bookstore review: amazon books, seattle

Sunday, December 27, 2015 | | 9 comments
Seattle, Washington: my birthplace and the location of Amazon's headquarters.  I’m back in the area celebrating with family over the Christmas holiday. I visited a bookstore (is anyone surprised? no? good.). The bookstore that everyone is buzzing about – Amazon’s first physical book retail location. It was actually my mom’s idea to check it out, and I wanted to see it as a sort of curiosity. Instead of visiting the zoo on the day after Christmas, we went to Amazon Books.


I have some thoughts (the entire bookselling community probably has some thoughts!), I’m a consumer and a book blogger, so I'm doing a consumer review. Could be fun, right? I’ve never done a bookstore review before, so bear with me.

The first thing is that Amazon Books is located in a really tony outdoor shopping district called University Village, right by the University of Washington campus. When I was a teenager, going shopping in University Village made me feel grown-up (aka fancy).  I mean, there’s a Tiffany’s across the street from the Amazon Books location.  So make of that what you will (they’re right where the money is).


I just realized that if I keep listing things one by one in numerical order I will never be done with this review.  So here’s a big list of nice things about the bookstore: all of the books face out (so cover art is even more important than usual!), and they are arranged in general by interest area, but there are also a lot of freestanding shelves dedicated to award-winners, or Amazon’s top books of the year, or books for kids aged 9-12 who like sports, and so on.  In short? The browsing experience is a little different than most bookshops I’ve been in. 


The staff is super attentive – I was asked if I needed help 3 different times, and this while the place was totally packed!  Also, the prices are the same as on the website (cheap!), and are not listed on labels (browsers are encouraged to do price checks on their phones). I also appreciated the Amazon star ratings and short reviews listed under every title in the store (in a “staff picks” fashion).  I went around the YA section scanning the shelves for reviews by bloggers I recognize (I saw a couple!).  The staff was also restocking while we were there, leading me to believe that the large number of browsers translated to sales.


Now onto the “cons” list: the bookstore had VERY small aisles. If someone was in one, you couldn’t get past. When I stood with my back pressed against the shelf behind me, I could barely see any of the books on the bottom shelf in front of me. In a crowded bookshop, that’s a major issue (and it was quite crowded). I also learned that Amazon Books only accepts cards for payment, no cash allowed. That seemed unnecessarily elitist, as the unbanked might appreciate lower prices on books more than anyone.


There was also very limited seating throughout the store (I assume to encourage browsing, but not too much browsing).  That said, the window seats around the perimeter of the store were cool, according to my sister-in-law, who tried them out. My aunt noted that the store didn’t stock any Moleskine products (limited/no gift items) – the focus was on books and magazines only. I think the biggest difference between a traditional bookstore and Amazon Books (for me) were how few books there actually were in store. For the space, they fit in as many shelves as they could, and yet the majority of the selection was made up of newly-published books.  The selection of backlist items was random and haphazard.  There were also some notable holes in the selection – I kept looking all over for the Ron Chernow Hamilton biography, and couldn’t spot it.  That would be front and center in any other bookstore right now, due to the popularity of the Broadway musical.

You may be wondering if I purchased anything at Amazon Books. I didn’t. But! My mother bought me an early birthday present. I picked out two books: adult fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, and middle grade classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. 


Final verdict: Amazon Books is worth a visit. It was interesting from a consumer viewpoint to see what books Amazon prioritized in a store setting, and I found a couple of interesting titles I wanted to purchase while browsing. That said, this is not the store to go visit if you need a specific backlist book. The store space itself is also less-than-ideal. I think the concept needs a little bit of work. All told, I’m glad I went!

chalice

Thursday, December 10, 2015 | | 3 comments
You know that one author whose books you reach for when you need the equivalent of a reading hug?  Or maybe it’s just one book, but the prose somehow exudes cozy?  Yeah.  I have a whole shelf of those, and the name on the spine is Robin McKinley.  Her books are great for anytime (they’re almost all about girls doing things), but I find my eye catching on that particular shelf most often whenever I’m in a rough patch.  I’m in the midst of one right now – first I fractured my face playing hockey, then I got quite ill, right now I’m dealing with pest problems, and as a result my roommates and I have decided to move at the end of the month (whew!).  So I picked up a McKinley book to (re)read myself into a better mindset.  Chalice is a quietly powerful book, and it’s working like a healing balm for my soul.

chalice by robin mckinley cover artMirasol is a beekeeper, a honey-gatherer, with an ability to speak to the earthlines—the sentient parts of Willowlands, where she lives. The concerns of Master, Chalice, and Circle, who govern Willowlands, have nothing to do with her—until the current Master and Chalice die in a fire and leave no heirs to take their places. The Master’s closest relative has been a priest of Fire for the past seven years; he is not quite human anymore. And then the Circle comes to Mirasol and tells her that she is the new Chalice, and it will be up to her to bind the land and its people with a Master, the touch of whose hand can burn human flesh to the bone…

Mirasol was a modest beekeeper before a terrible tragedy forced her into a position of power.  The trouble is that she has had no training, a new Master, and work that must be done, or else everything will fall apart.  Mirasol’s struggles are not small and simple as they once were: she is trying to hold together something much bigger than herself, while fighting ignorance (her own and others’), politics, and self-doubt.  Chalice is a quiet book, focused on one woman thrust suddenly into a life she could never have imagined.  At the same time it is a powerful story about an understated type of heroism – that of an ordinary person, stretching to (and past) their limits to make the world a better place.

That’s the story.  What about the writing itself?  I’m going to tell you what it’s like, and you’re going to give me a look and think, “Cecelia, are you serious?! That sounds boring.”  And I’m going to say… just hear me out.  McKinley is as her most McKinley-esque in this book: there’s little dialogue, the story is told in the third-person, and there’s a lot of exposition, a lot of time in spent in main character Mirasol’s head.  Stay with me.  It’s a cozy, warm sort of story for all that.  Said coziness comes from: honey, Mirasol’s affinity with animals & bees, her modesty and thirst for knowledge, and the juxtaposition of the physical limits of the human body (small, immediate concerns) with “larger” matters like a land falling apart, loneliness, and the responsibility of power.  The writing may not be galloping-along-action, but it’s suited to the size and scope of this story, and it perfectly represents the main character.

The first couple of times I read Chalice I simply read it, and was pulled into its calm.  This time through I enjoyed it just as well as before, but I kept a somewhat more critical eye out – as I have been doing with all of my reading lately.  Conclusion?  Although the book’s focus is narrow, room could have been made to explore some interesting themes.  I’m talking “issues” like gender stereotypes (inherent in the assigned power roles in this fantasy world, as it turns out), diversity (the Master has black skin that has been burned by magical fire, but otherwise there’s a monochromatic cast of characters), and world-building (what is lost with the hyper-focus on one woman?).  As I said, I still enjoyed the book – but I am working on my awareness of diversity.  My reading requirements have evolved.

In all, Chalice is a warm, genuine sort of fantasy – the type of story that will appeal to readers who don’t usually find themselves in the fantasy section at the bookstore but want the book equivalent of a cup of tea and a fuzzy shawl around the shoulders.

Recommended for: readers who prefer quiet, character-driven stories, anyone interested in books light on dialogue and heavy on beekeeping, and fans of Patricia McKillip.

black widow: forever red

I was a very lucky duck and picked up an advanced review copy of Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow: Forever Red at BEA this year.  I promptly read it and mailed it along to an internet friend.  While I jotted down notes immediately, I didn’t pull together the review until just now.  If you’re keeping score at home, that puts me several months from the reading experience, and with a slightly different view of the book and its merits.  Here’s what I know (now): Black Widow: Forever Red is a thrill.  It’s fast-paced, satisfying action from start to finish, and I loved the heck out of it.  Just don’t ask me to quote back any of the dialogue or narrate the fight scenes!

black widow: forever red by margaret stohl cover
Natasha Romanov was once the world's most lethal assassin. Trained from a young age in the arts of death and deception, Natasha was given the name "Black Widow" by her brutal teacher, Ivan Somodorov. Now, Natasha wants nothing more than to leave that life behind her.

Ava Orlova is trying to live the life of an average American teenager.  But Ava’s life has been anything but average.  As a girl, she was experimented on by Ivan, until she was rescued by Black Widow and placed in the care of the US government. Ava spent years trying to contact her mysterious savior, but Black Widow has always stayed silent.

Until now.

When children all over the globe begin to go missing, Natasha suspects her old teacher has returned.  And Ava may be the key to stopping him once and for all.  But first Natasha and Ava will have to unravel their pasts to defeat the madman who threatens their futures.This novel features all the thrilling adventure readers will expect from the Marvel brand, backed up by the young-adult cred of #1 New York Times bestselling author Margaret Stohl. Uncover a new side of the Marvel Universe, accessible to old fans and new readers alike, as Stohl weaves an unforgettable story through the world of the Black Widow.

Ana is a teenage orphan who once was a pawn in a sinister experiment that involved the infamous Black Widow.  Alex is an impulsive, likeable high school fencer who sometimes feels like he doesn’t fit in his own life.  Natasha Romanov is a spy, a manipulator, and an Avenger.  She has avoided contact with Ana, even though she claimed kinship with her once, years ago.  That all changes when Ana’s and Alex’s lives intersect, world-changing secrets are revealed, and the Black Widow’s old nemesis rises from the ashes. 

TENSION! excitement! YEAH! (let’s talk about what’s going on in this book)

The writing encourages you to expect a certain outcome, but the story itself tricks you into forgetting that – so the reader should be surprised, even if they’re the type to half expect that a twist is coming.  Basically, Stohl is clever, and it comes out in the book in the best of ways.  There’s also a dual narrative voice structure to consider, with interrogation transcripts, flashbacks, and bits of memories (some of them unreliable).  As for pacing: after an action- and explosion-filled first few scenes, the story slows while new characters and mysteries are introduced.  It soon picks up again though, and familiar (beloved?)(people love Tony Stark and Coulson, right?!) Marvel characters make appearances as well.  It’s a fast-paced book with all of the scene changes an action flick fan could want.

Pros: The story is an easy read, the plot is high stakes, new characters fit into Natasha’s back story seamlessly (and you end up caring about them!).  There are satisfying action sequences, and the secrets, spy games and possible world-ending doom all meet and/or exceed expectations.  Add to that a tiny splash of romance, and the result is pure entertainment.

Cons: There might be a bit of reader drop-off in that one “slow” bit between the opening hook and the first action (where a lot of the exposition/set-up happens).  I’m also not sure how broad the appeal of a Black Widow book is. I think she’s a great character and anyone/everyone should check out this book, but if a reader hasn’t seen most of the big Marvel films to date, there may be some confusion as far as story context. 

That said, this book will delight Natasha Romanov/Black Widow fans of all ages, and likely convert a few interested bystanders into full-fledged Marvel geeks (like me). 

Recommended for: devotees of Marvel universe, fans of political intrigue and spies going rogue, those who enjoy plot- and action- heavy YA fiction, and anyone who likes the Mission Impossible, Bond, or superhero movies.  Requisite (sinister) Russian villain included at no extra cost.

Fine print: I picked up an ARC of this title at BEA for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

soft rye pretzels

Sunday, October 11, 2015 | | 4 comments
It’s fall! I love fall.  So many good things happen during this season: Foliage changes color, back-to-school items go on clearance (I am ADDICTED to school/office supplies), it gets cool enough to break out my ridiculous scarf collection, and hockey season starts up again.  While I’m enjoying all of the above, I got a seasonal cold last week and have spent the weekend resting (and coughing) rather than going to the pumpkin patch.

soft rye pretzels

BUT! Yesterday I mustered just enough energy to try out a new recipe (for the first time in forever!), and so this lovely autumn weekend doesn’t seem like a total loss.  I’m going to be honest with you: This baking experiment happened because back when I was recipe-testing the Fika cookbook, I bought a LARGE bag of rye flour.  And I didn’t know what to do with the generous amount left over. Cue: Me (for the past 2-3 months), doing random internet searches for rye + recipe + [fill in the blank]. 

When I saw an Instagram photo of pretzels yesterday, a light went off.  I could picture rye preztels.  Lo and behold… the New York Times had a recipe!  I’m not going to copy it out here because I didn’t change anything substantial, but here’s the link.  My only advice is to follow all of the instructions, especially when they include words like “gently.”  Also, add the baking soda to the boiling water SLOWLY. 


For my first attempt at pretzels, I think it went really well.  Let me tell you how well: When these came out of the oven I immediately ate 3, and my roommates devoured a couple apiece. Short story: They’re definitely crowd pleasers, and perfect for these cooler days when heartier snacks are the key to happiness.  I’m pretty sure I’ll be making them again.

soft rye pretzels

Recommended for: fans of pretzels, and any occasion that calls for hearty finger food.

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

lady of magick blog tour: author interview & giveaway

Today at Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia I’m interviewing Sylvia Izzo Hunter, author of (the absolutely fantastic debut) The Midnight Queen and its follow-up Lady of Magick. These books are my version of bookish catnip - completely irresistible, lovely, and smart all in one go. Check out the end of the post for your chance to win a copy of Lady of Magick!

Sylvia Izzo Hunter was born in Calgary, Alberta, back in the days before Star Wars, and started making up stories at approximately the time she learned to talk. A couple of decades ago she moved to Toronto, Ontario, where she now lives with her husband and daughter and their slightly out-of-control collections of books, comics, and DVDs. She studied English and French literature (with a particular focus on medieval and Renaissance poetry and drama) at York University; she has since discovered that her mom was right: in order to be a functioning grown-up, you really do need to know how to do math.

Over the course of her working life Sylvia has been a slinger of tacos, a filer of patient charts and answerer of phones, a freelance looker-up of unconsidered trifles, an Orff-singing stage monk, and an exam tutor, but has mostly worked in not-for-profit scholarly publishing, where she started out making lots of photocopies and now gets to make XML and EPUB files (which is more fun). She also sings in two choirs (including the Orpheus Choir of Toronto), reads as much as possible, knits (mostly hats), and engages in experimental baking.

Sylvia’s favourite Doctor is Tom Baker, her favourite pasta shape is rotini, and her favourite Beethoven symphony is the Seventh.

What was the most surprising/strange thing you learned while doing research for The Midnight Queen?

OK, given the cover of the book, hopefully it's not spoilery to say there's an owl in it? Anyway there's an owl, so I did some research on owls generally, and on this particular type of owl -- it's a Great Grey Owl, Strix nebulosa lapponica; the owl on the cover I'm pretty sure is a barn owl, but isn't it beautiful? -- so I would have a clue about things like its wingspan, what its various calls sound like, how big it is, and so on. And wow, SO MUCH of an owl is just feathers! Inside the feathers, an owl's body is kind of a stereotypical vulture shape, with the switchbacked neck. It's a bit disconcerting actually.

Who do you think is the perfect/ideal/likely reader for your books?

Hmm. Good question! Well, I think you're likely to enjoy them if you like your fantasy to have some romance in it, and your romance to have some fantasy in it; if you enjoy the occasional explosion, but also enjoy watching a story unfold at a more leisurely pace; and if you like your historical novels to take a quite creative approach to history...

Also, this book isn't categorized as YA, but I think any YA reader who can enjoy Jane Austen might also like The Midnight Queen [and Lady of Magick]. The youngest reader of TMQ that I know of so far is twelve. She had some Serious Questions for me about my use of Greek and Roman mythology.

What is one fantasy novel I absolutely must read?

Well, I could make a lot of recommendations, but if I had to pick just one: you absolutely must read Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. The setting is based on mediaeval Spain, the protagonist is a 40-year-old widow whose family keeps trying to protect her from herself, and it's got fighting, sorcery, explosions, cunning plans, romance, trickery, and a god with a naughty sense of humour. And it's Bujold, so you know every sentence, every word in fact, is right where it should be.

I see that you read a lot of SFF YA. What's one recent YA book that you wish had been around when you were a teenager?

Wow, so many! (I do wish I'd known about Tamora Pierce's early books when I was a teenager: way better role models than Piers Anthony!) But I'm going to pick Holly Black's Faerie books, and particularly the middle one, Valiant, which is about seeing past the surfaces of people, including yourself.

If you could host a dinner for fictional literary characters, who would you invite, and what would you serve?

So first I'm going to pretend that I'm not really, really shy IRL, and could actually do this thing. OK … Go!

I would definitely invite some people from Jane Austen's Persuasion: Anne, Frederick, and Admiral and Mrs. Croft. (And I would beg, borrow, or steal a piano so that Anne could play it and we could all sing.) Also, I would have Miles and Ekaterin and Aral and Cordelia and Ivan from Bujold's Vorkosigan books, and of course Ista dy Chalion from Paladin of Souls. I would very much like to have Will Laurence and Temeraire from Naomi Novik's Temeraire books, but I'm already not sure where I'm going to put all these people, never mind a fully grown Celestial dragon!  Possibly we could have the dinner party on the roof of the building, but even so. I'd invite Door, from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and she could finally finish reading Mansfield Park. Carmichael and Jack from Jo Walton's Small Change series, and Patricia from My Real Children. Hermione Granger, because Hermione is awesome and my daughter would enjoy hanging out with her. Ned and Verity from Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, and the long-suffering Badri.  And some detectives: Roderick Alleyn and his wife, Troy; Albert Campion; George and Bunty Felse, and their son, Dominic, and his girlfriend, Tossa;  and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. And Angela Carter's Dora and Nora Chance, to liven things right up.

I have no idea what all these people might like to eat, so I expect I'd make an enormous pot of marinara sauce, cook an unbelievable amount of spaghetti, do several French loaves of garlic bread, and throw a few thingies of spring mix in a big bowl, which is what I usually feed people when they come over (you know, unless it's Thanksgiving or Passover or something). But I would make something fancy for dessert, because that's how I roll :)

What books are on your nightstand (or your to-be-read list) right now?

Oooohhh I really need to make some reading time!

Currently reading The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley and Lex Talionis by R.S.A. Garcia.

In the official TBR pile:
Kari Sperring, The Grass King's Concubine
People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish SF & Fantasy, ed. Rachel Swirsky & Sean Wallace
Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs Aliens, ed. Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier
Anton Strout, Deader Still
Caitlin Sweet, The Door in the Mountain
Christopher Moore, Sacré Bleu
Plants vs Zombies: The Official Guide to PROTECTING YOUR BRAINS (It was a present, okay?)
Cassandra Clare, City of Bones
The Walking Dead, Compendium Two (Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn)

---

Thanks so much for sharing your answers, Sylvia!  Now a bit more about Lady of Magick (plus that giveaway!)...

lady of magick by sylvia izzo hunter book cover
Sylvia Izzo Hunter brought “both rural Brittany and an alternative Regency England to vivid life” in The Midnight Queen, her debut novel of history, magic, and myth. Now, in her new Noctis Magicae novel, Sophie and Gray Marshall are ensnared in an arcane plot that threatens to undo them both.

In her second year of studies at Merlin College, Oxford, Sophie Marshall is feeling alienated among fellow students who fail to welcome a woman to their ranks. So when her husband, Gray, is invited north as a visiting lecturer at the University in Din Edin, they leap at the chance. There, Sophie’s hunger for magical knowledge can finally be nourished. But soon, Sophie must put her newly learned skills to the test.

Sophie returns home one day to find a note from Gray—he’s been summoned urgently to London. But when he doesn’t return, and none of her spells can find a trace of him, she realizes something sinister has befallen him. With the help of her sister, Joanna, she delves into Gray’s disappearance, and soon finds herself in a web of magick and intrigue that threatens not just Gray, but the entire kingdom.

Would you like a copy of the book for yourself?  You're in luck!  The publisher will send a finished copy to one lucky winner.  To enter, simply fill out the FORM.  Giveaway open internationally, will end on Friday, September 25 at 11:59pm EST.  Winner will be selected randomly and notified via email.  Good luck!

Fine print: I did not receive any compensation for this post, and the publisher will provide the giveaway prize.

3 science fiction picture books

Most of the books I buy at full-price are picture books.  That’s not a complaint, by the way.  I’m very happy to supply so many classics (and new favorites) to my friends’ kid lit libraries, and to support my local bookstores in doing so.  This past weekend I discovered a couple of new-to-me space-themed books while perusing the kids’ section of a couple of stores, and I thought I’d post mini-reviews of them here on the blog. I don’t think you can start a love of science fiction (or just plain science!) too young.

interstellar cinderella by deborah underwood, illustrated by meg hunt book coverOnce upon a planetoid,
amid her tools and sprockets,
a girl named Cinderella dreamed
of fixing fancy rockets.

With a little help from her fairy godrobot, Cinderella is going to the ballbut when the prince's ship has mechanical trouble, someone will have to zoom to the rescue! Readers will thank their lucky stars for this irrepressible fairy tale retelling, its independent heroine, and its stellar happy ending.

Deborah Underwood’s Interstellar Cinderella is a futuristic re-telling of the traditional fairy tale in verse, accompanied by Meg Hunt’s colorful illustrations.  In this version of the story, Cinderella has pink hair and a penchant for mechanics.  In fact, she ends up proving her worth by fixing a broken spaceship (instead of fitting into a glass slipper).  The poem is fun and funny throughout, and character diversity is always a plus.  Hunt includes a lot of visual interest on every page, which could be a little confusing to the eye the first time, but fantastic for rereads.  I picked the book up for the hologram/metallic lettering on the cover, but my favorite illustrations ended up being the end papers, which featured Cinderella’s various tools, labeled inventively.  This is a great modern take on a popular princess tale, and one I’d suggest to anyone looking for an alternative or companion to the Disney classic. It’s sure to be a bedtime favorite for little girls (and their parents).  

zathura by chris van allsburg book coverOn the last page of the Caldecott-winning book Jumanji, young Danny Budwing is seen running after his brother, Walter, with a game tucked under his arm. Now after twenty years, Chris Van Allsburg is ready to reveal what happens when Danny and Walter roll the dice. This time the name of the game is Zathura and the battling Budwing boys are in for the ride of their lives.

Zathura unleashes intergalactic challenges that require even the quarreling Budwing brothers to work as a team.

Chris Van Allsburg’s Zathura is an older title, but it is definitely a classic (as are almost all of Van Allsburg’s titles – this is the author behind Jumanji and The Polar Express, after all!).  I was familiar with the title because I’ve seen the film based on this book starring a young Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart.  The story is quite a bit like Jumanji, actually – a pair of brothers find an old game about space, begin to play it, and discover that the game alters reality.  Sci-fi elements include space travel, robots, aliens, and time travel.  Van Allsburg’s black and white ink drawings illustrate the adventure in beautiful detail.  My favorite bit is that the brothers go from antagonizing one another to working together and valuing each other, though things get iffy once or twice.  Zathura will please the older end of the picture book crowd as well as the littlies (and it would be a great gift to accompany the film!).

your alien by tammi sauer, illustrated by goro fujita book cover
One day, you'll be looking out your window when something wonderful comes your way...and you will want to keep him.

When a little boy meets a stranded alien child, the two instantly strike up a fabulous friendship. They go to school, explore the neighborhood, and have lots of fun. But at bedtime, the alien suddenly grows very, very sad. Can the boy figure out what his new buddy needs most of all? This funny, heartwarming story proves that friends and family are the most important things in the universe…no matter who or where you are.

Tammi Sauer’s Your Alien is a story written in the second person, featuring the adventures of a boy who finds an alien one night, adopts it and takes it everywhere, even to school.  In the end, the alien gets lonely, and the boy must find a way to make things right.  The story has strong themes of familial love and the comfort of a hug (for all).  It’s very funny in parts, and just short enough that the second person narration didn’t lose its effectiveness.  Goro Fujita’s illustrations are vibrant and both complement and elevate the text.  They have a little bit of a film magic quality to them, so young ones will be reminded of their favorite movies featuring creatures from outer space. Your Alien is perfect bedtime reading, especially for the 3-6 year old set and anyone who enjoyed E.T. as a kid.

brilliant

Monday, August 10, 2015 | | 2 comments
One of my favorite things in books as I’ve grown older is when a city (or urban landscape) is so deeply a part of the story and atmosphere that it becomes a character in its own right.  When I was a kid, not so much.  Then I mostly cared about fantasy landscapes, about going through the wardrobe into somewhere different, with a MAP! (and dragons, if at all possible).  Roddy Doyle’s depiction of Dublin in Brilliant, is the happy medium between those two. Readers can hear the life of the city, feel it, see it in the eyes of his characters.  At the same time, it’s not overpowering.  Character voices (including that of a meerkat named Kevin) steal the spotlight in this charming, modern middle grade fantasy.

brilliant by roddy doyle book cover
The Black Dog of Depression has descended over the adults of Dublin. Uncles are losing their businesses, dads won’t get out of bed, mothers no longer smile at their children. Siblings Raymond and Gloria have had enough and set out one night with one goal in mind: to stop the Black Dog, whatever it takes. In a chase through the streets and parks and beaches of Dublin, the children run after the Black Dog, and soon dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of kids join in their fight. They discover they have one weapon against the Black Dog. The weapon is a word: “brilliant.”

Illustrated throughout by a bright new talent and told through the masterful dialogue for which the acclaimed Roddy Doyle is known, Brilliant is a very special book with a storybook feel.

Gloria and her older brother Raymond (Rayzer for short) are mostly happy, even when they’re squabbling.  They know life in Dublin has changed, but they don’t know what caused it.  When their Uncle Ben comes to live with the family, they are determined to learn why, even as they enjoy his presence.  On one eventful night, they and the other children of Dublin run the town, from the zoo to the water – meeting talking animals, learning the power of language, and chasing the specter of an enormous black dog.  

When I finished this book, I couldn't help but grin at the joy it brought me and the laughter and tears it provoked. In that moment I didn't care who it was written for, I just knew that it had been a good read. Not five minutes later, I was deep in conversation with two wonderful fellow bloggers, and they lamented a new rash of middle grade fiction that seems to be written "for adults" rather than children.

I let that digest a bit, and by the end of the night I was afraid that my glorious experience with Brilliant meant that it was indeed "one of those" books. I've been thinking about it ever since, actually. And here's what I've decided: 1) Yes, the story has a "moral" and at times reads a bit like a fable about how children can cure the ills of the world (and that's not a message I endorse 110% but we'll leave it for now). 2) It will appeal equally to adults AND children. For *very* different reasons.

What adults will like: The book's accessible treatment of depression, the fantastic writing (especially the dialogue - which Doyle is really a master of), the positive and hopeful themes, and the romp through Dublin (an expert tour if there ever was one). What kids will like: The sibling hijinks, the talking animals, forbidden nighttime adventures, the quest to do the right thing, jokes, and victory at the end. The book might not work for every reader, but there's something in it for readers of all ages.

Listen, if you haven't read Roddy Doyle yet, do. He writes hilarious, beautiful, tragic, wonderful stuff. You can feel Ireland in every page, and his books for young readers have hints of the fantastic throughout. Also: Emily Hughes’ illustrations are an A+ addition to the book.

Recommended for: all ages fans of stories about family and doing the right thing, for anyone looking for a great read aloud pick for the 7-10 year old set, and fans of Lauren Oliver's Liesl & Po.

Brilliant will be released in the U.S. by Amulet (Abrams) on September 8, 2015.

Fine print: I picked up an ARC of this book for review at BEA 2015. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

uprooted

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 | | 3 comments
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a fool for fairy tales.  I will pick up almost anything with a fairy tale-like plot and like it.  I am very much the intended audience for Naomi Novik’s adult fantasy Uprooted.  And if all that it took to fall in love with a book was a mix of elements from past favorites, I'd be praising this one to the skies. It has the feel of a Robin McKinley book (McKinley is one of my all-time favorite authors, FYI).

I didn’t expect to find myself setting this book down over and over again. Little snags pricked my concentration until I took a break to consider them and jot a note for later. Rinse, wash, repeat.  End result: while generally I adore the sort of book Novik wrote (a dangerous fairy tale), there were bits of it that did not work for me at all. To be fair, there were also bits that were quite special. My abiding love for fantasy was enough to pull me through the book, but not enough in the end to inspire devotion.

uprooted by naomi novik cover
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

Note: There will be (extensive) spoilers

Agnieszka lives in a valley near a dangerous Wood, where the Dragon, a magician-lord, takes a local girl away to live in his tower with him every ten years.  All her life Agnieszka has known that she’ll have to face a “choosing,” but everyone expects the Dragon to take her best friend Kasia.  Agnieszka herself is an unambitious girl, always running ragged in and out of the less dangerous parts of the forest, so no one is more surprised than she when she is taken by the Dragon instead.  Thus begins the adventure, because nothing (and no one) in the tale is exactly what they seem.

This review was a bear to write, and it departs a bit from my usual, somewhat detached style.  Hold tight, folks!  I’ll go over what made the book hard to read, and issues stemming from that first, and then I’ll go into what I liked (I promise there’s quite a bit – there IS a reason I finished it!).

Difficult item #1: Much of the early action and character-building in this book centers on rape. Agnieszka and her community fear that that is what happens to girls in the Dragon's tower. It's what the royal court assumes is happening. It almost happens in chapter three. It's just so omnipresent – I couldn’t help but wonder what purpose it served – was it going to be likened to some sort of magical violence? Traced to some cultural or historical precedent? Would Agnieszka’s fear trigger some sort of important revelation?  Just: why?  I was honestly confused by it, especially when Agnieszka seemingly (suddenly) dropped all fear of rape 1/3 of the way through the book, despite the addition of even more characters who could have conceivably hurt her. Even the thought of death or being unwillingly and painfully taught magic isn't something Agnieszka focuses on (or indeed the story dwells on) as much as rape. Then to add to that, the Dragon sees attempted rape only as an insult to himself (see a$$hole, definition of).

That brings me to item #2: Interactions between the Dragon and Agnieszka.  The Dragon didn’t ever become less of a d!ck.  That made their relationship (if you want to call it that) one of the strangest I’ve ever read about.  There was not even a straightforward we-hate-each-other-but-really-it’s-love thing going on – it seemed more like a I-think-you’re-a-horrid-excuse-for-a-human-being-but-oh-wait-magic-now-you’re-attractive transformation.  Mind: boggled.  Agnieszka's attitude and motivation changed. She became more complex (transformation from an unsuspicious peasant to a somewhat-more-canny-but-still-deeply-sincere witch). The Dragon?  He achieved a soupçon of flexibility.  He learned to respect an equal as an equal, finally. Well: whatever. It didn't make or break the book for me, and I suppose that's the best you can hope for if a supposedly passionate relationship leaves you feeling distinctly cool.

Item #3 is strictly a nit with how the dialogue was written.  Agnieszka would think a long, drawn out and complex thought (or what the textual clues were telling me was a thought?!), and other characters would answer her in dialogue as if she'd spoken aloud. I couldn't find any trace that the Dragon or others were telepathically reading her mind, so it was just: why. It was odd and it pulled me out of the story.

Final item (#4): Gray characters like Prince Marek and the Falcon who were supposed to be relatable in some way were… not. As best I could tell, I was supposed to have sympathy for those two because they either had great talent or were loyal to one person.  I personally couldn't find anything in them to respect/understand or ultimately pardon.  Ultimately, I didn’t think any of the male characters in the book were relatable.  Which: okay, but strange, since I could see that Agnieszka herself thought they were.

Now, on to the things I liked!  Kasia: a true best friend, with complex feelings and motivations of her own. Novik played with tropes of best friends and I really loved that she turned the “saving the damsel in distress” cliché on its head and elevated female friendship throughout the story. Kasia’s strength (if you want to call it that) was being changed in fundamental nature but not letting it change her spirit. Agnieszka’s was in growing and learning to see a new future and a new relationship with that person.  I want Kasia’s story next.

The story’s first real hook for me was when Agnieszka experienced the terror of the Wood for herself. Until then the evil was abstract, though of course monsters had already been spotted and defeated. It took almost a quarter of the book to get there. I don't know that I would be that patient for any other genre, or for a book less highly-regarded.  The action picked up quite a lot 2/3 of the way through. Up to that point I was in a holding pattern of pick it up, put it down. Pick it up again. It is traditional storytelling, there was a vague sense of foreboding, but the hook came late (unless fear of rape as a catalyst worked for you where it didn't for me).

Another plus: the villain of the piece (the Wood).  What can I say?  I liked it.  Novik does believable malevolence, violence, and genuinely terrible consequences for evil incredibly well.  Speaking of the Wood, I really adored the sense of place that Novik developed in Agnieszka’s home valley.  Yes, it was a backwater, and yes, it was dangerous, but all of the people are held to it.  The world-building was on point.

In all, I’d say Uprooted is a book that treads the middle ground between Emily Croy Barker's The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic and Robin McKinley or Patricia McKillip's YA-crossover fantasy. I very much enjoyed that it was a standalone, and I saw flashes of brilliance, but in the end I came away a bit too troubled to call it a favorite.

Recommended for: fans of adult fairy tales and fantasy, those who crave dynamic female characters, and anyone who liked Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker.

fika: the art of the swedish coffee break

Judge this book by its cover (go ahead, it’s safe!).  The cover illustration tells you everything to know: Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall’s Fika: The Art of The Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats is a book about coffee breaks done right (in the Swedish tradition). It's 25% lifestyle and history, 75% a cookbook, and 100% interesting.  Of course, I would say that – baking is my jam.

fika: the art of the swedish coffee break by anna brones and johanna kindvall book cover
An illustrated lifestyle cookbook on the Swedish tradition of fika--a twice-daily coffee break--including recipes for traditional baked goods, information and anecdotes about Swedish coffee culture, and the roots and modern incarnations of this cherished custom.

Sweden is one of the world’s top coffee consuming nations, and the twice-daily social coffee break known as fika is a cherished custom. Fika can be had alone or in groups, indoors or outdoors, while traveling or at home. A time to take a rest from work and chat with friends or colleagues over a cup and a sweet treat, fika reflects the Swedish ideal of slowing down to appreciate life’s small joys. In this adorable illustrated cookbook, Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall share nearly fifty classic recipes from their motherland—from cinnamon buns and ginger snaps to rhubarb cordial and rye bread—allowing all of us to enjoy this charming tradition regardless of where we live.

My dad’s family is Danish-American, but his mother died young, so no recipes traveled down that side of the family tree to me.  I’ve always been curious about Scandinavia and its food, though.  With the last name Larsen and as the shortest (at 5’10”) of a bunch of giants, it makes sense.  When a Swedish cookbook popped up on my radar, I took note.  I asked my library to order a copy.  I then read it cover-to-cover and baked out of it and racked up $7.50 in library fines and put it on my wishlist so that one of my freakishly tall brothers can give it to me as a gift. 

Fika is arranged seasonally and traditionally (by traditionally I mean there are sections of the homemade favorites, the items you’d find mostly in a bakery, and then heartier items like breads at the end).  While the focus is on baked goods that go with coffee, there’s also a fair bit about the slow, handmade, homemade traditions of day-to-day life in Sweden.  I enjoyed the bits about history – where and how certain dishes originated, the proper way to enjoy them, suggested flavor combinations, and so on.  But the star, of course, is the food.

muskotsnittar (nutmeg slices)

The authors included recipes that run the gamut from easy (a spiced shortbread cookie) to complex (holiday fare), with easy-to-follow instructions. Johanna Kindvall’s art brings each recipe to life.  That’s a distinctive thing about this cookbook – there aren’t any photographs.  Instead, Kindvall’s illustrations of the steps and finished product are the guide.  And her art is both charming and informative.

kronans kaka (almond potato cake)

To “test” the cookbook I made 4 recipes: Nutmeg slice cookies, almond potato cake, toasted rye buns and soft ginger cookies.  Since the focus is on “homemade” and slow living, the instructions don’t call for any intensive appliances (though there were some tools I didn’t have, but I got by with substitutes), but I used my mixer with no ill effects.  Reading the recipes all the way through is a must – some of them take a day or two to complete! 

rostade ragbullar (roasted rye buns)

The nutmeg cookies turned out well and my book club devoured them: A-.  The almond potato cake was a solid B – good when it came out of the oven, but not something I’d make again unless I have gluten-intolerant guests.  The rye buns (I’ve never baked with rye flour before!) were fantastic: A.  And the soft ginger cookies were GREAT, A+.  Note: These recipes called for less sugar than American favorites across the board. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but it’s something to be aware of.  The stars of Swedish baking seem to be nuts, cardamom and other “Christmas-y” spices – I don’t know if I’ve ever baked out of a cookbook with fewer chocolate recipes!  It was kind of liberating. I look forward to making even more of these recipes in the future.

mjuka pepparkakor (soft ginger cookies)

Is it clear that I like this cookbook?  I hope so.  If there’s one thing I can point to as a “con” I’d say that the authors didn’t need to devote quite so many words to urging readers to slow down and savor their coffee breaks.  That’s preaching to the choir.  In the end I didn’t mind it, though, and I don’t think many will.

In all, Fika is a beautifully illustrated homage to Swedish baking, with tasty recipes and tidbits about history and culture sprinkled throughout.  I can’t wait to have a copy for my own bookshelf.

Recommended for: anyone who likes to experiment with baking, those interested in international food traditions, and for the perfect treats to go along with a cozy cup of coffee.

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

making space for books

Thursday, July 16, 2015 | | 6 comments
I do not tend to think of my blog slowdown (posting has neared a standstill at points over the last year!)(you may have noticed. or not.) as a positive thing. There are good books I've missed, even better conversations skipped entirely, and potential new internet friendships ignored. However, there is a silver lining to the quiet (probably several, really): I now sit with books. I make space to contemplate them – sometimes unconsciously. I still read them at the same speed as ever, and after I finish I continue to jot down notes and reflections to help recall later what I liked and didn't like.


But then I wait. I let my heart stop hammering and my tears dry.  I turn those thoughts over and over. Sometimes I change my mind entirely. Sometimes when I get down to finally writing and posting the review I focus on a theme or outside concern that doesn't bear any relation to the direction my notes took in the first place. I think it’s a wonderful change. My reviews end up more thoughtful, or at least more representative of the reading experience I had and the way I'll remember the book down the road. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that these long-mulled reviews end up being more positive than the ones I used to finish one night and post the next day.  And I don’t mean positive as in “I love every book I read now!”  I mean it in the sense that I am more enthusiastic about the books I’ve read, and who they might be perfect for.  I bring up books in conversation more often, even if they were not my cup of tea.  I’m sharing them more readily, too (both recommendations and physical copies).

I take this rekindled enthusiasm as a promising sign for both my reading and my blog.  I needed the “blog break” over the past year, though I lamented (and was ashamed of) it at the time.  But these days I’m excited to read, and consider my reading, in a slightly different way.  It’s a good thing.

I’m curious: How long do you consider a review and/or how long does it take you to write a review?

the last ten books i checked out from the library

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 | | 2 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

I tweaked this week’s topic a bit – it was supposed to be ten recent books you acquired.  I can’t remember the last book I got in the mail (not because it was so long ago, but because my memory is bad!).  So, I decided to take the cheating cheater’s way, and use the last ten books I checked out from the library.  They were all helpfully listed on my online library account, so that I didn’t have to go chasing plastic-jacketed copies under the bed.  Yes, I’ve already run up library fines on some of these titles.  That's life.

The Last Ten Books I Checked Out from the Library


1. Fallout by Gwenda Bond – I've heard good things about this title for months now.  I decided to skip the signing line at BEA and added it to my library holds list instead.  I need to carve out some time to read it!

2. Fika: the art of the Swedish coffee break, with recipes for pastries, breads, and other treats by Anna Brones & Johanna Kindvall – I saw this title on the publisher's website and asked my library to purchase a copy.  I have Scandinavian heritage but that didn't come through in family recipes, so I'm always curious about traditions and food from that part of the world.

3. Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr – Translated Norwegian children's book.  Waffles.  Yeah, I'm in.

4. Uprooted by Naomi Novik – Reviews called Novik's book an homage to Robin McKinley, and that is a surefire way to pique my interest.  I'm already a couple of chapters in and liking what I'm reading.

5. Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge – Hodge was a fantastic blogging discovery from last year.  Her novel Cruel Beauty and novella Gilded Ashes put her firmly in my auto-read category.  I can't really emphasize how much I'm looking forward to a book that the author compares to Patricia McKillip's Alphabet of Thorn.


6. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older – There's a lot of positive hype behind this diverse urban fantasy, and I want to see what all the fuss is about (plus, I'm always in for diverse SFF).

7. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander – It won the Newbery Award.  I don't need to say anything else, but I will.  The author is a DC-area local.  Yep, need to read this one before I see him speak at the National Book Festival.

8. Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone – Can't remember where I heard about this title.  Maybe Kirkus?  Anyway, wherever it was, I put it on hold immediately.  It's not YA but I assume that there's some crossover potential due to the themes and age of the protagonist.  And I love magical realism, so.

9. Shadows Cast by Stars by Catherine Knutsson – SimonTeen Canada put together a Canadian YA reading list on Tumblr for Canada Day on July 1, and I added several of the books from it to my to-read list.  Book discovery happens when you least expect it!

10. Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff – I really loved Graff's A Tangle of Knots when I reviewed it two years ago.  I haven't kept Graff on my radar, but this one was featured in the LA Times' summer reading list.  I'm looking forward to it!

Honorable Mentions (i.e., ebooks currently checked out from the library): Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire.

What’s the last book you checked out from the library?

top 10 “top ten tuesday” meme topics

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 | | 1 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

Today’s “official” Top Ten Tuesday topic was the top ten books read so far in 2015.  I don’t know if I’ve blogged enough since January to come up with 10 titles, so I decided to cheat a little and do last week’s topic instead.  I’ve been participating in the TTT meme on and off since 2012, so I had plenty of posts to pick from, but it was fun to go back and look at how my lists (and reading preferences) have changed.

Top Ten TTT (Top Ten Tuesday) Meme Topics

1. Blogging confessions – I remember going over weird (quirky?) things that I do to decide what to share. I can be pretty reserved, but I let loose with this topic.

2. Favorite places to read – Mmmm. Just thinking about my favorite places to read puts me in a happy mindset. 

3. New-to-me authors of the year – This is a great topic that gets recycled every year.  It prompts me to go back over my reading and evaluate what worked, and who I’ll be keeping an eye out for going forward.

4. Things on my reading wishlist – Now this was a difficult prompt!  I don’t give much thought to what I’m searching for when I pick up a book.  I either pick it up or I don’t, and I either enjoy the story or I put it down.  But really digging into my preferences, and realizing that there are holes (or at least shallow parts) in my favorite genres was interesting and informative.

5. Books from my pre-blogging days – Some of the books I liked from the days before blogging do not stand up to the sort of scrutiny I’ve developed as a reviewer today.  And that’s okay.  I continue to harbor a lot of love in my heart for those old favorites.

6. Favorite character names – When I think about a book a couple of years after I read it, I remember the world-building and the plot, and possibly a character or two.  I do not remember character names, unless I’ve done a reread.  My brain’s just not built like that!  That made this topic a difficult one.  However, going back over my favorite books in search of names made me remember why I love a lot of the books I do!

7. Authors who take up the most space on my shelves – Easy peasy, and fun to do.  I took note of where my book hoarding proclivities and blogging interests diverge.

8. Favorite picture books – I use this post as a reference point whenever I go to a baby shower.  Building a picture book library for friends’ children is one of my greatest joys!

9. Most intimidating books – What I loved about this topic was that it spurred so much discussion (both on the internet and in real life).  It turns out that everyone is intimidated by books!

10. Scariest book covers – I’m not going to lie, there are some book covers I can’t look at full-on.  They’re just too creepy!  That said, it was a lot of fun to compile this list.

Did any of these make your list last week?

the truth about twinkie pie

Are you looking for a book as cute and sweet on the inside as its title and cover suggests?  Kat Yeh’s The Truth About Twinkie Pie is it.  I don’t pick up books in the contemporary genre much anymore, but I made an exception in this case.  The lure of a middle grade story that incorporated baking and cooking combined with the adorable art and book design = too much for me to resist.

the truth about twinkie pie by kat yeh
Take two sisters making it on their own: brainy twelve-year-old GiGi (short for Galileo Galilei, a name she never says out loud) and junior-high-dropout-turned-hairstylist DiDi (short for Delta Dawn). Add a million dollars in prize money from a national cooking contest and a move from the trailer parks of South Carolina to the Gold Coast of New York. Mix in a fancy new school, new friends and enemies, a first crush, and a generous sprinkling of family secrets.

That's the recipe for The Truth About Twinkie Pie, a voice-driven middle grade debut about the true meaning of family and friendship.

GiGi and her sister DiDi (yes, those names are short for something and there’s a fun story to go with) move up north when DiDi wins a nation-wide recipe contest and a million dollars.  GiGi isn’t sure why they need to start over in a new town, but she’s excited (and a little scared) about the prospect of her fancy new school and making friends for the first time.  Luckily, GiGi’s habit of telling the truth helps her find a place and a community, even if one of her new schoolmates seems set against her on principle.  While she’s learning lessons about friendship at school, there’s trouble brewing at home.  GiGi is brave, but she’s also human, and there’s only so much that holding your head high can do when your world goes topsy-turvy.

Let’s talk characters.  Confident GiGi has to overcome a few obstacles throughout the book, but the first one is her status as a southern transplant in a rich northern town.  A lot of the story’s tension revolves around the contrast between GiGi’s experiences and sense of “normal” and the other characters’.  Family secrets and the growing pains of friendship make up the rest of the plot. GiGi’s distinctive voice (and the funny stories she tells in it) sell the setting, the plot, and the relationships between the characters.  It is the best part of the book.  

Another fun bit: DiDi and GiGi’s family recipes at the end of every chapter.  These look like tried-and-true Southern specialties, often with simple (processed!), easy-to-find ingredients.  I love that Yeh weaves in stories and describes the appropriate time to serve a certain dish (determined by mood or special occasion), so that they are truly part of the story, rather than addendums to the chapter.  I’m not usually a Twinkie sort of person, but I may have to make an exception and try Twinkie Pie!

This story deals with some heavy topics, but it’s not a tragedy by any means.  It’s not all sweetness and light, but it’s hope-full, and GiGi herself has a cheerful, colorful personality.  She delights in knowing and seeing the good in those around her (most of the time – she’s not perfect!), so the tone is never dark. 

The way that a certain young character’s revelation is handled near the end of the book could be counted a weakness.  It isn’t unpacked or discussed, and I think young readers might miss it completely, though adults will certainly clue in.  It is something that deserves more time.  The only way that treatment makes sense to me is if Yeh is planning to write companion novel, but I haven’t heard anything of that nature.

In all, The Truth About Twinkie Pie is a sweet story filled with recipes, family secrets, growing up, and figuring out how you’ll end up who you want to be.

Recommended for: fans of Lisa Graff’s A Tangle of Knots, those who like their food and literature served together, and anyone who appreciates character-driven middle grade fiction.

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

the queen's hat

Wednesday, June 24, 2015 | | 2 comments
I’m not all that interested in collecting picture books for myself, but I do want to be the sort of honorary aunt who has the most extensive library and gives the best books as gifts to the children she knows.  To that end, I’ve been paying more attention to picture book trends and award winners in recent years.  I don’t automatically think, “Not for me,” when I see a picture book anymore.  When I walked by the Scholastic booth at Book Expo America and saw the cover of Steve Antony’s The Queen’s Hat, I knew I had to check it out. 

the queen's hat by steve antony cover
A wild romp around London as the Queen loses her hat!

From Steve Antony, the author and illustrator of Please, Mr. Panda and Betty Goes Bananas!

A sudden gust of wind sets off a marvelous adventure for the Queen, lots of Queen's men, and one very special hat. Just where will that hat land? Following a hysterical, epic hat chase, the Queen is reunited with her hat -- and the royal baby!


Young children will love the cumulative nature of the story, the fun mayhem that breaks loose, and Steve Antony's winning art style. The Queen's Hat shows some of London's most famous sites, and back matter explains their significance.

The Queen’s Hat is an adorable picture book illustrated in a limited palette of red, black and blue (which makes some pages a puzzle for the eyes – in a good way – a la Where’s Waldo?).  Steve Antony plays with the idea of a hat stolen by the breeze, and takes his characters on a romp through London, to (and through! and over!) its most famous landmarks.  Certain figures grace every page: the Queen of course, and her hat, but also her argyle-sweatered dog and a palace butler (complete with tea service).  The adventures of the hat, its wearer, and her cohort make funny reading for young and old alike.

One of the strengths of the book is the accuracy of the blue line architecture drawings of London landmarks.  They’re illustrated in exquisite, 2-D detail.  The historical significance of each is explained on a page at the back of the book as well.  The fun in most of the page spreads is in the handful, then dozens, then hundreds of palace guards crawling and climbing over the monuments as they try to retrieve the Queen’s hat. Of course, some (most?) of their feats are out of the realm of human possibility, so there’s a lot of imagination and whimsy involved.  Which is just how it should be in a picture book!

In all, The Queen’s Hat is a charming, cheeky and entertaining picture book that’s likely to be requested and re-read over and over again.

Recommended for: young fans of Jon Klassen’s Hat books and the Where’s Waldo? series, as a gift for children who will visit London in the near future, and for anglophiles of all ages.


The Queen's Hat will be released in the U.S. by Scholastic on August 25, 2015.

Fine print: I picked up an ARC of this book for review at BEA 2015. I did not receive any compensation for this post.
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