Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Throne of Glass--Sarah J. Maas
August 2012 by Bloomsbury
406 pages--Goodreads

Meet Celaena Sardothien.
Beautiful. Deadly.
Destined for greatness.

In the dark, filthy salt mines of Endovier, an eighteen-year-old girl is serving a life sentence. She is a trained assassin, the best of her kind, but she made a fatal mistake: she got caught.

Young Captain Westfall offers her a deal: her freedom in return for one huge sacrifice. Celaena must represent the prince in a to-the-death tournament—fighting the most gifted thieves and assassins in the land. Live or die, Celaena will be free. Win or lose, she is about to discover her true destiny. 

I would call Throne of Glass a solid meh, except that I care too much about it for it to just be a blah book.  I wanted to like it.  I still want to like it.  So many people say the series is amazing and the covers are cool, and are assassins and political intrigue and arhgablargastarg!  

I have a lot to say.  I may get a bit ranty.

First, I see this book compared to The Girl of Fire and Thorns a lot.  Stop comparing them.  Right now.  They are not the same in tone or plot or character or setting or style or anything.  Just because two fantasy romance YAs with female protagonists came out at roughly the same time does not mean the two books are similar.  Besides, Girl of Fire and Thrones is a much stronger and more enjoyable novel.

Second, the shifting POVs are a bit shaky, especially at the beginning of the novel.  I think this is what rubbed me the wrong way initially, and it made me more critical as the book progressed.  We spend nearly all our time in 3rd person limited, dipping into Celeana's thoughts.  At some chapter breaks we change to 3rd person limited Chaol or Dorian.  Fine.  Not terribly clear at first, but fine.  But randomly, in the middle of some chapters, without indication, and especially near the beginning of the novel, we switch POVs for a couple sentences or paragraphs.  No reason is given for why we're hopping into Chaol's brain for a second.  We don't know why it should matter that we're now getting Dorian's thoughts but only for these two sentences.  Or we're following some super temporary omniscient narrator and seeing into multiple heads at a time.  It's just clumsy and confusing and annoying.

Probably my biggest problem with the novel:  I am so sick of love triangles.  I can enjoy a good romantic subplot.  I can even enjoy a good romantic foreplot.  But these stupid, angsty triangles-are-cool-right-now, weak excuses for plots are driving me insane.  If Celaena just had feelings for Chaol, that would be fine, though it would still be a pretty weak romance.  But the Prince was just terrible.  Spoiled, arrogant, entitled, and uninteresting.  As a side character he would be annoying, but as a romantic interest I couldn't stand him.  All the time spent mooning over the prince could have been spent on Nehemia, easily the most interesting character in the book .  Rebel spy; witty, fighting princess from conquered lands?  Why isn't more of the book about her?  Granted, there are actually some good plot reasons for this, and it looks like she might get more screen time in later books.  But I just wanted to leave the boys behind and have Celeana and Nehemia to go off monster-slaying and empire-overthrowing with occasional side trips for Celeana to pull a heist with Nox.

The villains, meanwhile, are too obvious to be very interesting.  Spoiler paragraph.  It is pretty clear from pretty early on that Pennington and Kaltain are up to no good.  Maas isn't trying to be sneaky there.  But the question who's butchering the champions is supposed to be the driving mystery of the whole book.  I'm supposed to wonder.  I'm supposed to be surprised.  I'm supposed to have several wrong guesses before the true villain is finally revealed.  Instead we get the obviously distasteful brute named after the most famous murderer in all of Western literature who's being manipulated by Pennington, who we already know is a bad guy.  With what we get in the final chapter, I could see Pennington and the king becoming more interesting, but overall I wanted better antagonists.

And Celeana herself is unrealistic.  Not that she's too skilled; I can buy that.  Nor is she too vain; her need for others to recognize and applaud her skill fits her character.  But she's an assassin--trained to live in the shadows, to be alert, to trust no one.  And she was betrayed.  AND she's spent the last year in the salt mine death trap.  Yet she keeps falling asleep, in seconds, no problem, around people she doesn't fully trust, or continues to sleep soundly when they sneak into her room.  I don't need full on just-off-the-streets Vin paranoia, but a little more caution and attentiveness from the supposed best assassin in the land would be nice.  Yes, this sound nit-picky, but come on.  She specifically makes her door hinge squeaky so people can't sneak into her room, then two scenes later the Prince sneaks in to watch her sleep (which was creepy by the way) without the door making noise or Celeana waking up, then two scenes after that the door is squeaky again and she wakes up when Chaol comes in to report another murder.  I expect better from my assassins.

But in spite of all this, I do think I will try the first 50 pages or so of book 2.  I have heard from multiple people that the series gets better, that book one is the weakest, that if I just stick it out I'll be satisfied.  There is potential.  The mystery of the Wyrdmarks, the fae realm, Celeana's past, more Nehemia, more assassination.  Book two could be good.  Or it could get bogged down by the stupid love triangle.  I guess I'll see.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review: The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

The Family Romanov--Candace Fleming
January 2014 by Schwartz & Wade
304 pages--Goodreads

From the acclaimed author of Amelia Lost and The Lincolns comes a heartrending narrative nonfiction page-turner. When Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, inherited the throne in 1894, he was unprepared to do so. With their four daughters (including Anastasia) and only son, a hemophiliac, Nicholas and his reclusive wife, Alexandra, buried their heads in the sand, living a life of opulence as World War I raged outside their door and political unrest grew into the Russian Revolution.

Deftly maneuvering between the lives of the Romanovs and the plight of Russia’s peasants and urban workers—and their eventual uprising—Fleming offers up a fascinating portrait, complete with inserts featuring period photographs and compelling primary-source material that brings it all to life.

This was a really interesting read.  I was surprised by some of the things I learned, like that the Romanovs were not all killed the very night of the revolution as Bolsheviks stormed the imperial palace.  Granted, all of my previous knowledge about the Romanovs came from the movie Anastasia, so it's not like I was any sort of expert on the family or that time period or anything at all about Russia.  But it still surprised me.  We (I) internalize probably far too much of the faux history presented in fictional tales.  

The Family Romanov:  Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia (great title by the way, I love long titles) is more than just a biography of Nicholas Romanov.  It is more even than a biography of him and his family.  This book covers the the legacy of the Romanovs, Nicholas and his family, his poor decisions as a ruler, the Russian aristocracy, the Russian peasantry, the development of the Bolsheviks, Lenin, civil unrest, the revolution, the early attempts at democracy, the transition to communism, the reality of communist Russia not living up to Lenin's ideals, the rise of Stalin, the execution of the royal family, conspiracy theories about the potential escape of some of the royal children, and the discovery of the Romanovs' bodies years later.  Not bad for a children's nonfiction. 

Fleming takes this ambitious scope and presents a narrative that is both interesting and easy to follow.  We really get to know Nicholas and the other Romanovs and we sympathize with them as people.  But we also see how their awful decisions and their oppression of the people led to civil unrest and eventually revolution.

I listened to this on audiobook (which was great for the pronunciations I never would have gotten on my own), so I missed out on all the great photographs in the physical copy.  I've heard they're amazing, so I'll have to drop in at the library and flip through a copy so I can see them.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Bree Newsome--Real Life Super Hero

Photo Credit:  Adam Anderson
If you have not yet read about Bree Newsome's beautiful act of civil disobedience, you need to read this story.  We often think of nonviolent protest as a thing of the past, something that Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi did, but not something that happens anymore.  But of course it does.  Racism is not a relic of the past, and neither is protest against it.

I was inspired by Newsome's courage, as well as by the many pieces of art that have sprung up around her action, to write this poem.  

Now is the Time for True Courage
Art Credit: Rebecca Cohen

Do you see her
standing atop that flagpole?
Bree Newsome
scaled 400 years of oppression
to strike down a symbol of hate.

Do you see her?
Avenging angel of Justice
armed not the sword but with
the word of God.
Her cape flutters in the wind
where a flag once flew.
Art Credit:  Eric Orr
She, beacon of hope
standing atop that flagpole,
denounces a heritage of violence.
Justice was on her side
the day Bree Newsome
scaled 400 years of oppression
to strike down a symbol of hate.

Do you see her?
Beautiful Black woman,
warrior of power and truth,
no mask hides her face.
Standing atop that flagpole
Art Credit:  @Niall_JayDubb
she can see the
mothers who went before her
to sit on that bus,
to cross that bridge,
to walk into that school,
to register for that vote,
to worship in that church.
And they were with her the day Bree Newsome
scaled 400 years of oppression
to strike down a symbol of hate.

And I know no one woman can
fly faster than all the bullets speeding into black bodies
Art Credit:  Legends Press Comics
in churches,
on playgrounds,
on streets,
in homes.
But when I see Bree Newsome
scale 400 years of oppression
to strike down a symbol of hate,
I believe in courage.
I believe in hope.
I believe that we can change.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What I'm Reading

I've never been one for TBR posts/videos.  I know a lot of bloggers do them, but they just don't work for me.  I don't plan out my reading schedule month-by-month.  Since I don't accept review copies, I don't need to get to a particular book within a particular timeline; I just finish my current book and then decide to read next based on what I feel like reading.  And I figured that since everything I read would show up in a review, a TBR post would be redundant.  

But now that I'm not doing as many review posts, the redundancy is gone and I feel like talking about what I'm reading, so let's get down to it.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Everyone knows Mango Street, or if they don't they should (but really?  you never read "My Name"?  ever in any of your English classes?  really?  go read it now.)  So I won't bother with a description.  Cisneros' style is really interesting.  She just gives us little snapshots of her life and she has this talent for starting a vignette with a happy optimistic tone and then gut punching  you in the last line. And yet it's not a depressing book.  And the way she crafts her words!  I'm about halfway in and am really enjoying it.

The Family Romanov by Candace Flemming

This biography is ostensibly about the Romanov family, and it is.  But it is as much, if not more, a history of Russia itself in the years leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution as well as the formation of the Soviet Union.  It's really interesting get to know the ruling family better, and I know almost nothing about the formation of the Soviet Union, so this is all new information for me.  Teach me MOAR!  I'm listening to this one on audiobook, so I'm missing out on all the cool pictures, but even the narration is good.  

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool (historical fiction), Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr (contemporary fiction), How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (contemporary fiction), The Wand in the Word by Leonard S. Marcus (nonfiction, interviews with fantasy writers)

I'm reading this set for a children's literature symposium I'll be attending in a few weeks.  Three days of just listening to these awesome children's authors (plus Gene Luen Yang and Jon Klassen and Marilyn Singer) and buying lots of their books.  I could just go and listen, but the experience is richer (and you can earn credit) if you've read some of their work.  And it's good work; I started The Wand in the Word last night and am really enjoying getting to know some of my favorite authors better.  

Aaaand then there are the many, many stacks and boxes of books from my classroom library that I, ever diligent teacher, thought I might get to over the summer.  

I haven't read a single one so far.



Hey, I actually did read the purple Nathan Hale book down there in the box in the bottom picture.  It's his latest one about Harriet Tubman.  But I bought it after summer started in preparation for a presentation by Nathan Hale so I could have him sign it, so I'm not sure that it counts.  Good book, though.

I would say I was ambitious when I picked out almost 30 books to bring home, but the truth is I was just indecisive.

So that's what I'm reading, or at least what I'm supposed to be reading.  What's in your reading stack these days?  Let me know or leave a link in the comments below.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Grand Theft Poetry

That writing summer institute from my last post, I'm going to keep talking about it. 

 Each morning we started with nibbles (breakfast) and scribbles (a writing prompt).  Seriously, there was sooooo much food at this thing.  This was our nibble on the final day:  kolaches from Hruska's.  Still warm.  They're like Danishes but without the glaze, just a fluffy, flaky, squishy roll with jam in the middle.  Or cream cheese.  Or both.  I may or may not have gone to this bakery several times since institute ended to buy more of them.  And it only ended last week.

But anyways, we start each day with a nibble and a scribble.  The scribble on our last day was an activity that I am definitely stealing next year for my classroom:  Grand Theft Poetry.  It's like a more structured version of found poetry.  Start by giving all of your students a poetry book (thank you public library).  Open up to a random page in your book, write down a random line, and pass your book to the right.  Continue doing this until you have amassed a good list of stolen lines.  Then revise for seven minutes or so, taking words out, rearranging lines, adding things, playing around with line breaks.  Viola.  Instant poem.
I love this activity for a number of teacherly reasons that I won't get into at the moment because that's not the point of this post.  Instead, I will share the poem that came out of this scribble.  I'm rather proud of it.  It's certainly not perfect, but I like the way it came out. 

Let Me Be Not Mad

I may be mad,
for I am sick of love.
Love is the same at different times to different people,
a timepiece out of sync.
Love is a new heaven begun,
a new hell to endure.

Into the dangerous world I leapt,
full of folly,

I think we are all mad.

Spotty Posts

Hello, world.  Things have been a little dry here lately.  A post here, a post there.  This is for a number of reasons.  I've been teaching and thus have less time than I used to.  I also got a bit burned out on book reviews. I felt like I was saying the same thing about every book, and I wasn't saying anything that other reviewers weren't already saying.  So I stopped for the most part.

But all of that is about to change, sort of.  I just spent the last three weeks at the Central Utah Writing Project's summer institute.  For three weeks I wrote, read, taught, talked about using writing in the classroom, ate (seriously, so much delicious food), and read some more.  Seriously, if you are a teacher, you have to go to this thing.  Look up the National Writing Project for your state and just go.  It was the best three weeks I've spent in a summer.

And the best thing about it was that it taught me to be a writer again.  To write what I want to write.  To write every day.  To get feedback from other writers.  To publish.  I'm still on a post-CUWP high, and I want to keep this up.  I want to keep writing.  So, the plan for now is to use this blog as a place to put my writing.  Not all of it, as some of it makes no sense, some of it is meant for a very specific audience, and some of it is not yet polished enough for publication.  But some of it will show up here from time to time.  Some will be poetry, some fictional prose, heck, maybe even a book review now and again when I read something I really like and actually have something substantive to say.  The point of this blog was always to write what I felt like writing, so that's what I'm doing.  Because I am a writer.  Welcome back.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: A World Away by Nancy Grossman

A World AwayA World Away--Nancy Grossman
July 2012 by Hyperion
400 page--Goodreads

A summer of firsts

Sixteen-year-old Eliza Miller has never made a phone call, never tried on a pair of jeans, never sat in a darkened theater waiting for a movie to start. She's never even talked to someone her age who isn't Amish, like her.

A summer of good-byes

When she leaves her close-knit family to spend the summer as a nanny in suburban Chicago, a part of her can't wait to leave behind everything she knows. She can't imagine the secrets she will uncover, the friends she will make, the surprises and temptations of a way of life so different from her own.

A summer of impossible choice

Every minute Eliza spends with her new friend Josh feels as good as listening to music for the first time, and she wonders whether there might be a place for her in his world. But as summer wanes, she misses the people she has left behind, and the plain life she once took for granted. Eliza will have to decide for herself where she belongs. Whichever choice she makes, she knows she will lose someone she loves.

Eliza's journey really resonated with me.  Knowing what was expected of her, but still being curious about the outside world.  The tension between living authentically but letting people down and living a lie that preserves everyone's expectations.  Feeling torn between two worlds and seeing no way to choose both.  I love how the novel resolved.  I thought that Grossman would have to end before Eliza revealed or made her choice because many readers would never understand why Eliza would choose an Amish life and many others would feel betrayed if she chose an English life.  But in the end, this worked really well.  Eliza's choice was the right choice for her.  It made sense for her and her journey, and Grossman didn't try to sell it as the only choice that should be made.

The shunning was just heartbreaking.  I think all religions, from the most isolated to the most open, participate in shunning to some degree.  Communities are defined in part by borders, so what do you do when someone crosses those borders?  I don't have a lot of great answers to that, nor do my personal religious affiliations, but I know they shouldn't shun.  Rules should not be more important than people.  In that light, I loved the relationship between Beth and Eliza's mother.  I can't say too much without spoiling things, but it was just...right.

And the romance wasn't stupid and corny!  I know that doesn't sound like high praise, but it is.  In recent years I've lost a lot of patience with YA romances.  I feel that they usually get in the way of the much more interesting parts of the story.  This book did not make me swoon.  In fact there may have been a bit of eye rolling.  But it was fine for the most part.  And I am so glad that Eliza explicitly made her decision for herself and not for a boy.  This could have turned into an awful triangle where she lived her life based on the boy she choose, but it wasn't.  Thank you YA gods.  I will go sacrifice the requisite goat.

Minor complaint time.  Super minor.  Barely even a thing:  The book is slightly dated.  This feels weird to say since the book was only published in 2012, but it was.  It wasn't anything huge: a brief mention of renting a movie from a rental store, the continued popular existence of CDs, and one of those early generation ipods that used the spinny circle thing to menu options.  I wanted one of those so bad in high school!  Ahem.  Back to the review.  Other than those minor dated references, Eliza's transition into the "normal" world worked really well.   I loved her exploration of modern technologies and the minor mix-ups, like thinking that Josh worked at a fruit stand since he sold Apples.

A World Away appeals to the universal experience of feeling out of place and stuck.  While it tells a very specific story, many readers will find elements of themselves in Eliza.


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