Caramel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Caramel has a big appetite for all books, and he loves to share what he has read with the readers of this blog. This week, he got his paws on Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao, a 2021 young adult novel Sprinkles had intended for Marshmallow. And then for the next couple days he could not be separated from it, until he was finally done reading. Today, he discusses this book with Sprinkles, who is taking notes and asking questions. There may be more spoilers in this review than usual.

Caramel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao.
Caramel reviews Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao.

Sprinkles: So Caramel, I had thought this would be a book for Marshmallow, but you took it and read it first. What appealed to you so much from the beginning?

Caramel: The robots on the back cover.

S: I had not even seen that as a mecha before you showed it to me! But yes, now I can see that it looks like a mechanical dragon.

C: It is a mechanical bird.

S: Really? Tell me more.

C: That thing on the cover is the Vermillion Bird. It is a Chrysalis, a mecha that the humans in Huaxia use to fight the giant aliens who are native to the planet.

S: Ooh, so the main character is a human living on a planet that is not the Earth, and there are native creatures on this planet, and the humans are fighting them.

C: Well, we don’t learn that the Hundun are native to the planet until the end actually. So that is a big spoiler there!

S: Oops! I did not know. But did you know that the Vermillion Bird is actually a traditional Chinese symbol? Wikipedia says “it represents the Fire element, the direction south, and the season summer”.

C: Really?

S: Does that match with anything in the book?

C: I’m not sure. But that is interesting! And the four symbols and the five elements Wikipedia talks about also show up in the book.

S: Okay, that is neat! So the author has incorporated a bunch of Chinese mythology into the story then! Pretty cool… Why don’t you tell me more about the story?

C: Well, the Chrysalises are powered by a woman and a man, and almost always things end up with the woman dying.

S: That’s kind of weird.

C: Actually there are only three women who have ever survived being in a Chrysalis and the main character Zetian is one of them.

S: And is she the narrator?

C: Yes. And the book is in first person, and I really like that. She is also always writing in the present tense, which makes things sound a lot more like they are happening as she writes. And that makes things more interesting.

S: I can see that!

Caramel is reading Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao.
Caramel is reading Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao.

S: So the inside cover jacket describes the book as follows:

In Huaxia, the highest honor for a young girl is to be selected as a concubine-pilot: supporters paired up with male pilots to power up Chrysalises, the giant transforming mechas that humanity relies on to battle the massive aliens that lurk behind the Great Wall. But the honor often ends in death, and when eighteen-year-old Zetian’s sister is killed by an ace pilot, she signs up to avenge her.

C: Yes, exactly what I told you!

S: I can see that. So then what happens?

C: She does take her revenge, and the pilot is killed, and that is why she is called an iron widow.

S: But the book does not end there.

C: No, it does not. In fact all this happens quite early on. To be precise it happens at the end of chapter 7, and there are 47 chapters and an epilogue.

S: So there is a lot more that happens after, right?

C: Oh, yes. And it is all pretty interesting.

S: You also said there was some mushiness and some bad words.

C: Yes, Marshmallow calls it mushy, and I just skip those things. And they use the F-word a couple times.

S: Okay, so about that mushiness: does Zetian have a romantic interest?

C: Yes.

S: But it is not essential to the rest of the story?

C: Well, a little, but I did not need to know all the details of them kissing and so on.

S: When it is a young adult book, sometimes those things seem to show up.

C: Well, it is still a pretty cool book. And apparently there will be a second book, but it’s not coming out till next summer! Can you believe that? How am I supposed to wait that long?

S: I don’t know Caramel. I guess you just have to read other books in the meantime.

C: And I want to talk to the author and complain! I really want to read that second book!

S: Well, it may not be all up to the author. Anyways, so there is a second book. Does that mean this book ends in a cliffhanger?

C: Yes. It’s a big bad cliffhanger. Like the Big Bad Wolf.

S: What do you mean? Doesn’t the main part of the story of this book get resolved?

C: Yes, there is some resolution, I’m not telling what, but there is so much more that is going to happen next, I’m sure. And I want to know about it.

S: I can see this was a fun book to read! It has mechas, aliens, space ships, and all kinds of fun stuff you like.

C: Exactly.

S: So why don’t you give me your three-word description for the book?

C: Mechas against patriarchy.

S: Well, “patriarchy” is a big word for you Caramel. Do you know what it means?

C: Yes. It means the men are on top and the women are not. And in this book, Zetian is living in a world which uses women up in these mechas. And she won’t have any more of it.

S: Those three words will work then. Though it is maybe more correct to say “Zetian against patriarchy”, no?

C: Yes, but I have to mention the mechas! And while I’m doing that, we have to link to the author’s page which has a lot of cool drawings of the mechas in the book!

S: Sure, Caramel. Those pictures are pretty amazing. And on a related page, the author writes that the book is a “sci-fi retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history”.

C: That is really cool! I did not know that when I was reading. That makes total sense though! But I want to read the next book, too. Maybe it will be like when she is the emperor? It is called “Heavenly Tyrant” so that makes sense!

S: Yes, I agree Caramel. Definitely something to look forward to for next year. So what do you want to tell our readers as we wrap things up?

C: Stay tuned for more book bunny reviews!

Caramel loved Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao and can't wait to learn more about Zetian and what she will end up doing in the next book.
Caramel loved Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao and can’t wait to learn more about Zetian and what she will end up doing in the next book.

Marshmallow reviews Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

In the last few weeks, Marshmallow and her English class have been reading a version of the classic novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, first published as a short story in 1959 and then expanded by its author to be published as a full novel in 1966. Sprinkles was excited to see Marshmallow getting into the story because she remembers it fondly from her own time reading the same book in school decades ago. In the blog post below, the two bunnies discuss the full book.

Marshmallow reviews Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
Marshmallow reviews Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

Sprinkles: So Marshmallow, why don’t we start with your usual short overview of the book?

Marshmallow: Why not? If you like books about growing up or living through a big change, this might be the book for you.

S: I think that is a good way to describe the book. The main character is originally a mentally challenged adult, so he is not really growing up, but he undergoes an experimental treatment which enhances his mental capabilities immensely, and so he is going through a big change.

M: Yes. The main character is Charlie Gordon, and he is the one narrating the story. The book is written as a series of progress reports, all through his perspective.

S: Yes, the entries are like diary entries, right?

M: Yes, most of them. And at the beginning he is using very simple sentences and basic words and sometimes has very poor spelling. As the treatment takes effect, he begins to write more complex sentences and use bigger words. He also starts to write about more personal and complicated things and has to confront some past emotional trauma. So, for example, I should warn all bunnies that the book does have some explicit descriptions of certain sexual feelings and acts. As Charlie gets more and more mentally capable, he begins to notice his attraction to women.

S: Even before the operation, he might have felt some such feelings, but would perhaps not write about them?

M: I’m not sure. It seems to me that Charlie had the mind of a three year old before the operation, and so he did not have any sexual impulses.

S: Hmm, that sounds somewhat unrealistic to me, given that he has the body of a full-grown man; his hormones and related needs and desires would probably be quite typical.

M: Well, I don’t know, but he seems to become more interested in things like that, and that was quite a bit different from the version we have been reading at school. In that version, we do not see any of this stuff. Which is in some ways easier to read.

S: I can understand that. Perhaps that is why a lot of school districts have had discussions about this book, and apparently some have even removed it from their libraries. The sexual content might be a lot for some younger bunnies to handle, even though I was not bothered by them when I was a young bunny reading the book. Then again, I might have been a little older than you… Or who knows? Maybe I read an abridged version, too, and I do not recall very well.

M: Maybe. I don’t know. But the full book is a bit more adult than my usual reading fare. The only other book I have read that is kind of like this one is 1984 by George Orwell, which also had some explicit scenes.

S: I understand. I’d say that both books have very serious messages, and the sexually explicit scenes in both books play significant roles in clarifying those messages. So for example in 1984, the sexual scenes show us the main character’s difficulties with intimacy and the oppressiveness of the general climate. In this book, I think the sexual scenes are a part of Charlie becoming more aware of his body, his personality, his needs and desires, as well as how the outside world views him.

M: I can see that.

Marshmallow is reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
Marshmallow is reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

S: So who or what is Algernon? Why is the book titled Flowers for Algernon?

M: Algernon is a mouse. He has gone through the same operation that Charlie has, and in some ways, the changes he goes through are similar to what happens to Charlie. So Charlie begins to really like and care for Algernon, because Algernon is more or less the only other creature in the world who is going through the same thing that Charlie is. And then —

S: Wait, don’t give everything away!

M: Okay, no more spoilers. But things do get pretty sad, and the title of the book is in the very last sentence of the book.

S: Yes, that is true. What did you think of Charlie? Did you like him or sympathize with him?

M: I liked him, more at some times and less at others. He is a childlike and kind person at the beginning, and that I really liked. But then as the operation takes effect and he begins to get more and more intelligent, he becomes more arrogant and he does not even realize that. I did not like him that much then. But eventually he does begin to understand other people better, and he remembers and tries to process some of the emotional trauma from his childhood. He justifiably gets angry at some people who mistreated him when he did not know they were being mean. And there I could of course sympathize with him. And he wants to be accepted most of all.

S: I guess that is a very understandable need. We are social creatures and we want to belong.

M: Yes. I think so. So when he becomes too intelligent, that is also isolating. Certain people used to feel better about themselves by putting him down, but now they feel inferior to him and begin to fear and avoid him. In some ways, those people were not good people to have as friends anyways, but Charlie did not know. In any case, in the end —

S: Wait, remember, we don’t want to be giving away too much…

M: Hmm, okay, I guess I should stop here.

S: Alright. Let us do that. Would you recommend this book to other young bunnies? Or perhaps, you’d recommend the abridged version?

M: I think young bunnies might really like the abridged version. Charlie’s story is a lot simpler in it and it is a lot easier to read. And you get to really like him and feel for him, and and the story is still sad but beautiful.

S: Okay. That makes sense to me. Full-blown people are all pretty complex, and I think the original book captures that really well. Charlie is a complex person with a complex story, and the book does give us a lot more to chew on. But the main message can come through quite clearly in the abridged version, too, without the distractions of the sex dimension and the emotional trauma. So how do you want to end this review?

M: I can say my usual: Stay tuned for more amazing reviews from the book bunnies!

Marshmallow appreciated reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and recommends it to her peers but emphasizes that perhaps some might prefer an abridged version.
Marshmallow appreciated reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and recommends it to her peers but emphasizes that perhaps some might prefer an abridged version.

Caramel reviews Cleopatra in Space: Queen of the Nile by Mike Maihack

Today Caramel reviews the sixth and last book in Mike Maihack’s graphic novel series Cleopatra in Space: Queen of the Nile. As usual, Sprinkles is taking notes and asking questions.

(Caramel already reviewed the first book Target Practice, the second book The Thief and the Sword, the third book Secret of the Time Tablets, the fourth book The Golden Lion, and the fifth book Fallen Empire in the series.)

Caramel reviews Cleopatra in Space: Queen of the Nile by Mike Maihack.
Caramel reviews Cleopatra in Space: Queen of the Nile by Mike Maihack.

Sprinkles: So Caramel, end of an era, you finally read the last book in the Cleopatra in Space series.

Caramel: Yes.

S: So tell us about it.

C: Queen of the Nile is the name of the book. It’s about Cleo learning that her mom was able to do the pink fire thingy. I’m not sure what it is exactly. But what it means is that everyone in her family who could do that thing could be the person to fulfill the prophecy.

S: Ooh, so can you remind us what the prophecy was?

C: She is supposed to save the galaxy from the evil rule of Xaius Octavian. But now we learn that all her descendants and ancestors could also be the savior. And in the end that is kind of what happens.

S: Hmm, that is not terribly clear, and I’m intrigued. But I am not going to ask you to open it up too much more because I’m afraid it will lead us to spoilers.

C: Yes, but you can feel good that the books end well.

S: That is good to know. And does Cleo eventually go back to her own time?

C: Yes, but all I’ll tell you is that she will go back when she defeats her enemy. And people think she dies in the battle, but then they look at their history books. And the rest is history, as they say.

Caramel is reading Cleopatra in Space: Queen of the Nile by Mike Maihack.
Caramel is reading Cleopatra in Space: Queen of the Nile by Mike Maihack.

S: So you enjoyed this last book, right?

C: Yes. a lot. It wrapped up the story really well. But I’m still wondering if there will be a seventh book.

S: Well, this one is supposed to be the last of the series. But as far as I understand, the animated TV series has gone to a third season. Apparently they do not follow the books very closely but you get to see Cleo and her friends figuring things out.

C: I liked the episodes we watched. Maybe I can convince you to watch more of them?

S: Hmm, we will see. So tell me your three words to describe this book.

C: Colorful, exciting, and suspenseful!

S: Ooh, that is good! So interesting things happen in this one!

C: Yes! Very much so. Lots of action and lots of things happen. It is over two hundred pages of action and fun!

S: That sounds good! So will you be reading and rereading this book, too?

C: Yep, I already read it ten times! Or maybe thirteen, not sure.

S: That is a lot. Both you and Marshmallow like rereading books! Okay, I can see you are getting into the book again, and will likely dive into your fourteenth read. So let us wrap this up. What do you want to tell our readers?

C: Stay tuned for more book bunny reviews!

Caramel enjoyed reading Cleopatra in Space: Queen of the Nile by Mike Maihack and will miss the characters from the series.
Caramel enjoyed reading Cleopatra in Space: Queen of the Nile by Mike Maihack and will miss the characters from the series.

Caramel reviews Cleopatra in Space: Fallen Empires by Mike Maihack

In his first review for 2022, Caramel revisits the Cleopatra in Space series by Mike Maihack.

Last year Caramel had reviewed the first four books from the Cleopatra in Space graphic novel series by Mike Maihack. (You might find it useful to check out his reviews of the first book Target Practice, the second book The Thief and the Sword, the third book Secret of the Time Tablets, and the fourth book The Golden Lion, before continuing on.) Today, in his first review for 2022, he revisits this series and talks about the fifth book in the series: Fallen Empires. As usual, Sprinkles is taking notes and asking questions.

Caramel reviews Cleopatra in Space: Fallen Empires by Mike Maihack.
Caramel reviews Cleopatra in Space: Fallen Empires by Mike Maihack.

Sprinkles: So it has been a while Caramel.

Caramel: Yes it has, hasn’t it?

S: But you have kept reading. Haven’t you?

C: Yup.

S: So what are you going to talk about today?

C: Cleopatra in Space: Fallen Empires. It’s the fifth book in the series.

S: So should readers read the first four to understand this book?

C: Yup. I think they’d not get much out of it otherwise.

S: Okay, you already reviewed those first four books. So I’ll just suggest we can assume the readers have read those. What should we know about Cleo when we are getting ready to dive into this?

C: Cleo is the real Cleopatra from Ancient Egypt, who somehow got transported in time to 30,000 years later. She is a kid in these books, and she is fighting evil people. In this book she is trying to destroy an evil superweapon of Octavian.

S: And Octavian is her nemesis?

C: Well, he turns out to be Cleo’s friend from 30,000 years ago.

S: Wait, was that a spoiler?

C: No, not really. We learned it in the fourth book.

S: Oh, okay then. I hope readers have already read that one. Alright, why does Cleo’s friend have an evil superweapon?

C: Well, he became evil, because Cleo left and never came back.

S: Hmm, that is kind of sad.

C: Yes, I think he has a good reason to be annoyed.

Caramel is reading Cleopatra in Space: Fallen Empires by Mike Maihack.
Caramel is reading Cleopatra in Space: Fallen Empires by Mike Maihack.

S: So what is the title referring to? What are the fallen empires?

C: Octavian has been in multiple empires. They all got destroyed. In the beginning of the book we learn about Gozi, who was Cleo’s friend, and all his family died, and he goes through a lot. Kind of sad. And then he eventually becomes Xius Octavian.

S: Hmm, so it is related to his backstory then. Tell me did you find this volume just as fun as the earlier ones?

C: Yup. I read it really fast again. And twice in one day. I like these books!

S: I can see that! So what three words would you use to describe it?

C: Serious, colorful, and …. captivating!

S: Those are interesting word choices Caramel. “Captivating” is a big word! But given how you already read and reread it several times, I think it is a good word to describe the book. But I would not have expected you to say “serious”. You thought the other books in the series were funny.

C: This was not that funny. It was more serious. Gozi’s story is a bit sad. He had a wife and kids and they all died.

S: Yes, that is indeed sad. But you don’t like sad books. I remember you said that when you were reviewing Charlotte’s Web.

C: No I really don’t like sad books. But I was curious about what was going to happen. And it somehow works, without making you too sad.

S: I see. I can also see that you want to continue reading, so maybe this is a good time to end this first review of the year. What would you like to tell our readers?

C: Stay tuned for more book bunny reviews!

Caramel enjoyed reading Cleopatra in Space: Fallen Empires by Mike Maihack, and is ready to move on to the sixth book in the series.
Caramel enjoyed reading Cleopatra in Space: Fallen Empires by Mike Maihack, and is ready to move on to the sixth book in the series.