Tag Archives: war

Book Reviews: July 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Part 1: Finding Dory and Facing Problems

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I read just a ton of picture books this July—24 to be exact—21 of those new to me or not yet reviewed on this blog. I’m not going to subject you to a blog post that is 21 reviews long; I don’t want to read that in one sitting, and probably neither do you—and frankly, I just haven’t finished reviewing all 21, even though we are now into the second week of August. So, please, peruse part 1:

Dory

26245967Three Little Words by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Grace Lee. Disney, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What three word phrase is perhaps the most memorable of the whole of Finding Nemo? “Just keep swimming.” So of course, those are the three little words of the title. This book is a book of advice on how to approach life, including “just keep swimming,” “look both ways” at a crossroads, and “if you ever lose your way just call out to your friends.” “When life gets you down do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do?” The illustrations in this are some of the best of book that I’ve seen come out in conjunction with the Finding Dory film. They are soft, gentle, seemingly watercolors (Kelly Knox reveals the pictures are actually made in Adobe Photoshop—wow!), and if I was unfamiliar with the films and the characters, I might suspect that this was an ordinary picture book—unaffiliated with any franchise. They look like they belong in a bedtime book. This is by far the book on the display of Finding Dory tie-ins to which I am most drawn. As a book of life advice, the text passes, but there’s really no story, so I’m going to mostly gloss over that—other than to say that I might try to get it back in as an alternate to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! next graduation season as I think its message is similar. This book went over far better at story time than did Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, being both shorter and less dark. Especially with the younger graduates (those moving up from preschool to elementary or elementary to middle school) I think it will find more resonance and love than does Seuss.

***

97807364351169780736435062Finding Dory Little Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Finding Dory Big Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

These two Golden Books are retellings of the plot of the film Finding Dory. The Little Golden Book as its name suggests is a shorter, smaller book, with less detail. Otherwise the two books are very similar. I was prepared to read the shorter of the books for story time, but the Big Golden Book actually held the attention too of my audience, which ranged in ages from I would guess five up. (Now, they were all there for a Dory-themed party, so they were, it must be said, prepared for the story—and in many cases, already knew the story.  I was interrupted by many comments about their favorite characters and the details that they remembered that were not covered in the book.)

***                             ***

Big World Problems

MarvelousCornelius_JKT_FnCrx-page-0Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner and illustrated by John Parra. Chronicle, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

Based on a story that he heard about a New Orleans street sweeper and on his later research into the man—which included correspondence with his mother—Phil Bildner attributes a folk hero quality to this recently departed man. Cornelius—the person and the character—wowed New Orleans citizens with his performances—tricks and dances accompanying his work as a garbage man. In the story, when Hurricane Katrina floods the city, it leaves behind piles of garbage as tall as church steeples, and Cornelius is at first overwhelmed but—to ironically borrow the British motto—he kept calm and carried on. He did his job, and others pitched in because he had brought them joy in the past and because they too loved their city. Even people from far away came to help Cornelius clean up New Orleans. Cornelius’ spirit lives on in New Orleans. I appreciate the glorification of this person: a working class African American man with a hoop earring and a job that is often seen as the lowest of low class. We need more books with heroes like this. Please. This month Phil Bildner was honored for this book with one of the first ever Margaret Wise Brown Prizes in Children’s Literature, a prize recognizing the best text in a children’s book published the previous year chosen from nominations by children’s book publishers.

****

worldthatjackThe World That Jack Built by Ruth Brown. Dutton-Penguin, 1991. First published 1990.

Conveying an activist message like that of Seuss’ The Lorax, this book follows a beautifully illustrated black cat and a blue butterfly who wander from the house that Jack built to the next valley over where a rainbow-colored stream cuts through a dead meadow and flows past the place where the trees used to grow by the factory that Jack built. Jack is the villain here, living in beauty while creating horror and environmental terror. The text reverses itself, building from the house out to the valley then from the valley to the factory. There is repetition, but enough to seem lyrical more than annoying; there’s a camp song quality to the style for me because it reminds me of the bird in the egg in the nest on the branch on the tree with the roots in the hole and the hole in the ground and the green grass that grows all around. This story does a lot in and with just a little—and the illustrations are just stunning. The message—conveyed almost completely through the illustrations—is more simplified even than it is in The Lorax though, and it’s not as simple an issue as this book would make it seem, I don’t think. From the story itself, the evidence seems clear: factories bad. But a well-managed factory can do a great deal of a good for a community—and even a poorly managed might do some good for the community even if its short-sighted policies cause more harm than good ultimately.

****

6402385The Enemy by Davide Cali and illustrated by Serge Bloch. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2009. First published 2007.

First of all, I did a little digging on Cali, and I have to insert just this tidbit: The Italian-born Swiss who now lives in France has written many books in many languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Just… wow. He also writes under the names Taro Miyazawa and Daikon. With simple drawings with lots of white space, Cali and Bloch tell the story of two soldiers (we will call them the soldier and the enemy) in trench warfare. The soldier that is the POV character has never seen his enemy but believes that the enemy is inhuman and will butcher the soldier’s family and animals if the enemy is not killed. The soldier wants the war to end. He is tired and miserable and doesn’t like the rain, but he doesn’t believe that the war can end till the enemy is dead because the enemy is not a rational human, and he will not stop. One night the soldier sneaks into the enemy’s trench—which he finds abandoned (the enemy has slipped out disguised as a lion), but there are photographs of the enemy’s family and a manual that says that he—the POV soldier—is inhuman as he believes his enemy to be. The soldier believes that his enemy must have done as the soldier has done and that the enemy now occupies the soldier’s trench, so he stays in the enemy’s trench. At last he decides he must do something to end the war, and he writes a message to the enemy and lobs it in a bottle towards his trench. The story ends there. It does not show how the enemy—if the enemy actually is in the soldier’s trench—responds or how the soldier responds to his enemy’s silence if as I suspect the enemy is not there but has deserted the war already. This is subtitled “A Book About Peace,” but peace is never achieved within the story. This book well illustrates the mentality of war, the way that wars must be fought, how an enemy must be created in order to have war, how an enemy is too often created, dehumanized in order to “justify” a war and how much that dehumanized enemy is as much a false face as a lion skin concealing a human.

*****

Social Dramas

9780399176197Milk Goes to School by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Milk is confident, sure that she is special—la crème de la crème as her dad says—but her new classmates see her as spoiled. This book is full of puns—puns everywhere—in the text and in the illustrations themselves. The refrain of “spoiled” gets tired pretty quickly and for the most part it seemed to me that Milk’s behavior was wrongly classified as spoiled by a bullying Waffle—who does not waffle at all from his opinion of Milk—established because she says that her glittery backpack was given to her by her father who says that she’s “la crème de la crème.” How is that spoiled? I want to applaud Milk with her high self-esteem and detest Waffle for bullying her, but I’m not sure that my opinion is shared by Border. At the end of the book, Milk does see herself as somewhat spoilt, and she wants to change. Her classmates only change their opinion of Milk and begin to see her previous kindnesses after she has been tripped and has spilt herself and is crying. They help to put her back into her carton and treat her with more kindness, but I don’t see a genuine change from them, and tears and blood/milk shouldn’t have been necessary to curb their bullying. I liked—maybe even loved—Peanut Butter and Cupcake. I’m not sure I can like this one because I see it as portraying a negative, almost dangerous moral that I think was unintended. This is illustrated as Terry Border’s other books with photographed food with arms and legs of paperclip wire.  The kids I read this too were an observant bunch. They were the ones who pointed out that Milk wears a different hair bow in each illustration; it gave them something to look for.

**

9780375840685Duck, Duck, Goose by Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2007.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Duck has a new friend. Thistle is fast.  She’s athletic.  She’s good at math. Duck is very impressed. Goose tries to keep up, but Thistle keeps beating him in every contest that she starts. Goose doesn’t like to be made to feel like a loser. He’s tired, and he misses Duck, but Duck doesn’t seem to need him, so he slips away. Eventually, Duck misses Goose, and he goes looking for him despite Thistle’s disparagement of his friend. He finds Goose in one of their favorite spots. Goose admits to Duck that he’s tired and that Thistle makes him feel badly about himself. Duck admits that he’s getting annoyed by Thistle too. Thistle follows. The two friends trick Thistle into showing off as the world’s best napper and go off to play by themselves. That ending didn’t sit all that well with me; what the two friends do to Thistle is not very friendly nor is it at all likely to solve their problem long-term or help Thistle at all. I wanted the story to say that it is all right to have more than one friend; instead, it was sort of a lesson on how to ditch annoying show-offs. What? The beginning did some nice character set up with Goose sanding very still in order not to scare off a butterfly had landed on him and which he wanted to show Duck, but that set-up went on just a bit too long with the introduction of the bluebird and the discussion of which way was west. Reading the first pages, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, how long exactly this book was going to be and how long I could expect my audience to tolerate it.

**1/2

Liking the You in the Mirror

22318389I Don’t Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday-Random, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

A frog decides he’d rather be anything but, and his father calmly explains that he can’t be anything but a frog because that’s the way the world works. It takes a wolf coming along saying that he will eat anything but frogs because they are slimy and gross to convince the frog that being a frog is not so bad. What is this picture book? This is not what I was expecting. This teaches that you should be glad that you’re slimy and gross and that you can’t be anything but what you are born and it has the darkness of a villain that comes along to threaten to kill the protagonist. The awful thing is that I pulled it off the shelf, lured by its funny title and cute cover and echoes of Mo Willems’ much better and more wholesome I’m A Frog! and didn’t remember till halfway through the book that I’d already rejected this once as a story time read. Well, I’ve read it through all the way now. I can set it aside and not pick it up again, right? Goodreads reviewers are lauding this as a book about self-acceptance, and yes, self-acceptance can be good in certain circumstances, but I don’t like the presentation here nor that self-acceptance comes about because others are more likely to be killed by a predator; that to me is just not a good message and echoes too closely on too many hot-button, personal issues.

*

9781484712399Ellie by Mike Wu. Hyperion-Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Ellie’s zoo is closing, and the animals are helping the zookeeper “spruce [the zoo] up a bit” in an attempt to save their home.  Everyone seems to have something that they can do–everyone except the tiny elephant, Ellie.  But the zookeeper leaves Ellie alone for a moment with a paintbrush, and she discovers a new talent—one that the zookeeper quickly encourages, and one that saves the zoo—albeit the zoo is now a gallery for Ellie’s artworks as well as the animals’ home.  I warned the child that I had at story time that this story started sad but ended happily.  He didn’t much like it, but I did.  I know at times that I feel useless, and it’s good to be reminded that everyone has something they can do, that maybe I just haven’t yet found my talent or passion.  I had fun with the illustrations, particularly the talented Ellie recreating the “Mona Lisa.”  I like the brightness of Ellie’s artworks after the muted colors of the opening pages when the characters are sad.

***

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

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Book Review: Subtle Feminism, Subterfuge, and Romance in Crown Duel

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Spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid names as much as possible, but there are spoilers.

This is going to be a difficult book to review in that I’m not sure if I’ve just finished one book or two or three. This edition includes two novels that were originally published separately (as Crown Duel and Court Duel) and a short story that was published first in this edition. That short story I can set aside as wonderful, fluffy fluff but with perhaps the best use of page formatting and white space that I have seen in a long while. The very bottom of the last page reads (and I’m truncating the sentence to avoid spoilers):

“[…] and kicked the door shut behind us.”

Because the line goes to the very bottom of the page, there’s no indication that this is the end of the story till one turns the page and sees two blank, white, facing pages staring out at the reader like the shut doors, saying “what happens now is not your business.”

Just excellent. Though I’m not sure if that was providence or plan. It would be a difficult thing to plan so well.

Now to the meat of this book:

The first book, the original Crown Duel, begins with a rebellion led by a brother and sister, a count and countess of a small, rural, and isolated province in the greater kingdom of Remalna, ruled by a tyrannical king, self-important and uneasy it seems to me on the throne, leading by threat and fear, imposing brutal taxes on lower classes, and occasionally arranging “accidents” for detractors, family of detractors, and potential detractors. The sister is captured by the general of the opposing army after her brother gives into fear and breaks the war code of conduct. She is humiliated, escapes and is hunted, is captured again, and is rescued, sets out to get vengeance, and has her worldview turned on its head when she discovers that she and her brother have not been alone in plotting the overthrow of the king. Mel wins allies through her righteous intentions, refusal to surrender or to be cowed, and her willingness to learn.

Mel is a sword-wielding heroine deprived for the majority of the book of sword, privilege, or the usual trappings of a hero. Most of the book she spends injured, ill, and on the run. Her true power is in her ability to invoke empathy and sympathy through her personality and through the just nature of her cause.

The second novel sees the rebellion ended, the tyrant dead, her brother a member of the royal court, and Mel being invited into that court as well, where battles are fought for social popularity and against faux pas, games of which she is ignorant, though she is a fairly quick study. There she negotiates social patterns, cliques, and party planning.

Both books pulled some pretty stunning twists.  Smith uses a close first person, and Mel is a poorly informed narrator if not an unreliable one.  She tells her story I think as truly as she can, but she is ignorant of many of the characters feelings and intentions, and some of those characters drive the larger plot of the novel more than does Mel.

In the first novel, Mel claims to be entirely uninterested in the opposite sex—and truth be told, she has little time for such diversions, even when she finds a knight to rescue her. But she doesn’t trust the knight, who has ostensibly opposed and hunted her throughout the novel, and later she believes that he kills her brother. This story does not much read as a romance to me, though Smith makes clear that there is frisson when Mel exchanges glances with one particular character—though the nature of that thrill and recognition remains unclear.

In the second book, Mel still purports to be uninterested, but she arouses the interest of several men at court, including a notorious and popular flirt. She has to evaluate her feelings and her beliefs about love and relationships, and does so while corresponding with a mysterious suitor whose gift-giving she demands become a real relationship—if their only conversations are carried out through written letters.

This whole series reminded me of a fantasy Pride and Prejudice with a backdrop of political uncertainty (not a conscious parallel, Smith says, but she admits that there might have been some influence from Austen). The second novel in particular harkens to the social drama of Austen’s book. Mel’s stubborn dislike based on previous, false conclusions in particular harkens to Elizabeth’s as does her eventual reversal of her conclusions because of a letter and her opposite’s upright actions. Ultimately, this story is a romance, albeit a slow one and one which, as the romance builds, washes the reader in action and subterfuge.

The world was interesting, well-crafted, and beautifully described. The first book in particular has elements of a journey novel as Mel is chased and dragged across the country. I spent some time wishing for a map, which I ultimately found after finishing the novel, but I was able through the text alone to place most of the important places within a larger setting and when I did misunderstand, those misplacements didn’t affect the plot.

Smith carefully crafts a feminist heroine and a feminist story. Mel never pretends to be anything other than female, and she feels no need to adopt traditionally masculine performance to be powerful—even when she’s been most stripped of power and needs a disguise. Moreover, Smith carefully, wonderfully maintains gender balance among her background characters. I particularly noticed the female guardswomen, stable hands, and servants, marked by the feminine pronoun more than anything else. It was a very subtle feminism, and very much appreciated because for being a nonissue it was all the more powerful.

I have long known of this book as having produced a favorite character of two my friends’. His name is Vidanric. I read almost the entirety of the first book looking for this character that I expected to love as well. I need to take a moment to compliment and thank my friends for using Vidanric’s first name exclusively when discussing him. “Only polite,” and I was allowed to make my own assumptions (184).

*****

Smith, Sherwood. Crown Duel. New York: Firebird-Penguin Putnam, 2002.

This review is not endorsed by Sherwood Smith, Firebird Books, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: We Fought (455 words)

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The ground was still frozen when the war started. Though our men were almost all farmers, our village wasn’t spared the conscription. The army took any man with a strong back or strong arms and any man that they thought that they could make strong with training. Boys who hadn’t seen a fourteenth winter were wrested from the arms of weeping mothers, whisked into a wagon or marched off between soldiers. The army conscripted the strongest animals too, oxen to pull carts and wagons and heavy canons, horses for the officers and those who would be cavalry. They took chickens and hogs and some of what was left of the winter’s wheat.

They left the women. They left behind girls and young boys and gray haired men older than fifty.

They left us behind like chicken bones at the end of a meal.

But chicken bones make broth. We could give up or get working, so when the ground began to thaw, we picked ourselves up and got to the farming, same as every year, except now we had fewer hands to labor, it meant longer hours for us all, and we had to do some of what we hadn’t before.

We grew callused as the ground softened. Hands more used to sewing and mending hardened against ash handles of carts and plows, hoes and spades.

As we trundled water from the stream, we tried not to imagine how distant soil, thawing now like ours and ripe for the sowing, was being watered by blood—an enemy’s, a stranger’s, maybe blood from one of our own. What crop would that nurture?

At night we did by firelight the work that might have been done in daylight when the men were here and our hands were not needed sunup to sundown in the fields.  Around the hearths we quietly added patches to knees worn thin from kneeling in on the ground and darned socks that had been worn to holes by long hours behind the plow or walking lines to scare off crows and rats. With no time to tailor new clothes no one minded except Rose that we could all see half her calves below the skirt’s hem.

We fought our own quiet war against our fear and the coming winter and change.

We fought to keep our gardens ripe and our babies plump.

We fought with hoe and plow and spade and dogged determination.

We spilled sweat and only a little blood.

They say war changes a man.

I hoped our men would recognize their women when they returned to us.

I hoped that they’d respect the war we’d been through while they were away, the wounds and scars and pride that we’d won.

The line this week is mine.

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everyone’s Weird wrote “Wars” (330 words).

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “Waiting for Spring.”

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Long Weeks” (564 words).

Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers wrote “Frozen Toes.”

Book Review: Love and War in The Shadow Throne

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TST_exlargeThere is very little time between the second and third books of Jennifer A. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy; there is in fact a bit of overlap between the last chapters of the second book and the first chapters of the third. The third book does very little to recap Jaron’s previous exploits, and it jumps immediately into the action and into the drama. Because I tried to begin the third book of Jennifer Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy after having finished the second in March 2014 and finished the first chapter unable to remember whom a particular character was and how he was able to enter the kings’ private garden and then be hugged by the weeping king, I went back and reread book 2 before returning again to retry book 3, and I think I advise reading the two books back-to-back if that option is available to you too. If you have to read the prologue of The Shadow Throne to reignite your delight in the series, somewhat diminished perhaps by The Runaway King, do that first, then return to The Runaway King and remember what you’re reading up to and why you’re reading. DO NOT run to the Wikia site for the series to answer your questions; I spoiled a bit of The Shadow Throne’s ending for myself doing so.

Especially as I neared the end of The Shadow Throne and of The Ascendance Trilogy, I parroted Sam Gamgee’s quote from Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Two Towers:

“And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?”

Nielsen has never shied from the dark and the brutal; it’s that more than anything else that tips this series from middle-grade to teen. With Carthya at war, surrounded by more powerful enemies on all sides, all of them invading or pressing at the borders, this book is even darker than the other two. The plot seems to bounce Jaron, Roden, Tobias, Fink, Imogen, and Amarinda, all teenagers or younger, in and out of battles and in out of captivity. Their captors are cruel, and Nielsen describes in some detail some of the fiercer beatings, using whips, truncheons, the flats of swords, boots, and fists. The captives are starved and humiliated. There’s psychological torture besides: offers to spare another captive in exchange for information or obedience, offers to save one of two captives but condemn another….

Jaron’s cleverness shines through in all its glory as a tactician and military leader and his love for Carthya and for humanity, his desire to better the lives of everyone, and to sacrifice himself all shine too.

But this is a story about the power of love. Love gives a person purpose, someone or something to fight for, someone or something to fight to return to. Though Jaron claims not to understand this till very late in the book, his actions are driven by love more often than he admits and it’s this that makes his armies and himself powerful in the face of overwhelming odds. Jaron has generated a great deal of love and loyalty among those he knows and those he rules. The attacking armies have greater numbers, but the Carthyans fight for Jaron and for Carthya. It is love that motivates Jaron to escape his first and maybe most brutal captivity of this book, love and fear for a friend.

This book seems to have garnered a lot more criticism on Goodreads than I’d have expected: for being more predictable than previous books, for doing little that was original as a war fiction book, for being war fiction at all. Perhaps these critiques are not unfounded, but I found myself willing to go along with Nielsen and with Jaron through a war fiction (especially coming directly off of the action and hijinks of The Runaway King), and I appreciated the way that details from previous books became clear as forethought for backup plans and backup backup plans in this book, showing if not some spectacularly original thinking on Jaron’s part (at least not when we as readers have read through hundreds of wars in a hundreds of different worlds) then at least some very insightful thinking and careful planning by Nielsen. I allowed Nielsen to play with my heartstrings a bit. [SPOILER] I at first believed that Imogen was dead, then reasoned she couldn’t be, then as time went on and she didn’t reappear, decided that she must be, and then she was back, and I was surprised to see Imogen back when she came back but was surprised because I believed that Nielsen had done away with her, and a lot of people are calling this a cop-out, and maybe it could be, but it was also the only way to happily resolve the series within a trilogy. Had she been dead, Jaron would have been a victor in the war maybe, but he would have been a broken and hollow man. Because the point of this book and this series was the power and strength to be found in love, Jaron had to be happily married, had to be in love—not necessarily with Imogen, but with someone, and he had to be married for love and not for duty. So that’s my answer to those who cry cop-out, a cry I’d probably otherwise raise myself. [END SPOILER] Some of what came as a surprise to Jaron and, because read in his first-person narration, read like plot twists, did not come as a surprise to me, but that I believe was within character for him. Though otherwise good at figuring out people, he was always slow to see love, not unlike Sherlock Holmes (at least within the BBC universe). I would be very unsurprised to learn that Holmes gave some inspiration to Jaron actually. So then again I see reason that the plot twists seemed less twisty—and again I offer my argument that this is a series about the power of love ultimately, so love had thematically to win (here I am talking about a specific “twist”).

Ultimately, as a war book, as a conclusion to a series of mounting danger and threat, I was satisfied. I do feel, like many, that the first in this series is perhaps best because Jaron is most loveable at his most carefree and most obnoxious, but the series builds as it should, and concludes as it should.

****

Nielsen, Jennifer A. The Ascendance Trilogy, Book 3: The Shadow Throne. New York: Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

This review is not endorsed by Jennifer A. Nielsen or Scholastic Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Dance with Dragons: The Plot is Dark and Full of Terrors

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I’d forgotten how involved I become in George R. R. Martin’s very vast and deep world of Westeros and its surrounding countries. When I picked up A Dance with Dragons, fifth and latest in A Song of Ice and Fire, it had been almost a year and a half since I’d finished Book 4: A Feast for Crows. I fell right back into the world, if I was glad to have the dramatis personae with brief descriptions of each character in the back of the book—especially for minor characters who’d died or only been seen several books back.

The main story threads are these: [If it needs to be said: SPOILERS!] Tyrion Lannister is on the run across the Narrow Sea. Daenerys Targaryen is queen of Mereen, and Mereen is at war and under siege. A bunch of characters (Tyrion, Victarion Greyjoy, Quentyn Martell) are racing to her side. Jon Snow is Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and his radical decisions are destroying his men’s trust in him. Bran Stark finds his three-eyed raven, but he is neither what Bran expected nor are the raven’s powers what he expected. Cersei Lannister is a prisoner of the High Septon, Asha Greyjoy of Stannis Baratheon, and Theon Greyjoy of the Bastard of Bolton, who has been named trueborn and is on the road for lordship. Another long-lost Targaryen, with a better claim to the throne than Dany, moves on Southeastern Westeros. Arya Stark is still in Braavos, on the path to becoming a servant of the Many-Faced God (Death). Jamie Lannister has nearly finished negotiating the surrender of the Riverlands to the Iron Throne. Westeros is still embattled. The king on the Iron Throne is still the young Tommen, but the tales in this story concern him very little. [END SPOILERS]

I include all the last names because one of my friends helped me recognize that this series is not a series about characters in the way that most series are about characters. Even Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most epic of the series that I’ve ever read, tells the story of the Fellowship, the defenders of all that is good in this world, more than it does the story of Ring or of the world, I would argue. Perhaps I have this sense because the Fellowship feels safer and more protected than any character in A Song of Ice and Fire. The focal point of A Song of Ice and Fire is the Iron Throne of Westeros, and the characters are only the hustle and bustle around this one stationary point, the only seemingly sure thing being that at the end of this all the Iron Throne will be there, the world will be there (though I really wouldn’t put it past Martin to tear down both before this story reaches its conclusion, to have this story end in true apocalypse, the destruction of mankind or of the sun or some such). The story actually really does look a lot as Sesame Street depicts it, the chair not moving and everyone else circling.

Having this revelation early in my read-through put a perhaps different spin on the story for me, and while I was upset by the surprises that Martin left for me, I was not as upset as I might have been because I realized that characters—however much I care for them—and I do care about some of them quite a lot—are not Martin’s story, that they weren’t what I am supposed to be watching most closely as I read the book series. It gave me some distance—and by distance, I mean emotional padding.

This story more than any of the others, I think, is dark. Each book has been dark, but in this, more primary characters than not have been imprisoned or besieged. The one character who through the book is at no time either imprisoned or besieged—Jon—feels enslaved to the Wall and to the vows that he took as a Night’s Watchman, and so he remains stationary. Schemes in prior books have been towards a goal, and much of that scheming has been on some level successful. Much of the scheming in this book has been away from failure instead, desperate grasping to hold onto past successes at best. Jon, again the outlier, moves towards a goal—peace in the North—but his peace is upset by the schemes of others. Bran Stark actually reaches his goal, but doing so grounds him, makes him stationary, and prevents him from yet intervening in others’ plots.

I realize that I said that the wider story is not the characters’ but the Throne’s and that I’ve yet said very little about the Iron Throne in my discussion of the book’s plot. The Throne is the goal of almost all of the characters in the book, whether it’s sitting on the Throne him- or herself or seeing the right person or the right family sitting on the Throne.

The possible exception is the Night’s Watchmen, who have sworn to take no sides. The Night’s Watch has problems in the North that drive their attention away from King’s Landing and the Iron Throne, but even so they are drawn in this book deeply into alliance with Stannis Baratheon, a claimant of the Throne, and into the struggle for Northern dominance among the Northmen of Westeros.

I spoke of a true apocalypse. If that apocalypse comes, it will come from the North, Beyond the Wall, and that is why the Night’s Watch’s story is still relevant to the story of the Iron Throne. The threats that they face are the only ones that could interrupt the game of thrones. And if no one defends the Throne from those threats, then apocalypse will come unheralded. And that may be the threat of the next book, The Winds of Winter. But let’s leave supposition there. I’ve done enough of it in this post.

****

Martin, George R. R. A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5: A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam-Random-Penguin Random, 2013. First published in 2011.

This review is not endorsed by George R. R. Martin, Bantam Books, or Random House Publishing Group, or Penguin Random House, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Another’s Daughter (567 words)

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It was strange, but all Charlotte wanted to do was warn Michelle. Charlotte had helped Xander formulate the plan. She knew what was supposed to happen, and she had been as eager as he to watch Charlotte fall, to finally have her at a disadvantage, to be able to disarm and then disable her and then disembowel her.

Charlotte could see it happening, her eyes following the paths that the blades would take as they crossed and the footwork of the fighters. She could see it playing out just as she and Xander had planned. Xander fought as if he were being beaten back while casually, subtly retreating, drawing Michelle forward where he wanted her to go. Michelle was following him, thrusting to chase him backward.

Michelle fought with the confidence that ought to have been her due. What could the bronze blade that Xander wielded do but follow in the wake of the Charlotte’s steel, as fire followed lightning and could not come before it? Perhaps it was that: her strength, her confidence, her surety that had somehow softened Charlotte’s heart towards the doomed warrior. Perhaps it was that she was doomed and that that feeling Charlotte knew—all Tilians knew in the speed and sharpness of the Aloalindans’ steel.

Michelle’s doom was as palpable to Charlotte now as Ava’s had been when Charlotte had heard of her fight with Timor, as when news came that Ryder had fought Inga, as when Charlotte had heard that her own little Magdalena’s had tested her bronze blade against Michelle’s steel.

The thought of Magdalena and how the blade had plunged into her heart with all the speed of lightning ripping through the air, still echoed like steel and bronze through Charlotte’s body, a gaping wound that opened again with the faintest tug of memory, and left Charlotte ill, her body aching.

Now she looked on Michelle as she had looked on Magdalena so often. Their blades may be of opposing colors, but they braided the dark hair the same shade, that contrasted as sharply against pale skin and chiseled features. They shared the same fierceness.

Charlotte had not been there when Magdalena had fought—she had only found her afterward—but Magdalena had always worn her ferocity on her face as she practiced, had swung her sword as if each thrust brought down an Aloalindan.

Michelle wore her ferocity now. Looking at Michelle now Charlotte saw her Magdalena.

Michelle was someone’s Magdalena.

Michelle was someone’s Magdalena, and suddenly Charlotte could not watch her be cut down by Xander, by a doom that Charlotte had helped to create.

The cry tore from her, not even an articulate cry, but enough to draw Michelle’s attention to Charlotte, for Charlotte to see the army ranged against her and the bronze net that the Tilians had fashioned for her, her end of which Charlotte dropped.

It was enough to make Michelle’s ferocity waver to doubt.

It was enough for Xander to strike her a blow he could not otherwise have landed, a sharp stab that drove into the chink of her armor below the shoulder blade, to draw blood from beneath her sleeve.

But it was enough that as Michelle cried out, and her hand flew to staunch the wound to her arm, she turned, and she fled the trap, and though Xander pursued, Charlotte knew that he would not catch her.

I am a thief! I stole that first line from Bek of BuildingADoor. Check out her blog for the original story, “Warning Signs.”

I’m not sure where the line of creative property falls when it comes to name generators, but lest I tread on any toes, thanks to NameGenerator.biz for providing the names of the two races—or of the kingdoms from which the races hailed.

Book Review: Young Wizards at War Expands to an Epic Scope

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On this blog, I’ve only reviewed the first (and there I spoke more of the style and themes) of Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, but I’ve read now through the eighth.  The first, So You Want to Be a Wizard?, introduces readers to the protagonists Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez, who work together as wizards to combat the Lone One and Its creations, entropy and death.  The wizards are heroes of Life and work with the Powers That Be, more commonly known throughout history as angels and gods of various religions.  The Powers That Be all serve the One, who is essentially God, and I would argue, the Christian idea of God.  Wizards exist across species and across the universe.  The seventh book in the series, Wizard’s Holiday, saw Kit and Nita away on an exchange program.  While they were off-world, a trio of alien wizards came to live at the Callahans’ and helped Nita’s sister, Dairine, to heal our sun and protect Earth.  [SPOILER] Kit’s and Nita’s away-mission came to an early end when the species that they were living with evolved beyond a physical form and left the planet. [END SPOILER]  They come home and join Dairine; the tree-like Filif; the insectile Sker’ret, a near relative of the Stationmaster of the Crossings, a hub like Grand Central or King’s Cross St. Pancras for transport to other planets; and the humanoid young king, Roshaun, whose specialty is suns and stars.

Wizards at War opens with a warning from Tom and Carl, the area seniors.  A strange increase of dark matter throughout the universe has been warping the universe and changing its description, making wizardry impossible as wizardry depends on accurately describing the universe.  Older wizards past their peak, like Tom and Carl, are losing their ability to work wizardries—and as the dark matter continues to increase, they lose even the memory of wizardry.  Nita and Kit are appointed as temporary seniors, and the fate of the world has fallen into the hands of children alone.

Wizards at War reunites us with many of friends from previous books—Darryl, S’ree, Ronan and the Power the resides inside of him—and introduces us too to a few more, including a set of twychilds, twins Nguyet and Tuyet who are able to amplify power by bouncing it back and forth between them.  The mission of our heroes brings us to a world so lost to the Lone One that it is listed as irredeemable by the Manual.  There they again must battle the Lone One by empowering one of the natives of the planet to do so.  [HERE BEGIN THE SPOILERS] She—yes, she, though her culture is male-dominated—is a new form of the Lone One, a form of the Lone One that chooses Life instead of Death.  The Lone One like all of the Powers and the One lives outside of Time.  Therefore it’s possible for two forms of It to exist at once, the One inside of Memeki and the One that controls Memeki’s planet.  The One that controls the planet seeks vengeance against the wizards who help Memeki to unlock her power.  The ensuing battle on Earth’s moon claims many friends.  I’m still uncertain how many are lost for good and how many may be resurrected in one form or another, even if they have lost their wizardry. [END SPOILERS]

Like many of the recent books, this one focuses on the Choice, the Choice between Life and Death, God or Darkness.

Of all of the recent books, this one is perhaps the most complex in scale, cast, and concept.  This is epic in a way that Duane’s series has not been before.  Like its title suggests, this is a wartime novel of the vein of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or maybe more accurately J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  The large cast includes expendable characters and warriors whom the audience will hate to lose.  All the characters have accepted death as a possibility in the face of their foe and no one seems safe anymore.  Still the certainty that good will triumph over evil remains (mostly I think because of the series’ Christian mythological background) and still the lines are clearly drawn [SPOILER] (though with Memeki’s coming to power, I suppose that is not as true as it was). [END SPOILER]

I will be very interested to see how the series progresses from here.  There is one more published book for me to read and I think there will be others besides in time.

****

Duane, Diane.  Young Wizards, Book 8: Wizards at War.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 2005.

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

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.

Book Review: A Feast for Crows is Rations for a Reader

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I read George R. R. Martin’s A Feast For Crows, fourth in A Song of Ice and Fire, for half a year, starting it in June and not finishing it till late December.  Granted, it is 976 pages, but that is still a relatively slow pace of some 160 pages per month on average, less than 5 pages a day—and I know that there were months where I read less and months where I read more.  This is the first of Martin’s books that I have read in absence of fans.  The other three I had read with coworkers there to rant to and whom would commiserate with me, and I was in an unspoken competition with one to see who could finish the series first (I lost that race miserably).  This is—and I was thankfully warned by these same fans—a bridge book between the stories of most of our more beloved and enjoyed heroes and heroines—which is not to say that all of them were absent, and I made some new friends—or characters with whom I expect to be friends until their likely untimely deaths.

For all that we—that is to say the Internet—prod Martin for killing all of our friends, death within A Song of Ice and Fire is becoming as uncertain an end as it is in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, or Doctor Who.  That had begun in A Storm of Swords—if we call the White Walkers alive and not reanimated, then even within the first prologue of A Game of Thrones—you tricky man, Martin, with your foreshadowing and early reassurance that we neglected to notice while we thought you were shredding our hearts with your character deaths.  I had been almost pleased to read a series, however, with the author killed characters with so little regard for the hearts of his readers, with the realism and senselessness of war, and I find myself almost disappointed with this new development—more so because of all of the gods to have power to resurrect, the god that seems to have power to do so is not the one I would follow, nor the one that I would most entrust with the ruling of Westeros.  All this being said, I still feel a prickle of fear for one of the heroines I had most liked in Westeros, even despite the Internet-researched assurances of friends.

This book sailed a ship for me, and with the assurances that A Dance with Dragons would return me to my favorite characters, kept me sloughing through the pages.  My ships have slowly been destroyed by canon, and I have but one left standing and that only if those Internet-researched assurances are not red herrings put onto the Internet by fans.

The book started out very well by introducing me to a new hero that I quickly liked.  [SPOILER] I should have known better because the prologue ended with his death. [END SPOILER]  What slowed me after that, I cannot rightly say, though as I have said, it likely had something to do with the absence of Dany, Jon, and Tyrion, and I know too that I was slowed because there are times that I just want to read something lighter than A Song of Ice and Fire, something that involves less death, less darkness, less explicit sex and violence.

Overall, this will never be my favorite of Martin’s books, though I did enjoy early in the book learning about the culture of the Iron Islands and the Sand Snakes have potential to skyrocket to being my favorite of Martin’s characters.

**3/4

Martin, George R. R.  A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4: A Feast for Crows.  New York: Bantam-Random, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by George R. R. Martin, Bantam Books, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.