Monday, September 30, 2013

TVNHLoP: Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson


The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates:  Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson is the first in what will be a trilogy or series of novels. I don’t know.  What I do know is that this is a cute book and it does not rely on a cliffhanger to drive the reader to keep exploring the world the author created. 

In this first novel we’re introduced to Hilary Westfield who wants to be a pirate.  She applies to the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates (VNHLP) but they reject her off-hand because she is a girl.  To make matters worse, they take the initiative to have her enrolled in Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies.  This does not deter our young heroine and adventures ensue.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be cute, appropriate for its intended tween audience.  But like the protagonist, tweens often want more and I don’t know that this novel shows signs of promising more.  That doesn’t mean that the next novel and however many more there may prove to be won’t be fulfilling.  After all, Lemony Snicket has managed to write a series of novels that do not deviate from the established narrative arch of the first novel but manages to sustain itself for thirteen books.  Predictable though they may be, they do succeed.  So this series could prove to be equally successful.  But the Series of Unfortunate Events is darker than this novel and tweens appreciate being trusted with such themes as death, abuse, violence, and such. 

So cute works but can it sustain?  I don’t know.  I couldn’t help but think of Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett where a young girl shows interest in becoming a wizard although there are no female wizards and must stand athwart of the Unseen University and earn admission to be properly trained.  Pratchett’s novels are wry, written for adults.  Some parents might not want their tween to read his novels but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to encourage my tweenagers to read as many of the Discworld books as they like.  And there are many of them.

Still, I confess, I didn’t immediately fall in love with J K Rowling either after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  This novel will probably be condemned to comparison.  There are certain similarities.  Both novels have a foot in both a world like our own (with a reference to Shakespeare and others) and a world unlike our own, one infused with magic, although these worlds are not as separated in this novel as they are in Rowling’s.  Carlson also has three young friends who join together although in her world there are two girls and one boy in the trio.  Unfortunately, there are clear indications, when this novel is compared with the other, to suggest that this author doesn’t have the same writing strength.  Whereas Harry’s friends each served a clear purpose in working through the final conflict in the novel, Hilary’s friends serve mostly as sidekicks with her working through all of the conflicts she faces.   They serve merely as secondary and mostly flat characters but, it is possible, they could prove to be more complex and interesting as the series continues to be published.


Hopefully, the characters will grow as the series grows.  Hopefully, the narrative will mature with the reader and each of the novels in the series will prove to be more sophisticated.  This was a cute novel and I enjoyed it enough to hope for more in the upcoming novels.  However, I don’t know that I’ll go out of my way to seek them out.  If I happen upon the next one, I might give it a go.  You never know.    

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Bibi's Bookshelf


Baby Penguins Everywhere! by Melissa Guion is visually adorable.  An adult penguin is alone and she sometimes feels lonely.  Until one day she finds a magician’s hat floating in the water.   Before she knows it, one by one, baby penguins come out, some with juggling balls and chains of scarves—all of the paraphernalia a traditional magician would use.

As much as I love the illustrations, the story is a bit too “on the nose” for me.  The lesson meant to be learned by the little reader, or the child hearing the story, is that sometimes mommies want to be left alone.   But it is so blatant.  It seems more like a book an adult wants a child to like more than a book children will innately like.  Where the Wild Things Are wasn’t a book that adults liked but children loved it.  They still love it after so many years.  And adults now remember it from their own childhood with fondness.  I cannot imagine that this adorable book will have the same sustainability because of the overly obvious moral message. 

The Art of Miss Chew by Patricia Polacco is a story inspired by the artist/author’s own experience in school and the encouragement and support she receives from two teachers—one who recognizes the young girl’s artistic talent and another who realizes the learning struggles she is having.  Both go out of their way to get her the help she needs.  

I mostly loved the book but I have to confess that some of the grammatical errors annoyed me.  I realize that I can be a bit of a “Grammar Nazi” and I do try to be forgiving when I am reading most books but I am less forgiving when it comes to a children’s book.  Little children love to have stories read to them over and over again.  When a book has careless and obvious grammar errors, I dread the thought of a child having these mistakes read repeatedly.  Perhaps I am being irrational but I truly do prefer very precise language in children’s books.

Having said that, I also have to admit that the story brought tears to my eyes.  It touched my heart.

Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare by Patricia Polacco is a story about an older brother who loves hockey and a younger sister who loves ballet.  The two have a typical sibling rivalry and one day dare one another to see how hard other’s extracurricular activities can be. 

This is, of course, a common trope often seen in situation comedies on television.  What elevates this from the typical is that this story is inspired from Polacco’s own experience.  In real life, the two benefited from a mother who encouraged each child to participate in the other’s life by going to games and recitals.  And this strong bond is hinted at throughout the story and infuses what could be a trite experience into one that is infused with love.  Although the conclusion is a bit too contrived, I still enjoyed this picture book and wish Bibi had a chance to have it read with her. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin


Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin is the fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series.  They say there will be seven books in the series but, thanks to Robert Jordan, I’m a bit skeptical at this point.  I had said I wouldn’t read any books I didn’t own this year but, after reading the fourth book and being horribly disappointed, I was worried that I’d let that simmer and take root and I’d lose interest in the series altogether. 

Now, I’m not sure what is going on but I think Martin has an obsession with men’s nipples because more than one of his point-of-view characters (and goodness knows there are many!) say something about the uselessness of nipples on a breastplate.  It’s mentioned twice in this book, twice in A Feast for Crows, and once in A Storm of SwordsMaybe he’s just obsessed with Batman or George Clooney.  I don’t know.  Regardless, there were a few odd moments that took me out of the book, that drew my attention away from the story itself and reminded me that there was an author, a writer, a creator, behind the narrative.

This is not a compliment.  And yet, I confess that I enjoyed this novel so much more than the previous one that my faith in this series is restored.  There are a lot of extra characters and I think that, by allowing so many of the secondary characters a chance at being the point-of-view character, the story is prolonged but I am not sure that it is unnecessary.  The necessity of it remains to be seen as the rest of the novels are published.  However, while the previous novel seemed to drag on endlessly, this one moved along at a faster pace.

In the third novel I noticed the significance of the relationship between the Starks and their direwolves and this relationship is all the more palpable in this novel.  I am also noticing something interesting about names and naming.  In the first novel, Tyrion tells Jon Snow “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not” after Jon bristles at being called “bastard" (57). Tyrion, accustomed as he is to being called “Imp,” “Dwarf,” and hearing his brother Jaime called “Kingslayer,” the power that names and nicknames have is evident. 

With so many characters, it can be challenging to keep up with the various names.  All the more difficult when so many of them adopt new names or nicknames.  But there is something meaningful about the names, both those by which a character is labeled and those the character adopts him/her-self.   One could write an entire book about the different names and how each defines the characters or belies their nature.  It is this that makes these books so fascinating, an awareness that there is much more occurring within the pages.

That and the surprises.  I think George R R Martin has taken the writing suggestion “Kill your darlings” entirely too seriously.  Of course, after the third book, the reader ought to know nothing and nobody is sacred.  But then there are twists and turns and surprises.  Characters you love do horrible things and those you loathe become, if not likable, somewhat sympathetic. 


So be warned.  You’ll want to smack the author, you’ll want to hug the author, but mostly you’ll want him to hurry up and finish the next two books because we’re all ready to see how things turn out for all of the characters.  Or the survivors, anyway.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Elementals by Francesca Lia Block

Last week I realized that I'd forgotten to put a book review in my blog.  Clearly, all the studying had me feeling burnt out.  So this book review is overdue.  I read the novel and wrote the review last year.  And now, I'm finally remembering to share it in my blog.  

The Elementals by Francesca Lia Block is an adult novel from an author who is most famous for her young adult novels. However, the protagonist, Ariel, is just starting college and the novel reads more a bildungsroman with a young woman coming maturing into adulthood. As one would expect from Block, there is a magical reality layering to her story with symbolic meanings that, for an adult reader, are too obvious, too on-the-nose. Ariel's name is obviously meant to allude to Shakespeare's The Tempest and, should the reader somehow overlook the obvious, Block makes sure that you at least consider the Bard by having Ariel herself put some of the other characters as representative of characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream and even has one of the characters, Jonathan Graves, state outright "Like in The Tempest."

There are other glaring uses of symbolic meaning. One character's name is Coraline Grimm, which is a nod to both Neil Gaiman and, obviously, fairy-tales. Ariel's best-friend, Jennifer's name means "white phantom, which is especially fitting because Jeni, as Ariel calls her, is missing and presumed dead at the novel's beginning, but it can also mean "white fairy." Ariel's last name, Silverman, suggests the silver bough by which people can enter and leave the realm of fairy at will. Block also uses pathetic fallacy a lot in this novel, and the purple prose with which I have come to association her literary style is evident from the very first page. However, I've been reading her novels for nearly twenty years now and I would hope that she could mature somewhat, be more sophisticate and more subtle, especially in a novel written for adults.

And the list of allusions could go on and on. Throughout the novel, Ariel is connected with both her past and the loss of her dear friend and running into her future. As with many of Block's young women characters, Ariel is mostly directionless. Her mission to find Jeni's killer is quickly abandoned as her new friends distract her from her initial intention. But that isn't the only source of distraction because Ariel's mother has breast cancer and this too keeps her from focusing on her studies.

I suppose I was hoping that a novel that begins with a character going to college might result in one of her characters having some personal ambition that would result in self-awareness but Ariel's coming-of-age comes through an older graduate student and also through her mother's illness. I am not giving anything away by pointing out the novel is divided in three years of college (freshman, sophomore, junior) so Ariel doesn't finish her education. And for all the magical realism and evocative, poetic language, the ending is so hastily presented with a resolution that a sophisticated adult reader would anticipate far sooner than even the first "aha" of foreshadowing that comes entire chapters later.

I don't know whether Block does not trust her reader or herself. Her heavy-handed use of allusions--complete with explanations just in case the reader didn't make the connections--is clumsy, at best. In a young adult novel they can be dismissed, although they ought not to be for a young reader will grow up and appreciate discovering a subtle layering of meaning that can only come with age. In a novel for adults, such explanations are an insult and unnecessary. Or perhaps there is something else going on and Block does not trust in her own talent enough to have faith in her readers. If such is the case, I hope she finds an editor who will both celebrate her talent and push Block to grow into it because, after twenty years of writing, it's time to grow up. Or maybe I'm mistaken in my belief that Block has the talent to be writing much better than she has been these past few novels.

And there you go.  I keep thinking I need to stop giving Block just one more chance.  Obviously, I didn't learn my lesson after reading this novel as I just read and reviewed another of her novels. Maybe that one will be the straw that finally breaks me of the habit.
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