Friday, September 15, 2017

Ranger's Apprentice Roundup

Worth a read for any fan of medieval fantasy in the vein of King Arthur. There actually isn't any sorcery, but there are knights and castles and kingdoms. At first I was also reminded of Lord of the Rings because Halt struck me so much like a shorter and smaller version of Strider. Also, the first couple books had a fantasy component involving non-human creatures and legendary monsters, but that quickly died away and was not an element in later books.

Also, a tip: If you want to read the books chronologically, after Book 4, read Book 7, and then go back to Books 5 and 6! There is an Author's Note in Book 7 explaining how he realized after the fact that he should have filled in the period of time between Books 4 and 5.

The Royal Ranger (Ranger's Apprentice #12) by John Flanagan


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

I surprised myself by giving this book 5 stars. Especially since I started this book with such wariness.

I thought The Lost Stories did such a great job wrapping up the series, I really didn't want to read another installment. Then, after just a few pages, we find out Alyss is dead!? No!! Why!? Finally, we meet Maddie, who wasn't so likable. So, from the beginning, I wasn't crazy about the book.

Along the way, though, I found myself enjoying the read. I was glad to see Will being stern and unflinching with Maddie, and sure enough, Maddie eventually won me over. In the end, this book was like a satisfying epilogue to the whole series.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, A Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo


If I could give this book more than 5 stars, I would. Normally a slow reader, I started and finished this book within 24 hours. It is both eye-opening and heartbreaking. Putting this book down, I have a lingering hopefulness in the humanity of individuals.

This is the true story of Michelle Kuo, a daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, who graduated from Harvard, then joined Teach for America and lived for two years in Helena, Arkansas, a town in the Mississippi Delta. A few years later, while a student at Harvard Law School, she learns that a former standout student is in jail for murder. She returns to Helena and visits him in jail. In this book, Kuo deftly presents a story at the intersection of race, education, poetry, privilege, economics, immigration, law, and the vestiges of slavery in the south, including the prison-industrial complex. Perhaps unexpectedly, this book is, in the way it weaves together so many important issues, quintessentially American.

Along the way, I did fear that the telling of the story might be a kind of white savior narrative. Even though Michelle Kuo isn't white, didn't she swoop in and save Patrick? Maybe... But in the way she portrayed their time together, it seemed like she was just figuring things out as she went. At one point, towards the end, when she realizes that Patrick had surpassed her expectations, had expressed himself in ways that didn't result from her direct guidance, she thinks of herself as a conduit. Just a conduit through which Patrick could realize his true self.

Finally, some personal thoughts on why this book affected me so much. My maiden name is Kuo, I, too, attended an elite university, and my parents were immigrants from Taiwan. Many of the author's experiences, especially her relationship with her parents, were entirely familiar in every way. I'm also a part-time teacher, albeit in predominantly white upper middle class neighborhoods. But every year I've taught, I've taught a particular course that usually meant that my roster was not a typical slice of the rest of the school; in my classes, I'd have students of color, students on special education plans, and students with less than ideal home lives - and frequently one student fit all three descriptions. I wouldn't for a second even begin to try to compare the students in this book with my students in a wealthy suburb who had teachers and guidance counselors and special education liaisons looking out for them. Still, every time a student addressed the author as "Ms. Kuo," I let myself imagine some kind of alternate universe in which I might have been in a situation similar to hers. And when I think about how two of my former students dropped out of school within a year of having taken my class, I can't help but think, "How could I have done more?"

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Lost Stories (Ranger's Apprentice #11) by John Flanagan


I very much enjoyed this collection of short stories! In some ways, they are the type of stories I wanted to read early on the series, giving us a broader view of the comings and goings of daily life in Araluen.

At the same time, many of these stories couldn't have been written earlier, because they nicely tied up the loose ends I complained about in earlier books! We finally find out what happened to Foldar, Morgarath's second in command who Halt was supposed to be chasing down when he got himself banished. We get to see a bit more of both Jenny and Gilan, and it was fun to see everyone together again for Horace and Cassandra's wedding. In fact, this collection of stories had such a nice finality to them that I am surprised there is still one last book in this series... I'll certainly plan to read it, but at this point, I think this book would have served as a good ending to the series.

The only thing preventing me from giving this book 5 stars were a few minor complaints along the way. For example, in "Death of a Hero", I just wish Halt had told Will's mom, before she died, that her husband died a hero. And in "The Wolf", it really bothered me that Will seemed to act out of character by brushing off Tug's warnings of nearby danger. You'd think that Will would perk up and be more alert at the first sign of Tug's rumblings. And then, it bothered me even more that Will never apologized to Tug for ignoring him. Perhaps if Will had heeded Tug's warnings, things might have turned out differently!

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee


First off, I need to make clear that I don't think I'm the target audience for this book. If I had seen this book while browsing the library or book store, I don't think I would have picked it up; it's just not what I'm usually interested in. However, a friend of mine recommended the book, and then gave me a copy for my daughter to read, so it was a quick read within easy reach.

This book strikes me as like the "pilot episode" for a series like Charmed or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know both TV shows had devoted fans, but I didn't watch either; I didn't dislike them, they just didn't interest me. Both shows - and this book - feature women living in modern times who surprisingly realize they have supernatural powers, which they need to use to defeat evil demons lurking among them. Others in their world don't know of their special abilities or the demons, except for a very limited inner circle. I suspect that if you like that kind of fiction, then this book would be right up your alley!

It took a while for me to get into the book. It felt like there were a lot of random things going on - a science project of dubious merit, a stereotypical "mean girl" (whose role in the book I never did understand...), a best friend who likes languages, Thelma's mom being away, a cafe owner who dabbles in the paranormal. My interest was finally piqued when the big crazy things started happening.

The most sensitive of readers (like me) might not like some of the illustrations or writing - true to its title, this book involves a haunting, with creepy circumstances and scary ghosts and monsters. I do think the author did an impressive job of keeping the tone light, despite the disturbing events surrounding Thelma; regardless of the situation, Thelma always responded and spoke like a "typical" teenager, which made for a good chuckle.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja (Ranger's Apprentice #10) by John Flanagan


This book started on the wrong foot for me. In Toscana, when Will and Halt watched the display of Toscan military might, they witnessed a method of training in which all soldiers lined up tightly and threw javelins simultaneously at an angle specified by a commander. Additionally, one line of soldiers was protected by a front line of soldiers with shields. They were both impressed - Will even called it "brilliant" - but did they forget that that is the EXACT same method that Will used to train his team of unskilled archers in Skandia?!? Did the author completely forget that he already used that strategy in an earlier book!?

From then on, I think I was just waiting for the book to redeem itself, and maybe I was harder on it than I might have been otherwise. I was already wary when Alyss and Evanlyn had their "incident", in which they both acted immature and petty (though I think Evanlyn was much more of a brat). Of all the many characters in this book - all of whom were, like Mary Poppins, "practically perfect in every way" - it bothered me that the only two to be burdened with significant flaws were the two women. And to make matters worse, they were fighting over a man! Ugh. We can't just have two strong women characters without having to entangle them in a love triangle? Yes, perhaps the author was setting the groundwork for the meaningful reconciliation at the end, however, I think he could have gotten the jealousy across without having the women behave so childishly. Or better yet, couldn't he have contrived some other reason for them to be at odds, rather than make it about a man?

Which brings me to another major complaint: throughout the book, both Alyss and Evanlyn were called "girls", both by the narrative author and by other characters in the book. Evanlyn led a world-wide expedition, and Alyss was a full-fledged Courier - by any measure, they should have been called "women", especially because Will and Horace, who were the same age as Alyss, were never called "boys".

Since I seem to be listing the negatives first, I might as well mention my disappointment at the end. When Alyss and Evanlyn go off on their mission, I thought it was great! Here, the two women would prove - once again - their bravery and worth. And yet, I thought the whole bit about the two of them killing the "Terror" in the forrest was just over the top. Surely if such a massive beast attacked Alyss with all its weight behind it, at the very least Alyss's shield arm would have been broken!

Specific grievances aside, on the whole, I still liked this book. Much more so than previous books in the series, this installment featured an ensemble of characters, and if anyone was a "main character", I think it was Horace! My favorite! So I enjoyed seeing him on his own in Nihon-Ja, and developing his relationship with Shigeru the Emperor. I liked reading about Nihon-Ja as a fictional rendition of Japan, though I have to admit, I'm not sure who the tall, long- and red-haired Hasanu were supposed to be! Perhaps they were a return to the kind of fantasy that appeared in the first couple books.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell


I picked up this book because a friend had recommended I watch an episode of United Shades of America on Chinese-Americans, and it piqued my interest enough to make me want to find out more about the host. So far I've only seen that one episode, but I'd like to go back and watch others.

This book is part memoir, part comedic social and political commentary. We follow the author from his childhood in different cities, through his time as a struggling stand-up comic, and into his current gig as host of the TV show United Shades of America. He makes a LOT of pop culture references (there are whole chapters dedicated to the children's show Doc McStuffins, Denzel Washington, and the movie Creed), and he explores topics of racism and sexism. While he is generally interested in all things that might add to a sense of otherness, mostly he talks about race, and specifically, being black in America.

I like W. Kamau Bell's sense of humor, and his book on the whole gave me a feeling of, "Come for the jokes, stay for the lessons on racism / sexism / social justice!" I'm already on much the same page as W. Kamau Bell, so when he started to delve into commentary, I could focus on enjoying the humor and appreciating that he has a platform to give voice to his experiences and thoughts. I wonder, though, if there are people out there who aren't quite sure what to make of Black Live Matter, or who don't exactly understand what all the attention given to intersectionality is about, maybe this book could serve as a more light-hearted, non-intimidating introduction?

My one disappointment was that while reading the chapter on sports and activism, I wondered why W. Kamau Bell didn't mention Colin Kaepernick...

That minor detail aside, this book was an entertaining and worthy read.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker


When the book Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear was recommended to me, I looked it up in the library, only to find that there were TWO non-fiction children's picture books published in 2015 about the real bear who inspired the name of Winnie-the-Pooh!? I don't know how the publishing world works, but I certainly found this discovery surprising.

Anyway, I'm no librarian, but this book strikes me as more versatile. While both books can serve as an entertaining read-aloud to young children, the storytelling in this book is more straightforward, which seems to makes it more suitable to be read to an even younger audience. At the same time, I think the simplicity of the writing in this book also makes it more likely to be read by an older emerging reader.

Again, comparing this book with the other, the writing in this book is more upbeat, the illustrations more bold and amusing. Both books contain a collection of many of the same black-and-white photos, but as an added bonus, this book includes a lovely picture of A. A. Milne, Christopher Robin, and Christopher Robin's stuffed bear. (Finding Winnie also includes a few photos not included in this book.) This book also has an Author's Note with additional facts about Harry, Winnie, and the Winnie-the-Pooh books.

Each book offers something a little different to the story, so the way I see it, if you're interested in picking up a children's picture book to share the story behind Winnie-the-Pooh with your child, you might as well just get both books from the library!

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick


This children's picture book tells the charming true story of how a North American black bear came to live at the London Zoo, and how A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh came to be named after this bear.

The book is written by the great-granddaughter of the bear's owner, and the story is presented as a bedtime story between her and her young son named Cole. While the premise is sweet, the storytelling lacked a certain flow... I think I found the conversational interjections by mother-and-son to be more distracting than cute. The focus on their own personal connection to the story made me feel like this story is more "theirs"; maybe I had too-high expectations, but as a Winnie-the-Pooh fan, I was hoping to feel more connected to the story, but instead I sort of felt like I was looking through a glass window.

I think what really makes the book worth reading are the illustrations by Sophie Blackall. They are soft and lovely, evoking a sense of tenderness. While the text is informative, it's really the illustrations that make the book a pleasant read.

I also really enjoyed the black-and-white photos of Winnie the bear, and her owner, Harry. Though I did find it odd that the photo collection included a black-and-white photo from 2013 of the author and her son... I guess it's a way to show how the story of Harry and Winnie live on, but it also sort of felt like another distraction from the original story.

Incidentally, when this book was recommended to me, I looked it up in the library, only to find that there were TWO non-fiction children's picture books published in 2015 about the real bear who inspired the name of Winnie-the-Pooh!? I don't know how the publishing world works, but I certainly found this discovery surprising. The other book, Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, I actually thought was slightly better, and is also worth a read.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb


I decided to read this book after inadvertently reading the Young Readers Edition. Mostly I was curious to see how the two versions differed.

If all you know of Malala Yousafzai is that "she's the girl who was shot by the Taliban", then the Young Readers Edition is an excellent, approachable introduction to who she is, how people have suffered under Islamist extremism, and what she hopes to accomplish with the Malala Fund. It's the 10,000-foot overview of her story, and it's a worthwhile read for anyone, regardless of age.

If you're interested in zooming in and getting more details, this book is exactly that. This edition provides significantly more information and context regarding Malala's family history, the Pashtun code, and the geography, religion, history, politics, and culture of both Swat and Pakistan. In this book, Malala also talks about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, and other things related to U.S.-Pakistan relations, which are mentioned only very briefly in the Young Readers Edition. Still, even with the many more names, dates, and places thrown in, the book is primarily a memoir, which makes it a very accessible read.

While on the whole this edition is much more thorough, the Young Readers Edition does have some additional personal reflections and anecdotes that are not included in this book, e.g., what it was like to meet President Obama and Jon Stewart, and the teasing exchange Malala shares with Moniba at the start of every Skype call, about who has forgotten the other more. This book is certainly more informative, but I think the Young Readers Edition actually gives you a more complete and intimate impression of who Malala is as a private person.

There was one very minor, interesting difference I noticed between the two books... In the Young Readers Edition, Malala's best friend Moniba came across to me as kind of volatile, full of drama and quick to become jealous and angry. It wasn't clear to me why Malala was such good friends with her. But in this book, their friendship doesn't seem overshadowed by their spats, and Moniba is much more fleshed out and likable.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves


I've always enjoyed catching Rick Steves on PBS (he has an endearing kind of dorkiness), but it wasn't until the last election, when he campaigned to legalize marijuana, that I realized he was a vocal, respectful political activist. I "liked" his Facebook page, and now I am even more of a fan, not just of his travel shows, but of the man himself.

This book is not actually about making political statements with your travel destinations (as the title might suggest), but rather, it's about engaging in thoughtful travel that challenges your pre-conceptions and helps to shape your world view. The book urges readers to "travel more purposefully." (p. ix)

I think it's worth mentioning that this book is surprisingly heavy for a paperback. It has thick glossy pages filled with full color photos on almost every page. As with any travel book, the photos provide added understanding to the text.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I actually had several false starts; I kept putting this book down, only to pick it up days later, then having to re-read earlier pages because I forgot the context of what I had been reading. Once I got into it, though, it was an easily accessible lesson on weighty topics such as globalization, the lasting effects of colonialism, and Liberation Theology. It doesn't touch on every major political issue, but does seem to provide sufficient context and content to the select issues that were addressed.

In highlighting the history and politics of different regions, I very much appreciated Rick Steves's honesty in acknowledging his own inconsistencies. For example, he writes on page 104, "I've seen how religion injects passion into local politics...and I've developed a healthy respect for the importance of separation of religion and state. And yet, when a politicized Church...fights for economic justice, I find myself rooting for the politicization of religion."

Basically, most chapters are devoted to a certain region of the world, and Rick Steves writes about his own personal travel experiences, about differences and similarities between that region and the United States - specifically, how other countries deal with certain political issues including taxes, drugs, and transportation, just to name a few - and about what might we learn from each other. Rick Steves points out that every country's way of addressing issues has its pros and cons, and it's the culture and people of those countries that decide what values - individual wealth? social stability? joie de vivre? - are prioritized above others.

Rick Steves is a self-described liberal, as am I, but still I didn't agree 100% with his opinions. I think he does make a lot of really important observations, and good points, and I wonder how this book might be received by conservatives? I also think his perspective is valuable, and though I can't fault him for not being even more well-traveled, I do wonder what kind of insights and impressions he would have traveling to Africa and Asia.

I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me lots to think about.

I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition) by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick


I read this book after watching the documentary He Named Me Malala. Even though the documentary was inspired by the book, I think it helped to watch the documentary first. Having already seen how Malala carries herself in person, and how she interacts with her brothers, it was easy to hear her voice in the book's narrative, and to imagine her living her life in Swat.

Both the book and the documentary make one thing very clear - at the time during which Malala rose to fame, she was really still just a child! Yes, she was outspoken and brave, and wise beyond her years. But still, she was just a girl who played with friends, fought with her brothers, and liked to watch TV. Seeing her so down-to-earth really emphasized just how remarkable of a person she is.

Written in a very personal, colloquial manner, the book is approachable and appropriate for young readers. (See my last paragraph for more on that...) In fact, I picked up this book after Isabelle read it for a school project.

The content was at times heartbreaking - from Malala's first encounter with children so poor they dug through trash and didn't attend school, to her family's adjustment to life in England - and I teared up often.

I honestly wish every person would read this book. Not just those who are already fans of Malala, but also those who don't know any Muslims personally, or who fear Islam because they only associate it with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or ISIS. Those organizations are as representative of Islam as the KKK is representative of Christianity - which is to say, not very much at all.

Though not a central issue in the book, I was really affected by how much Malala worried about who would pay for the expensive medical care she received after being shot. Luckily, she was famous, and the Pakistani government pledged to cover all costs. Reading this book in the midst of the U.S. healthcare debate, I couldn't help but think of all the millions of Americans who worry about how they will pay for essential medical treatments, and who don't have any kind of lifeline to help them pay.

As usual, I didn't realize this book has a glossary until I reached it at the end. I actually looked up some Pashto and Urdu words while reading, so knowing the glossary was there would have been helpful.

I also didn't realize until almost the end of the book that I was reading a "Young Readers Edition". I have no idea how this edition differs from the regular edition, but I found this version perfectly informative and enjoyable, so I don't know if I'll bother to read the regular version, though I am tempted just to see how they differ.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Halt's Peril (Ranger's Apprentice #9) by John Flanagan


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

This book is like the "Part 2" conclusion to The Kings of Clonmel.

First, there were a number of things I liked in this book. I liked the camaraderie shared by Will, Halt, and Horace, and I even liked the continued references to Halt's aging, which made clear the idea of him passing on the Ranger torch to Will. I also really enjoyed the appearance of Malcolm.

Unfortunately, there were also things that irked me in this book. Some of the descriptions seemed to go on too long, almost like the author was just purposefully trying to stretch out the book. I noticed this most during the scene in which Will and Halt were walking into the Genovesans' ambush. I got impatient thinking, "Yes, okay, I get it! They are slow and careful as they make their way through the forest, they have to stay quiet and out of sight. I get it, already, I get it! Just get on with the story!"

On the opposite end of the spectrum, at one point I was anxiously awaiting an upcoming scene, which ended up being excluded entirely! As Will raced towards Malcolm, I was looking forward to reading about Will's unexpected arrival, and how Malcolm and his band of people would react to seeing Will again. I was disappointed when the book just leap-frogged over that event.

Mostly, I was bothered that people seemed to act out of character. After being told repeatedly that Will had an exceptionally uncanny ability to always shoot his target, it was hard to accept that Will missed the second Genovesan, when it sounded like he should have had a pretty clear shot. Later, when Will and Horace were tracking Tennyson, somehow Horace - always bumbling loudly - was suddenly able to make a decent show of moving quietly, a skill that literally took Will years to develop. Also, Horace is supposed to be the "brawn", happy to leave all the heavy thinking to the Rangers, yet Horace is the one who thought of the clever way of getting the Genovesan to tell the truth about which type of poison he used, Horace was the one who spotted the smoke confirming Tennyson's presence in the caves, and Horace was the one who came up with the idea of Halt impersonating Ferris to discredit Tennyson!

And even Tennyson himself seemed to act out of character. Once they tracked Tennyson to the caves, I just can't believe that Tennyson would not post guards outside the caves, especially since he didn't know for sure where the Genovesan, Will, and Horace were. Sure, he's arrogant, but he didn't manage to take over 5 entire kingdoms, and almost a 6th, by being sloppy.

Overall, I did enjoy the read, I think mostly because I am already a fan of the series and happy to be caught up in the characters and the world in which they live.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Kings of Clonmel (Ranger's Apprentice #8) by John Flanagan


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

Well, I agree with Sebastien, who said this book somehow didn't seem to "fit" with the rest of the series so far. I think because the threat - a cult involving a false prophet in collusion with raiding bandits - seemed convoluted and unlikely to have actually succeeded in overtaking 5 kingdoms before finishing off Hibernia with Clonmel. It's clear that King Ferris was a weak leader, and that's why Clonmel is in such danger, but does that mean that all 5 of the other Hibernian kings were equally weak?! And if Tennyson is so much the sole leader that Halt is confident that by taking him down, the whole house of cards will fall, then how is it possible that the other 5 kings didn't manage to take back their kingdoms once Tennyson left their borders? NO ONE else in a position of power in all of Hibernia saw through the con game!? Only the Araluen Rangers were smart enough to see it and brave enough to fight it? All very hard to believe, even in this make-believe world.

Even Halt's royal past seemed a bit much.

And, I was sorely disappointed when the author seemed to make Will momentarily less intelligent than he had led us to believe. With all of Will's quick-thinking stratagems, you mean to tell me that when he was tasked to follow a Genovesan known for poisoning their victims, and when he saw that Genovesan leave Horace's tent, it didn't occur to him that he poisoned Horace's water!?!? That was just too out of character.

Horace seemed to increasingly take on a kind of comic relief role, as his constant state of hunger was a frequent joke. That, I enjoyed! Also, with his integrity and straightforwardness, Horace is perhaps becoming one of my favorite characters.

Lastly, for those who might care, towards the end of the book there is a battle scene that ends, very swiftly, with a beheading.

Overall, a slower read than others in the series, and it never really got me hooked. Still, can't wait to read the next book in the series!

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Siege of Macindaw (Ranger's Apprentice #6) by John Flanagan


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

A very satisfying conclusion - all loose ends tied up! - to the events that began in Book 5.

I think the author is really good at character development. He keeps Will, Horace, and Alyss interesting while also introducing all sorts of new and different characters. He even had me feeling sorry for Keren at one point!

The book was probably on track for a 5-star rating, but then I reined it in because I felt like there were some major holes in the action. When Will and Horace are hiding for hours under the upside-down cart, it just made no sense to me that the castle defenders wouldn't just walk out and physically inspect the cart after it's abandoned. Why wouldn't Keren order some men to investigate the cart, to see if there might be any hint of what kind of siege they might be planning? And when he orders the cart burned, the flaming arrows fail, so they just give up!? How lazy can you be! Why not walk down to investigate why the cart isn't burning, and then break it apart for firewood or something!?

Then there was the climactic scene when Alyss was on the verge of killing Will. Of course Will wouldn't harm Alyss, but surely Alyss isn't so skilled with a sword that Will wouldn't be able to evade or restrain Alyss, right? He's one of the best-trained Ranger's after all, and managed to avoid being killed by the Scotti general in hand-to-hand combat! I think the implication is that Keren could easily have picked up the sword and finished the job, or held Will down while Alyss struck the fatal blow. But in a book where nothing goes unsaid, and battle scenes are described in great detail, it seemed like the logistics of this scene could have been fleshed out some more.

Anyway, I loved the ending, and left the book with lots of positive feelings.

As usual, a few mild swears ("damn" and "hell") thrown around. My third-grader who is reading the series is always especially entertained when he comes across a swear word!