The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Queen of the TearlingInformation

Goodreads: The Queen of the Tearling
Series: The Queen of the Tearling #1
Source: Library
Published: July 2014

Summary

Nineteen-year-old Kelsea Glynn is heir to the Tearling throne, but may not live to be crowned queen.  As a baby, she was stolen away from the castle and raised in secret by servants.  After the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, her regent uncle ruled as the puppet of the Red Queen, the cruel tyrant (and rumored witch) of neighboring Mortmesne–a nation that has subdued the surrounding realms and looks to solidify its control over the Tearling.  Now of age to take her rightful place on the throne, Kelsea plans to restore the independence of the Tearling and to erase her family’s legacy of bad politics.  But first she must not only survive the journey to the castle but also win the love and support of her people.

Review

The Queen of the Tearling possesses its share of flaws,  from confused world-building to a weak villain.  However, a plot full of intrigue, a compelling protagonist, and a commitment to avoiding many standard fantasy tropes all mark the book as a stunning debut–and Ericka Johansen as an author to watch.  If The Queen of the Tearling remains an engrossing read even with its flaws, the sequels stand a good choice of being even better as the author matures.

The story begins in a familiar enough vein–the lost heir to the throne, raised by servants in the wilderness, prepares to return to her true home.  Young and naive, however, she needs to earn her throne, not simply claim it.  Enter a host of loyal Queen’s Men, sworn to Kelsea’s mother before her birth and ready to die for her now, even though they have never met.  These are the men who will help Kelsea fight her way to the palace and help to keep her alive once she is there.  They are led, of course, by an older, scarred man with a mysterious past.  Standard fare, right?

Had the story continued in this vein, The Queen of the Tearling would have been interesting, but not outstanding.  However, Johansen soon makes it clear she cannot only use fantasy tropes but also play with them.  Thus, we avoid any romances with the older guardsman as well as with the intriguing outlaw.  We do not have a princess who can gain the goodwill of the people simply by showing her dimples but one who is, we are constantly reminded, considered ugly and who thus needs to gain respect through her political savvy and her devotion to her subjects.  We do not have a villain who is pure evil, but one who, according to the book, shares many traits with Kelsea–she just chooses to use them for her own gain rather than for the good of her kingdom.  All this suggests that the story will continue to surprise readers as it goes forward.

Unfortunately, the story lacks a solid location.  The beginning of the book seems to be set in a typical pseudo-medieval land (with magic), but tidbits dropped throughout the story reveal that the story actually takes place in a version of our own world.  A future version.  The Americans and the British apparently travelled to a new land in something called the Crossing, but lost all doctors and technology along the way.  So they know about things like genetics and how genetics work, but cannot actually use any such medical knowledge to anyone’s advantage.  The explanation could use some more details to flesh it out and make it make more sense.  For example, I remain unsure where in our world the Americans and British who founded the Tearling and the surrounding countries landed and I do not recall reading anything about what happened to the rest of the world, ensuring that the people who crossed could not simply import more technology.  Furthermore, the lack of technology really does nothing for the plot, since the lands simply operate as medieval lands, not as dystopic ones.  Unless this element of the story becomes more important in subsequent books, I can only conclude that The Queen of the Tearling wants to capitalize on the current craze for dystopias.

The villain, too, falls short when compared to the antagonists in other fantasies.  Johansen could have contrasted Kelsea brilliantly with her nemesis the Red Queen, highlighting their similarities while revealing how their choices and not their talents ultimately define their differences as rulers.  However, I fail to see how Kelsea and the Red Queen overlap in terms of characteristics, aside from a certain ambition and a little ruthlessness.  Kelsea is young, naive, and determined to protect her people from moral outrages and from foreign subjugation.  The Red Queen rules an empire, but apparently her ambition ends there because she really does not want to put in the effort to conquer the few independent lands left and she spends her days, not ruling her kingdom, but by using slaves for her pleasure.  And, though she ought to be scary, considering the rumors that label her a witch, she is revealed in perspective switches to be utterly afraid of the new teenage Queen of the Tearling.  So much for an impressive villain.

Despite the apparent ineptitude of the Red Queen, her fear of Kelsea is still rather amusing because Kelsea, ironically, is completely ignorant of politics and recent Tearling history.  That’s right.  The servants who raised her to be queen omitted from her education nearly everything about current affairs as well as the entire history of her mother’s reign, because the former queen requested it.  So Kelsea arrives on the throne not knowing what is actually happening in her country, not knowing anyone or their functions in the country, not even knowing what laws were passed in recent years.  So her captain of the guards becomes her unofficial advisor, essentially running the Tearing since he knows what’s happening in it and Kelsea does not.  Kelsea, of course, rather resents the fact that her captain thinks her incapable of running a country and burns to prove herself, but it’s hard not to agree with the man.  Kelsea is really, really lucky he genuinely wants the good of the people and not anything for himself.  I have to question, however, why no one else thinks it weird that the captain of the guard has become a political advisor overnight.

Finally, the characterization of the Church could very well be accounted the final major flaw in the work.  Like many books, The Queen of the Tearling claims that the Church is not any specific church, but readers would be hard pressed not to identify it with the Roman Catholic Church, especially considering mentions of papal affairs.  As usual the Church is utterly evil because…it’s a church?  A church with leaders who have become too embroiled in government and worldly affairs and have lost their moral compass would not be unrealistic, but the practice of using “church” as a synonym for “evil and corrupt” without any explanation seems lazy and sloppy in the context of a fantasy novel–a novel that relies heavily on world-building to place the readers.  Furthermore, it remains unclear exactly how the church gained so much power because, if I recall, the founder of the Tearling was an atheist who didn’t  hold with any religious authority (Kelsea is the same).  A little aside on how the church grew so much and became corrupt would have useful, especially since Kelsea has to navigate church/government relationships in the story.

These flaws, however, never overshadowed the other excellent elements of the book–at least not for me.  Kelsea is a wonderful protagonist, a girl who knows her own mind and is committed to making her mark on the world and helping her people.  Since she is young, however, she makes mistakes, sometimes ones that have huge and disastrous consequences.  Indeed, even before being crowned, she commits her country to war.  Readers may find her reckless or even stupid, but she is certainly interesting and I always waited eagerly to see how she would handle various tricky situations.  I have a soft spot for young protagonists finding their way in the world, and the story certainly would not be realistic if a teenage queen with no knowledge of politics began as a wise ruler.

The other characters are interesting as well, and I do not mean simply the usual ones–the tough captain with a soft heart underneath or the Robin Hood-esque outlaw who steals with style but adheres to no moral code.  Every character is richly drawn, so that even seeming bit players like the guard at the gate become three-dimensional characters with background and depth.  The perspective switches worked in this book, highlighting the various players without seeming too jarring.

Even after I consider the flaws in The Queen of the Tearling, I still find myself eagerly awaiting the sequel.  Aside from watching how the politics unfold or delving deeper into the various mysteries, I simply want to spend time with Kelsea and the others.  I have become invested in their story and am willing to follow them wherever they go, even if the places they go do not always make sense.

Mystery Box by Gordon McAlpine

Mystery BoxInformation

Goodreads: Mystery Box: A Novel About the Creators of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys
Source: Library
Published: 2003

Summary

Gordon McAlpine imagines Carolyn Keene and Franklin Dixon as real people who meet in 1920s Paris and mingle with the American expatriate literary circle.

Review

In Mystery Box, Gordon McAlpine imagines Carolyn Keene and Franklin Dixon, not as the pseudonym of a series of ghostwriters, but as real people whose life experiences shaped their stories.  Such a premise might suggest that both Keene and Dixon experienced idyllic childhoods with model families, but McAlpine boldly invents a troubled past for both of them–pasts they attempt to escape by fleeing to 1920s Paris and diving into the American expatriate literary circle thriving there.  Of course, this raises the question of whether this story addresses current readers of the series or readers who enjoyed them in their own childhoods.  Either way, the premise seems flawed–current young readers may well not understand the veiled references to Keene’s life of depravity among the avante garde while nostalgic readers may not wish to see their childhood idols handled so rudely.

Indeed, the question of what the book means to accomplish plagued me throughout my entire reading, distracting me from the plot.  The story seems to take itself rather seriously, attempting to transform names that would typically be associated with wholesome, though over-idealized, books into names that conjure up thoughts of broken families, wasted potential, and lost souls.  But why?  Is it for the shock value?  Is it because doing something so counter-intuitive must be thought “original”?  Seeing Carolyn Keene run from a place she feels unwanted and begin to experiment in an attempt to find herself, watching Franklin Dixon leave everything he’s known behind because of one harsh conversation–none of it really sheds light on the creation of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys.  So, why, I asked myself repeatedly, why do it?

Because, frankly, giving Keene and Dixon troubled lives actually makes less sense in light of their creations.  I can only suppose that Keene, for instance, gives all her characters the same names of the people she’ s known (her “real” father, for example is actually named Carson) but completely different attributes in an attempt to give herself the story she wishes she could have lived.  And Franklin, torn from his family, writes himself into a story all about brothers going on adventures together.  But does that really work?  Does making an alternate life for yourself in fiction heal you or keep you from accepting that you that you need to find healing in the outside world, as well?  Mystery Box seems to think writing heals all wounds, but I wonder.

The rest of the book is taken up by parading Carolyn and Franklin among the “Lost Generation” and their crowd.  F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas all make substantial appearances, mentoring the young writers and offering them advice on love.  Waiting for the famous names to appear proves by far the most interesting part of the book, for the plot is little more than Carolyn and Franklin waiting to find each other and I think few readers can accept that finding one’s soul mate makes you suddenly the writer you always wanted to be.  Whether the author characterizations actually match their historical counterparts is beyond me, but I suppose they are close enough for the purposes of Mystery Box.  I wonder, though, whether young readers of Keene and Dixon would be particularly interested in these figures.

Altogether, Mystery Box proves a disappointing read.  I grew up with Nancy Drew and loved her for her kindness, her bravery, and her independence.  Carolyn Keene, in this version, is said to possess these traits also–but she quickly loses them in her own self doubt.  Franklin, meanwhile, meanders about playing at detective, but never achieves the kinds of cases he probably would like.  Watching these figures shatter in the face of life is depressing and seeing them write their books in an attempt to take control is not particularly uplifting.  I think a book about these authors would have been better served with a fun plot, one that does not take itself seriously (in acknowledgement of the fact that these authors are not real) and just generally gives a crazy detective-style story full of inside jokes.  Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are, in the end, happy books, and I think a book about their creators should be written in that spirit.

Discussion Post: How Do We Teach Readers That E-Book Piracy Is Wrong?

piracy banner

The Problem. And Maybe a Solution.

As e-book piracy continues to be a popular means for readers to download books, the discussions over how it can be prevented continue to proliferate.  Just last month, Publishers Weekly posted an article exploring how YA publishers and authors can fight book piracy.  At the top of the list: making legal copies more available.  So the e-book subscription sites that some readers have been lamenting as part of the demise of traditional publishing may actually be helping.

While publishers and authors do have to be proactive to ensure they are getting paid for their work, readers should be, as well.  Over the past several months, I have seen some great activity on Twitter by bloggers promoting awareness about the harms of e-book piracy.  However, the widespread use of piracy makes me think that perhaps we should be digging a little deeper and talking a little longer than 140 characters allows.  We can shout about piracy all we want, but are we clearly understanding and addressing why readers steal books?

On the obvious end, people would prefer to get something free rather than pay for it.  So there will always be book piracy.  This is the place where publishers come into play, as they try to find ways to make e-books more secure, and for law enforcement, to crack down on thieves.

However, if you talk to enough people, you begin to realize that a lot of them do not even realize that pirating books (or music or movies or what have you) is wrong.  Or, if they do realize it is wrong (and illegal), they think their actions are so small they have no impact.

So how do we change this?

How do we reach people and tell them pirating is stealing?

And how do we make them care?

I think the first line of action is always education.  Schools should be the first to teach students, from a young age, that pirating is stealing.  And stealing is illegal.  But I don’t know that schools are.

When I was in middle school (though it was not that long ago), e-books were not a thing.  However, pirating music was definitely a thing.  I distinctly remember being told once, or perhaps once a year, in a brief lecture by the computer class teacher that downloading free music was wrong. And that the government could find you.  That was all.  I’m pretty sure that most students may have been scared for a week or so but probably ran happily back to Napster shortly after.  The conversations about piracy were not clear or consistent, and no one ever made then human by outlining how it hurts artists and their production teams.

I know that many people my age seem not to have gotten the message.  A close friend recently informed me that another of her friends had helped her illegally acquire a number of free e-books…and apparently I was supposed to be excited for her.   Even when she knows I have aspirations to work in publishing, so one day e-book piracy could directly affect me.  Even when one of the authors whose books she stole is one I enthusiastically recommended to her, and would have liked her to actually financially support.

And I certainly know other people who routinely steal media.

So I’d like to ask readers: What is your experience learning about piracy (e-book, movies, music, or otherwise)?   What did you learn about it in school?  Where else have you heard about it?  And who made you care?  Or, if you don’t care, why not?

Maybe if we discuss this, we can learn a little more about what groups are bearing the burden of educating consumers about the harms of piracy and figure out where more can be done.  Because no one should not know that pirating e-books is breaking the law.

A Small Amount of Evidence

A quick look through the Pages Unbound stats from the past year reveal that people are actively searching for free books—and a lot of them really want Fire by Kristin Cashore.  Here is list of some search terms, and the times they occurred, that somehow led people to our blog in their quest to steal authors’ work.

  • read the prophecy of bane online (10)
  • fire by kristin cashore read online free (4)
  • read fire by kristin cashore read online free (4)
  • fire a companion to graceling book online free read (3)
  • read fire online kristin cashore free (2)
  • read fire graceling realm online (2)
  • read online kristin cashore fire (2)
  • read the emerald talisman free online (3)
  • read the rumpelstiltskin problem (2)
  • read princess sonora and the long sleep online (2)

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The GiverInformation

Goodreads: The Giver
Series: The Giver Quartet #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 1993

Summary

In Jonas’s world, there is no choice.  Each life follows a predetermined path marked by various ceremonies, culminating in the assignation of jobs to each girl and boy at the age of twelve.  Jonas awaits his assignment with trepidation, only to learn that his life, for the first time, is about to diverge wildly from that of his peers.  He has been selected as the next Receiver, the vessel who holds the memories of the past and who alone knows true pleasure and true pain.  Jonas initially longs to discover the truth about his society, but he may find that some memories are too much bear alone.

Review

Every reading of The Giver is a powerful experience.  Even a knowledge of the plot cannot keep the story from seeming fresh, suspenseful, and relevant every time.  From the opening pages to the famous final scene, The Giver engages readers with a thought-provoking plot combined with a cast of sympathetic characters, whom it seems impossible not to consider friends.  By turns painful, uplifting, horrifying, and hopeful, The Giver is one of those books that will always stay with you.

Lois Lowry draws readers immediately into Jonas’s world, introducing a society that seems peaceful and even pleasant on the surface, if a little strictly regulated.  Hers may be the quintessential dystopia.  There are no obvious signs of decay and corruption, no overt tyrannical presence, no strange disappearances or evidence of oppression, not even bizarre rules that seem to scream out the citizens asking “Why, why do you live like this?”  An inattentive reader could easily miss the subtle signs of wrongness.  And it is brilliant.  One moment you are reading what seems to be a very sensible, even helpful conversation and the next you are realizing that, actually, the conversation is rather shallow and seems to contain gaps.  But blink for a moment and it’s gone.  For once, readers of a dystopia can understand why no one has ever rebelled against their society.

The ability for readers to enter Jonas’s world in such a way is what makes this dystopia truly scary.  Too often readers can easily dismiss the actions of characters, arguing that, of course, if they were in that situation, they assuredly would have put things right.  No one, after all, wants to think they could ever adopt mob mentality or even just wander thoughtlessly or lazily into a moral outrage.  But Jonas’s world seems not only innocuous but perhaps even desirable.  That image raises a host of other questions such as whether pain has value, whether people should have the freedom to choose even if that means choosing wrongly, and whether difference can actually be beneficial.  And, of course, the ultimate question of what love really is.

These general questions become pertinent to the readers through the individualized case of Jonas and the people he loves–the people he loves without questions even though some readers may not think they deserve it.  But that is the whole point.  Seeing through Jonas’s eyes, readers too can come to know his family and friends and to appreciate their good qualities even though their ignorance.  Love in this world is scarce, but once found, freely given.  Love could be no other.  And love is enough to set Jonas on a quest to help his family and friends, even if he will never know the outcome of his actions and even if he has to sacrifice everything.  It is beautiful, poignant, and ultimately ineffable.

Dystopias have become quite popular in recent years due to the success of The Hunger Games, but Lowry’s 1993 book still stands out, primarily because of Jonas’s conviction.  While other heroes often find themselves forced by their dystopian governments to take action or simply need three books’ worth of convincing to take a stand, Jonas, once he recognizes the problem, knows he has no choice but to fix it, and he never looks back.  Such moral courage seems increasingly rare, perhaps because some think it an unbelievable characteristic.  But Jonas is not meant to be merely believable but also inspiring.  His choice, his sacrifices make The Giver my favorite dystopian, even after all this time.

Eve by Anna Carey

EveInformation

Goodreads: Eve
Series: Eve #1
Source: Won at a YA event
Published: October 4, 2011

Official Summary

Sixteen years after a deadly virus wiped out most of Earth’s population, the world is a perilous place. Eighteen-year-old Eve has never been beyond the heavily guarded perimeter of her school, where she and two hundred other orphaned girls have been promised a future as the teachers and artists of the New America. But the night before graduation, Eve learns the shocking truth about her school’s real purpose and the horrifying fate that awaits her.

Fleeing the only home she’s ever known, Eve sets off on a long, treacherous journey, searching for a place she can survive. Along the way she encounters Arden, her former rival from school, and Caleb, a rough, rebellious boy living in the wild. Separated from men her whole life, Eve has been taught to fear them, but Caleb slowly wins her trust… and her heart. He promises to protect her, but when soldiers begin hunting them, Eve must choose between true love and her life.

Review

Eve opens with breath bated.  The senior girls at School are about to graduate, about to leave their gated community behind and enter the real world, where they will help the process of rebuilding in the wake of the Plague.  Or so they have been told.  One girl knows better, knows that when men want girls to “rebuild” they want them to breed, not paint or teach or research—and she wants no part of it.

When Eve learns this truth, she sets out on an unexpected adventure to avoid that stifling fate.  And this, strangely, is when the book gets less interesting.  Behind the walls of the School there are secrets and there is suspense and readers can still wonder at what awaits.  After those few scenes, the world-building, plot, and characterization stop progressing and simply leave readers wandering around a poorly developed romance set in an inexplicably half-apocalyptic wasteland.

The world-building in Eve is unsophisticated.  Readers know that the country was ravaged by some sort of Plague several years ago…and that is about it.  To start, the disease itself is never named, though it seems to bear some similarities to tuberculosis.  The country’s response to this Plague is even odder.  Children were rounded up and put into Schools like Eve’s.  They, now, are all orphans, but the children were collected before all their parents were dead so, theoretically, some should still have parents somewhere.  Practically everyone else is forced to live in a single city—a strange move for a nation that was just destroyed by a Plague, since people would probably want to live apart to avoid the spread of diseases.  The abandoned cities are all strewn with bones (no one collected them?) and houses are either full of supplies or already plundered, based on the needs of the plot.  Logic does not always reign in this book.

However, one almost wants to ask why Eve is a post-apocalyptic book at all, poor world-building or not.  The book does not ask a lot of questions about how the world got this way and how it can be avoided.  It does not ask a lot of questions about how humans survive and how they rebuild.  Mostly it’s a romance that just happens to take place in an “edgy” setting.

But it is not a particularly good romance either.  Eve suffers from something that is very close to instalove, even if she is skeptical at first.  (Her School is all-girls, so her experience with men is limited and biased.)  She also vacillates pretty easily between accepting unquestioningly the teachings of her School and dismissing them entirely, based on the needs of the plot.  I could get behind even a brainwashed character who thinks all men are pigs if she would simply stay brainwashed until personal experience and observation cured her!  Instead, however, Eve likes to think that her man is special and all other men are pigs…for no apparent reason.

Finally, I personally find Eve selfish and believe the book excuses her behavior.  Eve’s lack of experience in the real world is one factor, but it neither explains nor exonerates all the foolish actions she takes.  Yet Eve seems to be one of those books that preaches that any action is okay, no matter how stupid or dangerous, if it is done in the name of romantic love.  Will someone die because you have to have a romantic rendezvous with your boyfriend?  That’s a little sad, but ultimately a sacrifice worth making, because you love him.  Or so Eve implies.  I simply cannot get on board with that philosophy.

The start of Eve is promising, but the book never delivers.  It stumbles about a poorly-imagined post-apocalyptic setting mainly so it can wax on about the meaning of love and deliver a standard instalove romance.  There is one potential twist to the series, but I think I already know what it is, and frankly, am not interested enough to keep reading along to verify.  There are much stronger post-apocalyptic books on the market.

Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy Was a JuniorInformation

Goodreads: Betsy Was a Junior
Series: Betsy-Tacy #7
Source: Library
Published: 1947

Summary

Betsy’s older sister Julia is off to college and her new experiences quickly provide Deep Valley with a new source of entertainment–Betsy and her friends are starting a sorority!  Though the Crowd thinks the new group fun, other students at the high school feel excluded.  Will junior year by Betsy’s best one yet or will the sorority ruin everything?

Review

I have waited a long time for the Betsy-Tacy books to draw me in, following Betsy Ray from the age of five when all she did was eat her supper on a bench outside through her first two years of high school when she spent most of her time flirting.  Now, however, with the seventh book in the series, I can finally say that all the reading was worth it.  In Betsy Was a Junior, our titular heroine finally focuses on her friends and has exciting new experiences that help her grow as a character.

I do not want to imply that previous books were completely dull or featured little character development.  In Heaven to Betsy, for example, Betsy and her sister consider joining a different church from their parents.  In Betsy in Spite of Herself, Betsy learns that she loves writing even more than she loves boys.  However, the books really seemed to highlight Betsy’s flings over other plot elements and that disappointed me somewhat.  The books are part of the Betsy-Tacy series, after all, and I hoped to see more of the lovely friendships Betsy had developed with both Tacy and Tib.  Betsy Was a Junior finally prioritizes Betsy’s female friendships over her dating “conquests”.

And what a plot we get now that Betsy is hanging out with her girls!  I felt little connection with young Betsy (ages five through twelve, which correspond to the first four books) because Betsy never seemed to get into trouble even when she did something wrong.  But, really, little went wrong in the first place.  The stories may be based on Lovelace’s idyllic childhood, but I thought the narrative could have used a little artistic license to spice things up.  Now, at seventeen, Betsy is finally getting into trouble–not because she is a bad person, but because she is sometimes careless or sometimes just because other people do get hurt or jealous and lash out.  The people in this town finally seem like, well, people.

I still think the previous high school books could have used a little more moments of female friendship (though Julia, as the kind older sister, really does get to shine now that she and Betsy have matured), but at least now I can look back at them more fondly, as representing part of Betsy’s somewhat thoughtless youth.  Betsy has made no sudden transformation into a saint–be assured of that!  But she is growing and it is now fun to look back on the character arc she is beginning to complete.  The next book, Betsy and Joe, hopefully will not only get our Betsy together with the man she’s wanted all along, but also help Betsy establish for herself the kind of person she really wants to be.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

A Snicker of MagicInformation

Goodreads: A Snicker of Magic
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: February 2014

Summary

Magic used to flow throughout the town of Midnight Gulch, where people could sing up rain, turn invisible, or play a tune that got everyone dancing.  When twelve-year-old Felicity Pickle arrives, she hopes that enough magic remains to cure her mother of her wandering heart and allow her family to grow roots in the first place that has ever felt like home.  Along with her first-ever friend Jonah Pickett, a do-gooder kid who helps her to believe in her own magic, Felicity will attempt to lift the curse that lies on Midnight Gulch and make her family whole.

Review

A Snicker of Magic is one of those rare, wonderful books that seems to defy description, being possessed of a vitality and a heart that cannot be transmitted through a review but rather must be experienced firsthand.  Exuberant, uplifting, fresh, and unexpected, it shines with a, dare I say, magic all its own.  Real, lovable characters; a feel-good message; and an intriguing plot all combine to create the perfect story–the kind that transports you to a place you would love to call your own.

Everything about this story is pure gold, beginning, of course, with the characters.  Felicity Pickle narrates the story, offering not only a unique voice but also insightful observations on other characters and a surprisingly mature assessment of her circumstances.  She is joined by a wonderful family, showcasing a strong, loving mother and an adorable and devoted younger sister (as well as a pretty awesome aunt and uncle), illustrating that parental figures can be present without ruining all the fun.  Jonah Pickett, however, proves the real show-stealer.  Kind, loving, generous, and a self-described “do-gooder,” Jonah manages to be the most wonderful of friends, always supporting and encouraging Felicity without ever becoming obnoxious or sappy.  He is nothing short of inspirational.

Though Jonah is the most obvious of kind characters, A Snicker of Magic actually features an entire town of kind people.  After I had finished the book, I reflected on how remarkable it was to read a book where just about everyone does their best to act with charity (excepting, of course, some students–middle school can be rough) .  That is not to say everyone is whole.  Many characters suffer from feelings of guilt, inadequacy, fear, or heartache, and their brokenness sometimes causes pain to those around them, as well.  However, no one intentionally uses their pain as a weapon to lash out at others.  Many use it as a way to relate to those around them, and to try to offer healing.  Such a town might be thought unbelievable, but I never doubted Midnight Gulch for a second.  In fact, while I was there, I never questioned that a town should be any other way.

Natalie Lloyd does not only offer an uplifting story about people reaching to those around them, however, but goes farther and reaches out to her own readers.  A Snicker of Magic seamlessly integrates a diversity of characters, showing us just how it’s done.  Felicity, for instance, happens to have been raised by a single mother, but that mother is never defined solely by her absent husband.  Jonah Pickett, meanwhile, happens to be in a wheelchair, but he is never reduced to a mere plot device, someone whom the others need to learn to accept.  A range of other unique characters populate the rest of the town, from the homeless artist to the elderly woman who pursued a young woman’s dream.  All of them come to live in glorious 3D, never consenting to conform to a type and always asking for the readers’ sympathy and interest.

Lloyd’s incredible characters, commitment to diversity, emphasis on kindness, and magical plotline all mark her as an author to watch.  I can easily see her becoming my next must-have author–the one whose books you buy on sight, without even knowing what they’re about.

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J. R. R. Tolkien

Beowulf TolkienInformation

Goodreads: Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (with Sellic Spell)
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2014

Summary

Christopher Tolkien presents his father’s prose translation of Beowulf along with a commentary on the poem taken from his father’s lectures.  Also included is Sellic Spell, a retelling of Beowulf as folktale (Christopher includes an early version, the final version, and the Old English version) and two versions of “The Lay of Beowulf.”

Review

J. R. R. Tolkien did not prepare his translation of Beowulf for publication so we can safely assume, I think, that it is not in the form he would have wished.  Even so, it is a powerful work of art, rhythmic and sonorous, and (from what I can tell) adhering closely in meaning to the original, so that readers unfamiliar with Old English feel they are getting as close a taste as possible to what it might be like to hear the tale told around the mead benches.  Indeed, this is a translation that begs to be read out loud.  I was skeptical when I first learned that Tolkien’s translation is in prose and not verse, but his intimate familiarity with Old English means that the form in no way diminishes the force of the original poem, but somehow manages to capture something of it all the same.

Of course, since Christopher Tolkien is editing his father’s works he has some decisions to make not only what to include but how to include it.  Christopher is very straightforward about his attempts, admitting that the volume is a bit of an odd collection, attempting to appeal to the general reader and Tolkien fan while still offering something to scholars.  To try to bridge this gap, Christopher explains his choices in some detail, noting how he came up with the final text of Beowulf from the several manuscripts available to him, including his father’s lectures on Beowulf in abbreviated form so readers can have a little taste of his views and his choice of translation, and providing more than one copy of his father’s Sellic Spell and “Lay of Beowulf.”  The result is likely to please no one completely, but one can appreciate the difficulty Christopher had in coming up with a solution.

General readers, for instance, may very likely find Tolkien’s lectures tedious, even in abbreviated form.  While I enjoyed learning about the professor’s proposed solutions to difficulties and contradictions in the text (some of which even readers unfamiliar with medieval literature can pick up on), the detailed examinations of words and their etymologies, as well as the detailed attempts to fit the chronology of the story with historical detail, and the meanderings into all sorts of ancient myths and legends, was often beyond me.  I followed the arguments as best I could, but it is obvious that Tolkien was speaking to a specific audience with an expected amount of knowledge when he wrote his lectures.  Some may find themselves picking and choosing which glosses they would like to read.

After getting past the commentary, however, general readers will find a real treat awaiting them.  Sellic Spell is Tolkien’s answer to what Beowulf would have looked like as a folktale, without all the historical background.  The result is a pleasing fairy tale that recounts the adventures of one “Beewolf” as he goes to seek his fortunate in other lands and meets the fearsome monster Grinder.  The story is somewhat familiar, of course, but Tolkien adds some touches of his own–my personal favorite is his explanation of the random man who gets eaten by Grendel while Beowulf apparently does nothing.  After this, Christopher adds an earlier version of the story so readers can see something of its transformation, as well as the story in Old English, but no doubt at least the Old English version will only be of interest to specialized readers!

The final bonus is “The Lay of Beowulf,” given here by Christopher in two different forms.  Christopher notes that his father meant these to be sung and even says that he thinks he remembers his father singing one version to him when he was a child.  They are a fun little glimpse of what the Beowulf tale would look like in yet another form.

I have waited years for Tolkien’s Beowulf to appear in print and the wait has been well worth it.  I’ll admit right here that I’ve never particularly enjoyed Seamus Heaney’s famed translation of the poem, so this may well be my new go-to version.  Powerful and rhythmic, Tolkien’s Beowulf makes you feel as if you are really there, watching Beowulf face Grendel for the first time, racing along with Wiglaf to find the dragon’s hoard.  Even without extensive editing for publication by the professor himself, this is still a masterful work.

July 2014 Recap

Books Reviewed

(Covers Linked to Reviews)

Kiss of Deception   Amulet 3   Winner's Curse   Mistborn   The Last Council   Savvy   3 Below   Paper Bag Princess   The Borrowers   May Bird and the Ever After   Introducing Derrida   Heaven to Betsy   The Well of Ascension   Fahrenheit 451   The Gift of Asher Lev   A Farewell to Arms   Betsy in Spite of Herself

Discussion Posts

August Preview

Beowulf Tolkien   Betsy and Joe   A Snicker of Magic

Betsy in Spite of Herself by Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy in Spite of HerselfInformation

GoodreadsBetsy in Spite of Herself
Series: Betsy-Tacy #6
Source: Library
Published: 1946

Summary

Sophomore year in Deep Valley means many things to Betsy Ray–the opportunity to serve as class secretary, continued attempts to charm Joe Willard away from his work, and another chance at winning the Essay Contest.  However, nothing can compare to the delight of collecting boys.  But so far the boys who congregate at Betsy’s home seem to like her only as a friend.  Can she win the dashing Phil Brandish by remaking herself as the Dramatic and Mysterious Betsye?

Review

While Betsy in Spite of Herself continues along much the same lines as the previous book–Betsy spends her days flirting  and plotting ways to get boys to swoon over her the way they do over her older sister Julia–this installment branches out a little to illustrate the protagonist’s developing maturity.  While Betsy still considers boys the most important thing in the world, her new flirtations are not present in this story simply to show how silly Betsy sometimes can be.  Instead, they teach her that, above all, she has to be true to herself and to her own aspirations, even if that means losing a date.

I mentioned in my review of Heaven to Betsy that I had, contrary to the experiences of generations of readers, difficulty relating to Betsy and that, indeed, at times I even found her unlikable.  This book provides the same experience, at least for me.  Of course, that does not mean Betsy is not still an interesting character and one whose adventures I can enjoy following.  I read both the last book and this one with pleasure.  There was just always something missing.  If anything, I wanted more Tacy–Betsy’s old friend who does not swoon over boys and who can thus provide a relatable character for readers who find Betsy’s machinations to ensnare boys she does not even really like a bit odd, maybe even a bit manipulative.  Betsy’s romps with “the Crowd” simply do no match the pleasure that can be found in her loyal friendship with Tacy.

Fortunately, however, this book provided me hope with the future of the series.  Betsy does act very silly.  She neglects her studies and pretends to be someone she is not, all to capture the interest of a boy who owns an auto.  But the whole time readers can sense that Betsy knows she acts silly, knows that she wants to be someone else–wants to be considered smart as well as popular, wants to be known as a writer as well as a catch.  If she loses herself for a time, readers can forgive her.  What is it to be young if not to make mistakes?

Writing a review about this book thus proves a little difficult, for it really centers around a short-lived romance that could conceivably have been only an episode in a longer work.  Other things happen, of course, but the Philip Brandish plot overshadows them all, making Betsy in Spite of Herself seem a little like a bridge book.  We have seen Betsy go out with half the school in the previous book.  We have seen her realize she cares more about writing than Philip in this book.  So now the real question is how Betsy will remodel herself in the next book.  Everything in Betsy in Spite of Herself points forward.

But I am glad it does.  I grow tired of watching Betsy flirt and get bad grades when I know she is capable of so much more–and wants so much more.  It is not, I want to tell her, impossible to date and study.  I do not want to watch her throw her future away because she can never decline an invitation to a dance or a party.  I may not fully understand Betsy, but Maud Hart Lovelace has certainly still managed to make me care about her.

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