Book Review: Jane Unlimited

I don’t often pick books up at random anymore, but I chanced to see an interesting title at the library the other day.  It turned out to be an excellent find: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore.

Nineteen-year-old Jane is an orphan who recently lost her beloved Aunt Magnolia, who raised her.  Jane is unmoored and drifting when she bumps into Kiran, an old acquaintance, who on a whim invites Jane to come to Tu Reviens.  This is Kiran’s family estate, a mansion on a private island.  Jane doesn’t want to go, but her Aunt Magnolia made her promise to accept an invitation to Tu Reviens if it ever came.  It proves to be a mansion full of mysteries, and every person there has secrets.  Jane soon finds herself at a crossroads, a seemingly insignificant moment when she can choose which mystery to pursue.  Jane only can see one choice–at a time–but the reader gets to see what happens as each choice takes her down a completely different path, dividing the bulk of the book into five sections, each exploring a different direction.

This is a masterfully created book, and as a writer I am genuinely in awe at how Cashore pulled this off.  Each section of the book follows its own story, but it’s clear that all the elements from each section are happening in all of them–Jane just has different information, or sees different pieces.  Later sections still have references relevant to earlier ones, and early ones have clues that aren’t explained until later ones.  It’s incredible.

Equally as fun, I realized as I went through the book that each section is a different genre: mystery, spy thriller, horror, science fiction, and fantasy.  Each one is beautifully done, both for its genre and as part of a larger, cohesive whole.  The horror section was suitably horrifying, and the sci fi story added a little bit of meta explanation for the book’s structure–sort of. Continue reading “Book Review: Jane Unlimited”

Book Review: Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

I mentioned recently that the long (loooong) awaited new Tamora Pierce book was finally out.  I got it from my library, and then (because life is busy) spent a couple weeks reading it.  So how did Tempests and Slaughter, Book One of the Numair Chronicles, turn out after all this time?

Well…I should say that very few things could live up to the amount of build-up that came before this book.  It reminds me of the third season of Sherlock.  The answer to the worst cliffhanger I’ve ever seen had so much pressure behind it, I had little hope that the pay-off would actually work.  The fact that it did was, in a meta kind of way, as satisfying as the actual answer.  But I mention this because of its rarity…and this is all a big, long, almost apologetic and avoidant lead-in to saying that, after all these years of waiting, Tempests and Slaughter was, well…okay.  Not a bad book!  But only okay.

The tale focuses on young Arram Draper, who will someday grow up to be the Numair we know from earlier (but chronologically later) Tortall books.  (Some spoilers to follow, but only if you haven’t read the Daine books.)  Arram is a student mage at the great Carthaki University.  He is troubled by the gladiatorial games held in Carthak, and by the acceptance of slavery within the empire, but he loves his classes and excels at them.  He becomes friends with Ozorne, a minor prince of the realm, and Varice, a lively, beautiful girl Arram harbors a crush on.

I’m not sure where to stop this summary, so I guess I’ll just stop here.  The dilemma points to what is in fact the weak point of the story–there’s not much story.  The premise is lovely, but there’s little plot, no driving direction to the book, no strong climax to pull threads together.  It’s somewhat like a Harry Potter book without Voldemort.  After all these years of waiting, this book felt more like a set-up to (the promised) book two, when presumably some hinted conflicts will finally come to the forefront.

Arram is a likable character, honorable and genuinely excited by his studies.  I did like reading about a magic-learning character who wants to learn.  So often the trope is for the main character to be largely disengaged from learning (creating opportunities for incidents through mishaps and school stress), perhaps with a friend (hi, Hermione!) who is more scholarly.  Arram has his share of mishaps, usually because his magic is too strong, and I liked his earnest desire to learn. Continue reading “Book Review: Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce”

Classic Review: The Princess Bride

Valentine’s Day was last week, so perhaps it’s an appropriate day to revisit a favorite movie with a lovely romance.  I just finished saying I don’t revise Classic Posts, but this one does require mentioning one changing view.  I think I was too hard on Buttercup–she has her moments of strength as a heroine.  She actually has two different problems–she’s oddly impassive in some key moments and, as Cary Elwes pointed out in his memoir, in a movie full of funny lines, Buttercup gets none of them.

I rewatched this movie just recently at a Fathom Events showing, and I really tried to have a different view of Buttercup.  It was maybe a little better?  But I still don’t love her.  Ah well.  It’s still a nearly perfect movie.

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I love fairy tales, and retold fairy tales, and fairy tale-inspired stories.  I have great success reading books like that, and sometimes I try a movie too.  More often those turn out to be very cheesy…but sometimes it works, as with one of my favorites, The Princess Bride.  It can be cheesy at times too, but in a good way, and all in all it’s a very nearly perfect movie.

There’s a book too, which I have read, and which is also truly excellent.  It’s been a long time since I read it, though, so that review will have to wait until I get a chance to re-read it.  In the meantime, let’s talk about the movie.  It’s at its twenty-fifth anniversary, so I’d like to assume everyone’s seen it…but I’ve learned not to assume that about any movie.  And I do have a friend who just saw it for the first time a month ago.

The Princess Bride starts with an adorable frame-story, about a grandfather reading the book The Princess Bride to his grandson, who had been ill.  The boy pretends indifference, but is drawn into the story.  It’s about the beautiful Buttercup, who is going to marry her beloved farmboy, Westley.  But Westley goes off to seek his fortune, is reportedly killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Buttercup ends up unwillingly engaged to the nasty Prince Humperdinck.  She’s kidnapped shortly before her wedding, carried off by mastermind Vizzini, slow-witted and good-natured giant Fezzik, and brilliant swordsman Inigo Montoya.  They’re pursued by a mysterious man in black (whose identity will probably not turn out to be all that much of a shock). Continue reading “Classic Review: The Princess Bride”

Book Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I’m continuing a strong push with the Newbery Medal winners in my reading, and I recently read the most recent winner, 2017’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.  And we have a serious contender for favorite Newbery–at least of the ones I’ve been reading for this challenge!

The story starts in a very sad village in the Bog, where every year on a certain day, the youngest baby is left in the forest for the Witch, so that she won’t destroy everyone else.  We swiftly meet the Witch, Xan, 500 years old and quite unaware that anyone thinks she wants to harm them.  She rescues the babies every year, taking them through the forest to happier towns where they are adopted and cherished.  She feeds them starlight on the journey and they grow favored.  But one year she is especially taken by a baby, and mistakenly feeds her moonlight instead.  The baby grows full of magic, and Xan decides she must adopt Luna herself, adding her to a little family including Fyrian, a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, and Glerk, a grumpy, poetical bog monster.

This is a delightful story, full of fantasy, whimsy, humor and heart-tugging moments.  I knew this was going to be good as soon as Glerk and Xan appear, Xan scolding him about apologizing to Fyrian.  I love fantasy that takes the tropes (swamp monster, dragon, witch) and turns them upside down in a funny, human way. Continue reading “Book Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon”

Book Review: Read My Mind

Read My Mind by [Haworth, Kelly]During NaNo, when I was reading but not reviewing, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Read My Mind by Kelly Haworth.  A little outside my usual genres, it’s a paranormal LGBTQ romance, the first in a series.  The characters and the world-building are wonderful.  Full disclosure, Kelly is a friend of mine, but that’s not why I liked the book!

Set in an alternate Earth, Kelly’s world features a pantheon of gods who have gifted humans (some of them) with a variety of magical abilities, like healing or telekinesis.  The story centers around Scott and Nick, incoming freshmen at the University of Frannesburg (think alternate San Francisco).  Scott is devoutly religious, while Nick, a telekinetic, is much more interested in the pop culture, comic book and action figure version of the gods.  The two begin sparking while negotiating exploring each other’s different experiences of the gods.  When Scott unexpectedly develops telepathy, it creates rifts in his family, while Nick struggles with grieving his mother and dealing with a distant relationship with his father–all problems that interfere with their growing romance.

I loved the world-building in here.  I’m fascinated by Kelly’s created religion, and I love the way it’s involved in the plot and the characters’ lives.  Although this is the first published in the series, Kelly actually wrote another volume first, but decided this was a better introduction and I think that was a great choice.  Because Scott and Nick are each learning from the other about different aspects of the gods, the reader gets to learn too in an organic way.  I also love the way they handle learning from each other–though it seems like an obvious conflict, they approach each other with mutual respect and openness which was just lovely. Continue reading “Book Review: Read My Mind”

Classic Review: Merlin Dreams

I’ve been thinking vaguely of rereading this one soon, and rereading my review has convinced me of it!  A fun note I’m not sure I knew when I wrote this–the author Peter Dickinson was married to Robin McKinley, a long-time favorite author of mine.  I love connections like that!

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There’s an old legend that Merlin never died–that he’s imprisoned beneath a stone somewhere on the moor, sleeping through the centuries.  And while he sleeps, what might he dream?

This is the frame-story for Peter Dickinson’s wonderful book, Merlin Dreams.  He tells eight stories, eight dreams of Merlin beneath his stone.  Between each story Merlin half-wakes, remembers his life or senses what goes on above him, then drifts back into sleep…and has another dream.

I’m fascinated by the frame story, and the short stories are excellent too.  Several have a vaguely Arthurian flare, although I don’t think any retell an actual legend.  But there are dashing (and not so dashing) knights, brave damsels and many unexpected heroes.  There’s a king, fallen from honor and strength who needs a little girl to show him the way back.  Another little girl befriends a unicorn in the woods, only to be threatened by men who want to exploit the opportunity to hunt a unicorn.  Two stories feature tricksters who put on shows for country folk they hold in contempt, only to be undone by their own tricks.  There’s a young prince who fights a dragon, and another, particularly ugly young man, who fights a sorceress.  And woven throughout, Merlin remembers his own life, and strange fragments of other scenes and stories. Continue reading “Classic Review: Merlin Dreams”

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

I was late to the game for Wonder Woman, only getting to the theaters to see it after it had been out several weeks.  That meant there was plenty of time for me to see all the Facebook comments and have all the conversations about how amazing it was, and how empowering my female friends found it.  And to be honest, I heard all that and thought, yeah, okay, cool, I like strong women stories.  Then I saw the movie.  And they were ALL SO RIGHT!!  There are other (not enough) strong female characters in movies, but this one was something special.

Wonder Woman gives us the origin story of Diana (Gal Gadot), daughter of the Amazon Queen, who grew up in an entirely female community on a magically-shrouded island.  She grows up among female warriors who fight for peace, and is trained by their greatest fighter (Princess Buttercup–I mean, Robin Wright).  When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy pursued by German ships, breaches the island’s secrecy, Diana learns of World War I raging across the planet.  Convinced Ares is behind the conflict, she leaves with Steve, intent on ending the war by destroying Ares.

Diana is amazing–but I think the real hero(ine) of this story may be Patty Jenkins, the director.  Like I said, there are other strong women in film, but this one felt different–and I think it’s the female director, making different choices. Continue reading “Movie Review: Wonder Woman”