Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “The Secret of the Old Clock”

Four Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “Really Liked It”]

I first discovered the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories in my elementary school’s library. Being a voracious reader from an early age, I was searching for something lengthier than most books for my age group. Hence, I stumbled upon this classic detection series and it’s only been recently that I uncovered my childhood copies and started reading them again.

The Secret of the Old Clock is the first novel in the expansive Nancy Drew Mystery Stories and was originally published in 1987. It’s worth noting that the author “name” Carolyn Keene is actually a pseudonym for a variety of writers, both men and women, who penned works for the series about the titular young, intelligent, amateur sleuth. At present, the series boasts over sixty titles, which impressively reflects its popularity throughout the years.

Concerning The Secret of the Old Clock, which serves as Nancy Drew’s first case, the amateur sleuth agrees to track down a missing will of a deceased man who, before he died, was living with a disagreeable family and supposedly left all of his estate to them. In time, Nancy comes into contact with, and even befriends, closer friends and family of the gentleman who claim there was a second will. These persons, for numerous reasons, are shown to be more deserving of an shared inheritance as opposed to the persnickety family with whom he spent his last days. While the ways Nancy stumbles upon these individuals are rather convenient, it’s important to note that the Nancy Drew mysteries were written with a younger readership in mind, hence why the plotting is brisk, the revelation of clues convenient, and the mystery neatly tied up by the end. But in all honesty, I enjoyed this novel because of these attributes.

In today’s often pessimistic, brooding, angst-driven literary market, these books are a welcomed breath of fresh air. Reading a Nancy Drew mystery is akin to watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. The heroes aren’t perfect but are ultimately good, moral people who strive to do the right thing and will go out of their way to help others, even if there’s no reward for themselves. The bad guys aren’t necessarily evil but are usually folks who have veered off the virtuous path. Nancy herself is deeply admirable as are her father and housekeeper (who, in keeping with the Andy Griffith theme, I kept envisioning as Aunt Bea). In short, the world Nancy and her family and friends inhabit isn’t trouble-free, but in the end right prevails and the bag guys get their just desserts.

Regarding The Secret of the Old Clock in particular, I enjoyed its plot’s twists and turns, regardless of their quickness or convenience because, to be fair, those traits come with the territory for most Nancy Drew mysteries as they’re not lengthy books nor are they intended to have convoluted plots. While I don’t read many mystery novels, I have nothing against the genre and I have a love for classic detective fiction such as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Part of the fun in perusing a detection-based mystery for me is mentally collecting clues along with the detective. Since it had been years since I had read The Secret of the Old Clock, I had completely forgotten the plot and characters, so re-reading it was diving into it with fresh eyes. I ended up finishing this book in a day because I was eager to see not only how Nancy would solve her case but also that the people deserving a happy ending would get one by the end. And I wasn’t disappointed.

In closing, for all of the talk about fictional role models for girls, commentators seem to fail to include Nancy Drew. Perhaps this is due to Nancy’s unassuming presence: rather than serve as a rallying point for revolution or rebellion, she’s a down-to-earth lady who puts family and friends first and who uses her talents and resources to help others. In most cases, the people who seek her aid have no means of defending or helping themselves, so they turn to Nancy for help and she is more than happy to do so. Furthermore, Nancy is level-headed and harbors an encouraging heart, a strong intellect, classy manners, and a heightened sense of perception and intuition. She’s not afraid to venture into risky places, using her wits to get herself out of trouble, but isn’t afraid to ask for help or backup if she feels she needs it (though she never willingly asks her friends or family to put themselves in danger for her sake). Lastly, she has a strong sense of fairness and deep-seated respect for the law, so she often includes the police or other officials when it comes to catching villains or troublemakers. Thus, Nancy Drew might not spout off feminist rhetoric or stand atop a socio-political soapbox, but she’s a strong, courageous, smart young lady who deserves to be upheld as a fictional role model worthy of such a title.

Overall, The Secret of the Old Clock is a treat to read, both for nostalgia’s sake and for exploring the Nancy Drew novel that started it all over 30 years ago. This entry, as well as subsequent Nancy Drew titles, would make for a perfect introduction to classic detective fiction for middle grade, pre-teen, and teen readers as well as offer a breath of fresh air for adults looking for a quick, uplifting read. While the plot devices can seem conveniently placed and the pace is unrealistically brisk, it’s enjoyable for these aspects and deserves to be treasured as a hallmark of juvenile detective fiction that has continued its old fashioned popularity and values throughout the decades.

Language – None.

Violence – None. Nancy gets into some perilous situations, such as when she’s cornered by some thieves and locked in a closet, but she escapes unscathed. Elsewhere, a child accidentally falls off of a bridge, but Nancy comes to the little girl’s rescue and the child is unharmed. Lastly, police chase after some criminals, but no one is hurt and the thugs are arrested without incident.

Sexual Content – None.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Jane Eyre”

Five Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “It Was Amazing”]

I first read Jane Eyre many years ago in junior high school. At the time, I knew nothing about it and only selected it from the reading list because the character’s name intrigued me. However, the novel quickly drew me in and it has remained one of my all-time favorite books.

By way of background, Jane Eyre was Charlotte Brontë’s first publishing attempt (after failing to initially secure a publisher for The Professor) and was originally published in three installments, following the traditional Victorian novel format. It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has read Jane Eyre before know the novel retains a semi-autobiographical thread. Among other similarities between Jane Eyre and Brontë herself, one obvious connection concerns Brontë’s time as a student in Brussels where she fell in love with a married male teacher who never reciprocated her feelings. Thus, according to David Cody of Hartwick College, “Jane Eyre is in some ways a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the young woman student/teacher gets to seduce her master.” [1] Perhaps even more so, the reason for the novel’s close ties to Brontë’s own life and experiences was due to the fact that Brontë believed art was most convincing when based on personal experience; in ‘Jane Eyre’ she transformed the experience into a novel with universal appeal. [2]

Jane Eyre is a work of Gothic melodrama (where emotion is emphasized and favored over detailed character development) and is told in first person by the titular character. Jane’s story opens with her living with a harsh guardian who treats Jane more like an unwanted inherited antiquity than a member of the household. In time, Jane is sent off to a boarding school run by a religious fanatic but eventually escapes through employment as a governess. At Thornfield Hall, Jane is under the employ of the broodingly enigmatic Edward Rochester. In time, Jane’s hardened heart begins to soften not only towards Mr. Rochester but also towards some persons who once wronged her. However, Jane’s path to happiness is not a smooth one as she suffers disappointment and heartbreak only to receive a well-deserved happily ever after.

Jane Eyre comes across as a sympathetic, but not initially likable, heroine, yet it’s this quality about her that endears her to me. Jane is no angel and is anything but. She starts out as a stubborn girl who, to her credit, refuses to be abused or bullied and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. However, her stony heart causes her to act callous at times. As Jane matures, she allows her heart to change for the better. Some of the best moments for me are when Jane willingly goes to make peace with certain persons from her past, not for a show of morals but because she feels it’s the right and best thing to do. Early on, Jane believes such displays of compassion are mistakes, though admirably she moves away from this philosophy and readers can’t help but applaud her for it. In some ways, Jane is subject to the cultural and societal measures of her day, but she by no means accepts fate with open arms. She asks questions, gives serious thought to her future, and isn’t afraid to voice her true feelings. Hence, she becomes an admirable figure as she is a woman who seeks to design her own future yet isn’t afraid to welcome others into her life and be open to the possibility of finding love.

One such person who enters Jane’s closest circle is, of course, Edward Rochester. While Mr. Rochester might be looked upon as the template for the cliched brooding leading man, his temperament fits with his character. Rochester, much like Jane, has a past and seems to have allowed his circumstances to dictate his life more so than what Jane has done. While Jane strives to move beyond past abuses, Mr. Rochester, for a time, is chained by his own personal woes. He harbors a dark secret he keeps tucked away and seems blind to the manipulations of one woman to win his heart. However, he is by no means a weak-willed character. In many ways, his and Jane’s love story is very much about semi-polar opposites attracting each other. Both are tortured souls though Jane has allowed her trials to forge her; whereas, Mr. Rochester seems to let his personal tribulations ensnare him.

In terms of underlying philosophies at work in the novel, Naturalism is a prevailing theme though the story does offer up a twist. Naturalism is a form of Realism that shows or implies that social conditions, heredity, and environment form a person’s character. Its focus, thus, is more on a commonplace reality rather than idealistic depictions of life. In relation to Jane Eyre, Naturalism is shown through the novel’s depiction of the titular character; however, the novel also questions some of Naturalism’s suppositions. In relation to Jane, it’s easy to see that her initial cold heart and hardened personality are direct results of having been raised in a heartless environment where she is treated as a burden. However, as time progresses, Jane loses some of her initial frigidity. Ultimately, it is not Jane’s environment that molds her but an inner realization that to harbor a spirit of hatred will erode her soul. So while the novel displays characters acting as a semi-direct cause or reaction to circumstances, upbringing, and social circles, it also shows them acting contrary to how they were reared or initially led to believe.

Jane Eyre also includes numerous Christian references and characters, some of whom aren’t the best representations. Jane herself is not excessively pious despite adhering to a strict moral code, and it’s this devotion to a deep-seated virtue that prevents her initial marriage to Mr. Rochester. Perhaps this was done to contrast Jane with figures in the story such as Mr. Brocklehurst who represents a legalistic form of Christianity where there is no room for compassion or mercy. Curiously, I always found the Biblical books that young Jane felt drawn to interesting: Revelation, Daniel, Genesis, Samuel, Exodus, Kings, Chronicles, Job, and Jonah.

Two books – Genesis and Exodus – are works of Jewish law; Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and portions of Daniel are historical accounts; Job is classified as a wisdom book; and Jonah, Revelation, and parts of Daniel are prophetic books. Based on this, I always deduced that Jane was a grounded person driven by a sense of righteous fairness, preferring history over literature, prophecy over poems. What I think this also shows is that Jane is not the sort of person to be pigeonholed and, instead, has her own way of thinking and speaking, preferring the meatier matters of life rather than idle talk or gossip. To her credit, she never loses this trait of being her own person and learning from her circumstances, and perhaps it is this nature that, in the end, allows her to be transformed from the inside out.

Overall, Jane Eyre is a classic Gothic romance. Its focus on a singular character, the flawed yet morally upright Jane Eyre, gives a glimpse into her transformation, not merely from a foundling into a loved woman but also from a cold, calloused heart to one that accepts and administers compassion, forgiveness, and trust. The trials Jane endures provide cathartic ground for readers to transplant their own struggles onto and gain hope from. Lastly, the romance between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester might be emotionally overwrought but it is refreshingly real and raw, quite unlike the fluffy insta-love prevalent in modern works. In the end, this is a classic novel that belongs on any book lover’s to-be-read shelf and certainly deserves to be read again.

Language – Language is minimal and confined to mild, PG-level swears. Mild British profanities may also be present.

Violence – None. Jane is mistreated as a young girl but nothing ever becomes disturbing or graphically abusive. We also hear how a character committed suicide but the act itself occurs off-page.

Sexual Content – None. We learn that a male character, who is getting ready to be married, is still legally married; however, his wife is mentally insane and is locked away. Some characters also embrace and kiss but nothing further occurs.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Almost Home”

Three Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “Liked It”]

Being a dog lover, I was initially drawn to this book for its cute cover and found the blurb interesting enough to convince me to give it a go. But while this middle grade novel seems tailor-made for its target audience and doesn’t possess any glaring flaws, it just doesn’t seem to cast a net for a wider readership.

Almost Home focuses on Sugar, a twelve-year-old girl who struggles with problems at home. At the time of the novel’s story, her grandfather has passed away, her gambling father is gone, and Sugar and her mother lose their home and are forced to head to Chicago to make a new start. However, things don’t fall into place for Sugar or her mother as both contend with the unique trials of being homeless, especially in a strange city. Despite her predicament, Sugar does her best to keep her chin up and refuses to wallow in misery. Instead, she turns to poetry, a supportive teacher, and a stray dog named Shush to keep herself grounded on what is most important in life.

As a whole, Almost Home tells a succinct story that fleshes out Sugar’s ordeals, not giving way to flowery prose or even much description. The writing style here is rather sparse, relating only what is needed. Descriptions are minimal and there is no rich language or sense of metaphor or motifs. For its target audience of middle grade readers, I sense this style fits, though this reads more like a young middle grade novel, something more fitting for ages eight to ten, giving an allowance for children to “read up” as Sugar is twelve years old. This isn’t a negative as it’s fine for a book to be intended for a very specific audience. However, I, as an adult reader who enjoys reading middle grade fiction, lean towards more age-inclusive books.

By way of example, some middle grade books are meant for a broad audience, such as the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling or the Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart. Both of these series contain middle grade-age characters (at least to start) along with prevalent adult characters that enable the story to hold appeal to a broader readership. Likewise, the writing, story structure, plot, themes, and symbolic/metaphoric/thematic qualities invite readers from across a diverse spectrum of ages. In contrast, there are books that seem intended to appeal to a middle grade audience and no older. Almost Home belongs in this latter category. Most of the story focuses on Sugar and is related in her voice and from her perspective. Other than her mother, her teacher Mr. Bennett, and a few other minor figures, no adults play a large role in the story but feel more like background characters. Likewise, the writing reads very young and borderline juvenile at times, which makes sense as it’s Sugar telling her story. But, again, this style would hold more appeal to readers younger than or close to the same age as Sugar instead of anyone older or more mature than she.

Other hallmarks of this being a more juvenile read come through the novel’s vignette-style plotting. Granted, the little side stories, for the most part, do tie in, but these read more like snippets of a day in Sugar’s life rather than an accelerant for the plot and its climax and resolution. This especially becomes the case through the introduction of Shush, the stray dog Sugar rescues and bonds with. While I will never object to introducing a puppy into a story, it needs to have more reasoning behind it other than it’s cute. To be fair, there is an obvious parallel between Sugar and Shush, both of whom are looking for a permanent place to call home rather than just a building with four walls. I did appreciate this aspect to their relationship, but it’s spelled out a little too plainly (at least for older readers) and Shush, as a whole, doesn’t have that big of a role to play in the overall story. While his inclusion was adorable and there is a juxtaposition between him and Sugar, he essentially serves the role of cute animal sidekick and little else.

Concerning the treatment of homelessness, while Almost Home doesn’t gloss over it nor its ramifications on Sugar, who is an innocent bystander, its treatment is superficial and, again, keeps its target readership in mind. Granted, I appreciate the fact that the novel doesn’t become dark and gritty and Sugar does meet some helpful adults who don’t harbor ulterior motives. It’s also a smart, kind decision to depict Sugar as a determined young girl who decides to make the best of her circumstances and relies on her own inner courage, humor, and imagination to help herself rather than devolve into angst. That being said, anyone searching for a middle grade novel dealing with homelessness in a more realistic manner might not be fond of Almost Home‘s upbeat, semi-convenient approach. Once more, this isn’t a negative against this novel as it’s handling of a delicate subject feels age-appropriate, but it does avoid delving into deeper questions and issues regarding homelessness and its effect on a young population.

My only real issue with this novel is with the relationship Sugar has with her teacher, Mr. Bennett. Before I go any further, want to stress that absolutely nothing inappropriate, or even remotely inappropriate, occurs between them. He is simply a teacher with whom Sugar feels she can open up to, perhaps seeing a quasi-paternal figure in him as her own father is absent and her grandfather is no longer alive. My issue, thus, has nothing to do with their staying in touch nor with Mr. Bennett’s encouraging of Sugar. Instead, my issue arises out of the convenience and implausibility of it all. Mr. Bennett is a genuinely nice guy who tries to encourage Sugar even after she moves away and can only communicate by email. But therein lies my problem: we have a young girl communicating with a male teacher whom she no longer sees on a daily basis and who also emails her back without Sugar’s mother being any of the wiser. Again, there’s nothing sinister going on, but this seemed a little too far-fetched and unrealistic, especially for a story that is supposedly a realistic tale.

To its credit, Almost Home is readable and probably a good fit for classroom and elementary school libraries. It’s not a long novel as it possesses a brisk pace due in part to its writing style. Likewise, it tackles the issue of homelessness with a gentle hand that avoids becoming too realistically tough. So while in terms of theme it’s insufficient for prompting discussion among older children, teens, or adults, I could see it serving its purpose in introducing younger readers to the topic (who are old enough to understand the concept of homelessness, that is) in a way that’s age-appropriate and doesn’t preach.

Overall, Almost Home seems to be intended for its target middle grade readership rather than a wider audience. This is evidenced in its entire structure, from its lead character, to its treatment of its central subject matter, to its tone and writing style. I did ultimately award this book three stars on GoodReads, which translates to “Liked It,” and that’s the best way for me to sum up my feelings towards this as it’s not an age-inclusive novel nor is it utterly unreadable for older readers. That being said, I sense this would be a perfect fit for young middle grade readers who are looking for a realistic story that, to its credit, avoids becoming too serious by focusing on a plucky heroine and her cute stray dog who promote perseverance over self-pity.

Language – To the best of my memory, there were no profanities (and if there were any, they were very minimal and did not exceed the confines of a PG-level).

Violence – None. Sugar and her mother become homeless and are forced to contend with a mercurial living situation, but nothing violent ever happens to them. Also, for readers concerned about how an animal is treated in a story, Shush never comes to any harm and is alive at the end of the story.

Sexual Content – None.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “The Lunar Chronicles”

Five Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “It Was Amazing”]

It’s rare that a book series comes along with the power to attract my attention and envelope my imagination. To date, the only series that have done so are the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, and the Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart. In the case of most series, I tend to peruse the first book but usually won’t bother exploring subsequent entries. The reasons for this are varied but the most common one is that the plot and/or characters aren’t strong enough to compel me to venture on, especially to commit to a multi-book story arc. That being said, when I first read Cinder a few years ago, I was immediately hooked and knew I had stumbled upon a new series that actually commanded my interest and investment for the long haul. Hence, the Lunar Chronicles is now among my most-loved book series.

The stories comprising the Lunar Chronicles are an innovative hybrid of fairy tale retellings and science fiction space opera (though seeing as the action only occurs on either the Earth or the Moon, I use the term “space” here loosely). At first glance, this sounds like an odd, unworkable combination due to each genre’s inherent differences. However, what Meyers offers is a unique spin on some familiar fairy tales that don’t wax as paint-by-numbers or fill-in-the-blanks stories. Instead, she retains the basic skeleton of each tale, then grafts new skin and characters upon it, creating a series that is engaging and fresh.

There are four novels and one novella that make up the Lunar Chronicles (I am excluding the numerous short stories and the two graphic novels for the sake of simplicity): Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter with Fairest serving as a prequel novella to Cinder. As their titles imply, each book uses a classic fairy tale as its basis: Cinder is a retelling of Cinderella, Scarlet is a revamped Little Red Riding Hood, Cress is a Rapunzel re-imagining, and Winter and Fairest both borrow from Snow White.

Plot-wise, the series possesses a large scope that involves a conflict between the various unified nations of Earth and the Lunar throne, occupied by the sinister Levana. At the epicenter of the political turmoil is a seemingly unimportant cyborg mechanic named Cinder who quickly discovers that she has a far greater part to play in the story at large. Joining her in time are Scarlet Benoit, who is searching for her missing grandmother; Wolf, a rugged street fighter who is more than he seems; Cress, a satellite-bound foundling forced to serve as a hacker for the Lunar government; Carswell Thorne, a hotshot pilot with a knack for getting into trouble as well as getting out of tight jams; Princess Winter, the seemingly insane stepdaughter of Queen Levana; and Prince Kai, ruler of the Eastern Commonwealth, one of Earth’s conjoined nations.

As one can probably tell, the Lunar Chronicles sports an expansive cast, yet each novel works to not only introduce its characters in their novel-by-novel micro-plots but also tie them into the series’ overarching macro-plot plot involving Cinder and her true identity/nature. This careful management of plots, subplots, and characters is achieved through a delicate blend of action and character development that work together to maintain each book’s and the series’ momentum. Even if the fairy tale elements were removed, the series would still stand as a solid work of modern space opera.

Much like traditional space opera, the focus of the Lunar Chronicles is not (as one might expect from a young adult series) on cliched love triangles or petty teenage dramas. Instead, its primary tone is one of robust adventure that moves like a literary EKG with undulating highs of action, peril, and suspense and lows of character growth moments and exposition. Similarly, the series places an emphasis on the threat of warfare between Earth and the Moon, offers up clean romance, displays risk-taking among all of the characters, and introduces some well-placed melodrama for the sake of high adventure [1]. Again, while most of the action is confined to Earth (with the exception of Winter), it’s not exactly a fair fight as the Lunar government has some technological and biological advantages over the people of Earth. Hence, while perhaps not a space opera in the strictest sense of the word, it seems appropriate to call the Lunar Chronicles a space opera-lite tale.

Furthermore, its sense of depth and focus on character dynamics and action as opposed to the usual YA tropes gives it an edge that propels it into a category of stellar (pun intended) YA sci-fi. Yet another attribute in this series’ favor is that it never becomes a play-by-play retelling of its respective fairy tales, meaning there is no “this-equals-that” formula at work. Granted, there are allusions to the original tales, such as a robotic foot in place of a glass slipper and apple candies instead of a poisoned apple, but these inclusions are subtle and clever rather than overt and trying too hard to be charming or call attention to their fairy tale counterparts. Overall, Meyer uses her chosen fairy tales as a jumping off point before crafting a brand new futuristic world that comes across as very believable and doesn’t feel overwrought.

Cinder serves as a solid series opener, introducing readers to the titular heroine who, much like Cinderella, is the unwanted ward of her stepmother and step-sisters. However, what makes Cinder unique is that she is a cyborg, a trait that makes her undesirable in both her family and society at large. But Cinder’s small world quickly enlarges when she finds herself at the crux of a dire plan to save the population of the Eastern Commonwealth from a deadly Lunar disease. To make matters worse, Queen Levana has come to propose marriage to young Emperor Kai, a political move that reeks of ulterior motives. As such, the novel balances character development – chiefly Cinder’s evolution – with political intrigue and suspense. This novel does wrap up on a rather open-ended note but it effectively sets the stage for the second novel, Scarlet.

Out of the series, Scarlet is my “least” favorite (but I use that term loosely) simply because there seems to be more character down time when compared to the other entries, but it is by no means sluggish or weak. Here, we’re introduced to a new set of soon-to-be main characters, Scarlet Benoit and Wolf. The two meet in a rather innocuous way but soon become comrades on the run as Scarlet is desperate to locate her missing grandmother and Wolf is forced to confront his own demons. In time, Cinder and a few other characters from the first installment are added to the mix. Normally when it comes to novels with large casts, I find myself disconnected due to all of the persons to keep track of. But Meyer creates a nicely balanced narrative that inches the characters closer to each other as their respective plot lines intersect.

The third novel, Cress, has the daunting task of trying to juggle all of the current characters’ story arcs while developing one more, this one involving Cress, a Lunar hacker hoping to escape her confinement and meet heartthrob American pilot, Carswell Thorne, whom she admires from afar. Thorne proves to be more than a comic foil character, which is what I feared he might become upon his introduction in Scarlet. In this novel, we’re given an intriguing “man behind the mask”-type of narrative where subtle commentary about the nature of celebrity is briefly explored. Cress, without going into specifics, is a sheltered young lady who spends her time, among other things, mooning over Thorne. But all she knows is what she has read in the news and tabloid feeds. Once she meets the man himself, she is a bit underwhelmed. But their pairing is the start of a beautiful friendship that evolves into something more. In terms of character plots, Cress is as knotty as the titular character’s hair; however, it all comes together brilliantly. The suspense and action in this novel essentially takes everything I loved about Cinder and amplifies it.

In a bit of a deviation, Fairest was released prior to the series’ final book. However, even though it is a novella (and a prequel) it is by no means less important. The reason I include it among the series’ novels is that it serves as a baseline for the chief antagonist, Queen Levana. Until now, Levana is a good villain but harbors mysterious aspects about her that are never fully explained. Similarly, her personal motivations, aside from her overt power plays, are also kept under wraps. But all of that changes in Fairest where we see Levana’s origins and learn why she behaves and believes as she does. (For example, in the series we learn that Levana hates mirrors though we’re never told why; but in the novella, we learn the reason behind her revulsion.) Even though she is the villain, she becomes strongly sympathetic here (albeit not enough for readers to condone her actions, but they do make some sense in context). Hence, Fairest serves as a great look into the making of the series’ villain, and I would strongly encourage readers to peruse it before diving into Cinder as it sheds light on Levana’s driving passions.

Winter, the largest book of the series, works to close everything out with much aplomb as all of the major characters are swept up into the macro-conflict ensnaring the Earth and the Moon and individual micro-conflicts. Much like in Cress, the characters are initially scattered, each with their own subplots, yet everything comes together to form a cohesive story. Here, we are introduced to the final new character pairing of Princess Winter and her bodyguard, Jacin. Winter steals the show with her humility, compassion, and cleverness. Rather than serve as the cliched beautiful princess who melts everyone’s hearts, Winter has personal scars (both literally and figuratively) and she is presumed to be mentally unstable. She fits in perfectly with the series’ other heroines, all of whom are not cookie cutter characters but are unique, smart, and flawed individuals. To call Winter satisfying would be an understatement as it serves as the crown with which to top a well-crafted, entertaining, engaging series.

Overall, the Lunar Chronicles is a fantastic epic sci-fi series that is redolent of classic space opera, only in this case it’s sprinkled with fairy tale inspirations. It presents complex characters; serpentine plots; riveting action; and clean, swoon-worthy romance that at times can remind me of Golden Age science fiction. As the books themselves increase in page count, each character is given his or her due and is allowed to shine, both as individuals and as members of a group of unlikely heroes in a tale that happens once upon a future but concludes with a rousing happy ever after.

Language – Sporadic PG-level profanities are uttered throughout the series, but such instances are few and far between.

Violence – Most of the violence occurs in scenes of hand-to-hand combat where characters fight either with weapons or under the influence of Lunar mind control. Nothing ever turns graphic or gory as most scenes of carnage (such as when a genetically engineered army attacks several cities on Earth) are never described in detail. Lunars can telepathically manipulate others and most instances of this involve forcing a person to commit a violent act against their will. There is talk of characters being murdered (usually off-page). A Moon-based virus called letumosis attacks suddenly and kills quickly. Scenes where victims discover they are infected and are transported to quarantine, as well as scenes in the quarantine centers, are frightening on a psychological level but are non-graphic. There is also an undercurrent of tension between characters and many characters find themselves in perilous situations at times. Characters breath murderous threats, physically threaten others, and there is implied (non-sexual) violence against children, but nothing ever becomes graphic or uncomfortable to read.

Sexual Content – None in terms of sex scenes or sexual content. Some girls talk of flirting with Prince Kai, who is seen as a heartthrob but he doesn’t display a playboy persona. Cinder’s robot companion comments about a palace robot possibly having seen the prince naked but nothing further is speculated. Characters couple up and kiss but nothing ever goes further. Fairest contains the most suggestive content of the series but it’s sporadic and presently vaguely. Monogamy isn’t practiced among Lunars and it’s common knowledge for people to have lovers, so this gets mentioned in some characters’ conversations. However, nothing explicit is ever discussed or shown in terms of these loose relationships.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Thrawn: Alliances”

Five Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “It Was Amazing”]

After perusing Star Wars: Thrawn, I was left hoping that Timothy Zahn would continue penning more adventures showcasing the incredible intellect, battle tactics, and personal fortitude of the titular Grand Admiral (who remains my all time favorite villain). I first assumed that Thrawn was going to be a stand-alone, but I sensed the potential for more. Thankfully, Thrawn became the first entry in a new series dedicated to Thrawn’s origins and backstory prior to the original Thrawn trilogy Zahn penned in the 1990s. Hence, we have the follow up novel, Thrawn: Alliances, which adds yet another classic Star Wars villain to the mix, the dreaded Darth Vader himself.

Plot-wise, Thrawn: Alliances relies more on action as opposed to the first novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the tone and pace of Thrawn, but I appreciate the fact that there is less political red tape, power plays, and backstabbing here and more on-the-ground action that puts Thrawn – who has now become a Grand Admiral – in full command. The primary story arc places Thrawn alongside Darth Vader as both have been paired up by Emperor Palpatine to explore a threat looming in the Unknown Regions. It’s no secret that neither man truly wants to work alongside the other, and this sentiment is shared no more strongly than by Vader himself. While Thrawn seems agreeable to establishing a working relationship between them to achieve their end goal, Darth Vader isn’t exactly that invested, preferring to work alone. This generates much of the story’s tension and it’s a compelling dynamic to watch unfold. (As a side note, we also learn something rather unique about the Chiss. It counts as a spoiler, so I can’t discuss it, but it proves to be a vital plot point and I thought it was a very creative detail.)

Unlike Thrawn‘s dual-sided plot that was related in real time, Thrawn: Alliances showcases a split narrative using flashbacks. While the principle plot focuses on Thrawn’s and Darth Vader’s mission in the story’s present day, the parallel plot focuses on a time when Thrawn (serving the Chiss Ascendancy) partnered up with Anakan Skywalker (the future Darth Vader) on a mission to an alien world. This ties into the present day narrative as Thrawn tries to subtly discern if Vader is actually Anakan Skywalker beneath his dark visage. Vader does not take too kindly to these attempts to resurrect old/painful memories, which also drives his dislike of Thrawn. To be fair, Thrawn does not antagonize Vader – he simply seeks to prove to himself whether Vader is the same person he once knew or if the man Anakan is lost forever. In the end, Thrawn discovers his answer, for better or worse.

This split narrative propels the novel’s action as well as parallels the lives of its leads. Anakan’s plot shows him as separated from his beloved Padme (who eventually strikes out on her own to find him) and forced to work alongside an alien (Thrawn) he knows nothing about. However, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that his and Thrawn’s teamwork is less rife with tension than it is  when the plot switches to the present-day’s showcasing of Thrawn and Vader’s dealings. Interestingly, Thrawn set the stage for Thrawn: Alliances as, in the first novel, Thrawn makes casual mention to the Emperor that he once met Anakan, whom he called a noble warrior, but is saddened to learn he has “died.” In that novel’s final pages, we see Thrawn’s introduction to Vader, though at the time the Grand Admiral doesn’t seem to suspect that both men – Anakan and Vader – are one and the same. Hence, part of Thrawn’s personal quest here is to uncover the truth and put some of his suspicions to rest.

In this way, Thrawn: Alliances presents an interesting look into the concept and theme of self-identity and how this spills over into how other people choose to view and accept us. Concerning Thrawn, we can see a set up here that I sense will be explored more fully in the third installment, Thrawn: Treason (set to release in 2019) and possibly beyond where his loyalties to the Empire will be tested. One gets the sense that Emperor Palpatine isn’t fully convinced that Thrawn is in service to him solely for the Empire’s benefit but also to benefit Thrawn’s own people, the Chiss. Hence, moving the crux of the action to the Unknown Regions, from which Thrawn hails, is intended to see whether or not Thrawn will keep the Empire’s interests at heart.

As stated in my review for Thrawn, Thrawn isn’t an evil or a morally bad person as he belongs to a category of villains I like to call 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. Thrawn fits perfectly within this category as what makes him a villain at all is that he serves the Empire. However, as we learn in Thrawn, his reasons for doing so aren’t for personal glory but the good of the Chiss. Seeing this put to the semi-test here is interesting and provides ground for Zahn to explore in subsequent novels regarding how Thrawn defines himself – as a servant of the Empire or a member of the Chiss Ascendancy. Thus, Thrawn harbors two “identities,” one as a high-ranking officer within the Empire and the other as an “exiled” officer from among the Chiss. Thrawn seems to have no trouble seeing himself as both; however, there are others around him (namely the Emperor) who won’t take too kindly to knowing he has split allegiances.

But the character who is given an even more detailed treatment regarding self-identity is Darth Vader. In the present-day narrative, Vader is self-actualized and there is no question as to how he views himself and his personal allegiances. However, this is contrasted with his younger, “real” self Anakan Skywalker, from the way he tackles problems to his relationship with and love for Padme. In juxtaposing these scenes with moments of Vader being his iconic, fearsome self, we see both an inner and an outer conflict taking shape. It’s akin to a similar character identity conflict seen in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (an odd comparison, I realize!), one of my favorite movies. In the film, audiences witness Holly Golightly’s internal and external conflicts with her own persona – is she the simple country gal, the wannabe starlet, or the chic Manhattan party girl? She defines herself in different ways at different times, but it doesn’t always mesh with how other characters perceive her. By comparison, though Thrawn’s loyalties are tested to determine how he views himself (a servant of the Empire or of the Chiss), it is Darth Vader who gets the Holly Golightly “treatment.”

To himself, Darth Vader sees Anakan like a second, old identity that is, for all intents and purposes, “dead,” much like how Holly strives to distance herself from her bucolic roots. However, that doesn’t prevent Vader from not recalling memories of his younger days, which functions as the internal conflict. The external conflict arises when Thrawn subtly tries to get Vader to recall his former “self” as Anakan Skywalker, the man Thrawn once met and was honored to work alongside. Though Thrawn never openly tries to drag Vader’s old self out of him, it’s clear he is trying to discern who resides behind Vader’s mask – the courageous Anakan Skywalker or the fearsome Darth Vader. In this way, Thrawn plays the role of Paul (from Breakfast at Tiffany’s) who strives to extract Holly’s true identity and sense of self. In the end, Thrawn reaches his conclusion with a sense of finality tinged with regret. It’s a sentiment readers can’t help but sympathize with, adding a degree of depth to a fast-paced space adventure story.

Overall, Thrawn: Alliances is a solid follow up to the first entry in Zahn’s new Thrawn series, and I think it was a smart move to compare and contrast two classic Star Wars villains as well as shift the plot away from a political arena and more into a traditional space opera. Fans of Thrawn should not miss this entry as it’s a compelling sequel as well as a good set up for future stories showcasing the brilliant Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Language – Very sporadic PG-level words (nothing worse than what one might hear in a Star Wars film).

Violence – There are some typical sci-fi fight/action scenes as well as perilous moments where characters face sundry threats, from being captured/imprisoned to physical fights. The type of action here is akin to a Star Wars film and is devoid of graphic blood or gore. Elsewhere, Darth Vader has moments where he considers inflicting pain upon Thrawn, with whom he has a testy relationship, but ultimately he decides not to do so. Later, we are told that some children were kidnapped, but said children are eventually rescued and are unharmed.

Sexual Content – None.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Thrawn”

Five Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “It Was Amazing”]

Seeing this book when it was initially released caused me to be curious about Thrawn as he’s not a part of the Star Wars film canon, so I wasn’t familiar with him. However, his name seemed to evoke a sense of genuine respect among fans, some of whom claimed he is an even better baddie than Darth Vader himself. Hence, I perused all of Zahn’s original Thrawn novels: the Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire [1991], Dark Force Rising [1992], and The Last Command [1993]); the Hand of Thrawn duology (Specter of the Past [1997] and Vision of the Future [1998]) Outbound Flight (2006) (which events occurs before the original Thrawn trilogy), and Choices of One (2011) and Survivor’s Quest (2004) (neither of which feature Thrawn much as a character, if at all, but I was so hooked at this point that I didn’t care). Before I launched into this novel, I had already proclaimed Thrawn as my favorite villain of all time. All Thrawn did was capitalize on these sentiments.

While perusing Outbound Flight and the original Thrawn trilogy is helpful in grounding Thrawn’s character, they’re not absolutely essential before diving into this novel. Story-wise, Thrawn is a character study of Mitth’raw’nuruodo, an alien from among the Chiss who later simply becomes known as Thrawn. When the novel opens, Thrawn is discovered on a distant world and retrieved by Imperial forces who see him as both a prize and a source of intrigue. Emperor Palpatine is impressed by the blue-skinned alien’s level-headed demeanor and logic, so Thrawn is swept up into the Imperial Academy on an accelerated track to become an officer. During this time, Thrawn is accompanied by the rather unlikely Eli Vanto, an ensign who is basically assigned to be Thrawn’s translator and personal aide. However, both men’s lives ends up following a similar path. Comprising the novel’s secondary plot is the rise of Arihnda Pryce (a character introduced in the animated television series Star Wars Rebels), who evolves into scheming political upstart. While Thrawn and Pryce’s plot lines are initially distant, they eventually intersect and create a compelling character combination.

The star of the novel is, of course, the Grand Admiral-to-be himself, Thrawn. Interestingly, even if the Star Wars elements were removed from this novel, it would still hold up as a fascinating science fiction character study that doesn’t present its central subject as a flawless figure. It would have been tempting to turn a Thrawn origin story into one that elevates him to a nearly impossible standard, but that’s not the case here. Zahn smartly balances scenes displaying Thrawn’s incredible Sherlock Holmes-esque intelligence and keen attention to detail with moments where he faces racism (for being an alien) as well as political red tape. Likewise, not every plan Thrawn devises succeeds as there are hurdles to navigate which Thrawn does sometimes well and sometimes imperfectly. However, even when he fails, Thrawn is a quick study who adapts to his circumstances and who knows how to learn from his oversights and the mistakes of others.

Thrawn has always been upheld as a villain in the Star Wars canon simply because he serves the Empire rather than the Republic/rebels. However, he’s a villain in designation only as he’s never an evil character nor even a morally bad person. Thrawn belongs to a category of villains I like to call 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. Thrawn fits perfectly inside this category as he 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 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 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.

It is this aspect of Thrawn that the novel develops, piece by piece. Seeing as this is the first book in a series, we don’t get to glimpse Thrawn’s full background here. Instead, this novel lays the groundwork and sets up Thrawn’s rise through the ranks. It is worth noting that much of the “action” driving this novel is not space fights and shootouts (though there are a few). Instead, this is a more cerebral story where power plays – political and otherwise – take center stage. Ordinarily, these sorts of narratives don’t appeal to me, but what Thrawn does smartly is isolate its focus as to how these machinations impact or relate to Thrawn, especially as one such central power struggle evolves between him and a notorious space pirate. There is also an interesting parallel here between Thrawn and Arihnda Pryce. Both are treated as outsiders to varying degrees and both prove their mettle in different ways. However, both characters end up needing each other as Thrawn doesn’t grasp the concept of political backscratching, and Pryce wants some naval muscle to back up her own cause. On paper, it sounds like a testy relationship, but it’s one that’s entertaining to witness as it’s developed from the ground up.

Certainly not to be overlooked is Eli Vanto. Eli shares some parallels with Thrawn as both are proverbial fish out of water as they come from different backgrounds than most of their Imperial compatriots and hail from galactic backwaters. Yet Thrawn’s and Eli’s arcs are neatly entwined. Eli starts out as Thrawn’s translator but later becomes a valuable aide and, in the end, a friend upon whom Thrawn entrusts with a mission (which the novel saves as a cliffhanger). I enjoyed Eli as a character because he’s an everyman figure, someone whom readers can relate to. Initially, determined yet grounded and sensible Eli despises walking in Thrawn’s shadow but eventually comes to learn valuable lessons during his time waiting in the wings, so to speak. Likewise, Eli makes for a good gateway character for Thrawn to engage Human culture as the latter is sometimes marginalized simply for being an alien. In contrast, Eli treats Thrawn as a person and respects him for that alone, and it’s Eli’s actions that often put other’s treatment of Thrawn to shame.

Speaking of which, I highly admire the way Zahn tackles the subject of racism in this novel as it never  becomes a social justice soapbox. Instead, it’s a theme that is organically sewn into Thrawn’s story by default. Thrawn is an alien among non-aliens in the not-so-alien-friendly Empire. He is occasionally bullied, criticized, marginalized, and even attacked simply because he’s non-Human. But rather than use this as a sob story through which to wring readers’ sympathy or a means by which to hammer home a socially-conscious message, the novel has Thrawn treat these incidents coolly as he knows his inherent worth as a tactician and an officer stands on its own and speaks for itself. Revenge isn’t his modus operandi, and the best example of his levelheadedness in this matter is when he suggests that some former tormentors be reprimanded in a low-key fashion that speaks to his ability to read others and see their ultimate value. Hence, the novel depicts Thrawn as a self-motivated individual who is driven more by his own personal goals, sense of duty, and honor than bemoaning his lot or seeking reparation.

(In an aside, it’s worth noting that Thrawn was given the comic/graphic novel treatment, which I’ve also read and enjoyed. While the graphic novel is a condensed version, it’s still worth checking out after reading the novel itself just as a visual adaptation. The basic skeleton of the story remains, the artwork is eye-catching, and Thrawn makes for a striking figure indeed!)

Overall, Thrawn is a fascinating look into the rise of one of Star Wars‘ best “villains.” I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it to be a well-paced read that’s populated by smart characters and driven by an entertaining mix of power struggles, solid character development, and good old fashioned showdowns. Fans of Thrawn who want to see where his story began will likely enjoy this novel as well as novice fans who want to be introduced to the great Grand Admiral himself.

Language – Very sporadic PG-level words (nothing worse than what one might hear in a Star Wars film). (The graphic novel also has sporadic PG-level words but there are even fewer profanities due to the reduced amount of dialogue.)

Violence – There are some typical sci-fi fight/action scenes as well as perilous moments where characters face sundry threats. The type of action here is akin to a Star Wars film and is devoid of graphic blood or gore. Early in the novel, Thrawn sets booby traps, some of which involve explosions, to deter unwanted persons at a campsite. Elsewhere, Thrawn is ambushed and attacked by some fellow cadets but he doesn’t come to any real harm. (The same applies to the graphic novel as, while there are scenes of action, these are not drawn to be graphic or realistic.)

Sexual Content – None. (The graphic novel also contains no sexual content or nudity.)

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Eragon”

Three Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “Liked It”]

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 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.

For starters, what I enjoyed most about this novel was the human-dragon relationship. It’s quite common to depict dragons as villain creatures, so it’s nice to see this reversed where dragons become the heroes of a piece. 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 Eragon. Eragon is also a likable protagonist and his relationship with Saphira is admirable 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 young, 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. Rowling, for example, pays homage to other writers, from Austen to Lewis to 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 so 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.

Content-wise, Eragon is clean and devoid of language and sexual content. As far as violence is concerned, there are 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.

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!