Have you ever heard the terms “Sustained Silent Reading” or “Free Voluntary Reading”? They are both contributions of Dr. Stephen Krashen, author of The Power of Reading, whose extensive studies into language learning for English as a Second Language (ESL) students caused him to draw the conclusion that “Free voluntary reading is the source of most of our vocabulary, our ability to handle complex grammatical construction, our ability to spell well, to write with a good style—much of our knowledge of the world comes from READING.” He discovered that “Students who did sustained silent reading on a daily basis did better on grammar tests than students who took grammar classes.”
The other quote about reading that I love comes from Margaret A. Edwards, regarded by most librarians as the first teen librarian. She said,
So today, set aside some time. Make a cup of tea (and maybe furnish yourself with a cookie or two), sit in a nice comfy chair, and enjoy reading for however long you can spare from your busy day! What’s better than sinking yourself into STORY for an hour?
The book I chose to read this week was the perfect example of being led into genre mislabeling by certain aspects of content. The book is Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn, part of the “Dragonback” series. Because of the presence of dragons, and also because of the series title (making it sound like people were riding on the backs of dragons), I assumed going in that this would be a fantasy. After all, dragons are mythical creatures, right? and their presence would probably indicate world-building that involves some kind of medieval setting?
I was dead wrong. The only thing I got right about this book was believing that it would be a solid addition to my list of books for middle school readers, and that I might possibly be fortunate enough to have discovered one that was particularly appealing to boys, who are more typically reluctant readers than are girls at that age.
Dragon notwithstanding, this is science fiction. The dragon is one of a race of poet/warriors (the K’da) who are symbiotic with other select species and need them in order to live. The dragons transform from three dimensions to two, and ride around on (and receive sustenance and life from) their hosts while giving the appearance of being a large and elaborate tattoo—so instead of people riding dragons, it’s the other way around. And all species involved in this book are space-faring, with much of the action taking place on ships and in spaceports and outposts on various planets.
There aren’t too many books with dragons that anyone would consider sci-fi; the dragons of Rachel Hartman, for instance, while able to shapeshift back and forth between their native shapes and human form, are set within a construct that is definitely medieval in nature, as are the conflicts explored in her books. Same with the dragons of Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, Chris Paolini, Jasper Fforde, and, of course, Tolkien. Even Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, alternate history in which dragons are the steeds ridden by the soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, figure more as fantasy than anything else.
The only dragon books of which I’m aware whose author has attempted to claim science fiction status are those of Anne McCaffrey. Since these are telepathic fire-breathing dragons that bond for life with their riders, many have scoffed at McCaffrey’s claims. Her rationale for the premise is that mankind travelled to the planet Pern via rocket ships, only to discover that their new home was beset by deadly spores that traveled from a red planet to theirs in irregular cycles that lasted a decade or two every once in a while; they used their science to take the native fauna they called fire lizards (miniature dragons about the length of a forearm) and super-size them through selective breeding to wipe out the spores by breathing fire on them. (Her premise would be a lot more believable if she had also thought to use science to explain how these spores from the red star survive the unbearable heat of entry into the planetary system only to be destroyed by a simple toasty breath!)
Anyway, back to my middle school series. Zahn’s voice is perfect for his protagonist, who is a 14-year-old thief named Jack. Jack’s parents died when he was little, and his uncle Virgil, an interstellar conman, raised him to be an innocent-looking but precocious assistant for his various illegal exploits, so Jack has lots of talents like breaking and entering, computer program manipulation, and being a quick-thinking fast-talker. But his uncle died a little while back, leaving Jack alone except for the computer that runs Jack’s ship, upon which Uncle Virgil imposed his personality, so that “Uncle Virge” is still in some sense with Jack, imbued with the same sly, evasive, self-serving qualities that his human uncle possessed.
Uncle Virge is unhappy, therefore, when Jack decides to rescue and play host to Draycos, one of an advance team of K’da warriors who landed on a supposedly vacant planet where his people were intending to settle, refugees hiding out from their mortal enemies. Somehow their enemies already knew their destination, however, and managed to destroy all the advance ships and everyone on them save Draycos. Draycos has a few months to figure out what happened and from where, exactly, the threat lies, so that he can return to the main emigration ships of his people and re-route them somewhere safe, and Jack has undertaken to help him.
It turns out, however, that Draycos is at least as helpful to Jack as Jack is to Draycos, given his superb warrior skills. The two of them make a good team—the boy with lots of undercover experience to get them where they want to go with no one the wiser, and the dragon, honorable and principled, who can protect them along the way.
I finished book #1 and proceeded on to the second, Dragon and Soldier, and I plan to keep going with the rest of the series. So far, book #2 is as imaginative and delightful as was the first, my sole complaint being that each book ends rather abruptly so that you feel an immediate need to access the next volume, which is actually a decided advantage when it comes to luring the reluctant reader to keep going. I believe that those middle-schoolers (and anyone who loves science fiction and/or dragons) who discover these books will do just that.
I just finished reading a series of five mysteries by Julie Smith featuring Jewish feminist attorney Rebecca Schwartz as the protagonist and set in San Francisco and surrounding counties, and I’m trying to decide where to slot them in the mystery panoply. They weren’t exactly cozy mysteries, by my definition: A cozy typically takes place in a small town, with a quirky set of local characters (some of whom are up to no good), and an amateur sleuth (frequently a gray-haired grandma) serving as detective. At the same time, I wouldn’t put them up against what I think of as “legitimate” mysteries, such series as the deadly serious Inspector Lynley books or the Harry Bosch saga. But in their way they do for San Francisco what Connelly’s Bosch books have done for Los Angeles—make the neighborhoods and idiosyncrasies of the City by the Bay a familiar and compelling backdrop to crime.
I have to say that I didn’t care much for the first book in the Rebecca Schwartz titles—Death Turns A Trick originates in a modern-day bordello, and the subsequent action and situations are just too ridiculous to be believable, as well as the mystery not being particularly compelling. I probably wouldn’t have revisited the series except for two factors: I had just finished reading a couple of uber-intense, rather lengthy items, and was in the mood for something light and not particularly challenging; and the second book is called The Sourdough Wars, which reminded me fondly of Robin Sloan’s book Sourdough. So I read that one, and was by then caught up in the momentum of Rebecca’s adventures and beguiled by the San Francisco milieu.
The books varied a bit in readability, my favorites turning out to be the latter three: Tourist Trap, Dead in the Water, and Other People’s Skeletons. So I guess you could extrapolate that Smith’s story-telling abilities improve over the course of the series, and I wouldn’t argue with that. I still felt that they were light and kind of silly, but on the other hand the characterizations are solid, the scene-setting is creative (one takes place at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or should I say IN it?), and the story lines, while not truly riveting, definitely render the reader curious enough to finish them.
The website StopYou’reKillingMe.com ranks these not as cozies but as “humorous mysteries.” There is an element of humor to them; but there are also rather graphic murder scenes, and serious pondering on relationships, feminism, child welfare, and liberal causes. The covers on the re-released paperbacks seem to suggest more of a chick lit vibe, further confusing the issue. The jacket copy cites Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess, and Elizabeth Peters as read-alike authors, so if they are authors you enjoy, then Julie Smith might be for you.
Note that the Rebecca Schwartz books were Smith’s very first series (written in the ’80s); she has since completed two series set in New Orleans, one with Talba Wallis, a female black poet and computer expert as protagonist, the other starring Skip Langdon, a policewoman. Since she is consistent about featuring a female protagonist (and also presumably with the feminism standard set by Schwartz), if a female lead is your preference it’s another reason to seek out her books.
Well, I promised to come back once I had read Darkdawn, the third book in the Nevernight Chronicle by Jay Kristoff, with a final verdict. Sadly, my reaction was mostly one of disappointment.
The action is still tense, the main characters are still developing and doing unexpected things to move the story along, but for me, this was a much less successful book than the first two, for several reasons.
The main one was the love triangle. Having been a teen librarian (and runner of three teen book clubs for 10 years), I can’t tell you how many love triangles I have had to endure in the course of my YA reading. For a period of time they seemed to be an absolute requirement as one element of any book written for teens, and almost none of them improved a story line in any way. This book is not written for teens (I think I mentioned the brutality, language, and raw sexuality of the first two, and that continues here), but for some reason Kristoff just couldn’t resist putting one in, and it’s not pretty. A large part of the book was ruined for me by the callous mean-spiritedness of two of the three participants.
I also didn’t care for what happened to the story line. The first book dealt with origin stories for its characters; the second advanced the revenge plot with a truly horrifying and compelling twist; but in this third book it seemed like everyone involved was just flailing around trying to triumph over one another in a really disorganized way. There were a few saving graces in the early part of the book, such as the interval spent on board ship with the delightful pirate Cloud and his crew, and Mia’s attempt to put things right with her little brother, but by the end the whole thing felt like it had disintegrated into a mash-up of sarcasm and sex, alternating with interventions by various gods and monsters.
Part of what didn’t work for me (and I think this is probably the central issue) is how exactly Mia would manage to counteract her enemies’ moves and at the same time achieve the gods’ ends as she was apparently destined to do. Motives and objectives kept wandering randomly, and at some point it felt to me like Kristoff lost the plot.
You will find, if you look at ratings on Goodreads, that many people disagree with my analysis of this book. It seems like everyone gave it either five stars or one, with no one in between. For the sake of all those (admittedly in the majority) who went with the five and loved this book as unreservedly as the first two, I will say, If you like a sizzling fantasy story with nonstop action, fascinating characters, and big intentions, give the Nevernight trilogy a try. But don’t say I didn’t warn you if you end up on the same page with me by the end of #3.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I picked up The Great Unexpected, by Dan Mooney. It was billed as “charming” and “poignant,” and compared to such books as A Man Called Ove, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, and books by Mitch Alblom. There were definitely some of the same elements present; but it was also both depressing, and depressingly real, and I wasn’t in the greatest space to read about someone’s sad last years.
Joel Monroe, 76, is counting down his days in a nursing home. After independent life got to be a bit too much, he and his wife, Lucey, moved into the home together and, as long as he had her, everything was okay. But she quietly expired one morning while waiting for her cup of tea, and since then Joel’s experience has begun a downward spiral into thoughts of suicide. His entire life as a younger man had been centered on his work and his relationship, and he has no hobbies or pastimes to occupy him. He is plagued by the sense that no one at the home—nurses, aides—and no one in his family—his daughter, Eva, and grandchildren Lily and Chris—sees him as a vital human being who has earned respect for his long, productive life. He resents being treated like a child, from being required to passively take his medications to being refused access to the world outside the gates of Hilltop Nursing Home “for his own protection.” Everyone involved wishes Joel would just settle quietly into his role as elderly dependent, do as he’s told, and not make waves, but Joel feels angry, out of control, stifled, and grief-stricken.
After his roommate who followed Lucey also dies, Joel is made to share his room with Frank Adams, stage name de Selby, a former soap opera actor. Frank is genial, outgoing, quick-witted, and perceptive—everything that Joel is not—and he rapidly gets under Joel’s skin and provokes him into confiding his thoughts of suicide. Rather than acting shocked and horrified, Frank agrees with Joel that he should be allowed to exit his life if and when he pleases, even offering to help him plan his grand gesture, and this solidarity cements a preliminary friendship between the two. But although he is ever the listening ear for Joel, Frank has issues of his own with which he has never dealt, and soon the friendship grows in both directions. Frank encourages Joel to take back some of his dignity by exhibiting some “bad” behavior, source of much of the charming bits of this story.
On the up side, this book is much more than the sentimental, sweet story of yet another curmudgeon won over by life. It’s sincere, lovely, and touching, and tells a wonderful tale of friendship that acknowledges and supports. On the down side, if you are a person of a certain age, as I am, with the eventual prospect of being unable to care for yourself sufficiently to live alone, this is a slightly scary guidebook to what that experience could hold.
We all know that our society doesn’t treat the elderly well; once they exhibit the least infirmity, they are ignored, discounted, and shunted aside. We have all had the experience of visiting a nursing home and walking its halls lined with old people dressed in pajamas and robes sitting forlornly in their wheelchairs, of “rec rooms” featuring TV talk shows and board games to fend off boredom, with that indefinable commingled scent of piss, Lysol, and whatever is cooking for dinner. And we have also seen how the young and fit begin to talk down to the elderly and infirm as if they were irresponsible children or even beloved pets. Although Dan Mooney is never preachy in his approach, he paints a pretty clear picture of the emotions of an elderly man with few resources who doesn’t know how to fight against this encroaching, patronizing lifestyle.
Yes, I’m being just a tiny bit dramatic here; but I identified with Joel a lot more closely than was comfortable, and thought for the first time about what could be in my future if I don’t manage to fend off physical infirmity or mental laxness. So while I would recommend this book as both a worthwhile and an entertaining read, be aware that it may push some buttons for those of a certain age. On the other hand, if you are a young person reading it and are so motivated to take another look at your aging relatives as individuals of worth instead of as problems or burdens and to consider what they are due in their maturity, then all to the good!
My only previous experience of author Jay Kristoff is as the co-writer of the Illuminae books, with Amie Kaufman, which are clever and entertaining but don’t have a singular voice like his Nevernight Chronicles. Someone in a fantasy thread recommended the series; I don’t know how I had gone this long without hearing of it, and decided to give it a try. It didn’t hurt that my Kindle Unlimited was offering the first two for free this month!
I was going to wait until I had read all three books before writing my review, but the combination of how long it is taking me to get through them with the fact that I am still #7 on the wait-list for the library copy of the third book made me decide to review after two. I will come back and comment when I am done with the whole.
My verdict so far is that this series is terrific. I can see why I hadn’t heard of it in the context of young adult literature, because he’s definitely not an author of whom many teens’ parents will approve, since he slings around both traditional and unorthodox language like a dock worker, shockingly emerging from the mouth of his pale, petite, teenage assassin, Mia Corvere. The books are pretty edgy, with graphic descriptions of blood and violence and sex, but the language he uses to describe everything is powerful and sometimes lyrical—it made me happy to read individual passages. (I will say, though, that others have described it as too flowery, over the top, unnecessarily verbose. To each their own.)
This is a series, however, that could be thoroughly enjoyed by older teens (I’m talking 17 up, maybe?), as well as by anyone else who likes sterling world-building, a provocative protagonist, and a driving story line.
The prevailing theme is a battle between light and dark; but in this tale, the dark is represented by a wronged child who finds refuge in kindly shadows, while the light consists of a bunch of powerful, hypocritical politicians who use the gods of their three suns to reinforce their will as rulers.
Mia Corvere is 10 years old when her father, who has led an uprising to place someone else on the throne, is executed as a traitor in front of her horrified eyes. She is the only family member to escape capture, and hides in the city of Godsgrave, searching for a group of people who will help her with revenge—the Red Church. They are a deadly “school” of assassins, and Mia plans to advance through their ranks to gain the skills to claim the lives of the two powerful men who gloated on the sidelines as her father was hanged.
The first book, Nevernight, consists of Mia’s introduction to and progress amongst the acolytes of the Red Church. Life becomes a competition to the death between herself and her fellow students as they seek to survive while gaining knowledge of steel, poison, and the subtle arts, the eventual goal to be inducted as a Blade of the Lady of Blessed Murder. What she doesn’t know when she enters the dark halls of the school is that a plot is brewing that will, if it succeeds, disastrously counter all her plans for revenge.
In book #2, Godsgrave, Mia is now a Blade, although her induction was a matter of controversy. As the story opens, she is working out of a backwater station of the Red Church, taking assignments to assassinate victims designated by the Church on behalf of their clients. But she begins to suspect that the Church’s motives are far from pure and that their interdiction of her revenge on Consul Scaeva and his priestly cohort, Cardinal Duomo, is less about their need for her to follow orders and more about protecting her mortal enemies in favor of their own self-interest. So she hatches a plot that involves her adopting a desperate masquerade to achieve a confrontation with the men whose lives she seeks to end.
I enjoyed the first book more than the second for two reasons: 1. I always like the origin story the best, and gaining knowledge of the world and learning about where Mia came from and how she arrives at where she needs to be was thoroughly engrossing. 2. The second book is overwhelmingly brutal, bloody, and gory, depicting as it does a group of slaves who fight as gladiators in an attempt to gain their freedom (and some of whom who compete just for the “sanguis et gloria” of it). The second book was also long and involved, and the first half, consisting as it does of a present-and-past flashback/flash forward style, was a little taxing to keep straight. But the whole story bowls along towards the initial revenge plot in a satisfying arc, and after the breathless events of this book, I am greatly anticipating reading part three.
Although…I have to say I’m a little relieved that Darkdawn hasn’t arrived on my Kindle yet, because after two of these books, I need a short break before re-immersion! I finished Godsgrave by pulling a four-hour stint in the middle of the night (did I mention I have chronic insomnia these days?) and I’m kinda exhausted! I’ll be back when I have completed the series.
One of the few benefits of not sleeping much is that you end up reading a lot! So I got through The Mother’s Promise, by Sally Hepworth, in less than 24 hours (my library loan was about to run out), and I’m happy to say that it restored my faith in her. I loved her book The Good Sister but disliked and was puzzled (and bored) by The Mother-in-Law. This one took me back to an excellently researched and well told story about interesting and dynamic characters. I then went on to read The Family Next Door, and was similarly pleased by that experience, although it was a bit different again.
The Mother’s Promise was a sort of psychological exploration of what happens to people who don’t have a social network—and by that I don’t mean Facebook friends or Instagram buddies, I mean an extended family of relatives, or a close group of friends on whom they can call when disaster strikes. Alice is a single mother of one daughter, Zoe. Zoe’s father is not in the picture—in fact, Alice refuses to either disclose his identity or give away any information about him. It’s always been just Alice and Zoe—there are no grandparents, no siblings on whom Alice can rely, and no close friends. Part of this isolation is because Zoe, 15, suffers from crippling social anxiety and being her parent, her advocate, and her protector has been a full-time job for Alice on top of her means of making a living. Although they have sometimes struggled, up until now they have managed to make it work on their own. But Alice has just received some disturbing news from her doctor that will immediately and significantly affect their lifestyle and, on top of worrying about her own health, Alice has to wonder: How will Zoe, who melts down at the least sign of a challenge, cope with this?
Alice ends up throwing herself on the mercy of two strangers—a nurse and a social worker—in her desperation to find some stability for her daughter. But the results are mixed, and bring up long-buried issues in all their lives that must be confronted alongside Alice’s emergency situation.
One thing I particularly liked about this book was the portrayal of Zoe—the examination of her problem and the creative ways in which she tries, despite her fears, to address it. This part of the book felt particularly real and valid to me, and provided a somewhat hopeful coming-of-age vibe to an otherwise rather grim story line.
The Family Next Door, while also exploring family dynamics, has quite a different personality from either The Good Sister or The Mother’s Promise, but was likewise an enjoyable read. Of the four books of Hepworth’s I have read, the style and narrative of this one reminded me most of a Liane Moriarty book. Part of that is that it is centered in a small community and involves multiple families, with partnerships and parenting all under scrutiny, somewhat similar to Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.
The story takes place on a suburban street called Pleasant Court, with the obvious implications. Three families in the neighborhood know each other, but only from a distance, where everything seems perfect. They know their neighbors by their professions, by their number of children, by who is driving carpool—all the surface details that you gather when you live on the same street—but up to now, meaningful interactions have been rare. Then, Isabelle Heatherington moves to Pleasant Court, and her very presence stirs something up for each of these families, even though it’s not necessarily her intention to do so. Isabelle is single and childless, and shows an inordinate amount of interest in Fran, Essie, and Ange and their children and, in turn, the three moms become somewhat obsessed with Isabelle in various ways. Information begins to be exchanged, alliances are formed and dissolved, secrets are revealed, and marriages are perhaps in jeopardy, or at least in question. And then…things take an unexpected turn.
This is a mostly fascinating look behind the scenes of three suburban marriages and what happens when closely held secrets and ideas begin to erode those partnerships. When Isabelle moved to the neighborhood I halfway expected this to turn into the relationship cliché of husband(s) straying with the new woman, but the real reason for Isabelle’s presence is much more interesting and surprising. I said “mostly fascinating” because there are points at which the story bogs down as we get a little too much day-to-day detail about what characters are thinking and perceiving about their spouses, their children, their mothers, their friends…perhaps some of it was unnecessary. But it certainly does set things up for some entertaining scenes!
I enjoyed both of these books and would read another by Hepworth; but I’d like to somehow be able to ensure it was like the three I enjoyed and not similar to the one I did not! I guess I will have to switch from the reviewer to the petitioner and ask for recommendations for myself.