Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

Zita the SpacegirlInformation

Goodreads: Zita the Spacegirl
Series: Zita the Spacegirl #1
Source: Library
Published: 2011

Summary

When Zita accidentally sends her best friend Joseph to space and a cult of aliens preparing for the end times kidnaps him, she’ll have to band together with an unlikely assortment of characters to save him before an asteroid obliterates them all.

Review

Zita the Spacegirl is a fun, exciting romp through space featuring all the weird aliens (many of them reminiscent of Miyazaki’s work) a science-fiction fan could want.  From the first page when Zita discovers a mysterious button and just has to press it, readers know they are in for a story as full of wonder as it is full of danger.  For Zita’s love of fun and her curiosity cannot be quenched even by the startling experience of landing on a strange planet with no way home, even as the inhabitants prepare to die by asteroid and a cult of aliens kidnaps her best friend.  Her open-eyed delight at everything around her keeps the story light even through some of its darker elements.  The unabashed wonder at the universe makes this story stand out as unique, even though some of its elements recall to mind other works.

The characters are the major source of charm in this book, from the irrepressible protagonist to kindhearted conman who befriends her to the battle robot whose sense of loyalty caused his makers to reject him.  The ragtag team who plans to rescue Zita’s friend Joseph forms rather quickly and that seems odd, considering most of them have no real reason to be invested in Joseph’s fate.  However, seeing them work together is not only delightful but oftentimes humorous and it was difficult not to fall in love with them all almost immediately.

Unfortunately, I found myself wondering rather early on where all the females live on this planet.  I appreciate having Zita as a bold and noble female protagonist and I see what the author did there by having her rescue the guy.  However, besides Zita and two chickens who appear briefly for a scene, I do not recall any females in the book.  Of course, some of the background aliens could very well be female–we do not know what the genders of aliens look like.  However, since the robots and aliens introduced were all male (that means, of Zita’s team of six, she is the only female), I got the sense that, well,  everyone here is male.  Even the side characters who appear for one or two scenes, long enough to have names or be referred to with a pronoun, are male.  So do aliens reproduce differently on this planet or are they in an unacknowledged population crisis?  Not featuring females in a story without some sort of explanation (like it’s historical fiction and it’s set in a male-dominated environment), aside from disappointing little girls, just does not make sense.

Still, I enjoyed Zita’s adventure immensely and plan to follow her exploits in the next two books.  It’s always refreshing to see a protagonist who immediately places others before herself.  Good people do exist!  I just hope that the forthcoming stories showcase some more awesome females.

Top Ten Tuesday (94): Books I Read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is

Top Ten Books I Read in 2014

1. A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd: A unique narrative voice, a town full of magic and kindness, and diverse characters all make this middle-grade special.

2. I Am Otter by Sam Garton: Otter’s undefeatable spirit as well as her otter-logic lend this story a unique charm.

3. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare: Full of strong women from the dignified Hermione to the sharp-tongued Paulina.  Only the women in this tale dare stand up to the mad king!

4. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: Books upon books have been written about Dante, trying to explain just what makes his work so beautiful and so special.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: Full of rare beauty, a thing of wonder and of mingled joy and sorrow.  We’ll probably never see its like again.

6. The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien: The epic history behind The Lord of the Rings, full of even more wonder and beauty.  Some people find it complicated, but it is worth the effort!

7. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: A beautiful but sad story.

8. Shakepeare’s Language by Frank Kermode: I don’t typically review Shakespeare criticism on the blog, but I read it for fun and enjoy it, usually where people can’t make fun of me.

9. Beowulf by J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. by Christopher Tolkien: A powerful prose translation of the now (thanks in part to Tolkien) famous poem.

10. Empire of Bones by N. D. Wilson: A powerful story about love and sacrifice, chock full of adventure and a large cast of amazing women and characters of color.

“The Clerk’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Clerk (Jason Long)

Summary

When a beloved marquis’s people come to him and request that he marry in order to secure his line, he agrees with only one condition: he will choose his wife himself.  Unbeknownst to anyone, he has been eyeing the virtuous maiden Griselda.  She is poor, but she is also the most virtuous woman in the land.  After their seemingly fairytale wedding, however, the marquis becomes increasingly demanding and increasingly skeptical of his wife’s love.  She obeys him literally in everything, but will it ever be enough for him?

Review

“The Clerk’s Tale” is undoubtedly one of the more puzzling, and the more troubling, stories Chaucer offers in The Canterbury Tales.  Up to this point in the pilgrimage, readers have seen portrayals of numerous marriages and numerous wives—but none are quite like this.  Griselda is wifely obedience incarnate; she declares her husband’s will is her will, and that she would kill herself at his command if she must.  So what are readers to make of this?

The two options the audience has seem to be 1) taking the story at face value and assuming that Griselda is supposed to be the model of the perfect wife or 2) looking for indications that this entire charade is absurd and searching for evidence that Griselda’s apparent obedience is actually a sneaky way of undermining her husband’s authority.  Matters are not helped by the fact that the narrator alternately indicates that both approaches are valid.  One moment he extols Griselda’s unmatched patience; the next he tells women they really should not let their husbands treat them like doormats in the way Griselda does.

The tendency as a reader is to pick a side and stick with it.  It is easy to say, “Well, medieval people were misogynist so Griselda must actually be meant as a role model.”  It is equally easy to say, “This is ridiculous.  There is no way this story is serious.  The point must be that the marquis demands too much.”   Both approaches, I think, are reductive.  Torn between two portrayals of a woman that are completely opposite, I was unsatisfied with “The Clerk’s Tale” until I read Laura Ashe’s “Reading Like a Clerk in the ‘The Clerk’s Tale.’”

In a nutshell, Ashe argues that the matter of interpretation is at the heart of “The Clerk’s Tale” (perhaps more so than obedience?).  Griselda herself interprets her husband’s increasingly terrible requests as well-intentioned.  She acts on them as if they are so—and thus somehow makes them so.  The clerk, then, is highlighting the fact that nothing, stories in particular, stands on its own.  Tales need to be interpreted.  And he challenges his audience by offering a story that somehow has two valid interpretations.

Suddenly, the clerk seems like an immensely clever fellow, instead of someone who fails to tell a story that makes any sense.  The joke becomes even better when readers remember that the Host had specifically asked the clerk to tell a light, entertaining tale instead of something too dry and scholarly for the rest of the pilgrims.  The Host thinks the clerk has indeed told a fun tale; he takes the story at face value and comments he really wishes someone would tell his wife about this character who is a paragon of obedience.  And the clerk can sit back and snicker that had actually told a complicated tale, and the Host completely missed the point.

Want more Canterbury Tales reviews? Check out:

The Miller’s Tale
The Wife of Bath’s Tale

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

MockingbirdInformation

Goodreads: I Kill the Mockingbird
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is Lucy’s all-time favorite book and she looks forward to having to read it for school over the summer.  Not everyone shares her enthusiasm for homework, however, so, along with her friends Elena and Michael, she conceives a plan to get everyone excited about reading.  By hiding the copies of the book in stores, Lucy plans to create a shortage of To Kill a Mockingbird that will convince people they really want to read it.  After all, everyone wants something if they can’t have it, right?  However, the plan quickly spirals out of control as others across the nation start joining in the action.  Can the children redirect people to the joy of reading or have they unwittingly started a real censorship campaign?

Review

I Kill the Mockingbird promises a delightful story about the power of books to influence lives.  The trio of book nerds who act as protagonists only adds to the charm.  Stories may be in part about learning to understand those different from us, but it is also important to have characters in whom readers can see themselves.  Book lovers everywhere will thus rejoice to have not one but three unabashedly voracious readers to enjoy, along with their bookish arguments about the merits of various pieces of literature. This story seems a book lover’s dream come true.

Unfortunately, though the story begins promisingly with the usual elements of a solid middle-grade story–family problems, crush anxieties, school disappointments–that all quickly takes a back seat to the main plot, which is the hiding of Harper Lee’s famous book so no one can buy it.  The protagonists justify their weird plan by saying that people always want what they cannot have and that making people believe a conspiracy theory exists to keep To Kill a Mockingbird off shelves will drive them to the book.   Their plan, however, is ill-conceived and unbelievable, and the resulting plot is really just confusing.

First of all, I was truly appalled by the plan just on moral grounds.  The protagonists argue that they are not stealing books, just hiding them, but they first conceive the idea from a store manager who explains the idea of shrinkage to them.  Basically, shrinking in a store is lost product for which the store does not get money.  This could result from employee theft, shoplifting, paper errors, or more, but the trio decides to create it by reshelving the books within the store so no one can find or buy them.  The books may not be physically leaving the store, but when inventory has to be done and the goods are missing, the store doesn’t really care if the books were “properly stolen” or not–they still lost the money.  Purposely creating shrinkage simply cannot be justified and I particularly wondered at their attempts to create it in indie bookstores, which are much more likely to feel the effects, when Elena’s uncle runs an independent bookstore himself.  Their reasoning simply cannot be justified and I wondered the story even attempted to do so.

Secondly, the plot is just unbelievable.  Bookstores have security cameras.  The children would have been caught immediately.  And when they started a website and social media accounts to spread the “conspiracy,” someone would have probably tried to trace the accounts back to them, once the campaign grew too big.  Because, thanks to their great social media skills, people across the nation start taking copies of To Kill the Mockingbird off the shelves–probably through actual shoplifting and not through creative shelving.  They basically started a nationwide crime spree that is big enough to garner media attention and no one cares enough to stop it.

Finally, the message of the book is just confusing.  The protagonists want people to get excited about reading, but their weird plot looks like censorship and the copycats who start taking books probably, although the book never really addresses it, actually don’t want other people to read Harper Lee’s classic.  And it’s Harper Lee’s book they’re taking, so it’s probably a race issue.  Yet the ending turns into some sort of weird celebration–for what, I don’t know.  The protagonists think it’s a celebration for reading, but no one knows their plan so is everyone else celebrating censorship?  How are readers to respond to this ending?

Ultimately, I Kill the Mockingbird fails to deliver the uplifting story about the love of reading it promises, instead miring itself in a messy, confused plot.  In the end, I would have preferred that the story focus on its characters and their relationships, acting as more of a coming-of-age story than as an attempted celebration of the love of books.  That storyline would have served it better and been more believable.

Emma and the Blue Genie by Cornelia Funke

Emma and the Blue GenieInformation

Goodreads: Emma and the Blue Genie
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2014 (original 2002)
Translator: Oliver Latsch
Illustrator: Kerstin Meyer

Summary

Emma loves to sit beside the ocean and listen to the waves.  One night she finds more than she bargained for when a bottle washes up on shore and she releases a blue genie.  Karim, however, cannot grant any more wishes until he retrieves his nose ring from the yellow genie who stole it.  Along with her faithful dog, Emma will journey to Karim’s homeland to steal back the ring and save a country.

Review

Emma and the Blue Genie features a spunky heroine, a faithful doggy, and a captivating plotline.  Add a few quirky secondary characters, some annoying brothers, and the beauty of the moonlight on the ocean and you have everything you need for a delightful fairytale.  Unfortunately, though I prepared myself to be charmed, the execution of the plot left me feeling cheated.

The narration drew me in from the start.  Charming and knowing, it introduces Emma with her boisterous brothers and her need for solitude by the waves.  It evokes familiarity and wonder and longing in quick succession.  It is a translation, but it feels like it could be the original.  It seems like the type of narration that guarantee a most fantastic story.

However, though I loved the bold Emma and her equally bold (though small) dog, and though I eagerly flew with them to strange lands and new adventures, I ultimately wanted more from them than I received.  Emma, you see, volunteers to travel with her new friend the blue genie Karim to save his caliph and retrieve his nose ring from a very evil yellow genie.  She insists that her plucky dog can help.  However, (and this is a SPOILER) Emma and her dog do not live up to her word.  Emma does nothing but fall into that fatal trap of so many excellent female characters–she arrives only to get herself captured and then  needs to be rescued by the men.  She does not in any way help them, not even providing advice or a minor distraction.  Arguably she informs Karim of the location of his nose ring, but it’s not much to boast of, considering the evil genie is wearing it in plain sight.  Her dog proves a little more assertive, barking at the genie when no one else will dare speak against him.  It’s a small victory.

Despite the charm of the story and the narration, I found I simply could not enjoy yet another narrative where the female does nothing but get herself captured.  I understand Emma is a young girl and not likely to prove a match for a powerful genie, but she could have had a little more agency–just the tiniest smidge!  I like her wonder, her thirst for beauty, and her bravery–I just wish she could use those things to create her own story, rather than sitting around in someone else’s.

Waiting on Wednesday (16)

Waiting on Wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine where bloggers share books they are eagerly anticipating.

Otter in SpaceOtter in Space

By Sam Garton

Release Date: May 5, 2015

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Summary: In her second adventure, Otter explores the final frontier with her best friends Teddy and Giraffe.

Why I Want to Read It:Otter’s literary debut in I Am Otter utterly charmed me both with its storyline and its pictures.  I don’t want to miss her expedition to space, even if she does insist it’s only in her imagination.   In the meantime, if need more Otter you can follow her adventures on her blog.

Top Ten Tuesday (93): New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2014

1. Natalie Lloyd, author of A Snicker of Magic

2. Laura Amy Schlitz, author of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair and Splendors and Glooms

3. Kenneth Oppel, author of The Boundless

4. Jodi Lynn Anderson, author of May Bird and the Ever After

5. Jonathan Auxier, author of The Night Gardener

6. Erika Johansen, author of The Queen of the Tearling

7. Heather Vogel Frederick, author of Absolutely Truly

Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay (ARC Review)

Princess of ThornsInformation

Goodreads: Princess of Thorns
Series: None
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: December 9, 2014

Official Summary

Game of Thrones meets the Grimm’s fairy tales in this twisted, fast-paced romantic fantasy-adventure about Sleeping Beauty’s daughter, a warrior princess who must fight to reclaim her throne.

Though she looks like a mere mortal, Princess Aurora is a fairy blessed with enhanced strength, bravery, and mercy yet cursed to destroy the free will of any male who kisses her. Disguised as a boy, she enlists the help of the handsome but also cursed Prince Niklaas to fight legions of evil and free her brother from the ogre queen who stole Aurora’s throne ten years ago.

Will Aurora triumph over evil and reach her brother before it’s too late? Can Aurora and Niklaas break the curses that will otherwise forever keep them from finding their one true love?

Review

Princess of Thorns is an adventure-filled take on the life of Sleeping Beauty’s daughter after everything she has known is stolen from her—her home, her family, and her kingdom.  The book takes readers on a wild journey across Aurora’s realm and introduces them to both magic and romance.  However, the book also bravely takes a look at the darkness hidden in magic and fairy tales—and also inside of us.

As a teen fantasy novel, Princess of Thorns is wonderfully satisfying.  If I had encountered it during my middle school years, it undoubtedly would have found a place among my most-loved books, probably right next to Tamora Pierce’s work, as both feature strong female protagonists, exciting quests, and hot romances.  As an adult, I appreciate the strong pacing, writing, and character development.

The world-building is also well-planned, though it does take a little bit of time and patience to figure out how the world and its magic work.  The scene is set somewhat ambiguously, but after all the background bits are done—the explanation of how Aurora got to where she is as a teen—the mechanisms of the world are fairly straightforward.  And there are no info dumps.  Jay gracefully weaves information about the kingdom and its various magical inhabitants into dialogue and thought.

Jay also successfully takes some fantasy stereotypes and turns them subtly, but strikingly, on their heads. Readers get a lot of familiar fare—a girl disguised as a boy, an overly macho love interest, a girl cursed to never fall in love—but none of these things either start or end exactly as one would expect.  Readers may think they have general idea of where the whole plot, and various plot elements, are going, but the book always stops short of being predictable and throws in some twist and turns.

My one major disappointment: how Aurora breaks her curse.  At the time of reading, I was pretty appalled.  Aurora seems to make all the wrong choices in order to get what she wants.   After further reflection, however, I understand that that is sort of the point.  Magic is dark in this book and tends to work in unexpected ways, ways that no one has to comprehend or like.  Aurora also reworks this moment as a learning opportunity and understands, if she had wanted, she could have done things differently.  She gets what she wants—but the event is hardly unblemished.

Princess of Thorns is a beautifully strong fantasy novel, full of all things that fans of the genre love: complex characters, a richly developed setting, and a well-imagined set of magical rules and values.  It has action, adventure, and romance—and just enough philosophical musing to get readers thinking about love, morality, and friendship.  Highly recommended for fans of Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, or Gail Carson Levine.

“The Miller’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Miller Banner

Summary

The young clerk Nicholas is in love with his landlord’s wife Alison.  She will not agree to any tryst with him, however, unless he can manage to get her jealous husband out of their way.  Drawing upon his expertise in astronomy, Nicholas feigns he has a message from God: the world will experience a second Flood, and the only way for the household to survive is if they construct three separate boats, hang them from the ceiling, and wait for the rain to come.  His landlord credulously falls for this story and begins work, giving Nicholas and Alison the perfect opportunity to sneak away together.

Review

As a fabliau, “The Miller’s Tale” is definitely one of the bawdier contributions to The Canterbury Tales, offering a stark contrast to the courtly love story that the knight tells just before it.  Readers will realize fairly early on that they are in for a wild ride; after all, Nicholas rather forwardly grabs at Alison’s crotch while pleading his love to her and is hardly rebuked for the action.  And, of course, the entire plot centers on how Nicholas and Alison can contrive to cuckold her husband.  The raunchiness is definitely enough to amuse many readers.  However, the characterizations, details, and wider themes are also worth looking at.

Alison herself is a very compelling place to start.  Although it may not be entirely clear if one starts reading The Canterbury Tales at the beginning (since the miller’s is only the second tale in the book), most of the stories center on marriages and women.  The question here might then become: how much do readers sympathize with Alison?  For my part, I have trouble excusing or empathizing with adultery in most fiction—and it is worth nothing that, however much a fool her husband might be for believing his tenant had a vision about a second Flood, he was apparently concerned for his wife’s safety.

Nonetheless, the story does not seem to ask readers to dwell on this.  It observes fairly early on that old men should not wed young women; they are too different from each other and the wife is unlikely to be happy.  If one believes this, it in some way excuses, or at least explains, Alison’s behavior.  The ending of the tale also does not do much to bolster the husband’s standing.  Nicholas may get a comeuppance himself, for misusing Scripture and abusing his position of knowledge, but the only one who really escapes unscathed is Alison herself.  And while the audience is laughing at everyone’s antics, moral considerations may get lost in the mix.

I have to admit that “The Miller’s Tale” is not my favorite.  While I do believe it introduces many themes that continue to be raised throughout The Canterbury Tales and does a good job of explicating them within this specific tale, as well, the fabliau may simply not be my genre.  Bawdiness does not really appeal to my sense of humor, and I mostly thought it sad how poorly things turn out for all the characters.  (Even if one side character—Absolon—is fairly amusing.)

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Greenglass HouseInformation

Goodreads: Greenglass House
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

Twelve-year-old Milo always looks forward to the winter holidays when the smugglers’ inn run by his adoptive parents lies empty and he can spend time with his family.  But despite the blizzard blowing in, the bell keeps ringing and more guests keep arriving, each harboring a secret somehow connected to the inn’s shadowy past.  With the help of his new friend Meddy, Milo begins following the clues and exploring the house, hoping to learn more not only about the property’s history but also about his own.

Review

The summary of Greenglass House immediately caught my attention, promising one of those delightful middle-grade mysteries not only full of fun and quirk, but also full of heart.  Like Milo, each of the guests at the inn has old wound, an old loss, or an old flame for which they would like to find closure and, with the help of an enterprising pair of children, they may find that closure comes, not from secrecy and mistrust but from love and sharing.  Unfortunately,though the book possesses all the ingredients to make a truly memorable read, the actual execution of the story left me feeling disappointed.

In such books as these, the seemingly disparate elements of the plot usually come together at the end.  Thus, I expected to see Milo find some closure for his doubts about wanting to know his biological family even though he loves the parents who adopted him.  I hoped to see that some of the guests would learn that had much in common and would forge bonds, even if they never started lasting relationships.  I wanted to see all of this tied up in the mystery of the inn’s history.

Instead, the problems of each of the characters remained singular problems–they never intertwined or commented on each other.  Milo does give each of the guest’s varying degrees of closure (and some endings are decidedly less satisfying than others), but the other guests often never learn about the reasons for each other’s stay or, if they do, they do not learn how each other’s stories end.  I really wanted to see some overlaps, though, because, artistically, they seemed necessary.  For example, if one guest is looking for an old relic in the house and another is looking for a hidden piece of art, wouldn’t it be neat to see them share their love and passion for history and the house with each other?  Perhaps the author thought it would be too neat.  Better, more realistic to keep everyone’s story separate.  Still, it’s a middle-grade book and I expect the sort of satisfaction that does not happen often in real life.

An overarching mystery including “stolen” objects tentatively holds the smaller mysteries together, with Milo and his friend Meddy acting as detectives through a role-playing game that Meddy enjoys.  This plot seems extraneous in the end, even though it’s the one most linked to the mysterious history of the inn, simply because so much of the reveal seems to come from out of the blue.  Hints of the truth are scattered throughout the story and readers will understand at the end why seemingly random details or elements appeared.  However, they did not point enough to the end to make it convincing and the motivation behind the actions of the perpetrator were likewise not entirely believable.  More than any other part of the book, the ending left me disappointed.

I also admit that, for a large part of the story, I found myself bored.  To convince Milo to investigate the mysterious guests at the inn, Meddy has to convince him to take part in a role-playing game with her.  I could have accepted Milo needing to use his imagination and play a role to do things he normally would be too scared or shy to do.  However, I really wasn’t invested in all the elaborate rules of the RPG, the various levels and skills and points, etc.  Actually, I was never sure why Meddy even bothered to discuss points and skills because the two were not narrating the story around the table or rolling dice to see what actions would occur.  They were acting in real life and saying Milo has extra stealth powers or lie-detecting skills does not impart to the boy any real-life abilities to be sneaky or discern the truth.

I had high hopes for Greenglass House, but it was not the type of story I was expecting to read and that left me feeling unsatisfied.  Furthermore, I did not really feel invested in the majority of the characters, meaning I little cared how most of their stories played out.  In the end, Greenglass House simply wasn’t the book for me.

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