Monday, May 21, 2018

Review - Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia
by Katherine Paterson
Date: 1977
Publisher: HarperCollins
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 163
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

Jess Aarons has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, outpaces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie's house, where they invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. One morning, Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his family and the strength that Leslie has given him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I don't even know how to start reviewing this book. I didn't like it. It's hard when you read a beloved book and you just don't see what everyone else saw. Maybe this book's time has passed. I don't know. But I found it to be woefully dated, and problematic as a result.

Okay, I get that we're supposed to see that Jess and Leslie don't conform to gender norms. The problem? It's based on 1970s ideas of what gender should be. Which means that things that wouldn't make people bat an eye today were emphasized as a huge deal. Jess likes to draw. He's girly! Leslie rarely wears dresses and likes to run. She's boyish! The music teacher wears jeans and no lipstick. *gasp* What's wrong with her?! To make matters worse, when characters were portrayed as sticking to traditional gender norms, it was implied that it was a negative thing (you could see this especially with Jess's older sisters).

Then there was the sexism. Oh, boy. I know it was written in 1977, but it was still so grating. One of the worst parts was when the teacher talked about scuba diving as being an unusual hobby... for a girl. Combined with the misogyny that the little boys were throwing around on the playground, it made for an uncomfortable read.

Some aspects of the story and characters just don't work anymore. One of the ways (one of the only ways, really) that the author seemed to be able to think of to indicate that a character was bad was to make them fat... and then have others comment on it. Seriously, pretty much every insult was about someone's weight. The school bully (more on her in a moment) got called a cow and a hippo, and commentary was made about the size of her butt. Jess's sister Brenda got the same treatment, even having her weight commented on at one point by her six-year-old sister. (Full disclosure: I've never been overweight in my life. In fact, I've been skinny. So I've never had to deal with fat comments. If the amount of fat-shaming in this book was making me uncomfortable, I can't imagine how it would read to someone who struggles with their weight.)

There were also some things that just read as inappropriate. For example, I was totally weirded out when Jess's little sister accused him of staring at her when she was in her underwear... because he follows up with what's basically a pedophilic incest joke. (Why would an eleven-year-old boy know enough about that to joke about it? Yeesh.) Then there was the trip he took with his teacher. Alone. To another city. Where she buys him lunch and ice cream. Oh, yeah... and he had a terrible crush on her. I understand that this was written before the Mary Kay Letourneau era, but it's just one more thing that's going to have to be explained to younger readers as being not okay. Yes, in this instance, it was innocent. But there have been real-life cases where it wasn't. And then there was the scene where Jess shot milk straight into Leslie's mouth with no warning (other than a command to open her mouth) and no consent. This wouldn't fly in an era of food allergies, for one thing... but the whole scene was just gross. If I'd opened up the book and randomly stumbled across that page, based on the word choices and actions, I would've assumed it was erotica:

“Here,” he said. “Open your mouth.”
“Why?”
“Just open your mouth.” For once she obeyed. He sent a stream of warm milk straight into it.
“Jess Aarons!” The name was garbled and the milk dribbled down her chin as she spoke.
“Don’t open your mouth now. You’re wasting good milk.”
Leslie started to giggle, choking and coughing.
“Now if I could just learn to pitch a baseball that straight. Lemme try again.”
Leslie controlled her giggle, closed her eyes, and solemnly opened her mouth.
But now Jess was giggling, so that he couldn’t keep his hand steady.
“You dunce! You got me right in the ear.”

The bully (if you can call her that; bullying was apparently pretty tame in the 1970s and seemed to involve stealing hopscotch rocks and Twinkies) was also handled in an appalling way. We find out that she's a nasty girl because her father beats her. But then--and I don't know if I've ever been so disgusted with a book's message--it's implied that she did something wrong because the secret got out. It was shameful. It was supposed to stay hidden. In fact, the advice to this poor girl? Ignore the taunting from the other kids and they'll forget about it and everything will go back to normal. (Except she'll still be beaten at home... but that's okay, I guess.) The author even reiterated this advice in her author's note, as she recounted hearing from children who'd been "helped" by the book:

There was the child who found her family’s dark secrets were suddenly the gossip of all her classmates and only got through the most horrible time of her life by remembering Leslie’s advice to Janice Avery—to pretend she didn’t know what anybody had said or where they’d got such a crazy story and that everybody would forget about it in a week.

Yeah. "Such a crazy story" definitely needed to be forgotten so the bully's father could go back to beating her without having to worry about a visit from child services. What... the... hell?

I know this book was used in schools, and while at one time it probably brought up some interesting discussions about death and grief, I think it might be too fraught with other issues for today's teachers to be able to get through all the ensuing discussions in a reasonable amount of time. I don't think I'd want my kids reading it without some real discussion about the problematic bits... and there are plenty.

Premise: 3/5
Plot: 2/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 2/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 2.38 out of 5 ladybugs


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review - Nell

Nell
by Karen Hesse
Date: 2011
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: short story
Pages: 12
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

"I am always dying. I am never dying. I have died and died and died again, but I do not stay dead."

When the lines between fairy tale and reality blur, identity becomes fluid, and compassion can have unexpected costs. In "Nell,' a short story inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," award-winning author Karen Hesse adds a haunting, supernatural twist to a classic tale.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

Well, that was depressing. But what else are you going to get from a retelling of "The Little Match Girl"?

Still, the way this was told was beautiful, a story within a story. The imagery was rich and the main character's voice was engaging. It's short, but it still manages to bring a new, supernatural twist to the old story.

Quotable moment:

How her mouth watered with longing when she passed a rosy-cheeked boy eating a bun,

soiling his mitten with bakery grease,

dropping crumbs and bits of raisins in his wake,

ignoring the admonitions of his father,

who held on tightly to keep the boy from running into the people around him.

The match girl stopped walking and stood where the bun-eater had stood and drew in a deep breath,

devouring the scent of the sweet roll that still lingered in the cold air.

Plot: 3/5
Characters: 4/5
Pace: 4/5
Writing & Editing: 4/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.86 out of 5 ladybugs


Friday, April 6, 2018

Review - All Systems Red

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1)
by Martha Wells
Date: 2017
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: prose novella
Pages: 156
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure.

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn't a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied 'droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as "Murderbot." Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I've had this novella on my want-to-read list for a while, so when the opportunity to read it for free came up, I couldn't say no. I managed to blow through it in a few hours, which is unusual for me. But the pace was so fast and the story so intriguing that I couldn't stop for long without wanting to get back in and find out what happened next.

The strength of this book is really Murderbot itself. The story is told from its perspective, and it's an interesting one. It's so convinced it's just a machine, continually reminding others, and trying very hard (it seems) to convince itself of that fact. But it has emotions and attachments, little quirks that make it evident that it's not just a robot.

The pace was so quick, and the story managed to pack a lot of action into relatively few pages. I'm very glad that this is just the first book in a series, though, because the ending was kind of unsatisfying and a little confusing.

I can't wait to find out what happens next in Murderbot's life (and will the poor thing ever get a proper name?).

Quotable moment:

I yelled, "No!" which I'm not supposed to do; I'm always supposed to speak respectfully to the clients, even when they're about to accidentally commit suicide.

Premise: 5/5
Plot: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Pace: 5/5
Writing: 4/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 5/5

Overall Rating: 4.38 out of 5 ladybugs

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review - The Last Novelist

The Last Novelist
by Matthew Kressel
Date: 2017
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: short story
Pages: 27
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard) by Matthew Kressel is a science fiction story about a dying writer who is trying to finish one final novel on the distant planet he settles on for his demise. His encounter with a young girl triggers a last burst of creativity.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This short story certainly painted a lovely picture of a foreign world... but, at the same time, I feel vaguely unsettled. It looks like the author tried to incorporate many cultures (you can see it in the use of language--I easily picked out the Yiddish and Indian influences), but the overall feeling I got was sort of Caribbean, from the tropical setting and mention of steel drums to the way the native inhabitants of the planet spoke. Are they human? I'm assuming they're descended from humans; despite having six-fingered hands and violet eyes, there's no indication that they're alien. Which makes it kind of awkward when the little girl--Fish, as she calls herself--speaks like a stereotype:

"I's at my uncle's," she says. "But I's back now. Get up you loafing fool, 'cause we gots work to do!"

This leaves me feeling... I don't know. Am I reading cultural appropriation? Or are we to believe that this planet was colonized entirely by settlers of Caribbean descent?

Aside from that, the story was okay, if a little unsatisfying. The world-building was probably the best part, even if it was a bit uneven at times with the technology. I also wonder if some of the themes are just the author's fears. In this future, nobody reads books anymore, preferring instead to download experiences directly into their brains. I'm not sure this would ever happen (at least, not to the extent shown here), and besides, the narrator still values the written word. Are we to believe he's the only one in the entire universe who does? (Obviously not, as Fish really takes to pen and paper, so the fact that everyone else supposedly avoids reading is a little hard to believe.)

I didn't really like the characters. Reuth, the narrator, wasn't developed all that well. We know facts about him, but we don't really know much about what he's like (other than the fact that he thinks it's okay to litter in the sea). I liked Fish a little more, but only because she was more interesting. The only other character to speak of was Fish's mother, who was just there to serve as a protective figure.

All in all, I'd say the imagery was the strongest part of the book, the characters the weakest. The story was somewhere in the middle. I'm not sorry I read it, but it's not that memorable.

Quotable moment:

Fish surprises me on the beach that afternoon. "I don't get it," she says.

I look up from my pad, unexpectedly happy to see her. "What don't you get?"

"Why write novels at all? You could project your dreams into a neural."

"I could. But dreams are raw and unfiltered. And that always felt like cheating to me. With writing, you have to labor over your thoughts."

My words seem only to perplex her more. "But you could dictate your story. Why make it so hard?"

Plot: 3/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing & Editing: 4/5
Originality: 3/5

Enjoyment: 3/5

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 ladybugs


Friday, March 23, 2018

Review - That Game We Played During the War

That Game We Played During the War
by Carrie Vaughn
Date: 2016
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: short story
Pages: 16
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

The people of Gaant are telepaths. The people of Enith are not. The two countries have been at war for decades, but now peace has fallen, and Calla of Enith seeks to renew an unlikely friendship with Gaantish officer Valk over an even more unlikely game of chess, in Carrie Vaughn's novella That Game We Played During The War.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This story had an interesting premise that led me to want to know more. There are two groups, the Gaantish and the Enithi. The former is telepathic, the latter is not. They were fighting a war, though why they were doing so was never really explained.

The story basically describes a meeting between two people from opposite sides who met during the war, and now they've come together again and are playing chess. Of course, that's an interesting and complicated idea when one person knows the moves the other person is about to make! I'm still not sure if I missed something, but there seems to be more to the relationship between Calla and Valk than we're told.

This whole idea would be an interesting setup for a longer novel that might explain such questions as to why the war happened (nobody seemed to feel much like killing each other--taking prisoners appeared to be pretty common in lieu of killing--so it came off kind of like a big, stupid game with terrible consequences like famine), more of the mechanics of how the telepathic Gaantish society works, and maybe a clearer explanation of exactly what happened between the two characters here.

Overall, though, it was a fairly enjoyable story with some thought-provoking elements.

Quotable moment:

The Gaantish officer stared at her. Her hair under her cap was pulled back in a severe bun; her whole manner was very strict and proper. Her tabs said she was a second lieutenant—just out of training and the war ends, poor thing. Or lucky thing, depending on one's point of view. Calla wondered what the young lieutenant made of the mess of thoughts pouring from her. If she saw the sympathy or only the pity.

"You speak Gaantish," the lieutenant said bluntly.

Calla was used to this reaction. "Yes. I spent a year at the prisoner camp at Ovorton. Couldn't help but learn it, really. It's a long story." She smiled blandly.

Plot: 3/5
Characters: 4/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing & Editing: 3/5
Originality: 4/5

Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.57 out of 5 ladybugs

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review - Bitter Grounds

Bitter Grounds
by Neil Gaiman
Date: 2003
Publisher: Tor.com
Reading level: A
Book type: short story
Pages: 17
Format: e-book
Source: Tor.com

Coffee, New Orleans & Zombies.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This was a tricky one. On the one hand, it's Neil Gaiman. I've read some of his other short stories, as well as Coraline, so I thought it would be safe to assume that this would be a quality story. On the other hand, the typos were so bad that I was continually being distracted and thrown right out of the flow as I tried to figure out what the sentences with messed-up punctuation or missing words were trying to say.

Aside from that, though, this is the sort of story that doesn't really work for me. It starts so late that we basically just get an ending, to both the story and the character arc. Who was this nameless narrator? Had he been zombified? If so, where/when? Before he got to New Orleans? What happened with Anderton and the tow truck driver? What was going on with the anthropologists? Were they just a bunch of weirdos, or were they tied into the zombie stuff, too? Was everyone?

Overall, I just feel like I read the last few pages of a book and am utterly confused as to what the thing was even about.

Quotable moment:

In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the face and lips and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smiled and kept moving. If I could have physically passed away, just let it all go, like that, without doing anything, stepped out of life as easily as walking through a door, I would have done. But I was going to sleep at night and waking in the morning, disappointed to be there and resigned to existence.

Plot: 1/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 2/5
Writing & Editing: 2/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 1.57 out of 5 ladybugs

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review - The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (Tales from the Chocolate Heart #1)
by Stephanie Burgis
Date: 2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 253
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

Aventurine is a brave young dragon ready to explore the world outside of her family's mountain cave... if only they'd let her leave it. Her family thinks she's too young to fly on her own, but she's determined to prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human.

But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she's transformed into a puny human without any sharp teeth, fire breath, or claws. Still, she's the fiercest creature in these mountains--and now she's found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she'll be conquering new territory in no time... won't she?

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book was so cute and so much fun! I wish it had been around when I was younger (but I still enjoyed it very much as an adult).

Aventurine is a great character. She has a distinctive voice, and we never quite forget that she's a dragon trapped in a "puny human" body. I love the message about finding your passion--the thing that makes you so happy that you want to do it all the time--and being true to who you really are on the inside, even when that might be difficult. There's no romance in this book; instead, we get some great friendship and family themes. And the dragons themselves are wonderful characters; instead of mindless beasts, they're actually quite scholarly (did you know dragons debate philosophy and write epic poetry?) and they even think humans are the stupid ones!

I've barely seen this book mentioned, and it's a shame, because it's a well-written story with a good message, a fun plot, and unforgettable characters. It hasn't gotten nearly the amount of attention it deserves.

Quotable moment:

When I passed a waffle stand two minutes later, I didn’t even let out the snarl of desperation that wanted to rip itself from my throat.

If all I had were five marks, I would not waste them. I was a fierce, powerful dragon despite my current body problems, and I could control myself, no matter what Mother or Jasper thought.

I just wished that all the horses I passed didn’t look so delicious.

Premise: 5/5
Plot: 4/5
Characters: 4/5
Pace: 4/5
Writing: 4/5
Editing: 4/5
Originality: 5/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 4.25 out of 5 ladybugs