Tag Archives: middle-grade

Book Review: The Search: One Long-Awaited Answer Tangled in Many Threads

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This link will take you to the hardcover collection of all three parts of this trilogy.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

After the close of the television show, the team responsible for Avatar: The Last Airbender and a few fans (Gene Luen Yang of American Born Chinese among them) began a series of comics that follow Team Avatar beyond the television show and help to bridge the 70 year gap between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. There are currently five trilogies: The Promise, The Search, The Rift, Smoke and Shadow, and North and South. The television series ends with Zuko’s agonized and angry question “Where is my mother?” This second trilogy sets out to answer that question.

Finding graphic novels that appeal to and are appropriate for younger audiences can be difficult (though hopefully getting easier as we booksellers realize the demand and make concerted efforts to point out and to stock graphic novels for children). These are shelved with the adult graphic novels in Barnes & Noble, but there is nothing in these first two trilogies at least that is any more adult than what is in the television series, even though in The Search there are family dramas, madness, and politics. Often, I don’t think we give kids enough credit.  Really I think these stories have more appeal for the 7-17 age range than they do for most adults—at least than for those adults not already familiar with the television series and invested in the characters and the world.

This particular trilogy deals more with the personal stories of the characters than the larger world-building of The Promise.

Four years back now, I read the first part of this trilogy and was apparently impressed. It’s only now that I’ve gone back and read the three parts together (over the course of eight days).

The Search does quite a bit of bouncing backwards and forwards in time. The past plotlines are done in more of a monochrome (red for those that happen within the Fire Nation and blue for those that happen among the Water Tribe). Still, bouncing between the past and the present was distracting.

I see why doing so was if not necessary then certainly expedient, but I would have preferred I think to have one or several longer periods of backstory (some scenes in the present were 4 or so pages) than so many often abruptly interrupted storylines. I would have been quite happy spending two parts of this trilogy learning Ursa’s story and only one part having Zuko discover it and reconnect with his mother. I wonder if the creators underestimated the level of investment that fans would have in Ursa’s story separate from that of Team Avatar—which would frankly surprise me; they set us up for this level of interest, and surely this story was told partially in answer to scads of fans asking the same question that Zuko had done because Zuko had done.

I actually think that this story may suffer from too many storylines. Exciting as they all are individually, especially with the jumps between times, it was a lot to keep track of: Zuko’s quest with Team Avatar plus his sister, Azula’s madness, the letter given to Azula by Ozai that raises questions about the Fire Lord line of succession, then Ursa’s first lover and childhood home, her marriage and subterfuge and exile, her second marriage and new life, plus the story of Water Tribe siblings living in a haunted forest in the Fire Nation to try to find a spirit who can give new faces but tangling with its massive Wolf Spirit pet instead. The theme of reuniting families and restoring old lives runs through all, but in 228 pages of comic it’s all too much. In a 500 page novel, absolutely, but this isn’t a 500 page novel.

Now, all that said, I do want it noted that I read these online, and the format was a scrolling one rather than a facing page layout. That perhaps made some difference.

***

Yang, Gene Luen and Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search: Parts 1-3. Ed. Dave Marshall. Illus. Gurihiru. Dark Horse, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Gurihiru, Dark Horse Comics, or anyone involved with the graphic novel series or the television series. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: We Need to Talk About Alex Fierro and Magnus Chase

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

We need to talk about Alex. And we need to talk about the Magnus Chase fandom.

Having enjoyed the first audiobook in this series, I found the second too. This second book is narrated by Kieran Culkin. I didn’t love the voices that Culkin did for these characters as much as I loved Guetig’s, but I found his Magnus more palatable, so I was not displeased. Of the voices that Culkin does for the characters, Blitz’s is most memorable. He has a strong accent that actually sounded more like a Brooklyn accent than a Boston accent to me, but Boston is a diverse city, and Blitz is from Nidavellir, so really he can have any accent that the narrator fancies and who can tell him that he’s wrong.

I went running to find the audiobook after the announcement that this book had won a Stonewall for 2017. The Stonewall Book Award is given to books that best relate the LGBT experience. Usually this award ends up going to books that could be qualified as issue books, books that set out with the primary intention of relating the LGBT experience. I would argue that that is not The Hammer of Thor’s primary intention. This book remains—as all of Rick Riordan’s middle grade novels have been—an action/adventure story, a quest, and a fantasy adventure, but Alex Fierro is gender-fluid, sometimes using he/him/his and sometimes she/her/hers. Alex’s experience as a central and primary character in the novel is highly visible, but the story is not wholly his/hers nor is his/her story the focus; preventing Loki from starting Ragnarok is the focus. I was impressed that any book that isn’t an issue book could win a Stonewall. I was going to probably eventually read this story anyway because I do very much enjoy Riordan’s adventures and they are perennial bestsellers that are easier to discuss with customers after I’ve read them, but my pleasure at this surprising win did push me to search harder for a copy to listen to.

Alex says openly to Magnus that he/she does not want his/her story to be taken as the story of every trans, queer, or gender-fluid person. I highlight that because I think it important to recognize that there are different experiences within the LGBTQIA+ community. Riordan explicitly uses Alex to represent but not to define the LGBTQIA+ experience.

The primary characters of the novel are all fairly accepting of Alex’s gender fluidity. The einherjar at large and several of the gods are less so. Alex like Magnus comes from a well-off family but has spent time on the streets.

The more time I spend on Pinterest and the more pins about Magnus Chase that I find the more that I fall in love with Magnus. Other fans (particularly I credit Tumblr user magnusglows for these revelations) have noticed some of his more loveable quirks, like his tendency to refer to friends as “his.”  The series has made a point of discussing found family. Magnus is wonderfully supportive and respectful of his friends’ choices and feelings, and its wonderfully heartwarming to have a hero who is no less heroic for being so and no less heroic for being associated with healing and sunlight.

The more time I spend with this series the more disappointed I am by the first two Percy Jackson movies and particularly Riordan’s reaction to those movies. The representation in this series is so important, and I want this story to reach as many people as possible, but I know that Riordan will probably never allow another film to be made. He seems more supportive of the Percy Jackson musical, though, so maybe there’s hope for a filmed staged version.

*****

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

Riordan, Rick.  Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor.  2016.  Narr.  Kieran Culkin. Listening Library-Penguin Random, 2016.

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

Book Review: Importantly Diverse Cast of Relatable Characters in Hello, Universe

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

This review contains minor spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is danger and action and heroism.

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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Book Reviews: Best of the Best of 2016

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It’s awards season again, and I’ve read next to none of the winners or honorees this year. The only book that won any medal that I have yet found postings for is Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat, one of this year’s Caldecott award honorees, which I gave four stars.

But I always believe in honoring the books that I’ve read and have awarded five stars.

Only the bolded books on this last were eligible for this year’s awards… and there are only five of them, all of them picture books.

Of the books that I rated five stars that were published in 2016, really, only Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? had any chance at any of the awards–I would have thought that a possible competitor for a Caldecott.

TODDLERS-KIDS (AGES 0-8)

MIDDLE GRADE-YOUNG READERS (AGES 8-12)

TEENS (AGES 13-19)

ADULTS (AGES 20+)

People of Color in My Books from 2016

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After last year’s jarring realization, this year I started a list of books with POC (people of color) and another list of books with a person explicitly not white in the role of a main protagonist in order to track my own reading and hopefully improve upon the lack of diversity of characters in 2015’s list of books.  This year I read 44 out of 168 books (26%) where any person of color is included, either as a protagonist or a background character, a sort of abysmal quarter but more than 2015’s 23% if only barely.  Only 16 of those 44 (36% of all books with any POC or 9% of the all the books I read) have a person of color in a starring role, less than half.  In some cases, as in Mike Cuarto’s Little Elliot books, the protagonist’s role is taken by an animal or usually inanimate object, but in most cases the POC play background characters to a white character’s story or share a stage where no one is given a spotlight within the pages (for the most part, the covers of such books feature white characters).

A coworker and I both realized recently that the majority of toddler books feature exclusively animal characters–or characters that are usually inanimate objects, like peas.  64 of 168 books (38%) that I read this year are in this category of books with no human or humanoid characters.  That means that in 2016 I read more books with completely non-human casts than ones that include even one POC.

Excluding these books that exclude humans and humanoid characters, the total percentage of books with POC rises to 42% but still does not hit even the half mark.

I have this year more actively sought out books with POC as protagonists, but I have not held–I’m sorry to say–to my November resolution to read books only about POC, women, or other marginalized groups.  (There’s a good new year’s resolution for me.)

This is the list of this year’s books that included POC.  Books where a POC is a protagonist are bolded.  Books where a POC is a secondary character, one with a speaking role, and more than a background character but still not a protagonist are underlined.  Books which arguably have no protagonist, where for example, a different character is featured on each page have a + sign beside them.  Books first published this year have an asterisk, because those are the ones that could be considered for the most recent round of awards, and because those are the books that were probably in some way effected by the current cultural climate.

Picture Books, Picture Storybooks, and Board Books (Ages 0-8)

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

Teen (Ages 13-19)

Riordan as always has done a great deal to bring up the number of books that I’ve read with POC protagonists and characters.  The surprise aid has come this year from Disney, which not only set a story in Polynesia with an entirely POC cast of characters, but also even in their story about fish in the Pacific, where few human characters were at all present, they were sure to include POC, and in the books mentioned above, I think POC accounted for at least half but maybe 100% of the human characters present.  Santat, Curato, and Beaty should get honorable mentions for always including POC among their casts, and Beaty a shout-out for having this year’s picture book feature an African American girl.  Bildner and Parsley both deserve shout-outs as well for multiple books with POC protagonists.  I want to give a shout-out to Gassman too for having an African American on the cover of a book with a quite diverse cast where it would have been possible, as several others chose to do, to feature the white characters on the cover.

I also want to give a mention to Maggie Stiefvater.  I’ve begun to suspect that in her Raven Cycle many if not all of the people in Blue’s house are African American, but I can’t yet swear to it.

I want to give another shout out here to Elizabeth Bird, who recently published a list of picture, easy, and early chapter books published in 2016 with diverse casts and diverse main characters on The School Library Journal‘s blog.  This is a fabulous list, and fabulously organized.  Check it out.

Have I misrepresented any books?  Feel free to discuss below.  Sometimes–particularly in picture books–it can be difficult to determine a character’s race (sometimes probably intentionally so, and I appreciate that too), and sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether a character’s role is large enough to merit a place as a secondary character rather than a supporting or background character.

Book Review: Thanks for Magnus Chase, Rick Riordan

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9781101916988So I thought that I knew Norse mythology, and now I’m realizing that I knew as much about Norse mythology as Magnus Chase did before finding out that he was a demigod: to paraphrase a book from his childhood and quote a chapter title: “Freya is pretty! She has cats!” (274) Yep. That, and then what I gleaned from the “ridiculously inaccurate” Marvel movies (27). Did you know that Bifröst is supposed to be pronounced more closely to “beef roast” than “by frost”? I’m actually very pleased that I chose to listen to this book on audio because looking at the Norse names, I think I would have stumbled and fallen out of the book often. Tanngnjóstr, Hlidskjalf, even einherji… no kids book or Marvel movie ever prepared me to pronounce these. Mjolnir is hard enough. I stumble over the Hammer’s name like Darcy does in Thor: The Dark World (though after listening to this audiobook, I’m stumbling less often).

I waited a long time for this series. I’ve wanted it ever since I heard a rumor that Rick Riordan might do a series about the Norse gods. I knew enough to know that in Norse mythology, the gods lose, they die, the world ends, and I wanted to see how Riordan could play with that (—admirably, very admirably). Then somehow I was late purchasing it. I think I put it off till I could get a deeper discount, and now, I’m only getting to it a year later because I felt pressured to have read the first book before I began selling the second (I missed my self-imposed deadline but only by five days) and because I found the audiobook at my local library and decided that a new Rick Riordan book would likely make my road trip drive fly past—and then when I got sucked into another book during my road trip, I let it help speed my commutes.

I really enjoyed the different voices provided by Christopher Guetig. I enjoyed everyone’s voice—except Magnus’, which is somewhat problematic. The voice Guetig provided for Magnus seemed too high-pitched and young to believably be 16. Moreover, I felt that Magnus warranted more bitterness and flat delivery than Guetig did. Magnus’ lines were delivered flippantly, breezily. I thought of Magnus as much more careworn, as hard and bitter, his lines dripping with hard sarcasm. I can’t say which of us is right in our reading, and it probably doesn’t matter because a book can be read differently by different readers, but that disconnect kept me from being enveloped as deeply as I could have been in the world. Luckily, Blitz and Hearth and Sam and Loki and Fenris and T.J. and Mallory and Otis the goat were there to help draw me in when Magnus couldn’t. Their characters were all much improved I think by Guetig’s reading. (I found myself the other day adopting Otis’ tone and voice.) I loved that Hearth, a deaf elf who speaks through sign-language was given a unique voice by Guetig. Thank you.

While we’re talking about Hearth and his deafness, can we talk about how Riordan deftly, I think, described the struggles that Hearth had being accepted by his family and peers, how he had come to cope, and his deafness not even seem to be any kind of impediment to him in Boston, and then on the quest how it became the very strength that the team needed? And can we also talk about how rare it is to see any character who is deaf and speaks through sign language? I can think of one other, a recurring but not main character on The West Wing and was reminded by a Google search that there was a character in a two-part episode of Doctor Who, season 9. I just need to thank Riordan for including this awesome character and for bringing light to this often unseen community.

And for shedding light on the homeless community too, presenting homelessness in honest, real terms: the fear but also the ingenuity, the community and the alienation. I feel that most homeless characters that I encounter in children’s literature—and I can think of very few—are either saints and angels in disguise (sometimes literally), demonized, or are background characters there to add realism to a place but not as characters.

And I want to thank Riordan and Guetig too for not caving to the pop culture/Marvel versions of the gods. Guetig could have tried to imitate Tom Hiddleston’s accent when presenting Loki, but he didn’t. Riordan specifically distances his Thor from Marvel’s Thor:

“I couldn’t help it.

“When I heard the name Thor, I thought about the guy from the movies and comics—a big superhero from outer space, with bright Spandex tights, a red cape, goldilocks hair, and maybe a helmet with fluffy little dove wings.

“I real life, Thor was scarier. And redder. And grungier.” (353)

I understand that to reclaim Norse mythology from the Marvel franchise was probably part of Riordan’s mission, but I still appreciate that he didn’t take the easy way in this novel, but gave us something new and less familiar.

I’m thanking Riordan for a lot here. I haven’t even mentioned Sam, an Arab American with immigrant grandparents from Iraq in an arranged engagement but in love with her betrothed and caught between wanting a normal life with him and wanting to be a warrior and a Valkyrie, who wears a hijab but only when she wants to do or when she feels like she should. (Oops. Now I have.) There is so much diversity here. And the presentation here is so much better than it is in The Hidden Oracle where Riordan seems to shout, “LOOK AT THESE DIVERSE CHARACTERS JUST HERE TO REPRESENT OTHER CULTURES!” That might not be fair. But yeah, maybe it is. These are characters—characters I can care about. The diverse characters in The Trials of Apollo seem more like props (though admittedly, some of that I might be able to believe is because Apollo narrates, and Apollo believes he is the sun around which everyone else dances, but it does not excuse that sense).

Riordan was more subtle than I thought he would be too when I heard that Magnus was going to be Annabeth’s cousin.  Yes, Annabeth is a character here, but she is not obtrusive, though I do sense that we’ll see her again–and with her more of the Greco-Roman crew.  After a quick Pintrest perusal I too really want to see Nico and Magnus meet.

And I ought by now to be prepared for Riordan to pull the rug out from under my feet at the last moment, but I was unprepared and caught gasping and wanting the second book.

So look for that.

Because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this series, but I can’t let that plot twist rest. Not forever.

I’m teetering on the edge of giving this book a coveted five stars, and may revise it later, but for now… let’s stick with

****1/2

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2015.

Riordan, Rick.  Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer.  2015.  Narr.  Christopher Guetig. Compact discs. Listening Library-Penguin Random, 2015.

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

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Book Review: Five Big Stars for The Blackthorn Key!

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blackthorn-key-9781442388536_hrKevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key, starts with the words “Let’s build a canon.” A promising beginning.   One that had me reading the paperback of this book—newly out—as I walked it back to its place in the store. Then when I got home I remembered that I had a sample of the book, and read the first two chapters through, and debated more seriously still purchasing the paperback.

Then I went on a road trip, and having recently been reintroduced to audiobooks by a friend who started me on Huck Finn, I decided to go to the local library and see what audiobooks I might be able to bring with me to make the hours pass—and I found this book. The first leg of my trip was 4 hours to the first stop and another 6 hours to the second stop. I spent a good bit of that time (the whole recording is 7 hours and 21 minutes) in Restoration London with an apothecary’s apprentice and his best friend, the baker’s son, Tom.

When I’d reached my first stop, I was raved to the friend that I visited about the book that I was listening to, telling her to go and buy the thing, even though I was only maybe two or three hours into the story. Getting into the car when we had to part ways was not as hard because I knew that Chris, Tom, and the mystery into which they’d been thrust were waiting for me.

By the time that I arrived at my final destination, I was raving to my mother, telling her about the whirlwind adventure I’d just been on, and how the dark back roads of Pennsylvania hadn’t seemed so long or so lonely with this book for company.

The codes and charts and solved puzzles were harder to understand in audio form, but that was my one rub with the reading itself. Lines like

img_0725aloud are just as perplexing, but… lengthier. It’s the sort of thing that the eyes can glaze over and gather the gist, but a reader has to take time to say. And a chart such as

img_0724

is equally lengthy and confusing. Mind, the printing of the chart in this Find Your Hero Chapter Sampler is actually more confusing for its set up than was Panthaki’s reading (A 22, B 23, C 24, etc. is how it was read in the recording), but that may have been fixed in the final layout.

Otherwise, it took me maybe only a few minutes to be on board with Ray Panthaki, a London-born, British actor (producer, writer, director, Renaissance man), as a narrator, who was subtle about the voices that he gave the characters, for the most part, but who did provide me with voices, which helped to liven the dialogue I’m sure and also helped to keep straight the various characters when dialogue tags were not something I could see for myself. No one seemed overblown and no one stood out unduly from the crowd, which is, I feel, one danger in narrating with voices.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, and this story is set a little late in history for me to gravitate towards it (I tend to say—and it’s not entirely a joke—that my knowledge of history ends right around 1600), but there was plenty to keep me entertained and engaged, sitting—especially those last few hours as the mystery raced towards its reveal—on the edge of my seat and clinging to the wheel in front of me: action, mystery, politics, heart-wringing circumstances inflicted onto characters that I grew fairly quickly to care about, magic (or science; here apothecary, potions-maker, woodswitch, and alchemist are all only so many steps from one another—and that is all addressed in the text), the uplifting story of an orphan escaping abuse and poverty to find love and riches and purpose, loyal friends, children getting the better of adults…. Now that I’m listing them I see that those are a lot of the same elements that make Harry Potter so enjoyable.

And I know from working in a bookstore and trying to help customers find books to suit school assignments how difficult it is to find historical fiction—or mystery for that matter—for that 8-12 range. I am going to hope that most teachers will accept this as historical fiction. Certainly I learned some about the time.

My one reserve about the text itself is that Sands doesn’t shy from gore or cruelty or torture. That’s fine but maybe not for the youngest of ears. In Barnes & Noble, this book lives in a section marked for ages 7-12. The audiobook warns that it’s recommended for ages 10-14. I know some 10 year olds who would be squigged out by some of the more gruesome injuries inflicted on the characters. Parents, use caution. As always, I recommend reading the book before or with your child. Know what they’ll be able to handle, and be ready to talk to them if they need reassurance or have questions.

*****

Sands, Kevin. The Blackthorn Key.  2015.  Narr. Ray Panthaki. Compact discs. Simon & Schuster Audio, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Kevin Sands, Ray Panthaki, Simon & Schuster, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: A Caution and Plea for Open-Mindedness: SPOILER-FREE

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9781338099133_default_pdpThe majority of the reviews that I’m seeing for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have been negative or underwhelmed—and I sort of want to echo these same feelings, but every time that I try to do so—well, I can moan along with the best, and I can parcel out what exactly didn’t work for me and why, but I feel badly doing so and here’s why: Can you imagine living up to our expectations? We—me, and the majority of the fans that I’ve seen react negatively—are the ones who never really left Hogwarts. We took J. K. Rowling at her word when she said that Hogwarts would always be there to welcome us home. We wept along with Trelawney when she moaned that Hogwarts was her home—because she was echoing our own feelings as we watched a monster destroy the place we loved—and because she is played by Emma Thompson, and that woman is a masterful actress. If we didn’t write fanfiction, we read it, and we had our favorites, and we had personal theories on every minor detail and pet theories on which we couldn’t be swayed and which we’d defend loudly and ardently to anyone (mine, for example, is that there is corruption at some level within St. Mungo’s, and Alice Longbottom is conscious enough to recognize it and has been trying to tell Neville for years through her bubble gum wrappers; I even got to write and publish the essay on it in a book of scholarly and not-so-scholarly articles by fans).

I think we remained more deeply entrenched in the world and engaged more fully with the characters these past nine years perhaps than has J. K. Rowling.

And J. K. Rowling approved but did not actually pen this script. I have to think that John Tiffany and Jack Thorne are fans themselves—the sort of fans that we are—and that they have pet theories too, ones that they won’t put aside despite evidence within the canon.

J. K. Rowling has never discouraged fanfiction.

In some ways the only thing that this play is truly guilty of is that we expect it to live up to the original canon when it is really a fan piece that happens to have been granted a nod by the author—and of not being our fan piece.

The story is and feels like fanfiction—canonized fanfiction—and because so many fan theories and fan ideas—even the ones we held onto only as jokes—were given the nod, it feels a bit like being pandered to—or stolen from when I think—I hope that J. K. Rowling’s idea was to validate some of our theories—though I wish she’d been more selective, and I wish that she had more carefully read over the work and seen that some of the ideas just don’t jive with the already established seven canon novels. But we’ve had more than nine years to mull over, tinker with, and hone these theories—and some of those ideas have been better handled or better written in other texts than this. And again, after all the effort we put into perfecting these ideas to see canon ideas that don’t match our own is off-putting.

So there’s that. But then, there are problems that I had, even as a fan piece, with plot elements and with the writing itself at times—things that have nothing to do with whether or not it was a good addition to the canon and more to do with whether I like the elements within the text, elements I would judge if this were a standalone and not a new piece in the Harry Potter world. There are already boundless articles online detailing some of the problems that this text has: that the badass Hermione Granger’s success seems so dependent upon the approval of one or any man (as written by Kadeen Griffiths for Bustle in “How Hermione Granger Is Portrayed in ‘Harry Potter & The Cursed Child’ Is Offensive to the Fans and the Character”), perhaps an attempt at inclusion of POC gone awry by mishandling in both Hermione (played by Noma Dumezweni) and Rose Weasley (played by Cherrelle Skeete) and the off-screen inclusion of Padma and Panju Weasley (“What The Hell Is A Panju?” And Other Questions I, A Brown Potterhead, Have For J.K. Rowling” published by Krupa Gohil on Buzzfeed). Without going into why it is difficult to reconcile this text with the canon or why I would have handled certain elements differently, these are perhaps its largest flaws.

That and some of the stage directions forget that they are stage directions. Yes, you could darken a character’s eyes with contacts but what I think the stage direction means is that the character is terrified and that—well, if your actor can widen his pupils, fantastic, but don’t command him to do so; let the actor, act. Moreover, unless the play is being filmed and filmed with an intense zoom lens, such a detail won’t be seen. Some stage directions are written as if they can tell the audience how to react too. Without magic you can’t force a whole audience to react in a certain way, certainly not by telling them to do so. Sometimes the novelist snuck into the play. And what sort of stage direction is “And time stops. And then it turns over, thinks a bit”?  What does that even mean?

Expect another more nitpicky review where I will pick apart the things I liked and disliked, but I wanted to answer all the negativity, and I liked the idea of a spoiler-free and a spoiler-filled review.  (Here is that review.)

I’ve already begun a reread.

***

Thorne, Jack.  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  Based on a story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne.  New York: Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the play or script.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Just a Bit about Demigods & Magicians

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9781484732786

Spoilers in white. Highlight to view.

Demigods and Magicians collects in a hardcover volume three stories released as e-books and as short stories in paperback editions of some of Rick Riordan’s longer books. These stories marry two of his stories: Percy Jackson’s (which is found in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus, and now continues in The Trials of Apollo) and the Kanes’ (from The Kane Chronicles). The first story, “The Son of Sobek,” I had read before in my paperback of The Serpent’s Shadow. That short story was every bit as exciting and well written as Riordan’s longer works. In it, Carter Kane hunts a monster in the swamps of a Long Island park. Percy Jackson hunts the same monster. The two need to team up and fight the monster together to defeat it. The end of the story promises a time when the two will need one another again.

And I waited on that second story for a long time. “The Staff of Serapis” where Annabeth Chase meets Sadie Kane was released in the paperback of The Mark of Athena, but I already had a hardcover copy of that book and could never justify creasing the spine of a paperback that I hadn’t purchased just to read the next short story. And I still don’t own an e-reader nor have I downloaded any app that would allow me to read e-books on my computer; judge me. Ditto to The House of Hades, the paperback version of which hid the final crossover story, “The Crown of Ptolemy.”

The first story is told from Carter’s first person. The second switches to a third person limited from Annabeth’s POV. The last is in Percy’s first person. Since the release of The Red Pyramid, the first book to veer from Percy’s close first person narration, I’ve admired that Riordan is a risk-taker; he does not confine himself to a single style, but tries something new with each series (or did so through the first three; The Trials of Apollo returns to close first person): the Percy Jackson series are close first person, The Kane Chronicles are two first person narrations done as audio transcripts, The Heroes of Olympus are several close third narrators. This is the first of his books to combine the first and the third person narrations, and it feels almost seamless (anything that involves Sadie Kane is going to strike with a bit of a bang; she has that effect).

I was further impressed that Riordan was able to rationalize the fun that he was having with a crossover story. He found an enemy that could not be defeated without a crossover; most crossovers that I’ve ever read (or written) have had no justification other than fun, no plot reason for the crossover (and most have been fan-written rather than canon). He not only found a reason to connect the two stories, but found a way to make this story a continuation of the Kanes’ story in particular, the ultimate baddie being a character from their past, someone they worried about leaving loose in the world.

I realize that there’s not a lot of substance to this review, but suffice it to say that I finished this story on May 27. I began it again the other day.

Sometimes I need the slight commitment of a short story. The three stories together are a mere 212 pages. From Riordan especially, whose characters and humorous but dramatic and action-filled writing I often miss, I appreciate having short stories. 212 pages is so much less of a commitment to make than any one of his novels, none of which I easily read only a part.

****

Riordan, Rick. Demigods & Magicians: Percy and Annabeth Meet the Kanes. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

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

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