Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Favorite Books of 2018

Snoopy reading book
It’s that time of year again when I like to share my favorite books of the past year. (Just to clarify, this list doesn’t represent every book I read in the past year, and placement on this list doesn’t necessarily mean a book was published in 2018. Instead, these are books I read for the very first time in 2018.) So with that out of the way, on to the list! 🙂

8. The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
Premise: The best known and most beloved work of literary pioneer Mary Austin, 1903’s “The Land of Little Rain” is a collection of 14 vignettes paying poetic homage to the arid beauty of the lands of Death Valley and the Mojave. An amateur naturalist and a keen observer of human influence on the landscape, Austin here introduces us, in her inimitable way, to the wildlife, the people, and the unique problems and attractions of these sandy reaches in such essays as “The Mesa Trail,” “Shoshone Land,” “Water Borders,” “Nurslings of the Sky,” and others. The author herself believed that she had “done for the desert what Thoreau did for New England.”

My Thoughts: I usually don’t gravitate towards nature books, but I enjoyed this essay collection which explores aspects of the American Southwest – from flora and fauna to urbanization – through vivid description and a storytelling style. It was a pleasant find that was also a free Kindle book.

7. Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star Gazer by Leslie L. Peltier
Long out of print, the much-loved autobiography of celebrated comet-hunter Leslie Peltier is being reissued on the 100th anniversary of his birth. In a career spanning six decades and using telescopes from 2 to 12 inches in diameter, Peltier discovered a dozen comets and six novae and made more than 100,000 observations of variable stars. In “Starlight Nights,” he recalls these achievements and reflects on the meaning of observational astronomy as well as all of nature.

My Thoughts: I remember seeing this book advertised years ago in a Sky & Telescope magazine, but it took me this long to finally read it! I thoroughly enjoyed this as Peltier relates his passion for stargazing and astronomy in a warm, inviting way that I could perfectly relate to as a stargazer myself.

6. Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Premise: Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn’t help it – Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn’t fit anywhere else. And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it’s never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it’s up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she’s read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn’t the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.

My Thoughts: This was one of the first books I read in 2018, and I knew early on that it would earn a spot on my year-end list. This is a lovely retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen that explores the bittersweet process of growing up by taking a creative spin on how getting older can be both exciting and sobering. It was a very engaging read as well as appreciatively thoughtful.

5. The Girl from the Savoy by Hazel Gaynor
Premise: Dolly Lane is a dreamer; a downtrodden maid who longs to dance on the London stage, but her life has been fractured by the Great War. Memories of the soldier she loved, of secret shame and profound loss, by turns pull her back and spur her on to make a better life. When she finds employment as a chambermaid at London’s grandest hotel, The Savoy, Dolly takes a step closer to the glittering lives of the Bright Young Things who thrive on champagne, jazz and rebellion. Right now, she must exist on the fringes of power, wealth and glamor—she must remain invisible and unimportant. But her fortunes take an unexpected turn when she responds to a struggling songwriter’s advertisement for a ‘muse’ and finds herself thrust into London’s exhilarating theatre scene and into the lives of celebrated actress, Loretta May, and her brother, Perry. Loretta and Perry may have the life Dolly aspires to, but they too are searching for something. Now, at the precipice of the life she has and the one she longs for, the girl from The Savoy must make difficult choices: between two men; between two classes, between everything she knows and everything she dreams of. A brighter future is tantalizingly close—but can a girl like Dolly ever truly leave her past behind?

My Thoughts: My only caveat with this novel is that it contains a brief rape scene near the end, but I ultimately forgave it because it ties into the story. That aside, I really enjoyed this novel, which has the lead characters taking turns weaving their respective story threads among each other. I’m usually not fond of multiple POVs, but these were easy to follow and it helped that the cast itself was engaging. While the ending wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, I think it’s a perfect fit for this frothy, atmospheric read.

4. Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
Premise: Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power—something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows. Akos is the son of a farmer and an oracle from the frozen nation-planet of Thuvhe. Protected by his unusual currentgift, Akos is generous in spirit, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get his brother out alive—no matter what the cost. Then Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, and the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. Will they help each other to survive, or will they destroy one another?

My Thoughts: After reading the Divergent trilogy and being less than impressed, I wanted to see what else Roth could do because I think she’s a capable writer. This novel takes some of the flaws with the Divergent trilogy (particularly world-building) and significantly improves upon them. Likewise, I enjoyed the dynamic among the three lead characters, particularly between Cyra and Akos, as well as the creative focus on personal talents as powers. Overall, Carve the Mark was solidly entertaining SF.

3. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce
Premise: It is 1988. On a dead-end street in a run-down suburb there is a music shop that stands small and brightly lit, jam-packed with records of every kind. Like a beacon, the shop attracts the lonely, the sleepless, and the adrift; Frank, the shop’s owner, has a way of connecting his customers with just the piece of music they need. Then, one day, into his shop comes a beautiful young woman, Ilse Brauchmann, who asks Frank to teach her about music. Terrified of real closeness, Frank feels compelled to turn and run, yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems, and Frank has old wounds that threaten to reopen, as well as a past it seems he will never leave behind. Can a man who is so in tune with other people’s needs be so incapable of connecting with the one person who might save him? The journey that these two quirky, wonderful characters make in order to overcome their emotional baggage speaks to the healing power of music – and love – in this poignant, ultimately joyful work of fiction.

My Thoughts: This novel surprised me with how much I liked it as it possesses two story elements I normally shy away from, an ensemble cast and a character-driven plot. However, I instantly connected with the characters, especially Frank who takes his love for music to a whole new level that sees music as a means by which to soothe and nurture the soul. I’m someone who listens to certain songs at times because they match my mood or I find them helpful in getting inspired to write; so to see this reflected in Frank’s character was very relatable for me. Likewise, the plot was pretty straight forwarded yet highly enjoyable thanks to the colorful cast and ends of a well-deserved happy note. I really couldn’t ask for more!

2. Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

Premise: On Batuu, at the edges of the Unknown Regions, a threat to the Empire is taking root–its existence little more than a glimmer, its consequences as yet unknowable. But it is troubling enough to the Imperial leader to warrant investigation by his most powerful agents: ruthless enforcer Lord Darth Vader and brilliant strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn. Fierce rivals for the emperor’s favor, and outspoken adversaries on Imperial affairs–including the Death Star project–the formidable pair seem unlikely partners for such a crucial mission. But the Emperor knows it’s not the first time Vader and Thrawn have joined forces. And there’s more behind his royal command than either man suspects. In what seems like a lifetime ago, General Anakin Skywalker of the Galactic Republic, and Commander Mitth’raw’nuruodo, officer of the Chiss Ascendancy, crossed paths for the first time. One on a desperate personal quest, the other with motives unknown . . . and undisclosed. But facing a gauntlet of dangers on a far-flung world, they forged an uneasy alliance–neither remotely aware of what their futures held in store. Now, thrust together once more, they find themselves bound again for the planet where they once fought side by side. There they will be doubly challenged–by a test of their allegiance to the Empire . . . and an enemy that threatens even their combined might.

My Thought: This was my most anticipated new release of 2018. It certainly didn’t disappoint and provided even more fascinating insights and depth into Thrawn as a character, his motivations, and the Chiss themselves. This book was a great, hit-the-ground-running follow up to its predecessor, Star Wars: Thrawn, and lays the groundwork for more Thrawn stories (hopefully!) to come.

1. The Devil’s West trilogy (Silver On the Road, The Cold Eye, Red Waters Rising) by Laura Anne Gilman
Premise – Silver On the Road: On her sixteenth birthday, Isobel makes the choice to work for the devil in his territory west of the Mississippi. But this is not the devil you know. This is a being who deals fairly with immense—but not unlimited—power, who offers opportunities to people who want to make a deal, and makes sure they always get what they deserve. But his land is a wild west that needs a human touch, and that’s where Izzy comes in. Inadvertently trained by him to see the clues in and manipulations of human desire, Izzy is raised to be his left hand and travel the circuitous road through the territory. As we all know, where there is magic there is power and chaos…and death.

Premise – The Cold Eye: In the anticipated sequel to “Silver on the Road,” Isobel is riding circuit through the Territory as the Devil’s Left Hand. But when she responds to a natural disaster, she learns the limits of her power and the growing danger of something mysterious that is threatening not just her life, but the whole Territory. Isobel is the left hand of the old man of the Territory, the Boss – better known as the Devil. Along with her mentor, Gabriel, she is traveling circuit through Flood to represent the power of the Devil and uphold the agreement he made with the people to protect them. Here in the Territory, magic exists – sometimes wild and perilous. But there is a growing danger in the bones of the land that is killing livestock, threatening souls, and weakening the power of magic. In the next installment of the Devil’s West series, Isobel and Gabriel are in over their heads as they find what’s happening and try to stop the people behind it before it unravels the Territory.

PremiseRed Waters Rising: In the last novel of The Devil’s West trilogy, Isobel, the Devil’s Left Hand, and Gabriel ride through the magical land of the Territory to root out evil by the way of mad magicians, ghosts, and twisted animal spirits. As Isobel and Gabriel travel to the southern edge of the Territory, they arrive in the free city of Red Stick. Tensions are running high as the homesteading population grows, crowding the native lands, and suspicions rise across the river from an American fort. But there is a sickness running through Red Stick and Isobel begins to find her authority challenged. She’ll be abandoned, betrayed, and forced to stand her ground as the Devil’s left hand in this thrilling conclusion to The Devil’s West Trilogy.

My Thoughts: I started out reading Silver On the Road and was prepared to write it off as yet another run-of-the-mill YA coming-of-age tale. But was I wrong! It captured my attention and drew me into its Weird West world that’s vibrating with temperamental, malicious magic. Izzy and Gabriel are one of the most interesting character pairings I’ve run across in a long time as they come from different circumstances and have very different paths in life despite sharing the same road. Also, their mentor-apprentice relationship avoids the usual cliches and contrived romance (of course it helps that they are several years apart). (Sidebar: I kept picturing Gabriel as actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan – not exactly a bad mental image to have, by the way. 😉 ) Overall, this trilogy was a much-needed breath of fresh air and will be a series I look forward to diving into time and again.

Confession time: 2018 was a book drought for me.

I struggled to compile this list as I just didn’t read that many new books this year in general, and most of the titles I did read were re-reads, which I don’t include on my year-end list. Sadly, as the market is flooded with cliched, recycled tales and politically-motivated/feminist/social justice/”diversity”/lqbt-agenda fiction, I’m finding it harder and harder to locate new books that are even remotely within my reading tastes as authors now seem more intent on delivering a “message” by appealing to social justice warrior sentiments or advocating the social “cause” hashtag of the day as opposed to just telling a good story with timeless characters minus any ulterior motives.

Hopefully, 2019 will bring some much needed originality.

Well, we can always hope at least! 😀

Books & Reading · Commentary

Children’s Books – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. But Mostly The Ugly.

A Homeschool Mom

My wife, thankfully, is a voracious reader. I say, “thankfully”, because someone has to vet all the literature our children read; and they read a lot. The thing is, there’s a lot of ugly stuff out there, and it’s produced by a secular entertainment industry which cares nothing for the well-being of children. All they care about is pushing the envelope in order to tantalize young minds. In the end, it’s all about appealing to the basest of human nature in order to sell a product whilst promoting a worldview untethered from moral restraints. What’s worse is that the entertainment industry is propped up by secular critics who, quite frankly, are shills for their material (whether for ideological or for pecuniary reasons).

Not all critics, however, are quick to embrace the trend toward dark children’s literature. Meghan Cox Gurdon has made the case more than once for “good…

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Commentary · Misc. Reviews

Makeup Opinions Tag

I was inspired to do this post after seeing Makeup.Just.For.Fun. and Mel Thompson tackle an unpopular opinions makeup tag:

I know this is different from my usual fare, but I decided to have some fun today – enjoy! 🙂

1. What is a popular makeup product that you don’t like
I dislike liquid lipsticks in general. Granted, I have tried a few brands, particularly Anastasia Beverly Hills, and I really liked some of their shades. However, my major complaint with all liquid lipsticks is that they are a pain to apply and remove. I don’t have the steadiest of hands, so when it came to darker or brighter colors, I kept having to remove and reapply. Plus, I have 30+ year old lips, so anything dry in texture accentuates my lip lines and isn’t very flattering. So I prefer regular lipsticks and lip glosses which are easier and faster to apply, remove, and touch up. Though I have tried one Kylie Cosmetic velvet liquid lipstick (as well as my first ever product from her uber-popular line) and was really impressed by the application, staying power, and easy removal. So I supposed I haven’t given up all hope on liquid lip products – just probably 98%. 😀

2. What is a makeup brand everyone seems to hate but you love
CoverGirl tends to get a little more dislike than what I feel it deserves. I love many of their products, all of which are makeup drawer staples for me, especially my foundation and pressed powder. I like their Colorlicious lip glosses and I absolutely love their old Colorlicious lipsticks as it’s one of the best lipstick formulas to me (though, sadly, I can’t stand the recent reformulation). Lastly, their (retired) Outlast nail polishes are some of the longest-lasting polishes I’ve ever used, even toppling $20 polishes. While I don’t love everything CoverGirl comes out with, and some products have been duds, they’re still my to-go brand and I think in general they produce good, quality affordable beauty products.

3. What is a makeup collaboration that you didn’t like or were disinterested in
I’m not really up on most makeup artist/celebrity collabs in general. But if I had to choose one I’m at least familiar with, it would be MAC’s Viva Glam line, which partners with different celebrities for each launch. To be honest, this line never held much appeal to me. None of the colors are exciting or unique and most seem easy to duplicate from among MAC’s other lipsticks and even other brands. To be fair, I did purchase the first Viva Glam Ariana Grande lipstick simply because I liked the color. Otherwise, Viva Glam is one launch that rarely grabs my attention or interest.

4. What is a popular makeup step that you don’t do?

There’s many steps I don’t do! 😀  I don’t contour or bake because I don’t feel skilled enough to do either and it looks time-consuming. I don’t bronze because most bronzers are either too brown or too orange on me. I don’t highlight because I have large pores and anything remotely shiny calls attention to them, not to mention I have oily skin. And I don’t use eye shadow or eye liner because, aside from having oily lids, I once battled eczema on my eyelids that lasted for months. I don’t care to go through that again, so the only eye products I use are mascara and shadow to fill in my brows. I’m not a natural-look kind of gal, but I feel I only need a few products to accentuate what I like about my face and cover problem areas.

5. Who is a beauty YouTuber you don’t watch
My beauty video searches on YouTube are chiefly limited to watching reviews of products I’m interested in so I can find out about their pros and cons (and my go-to sources for those is Temptalia as well as YouTubers Makeup.Just.For.Fun. and Mel Thompson). So I’m not into the “beauty guru” scene. But if I had to choose someone, it would probably be Nikkitutorials. I have nothing against her or her videos, and I do like her bubbly energy, but her overall delivery seems geared for someone much younger than me. (And, to be fair, she is probably the same age as her target audience, so that makes sense.) Nothing she covers is of interest to me in terms of content or topic as most of her videos seem to focus on creating over-the-top makeup “looks” and doing “challenges” rather than reviewing products. Again, I can see her appeal to a younger audience, but I’m just not in the same demographic.

6. What is a makeup brand you don’t support
I used to buy from Illamasqua until they came out against the results of the 2016 U.S. election. Frankly, I’m not sure what they stood to gain by that. For starters, they’re British so why vent about American politics? That’s akin to an American cosmetic company complaining about election results in Great Britain, Estonia, Iceland, or Slovakia. Yes, you have the universal freedom to complain about anything you want, but the company’s “logic” didn’t make sense to me. Likewise, their approach was hateful and intolerant, declaring that they would refuse to sell products to anyone who supported the winning candidate. I thought that was petty and in poor taste and it ironically went against their chief “values” of tolerance and diversity. Tolerance means you need to be open to opinions or beliefs that aren’t the same as your own. You don’t have to agree with or adopt said opinions or beliefs, but you should allow for variety. After all, isn’t that what “diversity” is all about? 🙂

7. What is a makeup trend/product you have no interest in trying
Highlighting to the extreme (a.k.a “glowing to the gods”). As stated, I don’t highlight because it accentuates my pores and makes my oily face that much greasier-looking. I’m okay with blushes sporting natural-looking illuminating qualities to them and I do own a few, one of which is one of my favorite blushes. But I have no desire to turn my face into a disco ball that would be visible from space. I’m sure this is one of these trends that looks great from an editorial perspective or in Instagram pics, but going overboard with highlighter – or any product for that matter – usually doesn’t translate into a flattering look in real life.

8. What is a makeup product that was better in theory than practice?

I have two picks for this one, rainbow highlighter and Storybook Cosmetics’ What’s in a Name Rose Brushes. Rainbow highlighter sounds fun in theory, but I can’t see how anyone would look good with a prism streaked across her face. I suppose it might have some uses, such as for costumes/cosplay, festivals, concerts, the stage, or for editorial purposes; otherwise, it doesn’t seem to serve any practical, day-to-day purpose. Concerning Storybook Cosmetics’ What’s in a Name Rose Brushes, aesthetically they’re creative and cute, but I ultimately had no use for them as they didn’t apply my products as smoothly and evenly as I like. Even more disappointing was when I washed them, the red bristles bled profusely, which tells me the company uses a cheap dye. Naturally, I wasn’t happy about paying nearly $50 for these as I have $2 drugstore brushes that perform far better and have never bled their color.



Commentary · Story & Characters

“And Be a Villain” – What it Takes to Be Bad

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain – Shakespeare’s Hamlet

When it comes to characters, one particular figure who can either make or break a story for me is the villain. As stated in my Top Five Favorite Villains post, I would go so far as to say that a story is only as good as its villain, who serves as the chief threat for the hero. If the villain is weak, then the story suffers. But if the villain is strong and a nearly equal match for the hero, then the story should be rife with necessary drama and tension.

In terms of the type of villain I enjoy, love a good, compelling villain who is on equal footing with and makes for a suitable challenge to the hero. A stupid or lazy villain provides little to no challenge, and a villain who is too smart or too powerful ensures no victory for the hero. So a happy medium is best. However, as much as I love rotten to the core villains (like Harry Potter‘s Lord Voldemort), nothing beats a baddie who isn’t all bad and who might even redeem himself in some fashion in the end.

What Makes a Villain?

Not just any villain will do. Some bad guys/gals are as flat as a cardboard cutouts while others are vibrantly three-dimensional. Granted, there is a time and place for one-dimensional villains, particularly in children’s literature. Because young children do not yet fully understand the concept of moral right and wrong, it makes sense to not over-develop a villain for them as, in their minds, heroes are 100% good and villains are 100% evil. Thus, it’s best if stories for children stick to that equation. However, that formula doesn’t work in stories for adults who are better able to understand moral conundrums. Thus, older readers need and deserve complex villains.

So what are some traits that such villains should possess?

Compelling Backstory. A villain’s backstory can be tragic, ordinary, or fantastic, but there has to be something that makes the character feel like a real person. It’s fine if not everything from the character’s background is spelled out in the story itself because sometimes it’s fun to muse over who this person was before he/she turned bad. But if a villain is inserted just to fulfill the role of being the story’s antagonist with no glimpse into who they were before the story’s timeline, then the character runs the risk of becoming a stock figure. A complex villain requires a workable history, even if not all of it gets revealed in the story, as the background is there for the writer to steep his/her character in. A good, solid backstory really shows through fully fleshed out characters.

Logical Motivations. Villains need to be motivated but their motivations need to make sense within the story’s world and in relation to the villain as a person. For instance, Queen Levana, the principle villain in the Lunar Chronicles series, wants to have absolute power by holding onto the Lunar throne and gaining control of Earth. This desire for control and worship from her subjects makes sense in light of the overall story and makes sense in light of who she is as a personal, especially her desire to be in control and be deemed as beautiful as, in her backstory, she was deprived of both things during her youth. Hence, villains can be motivated to do bad deeds for any number of reasons provided those reasons make sense with who they are, what they ultimately want, and the story’s world.

Moral Codes and Quirks. By giving a villain moral grey areas, personal quirks, and/or distinguishing characteristics, you can take a standard baddie and turn him/her into a multi-faceted person. Along these lines, villains also need to possess some sort of moral code. This can be (and probably will be) the complete opposite of the code the heroes adhere to or it can allow for the villain to waiver between doing what’s right and doing what’s wrong. This, too, makes characters seem more realistic as moral choices sometimes aren’t so clear cut, not even in real life.

Power and Intimidation. Power comes in a variety of ways, from military might, to physical prowess, to  magical or supernatural abilities. Regardless of the villain’s power source, he/she needs to have some degree of control or authority in order to pose as a credible threat to the story’s heroes, which also ties into how intimidating they are. A villain’s intimidation factor makes that character seem like someone the story’s heroes – and the readers – need to take seriously. Intimidation, like power, comes in different forms but usually ties in to the villain’s power as the more powerful they are, the higher the intimidation factor, and the more intimidating they are, the more power they wield.

Sympathy Factor. One thing that can turn a mediocre villain into a great villain is something in their background or personality that elicits sympathy. I don’t mean they should become pathetic or dopey; instead, a sympathetic attribute humanizes them as they possess something that causes readers to feel sorry for them, even if just for a spell. This could be anything from a rough childhood, to a personal tragedy, to even a physical weakness. Not only does this ground the villain, making them realistic, but it also might provide a chink in their armor that the heroes can use to defeat them later on or that the villain comes to grips with and eventually turns from his/her wicked ways.

Tailor-made. Villains should be tailored for their audience. As stated earlier, one-note villains work best in stories for children but not so much for adults. In a child’s eyes, a bad character is only capable of doing bad deeds rather than being capable of doing good deeds he or she doesn’t intend to do or having complicated motives. For adults, a complex or conflicted villain captures realistic moral dilemmas. Keep in mind that all villains had to make a choice – either on-page or off – to get where they ultimately end up, reflecting the law of cause and effect. Sometimes its this series of choices that elicits sympathy as readers understand what it’s like to be caught in a bad situation or make tough choices, only the unspoken message is that we should strive to take the moral high ground, something the villain at some point obviously failed to do.

Classes of Baddies
Not all antagonists or villains are created equal. There are some classes that villains and other neer-do-wells can be sorted into:

– These are characters who aren’t necessarily evil or even bad but who serve the role of the proverbial thorn in the hero’s side. Two characters who fit this mold would be Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series and Eddie Haskell from the TV sitcom, Leave it to Beaver. Draco is never the primary villain and I’d make the case that he’s not an evil person. However, he does bully Harry during his time at Hogwarts. The same applies to Eddie Haskell, who, while not a villain or even a bad person, still functioned as an antagonizer to his friend, Wally Cleaver, and Wally’s younger brother, Beaver. Eddie would typically either talk Wally or Beaver into doing the wrong thing or would resort to teasing Beaver. However, while Eddie liked to antagonize, he wasn’t a bad kid as, at times, even he was capable of doing the right thing.

Henchmen and Minions
– These are villain figures who assist a primary villain but who aren’t a primary villain in and of themselves. Some of my favorite henchmen/minions would be the Ten Men in Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy. Seeing as they don’t function as the primary villain as they assist the main villain, Ledropatha Curtain, with his nefarious schemes, the Ten Men operate as henchmen. But rather than serve as trope goofball, goof up bad guys, the Ten Men are clever, ruthless, and cunning, which gives them a sinister quality that, in some respects, is more frightening than Mr. Curtain since they pose more of an overt, physical danger to the lead characters.

Career Criminals
– These villains make badness their business, whether it’s a hitman who makes a living taking lives or crime bosses overseeing vice operations. What makes these villains different is that there is some form of a code or business ethos dictating their decisions. Perhaps it’s a hitman like Suicide Squad‘s Deadshot who won’t kill women or children or mob bosses who think certain actions are bad for business (and there is a whole slew of gangster films that portray this). Whatever this code happens to be, it dictates the character’s decisions albeit not all of them. One such villain in this class is the Batman villain Penguin (aka Oswald Cobblepot). What sets him apart from the likes of other Batman baddies such as the Joker or the Riddler is that he approaches his line of villainy as a form of business. There are certain lines he won’t cross, such as senseless bloodshed for bloodshed’s sake, and others he will, such as thievery. Not to mention Penguin sometimes has done good that he didn’t intend, such as ratting out a rival to Batman and/or the police. Granted, it’s to protect his own interests but, by proxy, it keeps innocent people safe. Therefore, some of his actions and aspects of his personal business ethos do serve a good purpose.

Ultimate Evils
– These are villains who have no ultimate redemption. They are pure evil and even their positive attributes and talents are used for nefarious means. These are the type of baddies you love to hate and hope they get their just desserts. However, it takes a fine hand on the author’s part to insure that such villains don’t become cliches. My favorite ultimate evil villain is Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Voldemort is just bad. Granted, Rowling keeps him out of trope territory by giving him a sympathetic, tragic backstory that lets you feel sorry for him for just a bit. However, he made wrong choices as a youth to do evil and abuse others, which carried over into his adult life. Voldemort is the type of villain you want to see defeated because there is no good left in him: he is so consumed with evil and there is nothing left to redeem because he doesn’t want to change.

Morally Grey – Such villains waiver between doing right and doing wrong; however, they steer clear of being antiheroes because they veer a little too far to the wrong. A variation of this would be a villain who waivers between good and bad yet tries to justify to himself that the “bad” they do is somehow good. C.S. Lewis once observed: “When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right.” Thus, morally grey villains know they’re not good people yet are still capable of doing the right thing or semi-right thing at times. For these characters, redemption is possible thanks to the fact that their sense of right and wrong might be in tatters but is still intact. Negan from The Walking Dead certainly belongs in this category. He ultimately acts out of his own self-interests, feels little remorse or guilt, displays violent behavior, and often plays mind games and manipulates others. However, Negan doesn’t always do the wrong thing: he believes that “rules keep [people] safe,” he might give someone a stay of execution, apologize for his crass behavior, feel a degree of responsibility towards people under his leadership, or agree to fight common enemies in the effort to keep other people safe. Thus, there is a strand of good inside of Negan as he exists in a grey area where sometimes his actions and reasoning are morally muddled but not morally incapacitated.

Conflict of Interest These villains, under different circumstances, might not have been villains at all and are only deemed as such due to their alignment against the story’s heroes, thus creating a moral conflict of interest. Star Wars‘ Grand Admiral Thrawn fits perfectly inside this category. Thrawn possesses many positive traits such as a high level of intelligence, incredible foresight, astute military tactics and strategies, a distaste of brutality for brutality’s sake, an ability to command respect, and a curious mind that appreciates and analyzes art. Thus, what makes him a villain at all is that he serves the Empire rather than the Rebels’ cause. Despite this, Thrawn harbors personal reasons for joining the Empire’s service, namely the ability to gather intelligence on potential threats and an opportunity to combat said threats should they pose as dangers to his own people, the Chiss. While this isn’t a motivation Thrawn lets known to too many people, it’s an inherent drive that urges him to do what he does in terms of big picture decisions. He isn’t an evil or even a bad person: he’s simply chosen the wrong side in a conflict but has made this choice for, what he believes, is the good of his fellow Chiss.

The Rogues’ Gallery
Part of what makes villains appealing is that they reflect some of the worst parts or tendencies of ourselves. Naturally, it’s a gross exaggeration, but I believe that even in a bad guy/gal’s worst traits, we can see tiny aspect of our less-than-admirable sides or our own personal struggles over making good, moral choices. Through this cathartic experience, we can realize what these less desirable attributes are and strive for a change of heart and moral direction. Just as sometimes even a villain can turn good, that gives us hope that we, too can change.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “The Berenstain Bears”

Today’s post is going to be a nostalgia fest for me as I travel down memory lane with one of my favorite childhood book series, The Berenstain Bears!

First, some quick history about the series: the Berenstain Bears were the creation of Stan and Jan Berenstain, which was later carried on by their son, Mike Berenstain. The first Berenstain Bears book, The Big Honey Hunt, was published in 1962 and introduced young readers and their families to the lovable Bear Family: Papa Bear, Mama Pear, Brother Bear (originally named Small Bear), Sister Bear, and eventually Honey Bear who all live in a large tree in Bear Country alongside family and friends. This children’s literary franchise is expansive, to say the least, as it also encompasses chapter books for older readers, a television series, a stage play, toys, and video games.

A typical Berenstain Bears story adhered to the following formula: at least one member of the Bear Family faces a dilemma and is given advice on how to handle it so there is a lesson to be learned. Most of the books’ messages fell into one of two camps: moral messages (i.e. do the right thing, be fair, learn to share, etc.) and safety/health/personal well-being messages (don’t talk to strangers, don’t do drugs, don’t follow the crowd, etc.). As expected, there are critics who condemn the series for being too formulaic, preachy, and saccharine. And while every reader has a right to his or her own opinion, I personally disagree with the criticism.

First, children’s literature – especially for young readers graduating from simple picture books – is formulaic for a reason as it makes the story easier for children to follow along rather than offer a complex plot. Secondly, children’s books’ morals are often overt by telling rather than showing. This is perfectly appropriate for a young audience who isn’t mature enough to detect subtle meanings that show rather than tell. Lastly, there is a difference between a story being warm and charming and one that’s syrupy sweet. The former possesses an inviting tone that welcomes readers in while the latter talks down to, and inadvertently insults, its audience. In my view, the Berenstain Bears books avoid this by making their messages relatable for children in showing how conflicts, combined with the right advice and an application of wisdom, can be resolved.

With that little sidebar out of the way, you can probably tell I have always loved the Berenstain Bears! 😀

Given that this series encompasses a ton of books, I’m only going to highlight some of my favorites out of the 50+ volumes I own. (I tried to organize this list from my most favorite first and so on.)

So sit back and enjoy this trip down memory lane!

The Berenstain Bears Learn about Strangers
This was one of the first Berenstain Bears books I ever read and I also own a copy of the television episode on VHS. I appreciate how it tackles the topic of strangers without intentionally scaring kids. Granted, that’s Papa Bear’s tactic but Mama Bear takes a different approach by comparing strangers to apples. Some strangers might not look nice on the outside but on the inside they’re perfectly fine, but there are other people who might look good on the outside though on the inside aren’t so good after all. Hence, children need to be perceptive – but not paranoid – because of the few “bad apples” out in the world. This is one of several books in the series to focus on an “appearances can be deceiving” theme, and I think it’s a good one to teach kids as being able to discern the actions and intents of others is one of the stepping stones to developing strong critical thinking skills.

The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright (1986)
This brings back memories of when I was in a church children’s choir and participated in their annual Christmas musicals. In my very first one, I was approached by one of the directors at the last minute to fill in for a minor speaking role (the original performer was sick). I agreed and, after that, I usually tried out for some kind of part. My last role was one of the three leads (which included a solo!) and it was very exciting. While I didn’t get as nervous as Sister Bear does, I can certainly relate to the pre-performance jitters. Overall, this was a fun story and the ways Brother Bear teases Sister Bea for her nerves cracked me up – not to mention that, despite his bravado, he, too, isn’t immune to stage fright.

The Berenstain Bears and the Week at Grandma’s
I love the illustrations of Grandma and Grandpa’s house, especially the stained glass touches, as it makes it feel like a warm, realistic home. This is a sweet story about how sometimes a change of scenery is good for children (as well as you never know what someone older than you might know unless you ask them). I like how Brother and Sister initially have misgivings about spending a week at their grandparents’ home by mentally comparing everything there to the amenities they normally have. But they eventually warm up to their new surroundings. While I, unfortunately, never lived close enough to my grandparents to be able to spend a weekend with them, I did enjoy their visits with my family and of our trips to visit them.

The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream (1988)
Gotta love Brother Bear and his obsession with all things Space Grizzlies! Re-reading it now makes me imagine that he’d fit right in with today’s superhero craze. (Can somebody say fan boy?) I’ve always been impressed over how this story explains, in a basic way for children, what dreams are and how what we see, hear, and engage on a daily basis can actually influence what we dream. The best parts are when the cubs’ dreams are analyzed in a way that children can see how their own dreams contain rather mundane elements that, when churned together, create a strange combination that isn’t worth getting scared by.

The Berenstain Bears Go to School
This book always seemed to calm my nerves when it was time for me to start a new grade during my early years at elementary school. It’s a great encouragement to little ones who, much like Sister in the story, are starting school for the very first time. I think it does a good job of making school seem not so intimidating and, instead, depicts it as a place where learning can be fun. The adults in Sister’s life also are very supportive and help her take baby steps into this new venture in her life. Overall, this was one book in the series that always stood out to me.

The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear
This book captures everything I loved (and still love!) about Christmas. From decorating, to visiting Santa, to buying presents for family, to finally the Big Day, this book still puts a smile on my face. The illustrations are nicely done, and while the book doesn’t present a Christian message, it still encourages children to not be greedy and to take time to slow down and savor the fun moments of the Christmas season.

The Berenstain Bears and the Drug-Free Zone
This is one of two Berenstain Bears Big Chapter Books I have (along with The Berenstain Bears and the Nerdy Nephew). Unlike the picture books, this one was longer with chapters (naturally) and had black and white (not color) illustrations. The plot involves a rumor of drugs coming into Bear Country. Brother, Sister, and some of their friends end up trying to solve a mystery where things and certain persons aren’t always what they seem (albeit they do so on their own without the help of police, which is a point some parents might want to be aware of). For kids, it does a good job teaching the “appearances can be deceiving” lesson that the series often tackled as well as a cautionary tale about drugs. It also offered a mystery plot, which was something I hadn’t seen the series do up to that point. Overall, I liked this as a lengthy (for my age at the time) read that, despite its subject matter, never got too dark.

The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation
This one never failed to crack me up. Story-wise, it’s just like how Clark Griswold (from the National Lampoon Vacation movies) would always plan for the “perfect” vacation/holiday and nothing turned out as he planned or hoped. Yet all the craziness made it more fun and memorable. In this story, the Bear family takes a trip to a lakeside cabin in the mountains, yet it’s not the pristine vacation spot the ads made it seem (so I suppose another lesson to be learned is don’t believe everything you read/see!). In the end, the Bear family makes the best of it and discovers that sometimes things really are funnier in hindsight.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Eragon”

The Story: 
[from GoodReads:]
When Eragon finds a polished blue stone in the forest, he thinks it is the lucky discovery of a poor farm boy; perhaps it will buy his family meat for the winter. But when the stone brings a dragon hatchling, Eragon realizes he has stumbled upon a legacy nearly as old as the Empire itself. Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic, and power. With only an ancient sword and the advice of an old storyteller for guidance, Eragon and the fledgling dragon must navigate the dangerous terrain and dark enemies of an Empire ruled by a king whose evil knows no bounds. Can Eragon take up the mantle of the legendary Dragon Riders? The fate of the Empire may rest in his hands

My Take: I have to start out by giving props to Paolini, who initially drafted this story at age 15. Yes, I’m sure there is a question as to how much outside assistance he had in terms of penning it, but it still begs the question – how many 15-year-olds would even want to sit down and write a novel-sized work? Based on my experience, that answer would be next to none.

That being said, yes, Eragon has its flaws, chiefly in allowing its inspirations to shine through a little too clearly. But I do agree with some reviewers in saying that this does make for a good introductory fantasy work, especially for young readers, as the young protagonist, dragons, magic, and sense of fun adventure seem perfectly in tune to that age group. Hence why I ultimately awarded it three solid stars on GoodReads, which translates to “Liked It,” and, for the most part, I did (and I have a fond memory of watching the film adaptation, too, especially as my Mom enjoyed it and she’s not much of a dragon fan!).

For starters, what I enjoyed most about this novel was the human-dragon relationship. It’s quite common to depict dragons as villainous or vile creatures, so it’s nice to see this reversed where dragons become the heroes. Saphira is, without a doubt, a powerful being and not to be trifled with, but she’s also patient and tries to impart wisdom to young Eragon. Eragon is also a likable protagonist and his relationship with Saphira feels realistic and consumes the best parts of the novel for me. To be honest, it was this dynamic that kept this book from being just okay, hence my three-star rating as opposed to two stars.

Granted, the plot is easy to take but it follows a very traditional destiny/quest structure and doesn’t do much to deviate from that or add anything new. Likewise, most of the characters are tropes: Eragon is the unsuspecting hero; Brom is the “wise old man” or teacher figure; Arya is the female lead/love interest; Durza is the dark villain; and so on. Hence becomes my biggest criticism of this book – its inspirational sources become a bit too apparent. Granted, certain types of stories (such as destiny stories or quest tales) bear hallmarks that are simply conventional; but I can take a slight issue with stories that don’t hide their mechanics, as it were. I had the same trouble with The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett where the constant hearkening back to similar Gothic romance novels and Regency fiction (namely Jane Eyre and the works of Jane Austen) overshadowed the story.

I say all of this because, for me, Eragon suffers the same fate. It’s no secret that its characters, themes, and plot were inspired by (and perhaps derived from) Beowulf (one character is even named Hrothgar); the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (try saying Eragon and not think of Aragorn – that’s happened many times to me while penning this review!); and even Star Wars. Again, all writers are inspired by other writers and it’s okay to pay an homage. But you can’t allow your work to entirely be an homage (without openly calling it that).

Does that mean Eragon is a rip off? No, I wouldn’t go that far; but many times it reads like a young writer’s tribute to his favorite writers and stories. Again, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, but you have to be graceful about it. In her Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling, for example, pays homage to other writers such as Austen, Lewis, and Dickens, but readers aren’t hit over the head with these references. They’re executed subtly and they’re not on every page. In contrast, Eragon is not subtle and therein lies its greatest flaw and mental stumbling block for older, more seasoned fantasy fans. When compared to other fantasy works, this novel pales in comparison but it is by no means poor. It’s simply a generic, standard fantasy quest story that works but struggles to stand apart from the crowd of similar novels.

Overall, Eragon is a debut novel that reads like a debut novel as well as a debut novel by a young writer. It isn’t terrible and has its shining moments, especially regarding its treatment of dragons, but it borrows too heavily from fantasy conventions and doesn’t try to breath new or unique life into them. That being said, this novel would make a good pick for new fantasy fans, especially among the independent reader set seeking for a big book to sink their teeth into. For everyone else, it’s worth checking out just to admire the work of a young man who decided to use his time creatively and constructively – and that’s more than what I can say for most 15 year olds!

Language – None (that I can recall); any language potentially used is few and far between and consists of only PG-level words.

Violence – Violence is chiefly contained in the fantasy violence lane where we see human/human and human/dragon action scenes as well as times when magic is used as a weapon. Likewise, there are large-scale battle scenes but there are no moments lingering over blood or gore. As a whole, and based on its size, this book is geared for older children to adults as younger children simply wouldn’t have the patience to follow along.

Sexual Content – None.

The Run-Down:

Overall, Eragon makes for the good first step into fantasy for newbie middle grade readers; however, beyond that I sense it might hold less appeal save for die-hard dragon fans. That being said, it’s not a horrible book by any means but feels weighted down by the less than subtle nods to its own inspirations. However, I feel like I can’t fault it too much for being a debut novel, especially one from a (at the time) young talent. So for young fantasy fans, especially in the middle grade camp, I’d definitely recommend this as a fun adventure tale before directing them to the better crafted stories that actually inspired Eragon.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “The City on the Other Side”

The Story: 
[from GoodReads:]
San Francisco. The great quake of 1906 is still a recent memory.

Sheltered within her high society world, Isabel plays the part of a perfectly proper little girl – she’s quiet, well-behaved, and she keeps her dresses spotlessly clean. She’s certainly not the kind of girl who goes on adventures. But that all changes when Isabel breaches an invisible barrier and steps into another world. She discovers a city not unlike her own, but magical and dangerous. Here, war rages between the fairies of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Only Isabel, with the help of a magical necklace and a few new friends, stands a chance of ending the war before it destroys the fairy world – and her own.

My Take: I’m admittedly not the world’s biggest graphic novel fan, but I won’t say no to checking one out if the story sounds interesting, the artwork is well-done, and the content is clean (no graphic violence or sex/nudity). The City on the Other Side checked off each of these boxes, hence why I decided to read it. And, all in all, I found it to be a solidly average but still entertaining read.

For starters, the biggest draw here is the artwork. It’s bright, colorful, and certainly catches the eye. While it’s not intended to be entirely realistic, it shies away from being too cartoony by crafting characters that look like normal people, designing settings with excellent details, and making the plethora of Fae characters come to life.

Here are a few samples of the art (no worries – there are no spoilers!) (Click each picture to enlarge.):

Plot-wise, The City on the Other Side is fairly straightforward. Isabel comes from a well-to-do family but wishes for something more out of life, namely exploring San Fransisco. When she goes to visit her starving artist father out in the country, she stumbles across the veil that conceals the Fae realm of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts from the Human realm. She ends up making a promise to a dying Fae creature and is sent on a quest to locate a missing princess whose return might finally settle a war that has been brewing between the two Fae courts.

According to legend, the Seelie Court are light Fae beings and the Unseelie Court are dark Fae beings. While beings belonging to the Seelie Court seek to do good and even obtain aid from Humans, beings from the Unseelie Court are more apt to engage in dark, mischievous deeds. The artwork here does a great job differentiating between the two courts as, even without any introductions, you can clearly see who the light beings are and who the dark beings are. In general, the Seelie Court characters  incorporate brighter colors, sport friendlier faces, and favor aspects of nature in either their design or garments/accessories. In contrast, the Unseelie Court characters are monstrous (but not scary) in appearance, possess rougher edges in their overall designs, don angry/tough expressions, and sport a more rugged getup. Overall, I enjoyed the design variations and it definitely appealed to me more than the story itself.

Speaking of which, The City on the Other Side feels like it’s strictly tailored for a middle grade audience, which is fine, from its characters, to its plotting, to even its pacing and vocabulary. Seasoned or older fantasy fans searching for a complex story or deep characters will be hard pressed to find either of those here. That’s not to say there’s no entertainment value whatsoever, but everything here feels a touch recycled without much newness injected into it. As stated, Isabel ends up going on a quest to locate a missing princess, becomes the protector of a magical necklace/talisman, and is accompanied by various persons who help her along the way, all of which are quest story hallmarks and there’s not many variations or liberties taken with them.

Some of these said characters include the street urchin Benjie and the lovable, rough-and-tumble Button from the Seelie Court.

Seriously, Button is just the best.

Out of all of the characters, he was my favorite. Granted, he is a bit of a trope but his character works for the story, meshes well with the rest of the cast, and injects a good dose of comedic timing that doesn’t feel forced. He reminded me very much of Toad from the Super Mario Bros. Super Show cartoon that aired back in the day.

Same gutsy bravado. Same short, unassuming little mushroom dude. Come to think of it, Button and Toad are very similar – maybe they’re twins! 😀

That’s not to say the other characters are boring, but Isabel and Benjie, the two leads, are not as three-dimensional as I would have liked. Isabel is the typical girl who wants to break societal/class molds by going on adventures rather than behaving like a polite young lady and not mussing her dress. She is clever, smart, and plucky, but ultimately we’ve seen this sort of character time and again. Benjie is a little more interesting in that he has a hint of mystery connected to him, and I did appreciate his and Isabel’s friendship, but he ultimately struck me as not very memorable. Likewise, it’s obvious that Isabel and Benjie are of Latin/Hispanic and Asian (I believe?) descent, respectively, yet not much is made of their cultural backgrounds other than a few smatterings of Spanish spoken/used between Isabel and her parents. Personally, I think it would have been fun to tie the folklore and mythology unique to Latin/Hispanic and Asian cultures to the Seelie and Unseelie Courts; but no such connections are made, which would have added a helpful degree of world-building depth. Overall, while middle grade readers will probably enjoy the cast and its leads, older readers will be able spot the more predictable elements that sometimes dull an otherwise colorful tale.

I also liked the way some history was incorporated into the story, though I place emphasis on the word some. As stated, the principle setting is 1900s San Fransisco. Initially, I thought the story was going to focus on the city itself while incorporating a magical element. (And, in truth, we do get an interesting connection between the Fae and the great earthquake.) But, again, it’s lacking that extra something special: while San Fransisco is the setting, we surprisingly spend little time there and, honestly, the human setting could have been changed to someplace else and the plot and characters would have fit right in regardless. Hence, the setting is not all that important to the story, which is disappointing.

In the end, The City on the Other Side was an average read and I awarded it three solid stars on GoodReads, which translates to “Liked It,” though I commented that it’s more like 3.5 stars. And that’s honestly how I felt about it – I liked it and had fun reading it! But it’s definitely for middle grade fantasy fans who are just getting their feet wet into the genre. To more seasoned fantasy fans, this story’s only real draw will be its art and some of the creative Fae creatures; otherwise, it’s a touch too predictable and sparse in spots, especially regarding its setting, for older readers to fully enjoy.

Language – None (that I can recall); any language potentially used is few and far between and consists of only PG-level words.

Violence – Violence is chiefly contained in the fantasy violence lane where characters chiefly use magic to subdue and attack each other and humans, though sometimes weapons such as swords, blades, and arrows are used. It’s revealed that a devastating natural disaster was actually the result of magic. Some of the beings of the Unseelie Court assume monstrous forms, from Spine, a mer-creature who can pass through solid surfaces, to Coscar, a muscular male with antlers and crimson eyes. These and other beings pursue the heroes but are not intentionally drawn to be scary. One Seelie Court character dies and is shown being shot with arrows with minimal blood to depict wounds. Finally, a large part of the story is the war between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, so there is some talk of spilling blood and cutaways showing non-graphic battle scenes, characters striking or attacking other characters, and talk of a missing princess. However, nothing ever turns gory, graphic, or frightening (at least not for the 8-12 years old middle grade audience). Younger children might find some of the characters and/or tense situations frightening, so I would recommend parents/guardians checking this out beforehand if contemplating giving it to anyone under eight years old.

Sexual Content – None. Isabel befriends Benjie, a human boy, but their relationship is strictly a friendship. Near the novel’s end, two female Fae characters embrace each other and don affectionate gazes, but there isn’t enough to insinuate that their relationship is anything but long-lost friends. Coscar, leader of the Unseelie Court, is depicted as pale, muscular, and shirtless as he dons a cape and trouser-like garments cover him from the waist down; however, he’s not intentionally drawn to be titillating (though his physical appearance might frighten young children – see note in the Violence category above).

The Run-Down:

Overall, The City on the Other Side is a fast-paced, charming, Fae-based fantasy tale. That being said, I sense that seasoned fantasy readers might not find as much appeal here – beyond the artwork – as younger readers or newer fantasy fans. Hence, I think this makes a perfect pick for its target middle grade audience as the artwork is colorful, the characters are likable, the plot is easy to follow, and the content is clean and age-appropriate. That’s not to say older fantasy or graphic novel fans can’t enjoy it but it’s decidedly average – certainly good but definitely not great.