The Book Adept

Old age, friendship, rebellion

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!

Children for sale

The book Sold on a Monday, by Kristina McMorris, starts with a picture: Reporter Ellis Reed is killing time along a country road while his overheated Model T cools down, by snapping photos. He has just attended a rural quilt show, where he has documented the display for a newspaper story, and he has a few frames left on his roll of film. He approaches a farmhouse and sees two young boys sitting on the porch. They are both red-headed, both blue-eyed, both dressed in nothing but overalls, and he remarks to himself that they look like the same child at different ages. But after he takes the picture, he sees something in the background that he didn’t note at first: A hand-lettered sign that says “2 children for sale.” Even though he is inured to the sight of heartbreaking poverty in this post-crash year of 1931 in America, he is horrified. He has heard tales of people farming out their children to relatives or dropping their kids off at orphanages and churches because they can no longer feed and clothe them; but the concept of a parent selling their own children to keep themselves afloat? That was a darker scenario.

His picture of the two boys was personal—not meant for publication—but when he leaves all the photos from his shoot to dry in the newspaper darkroom, Lillian Palmer, enigmatic young secretary to the publisher, sees the picture in question and shows it to her boss. The photo thus becomes an instrument in the advancement of Ellis’s career as a newspaperman, but the simple action of publishing the photo has devastating consequences.

This book was a page-turner. I liked the parallel development from Ellis’s and Lillian’s points of view; I also liked that, except for the prologue and epilogue, the story was told in third person, even though it was alternating viewpoints. It made it personal enough yet not too internal, if that makes sense. The storytelling was nuanced—the author knew when to set things up and when to reveal them, and was also good at end-of-chapter cliffhangers.

This is, in essence, an historical novel, in that it documents a particular time that was heavily influenced by events of the day; but it’s not one of those books that either pretentiously or self-consciously proclaims itself as an historical document. The small details of dress, morés and mannerisms, social class and financial status are seamlessly woven into the scene-setting and characterizations, making it simply a good story told within a particular context.

I read it with a certain degree of horror that poverty could so decimate the conscience and devastate the family construct, but also knowing that similar acts no doubt go on to this day, swept under the rug by the possibly more timely intervention of social services—still not an ideal solution, but at least evidence of a more robust social contract than was present in 1931. This book was the perfect marriage of thought piece and suspenseful tale, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The closest I can come to a read-alike would probably be This Tender Land, by William Kent Kreuger; if you enjoyed that, definitely try this one.

As usual, I have something to say about the cover: The scenario in the book is two children for sale, so why in the world would the publisher choose to portray only one in the cover photo? I throw up my hands.

Dark

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.

Two by Hepworth

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.

My year of reading: 2021

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and reveal which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads conveniently kept track of statistics related to my reading goals, so before I get specific, here are some of mine:

This year I read 132 books, which consisted of 50,676 pages.

The shortest was a Linwood Barclay novella of 81 pages, while the longest was one of the Robin Hobb Farseer fantasies at 914 pages. My average book length was 383 pages.

The most popular book I (re)read was Liane’ Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, shelved by almost 1.5 million people!

And now, here are some categories that highlight the year’s journey, from my memories of 2021 reads:

Most excited about:

Return of the Thief, the conclusion to the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, finally arrived, which gave me the perfect opportunity to enjoy re-reading this series for what, the fifth time? She published the first book, The Thief, in 1996! If you are looking for a nontypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves, and Return. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

Best discoveries (in any genre):
ROBIN HOBB. I got lost for a month or more in three of her Farseer high fantasy trilogies, and still have two more on my TBR list, which I hope to get to early in the year.

DERVLA McTIERNAN: A wonderful new mystery series writer with books set in Ireland

Best science fiction discoveries:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher
A Psalm for the Wild-built, by Becky Chambers (first in a series still to come)
Both of these would fit best into the dystopian category.

New time travel:
The Jane Austen Project, and The Dream Daughter, both from unlikely authors…

New fantasy I loved:
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
The Art Mages of Lure series, by Jordan Rivet (Curse Painter is the first book)

Most memorable read:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Brynn Greenwood

Most affecting mainstream fiction with an historical backdrop:
This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Kreuger

Continuing fan of:
Melina Marchetta for The Place on Dalhousie

On board with the rest of the crowd:
Author Sally Hepworth, with The Good Sister being at the top of the list.

And that about covers the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of most of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorite books.

Land of Wolves

I have enjoyed Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series since the beginning, with few exceptions. There has been a book here and there that was a little too weird for me, but mostly I have invested in both the unsentimental policing of the wide open spaces of Wyoming and the slight mysticism brought into the books by Walt’s association with Henry Standing-Bear and the Native Americans living adjacent to Absaroka County. I have never been a big fan of westerns, but this series nicely marries a traditional western feel with interesting mysteries and native lore, which has, for the most part, suited my taste.

All of that changed with book #14 in the series, called Depth of Winter. I don’t know what Mr. Johnson was thinking but, judging from the responses of his fans on Goodreads, it surely wasn’t about them. He took Walt out of context, sending him out of his jurisdiction down to Mexico to fight what amounted to a war with a drug cartel. All the quirky and charming bits for which this series is known were notably absent, as were most of the personnel; and the narrative of the story fulfills the Hobbesian quote “nasty, brutish, and short” to a T. I was both disgusted by and dismayed at the amount of distance covered by Walt as he gave up all logic, pitting himself singlehandedly against this massive foe and then essentially abandoning all who offered to help him to pay the price in order to gain his own objectives. It was ugly.

I breathed a slightly attenuated sigh of relief, then, when I returned to the series with #15, his 2019 offering, to discover that Walt has been returned to Absaroka County and is dealing with a typical mystery for that area, the death of a Basque sheepherder. But this book was definitely a mixed bag. The mystery was weird, to begin with: We didn’t know for most of the book whether the shepherd had committed suicide or had been murdered, and we didn’t find out because the story kept haring off in multiple directions, from a kidnapped boy and a missing man to a lone wolf who has been sighted and blamed for sheep killing, working up the local populace. Usually the author takes all these disparate elements he introduces and weaves them into a coherent whole by the end, but in this case the explanations felt slight and unsatisfactory, and some went unresolved. And even the ones that ended with an explanation seemed tenuous where they should have been forthcoming.

Furthermore, Walt was less than present, due to both physical and mental recovery issues from his time in Mexico, making the narrative—primarily seen from his viewpoint—seem scattered. And although the regular people—Victoria, Saizorbitoria, Ruby, Henry—were once again present and accounted for, they didn’t seem fully realized, and Walt was so out of it that he didn’t pay them much mind, which meant the reader didn’t either. This book wasn’t the horrifying debacle of its predecessor, but it certainly wasn’t Craig Johnson’s best.

I hadn’t realized when I picked this up that I was so far behind with this series: Johnson has already written #s 16 and 17 (with 18 due out later next year), and the stars on Goodreads have been restored to a reassuringly consistent high number from most readers, making me think maybe it is safe to go on. There are also, since I last looked, half a dozen novellas that fall at various places between the full-length books that I could catch up on, for further experiences with Walt and the gang.

Something said towards the end of this book made me wonder if perhaps we will see the end of the series sooner rather than later, so I plan to keep reading, hoping that Johnson manages to avoid almost jumping the shark again, the way Lee Child emphatically did with Jack Reacher. I would hate to have to consign two of my favorite protagonists to the “do not read” pile….

The Venice Sketchbook

Between my inclination to read almost any book that’s about an artist and my steadfast desire to visit Venice someday, I could hardly resist a book with this title. I have read books by Rhys Bowen before (mostly from her Molly Murphy mysteries) and found them pleasant and entertaining without being particularly compelling; this one, while not written to a formula as is the mystery series, had a little more going for it, but its content didn’t quite meet its potential.

This is historical fiction, which is Ms. Bowen’s specialty, but the historical context suffered a bit by her putting the personal stories first and not sufficiently researching some of her background material, which surprised me. And while she tries to set a vibrant scene in Venice, some of her prose felt like generic descriptions from not very original guidebooks.

Part of the problem with the scene-setting may be that both of her characters are so melancholy most of the time that anything they describe carries a pall of personal gloom with it. The story is told from two perspectives—Juliet’s primarily from the war years (1938-45), and Caroline’s from 2001. Juliet Browning was an aspiring artist who attended art school for one year in her youth and then had to drop out and get a job to support the family when her father lost everything on the Stock Exchange in 1928. The story revolves around three separate trips that Juliet makes to Venice: One, when she is just out of school, a cultural pilgrimage chaperoned by her Aunt Hortensia; one, 10 years later, when she is chaperone herself to a group of girls from the school at which she is the art mistress; and a third a year after that, when she is granted a bursary through her school to spend a year in Venice studying at the Art Academie.

In the contemporary story, Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie (Juliet) dies and leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a few final words that include a prompt to go to Venice. Caroline’s son is in New York City with his father, too traumatized (according to his dad, anyway) to fly back to England after the events of 9/11; Caroline decides to take her mind off her troubles by making a pilgrimage to Venice to scatter Juliet’s ashes in the city she loved. She also hopes to find out exactly what happened to Juliet there more than 60 years ago. Until Lettie passed away, Caroline assumed that she had been the same stolid, pleasant spinster her whole life, but perhaps there is a past there.

The plot line hinges on romance: On her first trip to Venice, Juliet meets Leonardo da Rossi, the attractive and charismatic son of one of the ruling families of Venice, and they have a “moment” that is repeated on her second visit. But Leo is destined to marry to suit his family’s business interests, and by the time Juliet returns in 1939, he has been married for some time to Bianca.

Connections that Caroline makes once in Venice lead (somewhat too fortuitously) to her own encounter with a descendent of Leo’s, and with some assistance from and discussion with him, Caroline begins to put together a timeline and a story of her aunt’s days in Venice. A lot of the revelations about Juliet come from a diary that she kept and Caroline discovers, although gaps in it lead to some confusion and false leads until additional clues are acquired. It’s all rather serendipitous.

As I said at the beginning, although this is supposedly a romance about an artist and a beautiful city that steals her heart, the melancholy nature of both the personal and global stories bogs it down. Juliet is first frustrated by the truncated nature of her visit to Venice with her strict aunt; then she is wistful as she conducts her young art school charges around the city, because they don’t seem to appreciate what she would have given anything to experience in their places; and when she finally arrives to stay for a year, living there and studying art, although she does make some friends and have some positive experiences, she is self-conscious about being so much older than the other art students, and she is depressed by the fact that Leo da Rossi is off limits.

Overlaid on Juliet’s story is, of course, the progress of World War II as it relates to Italy and specifically to Venice, and it begins as a constant menace that fails over and over to turn into something concrete, a hovering cloud that never actually rains (so the narrative seems like it contains a lot of false alarms); and then when things finally change for the worse, the story is so relentlessly focused on how it is affecting Juliet and her immediate circle that it’s hard to get an idea of the actual historical facts. I won’t go so far as to say it’s clichéd, but it’s a bit one-dimensional and shallow.

Meanwhile, Caroline is bitter that her husband has left her (after she has supported his career at the expense of hers) to hook up with a famous musician and make good with his fashion designs. She reluctantly agrees to joint custody with Josh of their son, Teddy, six, who stays with her in England during the school year and goes to his father in New York City for the summer and winter holidays. She complains a fair bit about all of it, but doesn’t take any action (like getting a lawyer), and then the outside world intrudes as the planes crash into the World Trade Center, separating her from her son for an extended period. Her impulse is to fly to New York as soon as that becomes possible and take Teddy back, but instead she embarks on this quest to Venice, with all of this hanging over her head.

It’s not all depression and despair—there are fun and funny moments here and there, and some genuine feelings are expressed—but it’s not a happy story, not a traditional romance with a HEA, but also not an achievement for historical fiction. I think that if the background events had been more compellingly and immediately presented, it would have been a better book. I’m not panning it, but it wasn’t a five-star read for me; maybe a three.

Paper magic

I began reading The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg, with great anticipation—as it turns out, too great. Its opening pages reminded me of another series (of which I have read the first two) that I recently loved (and reviewed here), the Art Mages of Lure books by Jordan Rivet, beginning with The Curse Painter. They seemed like similar systems of magic, in which the practitioner invests everything in learning how to bring magic to the world through a particular medium, in that case paint and in this, paper.

In this series there is a particular magical system, in which potentials attend the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined and (ideally) by the end of their studies have discovered with which material or element their skills are best-suited to work. Ceony Twill has graduated at the top of her class with every expectation of being able to choose her path as a magician, and her inclination is towards becoming a Smelter, a worker of bullets, jewelry, and all things metal. Instead, she is informed by her mentor that there is a severe shortage in the world of magicians who can work with paper, and she is therefore being assigned to a Folder for an apprenticeship in paper magic.

Ceony’s level of dismay is more understandable when you realize that once a magician chooses a material with which she will bond, that is her medium for life—there’s no changing over to a different field in this system. Still, her new mentor/trainer, Magician Emery Thane, has much to forgive in her first few days as she in turn exhibits reluctance and indulges in sarcasm and sheer petulance. But as he pursues his rather quirky methods of instructing her in the folding of paper into marvelous creations with all sorts of uses (and also none, save for beauty and whimsy), Ceony is gradually won over to the idea that being a paper magician might have its own appeal.

I loved the book up to this point. The idea of binding to a specific material and only casting through that medium was intriguing, and the initial instruction by Mg. Thane (don’t you love that abbreviation?) in how “folding” works was wonderfully portrayed. Consider if you could use origami techniques to fold a paper crane—or a dog, or a dinosaur!—and, if you’d done it perfectly, being able to say “breathe” to it and bring it to life, or at least to animation. Imagine creating an entire garden out of folded paper tulips that would go back to bud every night and bloom again in the morning, or folding a paper airplane that you could actually use to fly across town.

I also loved the grounding of the book in the transitional period between the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution. Some houses have lightbulbs while others still use gas lamps, or candles. Some drive automobiles while others rely on a horse and buggy for transport. And alongside all this mundane detail, being a magician is equally common—just another job in the world.

Unfortunately, as intrigued with the job of paper folding as she was rapidly becoming, Ceony was also in short order beguiled by the smiling green eyes of her teacher, Mg. Thane. I sighed a little and prepared to be treated to some insta-love alongside the solid characterizations and nice set-up in world-building that Holmberg had created…and then everything went to hell in a handbasket, as people in the 1870s might say.

Why the author chose to hare off on the tangent she did, especially in the first book of the series, is a mystery to me. Suddenly Thane’s ex-wife pops into the picture as a super-villain who takes over the story, even though we have previously never heard of her and are abruptly informed of her ill will towards Thane, his attractive pupil and, in fact, pretty much all and sundry, with a few short sentences about the kind of bad magic she practices; but we have no background on her history, motivations, or abilities. And we are not destined to get any! Instead, she attacks Thane, and Ceony embroils herself (despite being only a couple of weeks into her apprenticeship) in an attempt to save him. Those efforts take up the rest of the book.

I know this is a little spoiler-y, but honestly, I was so exasperated by the turn things took that I couldn’t get over it! There are three more books in this series, although by reading the descriptions it seems like #4 is an add-on; the first three are centered around these two protagonists (Ceony Twill and Emery Thane), while the last seems completely detached per its description. The other books reveal more about the magical system, in that they address people who are able to work glass, plastic, etc., and I am a little tempted to keep reading because of that aspect…but the set-up for book two has Ceony pining over her as-yet lack of attachment to Emery, and I just don’t know if I’m up for it, particularly since there are also promises of a repeat of book one: the introduction of a rogue character who upsets the apple cart again.

I’m not telling you not to read these books; the characters are appealing, and the situations, despite their lack of context, are imaginative. But when I compare this series to the afore-mentioned one by Jordan Rivet, there’s just no contest; and I could wish that this writer had had a more astute editor to say “stop, wait, think” when she decided to take a turn for the dramatic, and point out a more logical, integrated way to pull it off.

GUP

I almost took a pass on The Guncle, by Steven Rowley, after the first 30-some pages. Rowley started out writing Patrick as such a gay cliché (not to mention that he’s an actor, with all that implies), that I couldn’t see a possibility of liking, yet alone identifying with, him as protagonist.

Lest you think this is because I am a “mature” hetero white woman, let me set you straight (pun intended): I worked for more than four years as a typesetter at The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, during the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. Believe me when I say that I have met and, in some cases, befriended for life, every gay cliché in the book.

I couldn’t quite see what Rowley was trying to do. He invented Patrick as superficial, pretentious, cynical, and almost completely self-involved; and then put him in charge of a six-year-old boy and his nine-year-old sister and let him play out all those annoying attributes in condescendingly coy conversations with the kids, who are already in shock from the death of their mother and the retreat of their pill-popping dad into rehab, leaving them with Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP) in a strange, otherworldly place (Palm Springs in summer). (They normally live in Connecticut.)

But once Patrick gives up a certain percentage of his showboating and settles into a daily routine parenting Grant and Maisie and seeing them through the beginning stages of their grief, the story shifts. Patrick had suffered a loss of his own several years previous, when his lover, Joe, died in a car crash and, in the process of trying to be authentic and present for the children, he realizes simultaneously what they need now and what he has needed all along—to talk, to feel, to be in the moment no matter how painful, and to come to terms with life as it is now, on the other side of this cataclysmic event that has deprived them all of someone so vital.

The other advantage that kept me reading was that Rowley knew just how to write these two children. He got the fears, the naïveté, the bravado, the scorn, and all the other emotions and personality traits of children at these ages down pat, and the conversations they have with Patrick and with one another are the meat of the book, containing humor, pathos, practicality, banality, and wisdom.

The tone of the book was mostly light, but there were passages and events that packed some punch. It was also nice to see the effect serving in loco parentis had on Patrick’s long-term self and goals, provoking a willingness to assume more responsibility for his life and theirs. By the end of the book I had mostly forgiven Patrick his self-conscious snobbery and fallen for his undeniable charm, and I wanted to pack up the two kids and take them home with me. There were also some nice interludes between Patrick and one of his neighbors, as well as meaningful interactions with his two siblings (his sister, Grace, and his brother, Greg, father to the kids) that raised the tone.

This kind of book is one of the reasons that I object to the term “women’s fiction” and have rechristened it, at least in my own classification system, as “relationship fiction.” This is a prime example of that kind of novel that celebrates the relationships among families, friends, and significant others, and it is neither written by nor primarily read by women. I would say, if you have the same initial reaction that I did, give it another 30 or 40 pages and see if it doesn’t begin to draw you in and give you the experience for which you were hoping when you picked it up.

(Can I just say that the cover is perfection?)