Tag Archives: heroes

Fire and Hemlock: A (ReRead) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Polly Whittacker is nineteen and preparing to return to college after visiting her grandmother over break. She has a flatmate, a boyfriend, and all of the other things she would expect as a college student. It’s ordinary but it feels like enough.

That is until Polly stares at the picture that’s hung above her bed for as long as she can remember. Here, now, of course, Polly knows that “Fire and Hemlock” is just a photograph of some hay bails burning with a hemlock plant in the foreground. But when she was younger didn’t the picture used to have figures dancing and racing around the fire?

The more Polly remembers about the painting, the more she realizes that her memories of the past ten years aren’t quite right either. She has the ordinary set, the ones she always thought were true. But if she thinks back far enough and hard enough, Polly starts to remember another set of memories from a very different, very not ordinary life.

It all started nine years ago when Polly accidentally crashed a funeral and met an odd cellist named Thomas Lynn. Her friendship with Mr. Lynn took the form of fantastical letters, exchanged books, and one very odd visit to his flat in London. Those memories are easy to hold onto once they start to come back.

But something else happened the last time they met. Something worse. And now, here, Polly knows that she and Tom are inextricably tied together–maybe as friends and maybe as more. But Polly won’t have the chance to figure any of that out unless she can gather her memories and figure out not just how to get back to Tom but how to save him in Fire and Hemlock (1985) by Diana Wynne Jones.

I originally reviewed Fire and Hemlock in 2007 just a few months after I started blogging when I first read the novel. Even a decade later I still think about Polly and Tom all the time and almost since the moment I finished it, this book has held a place as one of my most favorite books of all time.

I read this book again in 2017 and was thrilled to see that it absolutely stands up to closer readings. If you can, get your hands on the edition I like to above–it has one of the best covers this book has ever gotten, includes an introduction from Garth Nix, and features an essay Jones wrote about writing this novel–something she rarely talked about in interviews.

Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of Tam Lin, a meditation on what it means to be a hero, a sweeping romance, and one of the best fantasies you’ll ever read. I still haven’t read all of Jones’ novels, the thought of running out is a bit too depressing so I try to keep a few in my figurative back pocket. But if you have to pick just one to read, consider starting here.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Entwined by Heather Dixon, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, , The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, Beauty by Robin McKinley, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

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Princeless Book One: Save Yourself: A Graphic Novel Review

Princeless by Jeremy Whitley and M. GoodwinAdrienne Ashe doesn’t want to be a princess. It’s boring and, to be brutally honest, she doesn’t understand why princesses always need to wait for a prince to do the rescuing anyway.

That doesn’t stop Adrienne’s parents from locking her in a tower on her sixteenth birthday. It also doesn’t stop Adrienne from bitterly complaining out the injustice and pointing out how she doesn’t even look like a stupid traditional princess with her brown skin and dark, curly hair (not to mention her prowess with a sword!).

Instead of pining for some handsome prince, Adrienne spends her time in the tower befriending the dragon guarding the tower. When Adrienne finds a sword hidden in the tower, she decides she has waited to be rescued long enough.

With a sword in her hand and a dragon by her side, Adrienne sets out to escape the tower and rescue her other sisters in Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself (2012) by Jeremy Whitley and illustrated by M. Goodwin.

Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself collects the first 4 issues of Princeless. It is the first of four bindups. There is also a spinoff series.

Whitley delivers a frank and self-aware story that is refreshingly and unapologetically feminist. Adrienne is a no-nonsense heroine who isn’t afraid to do what she thinks is right and point out hypocrisy and double standards when she sees them. This plays out to especially good effect when she meets up with a girl who makes armor for warriors and discovers the vast inequity between standard armor for men and women.

Goodwin’s illustrations bring this story to life with wry humor and charming artwork that beautifully compliments the story. The facial expressions for characters throughout are especially priceless.

Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself is a great set up for this series. Whitley and Goodwin introduce many of the key players and the basic premise of the series while also delivering a lot of fun arcs along the way. This series is a delightful addition to the typical princess and anti-princess fare. Highly recommended for readers of comics, fans of fairy tales and retellings, as well as anyone looking for a new kickass heroine to cheer on.

Possible Pairings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Stone Girl’s Story by Sarah Beth Durst, Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Batman’s Dark Secret: A Picture Book Review

Batman's Dark Secret by Kelley Pucket and Jon J. MuthThe story starts with young Bruce Wayne out with his parents after watching a movie. Bruce, brave and inspired by the movie’s hero, walks with his parents down a terribly dark alley. In the darkness, Bruce hears two bangs and sees flashes of light before he smells smoke. When Bruce walks out of the alley, he does so alone. His parents are gone.

When Bruce returns to the Wayne mansion, he is terrified of the dark. With Alfred’s help he sets about lighting up the entire house to keep the shadows at bay. The lights work until Bruce falls through a hole into a pitch-black cave filled with bats. When Bruce is forced in this very physical way to face his fears, he learns to take control of the dark and vows that he will never be afraid again.

Then, as most readers will have guessed, this book closes with young Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman in Batman’s Dark Secret (2015) by Kelley Puckett, illustrated by Jon J. Muth.

Batman’s Dark Secret was originally published in 2000 as an easy reader. Scholastic is now reissuing the story as a picture book in advance of the newest Batman movie.

Batman’s Dark Secret is largely what you would expect from a version of Batman’s origin story meant for the hero’s youngest fans. Much of what makes Batman who he is ends up being sanitized to make the story palatable for small children. Gotham’s pervasive corruption is completely absent while the murder of Bruce’s parents is completely glossed over without their deaths ever being explicitly explained in the text.

Puckett’s text is child friendly and presented in smaller chunks on each page. Some of the pages read as a bit clunky largely because the source material is so out of sync with the age level of the text.

Muth’s illustrations work surprisingly well with this comic book hero. Striking watercolor illustrations make excellent use of light and dark to lend an appropriately noir feel to many spreads. The artwork also uses darkness to good effect conveying Bruce’s initial fear and how he ultimately comes to embrace the dark.

Obviously Batman’s Dark Secret has a rather niche audience. Truncated as it may be, this picture book is a good introduction to Batman for very young readers. Older readers, however, will likely prefer to get their Dark Knight fix in comics instead. A fun interpretation for committed fans and possibly an interesting picture book about overcoming fears /being afraid of the dark.

The Brokenhearted: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Brokenhearted by Amelia KahaneyAnthem Fleet has spent her life in the shadow of the dead sister she never met; a replacement for a lost daughter against whom she will never measure up. A talented dancer, the daughter of two of Bedlam’s most respected citizens, Anthem appears to be a girl with a bright future. Everyone thinks she’s lucky.

Everyone is wrong.

When Anthem meets a boy from the South Side–the absolutely wrong side of Bedlam–it feels like she is finally waking up. Her real life, the one she has been waiting for, seems to finally be starting.

Then the unthinkable happens.

Then Anthem dies.

When she wakes up nothing is the same. Not Anthem, not her life, and not her heart which is now a mechanical thing that beats faster and pushes her harder than should be humanly possible.

Anthem’s old life is over. She is broken. But maybe this new heart of hers will give her what she needs to find a new life and help Bedlam the way no one else can in The Brokenhearted (2013) by Amelia Kahaney.

Everything about this premise sounded amazing. The cover is beautiful. The opening prologue is well-written and completely fascinating. Even Anthem, with her ballet background, has the potential to be a unique, strong heroine.

With the gritty, hard luck setting of Bedlam and the promise of superhuman powers this book is reminiscent of comic book stories and recent books like Vicious or Steelheart.

Unfortunately, beyond all of this potential is a deeply disappointing book. The plot is slow to start, dragging through the first half which is mired in tragic, star-crossed love and Anthem’s sulking narration.

Plot points that are hinted at in the prologue are treated with no further foreshadow or resolution until the bitter end of the novel making for a story that drags and offers very few surprises or revelations.

Even with this problems, the idea remains promising. Unfortunately key elements* are never quite explained enough to make sense and character motivations never quite make sense.** The atmosphere is pitch perfect completely evocative of comic book cities Gotham before Batman returned.

The Brokenhearted strikes an uneasy balance between superhero story and romantic adventure. Erratic execution and poor pacing make it a frustrating read though die-hard comic fans (or dancers) might find some redeeming qualities here.

*Anthem gets a new heart. Which also gives her superhuman powers. But how a new organ changes everything about Anthem’s abilities is never explained.

**Anthem essentially has insta-love as a driving force of her character which is fine as an inciting incident but makes less sense as it is dragged through more than one hundred pages. The other male lead, Ford, is also a bit strange in that he is in no small part responsible for Anthem’s injury but he is also her ally. It’s just a strange combination.

Possible Pairings: Plain Kate by Erin Bow, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, Proxy by Alex London, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Watchmen by Alan Moore, The Superhero Handbook by Michael Powell, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Vicious: A Review

“The world resists, when you break its rules.”

Vicious by V. E. SchwabVictor and Eli have been competing with each other since the moment they met. Victor could easily surpass Eli, of course. But he recognizes the same reckless ambition in Eli and, Victor thinks, the same broken pieces that Victor can’t quite fix in himself. In a world where so many things are boring Eli, at least, is interesting.

Eli proves to be especially interesting in their senior year of college when their shared thesis research about adrenaline and near-death experiences reveals that under the right circumstances it may be possible to develop ExtraOrdinary abilities.

Their fates tangle even further when experiments with that research go horribly wrong.

Ten years later Victor and Eli find themselves on opposite sides of a battle for power. While Victor breaks out of prison determined to exact revenge on the friend who betrayed him, Eli is on a mission of his own to eliminate every ExtraOrdinary person that he can.

Victor and Eli both know a final meeting is inevitable. They both know only one is likely to survive. But even as they move inexorably closer to that final confrontation, it’s unclear who will emerge the hero. And who will forever be remembered as the villain in Vicious (2013) by V. E. Schwab.*

Vicious is an intricately plotted story of revenge and the not-quite redemption of Victor Vale. With chapters labeled “ten years ago” and “last night” (among other times) readers are brought closer and closer to Victor and Eli’s dramatic showdown. Flashbacks interspersed with the present story explain the rivalry between the two men while also providing valuable insight into their characters.

Schwab expertly navigates the murky area between right and wrong as readers (and perhaps the characters themselves) are left wondering who, if anyone, is the actual hero of the story.  With a plot exploring the idea that opposing a self-proclaimed hero–even for very good, very right reasons–might make someone a villain by default, Vicious is still populated with a number of surprisingly likable characters.

Vicious pushes the boundaries of conventional superhero tropes to take this story in a new and original direction. Readers looking for the next great anti-hero or fans who always cheer a little louder for the bad guy will definitely want to give Vicious a try.

*V. E. Schwab is the alter ego of YA author Victoria Schwab. This book is marketed for adult readers. It would be great for older teen readers but younger readers should be prepared for more mature language and some violence.

Possible Pairings: Plain Kate by Erin Bow, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Proxy by Alex London, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Watchmen by Alan Moore, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, The Superhero Handbook by Michael Powell, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom: A Review

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher HealyEveryone has heard of Prince Charming. But did you know that Prince Charming isn’t just one guy. True story: There are four Princes Charming. And those dumb bards never even bothered to get their names right in their songs.

Sure, Frederic didn’t do much beyond dancing quite well with a girl named Ella at a ball. And maybe Gustav didn’t come off all that well after his attempted rescue of Rapunzel since she actually had to save him. But Liam is a hero through and through; he had to fight to overcome a lot of obstacles to rescue Briar Rose. Even if his kingdom might not appreciate it. Then there’s Duncan. Maybe he was really just in the right place at the right time with seven dwarves to tell him what to do, but sometimes that is all it takes to save the day and get the girl.

Despite their heroics–or at least their important roles–each prince is relegated to the anonymous title of “Prince Charming” when their deeds are immortalized in song. Worse, the princes might not be so charming as each and everyone of them loses their princess.

Jilted and disgraced, each prince sets off in search of redemption. Along the way they stumble upon each other and an evil plot that will need all four Princes Charming (and some help from some other familiar characters) to foil.

At the beginning of the story these four princes don’t have much in common. Before the story is over Frederic, Liam, Gustav and Duncan might finally become the heroes they were meant to be in The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (2012) by Christopher Healy (with illustrations by Todd Harris).

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is Healy’s first novel.

With a breezy, humorous narrative Healy creates a quirky take on a lot of traditional fairy tales. Healy recreates these heroes, heroines, and villains in a fresh style all his own. Readers familiar with the original texts will find a lot of funny new touches while others will be introduced to the fairy tales in a fun new tale.

While some of the changes to these stories have the potential to frustrate readers* most of them amp up the opportunities for hilarity and action–sometimes at the same time. Because of the silliness the characters sometimes read as younger than they actually are, but with so much humor that’s easily ignored. Filled with adventure, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is also a truly funny story sure to entertain readers from start to finish.

Although the ending is rushed in some aspects (perhaps to leave room for a sequel?), the overall journey of each prince is a sight to behold. As Frederic, Liam, Gustav and Duncan each conquers their own shortcomings these unlikely heroes also discover the importance of good friends and that it takes a lot more than fancy swordplay to really be a hero. The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is an ideal choice for readers who like their fairy tales fractured, their stories amusing, and their adventures entertaining.

*By readers, I mean me. It took me most of the story to get over Healy’s reinvention of the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Before getting into slight SPOILERS explaining my frustration let me also point out that I literally watched the movieSleeping Beautyevery day for at least a year when I was little. My mother was terrified the tape would break. So, I am understandably very invested in these characters. That said, I was dismayed that Sleeping Beauty’s prince was named Liam instead of Philip. Worse, Briar Rose is a truly horrible person. While I greatly enjoyed Gustav and Rapunzel’s updated storyline it was very hard to let Sleeping Beauty go.

Possible Pairings: The Fairy Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley, Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, We Are Not Eaten by Yaks by C. Alexander London, Don’t Expect Magic by Kathy McCullough, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Fashion Kitty and the B.O.Y.S. (Ball of Yellow String): A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fashion Kitty and the B.O.Y.S. by Cherise Mericle HarperWhat do marshmallows, yellow string, the Eiffel tower and Super Sticky Spray have in common? Not much really, except that they all have a key role in Fashion Kitty and the B.O.Y.S (Ball of Yellow String) (2011) by Charise Mericle Harper.

Fashion Kitty and the B.O.Y.S. is Fashion Kitty’s fourth adventure, but it is my first experience with the fashion forward cat whose family has two secrets: (1) they have a pet mouse and (2) Kiki Kittie is now a superhero called Fashion Kitty.

Although the content is necessarily different, this book follows the tradition of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books (and even Brian Selznick and other books that I’m not as familiar with) in combining a written story with illustrated segments interspersed throughout the text.

The really nice thing about this book, being part of an established series, is that Harper does a good job bringing readers up to speed quickly. It was easy to read this book as a standalone without the earlier installments.

Apparently the earlier books in the series were more traditional graphic novels and some readers miss that format. I can’t comment on that since I haven’t read the other books, but I liked the text/image format. This could also be a good stepping stone to more text-based books for readers who are growing with the series, but it’s really a matter of personal preference.

Harper’s writing is clever with a bit of fairy tale quality–it’s easy to imagine sitting around a story hour being told this story by the author instead of reading it as a book.

I like the emphasis on helping friends here and the illustrations are a lot of fun. Really, the whole premise is fun–a cat who is a superhero and helps cats with fashion emergencies? What’s not to love? I was also happy to see the inclusion of a lot of boy characters instead of keeping the book girly and fashion-centric. Fashion does, obviously, play a role but it’s also just a vehicle to help people out.

T-shirts and marshmallow art  play a role in the story and Harper even provides craft ideas at the end of the book making this one the full package. With the humor, short chapters, and illustrations Fashion Kitty and the B.O.Y.S. is a great choice for fans of the series, reluctant readers, and anyone in between.

*A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher/author. (This is totally unrelated to the review and did not impact my opinion of the book, but thanks to Dema Neville for the lovely packaging of the said review copy which included the book as well as some marshmallows and yellow string–which as it turns out tie back to craft ideas at the back of the book.)