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.

The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond (ARC Review)

The Only Thing to FearInformation

Goodreads: The Only Thing to Fear
Series: None
Source: Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
Publication Date: September 30, 2014

Official Summary

In a stunning reimagining of history, debut author Caroline Tung Richmond weaves an incredible story of secrets and honor in a world where Hitler won World War II.

It’s been nearly 80 years since the Allies lost WWII in a crushing defeat against Hitler’s genetically engineered super soldiers. America has been carved up by the victors, and 16-year-old Zara lives a life of oppression in the Eastern America Territories. Under the iron rule of the Nazis, the government strives to maintain a master race, controlling everything from jobs to genetics. Despite her mixed heritage and hopeless social standing, Zara dreams of the free America she’s only read about in banned books. A revolution is growing, and a rogue rebel group is plotting a deadly coup. Zara might hold the key to taking down the Führer for good, but it also might be the very thing that destroys her. Because what she has to offer the rebels is something she’s spent her entire life hiding, under threat of immediate execution by the Nazis.

In this action-packed, heart-stopping novel of a terrifying reality that could have been, Zara must decide just how far she’ll go for freedom.

Review

The Only Thing to Fear is an imaginative dystopian featuring two strong leads and a chilling setting.  Author Caroline Tung Richmond takes readers to a world where Hitler won WWII, and the Axis powers divided America.  Nothing of the old republic is left besides old memories.  Protagonist Zara, however, is determined to change that by joining the underground rebel group and helping plot the Fuhrer’s assassination.

The Only Thing to Fear is creative, and it has a lot of atmosphere, with Nazis patrolling the streets and swastikas decorating the towns.  It is not, however, as much of an actual alternate history as I had envisioned.  Richmond does follow a few threads of history into the future, imagining  a world where the Nazi still hunt down “undesirables” like the Jews and encourage good Aryans to have large families to perpetuate their lines.  German children attend military academies, and everyone else goes to work.  Despite all this, it becomes apparent early in the book that the plot and characters could have existed in any other dystopian world.  With the added science fiction element (some humans have developed superpowers from all the Nazis’ genetic tinkering), this book does not need Nazis at all.  They add a specific flavor to the dystopian world, but they are not necessary.

As for the characters, Zara is an excellent protagonist, one whose skills balance out her flaws.  She occasionally lapses into what are pet peeves for many YA readers—being overly dramatic over nothing and taking stupid risks in attempts to look brave—but these are decisions she makes, moments in her life; they are not her defining characteristics.  As a whole, Zara is brave, and determined, and beguilingly trusting in a world where she has no reason to trust.

Love interest Bastian is subtly swoony, the forbidden German romance in a handsome six foot package.  He also has a spectrum of character traits, strong enough to renounce his role in German society and tender enough to look after his mother in a hardened world.

The rebels could use a little more work, or at least a little more intelligence.  Several years ago, one of their members was captured and the plans of a vital mission were revealed during torture.  So one would expect them to stop revealing the full details of important plans to everyone who comes along, including new recruits whom they have no reason to trust.  This is perhaps a silly detail, but readers may have trouble believing in the validity of a rebel group that has no idea how to properly plan a mission.

While the setting and characters are generally strong, the themes of the novel disappoint.  Alternate history and dystopian are both genres that readily lend themselves to exploring important life questions—and The Only Thing to Fear misses its chance to do so.  Although the book is about a teenager who joins a plot to kill the Fuhrer, it does not really address the implications of what it means to kill someone.  And that is a mistake.  Zara is not a dystopian automaton who has been raised to kill, like the protagonists of Legend or Reboot.  She is a farmhand and a cleaning girl.  No matter how many executions she has witnessed, she is not a murderer.

There are also a few moments in the book where there are clear opportunities to segue into a discussion of how the rebels are different from the Nazis.  Both are killing people they do not like.  So are they different?  If so, why?  The book never tackles this question either, even when it seems a second away from raising it.

In the end, I really did enjoy The Only Thing to Fear.  The writing is strong and clear.  The characters are complex and well-developed.  And the setting is chill-inducing.  The book simply is not keen on philosophy or on discussing any of the themes it clearly brings up during the course of the action.  It is all about the show and the ride, and is not very concerned with what it all means, which is disappointing.

Relic by Heather Terrell

RelicInformation

Goodreads: Relic
Series: Books of Eva #1
Source: Giveaway (ARC)
Published: October 29, 2013

Official Summary

The truth will test you…

For fans of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games: high fantasy and dystopia meet in this high-stakes tale of a civilization built on lies and the girl who single-handedly brings it down.

When Eva’s twin brother, Eamon, falls to his death just a few months before he is due to participate in The Testing, no one expects Eva to take his place. She’s a Maiden, slated for embroidery classes, curtseys, and soon a prestigious marriage befitting the daughter of an Aerie ruler. But Eva insists on honoring her brother by becoming a Testor. After all, she wouldn’t be the first Maiden to Test, just the first in 150 years.

Eva knows the Testing is no dance class. Gallant Testors train for their entire lives to search icy wastelands for Relics: artifacts of the corrupt civilization that existed before The Healing drowned the world. Out in the Boundary Lands, Eva must rely on every moment of the lightning-quick training she received from Lukas—her servant, a Boundary native, and her closest friend now that Eamon is gone.

But there are threats in The Testing beyond what Lukas could have prepared her for. And no one could have imagined the danger Eva unleashes when she discovers a Relic that shakes the Aerie to its core.

Review

Relic has garnered a wide mix of reviews, but the disgruntled ones seem in large part to be the result of faulty marketing.  The publisher compares the book to A Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games, and, frankly, Relic does not deliver the intense, richly developed story one would expect from such a comparison.   And, most confusing to me, the book is not at all fantasy. There is no magic, no alternate world, nothing to suggest this book is nothing more than another solid dystopian.  So, I can understand a lot of readers’ frustration.  However, if one can look past the marketing (or if one was blithely unaware in the first place), Relic is enjoyable in its own right.

The book is part dystopia, but also part survival story and part mystery.  There is even a smattering of romance, though protagonist Eva has a lot of other things to worry about now besides men.  Most like relationships will really develop in the following books, though readers get a few delicious hints.  In the meantime, the focus is on Eva’s journey taking her twin brother’s place in her society’s most honored and most dangerous competition: the Testing.

The Testing highlights Eva’s strengths as she competes against better-trained men to race across the icy wildness and find a relic from the world before the floods (or, as her people call it, the Healing).  Eva is brave and smart and a strong female lead in these chapters.  The book takes the time to discuss how she her role as the only Maiden in the Testing both helps and hinders her, as she experiences prejudice but is willing to play the game a little unorthodoxly.  Unfortunately, Eva accomplishes her tasks so easily that the competition does not seem that hard.  If a girl who never really bothered to train can do so well, what on earth is everyone else worried about?  I would have loved to see Eva accomplish more problems in the Testing and have more difficulty solving them.

The most interesting thing about Relic, then, may be the setting.  It is original in YA dystopian, set in New North, an island in the Artic.  The society lives in the Aerie, a walled-in city that strives the mimic the Middle Ages because the religious leaders teach that technology and the worship of the false God Apple led to the flood’s and the world’s cleansing.  It takes a while for the details of this all to settle, however, and the world building to really take shape.  Even then, there are still some questions, like how the new religion began since the founders of the Aerie would have been survivors of the flood and known they had nothing to do with the use of laptops and cellphones.  Hopefully more answers are forthcoming in book two.

Relic is solid book, one with clean writing a unique setting and characters.  It is not the most imaginative or chilling of dystopians, but it does offer readers a little something different—a medieval town in the Arctic where a conservatively raised Maiden begins to question the boundaries of her world.  Overall, a fun read.

Doctor Who Review: “Deep Breath”

Deep Breath 2

 

My Hopes

I have been a bit disappointed with Doctor Who after Steven Moffat took over writing.  Although Matt Smith had some great moments as the Eleventh Doctor (as in “The Pandorica Opens”), I have felt the series took a turn for the illogical.  Laws of time and space get trampled when they are inconvenient for plot purposes, and characters develop new personality traits on a per episode basis for the same reason.

However, with Peter Capaldi starring as the Twelfth Doctor, I could not help but get my spirits up.  Pre-series buzz indicated Capaldi has some strong opinions about the direction of the show (no Doctor/Clara romance for him!), and I hoped that some sense of logic would once again begin to govern the show.  The first episode of Series 8 has left me still in some state of uncertainty, but it did have enough high points that I still hope the series will get stronger as it goes.  After all, every new Doctor seems to take a few episodes to really grow into his role and his particular plotline.

The Initial Frustation

(Spoilers, sweetie.)

“Deep Breath” did open inauspiciously.  The dinosaur rampaging through Victorian London element turned out to be completely unnecessary.  (A friend suggested that perhaps the creators just thought it looked cool, which seems a likely enough explanation for me.)  Frankly, Doctor Who has done dinosaurs before and better (“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”) which further highlights how extraneous this one is.  If the writers needed the Doctor to see something spontaneously combust, they could have had him stumble across the chain of people who had apparently already done so before the dinosaur did.

The characters did not fare much better in the opening scenes.  The Twelve Doctor stumbles out from the TARDIS with little recollection of who any of his acquaintances are, blunders through their names even after refreshers, and keels straight over.  If viewers remember, the previous episode (where Capaldi was briefly introduced) featured him asking Clara if she knew how to fly the TARDIS, because obviously he didn’t.  Having the Doctor fail to remember almost anything integral about himself or he friends feels like a cheap way to demonstrate how disorienting regeneration can be.  And there is no good segue into how he eventually comes more into his own; it just happens.

Finally, as the Doctor is off tramping about London in a crazed state, the other characters make assertions about him that are blatantly untrue.  Sure, this could be the fault of the characters—perhaps they don’t understand him as well as they think—but the creators really seemed to be making a point here.  Madame Vastra implies that the Doctor has control over his appearance when he regenerates, and that he is intentionally trying to project an air of maturity with his new look.  But if the Doctor did have that control, he would have been ginger by now, and Matt Smith would not have ended the episode lamenting that his new incarnation is grey.  Next, Clara asserts that the Doctor is “uncomplicated.”  While Matt Smith’s Doctor may have projected an air of boyish exuberance, I would never say the Doctor, a man with an enormously long history full of death, loneliness, and hard choices, was “uncomplicated.”

The Turning Point

Once Clara and the Doctor find themselves in the deliciously creepy restaurant full of clockwork customers, however, the episode picks up and Doctor Who starts looking more like Doctor Who.  There is an air of darkness and intrigue, but it is all lightened by a bit of banter.

Furthermore, once Clara is in immediate danger, she demonstrates real bravery and intelligence, standing up to a deadly robot and backing him into a corner where he has no choice but to negotiate with her.  Clara, besides being totally awesome in this scene, finally begins to develop a personality.  I personally found her forgettable in Series 7 and thought her “sassy” epithet was not entirely earned.  I only hope she continues to demonstrate spunk and courage and that this is not a one-time event for her.

The Doctor, too, finally really shows up.  He regains most of his senses and moves from just acting nuts to acting like the crazy genius he is.  Brilliant solutions, pithy remarks, and good insights start flowing.  A lagging bit of forgetfulness reminds viewers that he is still recovering from the regeneration, but no one really has to worry for him.

A bit of exploration of how Clara and the new Doctor can relate to each other, and what kind of man the new Doctor will be—one apparently focused on righting all the mistakes he’s made—ties up the episode, and gives viewers hope that Doctor Who will continue to be a show that explores facets of humanity and asks questions about right and wrong, in addition to exhibiting cool fight scenes with aliens.  It takes a while to warm up, but “Deep Breath” is not a bad start to Series 8 at all.

Betsy and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy and JoeInformation

Goodreads: Betsy and Joe
Series: Betsy-Tacy #8
Source: Library
Published: 1948

Summary

Betsy has made a lot of resolutions for the upcoming year, hoping to appeal to a boy like Joe Willard, who has supported himself through high school and still earned top marks.  But Betsy’s old friend Tony Markham is suddenly developing new feelings.  Will Betsy finally go with Joe, or will Tony triumph in the end?

Review

Well, this is it!  The book I have been waiting for!  The one where Betsy finally comes into her own.  Yes, she still makes resolutions and fails to keep them.  And, yes, she is still kind of running around with other boys even though everyone knows all she really wants to do is go out with Joe Willard.  But finally, finally Betsy starts to take real stock of her situation, own up to her mistakes, and try to fix them.  At this rate, she might even win the Essay Contest.

Really, it is a treat to see all the characters start to come into their own.  Julia is pursuing her dream of becoming an opera singer, Joe is finally allowing himself to enter high school society, and Tacy is still quietly pursuing her own kind of life–the one that will allow men to enter the picture only when she’s good and ready, despite the pressure from her friends.  Not everything runs smoothly, though.  Julia gets homesick, Betsy and Joe sometimes fail to communicate, and Tony Markham arrives just in time to make a mess of things.  Betsy’s attempts to balance the two boys in her life without hurting either of them is really quite realistic, and shows how things can go wrong even when people have the best of intentions.  I was glad to see Betsy face troubles and have to admit that she was wrong even when she thought she was being kind.  It makes all the characters involved seem that much more human.

So now it’s Betsy and Joe is it?  Unfortunately, the path of love never did run smooth, so I expect we can see a lot of more painful misunderstandings in the books to come.  But it will be a journey worth taking with our Betsy, who has finally grown up.

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Under the EggInformation

Goodreads: Under the Egg
Source: Library
Published: March 2014

Summary

Thirteen-year-old Theodora Tenpenny remembers her grandfather’s last moments very clearly–he instructed her to look “under the egg” and to find a treasure.  But though Theo desperately needs money to feed herself and her mother, and to save their family’s ancestral home, following the instructions doesn’t seem to be helping.  Until the day she accidentally uncovers an artistic masterpiece in her grandfather’s studio.  Unfortunately, her grandfather was not only an artist but also a security guard at an art museum.  Is the painting the answer to Theo’s financial troubles or is it the beginning of an entirely different set of problems?

Review

Under the Egg is full of great messages and, as an older reader, that is mostly what I saw.  Yes, I appreciate the sympathetic protagonist, the mystery mixed in with the plot, and the wonderful female friendship.  Throughout, however, I kept thinking about the elements the author included and, rather than enjoying them in the story, reflected on how they are probably meant to teach kids things.  Lots of good things.  Probably kids will not notice them very much and will really like this story.  But, maybe, just maybe I am a bit too old to appreciate Under the Egg in all its middle-grade glory.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy Under the Egg myself.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like it.  Our protagonist Theo really carries the story, not only through her unique narrative voice but also through all the things she leaves unsaid.  For example, her family is poor.  So poor that she has to scour the streets for the necessities of life and the she has to refashion her grandmother’s old negligees into sundresses, towels into bathing suit cover-ups, and more.  Yet she never reflects on how embarrassing this must be to a thirteen-year-old, especially at school, but instead describes her life matter-of-factly and celebrates her ingenuity in clothing herself.  She does not have many friends, it is true, and readers get an inkling that the other kids probably find her a bit weird, but Theo seems to think it’s because she’s introverted and studious, not because of how she looks.  Such understated confidence from a female character is rare and refreshing.

Laura Marx Fitzgerald adds to this “girl power” by introducing a female friend for Theo, Bodhi, the free-spirited daughter of two celebrities. The two seem an unlikely pair–one quiet and cautious, the other outgoing and without much discretion.  Still, the two make their friendship work, combining their strengths to solve the mystery of Theo’s painting.  And never does money become an issue in their relationship.  The two accept each other as they are without question, never exhibiting jealousy or contempt.  What a find to have two females work together rather than compete!

Aside from the lessons about acceptance, Fitzgerald throws in a good deal about Renaissance art, art and chemistry, World War II and the Holocaust, and more.  (Seriously, have you ever seen a middle-grade book mention infrared imaging, x-ray imaging, pigment analysis, and polymerization?)  The book is essentially a little treasure hunt through art and history, bringing readers through New York’s museums, libraries and archives to uncover the origins of Theo’s painting.  It was fun, but does seem perhaps a little heavy-handed from an older perspective.  Apparently the book really, really wants young readers to get into history and art.

Under the Egg is a pleasant story for older readers, but I suspect that it is the younger readers who will really fall in love with this story.  The mystery of the painting as well as the intelligence and spunk of the two female leads will be sure to captivate, while ideas about providing education in entertainment will probably escape notice.  Still, even I am looking forward to Fitzgerald’s next book.

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.

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