wish mostly that Ozaki had more sparingly translated names and phrases and particularly creatures into English.

In reading these stories, Westerners will find familiarity among that which is unfamiliar, new names for characters whom they recognize or whose situations bear resemblance to their own childhood tales.  In that familiarity, there’s a call, a reminder that we—humanity—are more alike than we are different.

***

Ozaki, Yei Theodora. Japanese Fairy Tales. Ed. Philip Smith. Illus. Kakuzo Fujiyama. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1992.

This review is not endorsed by Yei Theodora Ozaki, her estate, Philip Smith, Kakuzo Fujiyama, or Dover Publishing. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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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: A Less Compassionate Robin in Hood

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

I started rereading Stephen R. Lawhead’s Hood mid-July 2018 for my August 2018 trip to Wales but was interrupted by the trip, and only now, almost a year later, am I finishing it.

I had read this book 11-12 years earlier; it was one of the books that was allowed to come with me when I moved into my freshman dorm.  (This was before bookstagram was a thing, but apparently, I already had the idea.)

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The Welsh countryside had already stolen parts of my heart via Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series before this novel found its way to me, so I was predisposed to like it.

I had fond memories of it and was excited to reread it, but 11-12 years is a long time.

Now, I have not read Pyle’s version of Robin Hood or any other version that I remember besides Lawhead’s. The versions of the story that I know best are Disney’s with its foxy hero and BBC’s 2006-2009 television series.  It’s been a long while, but I’ve watched Robin Hood: Men in Tights too.  Robin and his entourage showed up once in Doctor Who.  Then I know just bits of the myth that have filtered into common cultural knowledge, that have been referenced in other stories.  And I have actually had the chance to walk the halls of Nottingham Castle and the paths of Sherwood.

I very much like Lawhead’s premise for this novel and the reasons for his conclusions about Robin Hood that he presents in the notes in the back of this book (these notes really ought to preface the book I feel instead of ending it; if you pick this book up for the first time, do yourself a favor and read those first. There is the map. There is the pronunciation guide. Page 473 in my copy begins the notes). In essence he argues that the legend of Robin Hood presumably arose from a historical fact and that the legend makes more sense as a Welshman, the Welsh being masters of the longbow, fighting from the wild, primeval forest of the March than an English noble in the shrinking Sherwood. Robin is believably a bastardization and Anglicization of Rhi Bran, and Lawhead offers several explanations of Hood (coed being a Welsh word for woodland or a reference to the hooded costume that Bran uses).  Like Robin of Nottingham, Bran is disinherited by an overreaching British monarch, not Prince John rewarding loyalists, but William II allowing his nobles to conquer Wales, killing unyielding Welsh kings in battle.

But I don’t find Bran as likeable as Disney’s or BBC’s versions. Lawhead’s Bran has to learn selflessness on a hospital bed, and his motivations are less generous than other Robins throughout, even after that revelation. He is prone to bouts of violence. He is reintroduced as a young man while coercing kisses from Mérian (and that I think more than anything else really soured this book for me; he cares about Mérian’s consent no more as he develops into a leader, though their interaction late in the book is brief, and perhaps he improves in sequels, which I have never read). When he is enjoying himself, he can be impish. When he is contemplative, he shows promise as a ruler. He can be bold, but that boldness borders on recklessness and sometimes endangers others. Some of my unfavorable impression of Robin might be what Lawhead intended. He says Robin in the earliest stories “was a coarse and vulgar oaf much given to crudeness and violence” (474).

I empathize with the ousted and hunted prince, but I too often dislike him. I root for the Welsh cause without much liking the leader of the rebellion.

Mérian just seems young. She is irresolute, one moment wholly opposed to the Ffreinc invaders and the next dreaming of parties in Ffreinc castles. She is acted upon rather than taking any actions herself and seems to hold no firm convictions.

Disney’s Robin is roguish, romantic, and compassionate. Disney’s Marian is gentle.

BBC’s Robin is roguish, romantic, compassionate, and a conscientious objector after he learns respect for Islam while fighting in the Holy Land at King Richard’s side. BBC’s Marian is passionate, a fighter for justice and the poor.  She acts against tyranny despite the risk to herself.

It’s difficult to gauge how much of Hood is historically accurate.  William Rufus, Bernard Neufmarché, his daughter Sybil, and Philip de Braose all are historically recorded. Bernard did capture Talgarth in the early 1090s.  Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed in Bernard’s Welsh conquest in 1093.

But more often, Lawhead relies on common names. There was a Brychan—but not a Brychan ap Tewdwr—who was king of Brycheiniog (a term not used in Hood, but that’s the only King Brychan I can find in Welsh history).  Elfael was not part of Brycheiniog, but was adjacent to it.

And sometimes the facts just don’t line up.  Elfael in fact did not become its own cantref until 1140, and Lawhead’s map sets the story between 1080 CE and 1100 CE.  Before that, Elfael with Maelienydd was Ferlix.  And while there is a Llanelli in Wales, it is nowhere near where it is on Lawhead’s map, being a coastal town in Carmarthenshire.

All this I fact checked using resources freely available on the Internet, but admittedly, there is some fuzziness to the historical records from this period.

Despite my dislike of Bran and Mérian and my uneasiness about some of the history and geography that Lawhead uses to set his novel, I still find this an interesting fictional representation of the Norman invasion of Wales and Welsh life and resistance at the time of William II.

I enjoy the ease with which Lawhead makes his story align with the Robin Hood legend, defending his case for a Welsh genesis for the myth.  And I like Lawhead’s writing. He captures the settings well. He writes a good battle.

I just wish that this story had more central characters that I actually enjoyed being around.  I do like Iwan (Little John) and Friar Tuck.

***

Lawhead, Stephen R. King Raven, Book 1: Hood. Nashville: Thomas Nelson-HarperCollins, 2007. First published 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Stephen R. Lawhead, Thomas Nelson, Inc, or HaperCollins Publishers. 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: Vox is a Chilling Dystopia with Current Events as Foundation

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Click to view the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, excerpt, reading guide, and author's bio.

Comparisons between Christina Dalcher’s Vox and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are nearly unavoidable. Both women are writing speculative dystopian Americas that oppress women by relying on a skewed, ultraconservative Christianity. Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, but Hulu has recently brought the novel back to the zeitgeist with a streaming video series. I haven’t read it more recently than 2007 or seen any of Hulu’s series.

The chill of Dalcher’s speculative novel is in the near-past and contemporary, concrete news stories and (sub)culture that build the background of her horrific America. I remember reading about Supreme Court seats being filled with ultraconservative Justices during the extremely contentious Kavanaugh hearings in which a potential Justice’s emotional testimony was pitted against a woman’s even-keeled testimony of an assault allegedly committed by that nominee against her (and the man’s testimony was given more credence) and having to put the book down. It is too easy to see the building of this dystopia by tuning into the news—as is also true of Atwood’s book, but the details are not as immediate coming as they do from events from the 1980s.

In Dalcher’s America, a charismatic, ultraconservative, women-hating, mega-church televangelist has taken power, using the American president as a puppet. Women’s passports have been destroyed. Schools have been divided by gender, women relegated to an education that is glorified home economics. Women’s Bibles have been edited. Extramarital sex is punishable by public, televised humiliation, relocation to a work camp, and enforced silence. Dissidents and lesbians are sent to these camps too with the same imposed silence. (Dalcher to my recollection never really addresses whether two men having sex is punished in the same way.) Women of any age have been forced into monitors that count the words that they speak. Each day every word after 100 causes a shock, and the voltage increases in intervals after 100, one woman at one point discovering how to commit suicide using the monitor.

The protagonist, Jean McClellan, is a former Wernicke’s area specialist, seeking a way to reverse the effects of damage to that area, a cure for Wernicke aphasia, a condition that results in fluent speech devoid of meaning. Her husband works for the president.

In college, despite her roommate being an activist for women’s rights, Jean didn’t pay much attention to politics. She didn’t participate in any of the protests or rallies. Now it’s too late.

When she is given the chance to be released from the monitor and to win her young daughter’s freedom too, she reluctantly accepts and works for the president to complete the research and create the serum on which she was working before the changes in policy barred her from work.

But she begins to suspect a larger plan to further curtail women’s and dissidents’ voices and advance the pastor’s cause. The end hurries into a race to uncover the government’s true intentions for McClellan’s research, thwart the government, and escape punishment.

The chapters are short, and I was for a long while reading the book only for 5-15 minutes at a time as I got ready to go somewhere a little more quickly than I thought that I might. It was really only being laid up with a sprained ankle that sped me through the last ¾ of the book.

Dalcher’s seems to be a warning to those who say “it can’t happen here” and to those who choose the sidelines over the frontlines.  Her heroes are as much the ones who acted and called out the slippery slope before the government physically curtailed women’s voices as Jean, who acted to impede further curtailment.  Ultimately it is one of those early criers who continues the fight to overturn the oppression, not Jean, who escapes after helping to end the tyrannical administration.

Science is weaponized by both parties in this fight.

Violence is justified by both.

I read an ARC of this book.

The trade paperback of this novel comes out July 16, 2019.

***

Dalcher, Christina. Vox.  New York: Berkley-Penguin Random, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Christina Dalcher, Berkley, or Penguin Random House LLC. 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.

Book Review: New Kid is Important and Eloquent

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

I read an ARC of Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, New Kid. Actually I’ve now read it twice. In the ARC, most pages were left in grayscale.  The finished novel is fully colored.

The book opens on Jordan Banks’ first day at a new school, Riverdale Academy Day School, which touts itself as a premier education, but which his father points out does not look to be a particularly diverse environment. Jordan is picked up from his Washington Heights home by his guide Liam and Liam’s father, who warns Liam to stay in the car with the doors locked when he goes to the door for Jordan.

Of every book I have ever read, this one perhaps best illustrates the harm that microagressions, even thoughtless ones, cause. There aren’t many African American students in Jordan Banks’ new school. He and other students (and staff) of color are subjected to stereotyping in a multitude of ways by their peers and the school staff, some of them acting intentionally cruelly and others not even aware of their racist acts. This comes out even in the types of books that the librarian recommends to the students of color versus the ones that she recommends to the white students. Drew in particular is forced to endure one of the teachers unable to remember that his name is not Deandre, the name of an older African American student in the school, though every African American character including one of the teachers faces this problem.

Jordan has to code-switch between his mostly white school and his Washington Heights neighborhood. This too is very elegantly and succinctly described, the nervousness of moving between the two worlds, the burden of having to do so, the exhaustion caused by such hyper-awareness of the environment.

But he wants the same intimacy with all of his friends and seeks on the advice of his grandfather to find a way to hang out with all of his friends together.

For these illustrations, the ways in which Craft captures the myriad ways that internalized racism effects his protagonist, I cannot recommend this book enough especially to white people, especially to white educators. It is such a poignant reminder of the harm that we can unknowingly or unthinkingly inflict on kids just trying to get through the day, fighting for their dreams. It’s not even a difficult or long read. I think the last time I read it, it took only a day, maybe two.

Jordan himself is such a likeable and relatable protagonist.

In the end, Jordan even takes pity upon the bully of his school year, whom earlier that year he had helped to finally get his comeuppance by standing up for a falsely accused friend.

This is the story of Jordan’s navigating this new, predominately white space, coming to figure out how he can be himself and grow in such a space, and how he can improve that space for himself and for his classmates of every color. And his confrontations with injustice are painted as not requiring a great deal of forethought or planning. There is nothing elaborate about his calls for justice. He merely speaks up for himself and his friends when he sees injustice. I think that too is important.

In sum, go read this book.

*****

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

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

This review is not endorsed by Jerry Craft or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.