Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Review: Revenge of the Witch

Title: The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch
Author: Joseph Delaney
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Publication Year: 2005
Read: March 2015
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: Middle-grade-to-YA-historical-fantasy-horror
Rating: 4 Boggart Pits

I can trace my interest in these books back many years, based almost entirely on the eye-catching art. The covers for this series are creepy, atmospheric, and striking (and, as I discovered when I read this one, the art continues on the inside, too!). When I saw that it was being made into a movie with the awesome Ben Barnes (a.k.a. Prince Caspian, a.k.a. Dunstan Thorn), I finally decided I had better read the book, since the general chatter I’ve heard about the books didn’t seem to quite match up with the almost goofy quest-fantasy look of the movie trailer. I mean, I’ve heard these books are SCARY, and the movie looks anything but.

The story begins with our narrator, twelve-year-old Thomas Ward, getting sent off to try out to be the apprentice to the local Spook, or the person who roams about the countryside taking care of unwanted supernatural phenomena and creatures, such as boggarts, witches, ghouls, and the like. Thomas is the seventh son of a seventh son, making him uniquely qualified for this job. His Mam believes he is in fact even more uniquely qualified than that, but never quite explains why, which is a strong thread of mystery running through the story. The story follows Tom through his trial period (spoiler alert: he gets the job), and through the early days of his apprenticeship with the Spook. He meets a pointy-shoed local girl named Alice, and eventually ends up inadvertently releasing a big, bad witch called Mother Malkin into the world. He then tries to counteract the bad she does and has to figure out a way to recapture her to save both himself and his family.

The story is very well-written. It is a quick read, but there is a lot of complexity beneath the surface. Tom’s voice shines brightly—he is an honest, straightforward narrator. He is a good person to his core, but we see his struggles as he tries to make the right decisions, and, when he doesn’t, try to fix things. All of the main characters are similarly complex. The Spook, for instance, has a fraught relationship with his brother, a past occupation that comes to light, and qualms about burning witches (too cruel, he says), that show he is more than his gruff, beastie-hunting exterior. Tom’s Mam, too, is wonderfully complex and mysterious—she loves her son, but not in a soft way, and I look forward to finding out more about her in future books. And then there is Alice—torn between her family and wanting to maybe not be like them. She is a particularly compelling character because of her seeming powerlessness in her situation, and her struggle to make choices to gain power in her own life. I was initially a little turned off by the number of “evil” women in the story (the witches), but complex and layered characters like Alice and Mam mitigated that.

As for the creepy factor, this was another book where I found myself thinking, okay, this is a little creepy, but not actually frightening! as I was reading, but then my phone would buzz or someone would come in my room to talk to me and I’d jump about 5 feet in the air. So…not nightmare-inducing, but a little scarier than I initially gave it credit for!

I enjoyed this one, and look forward to reading the rest of the series and delving deeper into these characters. Also, I forgot to mention that there is a passive-aggressive boggart housekeeper—what could be better than that? (Also also, I hemmed and hawed and then included “historical” in the genre tags, because it could easily be a fantasy world, but there was mention of people reading Greek and Latin. So I guess it must be this world, or a version of it, after all?)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book Review: Lost in Translation

Title: Lost in Translation
Author: Ella Frances Sanders
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Date: September 2014
Read: March 2015
Where It Came From: eARC via NetGalley* + purchased copy
Genre: Non-fiction-language-culture-coffee-table
Rating: 4 Tsundoku Book Piles

What a fun little book! This “illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world” (as it calls itself) is a delight, gathering up words from languages the world over that have no equivalent in English, but that put a name to feelings and ideas we know and understand, but perhaps had difficulty describing before (like jayus, from Indonesian—a joke so bad you can’t help laughing at it), or ones that give insight to aspects of other cultures and places (like fika, from Swedish—getting together to sip coffee, eat snacks, and relax together).

Each word gets a two-page spread, with the name of the language it’s from and some additional explanation on the left side, and the word, definition, and a watercolor illustration on the right. The art is lovely, but then again, I am a sucker for watercolors! I will note that in my digital ARC, I thought the watercolor looked a little better than it does in the finished book—I don’t know if it’s the way it was printed or what, but it’s especially noticeable in the cursive handwritten definition for each word, which looks a little fuzzy.

I am a huge language nerd, and I love that this book celebrates how culture and language are inextricably intertwined, and how language shapes the way we think. Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself particularly language-nerdy, there’s still a lot of fun to be had with this book, like with pisan zapra (from Malay—the time it takes to eat a banana) or kummerspeck (from German—literally “grief-bacon,” or weight gain from eating one’s feelings). I was a little unsatisfied by their definition of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, but I learned a new Japanese word, too! Komorebi--sunlight filtering through tree leaves above you. This is something I photographed often when I was in Japan, and always noticed and enjoyed during my many walks through city, countryside, temple, and shrine. How lovely to learn that there is a word I could have used to talk about it!

A couple other favorites: Trepverter, from Yiddish, meaning that witty comeback that you think of only after the time to use it has passed. (I seem to remember that this one exists in French, too--l’esprit d’escalier, or the spirit of the stairs. Coming up with that zinger right when you’re leaving!) And this one, particularly apt for this blog: Tsundoku, from Japanese, referring to the act of buying a book and then not reading it, usually piling it up with other books bought and as yet unread.

Fun book. It would make a great gift or be a nice addition to your coffee table, providing fodder for conversation, some laughs, and thinking.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Graphic Novelty: Through the Woods

Title: Through the Woods
Author: Emily Carroll
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication Date: July 2014
Read: February 2015
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: Graphic-novel-horror
Rating: 4.5 Cold Hands

Let me just say: This. Was. AWESOME. I’d heard from various sources whose opinions I respect that this was an amazing and damn scary graphic novel with beautiful art, and I finally got around to checking it out from the library earlier this year. (To save money/space/irritation about having bought books that turned out to be shitty upon reading, I’m trying this new thing where I check a book out from the library instead of running out and buying it right away, and then afterwards deciding if I liked it enough to buy a copy for my personal library.) It sat in my library book tower until I went to renew it online one day and saw that—GASP!—someone else had placed a hold on it and I had to return it in two days. And that meant: Kick into high reading gear! So I curled up on a bright, sunny day-off afternoon to dive in.

The book consists of five short stories (they get increasingly longer as the book goes on), and a short intro and outro. They are seemingly unrelated, except for the common thread running through them, as hinted in the title—the woods are always involved, and strange things come from the woods. Each story is deliciously creepy…not horror in a gory, in-your-face way, but more insidiously unsettling. Spine-tingling, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-standing-up kind of scary. The closest comparison in tone I can make is to those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books that were probably the first experience many of us had with horror. The nerd in me absolutely loved the almost fairytale/folkloric slant to these stories—especially as related to the woods, that symbol of fear and the unknown from time immemorial. They’re stories that will probably leave you with questions. There are no easy answers or resolutions to be found here, which is absolutely fitting. The storytelling is deft, atmospheric—leaving you a little off-kilter, both anticipating and apprehensive of what will happen next. And the art! Beautiful. Graphic, bold, and seamlessly integrated with the text for an immersive story experience.

As I mentioned, I was reading this in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, with people home. As I made my way through the book, I thought the stories were creepy in that quiet, crawling, tingly creepy-pasta way, but I found myself thinking, “Well, perhaps I’d be as freaked out by them as everyone else if I was alone. Or it was night. Or something.” But then my dad suddenly appeared at my door to ask in his baritone if I wanted pancakes, and I jumped about 5 feet in the air. So…I guess I was subconsciously a little more freaked out than I thought. And then, when I went to bed hours after I’d finished the book, the images came creeping back and I suddenly felt very alone in the dark, wondering what might be lurking under my bed or outside my window…

Great read, and a quick one, too. You might tear through it really quickly, but I guarantee this is one that will stick with you. And that little coda at the end…so effing perfect. Love love LOVE. Highly recommended. And it definitely passed the test—I will certainly be buying a copy for my personal library.

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