The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

Read: 16 April, 2018

My kid is still an early reader, which means that he does best when there are pictures. Unfortunately, a lot of books for his reading level aren’t at his story level, so I’m always struggling to find things that will actually hold his interest while he practices his literacy. Turns out that graphic novels are perfect for this, because he can easily read books that are written for much older children, and therefore have more risque scares and complex plots.

The Witch Boy is exactly all of that.

The story is just scary enough to be a thrill, and I loved the message of being yourself – outside of social boxes like gender. This is a wholesome story to share with kids, and I loved the amount of representation the author was able to cram in.

Plus, we got a huge kick out of the fact that the main character is watching Steven Universe in one panel. My son literally squealed and ran the book over to show me when he caught that!

Having now read it myself as well, we’re both hoping that this will become a series.

Triad Blood #1: Triad Blood by ‘Nathan Burgoine

Read: 21 November, 2017

Full disclosure: Burgoine is a friend of a friend. I met him at a birthday party and looked him up after he was introduced as an author. That said, I would have picked this book to read if I’d heard of it through other means anyway: It’s my genre, it’s not the straight white cis male fiction my reading list has historically been horridly over-saturated with, and it’s set right here in Ottawa. If there’s one thing I love more than anything, it’s local fiction!

One cool thing about reading local authors – library copies are often signed!

That said, the clunky writing in the first few pages had me questioning my choice. Given that the dialogue gets much better later on, I have to assume that the author was trying to use the speech tags to introduce the characters, but it very hard to get into.

Still, I powered through, and I’m very glad of it. The writing quickly loosens up as the plot takes over. There’s another rough patch in the final climax, but that’s not exactly uncommon.

Other than those two portions, I loved the book. The characters are interesting, the sex scenes are steamy, there’s tone-appropriate bits of humour, and the plot is intriguing. This may be a fairly genre-standard urban fantasy novel, but it’s a good one. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel.

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Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Room on the Broom is a delightful story about a witch riding around on a broom with her cat. Three times, she accidentally drops an item, and it is retrieved for her by a new animal who asks for a spot on the broom (and, of course, there is room). However, when the broom breaks, the witch is chased by a hungry dragon, until her new friends scare it away. They then make a new, and even better broom, together and fly off.

I really enjoyed reading this to my son. The words are fantastic, with a very upbeat, musical rhythm that made it lots of fun to read. The characters are also distinctive enough that I found it very easy to come up with unique voices for each.

The artwork looks simplistic, but gorgeous, at first, but there’s actually a fair bit going on in the background (usually to do with animals who react to the events of the story without being acknowledged by the text). The artwork is very colourful, and the character faces are expressive. My son enjoyed looking through them and telling me his own stories inspired by the background details.

Room on the Broom is a well-rounded, quality children’s picture book.

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The Dresden Files #5: Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Read: 5 April, 2014

I’ve heard it said that the Dresden Files don’t really come into their won until the third book, and that they get better from there. It’s hard to tell if that’s really true, but I’m certainly getting much more engrossed in the world and characters as I get to know more about them.

The female characters, in particular, are getting much more interesting. I’ve complained before about the subtle (and not-so-subtle) sexism in the Dresden books. Well, Dresden is still a bit of an arse, but he’s getting better. Though Murphy is largely absent in this book, Dresden does at least talk to her and tell her what’s going on. It was always so frustrating in earlier books where he would bend himself completely out of shape to avoid telling her anything, just because he wanted to “protect her” (rather than, you know, helping her to protect herself by giving her the information she’d need to do so).

Susan, who features more prominently this time, is completely badass. In fact, I found it quite interesting that Dresden takes an almost completely passive role in this book as he encounters baddies who are just to big and strong for him. Over and over again, he is the one who is rescued – a few times by Susan. It’s a great inversion and makes for a nice change.

The religion stuff was a bit silly (like Nicodemus referring to the book of “Revelations”, plural), but it was easy enough to just go along with it. I did like how different Shiro and Sanya are, theologically, from Michael. When Michael was originally introduced, it was a bit of a groaner to have this perfect Knight of the Cross figure who ticked off all the stereotype checklist boxes. But Butcher adds some really interesting worldbuilding detail by having Sanya be an atheist and Shiro a sort of pantheist – yet all three are Knights of the Cross. The theology/rules are never explained (at least in this book), but it added a lot of nuance to what could have remained a very flat party.

I think that Molly was an another, less successful, attempt at this. Before we meet her, Michael’s family is presented as Duggar-perfect, but she’s clearly a rebel and isn’t going along with the image Michael and Charity project. That being said, “rebellious teen” is hardly ground-breaking material. Neither, for that matter, is Wise Old Japanese Warrior.

Still, I found that Butcher really tried to invert a lot of stereotypes in this book – including ones that he himself had used previously. It was refreshing and interesting, and shows that he’s getting more experimental in his writing – perhaps moving out from his comfort zone a little.

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The Kingkiller Chronicle #1: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Read: 14 March, 2014

Many stories and rumours surround Kvothe, but now, for the first time, he will tell his own story – the real story.

I was blown away by Name of the Wind. I first heard of it when it was mentioned in Game of Thrones and Philosophy as a book with a consistent magic system. That was enough to intrigue me, and I bought the book, sticking it on my overflowing “to be read” bookcase. I finally read it after I heard enough people raving about it.

And I can see why. The story is long and, for the most part, rather mundane. Kvothe travelling with itinerant performers, Kvothe living in the streets, Kvothe worrying about money, Kvothe enrolling in university, Kvothe counting his coins (again). Yet despite this, even with long stretches between the action scenes, I found the narrative very compelling.

There’s a good deal of humour in the novel, and it’s well-used. The narrative is quite serious, of course, but whenever there’s a danger that it might take itself a little too seriously, Kvothe makes fun of himself. It breaks the tension, and it keeps a certain amount of humility in the first person narrative of what is, essentially, a Perfect Character.

I quite enjoyed the little games the narrative plays as well. For example, when Kvothe – as narrator – tells his audience that the next part of the story is about meeting the woman he would fall in love with. Then, over the next few pages, several women are introduced. It’s cute, a fun little narrative device that I don’t see used too often.

As I mentioned earlier, the magic system is definitely something special. I struggle a bit with fantasy because I always feel like the magic system needs to make sense, and I feel like verisimilitude is broken when the magic system is too powerful, or contradictory, or doesn’t make sense. In Name of the Wind, the naming system of magic is pushing my threshold (though I hold out hope for explanation in future installments), but the sympathy system is fantastic.

I also really enjoyed the religion. It’s not front and centre in this book (though I suspect that it’ll feature more prominently later in the series), but the glimpses of it are quite interesting. On the surface, it’s very much like Christianity – there’s a single god, the god dies and the people await a return, the people wear a symbolic torture device on a necklace, etc – but it takes on a distinct quality as more is revealed. I especially liked the variations, the many local traditions that that give the religion distinct flavours in different regions, the appropriation of older religions, and the schisms. I’m very much looking forward to a deeper exploration of it as the series continues.

I have a few minor complaints about the book, but nothing worth mentioning. I enjoyed it an awful lot, and I’m looking forward to getting The Wise Man’s Fear.

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Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville

Read: 29 September, 2013

When Jeremy Thatcher runs away from bullies, he finds himself in a strange part of town he’s never seen before. There, he encounters a strange magic shop and buys a beautiful ball that turns out to be a dragon egg. But how can he keep a dragon safe – and keep the neighbourhood pets safe from a dragon – while keeping it all a secret?

I’ve been trying to read through kids’ books, particularly those with male protagonists, so that I’d have things to read with (or recommend to) my son. Jeremy Thatcher has large font and illustrations every couple pages, but it’s still over 100 pages long, and would be most appropriate for a fairly confident young reader. 

I really enjoyed this book! Jeremy is complex and interesting, and he feels very grounded – his family has quirks and traditions, and they feel like a real family (albeit perhaps a little silly with the number of pets they have!). His parents have a dynamic, both with each other and with Jeremy, that feels authentic.

The plot itself was interesting. I had been wondering how the situation would be resolved, and, sure enough, an ending was found just in time – yet it didn’t feel contrived. I quite enjoyed many of the traits given to the dragon, and the way she was described.

I found the book full of little discussion starters and “teachable moments” that I look forward to talking with my son about. I definitely recommend it!

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Read: 22 December, 2012

Jacob Portman is wealthy, has no friends, and has the most interesting grandfather. Grandpa Portman had escaped from the Nazis in Poland, made it to an orphanage on a tiny Welsh island, joined the war efforts in World War II, performed in a circus, and travelled the world. Growing up, Jacob loved to hear his grandfather’s stories, particularly about the peculiar children in the orphanage. That is, until he decided that none of it was real.

Miss Peregrine is a delightful story about grief after the death of a loved one, and the conflicting emotions of trying to find out who, exactly, the person you so loved for so many years really was (and of the risk of finding out things that you may wish you had never known). It’s also about magic, friendship, responsibility, and the downsides of immortality.

The book was apparently inspired by looking at old photographs collected by the author and acquaintances. The special gimmick of the novel is that these photographs are integrated throughout the text. It adds something to the story, I think – helping to create an atmosphere. That isn’t to say that the text requires the images. The quality of the writing is very good, and could easily stand alone without the use of a gimmick.

Without giving too much away, I will say that the ending very much feels like it ought to be the middle. I think it’s great that we were given so much time to get to know Jacob before the action started, but it does mean that the book ends with something of a cliff hanger. The good news is that there’s apparently going to be a sequel released sometime in 2013, so we shouldn’t have to wait too long to find out what happens!

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Druids by Morgan Llywelyn

Read: 12 March, 2009

When Ainvar’s grandmother gives her life to save her tribe from starvation, he begins his journey to learn the true meaning of sacrifice. Along with his “soul friend,” the warrior Vercingetorix, Ainvar must find a way to end Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.

POSITIVE: Great plot and a fantastic pace. After a painful beginning, this novel quickly became an exciting page-turner.

NEGATIVE: Unfortunately, this great story was burdened with several narrative issues. Right from the start, the reader is met with page after page of unnecessary exposition. Exciting scenes would be broken up by dull interludes explaining the meaning of this or that ritual or detail. The choice of the first person narrative may also have been a mistake as there is no clear perspective or reason for the telling of the story (at one point, Ainvar says “I must remember to ask Menua,” despite the fact that Menua has already died from the narrator’s perspective). Finally, I have to mention the scene where Ainvar looks into a mirror. He describes the “young man staring back at me” as:

“He had an elegant narrow head with a long skull suitable for storing knowledge. The eye sockets were deeply carved, the cheekbones high, the nose prominent and thrusting. It was a strong clear timeless face full of contradictions, brooding yet mischievous, reserved yet involved. Fathomless eyes and curving lips spoke of intense passions carefully suppressed, concentrated in stillness.”

Who, I ask, would ever write in this way about themselves? It’s just silly.

Overall, I would say that this book is worth the read, especially for people with an interest in historical battles or the history of Gaul. That being said, readers should be prepared for a less-than-fabulous writing style and an incomplete mastery of the first person narrative.

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Discworld #13: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Read: 23 February, 2009

Things just can’t seem to go right for Brutha, Novice to the Great God Om. First a tortoise starts talking to him, then the head of the Inquisition notices that he exists, and that’s just the start! Terry Pratchett delivers yet another wacky, zany, hilariously funny, and delightfully philosophical episode in the Discworld Series.

POSITIVE: Funny. Really funny. Laugh out loud while in public and make others think you’re adled funny. In Small Gods, Pratchett’s focus is on religion – monotheistic religion in particular. He handles his topic with great care, so that it is irreverent and funny, and yet somehow manages never to come off as insulting. The morals and philosophies of the story are also a treat and the ending, in particular, is absolutely perfect in every way.

NEGATIVES: None. Pratchett frequently falls a little short on his plots and endings, but this book is a shining exception. I don’t get to say this often, but I think that this novel might just be perfect in every way.

Overall, this is a fabulous book and a joy to read from start to finish. I think that Atheists and scientists would most enjoy this read. Fundamentalists and religious conservatives may see themselves too accurately reflected and dislike the book as a result. Even so, I think that a good sense of humour will make this book an enjoyable read regardless of your religious beliefs.

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The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft by Rosemary Ellen Guiley

Read: 17 August, 2008

Overall, I’d say that this book is fine if taken as fiction and read for pleasure. If you are interested in serious scholarship regarding the history of the occult, this book would really only serve to help you with modern/Wiccan perceptions of witchcraft. While it does touch on a number of older subjects, the articles are clearly written from a Wiccan perspective.

For example, “altar” is almost entirely defined in the context of goddess worship, never mind that plenty of patriarchal religions made use of altars in their devotion to male gods (Christianity being an obvious example). The book takes the theory that goddess worship was the norm before it was suddenly replaced by male-centred religion as a given.

Even the entries that don’t display an obvious Wiccan/feminist perspective show dubious scholarship. For example, the entire entry for Patricia C. Crowther talks about her relationship with woman she had been in a previous life – Polly. Polly teaches her some spells. The book says that “Patricia had no knowledge of such spells, which experts determined were authentic.” Well, that’s just sloppy. Who were these experts? Were they experts of Elizabethan magical theory and could therefore say that the spells Crowther had learned did match up with what we know of what Elizabethan witches may have practised? Or were these experts in magic who could tell that the spells were true spells with real magical power? We are never told the type of expert and in what way the spells were deemed authentic, which would change the interpretation of the article a great deal.

And then there were some entries that I just have no way of explaining. For example, the entry on “Gypsies” explains that “their language, Romany, is related to Sanskrit,” but it never says that the people themselves are not called “Gypsies.” They are Romani. This is never mentioned in the entire entry – a very unusual little bit of bigotry for a book published in 1999.

This book isn’t a waste in the sense that I did get quite a few story ideas from it. But if you are doing research for any purpose other than the writing of fiction, don’t bother looking here. And, honestly, even if you are writing fiction, use it only as inspiration, not as an information source.

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