The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

The Real BoyInformation

Goodreads: The Real Boy
Source: Library
Published: September 24, 2013

Summary

Oscar lives a contented life grinding herbs for his master the magician in a little village just outside Asteri, the perfect city where the chosen people dwell.  Then one day a monster awakens in the woods and a mysterious illness begins attacking the children of Asteri.  With his master gone, it’s up to Oscar and his new friend Callie to stop the monster and save the children.

Review

The Real Boy begins promisingly as a rather standard middle-grade fantasy featuring the slightly awkward apprentice (or, in this case, herb grinder, which is even lower than an apprentice) who unexpectedly must take up his master’s work when evil strikes.  However, though the usual ingredients are there, from the bullying older apprentice to the smart and friendly girl-next-door who will undoubtedly be there to help save the world, The Real Boy quickly signals its intent to take its tale in an unusual direction.  Rather than focus on an external, physical threat to the community, the story offers a sort of moral tale that reflects on power, discrimination, fear, and greed all wrapped up in a fight against a mud monster and a potential plague.

Though normally I enjoy middle grade works that attempt to offer a deeper moral dimension, The Real Boy attempts to cover too much ground to be a truly compelling tale.  It begins by focusing on Oscar, who seems like he might have autism–and that’s phenomenal.  Rarely do characters like Oscar appear in literature and rarer still is it for them to be the protagonist.  His struggle to understand the unspoken social codes around him all while really wanting to focus on the monster terrorizing his village is truly touching and makes him human without ever making him seem weak.  However, the story quickly moves from Oscar to address class discrimination, human trafficking, greed, possible detrimental effects to the environment, and more.  This might have worked had the story stuck with one plotline–the monster in the woods–but then Oscar and his friend Callie are suddenly sidetracked by a potential plague and the pacing just falls apart as the children get bogged down in two separate mysteries.

The characters, however, are really compelling.  I sympathized with Oscar and his desire to be left in peace so he could work by himself at his job and so he could read.  And I appreciated the beautiful friendship between him and the healer’s apprentice, Callie.  Outspoken, determined, and completely the opposite of Oscar, Callie always accepted her friend as he was, though she was quick to offer to tutor him in social codes so he could feel less awkward.  Together they make a fine team, a supportive team.

Notably, the book also offers some diverse characters.  Aside from Oscar, readers also have Callie who has darker skin and the people from the “perfect” city.  These perfect people have darker skin.  Of course, prejudice still exists–the rich city people look down upon the poorer village dwellers–but it it is a unique book that says that characters of color can be beautiful and diverse (since there are so many of them, none bears the weight of representing all people of color).

Still, the compelling characters are not enough for me to overlook the slow and uneven pacing, the muddled plotlines, and the loose ends with which the book leaves readers.  The Real Boy is a fair enough read, once, but I cannot say I would read another book by Anne Ursu based on my experience of this one.

Quest by Aaron Becker

questInformation

Goodreads: Quest
Source: Library
Published: August 2014

Summary

In the sequel to Aaron Becker’s Caldecott Honor Book Journey, a king appears from a hidden door to give two friends a mysterious map before being dragged away by soldiers.  Armed with their markers, the girl and the boy set forth to save the king and his people.

Review

Aaron Becker’s Quest invites readers into a magical world rich with wonder.  Beautifully and lushly drawn, the story speaks without words, allowing readers to participate in the action and create their own background for the actions they witness.  From the moment the two friends dash under a bridge to hide from the rain to the moment they emerge from their adventure ready to take on anything the world can throw at them, each moment, each scene is fraught with possibility.  Quest is a joyous celebration of the power of the imagination.

I fell in love with Aaron Becker’s work in Journey, but Quest, impossibly it seems, is even better.  The world Becker presents is beautifully intricate, yet soft, suggesting that it comes from the imagination of the reader rather than from the page.  This allows readers to jump in unreservedly, following the two friends as they set forth to save a kingdom wielding only two markers–markers that can create in the real world whatever they have the creativity and the cleverness to draw.  Anyone, the story seems to say, is capable of magic.  Anyone can create something wonderful.

When I first read Journey, I did not know it was the start of a trilogy, but now that I have read the sequel, I am not yet ready for this adventure to end.  The art, the friendship, the world, the message, everything about this book is nothing short of enchantment and I can’t wait for Becker to cast his spell again in the finale.

Author Heather Gudenkauf on The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

THE EVENT

i love authors 3

30 Authors in 30 Days is a first of its kind event aimed at connecting readers, bloggers, and authors. Hosted by The Book Wheel, this month-long event takes place during September and features 30 authors discussing their favorite recent reads on 30 different blogs. There are also some great prizes provided by GoneReading.com and BookJigs. For the full schedule of participating authors and bloggers, visit The Book Wheel.

OUR GUEST AUTHOR

Heather GudenkaufAt Pages Unbound, we’re pleased to have Heather Gudenkauf guest post about The Good Girl by Mary Kubica.

Heather Gudenkauf is an Edgar Award nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. Heather lives in Iowa with her husband and children. In her free time Heather enjoys spending time with her family, reading, and running.  You can buy her books here.

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THE GOOD GIRL

 

The Good GirlWhen I was asked to share a few words about my favorite novel released in the past six months Mary Kubica’s THE GOOD GIRL immediately came to mind. THE GOOD GIRL chronicles the abduction of a young inner-city Chicago art teacher, Mia Dennett, through multiple perspectives.

Kubica delivers, with skill and acuity, all the elements that I look for in a highly satisfying thriller—relatable characters and a twisty, fast-paced journey with a surprise ending.

Mia Dennett, the daughter of a well-regarded Chicago judge, is simply attempting to find her own way in the world and tries to distance herself from her well-heeled childhood. Then, with uncharacteristic impulsivity, she connects with a handsome stranger, Colin Thatcher. Very quickly Mia learns that Colin’s intentions are nefarious and he whisks her away to an isolated cabin in the frigid north woods of Minnesota.

I loved the way Kubica structured this novel. Told in the alternating perspectives of four of the principal characters—Mia, her mother, Colin, and the detective assigned to the case—THE GOOD GIRL relates Mia’s saga in chapters labeled “before” and “after” her rescue. Brilliant! The author carefully lays clues so the reader can try and piece together the motive for Mia’s abduction. She also paints a vivid picture of the relentless search for Mia and deftly develops the surprising emotional connection that emerges between abductor and victim.

As I reached the final pages of THE GOOD GIRL, I made a concerted effort to read more slowly; I didn’t want this novel to end. When I did close the book, I often found my thoughts returning to the story and to the wonderfully drawn characters.

I can’t wait to see what Mary Kubica is going to come up with next!

ABOUT MARY KUBICA

???????????????????????????????????Mary Kubica holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in History and American Literature.  She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two children and enjoys photography, gardening, and caring for the animals at a local shelter.  The Good Girl is her first novel.  You can buy it here.

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THE GIVEAWAY

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Doctor Who Review: “Listen”

Listen

Spoilers, sweetie.

“Listen” is one of the best episodes Doctor Who has given viewers in a while.  Deliciously creepy, it manages to once again introduce us to a lurking type of monster we cannot quite identify but somehow feel is there.  Anyone who thinks the Silence are scary will be equally as chilled by “Listen;” this is definitely not an episode to watch with the lights off.

I was not entirely convinced of this merit at the start of the episode, however.  Having the Doctor sit on top of the TARDIS and suddenly whisper, “LISTEN!” is certainly dramatic, but the moment has literally no context.  The following scenes fare only slightly better.  It is unquestionably delightful to see the Doctor walking about, muttering to himself, and positing wild theories.  However, his theory about creatures who live only to hide also has no context, no catalyst that the viewers see.  Later in the episode he mentions having noticed in a number of historical sources that a lot of people seem to have the same dream: one where they wake up, get out of bed, and have a hand grab their foot from beneath the bed.  It would have been nice to hear about this research much earlier, or to have the episode open with the Doctor having that dream himself, then doing the research—then coming up with his theory.

After this exposition, however, “Listen” progresses beautifully.  The Doctor’s hunt for the elusive beings he thinks are always with us, unseen, is wild and frightening—not least because the Doctor is right in that many of us do have that dream, or that sense of being watched, or that feeling of hair standing on the back of our necks when no one is there.  Even more terrifying: the viewers get no closure: no sense of, “Oh, now we know what those creatures are, so now we can deal with them.”  The thing on Rupert’s bed may have been a friend playing a trick, but we can never tell ourselves that for sure.

Yet “Listen” is not all chills.  There is also some fantastic time jumping, which always helps to bring some fun and whimsy to the series.  I love it when characters get to go back in their own timelines to fix a few small mistakes.  I also love when the Doctor inadvertently looks about in their future.  “Listen” gives some delicious hints about where Clara’s life may lead her, although, again, viewers cannot be entirely certain.  Does Orson Pink have that toy soldier because Clara gave it to the young Rupert Pink…or because Clara will marry Danny Pink? [Although the fact that Clara goes back and gives the young Doctor the toy, before Rupert can own it, may complicate things.  Or we may be meant to ignore such timeline inconsistencies.] Further episodes may be more revealing, especially as Danny’s been given enough airtime it seems reasonable to assume he will end up in the TARDIS himself.

Finally, Peter Capaldi has really found his stride as the Doctor now.  It is possible I am more sympathetic because the Doctor is never outright mean in “Listen,” unlike the previous episodes where he seemed uncharacteristically callous and unconcerned whether humans lived or died.  The Doctor certainly has some insults left to throw here, but that all comes back to a bit of obliviousness and lack of tact that is entirely in keeping with the Doctor’s persona (insulting Clara’s makeup, for instance).

“Listen,” in my opinion, is the best episode so far this series.  It brings back just about everything Doctor Who does best—monsters, time travel, questions about what it means to be human—and does not muck them up by relying too heavily on referencing past episodes or by trying too hard to be philosophical.  “Listen” is a truly forward-moving episode for series 8, and I am optimistic about where the rest will bring us.

Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper (ARC Review)

Salt and StormInformation

Goodreads: Salt & Storm
Series: None
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: September 23, 2014

Official Summary

Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants only to take her rightful place as the witch of Prince Island, making the charms that keep the island’s whale men safe and prosperous at sea. But before she could learn how to control her power, her mother, the first Roe woman in centuries to turn her back on magic, stole Avery away from her grandmother. Avery must escape from her mother before her grandmother dies, taking with her the secrets of the Roes’ power.

When Avery awakens from a dream foretelling her own murder, she realizes time is running short—for her and for the people of her island, who, without the Roes, will lose their ships and the only life they know.

With the help of Tane, a tattooed harpoon boy from the Pacific Islands, Avery plots her escape from her mother and unravels the mysteries of her mother’s and grandmother’s pasts. Becoming a witch may prevent her murder and save her island from ruin, but Avery discovers it will also require a sacrifice she never expected—one she might not be able to make.

Review

Kendall Kulper’s Salt & Storm is a masterpiece witch book.  With an elaborately developed system of magic and a rich history of witches and their tenuous relationship with the normal people they help, Salt & Storm approaches the topic of witchcraft with insight and realism.  In Salt & Storm, magic can earn one power and respect—but it also comes with a price.  Protagonist Avery, who has dreamed of becoming the Prince Island witch since her childhood is willing, determined, to pay that price and more.

There are all kinds of witch books in the world, and although I am a fan of the Harry Potter type, where magic is glitzy and fun with an occasionally quirk, I also have a soft spot in my heart for books that portray magic as a little more, well, complicated.  In the real world, witchcraft has been historically stigmatized, and I enjoy seeing characters who have to face a bit of that history, who wrestle with what it means to be a witch surrounded by people who are not.  Salt & Storm is such a book.

Avery has always wanted to be the Prince Island witch, partially because it is a family tradition (or perhaps a destiny), partially because she has seen how magic has enabled her grandmother to fend for herself in a man’s world, and partially because she wants to help the people of Prince Island.  Her family’s witchcraft has kept the Prince Island whalers safe and profitable for generations. Without her family’s aid, men die.

Salt & Storm is the story of Avery’s attempts to fulfill her dreams, and the obstacles she encounters—mainly in the form of her crazy mother.  But it is also the story of how she realizes that becoming the witch could be painful, and how she discovers that people love a witch when things go right but hate her when things go wrong.  Magic is not fun in Salt & Storm.  It is a responsibility, perhaps a curse.  And Avery must decide if it is worth bearing.  Salt & Storm, though entertaining, is also psychologically complex and asks a lot of good questions about how much people owe society and how much they owe themselves.

Avery is a fantastic protagonist to encounter these questions.  She is strong and absolutely determined to take control of her own destiny.  Personally, I do not think that Avery always makes the best decisions; her age occasionally shows in the fact that she thinks she has all the answers when she clearly does not.  However, I can still respect a character who sincerely tries to do her best and to be resilient against adversity.  Her mistakes only make her more realistic.  I think a lot of readers will enjoy her.

Avery’s story is beautifully set on the fictional Prince Island, which bases its economy almost solely on whaling. Kulper paints the island vividly, with an almost tangible atmosphere.  Salt & Storm is a pretty accurate description of the place, in addition to the story.  The island also has a thorough history going back generations.  The occasionally insertion of family lore evoke the stories of L. M. Montgomery writing about Prince Edward Island over a century before.

The romance, unfortunately, is less impressive than the other aspects of the novel.  Despite spending a significant amount of time together and sharing their hopes and fears (usually great ways to build a realistic romantic relationship in novels), Avery and Tane simply seem to be lacking chemistry. They say they care for each other, they act as though they care for each other, and they probably do.  I just don’t feel it.  However, Avery undoubtedly chooses a good man—which can sometimes be a challenge, both in books and in real life.  So if she chooses a nice guy that I personally cannot imagine her spending the rest of her life with, well, she could do worse, especially as a teenager dating for the first time.  I’m willing to let a less than compelling relationship go, especially since I do view Salt & Storm primarily as a witch book and secondarily as a romance.

Salt & Storm is undeniably well-written—a complex story about a complex girl who must find her way in a world that turns out to be less certain than she believed.  Fans of strong heroines, sea stories, or witch books will all find something to love in Salt & Storm.  A very thoughtful, moving, and imaginative book.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

The BoundlessInformation

Goodreads: The Boundless
Source: Library
Published: April 2014

Summary

The world’s longest train, the seven-mile Boundless, is set to make her maiden voyage across the Canadian wilderness and young Will Everett, riding first-class, prepares for the trip of a lifetime.  But the Boundless also carries hidden treasure onboard, and when a murderer sets his sights on the gold, it is up to Will and his friend Maren, escape artist and tightrope walker, to save the day.

Review

The Boundless takes readers on a breathtaking journey across the Canadian wilderness, weaving folklore with historical fiction to create a world where the men who built the railroad faced not only backbreaking labor and late pay, but also sasquatch, Wendigo, and the hag of the marsh.  Suddenly anything and everything seems possible and it is certainly a stroke of good fortune that we were invited along with Will to experience the maiden voyage of the Boundless, one of the world’s marvels.  Because if a seven-mile train featuring a pool, shooting deck, and saloon is not enough to explore, more adventure is on the way once Will enlists the help of Zirkus Dante to stop a murderer.  The Boundless is a middle-grade dream, one that allows readers to run away with the circus, explore the wild west, and play the hero.

With a book this jam-packed with mystery and adventure, a focus on the characters may seem a tall order, but Kenneth Oppel manages superbly.  Though extensive psychological portraits are not given, the actions of each of the characters provide key insights into their personalities and, interestingly for a middle-grade work, many of these insights are tied to observations about the social and class prejudices of the time.  Will’s explorations of the Boundless take him through through first, second, and third-class, and also to the colonist cars–the cars reserved for people barely considered people.  In each place, the young protagonist (himself a rags-to-riches story) witnesses the crude treatment of the passengers, ranging from cramped quarters to the necessity of buying supplies from crooks and swindlers.  His response mirrors that of readers–outrage, disgust, and sadness–but other characters accept the status quo or simply prefer to ignore it.  One character, a man of mixed race who descends from the native Canadian peoples whose lands have been taken by the railroad, can barely feel pity for the colonists, since he sees them as one more group of people come to take his ancestors’ land.

Perhaps the most interesting implications of what Will sees are left in silence, however.  His father worked to build the railroad, braving avalanches, sasquatch, late pay, and more all so the head of the railroad company could gain the glory and rake in the revenue.  Now his father has risen in the world and is driving the Boundless across the tracks he helped lay.  Will thinks his father must be ignorant of the conditions in the third-class and colonist cars, or else he would change them.  But readers know that the man in charge cannot help but know, so why does a man who used to be poor do nothing to help?  Does Mr. Everett believe that others should work their way to the top like he did?  Does he feel powerless to effect real change? Is his attitude–the one that allowed him to work in the conditions he did without resentment–the correct one, or can readers sympathize with the villains of this story, the men who worked with Everett and now just want what they think is their fair share of the profits?  The answers here are murky and Oppel declines to give any overriding point-of-view.

Despite the heavy topics addressed in this book, the story itself feels light and free.  Readers will race with Will across the roof of the train at night, listen with him for the sound of Wendigo in the dark, fly with him and Maren as she unspools her magical reel of tightrope.  In The Boundless, the fantastic and the real come together to create a story that kindles the imagination and immerses readers into a strikingly original adventure.  If the Boundless ever sets forth once more, I, for one, would like to be on board.

Doctor Who Review: “Robot of Sherwood”

robot of sherwood

Spoilers, sweetie.

I always love when Doctor Who goes literary or historical.  It breaks up the alien trend of the show (even though aliens are still involved, the focus is not necessarily on them), and it takes advantage of the fact that the TARDIS can travel through both time and space.  Plus, seeing the Doctor interact with famous historical figures is just fun, as it tends to be two geniuses at play.

“Robot of Sherwood,” does not deliver the same quality I have come to expect from historical episodes.  Viewers are given a quick intro to Robin Hood’s band and do get to watch the famous archery competition.  The show also amusingly recreates Robin’s fight with Little John on a bridge as a fight between Robin and the Doctor.  However, the show lacked some of Robin’s spirit.  Basically, Robin spends much of the episode laughing maniacally just to tick the Doctor off, and squabbling with him as though both of them are six.  I could have believed (and enjoyed) some animosity between the two characters since they both possess some level of arrogance, but the immature fighting seems out of character and out of place.

This episode does further damage to the Doctor’s character by premising everything on the fact that the Doctor does not believe in heroes, and since heroes do not exist, Robin cannot be real.  This leads to some truly interesting discussions about the nature of heroism and some very touching moments when Clara attempts to explain the reason she believes in heroes: because she met the Doctor.  However, the Doctor’s skepticism does not make sense.  He has met heroes, too. (Adelaide Brooke from “The Waters of Mars” perhaps?)  Also, if anyone is going to believe in heroes and “impossible things” it has to be the Doctor.  He has seen too much of the universe to rule anything out.

And, cute as it is, it also makes no sense that now Clara is blithely proclaiming the Doctor her hero.  Two episodes ago, she had no idea who the Doctor was.  One episode ago, she could not say whether he was a good man.  Now, suddenly, he is her unequivocal hero.   It seems clear that the writers have gone back to eschewing any type of logical character development in order to get good sound bites.  Whatever the plot, and the theme, of the episode calls for is how the characters will behave.

“Robot of Sherwood” is enjoyable as a standalone episode.  It has a few great Robin Hood allusions, some pretty scary aliens, and a whole scene where Clara gets to be clever and badass.  As part of the series arc, however, the episode fails heavily on character development.

The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler

The Forbidden LibraryInformation

Goodreads: The Forbidden Library
Series: The Forbidden Library #1
Source: Library
Published: April 15, 2014

Official Summary

Alice always thought fairy tales had happy endings. That–along with everything else–changed the day she met her first fairy.

When Alice’s father goes down in a shipwreck, she is sent to live with her uncle Geryon–an uncle she’s never heard of and knows nothing about. He lives in an enormous manor with a massive library that is off-limits to Alice. But then she meets a talking cat. And even for a rule-follower, when a talking cat sneaks you into a forbidden library and introduces you to an arrogant boy who dares you to open a book, it’s hard to resist. Especially if you’re a reader to begin with. Soon Alice finds herself INSIDE the book, and the only way out is to defeat the creature imprisoned within.

It seems her uncle is more than he says he is. But then so is Alice.

Review

The Forbidden Library has the right idea to appeal to voracious young readers.  Alice Creighton is sent to live with a mysterious uncle with a mysterious library she is forbidden to enter alone—an admonition she is given, it turns out, because she is a Reader, someone who can insert herself into certain magical books.  As a bibliophile, I expected to fall unreservedly in love with The Forbidden Library.  I mean, it even has talking cats.  However, while all the right elements are present, they never really add up to a an amazing, unforgettable book.  I think part of the problem is a lack of spirit, and part is a lack of purpose.

To begin, none of the characters are particularly likable.  Alice is probably the best of the lot.  She is undoubtedly brave and unquestionably clever.  However, she is also arrogant and obsessed with her image as a goody-two-shoes (even when she is not being one at all).  Mostly, however, she lacks a real personality.  Beyond reading, I have no idea what her interests are, and she never actually reads anything anyway (excluding magical Reading).

The other characters, nonetheless, manage to give her a run for her money in terms of arrogance.  Even the talking cat is a bit of a disappointment, not being particularly cat-like in personality (though, to be fair, he does emphasize he is only half cat).  Likable characters are hardly a necessity in literature, but The Forbidden Library is a children’s fantasy, not a pessimistic slice of life book, so I really would have liked to be able to care and root for one of the characters.

In spite of this, one can hardly dispute that the characters are interesting, and their adventures are even wilder.  Alice and company enter a variety of books that each feature unique and richly imagined fantasy worlds.  Readers will easily be able to get lost in the landscapes and the action. This, the world-building, is where the author most shines, and his experience as a fantasy writer is most evident.

I just wish all of it had more of a purpose.  The book is based on the premise that magic-wielders named Readers can enter certain books, defeat creatures there, and then acquire the powers of those creatures as their own.  So, a Reader who defeats a fire fairy might thereafter be able to shoot flames at his or her enemies.  However, it is unclear why the Readers do this, beyond the simple fact that they can.  The basic explanation is that Readers are a very small group who constantly engage in petty quarrels among themselves and use their magic only to show each other up.  This is, frankly, pointless.  It is very difficult to feel invested in a magical community that might as well not be using magic at all.  I really hope the overarching series plotline deals with this issue.

Finally, the writing in The Forbidden Library sounds stilted, as if the author (who, in fact, has only published books for adults before this) has not quite figured out how to write naturally for children.  At best, the writing sounds very young, which should not really be the case either for something I would consider upper middle grade.

The Forbidden Library, I think, will definitely find its audience.  It is a very solid middle grade fantasy adventure, and readers will love becoming immersed in fantastical books along with Alice.  It simply is not the right book for me.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

West of the MoonInformation

GoodreadsWest of the Moon
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

Thirteen-year-old Astri and her younger sister Greta live with their aunt in Norway, now that their father has gone to America to seek his fortune.  The girls still believe he will send for them–until the day their aunt sells Astri to be a servant to the goatman.  Alone and abused, Astri determines to escape.  She will rescue her sister and the two of them will find their way east of the sun, west of the moon until they finally find a place they can call home.

Review

West of the Moon is an enchanting tale that merges fantasy and folklore with the everyday, creating a dreamlike atmosphere that will have readers convinced that magic must happen at any second.  Only halfway through the tale did I realize this is a historical fiction, one that will require the heroines to succeed on their own and only after pain and sacrifice.  If there is any magic here, it is not in the dark forest or in a book of spells, but in the words that Astri weaves to make her life bearable.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of West of the Moon is not in the commonplace that stories set us free (though Margi Preus certainly illustrates that theme in a remarkably original and captivating way), but in the more subtle suggestion that words also have the power to destroy.  Astri tells stories because it comforts her to find parallels between her hard life and with the lives of folklore heroines–the heroines of these stories, she knows, always achieve a happy ending.  However, these stories do not affect only her.  They do not merely provide her comfort on dark, cold nights.  Instead, Astri allows these stories to take on lives of their own, guiding her actions and justifying them–even when those actions would normally be considered immoral.

Astri’s conviction that she does live in a fairy story enables her to adopt fairy tale logic, meaning that for her it is justifiable to hurt the evil, to steal for a good cause, and to tell a lie to achieve one’s goals.  Such actions are not wrong in her world, but even laudable.  After all, should not the heroine prove herself clever by outwitting a greedy fool?  Is it really stealing if one is taking what someone else stole first?  Why should she stop to help others if that would slow her on her noble quest?  Suddenly, the story takes a very dark turn and Astri is plunging herself into an ever deeper hole of deception and even crime.  She tells herself to stop and sometimes feels guilt when she looks at her innocent younger sister, but her need to find a way to America overshadows everything else in her mind, until at last she seems to silence her conscience completely.

Unfortunately, Astri’s decisions to lie, cheat, trick, and stab her way to America are never fully addressed–not in any way that definitely passes moral judgment on them. Her machinations are generally successful, leading to no bad ends and never even inconveniencing her in any meaningful sense.  Astri simply has no reason to do well by others in a world that seems to reward bad behavior and punish good.  A vague resolve toward toward the end of the book to use her talents for good and a sadness that she accidentally hurt someone she should have loved hardly redeem either Astri or the plot.

The confused message of the story, which seems to justify an attitude of “the ends justify the means” even while it has its protagonist reflect on the harm she has caused while following that mantra ironically seems to stem from a hesitance to face darkness head on.  This is in a book that has a young girl sold to an older man who abuses her and attempts to force himself on her, depicts the severing of body parts, tells of parents abandoning their unwanted infants in the woods, and refers repeatedly to evil forces and spells.  But though these things are depicted, referenced, or implied, the story never allows readers really to see them.  It is as though, if the plot stopped too long, the full horror would become overwhelming and this would no longer be a historical fairy tale of sorts but a realistic fiction.  To do that would be to acknowledge that what is happening is not bad, but really, horribly,  truly bad–and might be happening now, in our world.  So the story keeps glancing aside, saying, yes, that was awful but if we look at it we will never get on.  And we must get on because that’s all there is.  A tragic propulsion forward to something we can only hope is better than this.

West of the Moon is a beautiful story, one that is sure to captivate readers with its own spell of words and one sure to resonate with its audience as it depicts the power of narrative.  And yet, even as I admit that it cast a spell on me, I cannot help but wish it had taken time to linger, to look its ugly parts head-on, not just describing the blood but addressing the moral dimension.  It is a story that begs to be about forgiveness, yet never gives the protagonist the ability to forgive herself.

Doctor Who Review: “Into the Dalek”

Into the Dalek

Spoilers, sweetie.

“Into the Dalek” is a solid episode but is simply not the most original contribution to Doctor Who.  The idea of miniaturizing people and inserting them into another living being in order to solve a health problem may be a new experience for the Doctor but is certainly nothing new for science fiction (and honestly made me immediately think of The Magic School Bus, though the miniaturizing there was accidental).

“Into the Dalek” also draws very heavily from past Doctor Who episodes, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in lazy ones.  The Doctor asserts that inside the Dalek is the “most dangerous place in the universe.”  Yet I’m pretty sure the Dalek Asylum was supposed to be the most dangerous place in the universe.  (And we’re working on a technicality that the trip outside the universe in “The Doctor’s Wife” doesn’t also earn this designation.)  Declaring that something is dangerous doesn’t make it so and doesn’t build real suspense.  The plot itself has to do that, and the work is harder when everything is supposed to be the “most dangerous” thing.

Also, the entire plot is based around the idea that there might exist a “good” Dalek. (A side note: I don’t think “good” is ever adequately defined, but there is a working sense of the word for the purposes of the plot—apparently the Dalek does not want to kill everyone on sight.)  The Doctor is skeptical; there can be no such thing.  Apparently the Doctor forgets “Dalek” from series one, when a Dalek is unwilling to kill Rose.  Yes, there was some tampering that resulted in that “malfunction,” but the same is true of the Dalek in “Into the Dalek.”

However, there are some good throwbacks in this episode.  The Doctor can never really be reminded enough that he would be a good Dalek.  We also have the classic side character who is willing to give her life for the sake of the mission and humanity.  Maybe it’s cliché to have so many, but maybe the show is also saying bravery and selflessness are characteristic of humans, and that we and the Doctor remain sane by remembering that.

Clara continues to be a much stronger character than she was in the previous series.  The Doctor entrusts her with coming up with “clever” solutions to difficult problems, and she delivers.  The new Clara appears as though she may be consistently brave, smart, and strong—a character the audience can really get behind.  This episode also incorporates more of Clara’s “real” life as a schoolteacher, which helps to further give her a more defined personality.

Clara’s unrelenting ignorance about the Doctor’s personality, however, is a more troubling trend.  In “Deep Breath” she blithely proclaimed the Doctor is “uncomplicated.”  In “Into the Dalek” she says she has no idea whether he is a good man.  She’s travelling all through time and space with him and isn’t even sure whether he’s a good person?  Is that even safe?  She has a little more closure by the end of the episode, but her interpretations of him are baffling.

The Doctor, too, is still growing into his new role, and Capaldi is doing very well.  He, as the audience expected, is generally a more mature and serious Doctor, though personally I think a lot of the supposedly “intense staring” he does is simply dull.  I am also concerned by the fact that he seems to be somewhat more callous than previous Doctors, even though his primary concerns are supposed to be correcting past mistakes and being a good man.  Can one do that without feeling genuine compassion?

So far, the general direction of Series 8 appears to be going in a strong direction.  Clara is becoming a great character, the Doctor is finding his footing, there is a mix of old and new, and there is some mysterious “Paradise” plot line that will probably tie the series together.  The problems are mainly in the details.  The characters are spouting lots of lines the writers probably think sound deep, but they make little sense in the context of the show.  And someone somewhere is overlooking a lot of the Doctor’s previous history.  I am a big Doctor Who fan but not the biggest fan; if I can pick holes in the plot line, the writers really need to take more care to keep things accurate and fresh.

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