Potterview #3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is where these books start to get really good. It’s darker, it’s more interesting, and we’re starting to leave behind the simple mystery plots and enter into the more complicated ones.

One reason I really like this book is the introduction of Sirius.  I really love Sirius as a character.  To Harry, he is both a good friend and a role model.  Like Harry, Sirius is a rebellious Gryffindor with a love for danger and adventure.  I love how Harry can relate to Sirius because he sees himself in Sirius.

I also really like Lupin as a character.  I like his calm intelligence and his willingness to take Harry under his wing.  He is, of course, discriminated against for being a werewolf, which is a great, subtle way for Rowling to introduce the concept of discrimination in the wizard world.  Wizards, as we see time and again in the books, are very discriminatory and quick to condemn.  Even though it may be detrimental to their children’s educations, the wizard world will not allow a werewolf to teach at Hogwarts.

On the subject of Sirius, this book is where we really see the emphasis Harry puts on his father figures. While sweet, this trope is a bit misogynistic. Throughout the course of the book, Harry strongly prioritizes his male role models. He has several father figures, while the only mother figure I can think of is Molly Weasley. This is probably subconscious on Rowling’s part, since it’s common in our society to prioritize male role models.

Some very dark concepts are played with in this book. The idea of Azkaban is, obviously, terrifying. The dementors, who can suck out all happy feelings and memories, are fantastic antagonists. The fact that Sirius is innocent makes the time he spent there seem even worse. I felt terrible for Sirius for the entire book.

As I reread the series, I am finding that I like Ron a lot less. In this book, especially, he’s horrible to Hermione. Hermione, being very bookish, has probably not had very many friends besides Ron and Harry. Added to that, she’s under a lot of stress from her extra classes. Ron really had no right to turn on her.

Overall, the book was great. On to Goblet of Fire!

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Plague: Why, Exactly, Does This Exist?

It's totally not related to race at all

Why is Astrid on the cover? Why is Dekka NOT on the cover? And who’s the other guy?

What happened to Edilio’s crush on Lana? What happened to Sam’s post-traumatic stress? What exactly is Astrid’s mutant power and why is it not making any appearances? Does the town council ever actually do anything? Does Astrid have a job? If she does, what is it? And most importantly, why exactly is this series so long? These questions and many others bounced across my mind several times as I read Plague by Michael Grant. Needless to say, I am very disappointed.

In Plague, the FAYZ is running low on water, so Albert sends Sam, Dekka, Computer Jack, and Taylor to try to find another lake. But while Sam and some of the town’s most powerful mutants are gone, all hell breaks loose as Drake escapes, a deadly plague breaks out, and flesh-eating bugs attack the town.

One thing I really liked in this book was the strength of the supporting characters. Grant has shown quite an aptitude for character development. Dahra, Dekka, Lana, Sanjit, and Orc were especial standouts in this book. He even managed to make Astrid somewhat interesting. In fact, the supporting characters are so strong, I would argue that the series is not Sam, Astrid, Caine, and Diana’s story anymore (although the covers are still trying to tell us it is). It is the story of the people in the FAYZ, specifically the dozen or so who narrate or figure prominently in the books. And that makes the story stronger, because we see everything through so many different perspectives and get to know so many great people along the way.

The book also brings up some very interesting themes. There’s been a lot of religious symbolism and discussion in these books (although it’s sometimes incorrect. For example, the Catholic church no longer considers suicide a mortal sin). I feel like this is the first book that actually did something with it. Astrid’s struggles to apply her faith to the desperate circumstances in which she lives are very compelling. Catholic moral philosophy states that the result of a wrong action never justifies that action, but the choices Astrid is forced to make show the flaws in that philosophy. Grant effectively makes the point that there are no true moral absolutes.

Britney’s transformation also makes a point about religion. Britney has a tendency to completely devote herself to certain people or causes. We saw this in her unwavering loyalty to Edilio in Hunger, and her belief that she is God’s messenger in Lies. In some ways, this complete loyalty was a very good thing. For example, in Hunger, she stayed and tried to defend the power plant when no one else would. But this book shows the reader how dangerous that fanaticism can be. Britney believes the gaiaphage is God, and this leads her to attack Astrid, Orc, Jack, and Little Pete with an army of flesh-eating bugs. Britney’s transformation points out the fine line between faith and fanaticism.

Grant also tries to make a point about fear and prejudice. In previous reviews, I mentioned how much I liked the Human Crew as villains. In this book, they return, but now, they aren’t only targeting the mutants. They’ve noticed that many of the people on the town council are people of color, and they feel that it is unfair that the “normal people” are not represented. In the FAYZ, there are no socioeconomic inequalities stopping people of certain races from succeeding, so it is possible to become successful simply by working hard. The people who are working hard happen to be people of color in this universe. However, racial biases are still present. The members of the (mostly white) Human Crew literally cannot accept a world in which white people are not dominant. This is a startling parallel to certain reactionary movements that are developing today as a response to feminist, anti-racist, and gay rights activism.

On that note, as has been the case for the entire series, the racial representation is very good (even though the publisher seems to be deliberately avoiding putting any characters of color on the covers). Yes, Howard, who is black, is a drug dealer. However, people of color are also portrayed as leaders, fire chiefs, doctors, sassy teleporters, happy-go-lucky helicopter pilots, nurses, bitter healers, pessimistic little brothers, and powerful, stoic mutants, which balances out the problematic portrayal of Howard. The female characters are also getting better. Astrid, Lana, Dahra, Dekka, Brianna, Diana, and Taylor all have agency in their stories. They use their particular talents to get what they want, make their own decisions and are generally not defined by their love interests. The only exception here is Lana, whose story in this book focuses more on her relationship with Sanjit than her personal healing process. Unfortunately, while Diana taking advantage of her sexuality to try to stop Caine from hurting people was interesting, she is now pregnant with what will probably be an evil mutant baby. Like most other Mystical Pregnancies, I’m sure this will reduce her to a be-wombed plot device.

Now, those are the parts of the book I enjoyed. But there were definitely parts that I did not enjoy. And the one that bothered me most was that Caine is now an important part of the plot again.

I hate Caine. He is probably one of my least favorite villains ever. The other characters I disliked in the first book have since grown on me because Grant developed them and gave them more depth. Sam’s responsibilities as a leader forced him to grow, Astrid’s struggle with her faith has been compelling, and Drake’s egregious evilness is justified now that he’s been possessed by the gaiaphage. Caine has no depth. His emotions are not realistic. We are told that he desperately wants power, but why? Why is this teenaged boy so obsessed with world domination? He is unrealistically creepy and analytical about his relationship with Diana. Whenever he makes a speech, he sounds corny, pompous, and cartoonish, and yet he somehow is able to win everyone in the FAYZ over. Caine is a terrible villain and he brings the quality of the series down.

Also, the continuity is becoming a bit weird. I mentioned some plot holes at the beginning of the review, but I’d like to focus on one which particularly bothered me. In the last book, Sam was struggling with post-traumatic stress from his encounter with Drake. I liked where Grant was going with that, and enjoyed reading about Sam’s healing process. But in this book, it was completely gone. I’m no expert, but I don’t think post-traumatic stress just goes away like that. This and other plot holes really threw me off.

I attribute the series’ plot holes to the length of the series, which brings me to my next point. This series is unnecessarily long. This book, in particular, seemed unnecessary. The overarching plot of the series is the characters finding out how to defeat the gaiaphage and escape the FAYZ. There was no forward motion in this plot at all. I still have no idea what the gaiaphage is or what its motivation is. I still have no idea what’s behind the FAYZ wall. I still have no idea how they’re going to escape. Sure, there was a battle with the gaiaphage, and Perdido Beach split into two separate towns, but neither of those things are going to make that much of a difference in the long run.

So, although I did enjoy reading this book, I found it completely unnecessary. I’m not happy about Caine’s return as a villain, and I’m not happy about Sam’s character regression. I’m ranking this Good, and I turn, with a heart heavy with dread, towards Fear.

Other Opinions:

http://cuddlebuggery.com/blog/2013/04/04/review-plague-by-michael-grant/

http://charlotteunsworth.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/review-hunger-lies-and-plague-by-michael-grant/

http://overflowingheartreviews.wordpress.com/2011/05/11/book-review-plague-michael-gran/

Wednesday Recommendations: It Feels Like A Party Every Day

Happy Wednesday, all!  And it’s also the first day of May, so happy that, too!

I have a…complicated relationship with the Disney Channel, and their new show, Jessie, is a hot mess of problems for the discerning feminist.  One of these days maybe I’ll write a post about Disney Channel’s problems, but that day is not today.  Instead, here is a post by Kayfil detailing a few of the many, many problems with Jessie:

http://kayfil.wordpress.com/2013/04/13/why-jessie-is-the-worst-show-on-disney-channel/

Enjoy!

(My Lies review will hopefully be up tomorrow, but don’t hold me to that.  Also, can someone please explain to me why I got a bunch of likes and followers on Monday, but only about three views?)

Hunger: Finally Feeling It

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I sort of want to punch that stupid smarmy model

As anyone who read my last review knows (if you haven’t, here: https://thechosenblogger.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/gone-what-can-i-say/ ), I did not care much for Michael Grant’s novel, Gone. But I have to say that the second book, Hunger, is a vast improvement. Hunger picks up a few months after the end of Gone. Food is quickly running out, and people are starving. And what’s worse, Caine is being controlled by the Darkness, and he has a plan to feed it and increase its power.

I feel like this book did a few things better than Gone. The first was that the story focused more on the struggles of surviving in the book’s post-apocalyptic environment. I felt that Gone focused far too much on the conflict between Sam and Caine, partially because I didn’t find Caine very believable as a villain. This book, however, was mainly about Sam struggling to try and get enough food to feed the kids in Perdido Beach, with a subplot about Caine’s attempts to shut down the nuclear power plant. Even Caine’s plot is truly about the Darkness, not Caine himself, and the climactic battle is against the Darkness. I enjoyed the focus being on survival instead of the conflict with Caine. As I mentioned in my previous review, I love the concept of the series, and I’m glad the author is utilizing the possibilities of the scenario a little more.

Another improvement was the introduction of the Human Crew, a hate group formed against mutants. I like Zil and his friends as villains. Unlike Caine and Drake (who were just a little TOO evil), Zil and the others feel like real people. They’re just a bunch of kids trying to act tough and looking for respect. They’re bullies who don’t quite understand that the consequences of their action are far more severe when there are no adults to step in when things get ugly. I’m interested to see how this plotline plays out.

Thirdly, the characters are very well-developed. When I began to read the climax, I realized exactly how much I cared about Sam, Edilio, Brianna, and the rest.

(Spoilers)

I was terrified that Brianna would die of radiation poisoning, or that Lana would be kept by the Darkness. I was on the edge of my seat when Edilio, Dekka, and Diana were injured almost to the point of death. And even though I only knew him for a few pages, I ached for Duck’s self-sacrifice. The only character I couldn’t care less about was Astrid, who attempted to stop Zil from lynching a mutant by making a speech about Christian morality (it doesn’t work-shocker), then was captured by Zil because she is completely helpless and can’t do anything by herself.

(End Spoilers)

The female characters were a lot more well-written in this book. Astrid still didn’t get much to do aside from get kidnapped and yell about God, but she did take a little more initiative in this book, and I’m sure she’ll only get better. Lana was also a bit more proactive, but it didn’t end well. However, we are introduced to Dekka, an awesome and powerful black lesbian mutant, Brianna the Breeze, a self-assured mutant girl who thinks of herself as a superhero, and Brittney, a FAYZ soldier so dedicated that she literally refuses to die until her job is finished. They were smart, strong, and proactive in this book, and I think they’ll only get better.

That being said, Hunger still has some flaws. Remember before, when I mentioned that the focus of the plot was taken off of Caine, and instead, the main threat was the Darkness? And remember my last review when I talked about how the Darkness was not very scary or interesting to read about? That is still true. It’s a little creepy when the Darkness infiltrates Little Pete’s dreams, yes, but barely enough to even pique my interest. On top of that, the Darkness has no discernible motivation. For what purpose does the Darkness need the new body it’s trying to create? Why is it manipulating the kids of the FAYZ? And of course, when the villain of a story falls flat, the rest of the story tends to fall flat. This wasn’t quite the case here, but it came very close, saved only by the strength of the other characters.

I would like to make a quick note about the book’s Christo-religious themes. I didn’t really mind them at first, being Catholic myself (although seriously, there are no Jewish kids in Perdido Beach? No Hindus? No Muslims? Not even a committed atheist?). However, some of the things these kids say are not exactly realistic. I know from experience that when teenagers under pressure pray, it sounds more like “Ohgodohgodhelpmehelpme” than “St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us. We call upon you for our salvation.” And some of the religious speeches made by the characters (Astrid in particular, though Brittney is also guilty of this) are a bit preachy and overdramatic. These incidents are becoming more and more common, and whenever this occurs, it takes me out of the story.

This book improved upon its predecessor from both a feminist standpoint and a story standpoint, but I still don’t want to rank it above a Good. Hunger is definitely better than Gone, but it didn’t quite reach Very Good level. However, I put it down excited to continue the story, which is much more than I can say for the first book.

Second Opinions:

http://simonbohun.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/hunger-by-michael-grant/

http://ashleighonline.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/hunger-by-michael-grant-review/

http://charlotteunsworth.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/review-hunger-lies-and-plague-by-michael-grant/

Questions?  Comments?  Complaints?  Concerns?  Please comment!  I LOVE constructive criticism!

Gone: What Can I Say?

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INTENSE STAAAAAARE

I am going to feel terrible about this review later. I really am. The reason being, of course, that I didn’t like this book as much as everyone else in the world seemed to. And I feel a bit guilty about giving Michael Grant’s Gone what is probably the only somewhat-negative review it has ever received. What crime has this book committed, aside from not quite reaching my (admittedly rather high) expectations? What has this innocent little novel done? (Well, it reinforced gender roles. But I’ll get to that).

Anyway. On with it.

Gone seems like the sort of book I would love. The premise: One day, out of nowhere, everyone over fifteen in the town of Perdido Beach suddenly vanishes. A giant dome (called the FAYZ) encases the town. The left-behind kids must fend for themselves. And to complicate things, some are developing superhuman powers, and a mysterious underground creature called the Darkness is calling to them. I love young adult dystopian sci-fi, gritty loss-of-innocence chronicles a la Lord of the Flies, Stephen King, and X-Men. The sample first chapter I read on Amazon was brilliant, and I was wildly excited to read more. So what has caused this sudden fall from grace? Read on.

Because this seems like the best way to organize my thoughts, I will be reviewing the book by focusing on each of the main characters. First, there’s Sam Temple, our somewhat bland protagonist. He’s mellow, humble, and a “natural leader” (whatever that means). He’s nice enough, as Everyboy protagonists go. Pleasant, sort of like that one kid in your class whose name you keep forgetting. The trouble with this was that I couldn’t identify with him. No matter how well-written and fast-paced the prose may be (which it is), and no matter how many exciting twists and turns the author throws at the reader (and trust me, there are many), I couldn’t seem to get invested because I have no emotional anchor with this character.

Tagging along on his adventures are Sam’s two friends, Quinn and Edilio. I liked Quinn a lot. He seemed very real, and very human. The way he reacted to the FAYZ and other complications in the story felt poignant and true to life. I wish he had gotten more page time. Edilio is a quiet, Honduran-American boy. His character was a bit of a blank slate. He was very stoic, I suppose, and obedient to Sam, preforming any task Sam asked of him. As he is a character of color, though, making him silently obedient to the white male lead was a bit problematic.

Then there was Astrid, the intelligent love interest, and her autistic brother, Little Pete. Astrid was a great disappointment to me as a character, as she existed only to be Sam’s supportive lady love and damsel in distress. We were repeatedly told that she is the smartest person in the FAYZ, but the most proactive thing she did was use her intelligence to pick a really good place to wait for Sam to rescue her. Most of her time in the book was spent caring for her little brother.

(Spoilers)

Little Pete was revealed to have caused the FAYZ by using his extraordinary mutant powers to make the adults disappear. I don’t know enough about ableism to comment thoughtfully on his portrayal, but I know enough that it makes me uncomfortable. I have a sneaking suspicion that the author made him autistic in order to make him seem “mysterious” and “weird”, and he seems much more like a plot device than an actual character. His autism reduces him to little more than a silent MacGuffin, easily used and exploited by the other characters.

(End Spoilers)

Another major character is Lana Lazar, a girl with the power to heal injuries. We were told she was “defiant,” but she never actually exhibited defiance, probably because she spent most of her time in the story as someone’s prisoner. Most of her dialogue consisted of screaming for help or crying.

I would like to acknowledge Mary, Dahra, and Albert, my favorite characters in the book. These three understood what needed to be done to keep things going and took charge, doing the jobs no one wanted to do. Mary cared for babies and toddlers, Dahra started a hospital, and Albert took charge of the town’s McDonalds. They represented the best part of the book for me: just seeing how these kids survived and adapted to such a strange scenario. I wish there had been more of that. Even this, though, supported gender roles, as the male character used his intelligence to innovate and start a business, while the women are shoved into caregiving roles.

And of course, the villains, Caine, Drake, and Diana. These three were almost cartoonish in their egregious evilness. Caine came off as more smarmy and annoying than threatening, and Drake, while dangerous, seemed a little flat. Diana had some interesting character development, though, and I am excited to see more of her.

The real villain of the series, of course, is the Darkness. The Darkness drove the most intense plot thread of the book: what happens when Sam turns fifteen? Will he disappear like the others? This is the part that kept me on the edge of my seat, reading until the end. But even the Darkness had its weaknesses. Unlike the Beast from Lord of the Flies, or Stephen King’s supernatural menaces, the Darkness wasn’t terrifying, grotesque, symbolic, or even a little bit creepy. In this book, all it did was sit in a cave and be evil.

So, I have said a lot of negative things about this book. But, hard as it may be to believe, I did somewhat enjoy it. I loved the premise, I liked the writing, and I’m excited to see where the series goes. But I didn’t LOVE it the way I thought I would. It didn’t live up to all of my expectations, and as a result, I judged it harshly. And, from a feminist point of view, it had some problems. The racial representation was good (Edilio is Latino, Albert is black, there are two other named black characters, Lana is part Cherokee, and I think Dahra is Indian), but all of the major female characters are caretakers and helpless damsels (in this book, anyway). I give it a grudging Good, but know that the next book, Hunger (which I will be reviewing next), is much better.

Disagree with me? Want to say something about my writing? Please comment! I would LOVE some constructive criticism.

Want a second opinion? Here are some other reviews of this book on WordPress:

http://charlotteunsworth.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/review-gone-by-michael-grant/

http://nutfreenerd.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/book-review-gone/

http://ohcakeycreativity.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/book-review-gone-by-michael-grant/

The Face on the Milk Carton: When Books Reach Their Expiration Dates

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I picked this book up several months ago, when I first had the idea to start a book review blog.  I wrote a review soon after I read it, but I no longer agree with everything I wrote.  So I cobbled together an impression based on my old review and the summary of the book on Wikipedia.  It may not be the best review I’ve written, but this is the book that gave me the idea for this blog.  I felt like it was important.

So.  The Face On The Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney.  An intriguing premise: A teenaged girl named Janie sees a picture of herself on a milk carton next to the words “Missing Person.”  She tries to uncover the sordid, complicated truth of her past, but the secrets cause her stress and put a strain on her relationship with her boyfriend.  It absolutely sounds like something I would read and enjoy.  But is it any good?  Well…

I will give this book credit.  It was very clever.  The plot was engrossing, and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time (if you’ll pardon the cliché).  I wanted to find out who Janie’s real parents were, and where she came from.  The answers to these questions, too, were unexpected.  I felt like the ending was satisfying, and worth the suspense.

Despite all of this, there were two things that prevent me from calling this book “good.”  One is that the writing is…annoying, I suppose, would be the best way to put it.  The main character’s thoughts are repetitive and grating, and the dialogue is stilted, unrealistic, and awkward.  Cooney seems to be trying very hard to paint Janie as a “normal teenage girl,” perhaps to make her odd situation more relatable.  Unfortunately, she fails in this, as Janie does not talk or act remotely like any teenage girl I know.  She uses outdated terms and phrases (such as “don’t let’s do that”), and her only interests are shopping and boys.

The other thing about this book that I didn’t like was Janie’s relationship with Reeve.  Reeve is her older (MUCH older, if I remember correctly) boyfriend, who lives next door.  Their relationship is unrealistic and awkward. It starts rather randomly (Reeve suddenly pulls her under a pile of leaves and kisses her) and continues in the same fashion.  They will go from deciding to just be friends to preening each other and talking about sex in the space of paragraphs, with little to no explanation.  It reads much more like a teenager’s fantasy of a relationship than an actual relationship.

And then there’s the fact that Reeve is constantly trying to have sex with Janie.  He pesters her about it constantly, even if she is under a lot of stress or clearly uncomfortable with his suggestions.  At one point, he even breaks up with her because of this, then immediately begins dating an older girl (who presumably puts out).  The really disturbing thing, however, is Janie’s response.  She blames herself for not wanting to have sex with Reeve, and the novel agrees with her.  After the breakup, for example, she responds with, “What mattered to Reeve, thought Janie, [was] being first in somebody’s life.  I put [my problems] first.  He took it for a long time, considering” (p. 169).  What does this tell teenagers reading this book? Always put your boyfriend first, no matter what.  If you’re going through an emotionally tough time in your life, too bad.  The boyfriend still comes first, otherwise he’ll break up with you and date someone more sexually available (oh, and forget about sexual boundaries.  Just do whatever he wants.  Resistance is futile).

This, and some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fat-shaming and homophobia, make this book a distinctly anti-feminist read.  The negative and problematic messages, coupled with the awkward writing, made this book irksome and downright unpleasant.  My verdict?  Not So Great.  There are several better books out there.  Leave this one on the shelf.

Thank you for reading.  I would very much appreciate any feedback and constructive criticism about my writing and my thoughts about the book.  This is a learning process for me, and I appreciate your help!  My review of Gone will be up by the end of the week.