Tag Archives: school story

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: New Kid is Important and Eloquent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jordan himself is such a likeable and relatable protagonist.

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

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

In sum, go read this book.

*****

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

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

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

Book Review: Poor Mythological and Tired School Representation in Odd Gods

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.Spoilers have been whited out. Highlight the space between the brackets to read.

I am going to start out by saying that this book I read because work “required” it rather than because it is anything that I would have chosen. The necessity of my reading it (to be able to feel adequately prepared to lead a discussion using this book and three others as launch points) has colored my reading, and despite the event going fairly well overall, I can’t un-color my opinion.

I read an ARC of this book over two days. The ARC was missing a few illustrations, and several of the illustrations I think were unfinished, still having a more sketchy quality than others in the book.

David Slavin and Daniel Weitzman’s Odd Gods, illustrated by Adam J. B. Lane, is a middle school of cliques and stereotypes, “bathroom humor,” bad puns, and representations of mythological characters that are largely unsupported by ancient canon. Adonis and Oddonis are twin boys born to Zeus and Freya. Let’s start there. Zeus isn’t one to create a stable household. Would he have bedded a Norse goddess? Almost certainly if opportunity presented itself. Would he have stayed with her? Almost certainly not. Hera is completely absent from Slavin’s mythos here. If she hadn’t been, Freya would have been roasted, starting a war between the Vanir and the Greek gods. If Odd’s mother had been Hera and not Freya, he probably would have been cast off of Mount Olympus like her other imperfect son by Zeus. The Greek Adonis is mortal, not a god, or at least he began that way, and his death gave rise to the anemone and a festival commemorating his death. DON’T look for this to help you ace your mythology test, because it won’t. Go back to Riordan for that.

Here Adonis is a god, the Greek ideal in contrast to his odd twin brother. The gods are the cool kids of the school who bully and cheat their way to the best of everything that the middle school has to offer. The odds are the rejects of the school. It’s a tired trope that I’ve seen better done. In this school they seem to be split near 50/50, though we only get a few main characters from each pack: Adonis, Poseidon, Heracles, and Aphrodite vs. Odd, Mathena, Germes, Puneous, and Gaseous.  (Note that that’s only two girls in a horde or boys too.  I think this might pass a Bechdel test if I am correctly remembering the math teacher to be a woman, but the only interaction that I concretely remember is between any two women in the whole story is Aphrodite bullying Mathena, so if it passes, it doesn’t pass well.)

Math is singled out in this novel as a particularly abhorrent subject, and Mathena is the only god relegated to Odd’s group of outcasts.

[SPOILER] Odd ignores his classwork and study in favor of planning his campaign against his brother for class president and nearly looses by default when it is revealed that he is failing math. Despite spending his time with the goddess of math, he has failed to ask his friends for help when he needs it, or failed to see the importance of study, or both. He does apologize to his friends, and work hard to recover from the mistake, and his hard work is rewarded. [END SPOILER]  That is laudable, a good lesson: ask for help and work hard, and you might be rewarded.

Odd and the “odd gods” come to grips with their oddness by accepting and acknowledging their quirks and that the things that make them unusual make them individual.  The gods acknowledge odd quirks in themselves too (particularly fears and superstitions), and tout themselves as individual too because of them.

Personally, I’m ready to set aside this idea that this is middle school: everyone breaks off into their stereotyped roles, hangs out together in packs of like-stereotyped individuals, and the “cooler” kids bully the individualists, the “kids like me” (I think it rare that anyone sees themselves as a Heather, Plastic, or a jock from such films and books). I think it’s time we start modeling what middle school could be instead of telling kids that this is what middle school was like for me, and this is what it will be like for you. It won’t improve until we tell them that they don’t have to accept what they see. And though many of these films and books resolve by some re-balancing of power, whether the cool kids are knocked off the pedestal or the outcasts gain some power, the model, the beginning framework is still the same.  High School Musical actually resolved this well, better I think than did Odd Gods, with the breaking up of the caste system, the rejection of the “status quo,” the release of everyone to explore their own interests.  I think High School Musical surpasses Odd Gods in part because the kids are given some more control over the things that make them individual, where Odd Gods‘ quirks are inherent and innate.

In the tradition of epilogues destroying a decent ending (I’m looking at you, Rowling), [SPOILER] after Odd agrees to co-president with Adonis because he recognizes that the division between the odds and the gods is toxic, Adonis asks for a recount, undoing any character growth that he had hitherto very briefly obtained via agreeing first to yield to Oddonis and congratulating his brother as the better candidate. [END SPOILER]

Overall, there was too much that I personally didn’t like about this book for me to rate it well. My bar for books based on mythology is set awfully high, and this book took a limbo approach to this high jump competition while relying on tired tropes and negative representations of school atmosphere.

But it was all right.  The lessons of inclusivity and acceptance and equality and standing up for oneself and one’s friends, of hard work and of not being afraid to ask for help, and the forgiveness of friends were good.

**

Slavin, David and Daniel Weitzman. Odd Gods. Illus. Adam J. B. Lane. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by David Slavin, Daniel Weitzman, Adam J. B. Lane, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Looking for Alaska and Looking for Answers

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9780142402511Looking for Alaska is my second John Green novel after The Fault in Our Stars. When I started out, Gwen, who graciously gave me her copy, warned that this was her least favorite, noting that in this novel is rougher, that what in his later novels gleams like gold and makes us all gold-sick, hoarding his book and wanting more, is not polished here. That was a pretty fair assessment. In the beginning, I noticed glimmers of beautiful wordsmithing and musicality. I think it more likely that I got sucked into the story and lost track of the poetry than that those glimmers disappeared, but they didn’t gleam enough for me to notice them once I was in the tunnel as they had when I read The Fault in Our Stars.

I knew fairly little about this book going in other than that it was a teen book of John Green’s. I’m not sure here what I should say and what I should keep to myself as spoilers.

It’s a contemporary fiction piece, a school story about outcasts and friends and prank wars and finding your place in the universe. Miles Halter leaves behind a life in Florida for a boarding school in Alabama. Miles wants to hang on to very little of his old life, to recreate himself, judging by how quickly he abandons the promises he made—and I’m sure all kids make—to his parents before they left him to live away from home for the first time: “No drugs. No drinking. No cigarettes” (7). Only that first rule does Miles not break, and the third he breaks within ten pages. Miles’ roommate, the Colonel, gives him almost immediately the nickname “Pudge” because of Miles’ skinny frame, and inserts him into a group of rebellious scholarship kids (at one point early in the book, Pudge himself as the narrator remarks, “The phrase booze and mischief left me worrying I’d stumbled into what my mother referred to as ‘the wrong crowd’” 20). This group includes Alaska Young, at times infuriating and frustrating, at times lovable and cuddly, always unpredictable. Miles is infatuated with the vivacious Alaska, but she is in a stable relationship with a musician from out of town. Pudge has come to Alabama looking for a “Great Perhaps,” something exciting, something beyond his less-than-exciting, rather friendless existence in Florida. For him, Alaska in all her unpredictable rebellion against society and standards represents the Great Perhaps. She is living while he merely coasting, and that I think is why he is so excited by the idea of her, apart from her apparently being a good-looking, curvy girl who wears tank tops and cutoffs and talks openly about sex and sexuality. But then in one wild night, she is no longer living, and Pudge has to decide if the Great Perhaps and he have died with her.

This book at once discusses the consequences of suicide and of drunk driving—but it is so much more than an issue book—really more a bildungsroman. The second half of the book masquerades as a mystery: what happened and why? The Colonel puts his analytical mind to work trying to unravel Alaska’s final mystery, her final act, her final rebellion. The school story form here helps too to provide a context and answers to the plot’s questions as the predominate class is a religions class where the students are encouraged to think about and write essays on the Big Questions that religions seek to answer: life, death, and our place in the universe.

The ultimate answer to suffering that Pudge finds is forgiveness—of the living and of the dead. Pudge chooses not to be held back by the past—or rather learns how to let go of the past—the very thing that I think he’s been seeking since his decision to leave Florida for Alabama and since his first cigarette. That message I can get behind—and I think most parents will find that they can too.

There is a great deal here too about the secreted world of teenagers—the one that they hide from adults, mostly represented here by the Eagle, the dean of students.

This book rarely disrespects or belittles teenagers and their small and large decisions, and I think that is part of what has made it so popular.

Other Goodreads reviewers have pointed out that Green’s characters are fairly flat and at times reliant upon stereotypes to uphold them or define them. I can definitely agree that the accents and syntactical decisions in particular were at times distracting and overblown. At times I saw Green as trying to distance his characters from their stereotypes, but more often than not—frankly—the characters did all seem a little flat and a little cartoonish.

Green works with a fairly small cast, each character standing for a group or a trope: the Eagle for adults, Alaska for the Great Perhaps, Longwell Chase for the rich Weekday Warriors who return home on the weekends to their parents…. Lara is really only present to be an attainable alternative romantic partner for Pudge.

All this said, I enjoyed the time that I spent in this book, and I tore through it— devoured it, you might say, in nine days (a short time for me).

I recognize that it definitely has some literary value, and is a worthy first novel, but I don’t think that it is Green’s best work.

****

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: SPEAK-Penguin, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by John Green, SPEAK, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Lives of Christopher Chant Stars a Child’s Perspective

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Spoilers.

I’ve read the first volume of Diana Wynne Jones’ The Chronicles of Chrestomanci several times since I was first introduced to it, near when I was introduced to Harry Potter. Somehow, Jones’ books rarely make much impression upon me. I always enjoy them as I’m reading them, and remember enjoying them, but the plots seem to fall from my head with some speed. I picked up The Lives of Christopher Chant again because I was searching my shelves for instances of magical instruction, asked my mother what she recalled of Chris’, and the details that she mentioned were not ones that I remembered—that and I was having fun making a list of fictional cats, dreaming up names for future cats of my own, and Jones’ books have several, none of whom I could remember.

The Lives of Christopher Chant is relatively quick-paced, and the language relatively simple, easily settling into the reading level of middle and late elementary students. In this tale Jones does a particularly good job capturing the child’s perspective. Chris would rather play cricket, go to school with his mates, and have adventures in the alternate worlds that he can only reach in his sleep than be thrust into society, be pawn in his parents’ war, or study at Chrestomanci Castle with promises that he will one day have to assume the responsibilities of Chrestomanci, a sort of law enforcement and high-ranking government official for the interconnected worlds within Chris’ universe.

Chris fails to see the adult perspective. He doesn’t realize—or refuses to realize any nefariousness within his uncle’s “experiments.” He does not connect his experiments with the crimes that the staff at Chrestomanci Castle are ignoring Chris to focus on stopping. Somehow that’s not irritating though. It’s refreshing. Chris is innocent where Harry Potter—the Chosen One of another more famous magical school story—is suspicious and wary. (I also use Harry as a foil because the cover of the books boasts “Mad about Harry? Try Diana.” I assume that U.S. News & World Report meant Potter given the book’s release date (2001 would have been months after the book release of The Goblet of Fire and during the lead-up to the release of the first Harry Potter film).)

Though the plot here is an interesting one—Chris’ education; assumption of the responsibilities of Chrestomani; rescue of the current Chrestomanci, Gabriel de Witt; and Chris’ takedown of his uncle’s criminal organization—it seems to intend to share its stardom with the universe.

Jones has built the interconnected worlds of Chrestomanci for me over six novels and many years, so I can’t honestly judge how well this singular book constructs the universe, but this more than any of the others perhaps really explains the ways in which the Related Worlds are connected, if the impression that it gives is vague. The physics here are difficult. There are twelve series of worlds and Series Twelve at least has an A and B, but there are hints that any series could include infinite worlds, a new world created when one world reaches a junction—perhaps something like the opposite of the Doctor’s fixed point in time—where a great event might have more than one possible outcome.

This is the only book to visit Series Eleven, and there Jones has created an eerie world of persons kept in submission to a dictatorial leader—the Dright—worthy of L’Engle’s IT, a dark, densely forest world where the Dright keeps even the laws of physics in submission to himself.

Chris as a nine-lived enchanter is able to travel to each of the Related Worlds. He does so, uniquely, through a form of spirit travel that allows him to be physically present in two worlds at once by leaving one life behind while the rest travel. Chris doesn’t really understand this spirit travel, and for a long time thinks only that he dreams himself to the Place Between whence he can enter the other worlds. Having no conversation with anyone other than nurses and governesses for most his childhood, he has had no one to tell him that these dreams of his are unusual until a governess chosen by his uncle discovers Christopher in possession of otherworldly artifacts and demands an explanation and then a confession to his Uncle Ralph.

Chris’ scattered instruction in magic was not particularly helpful for my own WIP. Chris has several instructors, and the only one that makes any real impression upon me is Dr. Pawson, who believes in practical lessons, the mechanics of which Jones doesn’t describe in detail—though that did give me some idea of how little it might be important for a reader to understand magic.

****

Jones, Diana Wynne.  The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1: The Lives of Christopher Chant.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTrophy-HarperCollins, 2001.  Story first published 1988.

This review is not endorsed by Diana Wynne Jones, her estate, Greenwillow Book, HarperTrophy, or HarperCollins Publishers Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is a Poorly Formatted, Solid Story

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I found a copy of Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda used some time ago, and recognizing that it sold well and was therefore probably something that I should read, I took it home. It sat unread on my shelves until I thought that I’d be able unexpectedly to see Angleberger. I hurried through it, reading nearly half of it in two hours before leaving for the supposed signing. By the time that I left for the signing, I was so far into the book that I couldn’t very well stop. I finished it in two days. So take my review with those things in mind.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is written as if by a number of different characters reporting on encounters with one character, Dwight, and his finger puppet, Yoda. Several different fonts are used to distinguish the characters, though some characters share fonts, and all of the fonts are similar enough in style for the font changes themselves to not interfere with the flow of the novel as a whole.

The text and format of the book as collected narratives, however, do make it disjointed, and that I think is what keeps it from shining for me. If there had been less acknowledgement of its form within the texts, if the characters hadn’t kept referring to the book and complaining about being asked to write in it, I would have been less thrown from the novel with each new chapter.

Each report is headed by a drawing of the POV character. Illustrations pepper the report as well. In their loose, sketchy style, the illustrations remind me of those that I’ve seen on Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, though Kinney’s are somehow both better at conveying emotion and more cartoonish. Kinney’s books also sell enormously well, and I have to wonder if the similarities between the two illustration styles contribute to Angleberger’s success.

A few quick notes: I will be the first to admit that trying to capture the essence of my characters in drawings is one of the hardest things, but I recognize that I am not a professional artist and plan on accepting help—or foregoing illustrations more likely. Angleberger accepts help from Jason Rosenstock with whom he has co-illustrated the book. I don’t know which illustrations are Angleberger’s and which are Rosenstock’s, but I suspect that the more professional illustrations are Rosenstock’s, so I applaud Angleberger accepting some help, but maybe he didn’t accept enough or was overenthusiastic about having illustrations at all. On the whole, the illustrations may make the books seem less frightening to a young reader, but they don’t for me add anything to the plot or to my understanding of the story. Applause for the text there. (Though I would argue that an overreliance on illustrations might signal too little confidence in children’s imagination and in the strength of the text. “How can you read this? There’s no pictures.” “Well some people use their imagination.” It’s not as though Angleberger is describing unique experiences—apart from perhaps the origami Yoda itself, and that is illustrated on the cover by Melissa Arnst.)

So overall, I don’t feel as if the format of the book as collected narratives or the inclusion of illustrations were particularly good choices and feel that these choices may have limited my enjoyment more than enhanced it. However, the content is solid.

This is a school story, and its focus is on the everyday challenges of interacting with classmates.

Dwight is unpopular. He does odd things like wear the same t-shirt for a month. This book was not part of the curriculum for Giving Voice to the Voiceless, but I think that it easily could have been. There’s no explicit mention of any neurodevelopmental disorder that might explain the quirks in Dwight’s behavior, but I suspect that Dwight might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, explaining his difficulty relating to his peers, the difficulty that he has in speaking to them, and the ritualistic behaviors in which he engages.

While Dwight is unpopular, the finger puppet that accompanies Dwight gives wise advice to Dwight’s classmates, some of whom believe that the puppet may even be able to predict the future.

The premise of the book is to determine whether or not this is the case—though that mystery is never solved—and the end makes it seem less about Yoda and more about Dwight—particularly Tommy’s relationship and reaction to Dwight. The book takes the form of an apology. Tommy decides after examining Dwight and Yoda that he’d “rather be on Dwight’s side than Harvey’s. Dwight is weird, but I guess I’ve started to like him, and I hated to let him down. Somehow I didn’t mind letting Harvey down” (138).

Tommy’s relationship to many of his classmates changes over the course of his study. Harvey begins as one of his better friends, and Dwight as just the odd kid of the class. Dwight is able by standing out more than usual by the adoption of his puppet to influence the whole of the school for the better, bringing partners together, exposing bullies, healing peer relationships, and making traditionally disappointing school events more fun.

It’s a story of the power of the outcast and of acceptance, and I really like the conclusions that Angleberger and his characters come to.

This book has a great title, and it’s a good middle-grade read for its morals, but I really wanted to be blown away by this book. I wanted it to deserve its bestseller status. Especially as Angleberger is now among those local authors that I might one day have a chance to meet in a relaxed setting.  I wish that I could be more pleased with the book’s format.

***1/2

Angleberger, Tom. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Illus. Tom Angleberger and Jason Rosenstock.  Cover art by Melissa Arnst.  New York: Amulet-ABRAMS, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Tom Angleberger, Jason Rosenstock, Melissa Arnst, Amulet Books, or ABRAMS.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Patrick Rothfuss, Hero Who Can Call The Name of the Wind

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For years, friends have been raving about the misadventures of Kvothe and even more so about the poetry of Patrick Rothfuss. Years back, I found The Name of the Wind in the library. I read the first few paragraphs, and I was blown away by the weight of each word, the perfection of and care taken with each sentence and paragraph break, and the images that were painted. I said, “I don’t have time for this.” I wanted to give it the time that I thought I would need to enjoy it. I’m so sad that it took me years to decide to have time for it.

The prologue is awesome, and when paired with the epilogue, it left me a blabbering mess of “Did he just— He did!” I don’t even really know how to begin to describe to you the wonder of what Rothfuss did with those four pages. I’ve never seen a wizards’ knot, but I think now that I might have read one.

Now, don’t, like me, be daunted by the prologue. This book reads surprisingly fast. Granted, I did decide to read it when I knew that I would have more than my usual free time, but I don’t think that it would have been bogged down by the usual pace of life, and I think I’d have been stealing moments to read just a little more. Despite criticism from friends who were pushed into saying something by the gabbling Facebook status that I posted after finishing the book and despite that I recognize their criticism as valid, I’m still hankering for the second in the series and was not sated but rather my appetite increased by the short story, “The Lightning Tree,” recently released in Rogues.

Kvothe is fairly likeable if a little pompous and self-aggrandizing (though in fairness he is the storyteller and can be expected to shed himself in the best light just as any of us would) but Rothfuss is the real star of The Name of the Wind. I enjoyed Kvothe’s adventures, but I enjoyed Rothfuss’ storytelling and poetry so much more. Rothfuss is a writer’s writer often alluding to the process and perils of writing by having his protagonist engage in storytelling, and there is much within the novel that rang like a hammer against a nail of truth and sympathy driven into myself. Another of my favorite sections is the four pages that Kvothe and Rothfuss take trying to decide how to describe one character because those pages allude so fiercely to the difficulty of describing characters in fiction (417-420).

The Name of the Wind and presumably the whole of The Kingkiller Chronicles are written with a frame story, and the two stories weave together to drive the reader on into the series. Kote the barman is confronted in the present-day with the resurfacing of his past, from which he has run and hid, but which has found him at last. He battles a darkness that manifests as overgrown spiders, tries to brush aside his knowledge of how to destroy them as garnered secondhand from visitors to his lonely tavern, but more privately lets slip something about a war that is his fault, of which I guess that these creatures are a symptom. His student, Bast, is worried about his Reshi and is using the famed storyteller, Chronicler, to try and get Kvothe to remember himself and become what he was. Chronicler is looking for a story, and the truth. So Kvothe is wheedled into telling his story, and he takes us back to his childhood. The Name of the Wind, the first of the three days that Kvothe believes that his story will take to be told, spans from Kvothe’s happy youth, to his tragic tween and teen years, to his first few terms at university, where he distinguishes himself but not perhaps in the ways that he had hoped, and during which time he meets an alluring girl and worries over whether or not he has her heart. This first book of the trilogy has many elements of the bildungsroman, and the adult Kote, looking back, talks about his story as if it is indeed the education and becoming of himself: “If you are eager to find the reason I became the Kvothe they tell stories about, you could look there, I suppose” (186).

Kvothe’s time at the university can be dissected too in terms of the school story, where those familiar with the genre (as many of us unwittingly are thanks to J. K. Rowling) will recognize many familiar patterns: the rivalry with the more powerful peer, difficulties in learning, the grudges held by professors, the unexpected aid from those same or other professors, a squad of friends on whom one can rely when difficulties arise in the classroom and outside of it…. I’ve said before that one of the perils of the school story is the large cast that it calls for. Rothfuss handles the cast quite well. He does not unnecessarily dive into everyone’s backstories, and their characters do seem to enter—as they should—onto the stage only when Kvothe needs them to do, but they seem too to have lives and personalities outside of Kvothe, and that is imperative to good characterization and an element too frequently overlooked when one is working with a larger cast.

In the university, Rothfuss’ fantasy is given scientific examination. Dragons are large fire-breathing lizards but are considered natural. Magic is given names like sympathy, which applies scientific principles like the inability of energy to be created or destroyed to the manipulation of objects. Naming is another form of magic that has more in common with Ursula K. LeGuin’s and Diane Duane’s models. I have always been a fan of the blending of magic and science, and so Rothfuss’ models tug at my heart. It’s clear that, as with the language and craft he uses in storytelling, Rothfuss has given a lot of thought to magic and world-building. I’m interested to see if the scientific nature of magic persists throughout the series. I don’t know how to apply science to some of the things that the elder Kvothe has clearly encountered: fey, spider demons, the angelic Amyr, and wraithlike Chandrain.   Kvothe reminds me in that way of myself:  He’s learned the science but he won’t give up the magic despite people’s judgements of his “childlike” fascination with the truth of the world that they can’t see.

If you enjoy words, if you enjoy writing, I must recommend this book as a meaty helping of prose.

*****

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day One: The Name of the Wind. New York: DAW-Penguin, 2008.  First published 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Patrick Rothfuss, DAW Books, or Penguin Group, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Secret of Blackwatch Lacks Detail But Introduces Interesting Ideas

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Spoilers.

Amber Cavalier Spiler understands the deep bond that can form between human and horse.  In her new middle-grade series, Blackwatch Stables, the girls of Blackwatch can hear their horses’ voices in their heads.  The girls of Blackwatch are descendents of families that have unusually deep bonds with the spirits of particular horses.  The spirits of those horses always find their girls.  The girls of Blackwatch are one of several stables whose riders have this unique bond with their horses.  Then there is at least one rogue stable.  When the heart of a rider with this bond to his horse turns cruel and hard, so does the horse, and these horses become dragons.  I love the concept of horses with a connection to cruel riders becoming dragons.  It explains so much of dragon-rider literature.  First, that dragons can be ridden, also the nearness of many of these tales to “horse stories” (see Anne McCaffrey or Chris Paolini and compare to Walter Farley or Marguerite Henry, though admittedly the dragons in these tales can often be ridden for good), and last the question that I came across on the Internet: “Why are the bad guys’ horses always menacing and demonic too?”

The first book in the series, The Secret of Blackwatch, did not delve into the sort of depth that I would have liked either in creating rounded characters or explaining the magic with which the story is infused.

This book started a bit slowly.  The protagonist, Maggie, has lost her mother, and her dad, wanting to see his daughter smile again, decides to give her both lessons and a pony.  At auction, a dirty gray belligerently insists on Maggie’s attention in the pen.  This is the pony that Maggie sends to Blackwatch.  Maggie spends a lot of time learning the finicky rules of Ms. Cavalieri’s stable before the magic begins.  Ms. Cavalieri runs her stable as a military encampment at war rather than a stable—which thanks to the fantastical elements of this story, it is.  I attended a stable that was run more like summer camp year round except that we had fewer hands year round and were more responsible for mucking fields in the other seasons.  Helmets were insisted upon as they should always be, but while proper riding boots and pants or chaps were recommended, we could get away with jeans and sneakers on occasion.  Braids, jackets, shirts (not a uniform but just a button down with a high collar), and spotless ponies were for show days only.  Tall boots were never worn.  The girls of Blackwatch as consequence remind me of the girls who always looked down their noses at our stable, and so I think that I was prejudiced against them from the get-go, the girls didn’t really become rounded enough to earn reprieves.  I’m intrigued more by the adult riders, who seem now to have more secrets.  I fear Spiler fell victim as so many have done to the perils of school stories: a necessarily huge cast overwhelming of the author and making it difficult to give any character—let alone all of the characters—depth.

The dragon-riders who have retreated to a hollow mountain fortress are at war with the stables that still have horses instead of dragons.  The reasons for this war are not explained, though I suspect that they are personal and have more to do with jealousy and broken hearts than any gainful objective.  It is implied that Maggie’s mother and a parent of each of the girls in the stable have been killed in this war.  Maggie and her friend Katie discover the parents’ horses penned in the mountain.  Maggie is able to communicate with her mother’s horse, who presumably shares a soul with Maggie’s horse Bella.  How this soul is passed is not explained.  The horses are not of the same breed, but look similar, sharing markings and coloring.  I would have assumed the soul would pass on death and was very surprised when Maggie discovered her mother’s horse alive.

Stylistically, at times, it was evident that this is both Spiler’s first novel and one that was self-published.  The protagonist’s physical description and back-story were shoved mercilessly into the beginning and not worked into the text.  Physical details were often not mentioned a second time, making them forgettable, and unsurprisingly, the horses were better described than the people.  Spiler kept Maggie at a distance increased greatly by the use of Maggie’s father name, a detail that, though Maggie would obviously know, she would not likely use in thinking or speaking about him.  Though Maggie was very clearly the only POV character and it was supposed to be Maggie’s story, I felt as if I never got to know Maggie.  The narration seemed to brushed light fingers over “her gray matter but never took me into the squishy parts” as I just explained to a friend.

Through all of these rather common stumbles, I thought that the concepts of The Secret of Blackwatch were all good ones if I’d have liked them to be a bit better explained and executed.  I hope future books will expound upon and make clear the purposes of this war.  I hope we will learn more about the workings of this universe and magic.

***

Spiler, Amber Cavalier.  Blackwatch Stables, Book 1: The Secret of Blackwatch.  Alpharetta, GA: BookLogix, 2013

This review is not endorsed by Amber Cavalier Spiler or BookLogix.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

I won a copy of The Secret of Blackwatch thorough Goodreads‘ giveaways.

Book Review: Countdown Is a Childlike Recollection

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I picked up Countdown by Deborah Wiles more for its unique format, which uses photographs, pamphlets, quotes, song lyrics, and other memorabilia of the 60s between chapters to place the reader within the time and to broaden the scope of the book’s plot by showing what is happening outside of the protagonist’s personal story, than for its synopsis.  Definitely it’s outside of the genre that I prefer, being a realistic, wartime novel.  The story follows protagonist Franny Chapman, a young girl living in Camp Springs, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C., in 1962, during the Cold War, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Franny’s father works on the air force base in Camp Springs.  Her grandfather is also a war veteran who lives with the family and suffers from PTSD.  Franny lives in fear: fear of death, fear of humiliation, fear of social isolation.  As much as Wiles shows us the 1960s, she also shows us the typical childhood of a child in the 1960s, of any child of any time, dealing with the frustrations of school, the drama of trying to belong in a peer group, childhood crushes, secrets kept from parents, family drama, etc.

I appreciate Wiles’ rather accurate representation of childhood.  Wiles admits in an author’s note at the novel’s end that she drew greatly from her own childhood recollections, and Countdown does read almost like creative nonfiction, again to her credit.  I appreciate that this is a wartime novel that I didn’t loathe (usually I do), but then again, this is not a typical wartime novel that focuses on soldiers, but it focuses instead on the civilians, whose way of life I am more comfortable sharing.

Wiles touched on many of the aspects of American life and controversy in the 1960s (or as far as my scant knowledge is aware): PTSD, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the growing awareness of racial inequality….  Franny, being young and mainly unaware of the intricacies of these situations, was not a narrator to give me any great insight into these events; rather Franny’s perspective offered the raw, emotional fear that these events inspired in the average citizen.

And there’s “fear” again.  I guess if I had to, I would say that that was the overarching impression that this book gave me of the 60s: fear paired with a desire for 50s normality (white picket fence, manicured lawn, and 2.5 kids, et al.).  Whether this was the overarching feeling of the 60s or if it was merely Wiles’ adolescent impression of the time, I do not know.

Readers of the book should not look for deep insight into the 60s but a glance, as if flipping quickly through the pages of a newspaper of the time, and should rather look forward to a realistic childhood adventure and drama, which are well-portrayed, mixing the ordinary with the extraordinary, but are not as well-executed as some that I have seen.

***

Wiles, Deborah.  The Sixties Trilogy, Book 1: Countdown.  New York: Scholastic, 2013.

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