Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, the Milk

I have been insanely busy lately, so this slim and heavily illustrated children’s book by Neil Gaiman came at the perfect time. Finally, I could sit down with a book and read it in one sitting without such annoying things as work interrupting me.
It was fun, it was silly, and I would have loved to have read this as a child.

fortunately the milkFORTUNATELY, THE MILK
by Neil Gaiman

Published by: Harper Collins, 2013
ISBN: 0062224077
Hardcover: 128 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence:  There was only or­ange juice in the fridge.

“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.”
“Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.”
Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

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When a motherless-for-the-weekend family find themselves in lack of any milk for their breakfast cereal and tea, one brave father steps outside to buy some at the corner shop. The children find that it takes him surprisingly long to return. What they don’t know, of course, is that their dad went on a wacky, time-travel adventure featuring dinosaurs, aliens, wumpires, and piranhas. The father’s absence is explained in full and reminded a bit of The Usual Suspects for kids.

This is clearly a children’s book. Not only is it full of illustrations and has fun with fonts, but it is also a very simple story that is probably as much fun being read to as reading for oneself. That said, I commend Neil Gaiman for putting so much time travel in this book. Sure, you never have to remember for longer than a few pages what time the protagonists have just left and when a second version of themselves suddenly show up to steal the milk – or give it back. But, being an adult, I scrutinized the logic behind Gaiman’s time travel (and don’t go telling me time travel can’t be logical in its own way) and it all holds up.

There are some wonderfully quirky bits, some parts that will be funnier to adults than to children, and – my favorite thing about the entire book – gorgeous illustrations. The UK and US editions of Fortunately, the Milk are illustrated by different artists. While you will find Chris Riddell’s wonderful art in the UK version (I loved his images in The Graveyard Book to bits!), the US version shows off Scottie Young’s amazing skill. His drawings are intricate and full of flourishes and twirly bits… I stared at them for minutes at a time.

fortunately the milk piranhas
Scottie Young’s characters are little more than stick figures with big heads on top, but their faces are expressive and wonderful and just fun – just look with how much love for detail the hair is drawn. The only thing that would make this an even better book would be full color illustrations.

Now that I got all of the praise out of the way, let me tell you what disappointed me a little. Neil Gaiman is a master of his craft. His books are atmospheric and dark, they cleverly play off genre tropes, they show us old things through a new lens. This, however, wasn’t any of that. I enjoyed it because of how it celebrates the joy of storytelling, of making things up, of going along with silly ideas that children suggest – all of these things are important to me, and the fact that a big name like Neil Gaiman can reach millions of people with it makes me happy. If your own children ever come up with a tale like this, don’t shut them up. Let them tell you about the stegosaurus in the hot air balloon!

But for all of that, it was maybe too simple, maybe a bit too predictable. I honestly can’t say if I feel that way because I am not the target age group or because I am a spoiled book brat. Having read such amazing children’s books as Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland novels or Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora Segunda books, I have come to expect more of children’s novels than a silly adventure with everything and the kitchen sink.

To me, children’s books truly show a writer’s talent. And an author who manages to write a children’s book that can entice both children and adults is a true genius. Neil Gaiman charmed me for an hour, but ultimately, the story will be gone from my memory very soon. The pictures… now, the pictures may stick around for quite a while longer.

RATING: 7/10  –  Very good

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Terry Pratchett – Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook

It’s been very quiet on this blog lately. I have been swamped in work and, seeing as I just got promoted this month, I will probably continue this way until I’ve settled into the new job. This leaves little time for reading, but I did manage to squeeze this gem of Discworld fun into my busy schedule. Oh, Nanny Ogg, how much poorer the world would be without you.

Created with The GIMPNANNY OGG’S COOKBOOK
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Corgi, 2001 (1999)
ISBN: 0552146730
Hardcover: 175 pages
Series: Discworld Companions (after #18)
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: We have received another manuscript from Mrs Ogg.

They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach which just goes to show they’re as confused about anatomy as they gen’rally are about everything else, unless they’re talking about instructions on how to stab him, in which case a better way is up and under the ribcage. Anyway, we do not live in a perfect world and it is foresighted and useful for a young woman to become proficient in those arts which will keep a weak-willed man from straying. Learning to cook is also useful.

Nanny Ogg, one of Discworld’s most famous witches, here passes on some of her huge collection of tasty and interesting recipes. In addition to such dishes as Nobby’s Mum’s Distressed Pudding, Mrs. Ogg imparts her thoughts on such matters as life, death, and courtship, all in a refined style that should not offend the most delicate of sensibilities. Well, not much. Most of the recipes have been tried out on people who are still alive.

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I had known about Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook for a while, being surrounded by Terry Pratchett fans in my internet bookosphere. But until I read Maskerade, I never quite saw the appeal in reading a book of recipes written by a fictional character. Once I had that little background knowledge (and got to know Nanny Ogg in all her glory), this became a must-buy. I found a second hand hardback copy and began reading the day it arrived.

The format allows for quick reading and it doesn’t matter if you only manage to read one recipe on the train or one chapter about etiquette before bed. There is no plot you have to keep in mind, this is just Nanny Ogg’s wisdom as she shares it with the world, complete with misspelled words and her translations of words in “foreign”. The editor’s notes, shown as little post-its, remind us that grammar has been fixed, whenever necessary, and – to my chagrin – all the potentially dirty bits were left out.

nanny oggs cookbook nanny and greeboThe book is divided into two larger parts. The first is Nanny’s collection of recipes, including submissions from friends and famous Discoworld characters. My personal favorite was the Librarian’s recipe for Bananas which goes “Ook.” (and translates to “Take one banana.”). But Lord Vetinari, Rincewind, Sergeant Angua and many more also submitted their favorite meals, and Nanny Ogg – being a woman of the world – dedicates an entire section to dwarf cookery.

My greatest surprise was probably that most of the recipes could actually be made without poisoning anybody. They are, so to speak, Roundworld-friendly. Some recipes, such as the one submitted by the president of the Assassins’ Guild, or anything made for dwarfs, should probably stay in Discworld and only be eaten by someone whose digestive system can process gravel (or arsenic)…

That said, some of the more mundane recipes almost bordered on being boring, if only because of their juxtaposition to hilarious ones. And despite the editor’s best efforts, some innuendoes were left in the book and are easily spotted by those with a slightly filthy mind.

nanny oggs cookbook nanny granny casanundaThe real joy came in two parts. One is the wonderful illustrations that accompany you throughout the book. Each of these is intricate and lovingly drawn. But they are not just pictures slapped in the margins to show Nanny in her kitchen, they all tell you something about the characters and amused me greatly, even without reading the text.

My second favorite part were Nanny’s lessons about etiquette. She distinguishes between Discworld in general and Lancre culture specifically. Whereas somebody may be knighted in Lancre for managing to make the castle less draughty, in Ankh-Morpork, other rules apply. Nanny mostly gets by with her confidence and warm heart, or in case that doesn’t work, with a nice jug of something alcoholic.

The entire book is infused with her wonderful sense of humour and her love for food and friends and family. There is even an entire section about etiquette with Granny Weatherwax, seeing as she is a rather special person, even for a witch. I particularly enjoyed Nanny’s take on weddings, funerals (“If you go to other people’s funerals they’ll be sure to come to yours.”), and courtship. I swear to the Small Gods that when I grow old, I want to be as cool as Nanny Ogg.

The companion book may not be a must-read, even for Discworld fans, but its design and illustrations are definitely worth looking at. I am very happy to have Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook on my shelf, next to the other Discworld books, and I may even try out one or two of her recipes. If you never hear from me again, you’ll know it was either the blowfish or the one with arsenic…

THE GOOD: Hilarious recipes and advice, fantastic illustrations, Nanny Ogg as she lives and breathes.
THE BAD: I’m a bit mad at the Discworld editors for cutting the interesting bits out.
THE VERDICT: Recommended to Discworld fans and fans of the Witches in particular. If Nanny Ogg doesn’t make you laugh, I don’t think anybody will.

RATING: 7,5/10  –  Very good

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The Witches novels (Discworld):

  1. Equal Rites
  2. Wyrd Sisters
  3. Witches Abroad
  4. Lords and Ladies
  5. Maskerade
  6. Carpe Jugulum
  7. Tiffany Aching (sub-series)
    1. The Wee Free Men
    2. A Hat Full of Sky
    3. Wintersmith
    4. I Shall Wear Midnight

Terry Pratchett – The Last Hero (illustrated)

The nice thing about staying in a holiday apartment that is owned by English people is you find tons of books lying around. In my case, the bright cover of an illustrated Terry Pratchett novel jumped into view on day one and was read immediately. I have half a mind to buy some other of the fully illustrated Discworld books – it really made the experience even more bizarrely fun.

last hero illustratedTHE LAST HERO
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2001
Illustrated by: Paul Kidby
ISBN: 9780060507770
Paperback: 176 pages
Series: Discworld #27

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The place where the story happened was a world on the back of four elephants perched on the shell of a giant turtle.

Cohen the Barbarian. He’s been a legend in his own lifetime.
He can remember the good old days of high adventure, when being a Hero meant one didn’t have to worry about aching backs and lawyers and civilization. But these days, he can’t always remember just where he put his teeth…So now, with his ancient (yet still trusty) sword and new walking stick in hand, Cohen gathers a group of his old — very old — friends to embark on one final quest. He’s going to climb the highest mountain of Discworld and meet the gods.It’s time the Last Hero in the world returns what the first hero stole. Trouble is, that’ll mean the end of the world, if no one stops him in time.

dividerThe end of Discworld is near and the only people who can save the world are well-known – although not necessarily for their heroism or use. When Lord Vetinari finds out that Cohen the Barbarian and his aged gang are planning to give fire back to the gods, thus destroying the entire world, he goes to Leonard of Quirm for help. The crazy inventor and genius comes up with a plan that involves heavy machinery powered by dragons and a circumnavigation of Discworld… under the elephants, that is.

discworld deathLeonard of Quirm, being the daVinci of Discworld, lends himself wonderfully to this illustrated novel. And I must begin with the illustrations. With a mere 176 pages, the pictures did as much to bring the story to life as did the words. Anybody who’s had one of the newer Discworld novels in their hands is familiar with Paul Kidby’s strange yet realistic style (not to be confused with the even stranger Josh Kirby who did the covers for most of the older novels). These pages are filled to the brim with images, even on pages without character sketches, dragons, or the truly funky ship Quirm builds, the background offers a little eye candy. All the pages are sepia colored, making them look a little like vellum. There are sketches in the background (and yes, sometimes that was annoying when I was trying to make out the print), anatomy studies of dragons, and – my favorite – the Vitruvian Man featuring a bewildered Rincewind.

Oh yes, did I mention that? Leonard of Quirm’s ship only holds three passengers which are duly selected by Lord Vetinari. Captain Carrot, as a volunteer, is an obvious recruit. Rincewind kind of volunteers because he knows he’s going to end up on this deadly mission anyway. And let’s just say, the trip holds more than one surprise in store.

carrot leonard rincewindIt took me a while to warm to Pratchett’s humor, or rather I never really liked the earlier Discworld novels. With The Last Hero I found myself chuckling on every page and reading random passages to my boyfriend out loud because they wanted to be shared and laughed about. What I enjoyed was the range of humor. You get silly one-liners, clever wordplay, and most of all jibes at the job of being a Hero. This is Discworld doing what it does best, subverting the fantasy genre by turning it on its head, laughing at it, and sometimes just rolling with it because, hey, we all love the genre with all its tropes and bumps and problems.

On 176 (large format) pages, Pratchett managed to tell an adventure story, first and foremost. But especially the storyline about Cohen the Barbarian and his gang, all old men by now, wearing the gear and garments of their younger selves (which makes for hilarious images, as you can imagine), talk about what being a hero means. After they got everything they ever wanted, ended up rich, with families and comfortable lives to lead, there is still something missing. It was these scenes that gave the book a nice balance between silly and serious, and it is for this balance that I have come to love Discworld to death. Speaking of which – of course he makes an appearance, in text as well as art.

There wasn’t a single page I didn’t thoroughly enjoy and even though Rincewind and Captain Carrot are well-known characters with their own sub-series, I would say this is a good novel to start if you haven’t read any Discworld yet. Even if you don’t like the story as such, just the description of the dragon species are worth the read.

THE GOOD: Hilarious fun, fantastic illustrations that make up almost half of the book, a story that is both funny and deep.
THE BAD: While I consider it a good starter novel, if you don’t know any of the characters, some jokes will be lost on you. Side characters don’t get a lot of personality because, on less than 200 pages, there simply is no time.
THE VERDICT: A highly recommended Discworld novel, especially the illustrated edition. After this, I kind of never want to read a text-only Pratchett again.

RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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The Discworld Series:

  1. The Colour of Magic
  2. The Light Fantasticcohen
  3. Equal Rites
  4. Mort
  5. Sourcery
  6. Wyrd Sisters
  7. Pyramids
  8. Guards! Guards!
  9. Eric
  10. Moving Pictures
  11. Reaper Man
  12. Witches Abroad
  13. Small Gods
  14. Lords and Ladies
  15. Men at Arms
  16. Soul Music
  17. Interesting Times
  18. Maskerade
  19. Feet of Clay
  20. Hogfather
  21. Jingo
  22. The Last Continent
  23. Carpe Jugulum
  24. The Fifth Elephant
  25. The Truth
  26. Thief of Time
  27. The Last Hero
  28. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
  29. Night Watch
  30. The Wee Free Men
  31. Monstrous Regiment
  32. A Hat Full of Sky
  33. Going Postal
  34. Thud!
  35. Wintersmith
  36. Making Money
  37. Unseen Academicals
  38. I Shall Wear Midnight
  39. Snuff

Catherynne M. Valente – The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

I am having a love affair with Cat Valente’s writing and I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the first Fairyland Novel (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making [German review]) stole my heart by storm and left me breathlessly hoping for a sequel, I knew Miss Valente was going to be and stay a favorite.

THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH FAIRYLAND AND LED THE REVELS THERE
by Catherynne M. Valente
illustrated by Ana Juan

Published: Feiwel & Friends, October 2nd 2012
ISBN: 1466828005
Pages: 272
Copy: ebook
Series: Fairyland #2

My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, a girl named September had a secret.

September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows — and their magic — to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland’s shadows back.

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September, September, oh how I’ve missed you. The 12-year-old and quite heartless girl from book one has grown up a full year and yearns to go back to Fairyland. After all, she left her precious friends, Ell, the Wyverary and Saturday, the Marid, there. As the real world grows more tiresome and oppressive, September grows up a little bit without even noticing. But she doesn’t let go of Fairyland.

Whenever she thought those dark thoughts, that she might just be a silly girl who had read too many books, that she might be mad, September glanced behind her and shuddered. For she had proof it had all really happened. She had lost her shadow there, on a distant river, near a distant city. She had lost something big and true, and could not get it back.

More melancholy than the first book, but bringing the same, whimsical and poetic tone to its prose, Catherynne M. Valente shows yet again what incredible talent she has. Her plotting, her characters, the twists and turns along the way, all fit beautifully together, like puzzle pieces made entirely of cake icing. As September explores Fairyland-Below, the themes grow darker with her surroundings. But I enjoyed every moment in this dark underground world as much as I did the upper Fairyland.

This book is full to the brim with wondrous ideas and it is a true Revel to discover all of them. I have had the pleasure of meeting the Duke of Teatime and his wife, the Vicereine of Coffee, a real Sybil, an eel train, I learned about the mathematics of quests and unopenable boxes. Fairyland is a place where you can farm poetry and keep memories in your pocket. While the tone of the first book reminded me heavily of one of my all time favorite books, Peter Pan, this one read closer to Valente’s voice. Complex language and not-entirely-happy endings are her currency and I hope she will never change.

I believe, this book can be enjoyed on many levels. An adventure story, first and foremost, but full of hints and references that only grown-ups will understand and that made me smirk with a particular kind of glee only the best books can make me feel.

“A book is a door, you know. Always and forever. A book is a door into another place and another heart and another world.”

In short, if you enjoyed the first Fairyland novel, you will love this one as well. I hope there are many more to come and that we will have a reunion with a certain Night-Dodo, called Aubergine, that I’ve grown strangely attached to. But that’s how stories work. They make you see through another person’s eyes and live another person’s dreams. EKT.

THE GOOD: Another fairyland adventure told with exquisite language, peopled with original, lovable characters, and did I mention shadow twins?
THE BAD: The tone is whimsical and light but I felt the language was more complex than in book 1.  I would certainly like to challenge my future children with that, but maybe you won’t?
BONUS: Another set of beautiful illustrations by Ana Juan. And I urge you to watch the book trailers, the music by S.J. Tucker is just beautiful!
THE VERDICT: Another remarkable book by one of the best fantasy authors around. This fairytale has everything you could possibly want from a book and I wish another ten parts of the series were written and published already.

RATING: 9,5/10  Very close to perfection

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The Fairyland series:

  1. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
  2. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

Other reviews:

Anne Ursu – Breadcrumbs

Fairy tale retellings have been a priority this month. But I must say, most of the ones I ended up reading were big disappointments. However, I don’t give up easily so I kept trying. And among the bad or badly written ones, I did find a gem or another. This little book was charming in so many ways and retells Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Snow Queen” (a personal favorite of mine). Plus, who can resist these adorable illustrations? I love the style and will look for more books illustrated by Erin McGuire.

BREADCRUMBS
by Anne Ursu

published: Haper Collins, 2011
ISBN:0062049240
pages: 320
artwork: Erin McGuire
copy: ebook

my rating: 7/10

first sentence: It snowed right before Jack stopped talking to Hazel, fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems.

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. But that was before he stopped talking to her and disappeared into a forest with a mysterious woman made of ice. Now it’s up to Hazel to go in after him. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

Hazel Anderson doesn’t fit in. It took her a while to find out why but wherever she goes, she’s the odd one out. Whether it’s her dark brown skin, her big brown eyes and deep black hair or whether it’s the fact that her head is always in the clouds and she has trouble concentrating in her new school. The only bright side is her neighbor and best friend Jack. With him, she can pretend they’re superheros playing baseball (Batman is oddly lousy compared to the others) and make up stories about the “shrieking shack”.

The shrieking shack, in fact, is only one of the many references and hints tot works of children’s literature. Hazel loves Harry Potter and Narnia, Hobbits and fairy tales, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (that made me smirk in particular), adventure stories and comic books. This love for fantasy was part of her appeal as a protagonist – at least for me. I remember my school days when nothing in the classroom was as interesting as the view out of the window (dreary as it was) where I could imagine I saw a dragon flying behind that cloud and a forest sprite dancing in the trees… Hazel is immediately likable, despite or maybe because of her lack of social skills. As an 11-year-old she desperately wishes she had quippy answers to everything or knew what to say about Jack’s mother who is “sick with sadness”. But the right words never seem to come to her and Jack is the only one who makes her belong.

This book is very much a story in two parts. The first is firmly grounded in reality. We meet an awkward but wonderful little girl with one true friend and otherwise not many things to make her happy. Being adopted and now minus one father is not the only problem Hazel has to deal with. Her best friend’s mother suffers from depression which weighs all of them down. Hazel’s mother wants her daughter to make friends with other people and to receive fewer calls from the school about Hazel’s behaviour and lack of attention.
Yes, this is a fairy tale retelling but in the first half, the only magic is in Hazel’s head. A very read, very daunting world awaits the characters and any kind of warmth Hazel can find comes from books and movies.

In the second part, the true fairy tale begins. Magic is everywhere and the structure of the novel switches to our well-known fairy tale style. Hazel walks through this enchanted wood to get her friend Jack back. On her journey, she meets many fearsome creatures and scary people, friends and people in need, strange birds and living nightmares. I won’t tell you about the ending – if you know The Snow Queen you can guess anyway – but I thought it was really well done. Maybe a bit too easy but there was a key moment that almost made my eyes a teeny tiny bit moist…

As fairy tale retellings go, this was one of the better ones. The language is beautiful and at times even poetic but still straight-forward enough for children to understand and appreciate. Maybe some people will disagree with me on this but at least one of the characters in this story seems to be of the same opinion:

“Marty,” Adelaide’s mother warned, “you’ll give them nightmares.”

“Come on, Lizzie.” He shook his head dismissively. “Kids can handle a lot more than you think they can. It’s when they get to be grown up that you have to start worrying.”

Catherynne M. Valente wrote a nice piece about grown-ups underestimating children and thinking that if a book contains too many “big words” it is not appropriate for smaller kids. But it is exactly for those big words that children should be encouraged to read these books. How else are they going to learn anything new? At an age when pretty much everything is a little bit new to them. Read the wonderful full article here: Too Smart for Kids. A Promise to the Readers of Fairyland

THE GOOD: A story of loss and letting go, of the magic inside all of us and what true friendship means. Beautifully written with a very likable heroine and a bittersweet tone to it.
THE BAD: I found the actual fairy tale part of the story less appealing than the beginning. This is a matter of personal taste, however, as the book was written very well throughout.
THE VERDICT: Recommended to young children, may there parents read along with them, enjoy a beautiful tale (and have a pair of ballet shoes at the ready for their little girls)

RATING: 7/10 A very good book with an extra half-point for the illustrations