"review" · chapter/series · Children's · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend

{book} mirrors

Zetta Elliott offered a free copy of her book to interested reviewers. Please do not believe that I proceeded to read and review The Magic Mirror with bias. If you’ve spent any real length of time here on ‘omphaloskepsis’, you know I’m a fair and balanced reviewer, but I felt it should be clarified nonetheless.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000419_00052]The Magic Mirror

By Zetta Elliott, Illustrated by Paul Melecky

Rosetta Press, 2014.

“When a boy at school hurts Kamara’s feelings, she goes home and asks her grandmother if the mean words are really true. Gramma tells Kamara to go upstairs and clean the old mirror in the guest room. But when Kamara starts to rub the glass, she discovers that the mirror is magical! Kamara sees brave women from the past who faced many challenges yet never gave up hope. When the historical journey ends in the twenty-first century, the mirror once again shows Kamara her own reflection. She sheds her self-doubt and instead draws strength from the courage of the women she met in the magic mirror.” publisher’s copy.

It would be tempting to only promote The Magic Mirror as a more-than-suitable accompaniment to a grade-schooler’s studies of African American History.* Elliott captures a great deal in those shifting portraits through time. I can already imagine children choosing a portrait to expound on for the class, or as a personal project to learn more about a time witnessed.

However, more should be said about its personal impact. Elliott lays the groundwork in the opening pages, the timelessness of a soul. Despite the difficulties of aging, “grandma hasn’t changed inside” (2). She has a vitality and Kamara describes her as a safe place. What Kamara comes to see in the mirror is her legacy. She sees in the mirror courageous women exemplifying perseverance, hope and determination.

Not all of the historical reflections are easy to confront. Elliott buoys the text by anchoring the scenes upon the women she wants Kamara (and the reader) to see and know. They lend their courage to face, endure and overcome to Kamara (and reader). After one sequence, Kamara recognizes that “though they are trying to humiliate her, they have not touched her soul” (24). More, Elliott wants Kamara (and the reader) to know that these women live on. Kamara takes strength in what she’s learned in the magic mirror; which for the reader is the book.** “I stare at my reflection and see traces of the brave and beautiful women from my past. I know their pride, courage, and determination are still alive in me” (30).

Elliott’s story escapes the sentimental in its declarative voice. Hers is an extremely powerful use of the first person narrative, “I stare,” “see,” and “I know.” Kamara has heard some “hard words” from a boy at school, but what she’s seen and knows to be true is there to sustain her; like the relationships where her grandma and mother provide safe, empowering, loving homes from which to become.

The Magic Mirror is the first person narrative of Kamara’s struggle, journey and discovery, but I get the feeling hers is one that can be shared. The Magic Mirror, like the most precious of books, can be a safe, empowering, loving home to inspire one to become hopeful and courageous–to know they are beautiful.

I’ve a fond wish for readers to find less academic reasons for The Magic Mirror.* I imagine children (and adults) looking in mirrors and seeking out the stories that make them proud and that speak of a timeless beauty born of courage, hope, and determination—stories not unlike The Magic Mirror.


A word on the illustrations by Paul Melecky: I feel sure I would have called the scenes captured in the mirror as “portraits,” but the illustrations are framed stills, color shaped by loose lines that grant the images movement (and thus life); too, are those facial expressions. The illustrations hold the story and historical moment as complexly as Elliott describes them, creating a wonderful partnership between author and illustration.

All of the illustrations are of the mirror. It’s of interest that the story begins with an illustration of Kamara looking in the mirror, but does not close with another one her as her legacy dawns on her. Instead we are left with the last image of a young woman in graduation robes embraced by family. “One day I will go to college, too” (30), Kamara knows, confident in the pathway since created for her. What is left for Kamara and the reader to imagine is: what scene will be played out for future generations looking in that magic mirror. It isn’t a question of what legacy she will leave, but what moment in her life might exemplify that which still lives in her.


*this is not to say I wouldn’t love public, school, and classroom libraries to stock copies of this one–I just want to avoid the party line that this is one that will educate; which it will, but it is also quite moving.

**Rudine Sims Bishop’s essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” came to mind as I read The Magic Mirror, “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation.”

recommendations: obviously this is a powerful book for girls, but I wouldn’t restrict this to gender lines, nor racial either. Both the writing and book length are excellent for younger readers up through the grade school years. It would be cool to have print-outs of the mirror to encourage writing/illustrating our own legacies of courage, or imagine a present/future scene wherein the reader can describe themselves.


"review" · cinema · foreign · recommend

{film} ginger and rosa

ginger-rosa-2012-posters-alice-englert-32604818-1181-886Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have been best friends since their birth in the year 1945.  As the opening footage reminds us, this is the year the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima (& Nagasaki). The pair are now 17 in 1962 London and looking to declare their independence from their mothers once more.  This rebirth takes place in the auspicious year of another massive bomb threat, global events culminating in a Cuban Missile Crisis.

Even though Ginger and Rosa have their differences, they are intimate friends, sharing everything. In fact, they take pride in their transparency and steadfastness. You’ll note how often they are dressed alike (& how this diverges). The friendship takes on a special vitality under the threat of doomsday and crumbling households, which makes the increasing sensation of their growing apart particularly distressing in the film.

GINGER AND ROSA by Sally PotterAs with any coming-of-age story, the hero’s desire an ability to exercise “autonomous thought, personal truth, freedom of action.” Of course, Ginger’s father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), to whom is attributed the quote, cites these as his “guiding principles” as someone who has supposedly already come-of-age. I say “supposedly” because his is a character that is troublingly adolescent; which troubles these principles that other adults in the film actually agree with.

gingerrosaGinger and Rosa is a YA-related film that actually has adults (& no marketable soundtrack). Indeed, one part of the conflict is mentorship or appropriate adult figures to the youth in transition. Roland’s lifestyle tempered by that of Ginger’s (awesome) family friends Mark (Timothy Spall), Mark Two (Oliver Platt) and Bella (Annette Benning), and the lives of Ginger and Rosa’s mothers. The girls feel neglected and harassed by their mothers, but Ginger does find counsel with the family friends and political writings (she tries to discuss Simone de Beauvoir with Rosa at one point, is reading T.S. Eliot). Bella is a poet-activist, what Ginger wants to be. Rosa, who is not the primary protagonist of the two, seeks the advice of popular magazines and a faith we assume is handed down from her mother.

Rosa seeks the more domestic goals. Careless of the scope of a global crisis, she desires a love that will last, that can shelter and carry her through anything in the present. Whether she truly understands Roland or not, they share a similar focus in their seize the day philosophy, tired of pandering to the self-serving demands of their authority figures. Ginger feels that life might require some sacrifice, particularly on the part of the other. Writer/director Sally Potter creates an active passivity in Ginger’s character, the conflict of desiring to yield to those she loves, for the sake of those she loves, yet also doing something that could change things for the betterment of everyone.  We fear she will self-destruct before the bomb even actualizes.

ginger-and-rosa-image05In some ways, Ginger and Rosa are Roland in two parts. And we come to anticipate that perhaps it is not only the mothers the girls need to liberate themselves from, but their fathers, or shared father (as Rosa’s left long before). Potter does play ambiguously with the daddy-issues available to the female coming-of-age story. That it manifests in the sexual act is noteworthy; as is a female director’s handling of it. She does not eroticize the abuses, nor does she accuse the girls as Ginger’s mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks) does.

In a story where these young women are testing boundaries, believing they know better than their mothers about the modern world and their sexuality (timeless, right?), a figure catches us off-guard and proves to be a potentially fatal conflict in the narrative.

Ginger is constantly preoccupied with the looming sensation of the end of the world. While bombs could be dropped, she believes it with a terrifying certainty. She has chosen this as something she can believe in, now to believe that she can and will do something to make it all stop. Honestly, I was not optimistic her poetry was going to do anything for her or the cause. Meanwhile, the domestic scene suffers an increasingly catastrophic fall-out that does culminate in an explosion.


Ginger & Rosa is not the most uplifting film for a summer evening (I propose an autumn viewing). However, it is a beautifully crafted one. And I suppose there is a certain gift of optimism the final confrontation affords. Ginger is still pursuing her voice and the desire to love in healthy and profound ways. Sally Potter closes the film with Ginger in the foreground, pen in hand. The film is sad though, Potter allowing her characters to be complex, unwilling to shift them too dramatically. She chooses the comforts of realism over the mythological. Potter disrupts that otherwise fairytale beginning of two girls, best friends from birth, filmed in a charming, magical fashion with the opening footage of the Hiroshima bombing. Potter disrupts a lot of things.


Of note: I realized at the end of my writing, I did not address an important aspect to this film, which is the disarming perspective of 1962 from London. No, actually, the import is the weight the actors bring. We all know by now that Elle Fanning is an actress to watch, but the entirety of the casting should encourage prospective viewers. The film is an excellent one, and its casting does not hurt at. all.


ginger and rosa posterGinger & Rosa (2012); writer/director Sally Potter; editing by Anders Refn; cinematography Robbie Ryan; executive producers Reno Antoniades, Aaron L. Gilbert, Goetz Grossmann, Heidi Levitt, Joe Oppenheimer & Paula Vaccaro; producers Jonas Allen, Lene Bausager, Caroline Blanco, Peter Bose, Margot Hand, Kurban Kassam, Andrew Litvin, Christopher Sheppard, & Michael Weber. BBC Films, British Film Institute, & Det Danske Filminstitut; A24.

Starring : Elle Fanning (Ginger), Alice Englert (Rosa), Alessandro Nivola (Roland), Christina Hendricks (Natalie), Jodhi May (Anoushka), Timothy Spalding (Mark), Oliver Platt (Mark Two), & Annette Benning (Bella).

Rated PG-13 for mature disturbing thematic material involving teen choices – sexuality, drinking, smoking, and for language. Running Time 90 minutes

"review" · cinema · foreign · mystery · recommend · wondermous

{television} finding miss fisher

miss fisher's murder mysteriesIt is 1920s Melbourne and the sophisticated Miss Phryne Fisher is fearless in the face of injustice as a lady detective and woman.

The Australian television drama series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was one of our favorite finds of 2013. Created by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger and based on novels by Kerry Greenwood, its first run of 13 episodes during 2012 popped up on Netflix. Intrigued, and noting its multi-star rating, we gave it a go and were hooked. Now to figure out how to get ahold of Series 2. The inseparable personal and professional drama of Miss Fisher’s life is addictive.

The majority of our favorite mystery-drama television series are terribly dark, so imagine our delight at the bright humor and wit that is Miss Fisher. While there are dark elements, including some pretty gruesome deaths and heinous social injustices, an effervescent Phryne (played by the enormously talented Essie Davis) is gloriously incorrigible. I’m not sure which I enjoy more, her mischief or razor sharp intelligence—not that I should choose, because they are intertwined. She has determination and bravado in spades, but avoids being strident in how sincerely she cares for her friends and the present-day social issues of women, men, the immigrant, poor and ill.

“‘Phryne is such a firebrand, she’s a good role model for women and she’s a feminist without being at all didactic or boring,’ says [Deb] Cox. ‘Her social conscience is fantastic, her values are fantastic, so it’s a great thing to put out there. And she likes a bit of action, she’s not hung up in any way.’” (Vogue Australia interview*)

The series is historically informative in an effortless way, primarily due to the fact that Phryne runs contrary to the normatives—even in our present day representations of women. For one, pretty much every other episode hosts a steamy sexual encounter at her invitation. She shoots, drives, and demands a word, or three. She isn’t interested in being tied down, but she does want to be loved and seeks the care and affection of friends. Her troubled relationship with Melbourne Police Detective John “Jack” Robinson (Nathan Page) becomes one of the most endearing in the due course of the show. I will get to her wardrobe and art collection in a moment.


{Jack (Nathan Page) & Phryne (Essie Davis)}

Miss Fisher uses some of the best implementation of charm I’ve seen in a long while.

miss fisher hugh and dotThe strength of the extended cast and characters helps. The first episode, “Cocaine Blues” introduces most of the primary characters moving forward as Phryne returns to Melbourne from abroad. Naturally, some are developed more quickly, but each are a resource for much of the adventures we come to experience and I’d be hard-pressed to choose an absolute favorite. I do have an affection for Dorothy “Dot” Williams (Ashleigh Cummings, left), a Catholic housemaid who is a prim foil for the wealthy and uninhibited Honorable Miss Fisher. Hers is one of the most enjoyable character progressions over series 1. Bert (Travis McMahon) and Cec (Anthony Sharpe) become handy men to have about. We’ll soon meet the awesome Mr. Butler (Richard Bligh); another character to enjoy in the unfolding. It is hard not to adore the well-played constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, left). Female Dr. Mac (Tammy Macintosh) is a best friend and excellent source of information—and conflict.

I mentioned ‘historically informative’ and ‘social injustices,’ but the conditions for women provide a lot of the material for the series, and lovely relevance to having a female detective about. She has insight and access her male counterparts couldn’t possibly. Makes me think of Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes. That she is well-traveled and well-read work in the shows favor.


We’ve been enjoying identifying the Phryne’s art collection, and eventually (episode 7) we get more of a background there. And I can’t go much longer now without mention of Phyrne’s costume. I think all the clothes are smart, but I get terribly excited by Phryne’s clothing and accessories. I was reading about how Costume Designer Marion Boyce headed a small team to recreate 1920s fashion of gorgeously suitable proportion.

miss-fisher-s_20120222170202466550-420x0“Phryne is a really sassy individual and the leeway she allows is fantastic. She wasn’t conventional in any way – she’d served in the war, lived in Paris in bohemian style, and probably travelled further afield. This meant our parameters were wider and we could have an enormous amount of fun with her. Phryne’s influences would’ve been European. At the time, most of our dress was influenced by UK fashion, and because she’s lived in Paris, her boundaries are broader. She was much more playful than the more conservative English. […] I had this concept that Phryne was always completely fluid. She was a woman with an extraordinary amount of energy, like a little tornado. I always wanted her clothes to have a waft to them so they would move with her as she went in and out of rooms, taking Melbourne by storm. I designed pieces with that in mind.”-Marion Boyce (Smith interview**).

As Darren Smith observes in his interview with Boyce, her wardrobe is an enviable one…seriously, the hats alone…


Miss Fisher is a vivacious character with a marvelous cast, not just in support of her, to play out entertaining mysteries and engaging social dramas. Some of the bright does move into a riveting creep-fest as the season closes, you’ve seen it coming as Miss Fisher is not the least bit careless in its crafting even though, for the first several episodes especially, you can just jump in and enjoy the fun.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are a treat I cannot recommend highly enough.


trailer for season 1

* “Behind the Set of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries with Essie Davis” by Alexandra Spring, 10 Mar. 2012, Vogue Australia. link

** “Marion Boyce: Designing Miss Fisher’s Wardrobe” by Darren Smith, 27 Mar. 2012, for ABC TV Blog (Australia). link


Miss_Fisher's_Murder_MysteriesMiss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries created by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger, based on novels by Kerry Greenwood; theme music by Greg J Walker; cinematography by Roger Lanser; costumes by Marion Boyce; exec/producers: Cox, Eagger, Christopher Gist & Carole Sklan; Every Cloud Productions. Starring: Essie Davis (Phryne Fisher), Nathan Page (Jack Robinson) Hugo Johnstone-Burt (Hugh Collins) & Ashleigh Cummings (Dorothy “Dot” Williams).  {images belong to ABC1}

as of this review, available streaming on Netflix

"review" · Children's · Picture book · recommend

a mighty good picture book

30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay 13: The Mighty Lalouche

by Mathew Olshan and illus by Sophie Blackall

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013

mighty lalouchecover“One hundred and a few-odd years ago, in Paris, France, there lived a humble postman named Lalouche” (1). When he is let go from the postal service and needing work, he finds that the skills that made him successful as a postman proved especially useful winning in La boxe française.

mighty lalouche-insert

The above image gives you a sense of scale and difference; the commanding presence and theater of “The Anaconda” over the ‘under-dog’ a newcomer with a straightforward name and approachable face.

The mightly Lalouche is a modest man whose vanities and dreams are relatively small, a virtue that is rewarded. The Mighty Lalouche is a quiet story whose elegance could easily be overlooked by its own modest presentation–of story, anyway. Mathew Olshan creates a disarming character in Lalouche and historical Paris. Disarming, too, is Sophie Blackall’s illustrations. Like Olshan’s story, her images would invite the reader into the remarkable man’s life and times. (my favorite scene, left page, here.)

I decided to create layered dioramas which would give depth to the scenes. I painted first in Chinese ink, the way I always do, then painted the color washes over that, then cut out all the individual elements and assembled the scenes. It was very time consuming, but really, really fun. –Sophie Blackall, in Book Page interview.

It takes on that beautiful effect of the paper-craft films (example). This would be a lovely project, Blackall’s art, Olshan’s words. This, too, would translate into a clever series of historical figures. The Mighty Lalouche is such a coherent work, pleasing to the ear and eye. And there are bonus features, a small glossary of French terms at the start and a note on certain historical aspects (with photographs) at the end.

mighty Lalouche-with-trophies

The Mighty Lalouche is one of the easiest picture books thus far to recommend in that it should appeal to any and all.


7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast hosts a piece on the making of the book!

Angela Leeper for The Book Page interviews Sophie Blackall.

{images belong to Sophie Blackall}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · Illustrator · recommend

{comics} womanthology: the past & present

Womanthology-Cover-BigI’ve a few sections more…and I’m debating hosting a giveaway.  I cannot (presently) afford the cost/shipping of Heroic, but there are installments of Space that look doable. I’ve birthday money that may persuade me to at least makes sure a copy of Heroic ends up in your local (public or school) library… Yes? No? Would you be in?

Meanwhile…three remarkable inclusions in Womanthology: Heroic that should make your comic artist heart a bit hungry.

“Women of the Past: Life Stories and Artwork by the Women of Comics History,” “Creator Interviews: In-depth Interviews with Professional Women in the Comic Book Industry” and “How to Create Comics!: In-depth Articles Teaching you the Ins and Outs of Creating Comic Books!” Highlighting the first two sections are a sentence from each and thus merely a scratch of the surface. The last is list of what articles & artists Womanthology: Heroic is offering.


“Women of the Past” (311-21) editor, Laura Morley.

womanthology tarpe

“Tarpe Mills and Miss Fury” (312-3) by Trina Robbins. June Tarpe Mills (1912-1988) was “contributing to comics the likes of The Purple Zombie and Dare Devil Barry Finn when in 1941, beating Wonder Woman to the punch by six months, she debuted Miss Fury, the first major costumed action heroine in comics.”

“Nell Brinkley” (314-5) by Trina Robbins. “By the 1920s, Nell [Brinkley (1886-1944)] was drawing an early from of comics, though without panel borders or speech balloons.”

“Rose O’Neill” (316-8) by Colleen  Doran. “At the age of 14, [Rose O’Neill (1874-1944)] entered an art contest sponsored by the Omaha World Herald. Her drawing skills were so advanced that the judges were unable to believe the winning entry was the work of a girl with no formal training.”

“Ethel Hays” (319-21) by Colleen Doran. The incredibly skilled Ethel Hays (1892-1989) “not only produced a beautiful catalogue of work, but supported and encouraged the careers of other young women cartoonists.”

womanthology hays


“Creator Interviews” (300-10) editor, Jennifer Doudney. Click on the names for links to their sites; these women are being interviewed for a reason (included info quoted from each woman’s site). The questions vary, some tailored to the specific woman, many general and of the fun/interesting sort.


Colleen Doran (“illustrator, film conceptual artist, cartoonist, and writer whose published works number in the hundreds.” the example client list is impressive): “Don’t try to be famous, try to be good.”

Devin Grayson (“Best known as a mainstream comic book writer for DC’s Batman titles, Devin is also a novelist, video game scripter, RPG enthusiast, essay writer and copy editor.”) : “I never writer anything without making a music soundtrack/playlist for it first.”

June Brigman (artist, teacher, co-creator of Power Pack (Marvel) and draws newspaper strip Brenda Starr.) “I was one of those horse-crazy girls. If I live long enough, I’ll be a horse-crazy old lady.”

Louise Simonson (comic book writer & editor best known for her work Power Pack, X-Factor, New Mutants, Superman: The Man of Steel, and Steel): she explains why she “prefers the traditional heroes to the current anti-hero trend”—and I couldn’t pick one, nor did I want to type the section out.


Nicola Scott (comic book artist out of Australia whose works include Birds of Prey & Secret Six): loves Wonder Woman and her favorite food? Bacon.

Robin Furth (personal research assistant to Stephen King, author of The Dark Tower: A Concordance, volume I.): “Meet up with other comic book writers and artists. Pair up, talk about the work. Support each other. Collaboration is a magical experience.”

Wendy Pini (co-creator of the Elfquest series, most recent project Wendy Pini’s Masque of the Red Death) : “some words of caution: self-publishing on the Internet takes technical know-how. You need to network with experienced other to learn the ropes. And only a very few web-comics manage to turn a profit.”

Posy Simmonds (British newspaper cartoonist & writer/illustrator of children’s books): answers: “what do you think is distinct about the UK’s comics and cartooning culture, as compared with traditions in continental Europe and the US?” great question.


“How to Create Comics” (277-99) editor, Rachel Deering. links to names will give you a sense of their work.

How to…Write Comics! by Barbara Kesel

How to…Draw in Ink! by Ming Doyle

How to…Ink Comics! by Barbara Kaalberg

How to…Color Comics! by Nei Ruffino


How to…Letter Comics! by Rachel Deering

How to…Draw Monsters! by Fiona Staples

How to…Color with Markers by Jessica Hickman

How to…Color Digitally by Alicia Fernandez

How to…Draw Hands by Qing Han

How to…Build a Sketch by Katie Shanahan



{images thanks to this lovely book preview page}

my most recent Womanthology: Heroic post which will have links to all previous installments. lazy, I know…


"review" · fiction · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · young adult lit

{book} grave mercy

Escaping from the brutality of an arranged marriage, seventeen-year-old Ismae finds sanctuary at the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts — and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must be willing to take the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany, where she must pose as mistress to the darkly mysterious Gavriel Duval, who has fallen under a cloud of suspicion. Once there, finds herself woefully under prepared — not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?-jacket copy

You know those teen/young adult novels featuring a strong heroine coming of age during an hour of great intrigue and world-altering events? Most (if not all) feel they must have a romance, coming to terms with sexuality being a key ingredient to bildungsroman; and for the sake of presenting a strong heroine they would play the romance as a secondary part of the plot. Unfortunate for some of these stories, the text finds the romance much more interesting and cannot seem to keep it out of focus. Grave Mercy takes its cue from adult fiction and suggests, why not do both? Authors like Nora Roberts, Elizabeth Lowell, and Jayne Ann Krentz write kick-ass female protagonists taking on the traumatic, the criminal, and the steamy swoon-worthy romance all the time. And with Grave Mercy you needn’t worry about the more explicit nature of “not-young-adult” books—or even other young adult books, or Teen lit…I get to this later.

So if you like historical political intrigue that is twisty but not so complicated as to be indecipherable, Grave Mercy is good. If you like a good bildungsroman of a traumatized girl learning to find her own path, her own calling—ditto. If you like a classic romantic tale?—welcome. If you are intimidated by a 500+ read, don’t be. Grave Mercy’s balance and thus accessibility to such a wide range of audience makes it an easy Christmas gift—for girls.

I picked up Grave Mercy because I was fascinated by the idea of Death having daughters, their being assassins and what the author will do with this in a historical Brittany setting. Now, I know there will be a discomfort with this concept of a god/saint of Death as it follows through. If you have a good grounding in mythology and old lore, you may have less an issue as Death does not necessarily mean Devil or Satan or wholly villainous and handmaidens needn’t mean black witch. Assassin, of course, remains discomforting, which works beautifully as one of the major conflicts in the novel. The author also uses the uncomfortable perceptions of Death (and its cult) to create tension, especially when Ismae comes up against such a sainted figure as Gavriel Duval turns out to be.

Ismae is fairly typical in that despite her rough upbringing and her training as an assassin, she is naïve about most things. Then there is the part where Ismae skips some of her classes—excused, of course—and she is just young and raised in a convent. The effect should be comedic and necessary to the development of the character. And Ismae does become more sure of herself, learning, earning a more commanding presence.

I think Gavriel Duval is mid-twenties to Ismae’s 17 when they meet. His station affords him a handful of extra years as well so he gets to play the older and wiser who also happens to be a loving and loyal person who has worked out his issues with his saint and is as virginal as he can be without risking his masculinity. He comes dangerously close to being nauseatingly perfect—as I think about it, he is, but while reading, he wasn’t—which is disgusting that LaFevers pulled this off and I must re-read at some point to figure out how she does it. It likely has to do with a) I have yet to be vaccinated against a classic romance hero, and 2) the narrative choice. Grave Mercy is a first person limited to Ismae. Her earliest observations cue the hero (Gavriel) and we are, afterward, as subject to his charms as she is.

Grave Mercy is restrained and somewhat prim on sexual matters—but then, so is our narrator and the setting. The allusions are strong enough to get warm or repulsed depending on the situation. I have to say that it does this better than Divergent, which gets kudos for tempering the sex, too.

I am eager for the second book in this His Fair Assassins Trilogy, not because I can’t get enough of Ismae and Gavriel, the historical setting, or its political conflicts, but because of Sybella and Beast. LaFevers teases the reader with a very interesting supporting cast; and having them also relieves us and author of the pressure of having to extend out that famous instantaneous physical response romances harbor. I appreciate the unapologetic nature of the romance, especially as LaFevers balances it well enough within her ambition for historical adventure and intrigue.

LaFever imagines a gorgeous 15th century Brittany, transporting her reader with ease. Though, really, she makes everything easy. Drama does not seep into hip-wading melodrama; the action carries us along through world-building, multiple conflicts and characters with very little trouble. She uses shorter sentences, which at times make the “I”s and “My”s dizzy, but it moves the story and balances the action and introspection. The narrator never addresses the reader, but is conscious of them, a storytellers device I don’t see enough and was excited to see.

The opening pages are gorgeous. There was a lovely simile the text couldn’t seem to do without a bit further in, but there were few awkward moments and a reminder that clever segues aren’t needed to carry the reader along. The premise, the simplicities in the story with their added fascinations, the characters, the setting, and an inability to anticipate everything compels the reader.

I am a huge fan of LaFevers’ Theodosia Throckmorton series and I am impressed with how differently the author has styled herself in this new series. She goes by R.L. LaFevers for Theodosia, so I had to verify the connection. And yet, that which is so so delightful in Theodosia is what makes Grave Mercy so successful: LaFevers’ finesse for historical detail; including lore and new perspectives on the “old ways;” and unorthodox, clever and daring female characters.


I picked up Grave Mercy for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (RIP) and it works: Death is a figure; it has the dark, dank, and creepy; it features an intrigue. It could’ve been darker, more disturbing, but the author minds an audience and I like that she doesn’t feel the need to follow things down the darkest or most impossible holes.

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Hardcover, 549 pages (that fly by). Library book (but if N has her way, we will be owning this one).

shorter and sweeter reviews:

Deanna @ Polishing Mud Balls review

Melissa @ Book Nut review

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · mystery · sci-fi/fantasy

{book} the magic half

Fairy tales and science fiction* make the odd pairing in The Magic Half. Magic makes the time-travel easier—at least to explain, anyway. And The Magic Half may be a nice introduction to time-travelling for the younger set; as well as serve as a reminder of the perils of being a sibling, an orphan, and/or living in 1935.

Miri is a single child in the middle of a family with two sets of twins–older brothers and younger sisters. When the family moves to an old farmhouse, Miri travels back in time to 1935 and discovers Molly, a girl in need of a family to call her own.~publisher’s comment

Siblings will quickly recognize and empathize with Miri, and while the mother is loving, she is stern enough to set the angst in motion. Sent to her room in the attic of their new old farmhouse, Miri finds a portal that sends her backward in time to 1935, within the same room, that is then occupied by a girl of the same age. Molly claims it is the work of fairies, and indeed, she is of a lineage of fairies, so she would know. Miri doesn’t know what it is, but if she ever wants to go home again, she better find out.

Molly’s home-life complicates the adventure of Miri’s search for a way home–even as it facilitates the return. The problem is Horst, Molly’s cousin who truly is a terrifying figure. He is abusive to Molly in ways the author restrains, while still making Miri (and Reader) feel rescue is imperative. Fortunately, Miri is a clever girl and works out how she was able to travel through time. Which creates a new problem to solve. How to maintain the time-stream, so as nothing major is changed to interrupt the loop.

Magic steps aside for a thoughtful construction of consequences, and “we’re running out of time, hurry before something irreversible happens!” steps up the pacing of the novel. Plotting and Panic are in carefully balanced to create the puzzle and propulsion. Yes, today’s review is brought to you by the letter “p.”

By fretful end, both the intellectual and emotional, Magic makes its return to ease that troublesome finale. The question of that final hour? What will the mother of 5 do with the addition of another? I think I was so relieved everything worked out, I didn’t want to puzzle out that twist. Time travel is fairly exhausting.

As gifted as Barrows was at infusing this story with personality and plausible explanation, I was a bit disappointed by the summation: “Magic is just a way of setting things right.” Like Miri, I “didn’t really know what it meant, but it made [me] feel better” (191). Sure, it took wits and guts on Miri and Molly’s part throughout this adventure, but in the end, Magic was a necessary ingredient to make it all shine–for them and the novel. The Magic Half infuses a sense of sweetness and optimism into the otherwise dire hopelessness of both Miri’s and (especially) Molly’s lives. I suppose, sometimes big interventions do feel like magic. I know I wouldn’t mind a few magic lenses and a fairy grandmother.


recommendation: primarily girls, ages 8-12. The peril and the concepts may be too old for 6/7 crowd. The novel creates a nice intersection for lovers of either Historical, Mystery, Fantasy, and/or Science Fiction (however light). Is a reasonable precursor to the wondermous YA novel Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer.

of note: Both girls wear glasses (which is key to the plot) but neither sport them on this otherwise cute cover, which is disappointing. a quote that isn’t disappointing: “I think [ghosts are] more like echoes of people who aren’t there anymore.” […] “Grandma May said something like that once. […] She said that some places can hold on to the past. In some places, everything that ever happened there is still happening, but just an echo of it” (55).


*I asked Carl V. this; Sean and I have discussed this: “Is time-travel an element of sci-fi even in fantasy or hist fic? or is it a free-for-all?” Carl’s reply: “Hard core SF fans will argue about this, but I always consider it a sci-fi element.” and we kinda think it is, too. Chime in at will.


The Magic Half  by Annie Barrows : Bloomsbury, 2008. hardcover, 211 pages.

Annie Barrows is the author of the beloved Ivy+Bean series with illustrator Sophie Blackall, so I checked out Ms. Barrows’ solo middle grade novel effort from the Library.