Tag Archives: novel

Book Review: The Surprising Sweetness of Dog Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

Book Review: Learning About Franco’s Spain in The Fountains of Silence

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

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I read an ARC of Ruta Sepetys’ The Fountains of Silence for Barnes & Noble’s YA Book Club. It isn’t probably a book that I would have otherwise picked up. Although Sepetys’ books are well reviewed, hers is not a genre into which I often venture, and Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray both about persecuted characters in WWII seem too desperately tragic for me to find reading them enjoyable; I tend to favor literature that helps me to escape the tragedy of life over that that reminds me of the tragedy of the past, as much as I know that it is important to remember.

But it’s only since 2007 that I have found history past the 1600s or so interesting.

Besides hearing the name Franco and knowing him to have been a leader of Spain, I was and am woefully ignorant about this period of Spanish and world history.

I learned a little from this novel.

I won’t pretend that I learned a lot or that I learned enough.

The novel centers one family, now adults or older teenagers, whose parents have been killed in the civil war and who are now living in the slums of Madrid and getting by as best as they can do. The son of an American oil baron comes to stay at a hotel where one member of the family, Ana Torres Moreno, works. Daniel Matheson is an outsider in Texas high society because of his Spanish mother, and his father frowns on his aspiration to become a photographer. In Franco’s Spain, the press is censored. Daniel quickly gets in trouble with the Guardia Civil for photographing aspects of Spanish society that Franco would rather be kept silent and out of the world’s eye—and the novel untangles why that particular photo gets his film confiscated, what act is being perpetrated by the nuns.

Daniel and Ana bond over Daniel’s photography and Daniel’s kindness and dreams of a more free future. Ana opens his eyes to the darker side of the Franco’s Spain, but she cannot open them enough to believe herself able to make a relationship with him—not until after Franco’s death, when the two of them have pined for one another for nearly two decades despite having no contact with one another in that time.

This plot was… too tight for me, a very rare complaint from me, but I could not suspend my belief enough to think that the Morenas and the Mathesons would be so intricately woven together as Sepetys writes them. The writing itself was good, but I had some trouble with that aspect of the plot. On the one hand I am glad that the book did not end on the sorrow of Daniel’s departure from Spain. On the other hand, that first part of the novel that ended in heartbreak was the more believable end. I might have ended with Daniel and Christina arriving in Spain and being greeted by Nick, though that would not have centered the story on the plight of Spain as Sepetys intends I think to do. SPOILERS Or just don’t have Daniel and Ana fall back into one another’s arms so easily! That would have solved a lot. And having Christina be Ana’s stolen niece and the child over which Ana’s cousin Puri, also adopted, so dotes, her Clover…. It’s all just too much—too much convenience and coincidence.

A few positive details: I appreciated the detailed glossary of Spanish terms and phrases in the back of the book. I have seen books suffer from a lack of such a glossary, and while I didn’t need it in every instance, I was glad to be able to check so easily what I remembered of Spanish classes now almost two decades past.

Sepetys opens many chapters with firsthand sources—pieces of interviews with US officials, newspaper clippings, photographs—which lend legitimacy to her portrayal of Franco’s Spain. If only because it shows that she absolutely did her research and dug into archives for information.

This is an entertaining introduction to the plight of the Spanish people under Franco’s rule, but I personally enjoyed learning from it more than I enjoyed the story of it.

***

Sepetys, Ruta. The Fountains of Silence. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 12+, Grades 7+.

This review is not endorsed by Ruta Sepetys, Philomel Books, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

A question to my readers:  Do you think I should include a photo of the books’ text in my reviews if I have one?  Will that help you decide to read or skip a book?

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

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

Spoiler in white.  Highlight the text to reveal it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Intended audience: Ages 13+.

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

Book Review: A Well Written, Realistic Tale in Awkward

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

I read Awkward to prep for an event for work, but it is one that has caught my eye before with its adorable leads, embarrassed it seems on the cover by the nearness of the other, and the later books, the next of which features a girl in a hijab (Akilah we learn in Awkward).

Peppi Torres manages to break Cardinal Rule #1 of surviving on the first day at her new school when she smacks into a boy in the hallway, causing a scene, and getting noticed by the bullies of the school. He shoves away the boy when he tries to help her, and almost immediately the guilt of doing so shreds her conscience. She knows that she ought to apologize to him, but she can’t seem to make herself do it; she is too embarrassed by what she has done and too afraid of his reaction to her.

Fate thrusts the two of them into an awkward alliance when he becomes her assigned science tutor. It seems for a moment that they might smooth over the awkwardness of their initial encounter, though still Peppi can’t force the apology out.

But then of course Peppi discovers that Jaime is in her art club’s rival science club, which makes talking to him outside of tutoring even more impossible.

The two clubs are competing for a table at the club fair, and the principal has said that the club that the school votes as having made the greatest contribution to the school will win the table. The rivalry, the pranks only escalate in the face of the competition.

The diversity in this novel is fantastic, not only racial diversity in Peppi Torres herself, the students in the clubs, and in the fantastically cool, African American science teacher, Miss Tobins; the diversity within the student body and clubs themselves, but also with the inclusion of Jaime’s mother, a successful artist who happens to use a wheelchair, at least one character who is differently-able. Chmakova has realistically peopled her middle school. I see many students and teachers that I have known in the ones at Berrybrook. Each character seems to have such dimension, even the ones whose names I know only from the character design gallery at the back of the book.

Peppi is a realistic role model. She may not always do the right thing, but she wants to do the right thing. She is a clever problem-solver, and that makes her a leader.

It is also really refreshing for a book to so honestly deal with a crumbling marriage and an emotionally abusive father. The book does not spend long on the situation, but it is good to see so stresses acknowledged and openly discussed on this level.

This is a book of lessons in being your best self, how to react in awkward situations: new schools, competitions that seem to prevent cooperation and stymie friendships, being asked by a friend to help them do something wrong and against the rules.

Ultimately, Peppi and Jaime, who become friends outside of school when they discover themselves to be neighbors, help the two clubs come together to complete a project that requires the talents of both groups, and their collaboration helps them face down the bullies that are the true enemy of them all.

I appreciated the absence of any romance in this novel.

This book uses a limited, pastel palette that is easy to read, soothing to look at.

This story is very well structured, using the title Awkward and the refrain situations defining “awkward” as “This.”  It encourages the exploration of several hobbies: art, cartooning, tinkering, science, and geocaching.

I enjoyed this time at Berrybrook, though here was nothing earth-shattering, no thrilling quest.  These were good characters to get to know.

****

Chmakova, Svetlana. Berrybrook Middle School, Book 1: Awkward.  JY-Yen, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12 per a comment by the author on Goodreads.

This review is not endorsed by Svetlana Chmakova, JY, or Yen Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Utopia of Lucille in Pet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

Content warning also a SPOILER: off-screen child abuse

Book Review: More Depth Than Expected in Emily Windsnap

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

Spoilers are in white. Highlight to reveal. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

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

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

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book cover

Spoilers have been whited-out.  Highlight to read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

Intended audience: Ages 12-18.

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

Book Review: Selfishness Mars The Wizard of Once

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

Spoilers are in white.  Highlight to read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Book Review: A Less Compassionate Robin in Hood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

This review is not endorsed by Stephen R. Lawhead, Thomas Nelson, Inc, or HaperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.