Neverseen by Shannon Messenger

Information

Goodreads: Neverseen
Series: Keeper of the Lost Cities #4
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Sophie Foster and her friends have broken more laws than they can count.  Now they’re running from the Council and trying to find safety with the Black Swan.  But treachery lurks around them.  How can they move on from the ultimate betrayal?

Review

The stakes are getting higher in the fourth installment of the Keeper of Lost Cities series.  Having repeatedly defined the Council, Sophie and her friends now fear exile and are on the run.  The moment readers have been waiting for is about to arrive.  Finally we will meet the Black Swan.

Messenger does a brilliant job expanding her world in this new book.  Readers get to learn more about the hideouts of the Black Swan, meet gnomes and learn more about their ways, travel to Exilium, and get a taste of what ogre country looks like.  Finally readers’ curiosity begins to be satisfied, at least a little.  So many mysteries were opened at the start and now questions begin to get answered.

Though there is  much travelling, the momentum of the series carries forward full steam ahead as our heroes train for another big operation: the rescue of Prentice.  Danger lurks everywhere and new alliances will be formed even as old ones begin to crumble.  Some of the revelations are not particularly surprising.  Others add just the right amount of drama.

If you’ve travelled this far with Sophie and her friends, Neverseen is another engrossing installment in the series.  It may be around 700 pages, but it feels like far less.

5 stars

Witch Wars by Sibéal Pounder

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Witch Wars
Series: Witch Wars #1
Source: Gift
Publication Date: January 2016

SUMMARY

Tiga spends her days in the shed hiding from her mean guardian.  Then Fran the Fabulous Fairy appears and tells Tiga she’s a witch!  Below the pipes lies the world of Sinkville, where a competition called Witch Wars is about to start.  If Tiga wins, she can stay in Sinkville.  If she loses, she must return to live with her nasty guardian.  But how can a witch win a war without any spells?

Review

Witch Wars is a fun middle-grade fantasy that delights in its own quirkiness.  Though the premise may seem familiar–a neglected orphan is rescued by discovering her magical abilities–Pounder makes the story feel fresh and fun.  Filled with a cast of delightful characters and set in a world where anything can happen, Witch Wars is sure to make you want to return again and again to travel through Sinkville with Tiga and her friends.

The characters in Witch Wars really shine.  From Fran the Fabulous Fairy’s obsession with fame to Fluffanora’s ambivalence to winning Witch Wars to Tiga’s enthusiasm upon discovering the amazing clothes and food of Sinkville, each character comes alive, bringing heart and humor to the story.  Even the bad witches determined to cheat their way to the finish line are fun to read about.  And because the story is a middle grade, you can rest assured that Tiga’s nemeses will find their comeuppance in a quirky but satisfying ending.

Witch Wars is an exuberant story, one determined to make readers laugh.  If you’re looking for a quick but enchanting story, Pounder has you covered.

5 stars

The Ethics of Blogging

Back in March I wrote a post on whether it is dangerous to relax our writing standards when blogging.  I argued that, even while blogging we still have an obligation to use skills we have learned in school to fact check ourselves and others on the Internet.  Many commenters responded by arguing that blogging is not academic writing–i.e. no one wants to read jargon-laden prose geared towards an expert audience on the blog and we should be allowed to write colloquially or with contractions.  These comments did not surprise me because they align with the understanding of writing that is propagated in American high schools (and perhaps other schools, though I am not qualified to speak on that).

Note the disparity in the argument and the response above.  I argued that we should do research, provide evidence, and fact check ourselves and others.  That is, I was speaking about the overall strength of the argument and the need to be able to discern true claims from false claims.  The responses spoke about grammar and word choice–stylistic features of the writing rather than the content of the writing.  The implication is that one can distinguish academic writing from other writing because it looks or sounds a certain way.  You could theoretically write about the totally made-up group of blue aliens living in Kansas, but if your grammar is correct, you’ve written a “good” essay.

Of course, when I put things that way, it sounds ridiculous and probably most people would argue that they are not in favor of writing about imaginary aliens and calling it nonfiction.  But this exactly what students in American high schools tend to learn writing is.   It’s called “writing for correctness” and it happens when teachers spend most of their time marking small stylistic features such as punctuation, word choice, and MLA citations instead of focusing on the content of the paper–the strength of the argument, the strength of the evidence, the structure and logic of the paper.  It’s much easier and less time-consuming to circle a misspelled word than it is to explain to someone why the structure of the paper is not a logical trajectory and how they can revise it.  So overworked teachers lean on these stylistic features in their rubrics and their grading and students learn that they can write whatever they want as long as the grammar is in keeping with Standard English.  The same attitude prevails on standardized tests, where the ability of a student to write in a five-paragraph essay is prioritized over what they actually say in that essay.

However, an essay can be written in nonstandard English and still be lively and intelligent, just as an essay can be written with excellent grammar but offer no new or complex thoughts.  And schools increasingly are reconsidering the attitude that good grammar equals good writing, especially as a result of the increased numbers of international students being accepted into American universities (and sometimes private high schools as well).  There are ethical questions being raised about attempts to change “accented” writing to fit a standardized mold.

But if I did not mean to say good writing is determined by stylistic features, what did I mean to say?  Quite simply, I was talking about the ethical stakes of blogging.  We may conceive of blogging as a hobby, but we have real audiences and can create real effects in the world. If we do not do our research, we may inadvertently spread misinformation or harm another person.  If we do not check the sources or evaluate the evidence of what we read, we may inadvertently believe false claims.

When we think about how we can use the tools and skills we have learned in school, we should be thinking about how we can use them in an ethical manner.  How can we ensure that we are advancing true claims, that we are doing our research, and that we are assessing the credibility of sources and the potential bias of evidence?  How can we ensure that we are helping others rather than harming them?  Words matter.  How we use words matters.  Our responsibility to the truth does not end when we leave school.

Everblaze by Shannon Messenger

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Everblaze
Series: Keeper of the Lost Cities #3
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2014

SUMMARY

Sophie longs to know about her past and about her kidnappers, and she knows just where to find the information she wants.  However, treading the minds of criminals is a dangerous task.  As Sophie sets out to do the impossible, she begins to realize that some people really do want to watch the world burn.

Review

At this point, the books are all starting to blend together.  Each is 500-600 pages and focuses on variations of the same plot–Sophie’s attempts to find the Black Swan, to learn her past, and to unmask the rebels.  I’m not entirely sure if each book has a well-defined plot with a clear trajectory or if I’ve been devouring them to fast to notice that they do.  All I know right now is that the books are getting less terribly ridiculous as they go on.  We’re actually starting to enter serious fantasy territory here.  And I’m so disappointed that I’m left grasping as the fact that at least Sophie still has a laughable three love interests since she’s so beautiful and powerful and all that.

This third book is the darkest yet, with Sophie and her friends being asked by the Council to do impossible and dangerous things.  As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the Council seems lost–and the elves are starting to notice.  When chaos erupts as a result of one of Sophie’s assignments, the elves begin to turn against her.  Sophie is no longer sure she is welcome in her new world.

Messenger adds layers of intrigue, putting her characters through extreme suffering as they confront the reality of the forces they oppose.  War looms on the horizon and soon the elves, who never die of old age, may know all too well what grief for lost lives feels like.  Middle grade books sometimes have an undeserved reputation for being less complex than YA.  Everblaze demonstrates that MG can be incredibly dark and complicated, as well.

4 stars

Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Anstey

Love Lies and SpiesInformation

Goodreads: Love, Lies and Spies
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: April 19, 2016

Official Summary

Juliana Telford is not your average nineteenth-century young lady. She’s much more interested in researching ladybugs than marriage, fashionable dresses, or dances. So when her father sends her to London for a season, she’s determined not to form any attachments. Instead, she plans to secretly publish their research.

Spencer Northam is not the average young gentleman of leisure he appears. He is actually a spy for the War Office, and is more focused on acing his first mission than meeting eligible ladies. Fortunately, Juliana feels the same, and they agree to pretend to fall for each other. Spencer can finally focus, until he is tasked with observing Juliana’s traveling companions . . . and Juliana herself.

Review

Love, Lies and Spies is a cute and fun Regency-inspired romance that adds just a dash of danger to the plot by adding some war-time intrigue.  Protagonist Juliana Telford is insistent she is only interested in attending the London Season in order to sneak away and find a publisher for her and her father’s research on the lady beetle, but a dashing young gentleman might have other plans for her.

The “spies” part of the title could certainly have been played up more.  Northam, to be sure, is working on an important case involving treason for the War Office, but the author took the route of constantly mentioning small details about the case without actually giving an overview of the thing until about page 230.  (Seriously, I looked at the page number to confirm exactly how long it took me to figure out what Northam was trying to do because I spent most of the book confused.) And in the end, I didn’t find it that interesting.  It seemed like a small case and lots of watching and waiting. I’m sure a lot of cases are like that, but it doesn’t necessarily make for exciting writing.

The focus of the novel is primarily on the romance, and I think that if you go in with that expectation, you’ll enjoy the book.   It’s very episodic with lots of wondering of “When shall the protagonist ‘casually’ run into the love interest next?” Lots of scenes of small talk and subtle flirtations, lots of looking forward to and planning the next meeting.  Northam is, indeed, quite romantic and gallant, so watching the romance unfold is likely to be as fun for the readers as it is for Juliana.  There’s some social mingling and commentary as well, but don’t hope for it to be quite on the level of the Jane Austen novels that inspired the story.

The prose is inconsistent and alternately struck me as a good imitation of the Regency period and just off.   When Anstey nails it, she nails it, but Juliana frequently comes across as a simpering little fool based on her awkward dialogue, muttering things like “Oh dear! Oh dear!” and things that sound too stilted for anyone to actually think or say.  The opening chapter may be one of the best examples of this, as it’s amusing and engaging while just seeming wrong.  I laughed while also thinking Juliana absolutely ridiculous and just a little bit…not bright.  She shows her intelligence later in the story, particularly in the area of careful observation, but the things she says often made me question her.

I enjoyed Love, Lies and Spies.  It’s light and entertaining and frequently made me smile. It’s certainly not the best book of intrigue I’ve read, but it’s a cute romance.  Readers who like Regency-era romances will probably want to pick it up.

Note: There is a glossary in the back to help clarify some of the Regency-era expressions. I found most of them self-evident through context clues, but it drives me nuts to struggle through a whole book and only learn there’s a glossary after I’ve finished reading the entire thing, so I thought I’d point it out to other readers. So few books have glossaries that it never occurs to me to check for them before I begin reading, so they tend to be wasted on me.

Briana

Ten Interesting Posts of the Week + Event Recap (7/23/17)

Post Round-Up

Around the Blogosphere

  1. Fire and Rain Books shared 10 blogging tips from a newbie.
  2. Interesting Literature wrote a list of 10 of the best fairy tales everyone should read.
  3. Mere Inkling reflected on C.S. Lewis and poor writers.
  4. Aimal shared mini reviews for three over-hyped books.
  5. Michael reflected on the Superior Spider Man and the darkness within.
  6. Hilary explained how Harry Potter shaped her life.
  7. Lois discussed why she reads contemporary.
  8. Fadwa talked about why she believes content warnings are necessary.
  9. Books Are All You Need Pondered why Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a classic.
  10. May posited 9 challenges of being a certain type of blogger.

This Week at Pages Unbound

Participate in Our August College Advice Week

Each August at Pages Unbound we share some posts about college life and advice. You can participate this year by submitting your own advice (or one thing you wish you had known when you started college), and we’ll credit you and share it with our readers next month!

On Our Instagram

Event Recap

On July 18, I went to the launch event for I See London, I See France by Sarah Mlynowski (YA contemporary from HarperCollins).  The launch was held at Forever 21, which was really interesting.  Part of the event including curated outfits inspired by places the characters in the novel visit as they go on a backpacking trip across Europe.  There were also snacks and giveaways of Forever 21 gift cards (which I did not win).  I bought Magic in Manhattan, one of Mlynowski’s backlist books and got it signed.

The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin

Information

Goodreads: The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey
Series: Rabbi Harvey #1
Source: Library
Published: July 1, 2006

Official Summary

A fresh look at Jewish folktales wise, witty, hilarious.

After finishing school in New York, Rabbi Harvey traveled west in search of adventure and, hopefully, work as a rabbi. His journey took him to Elk Spring, Colorado, a small town in the Rocky Mountains. When he managed to outwit the ruthless gang that had been ruling Elk Spring, the people invited Harvey to stay on as the town’s rabbi. In Harvey’s adventures in Elk Spring, he settles disputes, tricks criminals into confessing, and offers unsolicited bits of Talmudic insight and Hasidic wisdom. Each story presents Harvey with a unique challenge from convincing a child that he is not actually a chicken, to retrieving stolen money from a sweet-faced bubbe gone bad. Like any good collection of Jewish folktales, these stories contain layers of humor and timeless wisdom that will entertain, teach and, especially, make you laugh.

Review

The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey is a collection of short humorous stories about a rabbi who leaves school and finds a job in small Western town, quickly earning a reputation for wit and wisdom and his ability to fairly judge any case put before  him.  This background is necessary for the book because Rabbi Harvey’s history is explained only in one of the stories in the middle of the book; if you’re a reader who likes to go into books “blind” without reading the jacket summary, you might be confused, because there’s no introduction; the book simply opens with a story and goes from there.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book, but I found it an entertaining collection of amusing, clever tales.  It was in the YA section of my local library, but I think it works well as an upper middle grade book, too, and the brand of humor is something I think could resonate with many middle schoolers.  The stories are not laugh-out-loud funny (at least in my opinion), but they’re quirky and amusing, and it’s great fun to watch Rabbi Harvey answer riddles and out-think others.

The combination of a Jewish community and a Wild West setting is a great one.  I’ve seen some other reviewers express skepticism of this, but I honestly never questioned it, and the book works really well.  There’s a nice combination of Western grit with traditional tales and wisdom, and I don’t think readers need to be particularly interested in either the Wild West or Judaism to enjoy the book.

This was a random find for me at the library. I checked it out because it just seemed so unexpected.  A graphic novel about a fictional rabbi just walking around being clever?  But after reading it, I will definitely be recommending it to others.

4 stars Briana