Tag Archives: novel

Book Review: A Good Cast Triumphs in Taggerung

Standard

I can't find a link to audiobook but click to visit the Penguin Random for links to order the paperback and ebook, summary, and author's bio.

I was introduced to the world of Redwall long ago and grew up with my mouth watering for candied chestnuts and deeper ‘n ever pie and strawberry cordial. Brian Jacques (RIP) has a flare for description that I have always admired and continue to admire. No one writes a feast like Jacques, and he paints such beautiful pictures of the country in which his novels take place, pausing with his creatures beside a river to describe the flora and fauna, the flight of a dragonfly and the drape of wild strawberries down the sharp embankment into which the river cuts to create a sheltered ledge (I’m inventing my own landscape now rather than quoting or describing any of his, but you get the idea).

I’ve read and remember reading fewer of the Redwall novels than I would have thought. There are apparently 22, and I am now certain that I’ve read 5 of them, though I think I’ve read more that I’ve forgotten.

Jacques’ view of the creatures of Redwall and the surrounding country is starkly divided into good and evil. Badgers, hares, mice, otters, moles, squirrels, hedgehogs are good—just inherently, irrevocably good, as this tale proves. Rats, stoats, ferrets, weasels, foxes are irrevocably, inherently bad—cruel and viscous, the Orcs of Mossflower Country, though they are given far more personality and character than Tolkien ever gave the Orcs. I tend not to enjoy such stark divisions of good and evil (“the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters”), but I admit that rarely it is nice to escape into a world where a creature’s nature and alignment is possible to determine from a glance, to be given the excuse to think less, emphasize less, and still be able to be on the side of right.

In this novel, the otterbabe Deyna is kidnapped by the leader of a vermin clan and his father killed because Deyna is prophesied to be the Taggerung, an unmatched and unmatchable warrior, the most feared throughout all of the vermin clans known collectively as the Juska. Deyna is rechristened Taggerung and is raised as the clan chief’s son, but though he grows into an impressively strong and skilled fighter, Tagg refuses to kill. (Because of this I think too little is made of his first kill of an anthropomorphized creature later in the novel, admittedly a weasel who attacked Redwall, was hunting him with intent to kill, and hurt his own clansmen, including his chief, but early in the novel, Tagg refuses to kill one of the vermin members of the clan that raised him, beginning his banishment and his adventures, so one would think that this weasel’s death would still weigh on his conscience. Before even that he does kill an eel that is terrorizing a shrew clan, but the eel is more animalistic than humanized.)

This novel rambles more than some of the others in this series, perhaps because it has multiple protagonists in different parts of Mossflower Country as well as the regular competing plot that follows the villain. The book follows the life of Deyna, though it focues on the time after his banishment from the Juska, his long and roving return to Redwall Abbey. Having been banished from the Juska clans as a fifteen-seasons-old otter, he is hunted by his clansmen, meets a plethora of amusing families of voles and shrews and hedgehogs and one ebullient mouse named Nimbalo the Slayer, who becomes his travel companion and best friend. Meanwhile at Redwall, Deyna’s sister Mhera is trying to unravel a riddle that will determine the next abbot or abbess of Redwall. Honestly, there are several times I thought that the story ought to have come to an end (though if I’d thought about the series’ formula, I ought to have known that I would have to wait for an epilogue by the Abbey Recorder). Deyna’s story wrapped up quite well by the time that he was healed and back at the Abbey, Gruven’s story had not, and Jacques decided to end both plots and end the Juskarath before closing the novel.

The cast of this audiobook, though, sells the story, singing whenever necessary, with unique voices and accents appropriate to the character and species of each beast—and I was willing to follow them through whatever escapades Jacques had concocted. The “full cast” is not given nearly enough credit for their work—in fact, I can’t find their names anywhere on the case for this CD set—and I want to know their names. Jacques himself does the narration, which I always appreciate because you know then that you’re hearing this story as the author intended, each line precisely nuanced and inflected as he would have wanted and each word pronounced correctly.

The audio recording itself is probably a full 5 stars, but the story itself is merely a three.

****

Jacques, Brian. Taggerung. Recorded Books Productions, LLC-Haights Cross Communications Company, 2003. Audiobook, 11 CDs.  First published by Redwall Abbey Company Ltd 2001.

This review is not endorsed by Brian Jacques or any of the full cast of this audio recording, Recorded Book Productions, LLC, Haights Cross Communications Company, Redwall Abbey Company Ltd, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Advertisements

People of Color in the Books I Read in 2017: Part 2: Novels

Standard

I read 68 books that included people of color this year, which sounds impressive compared to last year’s 44, but that is only 27% of the total books that I read this year. However, of those 68, 34 had a person of color as a protagonist—a full HALF, 14% more than last year! But again, those 34 are only 14% of all of the books that I read this year.

Did those numbers go up from last year? Yes, yes they did, but not by enough, never by enough. The percentage of books that I read with any mention of people of color increased by only 1%, but the percentage of books with people of color as protagonists rose by a full 9%.

For fun, within the age grouped sections, I’ve arranged the series by their most highly rated book, and the series themselves with their highest rated at the top of the list and lowest rated at the bottom, so for example, the highest rate book in the Harry Potter series is more highly rated than the highest rated book in Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Deathly Hallows is more highly ranked than Half-Blood Prince, and so on.

 

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Book 7 by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2007.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Book 6 by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2006.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Book 5 by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2003.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, and J. K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2016.

Despite some prevalent but far from universal fan theories and some casting decisions made by those heading the new West End play, the Harry Potter series is pretty white. There’s Dean Thomas, a boy of African descent from Harry and co.’s year, who gets a larger role in The Deathly Hallows, and Blaise Zabini, also of African descent, a Slytherin of indeterminate gender even, no more than the last name in the Sorting queue until Half-Blood Prince, where he emerges a member of the Slug Club. There’s Cho Chang, a girl of Chinese descent, whom Harry briefly dates during his fifth year. There’s Kingsley Shacklebolt, an Auror and Order member who later becomes Minister of Magic. There’s Lee Jordan, a classmate of African descent in Fred and George’s year, who reemerges as a radio host in The Deathly Hallows. There are the Patil twins, Parvati and Padma, who are of Indian descent. In The Cursed Child in an alternate universe created by meddling in the past, Ron marries Padma and has a half-Indian son, Panju, though neither Padma nor Panju are ever on stage, and Ron is pretty miserable as her husband. As far as speaking parts go… that’s pretty much it.

 

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. First published 2009.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2005.

Percy Jackson is also pretty white. Charon is described as having darker skin. He’s a god, the ferryman of souls to Hades’ realm, and an employee of Hades’. I feel like another of the gods was described as darker skinned, but I cannot remember whom. I know Thanatos, Death, is, but he doesn’t appear till the next series. Charles Beckendorf, head of the Hephaestus cabin, who dies a hero, is African American, at least in fan art that is now the official art, but I’m not even sure it says for certain in the series that he is African American. But Riordan learned.

 

The Trials of Apollo, Book 1: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.

The supporting cast of The Trials of Apollo is pretty wonderfully diverse, though Riordan handles it much better in the second than the first book. But now there is a Brazilian demigod at Camp Half-Blood who speaks very little English. One of Apollo’s children is African American. In the second, there’s Jamie, a graduate student and wielder of magic if he isn’t a demigod (which he might well be), descended from the Yoruba people of West Africa, to whom Apollo is pretty strongly attracted. There’s the Latino American Leo Valdez in all his marvelous impishness.

 

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.

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

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

Now we get to Riordan’s best—or my favorite so far. Here is Blitzen, a dwarf with dark skin. Here is Samirah al-Abbas, a hijabi and Arab American. She lives with her Iraqi American grandparents. She is engaged to Amir Fadlan, whose father Abdel runs Fadlan’s Falafel, a restaurant that has always been kind to Magnus Chase, finding him extra food when he was living on the streets of Boston. Here is Alex Fierro, a Mexican American, whose family immigrated from Tlatilco. He/she becomes Magnus’ love interest. Here is Thomas Jefferson Jr., a Union soldier from the Civil War, the son of a runaway slave and the Norse god Tyr, who while living dealt with the prejudice against African Americans. All of these are primary characters.

 

The Kane Chronicles, Book 1: The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. First published 2010.

In this series of Riordan’s, the two narrators and primary heroes are biracial, half-white, half-African American. Carter is dark skinned. Sadie is paler. They go to live with their Uncle Amos, who is African American. Most of the action for this story takes place in Egypt, where they interact with the magicians of the First Nome beneath Cairo. Carter’s love interest, Zia, is born along the Nile.

 

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise: Part 1 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2012.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search, Parts 1-3 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2013.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift, Parts 1-3 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2014.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadows, Parts 1-3 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2015.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: North and South, Parts 1-3 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2016.

I actually read these all in their individual parts. This is set in an alternate world, but the influences are mostly Asian, and most of the characters appear more Asian than Caucasian. The Water Tribes of the North and South Poles are darker skinned than members of other nations.

 

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017.

This standalone of realistic, contemporary fiction–and hey! this year’s Newbery winner!–features a protagonist who is Filipino American and a pair of Japanese American sisters. Virgil’s Filipino American heritage is particularly explored. His grandmother is fairly newly immigrated.

 

Teen (Ages 13-19) 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017.

This story was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality against the African American community. Starr and her family are African American. Most of the characters are African American, but Starr attends a predominately white private school, and her boyfriend is white.

 

The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2016. 

Some of Blue’s family seems to be African American, though Stiefvater is never very explicit about it. I suspect Calla may be. I suspect Jimi, Orla, and their immediate family may be. According to Stiefvater, Blue herself and Blue’s mother Maura are not. Henry Cheng becomes a much more prominent character in The Raven King, even becoming the third wheel to Blue and Gansey’s tricycle, joining them on the road trip that I most want to be on. He’s Korean American.

 

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2017.

Almost this entire cast, the entire Soria family is Mexican American.

 

Adult (Ages 20+)

Ender’s Game Alive by Orson Scott Card Exec. Skyboat-Brilliance with Audible, 2013. Ender’s Game first published 1985.

Shadow of the Hegemon by Orson Scott Card. Audio Renaissance-Tor-Holtzbrinck, Sound Library-BBC Audiobooks America, 2006. Shadow of the Hegemon first published 2000.

The International Fleet picks the best from every nation. Most of the primary characters are white. Bonzo Madrid, with whom Ender fights, is Spanish. Alai becomes one of Ender’s closer friends and part of the jeesh. He is North African. Shen, one of Ender’s first friends, is Japanese. Commander Chamrajnagar, later Polemark, is Indian. In Shadow of the Hegemon, Bean and Petra with Achilles travel the world pretty expansively. Bean befriends Suriyawong, and joins then later commands the Thai army. Virlomi, an Indian Battle School graduate, helps Petra escape by escaping Achilles to get word to Bean and Suriyawong. Achilles brokers a brief peace between Pakistan and India, meeting with representatives of both nations. Bean lives for a brief time in Brazil and then later moves the headquarters of the Hegemon there.

 

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. First published 2005.

Fat Charlie and Spider are descended from Anansi the Spider of West African mythology. Fat Charlie’s mother and their neighbors in Florida are all Afro-Caribbean.  Rosie Noah and her mother are both Englishwomen of Afro-Caribbean descent, Rosie’s father having been instrumental in the introduction of Caribbean fusion food to England.

 

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White. Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Alice Stone and her family are all African American. Amelia is revealed later to be biracial. Bobby Banks’ grandmother lives in a predominantly African American neighborhood, but Bobby struggles to make friends with the African American children who live there.

 

Do you know or think that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know.

Book Review: Camaraderie Evades All the Crooked Saints

Standard

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

I’ve begun rereading Blue Lily, Lily Blue, and I think I’m finally ready to talk about Maggie Stiefvater’s latest, All the Crooked Saints, which I finished back in early December.

If you’ve been with me a while, you’ll know that I fell and fell hard for The Raven Cycle, that I adored The Scorpio Races. I can’t say the same for All the Crooked Saints—the only other of Stiefvater’s novels that I’ve read, and as a later novel, one that I thought would build on the best elements of the other books that I’d read.

This was a different novel for Stiefvater. This was one of those deeply personal novels that she needed to write. (She has written a lovely, insightful piece on her Tumblr about this novel).

Stiefvater’s unique command and beautiful use of language was still on full display here as was her grasp of magical realism, that sense that, yes, this is real, but there is fantasy too, and the two don’t make either one any less true. This is the first of her novels that I’ve read (that she’s written?) with a predominantly non-white (in this case Mexican-American) cast. This is the first that I’ve read (that she’s written?) that can qualify as historical fiction, set in 1962 Colorado with talk of German POWs who work the farms during the previous generation’s childhood, and the music and pop icons of the day. There was lots that I thought that I would love—and I did love—but it lacked one crucial thing:

What I think kept me on the outskirts of All the Crooked Saints was the characters themselves. I fell for the “blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening” friendship of the boys and Blue, and like Blue “now that she’d had this kind, she didn’t want the other.” The protagonist of All the Crooked Saints, Beatriz, claims to be a girl without feelings. She has a difficult time relating to anyone and is forbidden to even talk to the people in her community who are not family. That kind of easy, “all-encompassing” friendship cannot exist for Beatriz (BLLB 103).

Beatriz is a lonesome in the way the Stiefvater defines lonesome herself in Blue Lily, Lily Blue: “a state of being apart. Of being other,” a philosopher, a genius thinker, a rationalist, scientist (28). In her case, this lonesomeness seems mostly self-imposed, a prison built of her belief in others’ cruel words about her having no feelings. I enjoyed her insights, but I missed others. She learns. The whole book is about achieving the miracle of overcoming one’s own worst faults, and Beatriz learns that she does have a heart and that faults can only be overcome in an accepting relationship, with love. But she learns slowly, and it’s not till near the end of the book that she has learnt this truth.

Beatriz’s otherness and lonesomeness were sort of the point, but it also kept me from feeling close to this novel and the characters in it—even Beatriz herself.

As an exploration of overcoming, of exploring and confronting the deepest, ugliest parts of ourselves, this book is important, this book means a lot to me. But I just didn’t enjoy it in the way that I wanted to enjoy it. I’m so glad that there are others who did. A second reading later may alter my perception of it some.

I did enjoy the languages. I enjoyed the scant scenes of the camaraderie—especially between the petitioners stuck with one miracle but not the second.

***1/2

Steifvater, Maggie. All the Crooked Saints. New York: Scholastic, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

 

Book Review: A Christmastime Rebellion in the Enderverse

Standard

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

This is my third book in the Enderverse. I found the rereleased hardcover at Barnes & Noble and got so excited. It was nearing Christmas when I did, and I am a sucker for Christmas fanfictions, so a canon Christmas novella in a world that I’m just falling in love with was near irresistible. So I ran to the library.

This happens mid-Ender’s Game/Ender’s Shadow, when Ender is newly transferred to Rat Army, but the majority of the novel does not revolve around Ender.

Zeck Morgan is rescued from his ultra-religious father, a Puritan minister who whips Zeck to make him more pure. Zeck has a perfect memory, which his mother believes is from God, though she warns Zeck to hide that memory from his father, whom she thinks will believe it from the devil. The IF sees that memory as a useful asset in a soldier—and it seems implied that the soldier who comes for him believes that he is rescuing Zeck from his abusive household, though Zeck resents being drafted.

In Battle School, Zeck maintains his father’s preached pacifism and won’t fire his weapon, though he enters the Battle Room and does the school work for Battle School. He is disliked by the students.

A homesick Battle School student, Flip Rietvald, sets his shoes out on Sinterklaas Eve, and Dink Meeker, noticing the childlike gesture, gives him Sinterklaas gifts, a silly poem and a pancake shaped into a F.

Religious observation is banned in Battle School and Zeck’s father has preached that Santa Claus is a manifestation of Satan, so Zeck complains to Commander Graff about the Dutch boys’ observation of the holiday. The punishment that Flip and Dink receive spurs Dink to begin an underground celebration—not in the name of Christmas, but in the name of Santa Claus (in all his forms), whom he argues is not a religious figure but a cultural icon, his day celebrated even by the atheists of countries where he exists, and nationality impossible to ban. Children begin to give one another gifts with a sock attached so that the gift is known to be in Santa’s name.

The battle brews. Zeck stirs up trouble by convincing one Pakistani soldier that prayer is a national observation as much as is the celebration of Santa because Pakistan was formed as a Muslim nation, and so Muslim identity is national identity. When this results in several Muslims being led away in handcuffs for religious observation, the Santa Claus celebration stops; the fight becomes too serious, the consequences too dire; it ceases to be fun, and the celebration ceases to be in the spirit of Santa Claus, “compassion and generosity […] the irresistible urge to make people happy […] the humility to realize that you aren’t any better than the rest of us in the eyes of God” (78).

Because this series is Ender’s story more than any of the others’, it is Ender who gets to give the last Santa Claus gift of the book and demonstrate the team-building prowess that makes him such an astounding leader. He corners Zeck and convinces him of the error of his father’s protestations, battling Zeck Bible verse for verse and sharing secrets about his home-life and his abusive brother.

This story mostly provides an interesting platform to discuss national observations versus religious observations, particularly around the Christmas holiday but around all religions—though only Christianity and Islam are discussed—the intersection and dissonance of nationality and religion, religious tolerance, and the fake religious proclamations of those whose words are not reflected in their actions.

It ends on a happy note, which I almost require of my Christmas fanfiction but has even more substance than I’m used to expecting from a good Christmas ficlet—for which I was not ungrateful. I like more of a Christmas meal than Christmas fluff.

Ultimately, this was a good diversion while I prepped and then survived the Christmas holiday.  It was good food for thought.  It was not the cleanest and tightest of Card’s writings, but it was interesting to spend more time with Dink and more time with some of the previously nameless Battle School students.

***

Card, Orson Scott. A War of Gifts. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty-Macmillan, 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Tor, or Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Everything I Love is in The Dark Prophecy–But So is Apollo

Standard

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

That title seems harsh, but it is nonetheless true.

Some spoilers!

This is a story of overbearing fathers or fathers who overshadow their children—Marcus Aurelius, Nero, Zeus, Midas, Apollo himself, maybe even Ssssarah’s father should be included in the list (is that Tartarus?)—the weight that they put on their children, and the right and wrong ways to react to that weight.

Apollo seemed to me less annoying in The Dark Prophecy, whether because this is a god much humbled or because the supporting characters are larger, helping to balance him better. Here is Leo, already well-developed and greatly loved, and Calypso with him. Their relationship, one in which I was fairly invested prior to the beginning of this series, serves as a good breaker of a subplot to Apollo’s narcissism. Jo and Emmie, new characters, are large characters too (and if you want to give us the continued or previous adventures of Emmie and Jo, Uncle Rick, I won’t complain). They loved each other so much that they left the Hunters of Artemis and its accompanying immortality. They are also not just lesbians, but an older, married and settled lesbian couple, particularly underrepresented in children’s literature maybe partially because adults are so rarely the heroes in children’s literature. I’d love to see more teen and child heroes raised by two women in love—or two men in love.

Riordan has introduced another new character that I want to keep an eye on: Olujime (Jaime). Olujime is descended from the Yoruba people of Western Africa. He is a graduate student in accounting, working as a gladiator to support himself. He fights using Gidigbo and Dambe, both West African fighting styles, and lightning, which I and Apollo in this writer’s world take to suggest godly parentage or patronage. I am both excited and scared that the appearance of Jaime suggests that Rick is researching for another series. I’m not sure that it’s his place to explore Yoruba myth and tradition, but I’d be interested to read such a series–and I already know that I’d love the style if Riordan wrote such a series. Moreover, I love the idea of a adult hero from Riordan, suffering the horrors of graduate school while also having to battle monsters and gods–probably with a good sense of humor and a passel of friends.

Apollo is really attracted to Jaime but backs off when Jaime lets slip that he has a serious girlfriend. We get to see Apollo’s bisexuality not as a long-ago myth as with his labeling last book Hyacinthus as one of his greatest loves (the other being Daphne)—not just through his attraction to Jaime but also through his broken relationship with Commodus, a relationship we visit in its prime in flashbacks that Apollo experiences. This book more than in the previous one Apollo’s past comes back to haunt him.

I’ve said a lot about Leo and Calypso in this review. For all that, their relationship was a bit of a letdown. Given that Leo quite literally died to rescue her and that Calypso has been waiting eons to leave her island, I expected and wanted a glorious ship. But their relationship was built on a few weeks when Leo was stuck on her island and spent most of that time devising a way off for himself and, a good bit of that time, the pair spent sniping at one another, neither wanting to be stuck with the other’s company. Calypso softened to Leo during that time and Leo to her, and he left, vowing as most heroes seem to do, to come back and rescue her. They had not seen each other again until Leo landed, having narrowly escaped death, to rescue her. They’re relationship now is tense. They are discovering that they don’t really know one another, and Calypso particularly is discovering that she doesn’t really know herself. I hope soon that Rick will leave them alone to discover life outside of monsters and quests and new foster homes. Maybe I expected too much of them. Still, I was glad to have them here. I was especially glad to have Leo here. He made a good balance for Apollo.

This novel still for me though does not hold up to the sort of love that I have for the rest of Riordan’s series, though this far more than The Hidden Oracle, climbed near them. In fact, I think if that first book had been as good as this, I would be completely on-board with this series, but The Hidden Oracle drags this down because this one cannot stand well without it.

Here again are more human villains, a more relatable foe for the reader than the gods and Titans and giants of previous series. Leo and Calypso are here. Grover will be here!  Apollo was one of the gods I was most excited to see whenever he showed up in Percy Jackson in the Olympians, though more because he made me laugh with his horrible, egotistic haikus than because he was a solid character.  There’s so much potential here.  I just struggle so much with Apollo himself and his narration.

****

Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2017.

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

Book Reviews: Shadow of the Hegemon: Political Thriller in a Sci-Fi Enderverse

Standard

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

The sequel to Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, follows Ender and the colonists that he heads decades in the future on a distant planet, encountering a new alien race. That’s all well and good (I assume), but following Ender’s Game Alive, I wanted to know what happened to all of the Battle School students, not merely to Ender, so I sought out something a little closer to Ender’s Game in time and space. I skipped over Ender’s Shadow, which happens simultaneously with Ender’s Game, and jumped to the second in that sequel series, The Shadow of the Hegemon. This book deals with the immediate aftermath of Ender’s Game (and Ender’s Shadow), specifically what happens to the jeesh once they arrive back on earth, though it focuses pretty solely on Bean and Petra, and on Peter Wiggin’s quest to attain the title of Hegemon.

I want to start by saying that I don’t read many political thrillers—or not books that would be primarily classified as political thrillers (I suppose Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire could be classified as such). I’ve never read Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, Brad Thor, or any of those other household names in the genre. But I was sucked into this one, which disguises itself as a science-fiction book by virtue of association with the other books in its series. I won’t pretend to judge this book against others in its genre, but I do qualify it as more of a political thriller than a science-fiction book. Card describes this as being inspired by the board game Risk, a game of global domination through alliances and wars (I think; I’ve also never played Risk).

I say this is more political thriller than science-fiction because all of this book happens on Earth and its drama is in the geopolitics and the child geniuses who are pulling at the strings, toying with world leaders and directing the militaries of various countries.

Shortly after arriving back in their own countries, the entire jeesh is kidnapped—except for Bean, who is meant to be killed with his family in an explosion, which he escapes using a superior “Spidey” sense for danger. For a while, the book becomes an Earth-wide whodunit with every major country and political group as a suspect. I enjoyed this part of the book a lot. I enjoyed the mystery, and I enjoyed the insights into each country’s desires and assets. I enjoyed (and was horrified to find) that I could recognize the seeds of Card’s future-Earth geopolitics in my mediocre understanding of the political aspirations of today’s superpowers, that I found myself nodding along as the characters laid out the clues.

Petra having gotten a message to Bean, and Bean having gotten a message to Peter Wiggin, the three reveal that the architect of the jeesh’s capture is Achilles, a character from Bean’s past (I have not read Ender’s Shadow or I’m sure I’d know more about Achilles, but I picked up enough through Shadow of the Hegemon to know that he’s a dangerously smart, savvy, charismatic psychopath who has killed in the past and will kill in the future). Only Petra remains captive after that, Achilles interfering directly with her rescue and whisking her away to India, where she is forced to take part in the planning of a war for Indian expansion into Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, though her intelligent plan for guerilla warfare is ignored for reasons that only become clear as the novel and Achilles’ complicated plan to sew chaos unfolds.

Bean meanwhile goes to Thailand and earns the trust of Suriyawong, another Battle School graduate and a member of Ender’s Dragon Army and now the nominal head of the Thai military’s planning division. With his knowledge of Achilles and Petra and military strategy in general, Bean helps to predict and to thwart what can be thwarted of Achilles’ plan, though Bean’s larger goal is always to save Petra.

Achilles is playing the nations against one another, but he is also pitting himself against Bean, working to destroy Bean.

This is Bean’s story (spoiler in white) and ultimately Bean’s victory to paraphrase the novel.

I loved to hate Achilles. I loved his dialogue, his speeches. And that’s of course how charismatic dictators rise to power, but—thank God—this kid is fictional. He’s at his best when he is convincing the Pakistani president to join a ceasefire with India and move Pakistani troops away from the border.

I loved the back and forth, the squabbles of Peter and Bean, two kids too bright for their own good.

I loved that Petra had so much more agency in this novel, so much more of a role, that the women (not only Petra, but Carlotta, Mrs. Wiggin, and Virlomi), who were largely absent in Ender’s Game even with the insertion of Major Jayadi in the audioplay that I listened to were here and were bigger parts of the plot.

I have some reservations about this audiobook, however. Some of the cast of the audioplay that I listened to for Ender’s Game reunited (I say reunites because I listened to this book second, but this book was actually produced first, so really they reunited for Ender’s Game Alive) for this audiobook, but not all of them, and this was a full audiobook, narration included. The voice actors took different parts and read different sections. But they could not decide how to pronounce Achilles. Though Peter had to hide that he knew that it should be pronounced A-SHEEL to avoid sounding more knowledgeable about current events than his parents. By the end of the text, even Bean’s voice actor had caved to the anglicized Greek pronunciation, ə-KIL-eez. That could be intentional. Perhaps Achilles remade himself into the Greek Achilles, adopting the more prominently used pronunciation as he became not the leader of a street gang but a puppet master on the global stage. I had thought that the voiceover of the word Hegemon was some weird conspiracy, something done to give the name importance and prominence, and it actually didn’t occur to me till reading a review on Goodreads that this was a poorly dubbed voiceover of a mispronounced word—which makes me wonder more about the conflicting pronunciations of Achilles. In the last few bits, when most of the primary characters were again sharing the scenes, the voice actors returned to more of an audioplay format, with everyone voicing the dialogue of their primary characters; I like that format better, and I liked to see its return, but it makes me question: why not do that sooner? Achilles and Petra share most of the book, yet lines of dialogue where they shared a scene were voiced by one or the other of the narrating voice actors.

Retrospectively, maybe this is one to read and not to listen to on audio. Maybe.

But this was a story I wanted and a story that I liked a lot with compelling characters.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Shadow of the Hegemon. Narr. David Birney, Scott Brick, & Gabrielle de Cuir. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki. Audio Renaissance-Tor-Holtzbrinck, Sound Library-BBC Audiobooks America, 2006. Audiobook, 11 CDs. Shadow of the Hegemon first published 2000.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Audio Renaissance, Tor Books, Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC, Sound Library, BBC Audiobooks America, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Let’s Talk About The Ship of the Dead

Standard

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, excerpt, trailer, and activity kit..

This review contains some spoilers. The worst of the spoilers are in white and can be seen by highlighting those sections.

We need to talk about The Ship of the Dead. We need to. This. Book. Is. Amazing. For all of the social conversations that it facilitates, for its timeliness. For the miles I walked in others’ shoes—so many shoes in so few pages. For not seeming to preach when it’s facilitating these conversations nor seeming to hide its darkness behind humor, but balancing the two wonderfully—better, I’d even argue than many of Riordan’s novels; this was one of the more somber of Riordan’s novels that I’ve read. One of the funniest scenes that I remember was T.J. walking through modern York and thanking every Englishman for remaining neutral in America’s Civil War.

Speaking of T.J., we need to talk about T.J. Thomas Jefferson Jr. is a Union soldier who died in the Civil War. He’s the son of an escaped slave. T.J.’s mother gives young T.J. the same talk about appearing at all threatening that too many mothers must today give young African American children: “‘You don’t get to play,’ she snapped. ‘You play-shoot at a white man with a stick, he’s going to real-shoot you back with a gun’” (186). That line reverberates across the pages and across the decades between that scene and today; it shouldn’t. It should be a historical peculiarity at most. Riordan’s inclusion of that conversation highlights its source in the undeniable racism of slave-ownership in America and the Civil War. And it’s important that we all hear that speech. I am a white cis woman. My parents never had that dread, never sat me down to warn me about walking down the street. But I need to know that there are parents who do have that dread, and I need to hear what they say, and to understand how that knowledge, that fear curtails the childhoods of too many children. I need to hear it till it does become a historical peculiarity.

We need to talk too about Sam. We need to talk about an Arab American, hijab-wearing, Muslim protagonist whose faith is important to her, who fasts for Ramadan and believes that doing so will make her stronger despite her friends’ and her fiancé’s fears and their reminders that she does not need to fast for Ramadan if doing so will be harmful to her as they fear it will be. We need to talk about her strength in completing this perilous journey, confronting all of these foes while fasting. We need to talk about her being right, that fasting and observing the religious holiday does make her stronger and better equipped for the final battle of the series. We need to talk about the positive, well-researched representation of Islam and of Ramadan.

We need to talk about Alex—again. In this story, Alex’s Mexican (Tlatilco) heritage becomes more central to his/her story. In today’s America, under this presidency with this rhetoric, positive, respectful, well-researched representations of Mexican Americans are especially important. The Fierros are wealthy businessmen, founders of a successful company that creates high-class, luxury goods and American jobs, further turning about the stereotypical, racist image that the president and others reinforce. His/her Tlatilco heritage further informs his/her views of gender fluidity, duality masks and figurines with two connected heads but one body being among those artifacts from the Tlatilco that have been found. Positive, well-researched, respectful representations of members of the LGBTQIA+ community are also important.

Hearthstone continues to be important. The other protagonists’ reaction to and willing accommodation for Hearthstone continues to be important. Each of the main protagonists from the former books (Magnus, Sam, Blitz, and Alex) uses sign language with Hearth but also with each other. It has become another language in which the friends can communicate. Hearth’s reclaims his othala rune in this story, facing his father and the memory of his brother both.

Magnus, sweet Magnus, is the glue that holds this group together in some ways. He is the narrator and the protagonist and his propensity to protect his friends makes him the primary warrior in the final battle despite the obvious challenges that he faces. His weapon becomes friendship and kindness and love and affirmation, and that ultimately trumps the trash talk that has historically been victorious in this particular battle form: a flyting. Riordan again turns the narrative around, replacing hate and cruelty with love and showing that love trumps hate.

I also need to thank Riordan here.  I knew going into this novel (because it’s all but stated at the end of the second book) that Percy Jackson was going to make an appearance.  Percy swoops in like a deus ex machina in the first book of The Trials of Apollo, the first series within the world of living Greco-Roman mythology where Percy is not a main protagonist.  I feared that he might be overbearing here too.  He was not.  He was subtle.  He was just enough to remind us that the Greco-Roman and the Norse mythologies live and breathe side by side, enough to be fan service but not a primary character or even much more than a footnote, a proper cameo in the novel.

It should also be noted for those following my journey through this series that I did not listen to the audiobook of this novel, and I did not falter on the names.  I have now learnt enough Norse mythology to be comfortable with all the primary characters and make decent guesses at the names of some of the new faces.  So yeah, I guess these books are educational in that sense too.

Magnus Chase means a lot to me.  Magnus as a hero–for his kindness and his compassion and his empathy, a demigod blessed with healing and disarmament rather than skills to be used for fighting (though Jack does a lot of the fighting so that Magnus doesn’t have to)–means a lot to me.  His friends all mean a lot to me too.  I’m glad to have spent these three books with them all.  I hope–and think–that we haven’t seen the last of them, though this series has come to a fitting close.

*****

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2017.

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

Book Review: Ender’s Game Alive Springboards My Dive into the Enderverse

Standard

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, behind the scenes videos, and full cast list.

Time for one more reader’s confession: I’ve never before read an Orson Scott Card novel (though I did once read a book of literary criticism about Severus Snape to which he contributed). I was only vaguely aware of the plot of Ender’s Game. The novel and Ender’s Shadow have been sitting on my bookcase for years, but they never seemed to be the books that I wanted to read. As I work through the Valley libraries’ collections of audiobooks, I am also working my way through the books and authors that I probably ought to have already read.

When I found this version of Ender’s Game, Ender’s Game Alive, rewritten by Card as an audioplay, I couldn’t resist. During my brief stint as a London resident, I became fond of radio dramas. My host mother sometimes left the radio on, and I would enjoy snippets from the lives of fictional characters while I cooked or ate. Where that was written to be enjoyed in snippets, to catch a listener up quickly if she’d missed a few episodes, Card wrote Ender’s Game Alive to be enjoyed as a collected whole (more what I expect from an audiobook than a radio drama). Had I skipped a few segments of Ender’s Game, I think I would have been wholly lost.

I was however able to follow and enjoy this dramatization without having read Ender’s Game or having had any other introduction to Ender’s world.

My roommate will tell you that I quite a few nights came home complaining about this dramatization. I was annoyed at the ickiness that the physical fights made me feel, the squeeze of my stomach at the groaning, squelching, cracking, grunting, ringing sound effects. I was distraught as I realized what was happening before Ender did. I was disconcerted by the similarities between Peter’s intentions for Locke and Demosthenes and the nationalism and demagoguery of today. All of that probably means that I really enjoyed this drama and disliked being away from it when I had to turn off the car.

For those who are unaware as I was of the plot Ender’s Game: After Earth’s first two wars with an alien species called the Formics, genius children from every country are monitored to determine their usefulness to the International Fleet (IF). Ender Wiggin is one of these geniuses, the third child in his family, allowed by the government despite a law limiting families to two children because his two siblings both showed such promise before being ruled unfit for combat. Because one officer, Colonel Graff, decides that the Ender is the One, he is taken to Battle School at a younger age than is average and proves himself again and again a creative and unbeatable commander of the other children in their mock battles against rival commanders and armies despite the odds being continually stacked against him by Graff and the other adults in order to speed his training. He rises very swiftly up the ranks, ultimately joining Commander’s School, where he is eventually reunited with some of his friends from Battle School, and they are tested with a string of rigorous battles, each commanding fleets, and Ender commanding the commanders.

By contrasting Ender with Mazer Rackham, an independent thinker who operates best alone and with all of the less successful commanders in Battle School and with his two siblings who were never given the chance to try, Card says an amazing amount about the type of commander that he believes is best. Ender is an independent thinker, but operates best with a team of loyal friends, whose trust he has earned, and with whom he spends time and maintains relationships.

At some point within the novel, Graff admits that it is Ender’s capacity for love (for his sister and for humanity) that make Ender the One leader that humanity has needed. He values friendship and values cooperation more so than many of the other leaders of Battle School. Soldiers become friends and become loyal to him instead of merely obeying his orders out of fear or duty. As often as he can, he will avoid conflict, but when he does fight, he is calculating and vicious, making sure that battle need only happen once and that he will be victorious.

The ending of the book reminds readers that war is always a tragedy, that diplomacy should always be attempted, that the defeated of any battle are not nameless nor faceless nor without their own victories and histories, that winners of wars are not left untainted and unscarred by their victory.

This version of the tale is largely “narrated” by Colonel Graff and Major Jayadi, a character who seems to have been created for this dramatization (again, this is my introduction to Ender’s world), and whose role seems mainly to be as a child psychologist. The two bicker over Ender’s care and dissect his thoughts and actions from videos from his feed and then from surveillance videos at Battle School. It’s an excellent way to get around not having any actual narration, a way to show both thoughts and action while the reader is allowed only dialogue and sound effects—although such a go-around is largely only possible within a science-fiction such as this. With a huge cast and no dialogue tags, that each character has a specific voice actor helps to keep the cast straight. The child voice actors don’t sound as young as the characters that they claim to be, but this is much as films and television series almost always cast characters in adaptations as older, particularly when these children are asked to take on adult problems. The different accents here help not only to keep the voices distinct but also to underline the I in the IF. I appreciate that Card’s wonderfully diverse cast, that he didn’t let the chance at international cooperation slide past (despite knowing that after this novel, the countries of the world descend again into chaos). One of Ender’s commanders is one of only a few girls in the IF. One of his commanders is a Muslim from North Africa who references Allah and uses Arabic within the text. Another is Jewish and Israeli. Another grew up as an urchin on the streets of Rotterdam. One of the first children in Battle School to be kind to Ender is Japanese. The values and histories of each character’s home nation are allowed to inform the character.

I was struck in this book by Card’s decision to give the kids of the novel power through language. Ender denies his given name, Andrew, in favor of the name that his sister called him before she could say Andrew. The adults of the novel recognize that Ender is the name that he calls himself and so use this name. It’s the children’s Battle School slang that gets adopted by the adults as they spend more time with Ender. His team, for example, is called a jeesh, a term first used and defined by Alai, an enemy of Ender’s who becomes one of his closest friends.

I think because of how this story echoes today’s politics, I can’t let it go. I continue thinking about it, two weeks later, and am drawn to Card’s newest book, Children of the Fleet, despite not having read any intervening novels. I’ve begun another of his audiobooks already.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game Alive: The Full-Cast Audioplay. Exec. Prod. Steve Feldberg and Wil Snape. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle de Cuir, and Mike Charzuk. Dir. Gabrielle de Cuir. Skyboat-Brilliance with Audible, 2013. Audioplay, 7 CDs.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Skyboat Media, Brilliance Audio, Inc, Audible, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audioplay.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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

Standard

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 ever 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.

Save