Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Good Neighbors: Kith

by Holly Black & Ted Naifeh

Book two in the Good Neighbors series starts somewhat awkwardly, with a scene of Dale and Justin’s band playing a show, and a faery offering Lucy a love potion. Rue is single-tearing as she narrates a mini-summary of the last book’s events. A couple we don’t know has a dramatic outburst and the girl runs into the haunted forest, setting in motion one of the threads of this book’s plot. We see Dale’s homelife and how he is coping with learning about Rue’s heritage. After this, the story really starts. Aubrey wants Rue to join him, believing and fearing Tam’s prediction that only she can stop him. Rue’s mother sends a shadow to lure Rue to the faery hideout, where she talks more with her mother and with Tam. She learns more about her grandfather’s plan for the city, but is unsure about how she can stop it, or if she even wants to.

This book definitely suffers from middle book syndrome. It starts disconnected from the first volume, and just fits a bunch of insignificant plot threads into the space of time before book one and book three. Panels were devoted to developing Lucy and Justin’s romance, just to pointlessly tie them up in the overly wrought theme of romantic betrayal in this volume. While I felt like Dale’s behavior was realistic, I didn’t really care about what it meant for his relationship with Rue. I wasn’t sure why the nymph ladies even wanted to Riley-Finn him anyway. It all seemed really pointless. Rue seemed so emotionally disconnected from everyone around her, and not in a character development sort of way. I no longer felt what she felt, so it was hard to care about any of the characters. The illustrations are consistent with the first book, but a lot of wideshot frames have less detail in them–particularly in the faces–making it hard to read characters’ emotions when some big events happen.

Still a recommended book for those who have read the first one and wish to continue, but I may change my mind about recommending the series if the third one is as unfocused and emotionally indifferent as this one.

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Beastologist: The Flight of the Phoenix

by R.L. LaFevers, ill. Kelly Murphy

When Nathaniel Fludd is told that his parents are lost at sea, he is thrown into an uncertain world. Miss Lumpton, his caretaker, obviously doesn’t care for him and is all too happy to take the Tidy Sum the Fludds left for her and leave Nathaniel behind. Nathaniel now has to take his suitcase and go live with a distant relative, named Phil. Upon arriving at Phil’s house, Nathaniel discovers that Phil is a lady and that she is, like his parents were, a beastologist. Beastologists study and care for beasts that are either unknown to exist or that are thought to be extinct. It’s a dangerous trade, and one the timid and inexperienced Nathaniel is not sure he is suited for. Despite his doubts, he joins Aunt Phil on a beastologist errand. When Aunt Phil is detained, Nathaniel must learn to do an important beastologist task on his own. The book is illustrated with maps and drawings, as well as Nathaniel’s own sketches of the different beasts he comes across.

A promising enough orphan fantasy premise, but a pretty boring read despite its many plot developments. The writing style just gives this book such a slow pace. Parts of Nate’s adventures that seem like they should be thrilling have zero tension. I wanted to like it because it seems like a promising series and the covers look really nice. The amount of information held back–what happened to Nate’s parents, why didn’t he receive their letters, what was Miss Lumpton’s role in everything, who is working against Aunt Phil–makes the series somewhat compelling, but I can’t be bothered to continue.

The illustrations throughout make this book an approachable read for younger elementary kids, but I wouldn’t recommend it for kids looking for an action-packed adventure or those who are easily distracted from reading. More patient readers or kids who like their adventures gentle will enjoy this book, especially as a bedtime story.

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The Good Neighbors: Kin

by Holly Black & Ted Naifeh

Rue doesn’t worry about anything. That is, she never used to. But now that her mom has disappeared and her dad has been charged with murdering one of his students, she’s starting to look critically at the world around her. Why does she see things no one else can? What’s with all the vines that seem to be encasing all the buildings in her city? Was her mom a crazy person or was she something else entirely? And, most importantly, what does all of this have to do with Rue? A murder mystery, complete with faeries.

As with all graphic novels, the illustrations are the most important part of the book. If the drawings don’t match the story, I usually put the book down after the first page. Naifeh’s art was excellent for this book. They make it easy to tell who is who, what is happening, and what everyone is feeling. The backgrounds are detailed enough to provide a clear setting, but not so detailed that they became distracting. Naifeh’s style fits the story really well, enhancing its dark atmosphere and making the world and characters more full and vivid than they would have been if this was just a novel. Also, there are quite a few characters of colour, which is something I wish I didn’t have to applaud, but very few graphic novels include such a realistically diverse cast of characters. So, bravo to Naifeh for doing it right.

The story is compelling enough, if not entirely original. I don’t really care about Rue very much but I am curious about where the story is going. The side characters are developed to the same level as Rue and have problems of their own, which opens up a lot of options for side stories that may become more central in the next two books. The writing is opaque enough to stir curiosity, but not so unclear as to confuse readers or (in my case) cause irritability. Overall, I like the dark urban supernatural mystery Black & Naifeh create together, and I’d read on.

Recommended for fans of Holly Black, faery stories, urban fantasy, and stories with angsty teens finding out they have magical lineage. A pretty dark read with none of the love-at-first-sight supernatural romance fluff found in so many other faery stories. If romance blossoms in later books, it will be of the gritty variety.

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Chaos Walking: Monsters of Men

by Patrick Ness

In the final book of the Chaos Walking trilogy, a third narrator adds to the story. 1017 has compelled a Spackle army to attack New Prentisstown, and we get to see some of the events unfold from his perspective. Todd has released the Mayor in the hope that he will save humanity from the Spackle attack. He believes he can keep the Mayor in line with his newfound Noise talents. In return, the Mayor helps him make a few improvements on himself. Viola and Mistress Coyle both set up camp with the newly landed scout ship, but the people from the ship are unsure whether or not they should become involved in either of the wars they’ve stepped into. 1017 waits impatiently for the Spackle (or, the Land, as they call themselves) to help him enact vengeance on the Clearing (humans). He himself wants to kill the Knife (Todd), whom he despises not for his evil acts but for his wishy-washy attitude about committing atrocities he knows are wrong. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as Viola’s home ship prepares to land on New World in a matter of months. Every faction on New World has their own hopes about what kind of situation will greet the new settlers upon their arrival.

Again, a great depiction of egomaniacal politicians, this time with the complicated process of war and peace with an external enemy thrown in the mix. It was very frustrating to see Todd and the rest of New Prentisstown start to buy into the Mayor’s rhetoric yet again, but it wasn’t unrealistic. It felt like watching a politician known for his horrible past still win over the popular vote. I loved this series for capturing the short term memory of the general public. I was disappointed with some of the reveals at the end, which made the Mayor out to be more of a lone crazy evil guy, absolving everyone who was complicit with his crimes. It diminished what I thought was the whole meaning of the series, so it’s a pretty sizeable disappointment. Still, not everything was over-explained at the end, leaving readers to make their own conclusions about some of the events in New World’s history.

I think this book gives readers a lot to talk about in terms of politics, morality, etc. Questions about freedom fighting vs terrorism are still huge in this volume, although I felt like the main characters respond unfairly to Mistress Coyle throughout. I’m not sure if it was Ness’s intention to discredit her with some of her actions, but I still think she is the most reasonable character and I wish she had been given more attention or a better storyline. I would definitely read a prequel starring her. Overall, it was not everything I wanted it to be on the morals front–for a series that deals so much with people trying to do what’s right and feeling regret over their mistakes, the main character never takes any steps to make reparations for his actions.

On the action front, however, it was rockin’. So much happens! Characters are killed off or maimed, and not for meaningful literary or emotional purposes. The stupid love triangle set up in the second book comes to what I can only hope is a temporary conclusion. Not overly romantic for us romance-averse readers, and in my mind a ship full of new settlers will increase everyone’s options because nobody ends up with the person they liked when they were 14.

Despite the shortcomings of this volume, I would still recommend the whole series to teens and adults who are interested in dystopian settings, planetary colonization, gender wars, and books with complex conflicts. Must read the first and second books before this one.

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Protector of the Small: First Test

by Tamora Pierce

Keladry wants to be a knight. Fortunately, the page program for knights in training has been open to girls for the last ten years. Unfortunately, Kel is the first girl to enroll, and a lot of people want to stand in her way. It’s hard enough to get by with so many boys avoiding her or outright picking on her, but the training master has also put Kel on probation for her first year in order to voice his displeasure at having to admit a girl to the program. Having grown up with the stoic Yamani, Kel has learned to master her emotions and rise above such provocation. She is determined to show them all just what she can do.

Your basic girl power story, with a girl showing that she can excel among male peers. What I enjoyed about this one was that Kel made sure to not just behave like a boy in order to gain acceptance; although she never wears skirts or dresses at home, she wears them to dinners at training school to remind everyone that she is a girl. It’s rare to find a girl character who wants to do things boys do but doesn’t express a distaste for all things feminine, so I was pretty pleased with Kel as a character. As for the storyline, it’s is pretty obvious, and it gets really cheesy when these birds Kel feeds decide to follow her on a mission and help her out. It seems like the whole series will go on without anyone nice dying, which is always a bummer for me but it makes it a lot better for younger kids who just want an inspirational story.

I would definitely recommend this to kids nowadays, even though it seems like something written in the 80s (it was published in 1999). I think it’s pretty standard fare, and I’ve heard Pierce’s other Tortall stories are more original. It would still be enjoyed by a lot of kids who like the other series set in Tortall by Tamora Pierce, The Ranger’s Apprentice series, books with girl characters doing boy things, or castle fiction in general. Some book sites say this is for 12 and up, but it’s super tame so I would shift the age group to 8-12.

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The Prince of Neither Here Nor There

by Seán Cullen

Brendan is your typical awkward teen. He gets pimples and has to wear braces… and he hears animals speaking to each other. That last detail is the newest one to cloud his life, and he believes it is a sign that he is going crazy. Until he learns that he is of course a faerie prince with immense power. The spell that has been protecting him all his life is starting to fade, and some evil faeries are trying to hunt him down so that they can recruit him to the dark side.

The book flows well enough and is a pretty good supernatural adventure. Some funny stuff about faeries vs fairies, plus a lot of Toronto-ness (if you’re into that sort of thing). I read it because the cover is cool, and I won’t be reading the second one because the cover isn’t cool and the story isn’t as addictive as other supernatural orphan stories.

Despite my faint praise, this book would still be a really good read for those who liked Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. It’s missing something I can’t put my finger on, but it’s still a good adventure fantasy. The Canadian setting might make it more interesting for Canadian kids as well.

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The Unforgotten Coat

by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Julie remembers grade six well. She tells the story of her year as it relates to a series of Polaroid pictures. Grade six Julie just wants two things in life: for Shocky to notice her and for Mimi to invite her over to her house. She becomes interested in bigger issues when two mysterious Mongolian brothers show up at her school. Chingis, the older of the two, tells everyone to call his brother Nergui–Mongolian for “no name”–and tells Julie that a vanishing demon is hunting his brother. Chingis makes Julie their “Good Guide,” making her responsible for teaching them about their surroundings so they can blend in and the demon won’t find Nergui. Julie gets so involved in Chingis’s stories about Mongolia and the demon that she starts to notice some inconsistencies. Like, how did he take photos of Mongolia if he got his camera last summer at a refugee camp in England? Is he even from Mongolia? Doesn’t he know that demons don’t exist and people don’t just vanish?

Like some other reviewers who picked up this book, I thought it would be a pure fantasy story. I would still classify it as fantasy, but it binds fantastical conflicts with reality more closely than most. A lot of fantasy takes place in other worlds but reflects on our own; this story manifests fantasy elements from real situations. In fact, many story elements are based on a true story, which Cottrell Boyce tells in the afterword. I loved the genre blending, and I liked the way in which the mystery about the two brothers unfolded. For such a short book, the characters are well developed and I grew to like them. The Polaroid pictures sprinkled throughout the book made it visually enjoyable, and the writing was easy to follow. Although I wouldn’t categorize it as a book I couldn’t put down, I actually couldn’t put it down and stayed up later than I wanted to in order to finish it all in one go.

Recommended to adults who like kids books and kids who enjoy character-driven realistic fiction, curiosity-driven plots, and intersections of fantasy and reality. A good one for teachers of older elementary students to read aloud in units addressing social issues such as refugees.

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Maus

by Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman tells his story and his father’s story about the Holocaust and its reverberating effect in this Pulitzer Prize winning comic. Spiegelman wants to tell his father’s account of living through the Holocaust accurately, but acknowledges that his experience as a child of Holocaust survivors has a role in the telling of the story. The book mostly focuses on his father’s survival during the Holocaust but also includes the damaging emotional after-effects of the Holocaust on Spiegelman’s family. Although a work of non-fiction, the comic depicts people with faces of animals representing their nationality: Jewish people are mice, Germans are cats, Polish people are pigs, and so on.

I grew up in an area of Canada that was home to many Holocaust deniers. One of the Social Studies teachers at my high school assigned Maus every spring, and every spring his car was vandalized. So he kept assigning Maus. I wasn’t in his class, but I sought Maus out as an adult because a book that contentious ought to be read. I’d read about the Holocaust and I’d read Holocaust fiction before–even fiction about the children of survivors–but I’d never read anything like Maus. Definitely one of the best comics I’ve read and one of the best non-fiction books too. The drawings are clear and the story is well told. Spiegelman’s choice of depicting people as animals makes the book simultaneously less horrific–when you see dead bodies of mice instead of Jewish people–and more horrific–when you take a moment to realize that each mouse is a stand-in for a real human being. I could say a lot more about the representation choices and the drawing style and the design layout of the book, but that gets into essay territory and I want to actually motivate people to read this! Without getting into the meaning of it all, I think it’s a respectful way of showing the horrors of the Holocaust without overly desensitizing or traumatizing the reader. What I really appreciate about this book above all the great things I could say about it is that it doesn’t treat the Holocaust as a singular event in history, but as an individual-by-individual trauma that has echoed into the present. I’m glad that the teacher in my school continued to assign Maus throughout his career, because I think it is an accessible way for teens (and adults) to understand the legacy of the Holocaust and empathize with its victims.

Recommended as a teaching aide in history units, but generally a great read for anyone who likes historical comics, comic memoirs, memoirs in general, Holocaust stories, or contemporary Jewish stories. I consider it required reading for comics aficionados.

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Wicked Lovely: Desert Tales: Sanctuary

by Melissa Marr; ill. Irene Diaz & Laura Moreno

Desert Tales is a story arc with characters from Wicked Lovely outside of the Faerie Courts of the novels. Ex-faery Rika lives in the Mojave desert, pining over a mortal boy named Jayce who can’t see her. When some mischevious desert faeries cause Jayce to fall off a cliff, Rika saves him by breaking his fall, causing her to be visible to him and his friends. The faeries continue to razz Rika by trying to harm Jayce, causing her to reveal more of her powers to Jayce in order to keep him safe. But would a boy like Jayce want to be with a girl who wasn’t quite human?

I thought this book was going to be a manga adaptation of Wicked Lovely, but it is a story that takes place outside of the world of the Wicked Lovely novels, and it is probably better for it. As with most manga, the story in the first volume just sets everything up and isn’t wrapped up in the end. The plot is a bit boring because of that, but you get Rika’s backstory and a lot of characterization. The drawings are done in a really pretty manga style and I didn’t have too hard a time telling characters apart in most frames (why must everyone have those stringy bangs?). I love that the lead boy is a person of colour–something you don’t see in a lot of teen fantasy or most manga or even on the cover of this book), but I dislike Rika’s wimpy female routine. She is a very insecure character, super emotional and timidly shy, and she has to tone down her strength so Jayce won’t know she is supernatural. I’m hoping that as the story goes on, her strength will become more of an asset and we’ll get to see her kicking butt. While not a fantastic read on its own, this volume set up a decent amount of conflict in what could be an interesting world, and I would read the second one.

Recommended for fans of Wicked Lovely or teens who like fantasy romance manga. You don’t have to read the series to understand this story, but it probably helps.

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The Amulet of Samarkand: A Bartimaeus Graphic Novel

adapted by Jonathan Stroud & Andrew Donkin, ill. Lee Sullivan & Nicolas Chapuis

A young magician’s apprentice summons more than he bargained for when he invokes an ancient demon named Bartimaeus to do his bidding. All Nicholas wants is a bit of revenge after the upstart magician Simon Lovelace humiliates him in front of a crowd of accomplished magicians. He orders Bartimaeus to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace, despite the demon’s warnings that Nicholas is dealing with magic beyond his capabilities. His plot to humiliate Lovelace spins out of control as he uncovers too much about the magician and becomes a target of his wrath.

The illustrations are fantastic. They are consistent, with enough detail to recognize all the characters and interpret their expressions, but not so much detail that the frames become cluttered. On the illustration front, this graphic novel gets top marks. On the story front, it gets props for concept but this adaptation seems to leave out too much for it to be a satisfying fantasy/mystery. There is a group of anti-magicians whose story I would like to see more of, and I would like to have had more of an explanation of the motives and backgrounds of Lovelace and his accomplices. This comic is a good advertisement for the book, but on its own it lacks the necessary substance to be a great story.

Recommended for anyone who thinks they might want to read the Bartimaeus trilogy but doesn’t want to put the time in to try reading the novel. It may be enjoyable for those who read the novel before and would like to revisit the story without having to re-read the book. Vocabulary and some dark concepts more suitable for older kids and teens.

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