Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Read: 23 April, 2018

I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.

Star Wars The Last Jedi: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein

Read: 18 February, 2018

After watching The Last Jedi, I wanted to know more about Rose Tico. She’s an intriguing character who doesn’t get much exploration in the movie, but just enough to hint at a lot more depth.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much exploration here, either. The story is about Rose and her sister, Paige, trying to help a local rebellion on the planet Aterra Bravo. Set before the outbreak of war with the First Order, Rose and Paige have to operate in secrecy while the rebellion gathers evidence against the First Order.

So far so good. Except that the narrative is fairly superficial, and we don’t get a whole lot of character exposition or development. There’s a bit there about Rose’s relationship with Paige, and what development there is is about her learning to function independently of her sister (giving the last few chapters quite a bit of pathos, considering what happens in the first few minutes of The Last Jedi).

There’s certainly enough plot to fill a full length novel, but the author opts for repetition of the superficial, rather than depth. So over and over again, we hear about how Aterra Bravo reminds Rose of her homeworld, and over and over we hear about the difficulty of navigating the heavy bombers through the Aterran asteroid field. It’s so repetitive that even my six year old was getting annoyed! This book does not trust its readers at all.

Which is such a shame, because Rose is an interesting character, and because the plot is interesting on its own.

This isn’t a terrible book, but it is a disappointing one. The author seems to have confused writing for a younger audience with writing for a lazy, uninterested, and unengaged audience. She sacrificed depth for the assumption that her audience wouldn’t remember details from one chapter to the next.

How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Read: 1 May, 2017

My copy’s cover boasts that this story is “now a major DreamWorks Animation film.” That’s a lie. There is a DreamWorks movie with the same title, and even the main characters have the same names, but it’s not the same story. At all.

That was rather unexpected.

But not unwelcome. The movie was a wonderful story about a friendship between a boy and a dragon that sort of crammed in a thing about a Big Bad to be defeated at the end because I guess the screenwriters felt that they needed a grandiose climax but couldn’t be arsed to write a second draft in which the two plots actually make sense together.

Whereas in the book, there is a Big Bad, but it’s better integrated into the story. And, perhaps more importantly, it actually makes sense.

Unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling the book. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless in the movie tugged my heartstrings in all the right ways. But in the book, the two don’t really seem to have much chemistry together.

It didn’t help that the only human female in the whole book was the main character’s mother. I get it, “boys don’t want to read about girls”, but what do you think teaches them that? Sure, the movie crammed in your normal Stock Strong Female Love Interest #3, but at least she was there. It was a start.

I also had trouble with the narration. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t find the rhythm of the text, and I kept stuttering and stumbling over myself while trying to read it out loud. The writing just didn’t have any poetry in it.

There’s a whole lot of your typical boy media “gross-out” stuff, like references to snot and belching and such. I can imagine those being a hit for some kids, but mine couldn’t care less. I can see how this book might hit a lot of a kid’s interests and become a family favourite, but it just wasn’t working for us. Maybe in a few years…

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Lumberjanes #3-4: A Terrible Plan & Out of Time by Noelle Stevenson & Shannon Watters

Read: 23 April, 2017

The first two volumes meandered toward a single plotline that was resolved. In these two, we get a few different mini plots that hint at the big mystery of the Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types.

These stories are satisfying on their own, and only some involve defeating big scary monsters (the first story in A Terrible Plan is simply the girls telling scary stories while sitting around a campfire), with no need for any big-p Plot. That said, though, we do get some more information on the camp, and on the mysterious Bear Woman.

Mostly, though, the story is about the friendships, and that’s where it delivers. I also love the inclusion of various sexualities and gender identities.

The art style fits the tone of the series perfectly – it’s cartoony, fairly expressive, whimsical. It’s not photorealistic, sometimes it’s even a bit first draft-y, but it always fits the mood of the panel well.

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Lumberjanes #1-2: Beware the Kitten Holy & Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis

Read: April 7, 2017

This is the high energy story of the young women of cabin Roanoke, who follow a bearwoman into the woods and are attacked by three-eyed foxes, and things only get stranger from there.

There’s very little downtime in Lumberjanes. Monsters fly out from every direction, the characters are constantly active, there’s loads of yelling… The downside to this is that the mystery never really gets time to build, there’s no pause to wonder what might be happening. It’s just action, action, action, reveal. It’s not my favourite pace, but it works.

The artwork is somewhat unrefined, but it fits the tone of the story and has a certain character to it.

Essentially, Lumberjanes is what it is, and it is that well. The reveal – which I won’t spoil – was a bit of a let down, only because I’ve seen it too often, but all the elements of the story worked.

This would be fantastic as a “baby’s first graphic novel”, for ages 7-10.

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The Sacketts #4: Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour

Read: 22 January, 2017

I picked this up without realising that it’s part of a larger series. In fact, I didn’t realise it at all until I had finished the book and went to GoodReads to see what other people think of it. Point being, this works perfectly well as a stand-alone.

It follows the story of Jubal Sackett, son of Barnabas Sackett, as he travels ever farther west – intent on seeing whatever is beyond the next horizon. On the way, he receives a quest to find a princess, makes friends, makes enemies, and falls in love.

It’s a bit of a meandering tale. When Jubal receives the quest to find the Natchez princess Itchakomi, I thought that would be the focus of the story. But then it seemed to be about defeating the antagonist Kapata. But then it seemed to be about finding a place to settle down and build a trading post. But then it seemed to be about finding one of the few remaining woolly mammoths. But then it seemed to be about dealing with the Spanish, and finding himself in the middle of a conflict between two Spanish soldiers.

The book always had a next horizon, a next quest, a next goal. All the quests that are introduced end up resolving by the end, but their lack of interconnectedness left the ending rather open – it’s obvious that there will be more, even if they aren’t told. As someone who likes tighter narratives, this bothered me a bit.

I was also a little disappointed into the survivalism aspects of the novel. I’m a bit of a survivalist fan – I cut my reader teeth on books like My Side of the Mountain and My Name is Disaster. I just can’t get enough of nitty-gritty stories of people surviving alone in the wilderness. Jubal had a lot of that, the focus tended to be Man vs Man, rather than Man vs Nature.

I did have fun with the book. I kept it on my phone as an emergency audiobook, to listen to while getting changed at work when I didn’t have have my normal audiobook to hand, for instance. Its slow, somewhat episodic narrative is perfect for these sorts of short burst readings, when I don’t need more than just a broad recollection of what’s already happened. The book is interesting in the moment, rather than as a whole.

I found the character of Jubal himself to be rather interesting. He’s the survivalist, but he’s also quiet, reserved, a reader. He often comes across more like a younger boy than a man, especially in how long it takes him to pick up on Itchakomi’s rather obvious flirtations. Even in his friendships, he seems somewhat emotionally immature. It felt like the book was written for a younger audience, with the main character’s emotional experiences being made relatable for that audience.

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The Chronicles of Narnia #3: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

Read: 10 January, 2017

This is the story of a boy and his horse (and a girl and her horse, too, but I guess titles can only get so long before they become unwieldy), and their escape to Narnia and the north.

I had a lot of trouble getting into this one. Every time the adventure starts picking up, there’s a sudden Grownups Are Talking scene that just seemed to go on and on and on. My poor son has taken to drawing pictures during bedtime reads because, advanced in so many ways as he is, he just can’t find it in himself to get excited about Calormen politics. And I honestly can’t say that I blame him.

I might have felt differently if there had been something interesting or creative about the Calormenes. But, instead, they’re pretty much just a hodge-podge of “oriental” middle eastern stereotypes. Which really only serve to date the book.

I’m also unsure of what this does to the Narnia universe. In both The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, there was a sense of an empty world. Sure, there was the cabby who served as the first king of Narnia, but his court was comprised of talking animals. And in TLTWaTW, everyone makes a huge fuss over there being actual human children in their world.

Now, just a few years later, we find out that there are whole nations of humans less than a day’s ride from Caer Paravel.

It reminded me of the book of Genesis: God creates Adam and Eve, who have three sons, who then go off and get married. And, suddenly, we have near descendants going off to other lands and living in the cities there. Knowing a little of C.S. Lewis’s religious perspective, I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t having a bit of a larf when writing this.

In conclusion, I found this to be a very pale follow up to TLTWaTW. There are too many grownups and grownup doings, and the use of stereotypes just comes off as lazy.

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Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Read: 21 May, 2016

In the period after the Death Star’s destruction, Rebel pilot Norra returns to Akiva to find her son. Of course, things go awry – specifically, remnants of the Empire’s leadership happen to have gathered on the planet to decide the fate of the galaxy now that it’s emperor is dead.

Right off the bat, the writing style is very sub-par. It took me a long time to get into the story enough to (mostly) ignore, but then it would just jab at me with awkward or inefficient phrasing. Things like: “The TIE wibbles and wobbles through the air, careening drunkenly across the Myrrann rooftops – it zigzags herkily-jerkily out of sight.”

Yeah.

The characters themselves were fine. They were pretty stock and didn’t exactly have emotional range, but I figured that was something that didn’t evolve in the Star Wars universe until after the events of the original trilogy anyway (with a few very rare sparks here and there).

For the most part, the characters have Backstory and Function, and then are otherwise left to just fulfill the needs of the plot. Which isn’t a terrible thing if the plot can carry it and – for me – it did. Not that it was spectacular or anything, but stuff happened, there were fights, there was action, there were explosions… I wasn’t exactly expecting a Star Wars version of McEwan’s Atonement.

One thing I really liked – and loved in the recent movie as well – is that the galaxy feels much more full than it did with Lucas at the helm. With the original trilogy, all characters (with the very welcome exception of Mon Mothma) are male unless the role demands otherwise. This left men as the default, and women as the sex slaves, maternal figures, or the love interest. Lucas seemed to try to fix this in the prequels, but fell quite short of success.

With the recent franchise, women have been much better distributed. They pop up in the background, they lead Stormtroopers, they’re around. It’s been so refreshing to finally, after thirty years of being a fan, to see the galaxy have room for someone like me.

Aftermath does the same, but takes it one step further – it writes women back into the original trilogy. Norra, our main character, was a pilot in that final battle – a pilot who was never onscreen but, now, has a story and a place. And I am willing to overlook quite a bit for making me – finally – feel welcome in a franchise that I’ve adored my entire life.

Unfortunately, the writing style is pretty terrible. With all the money and resources at their disposal, I sincerely wish that Disney had selected a better writer to handle this book. In most other ways, they seem to take the franchise seriously, and to want us to take it seriously as well. They seem to want to mainstream Star Wars fandom on a level that it hasn’t been before. But I think that the first step needs to be to give these books to authors who will be able to tell the stories with the care they deserve.

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Leviathan #1: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Read: 8 April, 2016

On the eve of the first World War, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the crew of a Darwinist airship, while Alek (fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand) is forced into hiding by his parents’ death.

This is the story of World War I, of huge forces smashing against each other as millions upon millions of lives are lost. But this time, the conflict is re-imagined as being between the Darwinist forces – who manipulate the “life threads” of animals to create fantastical war machines – and the Clankers – who build beast-like machines on legs.

The book gets classified as Steampunk, and it certainly is, but adding the organic construction aspects to it made it into something new. Is Fleshpunk a thing? Evopunk?

The plot is a fairly straightforward adventure story, though it does hint to the deeper politics in the background. The balance is pretty perfect to give the impression of the setting, but without bogging down the story.

The book is also classified as Young Adult, which I don’t think is quite accurate. It’s not a book for little kids, certainly, but I think it would be perfect for someone around 11-14. The characters, who are meant to be around 15 years old, act and think more like 11-12 year olds.

That said, the world building and the plot had more than enough to keep me entertained. And I really appreciated that Westerfeld doesn’t hold back on terminology – military equipment and ranks are properly named, for example. I could see 11-12 year old me absolutely devouring this book.

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On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Read: 29 February, 2016

John Chandagnac was a puppeteer-turned-accountant on his way to Jamaica to reclaim his birthright from his thieving uncle. On the way, however, his ship was captured by pirates. Chandagnac must become the pirate Shandy to defeat the magic-wielding pirates, save a magician’s daughter, and claim his family fortunes.

I really enjoyed most of the book. As with Anubis Gates, the writing style is tremendously exciting, and this time he’s got swashbuckling pirates to work with instead of just Romantic poets. I tore through the first 80% of the book, hardly able to put it down. But then, as with Anubis Gates, it just lost me. The book seems to lose focus toward the end. When I read Anubis Gates, I got the sense that Powers had just become bored with the story and was trying to end it quickly so he could move on. On Stranger Tides seems to have suffered from the same problem. The killing of Blackbeard, a terrifying character throughout and the prophesied goal for our main character (according to Woefully Fat, the bocor who infodumps the information Shandy will need to accomplish his goals) is over in a flash, and his character lacks all the menace that had been cultivated throughout.

The saving of Beth Hurwood felt rushed, and the reclaiming of the Jamaican estates is just dropped entirely – despite being the stated goal from the very beginning and despite Shandy’s uncle being narratively brought back from the dead in order for it to happen.

The magic system itself is a bit of a touchy subject. There are, of course, real Vodun practitioners, and they are not typically the kids of people who have a lot of social power. The taking and using of their religious beliefs for the entertainment of outsiders is a problem. That said, the magic system worked quite well in the context of the story, it paired well with the plot.

There were some gender issues with the book as well. There are very few main characters, with only two who are meaningful to the plot. One of those is dead, and the other is a helpless, even catatonic damsel through most of the plot (though she does have some potential when she’s conscious). Other female characters include the mother of a bad guy with an Oedipus complex, and a few women in the pirate camp who are either sexually available or attached to a male pirate (or both). Even more offensive, one of these latter women is named Ann Bonny. That’s right, one of the most famous female pirate captains is here reduced to a pirate wife and potential sexual distraction for the main character. The erasure of women in fiction and history isn’t exactly uncommon. Whole worlds are constructed where women just don’t seem to exist at all, or they exist elsewhere, or they hang around in the wings to provide goals, distractions, and the next generation of characters. It’s annoying, but at least Powers has the excuse that he’s grown up in a culture where this is normalized. Naming one of these background characters Ann Bonny, however, just feels nasty. Better to pretend she doesn’t exist than to remake her as little more than a wife and potential sexual conquest.

I still found the story gripping, and it was full of wonderful ideas and creepy imagery. But aspects of it, particularly on the gender side and how the baddies were constructed, made it feel very dated.

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