Category Archives: Review

Book Reviews: Clearing the Fog with The Dam Keeper

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and authors' bios.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and authors' bios.When Pixar art directors get together to work on a graphic novel series, you have to expect excellent illustrations and story. It seems that the series is actually based on a short film from the two animators from 2014, and that they had intended a feature length film that, to my knowledge, has not been released. There seems too to be a series of short episodes under the title Pig: The Dam Keeper: Poems, released the same year as the first graphic novel. I’ve seen none of the animated pieces.

I am less attracted by the art style of these characters—which is very cartoonish and round—than to the background illustrations, which are soft and subtle and gloriously detailed. It was the description on the book’s flap and then the first few pages of text and illustration that got me to take the first home from the library, though, on a whim.

“Nothing lives in the fog… except memories. Painful memories. They haunt me. Memories of emptiness and loss. The dam holds back the sea of black fog.”

That’s fantastically poetic for a children’s graphic novel and fantastically bleak.

The protagonist Pig becomes the de facto dam keeper after his father, mad with grief, leaves the dam for the world beyond, which is shrouded in a dark and deadly fog. Still a child, Pig tries to balance his responsibilities as dam keeper—a job that the townsfolk have forgotten the importance of—with school and a friendship that he has built with Fox. Fox, more free of responsibility than Pig, has made a new friend in the school bully, Hippo, who frequently targets Pig. Fox tries to bridge her two friends into a trio, but neither Pig nor Hippo is particularly willing to see past first impressions.

An accident at the dam strands the three characters together in the wasteland beyond the town. Lost, they attempt to find their way back home and must rely on each others’ strengths to see them there: Pig’s brains, Hippo’s brawn, and Fox’s kindness.

Fox’s kindness leads them to the blind lizard Van, who promises to help the children home—but first they must retrieve—liberate—Van’s truck from a city very like their own with an even more impressive dam—but in this industry has made the air inside the city walls so foul that the three require their gas masks to breathe.

As they travel across the wasteland in Van’s stolen truck, they find more cities and more civilizations that have found ways to survive in what Pig has always believed to be a dead wasteland.

They narrowly escape being sacrificed by one such civilization to a creature of smoke, which they discover to be a machine with the insignia of the dam keepers on its side.

Throughout all of this, Pig keeps seeing the ghost of his father.

By the end of the second book, the reader begins to see the changes that their adventures have wrought in the three friends manifest. Pig loosens up enough to join his friends in attempting Van’s silly dance. Hippo crushes Van in a hug when they are reunited, and he is friendlier towards Pig.

It must be mentioned too that I appreciate a series with a female and two male protagonists that has no romantic entanglement in sight.

These authors favor a slow reveal through dropped bits of dialogue over a more straightforward and immediate reveal.

A good deal of the storytelling is done through the illustrations. Many of the issues driving the misfortune of the world are only hinted at and must be inferred: pollution, unsafe industrial practices that harm the environment and quality of life, forgetfulness, tribalism, ignorance, deforestation. Some of these I may be incorrectly inferring without the whole story too. There’s a third book that I have yet to read.

I think for this series about child protagonists who find their world turned upside down learning so little so slowly works.

Both of these books ends on a cliffhanger, and given the current state of things, I have not been able to arrange to have the third book in my hands.

The villains in Ru Xu’s Newsprints & Endgames and Kazu Kibushi’s Amulet series are (literally) more concrete than the ones here, but I think there are certainly some thematic similarities between the three, and this may be a new series for those who have enjoyed either. I have read two volumes of each, which is the full story (100%) for Ru Xu’s, two-thirds (about 66%) for Dam Keeper, and only about 22% of Amulet, so my comparisons may yet prove flawed.

***1/2

Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 1. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2017.

Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 2: World Without Darkness. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 7-11.

This review is not endorsed by Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi, Tonko House, First Second Books, Roaring Brook Press, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: Modern Little Women

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.

Spoilers.

After 150 years, it was perhaps time for an updated version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. This isn’t the first attempt to update the classic, but I think it might be the first to do so as a graphic novel, and it is the first that I have read. In this, the sisters are from a blended family. Jo is Mrs. March’s daughter by her first marriage, Meg is Mr. March’s by his first marriage, and Beth and Amy are Mr. and Mrs. March’s. Meg and Mr. March, who is a soldier stationed in the Middle East, are African American. Mrs. March and Jo are white. Amy and Beth are mixed race, but as Jo explains to Mr. Marquez (who has replaced Mr. Laurence) and Laurie, even without the ties of blood to Meg, they are all four of them sisters.

Terciero and Indigo have moved the story from small town Concord to the more vibrant New York City with the Marches living in Brooklyn.

Chapters are frequently ended by emails sent by one of the girls to their father abroad.

On the whole this novel sticks well to the original’s plot, but there are some significant changes that Terciero and Indigo make to the original.

In this Jo has a secret she is keeping from her family, hinted at in diary entries and in her dialogue, which I don’t remember her having in Alcott’s original (it’s admittedly been a while…). And it isn’t the secret that I thought that it might be. I thought it likely that Jo would come out as transgender by the novel’s end but instead she comes out as lesbian. Her bravery in coming out to her family encourages Aunt Cath to wrestle with her own prejudices and come to the revelation that she herself is lesbian.

Meg does not marry the rich and well-connected Brooks when he laughs at her notion to become a lawyer for the less fortunate instead of taking the Vogue internship that he with his connections has secured for her. She is the catalyst in her family attending the Women’s March in DC. I was disappointed not to see Aunt Cath with them there, knowing that Meg had wanted her to come.

The novel still has the symmetry of the original, opening and closing on Christmas, covering only Little Women and not Good Wives, which is often nowadays released as the second half of Little Women, the two together in a single volume.

This was a longer graphic novel with a lot of text on each page compared to others that I have read, but still a much more accessible adaptation of the original work for both its length, its color, and its modern vernacular.

This story remains a celebration of familial love and a wholesome read in a time of darkness. It’s only that what was revolutionary in 1860s is less so now.

I think it a great introduction to the story, characters, and themes of Little Women, though those who are looking for the classic story on a one-to-one level, the text only modernized and simplified for a younger, more modern audience, would find other abridged versions more to their taste—and there are many.  I would consider this an excellent companion and comparison piece more than a abridgement.

But I personally really enjoyed what Terciero and Indigo have done with the story and celebrate this more diverse adaption.

****

Terciero, Rey and Bre Indigo. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Rey Terciero, Bre Indigo, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Healing and Unlearning with a Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and samples.

Having read and loved the second book in this series, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, I knew I would go back to read the first. I expected this to leave off nearer to the beginning of the second, but it did not. I stand by my assertion that you can begin this series with the second. The two are really individual stories.

Little is said in this novel about Felicity’s childhood or what brings her to the Scottish bakery on which the second book opens.

This novel focuses on the elder Montague, the heir apparent, Henry “Monty” Montague. The book opens on the morning of Monty’s departure with his best friend Percy Newton on their Grand Tour, on which Monty’s younger sister, Felicity, is to accompany them a small part of the way on her way to finishing school in Marseilles.

But Monty’s father is determined that this should not be the dissolute last hooray that Monty hopes it to be. He assigns them a chaperone. He warns Monty that he will not embarrass the family and especially not be caught in any compromising situation with another man or he will not be allowed to return home to his position.

But Monty knows already that he has developed romantic feelings for Percy.

The three are not long on the Continent before the trouble begins.

Spoilers ahead!

Monty is caught sans trousers with a woman in the apartments of the duke of Bourbon, and the Montagues and Percy leave Versailles in a cloud of whispers.

That might have been smoothed over, but Monty’s idle fingers filch a valuable object that looks like a useless trinket from the duke’s desk.

Their carriage is waylaid by a violent group disguised as highwaymen on the road to Marseilles.

Separated from their carriage, their chaperone, and their possessions, the three teenagers stumble to Marseilles.

But the revelation of the fate that awaits Percy at the end of this tour—not law school as he has told the Montagues but an asylum where he is being committed because of his incurable epilepsy—makes Monty especially question the direction of their tour.

With much cajoling from Monty, the three are pulled off course, abandoning their chaperone and carriage and leaving with only the money that Monty is able to wheedle from a young bank teller on the strength of a silver tongue. Their sojourn in Barcelona introduces an element of magic into the story.

The tour becomes a quest—a race against the duke of Bourbon—to retrieve a possible panacea (making this a particularly poignant read just now; who doesn’t want access to a panacea?) that Monty hopes will cure Percy, free him from the institution, and make it easier for the two of them to somehow be together—even if Monty isn’t at all sure what a happy ending with Percy could possibly look like in a world that expects him to step into the role of an earl and produce heirs of his own to continue the aristocratic line.

This book had everything that I wanted. It was an exciting adventure novel with pirates and swordplay and magic and music and mystery. And it dealt with contemporary issues well. Monty struggles with the world’s reaction and his own reaction to his bisexuality and is deeply effected by the parental abuse that he has suffered. Poor Percy struggles not only with the world’s reaction to his epilepsy but also to his mixed race heritage, the racism of white Europeans towards his darker complexion. Felicity fights against sexism and the future that society has planned for her—a loveless marriage and a life of minding house (her struggles especially are further explored in the second book).

The book is weighted by angst that helps to balance the swashbuckling and dissolution of the external journey that the characters take.

As the world went sideways and everything here in the US began to shut down, I handed this book to a number of customers (enough that we sold through our stock in paper- and hardback) as just a fun, action/adventure, and a way to visit faraway places without leaving the safety of the house.

Right now I am unable to return the library’s copy. I may just have to read it again.  I have already re-read parts of it, particularly the ending.

I hope that the third book comes out on schedule this summer so that I can spend some more time with this writer, Monty, and the Goblin.

****

Lee, Mackenzi. The Montague Siblings, Book 1: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. New York: Katherine Tegen-HarperCollins, 2017.

Intended audience: Ages 13+

This review is not endorsed by Mackenzi Lee, Katherine Tegen Books, or HarperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Get To Know Me: Book Edition

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We’re having a little more fun this week.

A friend posted this on Facebook, and I stole it, but knew I would be saving it to post to my blog one day when I hadn’t anything else prepared instead of posting it directly to Facebook. Some of the original wording of the questions are NSFW. I have censored them because I know there are school age children reading some of these reviews. You’ll all probably still know what they said.

 

1. Book you threw across the room (or wanted to):

I have done this to very few books. The only book that I remember having thrown (against the bed a foot or so away from me) is Cassandra Clare’s City of Glass.

2. If someone reeeeaaaally loves this book, you’ll never be friends:

I’m really struggling with this one, because some of the worst books that I have read have been loved by good friends. And some books that I dislike on principle but have never actually read, like ones in genres that I just am not interested in even trying (sports nonfiction, say, or business books), have been loved by friends too.

I think it pretty safe to say that if a person absolutely adores some of BS books put out by those praising the current US president and tearing down his “enemies,” we likely won’t be more than friendly to each other when see each other in passing and only then if we never start actually discussing politics or worldviews. The cover of Glenn Beck’s latest book (Arguing with Socialists) is disrespectful if not offensive in and of itself, and I’m surprised the publisher let it be printed as such.  But admittedly I have not read any of these books (nor do I intend to do so).

3. Longest read:

I’m going to let Goodreads do some of the work for me on this one… According to Goodreads, the longest individual book that I’ve read since 2012 is George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, clocking in at 1,177 pages.

4. Book that got you through the bad stuff:

This is absolutely the Harry Potter series for me. I’m rereading it now. For reasons. Things are bad again. Globally.

5a. Scared the s*** out of you:

I tend to avoid books that are likely to frighten me as a rule. So I can’t say that anything has ever “scared the s*** out” of me. BUT I do remember that after reading Frankenstein for school, even though it didn’t seem frightening as I was reading it, I would feel like I was seeing the monster’s shadow in the forest around our house at night, and I would just… go inside and shut the door and sit in a lit room for a bit.

5b. Unsettled the s*** out of you:

One of my most unsettling recent reads has been Vox by Christina Dalcher for the parallels that I saw in this fictional future America to America in the present. But I was severely unsettled long ago by one particular scene or two in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked because small me was not ready for (READ ON AT YOUR OWN PERIL!) multi-creature, drug-spurred, ropes included sex in that brothel or for chains meant to deform the wearer used on a little girl later. For the scarring it left on my psyche, it definitely deserves a mention here. I remember fairly little of the rest of the book, but that one scene in particular is burned into my memory—and I think has effected some of the backstory for my WIP.

6. You laughed your a** off:

I don’t usually “laugh my a** off” at books either. I sometimes give a little giggle or a snort. Sometimes a single bark. Usually at a line that strikes me as funny in an otherwise not wholly funny story. Something I think though I can’t now remember what caused me to bark when I was reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the other night. It might have been some claim about the Ministry’s competency. I do have books that I read because I think that they are funny and which really haven’t much value besides: Books from the Wayside School collection by Louis Sachar, Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment, and Meet Mr Mulliner by P. G. Wodehouse.

7: Movie version was also good:

My favorite adaptation (of a book that I’ve read because I’m taking that “also” seriously) is I think actually Ever After, which is a “Cinderella” story.

8: Author(s) that can do no wrong:

This is Rick Riordan right now because he is learning. His first kids’ series was about a biracial family with siblings who don’t look alike, but his second series was rather assumed-white and cis and het. But the third and fourth and fifth have proved more diverse in every way. And though I’ve not enjoyed the most recent series as much for its style, I’ve been proud of some of his bold plot choices. And he has stepped out of the way. He has also started an imprint to uplift other writers with similar styles writing about living mythologies about which they are knowledgeable and he is not.

9: Guilty pleasure read you’re willing to admit:

You know what I feel guiltiest about is re-reading the same few series when I have so many new friends waiting in the house to be discovered….

10: Best smut:

I’m asexual and probably not the one to judge. I used to read some of Nora Roberts’ more fantastical series because friends were reading them and I enjoyed the characters and the plots and the romantic side of the relationships if not the scenes where things were more physical (which are usually in hers only a few pages per book anyway). Three Sisters’ Island was my favorite trilogy, mostly because I aspired to the bookstore/cafe that the protagonists co-own. Once upon a time, those friends alongside whom I was reading those books and I thought that such a shop was our destiny too. I’ve not entirely given up the dream.

11: True Crime:

Not my genre. I don’t think I have ever read one.

12. Kids Book:

I’m going to interpret this more specifically as a picture book because most of my answers to these questions have already been kids’ books. And my favorite picture book right now is Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima.

13: If someone wants to know you, read:

I feel like this has to be Harry Potter again because it was so foundational to my childhood and teen years.

14: Life can neatly be divided into before this book and after this book:

…Ah, still probably Harry Potter.

15: Eye-opening true story:

I read so few nonfiction books… and most that I do read are mythology collections and studies…. So we’re going to reach way back and call up the ghost of a class on children’s literature and a book called From Instruction to Delight, which traces the evolution of society’s way of thinking about children and childhood through the books that are written for that age beginning in the 1500s and going up through 1850. I hadn’t really realized how recent childhood is as a concept.

16: Book you’ve tried to read at least three times:

Though I am ashamed to admit it, Andrew Peterson’s final book in The Wingfeather Saga, The Warden and the Wolf King has made it from my bookshelves to my bedside table at least three times since its release in 2014 without my having finished it yet—not because it is a bad book. It doesn’t seem to be, and I enjoy it whenever I pick it up again (though I do have my quibbles), but I am still only 45% of the way through it. Something else always comes along and distracts me. It’s on my bedside table again now, but I haven’t actually read any of it since December 2018, and it really ought already to be back on the bookshelf, awaiting a time when I decide to try again to defeat Gnag the Nameless.

17: Worst book recommendation anyone ever gave you:

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

18: Popular author with hidden depths:

I feel like this has got to be Rick Riordan again. You think you’re buying an action-adventure story based on Norse mythology. What you don’t expect is the crash course on what it’s like to be homeless in Boston in the winter or on what it means to fast for Ramadan or what it means to identify as genderfluid or the few words of ASL that Riordan describes well enough to be tried.

19: Best book you studied in school:

There’re actually a few to narrow down: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Odyssey, Little Women, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Beloved, As I Lay Dying, Virginia Hamilton’s collection The People Could Fly, Maria Tatar’s The Classic Fairy Tales, ha! I technically did take a class that required Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

By the time Harry Potter was required, I cut myself some slack and relied on previous readings rather than reading it for class, and it had already influenced me (and I recognize that it is not the best written among that set). I think To Kill a Mockingbird had the most profound influence on me as a book that I was reading first for class. The book that I read for class that I’m proudest to have finished is the full translation of The Odyssey by Robert Fitzgerald. That’s my brag book.  Partially because I attended a different high school my freshman year than I did sophomore-senior year, and the first school that I attended read the full translation, while at the second freshmen only read a few short selections from a textbook, so it did feel like something that I could brag about, something that I had done that the my peers had not.  But I also enjoyed it, and I enjoy having the knowledge of it now.

20: Fave short story:

My favorite short story may actually be “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (that’s it; that’s the entirety of the text) because of what it is able to accomplish in SO little and because of the challenge that it issues. The story is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but it seems that the idea of this ad as a story predates him.

If we’re refusing to allow flash fiction, then my favorite short story is probably Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Lightning Tree” which was published in the anthology Rogues edited by George R. R. Martin. I like it because I like being in that world and that town and I like the focus on the children who are absolutely invisible in the larger novels of Rothfuss’ once Kvothe matures out of childhood himself, but I love it because of my memories of a being on a beach with two friends while one of them read it aloud to the other two of us, of playing in the ocean between sections, and of wandering down the boardwalk, trying to escape the sun and the heat.

21: Most beautiful writing:

I aspire to write like Patrick Rothfuss.

22: Favorite novel:

I may just have to choose Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix here. It’s my favorite of those 7.

23: Favorite short story collection:

Maria Tatar’s The Classic Fairy Tales is a fantastically put together collection of fairy tales organized by tale type so that stories resembling, say, “Cinderella” or “Bluebeard” are side by side despite their countries of origin, allowing for an easy comparison of cultures and tales of the same type with introductions to each tale type by Tatar. This collection includes folktales with and without known attribution, a wide collection from different countries, and includes a few modern retellings by authors like Roald Dahl and Margaret Atwood.

 

Please feel free to take this questionnaire and format it for whatever social media platform you use. I’m afraid I don’t know who to credit with its origin.  Ping back to me if you do fill one of these out.  I would love to read some more.

Book Review: Wilder Girls, Infected and Quarantined

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's bio.

I read four novels in full and half of another and about 30 pages of one more for Barnes & Noble’s new YA Book Club in 2019. This was my favorite of them all. It was advertised to me as Lord of the Flies with a female cast. In Power’s novel a strange disease has struck an isolated island that is home to an elite girls’ school. The island has been quarantined, and the girls have already survived eighteen months in isolation when the story begins. The girls form new social strata. They form strong bonds with fewer people. But they form bonds. It is not every girl for herself. And there is order to their society. The few remaining adults still hold authority over the loose coalition of cliques.  There is still a sense of acting towards a collectively good and a collective goal of survival of as many as possible.

It’s honestly been too long since I last read Lord of the Flies for me to intelligently compare the two.

The disease, which affects everything living on the island—human, animal, and plant—turns things more wild, monstrous. The trees grow taller and the forest more dense. The animals in the forest grow large and turn carnivorous while their still living bodies begin to decay. It affects the girls in different ways. Some have protruding, spiked spines breaking the skin along their backs. Some glow in the dark. Some sprout scales. Girls die of the Tox—or of the changes that their bodies undergo because of it.  But some survive, and not everyone who survives the painful changes views these changes as monstrous.

The government sends supplies, but there are never enough supplies, and there is never a cure.

This is a novel that explores what makes a person human.

This is a story about survival and friendship and love, about trust or distrust of the authority, particularly male and adult authority over girls. This is a story about the ties between families and friends and what might sever those bonds.

I don’t remember this being a particularly uplifting story, but it is a story about surviving disease and about surviving quarantine that some of you might find timely.

The novel itself is fairly short, clocking in at 357 pages, and I found especially its latter third fast-paced.

SPOILERS:

When Hetty, one of the POV characters, is chosen for the elite group that crosses the island to fetch the supplies from the dock and bring them back, she discovers that one of the few remaining adults, Ms. Welch, is making the girls dump many of the supplies that are sent. It is not until later that she understands that she is trying to keep the girls from being either poisoned or cured.

The disease is revealed to be a disease released from melting permafrost, so this is a science-fiction more than a fantasy, though I hope no such disease is caught in our ice.

****

This review is fairly incomplete, but I’m afraid it’s now been 6 months since I read it, and I passed it quickly to a friend who wanted to read it. I’m writing this one from memory, and my memory is failing me.

Power, Rory. Wilder Girls. New York: Delacorte-Penguin Random, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Rory Power, Delacorte Press, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: March 2020 Picture Book Roundup: Important Lessons and Cartoonish Animals

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Click to visit BN's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.

A Whale of a Mistake by Ioana Hobai. Page Street Kids-Page Street, 2020.

I have been waiting for the release of this book since going to a talk by an editor for Page Street Kids who had an ARC with her. The cover is SPLENDID. The illustrations are SPLENDID. I adore the color scheme.  I hadn’t been able at that talk to spend time with its text. The text actually fell a little flat to me. I know that this book was inspired by the author’s divorce, though the text for children speaks more broadly to any large or seemingly large mistake. I was reminded strongly of Kobi Yamada’s What Would You Do series, and I think if I was not so familiar with these books, I would like this one better. It would be more standout. Still, this is a message that Yamada has yet to cover, and it is a good message—that large mistakes when we take a step back from them, are small in the face of a vast universe, and become less frightening to rectify when seen from this perspective.  This book just feels like it should be part of that series, and in that way, the contrasts of blues and salmons seem out of place; I expect sepia, and I expect my round-faced, medieval-ly dressed protagonist, not someone white-faced and blue-haired.

The mistake here is represented as a whale that takes the protagonist out to sea, away from help and community, and then shrinks as she faces it and steers it back towards land.  In much the way that Yamada’s problem seems overwhelming until it is faced and reveals its opportunity.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

You Will Be Found by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and illustrated by Sarah J. Coleman (inkymole). Little, Brown-Hachette, 2020.  Intended audience: Teens and young adults.

The text of this picture book, shelved at Barnes & Noble right now in the teen section though I think it is absolutely for any age, is the lyrics from the song of the same title from the musical Dear Evan Hansen. This song in particular has always made my eyes sting, and it could not have come out at a more appropriate time. The song in the musical (to my understanding from memorizing the soundtrack but never having actually seen the play) is the speech given by the title character, Evan Hansen, at a school assembly honoring the memory of a schoolmate who has committed suicide. This speech is filmed by one of the students and goes viral.  The general message is that we are never alone, that there is always help.  The illustrations in this edition are watercolors in mostly blues and purples but with flashes of yellow and warmer colors and one page that is a rainbow of text. It all looks very modern and very soothing. I think the illustrations chosen represent the text on the pages well. If you need this reminder (and I think we all probably need this reminder), this is a good book to keep on a coffee table. Is it as moving as the song? Probably not. Can I read the book to myself without singing the song in my mind? Also no. So my impression of it may be skewed.  The text isn’t 100% word for word, but it is near enough. I am glad though that the authors opted against keeping in, for example, the bridge text of the newscasters and Facebook comments and likes. I think it makes for a stronger book as it is than if they had done. For what this is, this is excellently done. I’ve read several books the texts of which are song lyrics, and I think this has been my favorite.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Llama Unleashes the Alpacalypse by Jonathan Stutzman and illustrated by Heather Fox. Henry, Holt-Macmillan, 2020.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.  Intended release May 2020.

I received an ARC of this book about a lazy llama who doesn’t want to clean. His friend Alpaca loves to clean though. So Llama invents the Replicator 3000, into which he tricks his friend Alpaca. Two Alpacas clean Llama’s house with ease, but Llama wonders what he could do with more Alpacas. The legion Alpacas get loose and wreck havoc by cleaning the town. Llama sits happily in his clean home with a pizza. The pizza draws the many Alpacas back to Llama’s home, where Llama realizes his mistake and rectifies it with a reverse switch. But now he and Alpaca are both at his home in time for dessert, and Llama has only one slice of cake. And a Replicator 3000. This book is silly. But this book made me smile. Llama’s unthinking hijinks remind me of Pig the Pug, though Llama’s illustration style is even more cartoonish, sharing Pig’s and Trevor’s bulbous eyes but simplifying even more their bodies. I like this better than Blabey’s books though. Alpaca is unhurt. Llama is unhurt. Everyone gets cake. The damage is not permanent. And if Stutzman has a Replicator 3000 and a cleaning alpaca, now would be the time to release a legion of alpacas on the world and scrub everything clean.  I also enjoyed the framing of this story, opening with “By dinner, Llama will unleash a great Alpacalypse upon the world” and continuing to mark the passage of time by Llama’s meals, which include second lunch and second dinner.  Llamas eat often like hobbits.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

How to Catch a Unicorn by Adam Wallace and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Wonderland-Sourcebooks, 2019.

This is narrated not by the would-be-captors but by the unicorn herself. Bored, she sets off for the zoo, but she is spotted by some kids who set out to capture her. She eludes their creative traps occasionally helped by the zoo inhabitants, so you could use this book as an animal primer. The unicorn lore in this was… interesting. A good bit of it I had never heard and I think was made up by Wallace for this story rather than pulled from previously established lore. You can’t say that any of its wrong, though, as unicorns, if they ever existed, exist no longer.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

How to Catch a Dinosaur by Adam Wallace and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Wonderland-Sourcebooks, 2019.

This is the fourth book that I’ve read from this series (missed from this blog is How to Catch a Dragon, a book written for the Chinese New Year; I may go back to review those picture books eventually). This one is about a boy who hopes to win a school science fair by catching a dinosaur. Though ultimately unsuccessful in his hunt, his contraptions for catching the dino do snag him the trophy. I was pleasantly surprised by the modern dino facts that this book alludes to: that some dinos had feathers, that dinos are nearer to birds than other living creatures. In this particularly the “better luck next time” refrain that ends of each of the the books in this series is jarring because the narration and the perspective changes from the children to the dino for this last line.

***1/2

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: Studying Portal Fantasies and Asexuality and Solving Murders in Every Heart a Doorway

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, reviews, and author's bio.

Being asexual can feel like being one of the Whos of Whoville during the trial of Horton the Elephant, shouting desperately “We are here! We are here! We are here!” but feeling like no one can hear. This is only the second book that I have read with a character that identifies as asexual. The protagonist in this actually uses the word asexual to refer to herself and her orientation, which the other, Felicity Montague from Mackenzi Lee’s Montague Siblings does not. And it’s such a relief. It feels like someone hears. Even if it is only one kind-hearted elephant with ginormous ears and the rest of the jungle still can’t hear and refuses to believe.

I was a little disappointed that Nancy, the asexual character in question here, is marked as an outsider and considered a suspect by her peers for her association with the dead.  I would have enjoyed more I think a story about an asexual character who is liked and accepted by her peers—as much as Nancy’s social exile is here not related to her asexuality.  And I did enjoy Nancy’s story apart from her asexuality.  I just wish in a way that the two stories—that of her asexuality orientation and what that means to her and that of her disassociation from the land of the living—hadn’t been found in a single character.

It was the knowledge that the protagonist describes herself as ace that got me to pick up this book, though it had been recommended to me on the basis of its concept before.

It recommends itself well. The eponymous wayward children are those who have visited other worlds and have returned and are struggling now with how to live in our world. That is a unique concept. And I enjoy the idea of exploring what happens after most plots end, after the world has been saved, after the villain has been slain.

But this is a weird book.

It will not be for everyone.

Beyond increasing asexual visibility, I’m still trying to decide if it is for me.

I enjoyed it.

But I didn’t love it like I expected to do.

I didn’t fall in love with McGuire’s prose the way that I expected to do.

This is a book that seems partially a murder mystery, partially a bildungsroman, a school story specifically, partially a study of portal fantasies as a genre—all while refusing to settle into a genre itself. There’s only a little magic in this world. We visit none of the portal worlds for more than a glimpse.

I did enjoy the murder mystery, but I didn’t get wrapped up in the whodunit the way that I expected to do or the way that I wanted to do. I didn’t feel drawn to guess or invested in guessing I think because I felt like I lacked information as characters were slowly added to the novel even after the murders had already begun.

I liked the characters, but I didn’t really feel as though I got to know any of them as much as I would like to do. This is a series, and it seems like later books might more fully explore some of the characters to which we are introduced, but not Nancy and not Christopher as far as I can tell who were some of the more intriguing to me, Nancy because I want to savor time getting to know other aces and Christopher because I found his world and his magic intriguing, which seem to be closely tied to the Land of the Dead found in Mexican mythology.

I did like and enjoy getting to know Kade whose coming out as transgender got him expelled from his world and his childhood home in this world, though not before becoming a hero and the goblin prince.

Jack grew on me. I look forward to getting to know her better, but I’m not sure that I want to explore with her her High Reason, High Wickedness world, which is where the next book heads.

I am glad that I read this. I am debating still whether or not I will continue the series.

****

McGuire, Seanan. Wayward Children, Book 1: Every Heart a Doorway.  Tor/Forge-Tor.com, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Seanan McGuire, Tor, or Forge. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Eurocentric Study of Curious, Mostly Christian Myths of the Middle Ages

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Click to visit WorldCat to find a copy in your local library and summary.

In his introduction to this edition, Hardy writes that he “ruthlessly abandoned the farther shores of [Baring-Gould’s] research,” and I am inclined to believe that he was utterly ruthless (14-15). I have sought out copies of Baring-Gould’s unedited text and have found 600 page volumes where this one is 159.  I found Hardy’s edit of Baring-Gould’s original to be wonderfully readable and accessible, mostly because in this edit each story and its dissection is only a few pages long, most entries less than 10 pages, making it an easy book to read in pieces.  I found most of what I would want from this book—the myths themselves and some information about their possible antecedents—to be present in the abridged edition.  I have not yet and probably won’t read the ponderous 600 page volume; there is too much more modern scholarship to read, and this was a library book acquisition literally picked up when the book that I came for could not be found.

Please note that from now on whenever I cite “Baring-Gould” I really mean “Baring-Gould filtered by Hardy” because I suspect that Hardy’s edit has greatly influenced my impression of this book.

This is both a collection of myths and a study of myths.

Although Baring-Gould often points out similarities between the myth that he is telling and myths of other continents, this book is whoppingly Eurocentric, focusing most of its time on myths of Germany, France, and Great Britain—somewhat understandable as Baring-Gould seems to have spent most of his time in these countries—but his evaluation of and the language that he uses to speak about peoples outside of Europe is often uncomfortable to a modern reader.

Most of the myths that Baring-Gould, an Anglican priest and hymnist, explores here elevate and presuppose a Christian worldview—again, understandable given the focus on European myths of the medieval period when and where the Church had more power and more greatly effected everyday life and given Baring-Gould’s own religious occupation, though again the disregard for other religions and even other branches of Protestantism than Anglican is again uncomfortable.  Baring-Gould’s view of Christianity seems more militant than some too; his perhaps best known hymn is “Onward, Christian Soldier,” so his militancy doesn’t surprise me either, though even that hymn has always made me uncomfortable.

Some myths discussed here are stories of holy objects or people who interacted with Jesus on earth. Some are about devils or portals to Hell or Purgatory. Some are stories of saints or fallen Church officials. A few are more secular, like the tale of Gellert or of Melusina.  Many are myths that have made their way if not in their entirety then in pieces or into the framework of the imagination of modern, Western consciousness.  The story of Gellert, for example, I knew almost exactly as Baring-Gould reports it.  The story of the Man in the Moon I had never heard, but of course I know the phrase.  The barest bones of the story of Pope Joan I knew but not the particulars.

Baring-Gould at times comes off as stunningly condescending towards any who disagree with his assessments of the origins and meanings of these myths. “It need hardly be stated that the whole story of Pope Joan is fictitious and fabulous, and has not the slightest historical foundation” (72).

Though often he traces his assumptions through a list of sources and presuppositions, at times in this edition—too often—there is little to no explanation of particular statements, making me wonder if such statements were considered fact by the everyday nineteenth century literate who might have found this volume in its original printing—or perhaps were facts to Hardy’s readers in the 1970s. For example, Baring-Gould connects the English Jack and Jill to the Scandinavian Hjuki and Bil largely based on a supposed similarity between the names which seems like it could to me be coincidental and not an etymologically sound conclusion then decides that the trek of Jack and Jill up the hill and tumbling back down represents the waxing and waning of the moon because of his connection to the two Scandinavian children who are kept on the moon.  Past his word, there’s little evidence presented here.  Again, “Ursula is in fact none other than the Swabian goddess Ursel or Hörsel (Hürsel) to whom human sacrifices were occasionally made and who became the Venus of Venusberg, or Hürselberg, who entranced and debauched Tannhäuser” (105). I have learned being even a casual reader of Tumblr posts about etymology to be skeptical of such seemingly direct lines of etymological connection. I might believe a shared etymological source for the name of the saint and the name of the goddess before I would believe a direct descent from stories of the goddess to stories of the saint—especially without any proof of such, which I do not get from Baring-Gould.

I enjoyed the introduction to a few new European myths and further explanations of ones with which I was already passingly familiar, but much of what Baring-Gould states seems like it ought to be taken with a healthy dose of salt as his biases are very much on parade here and his evidence is at times thin and his observations sometimes not backed up at all.

**1/2

Baring-Gould, Sabine. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. Ed. Edward Hardy. New York: Oxford U, 1978. This edition first published London: Jupiter, 1977.  Original source text by Baring-Gould published 1866.

This review is not endorsed by Edward Hardy, Sabine Baring-Gould, Jupiter Books, or Oxford University Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Entering Amulet’s Alledia

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, and reviews.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.Spoilers.

The first book in this series felt incomplete to me, as if the whole were a prologue and maybe a first chapter, but certainly not a full story.

I decided that I really needed to read the Amulet series after opening one of the later books (I’m not sure which) and discovering the rebellious prince of the elf court and the political allies and enemies that he has in his father’s palace. He was present in this first book but only barely, given not even a name.

This book focuses on the humans who find themselves in this alternate earth, a brother and sister and their widowed mother.  It seems too to want to be about building the world, but the world introduced in this book is so shallow compared to what comes in the second.

This first book started more darkly than I expected, with the death by a car crash of the protagonist’s father, who while still alive but trapped beneath the dashboard and steering wheel plunged in the car over a cliff.

Seeking a new start and a less financially burdensome house, the widowed mother moves her family into an old house inherited from her eccentric grandfather. In her great-grandfather’s library, Emily pricks her finger on a handprint, which causes the revelation of a pendant that she cannot leave behind and which ties itself onto her neck.  (Are you getting One Ring vibes?  Because I was.)

In the house’s basement, chasing odd noises that she expects are caused by a wild animal, Emily and Navin’s mother is swallowed whole by a tentacled creature. The creature gets Navin too, but Emily and her mother are able to rescue him.  By the time that they do, though, all three of them and the creature have entered a strange land through a portal in the basement.

The amulet speaks to Emily and leads her to the home of her great-grandfather in this land.  Its instructions include telling her to leap off a cliff while clinging to a large mushroom which is too reminiscent of her father’s death, though that parallel seems never to be addressed within the text.

But her great-grandfather is dying.

His power over the amulet is passed to Emily when she accepts the power, and by accepting the power, she maintains the life force of her great-grandfather’s magical, mechanic creations.

Together with the machines, Emily and Navin chase after the creature that swallowed their mother.

With the amulet’s help, they manage to wrest her from the creature, but Emily is almost abducted by an elven prince who has his own stone amulet and who wants her help to kill his father. The amulet wants Emily to kill the prince for his attempted abduction, but Emily resists and lets him go. Emily’s desire for mercy I think will be central to what makes her an effective heroine of the series and of this fantasy world.

Emily’s mother is poisoned by the creature, and the second book takes the heroes of this tale to the nearest city where they seek the help of a doctor.

There Emily and Navin witness the cruelty of the elves who rule the city.

They are offered help from a vulpine bounty hunter, which they initially refuse, focused on merely helping their mother.

But the elves follow them to the doctor’s, and they narrowly escape into the arms of the resistance.

Emily, Leon Redbeard the bounty hunter/resistance fighter, and the leporine Miskit seek out the prophetic gadoba forest and the fruit that will cure Emily’s mother, pursued by the elves, but Navin discovers himself the commander of the resistance army.

The end of this second book is far more satisfying. The personal and societal stakes are heightened. The magic is a little better explained though still quite nebulous. The roles of the main pro- and antagonists are better settled. The family has a new home—the three of them, everyone conscious and mending.

I think I will continue on with the series, though I read the description of the last of the HiLo books the other day, and now I want to read that series too.  Kazu Kibuishi has only one more book planned for this series, so perhaps I will wait until the series is complete then binge my way through the war for Alledia.

My advice to you, though, if you’re just coming to this series is to read past the first book, to read at least through the second before deciding whether you will or will not continue.

Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet, Book 1: The Stonekeeper.  New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2008.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet, Book 2: The Stonekeeper’s Curse.  New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2009.

Intended audience: Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7.

This review is not endorsed by Kazu Kibuishi, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.