Sunday, January 19, 2020

MMGM (1/20/2020): Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! For MMGM, I am recommending the graphic novel Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis.

         Queen of the Sea is a historically inspired graphic novel set in the 1500s on an island off the country of Albion (loosely based on the U.K.). The book's protagonist and narrator, Margaret, is a child who lives on this island, a remote convent populated only by six nuns, a priest, and three staff. Margaret does not know who her parents were or why she has come to live on the island; she only knows that she was brought to the nuns aboard the Regina Maris (a ship that visits the island twice a year) and has lived with them ever since. Margaret has not left the island since arriving, but she has grown accustomed to the island's unaltered beauty and her life at the convent, ultimately preparing to become a nun as an adult. When a boy her age named William and his noblewoman mother arrive on the island, she becomes even happier finally having a friend her own age. But then another woman arrives on the island: Eleanor, once the queen of Albion until her half-sister Catherine sent her away to claim the crown for herself. As Margaret gets to know both William and Eleanor, she learns surprising information about the island and becomes involved in the treacherous drama of royalty.

          I have reviewed many books in the three years I have been blogging, and I have recommended many of these. However, with many books that I recommend, I feel that they are a great book to add to the bottom of your to-be-read pile if they sound like something you would enjoy. With Queen of the Sea, I feel that it is a book to put at the very top of your to-be-read pile regardless of if it sounds like something you would enjoy. Frankly, this book is one of the best books I have ever read!

         One of the best parts of Queen of the Sea is what a vivid picture it paints of life in the 1500s. I have always wondered how anyone lived happily in a time when there was virtually no entertainment and countless chores (drinking a glass of milk was far harder than just running to Walmart and grabbing a gallon), not to mention confining social norms (especially for women). After reading Queen of the Sea, I understand how people found joy in their lives during such a time. Whether keeping busy with chores, exploring the island and its many beautiful locations, playing games, or finding solace in religious customs and stories, Margaret makes a pleasant, vividly depicted, and fascinating life for herself. (I also appreciate that the setting of a convent allows for female independence that likely was not prevalent in other facets of society at the time.) Queen of the Sea is filled with information about what life was like at the time, especially on a convent: you will never have to wonder what each nun did, when people prayed, how a convent was set up, or what being a Christian was generally like at the time. Author Dylan Meconis has clearly done a near-ridiculous amount of research to make Queen of the Sea accurate (albeit with some fictional elements) and truly realistic, and every page of exposition needed to accomplish this feeling is worth it. (You can read more about how Meconis balanced extreme accuracy and fiction in this interesting NPR article.)

          Of course, every book needs an interesting plot and compelling characters, and Queen of the Sea does not disappoint in those regards either. Margaret is a fabulous narrator and protagonist. She is exceedingly brave and clever, never afraid to stand up for what she believes in and who she cares about or to think up and execute an ingenious plan. Margaret is curious and adventurous, but she also finds satisfaction in the calm, isolated lifestyle of the island and convent, which make her especially realistic: no one is always content with their current life, but characters who despise the way they live now often end up bitter and unlikeable. Meconis balances Margaret's contradictory character aspects in a way that makes her seem far more realistic than the one-note protagonists that pervade many books today. The nuns and convent staff are also fascinating characters: although character development largely centers around the prioress, Sister Agnes, every character has a fascinating backstory and a role that makes them seem real. Although we do not see quite enough facets of Eleanor (though she is more mysterious than underdeveloped), the glimpses we get of her feelings about the royal life and slowly developing fondness toward Margaret are wonderful (plus, the clear setup for a sequel leaves room for far more development). Finally, the book's plot balances calm, beautiful moments to savor with exciting action and plenty of emotion and humor: although the logic of the plot gets a bit muddled at points regarding who knows what and how that puts them in danger, those few points are easy to overlook in the context of everything else's excellence.

          The last attribute of Queen of the Sea I want to discuss is the art and format. This book is a graphic novel, and it has an entirely unique and beautiful art style characterized by surprisingly detailed faces and lush, watercolor-like backgrounds. (Many panels are so stunning that one could frame them.) The book has many comic-style panels and many illustrated sequences of prose narration, and these sequences are often characterized by inventive layouts: at one point, when Margaret learns to play chess, each chess piece is depicted as a real person or structure like its inspiration, flanked by a clever explanation of the piece's backstory and movement (for instance, the rook is a tower filled with troops on wheels that will only roll in straight lines). The book is also a fabulous example of how metaphors can be visual, not just written: when complex and fraught royal decisions have to be made, chessboard backgrounds or depictions of characters as chess pieces compare the thought and intentionality of the situation with that of chess. By combining flawless execution of the traditional graphic novel format with new and inventive pages and features, Queen of the Sea stands out from other graphic novels.

        Queen of the Sea is more of a commitment than other graphic novels: it is 394 pages with much prose, and fascinating exposition at the beginning means that, if you are only interested in the plot, you will have to wait around 100 pages. However, the commitment is absolutely worth it, as Queen of the Sea is one of the most exquisitely crafted, absorbing, and fun books I have read (graphic novels or not) in a long time. I promise you that, if you try this book, you will be captivated from beginning to end and left thrilled at the prospect of a sequel (even if it means a wait of a few years)!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

MMGM (1/13/2020): Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, with illustrations by K.G. Campbell

I hope everyone is enjoying 2020 so far! For MMGM, I am recommending Newbery Medal-winner Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, with illustrations by K.G. Campbell.

          Several weeks ago, I was discussing this book's upcoming movie adaptation here, and I realized that, although I had read it and enjoyed it, I had never reviewed it. I am finally rectifying that mistake! Here's the publisher's description of the book (I think it describes the book better than I could):


It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences.

The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry—and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart.

From #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo comes a laugh-out-loud story filled with eccentric, endearing characters and featuring an exciting new format—a novel interspersed with comic-style graphic sequences and full-page illustrations, all rendered in black-and-white by artist K. G. Campbell.


          Very few authors could write a story about a superpowered squirrel and turn it into a heartfelt story about love and friendship, but Kate DiCamillo has done it! Flora & Ulysses has so many wonderful elements that I hardly know where to begin. I'll start with this novel's comic-based inspiration. Flora loves reading comics (much to the chagrin of her romance-novelist mother), from stories of the superhero Incandesto (which she used to read with her father before he moved out post-divorce) to admittedly-less-healthy stories about what to do if someone chokes/you ever come in contact with an electric chair/you get stuck in the South Pole/etc. Flora's interest ties in perfectly with the Mad-Libs superhero plot: after a terrifying incident with a _____ (vacuum cleaner), a regular _____ (squirrel) gains the powers of _____ (flying), _____ (lifting heavy objects), and _____ (typing)! Flora and Ulysses does not make fun of comics, however: with its well-drawn comic book panels (which are pretty occasional, taking up maybe 10% of the book), catchphrases, and demonstration of the hope and excitement present throughout comics, I can start to see comics' appeal!
          There's so much else to love about Flora & Ulysses, however. The cast of characters is delightfully varied, from Flora's somewhat-unloving mother (who often adores a tacky shepherdess lamp more than she does her daughter) and her much-more-loving father (who has a tic of introducing himself even when no one is there) to side characters such as the poetry-loving Mrs. Tickham (who accidentally vacuums the squirrel up in the first place), her great-nephew William Spiver (who insists on being called as such and has declared himself temporarily blind after a trauma), and a strange older neighbor named Dr. Meescham (who tells stories of growing up in Blundermeecen with the trolls). The plot of the story is beautiful as well: Flora begins to see the joy and hope in the world, Ulysses (the squirrel) notices the beauty around him for the first time, and Flora begins to reconnect with those around her. The book depicts divorce, remarriage (not with Flora's parents), and even mourning (with side characters) very well, yet this book is not even remotely close to being sad. If you somehow missed Flora & Ulysses when it won the Newbery Medal and still haven't read it, I urge you to do so immediately—you won't be disappointed!