Tag Archives: mythology

Book Review: African Myth and an Adult Hero’s Tale in Anansi Boys

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

Reader’s confession time again: Anansi Boys is the first novel of Neil Gaiman’s that I have ever read. And I didn’t even read it, really; I listened to Lenny Henry read it and give voices to each of the characters while I drove my car back and forth across town.

While Anansi Boys is sometimes billed as a sequel to American Gods, I can attest that it works just fine as a standalone as long as one is prepared to accept that the old gods live still. And I am more than used to the idea, being a fan of Rick Riordan’s.

I’m familiar with Anansi as a trickster spider god from Africa. I think it was Reading Rainbow that first introduced me to the character (but now that I’m looking, I can’t find any reference to such an episode). Much beyond that, I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, but Anansi tales are woven into the text, making any background on the character unnecessary. Gaiman even gives some of the evolution of the tales, explanations of how some people sometimes think that Anansi is a rabbit, how Anansi’s tales became African American Br’er Rabbit tales.

Because according to the novel all stories are Anansi’s, I think of this almost as much as a story about stories and the crafting of a story as it is about the way that the characters maneuver through their complicated and twisted relationships and situations, particularly because stories and songs are given such power in the novel. As a hero’s journey, as someone who reads primarily children’s and teen’s literature, it’s nice to read a bildungsroman for an adult where the everyday complications are bosses, difficult clients, worries about money, worries about adult relationships, and future in-laws. All of that is becoming more relevant to me than worries over turning in homework on time, seeing school bullies between classes, my tier in the social hierarchy, difficult teachers, or parents being unsupportive.

In this tale, Anansi dies of a heart attack while singing karaoke and flirting with young tourists in a bar in Florida. His son, Fat Charlie, who is embarrassed by his father whom he thinks made it his mission to humiliate Charlie, flies from London for the funeral. The only other attendees are a few old women, neighbors of Anansi’s and Fat Charlie’s and his mother’s when they lived in Florida. One of the older women reveals Anansi’s godhood to Fat Charlie and also reveals that Charlie has a brother about whom he has forgotten. She tells him to tell a spider if he ever wants to contact his brother.

Back in London, Fat Charlie continues at his job as an accountant for the Grahame Coats talent agency. Charlie and his fiancée Rosie continue wedding preparations, and Rosie insists that Fat Charlie should try to reach out to his brother to invite him to the wedding.

After drunkenly whispering to a spider that it would be nice if his brother would visit, Spider shows up, moves into the house, and begins an initially perhaps well-intentioned but increasing hostile takeover of Charlie’s life, house, and girlfriend.

I wish the ending of the romantic tangle had been a little less obvious.

I was mostly entwined in the story of the mystical coexisting with the everyday—and before Spider, Fat Charlie’s life is very everyday—the way that Spider’s powers manifest, the way that Tiger manifests in the world, the spirit journeys that Charlie takes with the help of the older women.

Maybe because it’s taken me so long to read a Gaiman novel, maybe because many are saying that this is one of his least, I was not as blown away by Anansi Boys as I maybe even wanted to be. I enjoyed it. I think Lenny Henry’s voices may have done much to keep this story exciting. But I didn’t love it, though I did rave when given the opportunity the morning after I’d finished it to a willing party.

I think this would be a good read for those who want to learn a little mythology without reading mythology straight—though I’m not sure why anyone would want not to read the mythology straight. I doubt Riordan will never touch African mythology—though someone from his imprint might. I do wonder how someone from the African diaspora reacts to Gaiman’s take on their mythology. I wonder if Anansi is still a god anywhere in the world. I wonder if Gaiman should have taken on this subject, as much as I enjoy it. Most of the characters are from the Caribbean, members of the African diaspora, and to my knowledge, Gaiman is neither. He seems to have handled the mythology well, but I’m not the one to decide.

****

Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. Narrated by Lenny Henry. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. Audiobook, 9 CDs. First published 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Neil Gaiman, Lenny Henry, HarperAudio, HarperCollins, 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: 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.

Challenge: Legal Theft: The Creation of the Vatrin (292 words)

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Vofa looked down on the world that he had created, a world of green trees; gray rock; rich, dark earth; and red clay, where the gentle doe moved silently between branches, soft sheep grazed in fields, the wolf paused to sniff the air, and the dove flew bright as a sunray over all.

My world, Vofa thought, is wide. It will be good if I have some on this world who can carry my flame and aid those whose flame flickers and weakens in sickness.

Once more Vofa bent to the earth. From a mountain’s peak—this mountain’s peak—he scooped up a handful of stone. This stone he molded. He gave the creature nibble hands that he did not need to use to walk, leaving them always free to direct the fire as Vofa’s hands did. He gave him a sharp mind and a conscience bent towards compassion.

Into the other creatures, Vofa had sent a spark that burnt within the creatures as if on a wick, tethered to the creature and finite. In this, he thought, I will need more. He will need fire that he can siphon off to use to help others. His fire must be more than what is needed to sustain him alone.

He hollowed out the stone as he had with the others. This time he did not touch his finger to the wick and set alight the creature, but poured forth his fire into him, letting it fill up the empty spaces between the organs as water seeps between rocks in a jar. He left it to flow freely inside the creature like the creature’s blood. That firelight flickered in his newly opening eyes and exhaled on his breath.

The creature smiled at Vofa.

This has been a legal theft challenge issued by myself.  Legal theft has gone through a mutation.  The nature of challenge is no longer confined to a first line.  Last week’s (which one day I hope to catch up on and do) was to use two dogs.  This week I challenged my friends to write me a creation story (because I’d earlier threatened to do so, and I knew I had several in my back pocket that just had not been written).

My friends were good enough to accept that challenge.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Honey Wine and Sweet Iron” (442 words).

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Khaalida, The Necromancer.”

C.C. at Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers wrote “Reaper.”

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “It Started With A Wish.”

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Legends” (206 words).

Book Reviews: February 2016 Picture Book Roundup

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9780374346904Love Monster and the Last Chocolate by Rachel Bright. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-Macmillan, 2015. First published 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 2-4, Grades PreK-K.

A sequel to Love Monster and less problematic I think than its predecessor, in this story Love Monster finds a box of chocolates on his doorstep upon returning home. He wants to eat the chocolate but realizes that he should share the chocolate. But if he shares the chocolate there may not be enough. His friends may take the piece of chocolate that he really wants. Ultimately, Love Monster decides to share and to confess his selfish thoughts to his friends—who laugh and explain that they left the chocolate; they ate all but one piece, which they wanted to save and share with him, and if he’d opened the box, he’d have seen the chocolate and the note saying that they had missed him.  Readers are reminded that honesty and generosity reward and that friendship and chocolate are better when shared.  The gut-wrenching guilt that Love Monster experiences over his selfish desires seems maybe a bit condemning but that guilt is not thrust on Love Monster; it is rather a byproduct of his own conscience, which for me makes the book less condemnable.

****

9780670013272Llama Llama Nighty-Night by Anna Dewdney. Viking-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This simple board book takes Llama Llama through the routine of getting ready for bed with the same catchy rhymes and endearing illustrations that are used in the picture books for older children. The cardboard pages, shorter length, shorter sentences, and simpler ideas all show that Dewdney understands the younger audience as well as she can captivate kids just a little older. Llama Llama is one of my favorite modern series, so this book might get some extra brownie points for including one of my favorite characters. Dewdney is a powerful illustrator and good writer.

****

please-open-this-book-9781442450714_hrPlease, Open This Book! by Adam Lehrhaupt and illustrated by Matthew Forsythe.  Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I feel like I’ve been reading—and loving—a lot of books that break down the barriers between the characters and the reader, the fictional world and the real. In this one, the characters are relieved that someone has finally opened their book because the last person to read it closed the book with them still inside, injuring several of them. The characters complain about their lot, all the while trying to convince the current reader never to close the book, even bribing the reader. I am of two minds about this book: I can see the argument that this book will leave kids wracked with guilt about closing another book ever again, which will lead to a mess of open books on tables and on the floor. On the other hand, I giggled at its silliness and read it at a story time, and it is one of the only books that I have ever sold because of a story time to someone who was at that story time. The mother who was there thought that her child—the older one who was not present, but I suspect was a young elementary age child—would love it, and bought it out of my hand when I’d finished reading. So, really, if parents are okay with this book, I don’t see why I should worry about it.

****

407429The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith. Scholastic, 1992. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grades K-3.

This book is nearly as old as I am and has been in my possession for probably nigh twenty years now. It’s still funny. These extremely fractured fairy tales are narrated by Jack of “and the Beanstalk” fame and interrupted often by a very frustrated little red hen. Many of these stories lack the magic and the change that comes at the end of most fairy tales: The ugly duckling just becomes an ugly duck; the frog prince is just a frog lying about a curse; the stinky cheese man is chased by no one. The morals of the fairy tales are lost too. But it’s in the unexpectedness and refusal to adhere to the trope or tale type that these tales succeed. There is quite a bit of fourth wall breakage too: on the back cover, the hen complains, “Who is this ISBN guy?”; the giant wants to tell his story and does so in a hodgepodge of sentences cut and pasted from other tales; Jack accidentally tells the whole of “Little Red Running Shorts” in his introduction and Red and the wolf walk out on him, refusing to tell it again. The hen is my favorite character, but my favorite stories are “Chicken Licken” and “Jack’s Story.”  The mixed media illustrations often work in close tandem with the text, making this more picture book than picture storybook.

*****

24968109What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss. Random, 2015.

This is the first of Dr. Seuss’ posthumous books that I’ve read, and I really enjoyed it. It started out seeming a little too ordinary for what I expect from Seuss and a bit slow for that, the siblings debating between a puppy, a kitten, a goldfish, but it did devolve into the ridiculous and imaginative animals that are wonderfully Seussian (and yes, that is a word, in the Oxford Dictionary and all). The whole plot revolves around a brother and sister needing to choose just one pet, for which their father will pay. In the end, they decide on the perfect pet—but Seuss never tells us which pet that is—which I loved. This will never be a favorite Seuss book of mine—not with the mess of wonderful books of his out there, but this was lighthearted, nostalgic, silly fun.

****

576a1851142468e1c25a977f2dfa976fRaven’s Light: A Myth from the People of the Northwest Coast by Susan Hand Shetterly and illustrated by Robert Shetterly. Atheneum-Macmillan, 1991.

This is an old book of my roommate’s from which the dust jacket is missing and the binding on the pages has come undone, so I don’t actually know what the cover looks like. The cover that I found is someone’s Pinterest pin off of an image that has now been removed from Amazon, though it looks like the right style certainly, and I wanted to give you some idea of the illustrations. I am not familiar with this myth outside of the book. In this story, the raven flies over a dark, landless, unpopulated sea with a heavy sack and a pebble. The pebble when he drops it into the sea becomes land and from the sack he pulls out all of the creatures including people. A tear in the sky attracts his attention. Through that tear is the bright land of the sun. Raven turns himself into a leaf and is ingested by the beautiful daughter of a chieftain there. He is born again as her winged humanoid child. He grows up among the people there, protected by his mother. Eventually he steals the sun from the chieftain, his grandfather, and brings it to his own dark kingdom. A young girl accepts his gift and releases the moon and sun.

I am always interested to learn new myths so I enjoyed this story, and I enjoy knowing about these books to share with others who are interested. This story is different from most that I’ve heard too, most of which seem to involve humanoid gods/creators, usually either pitted against one another or in amorous relations with one another (sometimes both), who consciously or accidentally create land and create life but never because they are tired and overcome.  I’m familiar with the raven as a trickster in some American folklore and as a symbol of death and ruin in Anglo-Celtic folklore and mythology, but this I think is the first I’ve seen of a raven god/creator.

Susan Shetterly doesn’t explain so much as she reports. The text is colorful and descriptive with powerful words. Susan Shetterly relies on that and on the characters themselves more than she does on an authoritative narrator. Myths for adults can often be too bogged down by scholarly articles and footnotes. Myths for kids can be too pedagogic or too anxious about not undermining the storytellers’ own beliefs. This telling nicely avoids both types of heavy-handedness, and really comes together as a story.

****

9781627794046Hedgehugs by Steve Wilson and illustrated by Lucy Tapper. Henry, Holt-Macmillan, 2015. First published 2014.

This is a precious friendship story about two hedgehogs who just want to express their love for one another in the fashion of humans—with a hug. But hedgehogs are spiky, and hugs between them are uncomfortable. They try several types of seasonable armor to protect each other from their spikes (providing a teaching opportunity about the weather changes and seasons), but none is successful until they find a few socks fallen from the laundry, which when donned protect them from each other’s quills and look absolutely adorable besides. This book also claims an explanation for all those socks that seem to go missing in the wash.  Really, it’s just adorable.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: American Born Chinese Smashes Stereotypes and Issues Challenges Directly

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Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is another book that I was introduced to by A. LaFaye in that same History and Criticism of Children’s Literature class at Hollins University, and is another that I have read many times since that class. This is an award winning graphic novel about Jin Wang’s struggle to fit into a predominantly Caucasian America as a Chinese American. It parallels with the ancient Chinese tale of the Monkey King, a powerful monkey who wants to be a god, but whom the gods refuse because he’s a monkey. Told with a laugh track and canned applause like a 90s television comedy, the third strand of the story, “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” features the worst of Chinese stereotypes in Chin-Kee, a cousin of all-American Danny who so embarrasses Danny that Danny has to change schools each year after Chin-Kee’s visit. The three tales intersect at the end of the book with a lesson to learn to be happy as one is rather than wishing to be something one is not.

This was the first graphic novel I was able to enjoy, though a few others had been put into my hands prior, including Tamora Pierce’s White Tiger, which I’d have loved to have enjoyed. I cannot pretend to have a breadth of knowledge about either comic or manga illustration styles. I have had difficulty particularly with the American comic book format. When confronted with the form, my mind can focus on either the text or picture but not on both. A. suggested that this is a more common problem than I ever would have expected and related to the same reflex that makes me cover my eyes during horror films. In American comic books and horror films, the action is generally directed out of the page at the audience, so I flinch from horror films and dodge the illustrations in American comic books, glossing over the pictures, missing the details they add to the story, and catching only the dialogue. I also don’t approve of the hypersexualization of characters that seems pervasive in comic book illustration.

Yang’s style is more confined to the pages, even the fight sequences only occasionally having a limb extended out towards the reader. His colors are brighter, though I’m not sure what effect that would have on my reading ability unless the brighter colors are more welcoming in the same way that picture book illustrators recommend bright colors to keep a child’s attention and to create a stimulating image. The characters are not hypersexualized but rather of fairly average body type. Most of the illustrations feature forward facing characters and often direct stares, placing the reader in the position of a character, of a confidant or aggressor or opponent, creating empathy in many cases and inviting introspection and close reflection of the characters’ words.

That’s one of things I love best about this book: It issues a challenge to the reader while being readily accessible, even with its graphic novel form inviting more reluctant readers to read. It takes its challenges of stereotypes to every level, going beyond its text, challenging the belief that a graphic novel cannot have literary value (though this is becoming a less firmly held belief among critics, educators, and parents, I believe). Its illustrations blend manga and American comics while creating something new, its form a metaphor for the story’s message. It speaks openly about racism and race and prejudice.

I don’t admittedly know enough about Chinese mythology or folklore. I believe though that in the spirit of the melting pot, Yang melds Chinese mythology and Christian mythology. The emissaries of Tze-yo-tzuh, an all-powerful god who created the world and everything in it, are a bull, lion, woman, and eagle. A man, bull, lion, and eagle are traditionally used to depict the four Christian Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Journey into the West taken by Wong Lai-Taso and the Monkey King is to see and bring gifts to a humble man in a brown robe and a woman in a blue mantle with a young child. The couple and child look like the traditional representations of Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, and Wong Lai-Taso’s and the Monkey King’s journey west to give them gifts then parallels the journey of the wise men (from the East) to present their gifts to the Christ child in the Christian story.

Yang creates a wonderful piece of fiction, complex and intricate.

*****

Yang, Gene Yuen. American Born Chinese. Color by Lark Pien. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Yuen Yang, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

If you’re thinking of buying an e-reader copy of this book, why not support me and buy it through Bookgrail?

Book Review: The Sea of Monsters: The Odyssey, Blurred Lines, and a Career

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Spoilers ahead.

Of all of the Percy Jackson books, of all of Rick Riordan’s books, book two of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Sea of Monsters, is probably my favorite. You’ve probably already realized from reading this blog that I am a bit of a nerd. I am particularly fond of Homer’s Odyssey, enough so to have a favorite translation (Robert Fitzgerald’s). All of the Percy Jackson books draw heavily from Greek mythology. The Sea of Monsters draws heavily from The Odyssey in particular, with Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and Clarisse seeking out the island of Polyphemus by way of Circe’s island and Charybdis and Scylla, Percy being turned into a guinea pig and Annabeth tricking Polyphemus by calling herself “Nobody.” Reading The Sea of Monsters is a bit like reading a wonderfully rendered crossover fanfiction for me.

Told with all of the usual sass of Percy’s voice and all of the fast-paced action and situational humor of Riordan’s style, The Sea of Monsters is certainly a fun read—and a quick one.

The lines between monster and hero are blurred a little in this novel (though not as much as they will be in later books). Percy has a new friend and half-brother, Tyson, a young Cyclops abandoned to grow up on the streets of New York, but beloved by his father, Poseidon. Cyclopes are by definition monsters, but Tyson is gentle and acts heroically in defense of his friends. Polyphemus, also a Cyclops and Percy’s and Tyson’s half-brother, for all that he is one of the antagonists of this novel is not particularly violent or antagonistic. He uses what resources he can (the Golden Fleece) to keep his island healthy and to lure meals to himself, not outwardly violent or malicious acts. Now, that he happens to eat satyrs does not endear him to the reader, but nor does it make him inherently wicked. What Polyphemus seems most to desire companionship. Likewise, monsters have joined the ranks of Kronos’ and Luke’s growing army, but so have demigods. The black and white battle lines of heroes versus monsters are not in place for this novel.

This book improves too upon the style of Riordan’s first novel, The Lightning Thief. The first had a few moments of preaching that jarred the quick-paced action, as if Riordan could not believe he was getting this chance to talk to the masses and could not imagine being allowed to do so again—let alone… 17 times more (many of these bestsellers) with more books still scheduled for release. Perhaps when publishing The Sea of Monsters Riordan realized that he’d made himself a career and that he could take his time to more subtly deliver his messages.

This book is particularly interesting to read with the 20/20 hindsight of later books. Having read further in Percy Jackson’s timeline, I can appreciate the subtle foreshadowing, and I have new insight into Hylla and the loosing of Blackbeard and his crew on Circe’s island. Particularly the last two of The Heroes of Olympus series, The House of Hades and The Blood of Olympus, point out the consequences of careless actions made in Percy’s younger years, and where I might have thought nothing of the release of the pirates on the villainess’ home prior, now I know what terror it caused for more innocent victims on the island, and I have to take Percy’s heroics with the grain of salt that tainted my palate later.

All this only deepens my appreciation for the book however. Flawed heroes are better characters and character development is too often missed in stories.

*****

Riordan, Rick. Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2: The Sea of Monsters. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2006.

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

Book Reviews: September 2014 Picture Book Roundup: I’m Feeling Generous–Or These Are Good Books

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I Spy With My Little Eye by Edward Gibbs. Templar-Random, 2014. First published 2011.

The illustrations in this board book are wonderful: brightly colored, realistic, and whimsical at once. The story that this primer tells is loose and little, but to be a primer that has any plot is to be of a higher quality than the majority of the genre. The text mimics the game’s pattern—“I spy with my little eye something [of a particular color]”—and a circular hole in the page allows readers to glimpse the color on the next page. The text also includes a hint about what is on the following page. “It has a long trunk” hints that an elephant is the gray something to be found. The page is turned to reveal an animal associated with that particular color: a yellow lion, a red fox, a green frog, making this an animal as well as a color primer. The frog is the one to turn the book around, break the fourth wall, and end with “I spy you!” As a read-aloud it would be easily interactive.

****1/2

9781419709548

Mini Myths: Play Nice, Hercules! by Joan Holub and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli. Appleseed-Abrams, 2014.

This board book tells the Hercules myth with pictures and text that feature a toddler Hercules stomping about the house smashing “monsters” and then his sister’s block tower instead of killing his family. Upon her tears, he stoops to help rebuild it, rebuilding his relationship with his sister as well, instead of completing his twelve labors. Then the end summarizes in a paragraph with much exclusion and downplaying for the toddler audience the myth of Hercules. This is a book that children could grow with, reading the myth paragraph as a separate story when they’re older, though whether a beginning reader would want to read a paragraph at the end of a board book is another question.

In the paragraph “he accidentally hurt his family.” That understates the damage done by Hercules in the myth just a bit, but I suppose without going into an explanation of the horrible marriage of Hera and Zeus and the birth of Hercules, that’s not an unfair statement, and honestly, I think Holub did a pretty stellar job of translating the myth for a modern, toddler audience. Hopefully no toddler is spurred by a jealous goddess into a rage and kills his family, but sure, a toddler could for no reason other than for sport, destroy his younger sister’s block tower. That’s entirely relatable and still gets at the wanton, accidental destruction in the Hercules myth. I would waffle on whether Hercules was forgiven by everyone when he completed the twelve labors, but the young Hercules character within this board book, who destroys a block tower, might plausibly be forgiven entirely by everyone, and the concept of the omnipotence of the Greek gods and the promise of immortality are ones probably beyond the curriculum of the average toddler.

Holub already has a reputation as a reteller of myths with her middle grade series, Goddess Girls, which places the young goddesses and gods of Greek myths within a middle school setting; Grimmtastic Girls, in which heroines from Grimms’ fairy tales attend prep school and fight against the E.V.I.L. Society; Heroes in Training, which features young heroes of Greek myth on adventures; and picture books like Little Red Writing, which is a parody of “Little Red Riding Hood.” There are others, but this list gives you some idea of the time and energy that she has put into retelling stories for a young, modern audience.

Leslie Patricelli is an equally prolific and prominent board book illustrator, with such titles as Potty, Huggy Kissy, and Tickle.

I suspect this team to sell well. I hope that they do, but so far at my store the title isn’t flying off the shelves like it should.

*****

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Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? Sound Book by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Priddy-St. Martin’s, 2011. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 1-5, Grades PreK-K.

Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle have been a bestselling team for quite some time now with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and all of its sequels and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and all of its. This is a spinoff of a spinoff of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, a sound book version of Polar Bear, Polar Bear. Because this is a sound as well as an animal primer, the sound book is a logical and I think good choice. There’s something satisfying—there always is—about pushing buttons to make noise—even at my age, but as a toddler certainly.  The soundbites used for this book are of the actual animals too, as far as I can figure; certainly the peacock’s “yelp” is the wail of a peacock; that’s a very distinctive sound.  Carle was less creative with colors here—animals are more their natural color than say a blue horse (though the walrus is purple)—and in a way I appreciate that; it helps with the animal primer aspect of the book. There’s pleasantly and unobtrusively more diversity within the human characters here. There’s a suggestion at the end, as the zookeeper repeats the noises imitated by the children that he hears, for children being read the book to imitate the noises, making it a possibly interactive read.

****

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The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Annick Press Ltd, 1993. First published 1980.  Intended audience: Ages 4-7, Grades PreK-2.

This book. If you haven’t read, find it. A princess’ castle and wardrobe are destroyed and her prince carried off by a dragon. Instead of crying, she clothes herself in the one thing untouched by the dragon’s fire—a paper bag—and sets off to rescue her prince, outsmarting the dragon by using its own hubris against it. Her prince is upset about being rescued by a princess who doesn’t look like a princess with her singed and mussed hair and cleverly crafted paper bag dress and tells Elizabeth to come back when she looks like a real princess. Elizabeth recognizes that Rupert is in fact a “bum” and she leaves him, skipping happily into the sunset in her paper bag. Elizabeth is a princess who shows her emotions, most importantly anger. Few Disney princes get angry: Jasmine, Pocahontas, Tiana, Merida, Nala…. Well, the list is longer than I thought it would be, but noticeably absent are the original, the classic princesses: Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White—the Disney princesses pre-1980 when this book was first released. Little girls are often taught that anger is not a feminine emotion, and so it is repressed rather than felt or expressed—not a healthy thing. Boys and girls should be taught how to deal with anger rather than not to feel it or that to feel it is somehow wrong—I think. Elizabeth outsmarts the dragon by paying him compliments, not a weapon I particularly think of as masculine—though recent experiences make me question whether this is perhaps a weapon wielded too often by men. I was going to label the weapon of manipulation via compliment as feminine, but now I’m thinking that this weapon is not particularly feminine so much as it does not require the physical strength, the dragon-slaying that is stereotypically associated almost wholly with men and masculinity.

The feminist message remains, however. Elizabeth is a clever girl, who learns to see past appearances, who runs in contrast to the clothes make the princess lesson of Cinderella—and that is a lesson that bears learning.

***** 

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Kitten and Friends by Priddy Books. Sterling, 2009.  First published by St. Martin’s, 2001.

I reviewed this book’s sister book, Puppies and Friends in April, so I suspected when I picked it up that I would enjoy it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like Puppies and Friends, this is a touch-and-feel book. It has rather unique feel elements, like strings of yarn, fibers meant to imitate a kitten’s stiff whiskers. Kitten and Friends poses questions to readers, like “can you feel my soft fur?”—not a very exciting question— and “Is the wool softer than my fur?”—a much better question that encourages comparative reasoning, which is what particularly loved about Puppies and Friends. This book I feel has more exciting feel elements than did Puppies and Friends, and I was distracted from the cleverness of the text by them—not a point of detraction, merely a score for the feel elements; it is still important that these are smart questions.

**** 

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You Are My Little Pumpkin Pie by Amy E. Sklansky and illustrated by Talitha Shipman. LB Kids-Hachette, 2013.

I did much like this book. Unless you already call your child “pumpkin pie” then the reasoning behind the pet name seems an odd choice for a story. As a book to encourage parent-child interaction it might have some merit, with lines like “Each time I kiss your yummy cheek, I have to kiss it twice”—but “yummy cheek”? Are you going to eat your baby? The text honestly makes the parents seem rather self-centered. The child is warm and cozy next to them, she is yummy, she lights up a room—what benefit does the child get from any of this? It’s as if the child is there to improve the life of the parent. Certainly children might improve parents’ lives, but a child’s no tool, and that should be a two-way street with agape love on both sides.

**

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: The House of Hades Asks Readers to Rethink

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This review contains MAJOR spoilers.

It was a long wait for The House of Hades, fourth in The Heroes of Olympus, the sequel series to Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan.  The third book, The Mark of Athena, left our heroes literally plunging to a fate worse than death, and it didn’t seem likely that a rescue was possible without death or the sacrifice of someone to that worse than death fate.

Given all that, I was pleasantly surprised by the comparatively happy ending of The House of Hades.

Frank’s and Jason’s characters are greatly built up in this latest novel, as is Percy’s.  Riordan questions as he never has before the morality of the demigods’ way of life, killing to survive and drawing black-and-white battle lines, where all monsters are bad (Percy Jackson and the Olympians has previously questioned if all demigods are good).  Tartarus’ description never failed to be appropriately terrifying and disgusting.  Leo’s story is given a sharp plot twist, that I think has all of us cheering for him.

[The major spoilers begin here.]  The big story around The House of Hades is likely to be Nico’s revealed sexual orientation.  Riordan has said that Nico’s non-heterosexual orientation arose organically, that the character told him rather than Riordan telling Nico—and that’s as it should be; I’m pleased to hear it.  Though I recognize that Rowling revealed Dumbledore’s sexual orientation because she was prompted by a fan’s question and because to do so showed her support for LGBT community and because it did not effect her plot, doing so did not effect the plot or explain any actions that otherwise seemed out-of-character (I would have believed—and do believe—that Dumbledore’s instinct would not have been to kill Grindelwald, even if he and Grindelwald had never loved one another, and I did not question why it took so long for Dumbledore to confront Grindelwald because it didn’t effect the present plotline).  Revealing Nico’s sexual preference within the contexts of the plot, I am more open to hearing about it.  It reveals more about Nico’s prickly hesitation to try to belong or to become close to anyone.

But Riordan did not continue (or has not yet continued) along the plot trail as far as I wanted him to do (for the sake of good storytelling not because it is pleasant).

I have a greater understanding of the term “head canon” than I perhaps ever had before.  Nico’s distrust because of his sexual orientation and his fear that he will be rejected for it ought to be worse for him than for any other character who could reveal himself to be of a LGBT orientation because he is a child of World War II Europe.  Had it been any other character with the exception of Hazel, they would have been children of the 1990s.  Growing up and coming to realize that they were attracted to the same gendered characters, they might have feared bullying and social isolation, but in the 1930s and 1940s, had Nico not been whisked away to America and to the Lotus Hotel, he would have had to fear being dragged from his house and thrust into a crowded railcar.  He’d have had to fear forced labor, unethical scientific experimentation, gas chambers….  And this is why Nico’s painful confession, dragged out of him against his will through taunting, necessity, magic, and a beating, hurt me so much.

In my head canon, Hades, being a god, knew and took Nico away from Europe and away from his half-brother, Adolf Hitler, because he couldn’t bear to have one son kill another and wanted to protect Nico—because Hades really has seemed to be a surprisingly compassionate and present parent.

Many people have also been lauding the burgeoning of new powers in Hazel and Piper, both sorcerous.  While interested in the power to bend the Mist, I actually felt that very little was done with their characters this book.  I think partially because Piper’s and Hazel’s new powers are of a similar vein, I had a difficult time keeping the two of them distinct from one another.  Also, sorcery has often been viewed negatively in Greek mythology and within Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus, and while I don’t think it is Riordan’s intention to any way create negative associations for Piper or Hazel, I worry that I could academically argue that he has done so by making them both sorceresses in the vein of Circe, Medea, Pasiphaë (all villains in both Riordan’s series and most of mythological stories), and even Hecate, a minor goddess who had previously sided with the Titans.

I’m also very interested in the revelation that Greek and Roman may not be determined by birth, that a side can be chosen.  I think that that will have a major effect on the whole of the plot—and probably Jason ought to have revealed what he has learned about the definition of Greek and Roman to Reyna before they parted ways again so that she could reveal it to the Greeks and Romans in America—though I totally understand why he did not.  How does one casually tell a friend that one has decided to disown one’s race to identify with another race with which one’s birth race is currently at war?  Will deciding to identify as a child of Greece rather Rome affect Jason’s powers or personality?  I think not.

Peppered with the usual Riordan humor and plenty of “Perceabeth” moments, this was a well-paced novel, still not as breakneck as The Percy Jackson series, but more quickly paced than The Mark of Athena.

****1/4

Riordan, Rick.  The Heroes of Olympus, Book Four: The House of Hades.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2013.

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

Book Review: So You Want To Be a Wizard May Be Nine People’s Favorite Thing

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Diane Duane and I were introduced by a friend in my junior year of high school.  I fell in love with her Young Wizards quickly.

I’ve since then read and reread each book in the series up through the seventh (Wizard’s Holiday), and have only failed to continue on because the books (beyond the first few) are difficult to find in bookstores and must be ordered online.

Rereading most recently the first of the series, So You Want to Be a Wizard, I was again blown away by both the power and beauty of Duane’s prose, the intricacy of her world(s), and the beautiful blending of magic and fantasy with (Christian) mythology and science.

There’s a lot that Duane does well and a lot that I love.

1) Duane blends different mythologies (one Power claiming to have gone by the names Athena, Prometheus, Thor, Lugh, and the Archangel Michael) and scientific theories into a single, cohesive myth.  I did not for some time recognize so starkly that what Duane was doing was creating a magic system to work against the background of Christian mythology.  The fifth book, The Wizard’s Dilemma, (if I remember rightly) is the first to name the Starsnuffer or Lone One as the fallen Lucifer and the first to name the One as God.  Many ideas have been shared throughout time by Christians and Christian theologians about the power (or lack thereof) behind other gods: that all gods are God, that those other gods as demons, that they are men’s inventions and powerless.  In Duane’s myths, the other gods are angels (or both angels and the other gods are Powers), servants of God but not God Himself.  I could argue and have argued with myself about this issue, but Duane’s interpretation, though I know she writes it primarily as a work of fantasy, sits well with me—which perhaps is good and perhaps is dangerous.  I choose not to overthink it.  I don’t think that her interpretation has any real effect upon my interpretation other than to exist as another opinion.

2) Duane’s magic is affected primarily by the Speech, a language spoken by all things (or which all things can speak, but some forget).  The Speech is used both to ease negotiations because of its universality and, because one cannot lie in the Speech and promises made in the Speech must be kept, to help to persuade an object or person to change or to remind it what it should be, a wizard’s purpose being to help and to aid Life.  It falls into a category with other fantasies that laud the power of words, language, or secret names.  Especially, Duane’s Speech reminds me of the Old One’s speech from Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence and the way that knowing the true names of things gives one power in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the very similar idea that Rick Riordan borrows from Egyptian mythology for The Kane Chronicles.  Of those, I feel like Duane best uses language (you all can disagree with me; LeGuin’s prose I admit comes very close to having the same power as Duane’s, but LeGuin is writing for a different audience, and I prefer Duane’s speed and immediacy to LeGuin’s epic style).  I feel Duane embodies with her prose what she preaches by giving her words the power that words possess in the Speech.  Her imagery is vivid and poetic so that what should not or cannot be I can see clearly in my mind almost without fail.

3) There is little diversity in fantasy.  Most human heroes and heroines resemble an Anglo race (probably because we are all secretly emulating Tolkien, who was British in a time when Britain was less diverse than it now is).  Kit Rodriguez is a rare example of a Hispanic American in a fantasy where his race is not made into an issue or highlighted in any way.  He simply is Hispanic and his family speaks Spanish mixed with English not as an act of defiance, I feel, against the fantasy-world norm, but as a matter of fact.  Yes, Kit’s ethnicity is more obvious than Ged being copper-skinned but because Duane can include snippets of a recognizable language that is not the language in which the book is primarily written, her fantasy being low rather than high.  (Snippets of a high fantasy language build a fantasy world but can only infrequently be a ready identifier for readers of a race different from other characters of the same world.  For example, without them being labeled as such, would a casual reader recognize any difference between Dothraki, Braavosi, or High Valyrian?  Or Elvish, Dwarvish, and Orcish for that matter?  High fantasies have in some ways to work harder to create ethnicity because the reader knows none of the ethnic identifiers before entering the fantasy world.)

4) This first novel in particular is almost an anti-bullying book, with Nita Callahan deciding to try to befriend her bully at the end of the novel, [SPOILER] having just realized that even the most wicked can be exchange their ways for good if given the chance to do so. [END SPOILER]

This first novel, So You Want To Be a Wizard, reads more than some of the others as a simple, late middle-grade fantasy adventure.  There is a clear villain against which the young heroes must compete for the fate of the world.  The conflict is a simple, primarily external one.  Later novels delve deeper into difficult issues (parent’s death, cancer, autism), but even in this first, Duane creates or borrows a terrifying villain and doesn’t shy from killing protagonists—or rather allowing them to sacrifice themselves for the cause.

*****

Duane, Diane.  Young Wizards, Book 1: So You Want To Be a Wizard.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 1996.  First published by Delacorte 1983.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane, Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt, Inc., or Delacorte Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

As a note: this is a review of the original text.  Diane Duane is currently working on updated versions of the stories subtitled as The New Millennium editions, which, I hear, include updated technology and corrected facts and figures.

Title borrowed from the song from [Title of Show], “Nine People’s Favorite Thing.”

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