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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.15.2012
Book from: Borrowed from cousin

or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia: being a revelation of matters of High Confidentiality and Greatest Importance, including extracts from the intimate diary of a Noblewoman and the sworn testimony of a Lady of Quality

Dear Reader,
We are having the most wonderful time on our tour of Europe with our new husbands, Thomas and James. We’ve been shopping in Paris, sightseeing in the Alps, and riding gondolas in Venice – there’s nothing like exploring the Continent!

However, there have been some troublesome moments. There was the midnight intruder who left behind a fashionable Turkish slipper. We also always seem to be running into the same peculiar people on our visits to ancient sites. And, oh yes, there was our discovery of the mysterious parcel that hints at a murderously magical plot of international importance!

Clearly, this isn’t quite the calm and relaxing journey we were expecting. But this Grand Tour is turning out to be the best adventure of our lives!

Love,
Cecy and Kate

The Grand Tour is an equally witty and fun sequel to the classic Regency fantasy Sorcery and Cecelia (my review). Plotwise, it’s over-reliant on convenient coincidences to move things along – the first half of the book verges on tiresome in this respect, as the girls and their husbands meander from attraction to attraction and just keep on bumping into those “peculiar people.” Eventually, though, the protagonists do go on the offensive and start trying to think one step ahead of the evil conspirators, as the extent of their plot becomes increasingly clear. But even before then, the affectionately combative dialogue, occasional brushes with danger (thieves! highwaymen! societal embarrassment!), and opportunities for secondhand touristry (there’s plenty of amusing and curious detail on 19th-century European travel, with the bonus of magical conveniences like anti-flea charms) kept me trundling on through the pages.

One of my only disappointments with Sorcery and Cecelia was the authors’ exceedingly light touch when it comes to fantastical worldbuilding, so I was gratified that The Grand Tour, with its international stakes and post-Napoleonic anxieties about war and rulership, goes a bit further in weaving magic into the world’s political and historical fabric. Its climax, especially, hints intriguingly at the depth of ancient magical practice.

Mostly, though, The Grand Tour is happy to remain a character-driven romp. The epistolary form rarely generates any real plot tension, since dramatic events are necessarily recounted after the fact, so I found that more tension arises from any distress the characters might be feeling during the events, than from the events themselves. This is especially so since the universe is a quite moral one, and threats to life and limb of the main characters are rarely serious and never permanent. Very comforting.

I did previously also complain about it being difficult to distinguish the personalities of the main characters; it turns out the nearly 500 pages’ worth of sequel is an effective cure for that, especially when one of the major subplots is Kate’s continued efforts to overcome her nervousness at all social obligations. This is resolved in a heavy-handed but still charming way.

The last page of the book suggests, of course, the possibility of another sequel, which I’ve only just realized was released in 2006: The Mislaid Magician, or, Ten Years After, which I’ll have to keep in mind for the next time I’m looking for the bookish equivalent of a frothy cup of hot chocolate. All three books have recently been released as ebooks with beautifully designed covers (link includes an interview with Stevermer on the trilogy).

Go to:

Patricia C. Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Caroline Stevermer: bio and works reviewed
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (1988): review by Emera

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Apologies for the utter deadness around here lately; Kakaner is fiendishly, horrendously, unspeakably busy with a very exciting new job, and I’ve been occupied trying to not get kicked out of wildly succeed in my graduate program.

But here’s another round of gender-subversive fun for fans of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and anyone whose interest was piqued by my review of Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight: Katie O’Neill’s gently goofy and heartfelt new webcomic Princess Princess, in which a dashing princess errant is the one to rescue a tower-immured damsel.

“I have a sword, a unicorn, and kick-butt hair!” – Princess Amira

Princess Princess updates once weekly, and is predicted to run up to 30 or 40 pages. You can also find additional art and bonus comics over at its Tumblr.

– E

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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.

Go to:

Neil Gaiman: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.24.11
Book from: Personal collection

“Of all the things Anya expected to find at the bottom of an old well, a new friend was not one of them. Especially not a new friend who’s been dead for a century. Falling down a well is bad enough, but Anya’s normal life might actually be worse. She’s embarrassed by her immigrant family, self-conscious about her body, and she’s pretty much given up on fitting in at school.

Anya really could use a friend – even a ghost. But her new BFF isn’t kidding about the “Forever” part . . .”

Great characters, great dialogue, fabulous art. Brosgol’s style is elastic and rounded, equally ideal for conveying weightless movement and solid figures; the same could be said of her writing.

The resolutions to Anya’s emotional and social conflicts head towards conventional teen-movie territory, but Brosgol has such a light touch (her sharply contemporary dialogue often comes in handy) that none of the “wholesome realization! reconciliation and mutual understanding!” moments feel too heavy or forced. The climax, in particular, surprises by deliberately backing off of a too-easy, emotionally violent “conclusion.” I love how honest Anya comes to be about her own shortcomings. I’m also rather in love with her acerbic, squinty, spiky-skinny best friend Siobhan:

Siobhan
Siobhan, Exhibit A.

I found the comic a clear-eyed exploration of how so much of what makes teen girls unhappy – social pressure, body image, embarrassing family, lack of perspective – can come close to making some into little monsters of selfishness, and how they/we (been there, not so long ago) can come to back away from that brink. All in all: Anya’s Ghost is funny, scary, sad, and beautifully drawn.

(I first found Brosgol’s work, by the way, through the Draw This Dress Tumblr she shares with Emily Carroll, where the two post their lively illustrations of historical and sometimes not-so-historical fashion. Anya actually models a Victorian bathing suit in one post!)

Go to:
Vera Brosgol: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2011.10.16
Book from: Personal collection

Cassel Sharpe is the only non-magical member of a family of curse workers, in a world where magic is illegal and hence “worker” families constitute the magical equivalent of the mafia. Despite his disappointing failure to inherit curse-working powers, Cassel somehow managed to murder his childhood friend and love, Lila – though why he can’t remember. Add in life-threatening bouts of nightmares and sleepwalking, a dysfunctional crime family, and the beginnings of an elaborate conspiracy, and Cassel’s attempts at passing himself off as a normal kid seem like they might be over for good.

I read White Cat in one sitting after accidentally meeting Holly Black at a book festival and picking up a copy from her. This is addictive stuff: magical con artists and Russian mobsters; family melodrama; a hard-driving, twisty-turny plot; a mouthy, self-deprecating protagonist with likably grounded sidekicks. I must give a particular hurrah for there being a male Asian-American character: Sam Yu, Cassel’s roommate, a theater geek whose vehicle of choice is a converted hearse.

Black’s prose is a lot sharper and cleaner than I remember it being in her Modern Faerie trilogy, which I sorta-loved for its heroines, but mostly remember as a swill of angst. Cassel angsts plenty, too (I admit to skimming some of the whinier passages), but there are moments – particularly the ending – where his emotional experience deepens into real, wrenching anguish. That, and plenty of sharp detail – the world-building, Cassel’s slickly laid out cons, characters who convince you of their reality – kept me invested. I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here. Let this stand as a reminder to myself to pick up Red Glove whenever I find the chance.

Go to:
Holly Black: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.17.11
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner

Legends of the Mouse Guard features thirteen Mouse Guard tales by a broad spectrum of guest artists and authors. Cute, fun, mostly not really worth reading except for a few outstanding cases of either extremely beautiful art, great visual storytelling, or occasionally both. Highlights for me:

  • Jeremy Bastian’s “The Battle of the Hawk’s Mouse and the Fox’s Mouse:” Mindblowingly detailed faux-etchings in colors of faded heraldry.
  • Ted Naifeh’s “A Bargain in the Dark:” The storytelling could have been sharper, but Naifeh’s ink-heavy, swoopingly angular style (which I’d seen before via his collaborations with Caitlín Kiernan and Holly Black) stands out here from the more traditional illustrations in most of the rest of the collection. And they couldn’t be more perfectly suited to Darkheather’s subterranean vaults, where his story of a wary alliance between a mouse and a bat takes place .
  • Gene Ha & Lowell Francis’ “Worley and the Mink:” Possibly my all-around favorite, for the combination of good humor, rich art and excellent action sequences. A tubby, bespectacled banker-mouse outwits both a tribe of hostile mice and a voracious mink.
  • Guy Davis’ wry & wordless “The Critic,” in which a warrior takes too much inspiration from an artist’s rendering of derring-do.
  • The sweeping tundra scenes of Karl Kerschl’s “Bowen’s Tale” (also wordless), which wonderfully convey the immensity and severe beauty of the arctic from a mouse-sized perspective.

Petersen provides the framing story, of customers at an inn competing in a tale-telling contest to cancel their bar tabs, the totally epic cover of horn-blowing mice (my favorite Mouse Guard cover so far), and some equally epic spreads of other legendary mouse exploits, which appear in-universe as paintings on the inn’s walls.

Go to:
David Petersen: bio and works reviewed
Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, by David Petersen, review by Emera
Mouse Guard: Winter 1152, by David Petersen, review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.23.11
Book from: Personal collection

Bone: Out from BonevilleBone, Volume 1: Out From Boneville

“After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins – trusty Fone Bone, grasping Phoney Bone, and obliviously cheerful Smiley Bone – are separated and lost in a vast, uncharted desert. One by one, they find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures. Eventually, the cousins are reunited at a farmstead run by tough, cow-racing Gran’ma Ben and her spirited granddaughter, Thorn. But little do the Bones know, there are dark forces conspiring against them and their adventures are only just beginning…”

Late to the bandwagon as usual! I’d wanted to read the ever-popular Bone saga for years, and was lucky enough to find a slightly battered copy for half-off while comic-shopping recently. The first volume instantly brought me back to reading Asterix comics on the couch in second grade: Smith’s old-school art is fluidly expressive and filled with gentle slapstick and visual gags. (A recurring one: whenever he’s overcome by his crush on Thorn, Fone Bone’s mouth crumples up into a scribbled line, and he litters the area with trails of pink hearts.) It’s just comforting to read, sweet, funny, and expertly paced – a good old-fashioned adventure to enjoy on a sunny afternoon.

While I don’t feel too driven by the storyline yet (seems like war with the carrion-eating rat creatures lies ahead), I do love the oddness of the world: the way the seasons arrive with comically accelerated timing in the valley, talking katydid Ted and his giant cousin, the introduction of comics and paper currency (the latter with less success) to the valley inhabitants by the Bones. What exactly is the relationship between the valley and the external world, and what, really, are the Bones? I’m eager to see what comes along, especially if it involves more Gran’ma Ben thonking rat creatures.

And my favorite sequence of art: the evolution of Thorn’s facial expressions and hand gestures on this page (click for a close-up of the whole page).

Go to:
Jeff Smith: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 10.25.11
Book from: Borrowed from a friend
Reviewer: Emera

“… or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: being the correspondence of two Young Ladies of Quality regarding various Magical Scandals in London and the Country.

Dear Reader,
A great deal is happening in London this Season. To begin with, there’s the wizard who tried to poison Kate at the Royal College – she must have mistaken Kate for the Mysterious Marquis (which is curious, as they look nothing alike). There’s also the man who seems to be spying on Cecelia, though he’s not doing a very good job of it – so just what are his intentions?
Then there’s the strange spell that has made our friend Dorothea the toast of the town. Could it possibly have something to do with the charm-bag under Oliver’s bed? (Speaking of Oliver, how long can we make excuses for him? Ever since he was turned into a tree, he hasn’t bothered to tell anyone where he is.)
Clearly, magic is a deadly and dangerous business. And we might be in fear for our lives . . .  if only we weren’t having so much fun!
Love, Cecy and Kate”

A mightily charming epistolary romp through magical Regency England, and a long overdue read for me. Sorcery and Cecelia is fast-paced and stuffed full of clever gambits, sardonic conversation, and plenty of historical slang and detail to please period buffs – the girls spend as much time outwitting fussy aunts and negotiating delicate social constraints as they do uncovering wizardly misdeeds. Also, there are jokes about Byron.

My one disappointment is that the book doesn’t make much room for character development beyond what’s necessary to move the plot along. Between that and the lack of detailed physical description I had trouble telling the girls, and their respective love interests, apart – everyone is witty, quirky, and dark-haired. I must also confess to fantasy-nerdly hankering for more detail about the magical system and the greater role of wizards (they seem to have curiously little influence on society) – but seeing as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell also exists, I can hardly complain that that itch has gone unscratched.

In any case, S & C is a great divertissement: playful and vivid, with a lovable (if homogeneous) cast. Common sense says I shouldn’t (too much work to do these days!), but I’m already scheming about finding the sequel…

Go to:
Patricia C. Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Caroline Stevermer: bio and works reviewed
The Grand Tour, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (2004): review by Emera
The Thirteenth Child, by Patricia C. Wrede: review by Kakaner
Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede: review by Emera
Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede: review by Emera

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Date read: 7.18.11
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

“After Midnight’s Rebellion in the Fall of 1152, the following Winter proves to be a cold and icy season. The Guard face a food shortage threatening the lives of many a mouse in the Territories. Some of the Guard’s finest – Saxon, Kenzie, Lieam, and Sadie, with the old grayfur Celanawe by their side – traverse the snow-blanketed Territories, acting as diplomats to improve relations between the mouse cities and the Guard, and seeking vital supplies for their headquarters at Lockhaven. But hungry predators, the dangers of ice and snow, and a wrong turn into the haunted depths of the abandoned weasel tunnels of Darkheather place even so intrepid a band of Guardsmice in mortal peril…”

As Kakaner assured me, Mouse Guard vol. 2 has much more emotional meat on its bones than did the first arc. Reading this volume, it’s clear that Fall 1152 was just a taster; here our sense of the Guard’s mythology and traditions is deepened, and the worldbuilding continues apace, both within the comic and in the (again) adorable and obsessively detailed appendices.

Midnight’s obligatory power-hungry rebellion is revealed to have longer-lasting implications for the politics of the Mouse Territories and the integrity of the Guard, while Sadie, Kenzie, and Saxon’s descent into the mindblowingly byzantine tunnels and vaulted caverns of Darkheather brings us closer to the darkness and horror that lie in the Guard’s recent past. On Lieam’s end of things, Celanawe drops hints about the mythology of the Black Axe – a lone, mysterious arbiter of justice – and teaches some lessons about self-reliance. All of this is clearly paving the way for Lieam’s impending ascension to full-blown badass. And then there are epic battles with a vengeful one-eyed owl, and torrents of bats in purplish gloom, and beautifully desolate lamplit snowscapes, and Kenzie/Saxon bromance (brodentmance?)…

Also, I underwent a weird little cognitive tweak reading this volume. During the first I’d felt I just couldn’t get the characters, and tenatively chalked it up to the dialogue being a bit stilted. This time around I realized that it’s also that the mice generally only have two facial expressions: peering intently, or squinting determinedly. And once I realized that, I was fine with it; it’s like I’d placated an otherwise expectant emotional processing circuit. Conclusion: Brains are weird. Have some more cute mice.

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

Go to:
David Petersen: bio and works reviewed
Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, by David Petersen, review by Emera

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roald-dahl-quentin-blake-with-book-dessert-breakfast-food-recipe-review-honey-oatmeal-scones

View Recipe: Matilda Honey Oatmeal Scones

In case you can’t tell from the title, giant slice of honeydew, or honeycomb in the picture, this Booklish is for a humble little children’s book, Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988). Specifically, Miss Honey and Matilda are at the center of this feature today and this Booklish is an imagined meal for the two.

The heart of Matilda lies in the scene in which Miss Honey invites Matilda to her cottage for some tea and bread. For the first time, Matilda experiences the security, comfort, and love that comes from having an adult care for her and treat her as a unique and intelligent human being. It is here in the cottage that Miss Honey and Matilda’s trust and relationship begins, and it begins simply and inquisitively.

The room was as small and square and bare as a prison cell. The pale daylight that entered came from a single tiny window in the front wall, but there were no curtains. The only objects in the entire room were two upturned wooden boxes to serve as chairs and a third box between them for a table.That was all. There were no pictures on the walls, no carpet on the floor, only rough unpolished wooden planks, and there were gaps between the planks were dust and bits of grime had gathered…

…Matilda was appalled. Was this really where her neat and trimly-dressed school teacher lived?

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