Tag Archives: England

Millions

Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce

My rating: 3.5 of 5

We all have our own ideas about what we’d do with a huge cash windfall, but it’s not often that someone actually gets to see how they’d really react. Of course, Damian’s probably not your typical individual in any case. Ever since his mother’s death, he’s been trying especially hard to be good–no, to be excellent–learning about the saints of old and doing his best to imitate their ways. So when a huge bag of pounds falls from the sky near a train track only a few days before the switch over to euros, Damian’s sure it’s a gift directly from God. His big brother Anthony (the more worldly and financially interested sibling) isn’t so sure, but he’s more than willing to help Damian spend the cash. Only, how much can a kid actually do with a bag full of cash, really? Soon inflation floods their school as they pay large amounts for trinkets and small favors. And they can’t make truly large purchases without a grownup, it seems. Even charitable donations online (Damian’s idea) require a credit card. So all in all, an interesting experience, but not nearly as satisfying as they’d hoped. And when other people begin to get suspicious of the brother’s good fortune, it seems their windfall may be far more trouble than it’s worth.

I’ve said many times over, and I’m sticking with it, that I love Frank Cottrell Boyce’s writing. Having said that, Millions–while certainly enjoyable–was not nearly as enjoyable as his other books. I think part of this is just that it’s his first book and things are still kind of coming together. Part of it was just the characters; I didn’t personally connect to them as much as to some of his other characters. And yeah, a big part of it is the weird, metaphysical aspect of Damian’s obsession with saints, to the point of having visions and people thinking he’s nuts at times. The way it’s presented, I would almost consider the genre to be magical realism . . . only, it’s not magic, it’s more supernatural . . . ? So I’m not quite sure what to even consider that, but it’s kind of weird, and the weirdness of it flavors the whole story. I enjoy the author’s books much more when they tend to the extreme tall tale and exude huge amounts of geekiness, on the whole. Still, the basic writing style was definitely Boyce’s, and thus, was quite enjoyable to read–in that regard, if you like his other books, you’ll probably like this one. Also cool was the historical perspective on the changeover from the pound to the euro in England and all the hubbub and excitement that entailed . . . or so I would say if England had actually made that change, but since it still uses that pound to my knowledge, that’s just kind of weird, too. Still, a good perspective on what this sort of change might entail and probably did involve in other countries. I do also appreciated the differing perspectives on finances and the value of wealth, including the realization that money is honestly kind of empty in the end, even if it can buy lots of cool stuff. So yeah, Millions was definitely an interesting and enjoyable read, even if not quite on par with the author’s other works. Still recommended as a solid middle-grade story, for sure.

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The Ancient Magus’ Bride (manga)

Mangaka: Kore Yamazaki/Translator: Adrienne Beck

Status: Ongoing (7 volumes currently)

My rating: 5 of 5

For her entire life, Chise Hatori has been able to see fey and spirits, beings that no one around her was even aware of. You can imagine the troubles she’s had because of it. Now she finds herself orphaned and sold at auction to a strange magus with a rather horrifying skull-like visage. But surprisingly, Elias (the magus) doesn’t want to just use her for her powers–although it turns out she has some rather rare and significant powers indeed. Rather, he invites her to live with him in his home in England and apprentice under him. And gradually, Chise blossoms, going from a sad old woman convinced she brings misfortune to everyone around her to the youthful girl she should be, capable of loving and caring for those around her with a smile. And she’s not the only one who’s changing because of her presence there.

Apologies for the cruddy summary; this has to be one of the weirdest and most difficult to summarize stories I’ve come across to date. One of the reasons I’ve not read this before–most of the summaries I’d read sounded pretty awful. The trouble is that The Ancient Magus’ Bride is different from basically any manga I’ve read before, although there are certainly elements that remind me of other stories. It has a good bit of back story that develops gradually, for one thing. Also, a great deal of the story is a gradually developing drama that reads almost like a slice-of-life story–just with magic, lots and lots of magic. I really love the flavor of the magic that’s used here; it’s heavily tinged with older English folklore, enough so that it’s easy to forget sometimes that this is actually set in contemporary England. I would say that the story’s flavor is equal parts Fullmetal Alchemist (which is totally weird, I know), xxxHOLiC, and English folklore–it sounds crazy, but it’s a really beautiful combination in practice, kind of a josei/seinen magical slice-of-life story. I absolutely love the way the characters grow and develop over the course of the story, as well as the ways their relationships change over time. It’s both heartwarming and dynamic. The art goes along with this well, being unique and attractive in a clean, seinen sort of way. I would highly recommend The Ancient Magus’ Bride, and I look forward to what the mangaka will bring with the remaining volumes.

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The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch (Graphic Novel)

Story by Neil Gaiman/Art by Michael Zulli/Lettering & Adaptation by Todd Klein

My rating: 4.5 of 5

WARNING: Mature Audience/Partial Nudity

Our narrator invites to listen to his tale of a most unusual evening, one he might not have believed himself had he not experienced it himself. A couple of his friends convinced him to come along and help them entertain an out-of-town guest who shall, for purposes of his story, be called Miss Finch–a strange woman to be sure, a biogeologist with an awkward personality and a great desire to see extinct creatures like Smilodon alive in their natural habitat. As fate would have it, the party winds up in a bizarre underground circus of questionable taste, but fate takes a strange turn when they arrive at an exhibit in which one individual is to have their greatest wish granted . . . and Miss Finch is the one chosen individual.

I first read “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch” in Gaiman’s Fragile Things as a short story, which I found quite outstanding and memorable. This graphic novel adaptation is also quite intriguing, staying close to the spirit of the original short story. It’s this strange blend of magical realism and an almost macabre oddness that gets under the skin somehow. Typical Gaiman, that, I suppose–his stories have a way of being unsettling but brilliant in ways I didn’t even know stories could be. Zulli’s art is just perfect for the story, bringing together that darkness and unsettledness and all the totally out there aspects of the circus in a way that fits and ties everything together. I love the departure from a typical comic-book style; it’s more neutral tones and semi-realistic styles that work really well for this story (and are much more what I prefer in general). I would definitely read more of this artist’s works (and am pleased to see that he appears to have illustrated a few other Gaiman graphic novels!). I think for those who enjoy Gaiman’s work or who are looking for a different but quality graphic novel, The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch would be a great choice.

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The Astounding Broccoli Boy

Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce

My rating: 4 of 5

Rory Rooney is all about being ready for everything, but the truth is there are some things you just can’t prepare for. Like being bullied by the biggest kid in your class. Or being accused of trying to poison him after he steals your food and has an allergic reaction. Or falling in a river and turning green. Broccoli green. But surprisingly enough, being green is something Rory can deal with. The doctors are baffled, but he’s convinced that his verdancy can only have one diagnosis: super.

I swear, where has this author been my whole life?! I just recently discovered Boyce’s writing when I read Cosmic, and The Astounding Broccoli Boy is another homerun of an absurd middle-grade adventure story. The author does a great job of creating relatable but interesting characters. The situations in which the characters find themselves are absolutely ridiculous–totally the realm of tall tales–yet with enough Truth (the kind that impacts people, not necessarily the kind that is scientifically provable) that the story is still grounded and real to the reader. The author uses the ridiculous, the humorous, and the adventurous events the characters encounter to express something practical and immediate, and I love that. Plus, the story is just fun, full of hijinks and misunderstandings and fun references. I would definitely recommend The Astounding Broccoli Boy for middle-grade readers in particular, but also just in general; it’s good fun.

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The Doll’s House

Author: Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, vol. 2

My rating: 4.5 of 5

WARNING: MATURE AUDIENCE

After his long absence from the Dream world and his imprisonment in the world of the living, Morpheus returns to Dream to survey his lands, taking stock of those members who are missing and beginning his search for them. Little does he know that some of his younger siblings among the Endless are stirring up trouble for him in secret. Meanwhile, in the human world, Rose Walker is united in England for the first time with her grandmother Unity (a victim of the sleeping sickness that came over so many children for a time) and subsequently returns to the United States to search for her long-lost little brother in hopes of uniting the family. She meets a number of interesting individuals during her search, including Morpheus himself, unwitting that she herself is a dream vortex that he must deal with or risk the destruction of Dream entirely.

Well, I have to say that, although I was not particularly impressed with the first Sandman comic, Preludes & Nocturnes, Gaiman thoroughly made up for the issues I found in that book in The Doll’s House. It made me regret having waited so long to press on with the series. Whereas Preludes & Nocturnes never truly felt like Gaiman’s work, never really set properly (barring that lovely last chapter), The Doll’s House feels throughout like one of his books. It has the right flavor, the right perspectives on things, the right spark that I can’t properly describe; I can only say that it works. The entire volume reads like a novel, having a cohesive plot with multiple, interlacing stories. It also traces back to stories told in the first volume, actually giving them more weight and purpose in my mind. I really loved all the dream sequences that were a part of this book and the way in which they played into the plot. Even more so, I appreciated the way in which the author discussed the ideas of destiny and fate and free will; you would think this theme would be exhausted by now, but it’s something so integral to humanity that perhaps it will always be a pertinent topic. I like Rose’s character as well; she’s got spunk but she’s also kind of broken, and it’s interesting to see that developed. The art is very well done, although still in a very comic-book style that I’m still gradually adjusting to. Fair warning that this is definitely geared for an adult audience and there’s some pretty gristly violence (though not nearly as bad as the first volume) and some nudity here. I definitely enjoyed reading The Doll’s House and am now actually quite looking forward to future volumes of The Sandman in spite of the series’ rocky start.

Covers & Design by Dave McKean/Illustrated by Mike Dringenberg & Malcolm Jones III/Colored by Zylonol/Lettered by Todd Klein & John Costanza

 

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Cosmic

Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce

My rating: 5 of 5

Liam has always been tall for his age, getting mistaken for being older than he is and being teased by other children for it. Now at the age of twelve, he’s already growing facial hair and being mistaken for an adult. Which is mostly awful. . . . But it does have its advantages at times. Like when he was mistaken for a new teacher at his new school or when he and his classmate Florida would go to the stores with him pretending to be her father. And ever one to push the limits, Liam begins to see just how far he can go with this “adult” thing–never dreaming that doing so would end up with him being stuck in a spaceship with a bunch of kids looking to him to get them safely home.

So, Cosmic was one of those books that blew my expectations completely out of the water. I had never even heard of the author previously (clearly an oversight on my part), and it appeared both from the cover and the description to be a rather average middle-grade story of hijinks and randomness. Well, the middle-grade hijinks and randomness is definitely there, but average this book is not. It uses humor and a tall tale sort of setting to look at what being an adult is really all about–as well as to examine how much the advantages of being an adult are wasted on actual grown-ups who don’t have the sense of fun and irresponsibility to really enjoy them. It also looks at major themes like fatherhood and the relationships between fathers and their children in a way that is quite touching. But the story never gets bogged down in these themes; rather they are revealed gradually through the improbable and ridiculous circumstances in which Liam and his companions find themselves. It’s very funny–perhaps even more so reading this as an adult, although this is definitely written for a younger audience and is completely appropriate for such, even for a younger elementary grade readership. There’s something of a universality in the midst of absurdity to be found in Cosmic, and I would highly recommend this book.

 

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Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies

Author: J. K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5

While entering the world of wizarding and magic through the stories of young Mr. Potter, we are introduced to any number of individuals, some of whom have a profound impact on events even while remaining shrouded in mystery. Professor McGonagall, for instance, shows immense depth of character and insight, yet her students are never told much of anything regarding her personal history. And Remus Lupin, beloved teacher and dear friend of Harry’s parents, had his own share of secrets. Even some of your less well-known residents of Hogwarts may surprise you with their courage, their tragic histories, and the lengths to which they will go in pursuit of their passions.

As with Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide, this collection is less a collection of short stories per se and more of a collection of short documentaries and short biographies that were originally released on the Pottermore website and are here collected in an organized volume. It’s quite an enjoyable collection, I must say. This particular volume focuses on the lives of Professor McGonagall, Remus Lupin, Sybill Trelawney, and Silvanus Kettleburn, providing all sorts of details that never came up in the Harry Potter books. The bulk of the book is focused on McGonagall and Lupin (which is as it should be). The sections about Minerva made me love and admire her all the more, and Lupin’s story made me cry all over again (like I didn’t do that enough while reading those parts of the Harry Potter series to begin with!). Mixed in with the characters’ stories are short sections of a more documentary nature, providing additional details about werewolves, the naming of witches and wizards, and the like, which were quite interesting as well. I would definitely recommend Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies to any fan of the Harry Potter stories (even if the book doesn’t actually contain short stories).

 

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