Wicked is Gregory Maguire’s marvelous interpretation of the Wizard of Oz story.   A few years ago,  I was entranced by his  rather cynical and realistic  “behind-the-scenes”  notion of this tale.   Who could have thought of the politics, the pathos, and the twisted perception of events that, in Maguire’s mind,  shaped the famous children’s story as we know it today?  After reading his ingeniously told Side B of the story, I can never look at the Wicked Witch of the West the same way again.

In case you’re curious about what I deem to be this author’s best,  see a review from Room Full Of Words.    Indeed you may be hard put to find a rendition of  the Wizard of Oz that is charming but also scathing, compelling and so multi-layered in scope as Wicked.

Naturally, I gravitated towards this sequel, Son Of A Witch, which tells the story after the Wicked Witch of the West’s, Elphaba Thropp’s demise.

Author :  Gregory Maguire

Date of First Publication :  September 27, 2005

Publisher: Regan Books; 1st ed edition (Hardcover)

Date of Publication for this Edition :   September 30, 2008

Publisher of this Edition :  Harper

ISBN-10: 0061714739

ISBN-13: 978-0061714733

No. of Pages :  464

The Story :

After the revolution that unseated the Wizard of Oz  and had Dorothy inadvertently melting the Wicked Witch of the West, the tale in Oz continues. The countryside of Oz is menaced  by inexplicable murders in which victims’ faces are scraped off, the crimes many believe to have been perpetrated by the Yunamata.   Liir, the little boy in Elphaba’s castle, is found broken and at death’s door.  He is delivered to a mauntery either for care or burial.  No one knows who he is or what had almost cost him his life, except for Old Mother Yackle, a silent, batty crone who believes he is Elphaba’s son.

The Superior Maunt assigns a young girl, Candle, who plays a domingon beautifully , to give whatever comfort her music may bring, either to aid in Liir’s death or help in his mending.    Liir responds to the healing music and wakes to slowly remember what brought him here.  His life is a journey of questions :  Who is he? Is he really the witch’s son? What of his missions:  to find his childhood friend, Nor and to grant the Yunamata leader’s dying wish?

With Elphaba’s broom and cape in hand, he faces his questions as best he can.  Meantime, he learns of the political machinations behind all the murders  by the powers-that-be in Oz.  So he takes up the cudgels of his questioned heritage and decidedly albeit resignedly takes up the fight for the people’s rights just as his eccentric mother of a witch had done before him.

The Review :

I have read Wicked and have been flying around on its broomstick, until I  crashed with a resounding” THUD” with Son Of A Witch.

As a sequel, Son Of A Witch is darker and much more serious than its predecessor.  The overall feel is like going through a wasteland of negative emotions.   Although Maguire incorporates love, forgiveness, perseverance, and honor,  they come at the expense of an overbearing sense of depression all throughout the book.  It is a dreary fantasy that comes across as too odd, too black,  too serious, too everything.  Maybe because it doesn’t have that light other side to it like Wicked had.   I mean Wicked, although cynical, came out fantastically done because it was more like the “inside scoop” on what really happened in the fairy tale, the Wizard of Oz.  That made it totally interesting, without mentioning Maguire’s superb writing and conceptualization yet.  Son Of A Witch, though, isn’t based on anything so perhaps immersing in this rather eccentric world becomes too tedious to bother.    A non sci-fi reader trying to read science fiction would perhaps know what I mean.

Actually, I am hard put on how to rate this particular book as I did like some aspects and but mostly hated a lot of others.   The pros going for this book  are Maguire’s prose and main character development.  He handles shifting from serious philosophical meanderings to crude down-to-earth remarks rather well. There is humor in this book;  Maguire is never without it.   His brand is not the subtle kind but straight-to-the point jocularity that is oftentimes laced with sarcasm or vulgarity or even childishness.   Character development is to be lauded as well.   Liir’s personality progression  is realistically paced and drawn.

Now on to the cons…Despite the prose I have always admired of Maguire and the  believable development of the main character,  the author just manages to strip this book of much appeal.   It is its universal dreariness, its oddity perhaps, and its tiresome characters that bring the book down as a crashing bore.  I just stayed with the book so I could make this review;  otherwise, I would have chucked it out as a waste of time.

To Read Or Not To Read :

I can’t help but compare Wicked and Son Of A Witch because I am sorely disappointed.  Invest your time in other reads unless you so love Maguire’s Oz or you just revel in Maguire’s phraseology and his style of festooning his fantasy world with realism.  Then, you may not mind the pervasive moodiness this book offers.

In case you still feel like reading Son Of A Witch, don’t attempt to do so if you haven’t read Wicked.  The author assumes you have read the first so he does not offer explanations about events or characters in this one.  Moreover, the conclusion is a hanging one as the story continues on to A Lion Among Men, the third and last book of The Wicked Years trilogy.

As with Wicked, this sequel is far from a YA novel.  Allusions to and spot mention of violence and sexuality categorize this book as adult fantasy.

In A Nutshell:

I don’t think Maguire should have made a sequel, much less a trilogy.  Wicked is brilliant in itself and doesn’t need to be propped by a rather unsatisfying addendum.

My Mark  :  Fair

Author :  Joanne Harris

Publication (First Edition) :   February 1, 1999

Publisher (First Edition) :  Viking Adult

This Edition’s Publication Date :   November 7, 2000

Publisher :  Penguin

ISBN-10: 014100018X

ISBN-13: 978-0141000183

No. of pages :  320

The Story :

The story begins when Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk  arrives in the tiny village of Lansquenet.  She sets up a chocolate shop, a seeming godsend to the sleepy town where nothing ever really happens.  But, for its chaplain, Pere Reynaud, the shop  with its delectable florentines, chocolate brazils, and pralines  present an outright threat to his parish’s status quo— a community lifestyle of strict piety, conformity and self-denial.  It doesn’t help that its shop owner is a largely irreligious, attractive, inordinately charming woman with an uncanny ability to guess one’s  favorite chocolate confection.  Is she a witch?  No one knows, and Vianne isn’t even sure herself; but, her delightful, mouth-watering creations seem to weave their magic in the hearts of the villagers.

To Pere Reynaud, however, her chocolates present an evil indulgence that threaten to crack his  rigid inculcation of spartan pleasures in the name of the suffering Christ.  So the straw that breaks the camel’s back is Vianne’s planned chocolate Easter festival at the end of the Lenten Season which goads Reynaud to vow for her permanent removal from Lansquenet.

The Review :

This charming story is a sweet, amusing  jibe on how excessive devoutness beyond common sense can carry religion to the realm of the ridiculous.  Joanne Harris pokes at skewed morality with an engaging hand… and a delectable one at that.  So a caveat:  the mention of chocolate in all its luscious forms and the entrancing descriptions of  chocolate-making  arouse cravings; in this case, it would be good sense to have a box of these delicious devils by your side before settling down with this rather pleasing, light-hearted book.

Along with the well crafted plot,  Harris spins incredibly palpable characters to love in her rich yet simple prose.

On the Side :

The cinematic version of Chocolat had been shown in 2001 with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp leading a great cast.  Although it deviates quite a stretch from the novel, the movie captures the feel of the original material pretty well.   Still it  is an inferior substitute.  The story is better told in Harris’ hand.

In A Nutshell :

A delectable book with luscious pages of magic realism, Chocolat is as irresistible as that one little bit of truffle.  Besides, as this book obviously points out— what is life without chocolate?

My Mark  :  Outstanding!  — A lovely keeper

I’m well on my way toward completing my two challenges way ahead of schedule :  Spring Reading Thing 2010 and Once Upon A Time IV.    Anansi Boys is my fourth book in a list of five.

Author :  Neil Gaiman

First Edition’s Publication Date : January 1, 2005

First Edition’s Publisher :  Harper Collins

This Edition’s Publication Date :  January 22, 2008 (Paperback)

This Edition’s Publisher :  Harper Perennial

ISBN-10: 0061342394

ISBN-13: 978-0061342394

No. of pages :  368

The Story :

Fat Charlie’s (who really isn’t fat) humdrum, safe, comfortable life goes out of whack the moment he learns of his embarrassing father turning up his toes  on a karaoke stage.  Charlie Nancy had no idea his father was a god; neither the fact that he had a twin.  Now brother Spider, the hip, dashing, cool side of the family has turned up to say hello and is determined to stay.  Problem is, Spider has Charlie’s fiance all starry eyed with him and his boss, seething with murderous revenge.

Charlie just wants Spider to go away.  So he dabbles in some magic which backfires on them both.  Now, Spider and Charlie have to face the consequences and dredge their strengths from within.

The Review :

I have never read a Neil  Gaiman novel before… I mean one where he is the sole writer.  Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch was from a Gaiman-Pratchett tandem so I couldn’t tell where Gaiman was or Pratchett began as I’ve never read a Terry Pratchett either.  Now, I understand all the hype about Neil Gaiman.  He is an original, if not a very good mish-mash of perhaps a lot of  influences, who had morphed into a writer altogether of his own kind.  He has a unique way of writing which marries well with his peculiar imagination.

With Anansi Boys, Gaiman  takes the Caribbean folk god, Anansi and weaves his own creative legend around Anansi’s two sons.  The premise is simple, that of a man coming to terms with his lineage.  But Gaiman is a writer who is anything but simple.  So the fundamental premise is layered with lots of other threads: sibling rivalry, filial love, forgiveness, dualism, and self-actualization.

Gaiman here is not given to being serious, though.  His writing imposes a lot of humor, levity, charm, quirkiness and  of course that bit of surrealism that,  I think, marks his style.  Part of his forte here is his characters who he fashions into people we can like or at least pay sustained attention to.  You may not identify with them but somehow  he can make them interesting in their own way.  Take his lead, Fat Charlie, who is something like a push-over, rather passive and calm, painted as boring and yet you get to like him for what he is and how he is developed.  Even the cantankerous mom-in-law-to-be is an amusing figure who will, strangely, get on your good side as well.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Anansi Boys is strange and funny at the same time, but I suspect, with  the author’s piles of accolades, this is isn’t the best of his work.   Perhaps I should get hold of more of  his novels to experience him at his best.  But as an introduction to him, Anansi Boys doesn’t fail him, although it may not effectively goad some new readers to shell out for another one of his novels, unless they can tell from the book that the author has a lot more to offer.

Although this seems like a YA novel, the youngest readers who would probably appreciate this book fully would be in their late teens.  The more mature, the better of course because of a bit of complexity in Gaiman’s concepts and writing style.

On the whole, Anansi Boys is a rather enjoyable book.  Just be in the mood for some eccentricity and you’ll have a nice solo time with this one.

My Mark :  Very Good



From a serious book on ancient warrioresses to a quirky one on a dissatisfied wife with a magic potion…. I figured I needed a light, no-brainer for another sleepless night.  Plus, it is in my challenge lists from  Once Upon A Time IV and Spring Reading Thing 2010.

Author :  Jane Heller

Publication Date :  December 2, 2008

Publisher :  IUniverse

ISBN-10: 059553550X

ISBN-13: 978-0595535507

No. of pages :  336

The Story :

Have you been married for so long you can’t even remember why?  Meet Elizabeth Baskin, a successful high-end hotel rater and a neat freak who feels her husband had become a one-star rater with a paunch,  a bald spot, and heavens! a penchant for sprinkling crumbs on newly dust-busted counters.  She decides that the only way to save her marriage is to make him over and return him to that dashing, funny guy who rescued her from an overheated car on the freeway.

Taking  a tip from her sister, she bluffs her way as a Goldie Hawn referral into the exclusive clinic of Doctor Farkus, the new celebrity-favored “life enhancement” specialist known to have  purportedly amazing potions with secret ingredients from some exotic forest.   At her visit, she runs into Clover, a housewife with the same need:  an enhanced husband.  The two strike up a friendship and agree to keep in each other updated with the results.

After Elizabeth describes her spousal makeover need, Doctor Farkus prescribes his  potion with strict instructions on its dosage.  Elizabeth guiltily but determinedly pours the  potion into her Roger’s orange juice every morning and waits for that magic transformation.  But Elizabeth gets antsy after a few days of seeing no immediate changes and decides to up the ante by dumping the entire two packets into Roger’s morning juice.

By day’s end,  Elizabeth’s wish of a totally enhanced, romantic husband comes true.  But too good to be true?  Indeed, as her Mr. Wonderful soon turns much too marvelous for her to handle.   With Clover corroborating the fact that their super enhanced husbands are just too “hot” for them to keep up,  both friends decide that their old husbands were a much better deal.   So what to do but ask for an antidote?  Only Dr. Farkus is nowhere to be found!

So begins the chase for the antidote that drives these two Beverly Hills wives into all sorts of hilarious escapades in their desperate attempt to save their marriages.

The Review :

Intended to be a light read, The Secret Ingredient will treat you to some chuckles.  It’s really laid-back fiction, the sort you pick up on a lark when you’re tired of serious or “meaty” stuff.  This isn’t the kind of reading for you if you want a novel with more depth.  Rather, you must be in a light and easy mood to be entertained by something like this—where you don’t care how silly and  ridiculous the characters or the plot at times get to be.

With this book,  you just go with the flow to enjoy it.  After all, that’s  what you do when you settle for a fairy tale.

My Mark :    Good — Quirky but Charming!

Pat of Here, There and Everywhere (2nd Edition) writes about another reading challenge by Stainless Steel Droppings.  A great site with a very gothic feel to it,  it hosts the annual  R.I.P.  Challenge which leads readers to discover new books in the gothic, horror, mystery, thriller, suspense, and dark fantasy genres.

This year, between March 21 to June 20, the site poses the Once Upon A Time IV reading challenge.  To get into the spirit, the “challengee” must settle on a book or books on any or all four categories :  fantasy, folklore, mythology,  fairy tale.

As with the other challenges of the site, Once Upon A Time IV strives to be flexible.  From allowing  just a one-book read for the entire period to demanding a tackling of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in addition to four books,  the challenge permits readers  to choose just how much pressure they would like to take on.

My option of choice,  Quest the First, challenges me to read a total of five books in any of the four genres mentioned.

I’ve chosen my five to be :

Genre : Fantasy

Review :  Anansi Boys — Neil Gaiman   

Genre : Mythology

Review :  Last of the Amazons — Steven Pressfield 

Genre : Fairy Tale

Review :  Mortal Love — Elizabeth Hand

Genre : Fantasy

Review : Hush Hush—Becca Fitzpatrick

Genre : Fantasy

Review : The Secret Ingredient — Jane Heller  

A red check mark indicates that the book  has been read.   You may find the links to my reviews just below each one.

I’m looking forward to an escapist summer.  Hope I get a vacation to go with my books.

smiley

Author :  Naomi Novik

Date of Publication :  May 19, 2009

Publisher :  Del Rey

ISBN-10: 0345512251

ISBN-13: 978-0345512253

No. of pages :  384

The Review :

I have dispensed with the summary for this book to avoid spilling the beans on Empire of Ivory (Book 4).

This is a darker piece,  with Laurence and Temeraire forced to make difficult decisions on their own. Both go through a character building process, while trying to defend England from France’s invasion.

Temeraire is forced to deal  with  the  complexity and irrationality that often plague human psychology as he learns human politics and negotiation.  With  straightforward and simplified draconic ways of thought, Temeraire is often frustrated at how difficult humans can make life be when things seem to be plain as day.

On the other hand,  Laurence must temper his ideals and his inherent insistence on righteousness, sometimes misplaced, which earns him more harm than good.  He is faced with the need to reassess his values when they  prove to be impractical nor right  anymore.  For instance, Laurence is challenged with  situations where authority isn’t always right and can be in serious conflict with his personal sense of right and wrong.

The action does not let up in this one as well.   Novik perhaps intends to let her duo travel the world as the next destination for them is Australia.  Books two to four see them through China, the Middle East, Germany, Russia, and Africa.

I can’t wait for the sixth book, Tongues of Serpents due in the middle of this year.   One caveat though:  if you plan to read the Temeraire series, you must start with  Her Majesty’s Dragon (Book One).  You would not appreciate this series should your first book be other than the first.  Novik hardly takes the meticulous pain of backtracking and if she does, it is rather cursory as this is the type of series that must be read chronologically.

My Mark  :  Outstanding!


Author :  Naomi Novik

Date of Publication : May 30, 2006

Publisher :  Del Rey

ISBN-10: 0345481305

ISBN-13: 978-0345481306

No. of pages : 400

The Story :

China’s Emperor allows William Laurence and Temeraire to go back to England.  As they were about to do so, an urgent missive instructs them in no uncertain terms to bring back three dragon eggs from the Ottoman Empire or suffer the consequences.  Laurence, Temeraire and his crew embark on a dangerous crossing across desert and mountains.

On the way, they meet feral dragons which they end up befriending.  Temeraire, having experienced the more exalted treatment of dragons in China, speak to the ferals about a better way of life — better accomodations, food, etc.  His Chinese exposure, his witness of the slave trade, and his voracious reading have also made him  question the order of dragon treatment  in England where he perceives his kind to have limited choices and freedoms.  Temeraire is growing a sense of social justice for dragons in general and is determined to spearhead changes for the dragons’ lot, starting with the English Parliament.

With the uncontrollable,  undeducated ferals breaching etiquette, Laurence and his company make a bad start with relations at the Turkish border.  The mission becomes more and more disastrous at the Turks’ refusal to hand over the paid eggs and at the machinations of an albino dragon, Lien, who had become Temeraire and Laurence’s vengeful enemy in China.

The situation forces Laurence’s party to take drastic measures and to flee to the Prussian side where they fight as allies against the vast, encroaching army of Napoleon.

Author :  Naomi Novik     

Date of Publication :  September 25, 2007

Publisher :  Del Rey

ISBN-10: 0345496876

ISBN-13: 978-0345496874

No. of Pages :  416

The Story :

Laurence and Temeraire finally fly home to England only to find a new threat—a plague of the common cold, fatal to dragons with no known cure.  With the threat of decimation hanging upon England’s aerial corps and the proximity of Bonaparte’s armies,  Laurence,  Temeraire and a bedraggled section of the aerial corps journey to Africa to find a cure.

In their desperate search, they are forced to discover a secret kingdom deep within the continent’s interior protected by African dragons who had forged a unique bond with its people.  These Africans have engaged in their own war against the colonial slave trade.

Danger harasses them throughout the tale and culminates with Laurence having to make a difficult life-changing decision.

The Review :

What keeps one riveted on these books?  It is first and foremost, its dragons.  They are the crux of the series; hence, Novik takes great pains in constructing her dragon world,  building on  different breeds and personalities, dacronian habits, likes and dislikes, their sexuality, intellectual capacities, etc.   She then melds her draconian world to a page in history, selecting the Napoleonic War. Taking care to stick well to factual historical events, she allows us to escape to an alternate reality.

To keep us further immersed,  Novik continues to develop her principal characters, Laurence and Temeraire, albeit almost exclusively which simplifies the story  in a way that the reader is focused on these two characters.  One begins to know them closely  so much so that he is caught in their intimate bond and the reby, the story’s spell.

As she develops Laurence and Temeraire,  she makes them gradually aware of life’s truths, shattering notions and shedding innocence.  From a hatchling to a young adult dragon, Temeraire goes through gradual knowledge of life’s complexities, injustice and  double-sidedness throughout the series.  He increasingly develops a sense of social justice.  With Temeraire’s progressing questions and some uncontrollable events,  Laurence , too, is forced to shift his paradigms to break  previous staunch beliefs especially in the area of England’s superiority and political system.

So far each book, after the first, satisfyingly segues into action-packed continuations, the author cleverly introducing  new, interesting dragon and human characters, pumping new life with new events and making one want to read more and more.

With all these, Novik is certainly going down the right path toward creating a marvelously enjoyable series.  I have enjoyed them, reading much well into the night , caught up in finding out what’s next.  I am certainly out to get the fifth book, Victory of Eagles, the latest published to date .

So far, so very good!  Not to mention that from premiering only in 2006, the books have come in pretty rapidly compared to the usual plodding rate of releases in most series writing.  This year, Tongues of Serpents is scheduled to be released on the thirteenth of July (as per the official website’s announcement on http://www.temeraire.org/).  

My Mark : Outstanding!  — Fantastically Entertaining