Book Review: Otto and the Flying Twins

I picked up Otto and the Flying Twins at a library sale some months ago, and in an odd coincidence (given the book’s subject matter) I had it in my bag while I was stranded in town on Friday.

Author: Charlotte Haptie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.62 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Fantasy aficionados

In-depth thoughts: Teachers wishing to address prejudice and The Holocaust could do worse than to include Otto and the Flying Twins in the curriculum.

On the surface, it’s a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it’s hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the “magicos” are declared inferior and a threat to the city’s well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.

It’s hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards “fun fantasy.” Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual’s personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it’s something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that’s not so unrealistic after all.)

But it’s a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I’m willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.

Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn’t The Chosen One; that’s actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it’s well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.

When his mom finds out that Albert hid his Karmidee heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they’ve lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It’s a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There’s nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.

Otto’s obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn’t presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She’s not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).

The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.

Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it’s a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.

Book Review: The White Giraffe

Since today is White Day in South Korea and Japan, it seems like a good time to put up my review of The White Giraffe.

Author: Lauren St John

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.99 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Animal lovers

The White Giraffe by Lauren St John review
Image courtesy Dial 

Plot summary: When tragedy strikes, young Martine is sent to her grandmother in South Africa, who runs a game preserve. Her fascination with a mysterious white giraffe leads to the discovery of a fate greater than she could have ever dreamed.

Content warning: The book opens with a house fire scene that might be a bit scary for younger readers. There are also some representation issues when it comes to non-white characters.

In-depth thoughts: It’s clear that St John knows and cares a lot about animals, including the unique wildlife of sub-Saharan Africa. According to her biography, she grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe with a host of exotic pets, and frankly that’s a memoir I would read! It’s also clear that her background was a big influence on The White Giraffe. I just wish that her knowledge, passion, and background had faced a little more scrutiny and gone through a few more revisions before they ended up as The White Giraffe, as it falls a little too close to the White Savior narrative structure for me to be entirely comfortable recommending it for its intended younger readers.

I also admit that as an adult, I’m hardly the middle grade target audience, but a hallmark of good children’s writing is that adult readers can enjoy the book as much as younger readers. But in The White Giraffe, the writing felt a little flat and some elements of the plot seemed rushed or thrown in for the sake of . . . I’m not sure what.

The White Giraffe is the first in a series that includes (as of this blog post) four other books: Dolphin Song, The Last Leopard, The Elephant’s Tale, and Operation Rhino. Hopefully St John has found her stride and ironed out the above issues in The White Giraffe, as I think her passion for conservation and the natural world is one worth sharing and cultivating in young readers.

Book Review: Passing

Nella Larsen’s Passing was a selection for my online book club. The two women who run it have a knack for finding classics that, despite my academic background, I seemed to have skipped over. Passing is one of those classics.

Author: Nessa Larsen

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.8 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Thriller fans; readers interested in Harlem Renaissance literature

Cover of Nella Larsen's novel "Passing"
Image courtesy Penguin Publishers

Plot summary: Irene Redfield and her high school classmate Clare Kendry are both mixed race; Irene is “out” (if I can borrow the term) as a woman of color, living a life in Harlem with a black husband and black children, while Clare is currently “passing” (as in, passing for white) within white society—a big deal in 1927. A chance encounter brings Clare back into Irene’s life after years apart, throwing both of their lives into disarray. One thing leads to another, until events reach their tragic, if inevitable, conclusion.

In-depth thoughts: Much of the tension is built on concepts of race and passing that I don’t think would be quite as relevant today. Not to say that racism is no longer a problem; just that society’s definition of “white” has broadened. Someone fitting Clare Kendry’s description—pale, blonde, and brown-eyed—would be overwhelmingly accepted and read as white today, outside of maybe a few fringe neo-Nazi groups. But in the book, the old “one drop” rule is still in effect, and Clare’s worry that her “true identity” as a woman of color might be revealed to her white husband is constantly hanging over her head. Such a discrepancy in norms says a lot about an America still in living memory.

Of course, other elements of tension in the story are more timeless: secret pasts, secrets and trust within relationships, motherhood, the lot of women in society, the limits of what we can know about others. Passing is a thriller but it’s also a character study. While some of the specific worries about race may belong to another time, the suspense and the breakneck speed feel very modern.

Book Review: The Moviegoer

Finally, the reviews I post on my personal blog and the ones I post here are in sync! (Or is that in synch?) This should keep book posts moving at a much more regular pace. Maybe I’ll move to updating three times a week. Who knows?

The Moviegoer is a selection from TIME Magazine’s “Top 100 Novels of All TIME” list, which is a reading project I’ve had since around 2009. I have five books left to finish the list.

Author: Walker Percy

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.7 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Readers interested in New Orleans, the American South, and Americana/Americana literature; readers who feel directionless and lost

In-depth thoughts: The Moviegoer wasn’t a book for me, but I can understand why others would relate to it. It’s not the most gripping story, and I wouldn’t recommend it straight off the bat for EFL students who want to dip their toes into English literature. But those who have already ventured into the field might like it. It periodically draws on some very America-specific pop culture touch points; as you can guess from the title, the story’s narrator spends a fair amount of time watching and thinking about movies, all of which date back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Towards the end of the story, there are also references to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations and traditions, which might be unfamiliar to some readers. Still, none of these references are essential to the plot. Overall, a solid, introspective read.

My Favorite Books of 2016, According to GoodReads

A new year is now well underway, so time to look at the best books I read last year!

On GoodReads, I handed out a total of five 5-star ratings. (This out of 46 books total: I confess to being stingy with my stars.) Two of them went to travel memoirs, two of them went to science writing, and the last one went to a novel. In my GoodReads round-up of 2015, I ordered things chronologically. This round-up will be ordered thematically, as it includes more than just novels.

Travel Memoirs

1. America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir; English translation by Carol Cosman

Image courtesy University of California Press

Reading de Beauvoir’s perceptions of the US and its citizens as an American myself was a strange but thoroughly satisfying experience; all the more so during a contentious and (ultimately) disappointing election year. Cosman’s translation is elegant, though I say this without having read the original French. (I do say this, however, with having read Leonard M. Friedman’s translation of The Mandarins and attempting Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier’s translation of The Second Sex.) America Day by Day is treasure trove of insights into the American psyche and quotes and observations that feel as relevant today as they did in the late 40s, coupled with picturesque descriptions of the American landscape.

 

2. The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad

Image courtesy Fons Vitae

The Road to Mecca is half travel memoir and half religious conversion story. If it was bittersweet to read about de Beauvoir’s frustration with cynical and disaffected American youth (passages that might well have been written today), it was heartbreaking to read about Asad’s travels through cities like Damascus and Aleppo–passages that never could have been written today. As rhetoric in the US and Europe surrounding Muslim immigrants and refugees becomes more and more inflamed, books like Asad’s become more and more necessary.

 

Science Writing

3. Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant*

Image courtesy Broadway Books

The subtitle there is unfortunate, as Marchant never promotes the kind of message you see in things like The Secret (i.e. “You just need to want to cure your cancer!”). Instead, she takes a look at all of the ways the placebo effect can mitigate illness and promote health, and how it can be incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Marchant thoroughly documents her journalism and seeks out patients, scientists, and health professionals alike.

4. What is Fat For? Re-Thinking Obesity Science, Ignatius Brady, MD*

Image courtesy Ignatius Brady

In my non-professional life, I practice and promote body positivity, which led me request this book from NetGalley. What is Fat For? ties together years of bariatric medicine research and experience. The book is remarkable not only for its level-headed insight, sympathy, and avoidance of hype, but for its outstanding quality as a self-published book. This is fodder for another post, probably, but I will say this here: my problem with the increase of self-publishing authors is that many of them, especially new authors, do not put in the effort or the expense to put out the highest quality of work possible. What is Fat For? is the first self-published book I’ve read that is just as polished and well-written as anything from one of the Big 5. More importantly, I think it could be a valuable part of the body positivity movement’s toolkit.

Novel

5. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin

Image courtesy Orbit Books

Through what must have been countless hours of effort, Jemisin managed to produce an eminently readable, beautiful novel while hitting many of popular literature’s recent trends (post-apocalyptic dystopias). I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember; this includes all of the attendant stereotypes about taste in literature. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become rather picky. Sturgeon’s Law aside, it does seem like there is a tendency for genre authors to allow the whiz-bang of their chosen genre to make up for pedestrian writing. Not so with Jemisin and The Fifth Season, which is maybe best described as a post-apocalyptic fantasy take on Beloved. I don’t know how I managed to forget to put up a review here; I’ll have to fix that posthaste. (Possibly I’ll wait until I finish reading the entire trilogy.)

There you have it! My best books of 2016. What were yours? Comment or tweet @KobaEnglish!

*indicates I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review. Both of those reviews have already appeared elsewhere.

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I have a tendency to avoid really popular books. This is something I suppose I should change if I ever become a full-time gymnasium English teacher, but for now I read for enjoyment and for professional development. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian definitely qualifies as “really popular.” But once in a while all of the hype and praise makes me curious, so when I saw it in the teen section of my local library, I knew that I had to see if it was any good.

 

Image courtesy Little, Brown and Company 

Author: Sherman Alexie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.11 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Plot summary: Junior tells the story of his first year at an all-white high school outside the Spokane reservation, complete with cartoon illustrations.

Recommended audience: This is marketed as a young adult book, but I think adults can enjoy it as much as teenagers.

In-depth thoughts: My only previous experience with Sherman Alexie was “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and the movie Smoke Signals. It was homework for my freshman year creative writing workshop. Our assignment was to read the story, watch the movie, and then write about the differences between the two. I don’t remember much about either the story or the movie except that I wasn’t particularly blown away by either of them. That’s probably part of why I put off reading Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for so long.

Whatever was distant, disconnected, and impersonal for me in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and Smoke Signals was immediate and personal for me in Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Maybe it has something to do with the universality of high school experience? Even if I’ve never been the only Native student in a white, wealthy high school, I’ve often felt like the only something in high school. Maybe it was Junior’s distinctive voice. Maybe it was just my mood. Whatever.

The illustrations are a nice touch. It has something of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel, though not nearly so heavy on the “attempting to look like an actual diary” aspect.

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

I normally don’t pay attention to awards in real time. If I’m browsing a bookstore and I see that a particular book has won this or that prize, it might push me towards buying it rather than putting it back. But nominees? Voting? Nah. I’m still prioritizing my Classics Club journey through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, so I’m not really up to date on new releases (except the ones I get from NetGalley and Blogging for Books).

But sometimes I catch wind of things and my interest gets piqued. That was the case with The Three-Body Problem—and that was mostly because of the Puppies Hugo debacle. Chinese science fiction? Sign me up!

The Three-Body Problem cover
Image courtesy Tor Publishing

Author: Cixin Liu

Translator: Ken Liu

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2+

Plot summary: Nanotechnology expert Wang Miao becomes sucked up in a covert government plot, dating back to the Cultural Revolution, to manage humanity’s first contact with an alien race.

Recommended audience: Fans of hard science fiction; people interested in quantum physics.

In-depth thoughts: The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel that is very much informed by contemporary breakthroughs (the Large Hadron Collider) and theories (quantum entanglement). It’s an interesting companion piece to The Sparrow, where the scientific expertise isn’t in the tech or the theory but in the culture- and race-building.

 

A comparison between The Three-Body Problem and The Vegetarian is also warranted. Technically, Chinese and Korean are members of different language families (Sino-Tibetan and Koreanic*), but it’s safe to say they are both equally alien to English. Smith and Liu probably faced similar problems regarding not only language but also culture. The Three-Body Problem is steeped in China’s modern history; The Vegetarian in Korean cuisine. Among many other small things, both languages have particular forms of address (especially within families) we don’t use in English.

Ken Liu’s language struck me right away; it’s clear and simple to the point of being choppy. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at fist, but as the story picked up I enjoyed it. Ken Liu and Cixin Liu both give their comments at the end of the novel and Ken Liu discusses the specific issues of translating literary style between cultures with different literary norms and rules:
But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narrative technique. The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.
. . .
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
. . .
In moving from one language, culture, and reading community to another language, culture, and reading community, some aspects of the original are inevitably lost. But if the translation is done well, some things are also gained — not least of which is a bridge between the two readerships.

Translation notes aside, I only had a small problem with the book. Science fiction has not always been a genre that lends itself to nuanced, mutli-layered characters—often we have a few given archetypes that are faced with a predicament, and the narrative thrust isn’t about their journey as characters but about how the problem is solved. The same tradition seems to have informed The Three-Body Problem as well, though Liu Cixin doesn’t mention any of his science fiction influences or heroes in his afterword. The characters in the story are largely archetypes or just stand-ins; plot points for a story rather than flesh-and-blood people. The exception is Ye Wenjie, who I thought was interesting and compelling. I wish she was in the story more.

Overall it was a great hook for a trilogy. Once I finish Swedish class, I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as a treat for myself.

*Korean is sometimes grouped in with Altaic languages and sometimes considered its own isolated family. Either way, it’s not linguistically connected to Chinese the same way that English is connected to, say, German.

NaNoWriMo Check-In

The good news is that I took a little under one week to finish all of the revisions I intended to space out over a month.

The bad news is that over the course of reworking it for a second time, I’ve stumbled upon yet more changes I want to make. They’re smaller than the changes I made in the first round, but they’re not insignificant. Though, I also realized I wanted to effectively double the length of the story, which is quite significant. But it has to be done for the sake of the story.

The worst news is that I haven’t been working on it at all since the election results. A lot of my focus and energy has had to go elsewhere over the last few days. My postmodern epistolary anti-bildungsroman can take a back burner for now.

Book Review: The Vegetarian

 

Image courtesy Portobello Books
Image courtesy Portobello Books

Author: Han Kang

Translator: Deborah Smith

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.62 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2+

Plot summary: Horrific nightmares lead Yeong-hye to become a vegetarian. The people around her struggle to understand this decision.

Recommended audience: The relatively short length of the story, as well as the clear language of Smith’s translation, make The Vegetarian a great book for EFL students, but some of the content means it’s best suited for teenage readers and older.

Content warning: Brief scenes of domestic violence and sexual assault.

In-depth thoughts: You might recall that I wrote about The Vegetarian a few posts back; in particular, I was impressed with the story of the English translator. I was lucky enough to get a copy from a friend a couple of weeks, so I sat down to read it right away.

As far as the translation goes, I can only speak to the readability of the English prose. Unlike the hiccups I noticed in The InvoiceThe Vegetarian was an effortless read, free of distracting, inconsistent attempts at localization. Admittedly, my own closeness to Swedish may have been what kept me hearing Swedish in The Invoice, but here I could put aside idle thoughts about how a particular phrase or sentence was originally expressed and enjoy the story for what it is.

And what it is is a weird little book. I definitely felt drawn to keep reading and to see how this would all play out, but I don’t know that I enjoyed it. To be more exact: I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it, but I definitely didn’t understand it. But I don’t think I needed to?

The Vegetarian, like so many have pointed out, isn’t really about Yeong-hye becoming a vegetarian. It’s not even about the protagonist at all, which probably makes the appellation of “protagonist” kind of inappropriate. Even though Yeong-hye is the thread that ties all three sections together, we spend most of our time with her husband, her sister, and her brother-in-law (her sister’s husband). Each is the main character of their own section; it is their innermost thoughts and feelings we experience, not Yeong-hye’s. In that way, Yeong-hye is as confusing and impenetrable for the reader as she is for other characters. Becoming a vegetarian is only the beginning of the story for Yeong-hye, and as things escalate you have to wonder: how much of Yeong-hye’s apparent madness was in her all along? How much was the result of her family’s refusal to grant her autonomy?

The Vegetarian was adapted into a 2010 movie of the same name. It’ll be interesting to see how the story turns out on the big screen, and how Lim Woo-seong chose to end it.

Book Review: Snowfall

Author: Andy Coombs

Genre: Horror

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4 stars (mine is the only rating!)

Language scaling: High beginner / low intermediate (A2/B1)

Plot summary: Fourteen-year-old Reka and her family try to escape a natural disaster in New Zealand.

Recommended audience: This book is from a larger Swedish series (Polar Fish) written for younger ELLs (target audience: 12 and up) and published by the Natur och Kultur foundation here in Sweden. That said, the text is entirely in English, so there’s nothing particular here for Swedish ELLs.

In-depth thoughts: The English in Snowfall (and in the rest of the Polar Fish books) is quite simple, so intermediate and advanced learners might not find it particularly challenging. But the story was still quite good; even as an adult native English speaker I was engaged (and didn’t even see the plot twist coming). This is a great choice for a young learner with a penchant for horror movies and scary stories. (Though there is some salty language at one point.)

This is one of many middle grade/young adult English novels I picked up for a song at a library sale, and one of a few different ELL/young reader-specific series represented. Polar Fish in particular seems to be a little old and discontinued, but you can still find the books here and there.