The Year of Miracle and Grief

borodin

I picked up The Year of Miracle and Grief, by Leonid Borodin, for two reasons only:

  1. It had a very pretty cover.
  2. I needed a book from Russia, and Anna Karenina is really long.

So it was kind of a gamble. I mean, I usually flip through a book in the store to make sure I like the writing style and it’s not going to be sexually explicit, but aside from that, I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I picked it up. So please believe me when I say that everybody should read this book. It’s now one of my favorites.

The story follows a young boy who moves to a small town in Siberia, makes friends, gets in trouble—all the typical “coming-of-age book about a young boy” stuff. (Okay, Siberia isn’t typical, but you get the drift.) But then this boy climbs up a mountain, discovers a mean, ancient witch, and spends half the book trying to free a princess who’s been trapped in a cave for the past several thousand years.

It’s an adventure, a fantasy, and a coming-of-age story, but without the sappy ending that usually accompanies those. It ends up being sort of fantastic realism (but doesn’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of magical realism, either.) And the writing. Oh, the writing is so beautiful. I never thought anybody could convince me that Siberia could be a beautiful place, but Borodin, you have struck my heart.

It’s a great book, and I would probably recommend it to any age group. Go read it. You’ll thank me. ♦

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Mattimeo

mattimeo

I started reading the Redwall series when I was in elementary school. I saw a thick book with a mouse on the cover wielding a sword, and decided it was worth a try. Cute mouse, swordplay, what could go wrong? I remember my dad joking on the way home about a mouse sticking his sword in the side of the tire and spinning around as we drove.

Surprisingly, this series was written for adults. Brian Jacques was just writing regular fantasy, with animals as main characters. After some disagreement, his publishers finally convinced him to market to a younger audience, and the cover art got a little flashier. His writing also changed just a little bit, with less references to humans—no more huge carts and horses, for example.

I digress. Mattimeo is the third book in the Redwall series, and I decided to pick it up again for nostalgia’s sake. Jacques is still a good author, but I can’t say I would be picking these books up if I didn’t have just a little old-timey attachment to them. There are some plot holes and convenient miracles that I no longer brush over now. But this book is surprisingly more dark than the previous ones, as the main character (Mattimeo) is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The entire book is about his journey into a creepy  underground kingdom, and his father’s journey to rescue him.

I would recommend this book (and series) to anyone between the ages of 8 and 14, depending on your reading level. And, of course, to any adults who are willing to read a fantasy with animals as main characters. If you haven’t read any Redwall, I suggest picking up the first one before you pick up this one. But if you enjoyed that one, by all means, read Mattimeo. ♦

Fullmetal Alchemist

fullmetal alchemist

Alright.

So back in high school, my friend Latecia kept telling me I needed to watch Fullmetal Alchemist. Something about how it was awesome. And a lot more about how the main character reminded her of me. Apparently he was really short and flew into a rage if you mentioned his height.

This usually just made me fly into a rage about my height, and I never got around to watching the show. I wasn’t really into anime, anyway.

Well, now I’ve married an anime buff, and he keeps trying to get me into the genre. I knew nothing about anime except that the only kids who watched it were really weird (except you, Latecia, obviously.) And Ethan introduced me with Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, a show about a huge dude with a blonde Afro who fights crime(?) with his nose hairs. It didn’t go over well.

After a while, Ethan realized I might want a little more substance, and switched his tactic. After blowing all his bookstore credit on a complete set of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, he started trying to sell me on the plotline: boys use alchemy to try to bring their mother back to life and everything goes wrong. That sounded a lot better than Bobobo, and I agreed to read one.

One was interesting, so I read another.

Twenty-seven gripping volumes later, I can’t begin to tell you how good this author is at political intrigue. I don’t even know who was pulling which government strings, but I can tell I would be getting my questions answered if I read it all over again. And her world-building skills are amazing. She has specific rules to how this alchemy works, she follows those rules, and occasionally blows your mind by breaking them. And then blows your mind again by explaining exactly how she broke them, and which rules she was actually following the whole time.

If you’re not into manga, start with this one. If you’re into manga and you haven’t read this one yet, get to it. And if you’re not remotely concerned with manga but you want a fantastic story about politics, genocide, humanity, and also some middle-grade goofing around, go read it. It’s good. ♦

The Chronicles of Prydain

chronicles of prydain

I’ve been checking for Lloyd Alexander’s books nearly every time I go into Pioneer Book, and I finally found them— a full box set in almost perfect condition. I was so excited. So I added it to the box. (What? It was a good sale. We bought a lot of books. I don’t have a problem.)

Most people are probably familiar with this series through the Disney movie The Black Cauldron, which I’ve actually never seen before. I was introduced to the series in elementary school, when I got to pick a free book for my birthday. In the box, I saw a glossy picture with fantasy cover art depicting an evil, antlered, skull-faced warrior on horseback. I thought it looked incredible. So I picked another book, because I didn’t want my teacher to know I was interested in it. (I don’t know what my problem was. Apparently, I was a really self-conscious kid.)

Anyway, after a few years and a little more self-confidence, I saw the same cover art somewhere and convinced my parents to buy me the book. It was the first in the series, called The Book of Three. The Book of Three was a wonderful adventure, and led me immediately to the rest of the series: The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and the series finale, The High King.

As a series overall, I highly recommend it. If you want a book-by-book recommendation, I would say that you should definitely start at the beginning. If you like The Book of Three, it’s worth reading more. If you start halfway through the series, though, you won’t understand everything. And whatever you do, don’t start with Taran Wanderer. That book is… wandery. It’s my least favorite.

The series gets a little more preachy and pedantic as you go, with the first two being sheer adventure and the last few being a little more “wise.” (That’s probably why The High King won the Newbery medal. It’s the most “instructional” of them, so I can understand a board of literary folks thinking it would be best for kids.) But even still, it’s worth reading them all. No matter your age. ♦

prydain

Magic or Madness

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I picked up a copy of Magic or Madness, by Justine Larbalestier, while I was in high school. I think I probably just liked the cover art at the time, but it turned out to be a good read. Having just re-read it, I still think it’s a good read.

Magic or Madness is a story about an Australian girl named Reason, so named because her grandma believed so fervently in magic that she did terrible things. Reason’s mother, Serafina, ran away and became a firm defender of all things logic and no things magic. Magic isn’t real, she taught Reason, but evil Grandma Esmeralda thinks it is—so we need to stay away from her.

Long and short of it is, magic is real. And once Reason figures that out, she has to figure out just how crazy each member of her family is. Grandma Esmeralda is certainly not trustworthy. But maybe a little more trustworthy than Serafina made her out to be. But, of course, Serafina can’t be trusted either, because she doesn’t realize that magic is a real thing. Also because she’s in a loony bin. There’s that, too.

Complicating things, Reason goes out the back door in Sydney, Australia one day and finds herself smack-dab in the middle of New York City, freezing her butt off, with no way home. And someone’s following her.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I don’t own the sequel yet. And I need to get a few more books off my TBR shelf before I dare make that purchase. But if you like fantasy, or just want to learn a little more about Australia or America (depending where you live currently), pick it up. It’s great reading. ♦

The Water Mirror

I picked up this book in Junior High or High School. I don’t know. A long time ago. And I haven’t read it since, but I remember thinking I should read it again—I remember thinking, “That was a great book! I want to buy the sequel!” ….and not finding the sequel in Barnes and Noble. And since it was a new book at the time, the used bookstore was not an option.

Turns out, this book was written in German—which might be why it was harder to find? I don’t know. Anyways. I digress. The Water Mirror, by Kai Meyer:

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Isn’t this cover art beautiful? Isn’t that mermaid creepy?

This book is great. If you’ve read The Golden Compass series by Philip Pullman, this has a similar feel to it. It’s a little more…watery, though. As in, the mood is a little different, because The Golden Compass has a lot of running around in London and the Arctic, while this entire book is set in Venice. But Meyer has the same style of writing, where he takes a real place, a real time, and then seriously screws with history and the way science works generally. Also there are live stone lions. And creepy mermaids. And messengers from Hell, which is a real geographical location.

Another similarity between Meyer and Pullman is that neither of them tell you any more than you need to know. I can tell that Meyer has a lot of history and politics in his head, and I still don’t know what’s going on—because the main character, Merle, still doesn’t know what’s going on. He explains just enough, then gets back to the story. And he’s good at telling a story.

The only thing I don’t like about this book is that it leaves you needing to read the sequels. But now I have an excuse to buy myself a Christmas present, right?

If you like fantasy—and especially if you like fantasy with a very real-life emphasis—pick it up. It’s good. ♦

Silver On the Tree

Silver-on-the-Tree

This is rare, folks – but I’m pretty sure the series finale was my least favorite part of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising.

The series overall gets a two enthusiastic thumbs up. Loved it. It was great fantasy, great children’s adventure, well-written, almost poetry in an action-movie plot line. It was great. But the thing is, it just got progressively weirder.

Over Sea, Under Stone: A great children’s adventure, with a splash of magic.

The Dark Is Rising: Magic-based children’s adventure.

Greenwitch: Magical, a little weird, but definitely worth the ride.

The Grey King: This is getting weirder, but I trust Cooper. She’ll pull it all together in the end. (And she does.)

Silver On the Tree: Wait – did I take drugs? What is happening? I feel like I just waded through a literary drug trip, and then ended with the good guys winning predictably, and then about two paragraphs of preaching about how human beings need to solve their own problems from here on out. And then all the main characters forget it ever happened, so we might as well be back at the beginning. Ugh.

I realizing I’m being really polarizing here. It wasn’t all bad. It’s just that the other ones were so good, and then this happened. I just didn’t see it coming. I was reading a fantasy series, and then I got blindsided by surrealism. Or maybe it all makes perfect sense, and I just don’t understand enough English and Welsh mythology to get the obvious literary references in here. Maybe someone in the UK is reading this, thinking, “Stupid American. She missed the whole point!”

Sadly, though, I did miss the whole point. If you’re a good reader, it’s worth the time to finish the series – but if you can’t burn through the book in a few hours, I wouldn’t recommend it. ♦