Review of “Renegades” by Marissa Meyer

At the opening of this story, an introduction – reminiscent of the opening of the first Star Wars movie (you can almost see the words scroll by) – tells us that for hundreds of years, prodigies – people with unusual powers – were feared, oppressed, hunted down, and killed. Then a group of prodigies led by the legendary Ace Anarchy banded together and took down the people and institutions dedicated to their destruction. After that, there was a period of disorder and lawlessness, and criminal gangs terrorized the population. Another group of prodigies calling themselves the Renegades got together to “save” the people by destroying the gangs as well as the Anarchists. The conflict culminated ten years before the start of this story in the Battle for Gatlon City. Since then, the Renegades have run the city through their ruling Council, which consists of the five original Renegades. The remaining Anarchists went underground.

Among the small group of surviving Anarchists is the prodigy Nova Artino. As a child, her father always assured her that the Renegades promised to save them if they were in trouble. But her whole family was assassinated one night by a gang, and the Renegades never showed up. Nova was only spared by fortuitously disabling the attacker thanks to her superpower that could put people to sleep. She was still standing over the gang member in shock when her uncle, Ace Anarchy himself, came to rescue her. He took her in with the surviving Anarchists. Then she lost her uncle in the Battle of Gatlon.

Nova blames the Renegades for all of it, and wants only to avenge Ace and destroy the Renegades.

She has a further agenda: she believes the Council is failing the people. People have come to rely on the prodigies to do everything instead of taking responsibility for doing it themselves. This has made the people increasingly weaker: apathetic and indifferent. Nova believed that heroism, which now meant having a super skill, should be more about what you did with your life than what superpower you had. “It was about who you saved when they needed saving.” But these philosophical aspects of her motivation are inspired more by Nova’s personal history and her resentment of the Renegades than by any well-thought-out ideological disposition.

Lately Nova, now 16, has been “coming out” as the Anarchist “Nightmare.” At the yearly “Renegade Parade,” she and her fellow anarchists plan to take out the Council. They are thwarted in part by Nova’s own reluctance to kill, as well as by the appearance of a new powerful prodigy on the Renegade side calling himself “The Sentinel.” After this failure, the Anarchists decide that their only hope is for Nova, still unknown, to infiltrate the Renegades, so the Anarchists can figure out how to defeat them.

Nova manages to earn a place in the Renegades as “Nova McLain” and is accepted into the crew of Adrian Everhart, the adopted son of two men on the Council, Hugh and Simon. Adrian’s mother had been killed during the Battle for Gatlon. Of course Adrian is handsome and kind and generous, which upsets all of Nova’s preconceptions. She also gets to like the rest of the crew, who are just teens like her, rather than the evil adversaries she had believed they were.

As Nova gets more enmeshed with the Renegades, she is increasingly conflicted. Or is she? A big twist in the ending suggests there is more to her story than we know.

Discussion: A good deal of the “mysteries” and “twists” in the plot are painfully obvious. Moreover, much of the cliched comic-book dialogue and characterizations are less nuanced than in comic books themselves. Some of this is humorous in comic-book style tradition. For example, Adrian and Nova don’t recognize each other’s alter egos, even though there isn’t much more than a costume separating their everyday selves from their prodigy identities. One thinks of years of seeing everyone fooled by Clark Kent’s glasses.

As for the main character, Nova has some impressive skills with inventing helpful gadgetry, and it is good to see this capability in a female protagonist. But she is much less insightful than any of Mayer’s previous heroines, as well as less open to new information to challenge her prior beliefs about what might or might not be true. Nor is she as likable.

Evaluation: I felt like the author couldn’t decide if she wanted to write a comic book or a more fleshed-out young adult coming-of-age story, especially at the beginning of the book. She did seem to find a more consistent rhythm with less use of caricatures as the story progressed, however. I look forward to seeing what happens next, but not as much as with her previous books.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Feiwel & Friends, 2017

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Review of “Knife Creek” by Paul Doiron

This is the eighth book in Doiron’s crime series featuring Maine game warden Mike Bowditch. (In Maine, game wardens are full law-enforcement officers, with all the powers of state troopers: “They are the ‘off-road police.’”)

Mike is now 29, has been a game warden for six years, and has been dating Stacy Stevens for two years. Currently they are living together. Stacy is a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, but her job, along with those of many other field biologists, is in jeopardy because of tax cuts. Stacy is thinking they should leave Maine, but Mike has applied for a promotion to warden investigator (i.e., a detective) and he loves Maine too much to want to leave.

Stacy, disaffected from her workplace, skips out to help Mike hunt feral swine near the Saco River. [In real life the swine are invading New Hampshire but not yet Maine.] They come upon the body of an infant not long dead. Further, it appears the body was left there on purpose so that the pigs would eat the evidence. It is so hard to imagine anyone would do such a thing, that it almost goes undetected. As Mike observes ruefully, “Good men, charged with protecting the public from harm, [have] been unable to bring themselves to believe that monsters walk among us in human form. . . . . the persistence of evil in the world is often made possible by failures of imagination.”

DNA connects the body to a girl, Casey Donaldson, who disappeared four years earlier and was presumed dead. As Mike starts asking questions, it seems like everyone in the area is keeping secrets, and more deaths follow. Mike becomes convinced Casey is still alive but was not complicit; rather she was being held captive [although I never quite understood how he came to that conclusion]. He is determined to find her, in spite of discouragement from the state troopers and resistance of the locals. Suspense builds into a terrifying denouement.

Saco River

Evaluation: I like the series a lot for its vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of Maine, and the detailed information on the Maine Warden Service. Both are central to a state characterized by a heavily forested interior, many waterways and inland fisheries, a plethora of wildlife resources, and the prominence of recreational outdoor sports. Doiron always manages to incorporate a lot of background on Maine into his stories. This one in particular has a great build-up of suspense.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 2017

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Review of “Wonder Woman: Warbringer” by Leigh Bardugo

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Wonder Woman is the most popular female comic-book superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no other comic-book character has lasted as long.”

Wonder Woman made her debut in comics in 1941, and was first on a comic book cover in 1942, decked out in a golden tiara, a red bustier, blue underpants and knee-high, red leather boots – the perfect fighting outfit, as men would have it.

Wonder Woman’s origin story as commonly related is that she was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta on the all-female island nation of Themyscira, somewhere in the Aegean. The island, invisible to mortals, was created by the goddesses as a place of refuge for female Amazons. Over the years, however, the story of Wonder Woman’s “origins” have been revised and embellished. Now one of my favorite authors, Leigh Bardugo, has taken up the challenge, as part of a series in which “super hero icons meet megastar authors.”

Bargudo begins her story when Diana is 16 – before she became “Wonder Woman” – and was still living on the island of Themyscira. Diana sort of has a Pinocchio complex. Like that fictional character who was created from wood and wants most of all to be a real boy, Diana wants to prove to the other Amazons on her island that she is more than just a girl fashioned from clay. She wants to do deeds worthy of an Amazon, like her sisters, who are all battle-proven warriors.

The island is so idyllic though, that it’s hard for her to find ways to show her mettle, especially given the rules for living on the island:

“You could not stop the mortal tide of life and death, and the island must never be touched by it. There were no exceptions. No human could be brought to Themyscira, even if it meant saving a life. Breaking that rule meant only one thing: exile.”

But when Diana witnesses a shipwreck close to her island, and sees a girl about her age who will die if she isn’t rescued, Diana feels compelled to break the rules. She pulls the girl, Alia, on land and hides her in a cave. She tries to remember what she needs to do to help a mortal, but can only remember the “Dire Warnings” about mortals conveyed by her mother and tutors: “War. Torture. Genocide. Pollution. Bad Grammar.”

Initially, Diana intended to help Alia by finding a boat, and secretly getting her off the island before anyone finds out. But there is no hiding from omnipotent goddesses, and before long, the island is beset by a host of ills that puts everyone in peril.

Diana goes to see the Oracle who tells her that Alia, also 16, is actually haptandra, a “warbringer,” born of the same line as Helen of Troy, who was herself sired by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. The Oracle explains that when a warbringer is born, war and destruction are inevitable, with this influence peaking when the warbringer turns 17.

Helen of Troy (center)

The Oracle makes a bargain with Diana: she can go home and leave Alia to die, and all will be healed and forgotten. Or, if she can get the warbringer to the spring at Therapne in Greece, where Helen rests, and have Alia purified there by two weeks time (before Alia’s 17th birthday). Then, the Oracle tells her, the warbringer’s power would be leashed “and never passed to another.” If Diana takes this second option and succeeds, the Oracle will also keep Diana’s crime a secret, and the island will be restored to health. On the other hand, if Diana fails, disaster will result.

The Oracle suggests Diana take the first option: “You are not a hero. You are not battle tested. This quest is far beyond your skills and strength.”

Michaelangelo’s depiction of the Delphic Oracle in the Sistine Chapel

Of course this is all Diana needs to hear to take up the challenge, especially because if she could prevent not just one war but countless future wars, “that was a deed worth of an Amazon.” She resolves she will not fail, and she will not let fear choose her path.

The rest of the story tells of the perilous quest to get Alia to Therapne, by way of New York City, as it unexpectedly happens. There they join up with Alia’s attractive older brother Jason.

There is plenty of humor in the book. For example, when Diana (now using the name Diana Prince) tries to explain to Alia that she is a “warbringer,” Alia objects “I’m not into gaming.” When they are almost run down by a bicyclist in Battery Park, Alia yells “Jerk!” The bicyclist gives Alia the finger. Diana asks, puzzled, “Is he an enemy? “No,” Alia answers: “He’s a New Yorker.”

The humor turns a little sophomoric, however, when friends of Alia and Jason enter the picture. With Alia’s best friend Nim and Jason’s best friend Theo, the story starts to seem like an episode of Scooby-Doo, the cartoon series in which four teenagers, often bumbling and inappropriately silly and childish, solve mysteries involving supernatural creatures.

But Bardugo’s skill at creating memorable characters is still recognizable, especially with respect to Diana. Diana is good-hearted, well-intentioned, open to new ideas, and inspirational. At one point she reassures Alia, who feels bad because she is a “warbringer”: “We can’t help the way we’re born. We can’t help what we are, only what life we choose to make for ourselves.” And there is this lesson Diana newly learns and shares with Jason: “Might does not make a hero. You can build a thousand soldiers, and not one will have a hero’s heart.”

Diana has discovered something else too, that she was never told on her island: “These people, these mortals – fragile, foolish, brave beyond all common sense – deserved a chance at peace.”

But time is running out for them to get to Therapne, and there is every indication they will fail.

Evaluation: I haven’t been into comic book characters for many years, but I made an exception for Bardugo because she is so good at making her protagonists interesting and nuanced. They are all aware that they are at the cusp of their futures, and want desperately to make their mark and realize their dreams. Bardugo makes their yearning palpable and poignant. The pacing is well managed and the plot consistently interesting, even with its “comic book” aspects.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “The Navajo Code Talkers” by J. Patrick Lewis

Author J. Patrick Lewis and illustrator Gary Kelley have collaborated on three books thus far about talented unsung heroes of World War II; this is the third.

They begin with a brief history of the Navajo beginning in 1864, when the U.S. Government drove them from their land, burned their homes, and forced them to march 350 miles to a reservation. Anyone who fell behind was shot. Every Navajo, the author informs us, knows of “The Long Walk’ and “marks time from that monstrous event. No one can understand the story of the Navajo without grasping the depravity of this debacle.”

On the reservation, schools were opened, but many children were forced to go away to boarding schools in order to be cleansed of their native culture. At the boarding schools, they were forbidden to speak their traditional language, and harshly punished if they did not speak English.

Nevertheless, their “unique, enormously difficult, and unwritten” language came in handy during World War II. An Anglo missionary’s son who had grown up with the Navajo convinced the Army that their language would constitute a code unbreakable by the Japanese. As the author observes, “Suddenly, bilingual Navajos had become valuable. Recruited into the military that had once sought to destroy their ancestors, the ‘code talkers’ were born.”

A platoon of 29 code talkers was formed, and the author gives a description of how the code worked, as well as examples of words for “battleship,” “bombs,” “destroyer” and other relevant terms.

The book explains:

“The work of the code talkers cloaked the American troops’ movements wherever they went. Accounts from Japanese newspapers described people’s confusion. To them, Navajo words sounded like ‘a strange earful of gurgling noises….”

The Navajo were part of every Marine assault in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They were credited for the success at Iwo Jima and elsewhere.

After the war, however, they were sworn to silence about the role they played. It was not until 1968 that the military lifted the ban on information about the code talkers. In 2001, the original 29 men received Congressional Gold Medals for their contributions.

The end of the book includes the author’s notes on Native languages, the artist’s notes, and a short bibliography. (Oddly, the names of the 29 are nowhere included. You can learn more about them, however, at a website devoted to them, here.)

Navajo Codemen, Camp Elliott, California

Kelley is an outstanding illustrator. In this book he employs pastels, most of which are done in dark earth tones punctuated with spots of color (to show the sun or the U.S. flag, for example) for the portrayal of military scenes. Soldiers faces have angular outlines, whereas those of civilians are more rounded – an interesting way to convey the solemnity and seriousness of war. This technique also lends an emotional depth to his illustrations.

Evaluation: This author/illustrator team is terrific. Their books offer powerful testimony about the contributions of minorities to the United States at times of its greatest need.

Rating: 4/5

Note: This book is for older readers. The vocabulary and concepts presented are sophisticated; it is recommended for ages 10 and up.

Published by Creative Editions, 2016

Navajo Code Talkers at WWII Memorial July 4, 1976

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Review of “Everybody’s Son” by Thrity Umrigar

In this novel, Judge David Coleman and his wife Delores lost their only son James five years earlier. David, desperate to turn their lives around, talks Delores into fostering a nine-year-old bi-racial boy, Anton Vesper, who had been abandoned for seven days by his crack-addled mother and turned over to social services.

David develops a fierce love for Anton, and both he and Delores devote their time to giving Anton every opportunity. David takes steps to keep Anton with him, and after three years, the Colemans adopt him. David is ecstatic:

“He didn’t care what anyone believed, even Anton himself. This boy belonged with them. And he was destined for great things. He deserved a better life than his mother ever could have provided.”

As for Anton, as time went by, “David and Delores had become his real family, and his real mother had become a phantom, a cautionary tale, an embarrassment.”

Anton grows up to be very successful, graduating from law school, becoming the state attorney general, and even deciding to run for governor of the state. But then he finds out about how David really managed to get full custody of him, and everything he thought he knew about his life is turned upside down.

He comes to realize: “. . . there were no adults. There were just tall children stumbling around the world, walking pools of unfinished hopes, unmet needs, and seething desires.”

Discussion: Over his entire life, Anton had felt inauthentic in a way: “a black boy who seemed white.” In college, a black girlfriend had said to him: “I can’t decide if you’re the blackest white man I’ve ever met or the whitest black man.” Her words devastated Anton:

“He felt as if she had unmasked him, laid bare the central conundrum of his life. For the rest of his life, her words would haunt him. He knew this with an immediate and fierce surety.”

The fact was, as he mused, he only knew how to be the son of a rich white man, heir to a political destiny. He never learned how to be a poor black woman’s son, but that is what he also was. Whose son was he? Could he ever, he wondered, fuse together “all the strands of his life: past and present, black and white, poor and rich”?

To me, Anton’s questioning about his racial identity wasn’t convincing, perhaps because the author didn’t illustrate how it affected him – other than superficially – until the very end of the book. Even then, Anton never comes across as having as much depth as any of his parents do. Their stories were much more developed and interesting to me.

Evaluation: This book raises many questions about morality, race, class, and privilege, with clear answers not always evident. It would provide good discussions for a book club.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by HarperCollins, 2017

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