Gabbing About Graphic Novels: Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts…

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If you are like me and find fairy tales and their retellings a mite tedious without some innovative new twist or format, then you will heartily appreciate Craig Phillips eye-poppingly viewable new collection, Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts: Ten Tales from the Deep Dark Wood.  This beautifully presented, large format book contains ten fairy and folk tales from around the world in graphic novel format.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Diverse myths and legends from around the world, from Iceland to Poland to Japan, retold in easy-to-read glorious full-colour comic book form by a stunning Australian artist with an international reputation.

A cobbler girl tricks the Wawel Dragon, after all the king’s knights fail…
The Polar Bear King loses his skin…
Momotaro, born from a peach, defies the ogres everyone else is too scared to face…
Snow White and Rose Red make friends with a bear…

From Poland to Iceland, Japan to Germany, these ten fairytales from across the globe re-told as comics will have you enthralled. Giants! Trolls! Witches! Beasts! You will encounter them all in this visual cornucopia of a book.

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Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts: Ten Tales from the Deep, Dark Woods by Craig Phillips.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26 April, 2017.  RRP: $24.99

Target Age Range: 

Lower Primary to adult

Genre:

Traditional fairy/folk tales

Art Style:

Cartoon realism

Reading time:

Rather than ripping through the whole thing as I normally would with a graphic novel, I read one story a night until I had finished the book.  This worked really well, because it gave me time to consider and absorb each story before moving on to the next. (So, to answer the question, it took me ten days to get through it).

Let’s get gabbing:

I love graphic novels and I am lukewarm-to-openly-hostile toward fairy tales, so one might expect that I would find my enjoyment of this book to be fair to middling, but the strong illustrative element has swung this one for me.  It seems, on reflection, to be an absolute no-brainer to liven up oft-told stories like fairy tales with vibrant illustrations but the use of full page illustrations in different frame layouts along with the traditional fairy tale style text and dialogue works incredibly well to flesh out the details and atmosphere of each story.  Some of the stories here, such as the tale of Baba Yaga, the story of Snow White and Rose Red and the myth of Finn McCool will be familiar to many readers, but mixed in with these are less typical (if you are from a European background, anyway) stories, such as Momotaro, the peach-boy and the tale of the Polar Bear King who is forced to wear a fleece of feathers.

The graphic novel format is just genius because it instantly broadens the audience of the book.  Teenagers, or older reluctant readers for instance, who might roll their eyes at the thought of reading fairy tales could easily pick up this tome without embarrassment and become absorbed in the visual appeal of the stories.  The text is in that traditional, sometimes a bit convoluted, fairy tale style and so might be a bit tricky for the lower end of the intended audience, but taken with the illustrations, this book has high appeal to a whole range of reading ages.

Overall snapshot:

I would absolutely love to see a follow up tome to this one from Phillips, with folk tales from an even wider range of cultures because the format is so readable and can so easily transfer between read-alone for confident readers, to read-aloud in a group setting, to read-together between parents and children snuggled up before bed.  What an innovative new way to present some old classics that we feel like we’ve all seen before.

Until next time,

Bruce

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TBR Friday: Takeshita Demons

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TBR Friday

I know, I’m killing it!  It’s only February and I’ve already knocked over four out of my goal of twelve books from my TBR shelf for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017!  Today’s book is also going to count toward my progress in the PopSugar Reading Challenge in category #17, a book involving a mythical creature.  You can check out my progress toward all of my reading challenges here.

Today’s book is the titular book in Cristy Burne’s middle grade Takeshita Demons series, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Miku Takeshita and her family have moved from Japan to live in the UK, but unfortunately the family’s enemy demons have followed them! Miku knows she’s in trouble when her new supply teacher turns out to be a Nukekubi – a bloodthirsty demon who can turn into a flying head and whose favourite snack is children. That night, in a raging snowstorm, Miku’s little brother Kazu is kidnapped by the demons, and then it’s up to Miku and her friend Cait to get him back. The girls break into their snow-locked school, confronting the dragon-like Woman of the Wet, and outwitting the faceless Nopera-bo. At last they come face to face with the Nukekubi itself – but will they be in time to save Kazu?

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Ten Second Synopsis:
Miku, who loved hearing stories of Yokai from her Baba, has moved to England with her family. When a disappearing visitor knocks on the door, Miku is thrust into a dangerous situation, as Yokai of all types begin troubling the Takeshita family.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Close to a year

Acquired:

I picked up the first three in this series from the Library Cast-offs bookshop at Nundah, because they featured Yokai and I hadn’t heard of them before.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

A misguided belief that I would have to read all three in the series one after the other.

Best Bits:

  • These are by an Australian author – yippee!
  • If you are a fan of fantasy and mild horror for middle grade readers, then this should be a delightfully dangerous change of pace, featuring, as it does, monsters from the rich and complex mythology of Japan.  This opening book alone includes a nukekubi (a demon that can detach its head at night and send it out hunting), an amazake-baba (a demon that takes the shape of an old woman but brings sickness and disease if you let her in) and even some murderous curtains.  And that’s not the half of it.
  • If you are on the lookout for books featuring characters from diverse backgrounds, Miku and her family are Japanese, living in England.  There are plenty of Japanese words and descriptions of various customs scattered throughout, as well as a glossary of the demons that appear in the story at the end of the book.
  • The plot is deliciously creepy without being outright scary and so is perfectly suitable for younger readers.  As an adult reader I found it a fast and fun romp with a few spine-shiver-inducing elements.  Even though the protagonists are female, the action and monsters should appeal to young male readers also, making this a book that should be a winner for everyone!
  • It’s illustrated!  Throughout the book there are single page illustrations that help to bring the monstrous demons to life.
  • It’s only reasonably short.  I read it over about three days in short bursts, so it’s not an overwhelming read for independent young readers.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • I had a few cringes at the plotting at some points.  The heroines do overcome the demons at the end, but have a bit of help that comes along in quite a handy fashion.  There are obviously parts of this book, such as the references to the Takeshita’s house-spirit back in Japan, and the allusions to the powers inherited by the female line of the family, that will be expanded on further in later books in the series.  This didn’t bother me too much, because I already have the next two stories in my possession, but may be an sticking point for someone reading this as a standalone story.
  • The author has a tendency to throw in apparently random occurences here and there, such as the noppera-bo (faceless ghost) and the yuki-onna (woman of the snow).  These characters don’t end up having much to do with the story, so either they’ve been introduced to give the reader an idea of the variety of Japanese spirits getting around the place, or they might play a part in later books.  Either way, their inclusion did amount to a number of red-herrings that ended up being a bit annoying because I wanted to know what their role in the story was going to be.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

Yes.  In fact I’m glad I’ve got the first three because I can continue the story at my leisure.  I’ll probably end up buying the fourth book before the year’s out too.  Reading them will also give me a good chance to use my brand new Yokai encyclopedia – yipee!

Where to now for this tome?

To the permanent shelf, to await its brethren.

Can I just say how much I’m enjoying the TBR challenge this year?  I feel really motivated to get those books that I bought with such excitement off the TBR shelf and into my brain, via my optic nerves.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Top Book of 2017 Pick!

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Today’s book is one that I definitely didn’t think I would enjoy as much as I did.  It features an absorbing story, flawed characters, a bleak, unforgiving landscape and intricate, fleshed out folklore, and for these reasons and more it is our first Top Book of 2017 pick for the year!  We received our copy of The Bear and the Nightingale by debut author Katherine Arden from the publisher via Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

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I was a little afraid on starting this book that it would turn out to be a bit like wading through molasses, but although its a hefty tome the narrative voice is so compelling that I could have happily gone on reading for another hundred pages once it had finished.  The book begins before protagonist Vasya’s birth and the reader is made aware of the fact that there is something special about this child.  Even though her birth results in her mother’s death, we are aware that this is something Vasya’s mother chose, because Vasya will be the key to…something…in the future.  As the tale progresses we find out that Vasya has the ability to see household and woodland spirits and she, like the people of her village, ensures that these spirits are kept happy with small offerings of bread and the like.

Later, when a charismatic priest is sent to the village, the delicate balance between the people and the spirit world is upset, resulting in catastrophic changes for the village – crops fail, children die, and the muttering of the villagers begins to turn against Vasya, with the aid of her stepmother’s urging.  From here the story takes on more of a traditional fantasy atmosphere, as Vasya ventures further into the spirit world in order to save herself and her loved ones.

The greatest thing about this book is the fact that the author has remained true to the humanity of the characters while intertwining indispensable parts of the narrative that feature fantasy.  This gives the overall story an incredible feeling of authenticity even as winter demons and the walking undead plague Vasya’s village.  Real lives, innocent lives, are at stake, through folly brought about by flawed human behaviour, yet at the same time the ethereal, and the way it has been traditionally linked with the mundane by the villagers, is the key to a return to normalcy.

Vasya is a well-developed heroine, growing from the headstrong and flighty young girl into a determined young woman who is not afraid to take risks in order to secure her own path.  The women in the story are confined by the roles assigned to them by society but Vasya is different and refuses to be hemmed in, even when it seems impossible for her to resist.  Alongside Vasya are two women who are foils for each other – Dunya, the long-standing nurse of the household, who protects her charges as if they were her own children, even to her death; and Anna Ivanovna, Vasya’s stepmother, who cares more for herself than even for her own child, unless that child, Irinya, is reflecting credit on her mother through her beauty.  The male characters of Vasya’s family are both strong and gentle, fiercely protective of their daughters and sisters, yet bound to societal expectations.  The priest, Konstantin, is deeply flawed and blinded by his ego and need for attention.

While the fantasy elements of this tale, drawn from Russian folklore, are fascinating and terrifying by turns, the real heart of this story is in its humanity, and the decisions that individuals make when adversity falls in their lap.  I honestly thought that the fantasy creatures, the household spirits and the completely creepy upyr would be the highlight of the book for me but the ordinary characters were so engaging that while I thoroughly enjoyed the fantasy elements, it was Vasya and her family that tipped this story over into brilliance.

I have to say that if this is the first offering from Katherine Arden, she is certainly going to be an author to keep on my watch list from now on.  If you are looking for a totally absorbing fantasy tale that never loses sight of its humanity, and have the time to devote to an epic story, I highly recommend getting lost in The Bear and the Nightingale.

Until next time,

Bruce