Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman, illus. Bret Helquist (2009) E

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

“The Golden Key,” by George MacDonald (1867) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.30.2012
Book from: Personal collection; the full story is available online for free here.

The Golden Key: cover image“There was a boy who used to sit in the twilight and listen to his great-aunt’s stories. She told him that if he could reach the place where the end of the rainbow stands he would find there a golden key.

“And what is the key for?” the boy would ask. “What is it the key of? What will it open?”

“That nobody knows,” his aunt would reply. “He has to find that out.”

“I suppose, being gold,” the boy once said, thoughtfully, “that I could get a good deal of money for it if I sold it.”

“Better never find it than sell it,” returned his aunt.

And the boy went to bed and dreamed about the golden key.

Now all that his great-aunt told the boy about the golden key would have been nonsense, had it not been that their little house stood on the borders of Fairyland. For it is perfectly well known that out of Fairyland nobody ever can find where the rainbow stands. The creature takes such good care of its golden key, always flitting from place to place, lest any one should find it! But in Fairyland it is quite different. Things that look real in this country look very thin indeed in Fairyland, while some of the things that here cannot stand still for a moment, will not move there…”

George MacDonald has long represented a major hole in my knowledge of fairy-stories, though I’ve known of the deep regard of Tolkien, among numerous others, for his work. I’ve always wanted to read The Princess and the Goblin for that reason, but this gracefully designed edition of “The Golden Key, with 1987 illustrations by Maurice Sendak and an afterword by W. H. Auden, ended up being my first foray into MacDonald’s work.

“The Golden Key” is an “adult” fairy tale, in the vein of The Little Prince: deliberately rich with allegorical possibilities, though less explicitly moralizing than the former. It begins in a lightly mischievous register – hard not to be delighted with the character of Tangle, who begins her adventure by climbing down the vines outside her window because the heroine in her storybook did it – but quickly takes on mystical overtones. In a quest fueled by Romantic ideals of childish intuition and union with the natural world, and distinctly reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Tangle and Mossy (the boy in the opening lines) endlessly seek the land whose beautiful shadows they see cast in a valley in Fairyland. Sendak’s illustrations perfectly complement the text, with their air of thoughtful mystery:

I do wish I had read this when I was a bit younger, and more readily stirred by purely romantic narratives; the richness and profundity of MacDonald’s prose can teeter on the verge of cloying. There are plenty of wonderful details, though, that startle with their strangeness and vividness – my favorite being a flying, feathered fish that leaps into a cooking pot. And MacDonald writes with easy, luminous grace, evoking a sense of immense yearning and mystical expanse.

Go to:
George MacDonald: bio and works reviewed
Read “The Golden Key” online

Legends of the Mouse Guard, by David Petersen and others (2004) E

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

Bone Vol. 1, by Jeff Smith (1993) E

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

The Year of the Dog, by Grace Lin (2005) E

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

Booklish #5: Matilda 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?


Continue reading Booklish #5: Matilda Honey Oatmeal Scones

Thirteenth Child, by Patricia Wrede (2009) K

Date Read: 3.31.11
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Thirteenth Child is set against the backdrop of an alternate universe that reads like turn of the 18th century America with magic– a relatively developed and civilized East Coast and people applying for settlements and moving out West to pioneer the land. Magic is the center of life in this world, with universities and courses of study primarily focused on magical history and practice, and each settlement’s survival depends on a trained magician to protect it from the mysterious magical wilderness. Francine, known as Eff, is born into a large family of magicians as the thirteenth daughter, which according to Avrupan magic is highly unlucky and those around her believe that she has only potential for great evil. A combination of the escalating bullying and hatred directed toward Eff and the lure of a fresh beginning at a new teaching post for her father prompts the Rothmer family to move out West, away from some of the more established institutions of thought and ingrained prejudices, to a frontier that introduces Eff to new magics and the dangers of fringe settlements.

I would say Thirteenth Child was a pleasant read in that it was not very challenging or engaging but had enough shiny objects scattered throughout to keep me mildly interested for the duration. I’d chalk part of it up to the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in that it set the bar very, very high, and unfortunately, Thirteenth Child fell short in every way. Cimorene and co were simply more interesting, being a rambunctious crew with simmering love plots and a great deal of magical talent and flourish, and they traipsed around a world full of dragons, magic carpets, towers, princesses– you name it. Granted, Thirteenth Child was simply not aiming for the same effect because it had a very calm setting and a story centered on family and childhood, but the characters and plot felt muted and dampened, as if striving for that same level of excitement and exploration but being unexpectedly held back by an ill-chosen pairing of heroine and setting.

Continue reading Thirteenth Child, by Patricia Wrede (2009) K

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin (2009) E

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

Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli (1997) E

Date read: 10.11.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Adapted from the back cover:

“In Palmer LaRue’s hometown of Waymer, turning ten is the biggest event of a boy’s life. It marks the day when a boy is ready to take his place as a wringer – the boys who wring the necks of wounded pigeons at the annual Pigeon Day shoot. It’s an honor and a tradition. But for Palmer, his tenth birthday is not something to look forward to, but something to dread. Because – although he can’t admit this to anyone – Palmer does not want to be a wringer. But he can’t stop himself from getting older, any more than he can stop tradition. Then one day, a visitor appears on his windowsill, and Palmer knows that this, more than anything else, is a sign that his time is up. Somehow, he must learn how to stop being afraid and stand up for what he believes in.”

Jerry Spinelli, like many otherwise excellent children’s book authors, most often falters when he leans too heavily towards explicit didacticism. Wringer, with its themes of resisting bullying and peer pressure, could easily fall into this category, but I was extremely pleased to find it instead an organic and moving story. Occasionally a character’s behavior might be a little too conveniently suited to the needs of the plot and message to be credible, but overall – I couldn’t put it down, cried twice, and found much of the writing startlingly beautiful. One reviewer observed that Wringer benefits from being less “antic” than Maniac Magee (my longtime favorite Spinelli novel), and as much as I love Maniac’s picaresqueties, I agree that Wringer makes for a quieter, more intimate emotional experience.

Above all, the main characters are written with great psychological acuity. Spinelli evokes Palmer’s half-articulated fears both vividly and believably, and his relationships with his mother and his friend Dorothy are deeply charming and hilarious and true-to-life. In general I appreciated that Palmer’s parents are so gentle and empathetic, especially now that I’m actually old enough to sympathize with the adults in children’s books, and not just regard them opaque and rather less interesting than the protagonists.

Another favorite element: the deep wonder and precision with which Spinelli describes Nipper, Palmer’s pigeon friend, as well as Palmer’s own eagerness to learn about pigeons:

Continue reading Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli (1997) E

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart (2007) K

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


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.


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