Saturday, September 27, 2014

Absolutely Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery by Heather Vogel Frederick

I always wonder how authors choose names. Some say it just comes to them. Others keep lists. Some use root meanings. Some use cultural or historical contexts. Others tie it into the theme. This author picks screwy names that drop like falling leaves throughout the story. The main character is 12-year-old Truly Lovejoy who suffers from ongoing bad jokes made over her name that will make you wince or smile. She's not the only bad-name-character. There is Cha Cha. And Erastus. And Romeo. I kept waiting for his sister Juliet to break out with the line, "What’s in a name? that which we call a rose /By any other name would smell as sweet." Good thing she doesn't. That would be a killjoy. Seriously, the goofy names add to the fun of the book.

Truly has just moved to the small town of Pumpkin Falls in New Hampshire. Oops, I forgot to mention that name too. Truly thinks bumpkins live in pumpkinville and she's unhappy about being uprooted from her home in Austin, Texas. But things are bad with her dad. He was in the Afghanistan war where an IUD blew up his armored vehicle killing his best friend and maiming him. Close to retirement, he had a job to be a commercial pilot in Texas. One arm pilots do not exist and the family moves to Pumpkin Falls where he gets a job running his parents bookstore with his sister, True. Yep. Truly names run in the family. Good thing sis's nickname is True. Two Truly's would be really confusing. True usually tells the truth to her brother whether or not he wants to hear it. Healing is a glacial process for him and while his children tiptoe around him, his sister is in his face when necessary.

As the new kid at school, Truly stands out at 6-feet tall, even though she tries to fly in "stealth mode", her phrase for going unnoticed by others. It doesn't work. The school is too small and Cha Cha is too friendly. When Truly discovers an envelope in a novel at the bookstore, she decides to figure out the clues to the mysterious writing along with the help of Cha Cha and other friends at school. Fitting in isn't always easy for Truly and she really isn't as shy as she'd like to be. As the family adjusts to their new life they hope that their father will joke and smile again.

Truly narrates this story and her self-deprecation adds humor. The youngest sibling that is missing two front teeth and lisps also lightens the heavy parts where the dad is dealing with grief and Truly is dealing with being the new kid. The peer that seems like a bully, but really wants to be a part of Truly's group of friends shows how it isn't easy determining others intentions. The mystery lacks suspense and just wasn't very interesting to the plot. While the story does a nice job developing characters and showing friendships, I would have liked more action. I found my impatient self skimming along like an ice skater.

3 Smileys 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Midnight Thief (Midnight Thief #1) by Livia Blackburne

Livia Blackburne's debut novel follows high fantasy conventions and tropes. High fantasy usually resembles medieval Europe with kings, queens, castles, wizards and sorcerers. Government is often some form of aristocracy and people are dissatisfied with the current rulers. Magic is an important element to the plot and the conflict generally involves political intrigues with a strong adventure component involving captures, escapes, battles, fantastical creatures, and perilous journeys. Not to be a bore, but I had to review these basics to determine why Livia Blackburne's novel shines in some spots and falls in others. While the world building and plot have gaps and the characters' actions can be conflicting, if you like action-fantasy with a romantic subplot then you'll be entertained by this tale.

Seventeen-year-old orphan, Kyra, has grown up in the Forge, stealing from wealthy people in order to survive. Working with her friend, Flick, and getting food handouts from the cook at a tavern, she manages to get by. Lately ends aren't meeting as she spends her money getting medicine for a sick younger orphan that she cares deeply about. When the Assassin's Guild, run by leader James, recruits her for purposes that are not explained, a series of events make her impulsively join them. She naively thinks they will only use her thieving skills but gets forced to do jobs she doesn't want to. When people start dying she tries to fix things but finds the consequences of her actions out-of-control.

The government is run by a Council and there does not appear to be a king and queen. The politics are such that there are Council members interested in their own interests and don't care about the people while others are more noble and interested in the welfare of the people. James is in a power struggle with the rulers and wants more power for the people. The only problem is that he is an assassin that doesn't value life. His character is not idealistic but power hungry. His actions are not explained and the reader doesn't know his motivations. I read that there is a prequel, Poison Dance, on his character. Perhaps it explains in more detail why he is going after the government and his ideology or maybe more will be explained in the sequel. 

James is working with the Demon Riders. They have been forced from their lands from a war in which the ground was poisoned, but again details are lacking. The reason the Demon Riders are at the Forge is they are relying on James so they can raid and steal food and goods from others. This didn't make sense to me because they are obviously predators on the top of the food chain. They have these viciously huge cats that humans cannot defeat. Why would they need James? Later on the reader learns more about their culture and it made even less sense to me. 

Kyra is a tiny thing that can't fight. It doesn't take much for full-grown men to disarm her and while I appreciate the realistic side to this, I prefer it when the character outsmarts the opponent. Instead Kyra is usually the victim and another man or woman or adult rescues her. My biggest complaint is when she takes on James. It didn't make sense until I got to the end. I believe the author is trying to show a character that is fighting her primal instincts, but she isn't developed with enough volatility. She's unhinged in the beginning by her "accident" and she's too moral to make decisions later that seem to go against them. For a street urchin, she is a bit too naive.

Tristam suffers the same fate as Kyra with his character development. He's horrified by the death of his friend but not by the death of another friend. The ending unravels a bit with the wishy-washy actions of the characters and felt somewhat rushed. I would have liked going back into Tristam's head. It seems that the second death was to show the Demon Riders disregard for life, but again it felt more manipulative than authentic. I did like the beginning and how Kyra and Tristam are horrified by death and how it deeply affects them. They were more hardened by it by the end which seemed contradictory to the start. Of course, a lot of people die so you might think differently.

The overarching theme is about choices made and the consequences of them. Kyra makes good and bad choices throughout the story. In the beginning her choices are naive and short-sighted. She gets in with a bad crowd and then can't get out. Her following choices are to try and fix things and do what is right. At the end she makes her own choice and is trying to break the cycle of being a victim of powerful people that are only using her for her unique talents. This victim-type character might or might not appeal to you, but overall,  I enjoyed it.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Iron Trial (Magisterium #1) by Cassandra Clare, Holly Black

"I need a book!" a breathless eighth grader said running into my office. "We're going to camp and I forgot one!" I handed her this book and off she ran. Yippy. Now I have to rely on my noodle-like memory to write this review. A memory that is iffy at best. You've been forewarned. This  action-packed quick read will either make you want to nose-dive into the sequel or not. I would call this an urban fantasy and English school-boy genre mix that follows a plot pattern similar to Harry Potter.

Twelve-year-old Callum Hunt believes magic is bad. His father and mother were magicians at the Magisterium, a school that trains magicians, when a war broke out between mages killing many people including Callum's mom. When Callum has to go to the school for an exam he works hard to fail the magic tests. He manages to blow up quite a few things and is such a spectacular failure, he is apprenticed to the best magician at the school.

Callum was crippled at birth by a devastating leg fracture that left him with 60 pins and iron rods in his leg to help him walk (I might be off on the number - it was a lot of pins either way). Callum, who goes by Call, is an angry boy who has been teased and picked on his entire life because of his bum leg. He is mouthy and does not respect peers or authority figures. His sarcastic comments and resistance to going to school make it seem that he will not be teachable. This changes when he starts to make friends with Tamara and Aaron, classmates that break through his hard shell and show what friendship and loyalty mean in a harsh world.

Call represents the good and evil in all of us. He makes good choices and bad choices as he learns to deal with his past and the revelations of his future.  Sometimes the plot felt manipulative but for the most part I galloped through the adventure as a happy camper. Although I ended by spilling tea on the book that I now have to replace. Oh well. I told the girl I gave it to not to worry if she damaged the book at camp since it looked like I had dropped it in a mud puddle.

4 Smileys

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Grimm Legacy (The Grimm Legacy #1) by Polly Shulman

Someone told me to read this because it was like the Sister's Grimm series, but I don't think they are very similar. The action in this book steamrolls at the end, but has a slow buildup at the start. The genre is magical realism rather than fantasy. Set in New York, Elizabeth, has landed an unusual job working as a page at the "New-York Circulating Material Repository," a type of library that circulates magical or rare objects to exclusive patrons. The most exciting section is the Grimm collection that contains magical objects from different fairy tales. When certain items start to go missing, Elizabeth gets swept up with fellow pages, Marc, Aaron, and Anjali in an effort to solve the mystery. When Anjali and the library director go missing the three uncover a dangerous plot where the villain wants a magical box.

The plot has some loose ends that I hope are answered in the sequel. I didn't really understand the villain's desire for the magical box. At the library it was used as a holding box and Doc explains it is for keeping gold and spiritual treasure. I'm not sure if the villain wanted to rob people of spiritual parts and trap them in the box or if Doc had stored some part of himself in it and the villain wanted it for that reason. Grace's appearance isn't explained much either. Elizabeth's family is mentioned in the beginning but they don't come up again. I thought maybe the sisters would get involved or the doll collection of Elizabeth's mom's was actually tied in with the other doll collection. Some plot elements are misleading.

The character development has Elizabeth learning to accept herself. Like many teenage girls, Elizabeth wants to be beautiful and have many friends. The message is to like your character more than your looks but I didn't think it was strong enough. Elizabeth worries so much what others think that it undermines her standing up for herself. Jaya has more fire in her. She is mouthy and willing to be contrary; whereas Elizabeth wants to please. She is warm and kind. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I just thought her and Aaron becoming romantically involved reinforced the message that she needs a guy to feel like she's worth something as the new kid at school or with others. And I really didn't understand Aaron's actions with the shrink-ray gun. Was the key enchanted to make him betray his friends? There seemed to be some greed associated with it because both boys were "reluctant" to give it to Elizabeth.

The cranky magical mirror was my favorite character teasing Elizabeth and Aaron by revealing their hidden desires and showing that beauty mattered to her too much. Every time the two would ask a question, the mirror would say things such as "Bitsy Rew is brave and true/ A pity she's not pretty too." Later the mirror suggests that since Anjali is gone Elizabeth should go after Marc. Elizabeth's constant thoughts on how beautiful Anjali is warrants this comment. I think that if the author put more emphasis on inside beauty versus superficial beauty then the message would have been clearer about liking yourself.  While entertaining, some of the character development and plot directions were not as clearcut as I think they were intended. You'll have to decide for yourself.

3 Smileys

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Inquisitor's Mark (Eighth Day #2) by Dianne K. Salerni

I went hunting for an Advanced Reader's Copy of this sequel after shooting through book one in a night. I should probably wait to review it since the publisher's date is January 27, but I'm not a patient person. The action picks up where book two left off with Riley, Jax, Evangeline, and the Crandalls heading back from Mexico after saving the world from destruction. The author alternates voices between Jax and Dorian Ambrose, his cousin, although Jax gets more page-time. Evangeline is trying to locate her sister in this fast-paced story. The two are the last descendants of Merlin and if they are killed the eighth day will disappear along with everyone in it. Merlin and two other clans live solely in the eighth day. They cannot transition and their lives are continually threatened by the clans that want to either end day 8 or leave it alone.

Jax doesn't know he has a family in New York. A family that supposedly murdered Riley's and has a history of pursuing greed and power with no regard to who gets trampled and killed in the process. Jax NY relatives want to capture Evangeline and her sister in order to manipulate magic. When they track down Evangeline's old home, Jax's best friend, Billy, spots Dorian and thinks it is Jax. Seeing an opportunity, the Ambroses' kidnap Billy and Jax sets out to rescue him. Jax gets help from Thomas and Tegan Crandall until things go horribly wrong.

This plot isn't tied in with the Arthurian legend as closely as book one. To really understand the backdrop readers should read the series in order. The backstory is worked into the plot but all the competing clans might be confusing. This tale has some weird twists with the Brownie holes and how they work in the world of magic created by the author. I wondered if the one Brownie was the pet of Jax's dad, but that question is never answered. Just implied. The ending has some cliff hangers that will have me looking for the Advanced Reader Copy of book 3. This action-packed book has more humor than the first as the group has another hair-rising adventure right on the heels of the first. They become more comfortable with each other teasing and showing affection as friendships keep developing.

Jax has gone from not trusting these people to becoming their friends. He knows that he isn't completely accepted by them when he overhears Mrs. Crandall and Riley talking about sending him away. His character arc is trying to figure out what it means to be a family whether by bloodlines or not. Dorian is trying to learn how to have courage and stand up to his family. He is a nice kid that doesn't like how the adults in his family treat his sister who is normal. He is also sick with how they treated Billy. Dorian knows that he has a choice before they make him a vassal and he finds courage not only from a journal by Jax's dad, but by Jax himself. When Jax sacrifices himself to save him, Dorian decides to make his choice of right and wrong no matter what the consequences are with his relatives.

Thankfully there are less slang words and the author incorporates a funny signal between Jax and Riley with "suck".  The slang drops off although "dude" is added. Whatever (that was my daughter's favorite word as a thirteen-year-old). The flawed characters are easy to engage with as a reader. Tegan is an interesting complex character that keeps developing in each book. She's a web of contradictions and strong-minded coming across as authentic and interesting. I can't wait to see how she keeps developing. Add this series to your shelves.

4 Smileys

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Eighth Day (Eighth Day #1) by Dianne K. Salerni

The art of sneak reading. I'd hunker under the bed covers with a flashlight as a kid and remember shaking the metal casing to keep the light from dimming. Flashlights never lasted long for me. Good thing Kindles weren't around. I would have not slept. Take this book. I couldn't put it down. I made the mistake of bringing it in the bedroom and as I listened to the rhythmic breathing of my sleeping husband I was drawn to it on the nightstand like a moth to light. Kindles eclipse flashlights when it comes to under cover reading. The funny thing is I abandoned this book originally. A woman that I generally agree with on Goodreads gave it a good review so I tried it again. First time around I was turned off by the beginning where the protagonist mutters "suck, suck, suck" over and over. I decided it wasn't well written and after going through a slue of bad books, I just didn't want one that well... sucked. So I put it down. The author might go overboard with the word "suck" and "crap", but the character development is terrific and the plot unpredictable. And yes, it is well-written. A fast-paced action novel I know students will like not caring a hoot about overly repetitive slang words.

Thirteen-year-old orphan Jax Aubrey's dad just died and Jax is living with his eighteen-year-old guardian, Riley Pendrane who can hardly take care of himself much less Jax. When Jax gets up for school and finds no humans around in his town he thinks a zombie apocalypse has happened. He learns that there is an eighth day in an alternate world that exists between Wednesday and Thursday. He's a Transitioner meaning he can exist in the world's seven day cycle, as well as the extra eighth day. He meets Evangeline, a girl that only lives in the eighth day in the house next door. When Jax makes a series of mistakes trying to find answers, he sets in motion a plot by evil men who want to destroy the eighth day and all its inhabitants. In a wild adventure that uses Arthurian legend for world building the author creates unusual plot twists that will keep you flipping the pages (or swiping your Kindle screen under the bed covers.)

Jax is lonely and angry with Riley for taking him away from his relative, Naomi, who wants to take him in after the funeral and be his guardian. Riley has the wrong day for Jax's birthday, the time when Arthurian descendants show if they can Transition or not. When Jax turns thirteen, he Transitions and freaks out discovering the eighth day on his own. He also discovers the hard way his special powers causing all sorts of problems at school with peers. As an Inquisitor he can compel people to give him information. He has fun for a while, but things go awry and he gets kidnapped learning that life is dangerous as a Transitioner.

Riley has his own issues and doesn't explain things quickly enough for Jax who searches for answers on his own. After Riley discovers Jax has powers, he finds a mentor who starts to train him and answer some questions. The adults are always a few steps behind and Jax is developing strength quicker than they anticipated. The result is he gets in trouble quite a bit. When Jax meets Evangeline he connects with her because they are both lonely and scared. She also wants to use him to plot an escape.

Jax emotional arc goes from anger over his dad and Riley uprooting him to curiosity about his powers and the alternate world. He slowly accepts those around him and starts to like them, but knows they don't accept him. He's usually left out of plans and doesn't have enough knowledge to make well-informed decisions. The adults know this and think they are trying to protect him. Jax is not sure who to trust and who not as he navigates both worlds. Add to his guilt pile one dire situation after another and you have an exciting read.

The plot uses the Arthurian legend to create the different clans and factions of people juggling for power. Nothing is what is seems and the author does a nice job of keeping certain characters' actions ambiguous. Even the loyal vassal to the liege Lord is not a one-dimensional creature. He admires Jax for his loyalty to Evangeline. He is evil, don't get me wrong, but he tries to convince Jax to join him and shows choice in actions. An explosive ending (literally and figuratively) will make readers excited for the sequel. I know I was. I went and got an Advanced Reader Copy of book 2, "The Inquisitor's Mark." I did not bring the Kindle to bed with me this time. I needed my sleep. Make sure you have a chunk of time when you start this book.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Thickety: A Path Begins (The Thickety #1) by J.A. White

I appreciate writers that balance light and dark elements of human nature. This story was too dark and violent for me. It slashes through the first chapter with the protagonist, Kara, being abducted from her bed as a five-year-old and accused of being a witch by adults in the village. She's dragged to a scaffold and attacked by a dog that turns into a Werewolf-type monster called a "Nightseeker" that can determine who is a witch and who isn't. He has a long needle that comes out of his paw and he stabs the so-called witch in the eye with it. Kara is terrified as the needle nears her eye while the entire town watches and condones this action. Kara learns that her mother is hanging from a tree over the scaffold already accused of being a witch. She appears to be alive for she moves at Kara's voice, but if she just got stabbed through the eye she should be dead. This is just one of many inconsistencies in this tale. Kara's thoughts and words are more like a teenager than a five-year-old and I just didn't buy that no adult in the village would have tried to stop the murder of a young child. She ends up pleading with the Nightseeker to let her live and it does just that.

The author is trying to replicate the Salem witch trials, but he doesn't show the complexity of a community run by fear or mob hatred. The villagers are fickle at best, but for the most part they are like puppets. The father makes a half-hearted attempt to free Kara and he has a welt on his face suggesting he tried to do something, but he completely falls apart after this event and is not developed as a character. The villagers are fine with Kara being tortured and murdered but then decide to say she's just a child and the Nightseeker declared her innocence so she should be free. Their form of justice is mostly blind acceptance. The villagers are flat characters that do not show their complex human nature or internal struggles over decisions the leaders make for them. The result is a didactic message that turned me off for much of the book. The girl is painted as a saint and the townspeople unjust. In the middle the mother's best friend shows some humanity and at the end, De'Noan does, but it was too little, too late.

Then there are the killings. And dismemberment. And torture. And bullies. I'm not sure if the author was trying to create a horror book or a fantasy book. I was horrified in parts. I know some readers will like being scared. I didn't see the purpose in most of the violence except to point out the craziness of extreme religious zeal. People are also killed willy-nilly with little or no remorse by the characters. Biddle dies (but no one liked him anyway.) Another character dies but he's mentally deranged after an incident and victimized by the villain. Sometimes Kara seems to have more compassion for the worms and insects than other humans. Then other times she is compassionate.  I struggled with her inconsistent character development. I also think it is unfortunate the author made the villain disabled. It sends the wrong message. The end has an interesting twist that makes me really wonder about the villagers. Maybe they are under a spell? I know I won't find out. This heavy-handed tale was too much for me.

2 Smileys

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Dark Lady (Sherlock, Lupin & Io #1) by Irene Adler, Iacopo Bruno (illustrator), Chris Turner (translator)

Sherlock fan here. I like the films. I like the TV shows. I like the literature. The eccentric Sherlock with his brilliant deductive skills are my cup of green tea. This book references the classic but puts a twist on the narrative using Irene Adler's voice to frame the story rather than Dr. Watson's. Irene was Sherlock's only love interest in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia"; hence, when Irene claims to be Sherlock's only girlfriend she is referring to when they were adults in the original classic. This story isn't a romance, although the boys are intrigued by the unconventional Irene. The focus is on the developing friendship of Irene, Sherlock, and Lupin; three teenagers solving a murder mystery. The first person point of view makes it easy to understand and the Victorian illustrations and backdrop add flavor to the setting. Suspense abounds in this fast read.

American Irene Adler is on vacation in Saint-Malo, France when she meets Sherlock Holmes. She is stifled by the Victorian rules regarding female behavior and it makes her rebellious. This might get lost on the reader as the author doesn't go into depth but only mentions it in the first chapter that frames the story. Irene just thinks about how the butler is telling her to be like a lady and later we see that she does not get along with her mother. Irene consistently bucks conventions saddled on women as the boys don't expect her to do anything dangerous or throw any punches. She surprises them in many different situations and exposes her untraditional ways.

Sherlock and Irene immediately have a battle of wits before she convinces him to help her escape from the Butler that is looking for her. A juggernaut of adventures ensue that made me read the whole book in two hours. Their escape takes them to a boat owned by Sherlock's friend, Arsene Lupin, and the three flee to an empty mansion. All three use the place for a break from the pressures at home and to be independent. On the way back they find a dead man on the beach with a note in his pocket and follow the clue. The two boys try to protect Irene but soon find out that she is perfectly capable of protecting herself. Or her butler is. They invite her over for boxing lessons showing how they view her as an equal. This is quite progressive for Victorian times and the spunky Irene enjoys the freedom. The twists and turns of the mystery had me baffled and the resolution was satisfying.

Irene's parents do not get along particularly well and we discover that Irene adores her father and resents the substitute butler at times even though he genuinely cares for her. After he gets her out of some scrapes and she calls him by his first name, she shows a slow maturation as her respect for him grows and she realizes that he does care for her. She does not understand her mother's lack of intellectual curiosity and later we learn that she is an orphan. She's punished for her impulsive behavior, but it has no effect on her because she doesn't value her mother's opinion and her curiosity for the world overrides her fear of authority. She's not going to be a Victorian woman that is happy in the domestic sphere. She's a feisty intellectual that is rebellious and has power struggles with her mother and butler. While the butler makes some inroads with connecting with her, the mother does not. The father making faces in boring social arrangements setup by the wife shows a certain disrespect to his wife and encourages Irene in her rebellious actions. He models some of the behavior seen in Irene. This dynamic makes for an authentic family and great discussions.

If you like middle grade murder mysteries try, "Three Times Lucky" and "The Dead Man in Indian Creek." If you want twists on the Sherlock Holmes classics try: "The Case of the Missing Marquess" (Enola Holmes Mysteries #1) by Nancy Springer or "The 100-Year-Old Secret" (The Sherlock Files #1) by Tracy Barrett.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Luck Uglies (The Luck Uglies #1) by Paul Durham

This debut fantasy adventure has a strong heroine and plot that trots along before finding it's stride. The fantastical setting came across as a mix of British and Medieval times. The town is under the protection of an evil Earl with a corrupt Constable. A stone wall surrounds Village Drowning like a feudal city. Luck Uglies used to guard the village until the Earl banished them. Bog Noblins live in the nearby swamp and when they start to attack the townspeople, the Earl struggles with their size and power. He refuses to call for the Luck Uglies help making Rye dig into the past to find the history of the rift. She discovers not only the town's history, but her family's as well. While the start is somewhat choppy, it comes together at the end with some interesting plot twists and action galore.

The first line has a good hook with Rye, the protagonist, commenting that she and her two friends never intended to steal a banned book. The three are running from rooftop to rooftop with the book owner chasing them, when Rye sees a gargoyle move and stumbles off the edge of the roof. Clothesline break her fall and she ends up at the feet of Mrs. O'Chanter telling her to pull her dress down and stop showing the neighbor's her business. Mrs. O'Chanter is Rye's mother but her lack of concern and internal dialogue of where Rye calls her "Mrs. O'Chanter" versus "mother" made me think that Rye was an orphan. Then when Rye describes how different her sister Lottie looks from her and Mrs. O'Chanter, I wondered if both were orphans taken in by Mrs. O'Chanter. It becomes clear later on but I was confused by Rye's internal chatter.

The next chapter jumps to Rye cleaning up and going to her mother's shop. I thought Rye's friends would have followed up to see if she survived her fall or if the man chasing them would demand his book back. I also wondered why Rye never told her friends about the moving gargoyle. Her character is painted as one that doesn't keep secrets from her friends. Once the action in the chapters flowed into each other as the story progressed, I got less turned around and had less going back to reread sections seeing if I missed something. The leap in some scenes sometimes left me feeling like I was falling off a rooftop. I lost my vertigo when the cat escaped and the Bog Noblin showed up in the plot.

The author does a good job using humor to lighten the dark spots. When the Constable is demanding money Rye tries to tell him her name. He mispronounces it and she tells him ironically that it rhymes with "lie." When her mother frowns at her she picks a worse rhyming word, "die." When she meets the man with tattoos and battle scars all over his body she calls him, "Harmless." The House Rules that Rye goes by are rhyming couplets and she intentionally breaks them over the course of the novel. This reinforces her emotional arc of learning to think for herself. She also wears her father's boots that are too big for her making her trip at inopportune times. They show her trying to walk in his footsteps and become independent while making the reader laugh at the same time.

Rye gets annoyed with her mom for not telling her the truth. Later her mom explains that her lies were meant to protect Rye. Sometimes adults can't tell children facts because they know they are too young to keep quiet. Rye understands this and shows how she is growing more mature as the novel progresses and she overcomes evil. The Bog Noblin is prejudiced by others in the community and Rye wonders about the justice of him being imprisoned. She is questioning authority and decisions; something she does repeated throughout the story. She is not a blind follower and tries to sort through oppressiveness whether it is with individuals or regimes. The layered themes make this story interesting and the action is nonstop in the middle and end. I will definitely be purchasing book 2 for the library.

3 Smileys

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Wow. Terry Pratchett packs powerful messages in a narrative loaded with action. He challenges assumptions about society, faith, gender, conventions, science, and laws - to name a few. The right balance of humor (adult and adolescent) and seriousness makes this coming-of-age story like nothing I've ever read. Yes, he pulls from the stranded-on-a-desert-island adventure stories that made me think of several classics, but it is his own creation and quite brilliant.

I would have liked being stranded on an island with Pratchett's two hero's, Mau and Daphne. I would have maybe learned a foreign language. Or maybe not. They probably would have killed me by accident considering my poor history with languages (I mispronounced older sister in Mandarin saying a boy's private parts). Because the two characters are from different cultures with different languages, the girl shot a pistol at the boy she was so scared when she met him and the boy shot a spear at the girl thinking that was what the arrows she drew on the map meant. I probably would have tried saying "I want water" and it would have come out "I want vomit." Mau could have obliged with a Grandfather bird meal. The Grandfather birds spit up their meals and oftentimes mirror the feelings of the characters when they are in the dumps. Later the reader finds out they are Pantaloon birds (no such bird exists), which sounds like a type of Hornbill or vulture, and is one example of Pratchett having a hey-ho time with word play and puns. Other examples include Mau who thinks that shoe prints in the sand are the result of a toeless creature. Daphne calls alcohol "demon drink." Mau calls a gun a spark maker. Pilu says that humans call underwear "long johns" after some pirate. Daphne calls the Delphic Oracle, the Pelvic Oracle. My favorite is how Daphne sings the lullaby, "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," to comfort a mother birthing and a newborn, but the villagers turn it into an auspicious, religious song with great power.

The Nation is set on an island in the South Pacific and framed by a subplot at the beginning and end. The Prologue has a creation story of the all-powerful god, Imo, creating humans using dolphin spirits. This is necessary for understanding the religion of Mau's culture. When Imo's world becomes overpopulated, he creates the spirit of death, Locaha, to kill them. Imo believes death has now marred his perfect world and wants to get rid of it, but Locaha says he can't. Imo gives the world to Locaha and goes off to make a perfect world on another planet (similar to Christianity's Heaven). This lays the foundation of bad things happening in an imperfect world; a theme Mau struggles with emotionally throughout the novel along with other characters.

The creation story concludes with Locaha telling Imo he will send humans to Imo's perfect world if they can overcome the meanness in the world. In Imo's world they will "wear stars." Mau is offered this at the end, but he doesn't take it. I'm not sure if he is rejecting religion or immortality. Probably both. Mau's character development shows him in continual battle with Locaha or death. He saves people in order to cheat death and risks his life many times in his efforts to save others. Stars symbolize alternate worlds, magic, science, and religion throughout the story. Pratchett adds depth to his narrative story line not only through symbolism, but by having characters deal with issues on a personal level and then adding large-scale history.

Chapter one reveals a government in an alternate world reminiscent of England's Victorian age. An epidemic has killed the King and decimated the government.  A ship is setting sail to locate the next King in line that happens to be sailing in the South Pacific. The idea is to give the Monarch stability and support the existing government. These governmental issues mirror the religious issues Mau has to deal with internally and on the island; stability or chaos. The end of the story goes back to this part framing it. Chapter two then gets to the island story and the rest of the action plays out from there.

Pratchett shows two people from two cultures coming together in Mau and Daphne. Daphne has been shipwrecked on Mau's island after a tsunami hits and comes from a traditional English upbringing with specific etiquette and rules that she tries to follow at first. Mau was on another island going through a male initiation required of adolescents on his island. He survived the tsunami as a result but feels guilty because his village was on the beach waiting to celebrate his return. The natural disaster caused Mau to question his faith regarding why the gods let bad things happen. He also wonders what defines a nation. Mau's emotional arc has him questioning the gods and embracing science, becoming a rationalist. Daphne questions conventions and nationalism that leads to superiority over others. Both  are innocent and immature at first and their voices are from a kids point of view. This unreliable narrator adds much humor. Eventually, they both grow toward independence and maturity.

The theme of rationalism versus nihilism is woven into many characters. Rationalism has actions based on reason and knowledge not emotion. Nihilism is the rejection of religion and moral principles. Cox is a one-dimensional villain who represents nihilism. The sea captain is religious to an extreme. Ataba is a priest that believes in gods and sees the need for rituals. Religion gives the Nation (or society) structure which in turn makes people feel safe. Mau's questioning can make for discomfort and chaos which is why Ataba rails at him even though he agrees with some of his logic. Mau respects the need for structure and understands Ataba's logic, but distrusts blind acceptance.

Blind acceptance can be seen in many of the characters. It shows up in the villagers who want to blame the Nation for the tsunami. A woman questions Mau as to whether the god anchors were moved. Did his country anger the gods somehow? She is looking for a scapegoat but Mau also recognizes her despair. This is a good example of Pratchett showing an internal struggle and realization in a character (Mau), but tying it in with a bigger picture of illogical thoughts that lead to scapegoats. Many times in history we see scapegoats and acts of injustices based on fear: Salem witch trials, Jim Crow laws, Nazis, Japanese Internment, and on and on it goes. Today we see fear in the headlines with Ebola and ISIS.

Pilu is the most obvious character that represents blind acceptance of the gods. Pratchett has Mau put him down in his thoughts and it was one of the few times I felt the author inserting too much of himself. But then Pratchett takes this flat character and turns him into the gifted storyteller. He shows how readers are not passive listeners but feel like they have rights in the story. When Daphne feels insulted by Pilu mentioning Mau being so scared he wets himself, she's critiquing his storytelling which is exactly what I'm doing writing a review. Pratchett writes with so much ambiguity and depth that he doesn't come across as didactic. At least for me.

Not only is rationalism explored but nationalism. The question of what drives loyalty and devotion in nations is something Mau mulls over. The Nation's grandfathers' speak to Mau and yell at him for doubting their rules and religion. Mau becomes chief by default and eventually has the actions of a chief so that people look at him with respect. He is willing to risk his life for the people in the village. He recognizes the villagers' need to believe in something such as religion. That is why he pulls up the god anchor of water even though he doesn't believe any more. He's acting like a leader. Mau rebels against the rules and becomes a critical thinker. His rationalism and nationalism are intertwined as his character develops. Mau is fascinated by the tools and metal found on Daphne's boat. He feels like his Nation is backwards because they have nothing like it. It isn't until the end of the story when he sees the cave that he has pride in his Nation.

Daphne's emotional arc shows her breaking from conventions and learning that nationalism can be good and bad for society. While nationalism can be good in feeling proud about one's country, in its extreme form it shows the ugly head of superiority; thinking one culture is better than another. She tries to shoot Mau when she first meets him out of panic. While she doesn't say so, I'm sure she wouldn't have shot at another person if he was from her country. Eventually she learns to see the human side of Mau and his goodness. She's even willing to save his life. Daphne slowly questions her country's impulse to colonize. She also considers how Cox can murder another man just for his color. By the end she is demanding that her father treat the villagers with respect and see them as human.

This novel could be very didactic but avoids this trap using the youthful unreliable narrator in the beginning and weaving the themes with the action in a way that should keep most readers engaged. This young adult novel will be challenging for most of my grade 5 students. I am not sure I'd recommend it to many, but I did just sent an 8th grader an email telling her it is a book I think she'd like. She's a thinker. Pratchett says in the epilogue, "Thinking. This book contains some." Hardy-har-har. What an understatement.

5 Smileys