Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama

Witch Hat Atelier has become my new favorite manga. It is a great place to start if you are interested in manga but confused by the enormous number of titles and volumes available. It is well-written, beautifully drawn, and easy to follow, though it does have to be read from front to back of the book. It has proven itself in Japan, coming out regularly since 2017 and collected into books (called tankobon) about every six months. At only seven volumes so far, there is plenty to be captivated by, and it is still easy to catch up with the story.

I highly recommend it for just about anyone age eight and up. To read a more complete review, go to www.twincitygeeks.com.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

There has been a rash of young adult fantasy novels featuring strong teenage girls coming into some sort of magical power. A Deadly Education, billed as “Lesson One of the Scholomance” is one of my favorites.

The Scholomance is inspired by Hogwarts, but it is orders of magnitude less benign. In this world, monsters called maleficaria are everywhere, and they find magical adolescents particularly tasty. So, the kids are walled off in an inescapable magical high school to keep them safe during those tender years. As a side benefit, the school is supposed to teach them to use their magic. But the school’s protections have worn down over the years, and the school itself is an unreliable teacher. There are no remedial lessons and failure is often rewarded by death.

Our wonderfully snarky heroine, Galadriel (El for short, certainly not Gal) is a junior. She is extremely powerful, but only if she uses evil magic, which she absolutely refuses to do, so she is barely surviving her schooling. Her likely-fatal pathway changes when she meets a privileged, popular classmate named Orion Lake, who is quite clearly the wrong guy for her.

What follows is a delightfully chaotic mix of dangerous lessons–about magic, class privilege, true friendship, romance, and the cost of evil. Given the increasing number of maleficaria, it seems unlikely that anyone will make it through the year. Though Lesson One doesn’t end on too bad of a cliffhanger, we know that El and Orion still have another year to get through.

A Deadly Education is coming out in paperback soon. Lesson Two of the Scholomance, called The Last Graduate, is expected in July 2021.

Independent Bookstore Day…Week!

It’s that time of year again! It’s time for Independent Bookstore Day, but this year because of the pandemic, it’s going to be a little different. April the 24th is still Independent Bookstore Day, but it you’re going to take part in Rain Taxi’s “passport” event, you have a week to do it, starting Sunday, April 18th.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, for the last few years, Rain Taxi has organized an event with a “passport”, where you go around and collect stamps from different bookstores. Each stamp turns into a coupon for the next time you’re in the bookstore. If you get 10 stamps, you activate the coupons for all 23 participating stores. If you collect all 18 available stamps (5 stores are participating, but not yet open for in-store shopping or getting stamps) you qualify for their drawing of one of five literary prize packs, or the grand prize.

Full details are on the Rain Taxi website here: https://www.raintaxi.com/literary-calendar/twin-cities-independent-bookstore-day-passport/

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

This book came highly recommended by a customer, who said it was so good she read it in less than two days. It took me a bit longer than that because I wanted time to savor the elegant prose, and because some scenes were so wise and emotionally wrenching that I had to stop and let them sink in. I can certainly second her recommendation.

For me, the book was not a page-turning fantasy adventure, but a melancholy love story exploring the effects of time and memory. Addie LaRue’s story is a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for, because wishing badly could be (literally) damning. But she is a strong woman, able to resist her assigned fate and play a centuries-long game with the being who subverted her wish by fulfilling it too exactly.

Despite her trials, Addie is a joyous observer of life, always looking for something new and exciting, though she, herself, must be forgotten as soon as she is out of sight. She becomes the embodiment of the mysterious women who appear in countless works of art, influential but entirely unremembered. The book is a lovely exploration of the fullness of life and the lasting nature of art: Would you rather your life be remembered or create something that persists through the ages?

Wings of Ebony by J. Elle

This is a first novel from J. Elle, and one of the first fantasy novels from Simon and Schuster’s Denene Millner Books line, described on her web site as “a love letter to children of color who deserve to see their beauty and humanity in the most remarkable form of entertainment on the planet: books.” Wings of Ebony may not be the most original fantasy ever, making free reinterpretation of tropes we have all seen before. But it has the thing that I look for above all else in young adult fantasy novels: a unique and powerful voice.

The first-person narrator of the story, Rue Jelani, grew up in Houston’s East Row neighborhood (as did J. Elle), but was forced to leave her home after her Moms’s murder. She was taken away by her estranged father, something she still bitterly resents a year later, even though he turned out to be a powerful mage (but the only Black one) in a magical world called Ghizon. For Rue, the powers she gained, parceled out reluctantly by a world where she is an outsider, can never make up for the home and people she lost. Then she discovers the connection between her two worlds, and must learn to use her magic to fight the oppression she finds in both places.

Rue is a wonderful character; all attitude and slang (but very little profanity), and full of a fierce caring for the people she considers her “fam.” She proves to be willing to change her mind when necessary, and able to work to change the minds of others. Her conversations with her white Ghizoni friend Bri, are valuable reading for those of us who are trying to be anti-racist. The conclusion involves some obvious similarities to events in Minneapolis last summer, moved into a fantasy setting where they are rather more effective than they were here. The book is dedicated, on its final page, to George Floyd

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

In the acknowledgments, the author reports that this story of fourteen-year-old apprentice baker and wizard, Mona, was repeatedly rejected for being too dark for a children’s book. So, it eventually got published under the name T. Kingfisher, which is the name Ursula Vernon uses for her books for grown-ups. I think the story would be delightful for any age. The only thing Mona does which might cause any consternation in a young adult is continually reminding the reader that she is “only fourteen.”

The story does start with a dead body in Mona’s aunt’s bakery, though. Perhaps this would be more upsetting if it weren’t described with Kingfisher’s usual breezy humor; a first-person voice who notices that the blood is “definitely not raspberry filling” and that the murdered person’s socks sadly don’t match. Mona continues in the same unruffled, practical voice even when confronted with corrupt Inquisitors and armies of Carex mercenaries at her city’s gates.

According to Mona, she is not much of a wizard. Her magic lies only in making the best sourdough in the city and briefly animating dancing gingerbread men. She keeps her possibly sentient sourdough starter (named Bob) in the basement at the bakery. But the impressive wizards who are supposed to defend the city are called away, and the people whose magic is deemed inconsequential must step up. Mona’s cleverness and courage and, of course, magical talent for making bread, have to be enough.

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

This decidedly weird novel is narrated by a smart domesticated crow named S.T. (short for Shit Turd) who has been lovingly raised alongside a not-so-smart bloodhound named Dennis. Their master, a guy they call Big Jim, was clearly not the finest specimen of humanity, though both crow and dog are so adoring that they never seem to realize this. S.T. unironically refers to humans (the ones he likes, anyway) as MoFos, and believes that junk food is the holiest of mankind’s many achievements. The story begins when Big Jim succumbs, along with the rest of the MoFos in Seattle, to something very like a Zombie Apocalypse.

S.T. is a hilarious storyteller, spouting a combination of comic expletives, almost-childlike misunderstandings and, oddly, actual wisdom. The first chapters are pretty liberally salted with four-letter words, sophomoric potty humor, and disdain for almost everything. But S.T. must tone down his obnoxiousness in order to coax Dennis to leave Big Jim’s house in search of help. Eventually S.T. forms a family (or, rather, a murder—he is a crow, after all) with Dennis. The two undertake an increasingly complex and outrageous series of missions as S.T. realizes that no help is coming from the humans, and the animal kingdom is on its own.

As the story progresses, S.T.’s cocky voice is overtaken by a different voice, obviously that of the author. Since I am not a particular fan of horror, I appreciated having the gory decline of humanity described by the snarky, detached voice of the crow, who is in love with all the wrong things about civilization. But author Kira Jane Buxton is in love with nature in its all its glory. To her, even the dangers are wonderful. As Seattle becomes a wilderness populated by rescued pets and freed zoo animals, the narrative switches toward Buxton’s own lush, gorgeous prose. The zombification of mankind has never been more vibrant, ecologically sound, or sadly appropriate.

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox

This is a dense fantasy by an accomplished New Zealand writer who seems to be informed by a degree in literature and a historian’s interest in myth, rather than a voracious consumption of (or borrowing-from) the modern fantasy genre. It merges Arthurian legend with Norse and Christian mythology in a unique way, cemented by a vision of fairie (the Sidhe) that feels like an extra-dimensional alien race. This works surprisingly well, bringing moments of revelation that feel exciting, wise, and new. It doesn’t hurt that a meditation on the history of libraries and books, particularly those lost in fires, is mixed in with the lot.

The book’s strongest aspect is the writer’s sense of place. Knox describes the marshes of Norfolk, the streets of Aix-en-Provence (where there is a library), and the forests of the Sidhe with equal, loving attention. The paragraphs of description, rather than feeling intrusive, are to be savored and leave the reader feeling present in the landscape. This makes for a long, slow read, but it is not a story that drives relentlessly to an overwhelming conclusion. The fun is in the small discoveries and the insights dropped along the way.

Here is one phrase that made me think. It is on page 202, and related by a mysterious, part-Sidhe man named Shift. He says, “The Great God of the Deserts, the God from the Void, sequestered himself many hundreds of years ago. His worshippers had too many competing views of his nature, and it unsettled his mind. That’s a thing that can happen to gods. They’re very impressionable.” This twists the anthropologic theory that men create gods, rather than the other way around, by assuming absolutely that the Judeo-Christian God exists. I’ve heard worse, and weirder, explanations for the state that the world is in right now.

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

This is a first novel by a very promising new writer. It feels a bit like Ursula K. LeGuin and NK Jemison, in that it tells a sweeping galactic tale by focusing on the intensely personal consequences of scientific advancement. At the center of this story is the time-distortion postulated for faster-than-light travel—the theory that people travelling through space experience only a few day’s passage of time, while years go by for those they have left behind. The people who travel frequently can bear witness to hundreds of years of history but are left with a sense of missing out on the important things in life.

The story skips through time and space, linked by three space-faring, lonely protagonists. We see the establishment of lovely, bird-shaped space stations after the extinction of the birds on Earth, through the eyes of an ancient woman. Through letters sent to her colony ship from the woman she left behind, we see the end of life on Earth. We see the wonder (and, eventually, corruption) of the newly-colonized galaxy, barely registered by a space captain who left her family too soon and a pre-teen boy who never had a family. It is a beautiful but melancholy story, a thousand years of galactic history condensed by the people it has left untethered.

A bit over half way through the novel, as the captain, the boy, and a small group of ship-mates deliberately pass centuries of real time by planet-hopping, the author tells us, “They were always leaving.” It took me a while to realize that, if one is always leaving, of course, one must also be always arriving. I’m not sure Jimenez ever realized this—he is a young man probably living in pandemic isolation amid world-shattering change. But, for me, the book became a story about the importance of learning to arrive; a reminder that where you are at any moment must be more important than the places you thought you might be going next.

Will Eisner Week!

This week is Will Eisner Week, devoted to the reading of Graphic Novels.

Eisner, creator of The Spirit, was one of the greatest champions of storytelling through comics graphics. He used the graphics to help tell the story in unique and exciting ways. His Contract With God is credited with making Graphic Novels “literature” and therefore OK for children (and adults) to read. We celebrate Eisner and his legacy this week by promoting the reading of Graphic Novels.

A Complicated Love Story Set in Space by Shaun David Hutchinson

This is one of the strangest, and strongest, young adult novels I’ve encountered for a while. The first-person narrator, a young man from Seattle named Noa, is delightful, and manages to be hilarious and irreverent while telling a harrowing tale of science fictional misadventures. The tale begins with Noa literally waking up in space one morning, wearing a space suit labelled “Nico” that is running out of oxygen and tethered to a space ship that is about to explode.

The space adventures are decidedly weird, but the love story is not. Noa falls right away for another guy, named DJ, from Florida, who has also inexplicably woken up on the same space ship. But because of bad experiences with another boyfriend, Noa is conflicted in love. There is one other person on the ship, named Jenny, who interestingly never questions the validity of or interferes with the budding gay romance. As Noa works through his past issues to accept the relationship that DJ offers, he tells a genuine love story about two kids who question, not their gender or sexuality, but their suitability for love.

As an added bonus, the story managed to surprise me completely with an outrageous but science fictionally satisfactory explanation for the weirdness. The unexpected revelations add a whole new layer of complexity to both the space adventures and the love story. It is, indeed, complicated. And set in space!

A New Translation of Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en

As a casual student of Chinese mythology (learned mostly from Japanese anime, perhaps not the most reliable source) I was very excited to see this book land on our shelves. It is the newest translation of one of the oldest collections of legends in history, written by Wu Cheng’en (probably) and first published in China in 1562. Its original title was Hsi-Yu-Chi (Saiyuki) or Journey to the West. It is a record of the myths that accumulated around an actual historical journey, by a monk named Xuanzang who walked from China to India to collect Buddhist wisdom in 629 AD. The sixteen-year journey seemingly inspired a lot of stories—Wu Cheng’en’s original novel requires three volumes.

The historical Xuanzang was probably not accompanied and protected on his journey by three outcast immortal demons, one of which was the Monkey King. But in Wu Cheng’en’s version of the tale, Monkey is a lot more interesting than the holy monk, who doesn’t even show up until Chapter Nine or so. A few chapters later, shortly after embarking upon his journey to India, Xuanzang releases Monkey from a (well-deserved) 500-year captivity. The other two demons, seeking their own redemption, join in subsequent chapters. But Monkey is the hero of this story.

Most fantasy readers have heard of the Monkey King, even if they don’t know about Hsi-Yu-Chi. He has been the star of movies, manga and anime, usually under the name Son Goku or Sun Wukong. His magic enlargeable staff is the seed of all those weapons that appear out of nowhere, and his ability to create fighting clones of himself is a key video game and anime trope. Clearly the prototype for shonen characters like Naruto, Monkey is mischievous, heedless, over-confident, and clever. He can also be selfishly cruel, sometimes becoming a trickster figure similar to Loki. But his enthusiasm and passion remain irrepressible—an indestructible, powerful, eternally fourteen-year-old kid.

This current translation, titled Monkey King: Journey to the West, is by Julia Lovell, a “professor of modern China” at the University of London. At only 339 pages, it is most definitely an abridgement of the original. (The details are explained in the scholarly introduction, with footnotes, of course.) Lovell’s translation is easy to read, with modern language and a great feel for both the ridiculousness and high adventure inherent in the story. I have not read all of it yet, but would begin reading it out loud at once, if I still had a kid at home to read it to. I might consider skipping a few of the more questionable phrases, though. That Monkey does not hold back any words or feelings.

The last image is of Son Goku on the cover of my favorite anime/manga about the Journey to the West. For my review, go to twincitiesgeek.com, and search “Saiyuki.”

Wicked Fox by Kat Cho: A Review

Gu Miyoung is a young Korean woman who is half human and half gumiho (nine-tailed fox), called “wicked fox” because the legendary gumiho are immortal fox demon spirits who must consume life in order to live. She is trying to get through high school without killing the innocent (though she is willing to drain the life out of the guilty), while desperately trying to satisfy the demands of her mother, who is fully a fox demon. 

Her life becomes very much more difficult when she saves a young man from an attack by a dokkaebi (goblin). Jihoon is an affable underachiever who has parent issues of his own. But he has been raised on folktales by his Halmeoni (grandmother) and is able to recognize the existence of magical beings when actually faced with them.

This book stands out from the enormous number of fantasies for young adults because Miyoung’s story does not require that she solve problems that are not her own. I have, perhaps, read too many YA epics starring girls who not only must deal with their own growing pains, but also overcome world-shattering systemic evil with their naivety and sheer stubbornness. This tale feels much more intimate and realistic; serious adolescent problems made more urgent and engaging because of a fantastic element. 

While our heroes certainly have otherworldly powers, they are very much grounded in personal experiences within a modern world. The story takes place in a beautifully-described Seoul, Korea, a landscape which feels very different, yet vibrant and real. Both Miyoung and Jihoon change in the course of their tale, becoming stronger and a bit wiser. And, of course, they eventually fall in love. But will they be able to make friends and maybe get into a good college?

There is an epilog which suggests that their adventures are not yet over. A second book, Vicious Spirits, is scheduled for August. I’m looking forward to seeing what these two people do next. 

The Arrest by Jonathan Letham

Jonathan Letham is the author of Motherless Brooklyn and other quirky novels, which blend science fiction and realism in a style that has been called (by the author) “genre bending.” He has won a MacArthur grant and is clearly an accomplished writer at the top of his craft.

This book takes place in post-apocalyptic Maine, with characters suspended in an oddly dispassionate, unquestioning almost-reality. As with much of the best science fiction, the story has more to say about today–in this case, America during the Trump era–than it does about predicting a realistic future. The unmoored, almost dreamlike quality of the story, where neither the author nor his characters seem to know what to think, provides a surprisingly excellent vehicle for readers to process their own experiences.

The apocalypse that occurred several years before the novel begins, was a sudden “arrest” of modern conveniences such as computers, radio, cell phones, cars, planes, and guns. There is no consistency to the things that stopped working, nor is any explanation offered. The people stranded together in a community of organic farmers on the coast of Maine do not seem to particularly care what happened, or why. They have the one thing that matters at the end of the world—sustainable food sources. They have enough to feed everyone, including the inland community of militaristic guys, called The Cordon, who are either keeping the farmers trapped or protecting them from outside intrusion. It hardly matters.

This sort-of-idyllic utopia is threatened one Tuesday when an enormous, mobile machine, carrying a man who claims to have driven there from California, breaks through The Cordon. Our hero, Journeyman, who used to be a screenwriter before visiting his farmer sister just before the Arrest, knows the driver of the vehicle. Todbaum was an unscrupulous movie mogul who’d built an empire on lies and narcissistic persuasion, and was Journeyman’s boss. He brings stories about the outside world, which may or may not be true. And he brings with him dangerous reminders of a past which really might be better forgotten after all.

Two Middle School Girl Heroes

When I saw these two books side-by-side on the shelves in the middle-grade section, I just couldn’t resist! Two fantasies based in Asian legend and featuring fierce girls wielding sticks, is either a wonderful coincidence or a new trend.

The Dragon Warrior, by Katie Zhao, is about a Chinese-American girl (Falun Liu, aka Faryn) and her brother (Ah Li, aka Alex). They live in San Francisco’s Chinatown, within an enclave called the Jade Society, a secret group of warriors who fight demons. They have been raised by their grandfather (Ye Ye) because their mother is dead and their warrior father is missing. Ye Ye and his charges are often ridiculed for being too traditional, because no one believes that there are demons any more. Except, of course, there are, and Falun will have to fight Gods and demons from Chinese myths based on the legend of the Journey to the West.

The Girl Giant and the Monkey King, by Van Hoang, also draws from the Journey to the West, which is where the legendary Monkey King originated. The Girl Giant is a Vietnamese-American girl (Thom Ngho, aka No) who lives with her tiger-mom mother in a small midwestern town. Her father is unknown. She’s really, really strong, and thinks that this, in addition to being too Asian, is the reason why she’s an outcast at school. She will venture into the Heavens, led by the mischievous Monkey King, in search of his legendary staff and her own identity.

The books both feature realistic middle school heroes, though The Girl Giant and the Monkey King deals with slightly more mature themes. Both girls receive a reasonable amount of help and misdirection from the adults in their lives, and must sort out which is which in order to succeed. But The Dragon Hero is a fairly typical kid-hero’s journey, with Falun finding her courage and learning who to protect. She will be accepted after she becomes a hero. In The Girl Giant and the Monkey King, Falun must learn how to handle her strength while she decides who to trust. She also must realize that the first step to fitting in is to recognize that you’re really OK.

Both books have a fair number of cultural references, with numerous uses of Chinese or Vietnamese words, particularly for foods, as well as casual mentions of some of the problems that come from being an immigrant. (My favorite Vietnamese word is “cu’ng,” an endearment used frequently by Thom’s mother, which needlessly embarrasses her.) And both books, while leading to satisfactory conclusions, promise to be the first book in a series.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune: A review

Linus Baker is a quiet, somewhat cowardly social worker, who takes his job with the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) very seriously. He investigates the orphanages where those troublesome magical youths are raised, and never really notices that keeping them safe and repressing them are very closely related. Arthur Parnassus is the director of one of those orphanages, perhaps the most dangerous one of all, since it houses Lucy, aka Lucifer the Anti-Christ, along with five other mysterious children. They meet when DICOMY sends Linus on a clearly-not-routine, month-long investigation of Arthur’s orphanage, located on a remote island, miles away from the last stop on the train line.

The House in the Cerulean Sea isn’t really a gay romance, though the cover quote describes it as “like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket.” There is attraction, yes, but it is not particularly physical or sexual. It is based on a middle-aged, stodgy compatibility and a growing realization that both men wish the magical children to be treated with gentleness and respect, no matter how odd they look or how dangerous their powers might seem. Really, the book is a love story between two men and six children (and the female sprite that owns the island). If that’s a big gay blanket, I wish I had one.

If I have any objections to the book, it is that it’s too comfortable, like a cozy mystery without the cat, and intolerance instead of murder. TJ Klune describes his book as providing “positive queer representation,” and it certainly does that. But it seems that Mr. Klune doesn’t have children. Everyone on the island has a secret and terribly abusive past, but it never seems to bother them. The children are too perfect, too adorable in their rare instances of misbehavior. But this is a fantasy. If you can believe that there are children with magical powers, you can probably accept that a large dose of love and patience will entirely erase the bitterness and isolation that usually accompanies an early history of abuse. Curl up and enjoy!