The Journal of Curious Letters by James Dashner

Publication year: 2008
Genre: Fantasy / Juvenile Fiction
Time and place: contemporary Washington (mostly)
Narrated in: third-person omniscient
First sentence:Norbert Johnson had never met such strange people in all of his life, much less two on the same day—within the same hour even.
Verdict: Kids would love it :)

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The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Publication year: 2012
Genre: Fantasy/Children’s book
Time and place: The Land of Stories, of course; some years after the events in Brother Grimm’s fairy tales took place
Narrated in: third-person limited
First sentence:The dungeon was a miserable place.
Verdict: 4 stars out of 5

Summary
Twins Alex and Conner’s lives have taken a turn for the worse when they were ten and their father was killed on his way to work. On an attempt to make their twelfth birthday special, their grandmother gives them a book called The Land of Stories, a book that used to be their favorite thing growing up. Later that night Alex looks longingly at the pictures, wishing she was in the fairy tale world, where everything is less complicated and good prevails. And then the book started buzzing and glowing…

Once in the fairy tale world however, both twins (as Conner has dutifully followed Alex in the pages of the book) realize that life in a land where trolls and goblins take people into slavery, and a descendant of the Big Bad Wolf roams the forests is not that much of a breeze either. Luckily they meet a friend who tells them about the Wishing Spell, a spell that makes one single, important wish come true. The kids make it their mission to find the items needed for casting the spell that is supposed to send them back home — but they don’t know that the Spell can only be cast once, and that a very powerful someone else is after it too.

General impression
I find it quite funny how all the reviews I read start with “I’m a big fan of Chris’ work on Glee”, or something of the sort. Now, while I have to admit that I too watch Glee and enjoy having Kurt as a character, I can’t say, like the others, that I started this book merely because its author was famous — the plot itself is one of my favorite tropes. Now, Chris C. is certainly a very talented young man, and with a sense of humor too, judging by the few interviews of him I happened to watch, but can he also write? Why yes, I think he can. Sure, this is not a book for adult readers, so the language is veering towards simplistic, and yet I have enjoyed it nonetheless. It has a certain descriptive quality that made me feel I was right there with the characters, and if there ever was something I considered the mark of a good reader, this is definitely it. I am definitely looking forward to his future books.

Oh, and the pictures (by Brandon Dorman) are quite a treat too.

Setting
The Land of Stories, as imagined by this author, has no less than six kingdoms, an Empire, and a bit of extra territory. Three of the Kingdoms are ruled by a King Charming — there are actually four Charming brothers: Chance Charming, Chase Charming, Chandler Charming, and Charlie Charming, and three of them are kings; one married Snow White, one married Cinderella, and the third married Sleeping Beauty. Then there’s the Corner Kingdom, ruled by Rapunzel, the Red Riding Hood kingdom, where Little Red Riding Hood, now grown up, is ‘the first elected queen in history’, and the Fairy Kingdom, ruled of course by fairies. There’s also the Dwarf Forest, where the dwarves live, the Goblin and Troll Territory, a set of underground caves where trolls and goblins live, and so on. During their quest the twins meet most of the characters in popular fairy tales, even the Little Mermaid, despite the fact that her story did not end well, and as a bonus some nursery rhyme characters, like Little Bo Peep.

It’s really an enchanted land, and the author has taken great care in imagining it in detail, and describing it accordingly. As a random example, here’s the introduction of a bridge troll:

A large troll had jumped right in front of them on the bridge. He was short and very wide with an enormous head. He was covered in matted fur with large eyes and a snout. His arms and legs were tiny, but his nails and teeth were sharp and long.

Also, I loved how the story went a bit more in-depth with some characters’ happy ever after: Cinderella is very happy with her husband, King Charming, but the first few years were hard on her because people at court had trouble accepting her and the fact that their prince has married a commoner; the people in Sleeping Beauty’s Kingdom are feeling the after effects of their century-long sleep, as they keep falling asleep most of the time while the fields remain fallow; and so on.

Characters
The book has plenty of characters, what with the plethora of fairy land people that the two children get to meet throughout the book, so it’s no wonder that none of them were actually well developed. I did like however how the author kept the general conventions of fairytales, making all princesses smart and kind and caring and very much in love with their respective Charmings. The one exception to this is Red Riding Hood, the only flawed character, but this doesn’t contradict her story at all if one thinks about it (after all, it all started when the little girl disobeyed her mother’s advice).

As for the twins, I liked the way they complement each other. Alex is book smart, doing extremely well in school, and is also very much in love with everything fairytale-related. Conner is quite her opposite: he keeps falling asleep in classes and he thinks that he simply cannot learn some of the stuff in school, yet he has an inquisitive mind and is quite smart too, despite his opinion of himself. Alex is the emotional one, who enjoys everything with the heart, while Conner is the one who analyzes his environment with a more critical eye.

Another character I appreciated was the twins’ father. While he’s mostly absent from the pages of the book, everyone who knew him thought very fondly of him, and I grew to like him a lot myself. If only he wasn’t so irrevocably killed at the beginning of the book :( I would have loved to get to actually meet him in a sequel.

Plot
The plot, while starting out interesting and quite promising, ends up being a bit too simplistic. Many of the children’s problems are solved by mere luck, without leaving enough time for suspense to build. And then there’s also the matter of the journal the children were given, one that chronicles in detail every single step they should take (when you get to palace X use door Y, and what are you looking for is in the corridor Z). I understand that everything had to happen fast and there was simply no time for the children to learn all the ins and outs by themselves; however, a bit less guidance and a little more of having them contribute to the strategies themselves would have perhaps nicer. I would have preferred the Wishing Spell to need less items, with each of them being a challenge to obtain, rather than needing eight and make obtaining them simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Regardless of the journal, the children find themselves quite often in sticky situations, and sometimes the ways they find to get out of it are surprisingly fun. My favorite such moment being right at the beginning, when they discover the gingerbread house and the witch wants to eat them; they manage however to make her grant them a wish, and their wish was for the witch to become a vegetarian :)

What I liked most
The motivation of Snow White’s Evil Stepmother for… well, for everything.

While it’s been ages since I first discovered the idea of having the Evil Queen (EQ) being misunderstood instead of evil, I am always happy to see how creative people are in bringing their own versions of the story to the table. In EQ’s own words:

“Your story will forever be romanticized,” she told Snow White. “No one will ever think twice about mine. I will continue to be degraded into nothing but a grotesque villain until the end of time. But what the world fails to realize is that a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”

What I like about this version, besides its novelty, is that it has managed to make EQ’s actions understandable (of sorts) even when she wanted to have Snow White killed, without turning SW in a villain either. Extra points for explaining EQ’s obsession with youth and beauty too :)

show spoiler

What I liked least
There are a few minor slip-ups here and there, and I wonder how come a competent editor hasn’t caught them. A random example, when the twins first get to the fairytale land they notice on the path lots and lots of pencils — the ones that Alex kept throwing into the book as an experiment. And then a bunch of knights ride on the path and the horses step on some of the pencils and break them. But the pencils have been there for about a week and later we find out that the knights ride through the forest twice a week, so how come no pencils were broken before?

And yes, I am aware that there probably is a valid explanation, something along the lines that some of the pencils may have been broken when the twins arrived, but the author did not mention them2. My issue with it is that having to search for that explanation snapped me right back to reality, making me enjoy that particular scene and a few after it a bit less. And then there is the matter of the children being able to cover all. of. that. land mostly on foot in two days or so. And the part where the previous guy who had cast the Wishing Spell (and whose wish too was to be transported to the human world) had the time to go back to some of the kingdoms and return some of the things he’s taken before being whisked away. Minor stuff, but flaws nonetheless.

Thoughts on the title
I noticed that the book is being marketed both as “The Land of Stories” and as “The Wishing Spell”. I think that the first is more general, and a good name for a series (the Discworld comes to mind, again), while the second one is fit for this book alone. Anyway, I love them both to pieces — any of them would have piqued my interest even if I had no idea who the author was.

Thoughts on the ending
Now, I had guessed what the big secret twist was somewhere very near to the beginning, so the ending was rather predictable for me. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it, especially when it came to the newly formed ‘happily ever after’ couples :)

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone who finds intriguing the idea of people from our world trapped in the world of fairytales :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Chris Colfer on Twitter

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My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison

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  1. in my country Mira is a girl’s name so I had a few moments when I wondered whether EQ will turn out to be gay :) was there ever a gay fairy tale character? []
  2. although I believe it’s quite relevant; if the twins had noticed a bunch of broken pencils they would have worried that the travel through the worlds may have been what broke them, and wonder about the effects of that same travel on themselves []

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Genre: Juvenile Fiction
Main characters: Rebecca Rowena Randall :)
Time and place: early 1900s; a small town in the US called Riverboro
First sentence:The old stage coach was rumbling along the dusty road that runs from Maplewood to Riverboro.
Verdict: Uncomplicated.

Summary
Rebecca Rowena Randall is the second of seven brothers, living with their mother in a small house that Rebecca likes to call Sunnybrook Farm. As the book opens, she is sent to live with her two spinster aunts, in hopes that this will be “the making of [her]“. Rebecca’s sunny disposition does not fit very well with the somber house of the aunts, but, by and by, she manages to soften any heart she encounters in her path.

General impression
I took up reading this on a whim, having found out about its existence from a list of books presumably read on the Titanic. I love this type of heroine (Rebecca belongs to the same league that Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna do), and as I was able to find it instantly both on Amazon (the Kindle version) and on Gutenberg Project I wasted no time and jumped straight into it. In the end, while I was right, and Rebecca did share the optimism an resourcefulness of both Anne and Pollyanna, her life struck me as a mere succession of events. Contemporary books have probably perverted my tastes and expectations, as I could not help finding only a very few of Rebecca’s adventures (while important for her, of course) important/interesting enough to be worth being mentioned in a book.

Setting
The setting is what I’ve come to think of as a typical small town, the kind where everyone knows everyone and no secrets can ever be kept from the nosy neighbors. There are a bunch of children too, more or less Rebecca’s age, so “Rebecky” is always surrounded by friends. Much as everyone loves gossip, there are no truly mean people in the village, and our heroine is liked by all.

Characters
Rebecca Rowena Randall is a rather extraordinary child. She has an intense personality, filled with artistic fervor and bursting at the seams with imagination. She takes great pleasure in the mere act of communicating (as one of the characters says, she’d more likely talk to herself than say nothing). She always has something interesting to say though (no small feat), which is I think one of the things that attract other people to her like moths around a flame. She’s written poetry all her life (clumsy worded at times, but correctly rhymed), she plays the piano, she is talented when it comes to drawing too — in a word, she is a very gifted young girl. All her intensity is mirrored into her large, dark eyes, the first thing that anyone noticed about her:

Rebecca’s eyes were like faith,–”the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Under her delicately etched brows they glowed like two stars, their dancing lights half hidden in lustrous darkness. Their glance was eager and full of interest, yet never satisfied; their steadfast gaze was brilliant and mysterious, and had the effect of looking directly through the obvious to something beyond, in the object, in the landscape, in you.

And then there’s Mr. Adam Ladd, a well-to-do thirty year old, who finds Rebecca fascinating, and who plays the part of a hidden benefactor for her more than once. When they first met Rebecca, not knowing his name, called him Mr. Aladdin, and she has been addressing him thusly ever since. While reading, I kept feeling that he has the potential to be a great character, to do something interesting, but, alas, he never did.

As for the aunts, I liked the way the author has chosen to draw them. The eldest is Mirandy, a stern old woman who likes being in control of everything and thinking herself too level-headed for sentimentalities. The quote that best describes her is “Miranda Sawyer had a heart, of course, but she had never used it for any other purpose than the pumping and circulating of blood“. She always tends to think the worst about people, and she is not particularly fond of Rebecca, seeing in her a beastly, disobedient child. The other sister, Jane, has a more peaceful nature, and is letting herself dominated by her elder sister. She did have a wild streak in her, though, and in her youth she ran away from home in order to be with her betrothed, wounded in war. Now however that spark is almost extinguished, as Jane is old and frail, but the very memory if it makes her far more understanding of Rebecca’s character than her sister will ever be.

Plot
The book is more of a series of vignettes out of Rebecca’s life growing up. To me they felt like simple preparations, paving the way for the real story, but alas, that intense, powerful moment I had expected never actually happened. Again, I have probably gotten way too used with the books written these days, fast paced and one twist following quickly on another’s footsteps. In comparison, Rebecca’s adventures feel rather subdued and quaint :)

What I liked most
My favorite adventure of Rebecca’s was the one with the pink parasol :)
At the time the book opens her most prized possession is a pink parasol that someone has brought her from Paris. She treasures it so much that she only uses it on cloudy days, taking great pains to always keep it away from the sun, as “pink fades awfully“. In Rebecca’s own words, “it’s the dearest thing in life to me, but it’s an awful care“. A few months later, Rebecca, inspired by a book she was reading, decides that she needs to punish herself for making mistakes (she often got caught in her inner world and forgot the outer one, so she always got into a scrape or another) as she saw this as a way of building character. When it came time to decide on a punishment, she chose for herself the harshest thing she could think of, giving up her cherished pink parasol:

That would do; she would fling her dearest possession into the depths of the water. Action followed quickly upon decision, as usual. She slipped down in the darkness, stole out the front door, approached the place of sacrifice, lifted the cover of the well, gave one unresigned shudder, and flung the parasol downward with all her force. At the crucial instant of renunciation she was greatly helped by the reflection that she closely resembled the heathen mothers who cast their babes to the crocodiles in the Ganges.

Alas, but then the little umbrella gets stuck somewhere inside the well and everyone wonders how come they cannot draw water anymore :)

Another quote of Rebecca’s, giving up the idea of becoming a missionary:

“Why, whatever God is, and wherever He is, He must always be there, ready and waiting. He can’t move about and miss people. It may take the heathen a little longer to find Him, but God will make allowances, of course. He knows if they live in such hot climates it must make them lazy and slow; and the parrots and tigers and snakes and bread-fruit trees distract their minds; and having no books, they can’t think as well; but they’ll find God somehow, some time.”

“What if they die first?” asked Emma Jane.

“Oh, well, they can’t be blamed for that; they don’t die on purpose,” said Rebecca, with a comfortable theology.

Last but not least, I found quite amusing that Rebecca’s father’s name was Lorenzo de Medici Randall, while his twin brother had been named Marquis de Lafayette Randall. Someone in that family must have liked history books :)

What I liked least
Other than the simplicity of the stories I have absolutely nothing to reproach it (but let us keep in mind it was written over 100 years ago, in a time where people’s lives were so much less eventful than ours today).

Thoughts on the ending
Quite a disappointment. The book ended way too soon!
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone who likes the enthusiastic-child-melts-everyone’s-hearts trope :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Genre: Fantasy
Main characters: September Morning Bell, the Honorable Wyvern A-Through-L
Time and place: Fairyland, unspecified time (in terms of our world September is from Omaha, Nebraska, and runs from home sometime during WWII)
First sentence:Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink and yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog.
Verdict: Lovely :) (I gave up trying to quantify my impressions by stars)

Summary:
Readers will always insist on adventures, and though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.

When September is asked by The Green Wind whether or not she wants to take a trip to Fairyland with him, she jumps at the opportunity to leave her boring home and get to have adventures. She soon stumbles upon a quest, being asked by the witches Hello and Goodbye to bring them the spoon that the Marquess, the evil ruler of Fairyland, has stolen from them. She also makes some friends among the way, such as A-through-L, the self-proclaimed Wyverary (a cross between a Wyvern and a Library, that is), and Saturday, the blue skinned Merid child who can fulfill wishes if defeated in fight. She also meets her Death, almost gets turned into a tree, loses her shadow and, of course, circumnavigates Fairyland in a ship of her own making.

General impression
When I started this book it had a 4.11 rating on Goodreads, so one can say I had quite a few expectations from it.1
I opened it with a flutter of anticipation and a slight fear of disappointment. And then I read the very first words (a chapter title), and I just knew I was going to love it.2

And I was right. The writing style was lovely, with a beautiful prose and a beautiful turn of phrase. The events were just the right blend of fantastic and plausible, with just enough grief thrown in3 to make it more than an average children book. At times it reminded me of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, while at others it had a touch of The Neverending Story mixed in :)

Setting
Ah, Fairyland. Prey to an evil ruler, who tries to impose bureaucracy and other nonsensical — for Fairyland — things. People still remember fondly the previous Queen, Mallow, who was nice, and gentle, and loved by all. The world building is one of the things that bring magic to the book, as Fairyland turns out to be a place full of whimsy and wonderful things. There is a house that takes anyone looking for the capital city by surprise, appearing suddenly in front of them. There are migrating herds(?) of bicycles. There are… ah, so many enchanting things. And everything is enveloped in a beautiful language that is a pleasure by itself.

Characters
September is twelve, and born in May. Her favorite color is orange, as “[o]range was bright and demanding. You couldn’t ignore orange things.“. She’s also described as being an “ill-tempered and irascible enough child“, right at the start. However, as time goes by and her adventures in Fairyland unfold, September, although she tries to take courage from the fact that someone once considered her ‘ill-tempered’ turns out to be nothing of the sort. She is smart, and kind, and brave, and loyal to her friends, and ready to make sacrifices in order to help others. She turns out to be quite my ideal character, and I couldn’t but love her as the pages rolled on.

My favorite ‘castmate’ was the Wyverary, A-through-L, who had a brother and a sister with names like M-through-S and T-through-Z. He was convinced that his father was a Library, and when he meets September he was just on the way through the capital, to find his grandfather, the Grand Library. He’s also quite an expert in all things with names starting with letters A through L :) Although a Wyvern, he looks just like a dragon, being big, red, winged and able to breathe fire; yet on the inside he is a very gentle creature, a bit shy even, and loyal to the core.

And then there are the (supposedly-but-not-so-much) inanimate objects, which are, in this world, infused with a personality of their own. Such as the green jacket, who tries her best to protect September from the weather, changing its shape and size when necessary to do so. Such as the little key brooch that followed September everywhere, just in case she (September) might find herself in need of a key :) Not to mention the Tsukumogamis, who, albeit not friendly, there were quite a nice touch:

But when a household object turns one hundred years old, it wakes up. It becomes alive. It gets a name and griefs and ambitions and unhappy love affairs. It is not always a good bargain. Sometimes we cannot forget the sorrows and joys of the house we lived in. Sometimes we cannot remember them. Tsukumogami are one hundred years old.

And let’s not forget Saturday, the Marid boy. We do not get to find out much about him, other than his being peaceful, and shy; however I was enchanted by the very concept of Marids and the way they relate to time:

Our lives are deep, like the sea. We flow in all directions. Everything happens at once, all on top of each other, from the seafloor to the surface. My mother knew it was time to marry because her children had begun to appear, wandering about, grinning at the moon. It’s complicated. A Marid might meet her son when she is only eleven and he is twenty-four, and spend years searching the deeps for the mate who looks like him, the right mate, the one who was always already her mate. My mother found Ghiyath because he had my eyes.

Just one last tiny quote and I will move along :) this one fascinated me because it managed to make me fond of the character it refers to, in just a handful of words:

Now, jackals are not the wicked creatures some irresponsible folklorists would have children believe. They are quite sweet and soft, and their ears are clever and enormous.

The last six words did the trick. I don’t remember ever being drawn to a new character after a mere six words, but this is precisely what happened here. Unfortunately for me this was a character that appears only briefly, but I am very hoping to see her (it was a girl) again in a next book.

Relationships
At first, September is Heartless. All children are, explains the author, as they have not yet grown a heart. Faced with a choice later, at a crossroads, she chooses the path with ‘lose your heart’ as a consequence, without thinking too much about it.

And this is how we, the readers, see September grow throughout the book. Bit by bit, adventure by adventure, she transforms — from a child who did not much care about others, and who did not think twice before leaving home without saying goodbye to her mother, into someone aware of others’ plights, someone who cares and cannot remain indifferent. In short, she grows a heart. One of my favorite things in the book.

Plot
The plot is not that much taken by itself — a classical tale of a questing hero that faces the villain with the help of some friends. However, everything else in the book (the characters, the world itself) is so very fascinating that I don’t think anyone will be bothered by that. Alas, many things may be said of this book, but accusing it of lack of originality is absolutely and definitely not one of them.

What I liked
I liked that the author does not overly protect the main character, as September does have some difficult things happen to her. Sure, everything turns out all right in the end, but I think that this shade of grey sometimes cast upon September makes the book one that is addressed to adults too, rather than being oversimplified for children’s (sort of) sake alone.

Huge list of quotes to follow. Alas, this is one of those books where I have to restrain myself to keep from quoting half the book, if not more.
Starting with some small ones:

It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.

Short yet irresistible :) (I share the same opinion but I could never have put it so beautifully)
About the earth:

The earth, my dear, is roughly trapezoidal, vaguely rhomboid, a bit of a tesseract, and altogether grumpy when its fur is stroked the wrong way!

About the Marquess:

“You may be ticketed, or executed, depending on the mood of the Marquess.”
“Is she very terrible?”
The Green Wind frowned into his brambly beard.
“All little girls are terrible,” he admitted finally, “but the Marquess, at least, has a very fine hat.”

Next, the inspirational ones:
One about courage:

“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk, and crusty things, and dirt, and fear, and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living. So every once in awhile, you have to scrub it up and get the works going, or else you’ll never be brave again.

And one about dreams/wishes:

“For the wishes of one’s old life wither and shrivel like old leaves if they are not replaced with new wishes when the world changes. And the world always changes. Wishes get slimy and their color fades, and soon they are just mud like all the rest of the mud, and not wishes at all, but regrets.”

One of my favorite things is the oblique reference to Schrodinger’s Cat and the observer effect:

The casket is really quite clever. I received first marks for it. How shall I explain? It is both empty and full, until one opens it. For when a box is shut, you cannot tell what it might contain, so you might as well say it contains everything, because, really, it could contain anything, see? But when you open it, you affect what is inside. Observing something changes it, that’s a law, nothing to be done.

And then there is something that makes one think of Plato’s theory on soulmates:

A lady stood uncertainly by, looking as if she might run at any moment–if indeed she could run, for the lady was truly only half a lady. She was cleanly cut in half lengthwise, having only one eye, one ear, half a mouth, half a nose. It did not seem to trouble her any. Her clothes had been made to fit her shape, lavender silk trousers with only one leg, a pale blue doublet–or singlet–with only one padded sleeve. Half a head of hair tumbled down her side, colored like night.
[...]
The lady ran full tilt towards a young man, tall and half-formed just as she was. His trousers, too, were silk and purple, his collar yellow and high. The two joined–smack!–at the seam, and she turned to face September. A glowing line ran down their bodies where the join had been made.

This particular idea will develop into something else than I initially thought, but I still find it brilliant :)
One last concept I found too interesting not to mention here, this time in a spoiler box, just to be on the safe side:
show spoiler


And to think that all these are but a few of the interesting things in the book :)

Thoughts on the title
While this has to be one of the longest titles I have encountered, if not the longest, it is nonetheless a very intriguing and also descriptive one. I love it, although September gets to experience a lot more than simply travelling around Fairyland on a ship4 :)

Thoughts on the ending
The book ends hinting to a sequel, and it does so in a beautiful language:

“All stories must end so, with the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again.”

While I already knew a sequel is in the making, and am very looking forward to it, I am somewhat against this ‘buy my next book’ practice some authors engage in. I do admit that as far as these things go this is a very tame attempt, but I was a bit sad to see it nonetheless, on principle.

As for the rest of the ending, long spoiler to follow:
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Everyone. It is so nicely written and has such imaginative elements that I think everyone will find at least something in it to enjoy.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Catherynne M. Valente’s website | Catherynne M. Valente on Twitter | A sort of a prequel to the book (the story of Queen Mallow) | how the book came to be (an inspirational moment in itself)

  1. I usually try to avoid looking at ratings ever since I discovered my tastes aren’t precisely similar to the general trend, seeing as I found some titles (Shiver, Graceling, The Iron King) not as enjoyable as their surrounding hype made me believe. And yet when I do see the ratings I cannot quite ignore the fact that the mixed opinion of almost 2000 people marks this as a way above average book. []
  2. “Exeunt, on a leopard”. Why, ‘exeunt’ is one of my favorite words. And a leopard is even better than a bear, is it not? :) []
  3. one cannot have adventures without grief, remember? []
  4. a ship she herself has fashioned out of fairy gold scepters tied together with her own hair, no less []
  5. this was one of the moments I was looking forward to the most, having Ell’s chains removed from his wings :) and when it happened it turned out to be even nicer than I imagined it, due to the involvement of the travelling Key []

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Genre: Utopia/Dystopia (I cannot decide)
Main characters: Jonas
Time and place: the far future
First sentence:It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.
Verdict: Four and a half stars.

Summary:
Jonas is a eleven year old boy who lives in a society where everything is regulated. The quality of life is high, and if one would ask them the people there would say they do not lack anything.

As Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to become a Receiver of Memory, the most honored role in their society, one that implies having access to all the memories of their forefathers. It is this way that Jonas gets to find out about how things once were, and realizes how not-so-utopic the society he lives in actually is.

General impression
I have no idea what I was expecting this book to be, but it took me completely by surprise. In a good way, of course. It’s one of those books that made me think, and I love those. I am quite looking forward to reading the sequels (although I understand that they are set in totally different worlds).

Setting
For me, the world building was the best part. It had elements that are unmistakably 1984-esque, such as the speakers in everyone’s homes, speakers that could not be turned off and that chastised children/people who did something untoward. And, of course, the feeling that someone, somewhere, is always watching.

There are also some main differences though, because this world is, at least on the surface, quite friendly to its inhabitants, or at least those of them that do obey the rules. Lying to one another is forbidden, and children are taught from an early age not to be rude with others. People’s path in life (their jobs, their marriages, their kids) is assigned to them by the Elders, but great care is taken for these choices to fit the individual they were imposed on (“Matching of Spouses was given such weighty consideration that sometimes an adult who applied to receive a spouse waited months or even years before a Match was approved and announced. All of the factors — disposition, energy level, intelligence, and interests — had to correspond and to interact perfectly“). There are also mandatory rituals that are supposed to relieve people of their daily stresses: the evening ‘telling of feelings’, when people shared their feelings with their ‘family unit’ and were helped to deal with them, and the morning sharing of dreams, which was pretty much the same.

Everything is very well regulated. A ‘family unit’ always has a mother, a father, one boy child, and one girl. There are precisely 50 babies born and entrusted to families every year. The children are all given names that are unique in the community (only when someone dies his or her name may be used again; unless the person did something particularly reprehensible so the name is forbidden to reuse), but they also have numbers, according to their age and the number they had on the list on the day they were ‘assigned’ to their families. And so on and so forth.

The obvious question that this raises is: would building a carefree life like that justify the loss of choice? The answer, in the context of the world in a book, is a resounding yes. And that is because those people (with the exception of Jonas later on) had no idea they were missing anything, as no one had ever told them there could be such a thing as free will. It takes one of us, people living under a different regime, to be horrified at the immensity of their loss. Although to be fair I do think that the idea of having someone always making the best decisions does have its merits for the society as a whole (a society where no one makes the wrong choices has no way to go but up, right?). However, from an individual point of view this would be nothing short of a catastrophe — we grow by learning from our mistakes, we gather strength by surpassing obstacles; it is this very growth that makes us who we are.

But I digress. Back to the book :)

Characters
This is a short book with plenty of world-building, so the characters are not developed beyond a few basic brush strokes. We don’t even know most of them’s names.

I liked Jonas a lot. I thought his transition from a child of his own society — taking things for granted, playing by the rules, and never thinking for himself beyond the basics — to the one who knew and understood things was quite believable and well done, albeit a bit short in pages (it did take about a year in ‘real-time’). I liked the way he found some answers to the questions no one ever thought of — such as what are animals (they used the word, but had no idea of its actual meaning), what the children’s plush toys represented (each ‘newchild’ was given a plush ‘comfort object’, with a strange name — hippo, elephant, bear — and shape), or what some of their games had their roots in. Even deprecated words, like ‘love’, become full of meaning for Jonas. The memories change him irrevocably, and for the better.

I feel like I should say something about the Giver too, but I only see him as a means to an end. Basically he is there to provide the information Jonas needs, we rarely if ever get any insights in his own mind. We know his task is very brave, taking on everyone’s memories and relieving them of their burden, but I do not know whether to read too much into that since it was a task imposed on him and not one he chose himself. I imagine him as an older version of Jonas, with the same courage and same willingness to do the right thing.

Relationships
That is also an interesting part. People are no longer capable of love, or perhaps they have just discarded it as unnecessary. Since a ‘family unit’ is brought together by the authorities, they have no real blood ties and no actual attachment to one another, other than mere familiarity. Sure, parents are proud of their children’s achievements, but only because they reflect on themselves and their parenting style. Children are well cared for, but that is because this is the way things are supposed to be done. The parent-child interactions are stilted and formulaic, using pre-established sentences. A far cry from the way Jonas interacts with the Giver himself, asking all the questions he needs and being given answers, even when those answers are not easy ones.

The most obvious example of the general lack of feeling is Jonas’ family reaction to baby Gabriel: they took him in, because if he didn’t make it it would reflect badly on Jonas’ father performance as a Nurturer. They all took care of him for about a year, and yet they never bonded, they were absolutely indifferent when told they have to let Gabe go.
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What I liked
My absolute favorite thing by far was the part related to colors.
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I also liked the way the author has imagined the childhood stages of the people in that community.
First, there is the Ceremony for the Ones:

Each December, all the newchildren born in the previous year turned One. One at a time — there were always fifty in each year’s group, if none had been released — they had been brought to the stage by the Nurturers who had cared for them since birth. Some were already walking, wobbly on their unsteady legs; others were no more than a few days old, wrapped in blankets, held by their Nurturers.

There is a similar ceremony for each age up to twelve, marking the passing from one particular stage to another.
For example, when one became a Seven one was allowed (requested actually) to wear a front buttoned jacket for the first time.

Fours, Fives, and Sixes all wore jackets that fastened down the back so that they would have to help each other dress and would learn interdependence. The front-buttoned jacket was the first sign of independence, the first very visible symbol of growing up.

At Eight, one got another jacket, “with smaller buttons and, for the first time, pockets, indicating that she was mature enough now to keep track of her own small belongings“. At Nine, each kid got a bike (the only means of transportation allowed), “the powerful emblem of moving gradually out into the community, away from the pro-tective family unit“. At Ten their hair was shortened, and at Eleven they got new clothes again, “different undergarments for the females, whose bodies were beginning to change; and longer trousers for the males, with a specially shaped pocket for the small calculator that they would use this year in school“. The last important step was becoming Twelve, when one was assigned to their future job. After that, people usually no longer kept track of their age.

I think nothing makes more obvious the Sameness of everything than the idea of these stages. Everyone wore the same clothes, everyone wore their hair the same way, and so forth. I find it quite an original idea and I salute the author’s imagination for thinking about it.

What I did not like
Not a fault of the book’s per se but I was confused to find out that there still was snow and animals still existed in that world. Seeing that no one knew about them other than the Giver, I would have expected them to be long gone/extinct. And they weren’t even that far away, since Jonas only had to travel a few days to find them. Although now that I think about it, this too — the fact that people had no idea of the things in their vicinity — could be a sign of how isolated, closed, and self-sufficient the community was.

Thoughts on the title
“The Giver” is one of the central characters of the book, so the title is very apt. I also like how it comes with a touch of mystery — I used to try to imagine what exactly is that the giver in the book is giving. I never had a satisfactory theory about that, but even if I did I don’t think I would have guessed in a million years what the actual answer is :)

Thoughts on the ending
I can’t stop thinking about it.
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Recommend it to?
Anyone. It is an interesting read and also quite short (I read it in a single sitting).

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How To Slay a Dragon by Bill Allen

Genre: Juvenile Fiction
Main characters: Greghart the hero & his sidekick Lucky Day
Time and place: the planet Myrth; time unspecified
First sentence:Greg Hart’s name had never caused him trouble before.
Verdict: It has its faults but I give it four stars because it shows some promise. :)

Summary:
Somewhere, in a kingdom on a distant planet, there is a prophecy saying that Greghart from Earth will slay the dragon and rescue their princess. And the prophecies can never be wrong.

Greg Hart is a twelve year old with quite an unimpressive physique. He’s never beaten anyone in his life, and he probably would not be able to if he wanted. Could tackling a fire-breathing dragon ever be a good idea under the circumstances?

General impression
Try as I might (my own TBR list is over 700 books long) and still I find myself reviewing NetGalley books. That is one hard to resist site :)

Looking at the bright side, this particular book was already on the said TBR, after reading about it on Reddit a while ago, and finding the blurb to be quite promising. A prophecy, and an unlikely hero. Ah, plus dragon slaying. I liked the sound of that :) And now, having read the book, I can say it has delivered: it is a fun book, mostly fast pacing and with interesting elements.

A thing I have found worth noting was the way the author’s writing style, intentionally or not, sounds like Terry Pratchett’s (who is one of my favorite authors). Mr. Allen does not have the same facility with words that Mr. Pratchett has (those are some big shoes to fill), but that is hardly surprising given that this is Mr. Allen’s first book. He does manage to ‘nail it’ at times, which is why I will be very looking forward to his next book, to savor the improvements experience will (hopefully) bring.

Setting
The planet of Myrth is, just as I was expecting, a version of our Earth in medieval times, with a bunch of fantasy elements thrown in. Some of those are well-known and well-worn (trolls, ogres, the witch, the dragon himself), and some are quite original and enjoyable (the Shrieking Shrub — a shrub that shrieked, adding to the tension of a scene — and the Enchanted Forest — a forest that opened up paths at the feet of unsuspecting travelers in order to lure them inside –, to name but two). The geography of the place is not particularly clear to me (I may have gotten a bit confused, geography was never my forte), but on the whole is a rather interesting place, and I will be glad to visit it again, in the next book.

The Myrth people are very much like ordinary people (there are a few who can wield magic, but only about a handful), except for their firm belief in prophecies. Interestingly enough, the prophecies have never let them down, although their prophet is very old and his clarity of speech isn’t what it (probably) used to be.

Characters
Our hero, Greghart, ends up surrounded by a wacky cast of characters I have very much enjoyed. There is Lucky (short for Luke) Day, who thinks himself too lucky to ever fail; no one around him can decide whether he really is that lucky or he just puts a positive spin on any event :) There is the Princess Priscilla, who, albeit small, thinks herself quite the adventurer and goes off to slay the dragon on her own. There’s Melvin Greathart, coming from an old line of dragonslayers, and resenting Greg for barging in and messing with the family business. Simon Sezxqrthm, the prophet, coming from an old line of prophets and now quite old himself. King Peter Pendegrass the Third, one of my favorites, with an easy manner and insisting on being called by his first name. Bart the Bard, composer of epic ballads about heroes’ mighty deeds — quite a good one at that, his song about Greg was quite catchy, I would have liked to hear it myself; a part of me wonders if he is not the real prophet (since he is the one that brings Simon’s words to people + at one moment he says something about his songs being never wrong, he just writes them prior to the events because that’s when the people’s interest in said events is at its peak). Last but not least, there’s Yoda… I mean Nathaniel Caine, the one who will teach Greg the fighting skills that will help him survive; and also the one who knows a lot more than he normally should, I am so very curious about him and who he really is — did I mention I’m looking forward to the next book? :)

As for Greg himself, he starts out as a scrawny boy of twelve, who could run really fast (a skill honed in years of escaping bullies) and with an overactive imagination. His favorite pastime is writing stories describing his defeating fairytale creatures, becoming a kingdom’s hero and winning a princess (although he realizes that even finding a princess shorter than him would be quite a challenge). Alas, Greg gets to find out quite soon that reality is somewhat different that his imagination, when he finds himself straight in the middle of one of his stories: he is the hero of a land, and he is supposed to save a princess by slaying a dragon. A huge, fire-breathing dragon, living at the half way of an infinite spire. Naturally enough, Greg started out with a very healthy attitude: being deathly afraid of everything, and I liked the way he was realistic about his chances of survival. However, he doesn’t have much choice on the matter, as everyone around him pushes him towards his ‘destiny’: the dragon’s lair, where he’ll fulfill the prophecy.

You know, one of my favorite sayings is “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.“. And I loved the way it applies perfectly to Greg’s attitude in this book. Greg is afraid of a fire breathing dragon, who wouldn’t be; but he also realizes he is the princess’ only chance, so he pushes himself forward despite everything.

He was anything but a hero. After all, would a real hero weigh his chances of sprinting past the spirelings and all of Ryder’s men to reach the forest before anyone could tackle him? Yet in spite of his fears, Greg thought of Priscilla. He didn’t know if it made him a hero, but there was no way he was leaving here without her.

I liked the way Greg developed throughout the book, both physically (his travelling making him more muscular) and mentally (when running was no longer an option he found within himself the resources to stand his ground, and it has given him confidence). Alas, this may turn out to be quite a hurdle for the author later — developing an already developed character even more — but, done well, it may be quite a fun journey too.

And can I just say I loved the dragon? For some reason I liked him ever since first reading his name in the blurb :)
Sure, Ruuan is a dragon’s dragon, hell bent on destroying mortals, just as a dragon is supposed to do. And yet his manner was… noble, for lack of a better word (he reminded me of Pratchett’s Death, and not only because he too talks in caps).

What I liked
Some of the passages did sound rather Pratchett-esque :) My two favorites:

“Wait a minute. Are you telling me your prophet’s name is Simon Sez, and you go around doing anything he tells you?”
“Well, his name’s Simon Sezxqrthm, actually. Most of us just call him Simon Sez. And it’s not like we do whatever he tells us. He only tells us what we’re already going to do.”

Actually, the second one is a bit of a spoiler:
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The fact that all the names of the chapters had Hart in them was also well-done and even quite poetic :)

What I did not like
A touch more editing would have been useful, as some phrases were trying too hard to be clever and were veering towards incomprehensible instead. Example:

The blackness emanated from something far worse. It was somehow related to the witch, and Greg knew he was already closer to it than he ever wanted to be. Then again, so was his living room sofa back home.

I had to read this twice to realize what the sofa had to do with everything :)

There’s also a flat-out contradiction at one time:
Scene: Greg and Lucky are trapped in the Enchanted Forest. Greg takes to sword the king gave to him earlier and starts carving a path:

Greg snatched the sword from Lucky’s hand and whirled toward the nearest vine. The blade buried itself halfway and lodged so tight it took Greg two full minutes of diligent puffing to wiggle it free.
“I thought you said this was a magic sword.”
Lucky shrugged. “It’s also a magic vine.”
A dozen chops later the vine finally severed.

A few pages later, Greg takes a look at the sword and finds it almost to heavy to lift (although he had no problem doing so earlier on) :

The blade was nearly as tall as he was, and so heavy, Greg could barely lift it. He knew if he let the tip drift even an inch or two out of vertical, he’d never be able to hold on, and if he tried and failed, he might be catapulted from the forest.

Things like this (together with mentioning one princess instead of another at a later time) make me sad because they suggest the book is less polished than it might have been. Which is a pity, as it has so many things going for it.

Thoughts on the title
Ahem. It’s an attractive title but does not particularly relates to the events in this book. Basically any book where there is dragon slaying might have been called this. It reminded me of ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, which is a movie I loved.

Thoughts on the ending
Cute :)
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I was fairly amused at the way the author chose to introduce his family at the end: we are shown five pictures (a woman, a man, two cats, and a plush bear) and asked to identify Bill Allen (an obvious choice), while on the next page we are told who the rest of the pictures represent (Bill’s wife, Kiki the cat, Kiki’s sibling, and … I forgot the bear’s name). It sure beats the usual ‘Bill lives in … with his wife and their two cats’ sentence that is customary to use at the end of a book :)

Recommend it to?
As this is Juvenile Fiction I recommend it to kids, of course :) Which isn’t to say the parents would not enjoy it, quite the opposite.

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Crusade in Jeans by Thea Beckman

Genre: Historical fiction / Fantasy / Juvenile fiction
Main characters: Rudolf Hefting of Amsterdam :)
Time and place: 1212, Germany and Italy
First sentence:“And this,” said Dr. Simiak, “is the material-transmitter.”
Verdict: Interesting enough. :)

Summary:

“He had allowed himself to be transported to the Middle Ages in the romantic hope that he might attend a tournament. A miscalculation had pitched him into the middle of the children’s crusade, which to him seemed no less than insane, but which he also found deeply moving.”

And thus begins Dolf’s adventure in the Middle Ages :)

General impression
The book is nicely written (although people have been complaining about the translation), and very well documented, although the author does take some liberties. Although written in the 70s it has aged well; the only thing I have to complain about is the slow pacing — I am fairly certain the expectations have altered radically in that area in the last 40 years, so current-day children may get bored. And of course, thank you NetGalley for the book! :)

Setting
The year is 1212 and superstitions are everywhere. The most obvious example of this is how the very crusade Dolf is part of has started: a shepherd boy thought that God told him to take children with him and travel to Genoa. Once there, the sea will part; the children will pass through, and reach Jerusalem, where the purity of their hearts will make the Saracens flee and surrender the city.

A quote explaining the way the people’s minds worked:

What dark recesses were hidden in the pious souls of these people of the Middle Ages? How easily they renounced responsibility for their deeds! It was God who ruled the world, not them. They unhesitatingly declared God or the Devil to be responsible for their deepest emotions, their desires for revenge or their illusions.

Characters
I absolutely liked Dolf. The fact that he is not written like a modern teenage character (cracking up jokes at all times, be them more or less appropriate, and bragging how he doesn’t know this or that because he is too cool for paying attention in school) was a huge plus for me. There are some things Dolf knows about the age he finds himself in, and some things he doesn’t — I found this to be the most plausible choice, and I loved that. Actually, Dolf is every bit as I would have wanted the hero of such book to be: he cares for those around him and does his best to improve their lives, he’s courageous and stands his ground when he needs to, he never complains about his lot in life (ending up stranded most likely forever in a backward century is quite a lot for someone to deal with), and so on and so forth. Yet he’s not made of steel — sometimes it seems there’s no way to make a bad situation even remotely right. He got discouraged when his efforts seemed in vain, he even cried. But he always was able to find a way in the end, and I liked that.

Another important character was Leonardo Fibonacci, who in the book is a young student travelling to Bologna. There is a scene where Dolf teaches him the Arabic numerals, a nice touch given that Fibonacci is said to be the one who made Arabic numerals popular in Europe (Roman numerals were still extensively used in his time). The only problem is that Fibonacci was 42 in 1212; also, his magnus opus was published in 1202, ten years prior. I cannot but wonder why did the author think to have Fibonacci as a character in the first place — other than the scene I mentioned there is no talk of math, much less of something ‘advanced’, that only a mathematician of the age could have known, so there is basically no use to having a known mathematician as a character, versus having a random person no one has heard about, and whose personal history has not been documented.

As far as secondary characters go, we have a bunch of them, and now and then some of them die (rather believable given the circumstances they travel in, and I actually like it when an author doesn’t miraculously spare everyone). My favorite was Carolus, a page who was told he would become the king of Jerusalem; like Dolf, he never spares any effort to make right the things he can make right, regardless of the effort involved. As for girl characters, I found them disappointing in a way, as they don’t do much of anything other than healing the sick or wounded as best they can. I understand that this was the way of the times, but… yawn.

Relationships
There are no clearly spelled feelings between the members of the cast (how un-cliche, I liked that). Sure, this children as a whole trust Dolf, he loves them, the monks love them (two out of three), various friendships form, there’s even a girl that’s friends with Dolf — but I was very happy to discover that the author has chosen that to take the oh-so-predictable path of having Dolf fall in love with a 12th century girl, a doomed first love that would have him choose between going home to his family or staying with her, yadda yadda yadda (especially as he’s not yet fourteen, so it would have been a tad early to burden him with all that drama).

Plot
I would say there are two parts of the plot, and two different story arcs. As I started reading I was very, very curious what would happen when the children would reach the sea shore, and Nicolas would have to perform his miracle. Geography is not my strong suit, but even so I had an idea about the time (in-book
time) until this episode, and I could not put the book down until seeing how it all resolved.

However, this happened at more or less about two thirds of the book. There were plenty of pages left, and unfortunately now there was no longer a definite timeline. For all I knew, there could have been years until something truly outstanding happened. So, while I read on, curious about the way Dolf will manage to go back home (whether he will go back home actually; but I was fairly certain he won’t remain stuck in the Middle Ages forever), I kinda lost interest in any of the rest. The plot felt dragging to me, although there isn’t much difference between the children’s adventures before the seaside event, and after. And yet now that I no longer had some nearby event to look forward to my interest kinda waned.

Thoughts on the title
The title is what I first noticed about this book. I’d say it’s great :) The two words, ‘crusade’ and ‘jeans’, together basically scream time-travel, making it easy for the fans of the genre (me, me, me!) to notice it.

Thoughts on the ending
Interesting :)
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What I liked most
The way that the author has managed to interweave history (at least the 70s version of it) with the story in the book. According to Wikipedia it seems there have been two children’s crusades. One of them was led by a German shepherd named Nicholas, just like the one in the book (and consisted of about 7000 children, who crossed the Alps into Italy, where they hoped the sea would part in front of them; show spoiler

— all of these just like in the book). The second crusade counted 30 000 children, and was led by a 14 year old boy named Stephan — an event that is also mentioned in the book as having recently happened. And yeah, apparently a recent interpretation of the original texts has concluded that there were never any children involved in any crusades (this study was done in 1977, a few years after the book was released), but it didn’t detract in any way from my enjoying the book.

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What I liked least
There’s nothing that has bothered me enough to be worth mentioning here :)

Recommend it to?
Kids who enjoy time travel stories and/or medieval times.
Adults can give it a try too, of course. :)

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