The Queen of Attolia: A (Reread) Review

It is not easy to be the queen of a country anxious to have a king, especially when sovereignty is not enough to ensure obedience let alone loyalty. Attolia knows this better than most as she has struggled to keep hold of her throne amidst conniving barons and uneasy alliances.

Attolia knows the appearance she cultivates for her subjects–the hardened ruler without compassion or remorse. She knows that the longer she wears that mask the harder it is to be anything else.

Eugenides has spent years watching the queen of Attolia from afar as he taunts her with baubles left by her bedside and repeated thefts from her palace. What draws Eugenides back to Attolia is anyone’s guess, but return he does. Again and again.

When Eugenides is caught one too many times stealing from Attolia, he pays the ultimate price. Finding himself caught in the middle of a war he wants no part of, Eugenides does what he always does: he plans to steal what he needs to remedy the situation. But in the wake of a horrible loss and feelings he can scarcely fathom, Gen isn’t sure if he will be able to steal the peace Eddis needs to survive in The Queen of Attolia (2000) by Megan Whalen Turner.

I always tell people that they have to read The Thief and The Queen of Attolia when I recommend this series. This book represents a dramatic shift in tone and style as Turner expands Eugenides’ world and moves the story in a darker direction. This book functions as a standalone story and can be read outside of the series but it works best read in order particularly to see how much Eugenides has grown and changed since book one. The Queen of Attolia also lays the groundwork for most of book three (and even hints at book four) as the threat of Mede invasion is made more overt.

This book is written in third person and shifts perspective. In this way readers are at a remove from Eugenides first as he recovers from the loss of his hand and later as he plans what will come next. This choice allows for more powerful reveals as, once again, Gen finds ways to shock and amaze. This technique also allows for a stark contrast between Attolia as she presents herself to the world and Irene, the young woman who has had to harden herself to become the queen Attolia expects her to be.

Turner delivers a haunting tale of broken people trying to understand what it means to be whole when the damage has already been done and, no matter what else might follow, completely irreparable. Unbelievably this leads to one of  the most enduring and powerful love stories I’ve ever read. The Queen of Attolia is a compelling story of political intrigue, old gods, cunning, and above all the lengths people go to for love. Not to be missed.

If you enjoy The Queen of Attolia, you can read more about Eugenides (and Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia) in The Thief, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings and Thick as Thieves.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Batman’s Dark Secret: A Picture Book Review

Batman's Dark Secret by Kelley Pucket and Jon J. MuthThe story starts with young Bruce Wayne out with his parents after watching a movie. Bruce, brave and inspired by the movie’s hero, walks with his parents down a terribly dark alley. In the darkness, Bruce hears two bangs and sees flashes of light before he smells smoke. When Bruce walks out of the alley, he does so alone. His parents are gone.

When Bruce returns to the Wayne mansion, he is terrified of the dark. With Alfred’s help he sets about lighting up the entire house to keep the shadows at bay. The lights work until Bruce falls through a hole into a pitch-black cave filled with bats. When Bruce is forced in this very physical way to face his fears, he learns to take control of the dark and vows that he will never be afraid again.

Then, as most readers will have guessed, this book closes with young Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman in Batman’s Dark Secret (2015) by Kelley Puckett, illustrated by Jon J. Muth.

Batman’s Dark Secret was originally published in 2000 as an easy reader. Scholastic is now reissuing the story as a picture book in advance of the newest Batman movie.

Batman’s Dark Secret is largely what you would expect from a version of Batman’s origin story meant for the hero’s youngest fans. Much of what makes Batman who he is ends up being sanitized to make the story palatable for small children. Gotham’s pervasive corruption is completely absent while the murder of Bruce’s parents is completely glossed over without their deaths ever being explicitly explained in the text.

Puckett’s text is child friendly and presented in smaller chunks on each page. Some of the pages read as a bit clunky largely because the source material is so out of sync with the age level of the text.

Muth’s illustrations work surprisingly well with this comic book hero. Striking watercolor illustrations make excellent use of light and dark to lend an appropriately noir feel to many spreads. The artwork also uses darkness to good effect conveying Bruce’s initial fear and how he ultimately comes to embrace the dark.

Obviously Batman’s Dark Secret has a rather niche audience. Truncated as it may be, this picture book is a good introduction to Batman for very young readers. Older readers, however, will likely prefer to get their Dark Knight fix in comics instead. A fun interpretation for committed fans and possibly an interesting picture book about overcoming fears /being afraid of the dark.

The Rose and the Beast: A Review

The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia BlockThe Rose and the Beast (2000) by Francesca Lia Block

In this collection of nine short stories, Block offers surprising retellings of fairy tales ranging from “Thumbelina” and “The Snow Queen” to “Cinderella” and “Snow White.”

Every story has an eerie, otherworldly quality thanks to Block’s unique writing style that reads more like free verse poetry than traditional prose. Although the interpretations vary, some with elements of fantasy and others grounded firmly in the modern world, each story in The Rose and the Beast is imbued with feminist discourse and strong characters.

It’s always difficult to give a short story collection a proper review, especially in this case when the stories are so similar in style yet also so different in their execution. There are not a lot of happily ever afters here. Princes don’t always come to rescue princesses. Magic isn’t always friendly. And the stories here are rarely kind.

Ideal for readers who enjoy short stories or reluctant readers looking for some quick reads. The Rose and the Beast is also sure to appeal to readers who like twisted fairy tales or fairy tale interpretations with more bite.

Possible Pairings: The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy, Poisoned Apples: Poems For You My Pretty by Christine Hepperman, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Curses, Inc. by Vivian Vande Velde

The Queen of Attolia: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (original cover)It is not easy to be the queen of a country anxious to have a king, especially when sovereignty is not enough to ensure obedience let alone loyalty. It is no secret that the queen of Attolia is more beautiful, by far, than the queen of Eddis. Beauty is a useful weapon in Attolia’s limited arsenal; one that leaves little room for kindness.

Eddis is no great beauty but, as everyone knows but would not dare say, she is more kind. After stealing repeatedly from her kingdom and abandoning discretion to speak truth, Eugenides has angered Attolia beyond all reason. The queen is desperate for revenge at any price.

What draws Eugenides back to Attolia is anyone’s guess, but return he does. When the two come face to face, the sacrifice will be great on both sides. Attolia is a ruthless ruler hardened, through her hard-won and harder-kept reign, almost to stone. Eugenides is the Thief of Eddis and he can steal anything. But as both sides seek justice, the fate of Eddis, Attolia, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (paperback cover)and even Sounis will hang in the balance as Eugenides tries to steal peace and also, perhaps, salvation for Attolia and himself in The Queen of Attolia (2000) by Megan Whalen Turner.

The Queen of Attolia is the sequel to Turner’s Newbery honor book The Thief which first introduced readers to Eugenides and his world.

When Eugenides is caught one too many times stealing from Attolia, he pays the ultimate price. Finding himself caught in the middle of a war he wants no part of, Eugenides does what he always does: he steals what he needs to remedy the situation. What follows is a compelling story of political intrigue, old gods,  and cunning. At the same time, The Queen of Attolia is a haunting tale of broken people trying to understand what it means to be whole when the damage has already been done and, no matter what else might follow, completely irreparable.

Like later books in the series, The Queen of Attolia is written with shifting perspectives. Turner follows Eugenides and Attolia, of course, but also other characters who play minor and major roles in the plot. It’s rare to see a complete shift in narrative style for a series, but like most of Turner’s writing decisions it makes perfect sense. After the disastrous events at the beginning of this book it’s unlikely anyone, even Eugenides, would want to spend too much time in his head. The ability to shift between characters also gives the story more liberty in how events unfold for the reader and the characters.

I hate having to say books need to be read in order, but these really do. Years ago my mom snagged an ARC of this book which I read before The Thief. I later read the first book and the two worked fine, but only in rereading them in the correct order did I see how much I missed. The Queen of Attolia completely blew my mind when I first read it and continues to dazzle me as do the rest of Turner’s books about Gen. Hopefully this review will pique your interest but the book is so much more than anything I can say here that it is impossible to understand how brilliant it (and the series in general) is without reading it. So, go and read it. Right away.

Eugenides’ adventures continue in The King of Attolia.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers,Soundless by Richelle Mead, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Exclusive Bonus Content: I have two cover images here. The top one is the original cover, the one I read the book with, and the one I chose to have on a discarded copy I rescued from my place of employ. The second cover is the newer version and the direction the rest of the series is going in with its repackaging. I only recently absorbed the true nature of the new cover and both give me chills. I couldn’t decide which to include here so, dear readers, you get both.

Esperanza Rising: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz RyanEsperanza had a wonderful life in Mexico in 1930. She lived with her mother and father, Ramona and Sixto Ortega at a beautiful ranch where her grandmother taught Esperanza to crochet. El Rancho de las Rosas is a little piece of paradise. Beloved servants tend to Esperanza’s every need while field hands tend to the family’s vineyard. Everything in Esperanza’s life is perfect right down to the preparations for her fourteenth birthday.

That is, until the day Esperanza’s father does not come home from tending to the ranch. Suddenly Esperanza’s life is turned upside. Her father is gone. El Rancho de las Rosas is slipping away. Esperanza and her mother are fleeing to California with nothing to find work as field workers. Worse, they have to leave Abuelita behind.

Suddenly thrust into poverty, Esperanza feels lost. She and her mother are suddenly equal to the servants who helped them escape Mexico. Prejudice and inequality leap at Esperanza from everywhere. Nothing will ever be the same and the more Esperanza sees of America, the land of opportunity, the more she feels like she’s sinking. Will Esperanza be able to rise about her circumstances and embrace her new life before it’s too late in Esperanza Rising (2000) by Pam Muñoz Ryan?

Esperanza Rising is a Pura Belpre Winner (Pura Belpre being an award that highlights distinguished work in literature and illustration by hispanic or latino authors–I’m not sure which is stated specifically in the award criteria). It’s really popular and generally well-received. And it even has a play adaptation (apparently not playing anywhere right now, but you can see hints of it in an online search).

All the same, I was initially extremely resistant to this book. I did not want to like it. The story starts depressing and, frankly, Esperanza starts off irritating. Having finished the book, I greatly regret that resistance.

One of the coolest things about this book is that it’s based on the true story of the author’s grandmother’s immigration to the United States. Like most of the books I’ve listed as possible pairings, it is a quintessential immigrant story. Esperanza has a lot of growing up to when she is forced to move to California. She faces a lot of hardships and learns a lot about herself and her inner strength.

At its core Esperanza is, unsurprisingly, a story about hope and perseverance (esperanza means “hope” in Spanish). It is also a great introduction to the immigrant experience. While Esperanza remains at the center of the story, Ryan also touches upon the Depression, the Dust Bowl, social reform, and discrimination in this rich story.

This story also shines a light on the not-always-well-known world of migrant farm workers in a respectful and informative way. That is not to say that the story itself is not interesting. Far from it. Esperanza Rising is a wonderful blend of everything good about contemporary and historical fiction; Ryan skillfully presents the time period while making Esperanza and her world approachable to modern readers of all ages.

Possible Pairings: Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch, Drown by Junot Diaz, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, From Ellis Island to JFK by Nancy Foner, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land by Amy Ling, …y no se lo tragó la tierra / …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomas Rivera and Evangelina Vigil-Pinon (translator), Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska

Define “Normal”: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Define "Normal" by Julie Anne PetersDefine “Normal” (2000) by Julie Anne Peters deals with a common theme in teen literature: What happens when people from different worlds come together?

Antonia Dillon and Jasmine “Jazz” Luther are polar opposites. As the cover illustrates quite well. Antonia wears pleated skirts, is on the honor roll, and used to be in math club (she also used to do gymnastics). And she’s still only in eighth grade. With all of that under control, Antonia is eager to volunteer at her school’s peer counseling program in order to add “peer counselor” to her already impressive resume.

Jazz has purple hair, piercings, and tattoos (she might even do drugs and hang out with gangs). Jazz is also the peer Antonia is supposed to counsel. And yet, how could anyone think these two girls are peers?

Even though Antonia is sure her counseling efforts are doomed to fail, she keeps meeting with Jazz who, miraculously, also shows up. As the girls get to know each other it becomes clear that they might have more in common than appearances would suggest. Even more, perhaps, than either girl would like to admit.

As Antonia helps Jazz get her own family life together, Antonia’s own world seems to be falling apart no matter how much she tries to maintain the status quo. As everything starts to unravel, Jazz might be the only one who can help Antonia pull it all together.

This is a book that challenges readers’ perceptions with two disparate, and simultaneously alike, characters. As the title suggests, an important message here is that nothing is as it seems. On another level, Peters reminds readers that appearances are often meaningless without context–something that she provides for both Antonia and Jazz as the novel progresses. Like Antonia, readers begin this novel with a certain idea of how things will turn out. Specifically, Jazz is the troubled teen and Antonia is trying to help her. As Peters delves deeper into both girls’ personal lives, these preconceptions are turned upside down.

Define “Normal” is marketed for children aged 9 to 12 (according to Amazon.com), a range that feels pretty accurate. The writing here is simple, not in a bad way but in a way that will not confuse readers on the younger end of the spectrum. For this reason certain elements of the plot felt predictable to this reader. However that is likely from reading this book for the first time at eighteen rather than from poor writing.

Antonia and Jazz are both strong, resilient characters and give girls a lot to think about. On the other hand, though it might be a hard sell, this book could have an important message for boys as well about how important it is to realize that “normal” is such a relative, and plastic concept. Define “Normal” is in the unique position where it works just as well as assigned reading in school as a book that readers would willingly (and hopefully will!) pick up themselves.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan

The Thief Lord: A Chick Lit Wednesday review (mainly because of the author)

The Thief Lord coverAt first glance it seems likely that Cornelia Funke‘s novel The Thief Lord (2000) will center around the Thief Lord. All the same the story actually starts with Prosper and Bo, brothers who have run away to avoid their nasty aunt who wants to separate them. Convinced that all of the wonderful stories their late mother told them about Venice will be true and keep them safe, the boys make their way to that fair city.

Unfortunately Venice is not as magical as their mother had told them (at least not right away). Just when Prosper is prepared to accept defeat and return his younger brother to the warm and safe, if not loving, home of his aunt, the boys are taken in by a very unusual band of children. Led by Scipio, the Thief Lord, the children live in a condemned theater living off the riches that Scipio steals from Venice’s elite. The children know little else about Scipio, but in exchange for his support and protection they are willing to overlook that small detail.

Meanwhile, the brothers’ aunt has enlisted a private investigator to locate the boys and bring Bo back to her (Prosper will be sent to an orphanage). Like any other investigator worth his salt, Victor soon picks up the trail of the children. The more this trio sees of each other, the more tenuous the children’s existence in the Venice theater seems. Indeed, Victor’s investigation could unearth a secret about the Thief Lord that will change all of their lives. Forever.

The Thief Lord is told in the whimsical, ethereal tone common to some fairy tales. It is entirely appropriate for this story, but also manages to make it that much harder to believe that the story is real. While the book was enjoyable, it always felt like the characters were at a remove–visible but not near enough to discern subtleties. Funke describes Venice and its landscapes beautifully but leaves the characters much less dimensional

I liked that the story had a lot of twists and turns, but by the end of the novel it felt a bit like one too many turns. Funke blends realistic incidents with pure fantasy creating an uneasy combination that sometimes works well in the text and other times left me scratching my head. In some ways it feels like the first and second half of the the story come from two different plots.

After realizing that the novel was originally written in German, I suspect that the different culture and writing conventions might have contributed to my uneasiness in deciding whether I actually liked the book. In summary, The Thief Lord was entertaining and will likely please any young fantasy readers in the house even though it was not completely wonderful.