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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.

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.

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.

Poetry Friday: I Am His, and He Is Mine

Loved with everlasting love, led by grace that love to know;
Gracious Spirit from above, Thou hast taught me it is so!
O this full and perfect peace! O this transport all divine!
In a love which cannot cease, I am His, and He is mine.
In a love which cannot cease, I am His, and He is mine.

Heav’n above is softer blue, Earth around is sweeter green!
Something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen;
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow, flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know, I am His, and He is mine.
Since I know, as now I know, I am His, and He is mine.

Things that once were wild alarms cannot now disturb my rest;
Closed in everlasting arms, pillowed on the loving breast.
O to lie forever here, doubt and care and self resign,
While He whispers in my ear, I am His, and He is mine.
While He whispers in my ear, I am His, and He is mine.

His forever, only His; Who the Lord and me shall part?
Ah, with what a rest of bliss Christ can fill the loving heart!
Heav’n and earth may fade and flee, firstborn light in gloom decline;
But while God and I shall be, I am His, and He is mine.
But while God and I shall be, I am His, and He is mine.
~George W. Robinson

Does being “in Christ” really lend a savor and an intensity to life that “Christless eyes” are lacking? Are the greens greener and the songs gladder? I don’t know, but I think so. I know that I have depth of purpose and security and “abundant life” that I don’t see in those I know who are not walking with the God of the Universe through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Am I happier than non-Christians? No, sometimes I think I am sadder and more intensely hurting, especially when I see the news and feel a small part of the pain of non-Muslims being persecuted in Iraq or a comedian with Parkinson’s and without hope in the U.S or people in my own community who have only themselves, their families, and financial success to live for. I hurt for those who are outside the circle of God’s everlasting love and for those who are walking in darkness. I want to pull them into the light and rest of Jesus’s love. But I can’t force them to follow Him.

And so I pray. For Iraqi Christians and Yazidis. For members of the Islamic State and of Al-Qaeda. For immigrant children and adults, legal and illegal. For comedians and rock stars and plumbers and schoolteachers. For my friend’s son. For my own children. For the world that Christ died to save. And sometimes I cry.

But while God and I shall be, I am His, and He is mine.

Irene Latham at Live Your Poem has the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Midnight Hour Encores by Bruce Brooks

One of my favorite YA novels is The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. So, when I found another YA novel by Mr. Brooks at the used bookstore the other day, I snapped it up immediately.

Midnight Hour Encores is about a cellist, Sibilance T. Spooner, not a basketball player. And it takes place in the mid 1980′s (published in 1986) as the aforementioned Sibilance asks her leftover hippie father Taxi to take her to San Francisco to meet her mother. Taxi, despite his love for 60′s music and culture, has been the responsible parent in Sib’s life, the one who took her to cello lessons, gave her a home, and gave her plenty of space to grow up into one of the world’s most promising cellists and a very confident and prepossessing sixteen year old woman.

However, as Taxi and Sib travel across the country in an old VW bus, they find that each of them has been harboring a few secrets. And when Sib finally meets the mom who left them when Sib was a baby, things become very complicated.

This book was not as good as The Moves Make the Man, at least not as good as I remember that book to be. (I haven’t read it in twenty years, but I liked it a lot.) Midnight Hour Encores did have its moments, and the emphasis on the idea that people grow and change and that people are complicated and hard to pigeonhole—that was good. The casual acceptance of kids and adults having casual sex was a minor aspect of the book, but I could have done without the assumptions. The ending surprised me, in a good way.

If you’re interested in the 1960′s or in the world of top-flight teen musicians or in complicated family relationships, you might enjoy Midnight Hour Encores. If you haven’t read The Moves Make the Man, I highly recommend it, even if you have no interest in basketball whatsoever.

A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck

Alfred Hitchcock films are some of our family’s favorites. Engineer Husband says Vertigo is a masterpiece. Brown Bear Daughter likes The Lady Vanishes. Betsy-Bee and my sister say they are both fans of Rear Window. I rather like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief, only partially due to my crush on Cary Grant.

Author Jim Averbeck harbors a fondness for “Hitch”, too, and he’s made the famous director a central character in his debut middle grade mystery novel, A Hitch at the Fairmont. After his aspiring actress mother drives her car off a cliff, eleven year old Jim Fair is a double orphan. His horrible Aunt Edith, his sole surviving relative, takes him to live with her at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, but when Aunt Edith disappears, Alfred Hitchcock is the only adult Jim can trust to help him find his awful aunt and avoid the social worker who wants to take him to an orphanage.

There are lots of reverences and allusions to the canon of Hitchcock films as Jim and Mr. Hitchcock careen through their own film-worthy adventure. It’s San Francisco, and one chapter takes place at the Mission Dolores. Also a ghost lady lures the crooks out of hiding. (Vertigo) Jim gets a ransom note embedded in a news article titled “Birds Terrorize Coastal Town” (The Birds). Jim and Hitch briefly mull a theory that Aunt Edith might have been carried out of the hotel, dismembered, in several suitcases or trunks, and another part of the action takes place in a building that is a “camera obscure” that the two use to spy on their suspect (Rear Window). Hitchcock talks to the social worker from the shower while pretending to be Aunt Edith shaving his/her leg (shades of Psycho!). In The Lady Vanishes and in North by Northwest, the police disbelieve the witnesses to a kidnapping/disappearance, and the same thing happens in A Hitch at the Fairmont. And Jim and his mentor Hitchcock meet the kidnappers in a church while the congregation is singing a hymn, similar to the Ambrose Chapel scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I’m sure that fans will find several more echoes of Hitchcock films as they read A Hitch at the Fairmont, and middle grade readers who are not familiar with the movies Mr. Hitchcock directed might find this book an entertaining introduction to Hitch. I thought the book was fun and intriguing, just as Alfred Hitchcock’s movies were.