Fiction: “The Queen’s Poisoner” by Jeff Wheeler

Queen's poisonerI picked this up because I thought it would be similar to The Queen of the Tearling. I was wrong.

The Queen’s Poisoner is a young adult novel, and it takes place in a setting that isn’t exactly dystopian, but certainly not modern society or a utopia. This book deals with royalty as well, but from a different perspective. But most importantly, the protagonist in this story is an 8-year-old boy.

The kingdom is Ceredigion, and its ruler is King Severn. The parents of Owen Kiskaddon are like, duke and duchess? of a province in the northern part of Ceredigion. There’s a war going on, and Owen’s father betrayed King Severn in the Battle for Ambion Hill. As punishment as a form of control, King Severn conscripts Owen into his custody, and brings him back to the royal stronghold of Kingfountain.

Owen is a terribly shy child, and Severn relishes in the fact that he frightens the boy. All the palace’s children eat breakfast at the same time, and Severn would walk around the tables while the children ate, scaring them but also making sure that none of the food was poisoned. (We find out later that Severn has magic, and his power comes from feeding off of fear of others. Breakfast scare time is like, recharging his battery for the day.)

King Severn is also drawn very much as a Richard III figure. I believe he has a bit of a hunchback, and there are rumors that he murdered or sent away his two younger brothers.

Owen’s favorite place to hide is the kitchen. He makes friends with the cook and a couple of other servants. He also finds a bag of “tiles”, which I feel are akin to dominoes. He will spend hours stacking and unstacking the tiles – he uses the motion to help himself think.

One day, Duke Horwath brings his granddaughter to Kingfountan in the hopes that she’ll befriend Owen. His granddaughter, Elysabeth Victoria Mortimer – and yes, you have to call her by her entire name – is quite the chatterbox. Owen doesn’t quite know what to make of her, and basically hopes that she’ll leave him alone if he doesn’t talk. But nope – that just makes her talk more. Eventually, they do become friendly, and Owen is able to bestow upon her the nickname of Evie.

The other person that Owen meets is the mysterious Ankarette. She lives in the tower of the castle, but doesn’t leave. She goes to him in the kitchen one day and befriends him, and teaches Owen how to play Wizr (which I think sounds a lot like chess). She knows Owen is scared of King Severn, and she teaches him confidence and also about some of his abilities. Ankarette also held the position of Queen’s Poisoner; hence the title.

Because Owen is what they call “Fountain-Blessed” – he can have prophetic dreams, or he can see things in water that other people can’t… it’s a power. But Ankarette will take the gossip she hears in the castle and feeds it to Owen in the form of a story that she tells Owen to tell Severn at breakfast the next day. And it’s usually masked in the form of a weird dream – the wolf fell over a waterfall, and when he survived, a fish was in its mouth. But that actually meant to Severn that one of his armies was close to … who knows, I can’t remember. But you get the gist.

Meanwhile, Dickon Ratcliffe is keeping an eye on Owen. Dickon is the head of the Espion, which is King Severn’s band of spies. It turns out he’s actually a traitor to King Severn – oh, shit, spoiler alert. But he’s a bad dude.

Owen and Evie go on a few adventures – jumping into the castle cistern to cool off on a hot day, sneaking through secret passageways – all sorts of shenanigans. After Severn is able to find out Ratcliff is a traitor via Owen’s “dreams”, he rewards Owen by passing the dukedom from Owen’s parents directly to Owen, making Owen duke immediately.

This was … it was weird, to me. There were a number of moments where I wasn’t sure Owen was acting appropriate for his stated age. Meaning, he’d do something that an older kid would do, but then revert right back to a different way of speaking or not speaking at all and cowering behind someone. Now, I’m not near children routinely, and I certainly couldn’t speak to how an eight-year-old is supposed to act (if there’s even such a thing). But … I don’t know, I noticed it and thought it wasn’t consistent.

I also thought Evie was too headstrong for a nine-year-ish-old, but again, I don’t know kids.

King Severn’s heel-face turn also seemed very abrupt. We went through the majority of the novel thinking Severn’s evil, and it turns out he was just misunderstood or projecting evil as a way to shore up his power.

So there you have it. This is the first book in a trilogy, and apparently each book in the series is supposed to see Owen at a different age with a different set of problems. Unlike other YA series I’ve read, there doesn’t seem to be a pressing obstacle that Owen et. al. needs to overcome, so that might be interesting. If I decide to read the next book, that is.

Grade for The Queen’s Poisoner: 2 stars

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Fiction: “The Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen

queen of tearlingThis is an instance where the library actually came through. They have a table that displays new and notable titles, and The Invasion of the Tearling was on that table back in late April, early May. I picked up the book and learned almost instantly that the book in my hand was the second in a trilogy. I marched over to the Fiction shelves, already cursing the library’s inability to purchase the first book in a series, when, lo and behold, the first title, The Queen of the Tearling, was sitting on the shelf.

Reader, I grabbed it.

Note From the Future: Now, before you grab it, I should warn y’all: while I don’t think this review would be subject to any trigger warnings, this book would be. There are scenes involving sexual assault and sexual intercourse without consent, and scenes where rape is discussed. Violence is rampant as well. Even though I liked it, the book could trigger people, so I want y’all to know that up front.

The titular Queen of the Tearling is Kelsea Raleigh. The Tear is a ravaged country, operating centuries after something called The Crossing, where people crossed an ocean to found a better world. (Spoiler alert!: through clues in the text, we are to learn that the world Crossed from is our own! This is a book about the future!)

Since The Crossing, the rulers of the Tear have lived very short lives. I’m not sure what causes the short life expectancy (other than murder – none of the other rulers have died of old age); the Tear is supposed to be a utopia. But Queens don’t live very long. Kelsea’s mother, Queen Elyssa, sent Kelsea away to live with Barty and Carlin Glynn when Kelsea was very tiny, in the hopes of shielding Kelsea until she was of age to take the throne. Meanwhile, Elyssa’s brother, Thomas, was Prince Regent of the Tear, and he was pretty much an asshole. Can’t remember how Elyssa died, but it wasn’t pretty, I’m sure.

The story starts on Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, when the Queen’s Guard arrives to bring Kelsea back to New London to ascend the throne. Kelsea is a plain girl, and headstrong, but she frets about being a good leader.

I can’t remember the full series of events that gets Kelsea to New London, but on her camping trip (essentially), she runs into a mysterious Robin Hood-type figure known as The Fetch. The Fetch was familiar with Kelsea’s mother, and says something that a) gives Kelsea faith in her confidence and learning, and also b) gives Kelsea a bit of a crush on The Fetch.

Kelsea had a bit of idolatry when it came to her mother, growing up. She wanted to be a good Queen, like Elyssa. But Kelsea quickly learns that Elyssa was not a great Queen.

During Elyssa’s reign, the neighboring country of Mortmesne, led by the Red Queen, attacks the Tear. And Elyssa’s only chance of survival for the Tear is to agree to a monthly shipment: a number of the Tear population to be sent to Mortmesne, where they will be used as slave labor and, in many cases, worse than slave labor. In Elyssa’s absence, Regent Thomas continued the Shipment, because it means there’s no war and he’s able to remain secluded in The Keep, surrounded by concubines.

When Kelsea arrives at New London, (I believe) she arrives on the same day as The Shipment is scheduled to leave. She stops the Shipment, against the advice of her Guard and other advisors – even when they tell her that a late shipment is cause for invasion from the Mort. She doesn’t care, because she can’t believe her mother would have done something like trade her people for safety.

The story alternates between Kelsea, the Red Queen wondering where Kelsea is, and a couple of other characters. There’s a subplot about the religious aspect of the Tear, a hyped-up form of ultra-conservative Catholicism known as The Arvath, and there are Fathers and a Pope-like figure, and Kelsea doesn’t truck with religion but she kinda has to as, y’know, Queen, so … Father Tyler and the Arvath play a slightly larger part in the second book (which I just finished reading, after Christmas, so … keep an eye out for that review in seven months?).

I had to read the Goodreads reviews (again, my notes are … not great. If I’m going to commit to being bad at this, I have to at least commit to taking better notes and not just jotting down character names and quotes) and … I forgot a lot about this book before reading the second one. I also apparently didn’t get the same feeling from a lot of the reviews, which haaaaated this book. I don’t know, I thought it was okay? People got really pissed that it was touted as a Hunger Games-meets-Game of Thrones and no, it’s not, but I still thought it was interesting.

Other reviews state that since the book is told through third person omniscience that we only see Kelsea reacting to things and not actually experiencing them, but other reviews complain that we see Kelsea thinking about things she’s about to react to first, and, to that I say, make up your mind? Either a character reacts with no thought process so we, the reader, have no idea what led the character to that reaction, or we see each thought racing through a character’s mind leading up to that reaction, which makes the reaction almost an afterthought or some other type of nonentity. You can’t have it both ways, readers! Pick one complaint and stick with it!

Oh shit, I never mentioned the sapphires! So Kelsea begins the story with one sapphire, the Tear Sapphire. I think it may have been one of those things that signify the person’s truly of regal birth? I don’t know. But Kelsea wears one and when she has it on it tries to protect her from shit. Like, it’ll burn when she gets pissed or something. She gets another one from somewhere – maybe the Fetch? – and when she puts the two on together (the jewels are on necklaces) she has super powerful magic. Like, “lay waste to an entire army outpost” powerful. (Oh shit, spoiler alert.)

The Red Queen is an awful person. She uses slaves for everything, including sex. She also talks with a demon or something in a fireplace, and in order to gain power she bleeds children dry. She’s kind of a monster. But she’s obsessed with Kelsea and getting the sapphires, so – next book?

Now, for all of the complaining people did on the interwebs about how stupid Kelsea is, I thought this was pretty smart, to be honest. She’s in the Keep, and getting ready for her bath with her lady’s maid, Andalie, nearby:

Andalie stood in her accustomed spot at the door of Kelsea’s chamber, holding out a clean towel. Kelsea had made it clear that she didn’t require help with her bath (her mind boggled at the sort of woman who would), but still, Andalie always seemed to know when to have things ready. [p. 255-256]

Halfway through her bath, Kelsea is attacked by an assassin. (This act brought a whole bunch of grousing from the Interwebs, wondering where the Queen’s Guard was at that point? They’d secured the area, dude!) And this happens:

“Lady?” It was Andalie. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Kelsea replied easily, steeling herself to feel the knife go in. “I’ll ring when it’s time to wash my hair.” [p. 259]

See? That’s … you gotta admit, that’s pretty smart. Kelsea knows that Andalie knows that Kelsea doesn’t need to have any help with her bath, but the assassin doesn’t know that. So that was a signal! I’m sorry I’m Alaina-splaining this, but I thought that was pretty smart for a nineteen-year-old.

And I thought Andalie was a very wise character. She also has a bit of the Sight, but it’s not overused. I really liked this conversation, where Andalie asks Kelsea about her crush on The Fetch:

Andalie shook her head, chuckling mirthlessly, then leaned down and murmured in Kelsea’s ear. “Who’s the man, Majesty? I’ve seen his face in your mind many times. The dark-haired man with the snake-charmer’s smile.”

Kelsea blushed. “No one.”

“Not no one.” Andalie grabbed a hang of hair over Kelsea’s left ear and sheared straight through it. “He means very much to you, this man, and I see shame covering all of those feelings.”

“So?”

“Did you choose to feel this way for this man?”

“No,” Kelsea admitted.

“One of the worst choices you could have made, no?”

Kelsea nodded, defeated.

“We don’t always choose, Majesty. We simply make the best choices we can once the deed is done.” [p. 352]

It’s like Andalie can look right into my teenaged soul from fifteen years ago! *quickly does math* oh god, twenty years ago. oh my god.

ANYWAY. At the end of the day (or May, when I finished reading this), I did like the book. I liked it enough to read the second book in the series within the same year. I liked it enough to recommend it to a friend for a Christmas present. It’s not quite a YA novel; there are some themes throughout the novel that are pretty violent and icky, and honestly, I’m going to go up to the top of this review and add a trigger warning for the novel, because that should go at the top and not the bottom. It is not as intimate as the Hunger Games trilogy, and while I’ve only read 200 pages of A Game of Thrones, I don’t think it comes close to that epic, either. But I liked it, and I hadn’t read YA in a while.

So, your mileage may vary, but I thought it was good.

Grade for The Queen of the Tearling: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “A Countess Below Stairs” by Eva Ibbotson

countess below stairsAfter I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora, I went to the library. And folks, I went to the library a lot this year. A LOT A LOT. I realize I finished reading this book in March and I’m writing this post (in a Word document, because of the no power) on Halloween night, so I can’t talk about 2017 as a whole yet, but so far, out of the 22 books I’ve read to date, 12 have been from the library. That’s actually pretty good for me!

So this is a title I picked up on a whim. I thought it would be cute! It claimed to be about Russia! Why I would be curious about the Russian Revolution I’ll never know, said the girl who got All The President’s Men from the library on the same trip, but WHATEVER. The short answer is: I was wrong on many counts.

A Countess Below Stairs tells the story of Anna, a Russian countess who emigrates to England following the Bolshevik revolution. She and her family are forced out of their home (being of the ruling class), and when she comes to England, she decides to be a maid in an English country house to earn money for the family. Her mother and cousin (or brother? I’m not sure) don’t want her to degrade herself, but Anna refuses to relent.

Anna is also the happiest displaced Russian countess I’ve ever come across, and I watched Anastasia maybe a hundred frillion times when I was a kid. I mean, nothing got her down at all. She is excited to learn how to scrub floors! She entrances everyone who she comes in contact with! The gardener names a new type of rose after her! It’s all very twee.

So she’s been working at Mersham (the English manse) when the owner, Rupert, comes home after being in the hospital following the end of World War I. He is engaged to Muriel, and while he (thinks he) is in love with her, Muriel has also offered to help pay for repairs to Mersham, so that’s cool.

Ooo, want to play When Did Alaina Get Really Concerned About Muriel And This Book Overall? The answer is Page 54, where Robert described Muriel to some of his friends or maybe the butler:

“It wasn’t just that I knew she was an heiress – you know how people gossip in a hospital – but she’s also extremely beautiful. And an intellectual! She has this passionate interest in eugenics.” [p. 54]

Eugenics! Oh – that’s great. Just – peachy.

Let me very clear on this point: Muriel is a Nazi!

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You guys, I am serious. This was another book I’d bring to the gym to read on the recumbent bike, and multiple times I had to stop pedaling so I could gape and the outright horror I was reading.

Muriel subscribes to the beliefs of Dr. Lightbody, another “believer in eugenics.” Let’s see what he sounds like!:

Briefly, the doctor believed that it was possible, by diet, exercise, and various kinds of purification about which he was perfectly willing to be specific when asked, to create an Ideal Human Body. But this was not all. When his disciples had made of their bodies a fitting Temple of the Spirit, it was also their obligation to mate with like bodies. [p. 91]

Their obligation to mate with like bodies. Hoooly fuck.

Apparently, most of the followers of Dr. Lightbody were female, as evidenced by this snippet of a speech he gives:

“All of us, ladies and gentlemen,” declaimed the doctor, looking round to see if, among the sea of swelling bosoms, there were, in fact, any gentlemen, “have it in our power to acquire – by Right Diet, Right Living and the avoidance of lechery and vice – a body that is flawless and an unsullied chalice, a hallowed temple for the human spirit. Can we doubt that, having acquired it, it is our duty to pass it on to our unborn children and make of this island race a nation of gods? Valhalla is in our grasp, ladies and gentlemen. Let us march toward it with confidence, unity, and joy!” [p. 92-93]

Seriously. This whole aspect of the novel is so gross. I actually looked up when it was written – y’know, maybe, like with the Ian Fleming novels, I can handwave the racist/Nazi overtones by claiming “it was a product of its time”?

NOPE. According to Goodreads.com, this book was published in 2007. TWO THOUSAND SEVEN.

So instead, this character choice was made to emphasize how awful these people (Muriel and Dr. Lightbody) are. I can only assume Ms. Ibbotson wanted NO ONE to even THINK of sympathizing with the villains in her novel. Which, fine, great, whatever, but you didn’t need to make them Nazis, Eva.

(This is where some of those “fine folks” chime in and tell me that Muriel and Dr. Lightbody aren’t Nazis because they didn’t belong to the Nazi party as the Nazi party wasn’t fully established until 1918, and also, they just have a fond belief in eugenics, that doesn’t mean Nazis, but actually YES IT FUCKING DOES YOU TWAT NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY LIBRARY)

I mean, Muriel is a horrible person even without her Nazi tendencies. Rupert’s best friend, Tom Byrne, has a younger sister, Olivia. Everyone loves Olivia – she’s a sweet, precocious kid who happens to have a slight limp. Rupert has asked Muriel to make Olivia (“Ollie”) her flower girl in the wedding ceremony, and Muriel agrees. And then, Muriel meets her at the dress fitting:

Muriel seemed not to have heard. Ever since Ollie had appeared in the doorway she had been staring in silent fascination at the child. Now she drew in her breath and as Anna, guided by some instinct, stepped forward and Tom Byrne entered to fetch the bridesmaids, she hissed, in a whisper which carried right across the room:

“Why did no one tell me that the child was crippled!” [p. 155]

Oh, and lest you start to agree with the “fine folks” that you can’t be a Nazi unless you hate Jews, guess what; Muriel does.

Tom Byrne is in love with Susie Rabinovitch. This is Muriel speaking about the Byrnes (probably to Dr. Lightbody):

“And even socially … they entertain Israelites of a kind that would not have been permitted over my father’s doorsteps.” [p. 178]

Susie’s mother, Hannah, sends a wedding present to Muriel, and while we don’t get to read Muriel’s thank-you note in full, we do get to see Hannah’s reaction to it:

Hannah was standing by the window, the letter in her hand. She looked, suddenly, immensely, unutterably weary and as old as one of the mourning, black-clad women in the Cossack-haunted village of her youth. And indeed the hideous thing that had crept out from beneath Muriel’s honeyed, conventional phrases was as old, as inescapable, as time itself. [p. 223]

At the end of the day, Muriel and Dr. Lightbody are just disgusting characters. Here, we see Dr. Lightbody trying to find a costume for the costume ball, and contemplates going as the Egyptian Sun King:

 It was closer, much closer – but there was something a little bit effeminate about the whole ensemble. Not surprising, really – when all was said and done there was a touch of the tarbrush about the Egyptians. [p. 243]

Now, the good news, is that Rupert catches wise to the fact that Muriel is truly awful. He also falls in love with Anna, not knowing she’s a former countess. They have great conversations, and Anna’s optimistic joy infects Rupert.

He also has a bit of a fetish when it comes to Anna’s hair. She wants to cut it in the flapper style, but Rupert doesn’t want her to touch the length of it. One day, he’s in town visiting his solicitor (or whatever) and happens to see Anna go into a hair salon. He immediately runs across the street and confronts Anna:

“I wish to be attractive for your wedding,” she went on pleadingly, lifting her face to his. “Is that a crime?”

“Ah, yes; my wedding.” The word reared up to meet him, banishing the last traces of lunacy. He became aware of René staring at him salaciously, of Elsie, with her mouth open, clutching a towel … “You will be very attractive for my wedding,” he said lightly. “For my funeral also, je vous assure.” He lifted a hand, laid it for a moment on the rich, dark tresses where they mantled her shoulders, then turned it, letting the backs of his fingers run upward against the shining waves. For an instant he felt his touch on her cheek; then he stepped back. “There, that was my ration for all eternity. People have died for less, I dare say.” [p. 263]

I mean, slightly creepy, yet compared to the Nazi of it all, strangely sweet.

In the end, Rupert leaves Muriel – or, rather, forces her out of the relationship by pretending to have mentally deformed cousins, which is also just terrible – and he declares his love for Anna, just as she discovers the family jewelry that was nearly lost in their escape from Russia, so she doesn’t have to be a maid anymore and everyone lives as happily ever after as they can, considering there were Nazis involved.

I still can’t believe that this is marketed as a Young Adult novel. Well, okay, maybe I can. But I can’t believe there wasn’t a single editor along the way who thought to point out that maybe, making the villains Nazis was just on the side of “too much”.

Aaanyway. At least it’s over.

Grade for A Countess Below Stairs: no stars

Fiction: “Alanna” by Tamora Pierce

alannaGood morning to everyone, except members of the State of Maine’s Executive and Legislative branches!

So … the good State o’ Maine is shut down. If you’re on your way up to the state for the Fourth of July weekend, your good news is that the governor deemed state park workers as “emergency”, so you’ll still be able to have your cookout on the beach.

(PLEASE, keep in mind as you travel that any state workers you see out there – state park rangers, state troopers, toll booth collectors – they’re all working unpaid right now, so please, be extra extra nice to them, okay?)

As for me: the people in my entire division were deemed “non-emergency”, so you’re looking at a girl who has an unpaid vacation of indeterminate length on her hands. But instead of bitching about how we wouldn’t even be IN THIS SITUATION if the goddamned APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE had DONE their FUCKING JOB THREE MONTHS AGO, I’m going to look on the bright side: I’ve got some money in my savings account, bills are paid for the month, and I’m probably going to be out for enough time to have some free adventures, so be sure to follow #ShutdownAdventure on Twitter and Facebook to see this week’s shenanigans.

Also: I have no reason to not get caught up with this backlog! So let’s dig in!

Not sure why I requested this book from the library – I may have seen it on a list somewhere about someone’s favorite young adult novels, or who knows why. Whatever reason it was, I requested it from the library and then it came in, so I read it.

Alanna: The First Adventure is, well – the first adventure for Alanna. There are four books in the Song of the Lioness series, and when I was a kid, I read three out of the four. I believe I was in fifth grade when I started reading them, and I’m not sure why I never finished. I may have decided to graduate to “adult” novels that year?

Well, actually – I know it was fifth grade when I started to sneak-read some of Mom’s romance novels she kept around the house, so my tastes probably matured quickly. I know it was seventh or eighth grade when I began reading Sue Grafton, Dick Francis, and John Grisham, so – it was probably a confluence of many events.

Regardless, I know I first picked up the book more than twenty years ago because her name was so close to mine. In classrooms surrounded by Tiffanys and Jessicas, seeing another name so close to mine was novel.

Alanna is the twin sister of Thom – which was another reason I thought the whole series was a shout-out to me at the time; I’ve been friends with Thomas since we were six, so to have a book where two of the main characters could almost be analogues for me and my dear-friend-almost brother? And my analogue was a pretty badass teen, learning how to fight like a dude? I latched on pretty hard.

Anyway. Alanna and Thom are growing up in a medieval-esque society, where the boys go off to be knights and the girls go off to be nuns or something. Not nuns – but they study stuff and don’t learn how to fight or do anything particularly rowdy. Alanna’s kind of a brute as an eleven-year-old, and on their way to their respective new schools, Alanna convinces Thom to go to the convent-thingee in her stead, while she’ll go to knight school as “Alan”.

Alanna/”Alan” makes friends and shows promise as a knight over the years – she works hard, and doesn’t let any tiny bit of failure deter her from her goal. Some of her friends include a thief named George, who manages to get her a horse. She also makes an enemy in one of her fellow trainees, Ralon. A bully, he pummels “Alan” every chance he gets. So Alanna sneaks out of the castle to train with George, and eventually she beats Ralon on her own. Ralon leaves the castle, but not before swearing revenge.

Alanna has magical healing powers (not like Wolverine, though), and when the city is beset by a Sweating Plague, she uses her powers to heal Prince Jonathan when he’s on the verge of death. In doing so, she reveals her gender to her mentor, Sir Myles. The rumor is that the Plague was sent by a powerful sorcerer – not only does it nearly kill (or kill) the sufferers of the Plague, but Healers get their power drained when they attempt to heal the victims. Alanna doesn’t lose any power when she heals Jonathan. But she does suspect Jonathan’s cousin, Duke Roger, who had just returned to court.

Once Jonathan regains his strength, he starts seeing visions of a Black City, which is a city overcome by demons or something. Jonathan enlists “Alan” to go with him – or “Alan” refuses to stay behind, I can’t remember – but both of them go to find out what’s up with the city. At first it appears abandoned, but there’s some big evil living there (Wikipedia tells me its name was Ysandir), and Jonathan and “Alan” combine their powers – but not until after Ysandir reveals to Jonathan that “Alan” is really Alanna. Wisely, Jonathan decides to ignore the fact that his best friend is actually a girl and they both get the job done and defeat Ysandir.

Alanna thinks that Duke Roger sent Jonathan to the Black City on purpose; Jonathan agrees, but believes that Roger hoped that Jonathan would defeat the evil in the city. Alanna thinks Roger doesn’t want Jonathan alive. In the end, Jonathan chooses “Alan” as his squire, even though he knows she’s a girl, and they’re off to the next adventure.

I still recall loving this book when I was a kid. Returning to it twenty-ish years later, it is absolutely written for older elementary kids. It’s almost … pre-YA? It was the first wave of Young Adult novels. (It’s also an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for the generation of girls who like swords and fighting – in one chapter, Alanna gets her first period and freaks out. That’s how George learns that Alanna’s a girl!)

I might continue with the series just to see how it ends up. I’ve read on GoodReads that the writing matures with the character, so by Book 4, it should be very similar to today’s YA genre. But even though I’m slightly disappointed with it as an adult, I still agree that it’s an excellent book and series for the right age group.

Grade for Alanna: The First Adventure: 2 stars

Fiction: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

wrinkle in timeGood evening! I’m drunk. Trivia was earlier tonight, and I decided to go with gins and tonic as opposed to Pub Style brew, and … yeah. Good night. We lost, be tee dubs. We got trounced. So next week, I’m definitely going back to beer, because while the quinine in the tonic water may have settled my stomach (which has kind of been upset for an entire week), it did nothing for my intelligence. And my partner-in-trivia will be the first to admit that of the two of us, I’m the brains of the operation (he gets most of the sports stuff. Except for tonight, when we were off on the baseball strike by one year. BUT STILL), and when I’m not operating at 100% … it’s not pretty.  Great Odin’s Raven was not great tonight. We were Mediocre Odin’s Raven at best.

Anyhoodle. I decided, “hey, let me go home and bang out another review, because I’m so fucking behind, and why don’t I pour myself another gin and tonic while I’m at it because why the fuck not?”

… When did I add ABBA’s “S.O.S.” to my iTunes? the fuck?

SO I READ THIS BACK IN SEPTEMBER. I had just read the news about the movie adaptation, directed by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, and the amazing casting choices: Meg Murry played by Storm Reid! Gugu Mbatha-Raw (HOLY SHIT I SPELLED THAT RIGHT ON THE FIRST TRY WHILE DRUNK YESI’MAWESOME) as Mrs. Murry! Chris Pine as the missing Mr. Murry! I mean, the Casting Gods really came through on this one.

But that news was in September. And I was staring down the barrel of a flight and then an overnight train back to Maine so I could attend My Dear Friend Sarah’s bridal shower in D.C. (P.S.: Dear Friend Sarah: I want to apologize for my poor time management on that weekend – in retrospect, I should have just traded in both train tickets for JetBlue, but … hindsight. I won’t be making that mistake again. But I also want to thank you for your hospitality.) Anyway, I thought the weekend trip would be a great opportunity to revisit A Wrinkle in Time.

Because I had read this back when I was a kid, and now, all I could remember from it was “tesseract” — mainly because I’d joke that characters on TV shows would tesseract all over the place (see: Alias especially. No wonder I have problems with the space-time continuum!).

A Wrinkle In Time is the first book of a quintet starring Meg Murry, the elder daughter of scientists Mr. and Mrs. Murry. Her younger brother is Charles Wallace, quite precocious at age 5. Mr. Murry has been missing for some time, and Meg is feeling out of place in her family. Meg learns that Charles Wallace has befriended a strange old woman in their neighborhood, Mrs. Whatsit. Mrs. Whatsit informs Mrs. Murry that there is such a thing as a tesseract, which causes a reaction.

Meg becomes closer with high school student Calvin, who is sweet and feels like an outsider despite his popular status. One afternoon, Meg and Calvin follow Charles Wallace to Mrs. Whatsit’s house, where they meet Mrs. Whatsit’s housemate, Mrs. Who. Their other companion, Mrs. Which, who is pretty much incorporeal, tells Meg and Charles Wallace that the women will help the Murrys find their father.

The strange women help the children tesseract – essentially, jump through a wormhole, or, if you will, a wrinkle in time – to the planet Camazotz, which looks what I imagine North Korea to look like. The inhabitants of Camazotz are regimented in everything: all houses look the same, everyone acts the same, has the same schedule. The planet is run by a disembodied brain, called IT, which can control people through telepathy.

In his escapade, Charles Wallace becomes controlled by IT, and it takes all of Meg’s strength to overpower IT to rescue both her brother and her father. By being an outcast and, most importantly, by being capable of love – something IT does not have – she is able to rescue Charlies Wallace from IT. The reunited family – Meg, Charles Wallace, Mr. Murry, and Calvin, the newest member – return to Earth and reconnect with Mrs. Murry and the twins. (Meg is the oldest, then there are the twins, and then Charles Wallace. I did forget to mention that up higher, thank you. But — gin.)

Having reconnected with the book, I felt … underwhelmed. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have a cozy memory associated with A Wrinkle in Time. Not that I had bad memories – I just had no memories. Growing up, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s other series, about the Austen family. The series included the titles A Ring of Endless Light and The Arm of the Starfish. While I don’t remember anything about the first time I ever read A Wrinkle of Time, I distinctly remember having a nosebleed all over the Curtis Memorial Library’s copy of The Arm of the Starfish, and I’ll bet you ten American dollars that I can go into that library, find that same copy of the book, and find my faded blood still in it. (I wiped it up as best I could.)

My Dear Friend Sarah, however, stated that A Wrinkle in Time was one of her favorite books growing up. So while I still enjoyed my re-read of this book (Amtrak disasters bedamned) and while I’m quite looking forward to the upcoming film adaptation, I’m not sure I’m going to go forward with the series. I might.

I also feel bad that I’m not doing this book as great a service as I could. First of all, I read it seven months ago; and secondofly, while I’m no longer shithoused, or even really buzzed — no, I’m still slightly buzzed. And while I was drunk enough at the beginning of this review to think that drunk!reviewing would be a great idea!, and maybe that’s what’s been keeping my backlog from getting better, in … what’s the opposite of retrospect? In reflection, maybe I should have waited to write this when I was more sober.

But that may have been so far in the future that I may have had to read the book again, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for that.

Grade for A Wrinkle in Time: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “Insurgent” by Veronica Roth

insurgentAll right, I’m going to attempt to bang this out as quickly as possible, because I’ve got a wedding to go to and I still have to give myself a mani-pedi. There might be a second review coming out later tonight, because in addition to the wedding, I’m on a deadline for awesome, and if I don’t get X, Y, and Z done before tomorrow, then I’m going to be very disappointed in myself.

Hold up – did I miss The Ten Commandments this year?!  OH IT’S ON TOMORROW THANK GOD

Oh, that also means my friends who are watching Once Upon a Time get a week’s reprieve this week.  Thanks, ABC.

ANYWAY.

Also: I also realize there’s a movie out for this book in theatres right now. I haven’t seen it – I’m gonna wait for it to show up on Redbox. In addition, there is no way I can discuss Insurgent without getting into significant plot points from Divergent, so if you don’t want to know anything about this series, turn back now, because ahead be sea monsters.  And by “sea monsters,” I of course mean “spoilers.”

Insurgent picks up directly where Divergent ended – with the Abnegation faction in ruins after being attacked by the Erudite-controlled Dauntless; Tris’s parents are both dead, and now Tris, her brother Caleb, her boyfriend Four/Tobias, Tobias’s father Marcus, and a handful of other friends and allies are running to the Amity compound.

Brief note about Four, also known as Tobias: I will be calling him Four. We find out his real name is Tobias in the end of Divergent, and in this book, Tris pretty consistently calls him Tobias, whereas all other characters call him Four. But when I hear “Tobias,” regardless of the fact that I know the actor playing him looks like this

Four

And that I should picture someone like this,

carl weathers

But all I can see is this:

tobias blue himself

So; Four it is.

ANYWAY, the gang is all hanging out in Amity regrouping, and no one trusts Marcus (because he was abusive to Four, dontcha know) and also, Tris is uber depressed at the fact that her parents have died. Aw man, that sounds flippant, and I do not want to diminish the fact that her parents have died because it is important. Tris’s reaction, however, is so Young Adult that I almost can’t stand it.

Essentially, Tris is so despondent over the fact that her parents died for their cause (which isn’t truly revealed until the last fifty pages of the book, bee tee dubs) that she decides she’s going to take every risk imaginable in order to a) die for the same cause and b) join her parents in the afterlife. It takes her half the book (and multiple instances of Death Wish Overload) for her to realize that her parents didn’t die as martyrs to a cause – they sacrificed themselves so that Tris could live. Once that hits her, she’s still all about risks, because she’s a teenager in a dystopian fantasy, but she’s less headstrong about barging into dangerous situations without making a plan first.

The rest of the plot is very jumbled and fast-moving: they make a plan to fight Erudite, but then Amity gets attacked, so they have to escape. They hide out among the factionless for a bit (and find Four’s mother, who thought she had died – surprise!), then they go to join forces with Candor, but then Erudite and Dauntless – who are still working together – break into Candor and shoot everyone with a serum that will control that person from afar, unless that person happens to be Divergent, in which case the serum won’t work and then Erudite will be able to determine who is Divergent, which is very helpful for the Erudite, but not so great for the Divergent, which includes both Tris and Four.

There’s a whole big thing about how the reason the Erudite want to weed out the Divergent is because they are unpredictable in their decision-making. When faced with a problem, Erudites will solve it in one manner, always; Dauntless (sometimes literally) attack the problem, again, in the same manner as any other problem. But Divergent will look at problems from all angles, and make an informed decision using traits and techniques from across the factions. And when you’re planning a coup, individuals who do not react in a predictable manner are dangerous, according to Erudite.

So that’s why the Erudite want the Divergent. And when they start controlling some of Tris and Four’s Candor and Dauntless friends into committing suicide in order to get some Divergent to turn themselves in to Erudite. And of course, when that happens, Tris sneaks out and turns herself into Erudite the next day, because she has a death wish.

Fight fight fight, shooting shooting shooting. In the end, they defeat the Erudite and find the knowledge that they were after, and how it affects the Abnegation and the entire faction program. But that’s a spoiler, and also, I can’t quite remember it because I returned the book to the library a month ago.

Insurgent doesn’t really give the reader time to breathe – it’s all PLOT FIGHT PLOT SAD PLOT FIGHT PLOT PLOT. Every decision that Tris has to make is steeped in importance, and while I can agree that, in the midst of a war (however fictitious), things do happen very quickly, I still think that some space between episodes can let the reader regroup, and react to things.  It was a very quick read, but at times, I felt that it was a little too quick.

So thanks for reading my incredibly disjointed review of Insurgent. Hopefully I’ll be able to manage my deadlines appropriately and we’ll be having a nice Easter treat tomorrow.

Grade for Insurgent: 2 stars

Fiction: “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins

mockingjayOh man – how the hell am I going to review this book without getting all spoilery? I mean, I managed to read the first two books without getting into too much detail (which, disclaimer: I did in fact reread both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire leading up to Mockingjay, but I chose not to re-review them because hi, it is December 30th and counting Mockingjay, I have four reviews to write, so let’s not rehash old history, ‘kay?). I also read them at the same time that their respective movies were coming out, and I didn’t want to really get into depth with the plot so the movies wouldn’t be ruined for people.

But Mockingjay … I mean, the end of the film saga doesn’t come out until next year, and while I feel comfortable discussing some of the bigger plot points, the ending is super-contentious — both in what happens, and the opinions about the ending (I’m talking about the epilogue here, specifically).

Okay, here’s how I’m going to do this: I’m going to talk about the plot as much as I feel comfortable doing; then I’m gonna discuss in vague terms how I felt about the ending, the epilogue, and the overall atmosphere in the series. And then, I’ll open the comments up for further discussion (not that they’re ever closed or anything, I’m not that person and also I don’t know how to do that). So all of my book-loving friends who have read this book and want to discuss the feels or lack thereof – comments will be open for business.

So Mockingjay picks up a couple of months after the events of Catching Fire. Oh, right: spoilers for Catching Fire. And by extension, The Hunger Games. Caveat lector.

Katniss’s arrow has shattered the arena and Plutarch Heavensbee and Haymitch are taking her, Finnick, Beetee, and the survivors of District 12 to District 13, who are in the midst of planning their rebellion against the Capitol. Because once Katniss blew the arena up, basically the Capitol bombed District 12 all to hell, and it’s only through Gale’s quick thinking that a few hundred inhabitants were able to be rescued. Peeta and Johanna Mason were captured by the Capitol in the aftermath of the destruction of the arena. And as if that weren’t enough, Katniss is dealing with some major PTSD.

District 13 is severely regimented, and she has a very hard time adjusting to her new surroundings. President Coin, the leader of District 13, wants Katniss to be the symbol of the revolution; the Mockingjay. It takes her a while to agree – a part of her just wants to fade into the background. But she manages to negotiate pardons for the remaining victors that were captured by the Capitol in exchange for her likeness as the Mockingjay. Coin and Plutarch try to film Katniss in some propaganda films, but she’s not a good actress.

Enter: Haymitch Abernathy, who has become my favorite character in this series, both movies and books. He takes control of the Mockingjay situation and reminds everyone that Katniss’s power comes from moments where she’s unscripted – volunteering to take Prim’s place in the first Games, singing for Rue, etc. So the team drops Katniss, Gale, and a camera crew in District 8 in an attempt to get raw footage. When the Capitol bombs a hospital, Katniss’s reaction is extremely powerful and the propo (their nickname for the propaganda films) they create captures everything the team had hoped.

Eventually, Haymitch tells Katniss that a small team of District 13 soldiers – including Gale, who has quickly risen through the ranks, clearly having an affinity for soldierdom – has invaded the Capitol in an attempt to rescue the captive victors. Good news! They are successful! Bad news! Peeta’s been “hijacked,” and now he has an uncontrollable urge to kill Katniss whenever he sees her.

This is obviously very disheartening and horrifying to Katniss – the idea that the Capitol has taken almost everything away from her makes her withdraw even more. Prim manages to figure out a way to try to reverse the hijacking, but it isn’t going to completely remove the conditioning. For the rest of his life, Peeta will need to get confirmation that an event was real or not real.

Aaaand I think that’s all the detail I can get into. These events are covered in the first Mockingjay film, so I’m okay talking about these parts in relative detail. Let me scan through the rest: battle battle battle, death, death, sad, deathso much sobbing, and then Panem manages to overthrow the Capitol and Katniss ends up with Peeta.

Now, about those deaths: one of them (and no, I’m not going to say who) was horrifying. A part of me really can’t understand why Ms. Collins decided to have that individual die, because it’s awful. (Obviously, it’s not Peeta.) On the other hand, the last half of the book takes place on a battlefield, These characters are at war, and if there’s one rule of war, it’s that there will always be needless civilian deaths. And needless soldier deaths. War is not easy, and it’s not clean, and not everyone gets out alive. This particular death proves that, but it doesn’t make it any less sad.

There’s a brief moment that I’d like to discuss. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Capitol, it is suggested that the new political power hold a final Hunger Games, this time starring the children of prominent Capitol inhabitants, including the grandchildren of President Snow. The final Games is put up to a vote for the remaining Victors, and if the Victors vote for it, it will go through. I was hoping that Katniss wouldn’t vote for the final Games, but she raises her hand. I’m not sure if it was because she was searching for revenge or some sort of justice, or if she had already decided to do what she ends up doing and was just biding her time, or what, but I had hoped that she wouldn’t vote ‘yes’ because by approving the final Games, it’s like she’s validating the old regime.

Although the more I think about it, the more I’m of the mind that she had already decided on her actions and was just biding her time to throw the new President off the scent.

Finally, I think that brings us to the love “triangle” and its resolution, but I know that there are some definite ~feels about this out there, and none of them are fluffy. *sigh* I had always liked Katniss and Peeta. I liked that Peeta loved Katniss for all of her flaws, and I liked how Peeta made Katniss happy, and a more demonstratively-caring individual — especially when she didn’t realize the power he had over her. And I liked how, as the series progressed, she begrudged him that power less and less.

But now Peeta is, for lack of a better term, broken. Hell, everyone’s broken, but Peeta isn’t even sure what’s real anymore. As for Gale, he had assumed that he and Katniss were endgame (made more complicated by the star-crossed lovers plot Haymitch cooked up during the first Games), and even when it looked like Peeta was out of the picture, I felt that Gale still resented Katniss for her (admittedly confused) feelings. And no one should be with someone who resents them for how they feel.

So yes, Katniss ends up with Peeta. And it’s far from perfect, but while I’m not exactly happy, I’m not exactly mad, either? And let’s face it, you’d know if I were mad.

Where does this leave us? Well – I really enjoyed the series – more than I thought I would, given the atmosphere and worldview of the books. I really enjoy the movies, as well, and feel that they hue closely to the books.

And while I still enjoy Katniss, I am Team Haymitch Abernathy 4-EVA.

Grade for Mockingjay3.5 stars