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Book Review: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 3.46.36 PMCharlotte’s Web by E.B. White

5/5 stars

Ellie likes read alouds–she likes picture books, and she’ll sit in for her sister’s board books.  But over the past year and a half, we’ve slowly started to introduce chapter books into the read aloud repertoire.  This past week we finished “Charlotte’s Web.”

First I’ll let Elanor talk to you about the book.  This is a longer video than the past two have been, and I provided more scaffolding.  Given the length and complexity of the book, Ellie needed support.

In reading chapter books to Elanor, I’ve had the opportunity to look back at my childhood.  Some books like Fantastic Mr. Fox are much scarier, others are badly written (see my snarking nostalgia column), and some books–like Beezus and Ramona–are just boring.

Charlotte’s Web is sadder.  So. Much. Sadder. than I remembered it being.  Reading it as an adult, and knowing what’s coming makes you so much more alert to nuance.  More than once, I felt choked up or found myself blinking back tears.  Prepare yourself accordingly.

As a child, I don’t know that I appreciated the richness of the language that White uses throughout the book. Words like salutations, injustice, and languishing are a welcome change.  You won’t find overuse of the word “said” as you do in other children’s literature.  It is a joy to read.

I remember appreciating that he didn’t dumb the book’s vocabulary down just because kids were going to read it–or the subject matter.

Wilbur’s life is in danger from the first chapter, and the reader knows that Wilbur may actually end up on someone’s plate.  Few expect Charlotte to die.  I’m relatively sure that this is the first book I read in which I lost a beloved character.  Some kids will need preparation–others may surprise you.  I was a bit concerned about reading it aloud to Elanor–she’s a really sensitive little girl–but she was fine while I was tearing up during Charlotte’s death scene.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to show Ellie the animated and live action versions of Charlotte’s Web so that she can give you her opinion about which she liked best.  I’ll introduce the idea of faithful adaptation so that she can evaluated if they are faithful.  I don’t really remember if the cartoon is terribly faithful, but I do remember loving the music.  I’ve never seen the live version so I have no idea what I’m in for.

I think five is about as young an age where this is a good real aloud.  The upper limit of the age depends on the purpose for which you’re reading it.  This is a book that belongs on any bookcase, whether you have children or not.

Book Review: The Little Rabbit Who Liked to Say MOO by Jonathan Allen

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 11.18.09 PMThe Little Rabbit Who Liked to Say MOO by Jonathan Allen

Rating 3/5 stars (me) 4/5 stars (Ellie)

Elanor has been watching a lot of Reading Rainbow lately.  This is a children’s tv program that showed in the US from 1983 through 2006 resulting in 155 episodes.  At the end of each episode, three children review books that they’ve read.  Elanor has been fascinated by these segments, and when I suggested she review a book for me, she was eager.  I will warn you in advance that this is Elanor’s first attempt at reviewing a book and her summarization and presentation skills are in line with a five year old who has never done this before.

I like The Little Rabbit Who Liked to Say Moo.  It’s a cute story that shows kids it’s okay to step outside the boundaries of what they’re supposed to do and to try new things.  Calf is surprised that Little Rabbit likes to say “moo.”  But when Little Rabbit asks him if he likes any other noises, the calf says that they like “baa.”  This brings over the lamb, and so forth.  At the end of the story, each of the baby animals reflects that they have fun saying the other sounds, but that they like their own noise best.  Except Little Rabbit–who reveals his very favorite sound on the last page.

I’d put this as a book that’s best for age 2 through maybe 6.  It’s a simple repetitive story that the younger kids can follow.  Kids like making the sounds along with you, which is what makes it a fun read aloud.  The illustrations are cute. There are no rhymes, which can make it (and the other Allen books) a nice break when your brain is about to fry from rhyming overload.  Personally, I would’ve picked up Little Rabbit because we like Jonathan Allen’s books in general and “I’m Not Sleepy” in particular.  Given my choices, I would’ve read it aloud a few times and then moved onto a book that I enjoy reading aloud more (or rereading) like Mo Willems–Mo Willems is always good for a dramatic reading.  But in our house the kids pick the books (or at least pick 2 of the 3 read alouds per night) so I read what I’m asked to read.

Unlike a “Llama Llama Red Pajama”–which I consider an essential addition to a home library–Little Rabbit only needs to visit your home from the library.

Book Review: Feed by Mira Grant

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Rating 4/5 stars

I have a weakness for dystopian YA fiction,and have since I read Pretties by Scott Westerfeld.  I have a new fondness for zombies thanks to The Walking Dead.  Dystopian YA Fiction WITH Zombies?  YES PLEASE!

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot–in this case, my brother Shaun–deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.  As if we didn’t already know what happens when you mess with a zombie: The zombie turns around and bites you, and you become the thing you poked.  This isn’t a surprise.  It hasn’t been a surprise for more than twenty years, and if you want to be technical, it wasn’t a surprise then.

When the infected first appeared–heralded by screams that the dead were rising and judgment day was at hand–they behaved just like the horror movies had been telling us for decades that they would behave.  The only surprise was that this time it was really happening.

There was no warning before the outbreaks began.  One day, things were normal; the next, people who were supposedly dead were getting up and attacking anything that came into range.  This was upsetting for everyone involved, except for the infected, who were past being upset about that sort of thing.  The initial shock was followed by running and screaming, which eventually devolved into more infection and attacking , that being the way of things.  So what do we have now, in this enlightened age twenty-six years after the Rising?  We have idiots prodding zombies with sticks, which brings us full circle to my brother and why he probably won’t live a long and fulfilling life.

This has to be one of the better openings to a book I’ve run into recently.  I knew I probably wasn’t going to put my phone down until I was done with the book, if it lived up to those first few paragraphs.  It did, and I cheerfully spent the next week or so devouring all 3 “Newsflesh” novels and the 3 Newsflesh Novellas.

George (Georgia) Mason is our main narrator.  She’s a newsie (non fiction news and op/ed piece blogger).  Along with her brother Shaun Mason, an Irwin (named after the croc hunter Steve Irwin)-a blogger who takes risks for blog hits and ratings, and their friend Buffy (Fiction and all things Tech), they run the website After the End Times.  Buffy is actually Georgette (all derivations on George became the most popular names post zombies, in honor of George Romero, whose zombie movies were suddenly like instruction manuals) but in her own words “I’m cute, blonde, and living in a world of zombies.  What do you think I should call myself?”  She’s a Joss Whedon fangirl, and sighs that no one seems to get it.  (Side note, one of the Newsflesh novellas takes place at Comicon 2014 and features a booth of browncoats–referencing the fans of Whedon’s Firefly–Grant is obviously a fellow Whedonite.)

The zombie apocalypse began in 2014 (yay, something to look forward to this year!).  Two viruses (the cure for the common cold and the cure for cancer) combine and infect the world with what becomes known as Kellis-Amberlee. No one gets cancer, no one gets a cold, but everyone turns into a zombie after death.  While the trope of “we were trying to cure cancer and made monsters” is an old one, Newsflesh does it well.  I like the competing viruses setup, and over time we learn more and more about them and how we got from cures to zombies.  Grant is a student of virology and her knowledge shows in the material…and her spin on the trope comes off as plausible.

Zombies, however, aren’t the only danger in a post-Rising world.  The US (where the book is set) has reacted with what feels like a very realistic set of  “safety measures.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 9.29.42 PMsource

Some of the ways the US has given itself over to fear include…..

  • Lots of places have blood tests at the entryway.  All blood tests are rigged to send an automatic signal to the CDC if they come up positive, so that you can be rounded up/shot before you finish amplifying and go on a little terror spree.
  • Public schools require 3 blood tests per day.
  • The government has declared certain towns and the state of Alaska lost.  They are impossible to secure, so you don’t go there (or need permits to go there and understand you’re not likely to make it out alive).
  • There is a law-The Biological Mass Pet Ownership Restrictions–currently under debate to outlaw animals over 40 pounds (the minimum before you can be turned into a zombie–so horses, cows, moose, etc can become zombies, but the average housecat or chicken can’t).
  • Lots of houses have voice prints.  The Mason’s also requires that you read a non sequitor sentence on a pad to prove you still have higher cognitive function.  If you fail, the house’s system will incinerate you.
  • Clothes are washed in industrial grade bleach.  People are also hosed off with bleach.  George is contrary in that rather than accept the inevitable blonde hair due to the bleach, she keeps dyeing it brown.
  • The country is divided into biohazard zones.  Rules are different in each of thezones.
  • Apple has branched out into blood tests, and makes the most expensive/high end ones–because of course they have.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 8.57.05 PMGeorge Cosplay suggestions by Shaylabauwf

George and Shaun are the adopted children of the Masons–originally a Berkley professor and his wife–who lost their child in the early days of the outbreak.  They were some of the earliest blog star to come out of the Rising.  Everything they’ve done since then, including adopting George and Shaun has been done with an eye toward ratings.

Numbers slipping?  Go for a field trip to a zoo.  That’ll get you right back to the top.

After the End Times is chosen to join with the Ryman Presidential Campaign as bloggers.  They’ll be trailblazing as bloggers haven’t ever been invited to be part of the process before..  Although bloggers have become the more reliable media post-rising, official things like campaigns have used the traditional print and video mediums.  Ryman (who comes off in the spirit of all young presidential hopefuls–the JFK/Obama/Clintons) has decided to invite them along as sponsored media.

Since the blogs and website are such an important part of the book, we see Grant talking about  things like blog comments, traffic, editing in a way that feels authentic to the characters and part of the narrative, rather than expository blather.  This is a refreshing change from authors who info dump in the most boring way possible.

Peter Ryman comes off as smooth.

Shaun settled with his back to the wall, affording him the best view of the room.  He may seem like an idiot, but in some ways, he’s the most careful of us all.  You can’t be an Irwin and not learn somet things about keeping your exits open.  If the zombies ever mob en masse again, he’ll be ready.  And filming.

Buffy took the seat nearest the light, where the cameras studded through her jewelry would get the best pickup shots.  her portables work on the principles defined during the big pre-Rising wireless boom; they transmit data to the server on a constant basis, allowing her to come back and later and edit at her leisure.  I once tried to figure out how many transmitter she actually had on her ,but wound up giving up and wandering to do something more productive like answering Shaun’s fan mail.

……

–His tone easy and assured “I’m not going to beat around the bush.  I read your public reports, you op-ed pieces, everything before I agreed to your application.  I know you’re smart and won’t forgive bullshit.  That doesn’t,” he held up a finger, “mean I’m going to be one hundred percent straight with you, because there are some things no reporter ever gets to be privy to.  Mostly having to do with my home life and my family, but still, there are no-go zones.”

The first major campaign covered is an event in a civic center, where Georgia notes that the press outnumber the public two to one because the public doesn’t really like things like political rallies with a bunch of strangers anymore.  Or being anywhere with a large group of people.  We see some of the various segments of the population like the woman who asks him about the Rapture–the zombie outbreak has inspired some to religious fanaticism.  Another asks about the death penalty (especially given that that death penalty is a little different post zombies).  Another brings up public health-because again, this is a different level of priority post-zombies.  And so forth.

However, we see exactly why the public is scared of this sort of event when a zombie outbreak happens post meeting.  None of the alarm systems function correctly, and George is almost taken out among others.  It’s the first in a series of sketchy events that eventually mean our intrepid reporters have a conspiracy to report upon….

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 9.43.55 PMMira Grant’s author picture, which is one of the better I’ve seen.

If you like your books smart, skeptical of the government, and full of zombies, you’ll enjoy Feed and the rest of the Newflesh books….

Book Review–Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

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Magic’s Pawn   by Mercedes Lackey

Rating 5/5 stars

It is damn near impossible for me to have any objectivity about this trilogy in general, and about Magic’s Pawn specifically.  There are books you will read during the course of your lifetime that so fundamentally alter who you are as a person that they become far more than a story to you.  Magic’s Pawn was one of these books.

Somewhere around 1990/91 I’d given up reading kid’s books.  YA wasn’t really a genre at that point–there were a few shelves at the bookstore devoted to things like Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike, and Lurlene McDaniels novels–so I transitioned to the adult section.  My local bookstore (anyone else remember Waldenbooks?) had a fairly small Sci-fi/Fantasy section, and every week I would be there pouring over books, trying to decide how to best spend my allowance (and/or baby-sitting money).  There were few enough employees that after a while we were on a first name basis.  One employee, Bryan, was a fellow sci-fi/fantasy nerd and I took his recommendations fairly seriously.

In 1995/1996 (when I was 17 and a senior in high school) Bryan turned me onto Mercedes Lackey with her book The Black Gryphon.  After reading it, I wanted to read more Lackey–but her catalog was so big that I was overwhelmed by which book to read next.  Bryan offered me Magic’s Pawn.

Growing up in the part of Massachusetts where the line between suburban sleeper community meets rural countryside in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I’d never met anyone who was gay.  Ellen hadn’t come out yet, and Will & Grace was years away from airing.  I understood that being gay wasn’t socially acceptable–the tone people took, the slurs, and the messages I’d picked up from from pop culture and the people in my life had taught that to me.  I was guilty of saying things like “Who cares who you sleep with, but why do I have to see two men kiss in front of me?”–as if I ever had, or even knew what I really saying–I was parroting what I was taught.

Vanyel was the first gay person I ever met.  Magic’s Pawn took me on his journey, and in doing so changed who I was.  After that book I would never say something like “why should two men kiss in front of me,” instead feeling infuriated that someone would dare question their love as less valid than mine.  When I moved to Boston for college, my mind and heart were ready to meet and ally physical (as opposed to fictional) LGBTQA individuals.  And when I went though my own realization and outing as bisexual myself a few years later, I found myself visiting with Vanyel all over again.

Mercedes Lackey is an infuriating author.  She can write books like Magic’s Pawn, and then she can write just some of the worst Mary Sue filled, ignore your own cannon, why can’t I forget you ever wrote this in the first place dreck like Exile’s Honor and Exile’s Valor.  These days I tend to avoid her new work as I’ve been disappointed far more often than I’ve enjoyed it.  That said, her back catalog, particularly some of the Valdemar books remain some of my favorite books almost 20 years later.  Someday I will give you my full rant about which books are good, which are okay, and which flat out need to be burned.

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Picture Credit-Drunkfu on DeviantArt

Vanyel has only one thing he’s ever dreamed of being–a Bard.  Unfortunately he’s also the heir to his father’s estate, so music isn’t a career that’s in the cards for him.  He’s too small and fine boned to sword fight like his larger bulkier brothers and cousins, but his swordsmaster feels that the fast feint and dash method that would match his build is “cheating.”  Jervis promptly breaks his arm in punishment for “cheating.”

Apart from his older sister Lissa-who is sent away within the first chapter to become a guardswoman (there’s one girl in every generation who bucks tradition–and you always know who because they inherited the “Ashekevron nose)-he’s left without close friend or ally.

When he’s sent to Haven-the capital city of Valdemar-he’s told that he can’t even take his horse.  Insult after insult is given–he’s taken to the city between two of his father’s guards like a common criminal.  He’s so hurt that he decides

It was so simple–just don’t give a damn.  Don’t care what they do to you and they do nothing.

But like every emotionally abused child who has ever thought that before or after Vanyel, all it does is serve to isolate him further.

Left in his aunt’s care, he has no clue what to make of his unexpected freedom, his lessons with the bards, or Tylendel (one of his aunt’s students.)  His lessons, though, only serve to crush his one remaining hope–that he would be taken into Bardic Collegium and be made a Bard.  He’s a beautiful musician, but he doesn’t have the bardic gift and he doesn’t compose–and he’d need one of the two for them to remove him from the position of his father’s heir.  Vanyel is left without hope for the future.

Vanyel’s drawn to Tylendel, but has no words to describe what it is he’s feeling or why until a girl at court mocks ‘Lendel’s sexual preferences.  It is a lightning bolt to Vanyel, who hadn’t even realized that such pairings were even possible.  Watching them come together is powerful, as is the scene from the next morning when they sit down with his aunt to talk about what will happen now that he and Tylendel are a couple…

“The first problem and the one that’s going to tie in to all the others, Vanyel, is your father.”  She paused, and Vanyel bit his lip.  “I’m sure your realize that if he finds out about this, he is going to react badly.”

Vanyel coughed, and bowed his head, hiding his face for a moment.  When he looked back up, we was wearing a weary, ironic half-smile; a smile that had as much pain in it as humor.  It was, by far and away, the most open expression Savil had ever seen him wear.

“‘Badly’ is something of an understatement, Aunt,” he replied rubbing his temple with one finger.  “He’ll–gods, I can’t predict what he’ll do, but he’ll be in a rage, that’s for certain.”

“He’ll pull you home, Van.” Tylendel said in a completely flat voice.  “And he can do it; you’re not of age, you aren’t Chosen, and you’re aren’t in Bardic.”

“And I can’t protect you,” Savil sighed, wishing that she could.  “I can stall him off for a while, seeing as he officially turned guardianship of you over to me, but it won’t last more than a couple of months.  Then–well, I’ll give you my educated guess as to what Withen will do.  I think he’ll put you under house arrest long enough for everyone to forget about you, then find himself a compliant priest and ship you off to a temple.  Probably one far away, with very strict rules about outside contact.  There are, I’m sorry to say, several sects who hold that the shay’a’chern are tainted.  They’d be only to happy to ‘purify’ you for Withen and Withen’s gold.  And under the laws of the kingdom, none of us could save you from them.”

Looking back, it’s pretty revolutionary that this scene was written in the late 80’s when homosexuality was a huge cultural taboo and AIDS was a death sentence.  The Reagan administration was delaying research into HIV/AIDS because it was seen as a “gay disease.”  It was written long before conversion therapy was debunked as dangerous and damaging.  Lackey’s sex scenes are all off-page, but she was writing relationships like Tylendel and Vanyel (and even a potential all female triad relationship years earlier) long before we were having cultural discussions about LGBTQA representations in media and critiquing lack of representation.

While the spectre of Vanyel’s father looms over the relationship and has them playing a double game, the real danger to the relationship is from ‘Lendel.  More to the point, Tylendel’s obsession with a family feud his family has going with the Leshara family.  Lendel’s twin brother is the lord of their holding, and Lendel wants to take his side.  Heralds must be neutral, and Lendel is anything but.  When his brother is murdered, Tylendel’s control snaps, and he uses Vanyel to seek revenge.

—and that’s just the first half of the book.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 5.10.08 PMMercedes Lackey signs autographs at CONvergence (source wikipedia)

The book isn’t just noteworthy because it was before its time on LGBT characters.  These are complex characters.  Vanyel is hurting and emotionally damaged, but he can also be a jerk.  He’s dependent on Tylendel and he never really stops to wonder if ‘Lendel’s plans are a good idea.  He is self-centered and arrogant.  He’s also starving for love, sweet, and deeply caring.  Tylendel is obsessive, but doesn’t mean to use Vanyel in the way that he does.  Savil is aware of Tylendel’s obsession but doesn’t take it seriously enough.  Characters are imperfect and they screw up.

Her characters go on emotional journeys–they grow and they change and those moments are often painful.  The first time I read the book, it had me sobbing.  Rereading it over the past few days, even though I knew what was coming and what will happen in the next two books in the series, I was still blinking back tears.

If you like fantasy, I really can’t recommend Magic’s Pawn highly enough.