Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi’ Category

Gabby Duran is a name you’ll remember. She’s the world-renowned babysitter in a hilarious science fiction series by Elise Allen and Daryle Conners for middle schoolers. What makes Gabby so famous? The fact that she’s sought by leaders and celebrities all over the world for the most impossible babysitting jobs. What classifies the books as science fiction? The fact that the Association Linking Intergalactics and Earthlings as Neighbors hires Gabby as babysitter of aliens. To date, the series has three titles. All are fast-paced, action-packed, and will have high appeal to reluctant and avid reader alike.

Gabby Duran and the Unsittables introduces Gabby’s family, friends, and enemies. Her mom is single and believes her husband lost in a war. Gabby has a younger sister who, although she lacks social skills and interprets every speech as literal, is super smart and handles all the family’s finances and schedules. Best friend Zee is a mad scientist stuck in an adolescent body who would like nothing more than to analyze the aliens that Gabby meets. In contrast her musician friend Satchel remains blissfully ignorant even when Gabby’s life is in danger. At the same time, Gabby’s sworn enemy is zealously determined to get to the bottom of Gabby’s secrets and to outplay Gabby in the school band. This initial title also introduces Edwina, Gabby’s contact with alien parents. Edwina is uptight, primly-dressed, and no-nonsense. She’s also totally confident of Gabby’s abilities and deeply concerned about the safety of her alien charges. These charges come with some tall orders. For example, Gabby’s first job is to care for a girl who is no larger than a garden gnome and who can transform herself into anything she wishes. Oh, and she’s also in line for the throne for one of the plants, and so key to intergalactic peace.

The subsequent two titles introduce equally unusual babysitting charges. In Gabby Duran and Troll Control, Gabby encounters the first family to truly dislike her. The mother wrinkles her nose upon meeting Gabby, describes her as “uneasy on the eyes,” and throws around the word unpleasant. The father attempts to act polite, but can’t resist a sneer or cleansing his hands with sanitizer after Gabby and he shake. And who is Gabby’s charge? A frizzy-haired, mole-covered troll with a habit of stealing and showing off. Gabby also encounters the first true setback of her new job. Prior to now, she’s successfully remained secretive about her job and handled babysitting at odd hours. With this newest charge, she inadvertently allows him to get kidnapped. In Gabby Duran and Multiple Mayhem, Gabby has not only redeemed herself in the eyes of Edwina, but received the dubious honor of babysitting One. It’s her first experience with a real baby; all her other charges have been toddlers or preschoolers. Gabby soon discovers that One isn’t all he seems to be. In one short evening, One has replicated into not just two, three, four babies but thirteen! Despite it being against agency orders, out of desperation, Gabby calls her friends to help. To make matters worse, a classmate discovers Gabby’s secret and her mother might be dating a bad guy.

Is there anything I don’t like? Okay, the characters are mostly one-dimensional. But that’s often the case with light-hearted books. Besides, over time, idiosyncrasies are revealed such as the fact Gabby blushes, sweats, and speaks in a high-pitched voice when telling a lie. True, the plots are simplistic. But again, that’s often the case with easy-to-read series. And, eventually, subplots are developed such as the mystery of what happened to Gabby’s dad. The most serious criticism I have is that the overblown “good versus bad guy action” is so outrageous that I gave up trying to understand it.

Over all the series has a lot of creativity and heart. It reminds me of the Scary School series by Derek the Ghost. Those titles entertained me for a few hours and turned one of my reluctant readers into a fan of books. I’m enthused to own the first three titles of Gabby Duran and equally eager for the next book to be published.

The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer are fantasies inspired by famous fairy tales, most notably Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White. The fourth actually inspired both Fairest AND Winter, the final books in the series. As a prelude to my review of those two books, I’m sharing some of the origins of Snow White. Tomorrow, I’ll return with reviews. Save the date: November 27!

A magic mirror, a poisoned apple, a glass coffin, and the characters of an evil queen/stepmother and the seven dwarfs. These are all elements of the German fairy tale, Snow White, made famous by the Grimm Brothers. There are many versions of this story, one of the most modern being found in The Lunar Chronicles. Let’s now take a step back in time to look at the origins to the Grimms version.

Like many of the Grimm tales, it is believed that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been in existence since the Middle Ages, passed down through word-of-mouth over the centuries. Recent research suggests, however, that the tale may be anything but fiction; the story may have roots in true tragedies. Two young German ladies have been identified as possible inspirations for the story of Snow White and her jealous stepmother.

Snow White_SevenDwarfsAncient Legends describes the claims of German historian named Eckhard Sander, who argued that the character of Snow White was based on the life of Margarete von Waldeck, a German countess born to Philip IV in 1533. At the age of 16, Margarete was forced by her stepmother to move to Brussels. There, Margarete fell in love with a prince who would later become Phillip II of Spain. Margarete’s parents disapproved of the relationship as it was ‘politically inconvenient’. Perhaps due to having been poisoned. Margarete died at the age of 21,. Historical accounts point to the King of Spain, who opposing the romance, may have dispatched Spanish agents to murder Margarete.

Mental Floss puts a slightly different spin on this tale, saying that back in the mid-1500s, there was a girl named Margarete who lived in a mining town called Waldeck. Possibly due to problems with her father’s new wife, Margarete moved out of Waldeck at the age of 17, and headed for Brussels. At this point, the two versions of Snow White begin to mesh. Apparently, Margarete attracted the attention of Philip II of Spain but someone didn’t care for the idea of Philip marrying Margarete and she fell gravely ill. Her handwriting in her last will and testament was shaky enough to make most people think she had developed tremors, a sign of being poisoned, by whom no one knows.

What about the seven dwarfs? Both sites suggest that Margarete’s father owned several copper mines that employed children as quasi-slaves. Ancient Legends suggests that the poor conditions caused many to die at a young age, but those that survived had severely stunted growth and deformed limbs from malnutrition and the hard physical labor. As a result, they were often referred to as the ‘poor dwarfs’. Mental Floss writes, “Children worked in the mines there, so you can see where retelling of the tale eventually morphed the children into small men over the years.”

What about the poisoned apple? Sanders believed this stemed from a historical event in German history in which an old man was arrested for giving poison apples to children who he believed were stealing his fruit.

Not all experts are convinced, however, by Sander’s claim that Snow White’s character stems from the life of Margarete von Waldeck. Ancient Legends refers to a different account, in which Snow White is based on Maria Sophia von Erthal, born 1729 in Bavaria. She was the daughter of 18th century landowner, Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal and his wife, Baroness von Bettendorff. After the death of the Baroness, Prince Philipp went onto marry Countess of Reichenstein, who was said to dislike her stepchildren.

SnowWhite_TalkingMirrorMental Floss concurs with the above details, adding a few of its own. For example, Maria’s outlook under her stepmother wasn’t quite so bleak, in that there was no huntsman seeking internal organs for proof of Maria’s death. However, scholars still believe it wasn’t an easy existence. “Presumably the hard reality of life for Maria Sophia under this woman was recast as a fairy story by the Brothers Grimm.”

What about the dwarfs? The dwarfs in Maria’s story are also linked to a mining town. The smallest tunnels could only be accessed by small-statured men, who often wore bright hoods, as the dwarfs have frequently been depicted over the years in the tale of Snow White.

This version of Snow White also accounts for the poisoned apple, the glass coffin, and the mirror. The poisoned apple may be associated with the deadly nightshade poison that grew in abundance where Maria lived, while the glass coffin may be linked to the region’s famous glassworks. Whether the acoustical toy that could speak had been in the house during the time that Maria’s stepmother lived there or Maria’s father gave the looking-glass to his second wife as a gift is debated, but the fact remains a “talking mirror’ existed.

Set in the future when books outlawed and even thinking is discouraged, Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is the story of a fireman who is troubled because is job is not to put out fires but to start them. The winner of many literary awards, Farenheit 451 is an established dystopian classic. In this post, rather than present a literary analysis, I’ll focus on how Bradbury came to write this short masterpiece and two main themes it covers.

In my edition of Farenheit 451, the first thirty pages are taken up with a foreword and an introduction, both by Bradbury himself. In each, he shares the origins of this relatively short novel. Apparently, the theme of books being burning had long been on his mind. Bradbury states that he had written numerous tales with belabored warnings on the theme, before specifically listing five unpublished ones that he led to The Pedestrian. This latter, inspired by an encounter with a policeman who questioned why Bradbury and a friend were out walking the streets, led to a second walk as well as a 25,000 word novella entitled The Fireman. Bradbury also credits various world events, both current and historical: Hitler torching books, Stalin and his match people, Salem witch trial, and the triple burnings of the Alexandrian library.

How did his 25,00 word novella grow to double its size and gain publication? Apparently, Ian Ballantine started a hard and soft publication venture and saw in Farenheit 451 the makings of a proper novel, if Bradbury could add 25,000 more words. Bradbury then faced a dilemma, in being a “passionate not intellectual writer” or a writer who needed to write his story an emotional blaze. In his youth, he had spent hours in libraries, taken notes about firehouses, and seen his grandmother’s house on fire. All of these memories played on his mind as, with the roughest of outlines, he wrote Farenheit 451 in nine days. Wow.

In researching Bradbury’s background, two themes were regularly cited for Farenheit 451. Naturally, the first is that of censorship. Although Bradbury later distanced himself from this claim, Bradbury clearly loved books and libraries. He even claimed to have graduated from libraries, having spent ten years there, two or three days a week, after his high school graduation. His characters also bear out the claim with their speeches, especially a lengthy one by Beatty who visits Montag who has taken a sick day. To summarize, Beatty talks about how society as a whole tried not to step on the toes of any individual group. Doing so led to books and magazines becoming a “nice blend of vanilla tapioca”. In time, books stopped selling, except for comics and sex confessions. So far, this doesn’t actually seem like a rant against censorship. Eventually though, Beatty explains, the job of firemen was to ensure that everyone remained equal. “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.” As such, firemen were provided the job of burning books to ensure that ideas don’t upset anyone and that everyone remains happy.

Another theme cited is that of the negative impact of television. Although Bradbury himself turned some of his writings into screenplays and shows, he apparently disliked this medium. One can also see this theme evident in Bradbury’s characters, especially in the interactions between Montag and his wife. She seems obsessed with her TV parlor, to the point that the programs feel more real to her than the world around her. Mildred forgets until four days after the fact that the neighborhood girl died. She also prefers to watch her shows than talk to Montag about when their marriage started, whether the two of them are truly happy, or why books are wrong. The theme is also evident in the character of Clarisse, who is considered a troublemaker because she likes to notice the grass, the flowers, the moon, and to ask questions about history, instead of watching television.

Since first encountering Bradbury in my youth, I have appreciated him for his style and ideas. My husband is also a longtime fan. We have many of Bradbury’s writings, with one of my favorites continuing to be Farenheit 451. More than anything, what strikes me is how timely this book written in the 1950’s remains with its high praise of ideas and books and regards to cautionary comments on technology. In our fast-paced society, Farenheit 451 reminds one not only to take time to read but to also simply stop to observe, listen, and experience the world in which we live.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

The quality of sequels is tricky to predict. While I enjoyed the initial title in The Lunar Chronicles so much that I bought it and recommended it to all my fantasy-loving friends, I can’t say the same for the two subsequent sequels. As a stand-alone volume, despite being well-written, Scarlet would not sell me on The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. On the other hand, the third volume, Cress, actually does come close to feeling as original as the first. This makes me hopeful about the series as a whole.

Let me start with what I like about Scarlet. It’s based on Little Red Riding Hood. Any novel based on a fairy tale is going to at least garner a glance from me. It also exhumes a strong sense of family. When Scarlet’s grandmother goes missing, Scarlet refuses to allow the local police to dismiss the case. When she stumbles across leads, she immediately follows them, even though they lead her to other countries and into a gang of fighters for the enemy. Then there’s also Meyer’s style. Although at times the tight writing feels like pumped-up adrenaline, I can’t deny that her style is also what makes me keep turning pages. Besides the economical choice of words, there’s something else about Meyer’s style which I appreciate. As with Cinder, Meyer’s descriptions never feel padded or stripped; instead, they feel just right. When describing a restaurant, Meyer selectively informs us that: “noise of dishes and laughter spilled out into the alley” and plates were set “empty but for splatters of grease, bits of egg salad, and untouched slices of tomato and lettuce.” So what don’t I like about Scarlet? Because the leading characters feel cliché, being that of the strong-willed but easily hysterical Scarlet and the quiet but broody and troubled Wolf, Scarlet feels like just another entry in an overcrowded dystopian genre.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

In contrast, the leading characters of Cress feel more unique and memorable. The first, that of Cress herself, is a character based on Rapunzel. As such, she is a young maiden who has been locked away from the world for years. Naturally, there is going to be a hero who rescues her. In this case, it’s a not a prince or even any of the wealthy and handsome sort. He’s just an older guy who likes to take advantage of every situation, play the field both with women and in cards, but who also just might have some redeemable features. For example, when the two end up landing alone in the desert, Thorne is the one who inspires Cress to keep them both alive. Beyond that, I also admire how in Cress, Meyer manages to juggle stories of our hero and heroine, Cinder and her growing crew (which now includes Scarlet and Wolf), and Emperor Kai and Queen Levana. With each novel, Mayer adds to the number of characters whose stories intertwine, and it’s quite the spectacular feat. If there’s anything I dislike, it’s that there are more loose ends in Cress. For example, there’s reference to Queen Levana’s daughter, but only enough to serve as teaser for the final book.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Indeed, Queen Levana’s daughter bears the same name as the fifth title in the series: Winter. That book won’t get released for almost another entire year! In between will come a prequel called Fairest, about the enemy leader whom we’ve all learned to hate. Waiting for the series to end will be a strong test of my patience!

My third featured fairy tale, that of Rapunzel, is perhaps a little less familiar than the others I covered this week. A daughter sold by her parents, bought by a witch with a handful of herbs, locked in a tower, and rescued by her true love…. As with the stories of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, there are many “Maiden in the Tower” stories in cultures across the world.

One of the most modern comes from Marissa Meyers as part of The Lunar Chronicles. I reviewed the first title, based on the story of Cinderella, here in 2012. As a prelude, I’ve been sharing some of the origins of the fairy tales which inspired Meyers. Tomorrow I’ll return to review Scarlet and Cress. Save the date: November 28!

LEGEND OF SAINT BARBARA

St-barbaraThe origin of the tale appears to go back as far as the early years of Christianity in 3rd Century Asia Minor. According to the legend of Saint Barbara, a wealthy pagan merchant who lived in a town in what is known as present day Turkey had an extremely beautiful daughter. To keep his virtuous young daughter from marrying a suitor of which he didn’t approve, the merchant locked her in a tower away from the outside world. At some point, Barbara is believed to have converted to Christianity and tortured to give up her faith. Tolovaj Publishing says she escaped with the help of animals. Other sources such as Kate Forsyth suggest Barbara might have been beheaded by her father. Images of Barbara often show her with long, flowing, blonde hair. In one version, her hair miraculously burst into flame when her father seized hold of it.

PERSIAN EPIC TALE

rudabaThe motif of the ‘hair ladder’ was used in a 10th century Persian epic tale told by Ferdowsi. Rudaba was a beautiful princess from Kabul associated with astonishing beauty. Her father did everything to seclude her from everybody outside of the closest family. She lived in a beautiful castle, but she really was in prison. While here, she offers to lower her hair to her lover so he can climb up to her. He is afraid he might hurt her and so throws up a rope instead. Tolovaj Publishing describes the epic Shahnameh has the most influential literary work in Persian history, comparable to Bible in Western world.

PETROSINELLA

PetrosinellaLater, in 1634 Italy, Giambattista Basile published a collection of fairy tales known as Pentamerone. According to Tolovaj Publishing, his work on the field of fairy tales wasn’t very known because he was a courtier and a soldier. For that reason, his collection of fairy tales was published posthumously and under pseudonym. Nonetheless, among the stories was the tale of a young maiden held captive in a tower by an ogress, and its influence on later versions of Rapunzel is obvious. John Davis notes the story Petrosinella contains many of the elements of today’s Rapunzel: the mother forced to give up her daughter, the maiden with the long hair, and the handsome prince.

PERSINETTE

PersinetteSixty years later, the story reappears in France. This version is told in 1698 by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force who has been banished to a convent after displeasing the Louis XIV. Locked away in a cloister, much like Rapunzel is in her tower, Charlotte-Rose was according to Tolovaj Publishing among the first writers to pen a collection of literary fairy tales, Les Contes des contes. Published under a pseudonym, Mademoiselle de la Force, her tales became bestsellers and she was eventually able to buy her release.

John Davis notes some of the changes introduced in this version include: A fairy, not an ogress, raises the girl after taking her from her mother. In addition the story is given a more adult slant when the fairy punishes Persinette and her Prince after discovering that the young woman is pregnant with twins. The result is that the young couple are tormented more than in Basile’s version and it’s the guardian-sprite‘s sudden forgiveness, not her death, that finally frees them.

RAPUNZEL

In the late 1700s, Persinette was translated into German by Friedrich Schulz and is almost identical to La Force’s tale except for changing the heroine’s name to Rapunzel (a type of lettuce). This detail would seem of little importance except that folklorists seem to believe Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm included Schultz’s Rapunzel in the first edition of their fairy tales without knowing its literary origins. The Brothers Grimm believed it came from oral folk tradition, but speculation is that someone probably told them Schultz’s story. It is their tale which is best known today.


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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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