Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review Times Two: The Pretty Pictures Edition

Hi all—it’s a twofer, it’s a twofer! Two reviews in one post, that is. Who doesn’t like a double dose of nice illustrations? First up is a very cool graphic novel, followed by a children’s picture book of a Scottish folktale. Keep reading for the rundown!

Title: The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice
Author: Mike Carey, Peter Gross, Kurt Huggins, & Zelda Devon
Publisher: Vertigo
Publication Date: September 24th, 2013
Read: October 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Fantasy Graphic Novel
Rating: 3.5 Sunken Ships

This lovely little graphic novel is billed as a standalone prequel to the author’s series, The Unwritten, which is (from what I gathered through a quick Amazon check) about a guy named Tom Taylor whose life is kind of ridiculous because his father named him after the main character of his insanely popular Harry Potter-like book series. And it’s about the power of literature and words and stuff. Although I have wanted to try out this series for some time, I have not yet done so, and thus I came to this graphic novel having no background on the story whatsoever, aside from the aforementioned basic ideas. I was a perfect candidate to test on and see if the book succeeds as a standalone! So now the question is, did it?

The answer is yes, for the most part. First things first: The art is really, really beautiful. It is all rendered in gorgeous full-color, and a treat to look at. As for the story itself, there are two different tales unfolding at the same time—that of the man writing and publishing the first Tommy Taylor book to coincide with the birth of his son, who he has decided to call Tom Taylor, and that of the actual story about Tommy Taylor’s adventures at a school for magic and his discovery of his own magic in his efforts to take down an evil vampire. The Tommy Taylor story was interesting enough, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to many fantasy tropes, and some very funny bits. I especially liked that when there was a sort of seriousness in the Tommy Taylor story, it would often have a humorous line to bring things back into perspective. In one of my favorite examples of this, a man and a sea monster are talking about the recent deaths of some people at sea. A man and a sea monster having a conversation is pretty amusing straight off, but what they’re talking about is pretty rough, right? People dying when a ship sinks is no fun at all. But when the monster insinuates that the man had a thing for a woman who went down with the ship, the man snarks back with, “Anyone can read a gossip column. Even without opposable thumbs.” Which gave me a really hilarious mental image of the big whale-looking leviathan reading a newspaper.

The really intriguing part, though, was the diary entries by the Tommy Taylor author, and trying to get a handle on what he’s seeking to accomplish by naming his son after the book character, timing the publication to his son’s birth, making it seem like the biological mother was not the actual mother… Is he just an egomaniac crazy douche-y monster willing to do anything for marketing, or is there something more to it? While this book does not tell you for a certainty if there is something more to it and, if so, what that something more may be, it definitely made me even more interested to read the actual The Unwritten series to see what was really going on and how it all plays out.

Overall, I think it was pretty successful as a standalone graphic novel. For me, as one uninitiated into the greater Unwritten universe, the fantasy meta-ness of the Tommy Taylor story added to its appeal, and the mysteriousness of the Tommy Taylor author’s storyline drew me in and made me want to know what the heck was going on. The writing was very good, and the art was awesome, too. I waffled between giving this a 3.5 or a 4, and settled on 3.5 because while it was good and definitely intriguing, I didn’t LOVE it. I think the people who would LOVE it and really get the most out of it are those who already have The Unwritten series under their belt—this sort of origin story would probably be most meaningful to those who already know what comes after. For the rest of us, we get a good story and good art, and with luck our interest is piqued enough to check out the graphic novels it spun off from. After we’ve read those, we can come back to this one and appreciate it on a different level.

Title: The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies
Author: Heather Forest
Illustrator: Susan Gaber
Publisher: August House, Inc.
Publication Date: October 7th, 2013 (Reprint Edition)
Read: October 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Children’s Folktale Picture Book
Rating: 4 Tasty Cake Crumbs

In this retelling of an old Scottish folktale, a bakerwoman famous for her delicious cakes is captured by the King of the Fairies, who wants her to bake for him and his kingdom. Knowing that she will never be allowed to leave if they taste her amazing cakes, the woman uses her wits to find a way out of the situation and get back home to her husband, baby, and baking. I thought this book was very cute and lots of fun. I’m a sucker for a good folktale, and this one was new to me! I like that it’s a story about a mother having an adventure, and that she’s a woman with skills who uses her head to rescue herself. And on top of that, she keeps her promise to the fairies at the end! All in all, this nameless bakerwoman is a pretty great role model.

The story is well-written, with repetition of certain lines that children can pick up on and join in reading or acting out with the story-reader (such as the Fairy King’s reaction to each of the bakerwoman’s requests: “He clapped his hands, he stamped his foot, and the ground split open”), and there’s funny stuff that will make kids giggle, such as a baby flinging porridge around at fairies. Though the Fair Folk from Celtic cultures and story traditions can sometimes be scary, these fairies aren’t at all, and the resolution of the story is happy for everyone. The last line is a good message for children, and well put for the enjoyment of grown-up readers, too: “For fairies’ gold, they say, is like love or knowledge—or a good story. It’s most valuable when it’s shared.” Awwwww! For added learning, there is also an author’s note at the end that talks about the story’s Scottish origins and the meaning of the word “flummox” (which is a very good word, I might add).

Equally important to the writing, where picture books are concerned, are the illustrations. I thought the art was very cute and pretty—it has a certain softness and plumpness, but still manages to be vaguely ethereal. The palate is colorful but muted, and it all blends together seamlessly with the story. Overall, I found this to be a very nice book for kids and kids-at-heart.

Are you as enticed by pretty pictures in books as I clearly am? What are some of your favorite graphic novels or kids’ books with great art? Hit us up and let us know!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copies, our reviews are uninfluenced by their source.

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