Thursday, July 18, 2019

Grandpas are magic: B.C.R. Fegan's Don't Drink the Pink

Title: Don't Drink the Pink
Author: B.C.R. Fegan
Illustrator: Lenny Wen


As soon as I opened this book to the first illustration—of an empty inventor’s workshop giving off strong steampunk vibes—I knew it was exactly my kind of children’s picture book.

As I flipped through the next couple pages, my suspicions were confirmed. Early 1900s costumes? An adorable little girl with billowy dark hair? I could eat this book for dessert.

But before I get carried away and start requesting an edition of Little Women illustrated by Lenny Wen, I should get back to, you know, B.C.R. Fegan’s actual story.

Every year on her birthday, Grandpa Gilderberry brings Madeline a box of brightly colored potions. “Happy birthday, Madeline,” he says. “Take a potion, take a brew. Just don’t drink the pink.”

Dutifully, Madeline picks a different color (never pink) every time. And when she does, marvelous things happen.

She breathes fire, turns invisible, runs faster than a train, and creates money with her bare hands. (That last trick wins Grandpa Gilderberry big points with Madeline’s father, I suspect.)

But a month before her 15th birthday, Madeline’s grandpa dies. Heartbroken, she goes to his workshop on her birthday and cries. When she lifts her head, Madeline sees a single pink bottle behind a note that reads: “Happy birthday.”

Clearly, it’s time to drink the pink.

While the story may feel a bit repetitive, it’s wonderfully charming and imaginative. And though after a few pages, the book’s pattern is established, there’s still an element of surprise as we wonder which potion Madeline will choose this time and what will happen when she does.

Of course, below the surface level story is a message about grandfathers and the curious delight they bring their granddaughters. I found myself thinking about my grandpa who passed away a few years ago and how, like Grandpa Gilderberry, he was always surprising and delighting his grandchildren and gifting them with strength, power, and perhaps best of all, memories.

I’ll admit that, while I found the ending beautiful and quite moving, it left me with a few questions. This could be because I’ve watched too much Doctor Who and am taking this simple children’s picture book to complicated places where it doesn’t need to go. (Time loop?)

But whatever my questions, I heartily approve of B.C.R. Fegan’s Don’t Drink the Pink, its whimsical illustrations, and its story about a grandfather with an infinite capacity for giving. Drink the pink, Madeline.

Until tomorrow.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Good people are hard to find: Review of Stone Man and the Trail of Tears

Title: Stone Man: And the Trail of Tears
Author: Charles Suddeth
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 162
Release Date: October 8, 2019

What Goodreads has to say:

After U.S. soldiers attack twelve-year-old Tsatsi’s Cherokee village, his family flees to the Smokey Mountains. Facing storms, flood, and hunger, they’re forced to go where Stone Man, a monstrous giant, is rumored to live. Their journey is a dangerous one. Will Tsatsi find the strength to become a Cherokee warrior? And will they ever find their family again?

What I have to say:

This was such a sweet story. Tsatsi’s love for his family, concern for their safety, and desire to protect them at all costs makes this a book that will hit home for anyone who has a family, which should be just about all of us.

Besides that, it will hit home for anyone who’s ever helped or been helped by someone outside their family. Johnny Garner, a white trapper living alone in the mountains, takes it upon himself to rescue two Cherokee children and get them to safety.

Along the way *SPOILER* he risks arrest, injury, and death, and even gets shot protecting Tsatsi and Sali. Why would a lone white man risk so much to save two Cherokee kids he just met? Because he’s freaking awesome.

But Tsatsi is pretty awesome too. The kid is 12 and could probably teach a wilderness survival course that I would 100% attend. Tsatsi is the main character and narrator, and he has a nice voice and personality. He’s tough because he’s had to grow up fast, but he’s also very much a 12-year-old boy.

He’s interested in the pretty girl who helps shelter and feed the three fugitives (Tsatsi, Johnny, and Sali). And he has a soft spot for his younger siblings. He’s also terrified of monsters and can’t get the legend of the giant cannibal Stone Man out of his head.

I found this story enjoyable, educational, and inspiring. It made me want to learn more about the Trail of Tears (which I’ve read some books about in the past but not recently). It made me want to try Johnnycakes because frankly they sound amazing. It inspired me to reach out to others and help people in need, even if they’re strangers. And the ending made me smile.

By the way, this book is nonstop action. One crisis follows hard on the heels of another. If it’s not soldiers or a gang of renegades, it’s a flash flood, a thunder storm, or a life-threatening fever. The story kept me fully engaged.

I can’t fathom being thrown into the situation of Tsatsi and his family. I can’t imagine waking up to soldiers burning my village and having to run into the wilderness to escape them. Then losing my family in the wild and having to fend for myself and my little sister—knowing that soldiers are still following us and believing that my parents and other siblings are dead.

But for many Cherokee families in the 1800s, that’s just what happened. In fact, Tsatsi and his family are lucky because *SPOILER* they actually manage to escape. Other Cherokees were forced to march 1000 miles to Oklahoma, many dying along the way.

And similar things have happened to countless groups of people through the ages. I don’t know why people continue to be such jerks time and time again, but it’s good to know that while there are plenty of Andrew Jacksons and Adolf Hitlers in the world, there are also people like Johnny Garner. And they’re everywhere.

As Tsatsi reflects: “Good people came in all sorts of shapes and colors. And good people made life worthwhile.”

So do good stories, and this short but heartwarming adventure is one of them.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Two stories, two killer heroines: review of The Soldier's Heart by Jeffrey Bardwell

Title: The Soldier's Heart
Series: The Mage Conspiracy (Book #3)
Author: Jeffrey Bardwell
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 222

What Goodreads has to say:

A perilous journey. A dark conscience. An unforgivable sin.

When Black Guards capture the ancient mage Maven and the heroine Kelsa, Maven disguises herself as the once distinguished Sir Corbin, now assumed to be a mage-in-hiding due to the old woman's carelessness. Kelsa, guided by the spirit of a sassy blade mistress, pretends to be a mercenary, but the guards wonder. What ties beyond gold bind her to the traitor knight? The Black Guards gleefully drag their prisoners toward the cruel clutches of the empress so that she might wring the secrets from their bodies.

Kelsa must escape the empress's grasp, desperate to rekindle the mage revolt whose leaders have vanished into the barbarian north. It is a land of dark forests and ice-choked rivers where worth is proven on a dagger's edge and feuding clans are more vicious than any Black Guard. Can Kelsa find and reignite the mages' passion or has the heart of the revolution grown cold?

Grab The Soldier's Heart, the third epic fantasy romance of The Mage Conspiracy series. Discover a world of adventure and intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword.

What I have to say:

A spunky young heroine journeying through barbarian territory in search of dangerous rebel mages? Daring disguises, crazy escapes, and (squeal) adorable baby dragons??? Yeah, OK, I'll take it.

That's sarcasm, readers. I loved The Soldier's Heart. As if the above weren't enough, there's another story line told in parallel: one about a young recruit navigating the Imperial Army, falling in love, and proving herself to the world.

Kelsa's story is the immediate one. She's the young heroine journeying through barbarian country in search of Gordius and his rebel mages.

Meanwhile, due to a stubborn mage who messed with her head (see book 2), Kelsa finds her thoughts often invaded by Minerva--the young Imperial Army recruit--and as a result we also get Minerva's story (happening in the past) alongside Kelsa's.

You might think that would be confusing, but it's not because the author has an uncanny knack for telling multiple stories simultaneously. Far from being confusing, two plots makes the novel doubly engaging.

It helps that both stories are helmed by killer protagonists. I've loved Kelsa since book 1, but it was this book that really endeared me to Minerva. She's formidable yet vulnerable; prickly yet affectionate; she could take everyone down but deep inside, she just wants to be loved.

While I felt like the last book in this series wandered a bit, The Soldier's Heart has perfect pacing--all leading up to its pair of smoking hot climaxes: Kelsa must convince the rebel mages and barbarian rulers to help her wage war against the Empress, while Minerva duels Corbin Destrus--the man she either loathes or loves.

In the first two books, we heard a lot about Corbin and Minerva, but in this book we flashback to see how they meet and progress from enemies to frenemies to lovers. It's dynamite.

My only negative reaction to this book is that it's a little crude and there's some sex scenes that made me a little squeamish. But on that note, when Corbin and Minerva finally come together, it's described in so few words, as a thing so clean and fitting, that it's a relief and it feels so right after all the messy love affairs in previous pages. Corbin and Minerva feel meant to be.

I'm eager to see where Kelsa's and Minerva's stories go in the next book--when I assume a lot of things will come to a head and there will be a day of reckoning for everyone: country girl, soldier, empress, and mage.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Just the Right Amount of "Wack"™

Quests and Quandaries by Alda Yuan

Title: Quests and Quandaries
Series: The Floating Isles (Book 1)
Author: Alda Yuan
Publisher: Khanda Books
Published: 2018

Before progressing any further, I would like to define the word "wack" as used in this review. Wack: super weird, peculiar, rather odd. Okay, continue reading.

Goodreads Blurb: The Floating Isles were created millions of years ago when a beetle the size of a continent churned up mud from the seabed for a perch. And things have only gotten weirder since.This is a tongue in cheek account of a princess forced to go on a quest, very much against her will. With the proverbial band of sidekicks at her side, Rahni leaves the familiar comforts of home for the mysterious Eigen States, a place where, of course, nothing is as it seems. Or else it wouldn't be much of a quest. Rahni is determined not to let the laws of the land dictate anything, least of all how seriously she has to take the whole matter. Her dearest wish is to get through the quest with as few near scrapes and mortal enemies as possible. If she has to go on a quest, she wants it to be bland, with no nonsense about holding the fate of the world in her hands. Naturally, nothing goes quite as she plans. But what else is new?

My Thoughts: This book was a riot right from the start. Rahni, the main character, is cursed, by her own parents, to go on a quest. Apparently they were at their wits end, and hoped this was the answer. They even provide her with her quest-mates to help speed  along the process, and then dump her out in the river. Honestly, they really hindered more than helped. 

I loved this book. Not only were the footnotes hilarious (but hard to flip to on a kindle), but the descriptions, dialogue, and general setting was so ridiculous it was genius. The world descriptions reminded me of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. I mean, The Floating Isles are not round, but flat, and hang suspended in the air by way of massive wires. Go figure.

Goblins that wear masks to keep up appearances and refer to a storybook for guidelines? Evil Overlords that hire actors to portray them in the field? A locked up princess who killed her own monster and then made a rope of  its hair? This book has them all. The scope of belief that the reader must adopt while enjoying this book is immense, and I, for one, am here for it. Also, the amount of magical swords Rahni received from completing side quests is what I wish would happen in my D&D game . . . 

While I will admit that at times the story got "super wack"™, looking at you elephant goddess etc. scene, the rest of the time it kept to "pretty wack"™, which was just the right amount, in my opinion. Hats off to you Alda Yuan. (Do you prefer Alda or Yuan?)

Did I enjoy this book? Yes. Would I recommend it to my friends? Yes. Do I wish the footnotes were at the bottom of the page instead of the back of the book? YES. Alda, (I've decided we're on a first name basis apparently) I don't know if that's possible, but please look into it.


Thursday, May 2, 2019

Sisters, lovers, rivals: Review of The Dragon's Mercy by Jeffrey Bardwell

Title: The Dragon's Mercy
Series: The Mage Conspiracy (Book #2)
Author: Jeffrey Bardwell
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 299

What Goodreads has to say:

The Red Dragon Warrior, a tactician without peer, awakens from a shrouded dream in a cold, dark alley. Her ex-lover Corbin kneels by her side, but where is her treacherous, fire-slinging twin? The soldier's hazy world snaps into focus when Corbin reveals the fate of their regiment. They are the sole survivors . . . including her sister. 

Kelsa is done merely surviving. This fledgling hero wants to fight. After Kelsa rescues the Blue Dragon Warrior, a mage without hope, from the dungeons of a vengeful empress, the pair struggle to evade their pursuers. Kelsa girds herself for a losing battle. The old mage hides behind the disguise of her sister's ex-lover and imbues the brash, young woman with the clever spirit of her long dead twin. Kelsa's flashing eyes are replaced by something soft and sly as the Rose of the Imperial Army flips her hair and struts into danger. 

Step into the realm of The Dragon's Mercy, the second fantasy adventure in The Mage Conspiracy series. Discover a world of lurid entanglements and deadly intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword.

What I have to say:

A book by Jeffrey Bardwell is always a good time: exciting, dangerous, gritty, and multi-layered. As you might expect if you've read Rotten Magic and/or The Knight's SecretThe Dragon's Mercy is fast-paced, entertaining, and psychologically intense. 

That said, it's not my favorite of his novels (yep, that's still Rotten Magic, which I LOVE) and I think I prefer the first novel in this series--The Knight's Secret--which was a killer story, to this one.

I realize that there was a lot of backstory in this novel, and maybe that makes sense for the second book in a series, now that I think about it. I also realize that the characters went on an emotional/psychological journey and there was important character development that happened. Still, when I finished this book I felt like nothing was accomplished. 

The characters spend most of the book evading capture and trying to escape the city, to little avail. They also spend a lot of time talking when it seems like they should be, I don't know, running for their lives?

But back to what I loved about this book, which was quite a bit. I found the flashbacks fascinating, when we go back into the characters' memories and see the childhood of Minny and May (Minerva and Maven). 

The twin sisters' conflicted relationship forms the center of this book, and I found their bond / rivalry deeply compelling. They were best friends that could read each other's thoughts, and yet, they were also rivals: for attention, for success, and finally, for the man Corbin Destrus. 

This all gets pretty messed up when one of the sisters--Maven--impersonates Corbin Destrus and doesn't let the other sister--Minerva--in on the secret. (You can imagine the awkwardness that ensues.)

Minerva the soldier is a compelling character, as is Maven the mage. Clever, determined, ambitious, and deeply flawed (I'm all about those flawed characters: see every review I've ever written), they demand the reader's respect, even if we can't quite come to love them. 

At the same time, both sisters have such a thirst for success and such a need for love that we can't help seeing something of ourselves in them, and maybe even finding something to love--or at least empathize with.

Meanwhile, Kelsa takes a backseat to the two larger-than-life sisters. I imagine that girl is going to go through some identity crises in the future, now that she's magically impersonated Corbin and Minerva for extended periods of time. 

Then again, Kelsa's pretty boss and I feel like she can probably handle it. Still, I'm interested to see what happens to her character in the coming books, and hoping she gets to take the spotlight as Kelsa eventually. 

All in good time, though--the buildup is pretty intense and I wouldn't trade it.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Just in time for Endgame: a review of Troy Kinney's 'Watching Movies, Watching Stories'

Title: Watching Movies, Watching Stories: An Interactive Guide for Engaging Culture Through Film
Author: Troy Kinney
Genre: Nonfiction, movies
Pages: 75

What Goodreads has to say:

If you love movies, then this is the book for you! It is a hands-on guide for those wishing to expand their enjoyment of movies. The book is embedded with over 90 film clips that can be viewed immediately on your smartphone or other internet connected screen. 

You will begin to watch movies with new eyes.
This book is useful for the individual or for small groups. It has indispensable helps on how to take what you learn and truly converse with those around you from a biblical understanding. 

Movie-makers are telling us about how they see the world. Learn to see and understand their messages. Take those messages and use that information to bridge the gap with others in order to share the gospel.

What I have to say:

I love movies and I love analyzing movies. When a writer or director puts a lot of thought into a film and creates something layered and beautiful, I love picking apart those layers and finding meaning within. I've even reviewed some movies on this blog, as faithful readers may remember! So needless to say, I found this book about how to watch and analyze movies very informative and interesting.

Some of it I knew already (having taken a couple film classes in high school and college), but I could definitely use a refresher. Other stuff I just hadn't thought about or didn't know. For example, the section about dinner scenes in movies was very interesting. I've never thought about the dinner (or any meal, I guess) scene as a recurring motif and the implications of it in different contexts. 

This book is full of insights along those lines--one eye-opener for me was the section on water, rain, and snow in movies. Sometimes these elements can have underlying meanings or, at the least, suggestions. The author used the example of the scene from the first Harry Potter movie when the First-Years ride across the Great Lake toward Hogwarts. Is it significant that they only do this in the first movie, their first year attending Hogwarts? Does the water signify some kind of baptism-like initiation? Whoa....

The first half of the book mainly points out the different tools filmmakers use to tell stories and convey meaning. This includes camera shots, angles, and movements. There's also discussion of the roles music, lighting, and editing play in movies, and how those elements can be used to create meaning.

If you're a visual learner like me (or if you just like watching movies, also like me), good news: there are lots of video clips throughout the book that the author uses to illustrate what he's talking about. And wow, does he pick good movie clips. For most of the clips, I'd either seen the movie and already love it, or was so intrigued by the clip that I now want to see it. Got a long watch list after reading this book.

The end of the book delves into Christian themes in movies: the good, the bad, and the ugly (incidentally, that movie shows up in a couple clips). This includes movies like Ben Hur and Narnia (both excellent films) that overtly convey a Christian message. It also includes movies like Harry Potter and The Matrix, that use the Christian "myth" or the hero's journey to tell a powerful story, without being a story specifically about Christianity (though I'm sure we could argue that point).

Then there are films like Evan Almighty. Yeah, IDK. But as I'm sure author Troy Kinney would point out, you could use Evan Almighty as a springboard for a very deep discussion!

This book is written with the goal of helping people use movies as a starting point for discussions about Christianity. It goes without saying that it's geared toward a Christian audience, and if you can't tell from the name of this blog and my frequent C. S. Lewis references, that includes me. If you're not a Christian, there's still plenty of good information about how to watch and analyze films, but you might prefer a different book. Then again, this one is very well written, engaging, and easy to follow.

I finished it just in time to go analyze the heck out of Endgame--which I'm watching tomorrow. I'll see you again on the other side.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Colonization sucks and squirrels are awesome: The Ghost of Crow Cavern

Title: The Ghost of Crow Cavern
Authors: Norman Mounter, John Wedlake
Genre: Fantasy? YA? Squirrels? IDK
Pages: 98

What Goodreads has to say:

A wave of delight and anticipation sweeps through a small community of red squirrels as they behold a vast fleet of boats carrying their distant cousins towards them. They will no doubt bring incredible wealth, wisdom and joy to the humble squirrels of Nutshaven.

However, the dream soon becomes a nightmare. Their distant cousins soon turn out to be enormous and brutish bullies of an ever-expanding Grey Empire. Shadowtail - the brilliant but intensely evil Grey leader - announces that their lives are about to radically change:

“Your colony is now ours, and we shall endeavour to use you and your resources to enrichen the imperial spoils of conquest and world domination.”

With their entire way of life now under threat, will the wisdom of old Normsk, the wits of young Cheswick and the might of Brutenuts the Brave be enough to counter such a dark and dominant force?

What I have to say:

So I'll just cut to the chase here: I freaking love The Ghost of Crow Cavern.

I love that the climax is a chess game; I love that the narrator is some unnamed future historian; I love that it's wickedly funny but also a little disturbing; I love that it's a story about colonization gone wrong; I love that it's all about squirrels.

Like squirrels are the best. Why are there not more stories about them? There's a lot of stories about mice, but squirrels are better because they live outside and have cooler tails. (Sorry, Reepicheep.*)

If we're on the subject of mice, this book could be compared to stuff like The Tale of Desperaux, The Secret of Nimh, and probably Watership Down but I haven't read that last one (yet) so that comparison is pending. (And yeah, I realize Watership Down is rabbits, not mice.)

It also has a little in common with Animal Farm in that it's a story about animals on the surface, but it has obvious political undertones. I found myself thinking about British colonization and the Holocaust--but don't let that scare you away from reading this wonderful little book. It's far from depressing; in fact, it's delightful and often hilarious.  

I'm pretty sure I read 75% of this book with a huge smile on my face, and I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud at a few points because I was in public. I especially loved Shadowtail's instructions to Scug concerning finding information on the rogue squirrel Cheswick: 

"Now listen up! I need to know more about this mysterious Cheswick character. Where he once lived, who his parents were, his education...and - most important of all - what kind of chess player he is."

Upon reading this, I may or may not have laughed out loud in a courtroom. (Court wasn't in session, don't worry.)

The narrative style almost gave me a Last Unicorn vibe (and if I compare any book to The Last Unicorn, you better believe I loved it). We aren't told who the narrator is, but he or she clearly knows how the whole story will play out from beginning to end, and throws in comments of a historical bent. 


"A squirrel by the name of Maria Dumplekin - who has since passed into legend - was gazing out from atop a tall forest tree. It was here that she caught sight of a curious cluster of glistening specks upon the distant horizon." 

There are also just some random things thrown in (as in The Last Unicorn) which add an element of delight and hint at other worlds outside that of the story. Like when the narrator talks about the Cerebri squirrels who have incredibly large brains and build sophisticated machines. And we jump between characters in a way that's fun but doesn't make the reader seasick. 

Having said that, I did get briefly lost in the first few pages as we switched between characters a few too many times in too few pages, especially considering that the story and setting themselves hadn't really been established yet.

Now here's my only real ask for this story:


The pacing is seamless and the story moves quickly--maybe a little too quickly: I read it in two hours.

It's not necessarily that the story needs more fleshing out--it's that fleshing it out could make a really good story a truly great one. The characters are all so well developed: Cheswick, Brutenuts, Normsk, Shadowtail, Scug. And it's not because they're undeveloped that I want this story to be longer, but because they're so well developed. I want more of them!

I can just imagine the conversations between Normsk and Cheswick as they hide out on the edge of Nutshaven and debate whether to intercede now or wait a little longer, as they discuss the devastation the grey squirrels have inflicted and wonder whether there's any chance of victory. And as they wonder whether, if and when they manage to save Nutshaven, there will be anything left to save.

I can just picture little Blossomtail and Felix and the other squirrel pups in their brainwashing lessons, struggling to make sense of what they're being told and deciding whether or not to believe it. I can see Blossomtail saying something wrong and Violet bravely defending her in front of the fearsome Auntie Gerta. I can picture a few of the little squirrel pups starting to succumb to Shadowtail's lessons, and a few others withstanding, maybe even forming a secret Dumbledore's Army-esque society.

And I can see the grey squirrels under Shadowtail engaged in a deadly power struggle of which Shadowtail himself may or may not be aware. I'm sure there are allies and arch nemeses among the ranks of the grey squirrels, and I'm sure there are plenty of nasty rumors and intrigues floating around.

Then, of course, there's Shadowtail himself, who is a fascinating character. I'm envisioning him pitted as Cheswick's foil: the two squirrels holding down opposite ends of the story yet sometimes acting in surprisingly similar ways. 

Various stories--each starring a different set of protagonists and antagonists--taking place simultaneously across weeks (maybe months, who knows?) until they all collide in a heart-stalling climax. Imagine the epicness!!!

(Of course, I'm not the author(s) and I'm not going to presume to tell them how to write their own book. It doesn't need to follow the script I've outlined above; in fact, a longer rewrite of this book by Norman Mounter and John Wedlake would probably be way awesomer than anything I could think up.)

See, the thing is, I loved this book a lot. But just as I realized how deeply I'd fallen in love, it was over. 

If this were a longer book that I could really sink my teeth into, I can imagine myself pouring over it for days, reading up late into the night, shirking errands and foregoing food and sleep to find out what will happen to the squirrels of Nutshaven. Upon finishing, I might add this book to the collection of my most cherished volumes, recommend it to everyone, and save it on my shelf to re-read in a few years.

And I'm aware that there's a sequel in the works (or at least, the epilogue def sets us up for that), but I'd rather have a meatier first novel before/in lieu of a sequel.

There's a lot to ponder in this book, and I'm still not entirely sure whether it's just a story or whether it's meant to be a political fable of sorts. I think if I'd had more time to digest it, I wouldn't feel so much like I'd just jumped off a roller coaster. (Though my post-book vertigo is a testament to just how powerfully this story took me for a ride.)

Long story short, I dig it. I just want more to love.


*Reepicheep is basically my all-time favorite character so I'll take him over a squirrel any day and now feel terrible for dissing his tail. Also why is this review so long? Wow I guess I had a lot to say.

Until tomorrow.