Owly & Wormy: Bright Lights and Starry Nights by Andy Runton

Bright Lights is a sweet story about two friends, Owly and Wormy, who want to see the stars and, on the way, they become friends with a family of bats.

The story is told in a graphic novel style, except that instead of text in speech bubbles, there are instead more images. This made it great for reading with my pre-literate kid, because it meant that we could look at the pictures together and talk about what was happening – encouraging him to deduce from the visual cues how the characters are feeling, what they are saying, etc.

Another thing I loved about the book is that it was just so very sweet. When Wormy was afraid of the dark, Owly brought out lights to make him feel better. When Owly lost the telescope, the bats helped to find it. The situations provided us with many opportunities to discuss things like friendship, helping, being afraid of the dark, and so forth.

Overall, this was just a lovely, sweet book that provides ample occasions for the pre-literate crowd to flex their logic muscles.

Buy Owly & Wormy: Bright Lights and Starry Nights from Amazon and support this blog!

    Forever War by Joe Haldeman

    Read: 2 October, 2014

    In the war against an unknown alien, the battlefield stretches across light years. Conscript William Mandella fights for earth, only to find the planet much changed on his return.

    The writing style is one that seems common among classic science fiction works – it’s very journalistic, appearing dry and even monotone even while it conveys a great deal. And there’s certainly a great deal here.

    In a not-too-subtle retelling of the Vietnam War, Haldeman uses relativistic time dilation to explore the experience of the drafted soldier return to a country he doesn’t recognize and that doesn’t accept him. There’s also a lot there about fighting foreign (alien) cultures, not understanding the enemy, not understanding why the enemy needs to be killed, being compelled by propaganda even while recognizing it as propaganda, etc. In other words, the book is one massive smorgasbord of social commentary.

    The views on homosexuality are obviously outdated, as are the gender relations. Certainly, the approach to heterosexual sex early on in the novel is downright rape-y. I can chalk some of that up to the age of the novel, and there’s enough other stuff going on to carry me through the rest, but it bears saying.

    Buy The Forever War from Amazon and support this blog!

      Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees

      Giraffes Can’t Dance is a fairly typical story of a main character (in this case a giraffe named Gerald) who thinks that they suck at something, then discovers that they not only don’t suck, they are so good at it that it earns them public recognition. It’s a problematic narrative that I really dislike, in particular because it de-emphasizes the role of hard work and practice, and because it’s unsustainable (if anybody can be the best at dancing, how does that even work?).

      In this case, the trite storyline is mitigated a little by having each animal have its own special dance, and the issue holding Gerald back is that he hadn’t discovered his special dance yet (in this case, the boogie). So I spun it for my son by saying that the important thing isn’t being great at dancing, but finding something that you love and can work hard to excel at. I’m sure that’s what Andreae meant too, though the message is undermined by having all the animals exclaim: “Gerald’s the best dancer that we’ve ever, ever seen!”

      The storyline aside, Giraffes Can’t Dance has a great rhythm. There are no tongue twisters or sudden skips in the beat, so it’s easy and fun to read aloud. My son also loved the illustrations, which are simple enough to be easy to process, but complex enough to be interesting, and – of course – very colourful.

      Buy Giraffes Can’t Dance from Amazon and support this blog!

        The Dresden Files #8: Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

        Read: 30 September, 2014

        The tone is set when Dresden attends the trial of a sixteen year old boy accused of dark magic. The kid had stumbled into mind control without knowing the laws of magic, and now the White Council can only make one choice: the penalty for breaking the laws of magic is death. As Dresden leaves the trial, the Gatekeeper gives him a cryptic warning of dark magic being used in Chicago.

        The first few books in the series were pretty campy, trying to be Noir and coming off more like the hammy versions of the genre. The last few books, certainly since Blood Rites, have felt a little like place-holders. Very little actually happens in Blood Rites, making the book feel more like just a vehicle for the big reveal at the end. Dead Beat had a lot more going on, but still seemed to be trying to get through a load of exposition.

        Proven Guilty had some of the same feel to it, and we learn a great deal of background about the “Dresden Pack.” We also see quite a bit of pay off in Dresden’s character development as he deals with his strained relationship with the Carpenters, his connection to the fallen angel Lasciel, his “will they, won’t they” relationship with Murphy, his feelings about Ebenezar, and, of course, his rather difficult relationship with the White Council.

        There were several difficult issues tackled in the book, perhaps the biggest being Molly, the Carpenters’ seventeen year old, having a crush on Dresden. While I understand that it’s a situation many would rather not read about, and I see several reviews calling Butcher some variation of “creep” for writing about it, I actually quite appreciated it. The fact is that this situation happens, and it happens a lot to young girls who have troubled relationships with their families (and are therefore already vulnerable in all sorts of ways). Acknowledging that the older man might be tempted, that the refusal might be difficult, just added realism to scene. Throughout, Dresden modeled the (mostly) appropriate course of action for the older man to take – he refuses, he sets explicit boundaries, and he never ever takes advantage of the situation (except, of course, for the impromptu lesson involving an ice bucket challenge).

        I also appreciated how Dresden and Murphy handled their feelings for each other. While certainly not ending the “will they, won’t they” subplot, I was pleased to see them talking out their feelings and options like mature adults. Dresden also gains a new understanding of his mentor, Ebenezar, and begins the process of repairing their relationship. All in all, Dresden grows up a lot in this book, and seems set on a good course to repair all the damage that came to the fore in Dead Beat.

        That said, there was a little “plot critical” silliness. The events of the book circle around a horror movie convention: SplatterCon!!! Yet despite two separate incidents that, collectively, led to several deaths and hospitalizations, it’s just assumed that the con will continue. Never is the possibility of cancelling the rest of the event seriously considered. I can understand continuing on after an incident that left an old man beaten up in a bathroom, but once someone dies, it almost seems in poor taste to keep on celebrating horror movies.

        Butcher has gotten much better at setting up tricks that will come in handy later in the book. Early on in the series, Dresden would pick a few potions to make, seemingly out of a hat, only to find that they happen to be the exact potions that he needs. It was a little silly. Here, however, Little Chicago is introduced early on, but it’s given a firmly plausible purpose, even if it happens to be exactly what Dresden needs later on. There’s also some teasing, where Dresden thinks that he will need it, but then doesn’t, then later does for a different reason.

        Buy Proven Guilty from Amazon and support this blog!

        Continue reading

          Temple Cat by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Kate Kiesler

          I really enjoyed this picture book about an Ancient Egyptian cat who lives in a temple as the living avatar of a god. The cat is surrounded by luxury, but feels discontented and trapped. Finally, the cat decides to escape and finds happiness playing with the children of a fisherman.

          The story is a little simplistic and the lesson overdone, but they’re really only a vehicle anyway. What carries this book is the gorgeous artwork and the introduction to Ancient Egypt.

          In particular, I was very impressed with how expressive the cat’s body language is in the pictures. It’s clear that Kiesler is very familiar with felines!

          Unfortunately, my son wasn’t taken with the book. He tolerated a reading of it, but was eager to jump to something he found more exciting once I was done. Oh well, we’ll try again!

          Buy Temple Cat from Amazon and support this blog!

            Wheel of Time #3: The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

            Read: 19 September, 2014

            Despite being called The Dragon Reborn, Rand gets very little narrative time. It’s an interesting choice, since he seemed to be made out as the main character in Eye of the World, and the principle character in Great Hunt. Now it seems clear that what we’ve been hearing all along – that Rand may be the Dragon Reborn, but he is not the only Ta’veren – is true. By leaving Rand almost entirely out of this book, Jordan seem to be sending a strong message that there are many main characters in this series, of which Rand is merely one (and not even, in my mind, the most interesting one).

            It’s a good thing we don’t see Rand much, because what we do see of him is disturbing. He talks to himself, he attacks his friends in dreams, he even kills a group of people (who may or may not have been there to attack him) and arranges their corpses so that they are all kneeling before him. Yeah. It’s hard to imagine that he will keep any shred of sanity through the 11 books we have left.

            Of the remaining main characters, Mat really comes to the forefront in this book. I think I was still too focused on finding my footing in Eye of the World to really notice him much, so the only impression he’d made on my prior to this book was the douche-canoe he was under the influence of Shadar Logoth. I didn’t like him at all, and that was intentional – the dagger had made him paranoid, temperamental, angry.

            Having Mat free from the dagger’s influence here added an interesting element to the story. All the characters have changed over the course of their journeys, but Mat’s change was actually a return to a pre-series original self (or something like it, anyway).

            As it was, Mat’s light-heartedness and insincere self-interest provided some much needed relief from what might have otherwise been a very angsty book.

            Not to give too much away, but Egwene’s been working on her Dreaming through the book, and this becomes important in the final showdown. It seems important that her role in the events at the Stone of Tear all take place while she is sleeping. By outward appearance, she is the classic passive woman, the damsel in distress, the Sleeping Beauty. She is held captive and she is literally asleep through most of the big battle. Yet at the same time, Egwene is fighting – only her battle takes place in Tel’aran’rhiod, the World of Dreams. The contrast between her outward appearance and her actual role felt very subversive, as though Jordan were deliberately poking at expected female roles.

            In both Dragon Reborn and Great Hunt, the characters are separated, scatter all over the place, and then somehow all make it back to the same place for the big showdown. This is clearly intended to be a narrative reflection of the “weaving” motif. Unfortunately, the video game-like pattern of having a boss fight at the end of each book is starting to feel a little silly. Rand hangs out, does stuff, advances the plot, then comes back to “kill” Ba’alzamon again (only, of course, to have to kill him again at the end of the next book). At the very least, I would like for Rand to stop celebrating his victory every time. The first time is plausible, the second is silly but whatevs, but the third time is just absurd and makes Rand out to be every bit as wool-headed as Nynaeve claims him to be.

            Buy The Dragon Reborn from Amazon and support this blog!

            Continue reading

              The Dresden Files #7: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

              Read: 9 September, 2014

              The main mystery of the book involves the surviving apprentices of one evil necromancer, and the search for a book that could give them god-like powers. But, as seems to be more and more the case as we make our way through the series, the real story is the cumulative effect of Harry’s choices coming back to bite him. On the seventh book now, there have been more than a few.

              While Blood Rites felt a bit like a character exhibition placeholder – where much was revealed but the book itself felt thin – Dead Beat made all that gathered information feel like it mattered. It’s also the first time that I really got the sense that Harry is changing, and not just in the sense that he’s getting more powerful. He’s also becoming more corrupted, and more vulnerable to pushes from the baddies (psychologically speaking).

              I’m interested to see where this all goes!

              Best line: “Polka will never die!”

              Buy Dead Beat from Amazon and support this blog!

              Continue reading

                Divergent Trilogy #3: Allegient by Veronica Roth

                Read: 6 September, 2014

                The series began as The Breakfast Club in a post-apocalyptic world. In the third and final installment, Roth seems to have been going for a graduation from that high school prejudice into the prejudices of the adult (or “outside”) world – racism. Except not racism, of course, but “genetically damaged” versus “genetically pure.” But yeah, racism. Reading the book, as I am, so soon after Ferguson, I feel like it should resonate more than it does.

                The “twist” fails, I think, because we’ve been peeling back the layers of the onion only to discover that it was actually an apple after all, and that just doesn’t work in the third book in a trilogy. The idea of an outside world was set up early on, but the image we get of it as the big reveal at the end of the second book is shown to be a near-complete falsehood just a few chapters into the next book. As a result, if feels much more like a lack of planning than an actual twist.

                There’s also a rather significant stylistic change. Rather than all being in Tris’s voice, the third book suddenly adds Four as a secondary POV character. Changing narrative styles so late in the game should be done with caution, and I fdon’t feel that it worked here.

                The characters seem addicted to revolution. It was one thing to fight against the Jeanine and perhaps the current fraction structure, that was set up early on and it made sense within the context of the book. I could even sort of understand a realization that the revolution didn’t really improve things, and that the oppressed are often quite happy to become oppressors when given the chance. That would have made sense and would have made for a perfectly good moral lesson to tie the series together. What happens in the third book, however, is that Tris & co. first join the Allegiants to fight against Jeanine and the Factionless, then join the Genetically Damaged to fight against the Genetically Pure. They’re so addicted to the process of revolution that they couldn’t even stick with one for the entire length of the book.

                SPOILERS: The big sacrifice ending was silly. No one was in danger of dying, so Tris’s big sacrifice was to keep people from having their memories erased, because she believed that erasing people’s memories is a morally bad thing. Yet her sacrifice occurs while erasing people’s memories. That’s right, she believes that X is bad, so she sacrifices herself to do X. It’s absurd.

                Overall, I felt that the book felt rushed, and suffered from an apparent lack of planning throughout the writing process of the series. Through the other books, I was content with the peeling of onion layers. But in this one, knowing what the core looks like, really revealed the series’s flaws.

                Buy Allegiant from Amazon and support this blog!

                Continue reading

                  Wheel of Time #2: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

                  Read: 4 September, 2014

                  In The Great Hunt, our band of heroes separate, meet up again, then separate, then meet up while finding the Horn of Valere, then losing it, then finding it again.

                  I mentioned in my review of Eye of the World that the book showed a rather strong Tolkien influence. If any of that remained in Great Hunt, I didn’t notice it. Perhaps Jordan intentionally started with a Tolkien base, or perhaps it took him a book to gain the confidence he needed to go in his own direction. Either way, I’m glad the issue corrected itself so early on in the series.

                  Another big difference from the first book is that the characters are no longer on the run. There’s still danger, of course, but they’ve mostly turned around to face it now (some of the characters even spending part of the book as the pursuers). Changing so fundamentally the type of story helps, I think, it differentiating the second book from the first, and helps make it clear that it won’t all be more of the same through fourteen books.

                  I’ve mentioned in my reviews of both Eye of the World and New Spring that I really appreciate the number of female characters and their relationships with each other. They have their own goals and they have their own friendships that have nothing to do with Rand. And while it’s a little over done for multiple female characters to fawn over the male lead (because he just has that special fictional je ne sais quoi), they resolve their competition by prioritizing and reinforcing their friendship rather than drawing out the same tired old love triangle/competition.

                  I’ve seen some complaints that all the women are carbon copies of each other – all brow-beating and nagging, all stubborn and able to admit fault. I can see where the complaint comes from, and I do agree that it would have been nice to see a little more variety (like how George R.R. Martin included everything from Sansa the tower maid waiting for a savior, Brienne the woman who styles herself a Britomart, and Catelyn the medieval wife who is both femme and a capable leader, not to mention all the other variations of those three archetypes). That said, I don’t think that the criticism is entirely fair, as there is certainly a fair bit of individuality. Egwene, in particular, stood out for me in this book as far as her character development went.

                  That’s not to say that there isn’t some cardboarding going on. Siuan’s fish-themed linguistic choices could have used some toning down, for example. It could just be my faulty memory talking, but I feel like she was far spoke far more plausibly in New Spring. There are other examples of over-reliance on certain phrases (men constantly finger their weapons, Nynaeve has some sort of plait-tugging fetish, etc).

                  Still, I really enjoyed this book, as well as the series so far.

                  Buy The Great Hunt from Amazon and support this blog!

                  Continue reading