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
(1985)
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
(1986)
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
(1978)
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
(1984)
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
(1993)
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
(1989)
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.

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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!

Content:
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.

Content:
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.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Roar”


The Story: [from GoodReads:]
In a land ruled and shaped by violent magical storms, power lies with those who control them. Aurora Pavan comes from one of the oldest Stormling families in existence. Long ago, the ungifted pledged fealty and service to her family in exchange for safe haven, and a kingdom was carved out from the wildlands and sustained by magic capable of repelling the world’s deadliest foes. As the sole heir of Pavan, Aurora’s been groomed to be the perfect queen. She’s intelligent and brave and honorable. But she’s yet to show any trace of the magic she’ll need to protect her people.

To keep her secret and save her crown, Aurora’s mother arranges for her to marry a dark and brooding Stormling prince from another kingdom. At first, the prince seems like the perfect solution to all her problems. He’ll guarantee her spot as the next queen and be the champion her people need to remain safe. But the more secrets Aurora uncovers about him, the more a future with him frightens her. When she dons a disguise and sneaks out of the palace one night to spy on him, she stumbles upon a black market dealing in the very thing she lacks—storm magic. And the people selling it? They’re not Stormlings. They’re storm hunters.

Legend says that her ancestors first gained their magic by facing a storm and stealing part of its essence. And when a handsome young storm hunter reveals he was born without magic, but possesses it now, Aurora realizes there’s a third option for her future besides ruin or marriage. She might not have magic now, but she can steal it if she’s brave enough.

My Take: Often, I can make up my mind about a new book right after finishing it. But in some cases, it takes a second read for me to decide whether or not a book is worth keeping on my shelves or not. Roar, a YA fantasy, is one such book; and unfortunately, the second go-around for me revealed some very stormy areas in this meteorological magic-based story.

But to start, I think the cover is stunning! In fact, I was drawn to this book thanks to its cover, and it’s one of these covers that looks better in person. It has three dimensional elements to it so the title stands out, which is a nice touch. Also, though you can’t see it here, the art is actually a panorama that wraps around the entire dust jacket so it’s a continuing scene rather than a solitary snapshot. Likewise, I love the organic color combination of pink, purple, green, grey, and white, and I think this works to establish the story’s overall tone and setting, which is chiefly outdoors. So, all, in all, I give major props to the art department!

Concerning the story itself, Roar focuses on the titular Roar (aka Aurora, aka Rora) who, in keeping with typical YA fantasy court intrigue tradition, is a princess who, despite coming from a magically-gifted family, lacks any magical talents herself. (So in Harry Potter terms, we’d call Roar a Squib.) Roar’s mother, the queen, has done her best to hide this fact from the public eye as the populace looks to the royal family to protect the kingdom when dangerous, magically-infused weather strikes. Roar’s only hope of preserving her people is to marry a magically gifted Stormling prince, the sinister Cassius, who fulfills the obligatory “bad boy” trope.

Naturally, Roar doesn’t want to marry him (though once we get to know Cassius, who could blame her?), so she runs away. She eventually comes into the company of a group of storm hunters who steal the magical “hearts” of storms. The leader of this band of rebels is Locke, who fulfills the third corner of the obligatory “love” triangle. For most of the story, Roar aligns herself with Locke and his magical rebels as all sorts of magical dangers and court politics ensue.

Please stop me if you’ve heard all of this before…

Seriously, I won’t be offended.

As you might have deduced, Roar is a run-of-the-mill YA court intrigue story complete with a love triangle, drama, and magic. In short, if you remove the magic system, which is the story’s only interesting element, you get the usual recipe that has dominated the YA fantasy market for years. (Though I would categorize this as more New Adult than Young Adult for reasons I’ll get into later on.) Thus, the general plot, when divorced from its magical element, was very ho-hum for me.

That being said, I didn’t dislike everything about the plot as it has some good action scenes, especially when characters confront storms, and the magic system is fairly innovative. Here, magic is weather-centered as characters can master, conquer, and (in a sense) kill meteorological phenomena, from dust storms to raging tempests. While we’re not told exactly how these storms obtained their magic, we do learn that each one is driven by a magical center, a heart, that can be removed and reused as a magical talisman or retained as a trophy. While weather-based magic is nothing new (Maria V. Snyder’s Glass trilogy, which borrows elements of meteorological magic, comes to mind), I still think it’s a fun literary device.

It was the magic system that ultimately saved this book for me (as I awarded it one star on GoodReads), but it was not enough to conceal the problems I had with the story. Aside from its color-by-number plot and characters, Roar not only suffers from trite love triangle-itis but also presents its two “romantic” male leads as less than honorable gentlemen. This “love” triangle (that’s more like a lust triangle) involves Roar and two male suitors, the dark and mysterious Cassius and the not-as-dark yet still mysterious Locke. I’m not a fan of love triangles in general on the principle that they have been overused and seem to be a writer’s default way of inserting dramatic tension into a story. Though I think some love triangles do work, especially when they’re not the crux of the plot, the triangle here does not thanks to its components.

Roar is the typical beautiful swan character caught in the middle of two would-be suitors and who doesn’t seem to know what she wants out of a relationship. On one side is Cassius who sees Roar as a trophy for him to claim and conquer, and on the other side is Locke, an ultra-alpha male. Rather than present the reader – and Roar – with two equally worthy male love interests, the novel instead offers up two questionable choices.

From the start, Cassius is depicted as a villain and views Roar as a challenge to be won, not a woman to cherish. His actions are dictated by a possessive nature and he displays a clear lack of respect for Roar’s boundaries, reading her refusals and her anger as turn-ons rather than signals that he’s overstepping his bounds. One such scene in which Roar and Cassius throw knives at each other (in a moment redolent of a similar scene between Tris and Four/Tobias in Divergent) puts Cassius’ callousness on display when he seems to take great pride in sticking a knife straight into Roar’s arm. To its credit, the novel rightfully treats Cassius’ actions as manipulative and doesn’t have Roar fall for his charms.

However, what the novel initially declares as unhealthy and possessive is later depicted as romantic and swoon-worthy when Locke comes on the scene. Locke is a cliched alpha male, which isn’t an immediate negative as he does make for a good leader and rallying point for his fellow storm hunters. However, his actions towards and perceptions of Roar mirror Cassius’ behaviors and thoughts yet the novel never calls these out. Rather than view Roar as a woman worth getting to know and cherishing, Locke seeks to possess her because he finds her mesmerizing. However, there is a fine line between being intrigued by someone and wanting to get to know them better as a person and being drawn to someone and obsessing over them. Obsession isn’t synonymous with love and, much like unwanted weeds in a flourishing flower garden, has no place in a healthy romance.

To add to Locke’s unlikable factor, he, more than once, recalls how Roar reminds him of his deceased sister, and the same traits he saw in his sister he also sees in Roar, which further fuels his obsessed lustful attraction.

So let me get this straight – we have a guy who is lusting/obsessing after a woman, with whom he is eventually physical with, who reminds him of his dead sister.

Um, yeah. Nothing weird about that at all (insert sarcasm here).

As expected, Locke and Roar eventually become physical; however, during some of these scenes, Locke becomes rough and manhandles Roar. Yet rather than shove him away, Roar either enjoys being treated as such or just resigns herself to being roughhoused under the guise of “intimacy.” I’m sorry, but any intimate act, from a hug to anything else, that involves manhandling or even the implication that one party is struggling or fighting against the other is NOT an act of genuine affection! But rather than paint Locke’s actions as abusive, the novel glosses over them, covertly declaring them “romantic.”

I know this topic has consumed the bulk of this review, but it’s a major issue in the novel that deserves to not be dismissed. A couple of things concern me about the depiction of abusive relationships as healthy, normal, and romantic. The first of which is that Roar is marketed as a YA novel; however, this is closer to a new adult or an adult novel (ages 18+) than a book for teenagers (ages 13-17). Roar is no more a YA novel than Watchmen is a suitable picture book for preschoolers. While Roar is devoid of excessive language and violence, its sensuality factor and depiction of questionable relationship dynamics make this a poor pick for teens.

I also believe Roar is riding on the coattails of the abusive-relationships-are-romantic trend that was kick-started by the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy (which I’ve never read nor would I though I’m familiar with its basic premise). This is a dangerous message to present to female readers, teens especially but also to women of any age. While Roar manages to keep its fantasy focus, its central “romantic” thread presents unhealthy dynamics where lust is elevated over love, possession is preferred over gentle protection, and obsession is prized over mutual attraction.

Content:
Language – Minimal; any language used is few and far between and primarily consists of PG-level words.

Violence – Violence is chiefly contained in the fantasy violence lane where characters track down storms and harvest their magical hearts. Storms are also shown to be destructive forces that can turn lethal, but they can have their magical powers harnessed for either good (as a means of protecting others) or bad (as a weapon). Some characters employ traditional weapons, such as blades, at times, but there are no instances of gory, graphic violence other than passing mentions of bleeding wounds.

Sexual Content – The chemistry between Roar and Cassius and Roar and Locke simmers with sensuality that scantily avoids any outright sex scenes. Cassius views Roar as more of a possession than a person and makes vague mental comments about her body and their pending wedding night (which never happens as the two don’t wed). Locke also treats Roar in a possessive manner and the two are often physical. One scene near the novel’s end barely avoids being a sex scene as Locke and Roar caress and make bodily contact while clothed. (This scene, along with others, depicts Locke’s actions as controlling yet also somehow “romantic” as Roar succumbs to his rough advances.) Finally, it’s worth noting that author Cora Carmack chiefly pens adult/erotic romances, and while there is nothing here quite at that level, this supposedly YA novel is decidedly not for teens.

The Run-Down:

Overall, Roar has only one redeeming value – its magic. When the novel spends its time and attention on the various storm hunter characters and their meteorological magical arts, it’s entertaining and creative. However, when this is subtracted from the equation, all readers are left with is a by-the-numbers YA fantasy riddled with tropes and cliches. In and of itself, this doesn’t make the book terrible but it does make it predictable and bland. However, when the story delves in Roar’s sundry “romantic” relationships, it depicts some highly questionable dynamics that, in real-world settings, would be unhealthy at best and abusive at worst.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”


The Story: 
[from GoodReads:]
It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children. While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

My Take: [Just a quick note before I launch into my review: while I won’t reveal spoilers related to Cursed Child, I may inadvertently drop spoilers from the other Potter books. I assume most folks have read the Harry Potter series in full. But in case you haven’t, please be forewarned – there may be spoilers!]

Early on, I all but swore off reading this story (which is actually a play, not a novel). I assumed it was just a way to cash grab on the Harry Potter series rather than serve as any kind of new addition to the original canon. Reviewers seemed split: some loved it for the nostalgia, others hated it because it didn’t feel like a true Potter tale. I was torn between those two opinions myself and, for a while, I decided to sit it out. However, eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to check it out.

And to be honest, it wasn’t the Hogwarts Express train wreck I was expecting. Granted, it’s no where near being as good as the original Harry Potter novels nor does it function as a follow up or an addition to the original canon. Instead, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is elevated fan fiction. Nothing more, nothing less.

Is it terrible? No.

Is it great? No.

For me, it was some parts good, some parts okay, some parts meh, and some parts what-were-they-thinking and not in a good way. So as a whole…

However, it’s worth noting three key differences that set Cursed Child apart from the rest of the Potter canon.

First, knowing this was only based on a story by J.K. Rowling and seeing that it had different authors lessens the blow so to speak and readjusts reader expectations. If you approach this as if it is some long-lost Potter manuscript penned by Rowling herself, you’re going to be disappointed because it contains none of her hallmarks. But if you view Cursed Child as a work of Rowling-blessed elevated fan fiction, then you’re approaching it with the right mindset.

Also, Cursed Child isn’t a novel but a script for a stage play of the same name. Thus, not only is it written by different authors, it also lacks the flow and description of the novels, and this is simply because it’s a script. I have some experience reading scripts, so I know they essentially are dialogue-driven and lack detailed descriptions or backstories. In short, scripts are skeletons that require a visual element; however, they aren’t unreadable on their own. The format is worth pointing out because it might not be to everyone’s tastes. Myself, I don’t seek out scripts to read because they are sparse, but I didn’t mind perusing this and it is easy to read. So if you prefer stories that are fully fleshed out when it comes to setting, tone, and characters, be aware that Cursed Child significantly lacks these things by default.

Lastly, the play’s events occur chiefly after the epilogue in Deathly Hallows; therefore, Harry, Hermione, Ron, and a few other original characters are adults in Cursed Child. Some reviewers have claimed the characters here lack the same chemistry they had in the original novels, and while that’s certainly true, it’s not entirely problematic. While I’ll discuss more about what I enjoyed and what I took issue with later on, I do want to note that Harry and his old school chums are in their late 30s-early 40s, so they aren’t going to act or talk like teens anymore. Likewise, their relationship with each other has mellowed out and matured not only due to age but also distance. In the original novels, Harry, Ron, and Hermione spent a lot of time together at school and essentially lived together. But in Cursed Child, they have families and homes of their own, so this separation is going to cause their chemistry to cool a bit but not entirely. In short, the characters we see in Cursed Child are older and wiser, so their interactions and conversations naturally reflect this.

With those notes out of the way, I want to spend the rest of my review discussing the play itself minus any major spoilers. While there were things I didn’t care for, much to my surprise there were some things I actually liked and even enjoyed.

First and foremost, I really liked seeing Harry do his best to navigate the waters of fatherhood. Though Ginny, his wife, is supportive, and he seemingly has no issue with eldest son James and young daughter Lily, it’s his middle child, Albus, who provides him with the biggest struggle. One plotline that Cursed Child would be expected to traverse is how Harry’s children live up to his legacy. While James and Lily seem excused from this fate, it falls, instead, to young Albus. Thus, one major thread this play unravels and explores with all sincerity is whether or not Albus will be a carbon copy of his famous father or chart a new course for his life. As expected, Albus’ path is decidedly different and I enjoyed this.

To turn Albus into a Harry Potter 2.0 would have been a mistake namely because we already have a Harry Potter, so to create a clone would have been hackneyed. Instead, Albus is not like his father, neither in temperament nor magic. For starters, Albus breaks Potter tradition when he arrives at Hogwarts, from his Sorting to his magical skills or lack thereof. In brief, Albus is an average young wizard and doesn’t seemed destined for greatness at all. However, the temptation to compare him to his father and his namesake is too great for some characters, and Albus begins to feel the pressure. In time, he lashes out at those closest to him, particularly his father.

I’ll admit that seeing Albus speak to and treat his father so coldly, despite Harry’s best efforts to love and support his son, are hard to read. Harry really does give it his best try to encourage Albus and be a kind, loving dad, but Albus won’t have any of it. He despises being Harry’s son, not because, deep down, he hates Harry, but because he dislikes having to live out a legacy that he’s clearly not equipped to carry on. This doesn’t excuse Albus and his angst but it at least puts it into some perspective.

The same applies to Harry, who now has to juggle being a family man and a Ministry of Magic employee. We do see him donning both proverbial hats though I enjoyed reading the acts where Harry interacts with his children more so than the workplace scenes. Some reviewers have claimed that this version of Harry isn’t the Harry we knew and loved from the novels and they would be partially correct. The Harry Potter in Cursed Child is nearing his 40s, has been married to Ginny for years, and is the father of three children, one of whom tries his patience at nearly every turn. It can’t be expected that this older, wiser, and, in some cases, more harried Harry is going to have much semblance to his younger counterpart in the original novels, which end when he is 17 and only gives a brief glimpse of him nearly 20 years later. Seeing Harry in Cursed Child behave and talk like a teenager would not only be unrealistic but also insulting as it would mean he never grew up. However, I can see some reviewers’ point, especially as Harry fires back at Albus for his behavior, even at times wishing Albus wasn’t his son.

Yes, that’s harsh and hard to read, but I believe it, much like Albus’ behavior, is somewhat justified in context as Albus kind of brings it on himself. Harry tries to connect with Albus and guide him just as a good father should, but Albus rebels. A parent will only take so much pushing and shoving from a rebellious child until the parent begins to push and shove back. It’s not right and it’s not pretty but it does make sense and shows Harry as a relatable individual rather than a larger-than-life figure. Hence, when Albus pushes Harry, admitting he hates being his son, Harry pushes back and admits he wishes he wasn’t Albus’ father. I really liked this intense family conflict because it allows both characters to make their own choices and deal with the consequences, wising up to what is more important in life, the past or the present.

We see a similar dilemma arise between Draco Malfoy and his son, Scorpius. Draco, while no longer a Death Eater, is still painted in that light by others who dredge up his past. Just as Albus is viewed under the mantle of his father’s past deeds, so Scorpius is covered by his father’s past shadow. While Draco and Scorpius don’t have the same falling out that Harry and Albus have, the two father-son pairings contain a similar thread – should one live in the past or live in the present but remember the past and plan for the future. It’s a theme that runs the entire length of the play and I enjoyed the depth at which it’s explored. And just in case some readers are concerned over whether the Potter vs. Potter feud ever comes to a head, Albus and Harry do eventually make amends and it’s a touching, appropriate scene that caps the entire story.

Speaking of Albus and Scorpius, I really enjoyed their pairing. Just as Albus is unlike his father, so Scorpius not a carbon copy of Draco. He brings a breath of fresh air through his nerdy, comedic, adventure-loving ways but he isn’t a comic foil. Scorpius dislikes being cast under his father’s shadow but he doesn’t seem to let that bother him as he knows he has his own life to live. In time, I think some of this ideology rubs off on Albus, who begins to see himself and his father differently. Together, the boys are a delight and hearken back to the fun times and adventures of a young Harry and Ron. It does bear noting that while some readers assert there is a “romance” between them, I never picked up on anything like that. I think this is a case of if you want to read homosexual themes into this, then you’ll find them only because you’re intentionally looking for them – not because they’re actually present – so everything you read will be interpreted through that lens. I don’t look for those sorts of themes (nor do I care about them), so nothing ever struck me as such. In truth, Albus and Scorpius’ relationship is a pleasant friendship between two heterosexual boys and nothing more. Scorpius slightly edges Albus out as my favorite  character thanks to his colorful personality, which is in contrast to Albus’ wallowing in angst and self-doubt.

Lastly, it was nice to see nods to other characters from the canon novels, such as Madam Hooch (who only had a single appearance in Sorcerer’s Stone); the Hogwarts Express trolley witch (and her “secret” here is kind of fun); and even Severus Snape, whose inclusion was well-done (though I’m a big Snape fan so of course I’ll be biased about that!).

However, there were elements in Cursed Child that kept me from fully enjoying myself. One issue is some obvious contradictions and missteps from the original canon. For starters, Ron is reduced to a comic foil as he is seemingly sidelined and portrayed as a bit of a dunderhead. Hermione here has moments when she seems a little too harsh and snappish. And I will include some of Harry’s verbal lashings at Albus as, though they make sense within the context of given scenes, they do seem out of place coming from a person who never knew his own father and who remarked in Deathly Hallows that parents and children should stay together. Lastly, we learn what Harry’s biggest regret was, which involves the death of an innocent person. However, I would venture to guess that while Harry probably regretted many of the deaths that occurred during the war with Lord Voldemort, I would have assumed he would have felt more regret over someone closer to him, such as his godfather Sirius Black or Remus Lupin, as opposed to the character we learn about in Cursed Child.

Speaking of contradictions, one massive issue for me was the main villain. Not only is this character easy to spot from the beginning, lacking the are-they-or-aren’t-they misdirection that Rowling was so expert at executing, this person isn’t exactly compelling. In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll just refer to this person as Character Z. Character Z is introduced early in the play and eventually makes contact with two of the main characters. From the very beginning, we learn there is a rumor circulating in the Wizarding community about a child of Voldemort, an heir of the Dark Lord himself. At first, this is a workable idea; however, the way it’s executed leaves a lot to be desired, not to mention it raises a lot of questions. As in a LOT of questions!

Initially, I thought this person, who ends up being Character Z, was going to be a villain akin to Star Wars‘ Kylo Ren, someone who is inspired to continue the deeds of a villainous relative (but not a parent) who laid the groundwork before them. Or perhaps Character Z was going to be a figurehead baddie, someone who wasn’t related to Voldemort at all but who wanted to continue his legacy of evil and finish what he started. Either way could have worked. Instead, Character Z is an illegitimate child, a physical heir of Voldemort himself. And not during his original incarnation as the handsome Tom Riddle, by the way. No, the play makes it very plain that Character Z was physically conceived after Riddle had transformed into Voldemort.

Let that sink in for just a moment….

Uh huh. That’s not a pretty picture.

Character Z, thus, embodies the play’s biggest contradiction. The question is not so much when Voldemort would have made time to produce an heir but why. In the novels, we’re told time and again that Voldemort knows nothing about love, doesn’t care about love, sees love as a mark of weakness, holds no affections for anyone, and doesn’t have any true friends. And even those whom he considered his closest followers he holds at arm’s length. So in order to even have a child, that means Voldemort would have had to let down this guard, to put it politely. But the truth is, would he have been capable of even thinking he wanted to get close enough to someone to have a child? If he was that anti-love and anti-relationships, why would the thought even cross his mind? Therefore, it’s easy to assume that the idea of any form of intimacy – physical or otherwise – would be as far removed from Voldemort’s mind as Snape would be from a shampoo factory. Not to mention Voldemort clearly planned to be the one and only Dark Lord, hence why he created the horcruxes in the first place to secure his mortality. But if he desired to have an heir from his own family line, that would also mean he would have to be open to the idea of passing his legacy on, giving up his reigns of control. Again, is that something Voldemort conceivably could have done? Again, I seriously doubt it.

This put the biggest damper on Cursed Child for me because it makes no sense in light of who we know Voldemort is and how he operates, thus the play essentially tries to tack something onto the canon that doesn’t mesh with Voldemort’s inner character as it were. I can see making Harry, Ron, and Hermione act and talk like adults because that makes sense. I can see having Albus struggle with a legacy that isn’t his own – that, too, makes sense. I can see Scorpius contending with the deeds his father did in the past. But making the chief villain to be Lord Voldemort’s own physical offspring?


Like, no way. No…way…at…all.

Aside from this massive hiccup, another aspect in Cursed Child that didn’t sit well with me was some of its magical elements and the way they’re incorporated. Too much of it feels too convenient and borders on being a deus ex machina at times. It’s like saying to yourself while standing in front of a vending machine, “I’m hungry. I wish I had a dollar so I could buy something.” And then, lo and behold, you look down and spy a dollar stuck on the bottom of your shoe. Yes, the magic here is sometimes that convenient and that obvious.

While I won’t divulge spoilers, I will say that time turners have a heavy presence in this story and I’m not exactly their biggest fan. I wasn’t a fan of them in Prisoner of Azkaban and I’m still not a fan here. My reasoning is simply because they’re just too convenient. And the way they’re introduced in the play, while not quite with the same out-of-thin-air (“Look, I have a time turner!”) approach that Prisoner of Azkaban took, it’s still set up with so much foreshadowing that it’s like being clubbed over the head. Granted, what the time turners are used for here is interesting and adds to the adventure some of the characters have later on. But it still seemed too easy and the conclusions some characters come to regarding how the time turners get used are just as convenient.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is, first and foremost, an attempt to adapt Harry Potter for the stage rather than the silver screen. It’s an ambitious effort that, to its credit, injects some genuine heart into its story. But knowing this is essentially glorified fan fiction means it lacks the warmth, whimsy, and depth that Rowling’s original novels contained. Therefore, I sense it won’t entirely win the hearts of or appeal to long-time fans. But it’s one of these stories that each reader has to digest for himself and reach his own conclusions.

Content:
Language – There are minimal, PG-level profanities though they’re sporadically used.

Violence – Violence falls chiefly into the fantasy violence category where magic is used as opposed to weapons. But because this is written as a play, it leaves a lot of such moments up to the imagination due to sparse descriptions. Elsewhere, one character magically transforms into a frightening creature but, again, most of the details are left up to the imagination.

Sexual Content – None. One character is revealed to be the product of an off-stage illegitimate affair but no further details are given.

The Run-Down:

Overall, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a passable read. I’ll confess that I probably would have liked this more if it was in novel form, but even that wouldn’t have erased the elements that detracted from my enjoyment of it. As stated, this is fan fiction but it at least elevates itself through its attempt to present a worthy theme and recreate Rowling’s world and characters. Though it’s a far cry from Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, it by no means falls on its proverbial face as it offers up a touching tale of a father and son at odds. As a whole, Cursed Child, for me, was an interesting experiment in not only adaptation but also in using new writers for an established series. And while it doesn’t exactly flounder, it doesn’t exactly capture the magic of the original novels.

 

Book Review · Books & Reading

Book Review – Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”


The Story: A Series of Unfortunate Events, penned by Lemony Snicket (pseudonym for American author Daniel Handler), consists of thirteen novels: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, The Ersatz Elevator, The Vile Village, The Hostile Hospital, The Carnivorous Carnival, The Slippery Slope, The Grim Grotto, The Penultimate Peril, and The End. These books follow the dreadful misadventures of the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. All three children are dealt a horrible blow when, one day, they’re told their parents perished in a mysterious house fire. This lands them in the care of various distant relatives, the most notorious of which being the villainous Count Olaf, who stops at nothing to get his clutches on the Baudelaire fortune. Throughout the course of the series, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny must band their skills, strengths, and wits together if they have any hope of defeating Olaf and his minions. However, as the series’ title is no spoiler, their efforts often come up short against Olaf’s evil schemes.

My Take:
(Just to note, this review focuses only on the book series, not the 2004 theatrical release nor the 2017 Netflix series.)

I will give this independent readers’ series credit for using reverse psychology in its marketing, which goes a little something like this: these books are so full of misery and so beset with woe that you should not read them. So naturally that makes you want to read them and, to be fair, that’s what drew me in, too. Plus the illustrations by Brett Helquist appealed to me and I love his style.

Rather cleverly, A Series of Unfortunate Events contains thirteen volumes, which may or may not be unlucky depending on how willing you are to invest in the series for the long haul. Myself, I was initially devoted to it but, as the books went on, I became less enthusiastic. Admittedly, the series felt overstretched by the time I got to the halfway point. For me, The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, and The Austere Academy were the strongest compared to the series’ back half offerings, which seemed to coast down a slippery slope of cyclical, mediocre storytelling though The Hostile Hospital, for me, was the strongest out of the last six novels.

The final book, The End, was honestly the worst final book in a series I’ve ever read to date and it made me want to heave it across the room after finishing it. In short, not only was it not worth reading in and of itself  but it also was not worth reading the previous twelve books to get to it. To keep it spoiler-free, I’ll just say that The End ends – and that’s it. I get that this series was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek depressing but, for me, something has to make up for that. The End most certainly did not accomplish that and made me feel like I had eaten a giant box of mildly tolerable cereal only to discover there was no toy at the bottom. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. But I digress.

Story-wise, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, the chief protagonists, to put it mildly, rarely have a good day. I will admit that even after I became disenchanted with the series, I hung in for the sake of the three leads. I loved Violet, Klaus, and Sunny and I appreciated how they became their own characters with unique personalities and quirks. Violet is the eldest child and possesses an agile, inventive mind, making her the trio’s chief engineer and problem-solver (and I loved how every time she tied her hair back, you knew her awesome brain was going into action!). Klaus is the middle child who loves literature and etymology and is solidly book-smart. Much like Violet’s engineering prowess, Klaus’ skill set enables him to think through problems logically and creatively. Lastly, Sunny starts the series as an infant but ages into a toddler. Her obvious talent is biting but her fighting spirit is also commendable. Aside from liking them as individuals, I also appreciated the siblings’ maturity and realistic dynamic: they don’t always get along but their familial bond and unconditional love for one another overcome all grievances. Overall, I absolutely adored Violet, Klaus, and Sunny and I wished I had equally enjoyed the stories they were placed in. Sadly, this was a case of having three awesome characters housed in thirteen sometimes not-so-awesome stories.

While each novel in the series is relatively short, the plotting and pacing are essentially the same. The three orphans are either placed in a new caretaker’s home or strike out on their own to escape Count Olaf and uncover the mystery behind their parents’ deaths. In time, they run across at least one or two other characters, usually adults, who initially seem sympathetic towards the orphans’ plight. But in the end, such persons are discovered to be in league with Count Olaf, under duress from Count Olaf, or not very helpful. Eventually, Olaf and his nefarious pals close in and their dastardly deeds go persistently unawares by other adults in the story. Only Violet, Klaus, and Sunny seem to have any clue to look past his schemes. This can make for many frustrated moments as the Baudelaires rarely receive justice for their mistreatment, hence my first criticism of the series.

Just the first, mind you – there are a few more.

I have nothing against books for children or young adults that don’t paint a sunny picture of the world. But there has to be something to justify a character’s misfortunes, something for them to strive for and eventually gain. In the Baudelaires’ case, they suffer abuse and psychological torture from Count Olaf and his evil theater troupe; so, by all rights, they deserve justice. Instead, the books allow Olaf to repeatedly escape, and it isn’t until The End that he gets what is coming to him but not in the way I was hoping. Thus, the underlying philosophy young readers are subjected to here is that life is always unfair and dreadful. Granted, life isn’t always perfect or fair but it’s not the extreme picture the series paints either. Therefore, by the end of it all, I was frustrated that Violet, Klaus, and Sunny rarely got any long-lived reprieves. I was equally annoyed over how it seemed like most of the adult characters were complete dunderheads when it came to Olaf’s schemes. Usually it wasn’t until the last minute the grownup good guys and gals finally realized what’s going on, but Olaf always fled before he could be stopped. This pattern occurred in nearly every book save for the last few and, by that time, it was beyond infuriating.

My other complaint is how far Count Olaf goes to get what he wants. While he makes for a frightening bad guy, he’s an overly-vile villain without any good reason as to why he’s bad other than there being some history between him and the Baudelaires. Personally, I love a complex villain, someone who might truly be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” but who also has some positive traits (even if those are used in negative ways), does good he or she doesn’t intend, and/or a sympathetic thread so the villain is fleshed out as a person, not merely a fill-in for an empty villain slot. Olaf has a small sympathy factor rooted in his past that counts as a spoiler; however, for the most part he is twisted and disturbed without a clear reason why other than that’s just how he is, and some of his actions were surprising to find in a series for younger readers. Granted, there are books for the same age range that are dark (Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is a good example), but these may still depict happy endings where the villains get what they deserve. In A Series of Unfortunate Events, Olaf’s torments are rarely avenged as he engages in numerous acts of neglect, abuse, cruelty, murder, deceit, manipulation, greed, attempted physical mutilation, and implied incest, the last two of which involve Violet with whom he seems to harbor a strange fascination.


Again, I stress the word implied. But I still dislike books that feel like they have to go there in any way, shape, or form.

This matter of latent incest crops up in The Bad Beginning where Olaf attempts to marry Violet to gain access to the orphans’ fortune. While this sham marriage is driven purely out of greed, some of the ways he speaks to and treats Violet (such as modest touching and indicating that after the “ceremony” he wishes to enjoy his wedding night) stick a large toe over the line of being inappropriate. While I didn’t think anything incestuous was actually going on (because I don’t think Violet would have stood for it), I was uncomfortable with these scenes. Thankfully, Olaf doesn’t pull similar stunts in the rest of the books, but that by no means softens the other sins he commits. I would even go so far as to caution readers that if you’re sensitive to scenes or circumstances involving physical, emotional, and/or psychological abuse/neglect, especially towards children, then this series might not be for you. There is a great deal of abuse/neglect in all thirteen books that the poor Baudelaires endure though it’s not on every page. To their credit, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny strive to persevere and rise above their circumstances, but all too often they are beaten back down in defeat.

My last complaint deals with the novels’ structure, which is episodic to the point of simplistic predictability. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it might appeal to the chief middle grade audience for whom these books are intended. But to sustain the same escape-entrapment-escape-entrapment pattern throughout all thirteen novels does wax tiresome. Writing-wise, the series flows by at a decent pace thanks to its books’ relatively small sizes, excluding some of the final novels. One aspect of the narrative I found myself skimming over though is when the narrator or another character gave the definition of a word younger readers probably wouldn’t know. (For example: “The word ‘standoffish’ is a wonderful one….It means ‘reluctant to associate with others,’ and it might describe somebody who, during a party, would stand in a corner and not talk to anyone.”) Granted, this is a great tool with which to teach kids vocabulary, but for adults it’s a chance to skim the page (unless, of course, you’re in the market to pick up some new vocab, too!).

All of this isn’t to say this is a terrible, unreadable series as it can be strangely charming and darkly humorous at times. The three young leads are incredibly intelligent and admirable, especially considering the horrible treatment they endure and the dreadful circumstances they find themselves in. However, if I can sum up my chief complaint with this series it would be this: A Series of Unfortunate Events paints the world as a cold, uncaring place and depicts adults as dimwitted, incompetent, unhelpful, or malicious. Again, not all stories need to be full of light-hearted whimsy, but I believe there’s a fine line between depicting realistic truths and offering harsh, stark realism. Regarding A Series of Unfortunate Events, it puts both feet over the latter line, presenting a dismal world populated by apathetic, unhelpful, or nefarious people. This was what frustrated me the most because, as a reader, I wanted the story’s heroes to win and know there is still light, goodness, and kindness in the world. But just when the series starts to present such truths, it whips them right out from under you akin to pulling a rug out from under your feet.

This article from Speculative Faith regarding A Series of Unfortunate Events says it best:

Stories that are at their core cynical about the world present two different visions. The first is a vision of a world without heroes. The second is a vision of a world that doesn’t deserve heroes. These visions may easily be combined and sometimes are, but each can and does go alone, too. Together or alone, they weave an inescapable cynicism into the fabric of their stories. [Regarding ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’] [o]nce doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of individuals, the Baudelaires are now doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of institutions. Every pillar of society crumbles when the children try to lean on it: the school, the law, the government, the free press.

It’s not that the institutions are broken. It’s that people are so stupid and savage [and even as a series] devoted to satire and absurdity, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ went too far, made too many people too stupid, too many people wicked, too many institutions worthless. […] When stories take us into such worlds, the stay is unpleasant. I think authors forget what a demoralizing effect the bleakness of their worlds has over their stories. Even genuine heroes can’t always counterbalance it. Curiously enough, the cynicism of the worthless-world stories doesn’t always seem intended. In these stories, the heroes are truly heroic and a sense of morality prevails. But it’s not enough to have heroes who save the world. We need a world worth saving, too.

Hence, as the world in this series isn’t worth saving, and even less so the characters (aside from Violet, Klaus, and Sunny), it’s hard to emotionally connect with any of the stories, especially as they progress. In the end, they present a collective, cyclical dismal tale that, ultimately, can never be redeemed.

Content:
Language – A few minor, PG-style profanities throughout the series (chiefly uttered by adults) but nothing pervasive.

Violence – Olaf and his henchmen often, but not perpetually, inflict psychological, emotional, and physical harm on one or more of the orphans. There is nothing graphic in terms of blood, gore, or outright torture, but the nature of Olaf’s abuse might upset sensitive readers, especially as some instances involve him putting Violet, Klaus, and/or Sunny in life-threatening situations, from threatening to drop one sibling from a great height to causing another character to suffer a near-fatal allergic reaction. Likewise, other characters, usually the nicer grownups, are not immune to his callous ways as such people are often killed off in an attempt for Olaf to keep the orphans in his clutches. Characters are also put in perilous situations though these are more suspenseful as opposed to violent.

Sexual Material – None, save for Olaf’s attempt at a sham marriage to Violet, which includes modest, nonsexual touching and leads to a comment by Olaf regarding the wedding night. While it will go over the heads of young readers, adults will be able to read between the lines and know exactly what he’s referring to. (Nothing happens between Olaf and Violet, of course, but it’s worth mentioning anyway.) One of the members of Olaf’s troupe is androgynous but nothing is made regarding the character’s actual sexual orientation. Similarly, Olaf disguises himself as a woman in one of the books, but the purpose is just to hide his true identity so he can’t be recognized, not to be transgender.

The Run-Down:

Overall, A Series of Unfortunate Events starts off with an interesting, albeit dismal, premise and features a trio of strong, smart, noble protagonists who are easy to cheer for. Furthermore, the illustrations are tastefully done and the hardcover editions of the books are eye-catching. But while the episodic plotting works in the earlier books, it waxes predictable later on. The final novel is easily the most disappointing of the lot as many of the series’ mysteries are still left unsolved. Thus, if you’re looking for some reads with which to pass the time, these books are decent speedy picks and will probably satisfy. But due to their depictions of abuse and focus on depressing circumstances, they’re not for everyone. Hence, I will impart an advisory: discretion and serious consideration need to be employed if deciding to give these books to a child (or to anyone) who is prone to depression or may have experienced or witnessed abuse or neglect as such tones and themes are employed and depicted in all thirteen novels. Thus, A Series of Unfortunate Events might not be everyone’s cup of reading tea.

Book Review · Books & Reading · Story & Characters

Book Review – “Fate of Flames”


The Story:
[From GoodReads:]
Years ago, everything changed. Phantoms, massive beasts of nightmare, began terrorizing the world. At the same time four girls, the Effigies, appeared, each with the unique power to control a classical element. Since then, they have protected the world from the Phantoms. At the death of one Effigy, another is chosen, pulled from her normal life into the never-ending battle.When Maia unexpectedly becomes the next Fire Effigy, she resists her new calling. A quiet girl with few friends and almost no family, she was much happier to admire the Effigies from afar. Never did she imagine having to master her ability to control fire, to protect innocent citizens from the Phantoms, or to try bringing together the other three Effigies.But with the arrival of the mysterious Saul—a man who seems to be able to control the Phantoms using the same cosmic power previously only granted to four girls at a time—Maia and the other Effigies must learn to work together in a world where their celebrity is more important than their heroism.But the secrets Saul has, and the power he possesses, might be more than even they can handle.

My Take: Fate of Flames certainly has its share of action and fun characters, but it essentially strives to be an entertaining read and nothing else. That can be either a positive or a negative, depending on whether you like your novels to carry a little more proverbial meat on their bones or you just want something with which to pass the time. Either preference is fine, but, for me, I would have liked to have seen this novel break out of its YA trope shell. But, alas, it wasn’t to be.

In short, Fate of Flames plunges readers head-first into a modern world plagued by dark, massive beings called Phantoms (and, no, we’re never really told where they came from, much to the story’s detriment). Most major cities are outfitted with beacons to keep these creatures away, but unfortunately this system has failed one too many times and now the world is under constant threat.

Oh, if only there could be someone (or someones) who could save humanity?
But never fear! Underdog…uh…I mean, the Effigies are here!

(Sidebar: I wish this novel was about Underdog!)

And that’s the basis for the plot: four women, known as Effigies, with the ability to harness the four elements (air, earth, water, and fire) are relied upon to save the day. However, rather than live in secrecy, Effigies are global superstars who are loved, adored, and even idolized by legions of fans. The downside is that Effigies exist for only a short period of time before they expire. Likewise, when one Effigy dies, her abilities and memories are somehow passed on to another candidate (and, again, the novel never really explains how or why this happens). This is where Maia comes in: she’s a typical teenage girl who, lo and behold, learns that she is the next fire Effigy.

Please excuse my sarcasm because I don’t mean to cast ill-will upon this novel as it’s not bad enough to deserve a good roasting. However, while there were elements (no pun intended) that I liked, so much of it feels recycled from other stories, comics, graphic novels, movies, and TV shows. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes the comparisons were a little too obvious. Off the top of my head, there’s no question that Fate of Flames was inspired by old school Japanese monster films (a la Godzilla), Pacific Rim, X-Men, The Avengers, Captain Planet, The Wicked + the Divine, and even Sailor Moon along with the usual YA cliches, tropes, and stereotypes. Hence, it feels more like a mashup than an homage.

Speaking of stereotypes, this novel is so littered with them that the only thing memorable about the characters after a while are their one-sided traits: the unflappable ice queen, the smart-mouthed rebel chick, the bad boy with a mysterious past, the super-special snowflake, the drama queen, etc. While I believe it’s okay to use stereotyped characters, there has to be something flipped or altered about the stereotype so it feels like it’s being given a twist for the sake of subtle commentary or originality. Instead, Fate of Flames doesn’t flesh its characters out beyond their basic, core characteristics.

The four female leads have powers that harness each of the traditional four elements: Lake, the pop star, is the air Effigy; Chae Rin, the circus performer, is the earth Effigy; Belle, the fashion plate, is the water Effigy; and Maia, the quiet, low-key teenage girl, is the newly-christened fire Effigy. Granted, having characters utilize the four elements as powers is nothing new, but because it’s a fun concept, I kind of give it a pass. But these lead characters suffer from being stereotypes. For me, it would have been fun to see how each girl’s personality contributed to the element she controlled, such as making the fire Effigy hot-tempered; making the air Effigy a bit of an airhead; turning the earth Effigy into a grounded, rational person; or crafting the water Effigy to be a mercurial character. Probably none of these ideas are groundbreaking, but they still would have added a little more color to the four Effigy leads. Otherwise, they’re easy characters to read about, but they don’t exactly burst to life due to their stereotypical restraints.

This became my my biggest issue with this novel. As stated, sometimes tropes and cliches can be okay provided something unique to done to twist or subvert expectations, but Fate of Flames doesn’t even make an attempt to do this. Maia, especially, suffers from special snowflake syndrome and her development, especially as an Effigy, raised several questions with me. First, she has received no special training, something Effigies are required to do. Yet somehow she’s able to use her abilities and even summon her special Effigy weapon without ever having been shown. Why was this possible? What made her different? Sadly, the novel never tells us, so we’re left to accept Maia as simply another born-special-just-because-type of character.

Granted, I liked the fact that Effigies didn’t live in the shadows. They are front and center in their story’s world, so much so that they each have their own dedicated fan base. All of this kind of reminded me of the Black Widow novels by Margaret Stohl where non-superhero characters don t-shirts and host fan clubs for their favorite Avenger. It adds a level of realism that I like because if we had comic book superheroes exist in real life, I could easily envision people wanting to fangirl/fanboy over them.

However, in terms of writing and overall flow, the novel reads very much like the script to a superhero film, which isn’t necessarily bad provided you have enjoyed the 10+ years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I, for one, find the whole rash of superhero-itis to be….

Ehh, okay, I guess.

I’m not big into superhero comics, movies, TV shows or the like as, for me, they can turn very formulaic, so I’m not a fan of the whole superhero fad. I don’t think it’s a bad fad – it’s just not my cup of tea. Thus, while I was willing to go along with Fate of Flames‘ save-the-world plot, it was nothing truly unique. If I can compare sentiments, I felt the same way about this novel as I did about The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. I didn’t hate those movies but I didn’t grasp why they were such massive hits. I enjoyed the characters but, plot-wise, it was nothing I hadn’t seen a dozen times before and then some.

Such were my feelings towards Fate of Flames: the characters, despite being one-dimensional, were still fun to read about, but the principle plot and the action scenes could have easily been transplanted into any Marvel or DC film. Thus, I sense Fate of Flames will appeal strongly to a young audience who devours anything superhero-oriented. And for the rest of us who think it’s just okay or are borderline meh, I sense this novel won’t hold much appeal.

That being said, there were parts that I enjoyed purely as entertainment. The action scenes are fun and well-written and, to the author’s credit, avoid becoming gory. However, my favorite moments were when Maia meets her fellow Effigies, most of whom aren’t exactly eager to accept her into their circle. There is some drama and history here that I won’t go into because they count as spoilers, but it definitely felt realistic. I’m glad Maia didn’t fit in right from the start because that would have felt too dismissive. But I confess I had a hard time mentally picturing these ladies because I’m not sure how old they were supposed to be. Maia is a teenager, but as far as the rest of the Effigies are concerned, I wasn’t sure if they were teens, too, or young adults (early 20s). I might have missed some details here, but I can feel a sense of disconnect when I’m not able to mentally pin down the age of the main characters, especially as the Effigies (and, honestly, all of the main characters) seem to talk to and relate to each other in juvenile ways sometimes. Likewise, most of the plot twists I could spot a mile away, especially the set up of the chief villain. And, of course, we have a love triangle (of sorts) that is even easier to spot.

If there was anything of substance that could be mined here, it would be that the novel makes some subtle commentary about how the public tends to project a certain image unto persons it considers to be celebrities. Some of the Effigies lap up the limelight while others have learned to merely cope with it. Maia is thrust headfirst into this world and, as expected, doesn’t know how to handle the attention or criticism, especially on social media forums. To her credit, she’s been an Effigy fangirl, so she knows the other side of the proverbial coin, but that still doesn’t prepare her for becoming an instant celebrity. In her mind, she would love to be just like these ladies, but when she finally gets the chance, she starts to see that the life of an Effigy isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Hence, there’s a lesson here, not only about being careful with what you wish for, but also about the dark side of fame.

As a whole, Fate of Flames was okay. It’s entertaining in spots but its plot waxes familiar with even more familiar character types. While it makes for a quick read, it doesn’t offer much in the realm of surprising plot developments or multi-faceted characters and relies too heavily upon the typical crutches of YA cliches.

Content:
Language – There is some language, ranging from PG to PG-13, with a few sporadic f-words though language isn’t pervasive.

Violence – There are scenes of peril and action very much akin a typical Marvel or DC superhero movie; therefore, while there isn’t much (if any) blood or gore, there are intense fights with dangerous creatures known as Phantoms along with showdowns with the antagonist that sometimes put innocent people in harm’s way.

Sexual Content – None, to the best of my memory, though some characters do make sporadic innuendos, and there is obvious chesmitry among some of the characters.

The Run-Down:

Overall, Fate of Flames seems tailor-made for a teen girl audience who loves all things superhero and the cliches that go along with that, from special powers, to big bads, to knock down/drag out fights with said big bads. While this novel offers a good deal of action, it provides little else in terms of a unique story, unique characters, or even unique takes on common YA tropes. In short, this is a fun read – nothing more, nothing else – and probably won’t wow readers who have an expansive bookshelf. It’s relatively harmless entertainment but still leaves a lot to be desired.