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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.31.2012
Book from: Personal collection

Photo previously featured in the post “Some additions to the horde.”

In a village in ancient Norway lives a boy named Odd, and he’s had some very bad luck: His father perished in a Viking expedition; a tree fell on and shattered his leg; the endless freezing winter is making villagers dangerously grumpy.

Out in the forest Odd encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle—three creatures with a strange story to tell. Now Odd is forced on a stranger journey than he had imagined—a journey to save Asgard, city of the gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it. It’s going to take a very special kind of twelve-year-old boy to outwit the Frost Giants, restore peace to the city of gods, and end the long winter. Someone cheerful and infuriating and clever . . . Someone just like Odd.

I did not expect to like this as much as I did. I wasn’t wild about the cover illustration (Helquist’s style ended up doing a lot more for me in the black and white interior art, where his lumpy-craggy shapes and light, scratchy hatching really shine), and was feeling a little surly and hacklesome when I decided to give the novel a try. (“Book, I dare you to charm me…”) But I came away from the read smiling, and kept smiling for a good long while afterward.

Odd and the Frost Giants is the tale of a wise fool, with Norse mythology woven in with surprising density. Careful descriptions of historical and natural detail (food, architecture, Odd’s means of survival in the Norwegian wilderness) deepen the thoughtful, inward-looking feel of the narrative, and as typical for Gaiman, the writing is elegantly compressed. I was moved by the sensitivity of his portrayals of Odd – an ingenious, plucky, but quietly sad child – and the singular Frost Giant whom he eventually meets, who in his anxious pathos bears a good deal of resemblance to Wilde’s Selfish Giant. Odd’s story is ultimately about looking deeply at other people, and understanding their needs and suffering.

Gaiman mentions in the author’s bio that he’s considering further Odd tales – I definitely wouldn’t say no to more.

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Neil Gaiman: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 8.10.11
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

“It’s the Chinese Year of the Dog! When Pacy’s mom tells her that this is a good year for friends, family, and ‘finding herself,’ Pacy begins searching right away. As the year goes on, she struggles to find her talent, deals with disappointment, makes a new best friend, and discovers just why the year of the dog is a lucky one for her after all.”

Another hug in book form from Grace Lin. This is her first novel, aimed for a slightly younger reader than Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (review) is. Lin’s writing, though sometimes clunky, has a straightforward warmth and cheerfulness that I continue to find irresistible. The dialogue had me laughing surprisingly often, especially the exchanges between Pacy (Lin’s fictionalized younger self) and her parents and older sister. And as in WtMMM, Lin interlaces the main narrative with tender, funny stories shared by Pacy’s friends and family, and copious, loving descriptions of food and food-centric imagery. (“The days disappeared like dumplings on a plate,” Pacy narrates at one point.)

Pacy’s life isn’t a dramatic one, but there are all sorts of little confusions and upsets to be navigated, both as a young girl tasked with “finding herself,” and more specifically as a first-gen Taiwanese-American who speaks neither Mandarin nor Taiwanese: sorting out holiday traditions, being called a twinkie (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) by other Asian-Americans, feeling alternately too Asian or too American to fit in a given context. Lin calls The Year of the Dog “the book I would have liked to have when I was little.” As a Chinese-American who regularly feels guilt over barely being able to speak Mandarin, I appreciated it just as much now, especially since I’ve been thinking pretty often this summer about cultural identity and immigrant assimilation.

There were also plenty of silly (but mortifying at the time) moments that I identified with and loved seeing in Pacy’s story. Possibly my favorite “OH MY GOD MY CHILDHOOD” moment:

Everyone in our neighborhood hung up Christmas lights all over their houses and trees. We tried to get Dad to do the same. Dad hung the lights, but he didn’t spend too much time doing it. Without putting on his coat or boots, he ran outside and threw them on a bush.

“Brr,” he said, stomping the snow from his bedroom slippers, “it’s cold out there.”

So, of course, while everyone else’s lights were in nice arches and evenly spaced all over their trees and bushes, our lights looked like a blob with lightbulbs flashing frantically for help.

“It looks more natural this way,” Dad said when we complained.

There is one weird point of unaddressed conflict: Pacy’s best friend at the start of the book is a white girl named Becky. When a new Taiwanese-American girl arrives at Pacy’s school, they quickly become best friends instead, but we never learn how Becky feels about it (resentful, confused, unfairly excluded?), or whether Pacy feels any confusion or guilt over it herself. I was nonplussed to see that fly under the narrative radar; Lin seems to have decided to elide any potential tension there.

Go to:
Grace Lin: bio and works reviewed
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin (2009): review by Emera

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Date read: 12.16.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is as much a joy to hold (literally – it’s the nicest size for a hardback) and look at as it is to read:

The insides are just as beautiful, with colored text and chapter headers, and more of Grace Lin’s ornate, exuberant, full-color illustrations scattered throughout, complementing her detailed, lively prose.

The story follows the adventures of Minli, a young girl who leaves her home in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain to seek out the Old Man in the Moon, and learn from him how to change her family’s unhappy fortune. On the way, she helps and is helped by a varied cast of characters with cleverly interwoven stories to tell, including a talking goldfish with ambitions, a flightless dragon, and an orphan boy who lives with a water buffalo.

Minli is sort of generically plucky and lovable, and occasionally the story’s sweetness borders on sappiness, but it’s all so clearly coming from a place of genuine caring that I can’t really complain. Lin’s attention to the grief of Minli’s parents after her disappearance is particularly striking and moving. Among children’s books, I can’t remember reading another Hero’s Journey that also gave page time to those left behind. Watching her parents (her mother in particular) come to their own realizations about their relationships with Minli, and then witnessing the family’s eventual reunion – again, just genuinely sweet, loving, and ultimately joyful.

All in all, I felt like I was being given a hug and a bowl of hot soup in book form. (It doesn’t hurt that Lin clearly enjoys describing details of food as much as she does fantastical scenes of red-silk bridges and monkey-infested peach groves.)

As always with really good YA, I wish I knew younger persons I could gift this to. Older readers looking for more books set in mythical China would do very well indeed to look up Barry Hughart’s rumbustious, madcap adventure-fantasy-mystery-everything-awesome series, The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, beginning with Bridge of Birds.

Go to:
Grace Lin: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 8.1.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

(Photos originally featured in New books for August last year.)

After being left with distinctly mixed feelings for China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun (review), I experienced a bout of paranoia that maybe I was just getting too old for YA books. Cue further wibbling and visions of  nostalgically longing but tragically unconsummatable glances at the YA section of the library. Luckily, The Unicorn Sonata came up shortly after on my reading pile. While The Unicorn Sonata is not a great book, it is a quite good one, and – most importantly to me at the time of reading – it encapsulates the joy and sweetness that I associate with so many of the books that were childhood favorites, at the same time that there are flickers of darkness and more adult ambiguity very close to the surface.

Joey Rivera is an unhappy 13-year-old who’s most at peace when visiting her roguish abuelita in her nursing home, or cleaning and singing in the local music shop whose proprietor she’s befriended. One day, a mysterious boy named Indigo enters the shop, offering for sale a spiraled horn that plays haunting music that only he and Joey can hear. Soon after, Joey finds herself walking out of the streets of Los Angeles and into a world called Shei’rah, where she encounters a host of mythological creatures, some friendly and some dangerous – perytons, fauns, unicorns. The unicorns, Joey learns, the land’s Old Ones, are threatened by a mysterious plague of blindness. As her time in Shei’rah nears an end, she begins seeking out answers to the disease’s origins, and to the other mysteries she’s encountered in the land.

Again, none of this may be strikingly original, but all of it is written with easy grace, good humor, and exuberant imagery. The characters are well-developed for the length of the book, and their dialogue sharply written. I found Joey’s relationship with her abuelita sweet, if a little cliché, and also enjoyed the portrayal of her friendship with a lonely brook-jallah, a kind of predatory nymph. All in all, Joey’s time in Shei’rah often reminded me of the uncomplicated joy and peacefulness of scenes from the earlier Narnia books. In fact, I’m not unconvinced that there’s some deliberate referencing going on, since Joey first enters Shei’rah while walking past a streetlamp, and thereafter encounters – what else but a faun. (Though Shei’rah’s fauns are of an earthier, hairier, riper-smelling variety than Mr. Tumnus.)

I was also intrigued that the central crisis is eventually revealed to be metaphysical, rather than external, in origin, relating to the tensions running through Shei’rah’s more discontented inhabitants, but found the reveal a little too abruptly and patly delivered (“oh, and here’s the moral, by the way”) to be entirely convincing. Nonetheless, it adds another layer of complication to an already surprisingly nuanced fantasy.

Art – Robert Rodgriguez’s full-color illustrations were occasionally a little too… baroque for me (the unicorns look a little gnarly), but they certainly contribute to the book’s rich atmosphere and luxurious look, and I enjoyed his referencing of tapestry patterns in the fields and foliage.

Finally, thank you again to Vega of the Athenaeum for picking up a signed copy for me from Comic-Con!

Go to:
Peter S. Beagle: bio and review index
The Last Unicorn comic #1, by Peter S. Beagle, art by Renae de Liz and Ray Dillon (2010) E
The Last Unicorn comic #2, by Peter S. Beagle, art by Renae de Liz and Ray Dillon (2010) E
The Innkeeper’s Song, by Peter S. Beagle (1993) E

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Date Read:4.27.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

A newspaper runs a peculiar advertisement calling all “gifted children looking for special opportunities ” to audition for a most prestigious and mysterious institution. Many respond to the ad, most of whom are goaded by their parents, but in particular, it is four family-less children who pass. Soon, they find themselves on a mission to save the world as undercover spies on an isolated island trying to bring down an evil institution from the inside. The children must use their extraordinary talents to circumvent barriers and gain the trust of the enemy, while discovering more about their own pasts and each other.

Review

Just as the reviews claim, The Mysterious Benedict Society reads like a fusion of childhood favorites– Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket– with strong “Codename: Kids Next Store” vibes, yet manages to retain a voice and characterization that is wholly unique. It features an ensemble cast of orphans– protagonists whose appeal have been proven time and time again by successful series such as Harry Potter, The Boxcar Children, and A Series of Unfortunate Events—  whose resourceful and quirky members are sure to engage any reader. The tale is a rather straightforward intrigue-filled adventure with a clear inception  and purpose. I found that although it was deftly and winningly told, it lacked some of the magical twists, turns and subplots that really set apart other children’s series. On the other hand, the writing was very intelligent, such that I felt like the reading level could cater to adults and children alike. Stewart is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and it is obvious that the substance of his literary education supports each word. Throw in terrific twists, mindbending (literally) obstacles, Cartoon-Network-esque acronyms, a world domination conspiracy, and you have a hefty contender for a childhood favorite. The Mysterious Benedict Society is absolutely captivating and casts a wide net, ensnaring the bold and shy, nerdy and adventurous.

I am not-so-tentatively labelling this as my new successful children’s series find- it is fresh, intelligent, exciting, and from what I hear, the second installment is even better than the first!

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Trenton Lee Stewart

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Date read: 2.18.09
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Ursula Vernon - Nurk
Nurk, a timid but sensible shrew, one day receives an urgent letter addressed to his famous grandmother Surka, the warrior, pirate queen, and general adventurer. Unfortunately, no one has seen Surka for seasons, and so Nurk packs Surka’s diary and some clean socks into his trusty snailboat, and heads off in search of adventure for the first time in his life. Dragonfly royalty in distress, perilous climes, and strange beasts aplenty await him.

I’ve been a huge fan of Ursula Vernon for years now, both of her vibrant, wildly imaginative artwork – she created the cover and interior illustrations for Nurk, of course – and of her equally weird and hilarious life and writing, as seen in her blog.

Nurk is her first mainstream published book, and is par for the Vernon course, combining a deeply practical, deeply likable hero (à la the protagonist of her long-running webcomic Digger, in which grandmother Surka is a character) with earthy wit, tooth-shattering cuteness, quick pacing, and occasional jolts of very enjoyable, very deeply creepy imagery. As a sampler: unripe salmon growing on trees; silent, voracious, cow-sized caterpillars…

Though for an adult reader, the plot is rather unmemorable (predictable twists, there-and-back-again structure), the individual elements are sufficiently weird and entertaining to make it worth the read. I do wish I knew some young persons of an age to be suitably gifted with it. Well, in a couple of years some of my cousins will be thereabouts, and in the meantime, it’s a quick, fun, slightly twisted adventure for readers of any age.

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Ursula Vernon

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Date Read: 10.12.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Jimmy Jibbett is a boy who dreams of becoming a comic book artist and spends his days in the basement making his stories come to life on paper. His mother is also an artist, but his father is a humorless businessman and his two sisters are brats; overall, his family doesn’t really support his aspirations. But Jimmy finds hope through his friends, certain members of his family, and ultimately his imagination.

Review

This is a pretty charming little story, complete with full illustrations  drawn by the author in the style of a 10 year old. I was lured to buy this book when my friend pointed it out to me on a shelf and said something along the lines of, “Dude! That’s one of my favorite children’s books! It’s about this kid that draws comics!”. I mean, who doesn’t love a kid who loves and draws comics? Case and point.

I had no trouble envisioning Jimmy as this scrawny kid with a constantly runny nose who simultaneously entertained wild dreams of inventing the world’s favorite superhero and nurtured a secret desire for that superhero to come to life and be his best friend. Jimmy is pretty much the quintessential dorky pre-pubescent boy, and subsequently, loser so if you were one of those, read this book.

My one gripe is that it seemed like the entire story was covered by a slight sheen of awkwardness. Although the story is touching and relatable, the writing doesn’t achieve that level of lighthearted elegance usually found in Newbery winners and Jimmy as a character doesn’t really stay with you after you finish reading. The plot was a little bit too simple and straightforward, and the few plot devices seem like they were devised and then inserted into the story. However, I do have to say The Main in the Ceiling has one of the absolutely cutest endings ever.

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Jules Feiffer

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Date Read: 12.27.08
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

A look at the life of Benjamin Button who was born old and died young.

Review

I have never been a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, my only experience having been The Great Gatsby. I feel horrible saying that I didn’t enjoy it in the least bit, although it certainly stands to argue that if I revisited it now with a slightly more mature eye, I would probably quite like it. Being the incredibly anal purist I am, after learning about the upcoming release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in theaters, I headed over to my local BN to read the short story first. I wasn’t blown away by the story, but it was so quaint, indirectly emotional, and beautiful that I ended up spending $13 on the somewhat overpriced newest edition with full-color illustrations.

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isaac_marion_anna_warm_bodies_inside_postcard

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen Emera’s and my numerous reviews of Isaac Marion‘s works, namely The Inside, Warm Bodies, and Anna. These works are pretty much all highly recommended, and are self-published by Marion (links provided at the bottom of this post). Marion is noted for his strange genre niche that is, for the most part, a mix of horror, weird fiction, and romanticism.

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Date Read: 6.11.08
Book From: BurningBuilding, now Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

The summer I discovered Isaac Marion‘s fiction (or more correctly, Emera discovered and I piggybacked on that), I ran around my friends group trying to get everyone to read his stories. I basically spent all of a work day on BurningBuilding engrossed in his short stories, sometimes reading some more than once. Out of all these, the one I repeatedly recommended was Anna, a story I believe is impossible not to love.

Anna is the first person tale of a young ghost who wanders through earth and time, and one day, falls in love with a young boy and follows his life. The story is a mixture of emotions, atmosphere, and a small bit of dialogue that somehow come together to produce a sweeping epic effect. Its simple but beautiful prose is proof that one doesn’t need embellishments and flourishes to successfully tell a story.

The word that always comes to mind when I read Anna is “floating”. First of all, Anna… well, she floats, so I believe it is appropriate. But the word also captures the way Anna lives out her “life”, carried by a wind of time, sometimes skipping 10 years, sometimes 100. This ephemeral quality is also skillfully conveyed by Sarah Musi‘s illustrations, which feature a lot of flowing lines and a bit of whimsy.

In particular, Anna contains one of my favorite scenes ever:

“One day in high-school the boy met a beautiful girl, and they kissed under the football bleachers. Anna turned away, and wished for a strong wind to blow her far from there, but the air was still. She floated into a mountain instead, moving through the rock for miles until she reached the mountain’s heart, and closed her eyes there, feeling the warm, dark crush of the mountain’s life grinding around her.”

I love the idea of withdrawing into the heart of a mountain to mourn. It is such a powerful, majestic image (or maybe I just love mountains and am obsessed with Now We Have a Map of the Piano by Mum), and I like to believe the mountain also lends Anna strength for the rest of her journey.

As of this entry, Marion still has 25 remaining copies of Anna. These are gorgeous, self-published illustrated books on very fine, sturdy paper. If this sounds interesting, you should definitely purchase a copy before Marion becomes too famous =)

Go To:

Isaac Marion
Purchase Anna
Online Sample
Anna (2008) [E]

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