in other lands

Monday, September 24, 2018 | | 0 comments
I am on the best sort of streak right now – I’ve been reading one lovely book after another! And the latest in line is Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands, an affectionate send-up of popular fantasy tropes with lots of hilarity and snark added in. It’s gosh darn entertaining, and I kind of loved it a lot.

in other lands by sarah rees brennan cover
The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border — unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and — best of all as far as Elliot is concerned — mermaids.

Elliot? Who’s Elliot? Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands.

It turns out that on the other side of the wall, classes involve a lot more weaponry and fitness training and fewer mermaids than he expected. On the other hand, there’s Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elven warrior who is more beautiful than anyone Elliot has ever seen, and then there’s her human friend Luke: sunny, blond, and annoyingly likeable. There are lots of interesting books. There’s even the chance Elliot might be able to change the world.

Elliott Schafer is a short, obnoxious know-it-all of thirteen when an agent of a magical school finds him and escorts him into the Borderlands. He’s glad to go because his home life is pretty terrible, and also: mermaids. And then it turns out that Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, a beautiful elven warrior, is in his cohort. So that’s alright. Still, Elliott has to grapple with: a tech-primitive world, a war-obsessed society, issues of gender, race, and sexuality, and the annoying existence of golden boy Luke Sunborn, Serene’s other best friend. In this portal fantasy-turned-parody Elliott’s years in magic school are formative, transformative, and endearingly comical.

I think the first and most important thing about this book is that it made me laugh, a lot, unexpectedly. I probably sounded like a demented loon, barking out a laugh every 5-10 minutes while reading, but the dialogue and Elliott’s inner narrative were just that good. Elliott is uncharitable, sarcastic, and dramatic – and he says everything that comes to mind. I guess you could call him unlikable (he certainly says and does some unlikable things), but I loved him immediately for identifying and highlighting uncomfortable truths, all while pointedly not observing the social niceties. I identified with him.

The second thing about this book is that like any good parody, it interrogated its source material (popular portal fantasy and fantasy fiction at large) and turned tropes on their heads. The elven matriarchal society and its unique prejudices served as a direct foil to the familiar paternalistic human Border Guard. Elliott’s pacifist stance in a military camp raised sometimes obvious questions about who gets to make the decisions and what sorts of actions we value. And as a desperately earnest believer in love, Elliott breaks his heart and makes romantic missteps with partners of both sexes instead of automatically finding his “one” soulmate. I also appreciated that a typical YA fantasy trope (dead/absent parents) was interrogated as well.

Weakness: the copyediting. This book originated as a serial online, and though it made a pretty serious jump to book form with aplomb, I found several errors. Still, that’s nothing when you’re in the flow and really enjoying a book. Which I was.

In Other Lands was ridiculously enjoyable. Although I know not every reader will love Elliott (or the book), I did. Sarah Rees Brennan has a knack for writing comedy, and this book is FUNNY and fun.

Recommended to: fans of science fiction and fantasy parodies (think Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On with 100% more snark), and anyone who likes portal fantasies, LGBTQ+ inclusive young adult fiction, and grappling with big questions while maintaining a sense of humor.

check, please!: #hockey

Friday, September 21, 2018 | | 1 comments
When I held Ngozi Ukazu’s debut graphic novel Check, Please!: #Hockey for the first time in my hands, I thought about how much I loved it already (the entire comic is available online for free and I’ve been reading it for years), how perfect it was for my interests (hockey + baking + LGBTQ+ representation), and how it was going to solve all of my holiday gifting needs. I adore this story, and I think you will too, even if your preferred reading doesn’t include anything mentioned above. It’s just that loveable.

Helloooo, Internet Land. Bitty here! 

Y’all . . . I might not be ready for this. I may be a former junior figure skating champion, vlogger extraordinaire, and very talented amateur pâtissier, but being a freshman on the Samwell University hockey team is a whole new challenge. It’s nothing like co-ed club hockey back in Georgia! First of all? There’s checking. And then, there is there is Jack—our very attractive but moody captain.

A collection of the first half of the megapopular webcomic series of the same name, Check, Please!: #Hockey is the first book of a hilarious and stirring two-volume coming-of-age story about hockey, bros, and trying to find yourself during the best four years of your life.

Let’s get down to it: WHAT is in this book that makes it so beloved? I’ll level with you here: this is a cute story about a baker with a video channel who is also a former champion figure skater, who is ALSO a gay boy and a Southerner, and who is just starting college and joining a serious, competitive hockey team. In other words, it’s about a character with a lot of varied interests and identities, at a pivotal point in time. And Bitty (Eric Bittle, to be precise) isn’t special or perfect, he’s just a guy making friends, learning his new environment, and trying to be himself. It works because author-illustrator Ngozi has tapped into the best parts of the tropes referenced above (coming of age, coming out, etc.), deleted toxic masculinity from the equation, and presented the reader with a bunch of lovable goofballs as Bitty’s support system, hockey miscellany for laughs, and hijinks that will be familiar to anyone who has spent too much time with one group of people. It’s FUN. Good, clean fun (swearing and references to college-aged-shenanigans aside).

What does it do best? It’s funny, the angst is realistic, there are moments of tension and then superb hits of relief, the art is focused on the characters’ faces (so you see a lot of emotion). And, as mentioned, there’s acceptance, friendship, and eventually falling in love. The majority of the book is panel by panel storytelling over the first two years of Bitty's college career, and at the end there are extra comics from specific times and/or explanations of hockey lingo. There is also a section full of Bitty's tweets listed chronologically (for a good chunk of time Ngozi was into multi-platform storytelling, tweeting in character as Bitty). Taken as a whole, you really get a sense of Bitty's life and voice, and it's 100% endearing. 

Shortcomings... hmm, this is a tough one. This book was tailor-made for me, and so it's difficult to take a step back from it and evaluate it fairly. I will say that because this book started life as a webcomic, there are things that didn't make it into the final published edition that add to the context, liveliness and overall fun. Ngozi's Instagrams of personalized bookplates (with hilarious captions), commentary during live-drawing streams (available to Patreon patrons), and the blog posts (one for each "episode" of the comic, posted a day or two after they go up) all add to the world of Samwell, and I missed them as I reread the comic for review. Also I don't think Bitty's love of BeyoncĂ© comes through as much. Weird!

In all, #Hockey is a kick, and graphic novel fans ages 14 and up will love it, even if they don't care much (or at all!) about hockey or baking.

Recommended for: hockey fans, graphic novel fans, and readers who like found families, happy/hopeful coming of age stories, and fun.

good morning, neighbor + apple-raisin cake

Does reading about food make you hungry? Sometimes (often) I will salivate over a meal I’ve come across in a novel. So obviously, the only option left is to make it. I once stopped reading Neil Gaiman’s Stardust mid-book to bake bread, and I learned to make cinnamon rolls (and other treats!) because of their descriptions in Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. Last year I made dinosaur cookies after reading Cookiesaurus Rex. My latest picture book read, Good Morning, Neighbor by Davide Cali and illustrated by Maria Dek, inspired me to make an apple-raisin cake.

good morning neighbor by davide cali, illustrated by maria dek cover
A mouse decides one morning to make an omelet, but needs an egg, and sets out to find one. On his search, he eventually finds everything needed to bake a cake, including apples, flour, and sugar, but also those most precious ingredients—community and friends, from a hedgehog to an owl to a raccoon—and learns about the unexpected gifts of asking for what you need and sharing what you have.

A mouse wants to make an omelet but doesn't have an egg. That is how this adventure begins! Mouse visits various animal neighbors asking for an egg, but instead gathers all of the ingredients for an apple-raisin cake. In the end, a bat has an egg, an owl has an oven, and a cake is baked! But... who will get a slice? Ideas are important contributions, and the animals agree that sharing is the order of the day.  

Good Morning, Neighbor is a story about asking your community for help, sharing the results of a group project (in this case, baking a cake), and being fair to everyone who contributedall great lessons for little readers and their adults. The messages are "baked in," so to speak (see what I did there?), and all of the talk of cake is enough to make you want to bake your own (as I did), and reflect on the story. Reading + baking would be a fun, parent/grandparent/friendly adult-kid activity this autumn.

Mouse's travels from neighbor to neighbor grow with every page as he adds another animal to his entourage. The repetition of each animal involved during each stage of the egg search is a child-friendly device, but may weary adults by the end. Otherwise, the prose is unexceptionable, and even includes a funny aside on the last page. This book is made to be read aloud, and the illustrations pored over.

Speaking of the illustrations! Maria Dek's watercolors are the absolute star of the book. The quirky designs have a cute/eccentric vibe with lots of little forest-y details. My favorite page spreads were those with closeups where an animal almost covered the page, and showed them in their home environment. The book design is also top-notch, with text placement, size, and weight varying based on the action. In all, a visual feast of a book (I will keep going with these food puns until someone yells "Put a fork in it!").

Recommended for: anyone looking for read aloud books about sharing, baking, or being a good neighbor for the 3-6 year old set, and picture book fans with an eye for art and design.

And now... cake!

Apple-Raisin Cake (adapted from this Better Homes & Gardens recipe)


INGREDIENTS

1 cup apple juice or sweet wine (I used Moscato di Asti)
3/4 cup raisins
2 medium tart apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced (I used Granny Smith)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 egg whites
1/3 cup honey

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan; set aside.

In a small saucepan heat 1 cup apple juice or sweet wine just until simmering. Remove from heat. Add raisins; let stand for at least 20 minutes. Drain well, discarding liquid.

In a medium bowl combine apple slices, the 1 tablespoon sugar, the lemon juice, and ginger. Set aside.

In a large bowl combine the 1/2 cup sugar, the melted butter, egg yolks, and vanilla; beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed about 2 minutes or until thick and light yellow (I did this with a handheld mixer). Add flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt, beating just until combined. Set aside.


If reusing the beaters, wash thoroughly (I did this next bit in my KitchenAid). In a separate medium bowl beat egg whites with an electric mixer on medium speed just until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight). Stir about one-third of the beaten egg whites into the flour mixture to lighten. Fold the remaining egg whites into flour mixture. Drizzle the 1/3 cup honey over batter; fold in until combined.

Spoon half of the batter into the prepared springform pan, spreading evenly. Top with half of the apple mixture. Spoon the remaining batter over apples, spreading to cover apples. Top the batter with the remaining apple mixture (discard any lemon juice remaining in bowl). Arrange raisins over apples.

Bake for 35 to 55 minutes or until top of cake is evenly golden brown (the time is quite variable because the original recipe called for 35-40 minutes, but my cake took around 55 – I did the toothpick test). Cool in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes (center may dip slightly). Loosen and remove sides of springform pan. Cool completely on wire rack.

Serve with ice cream or whipped cream, split with friends, or eat a slice for a decadent breakfast treat – this is a versatile, and delicious, recipe!


Recommended for: an autumnal treat to share with friends and neighbors (obviously!), an ambitious weekday night if you want to be the star of the dinner table, or a simple-ish but impressive weekend/dinner party dessert.  Also would be especially good after an Italian family-style meal (the recipe is adapted from a torta di mele).

Interested in other food related recipes? Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!

Fine print: I received a copy of the picture book for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

am i yours?

One of my favorite picture books when I was tiny was P.D. Eastman’s classic Are You My Mother? My mother claims that most of my first words were question words, so it makes sense that I’d like a book full of them. But I also think (from hearing her read the book to subsequent siblings) that I just liked the way my mother read – not in “voice” so much but emphasizing the interrogative so far that it became hilarious. She played it straight, but the child she was reading to always laughed. She also had so much patience with the book, which she must have read dozens of times. Anyway, I loved that book, and I’ve since gifted it to many friends’ children (who maybe didn’t have as many positive associations with it as I did)(oh well!). And when I read Alex Latimer’s Am I Yours? nearly the first thing I thought of was Are You My Mother?

am i yours? by alex latimer cover
A heartwarming story of community, family, and finding your way home.

A group of friendly dinosaurs helps a lost egg search for its parents after it’s been blown out of its nest. But if the little egg is to be reunited with its family, first they must discover what kind of dinosaur lies inside. What does that egg look like inside its shell? Surely, there must be a way to tell!

This fun and unique tale featuring Alex Latimer’s signature bold art style will keep dinosaur lovers and fans of Are You My Mother? enthusiastically following along and guessing who is inside the shell.

In this delightful picture book, an egg has fallen out of a nest and lost its way. It is pretty sure it’s a dinosaur, but it doesn’t know what kind – so it asks for help (the titular “Am I yours?”). Along its journey the egg meets all kinds of dinosaurs – from the Tyrannosaurus Rex to the Brachiosaurus, to Triceratops! Finally, with help from new friends the egg is identified and returned to the correct nest – just in time to hatch.

This picture book is beautifully done. The illustrations in vivid pencil and finished digitally are very appealing, and the text is both familiar-fun (rhyming, options for lots of voices!) and scientifically accurate (proper dinosaur names included as a matter of course). The pacing is spot-on, and while there are lots of repeated “Am I yours?” questions throughout to make an impression on younger readers, there aren’t so many as to make adult readers weary. Another highlight: as each type of dinosaur is eliminated there are identifying details shared, so readers learn about the characteristics that make each kind of dinosaur unique.

There’s also a possible classroom science experiment tie-in, as the baby dinosaur is finally identified by light shining through its eggshell. I’ve seen lesson plans that incorporate doing this with chicken eggs, and Am I Yours? could work well as a read along for a unit of that nature.

Am I Yours? will appeal to dinosaur-obsessed kids and parents who haven’t outgrown their dinosaur days yet (who has with a new Jurassic Park film every couple of years?!), little ones with questions about family and how they fit into it, and anyone looking for a well-paced rhyming read that doesn’t condescend to readers, no matter how young. I can see it being adapted to board book form at some point as well.

In all, Am I Yours? is sure to be a hit with the 3-6 year-old set, especially during any storytime!

Recommended for fans of The Pout-Pout Fish and Are You My Mother?, and anyone looking for a fun, rhyming picture book for read aloud storytime.

Fine print: I received an advance copy of this book for review from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.
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