Novella Review: Clay Tongue by Nicholas Conley

Clay Tongue: A NoveletteClay Tongue: A Novelette by Nicholas Conley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a delightful modern day folktale as a girl explores the scary and wondrous world beyond her house in order to alleviate the family’s frustrations in the wake of her beloved grandfather’s stroke. He’s been left aphasic, and the stress of caring for him weighs on the girl’s mother. The tale builds on the Jewish lore of the golem, a clay-made servant that has the ability to grant wishes. Though, with a girl turning toward fantasy, albeit unknown potentially scary fantasy, in order to solve a family’s problems, one is reminded of a less-dark Pan’s Labyrinth.

The seed for young Katie’s adventure is planted when she secretly reads her grandfather’s notebook containing either a story he’s written or a journal entry he’s made. The tale is unfinished, but tells of a young married couple many decades ago moving into a house just like her grandfather’s house that she lives in with him and her parents. The house in the notebook is in her town. And the name of the young bride is Kate’s grandmother’s name. When the couple move into the house, they are told of a cave in the back forested part of the property which–legend holds–houses a golem made by the original owner of the house. The golem was created to grant one wish to each person who dared visit it.

Even with such ripe fodder for the imagination, Kate’s brave adventure amusingly cites other fantastical creatures. With a mysterious key in hand, she finds a cave in the forested back part of the property:

Right above her head was an iron lock with foreign characters cut into it. Katie knocked, waited for a moment, hoping that maybe a friendly troll or fairy might answer. No answer came–so if there was a troll on the other side, it wasn’t a nice one . . .

The cave rumbled, as if from a minor earthquake. Katie stopped, and a deep growling noise reverberated from deep inside the cavern–a low, guttural moan, as if a dragon had just awakened . . .

“I’m here,” she whispered to any friendly trolls that might hear her.

This tale is highly recommended.

I received my copy of this novella directly from the author through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Graphic Children’s Book Review: The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman

The Wolves in the WallsThe Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dave McKean brilliantly illustrates this tale with a collage of photographs and drawings to create a dark and foreboding ambiance perfect for this modern folktale. The drawings could be too sinister for some kids. Cleverly, the wolves are depicted as children’s drawings as if emerging straight from wild imaginations . . .

The tale revolves around young Lucy when she’s convinced that she hears wolves in the walls of her family’s old house. Her parents and her appropriately annoying younger brother all try to reassure her that she is mistaken. And that what she really hears is mice [mom], rats [dad], or bats [brother]. Presumably, these are all acceptable alternatives . . . yikes.

But then again, maybe Lucy is right . . .

This tale is not very long–which is fine. But I wish it were cleverer. I wish young Lucy or perhaps her whole family were more clever in their addressing the disturbances to their abode.

I’ve previously reviewed one other Gaiman/McKean collaboration and I loved it:
Signal to Noise–5 stars

I’ve also read Gaiman’s:
     “Black Dog”–3 stars
     “The Goldfish Pond and Other Stories”–3 stars
     “The Sea Change”–4 stars
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Novella Review: The Bone Swans of Amandale by C. S. E. Cooney

The Bone Swans of AmandaleThe Bone Swans of Amandale by C.S.E. Cooney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The original Grim’s fairy tales, unlike their Americanized, Disney-ified versions, are dark and morbid tales. This novella taps right into that bizarre, macabre canon, even borrowing the known Pied Piper, to tell this tale of murdered and mutilated children, a power hungry ogress and magical races on the brink of extinction by genocide.

The hero of the tale is a morphing were-rat who’s in love with a were-swan, despite the cold, entitled royalty of the were-swans. The ogress-mayor of a nearby human village is using a legion of twenty children to hunt the were-swans and then the magic of a murdered child-turned-juniper tree to transforms the bones of the murdered swans into self-playing musical instruments.

And somehow, this convoluted premise works.

The hero-rat, his beloved swan who’s now the last of her people, a few mutilated kids that refused to play their role in the ogress’ machinations, and the rat’s friend The Pied Piper, scheme together to end the ritual of the ogress and to save the last swan.

This tale appears in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction Novellas: 2016 edited by Paula Guran, which I received directly from Prime Books. I previously read this author’s brilliantly intricate novella The Two Paupers and the short story “Witch, Beast, Saint: An Erotic Fairy Tale”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “The House of Deformities” by Nnedi Okorafor

3 of 5 stars.

Experiencing a foreign culture opens one’s eyes to things one takes for granted. While everybody experiences these differences in slightly unique ways, the experiences of children and adults can vary quite remarkably. The rich fantasy life of children filters the experience of foreignness.

In this short tale, two American girls on an extended family trip to Nigeria grapple with their wild imaginations and the less familiar cultural practices especially as it concerns using outhouses or even the open terrain for bodily functions. The younger sister’s Stephen King novels add fuel to their vivid imaginations and run-ins with exotic animals and practices.

This tale appears in Okorafor’s anthology, Kabu Kabu by Prime Books.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Children’s Book Review: The Dark of Deep Below by Patrick Rothfuss

The Dark of Deep Below (The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle #2)The Dark of Deep Below by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The exciting follow-up to The Thing Beneath the Bed, again employs the beautifully rendered artwork of Nate Taylor creating a children’s book feel for what the author deems not-a-children’s book. Patrick Rothfuss’ writing evokes the children’s story cadence and language while also nodding to and twisting the folktale bones beneath.

[Full disclosure–I’m extremely biased in this reviewing , as I experienced this book with hundreds of others at a live reading by Patrick Rothfuss himself. Audible has nothing on live story telling.]

This tale centers on a princess living in a marzipan castle with her best friend, Mr. Whiffle the teddy bear. Together, they like to have Calvin and Hobbes style adventures on the castle grounds. But, a new character promises to spoil their carefree fun. The princess has a baby brother now, a prince naturally. She is nothing if not put out by having a brother to watch out for.

When he toddles off on his own, she and her trusty stuffed companion search the castle and grounds for sign of the little prince. They finally spot tracks–leading into the darkest of dark caves. And, the princess is paralyzingly afraid of the dark . . .

The tale is highly recommended.




[Check out my other reviews here.]

Children’s Book Review: The Thing Beneath the Bed by Patrick Rothfuss

The Thing Beneath the Bed (The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle #1)The Thing Beneath the Bed by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fairy tales and folktales used to be dark, dark things desperately trying to keep children out of The Black Forest and alive into their teens years, by which time they were considered adults. Things have come a long ways with overly protective parents and coddling, happily-ever-after stories. Thanks to the beautifully and brilliantly rendered artwork by Nate Taylor, this tale has the look and feel of a children’s book. But, Patrick Rothfuss has twisted this not-for-children’s tale into a dark and twisted story of horror.

Full disclosure–I’m extremely biased in this reviewing , as I experienced this book with hundreds of others at a live reading by Patrick Rothfuss himself. Audible has nothing on live story telling.

This dark tale centers on a princess with a paralyzing fear of the dark who lives alone in a castle (made of marzipan) with her best friend and stuffed companion, Mr. Whiffle the teddy bear. Together they enjoy Calvin and Hobbes style adventures across the large manor. By day, that is. At night they huddle in the princess’ bed avoiding the creature that lives beneath it. She leaves a candle burning at her bedside at all times.

Life in the castle gets a little more complicated when the princess gets a new kitten. A kitten that wanders–under the bed . . .

This dark tale is highly recommended.




[Check out my other reviews here.]

Novella Review: Keeper of the Akku by Alex Fosse

Keeper of the AkkuKeeper of the Akku by Alex Fosse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most post-apocalyptic tales show what has become of human society. This children-friendly tale doesn’t as the focus is on a culture that didn’t emerge from the remnants of humanity, but rather from an intelligent mutant or cross-breed species that is decidedly great ape in origin. [Think: Planet of the Apes.] While pockets of humanity exist, most of what was and rumors of mankind numbering in the billions and spreading across the entire planet has descended into cultural myth for this low-tech, village society.

The tale centers on 3 characters. Brother and sister, Droggo and Olka, are from the non-human village and are wary of the hairless, pale humans. They’ve left the safe confines of their village because for generations, their family has served as Keepers of the Akku for their village. The daunting task involves taking the mysterious black boxes [the akku, aka batteries] a couple days journey across the barren lands to where the human city can be seen. There sits a strange empty building where the akku can be “fed”[recharged]. Their power is needed to bring up the village’s water from deep underground. The nature of the akku and the rechanging station is not a mystery nor spoiler, the descriptions make it clear what it is that Droggo and Olka don’t understand. The clear filtering of the tale through their eyes is brilliant.

The third main character is the human girl that has run away from the city and hidden herself at the charging station. She knows what the akku are, and says as much.

The heart of the tale is the cross-cultural relationship growing between the 3 as cultural sensitivities are respected, and yet prejudice stands in the way of any easy companionship.

I received my copy of this novel directly from the author through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Novel Review: Darkness Descends by Peter Arvo & Lauren Arvo

Darkness Descends (Elemental Kingdoms, #1)Darkness Descends by Peter Arvo
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This fantasy novel, that debuts a new series, targets an older child / young teen audience though I wouldn’t recommend it for either. The main characters are all magic-wielding 14-16 y.o. royals that overwhelming act privileged, spoiled and snotty if not psychopathic. Their world is not unlike the Holy Roman Empire, divided into a multitude of small kingdoms with a larger pecking order. Six of the kingdoms stand out for having historic royal families that wield elemental magic. [ie Kingdoms of Fire, Ice, Air, Water, Earth and Electricity.] One major miss is in the lack of exploring how the elemental kingdoms culturally differ from each other and the non-elemental kingdoms. Only the Ice Nation seems to truly have a unique view on the world.

Conveniently, each of the royal families has at least one 14 or 16 y.o. heir learning how to deal with their powers. With the exception of one prince from the Electricity Kingdom, none seem interested in dealing with responsibilities to their kingdoms and the people they administer over. They hardly seem to notice non-royals at all except to torment their servant cooks and soldiers. Royal life itself is depicted 2-dimensionally with Kings and Queens always decked out and wearing state jewels and crowns. Jewels and clothes likewise preoccupy the teens, along with being sarcastically sarcastic. [The term gets thrown around a lot.]

These young royals lose family members along the course of the tale. However, the emotional toll is barely scratched as most of the ill-adjusted teens seem not to retain empathy or even sadness beyond a few minutes. This in itself could be an interesting stance if I thought the character lapses and myopia were intentional.

What is clear, is the direction the series is taking since nothing gets resolved in the first book. Mainly, the teens find each other as the goal of this novel. The larger set-up that shows non-elemental people revolting against the elementals and wishing elemental magic gone remains to be resolved. This opposing POV, sympathetic to the rebel cause, is not given any depth. This tale is strictly for the 1%.

I received my copy of this novel directly from the authors through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Animal Land, an Allegorical Fable by Leland James

Animal Land, An Allegorical FableAnimal Land, An Allegorical Fable by Leland James
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This fully illustrated allegorical take on WWII aims to introduce major components of the war to children in the form of a free verse narrative poem divided into stanzas of shape poetry. Thankfully, the seriousness of war is not reduced to cloying couplets. The shapes of the stanzas are arbitrary and add nothing to the poetry, but the alliteration is chewed to good effect, appropriate for a story completely “peopled” with animals.

Comparisons have been made to Aesop’s Fables (possibly) and Animal Farm (not at all), but these miss the mark. Unlike Animal Farm and Watership Down using animals to portray forms of governments, this story merely replaces people with animals for a heavily stripped-down, simplified version of WWII. Unlike The Complete Maus which showed the horrors of the war albeit with animals, this tale does not hit anything from the war except with the broadest of strokes. The occupations of mainland Europe are off-page and largely undescribed [with the exception of misleadingly mentioning enslaving the citizens of occupied countries].

The allegorical version of the Holocaust is boiled down to an irrational hatred and caging of songbirds. Zero atrocities are shown or described. The Russian front is reduced to a single winter siege. The Americans [Eagles] sweep in and end the war quickly, while the British hold out. It’s all too simplified, or misleading to be of educational value. This is a war without rationing nor air raids that accidentally implies the Japanese were in the European campaign for the first half of the story.

The strength of this story is in getting its point across about leaders and leadership. Winston Churchill [a badger], Franklin Roosevelt [an eagle] and Adolph Hitler [a mutant crocodile with a dog’s head] all are described, [and wonderfully drawn by illustrator Anne Zimanski]. The case is made for action over capitulation and being pro-active rather than reactive. It also snipes at decisions by committee and potentially the role of the UN, in general. The hawkish propaganda is clear when inactive leaders are depicted as sleeping possums.

I received my copy of the book when the author contacted me directly through The Book Review Directory, a blog.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Alpha Gene

Alpha Gene
Alpha Gene by Angel M. Huerta
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This children’s novel, almost appropriate for pre-teens and early teens (more on that later), is two stories woven into one. The better story that should have been the focus of the book, is about a club of pre-teens in which each has a superpower that s/he is trying to come to grips with. These kids are also learning to navigate the more complicated landscape of early-dating, puberty, school, fears and bullying. This is a well established fantasy trope with the superpowers making a wonderful metaphor for the physical and social changes that occur at this point in the kids’ lives. The ultimate theme for the book would have been learning to accept one’s individuality and strengths. It also delivers a decent message about the importance of over-coming bullying, not just for oneself but for everyone.

Unfortunately, this is treated as the lesser of the two stories. Also, the novel thinks that it is a work of science fiction and not fantasy, but the science is so very misguided and yet authoritative that I would NOT recommend this for kids because of the disinformation that it is spreading. The ultimate problem is in the choice of narrator, Dr. Lucas McKenna. I liked the character for the first chapter in which he proves himself to be a folksy doddering, old fool of a scientist and businessman. He sees himself as a beyond-brilliant scientist on the verge of a Nobel Prize. The book also wants him to be regarded as the latter . . . oops. This “brilliant scientist” authoritatively mis-identifies a frog as a reptile [which is no small mistake] and believes in and espouses spontaneous evolution across an entire species rather than the actual, accepted notion of natural selection. The narrator also misuses the term “theory” to mean “hypothesis;” this is a gaffe made by non-scientists, not credible Nobel Laureates. The biggest skewing is in the explanation of “brain science.”

Fantasy does not need the “science” to make sense even when a story includes a scientist as they so often do: The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Superman, the X-Men, The Hulk, Captain America etc. All of these heroes with special abilities have back-stories that involve a transformation or emergence with a very loose science-y explanation. However, they do not get so caught up in their false-science that they take on an authoritative tone. One would not walk away from one of these stories thinking that they had just learned something scientific in the process. It is not speculative-science that they rely on, but rather magic-science, ie fantasy-science, ie NOT science. Alpha Gene thinks it is espousing science as it simultaneously mangles it beyond recognition.

I would have thought better of this book without the Dr. McKenna character. His story which is supposed to take the front seat could have been included without his mentor-teacher character. As a secondary story-line beneath the pre-teens learning about their bodies and dealing with bullies themes, there could have been a thread following “evil” scientists wanting to “study” these good, wholesome kids-come-superheroes. There are many reasons to not trust this narrator [not that trusting a narrator is required, but this book wants you to trust him and his judgment]. 1) He’s established as a doddering fool in the first chapter. 2) He is present in less than 10% of the scenes. Yet, he even tells back-stories about kids that take place elsewhere. I cannot imagine for a second that these kids or their parents would have told him this much. 3) His folksy generalizations about all people did not ring true. [“The boy didn’t have any fond memories of the place–of course, no one does when it comes to cemeteries.” Well, I’m someone, and I have good cemetery memories.]

I was excited to read this book based on the advertising blurb. And I was doubly excited to receive a free, autographed copy through Goodreads’ First Reads. That’s where the excitement ended. I do not recommend this book.
[Check out my other reviews here.]