A Review of Avi’s The Button War


Summer is here and I’m reading like a maniac. At least half of the books I’ve read this month are for kids, since I just finished my first year teaching elementary and middle school (after ten years at the high school level) and still feel very behind the game in children’s literature published since 1990 or so, and I believe I’m about to do something I’ve never done once in the six years since Jill and I have been blogging: I am going to write a review of a children’s book that is 100% positive.

I hold children’s books to the same standards I hold books meant for adults. I expect them to show rather than tell, to feature well-rounded characters, to avoid weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and to avoid being didactic and moralistic. I expect their plots to emerge subtly from character and conflict and be guided but not overpowered by narrative voice. Before I started blogging, I didn’t realize what a tough customer this made me in the world of children’s books. But slowly I’ve discovered that children’s books that meet these standards are out there, and Avi’s The Button War is one of them.

This novel is set in a tiny village in Poland in the early months of World War I. The protagonist and first-person narrator is a twelve year-old boy named Patryk, and he’s part of a group of seven friends that are “nothing like a club, or a gang – more like a flock of wild goats” (2). Patryk’s community is so isolated that he doesn’t even know where the roads that leave his village go. He has been told that if you travel along one of them for a very long time, you will reach a city – but this fact holds the quality of myth. He doesn’t seem to know anyone who has visited that city or contemplate visiting it someday himself. The boys don’t even entirely agree that their village is located in Poland. Of his six friends, the one who occupies the most space in Patryk’s mental and emotional landscape is Jurek. Jurek is an orphan who lives with his older sister, who often kicks him out of the house when he misbehaves. For that reason, Jurek is semi-feral. He spends a lot of time in the woods hanging out at some ruins. We don’t know what kinds of structures these ruins used to be, but they are clearly a sign of some kind of past violence and – it soon becomes clear – a harbinger of violence to come. Jurek insists that these ruins are “his” because he is a descendant of “King Boleslaw,” whose palace Jurek believes the ruins to be. Patryk knows this story to be untrue, but he also resents it. It’s as if he knows that Jurek is a pathetic unloved kid who salvages his pride by claiming to be the descendant of a king but at the same time can’t help resenting Jurek for the little bit of pride this delusion allows him. Based on both my memory of being a kid and on my experience with kids as a teacher, this seems plausible to me. Kids have little patience with other people’s emotional defense mechanisms.

One of Patryk’s few connections with the outside world is the presence in his village of Russian soldiers. The boys accept the soldiers as part of their landscape and don’t seem to give them much thought – though Patryk notes that some of the adults in town “don’t like Russians.” One day, when the boys are hanging out near the ruins, Patryk finds a button on the ground that fell off of a Russian military uniform. Jurek insists that the button is his property because the ruins are his; Patryk will have none of it, and they both get their hackles up about this button and everyone goes home angry. Then one day, out of nowhere, the Germans bomb the local school. Patryk sees it happen. He has never seen or even heard of an airplane before, nor does he entirely know who Germans are or that a world war has begun – so this incident is enormously shocking. Not only that, but the village teacher is killed in the bombing, as is one of the boys’ classmates. In the aftermath, Jurek explores the rubble and finds the cane that the teacher used to beat the boys and declares that whichever of his friends can find the “best” military button will win the cane as a prize.

All of the boys – but especially Patryk, who is determined never to be one-upped by Jurek – get really invested in the button contest. And by invested, I mean that things get out of hand and some of them die. I won’t go into details, because this book is truly riveting and I do think readers deserve not to know too much about where things go – but the stakes are high, the button war is simply one theatre in a larger and entirely real war, and the boys are not spared. What makes this novel so heartbreaking is the fact that even once some of his friends have been killed, Patryk can’t force himself to stop caring about defeating Jurek in the button contest. He knows he should stop and has long talks with himself about how he must stop hunting for buttons, but he can’t do it. His rivalry with Jurek always wins out. One of the reviewers on the book jacket compares this novel to Lord of the Flies, and the comparison is apt. Both novels are equally compelling, though this one is for a somewhat younger audience (I will be reading it with my sixth graders this fall, and they will love it). However, it reminded me more of A Separate Peace, in which Gene remains constantly focused on his rivalry with Phineas and on what he thinks Phineas is thinking and feeling, unable to get out of his own head even as the war encroaches closer and closer to his once-safe world.

I recommend this novel to middle schoolers – especially to those dreaded “reluctant readers,” and, of course, especially to boys – though I enjoyed it in and of itself and recommend it to teenagers and adults too. If you plan to read it, clear your schedule. You won’t want to do much else until you’re through.

Posted in Authors, Avi, Fiction - Children's, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Typo of the Month Award Goes To…

… “he upholstered his pistol.” Instead of “unholstered” – get it? I don’t remember where I read it, but it was in a published source somewhere, and I laughed and laughed.

Also, it’s official. I’ve forgotten how to write book reviews. I tried so hard last weekend and I just couldn’t. But my school year is winding down and my shoulders are slowly unclenching themselves and maybe soon I will remember how such things are done.

Happy June, everyone!

Posted in Glimpses into Real Life, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Yosemite, again


Take a look, friends.  This is beautiful Hetch Hetchy, the source of the best-tasting tap water on earth.  Say what you will about the environmental impact of damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley, it sure is beautiful there.

And here is the O’Shaughnessy Dam, with a bonus rainbow.  It’s not nearly as big and impressive as the Hoover Dam, but the scenery around it can’t be beat.  But then I’m partial to all things Yosemite.  IMG_8020.JPG

Have a good week, everyone!

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A Review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Ready Player One Cover Image

I didn’t time my review of this novel with the weekend of its film adaptation’s release on purpose. I started this book in December but put it down after a hundred pages for some reason, in spite of the fact that I was mostly enjoying it. I picked it up last weekend and was able to get re-invested in it quickly, but I didn’t know until two days ago that the movie was coming out yesterday. You didn’t KNOW? one of my students asked. How is it possible not to know?

Of course, on many levels this book is Not My Thing. Not My Thing at all. My reaction when I first learned of its premise years ago was something along the lines of puh-lease. A novel about a fictional video game based on the pop culture of the ‘80’s? It sounded like the sort of thing a Baby Boomer would write – or, more specifically, the sort of thing many Baby Boomers did write: all the Woodstock-worshipping, appalled-by-Nixon, I-remember-where-I-was-when-Kennedy-was-shot tripe that has been making me puke since The Wonder Years – and the idea of an author of my own generation jumping on this bandwagon was disappointing. And before I go on and explain why I really did enjoy this novel quite a lot, let me just mention one thing that no one else talks about when they talk about Ready Player One: when they say that this book revolves around ‘80’s pop culture, what they really mean is that it revolves around ‘80’s BOY pop culture. No joke: in all of this novel’s 372 pages, there is not a Cabbage Patch Kid in sight. Not a single fucking Care Bear.

Have you noticed that women don’t memorialize the ‘80’s as much as men do? Boys had Star Wars and heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons and Knight Rider; we had Get in Shape, Girl! and Pretty Cut ‘n’ Grow and Punky Brewster. I never really thought about it until now, but the ‘80’s were kind of a shit decade to grow up in if you were in possession of Fallopian tubes. Someday when I have infinite time and resources, I might try to write a parody of Ready Player One where a female video game designer decides to create an infinitely complex virtual world based on her childhood in which players can compete for wealth and world domination, but even with those high stakes no one wants to play because doing so requires one to memorize which Strawberry Shortcake character smells like which fruit and consistently keep straight the names and personalities of the Sweet Valley Twins’ clichéd friends.

What this novel does really well, in all seriousness, is dystopian world-building. This is the reason to read this novel even if the ‘80’s video-game premise doesn’t appeal to you. There is no shortage of dystopian fiction out there, and all of it gives me an icky feeling in my stomach these days, this novel included. The protagonist, Wade Watts, is an orphan who lives in “the stacks” – a housing project in Oklahoma where RV’s and other mobile homes are stacked precariously on some scaffolding, forming a terrifying new incarnation of the high-rise. He lives with his aunt and her boyfriend, and he sleeps in the laundry room, his circumstances not too different from those of Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs.

The year is 2044. The U.S. economy has fallen flat, and like most people in his world, Wade spends most of his time inside the OASIS, an all-encompassing virtual-reality world that is clearly meant to have evolved from both today’s video games and today’s social media. By the time the novel starts, the OASIS has expanded to include public schools (Wade attends school using a VR headset, crouched in an abandoned pickup truck in a junkyard that he thinks of as his “hideout”) and has its own economy and currency. Wade’s real-world life is claustrophobic and smothering – and limited by the fact that he has no money and no support system – while in the OASIS people who can afford to do so jet from planet to planet on a variety of fantastical space vehicles. The creator of the OASIS was James Halliday, who embedded a contest into his VR world that was launched after he died. Whoever follows a series of clues to find the “Easter egg” Halliday hid in the OASIS will win some unfathomable amount of money and inherit control of the OASIS. Halliday is sort of a Steve Jobs figure – brilliant and bold in his designs but socially maladjusted and self-destructive in his personal life – and it amuses Halliday to force everyone who wants to be rich and powerful to study every last detail of every movie, TV show, song, and video game that he loved as a child.

This novel follows a standard “quest” narrative structure: there are three of everything, the villains are horrifically over the top and awful, and it is clear from the outset that the hero will win the contest in spite of the impossible odds he faces. There’s even a “descent-into-hell” component that takes the form of a terrifying foray into the world of corporate indentured servitude, which is how debt of more than $20,000 is handled in 2044. And as in most quests, the “real” reward is not the money and power that come from finding the stated object of the mission but some other intangible and unexpected prize that emerges from this journey; in Wade’s case, this takes the place of real-world love – a prize that seems almost impossibly rare in the world of the stacks and the OASIS.

I’ve mocked this novel more than I’ve praised it, but most of the mockery was in jest. I did enjoy this book – the characters are well-drawn, the plot manages to surprise occasionally while also adhering to form, and Cline’s vision of a dystopian near-future U.S. will intrigue you even as it gives you the willies. I recommend this book even to people like me who never played Pac-Man or D&D; this is a novel that transcends its subject matter. I suspect I missed a lot of inside jokes and private references to video games, of which I know almost nothing (I got most of the movie and TV references, I think), yet I still enjoyed the book and felt a connection to its characters.

Posted in Ernest Cline, Fiction - Dystopia, Fiction - general, Fiction - SciFi, fiction - thriller, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A PfP PSA (by Jill)

IMG_4066 2


When one is doing laundry, always double check the washer for books, especially signed first edition Indiespensible hardcover books, prior to hitting the Start button.  There was green lint from the cover on every single article of clothing in this load.

Incidentally, the book was not being stored in the washer (I don’t have that many books).  I put it in my laundry basket so save myself a trip down the hallway, and then started doing other things, and by the time I got around to starting laundry I had forgotten it was in there.  I blame early onset dementia, or possibly just being overtired from a very busy work week.

We may have more PfP PSA’s in the future if we manage to so more absolutely ridiculous things to our own books, but hopefully this will be the last picture of a washed book we post.


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A Review of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (by Jill)

mr. Splitfoot cover


I had a feeling this was going to be a weird book just based on the name.  It was Indiespensible #57 from back in February of 2016, which means that I’m managing to stay less than two years behind on my Indiespensible pile.  Some day I’m going to take a month off work and refuse to leave my house and try to avoid sleeping and get some serious reading done.  But until then I’ll just keep plugging away on my piles of books.

Oh, so my feeling about the book being weird was right on.  But it was sneakily weird.  It started weird, then got less weird, then the end was super weird.  For some reason ghost stories dressed up as literary fiction rub me the wrong way.  Either be fantasy or be regular fiction, don’t try to be both, I think is my feeling.  But that’s wrong too.  Books like this one rub me the wrong way.  I’ve read, and loved, plenty of literary fantasy books before, like all of Deborah Harkness’ books, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is, without a doubt, the best example of the modern literary ficton/fantasy genre, or if not the best, at least the first one I can think of outside of like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and that ilk.  I think it’s just books that give me the impression that they are being weird just for the sake of being weird that bug me.

This novel has two time lines: one present day told in first person by Cora, a girl who finds herself pregnant and single in her mid-twenties.  She seems an average sort of person, who loves social media and has an okay job.  The other story is told at some point in the past, probably fifteen or so years prior to the present day timeline, and tells the story of Cora’s aunt Ruth and her friend Nat.  Cora’s mom and aunt were raised in a foster home run by the Father and the Mother, who are not great people but not bad enough to warrant more of a brief mention here.  Cora’s mom ages out at eighteen and leaves her much younger sister alone at the foster home.  Explanations for why El never picks up her sister are never given.  Ruth latches onto Nat, also her age, once El leaves, and says he is her new sister.  Their relationship is close but always platonic, and a little weird.  Nat says he can talk to the dead, so he and Ruth set up a little business with the kids at the school.  Eventually they hook up with Mr. Bell, who is a con artist in town, and they make a lot of money with their little show.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, Cora is still pregnant and alone, and then her aunt Ruth shows up, and for some reason she doesn’t speak anymore.  Cora met Ruth and Nat once, when she was fourteen.  They came to visit El and left after one night.  Ruth and Cora take off in Cora’s car, but when it breaks down, they just start walking.  Somewhere.  Cora never quite knows where, but they walk for a long time, always heading somewhere, for the entirety of her pregnancy.

There’s a guy who snorts Comet and wants to marry Ruth, but his nose falls off and she loses interest.  There’s a religion called Ether, which is a hybridization of many other religions as well as a few songs from the seventies.  There are ghosts, real and imagined.  And looking back on it, some of the weirdness is charming and beautifully written.  Take this for example, wherein the author describes Cora going cold turkey off technology after the car breaks and she and Ruth start walking.  “The first two days without a phone, my insides are jumpy and nauseated, a true withdrawal.  My veins ache for information from the Internet, distractions from thought.  I’m lonely.  My neck, lungs, blood hurt like I’m getting a cold.  The world happens without me because I’m exiled with no Wi-Fi.  I wonder if my shoes have arrived yet.  Maybe Lord [that’s the boyfriend] is trying to reach me with news of his divorce.  I have a parasite of grotesque urges.  I want to push little buttons quickly.  I want information immediately.  I want to post pictures of Ruth and me smiling into the sun.  I want people to like me, like me, like me.  I want to buy things without trying them on.  I want to look at photos of drunk kids I knew back in high school.  And I want it all in my hand.  But my cyborg parts have been ripped out.  What’s the temperature?  I don’t know.  What’s the capitol of Hawaii?  I don’t know anything.  I don’t even know the automated systems in my body anymore.  I don’t know how to be hungry, how to sleep, to breathe (70).”

There are many, many beautiful and good things about this book, but there are also weird and not so good things about it.  I don’t think it’s a book for everyone, though I will admit that other than the “weird for the sake of being weird” vibe I got off and on while I was reading it, generally it was quite well-written, but folks who like pure literary fiction or pure fantasy may not be able to get into it.  And here’s one complaint: if the name of the book is going to be Mr. Splitfoot, perhaps Mr. Splitfoot should play a more prominent role.

Posted in Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill, Samantha Hunt | 2 Comments

A Review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife


This review contains what the young people call “spoilers.” Read at your own risk.

 The second installment in this trilogy is my favorite, I think. In this book – which is also the shortest of the three – we learn or intuit a great deal more about why Lyra’s world is so weirdly skewed and about how the various plot lines that began in The Golden Compass fit together. The first chapter is about Will Parry, a character who is not part of The Golden Compass. Will is fourteen, and when we meet him, he is trying to persuade his piano teacher to let his senile mother live with her so he can protect a green briefcase and fight off the thugs who keep breaking into his house to try to steal it. In the opening chapter, he kills one of these intruders, meaning that the police will soon be looking for him.

It took remarkably long for me to get oriented in Will’s world. I think I read most scenes in the first two chapters two or three times. At some point, I stopped, stunned: This is the REAL world, I realized. No one has daemons. Lights are electric, not anbaric. People use cars and phones and the standard forms of technology in use in 1997, when this novel was published. At this point, I was riveted – I knew from the back of the book that Will’s story would join Lyra’s at some point, and I was extremely curious about how this would happen. I’ll fill you in – but first I need to give you a little more backstory about what happens at the end of The Golden Compass.

If you recall from my recent review of The Golden Compass, Lyra travels to the far north in the company of various “gyptians,” hot-air balloon operators, witches, and talking bears in order to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers. As Lyra learns, the Gobblers are not the band of outlaws she originally thought they were: they are actually an organized body that is affiliated with the mainstream church, which in Lyra’s world is all-powerful and is based on the teachings of John Calvin. The “GOB” in their name stands for “General Oblation Board,” and Lyra’s biological mother, Mrs. Coulter, is a high-ranking official within this organization. One of her many projects is an experiment about severing children from their daemons. Daemons are physical manifestation of people’s souls in animal form, so separating them from their bodies is no small or inconsequential process. The process involves putting the child and the daemon in separate cages and using a special tool that can really cut anything (more on this in a bit) to sever the ethereal bond between them. Children who have been “severed” are deeply traumatized and disoriented. When Lyra meets a severed child, she is deeply upset; the human/daemon bond in her universe is so sacred and deep that the idea of severing the two violates her world’s greatest taboo. Lord Asriel’s reason for wanting to sever one child from its daemon is not cruel in nature; he wants to access the enormous burst of power that takes place when this severing happens. The science doesn’t hold up, of course, but I picture it as sort of like the splitting of the atom (as far as I’m concerned, the science of that doesn’t hold up either, though I suspect I am mistaken).

Anyway, Lord Asriel succeeds – he severs Roger from his demon, killing him in the process – and in the process he opens a portal into another world. Lyra walks into that other world, and it is in a city called Cittàgazze in that other world that Will meets her. Cittàgazze is a weird, creepy, powerfully-imagined place inhabited only by children, and over time we learn that this world is tormented by creatures called Specters, who seem very similar to Dementors. Specters only attack adults (they feed off Dust, which is the physical manifestation of original sin), and they essentially suck out their souls, leaving the adults unable to care for anything. For that reason, children in Cittàgazze basically wander around in packs, looking for food and being kind of shell-shocked. Will, who reached Cittàgazze when he was following a cat and then saw the cat disappear into a weird “hole” in the air – a hole that seemed to him like a convenient way to escape from the thugs who were chasing him – eventually kills a man in a tower who is defending a special weapon, the “subtle knife” of the title. Because the subtle knife can only be wielded by the person who has won in in a fair fight (The wand chooses the wizard, Harry…) Will is now the rightful owner of this weapon. Two of his fingers are cut off in the fight, in precisely the way that fingers are always cut off in a battle for the subtle knife (this appears to be the price for ownership), and Will spends much of the novel bleeding profusely before being healed by a talking bear. The subtle knife can truly cut anything – meaning that it can sever bodies from daemons (and yes, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter want it for this reason, a lot) and also cut little windows between worlds like the one that the cat led Will through. And oh yeah: there is one more thing the subtle knife can do. It can kill God.

Killing God – known in these novels as “the Authority” – is ultimately Lord Asriel’s goal. Because Lyra’s world is based on the theology of the Protestant Reformation, its God is a dictator who uses his power to repress anyone he feels threatened by. Pullman doesn’t go into a ton of detail about exactly who and what the Authority represses, but certainly the fact that women are subservient to men in this series (most women; Mrs. Coulter has found her way to significant power and influence, as a small handful of women always did in all eras of male-dominated history) is part of the injustice Lord Asriel is fighting. They also seem to be fighting God for purely philosophical reasons – they are throwing off a tyrant because throwing off a tyrant is a good thing in itself. Much of The Amber Spyglass – the next volume in the series – is a huge angel war that is sort of a follow-up to Lucifer’s rebellion against God in the far-distant past (there’s the Paradise Lost connection again).

It also becomes clear in this installment that part of the organizing principle of this fantasy series is quantum mechanics. Quantum theory says that every time a person makes a choice, they leave behind the chance to make a different choice, so the possibilities inherent in their own world become narrower, but an alternate universe is formed, and the alternative choice becomes the basis of that universe. With all the decision-making humans out and about in the world, this theory becomes an especially baffling way to contemplate infinity. It also explains some of the many differences between Lyra’s world and Will’s (which is also ours). John Calvin became pope in Lyra’s world, cementing Protestantism as the dogma of the entire Christian world and causing history to veer away from the real-world timeline we are familiar with. Along the way, while our own ancestors figured out how to harness electricity, Lyra’s developed “anbaric” power – an alternate way to provide man-made light and power. Quantum theory doesn’t explain talking bears, but overall it is satisfying as a unifying principle, and once I figured out what Pullman was going for here, I began to enjoy the series even more.

So much is compelling in this novel on an emotional level. Lyra’s puzzlement at how Will can survive without a daemon (she eventually figures out that his daemon lives inside him). Will’s reunion with his biological father, who has been a known quantity in this series since the very first chapter of The Golden Compass, though he is well hidden. The deep pathos of the children of Cittàgazze. Various witches enacting revenge plots against old lovers in the midst of everything. A new character named Mary Malone who has also devoted her life’s work to studying “Dust,” though from a perspective quite different from Lord Asriel’s. Will’s terrifically sad relationship with his mother. The never-ending host of fantasy creatures. I remain baffled as I wonder what children make of this series (I mean, if you were ten, what would you make of this sentence: “Ruta Skadi lived so beautifully in her nerves that she set off a responding thrill in the nerves of anyone close by”?  I don’t even know what to make of it myself (is it about spontaneous orgasms?), though I think I have known women like this), and I was 100% hooked throughout this novel. I am not quiet finished with The Amber Spyglass, though it too is intriguing, and I will return to tell you about it soon.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - Children's, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Philip Pullman, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment