Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

img_0803The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

July’s prompt for The Unread Shelf Project was a book from a series on your shelf. I did not have a ton of options for this one, as I usually read series books all together and tend not to buy a ton of them– it’s hard to get your “to read” list down if you add whole series at a time. However, I happened to be gifted this one awhile back from a book swap, and never quite got around to it. So to stick to my usual reading patterns, I opted to take on the whole series (with a little boost by starting the first book at the end of June).

This was a solid start to a series that I did mostly enjoy. The first book gives a nice introduction to the group: four friends who have been together for their whole lives, preparing to spend their first summer apart. It sets up an interesting structure that continues throughout the series, with four mostly separate narratives that overlap, intertwine, and eventually come together in the end. The “magic” element of the pants seems a little gimmicky, but using pants as the collective reminder of friendship works in a way that other items would not. Since it is something that they wear, it is something they each take with them as they experience life, not something that they simply look to as a token.

I found it noteworthy that in a book dedicated to friendship, the title object it centers on is not wholly positive—the first experience each of the girls has with the pants is negative, but they are also later able to draw strength from the reminder of their friendships to help them get through the tough parts of their summer lives. Although not a completely happy ending, there are positive turns for each character at the end of the book: Carmen has begun to make amends with her father, Lena finally connects with Kostos, Tibby begins to accept the loss of Bailey, and although Bridget is feeling of lost, she has found some solace in her return to her friends.

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The Second Summer of the Sisterhood

Book two picks up at the beginning of the following summer, with minimal reference to the time between. As before, the girls are preparing for a summer spent at least partially apart, and lay out their plans for the pants. Each of them has another storyline with some room for and elements of growth, although I saw some drastic differences in the quality of each characters narrative.

Bridget is still struggling, but seems to be at least a bit more self-aware. She is spending the summer with her grandmother in an effort to learn more about her mother, albeit under an assumed name and deceptive guise. I liked the duality of her re-finding herself here between glimpses of her family and a reconnection to the sport that she loves. I was a little irritated by the unreality of extent of her lie to her grandmother, but thought this was tempered by the admission in the end that her grandmother was suspicious and playing along. I liked Tibby’s journey of discovering and aligning her priorities through the development of her documentary.

Honestly, I found Lena’s story a bit lackluster. I can see the appeal in her story of teenage romance, but just could not get excited for her. Carmen’s difficulty with her mother beginning to date seems like an understandable issue for a teenage daughter, but her story comes off as annoying and melodramatic. In the first book, Carmen seemed justifiably angry with her father and his failure to tell her about his life until she was shoved into the middle of it. This anger with her mother feels different, and petty. I had a hard time sympathizing with her, which took away from the book as a whole.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living

img_0643Date Read: June 9 to 13, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I have had a bit of a fascination with Poe for quite some time. Although he is often sensationalized as the “troubled artist” and associated with the dark and macabre, there is so much more to him than that! Up until a few years ago, I had only read some of his more popular works, but in March 2017 I wrapped up a yearlong project of reading Poe’s complete works. I was so pleasantly surprised with what I found there! With a little bit of distance from that project, I thought a biography would be a nice supplement to my Poe repertoire.

Collins’ biography of Poe is a quick and concise general accounting of Poe’s life, beginning with his childhood and school experiences. While giving a factual accounting of Poe’s life, the narrative is well balanced so that it does not feel like a passage in a history book. Poe is presented alongside his significant publications, though many were not recognized as such at the time. This is not only a biography of Poe the man, but also a biography of his literary works. Some present day analysis of his work is included, with some emphasis on the widespread influence of his work in the world of literature. It is certainly impossible to touch on all of the work that Poe created in his lifetime, but there was a nice balance of what are considered his great achievements along with reference to many lesser and even un-credited publications. (Boris and I particularly liked the reference to his writing of the exploits of his house cat for a family publication when he was particularly poor and in need of work.)

Perhaps the more ardent fans of Poe did not need this, but I also enjoyed the added context given to his work as well as some well-known quotes. I have seen reference to his statement on how he “became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” in many places, but this is the first I have seen comment on his intention with these words—the cyclical nature of his poverty and drinking, combined with the prolonged illness of his much loved wife.

This is a great starting place for anyone interested in knowing more about Poe and his work. Collins’ portrayal of Poe is sympathetic, but without romanticizing the hardship he endured throughout his life.

Boris’s thoughts: “So if someone wrote a book about a guy who wrote about his cat… do you think someone will write a book about us one day?”

Rumple Buttercup

b4b5340f-eb2b-4750-b6e2-b3d19fc3d5dbI have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for the weirdos of the world, and this story of bananas, belonging, and being yourself written by the wonderfully weird Matthew Gray Gubler perfectly fits the bill. (I know you all must be shocked to hear this, from the girl who puts books on her cat.) With his 5 crooked teeth, 3 strands or hair, green skin, and left foot slightly bigger than his right, Rumple Buttercup is weird. He worries that people will be afraid of him, so lives a lonely life hiding in a rain drain beneath his town. He is so intrigued by the outside world that he sneaks up to look around from time to time—but only under cover of his trusty banana peel.

Rumple’s story is told in a unique format that feels part picture book and part graphic novel. The story is told in three picture filled chapters, spanning 136 pages. Despite the length, this is a quick read due to the interspersed drawings and minimal text. The style of Gubler’s art really lends itself perfectly to children’s literature. The format and length make it a little difficult as a whole group read aloud, but I can see this as a good fit for beginning readers or a one-on-one read aloud with kids. It is a sweet story that can be appreciated by both children and adults, celebrating that weirdness that makes each of us special.

Boris’s thoughts: “It’s a great story, but I can do without the banana peel. 3 paws.”

Land of Stories Companions

img_0673The Mother Goose Diaries

The Mother Goose Diaries purports to be just that—a diary written by the zany Mother Goose character from the Land of Stories. Honestly, I had some pretty high hopes for this one, but it left me feeling a little… meh. I love the eccentric Mother Goose that Colfer created for this series, the misfit fairy who is a bit wild and always up for adventure, but generally has good intentions. That is not quite the Mother Goose that seems to have written this diary. This Mother Goose comes off as more obnoxious than eccentric, and is perhaps too wild. The drug and alcohol references were more blatant and more frequent than expected, considering that this is a middle grade level book. There were definitely interesting uses of history in some places in the book, but at other times the history included seemed flippant and a little annoying.

I think my biggest issue with the book is that I had a hard time seeing it’s connection to the rest of the series. The diary follows Mother Goose through history, but there is minimal mention of the work of the fairies to spread stories of the Fairy Tale World. It is included, but generally glossed over rather quickly. Although the series talks about fairies sharing stories with authors like the Brothers Grimm, they are never mentioned. Nor are the twins, or any of the events from the series brought up at all. I realize that as a companion book this is intended to be separate from the primary series, but felt like there should have been something tying it to the other books.

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Queen Red Riding Hood’s Guide to Royalty

As we near the end of our journey through the Land of Stories, we come to Queen Red Riding Hood’s Guide to Royalty, another companion book authored by a character from the series. This book was a pleasant surprise for me. While I find Red’s character hysterical, she often becomes annoying. I thought that a whole book dedicated to her might be a little too much, but I think this was done perfectly. It was a short and quick read, which definitely helped it from being too “over the top.” I really enjoyed reading this, but I suspect that anyone who was not a fan of the original series may not fully appreciate the humor here.

In the later books in the series, Red finds an affinity for reading books from the “Other World,” although she often does not understand them or remember the correct names of authors. It is one of those books that inspired her to write this one, The Prince by “Nicole Macarena.” The book includes a little bit of back story to Red and her place in the kingdom that was not included in the original books, but the majority of it is taken up with her advice. As would be expected from her character, most of it is written rather condescendingly, and much of the time she presents as ridiculous and outrageous. However, there are actually some good points and advice included there, despite their somewhat ludicrous presentation.

Land of Stories Series, Part 3

img_0732An Author’s Odyssey

An Author’s Odyssey, the fifth series book from the Land of Stories, mostly serves as a bridge between the fourth and the sixth, final, book. After gathering characters from classic literature to join the fight against the army of literary villains, Alex and Connor venture into Connor’s own stories to begin building an army of their own. There is a mix of action and stagnation here: the main plot of the series is put on the back burner, while Alex and Connor travel through the various stories. There is a mini-adventure of sorts within each story, as they attempt to recruit Connor’s characters. While there were fun things happening here for readers, there is not much movement in the story as a whole. It was fun to revisit some of the characters from previous books in a new light, as the majority of Connor’s characters are based on those that he has met in the Land of Stories. We see new versions of Goldilocks, Red, Mother Goose, and a few others, and then also get to see some of these characters introduced to their counterparts.

Overall, I did like this one, but much of it felt like filler material. Most of the book was a continuation of previous storylines, some of which are carried over further into the final book. One story with resolution here is that of the Masked Man, who follows the twins into one of the stories, only to be confronted by others from his past and killed. As is the norm for the books in the second half of the series, this ends with a bit of a cliffhanger and lead into the next book. Now rid of the Masked Man, various witches from the Fairy Tale World have combined forces and intend to carry out the remainder of the plot he had started. They reveal their secret weapon: a powerful curse placed upon Alex that intensifies her already negative outlook and allows them to control her powers to their advantage.

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World’s Collide

The sixth and final installment to the Land of Stories series begins a bit differently than the previous tales, with a prologue set far into the future. Connor has become a well-known author, primarily by writing about his adventures and friends from the Land of Stories. He is celebrating his 80th birthday with an event at a bookstore, where he is asked a question about his sister and cannot remember what happened to her. He turns to his final book to glean some information, and we then jump back into the story. The two main events through the course of the book are a rescue mission to find Alex, and then the final showdown between the literary armies. Without giving away too much of the plot here, we do get the traditional fairy tale ending, “happily ever after” and all.

Although some may find the happy resolution to be too easy or cliché, I thought that it was fitting for the series. Perhaps the highlight of the series as a whole here comes from the wisdom imparted by the twins father, which helps to break the curse put upon Alex: “Happily ever after does exist, it’s just not what you think. Happily ever after isn’t a solution to life’s problems or a guarantee that life will be easy; it’s a promise we make ourselves to always live our best lives, despite whatever circumstance comes our way. When we focus on joy in times of heartbreak, when we choose to laugh on the days it’s hard to smile, and when we count our blessings over our losses—that’s what a true happily ever after is all about.”

Land of Stories Series, Part 2

img_0684A Grimm Warning

In the third book from the Land of Stories, Alex and Connor are living in separate worlds, both dealing with some struggles and learning to navigate their worlds as individuals. Alex is in training to become the next Fairy Godmother, and Connor is working to survive middle school. He has a teacher who sees promise in his writing, encouraging him and allowing him to be part of a school trip to Germany related to the Brothers Grimm. In Germany, Connor recognizes a message in a newly discovered story by the Brothers Grimm, realizing that the Fairy Tale World is in danger from the Grande Armée. He sets off across Germany with his school friend and crush, Bree, to find a way back into the fairy tale world. Meanwhile in the Fair Tale World, Alex is dealing with difficulties developing her magic and interest in a boy, while villains plot to take advantage of the Grande Armée’s arrival.

As in the previous book, we find the Fairy Tale World in danger, and the twins need to come together to save it. This one moves away from the “scavenger hunt” plot that was used in the previous two novels. At this point in the series, the majority of the characters are established, and Colfer begins with some more original story lines (rather than building directly from the fairy tales as in prior books). There is much more build up and suspense used in this than seen before, which makes this a very different type of story. The novel does not wrap up quite as nicely, without a completely happy ending. While the Fairy Tale World is saved for the moment, the Fairy Godmother has died (“returned to magic”), Alex has lost faith in her developing crush, and the Masked Man is still on the loose. We also have our first true cliffhanger of the series— in the final chapter, when Alex encounters the Masked Man, she sees beneath his mask and recognizes the face of her father!

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Beyond the Kingdoms

The fourth book in this series kicks off a whirlwind of activity that flurries through the final three books. Alex and Connor are in pursuit of the Masked Man, believing him to be their presumed-dead father. While this is happening, Alex is continuing to deal with problems related to her magic, spells not going as planned and difficulty controlling her emotions leading to unintentionally harming those around her. The Witches are working with the Masked Man to disrupt life in the Fairy Tale World, while they secretly prepare for a show down. Alex and Connor do learn the truth about the Masked Man, and also discover his ultimate plan: he has made a portal portion that will allow him to enter any written work, and he has begun to recruit an army of villains from class literature. The twins chase him through various stories, attempting to stop him, but also recruiting the heroes of many tales to help them.

With this book, the series has shifted into considerably darker territory. We get a bit of a throwback to the original books with a miniature scavenger hunt plot included, as the twins gather what is needed to make their own portal potion. However, this is not the main plot of the book, which really starts to move when they are on the trail of the Masked Man through the classic tales. There is some good and bad character development here—Red, who is a hysterical but often annoying character, seems to grow up a bit and come into her own; Alex, however, does not fair so well with the transition from ambitious young girl to angsty, melodramatic teenager. Overall, the book feels busy: there is a ton going on here, and much of it is set up for the conclusion to the series. I occasionally found myself getting annoyed with the introduction of new plot points, especially in the latter half when I knew there was not enough left to resolve then satisfactorily. There is a main cliffhanger at the end of the book, which almost serves as an introduction to the next, but also many other unresolved story lines.

Land of Stories Series, Part 1

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The Wishing Spell

Our first introduction into the Land of Stories begins a bit slowly, but picks up quickly. We get to know Alex and Connor Bailey as twins who are having a hard time adjusting to life after the loss of their father. Alex is quick to retreat from the world, which is the impetus that leads to their accidental discovery of the Fairy Tale World. Upon entering this new world, the twins embark on an adventure to gather the items needed to invoke The Wishing Spell, which they hope will take them back home. Their journey takes them across the various kingdoms of the fairy tale world, where they encounter myriad characters connected to popular stories and nursery rhymes. While most of their difficulties in finding each item are solved fairly easily, there are some twists added in to keep things moving. In the end, the twins learn a bit more about the Fairy Tale World, and their connection to it: their grandmother, the Fairy Godmother.

I enjoyed this one for the most part. The plot is engaging, but the writing does leave a bit to be desired. This is clearly a novel from a first time writer, although I think the fact that it is aimed at a younger audience lessens the negative impact of this. The short, often simple sentences do make it easier to read for those who might be struggling, and the story itself is creative enough to stimulate some imagination in young readers. One of my favorite aspects was seeing the “other side” of some of the fairy tales, in this case the story behind Snow White’s Evil Queen and her obsession with the magic mirror. I liked that this story felt complete in its own right—while we are getting an introduction into the Fairy Tale world, which leaves possibilities open for future adventures, the story of the Wishing Spell is wrapped up by the end of the novel.

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The Enchantress Returns

The second installment gives a bit more plot happening in the read world. Alex and Connor discover that their mother has been seeing someone from work, and help him to plan a surprise for her. When she does not arrive home as expected, the twins and Dr. Bob become worried, later discovering that she has been kidnapped and taken to the Fairy Tale World. Although the twins are eager to help, their grandmother leaves them in the care of Mother Goose while she deals with the situation. The twins take advantage of Mother Goose’s troublemaking spirit to sneak into the Fairy Tale World, where they embark on another scavenger hunt type adventure to defeat the Enchantress who has kidnapped their mother and is wreaking havoc across the kingdoms.

As in the Wishing Spell, we get to see a bit of back story on some traditional characters, and even get to see some redemption for Rumpelstiltskin who is more well known as a villain. The story is imaginative, and the writing is tightened up a bit from the first. Colfer is a great storyteller, but still relies a bit heavily on the “telling.” Descriptions of characters and settings are simple enough to invoke imagination, but much of the action and motivations are laid out rather straightforwardly. Like the fist novel, we do get a completed storyline in this book, although the ending itself left the characters in a situation that feels like it needs more.