The King of Attolia

king-of-attoliaAs part of my rereading spree–which has been amazing–I’ve reading Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, a little out of order though. I started with The Queen of Attolia, which I already reviewed. The review gives a good summary of some of my favorite elements of every book in this series, but I love these books so much I couldn’t help but review The King of Attolia too.

For those of you not familiar with the series, go read the books. But here is a short summary of the events leading up to Book 3, The King of Attolia. Book 1 (The Thief): Meet Eugenides. He’s “the queen’s thief” for the country of Eddis. He steals things–objects, people, hearts–and he is very good at it.

Book 2 (The Queen of Attolia): Eugenides is stealing from the wrong person. Irene, the queen of Attolia, a country neighboring Eddis, has managed to hold her throne in the midst of treachery and instability through clever maneuvering and cruel shows of strength. And she is sick of Eugenides making a fool of her by stealing things from her palace. So when she finally catches him, she cuts off his hand. Sent back to Eddis, Eugenides suffers from PTSD and depression, but eventually rejoins the world as the countries of Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis prepare for war. Proving that he can still things with one hand, Eugenides steals the queen of Attolia.

queenofattoliaBook 3 (The King of Attolia): Now Eugenides is king in a country where everyone hates him. He loves the queen–even though she cut off his hand–but despises the crown he must wear as her husband. The throne of Attolia is still unstable, and the Mede empire is threatening to invade. But the unstable political situation with the barons may destroy Attolia before Mede even sets sail. It is the king’s job to stabilize the country, but what can a one-handed foreigner do against the dangerous Attolian court and the looming Mede empire?

The King of Attolia has all the great aspects of a Megan Whalen Turner book–great characters, political intrigue–but the genius of this book in particular is the structure. The book introduces a new narrator, a member of the royal guard named Costis. He’s a great addition to the book because he allows the readers to see the characters, especially Eugenides, from a new, third party perspective. He sees Eugenides as Attolians see him, an imposter king who forced the queen to marry him. He thinks Eugenides is inept, sloppy, a terrible king and a terrible husband. And the reader agrees. Through Costis, the reader sees Eugenides careless attention to state matters, his minimal interactions with the queen, and his sorely lacking fighting skills.

Megan Whalen Turner

Megan Whalen Turner

But Costis, and the reader, are only seeing what’s on stage. It’s not until the end that Megan Whalen Turner reveals everything that went on behind the scenes–Eugenides plan to destroy Irene’s greatest domestic enemy, win the loyalty of the guard, and stabilize the throne. Only at the end does Costis, and the reader, realize, “Oh, snap. Eugenides is a genius. And the king and queen really love each other.”

It’s an emotional and thrilling ride, this book. Eugenides struggles with his disability and his situation as king are visible, but so is his genius. At the end, you really can’t help but appreciate how incredible Eugenides is (or how awesome Eugenides and Irene’s relationship is). This book is a definite MUST READ. I just reread it, but I feel like simply turning back to the first page and starting again. OR IF MEGAN WHALEN TURNER WOULD WRITE BOOK FIVE ALREADY.

Advertisements

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

The_Witch_of_Blackbird_PondOne of the best parts of my job—teaching—is getting to reread some of my favorite books with students. One of the students I have now is reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. This is one of the things that has been making me feel so nostalgic about books from my childhood, and one of the reasons why I’ve decided to reread some of those books. So, of course, I had to start with this one.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about a 16 year-old girl named Katherine, or Kit. She grew up on the island of Barbados in the 1600s, raised by her grandfather. But when her grandfather passes away, she goes to live with her aunt’s family in Puritan New England. Puritan culture is a shock to Kit. They think she’s a witch because she can swim, their church services are long and dull, they don’t like books that aren’t the Bible, and they seem to judge everything about her. Her aunt is kind, but Kit tends to do a lot of wrong in the eyes of her husband. Her cousins are kind as well. Mercy is sweet and gentle, although cripple, and Judith is nice enough, though very focused on procuring the right man for a husband. But despite the kindness her family shows her, Kit is homesick and lonely for someone who understands her.

Then she happens to meet an old woman who lives on her own on the edge of town. Hannah Tupper is a widow and a Quaker, the latter quality making her an outcast from the Puritan society. Even though rumors say that Hannah is a witch, she is the only person who accepts Kit as who she is without judging her. Though Nat Eaton, the son of the captain whose ship brought Kit from Barbados to Connecticut, seems to like Kit too. Most of the time.

Elizabeth George Speare

Elizabeth George Speare

As tension grows with the political situation with the new governor appointed by the king, people grow on edge. After the tension increases when several children grow sick, people begin to point fingers at Hannah, calling her a witch. As a mob, they determine to drive her from their town or even harm her, but Kit won’t let anything happen to her only friend. She helps Hannah escape with the help of Nat, also a friend of Hannah, but this only turns her into the accused.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a great grade level introduction to the good and bad side of Puritan New England. It offers readers a glimpse into the life of Puritan society—the plain clothing, religious community, and hard work. It also reveals the superstition, austerity, and narrow mindedness that often festered in such cultures long ago. Readers experience this world as Kit experiences it. Kit—and the reader—are outsiders, unfamiliar with this way of life. Kit and the reader are shocked by the same things, surprised by the same things, and ostracized by the same things. Kit’s circumstances make her the perfect conduit for the reader, especially young readers, as they experience this time period for the first time.

The story is not only a great representation of the historical time period, but it stays relevant with timeless themes. Even though we no longer live in a Puritan society, the morals of the story apply to us as well. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a lesson against gossip, false accusations, and prejudice. It’s also a lesson on what it is like to be an outsider. Most of us do not move to different countries, but children often experience going to a new school or a new town, and they can sympathize with the struggle Kit experiences as she tries to acclimate to her new home.

witchofblackbirdpondThe heart of the story, though, is standing up for what is right. Kit does not abandon her friend Hannah when she is in danger. She rushes to help her. She defends her when others accuse her of false things. Kit also stands up for other people, such as her young student Prudence. Because she is uninhibited by prejudice, Kit extends kindness towards everyone, particularly those society overlooks.

There are important messages in this book, which is one of the reasons why it won the Newberry Medal. The themes and the historical time period make it a great book for elementary-aged students, though I would encourage people of all ages to read it. It’s a great story, and well told. I thoroughly enjoyed reading again, even at 22. Though, while I enjoyed reliving the plot, themes, and time period, I also couldn’t help but relive my childhood crush on Nat Eaton. Some things never change!

The Queen’s Thief

the thiefEarlier this week I posted about my recent interest/obsession with rereading some of my favorite children’s books—from chapter books to young adult novels. The first book in this rereading binge of mine was Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen of Attolia.

It might be odd to write about The Queen of Attolia because it is actually the second book in Turner’s series “The Queen’s Thief”. But because my books are all boxed up in my parents’ house, I had to go to the library to find some of the books on my “to reread” list and the library did not have The Thief (book 1). The Thief is a great book, and I highly recommend it as a MUST READ, but as Megan Whalen Turner says herself on her website about the order of the books, “I’d like to think that finding out major plot points ahead of time won’t ruin The Thief, but it will certainly change the experience. On the other hand, I think The Thief spoils The King of Attolia. So there are pluses and minuses to any order you choose.”

queenofattoliaSo I skipped ahead to read The Queen of Attolia, not only because the library didn’t have The Thief or because you don’t need to read The Thief to read The Queen of Attolia, but because The Queen of Attolia is my favorite books in the whole series. And a great example of the strengths of Megan Whalen Turner’s writing.

There are so many things I love about The Queen of Attolia, and Megan Whalen Turner’s books in general. One is the world. The entire series is set in a world that is half mythical and half real. Turner sets her story in a Mediterranean world with three primary fictional countries—Attolia, Sounis, and Eddis. But this world is not entirely made up. Turner bases her countries heavily on the Mediterranean countries, such as ancient Greece, and draws some true history into her stories. All of this makes the countries of Attolia, Sounis, and Eddis more real, like they existed as contemporaries of Greek and Roman civilizations.

Another strength of the entire series is the characters. The central character of the first book is Eugenides, a member of the royal family of Eddis and the Queen’s Thief. His role as the thief is self-explanatory. He steals things—everything from amulets to people. He is smart, clever, and has a quiet charisma that draws you in. After making something of a hero of himself in The Thief, Eugenides suffers a terrible set back in the beginning of The Queen of Attolia that will take all of his strength and will to overcome. But I won’t tell you what for the sake of keeping this a relatively spoiler-free review.

king-of-attoliaThe other two characters I love most are the queen of Eddis and Attolia. They are as different as night and day, but both admirable, strong female characters. Helen, the queen of Eddis, is plain, but an independent and wise ruler. Her strength of characters wins her the undying loyalty of her court and her country, and especially the loyalty of her cousin and thief. Irene, queen of Attolia, is not so lucky to have the loyal support of her advisors and ministers. After coming into the throne following the assassination of her father and brother, Irene is forced to extreme measures to keep her throne, and it makes her a harsh and cruel woman. But both queen share a deep love for their countries, determined to do what is best for the people they rule.

Perhaps the biggest strength of Megan Whalen Turner’s books is the plot. Especially in The Queen of Attolia, the plot is a winding river of political intrigue, alliances and enemies, and unexpected turns of fate. Most books with this kind of fantasy leaning focus their plots of big battles and wars, but while there is fighting and armies in these books, the true plot lies in the behind the scenes politics. The queens of Eddis and Attolia and the king of Sounis plot ways to protect their country and weaken the others. They forge alliances and break truces. Schemes and plots abound in these books, the biggest ones belonging not to a monarch, but the thief himself.

Megan Whalen Turner

Megan Whalen Turner

I won’t talk any more about plots and twists because I really don’t want to spoil anything too big about these books. It’s much more exciting to read when you don’t know what’s coming. All I will say in closing is that if you haven’t read these books, you need to. Even though they are designated as “children’s books”, these books contain some of the best plots and characters out there. The only drawback is that each book leaves you wanting more, and even though there are four books out already, there is always a long wait before the next book. We’re still waiting for book five, and who knows when Megan Whalen Turner will publish that one.

The Magic of Children’s Books

Anne of Green Gables, cover art by Claire Keane.

Anne of Green Gables, cover art by Claire Keane.

Lately, I’ve come down with a severe case of literature nostalgia. I’ve had the strong desire to reread books from my childhood—from Anne of Green Gables to The Lord of the Rings. Maybe this is because I finished my “to read” list, or I’m too lazy to invest in a new book or author, or I’m killing time in between book releases in a series (*cough* The Winner’s Crime *cough* The Raven King). Or maybe I miss the quality of the characters and stories found in children’s books.

My parents always give me grief about reading children’s fiction. I’m too old, they say, and I should be reading adult books. But when I go to the adult section in the library, all I see are books by people like Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson. Not that these two men are bad authors, but I see the shelves lined with romance and crime/thriller novels, and I have absolutely no interest in those kinds of books. I have nothing against adult fiction—there are good books out there written for adults—but in general, I see a lot of generic stories.

I understand that adults are busy with jobs and families, and when they read they just want to sit down with a quick and easy read with enough drama (usually sex or spies) to keep them interested. But that isn’t what I want when I sit down with a book. I want complex characters, a story with depth and plots twists, themes and morals throughout the books. Usually, I can only find this in children’s books. How amazing are the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia? How incredible is the plot in Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia?

First edition cover of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

First edition cover of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

And children’s books don’t have to shy away from the fantastic. Wizards, magic, historical time periods, talking animals, and the like are frowned upon in adult fiction, or at least regulated to the second class status of “genre fiction”. But after so many detective novels and stories of second chances at young romances, don’t readers want something new? Something different? Something that can transport the reader back to a place where anything and everything is possible. Children’s fiction does that in a way adult fiction does not. It transports readers of any age back to that mythical feeling of childhood that adventures happen and fairies are real and good triumphs over evil. I want that feeling when I read. I want to lose myself in the book, and I think children’s authors are much better at that than adult ones.

I’m not that old; I only graduated college two years ago. But I’m old enough to miss aspects of childhood; old enough to miss how easy and exciting it was to get lost in a good story. Now in the humdrum life of an adult—job, bills, chores—perhaps we as readers need that now even more than we did as children. We need to be transported to a different world for a time, even if only for two hundred pages.

To quote Meg Ryan in the movie You’ve Got Mail, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” I guess I’m missing that in my life right now, which is why I’ve decided to go on a rereading binge. It’s time to pull out some of my childhood, or even recent young adult, books and relive the stories and the feelings they gave me. So be prepared for this blog to feature a lot of old—and some new—classics!

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

The Imitation Game

Imitation-Game-PosterThere are plenty of World War II films out there. Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, The Dirty Dozen. The list goes on and on. I’d wager that there are few topics or time periods with more movies made about them than World War II. Now, there are a lot of reasons for this. It was a major world event, one of the most important. There were numerous facets to the war—the Holocaust, the Pacific, Hitler. There would is a lot to document, especially with the true stories. Some of these stories have been documented, like HBO’s series Band of Brothers. But others, like The Imitation Game, reveal a previously un-filmed part of the war.

The Imitation Game is the story of Alan Turing, a British mathematician. Played by the impeccable Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing didn’t land in Normandy, he didn’t push through France and Germany or island hop in the Pacific. He never wielded a firearm throughout the whole course of the war. Rather, Turing worked with a team of linguists, academics, and all around geniuses to try and break the Germany coding machine known as Enigma.

From L to R: Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Allen Leech.

From L to R: Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Allen Leech.

The Nazis used Enigma—what essentially looks like an old fashioned typewriter—to transmit all of their messages. This code was unbreakable. The British army had tried and failed many times to break it without success. Desperate, the army brings in the brilliant but off-putting Alan Turing, and commission him and several other brilliant men and one woman to break Enigma. The team tries and fails, just like the people before them, but while they work to break the code by hand, Turing sets about building a machine that will do it for them—what many consider to be the first computer.

There were a lot of things I liked about this film besides Benedict Cumberbatch (whom I love). The other actors did splendid jobs as well—Keira Knightly as the only woman on the team, Allen Leech as a Soviet spy. The juxtaposition of Kiera Knightly’s character as the only woman and Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing was very well done. It showed how Turing’s personality and Knightly’s status as a woman isolated both characters, and how they could understand and comfort each other because of it. The movie was also paced very well. Even though none of the characters participated in the direct action of the war, the sense of urgency was still there. Mark Strong, during the first meeting with the team, reminds Turing that people are dying every moment that Enigma is not broken, and the film cuts away occasionally to show shots of soldiers fighting the war.

Knightly and Cumberbatch

Knightly and Cumberbatch

The film shows the struggles of Turing to interact with people, as well as the struggle of the team to break the code. These two sides of the story give the movie depth on a large scale and a personal scale. The Imitation Game tells a grand story of unsung war heroes and their efforts to break the German code, but it also tells the story of Alan Turing, a genius who struggled to live in an interpersonal world, and a world that did not tolerate his sexual orientation. The end of the movie reveals the cause of Turing’s death, suicide after one year of government-mandated hormonal treatment for homosexuality. It’s a tragic end for a man who contributed so much to win the war.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Fans of Benedict Cumberbatch will love this movie. He does a spectacular job in a unique role. Downtown Abbey fans will also love Allen Leech’s appearance, and fans of Keira Knightly period films will be as equally content. World War II buffs will also add this to their DVD pile. It’s a great movie, well done in terms of cinematography, music, and production, and it deserves a place with the great list of World War II films.

Landline

landlinecoverI am a big fan of classic Meg Ryan films. Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail. I love them all. 90’s Meg Ryan was cute and endearing. Her films all had an adorable, quirky element to them, but they also had deeper message about life, love, and friendship. I think this combination of quirky and real is what made Rainbow Rowell’s new novel Landline feel like it could be a darn good Meg Ryan film.

In Landline, Georgie is a wife, mother of two, and television comedy writer living in Los Angeles. Right before Christmas, she gets a career-altering opportunity for her own television show, but she has to stay in L.A. to write four episodes even though her family had plans to visit her in-laws in Nebraska. Despite her husband’s protests, Georgie decides not to go to Nebraska, but she’s surprised when her husband Neal takes their two daughters and goes anyway.

Worried that her marriage may be failing, Georgie constantly tries to call Neal, but her own terrible cell phone and Neal’s terrible phone habits make it impossible to connect with him. Desperate, she tries the landline at her mother’s house and finally gets Neal on the line. Only, to her surprise, it’s Neal from the past, from when he first left her and right before he proposed. Now Georgie has the opportunity to talk to this Neal from the past and try to fix their marital problems before they begin, or maybe her time continuum will mean she and Neal never do get married.

Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell

Different from her popular YA novel Eleanor and Park, Landline is an adult novel. The main characters are middle aged, grown with families of their own. Their problems involve careers, parenting, and marriage. Flashbacks to the college years, when Georgie and Neal first met, however, keeps the story relevant to a younger audience. While readers worry about Neal and Georgie’s marriage in the present, they can enjoy the cute and confusing parts of the beginning of a romance. This juxtaposition really makes the novel appealing to all ages.

The reason I think it feels like a Meg Ryan movie is the phone line to the past. It’s quirky and almost whimsical, and I can easily imagine Meg Ryan sitting on her bed in her pajamas talking to her husband-to-be in the past. But despite this magical element, the story doesn’t stray from its serious plot. Georgie has to figure out what to do about her marriage, her family, and her career.

Landline is Sleepless in Seattle meets When Harry Met Sally. It has a unique plot, a tiny dose of magic set in the real world, but the issues it tackles are heavy. Balancing work and family is a tricky thing for people of all ages, and it’s a very relevant topic in today’s culture. Rainbow Rowell has written another winner. And I still think Meg Ryan should star in the movie adaptation.

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally (1898).

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally (1898).