Review: The Wizards of Once

wizards-of-onceBook: The Wizards of Once
Author: Cressida Cowell
Rating: 4 Stars

Basic plot: Xar is a Wizard (but without magic) and Wish is a Warrior (with a magic sword) in a place where Wizards and Warriors are taught to hate each other. Brought together, they form an odd team against a deadlier threat. The Witches, thought extinct, are back.

WHAT’S COOL…

1) Xar and Wish are likeable, but also have their own quirks (and at times can be unlikeable!) I like that Xar is not just a copy of Hiccup. He shares some attributes with Hiccup, but he’s different enough.

2) I liked how Wish’s eye patch comes into the story. (I won’t spoil it.)

3) I really like the talking raven, Caliburn. I love his philosophy and his wisdom. Great character!

4) As with How to Train Your Dragon, the illustrations in the book are wonderful and unique. They add the extra oomph.

5) I like how the parents in this series are not quite the bumbling idiots from HTTYD. I respected them. I even feared them (especially Wish’s mother: Queen Sychorax). Yet, the children each seek approval and love from these parents, which ultimately humanizes them.  (Note: I noticed in the early HTTYD books, Cowell portrays her parents as 2D buffoons. But then in the later books, especially during the dragon rebellion, this changes slightly. I wonder if she rather regretted this earlier characterization?? And with this new series, I’m guessing she wanted to start with a different tone.)

6) The Witches make for a formidable foe. I like how she ties the plot points together. When we finally meet the Kingwitch, I was like: Yeah, that makes sense.

7) The Unknown Narrator is a nice touch. I have my guesses, but I can’t/won’t say for sure yet. I’m assuming this is something that will play itself out as the series continues.

8) I don’t like cliffhanger books. I like a book to have its own ending. This book has that! Yay! But, it’s also lets you know that there’s more to come. (Which is a good thing. Because now I am excited for Book 2, which probably won’t be out for a year and a day. But I’m cool with that.)

WHAT’S NOT COOL…

1) I wasn’t too crazy about Squeezjoos, the little baby sprite. He was a little too much like Toothless-meets-Jar Jar Binks. I like Toothless. I don’t care for Jar Jar.

FINAL THOUGHTS

My rating is 4 Stars (out of 5) – Which is a high rating from me. (Rarely do I rate a book 5 stars.) This book is definitely written by the author of How to Train Your Dragon, but it has enough differences that it is its own book/series. I was afraid the book wouldn’t live up to my expectations, but I’m glad to say, it passed the test… with flying colours! 🙂

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Bookish Problem #4

20170925ma_4835Another bookish problem:
Getting home from the library with a stack of books. But which book to read first?!

This happened recently, the books being…
1) The Wizards of Once (by Cressida Cowell)
2) Nanny X (by Madelyn Rosenberg)
3) The Reluctant Midwife (Patricia Harman)

 

Now, I love the How to Train Your Dragon series, so The Wizards of Once definitely made it to the top of my list. However, for some reason, I didn’t choose this book to start with. Perhaps out of fear that maybe it isn’t as good as the stories of Hiccup Haddock Horrendous III. Or perhaps in anticipation, delaying the enjoyment just a little bit.

I also enjoyed the Call the Midwife series (by Jennifer Worth), so The Reluctant Midwife sounded intriguing to me.

Ultimately, I chose Nanny X... partly because of its size. (It’s considerably a shorter book compared to the other two. Most definitely a quick read.) But partly, I think, because of the “Mary Poppins for the 21st Century” reference. I love Mary Poppins!

What’s nice about this bookish problem is that, in time, I will get to read them all. 🙂

P.S. By the way, if you think I only took out three books during this library visit, you’d be wrong. The three I listed above are really just my three top choices. Who knows? I might even be surprised and find one of the other books to be even better. (Although, I do have high hopes that The Wizards of Once won’t disappoint me.)

UPDATE: Okay, so Nanny X and The Reluctant Midwife were just okay, but not great. But I was not disappointed in The Wizards of Once! Loved this book, and will give it its own full review soon. 🙂

Review: Ms. Bixby’s Last Day

27064348._UY630_SR1200,630_Book: Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
Author: John David Anderson
Rating: 3 Stars

Basic Plot: When Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she’ll be leaving her class before the year is up, three of her students hatch a plan to give their teacher the last day she deserves.

WHAT’S COOL

1) Ms. Bixby seems like a great teacher. I would have loved to have had her. (Bonus: She’s reading The Hobbit to her class as a read-aloud! How cool is that?)

2) I love how we get glimpses throughout the story of how Ms. Bixby has influenced the boys, each separately and also together. Little by little, we see why the boys are willing to skip school to say their last good-byes. Or non-good-byes. Whatever.

3) The shifting viewpoints of each of the three works well. It’s a nice way to get to know each boy.

4) George Nelson is a good antagonist. Love how they deal with him.

5) I liked Eduardo, who bakes amazing cheesecake! I particularly like the whole interchange with the boys about why he calls his store Michelle’s 🙂

6) Of course, I love The Hobbit references. (Although, I feel bad that the rest of the class doesn’t get to hear Ms. Bixby read the final 20 pages!)

WHAT’S NOT COOL

1) The first line is “Rebecca Roudabush has cooties.” Fine. Actually, that’s a great opening to the book. If Rebecca is a major part of the plot. Sadly, she’s not. She’s basically only in the first chapter. (Oh, she shows up in the classroom flashbacks, but it’s nothing special.) I was waiting for her to join the three boys on their quest, but she doesn’t. I was slightly disappointed by this.

2) I didn’t like how the other sixth grade teacher, Mr. Mackelroy, was treated by the author. Okay, so he wasn’t as cool as Ms. Bixby, but did you have to make him so unlikeable?? As an adult, I felt this went too much into caricature. (And not in a good way.)

3) I don’t know HOW Ms. Bixby is able to leave the hospital to go on their picnic. She’s sick. She’s dying. While the picnic is very touching, realistically it wouldn’t be able to happen that way. Why didn’t they just have the picnic in her room?

FINAL THOUGHTS

My rating is 3 Stars (out of 5) – I liked this book quite a lot. It’s your standard students-inspired-by-a-cool-teacher trope, but I thought it had enough of a fresh story to be a good read.

Review: Apollo 8

Apollo-8-Cover-GalleyCat.jpgBook: Apollo 8
Author: Jeffrey Kluger
Rating: 4 Stars

Basic plot: The true story behind the space mission of Apollo 8… How astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were the first to orbit the moon in 1968.

WHAT’S COOL…

1) The subtitle of the book is: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon. For a space mission that really had no mishaps and went off pretty much like clockwork, Kluger somehow does indeed make it a “thrilling story”. What a story-telling gift!

2) This book brought NASA in the Gemini and Apollo eras to life like no other book I’ve read. I finally understand who some of the personalities were and what they actually did during in the space program. People like Chris Kraft and Deke Slayton and Gene Kranz, in addition to the astronauts themselves and their wives. And Kluger made all of them into real people.

3) The story of the Apollo 1 disaster was heartbreaking. Very well-written.

4) I really liked how he handled the Christmas message. He was able to use story-telling to create anticipation for an event that I already knew about!

5) I also like how the tragic events of 1968 (such as the war in Vietnam and the assassinations of MLK and RFK) were juxtaposed against this amazingly optimistic achievement. Especially amazing is how the author ties it all together in the final chapter with a telegram received by one of the astronauts.

6) I loved the cover. Very sleek, yet appropriate. Especially cool is how the lettering looks like a Saturn V rocket.

WHAT’S NOT COOL…

1) Hmm? Anything? Radio blackout, here. Nothing to report.

FINAL THOUGHTS

My rating is 4 Stars (out of 5) – I like space books and I enjoyed this one very much! Bonus on the audio book version which has an interview with Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, as well as audio soundbites from the mission itself!

3 Bookish Problems

20160215ma_0380

  1. When you finish the last book in a series… And realize there are no more books left! It’s quite depressing. Actually, it can feel as if somebody close to you has died.
  2. When you’re waiting to read a sequel… And it takes forever. It can be up to a year, or even longer. Finally, you get the book in your hand… but, wait a minute! Um. I don’t remember the events of the previous book. :/
  3. Reading at bedtime. Eyelids droop. Words begin to blur. I keep on reading. Finally I close the book and turn out the light. Only to realize the next day, that I wasn’t getting ANYTHING out of the story but word recognition!

(Of course, these are really just first world problems when you think about it.)

Review: Romancing Miss Bronte

51WvuAc7ByL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book: Romancing Miss Bronte (a Novel)
Author: Juliet Gael
Rating: 3 Stars

Basic plot: A novelized version of the biography of Charlotte Bronte. The book covers her days at Haworth leading up to becoming an author, along with her sisters, to her untimely death.

WHAT’S COOL…

1) It’s about Charlotte Bronte. Need I say more?

2) Having studied the life of Charlotte Bronte myself years ago, I can say that the author was able to capture her life amazingly. The book reads like a biography, yet also like a novel. Well done!

3) I loved, loved, loved the stories of the events that led up to the publication of Jane Eyre.

4) I thought she did a good job weaving Arthur into the story. The book begins with his arrival at Haworth, and he keeps popping up throughout. [SPOILER] (Of course, he’s very much the focus in the latter part of the book when he reveals his esteem for Miss Bronte and eventually convinces her to marry him.) [END SPOILER]

5) The passages dealing with Branwell were heartbreaking (in a good, but sad way)… how the sisters have to deal with their brother.

WHAT’S NOT COOL…

1) [SPOILER] Arthur is no Rochester. I really wanted to root for him and Charlotte as a couple, but I felt something lacking in him as the “hero” of a romance. This may be a casualty of fiction vs. real life? I feel the author tried to somehow morph Arthur into a Rochester-mold towards the end of the book. And yet, I wasn’t fully convinced. Again, it’s hard to put this into words. [END SPOILER]

2) Every so often, the dialogue/narrative would give what I came to realize are nicknames for various people. For example: Emily and Anne call Charlotte “Tally” which threw me a few times before I realized to whom they were speaking. And Elizabeth Gaskell seems to be “Lily Gaskell”? Who’s Lily? Is that Mrs. Gaskell herself or perhaps it’s her daughter??

FINAL THOUGHTS

My rating is 3 Stars (out of 5) – I enjoyed reading this book. Biographies about my favourite authors are usually a safe bet for me. I liked how she was able to weave the biography part in with the novel part.

Review: Theatre Shoes

coverBook: Theatre Shoes
Author: Noel Streatfeild
Rating: 3.5 Stars

Basic plot: Sorrel, Mark, and Holly Forbes must go live with their grandmother when their father is found to be missing in action during World War II. They discover that their grandmother is not only a famous actor, but that she expects them to be actors as well. The children are sent to a performing arts academy where they have to navigate their acting lessons and auditions. On top of that, they also discover that they are living with a grandmother who is not as rich as she thinks she is.

WHAT’S COOL…

1) This is a companion book to Ballet Shoes. While Pauline, Petrova, and Posy don’t actually make an appearance in the book (aside from letters), their presence is felt throughout. And it’s nice to find out what happened to the three after Ballet Shoes ends.

2) I love the story of Holly and the borrowed (or is it stolen?) attaché case. The children don’t have the money for attaché cases and feel embarrassed because this marks them as different from the other students. The way Madame deals with the whole situation is beautiful. It’s fair to the children and it’s a fair way to deal with Holly’s misdemeanor.

3) Alice is a delightful character who uses Cockney rhyming slang throughout the book (referring to money as “bees and honey” or feet as “plates of meat”). She helps the children deal with their aloof grandmother. I found it especially amusing that she always refers to the grandmother using the Royal-We!

4) Other characters I really like… Uncle Cohen is great, along with his wife Aunt Lindsay. And of course, Madame.

5) The family dynamic between the three children (Sorrel, Mark, and Holly) is nice. They stand up for each other, but the story is realistic enough to show their little tiffs and petty arguing moments.

WHAT’S NOT COOL…

1) The story of Miranda acting high and mighty, and then losing her role to Sorrel (the understudy) is almost exactly the same as that of Pauline and Winifred in Ballet Shoes. Now, to be fair, Streatfeild does make note of this “history-repeating-itself” in the book itself. (And this is or can be a big problem in theatre in general, so this isn’t a major criticism.)

2) The ending felt a tiny bit rushed to me.

FINAL THOUGHTS

My rating is 3.5 Stars (out of 5) – This book is a re-read for me, and it’s been many years since I first read it. I love, love, love Ballet Shoes by the same author. While this isn’t quite Ballet Shoes, it is definitely worth the read.

Review: Restart

mediumBook: Restart
Author: Gordon Korman
Rating: 3.5 Stars

Basic plot: A bully named Chase is given a second chance at life when he falls from the roof and wakes up with amnesia. He can’t remember a thing about his past shenanigans… which frustrates his former buddies. And worries his former victims.

WHAT’S COOL…

1) Chase. I like how Chase has to navigate the old Chase with his feelings as the new Chase.

2) This bully story shows that bullies are complex beings. Many books treat them in a 2-dimensional way. At one point in the book, somebody conjectures whether or not the old “bully” Chase felt remorse over the piano incident. Since we only get to know the new Chase, it seems that maybe he did, in his secret heart of hearts.

3) I liked the fact that Chase does the wrong thing by sticking up for his old friends during the fire extinguisher incident. It shows that his transformation is not so pristine (and therefore it is more realistic). The old and new Chase are still the same Chase. It’s just that the new Chase has the chance to change some of his patterns of behavior.  This incident created some real moments of conflict that moved the story along nicely.

4) I liked the Senior Citizen angle to the story. Cranky Mr. Solway was a great addition to the cast of characters. And I’m a sucker for anything that touches on recording oral history from people who lived in momentous times.

WHAT’S NOT COOL…

1) The mom is pretty much a non-entity. Chase lives with her, yet we get to know the dad and his new wife (Chase’s stepmom) better than we get to know his mother. I felt she was rather 2-dimensional.

2) Flip cameras?! I felt the video club was using technology from a bygone era. This is 2017. Do they even make flip cameras anymore when the kids probably have better cameras on their smartphones? (And yes, I know about video production, so this was a biggie for me!)

FINAL THOUGHTS

My rating is 3.5 Stars (out of 5) – I liked the book. It has the “Korman-touch”. I would compare it to some of his other books like: Pop, Ungifted, and Schooled. All these books have a character you can root for.

Only Orphans Allowed

20170824ma_4716Have you ever wondered why so many kids’ books feature orphans?

Anne Shirley, Mary Lennox, Oliver Twist, Frodo Baggins, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Dorothy Gale, Huckleberry Finn, Pollyanna, Pippi Longstocking, Paddington Bear, the Baudelaire orphans, Harry Potter… and the list goes on.

Or, if the characters aren’t exactly orphans, the parents are somehow (conveniently) off-screen. Like how the Pevensie children are sent out of London before they find their way into Narnia. Or the Bastable children seeking treasure on Lewisham Road in order to help their father who is busy with his business woes. Or how Artemis Fowl’s mother is ill and depressed, while his father is MIA in Russia.

For the author, the first order of business… Get rid of the parents. I used to think this was an unfair trick of so many books. Why did authors do it? Did they really have to make the world so void of parents?

Then one day, I stumbled upon the answer. I read a book where the author must have wondered the same thing. This author had put a “Helpful Dad” type of character into the story. You know the type. The Ward Cleaver. The Pa Ingalls. The kind of dad every kid should have in their lives.

Here’s a brief outline of the story. Kid moves to New Neighbourhood with Loving and Devoted Parents. You know Parents are loving and devoted because of how they interact with Kid. Then Kid somehow notices something fishy going on in a nearby graveyard. He confides in Dad. Great Father/Son interaction. (That’s how it’s supposed to be in real life. Yay for Dad!) Now, Dad understands the call to adventure. He walks with Kid to graveyard. “I’ll watch from over here just in case you need help,” says Dad, ever the understanding type. Kid feels so secure and happy that Dad is so understanding. Kid walks into graveyard alone, while Dad stands by. Then, WHAM! Somehow Kid is sucked into another world… leaving Dad behind.

Okay, so first of all, even this author also realized that he needed to get rid of Helpful Dad at this point in the story.

I don’t know what you thought when you were reading my little outline, but I can tell you my thought process when I was reading the book. As the dad was walking with the kid to the graveyard, I wanted to scream out, “Stop! This is isn’t right. If Helpful Dad is along on the adventure, how can Kid do anything???” Then as Helpful Dad stepped back and let Kid go into the graveyard alone, I wanted to scream, “Wait a minute, Dad. What kind of father are you?! How can you let your kid go in there alone!”

There was no helping it. I was fed up with the story. And actually, to be honest, I never did finish the book.

But this glimpse gave me my answer for why so many books feature orphans. It’s because we really don’t want irresponsible parents. But we also don’t want parents to get in the way of the protagonist’s journey. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a good grownup in the story. They can be available for advice, but we don’t want a smothering helicopter.

In real life, we want and need loving parents. In fiction, sometimes it’s best to kill those parents off.

Or at least send them on a long trip.