Archive for February, 2012

Out of Oz

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

By Gregory Maguire

The Short Take:

Subtitled The Final Volume in the Wicked Years, Maguire concludes his unique take on the original Oz novels created by Frank Baum. As with the three previous novels in this series, his writing is as much about ideas, political maneuvering, and self awareness as it is about the story line; though there is plenty of plot. As usual, Maguire’s writing is outstanding and every other page includes a line worthy of serious contemplation.


First of all, you really need to start with Wicked, the first book in this series. Seeing the musical won’t cut it. As entertaining as the play is, it just barely breaks the surface of the novel’s complexity. If you don’t read these books in order, you’re missing quite a bit.

Maguire’s Oz is a dangerous place with political struggles, religious differences, and restless territories ready to revolt. In this last book, he brings most of his key characters together for a grand finale. Even Dorothy gets to play a genuine role (she only made a brief “cameo” appearance in book one). However, ultimately, the ending doesn’t feel all that final; but I’m honestly not sure if that is good or bad.

Regardless, the journey is magical. Maguire’s flawed and struggling characters have difficulties in their relationships as well as trouble dealing with their individual pain. As they journey together (and separately) in search of safety and understanding, they painfully bump up against each other seeking love and companionship but finding it hard to give in return.

It’s a rich and rewarding book that bears actually little resemblance to the Baum masterpiece other than character names. While the tone of the book is rather somber — war and deadly danger usually are — Maguire inserts playful references to the legendary film and includes wise-cracking characters like Iskinaary the Goose and Dorothy herself. These help balance the mood as well as surprise others in the room when you emit a yelp of laughter.

The Wicked Years is no fairy tale series. If it weren’t for the Oz names and the talking Animals (not to be confused with regular, lower-case animals), you could be reading a Russian novel. That’s what makes these books so special.

A Little Plot:

If you haven’t read the other books this will mean nothing to you.

Liir’s daughter, Rain, has been lodged with Glinda for protection. However, with Oz invading the recently independent Munchkinland, Glinda is under house arrest. Rain is in danger, as is the sought-after book of spells that belonged to Rain’s grandmother, the Wicked Witch of the West. Fortunately, the Cowardly Lion shows up just in time. Maybe.

There’s a lot of traveling to different places, the reunification and breaking apart of families, trials and tribulations, friendships, and dramatic transformations. But start with Wicked. Seriously.

For more about Gregory Maguire and his books, click here.

I Am Half Sick of Shadows

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

By  Alan Bradley

The Short Take:

Bradley’s ingenious and endearing Flavia de Luce continues to be a delight in this fourth outing. Once again, she is hot on the trail of a murderer, much to the chagrin of the local police. Inventive, courageous, and outrageous — Flavia is an outstanding heroine for all ages.


Bradley’s Flavia creations are just enchanting. This one is no exception. Eleven-year-old Flavia loves chemistry and a good murder. She, two older sisters (who delight in tormenting her), a disconnected father, and two unusual family retainers live on a vast yet crumbling estate in rural England in the 1950s.

While each book stands on its own, there is a connecting thread involving the disappearance of Flavia’s mother and the odd relationships between different members of the household. Bradley amusingly incorporates the eccentric behavior you love to find in households of this sort, where the money is gone and everyone adapts to their genteel poverty in quirky ways.

Written for all ages of readers, the Flavia de Luce mysteries can be genuinely enjoyed by all ages. Though the subject is murder, these tales are told with a light and breezy touch that keeps the story-telling charming rather than fearsome. While this may not be the strongest book in the series, it’s still a wonderful read.

A Little Plot:

Set at Christmas time (yes, I should have published this three months ago), two big things are happening at Buckshaw, the de Luce estate: Flavia is planning to catch Father Christmas by smearing sticky bird lime of her own creation on the chimney pots, and her father is allowing their home to be used as a movie set to bolster their dismal financial situation.

The legendary actress starring in the movie is enticed to put on a benefit performance at Buckshaw for the local church. The whole town turns up. A snowstorm traps everyone. And, a murder takes place.

Now Flavia has a dual mission — solve the murder while capturing Father Christmas, no matter how often she is told to cease and desist by the Inspector in charge. That’s our girl.

For more about Bradley and his work, click here.


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February 2012