Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas

I can’t believe I read the whole thing. I even started the second book in the series, Crown of Midnight. Wikipedia says, “The series has received critical acclaim and appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list.” I am not impressed. And hereafter, be warned that since I didn’t like the book very much, and I don’t recommend it, there may be spoilers in my review.

The protagonist, Celaena Sardothien, aside from having an annoyingly unpronounceable first name, seems to be a failed attempt at creating a forceful, aggressive, feminist Cinderella heroine. Author Sarah Maas said in an interview, “I’d love for some young woman to read [Throne of Glass] and feel empowered.” Celaena is supposed to be a master assassin who has survived a year in the salt mines of Endevier, a horrific prison/work camp. However, she comes across to me as a frivolous girl who loves food, especially sweets, and clothes and parties and hunky guys. She is an expert with weapons of any make or model, but in the entire course of Throne of Glass, Celaena never actually assassinates anyone. (She does kill a sort of monster demon cat, but no people.) She mostly depends on the guys, a friend from another country named Nehemia, and some kind of goddess ancestor ghost named Queen Elena, to rescue her from the ultimate dangers in which she finds herself embroiled in an assassin’s competition that forms the backbone of the plot of Throne of Glass.

The book includes (of course) a love triangle. Celeana is pursued by both Prince Darian and Captain of the Guard Chaol (another annoying name). She frequently expresses her desire (in her thoughts) to kiss Darien, and eventually she does. But there’s no chemistry or interest to the budding romance between the assassin and the prince. Chaol is more the strong, silent type, and he and Celeana never get to the point of kissing. The verbal sparring and flirting that goes on between Celeana and each of the guys is neither witty nor romantic; in fact, it’s mostly boring. I didn’t really care which man Celeana chose, and at least in the first book of the series, I wasn’t disappointed because she chooses neither, keeping them both on the string.

So many contradictions marred the plot of this Hunger Games wannabe. Celeana is deathly afraid of and hates the King of Adarlan, her employer, but she is sure her skills are so developed that she could assassinate him in a heartbeat. She says she has no choice but to enter and win the competition to become the King’s Champion, but when she finds a way to escape from the castle and the competition, she decides to wait and see what happens. Some of the competitors are being murdered in a particularly gruesome way, but Celaena is worried about whether or not she is invited to the ball and pouts when she is not.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Throne of Glass is poorly plotted and the characters are unbelievably shallow and contradictory. Celaena is a twit, and I would hate to meet the young woman who is inspired by her character. The series doesn’t improve in the first few chapters of the second book, Crown of Midnight, in which our heroine goes on an extravagant shopping trip for ball gowns in between assassination assignments, so I gave up.

Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous by J.B. Cheaney

The bus in question is a school bus, and the riders include several fifth, sixth and seventh graders and some “littles.” The story begins with the bus in a ditch in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, and then the rest of the story is a series of flashback chapters told from the point of view of several different bus riders about what happened throughout the school year to get the bus and its passengers to the day of the fateful accident.

Spencer is a genius, just back from a high-powered summer physics camp. Jay is Spencer’s best friend and the kid most likely to play pro-football. Shelley is something of a diva/singer/dancer, already worried about next summer and the performing arts camp in California that she wants to attend. Miranda is the side-kick who latches onto any BFF who will pay her some attention and eat lunch with her in the cafeteria. Bender is the bully, the kid who just might take your lunch money or trip you on a whim if you don’t watch out. Kaitlynn is a blabbermouth, full of ideas. Igor is probably ADHD, always in motion and looking for attention. Alice is the new girl who reads all the time. And Michael—well, Michael is the only African American kid on the bus, and no one knows what he’s thinking because he doesn’t say much to anyone.

I was intrigued and eager to keep reading to see how the author would tie together the stories of all the characters and their interactions with each other. For the most part, all of the loose ends were knotted, which is how I like my stories to be. I believe most kids would agree with me. Ambiguous endings are for literary adult types. This satisfying ending might be a little rushed, but it’s good and not forced.

The only thing that bothered me about the book is that the story is written in present tense. I guess this present tense choice lends some immediacy or nearness to the story, but I sometimes found it distracting. Mostly I tried to ignore it, although my brain insisted on “translating” the story into past tense for me at strategic moments.

Writer’s Digest: The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense.

Overall, I highly recommend Ms. Cheaney’s Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous for middle grade readers who enjoy suspense and family/school stories. The plot and the writing remind me of authors such as Caroline B. Cooney (The Face on the Milk Carton) and Margaret Peterson Haddix (Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey), so I would recommend it as a read alike for those, maybe for a slightly younger crowd, say fifth through seventh graders.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi.

In the course of one evening, I read this spiritual autobiography of a Muslim who, over a period of years of study and debate, converted to Christianity. I daresay one could give it a week, or a month, and not mine completely all the information and food for thought contained therein. I’ll simply hit a few of the ideas and impressions that stood out for me.

1)Islam is as fragmented with cults, sects, and denominations as is Christianity, if not more so. Mr. Quereshi’s family were (still are for the most part) members of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam. Other Muslims consider the Ahmadiyya “not true Muslims.” Mr. Qureshi goes over the differences between Ahmadiyya and other forms of Islam in an elementary fashion in the book, but what I got out of the entire discussion was that while the Ahmadiyya consider themselves to be orthodox Muslims because they pray and recite Quran like other Muslims and believe and recite the Shahadah like other Muslims, those other Muslims do not accept the Ahmadiyya as orthodox followers of Muhammed and of Allah.
Many Muslims will not give credence to Mr. Qureshi’s arguments because his family’s faith is considered to be outside the pale of Muslim orthodoxy in the first place.

2)There is a great divide between the East and the West in regards to their approach to learning and authority.

“People from Eastern Islamic cultures generally assess truth through lines of authority, not individual reasoning. Of course, individuals do engage in critical reasoning in the East, but on average it is relatively less valued and far less prevalent than in the West. Leaders have done the critical reasoning, and leaders know best.”

Mr. Qureshi goes into this divide and its repercussions in relation to explorations of religious truth in part two of his book.

3)Dreams and visions were a part of Nabeel Qureshi’s conversion process. Because I approach revelation of truth and Christianity from a Western, scientific mindset, the idea of God revealing himself through dreams and visions seems subjective and prone to misunderstanding and dispute in my eyes. However, in a paper at Ravi Zacharias’ website, Josh McDowell has this to say about God’s use of dreams and visions to draw seekers to himself:

“Dreams and visions do not convert people; the gospel does. These seekers begin a personal or spiritual journey to find the Truth. As was the case for Nabeel, the dreams lead them to the scriptures and to believers who can share Jesus with them. It is the gospel through the Holy Spirit that converts people.”

That formulation makes sense to me.

4)Mr. Qureshi emphasizes in his story the importance of family and tradition to the Muslim, and parts of his book are heart-wrenching because he tells in detail of the price he and his family had to pay for him to become a follower of Jesus Christ. He had to give up his identity as a Muslim, as a good, loving, obedient son, and a carrier of the family honor and tradition. As he came to an intellectual assent to the truth of the gospel, Mr. Qureshi had to decide whether he was willing to pay this emotional price (and require it of his family) in order to follow the truth that he found in Jesus. I wondered as I read whether I would be willing to pay such a price were it required of me.

I recommend Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus to Christian and non-Christian readers alike. If you read the book with an open mind, you will find yourself questioning your own pre-suppositions, a good thing for all of us to do every now and then.

Saturday Review of Books: August 30, 2014


“I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.” ~Isaac Asimov

SatReviewbuttonWelcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read. That’s how my own TBR list has become completely unmanageable and the reason I can’t join any reading challenges. I have my own personal challenge that never ends.

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

“Not everybody can be the rock at the top of the pile. There have to be some rocks at the bottom to support those at the top.”

What if you’re a kid who’s just kind of slow in school? No label, no dyslexia, no dysgraphia, no autism spectrum, no learning disability. School is just hard for you, and you’re almost smart enough to pass your spelling test, almost good at tetherball, almost cool, almost good enough at something to make your parents proud. But not quite.

That’s Albie. I think Lisa Graff has drawn a vivid character sketch of a boy who’s just average, maybe a little below average, in intelligence, but full of heart. Albie isn’t a saint any more than he’s a genius. But his heart is in the right place. He tries to do the right thing—as soon as he figures out what that right thing is. He makes mistakes. He loses a couple of good friends over the course of the story when he does and says things that are not exactly best practice. But Albie is endearing and kind—most of the time.

I wonder what parents and kids and teachers are going to think of this antithesis of the “you are special” message that is so embedded in most middle grade fiction. Albie isn’t really special; he’s kind of an anti-hero, a Napoleon Dynamite, not very good at anything but willing to keep plugging at it anyway. He’s not Leo the Late Bloomer; nor is he the classic middle grade fantasy hero who discovers that he is really a prince in disguise. He doesn’t have a superpower. Albie is just a below average intelligence, untalented, unexceptional kid. Are parents OK with the idea that their kid may be “almost”? Are kids going to want Albie to become something—smarter, stronger, braver, more talented—for them to identify and like him? Are teachers going to be OK with the idea that most kids never will “excel” (otherwise it wouldn’t be excelling, would it?)

Or do we cling to the idea that all the children are above average in Lake Woebegone?

Albie considers what his math teacher told him about the name-calling/bullying he’s enduring:

“On my way back to class, I thought about what Mr. Clifton said. I wasn’t sure he was right, that I got to decide what words hurt me. Because some words just hurt.

It did hurt when I said it in my head, no matter what Mr. Clifton had told me. That word dummy poked me in the brain, in the stomach, in the chest, every time I heard it.

Dummy.”

The book has a realistic plot development and conclusion, too. Not everything turns out perfect for Albie. The bullies and cool kids don’t suddenly turn over a new leaf and accept Albie for who he is. Albie doesn’t completely figure out how to deal with the hurt that the other kids kids cause him. He loses a good friend when he and the friend do something that Albie knows is wrong. We never know if his parents, especially his dad, come to have more realistic and compassionate expectations for him. But things do turn out almost, and for Albie, and mostly for his parents, that’s good enough.

Magic in the Mix by Annie Barrows

Magic in the Mix is a sequel to the author’s first book about time-traveling twins, The Magic Half (which I’ve not read, unfortunately). Miri and Molly are twins, sort of, who have two older brothers (identical twins) and two younger sisters (also identical twins). Miri and Molly aren’t identical, and they’re not really twins, since Molly “moved” to now from a different time period, the Great Depression. But everybody, including their family, thinks they are fraternal twins, and Miri and Molly are glad to act as twin sisters, part of a very unusual family with three sets of twins and living in a magical house—that no one else besides them knows is magical.

Confusing? Yes, but the book is fun. Moll and Miri get to travel in time again, and their brothers, Ray and Robbie, get to experience the magic, too. But this time the place and time where they travel isn’t much fun: the middle of the Civil War is a dirty, dangerous time. Can Miri and Molly rescue Ray and Robbie who have been captured by the Confederates and are due to be hanged as spies at daybreak? Can Molly save her mother from the tragic future that Molly knows is in store for her?

The time travel rules and rationale had some holes, but they weren’t big, gaping holes. Molly and Miri understand that time travel is only permitted when there is something in the past that they need to “fix.” However, it sometimes seems as if there would never have been anything to fix if Miri and Molly had stayed in their own place and time to begin with. And the explanation of time as a layer cake was less than helpful to my time travel-tortured brain.

Still, this series, by the author of the adult best-seller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and of the children’s beginning readers about Ivy and Bean, is a creditable entry in the time travel/historical fiction genre for middle graders. I was a little uncomfortable when Miri and Molly began talking, almost praying, to the magic, asking “It” to come and take them on an adventure or to show them what to do when they were in trouble. But other than that, the book was a good, solid read.

Bellwether by Connie Willis

Coffee shops. Statistics. Management. Sheep. Fads and trends. Anti-smoking activism. Mail delivery. Chaos theory. Rom-com. Romantic Bride Barbie. Duct tape. Post-modern pink.

All of these forces and subjects and more combine and influence and permutate and percolate to form one funny, sweet, and at the same time thoughtful, romantic comedy of a novel. I was charmed. Bellwether is certainly not as meaty or deep as Willis’s other novels, but it might be a good introduction to her work.

Sandy Foster studies fads, how they start and what they mean. She becomes acquainted with fellow HiTek corporation scientist Bennett O’Reilly by accident—a case of mis-delivered mail. As fate and the highly incompetent mail clerk, Flip, continue to throw Sandy and Bennett together, she becomes interested in his seeming immunity to fads. Bennett, oblivious to Sandy’s growing interest, continues to pursue his interest in chaos theory. Can a flock of sheep and a new office assistant help them to truly see each other and achieve equilibrium?

Connie Willis continues to be my favorite living science fiction author. I highly recommend her other novels:

Doomsday Book, reviewed at Semicolon: my first foray into the world of Connie Willis, and her first book in a series about time-traveling historians.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, reviewed at Semicolon: Comedy and time travel in Victorian England.

Blackout and All Clear, reviewed at Semicolon: one book, really, in two volumes. The time-traveling historians visit World War II England.

Passage: about NDE’s or Near Death Experiences.

Her short stories are probably worth checking out too, if you like short stories. I don’t read short stories, unless I have very good reason to believe that the story up for perusal is worth the aggravation of its being so very short. I haven’t read Ms. Willis’s short stories, but she’s such a good author that I may give them a try.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

Everybody Paints by Susan Goldman Rubin

Everybody Paints!: The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family by Susan Goldman Rubin.

This family biography grabbed me enough that I had to go look up some of the paintings and illustrations that were mentioned, even though many of them are included in the text.

N.C. Wyeth, the patriarch of the family, was known mostly for his illustrations for children’s and adult classic books, such as Treasure Island and The Boy’s King Arthur. He always wanted to be a fine artist rather than “just an illustrator” but as he grew older and his work received many accolades, he began to see that his youthful aspirations had been achieved after all.

Andrew Wyeth, the son, was the youngest of five children in the Wyeth family, all of whom painted and drew and dabbled in artistic endeavors to some extent. Henriette, the oldest, became a well-known painter of portraits and still lifes. Carolyn, the second child, was also a painter and taught art classes in her father’s studio. Nat, the third child, was a successful inventor. Ann was a musician and a composer. Andrew “considered himself the least gifted. However, he was the most dedicated.” Andrew Wyeth was homeschooled because of his bad health, and his father taught him both art and self-discipline. Andrew Wyeth’s paintings became some of the best-known artworks of the twentieth century, including the one below called Christina’s World.

Jamie Wyeth, the grandson, is the younger of two sons of Andrew. His art tends toward portraiture, jack-o-lanterns, domestic animals, and tree roots as subjects, more modern but still in the photo-realistic style of his father and grandfather.

I found Ms. Rubin’s book informative and readable. Young people who are interested in artists and their family life and working habits will find a lot to think about in Everybody Paints! Homeschoolers, too, will find the book and the Wyeth family of interest since their aversion to formal education and their near-obsession with the artistic life is compatible with the “unschooling” philosophy of some homeschool families.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

I think Kathy Appelt is a polarizing author; you either love her style of storytelling or you really find it annoying. I love it.

I thought her tale of hound dog and kittens in the Big Thicket of East Texas, The Underneath, was excellent storytelling, and it should have won the Newbery in 2009 instead of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I didn’t like at all. As for last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp—it should have won something because it’s just as delicious (cane sugar fried pies) and delightful (raccoon scouts who live inside an old rusted De Soto) as The Underneath was.

Again, as in The Underneath, Ms. Appelt’s style takes some getting used to. The chapters, or scenes, are very short, two to four pages each, and the focus and point of view are constantly switching form one set of characters and one plot strand to another. But at the end everything converges in the East Texas swampland that made the setting of The Underneath so memorable.

If the setting is the same, True Blue Scouts has all new characters: Bingo and J’miah, Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts; twelve year old Chapparal Brayburn who has just become the man of the house after the death of his beloved grandfather; Jaeger Stitch, World Champion Gator Wrestler of the Northern Hemisphere; Sonny Boy Beaucoup, current owner of the Sugar Man Swamp, Buzzie and Clydine, leaders of the Farrow Gang of feral hogs; and of course, the Sugar Man himself, “taller than his cousin Sasquatch, taller than Barmanou, way taller than the Yeti. His arms were like the cedar trees that were taking root all around, tough and sinuous. His hands were as wide and big as palmetto ferns. His hair looked just like the Spanish moss that hung on the north side of the cypress trees, and the rest of his body was covered in rough black fur . . . You could say that he was made up of bits and pieces of every living creature in the swamp, every duck, fx lizard, and catfish, every pitcher plant, muskrat, and termite.”

And the plot is complicated by a white “Lord God bird” that may or may not be mythical, a 1949 De Soto lost in the swamp, the delicious-ness of Brayburn fried pies, sugar cane guarded by a whole nest of canebrake rattlers, and the rapacious greed of Jaeger Stitch and Sonny Boy Beaucoup. If you liked The Underneath, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is a must read. If you disliked the animal abuse that was part of the story in The Underneath, then be assured that no animals (except maybe alligators and even the alligators survive) are harmed in the reading of this book. Some readers might be offended by the way that Appelt uses “Lord God” as a sort of exclamation in a couple of places as well as being the name of the bird, but I thought it was a sort of prayer or invocation of the blessing of God himself. Plus, if you were to read this book aloud, as it begs to be shared, you could leave those references out.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp was a National Book Award finalist, but why Kathy Appelt keeps being honored and runner-upped instead of taking the prize, I don’t know. Maybe it’s that polarizing thing I mentioned. At any rate, award or no, you will enjoy True Blue Scouts. No question about it. Unless you’re at the opposite pole.