Review: The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel

Two posts in a month! Yeah, I’m kinda freaked out too, but I’m a bit overdue with my review of Radhika R. Dhariwal’s The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel.

The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel, aimed at middle grade readers, is a fun adventure, to be sure. It took me a few chapters to get into the world, but once I did, I enjoyed the myriad layers to the story. Our hero, Squirrel, is the last slave in the kingdom of Bimmau, a land occupied by animals who talk and wear fancy clothes, but also stick together by species and rarely cross those bounds. At  a somewhat scandalous wedding between a cat and a dog (this, I admit was hard for me to wrap my head around at first), Squirrel sips a strange drink and hears his deceased mother’s voice whispering a puzzle to him.

The plot is a straight up quest. Squirrel must work through a series of clues that will lead him to a special key that has the potential to free him from slavery and to reveal his true name. Squirrel and a rag-tag group of adventurers must stay one step ahead of enemy forces who also want the key, because although it has the power to free slaves, the key may also be used to enslave others. Of great fun for me, and my children who also read the book, was ability to play along with the puzzles. There are riddles to answer and codes to break, making this a good step up for kids who enjoy the Geronimo Stilton books, but are ready for a new challenge.

I wish I had done this as a read aloud with my kids, rather than them reading the book independently. My daughter didn’t like the occasional swear word (“damn” if you’re wondering), and some subtle flirting confused my son, but would have kept an adult’s attention while reading.

I suspect a lot of the book’s nuances were lost on them. Part way through, I had an epiphany – the various animal species functioned like a divided human society. Some of the characters were open-minded enough to see past the physical difference and appreciate what similarities existed even when the differences seemed insurmountable. The themes of home, family, identity, and nourishment recur in different places.

I really wish publisher Simon & Schuster had included a reading guide or discussion questions, because as parents, sometimes our brains hurt by bedtime and we need a little help, so here’s a few thoughts from me. If reading aloud, the parent (and child if they read aloud too) could stop and ask questions about whether Squirrel and Des are good guests and if bees or mice are better hosts and why. There are a number of places where the adult could ask a child why a character behaves they way they do and raise issues of fairness. The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is a terrific book for raising issues around empathy but also hierarchical societies. Because the animals bear resemblance to humans – and not just for the fine footwear – sharing this story can be a way to ease into some uncomfortable conversations about privilege, whether economic, social, or racial.

But if that’s too esoteric, then focus on quest and puzzles.  I give this a 5/5 for a read aloud story, and a 4/5 for independent reading.

Oh – and the disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

And another oh – the illustrations by Audrey Benjaminsen are charming and add character to the story.

The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is available from these and other retailers

Amazon   

Barnes&Noble

Simon&Schuster

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Review: Love, Death, Robots, and Zombies by Tom O’Donnell

In my search for books with less than 20 reviews to read for The January Project, I came across a Kindle freebie for Love, Death, Robots, and Zombies by Tom O’Donnell. The title tells you exactly what to expect, as all four elements are there in the book, and the price was certainly right. But, to be honest, while I love plenty of books with love, death, zombies and/or robots, this wasn’t to my taste.

On the upside, the author created a unique post-apocalyptic world and I particularly enjoyed the complex and multi-layered relationship between humans and robots. The writing is solid, although there were a few missing words here and there that I suspect were part of an uploading issue. First person present tense is not my favorite point of view, but the author used it effectively, particularly in the battle scenes.

The story follows the journey of a fifteen-year old boy, Tristan, who must leave his library home after raiders find it. He sets off to find a new home with his robot dog and Echo, a teen girl who was his childhood friend before she took up with the raiders. En route, they meet other humans, robots and zombies with differing goals and have to decide who is trustworthy and who is not. It’s a good premise, but wasn’t enough to keep me from thinking about other issues with the story.

I have to wonder who was the intended audience? I’m not a big sci-fi reader, so I don’t have a sense if there is an age breakdown or not for materiel intended for teen readers and those for adults. There was almost no swearing, until the last thirty pages, and the shift seemed jarring. Until that point, I would have guessed the audience was tween boys.

What really irritated me as a reader was gender politics. As an adult woman, reading this book made me feel icky. The female characters, of which there were two, may as well have been blow-up dolls. One is beautiful, but has no personality. The other serves the primary purpose of being penetrated. The hero seems to be under the impression this girl wants to be sexually used. We know he’s a hero, because her free wheeling sexuality makes him sad. The hero does not see her as a victim of sexual abuse, so it is never called out an inappropriate behavior. ICK! Double ICK! ICKY, ICK, ICK, ICK! I cannot endorse this book, but the author will probably sell lots of books because of this one review.

This book got me thinking about something I learned in film classes called “The Masculine Gaze.” I suspect there is a literary bias toward “The Feminine Gaze,” particularly in literature aimed at the under 18 set. Maybe some of my dislike for this book stems from my expectations for competent female characters. This bias is a topic I hope to address more fully in a future blog.

In the meantime, I want the books I read to have strong characters, male and female and I want the books my kids read to have strong male and female characters too. Fortunately, there are a lot of great choices out there.

 

Review: War and Grace by Desmond McDougall

I finished War and Grace: One Woman’s Time at the Trenches by Desmond McDougall a couple of days ago, but sitting down to write a review has proved a challenge. My thoughts are still disorganized, so I’ll attempt to sort them out here.

war&graceWar and Grace is the story of Grace McDougall nee Smith, a leading figure in the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and a woman who passed most of World War I serving near the allied battlefront. Her youngest son wrote the book and many times while reading, I was swept with nostalgia for my childhood moments of listening my grandpa tell stories about the Civil War that he heard from his who fought in it. Reading War and Grace was like overhearing another family’s history. As I process the book, I struggle to merge the family story feel with my trained historian brain. Some elements drove me bonkers, and yet, I can’t remember the last time a book spiked my curiosity the way this one has and left me totally jazzed about jumping down the rabbit hole of research.

The nitpicking critical part of my brain wanted to remove the unnecessary exclamation points and have more context. I suspect the author wrote as he talked. The prose is a bit clunky in places and prone to hyperbole, but I think that is part of why this story tapped into my nostalgia for my grandpa’s stories. As for the context, some of the individuals and places referenced may be more familiar to those who went through the British school system. I consider myself fairly well versed in European history, but I had a hard time grafting the events in War and Grace onto the overall timeline of World War I and my understanding of British involvement in the war and the military hierarchy. I’m a map girl, so I’m glad one was included so I could see the areas where FANY operated, but having a few dated maps that showed a snapshot of the battle lines would have heightened my temporal grounding. I would have loved a reference list as well since the author mentioned several published and unpublished works used to guide his storytelling, but I was left to wonder how much came through the filter of memory.

And yet, in spite of, or perhaps, because of, these shortcomings, I cannot wait to read more about this subject. I was unfamiliar with FANY and the role of women at the front lines outside of the work of the Red Cross.  Grace McDougall is a fascinating woman who should be more widely known as a feminist pioneer. Grace’s life intersected with then socio-cultural shift from the 19th to the 20th century. A strong moralist streak and deep seeded patriotism drove her to challenge the patriarchal establishment. The nature of this being Grace’s story means the reader does not get a complete picture of the obstacles she faced and how systemic they were. I want to know what other women thought of Grace and her struggle for equality. Were other people as in awe of her as I am or did they find her a nuisance? This is fascinating stuff. I need to read more about it.

If the sole measure of a book is how excited the reader feels, and how much they talk it up with anyone who will listen, then War and Grace is a 5 star. I’m going with a 4 because of the style elements.

If you are interested in World War I, or British history, or history in general, this is a worthwhile read and the paperback is fairly cheap on Amazon. My daughter wants to read it. If she does, I’ll share her thoughts.

And if anyone out there can recommend further books on the subject of FANY or women in World War I, please let me know. You’ll help me save a little bit of time researching what to read, and let me have more time reading. Thanks.

 

 

 

The January Project, 2016

I’m going to be blunt. 2015 was a crap year for me, with pretty much all my energy was sucked up by efforts to recover from my broken arm (Jan 26, 2015 – I’ll celebrate the anniversary by hiding in bed). I’m finally starting to get over the mental fog, but the best of 2015 lists? Um yeah. Didn’t happen.

I’m still committed to The January Project, even after last year’s abrupt interruption. My goal this month is purchase nothing new (not even free books) and to clear some books off of my shelf while also giving reviews to authors in need.

If you don’t know much about the book business, think of your own life a moment. How much do you depend on reviews? Would you buy a two star vacuum from Amazon? What about a book that had thirty five star reviews, but the only text ones said things like “This is the best book ever!” I was burned a few too many times on that last one in 2015 and quit a lot of crap books with lousy editing.

Book reviews and sales are a numbers game. An author has to have a certain number of reviews to be considered for those nifty newsletters or special sale promotions. An author can’t get sales and reviews without visibility. You can’t get visibility in the form of “readers who liked … also liked….” without a certain number of text reviews. It blows. I cannot change the system. I also cannot change the policy that strips some authors of reviews because they know another author or because a fan friends them on Facebook.

What I can do is read books and write reviews. In the month of January, I commit to cleaning my shelves and reviewing books with less than twenty reviews. I challenge you to read a new to you author and leave a thoughtful review.

Look for reviews over the next few weeks.