Previously: Saw the cover for this tonight at Written in the Mitten. Gorgeous (though now all I'll be able to think about when I see it was the discus...more Previously: Saw the cover for this tonight at Written in the Mitten. Gorgeous (though now all I'll be able to think about when I see it was the discussions it caused on horse and dragon proportions and genetics (ish)...) =D And then: Just for my own records, my copy has 320 pages, not 240. 320 glorious pages. This is 2 lovely, perfect books in a row now; I am decidedly in Merrie Haskell's corner.
Review: A couple of days ago, I gushed about The Princess Curse, which is sort of loosely connected to Handbook for Dragon Slayers. Though it may not be a fairy tale retelling as The Princess Curse was, it has a lot in common with that charming middle grade book that took over my brain. They have similar worlds (separated by some centuries and location, yes, but with a generalized medieval Easter European setting), and there are also subtle little "easter eggs" that link the two books more fully. Both feel complete as stand-alones, but also work as companion pieces in the larger framework of Haskell's two (so far) apprentice stories. But what they share most strongly is their excellent, plucky, admirable main characters.
I talked a bit in my review of TPC about how Reveka was exactly what I wanted - and needed - in a female protagonist as a kid, and how she's the type I still immediately fall for now. Tilda, the main character of Handbook, is much the same. Haskell has a way with plucky, awesome characters, girls with strength and determination and spirit, and a passion to make them memorable. You can't help but root for and love Haskell's characters; they're fresh and vibrant and thoughtful. And most importantly to me, they're smart - not in an obnoxious, precocious way, but there is a subtle layer to both characters that tells the reader (ie mostly young girls) that these girls are smart and talented, and they use those smarts and talents to follow their passion, and that's what makes them awesome. At the risk of sounding boring and cliched myself, they're role models - but they're not boring and cliched. [See what I mean about how Haskell's books were exactly what I wanted/needed when I was a kid?]
On a similar note, Handbook's main character, Tilda, has a clubfoot. This is a painful-enough affliction on its own, but in medieval times when modern medicine and pain relief are hard to come by, if not non-existent, and you're a princess who's supposed to be seen as strong leader material? Needless to say, this is a huge plot point for Tilda, and I thought it was handled really well. Tilda suffers, but she isn't a whiny martyr; it does have an undeniable influence on who she is and how she reacts to the world around her - and how she expects the world around her to react to her, but in the end, she won't let it define her. I thought Haskell made a lot of smart choices in the handling of Tilda's disability, and the fact that there's no magical resolution was an excellent choice for me. Not only does it make her more relatable and sympathetic, and add a great deal of "interestingness" to her character, but to have a magical, fantastic story that doesn't wave a wand and do away with any "unsavory" bits is exactly what I would want, and what I think is needed. Having a clubfoot doesn't make Tilda less, and though she has this brief moment where she thinks (hopes, longs for, wonders if) maybe she could be magically cured, I think it was an excellent choice on Haskell's part not to.
There's a lot going on in this story...many, many plot points, and to some it may feel chaotic or confusing. I never found it too much to keep track of, and I think the points played well off of one another, but I can see why, to some, it may make it harder to follow, or make them feel like the story was rushed or scattered. But to me, it's a sprawling adventure story in that grand way that you only seem to get in kids books, and reading it brings back some of that irrepressible eagerness and energy that comes with being a kid. As a middle-grader, I would have been completely engrossed and would, without a doubt, have fallen in love with Haskell's world, her characters, and their adventures. As always, highly recommended for those who like middle grade, have middle graders, or want a fun historical fantasy/adventure with a strong, likable female lead.(less)
INITIALLY: Whoa, wait a minute. More September? Woot! Edit: Just read the description, and Holy Effing Velocipedes, I want this NOW.
AND THEN: What can I...moreINITIALLY: Whoa, wait a minute. More September? Woot! Edit: Just read the description, and Holy Effing Velocipedes, I want this NOW.
AND THEN: What can I say that I didn't already say in my review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated? When I finished the first book, it felt complete. That's not to say there wasn't room for more, but it felt like it easily could have been a somewhat open-ended stand-alone book, and I was happy about that. But that doesn't mean I wasn't tickled to death to hear there was a book two - and that it dealt with September's shadow! In fact, I wasn't even nervous going into this that it was going to be a lesser book than the first, as I often am with sequels and 2nd-in-a-series books. I went into this fairly confident that Valente would masterfully avoid the Sophomore Slump, and I think she did. The Girl Who Fell is just as strong as its predecessor, but with a with a more mature, more insightful September at the helm.
Now, I think some people are going to find this a little...hmm - harder? to connect to; I think they'll find it less whimsical and a bit darker, and September a little more serious, and they may interpret that as the story losing some of its magic and charm. But I don't think that's the case, and I personally found it the opposite. I think it's simply that things have changed. September is older now (as our narrator coyly tells us, she now has the beginnings of a heart), and her perception and experiences are different. She's more thoughtful - and more hesitant - which I think for some readers will mean the magic is starting to die. Which in the scope of all things fairy is generally true - the older you get, the more it slips away... But September is still September, even though everyone around her is a shadow of what they're supposed to be (literally), and I think she still comes through very strongly. I actually really really love that September is starting to grow up (as much as we may not want her two); this makes her so much more authentic, AND ALSO this means that a younger audience reading this can potentially grow alongside September and relate to her, and that gives me Happy Reader Shivers.
But even if September is a little older, a little wiser, and a little more introspective, the fact remains that she's still September and she's still going to do Septemberly things and approach the world (both "real" and Fairyland) as only September would. And frankly, Fairyland-Below = awesome. It expands the world of Fairyland really nicely; familiar characters popped up in unexpected ways, and new characters crept in - many of them fleetingly so, as in the way of the first book, but what's so wonderful is that even the minor characters who just pop up and disappear are never confusing. Instead, they make the world full - everything has a place, everything has a purpose, and everything comes into play.
The struggle with the shadows and with Halloween (the Hollow Queen, ie September's sort-of-stolen shadow) are just fantastic. I loved that nothing is ever easy/black and white. I love that you begin to feel for the shadows and for Halloween just as much as you do for their tangible counterparts. I LOVE the idea of everyone's shadows just hanging out, being a part of you but never really getting to experience, never getting credit, never getting to do their own thing. The bittersweet, melancholic streak I talked about (and loved!) in Circumnavigated;is stronger in Fell; (shortest yet), and perfectly suited to Fairyland Below, AND to where all of the characters are now; it's not just September who has grown and changed, but all of the characters - even some you may not expect. There are FACETS. I like FACETS. Makes everything shiny.
Basically, I doubt anyone who liked Circumnavigated will dislike Fell; those that found the beginning of the first slow moving will find the same here, but again, it's a good slow. It's a savory slow. And it will once again charm the pants off kids and adults alike. (Um, scratch that; everybody keep your pants on. You can be charmed with pants.)
Valente is still the Queen of Nonsense, and I still mean that in the best of all possible ways. As far as I'm concerned, she always will be. Long may she reign.
So if you've read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and liked it, you should pick this up. If you haven't, you should do that. But if you can't pick it up just yet, maybe read this Fairyland short story to tide you over? ----->
But before you go, head over to my guest post from Catherynne (and while you're there, enter to win!!) (Ends 10/8/12) And don't forget to check out the other stops on the tour here!(less)
I'm always a little leery of self-published works, so when a self-published author emails me asking to review, I always go looking for an excerpt firs...moreI'm always a little leery of self-published works, so when a self-published author emails me asking to review, I always go looking for an excerpt first. Almost always, the answer is then a polite, "Um, no." But occasionally the excerpt will win me over and have me intrigued enough to start thinking a hesitant, "Yeah, sure?" The excerpt I found for Titan Magic led to a much more resounding, "Yes, please! Gimme, gimme!" But excerpts can fool you, so I was still a teensy bit hesitant. That is, until I actually picked the book up, because within the first chapter, my hesitancy went out the window and it never showed its face again. Titan Magic is easily one of my favorite things I've read this year. For realsies.
When I finished it, my initial one-line review on GR was 'This is a book to be discussed, not rated' which means this is going to be a difficult review to write. (And yet watch how long I can blather on. Talent, people!) But seriously. As I said in my review of Shadows on the Moon, I would love to read this in a lit class or book club because I would love to have passionate, face-to-face discussions with people about it. It's complex and intriguing, and will potentially make some people uncomfortable, which to me is the hallmark of a good discussion book. But beyond that, it's really readable and engaging - you can't have a discussion if 1/2 the people there couldn't be bothered to finish the damn thing. With this, I don't think that would be a problem.
The world building was fantastic. The world, or more accurately, the setting, is very insular for such a huge story, which was kind of neat. The whole thing is based in mythology, philosophy and religion, but it's done in a very organic way. It's very folkloric, with lots of fairy tale and mythology references, but it's not bogged down by them. The most, um...religiously sensitive? among you may be put off by a few things here or there, but then, I wouldn't expect you to be reading a fantasy about people "playing god" and trying to create life, so... As I said, it may make some people uncomfortable, though I don't think that's ever the intent. (Basically, the people made uncomfortable are going to be the people who are always made uncomfortable. By everything. Ever.) Personally, I found the philosophical and moral implications really fascinating, part of what would make this such a good book to sit and chat about, and it added this great layer to the story and the world. The slight totalitarianism of the society added a nice layer, too. But mostly the idea of love - in all its forms, with no such thing as good or bad love - that comes through strongest in the end added warmth and humanity that really set Titan Magic apart.
From here on out, things get slightly spoilery (not much, but some), so you have been warned. ... ... ...
The main character, Maddy, is so very rootforable. Throughout the story, she learns that not only is she not quite normal, she's not even quite human, and her struggle to understand what she is and to decide for herself whether she can ever be more (or even ever should be more), was really gripping. Like a good philosophical debate, the reader questions how things should turn out and whether there can be - or should be - a happy ever after for Maddy, or anyone else involved. Maddy has to struggle with not only what she is at her core, but whether, as potentially powerful as she is, she has any amount of control. The idea of being a vessel for other people, of being a slave to others emotions and having them rampage through you, yet never feeling your own and not even being sure if you can have emotions, was really intriguing. And as I've statedinthepast, I love an unusual or silent character, and even if Maddy's silence sort of had loopholes, she certainly fits the bill of out-of-the-box characters I love. Her need to find her voice is a good metaphor for her story in general, but even if you don't want to get all metaphor-y, Maddy just works as a character. She's relatable even when her circumstances aren't, and it all just makes for really interesting reading.
More interesting, though, and very impressive, was that it had me constantly reevaluating not only what I wanted to happen, but what should happen and what needed to happen. And Maddy questions this, too, which is part of what makes her a great and intriguing character. Everything is built on shifting sands, and I was constantly wondering where and when the sinkhole was going to open up and swallow everyone whole. This, like some of the philosophical nature of the book, is something I think may make people uncomfortable because they like to have a clear idea of who to root for, who to fall for and who to hate. But for me, the best stories are never cut and dry. Everyone is flawed and even the most flawed can be good. Lamm really capitalized on this.
Now, there was a time about 2/3 of the way through that the train got derailed a little bit. Part of it, I think, was Lamm's exploration of gray area and those shifting sands I was talking about. It seemed to lose focus a touch, or like too much was going on/in the air, for it to really come clear. I think some people would be more bothered by this than I was because I think some people get really irritated when they're confused. But though it began to feel a little chaotic, it worked because it suited the core of the story, and it pulled together in the end, anyway. The only reason it even bears mentioning was because for literally the rest of the book, both before and after this rough patch, I was just sort of enthralled and never doubting a single thing. I read every line rabidly and it all seemed so smooth and perfect that any little deviation from that was bound to stand out.
In the end, I am so very happy Jodi emailed me, and so very happy that I have a habit of looking up excerpts. I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading this, and think it's one I'll want to reread in the future so I can get different things from it each time. And, um, I know I used the word 'philosophical' a lot in this review, but don't be put off by that. That's just me being a Very Happy Geek, but even if you're not the type for philosophical discussions, Titan Magic is a very fun, fast-paced book, too. I can't wait to start pushing it on people because, as I've said in the past, I am a tabber - I have lots of little post-it flags sticking out of this book, and though I'd love to share them with you here, I'd rather not spoil them for you because they're going to be so lovely when you come upon them yourself. But until you do - until someone does - I have no one to discuss them with, so I need to start pushing.
Okay, okay, I'll give you one. I love a strong character who knows herself, and I love a strong statement, so this one kind of gave me chills:
"So what good is a soul to me? I am what I am. The only one who needs me to be anything else is you."
3.5 I've mentioned before that I was excited for this one (I mean - the title alone...). But I also just read an excellentfantasy maybe a week or so be...more3.5 I've mentioned before that I was excited for this one (I mean - the title alone...). But I also just read an excellent fantasy maybe a week or so before this, so it sort of had a lot to live up to, on top of the hype. That always makes me a little wary. And I think, in this case, deservedly so; at least, in the beginning. For a good chunk of the beginning, I was hesitant and not completely sold. It's not that I ever wanted to put it down, exactly, but there was a sameness to it; a typical YA, unoriginal feel that had me worried for what the rest of the book would hold. And this lasted for awhile, and had me questioning whether I was going to find this one a throwaway in the end: quick and enjoyable enough, but forgettable and predictable. Fortunately, there came a point where that changed and it didn't fall back on formula (or at least, not entirely.) It had a strength of its own and went to the places I was hoping it would go eventually, even if not always fully.
The characters were interesting to me, and what kept me hanging on in the beginning, though oddly enough, they started out much the same. They would come into the story as sort of somewhat fleshed-out stock characters, and just when I would get worried that that's all there was to them, they'd show me they weren't. They had dimensions and personalities and little bits to set them apart and make you care, but it was just something you had to be patient for. (I know not everyone will be patient, but I want to reiterate that the story is not unenjoyable before they start to stand apart from the crowd. It's always engaging enough to keep you going, but it takes awhile to sort of step into its own.) I am a big fan of explorations of the type of belief and fervor that lead people to do bad things in the name of good, and this aspect of some characters really heightened things for me. Belief and fervor, and the murkiness of right and wrong is what could set this book apart, and was one of the things I got from it that I wasn't expecting. [pleased face]
And - at the risk of being very repetitive - the world-building was much of the same. It was good, and enough to keep me engaged and visualizing it, but it started out with a sameness, feeling a touch lackluster and flat, and then becoming something more as the story grew. Bardugo seems to like finding a balance between originality and stock, and sort of building off of that. It works, it's serviceable, but something that doesn't catch me or impress me right off the bat isn't something I'm necessarily going to rave about as I do the world-building or characters or plot of some other books of a similar nature. But as I said, those all come around in the end.
I would have liked the nuances that were there to be explored more fully, though. In a story about light and dark, I want to really explore the shadows. This, for me, is where the wow factor comes in. The nuances and explorations were there and were touched on more than I'd dared hope after the way the story began, but less than I could have wish for. Part of this I'm sure is me being a little hyper-critical because I saw the potential for some heartier fare. Whenever I see that potential, whenever it's so close, I just want to keep pushing, and that sometimes lets me down more than if the potential had never been there to begin with.
But there was some exploration there, and Bardugo did ultimately build up some of the gray areas that I wanted to linger over, and I'm grateful for that. If this were really an unoriginal, "typical" YA, that wouldn't have happened, and the fact that it did at all gives me hope for the rest of the series and her growth as a storyteller. For those of you that are unsure you want to start a series with this sort of back-and-forth type review, let me mention 2 things: 1) I rated it 4 stars on Goodreads, so it's not like I didn't enjoy it by any means. (In fact, I'm going to a Fierce Reads signing so I can get mine all fancied up.) 2) This would work quite nicely as a standalone with the future left open, I think. Personally, I'm curious to see where it's going, as it is the start to a series, but I think you could easily read it and leave it as is, with some threads hanging and possibilites endless; it's a well-rounded enough ending to leave you feeling satisfied. But as I intend to read the next book, I'm hoping (fingers crossed) that the murky gray areas, the vagaries of belief, fanaticism, control and power, etc., will be capitalized on, as I think that's the only thing that would make me want it to be a series rather than an open-ended stand-alone.
[And on a side note, if you are the type to be bothered by an author taking liberties with a culture or language, I'd suggest checking out Tatiana's review before picking this one up. This did not bother me the least little bit (well, except the female names not ending in female forms and v.v.) but I can understand why it would maybe work under someone's skin, especially if they have ties to that culture (in this case, Russian). So, worth checking out.](less)
Not a lot of fairy tale retellings take on the men in fairy tales. Or at least that's the perception. So I was excited to see that an entire serieswas...more Not a lot of fairy tale retellings take on the men in fairy tales. Or at least that's the perception. So I was excited to see that an entire series was going to take on just that - the nameless Princes Charming and who they really were. And I have to say, Christopher Healy does a good job of taking their teensy little bits of fairy tale text (Prince: dances, notices shoes. Prince: doesn't have a thing to do with story until he kisses girl in coffin. Prince: climbs strangers hair... etc.) and uses those little bits + public perception of the them to extrapolate real personas for the characters. They're really more of caricatures, actually, very funny and over the top, and all very distinct from one another. And they come alive on the page in a way I think middle grade readers will really love.
And it's not just the Princes that are brought to life and made adorably eccentric/silly/zany, etc. It was a fun take on all of the characters; the Princes were a bit bumbling, and I went back and forth with who was my favorite, while the Princesses were more heroic and daring, but also impetuous and/or sometimes bratty. My favorite, though (and this always seems to be the case) was the silly side characters - I love a good side character, and this book had lots of them. Like the Princes and Princesses, I went back and forth on who was my favorite (I mean, there's an excellent Wicked Witch, a lovably doofy giant, a hilariously tyrannical 10 year old Bandit King, etc) until I came upon the trolls. The trolls win. They are my favorites, hands down. I mean, they're all named Troll.
"Troll's name is Troll," the troll said, flashing a toothy smile. "All trolls' name is Troll." He pointed to a number of other trolls in the crowd. "That's Troll. And that's Troll. And that's Troll... All Troll." ... [Frederic said] "This will affect all you trolls. Yes, even you, Troll. And you, too, Troll." Once troll in the crowd leaned over to its neighbor and said approvingly, "Personal touch is nice."
I mean, how can you not love that? I really liked Troll. (not the be confused with Troll. Or Troll.) And I liked the fact that they're not quite what you expect of them, actually being law-abiding (though odd) herbivores who are very upset by the human notion that they're brutish people-eaters. It was so fun and memorable, which is a pretty good description of the book as a whole.
The storytelling itself is charming, very exuberant and enjoyably silly. It was like reading a Pixar/Disney film, if that makes any sense. In fact, I could actually see it in my head ala Pixar - the character movements, the voices, everything. It was strange and neat, and made me thing the story would lend itself really well to film (and it's been optioned, so yay!) It's equal parts adventure and slapstick, and I think will appeal to a pretty wide MG readership because of that, especially where reluctant readers are concerned. The laughs and the antics will pull them along and make them keep reading what otherwise could be a dauntingly thick book for a MG reader. And what's nice is that it will appeal to both boys and girls almost equally, I think, and to parents, too, who want something adventurous but still wholesome for their kids.
Now this is not to say that everyone will be taken by it; I have a feeling it may not translate well for all adults. I mean, some will love it (most of my GR friends rated it 5 stars), but those that don't normally read middle grade may find it toomiddle grade. You have to either be a kid or easily slip into a kid-like frame of mind for it to work. It's very lighthearted, and some adults just aren't. And there were times it was a little too easy to put down. I have a feeling this was mostly just my state of mind, because I liked it when I was reading it, but it didn't make me have to read it. Some books beg you to pick them up as soon as you have a free moment, and they want to be read all night. This one I could read a bit and put it down and go to sleep just fine, but I think it was just that I, myself, wasn't quite light-hearted enough to sustain a long reading session with it. But as a kid? I would have eaten this up. (And as an adult, there were plenty of times I actually LOLed...)
I think this one is a definite to-buy for those with middle grade children or students, or neighbors, nieces or nephews. It's a great summer reading book, a great feel good, fun book, and a very nice start to the series. And to top it off, it has fantastic artwork! =)(less)
I've said a number of times that I think Northanger Abbey is vastly underrated, both by the general public and by Janeites themselves. I've also said...moreI've said a number of times that I think Northanger Abbey is vastly underrated, both by the general public and by Janeites themselves. I've also said many times that I think it gives the best idea of Austen's personality and playfulness, and I think it feels the most like what it would have been like to know Austen and be friends with her. So needless to say, there are not enough Northanger etellings out there for my liking. On the one hand, this makes sense, and not just because it's underappreciated; Northanger Abbey is a book that hinges on a silly moment of a very young character, and in the end, feels complete. There's not as much wiggle room there to play with in adaptations, or at least, not in the way that many adaptations tend to go. Nevertheless, when I see a Northanger adaptation pop up, I am all over it, so of course I was super excited when Maggie Sullivan (author of last year's "Heroic Ranking Index" post) sent me her latest, the intriguingly-titled, There Must Be Murder.
And what I found was a really solid, quick read for fans of Henry and Catherine. One playful enough and with that same sense of humor and observation that made me love its original, while poking fun enough that I think even those who found Northanger too silly will still appreciate this one. Sullivan does a good job when it comes to recreating the characters and their experience of Bath, but also of progressing the stories and lives of those same characters. Those that found Catherine to be unbearably silly and frivolous will see that she's shown growth, though her spirit and penchant for ridiculous drama is still there. But as I always liked Catherine, the thing the story hinged on for me was the relationship, and it was strong on that score as well. The way Catherine and Henry interacted was charming and a believable progression from the end of Northanger. I've seen many discussions where people doubt their relationship and its potential for happiness, questioning whether Henry would remain interested in someone as flighty as Catherine. I've always thought they were very well-suited, and could see Henry happily teasing Catherine well into old age; this embraces that dynamic and showcases how well they work together. It's really nice, and with some of that characteristic sly style Austen has, but also with a more modern flirtiness to it.
Things have also changed and progressed nicely, or at least, interestingly, for other characters, too. And frankly, it's amusing to see General Tilney in a somewhat debased form. Reading this, I couldn't help but feel that he and Sir Elliot would get on capitally, were they to cross paths in Bath. You know what, nope. Scratch that. They'd fight like to primadonnas out for the same man - cuttingly one-upping each other, and maybe having a touch of grudging respect.*
Um. That was a tangent... ANYWAY, I really think that Catherine and Henry could have a whole host of interesting adventures in Margaret C. Sullivan's hands, and I definitely hope to see more. The only real drawback for me was that it wraps up a little too swiftly and neatly. I would have liked a little more dwelling on the "mystery" that Catherine finds herself embroiled in, and the darker, gothic aspects that are such a hallmark of Catherine's sensibility. There was potential to lengthen and make the most of the drama, but instead, it felt like Sullivan pulled back a touch, maybe trying to avoid those same pitfalls that make so many readers speak a little disparagingly of Northanger. Whatever the reason, I could have done with a little more on that score, but it doesn't change the fact that this was a thoroughly enjoyable, very quick, fun read.
*Now, they'd be an interesting pairing. Someone needs to take advantage of that. ;)(less)