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events of the day; but it’s not one of those books that either pretentiously or self-consciously proclaims itself as an historical document.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.
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.
I’m having trouble processing this book.
On the one hand, Kathleen Grissom found the raw materials for a rich and powerful historical novel, with the perfect illustration of white privilege over black, even in the most extreme of conditions. It’s an interesting angle—an orphaned Irish child whose parents died owing the ship’s master for their passage is taken and put to work among the slaves on his tobacco plantation, in order to pay off their debt. We get to see by turns the lack of color and class perception on her part, as a naive and frightened seven-year-old who embraces the people around her first as refuge and then as family without understanding status or life situation, versus the total privilege that even a juvenile white indentured servant would be granted above the rights of the adult slaves with whom she lives.
Unfortunately, although the writing is good (if a little repetitive), with several narrative voices meant to showcase the story from all sides, the story quickly slips into stereotype and melodrama. The most genuine part of the book is the voice of the child Lavinia, while the contrapuntal voice of the slave, Belle, who is given initial charge of the young intruder, seems put there simply to fill in background information of which Lavinia wouldn’t be aware—a big flaw in the flow of the narrative. There is a level of personality that doesn’t sufficiently emerge to make Belle a truly compelling character, especially as she mostly disappears from the story in the latter half and only snippets of her thoughts are shared from that point on.
Then, although many (many!) tragic and shocking events take place, the author never seems to get past what is happening to the characters externally. Even though there is some reflection by Lavinia, because she is a child for the first part of the book none of it reflects the truly horrific plot points in any in-depth emotional or philosophical way. It’s observational rather than analytical, and after a while all the bad things become repetitive and predictable, making the reading a slog to get through them and out the other side.
Another big issue I had with the book is the herding of characters into stereotypical positions—inept, passive, hysterical white women; evil, abusive, or at best oblivious and officious white men; black women whose focus is to be mothering; black men who are either pacifist and ineffectual or rebellious and dead; and although some of these stereotypes were assuredly true, this writer presents them all as extreme cases that don’t allow for alternate behavior.
Ultimately, for me there was too much sequential telling about too many events with little reflection or nuance, and it turned into a horror show to be endured while hoping for a happy ending, which of course isn’t going to be there in a book about slavery! So while the details held my attention enough that I finished the book, and it discussed well-illustrated examples of events that typically took place in the antebellum South, I don’t think I could recommend it sheerly as a story, which is a shame, given the themes that could have been developed to better advantage.
…is the title of one of Ursula K. LeGuin‘s short stories, and today is (or would have been) Ursula Kroeber LeGuin’s 91st birthday (she passed away in 2018 at age 88). I am moved to talk a little about her legacy on this significant date because she is one of my favorite authors and has had a profound affect on both my reading tastes and general philosophy over the decades since I began devouring her stories, novels, essays, and writing manuals.
LeGuin was the first woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her fantasy and science fiction, going on after that to win seven more Hugos, five more Nebulas, and 22 Locus Awards. In 2003 she was honored as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, after a controversial career in which she defied many of the traditions of this organization and its members.
She was perhaps best known for her fantasy series about the land of Earthsea, which embraces the theme of equilibrium in a coming-of-age saga, and for her extremely forward-looking book about gender and identity, The Left Hand of Darkness; but she wrote more than 20 novels and 100+ short stories, as well as poetry, essays, translations, literary criticism, and children’s books. Prominent social and political themes ran through most of these, including race, gender, sexuality, and political/social structure, and her named influences were varied: cultural anthropology, Taoism (she made her own translation of the Tao Te Ching), feminism, and the work of Carl Jung.
Some of the seminal ideas in her books include the concepts of equilibrium or balance, the reconciliation of opposites, and the necessity for leaving things alone, exploring sociology, psychology, and philosophy through her characters’ experiences. Likewise her writer’s voice was distinct, using unconventional narrative forms. Literary critic Harold Bloom described Le Guin as an “exquisite stylist,” saying that in her writing, “Every word was exactly in place and every sentence or line had resonance.” According to Bloom, Le Guin was…
If you are unfamiliar with her writing, I urge you to seek it out. I have probably read the original three of the Earthsea trilogy half a dozen times (and the subsequent sequels at least thrice), and I re-read her book The Dispossessed, a moving personal treatise on anarchy and utopia, at least once a decade. Her Hainish novels are delightfully engaging story-telling, and the last one, The Telling, was the catalyst that sent me off to library school in my late 40s. Her short stories, mainstream fiction, and poetry are likewise intriguing, and as an essayist she can’t be topped. Introduce yourself to her books, or recall the ones you remember fondly and revisit them as a tribute to a giant of literature with, as author Michael Chabon wrote after her death…
A Psalm for the Wild Built, by Becky Chambers, was my first experience of reading a book with a protagonist who is nonbinary. That is to say, when the character is referred to by name, it is Dex, but when the character is referred to in the third person, it is they or them.
Although in theory I applaud the notion that one should not have to be constantly identified by one’s gender, the reality of referring to an individual in the plural drove me kind of crazy. I knew this book was supposed to be at least partially about robots, and when Dex was introduced and referred to in the plural, I initially thought that perhaps Dex was one of the robots and that they had a hive mind, so to speak, with all of them experiencing what Dex did and reflecting upon it as a group.
I eventually figured out that it was simply language intended to bypass gender and, indeed, when Dex meets the robot Mosscap, one of the first questions asked is, “Do you have a gender?” Mosscap answers no, and Dex replies, “Me neither.” So that was settled. But once the two met up and were sharing an adventure together, the third-person plural became particularly confusing because when the sentence talked about “they” or “them,” I couldn’t tell, except by concentrating hard on every surrounding word, whether that was referring to Dex and Mosscap, or just to Dex “themself.” (And is themself even a word?)
I have to say that the fact that this grammatical twist didn’t completely put me off the book is a testament to the author’s clever story-telling. I have spent my life as a grammar tyrant, and this new attempt to level the gender barrier is a difficult one for me to take on board. But once I got (somewhat) used to this narrative, I was wholly caught up in the life story of Sibling Dex, a devotee of Allala, whose current mission in life is to be a tea monk.
It’s not like working in a café and offering someone a top-up, it’s more like a mobile Japanese Tea Ceremony combined with therapy. Basically, Dex travels from town to town in a laboratory/home they pedal like a bike (but with solar motor assistance), sets up in each market square by creating an altar of sorts, puts the kettle on to boil, and waits for the people to come. Then, Dex asks each person what they need, the person responds with their exhaustion, their troubles, their questions or fears, and Dex blends them the perfect cup of herbs and spices to address that issue, along with offering such advice as they can muster for whatever the person requires. Sometimes it is concrete advice, but many times it is simply to sit with the issue and drink their tea and solutions will present themselves—or at least they will have had a nice rest and a hot cuppa.
The world-building in this book is so gradual that you don’t realize it’s happening. You come to find out that the planet is not Earth (although the description on Goodreads confusingly says that it is), it’s called Panga. But it shares a past similar to Earth’s, in that it was a technological world in which robots did a lot of the industrial work. At some point (a couple hundred years ago) the robots became sentient and decided that they did not wish to do this work any longer, and the humans (wiser than we would probably be) let them go. The robots dispersed, making a departing Pact that they will check in on the humans from time to time.
One night, just as Dex is anticipating a well-cooked dinner as soon as they finishes (finish?) their shower, that’s just what the robots do, in the person of Splendid Speckled Mosscap (Mosscap for short), who shows up and startles the wits out of Dex. This seven-foot-tall metal robot has a familiar question for Dex: “What do humans need?” and since Dex can’t even answer that question for themself, this begins an ongoing conversation between the two, as they also pursue other goals together.
I won’t say more than that about the story line; but the relationship and the dialogue between these two is both delightful and insightful. I wouldn’t go nearly so far as to compare this book to the late great Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but the conversations did remind me a little of the ones between Genly Ai and Estraven as they endured the dark night of winter alone together.
One Goodreads reviewer characterizes this author’s work as “comfort science fiction,” or “cozypunk,” because the worlds she builds are the idyllic ones in which people learned from the mistakes of the past and moved on in better directions. The reviewer describes it as “a philosophical dialogue in the setting of ecological paradise, a cozy version of Plato’s symposium held in the wilderness with some tea.” I had to quote this (thank you, Nataliya) because it so perfectly describes this good-natured novella. But just as many of us gravitate towards cozy mysteries or cozy love stories, there is a place for the optimistic science fiction novel in the midst of dystopian and post-apocalyptic nightmare, and this book fills that place. I look forward to the sequel, when Dex and Mosscap take their question to a wider audience. (Now, did that “their” refer to both of them, or only to Mosscap’s question? A grammarian can never be sure!)
NOTE: I had to come back in and change three gender referents after the fact! Old habits die hard…
We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker, seems like such a likely thing to happen in our lifetime (and keep in mind that I’m getting older!) that it hardly feels like science fiction. It also perfectly highlights the concept of privilege in a new arena.
Val and Julie are a middle-aged same-sex couple with two children: David, who is Julie’s child, and Sophie, who they adopted after the first pregnancy proved so perilous that it was unwise to consider a second. They are a solidly middle-class couple, Val working as a high school athletics teacher and coach while Julie is an assistant to a prominent senator. They are however, by no means well off, so when David comes home from his exclusive school (his attendance only made possible by the fact that Val teaches there) asking for a Pilot, the latest brain-enhancing technological marvel that all his wealthy classmates are getting, they at first treat it as just another fad whose importance will fade in a few weeks or months. But the brain implant instead becomes a fixture, first in schools as a way to enhance learning and performance, and then in the world at large to promote people’s abilities to multi-task, and soon the implications of being without one can’t be avoided.
Val and Julie reluctantly agree that David can get one, but it’s out of the question for Sophie, who has epileptic seizures and is therefore permanently incompatible. Julie secretly longs to adopt the technology to cope with the ever-expanding duties of her job in the political arena, and soon peer pressure makes it possible for her to claim the necessity. Val is suspicious of the technology and decides to hold out and be Pilotless. Thus the family ends up being the perfect microcosmic showcase for the issues caused by the Pilot in the larger society: Those who adopt the technology move ahead, while those without its supposed benefits are left behind. Soon such things as the dividing of students into classes of the enhanced vs. classes of those who are not begins to draw sharp lines that are also echoed in the adult world. Val, as an abstainer, soon finds herself teaching only classes in which the students don’t have the Pilot. Val and Julie begin to notice differences between them specifically brought up by the effects of the Pilot on Julie. Sophie is outraged by the overt classism and gets involved with a protest group. And David, who joins the military, has issues of his own…
The book is written in four voices—the two moms and the two kids—and gives the overall experience of this innovation from each of their viewpoints, as well as illustrating what can happen in the larger world when a technology is universally acclaimed, and the private sector unites with the government to promote it without truly considering all the ramifications. The technology becomes yet another point of contention, with the haves and the have-nots squared off against one another as the acquisition of the Pilot becomes the new normal.
This is not an action-packed book, although quite a bit happens in each of the four protagonists’ lives; it is, rather, a slow uneasy build towards the revelation of the consequences a hastily adopted innovation could have on a society unprepared for its effects. As the family navigate the changes the technology brings, they struggle with both interior and exterior conflicts, the author moving between points of view but always keeping the overall focus on the family as a unit so that the effects can really be seen as a whole. The technology and the secrets surrounding it (let’s face it, public relations and marketing people are hardly going to reveal negative effects of a positively received product!) are the main thread that moves the narrative, but the characters end up being the heart of the story.
As a science fiction fan, I would have liked a little more explication of the device itself—with what part of the brain it interacts, how specifically it was invented and tested, and so on—but this is, of course, where science fiction sometimes punts, particularly in the hands of a less experienced author. We are, ironically, asked to take the science on faith and focus rather on the outcome. But this scenario seemed like such a likely one that I didn’t really mind that much. And I loved the implications of the little blue LED light that indicated the Pilot’s presence or absence in an individual’s brain.
Although two of the characters in this book start out as teenagers and are still young by the end of the story, this book seems primarily geared towards adult readers. It has a certain dispassionate tone, even in moments of great emotion, that might put off some readers. But if you enjoy the adult titles in particular of Cory Doctorow, with their exploration of the sometimes abrupt and divisive effects of technology on the prevailing culture, you will probably equally enjoy We Are Satellites.
Note: I think the cover is so odd—the children are both in their teens at the start of this story, and I can’t figure out why they depicted an adult and child on the cover. I find the title less than descriptive as well.
If it’s August, it must be time for the annual Inspector Gamache mystery by Louise Penny. It’s amazing to me that she can keep turning one out every year, no matter what. A few times I feel like the series has suffered, but mostly they are intricately plotted, with intelligent dialogue, in-depth philosophy, and compelling characters. This one was no exception, although there were a few moments while reading it that I wanted to say, Where is your editor in all of this?
The setting is once again the village of Three Pines, south of Montreal, Quebec (the previous book in the series occurred while the Gamaches and Beauvoirs were on a visit to Paris), and it is post-covid. I’m sure that when Penny wrote it, she anticipated a legitimate post-covid world in which everyone was going about their normal lives again instead of one plagued by variants that threaten to keep us in masks and in isolation for yet another season (or year). But at the heart of her plot is a moral issue that has sprung to life partially as a result of the medical shortages and triage of the worst days of the epidemic, and it’s dark.
Never assay a Penny mystery expecting it to be an ordinary police procedural. She incorporates not only philosophy and politics, but also art and poetry, and while the police work is meticulous, the feelings and intuitions of the officers involved (with Gamache at their head) are always as essential as are the bare facts of the case. One of the things I enjoy about Penny is that she inserts real poems and quotes and books into her fictional works; the title of this one is based on a book by Charles Mackay, called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. She immediately made me want to seek it out.
This book uses its characters and story to explore such social issues as disinformation and propaganda, xenophobia, and eugenics. I feel like her pivotal character, Professor Abigail Robinson, is consciously modeled on some of the charismatic but wildly morally skewed characters who have appeared as players in the recent American story, in the way that she divides the culture in two over the validity of her theories with the sheer strength of personality and certitude.
One Goodreads reviewer opines that this novel is “the most allegorical of Louise Penny’s work. The actual murder is incidental to the plot, serving only as a springboard to examine morality on both personal and societal levels.” I’m not sure I would go that far; but there is occasionally an arms-length feel to the crime they are supposed to be solving, as opposed to the debate they are constantly having.
Gamache is asked to provide security at a lecture being given by a professor of statistics. Given the presumably dry content of a speech on statistical analysis and the fact that it’s taking place at an obscure university auditorium in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Gamache is puzzled as to why anyone would approach the Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec to oversee this task; but then he does a little research on the likely content of the professor’s speech and immediately musters a far bigger response than anyone would expect at what should be an incidental, poorly attended event. More people show up than the venue can accommodate, and Gamache has a volatile and angry crowd on his hands as the professor steps up to speak.
One thing that bothered me about this book is how long it takes to reveal the specific contents of the professor’s government-solicited (but later repudiated) report on which her call for action is based. Another was how long it took to get to the actual murder, using some “foreplay” crime to keep the reader going until we arrive. And a third was the resolution of the mystery: There were multiple individuals who could have been the culprit, and none of them stands out for long, as facts are discovered that exonerate each one, only to raise more doubts about the others and then circle back around again. It felt like Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste spent an aeon going over basically similar theories for why each person was or could be the murderer, and they all made sense! This is one of the few of her books that didn’t have that “Ahah!” moment in it when the unexpected solution arises and proves to be the truth. I think this is probably because Penny wanted the social commentary, rather than the murder, to be the star of the show…but it made the actual mystery a long, drawn-out process.
With all this caveating (is that a word?), I was still thoroughly engaged by and absorbed in the story. We are reunited with familiar villagers, get to know others who haven’t been prominent before, and are also introduced to a variety of strangers, each of whom brings their own twist to the plot. The physical details are, as usual, spot-on for a winter interlude in coldest Canada, and made me want to drink hot chocolate even in 100-degree Los Angeles! (I sometimes wish that her annual pub-date was in February, so I could be in accord with her characters as they snuggle up with comfort food and beverages around the fire.) And the moral dilemma around which the entire plot is wrapped is likewise riveting, albeit deeply disturbing.
I made a comment in my review of A Better Man (two books back) about a stylistic shift I saw taking place in Penny’s writing structure and, while I noticed that it mostly disappeared again in All the Devils Are Here, it’s back in this book. She does this short-phrase, incomplete-sentence thing that can occasionally work as a device to emphasize something, but is less pleasing when it constantly occurs. Perhaps she (or her editor) will see this comment, here or elsewhere and, taking it to heart, go back to the more fluid literary construct of yore. But even with that, I still give the book four stars out of five.
The topic for this list is fantasy. I’m going to include both stand-alone and series, both old and new, and from different subgenres, so all is hopefully represented. I will note that some of my choices may be found in the Young Adult section of the library, but I include them here because I believe them to be works that probably should have been released as mainstream, rather than under the YA banner; they would appeal to anyone who likes the fantastical, the speculative, the magical, the offbeat and quirky. Adults who read fantasy should seek these out!
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the best fantasies out there, merely my choices from among my extensive pursuit of the genre. I hope you find something new, or new to you, that satisfies your preference as well.
Alphabetical, by author’s last name:
ADAMS, RICHARD: The Beklan Empire. This is a duology—Shardik and Maya—and although some of the events of Maya predate those of Shardik, that book should be read first and Maya treated as a flashback, or there will be many things that are unclear. This is what I would term an epic fantasy, featuring in the starring roles a giant bear and a simple hunter, Kelderek, who believes the bear to be divine, a prophesied savior of his semi-barbaric people. Kelderek follows both his and the bear’s destiny, first as a humble devotee and ultimately as a priest-king of an empire. The story continues in Maya with a very specific viewpoint (from the perspective of a “bed girl”) on how the empire has evolved under the priest-king’s stewardship.
BARDUGO, LEIGH: The Six of Crows duology—Six of Crows, and Crooked Kingdom. Some are more familiar with Bardugo for her Shadow and Bone trilogy about the Grisha, but I much prefer this duology, written later, set in the same general universe, but without all the magic and (mostly unrequited) angsty teen love. This duology features a gang of characters—a thief, a sharpshooter, a spy, and more—fighting their way up from the underbelly of their society to get what’s theirs and wreak revenge on those who took it from them. There is attraction among the characters, but it’s subtle and doesn’t take over the story. The books are set in an alternate universe much like a slightly medieval Amsterdam, in its alley-ways, bordellos, warehouses, and other haunts of the city’s outcasts. The language is beautiful, the plotting is compelling, and the characters are unique.
CASHORE, KRISTIN: The Graceling Realm—Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue. I absolutely adore Graceling, but it’s not for everyone. But if you like a story with an underdog who triumphs, with magic but also encompassing real, tangible hardships and joys plus a love story, you may feel about it as I do. Graceling is set in the Five Kingdoms, where children who are born with eyes that are two different colors are recognized as possessing some exceptional skill or Grace. For some it’s as mundane as being able to curl your tongue, while for others it’s a power akin to magic. In one of the five kingdoms, the ruler requires that any child who has a gift revealed by the two-color eyes be given up by their parents and delivered to his service. This is how Katsa becomes the king’s assassin: Her Grace is killing. But the darkness of her gift casts a heavy shadow over Katsa, so when the opportunity comes to stop killing but nonetheless put her associated skills to good use, she takes it, embarking on an adventure that will require all her resources. This is an odd grouping of books: Fire, the second in the series, features another protagonist from a different one of the kingdoms and with a peripheral relationship to the first book, and Bitterblue, the third book, is the actual sequel to Graceling, but takes place some years later. I enjoyed them all, but the first the most. They remind me of the books of Robin McKinley.
FFORDE, JASPER: The Last Dragonslayer, The Song of the Quarkbeast, The Eye of Zoltar, and the upcoming Jennifer Strange: Humans v. Trolls. This series has been promoted (although I’m not sure the author had that intention) as reading for children. In fact, the content is filled with satire, parody, and sly, inside jokes about the British Empire that no child reading it will ever perceive. And while some teens like the series well enough, I have found it to be much more popular with adult readers who can appreciate its subtleties. The story is about a 15-year-old foundling named Jennifer Strange, who runs Kazam, an employment agency for magicians. The problem is, magic is fading, and where magicians used to take on major projects, now the guy with the magic carpet delivers pizza. The magicians who live at and work from Kazam (an old hotel) rely on faded glory rather than actual present talent, and it takes an ideal combination of tact and motivational speaking on Jennifer’s part to keep the agency going. But then a precognitive vision starts circulating the land, predicting the death of the world’s last dragon at the hands of an unnamed Dragonslayer. If the visions are true, Big Magic is on its way. There are currently three books in the series, with the fourth promised “sometime in 2021” (I have this direct from Fforde himself, in an email).
GODWIN, PARKE: Firelord, Beloved Exile. This is one of the best, most realistically depicted stories about the life, triumph, and death of Artorius Pendragon—the legendary King Arthur. The first tells his story, in the wake of the Roman abandonment of its British holdings, and the second is about what happens to Guinevere and his kingdom after his death. Gripping, gritty, and also lyrical.
HARTMAN, RACHEL: Seraphina, Shadow Scale, Tess of the Road. If you are an aficionado of dragon books and dragon lore, you must read Hartman’s take on them. The story is set in the kingdom of Goredd, a medieval world where there has been an uneasy truce between dragons and humans for about 40 years. The dragons, shapeshifters who can take on human guise, bring their gift of rationality and mathematical expertise to humans as scholars and teachers at the university. Seraphina Dombegh, a gifted musician who plays in the court orchestra, has become aware of tensions between humans and dragons, and when a member of the royal family is murdered in a specifically draconian fashion, she is drawn into the investigation. But Seraphina herself has a secret, and she struggles to protect it as she teams up with the captain of the Queen’s guard to discover a sinister plot to destroy the interspecies treaty. Original, thought-provoking, with sly humor and dark moments. The third book is not a direct sequel, but takes place in the same “universe” with a few of the same characters appearing in minor roles.
HOBB, ROBIN: The Farseer Trilogy—Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin’s Quest. I have only recently discovered Robin Hobb and am currently halfway through the third book in this trilogy. The world-building is absolutely riveting, and the depth and complexity of character development carries you away into the land of the Six Duchies with no desire to leave. The protagonist, FitzChivalry, is the bastard son of the King-In-Waiting to the throne of the Six Duchies, but his very existence causes his father to abdicate, leaving it to the second son, Verity. But son #3, Regal, is determined that he will be the one to rule, and he is willing to take any measures to make that happen, including eliminating all competition—his father, his brother, and the Bastard. This is a fascinating look at a kingdom and a dynasty from the perspective of one of its lowliest subjects, who is, despite his own wish for a simple, peaceful life, destined to be the Catalyst to resolve the kingdom’s problems or die trying—to which fate he comes perilously close on multiple occasions. There are magical abilities manifested by some of the characters, but these hinder as much as help, and it is the raw humanity that sticks with you from this story. Hobb has other series, which I will be seeking out soon!
KLUNE, T. J.: The House in the Cerulean Sea. An unalloyed delight from start to finish. Here is my recent review. Don’t miss this one.
LEGUIN, URSULA K.: The Earthsea cycle—A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other Wind. This started out many years ago as a self-contained trilogy, but then LeGuin came back to it and wrote three more books (one of them is short stories). LeGuin is a masterful storyteller, with a combination of simplicity and profundity that no one else can match. The boy known as Sparrowhawk, a herder of goats from a small outlying island, gets a taste of the power of magic and pursues it to the Isle of Wizards. But in his quest for skill and knowledge, he tampers with powers beyond his abilities and looses a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing: how he masters the mighty words of power, confronts an ancient dragon, rescues a girl from an unimaginable life, discovers a prince, and crosses death’s threshold to restore balance to the world.
de LINT, CHARLES: The Newford books—too many to list here. De Lint writes urban fantasy, set in the mythical city of Newford (compared to Montréal, Canada). They are wonderful in that they seem to be about a group of regular friends, but then magical elements seep in from across the veil to invade everyday life with whimsy and wonder. My favorites of his are Trader, about a musician who doesn’t appreciate his life until he has it forcibly taken away from him when a loser manages to use Inuit magic to swap bodies with him, and Memory and Dream, in which a young artist learns to physically paint her fantasy people into real life. But there are many other titles to be enjoyed.
MARCHETTA, MELINA: The Lumatere Chronicles—Finnikin of the Rock, Froi of the Exiles, Quintana of Charyn. This is a trilogy that is harder than it should be to promote because, although the first book is good, it’s not far beyond the ordinary. (I shouldn’t downplay it too much—it consistently receives five stars on Goodreads.) But the second and third books in the trilogy are so amazingly conceived of and written that I am on a constant quest to convince people to read the first so that they can benefit from the others! In Finnikin of the Rock, a false king has taken over a kingdom, slaying the entire royal family; he has also put to death the high priestess of one of the goddesses worshipped there. As she dies, she curses the kingdom so that all still in it are trapped inside, and all outside its borders are exiled. The story starts 10 years later, as Finnikin, best friend of the young prince of the true ruling family, meets Evanjelin, a strange novice from a religious retreat house who claims that they both have a role in restoring the kingdom. Froi of the Exiles and Quintana of Charyn pick up with characters we met in the first book, about three years after those incidents. The richness of the world, the depth and versatility of the characters, the emotion infusing everything make this a magnificent series worthy of much more attention by fantasy readers.
McGUIRE, SEANAN: The Wayward Children series—Every Heart A Doorway is the first, and there are five more so far. Among all the old tales are those of children who have disappeared, who have departed through the back of a wardrobe, jumped down a rabbit hole, walked through a mirror, and have arrived somewhere else. But nobody ever talks about what happens to those children who return from their alternate worlds. How do they adjust to being regular people in a mundane life? And what happens to those who just can’t? Eleanor West runs a home for those wayward children, whose parents believe Eleanor is attempting to bring the children back to a sense of their place in the real world. But Miss West’s actual intentions are to enable them to return to the worlds where they truly feel at home. These books are little jewels, more novella length than full novels, but fully realized, beautifully imagined, and skillfully written.
McGuire also writes urban fantasy; I love one of the series (The InCryptids), and dislike the other (October Daye), but you must decide for yourself.
McKINLEY, ROBIN: Almost all standalones, too many to list. McKinley’s success for me is uneven; I absolutely love some, and don’t care for others at all. Her Damar duology—The Hero and the Crown, and The Blue Sword—are wonderful classic fantasy. Of her others, I also love Deerskin, Chalice, Sunshine, and Shadows, all completely different one from another.
NOVIK, NAOMI: I reviewed her book Spinning Silver here; it’s the only one I have read as of yet, but I fully intend to follow up with her.
OWEN, MARGARET: Reviews of her duology are here for The Merciful Crow and here for The Faithless Hawk. I was blown away when I discovered these were first books for her; they are so full of nuance that I believed her to be a long-established writer.
PIERCE, TAMORA: The Beka Cooper trilogy—Terrier, Bloodhound, Mastiff. Most of Tamora Pierce’s books about the kingdom of Tortall, a semi-feudal land populated by knights and ladies, craftspeople and thieves, commoners, and some supernatural creatures, are written specifically for middle-school readers. But one trilogy from all the Tortall “cycles” stands out as something quite different. Beka Cooper is a young woman, but she is more woman than girl, and virtually everyone else in the books is an adult. The series fluidly combines medieval fantasy with mystery and police procedural, using a memoir format. The characters are engaging, the themes are sophisticated, and the mysteries are well paced and satisfying. Beka is a “Dog,” which is the nomenclature used to refer to police officers in the Provost’s Guard. In the first book, Terrier, she is in her trainee year, assigned to two veteran officers. In Bloodhound, the second book, she ends up with a canine partner, a scent hound she rescues from an abusive handler. She, the hound, and one of her former training partners are sent undercover to another city to research the spread of counterfeit silver destroying its economy. The third book, Mastiff, pairs Beka with the other of her training officers, on an assignment critical to the fate of the Tortallan royal family and government. The supernatural element is the hardest to accept for some readers—Beka gets messages from the recently dead by listening to their voices, which are carried by pigeons, and she also gathers clues by standing in the middle of dust devils, picking up conversation the dust devil has absorbed. But these details, plus the made-up dialect for the Tortallan lower city inhabitants, gives a more special cast to this already compelling series. One warning: The books start out with a flash-forward to the journal of one of Beka’s descendents, and this element is completely confusing (and somewhat off-putting) in reference to the rest of each book. I would skip these prologues and perhaps return to them after reading the rest.
PRATCHETT, TERRY: The Tiffany Aching books—The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight, The Shepherd’s Crown. One of the most delightful fantasy series ever written, in my opinion—a wonderful combination of sincerity and message with tongue-in-cheek hilarity. It begins with young Tiffany, granddaughter of the Witch of the Chalk (although to Tiffany she’s just her granny), having to stave off an attack by an evil water sprite on her baby brother while armed only with a frying pan. When the Queen of the Faeries later kidnaps her brother, she seeks allies in the Nac Mac Feegle (the wee free men of the title), a clan of sheep-stealing, sword-wielding six-inch high blue men with Scottish kilts and the dialect to match. Subsequent books show Tiffany preparing to herself become the Witch of the Chalk, through various means and with a highly divergent cast of characters. By turns vastly entertaining and quite touching, with puns galore and lots of witchy wisdom, plus the Feegle for leavening.
SCHWAB, V. E. (VICTORIA): The Shades of Magic trilogy—
A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, A Conjuring of Light. In this world, there are four parallel Londons: Red, Grey, White, and (no longer accessible) Black. Kell is an Antari, a magician with the ability to travel between them. Kell was raised in Red London and serves the monarchy of that empire as an ambassador. He’s also a smuggler, not attuned enough to the dangerous consequences of his actions. When an exchange goes badly, he escapes to Grey London, where he encounters Delilah Bard, a pickpocket with aspirations (she wants to be a pirate), who first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, ultimately convincing him to take her to a London with magic. The two end up being major players in events of consequence to all the Londons. Great characters and a gripping adventure.
Schwab is also the author of the books Vicious and Vengeful (more sci fi than fantasy), with a third book upcoming, and the recent bestseller The Invisible Life of Addie Larue. So different are all these one from another that they truly showcase Schwab’s masterful talent. Vicious is one of my favorite books of all time—don’t miss it.
STIEFVATER, MAGGIE: The Shiver trilogy, the Raven Cycle, the Dreamer trilogy, The Scorpio Races… Do NOT let the fact that these are all shelved in Young Adult deter you from reading an amazing fantasy writer. The Shiver books are more YA than the others, but if you like tales of werewolves and doomed love you will enjoy them. The Raven Cycle and the Dreamer trilogy take place in the same universe and are complex, interesting, and original. The Scorpio Races is another favorite of mine (I was a horsey girl at age 12). Check her out.
TAYLOR, LAINI: Strange the Dreamer, and Muse of Nightmares. At the center of these two books is Lazlo Strange, a foundling, a librarian’s assistant with his head full of stories. He never believed, while growing up as an orphan with the priests, that his adventures would extend beyond his current world. But humans, gods, and monsters all conspire to make Lazlo the protagonist of this fascinating tale, luring him across the great desert Elmuthaleth to the city now known as Weep, which cowers in the shadow of a giant metal seraph in the sky with nightmares at its heart. Lush language, complexities of emotion, and conflicts of conscience characterize this sophisticated fiction that simultaneously manages to deal with larger issues but still be a whale of a good story, with conflicts and twists and gripping love.
TURNER, MEGAN WHALEN: The Queen’s Thief series. This series has suffered from two unfortunate circumstances: It was billed for some reason as a series for children, which it emphatically is not; and because of this fact, the cover art on the original book was juvenile in appearance and served to sink the series into the realm of unread 5th-grade fiction. (The publisher also stubbornly maintains that the books in this series may be read as stand-alones, which is emphatically not the case. You must read them all, and in order!)
In reality, while the writing is deceptively simple, the story line is sophisticated, sly, and engaging to the most adult of readers. This is one of those series whose first book is good but maybe not great, but in which each subsequent book grows in interest, in style, in sophistication, until by the end there has been an exponential increase in enjoyment. The first book is The Thief, narrated by a rather mysterious young man named Gen, who has gotten himself into hot water through his daring thefts and now must serve as a guide to a hidden treasure for the king’s mage and his companions. The journey (and the story) seem fairly commonplace until the ending, when everything you know gets turned upside down and makes you immediately want to reread the book with this additional knowledge. The second book is narrated by the queen of an adjacent kingdom; the third by a soldier who serves that queen; the fourth by the heir to a perilous heritage he is being prevented from achieving; the fifth by a slave of a great power across the ocean, and the last brings us back full circle to Eugenides (Gen). The series is set, unlike most fantasy, in more of a Greek islands type theme, with the islands being ruled by various royal houses who are all threatened with conquest by the Medean Empire. This is my favorite fantasy series ever, hands down.
WHEW! that was a long post! But I hope it enables you to you spend a summer immersed in fantasy, if that is your wish!
I didn’t know what to expect when beginning A Woman Is No Man, by Etaf Rum, although the title of course gave me clues. And having read it, I’m not sure what exactly I was able to take from it.
The story is an intergenerational saga about Arab women. The two main protagonists are Isra, and Isra’s daughter Deya, separated by 17 years but experiencing many of the same life choices. Isra was born and raised in Palestine in a restrictive, traditional home, with a mother obsessed with getting her married off properly at the youngest age possible. Although Isra realizes her life is not ideal, in Palestine she has at least the beauty of the landscape in which she lives, and which she loves. But when her mother picks the suitor from America, whose family is visiting Palestine to find him a bride, Isra can’t help letting a tiny bit of excitement surface about what her new life might be like in America. She envisions certain freedoms her parents would never have permitted her, and she hopes to find love with her taciturn young suitor, Adam, the eldest in a family of three boys and a girl.
The reality is far different. Her home is in the basement of her inlaws’ house, with one window that looks out on a street barren of all greenery but a plane tree or two. Her mother-in-law, Fareeda, is every bit as conservative as Isra’s own family—all she wants from Isra is for her to relieve Fareeda from the cooking and cleaning and to produce a male heir for the family. There is no question of college, a job, or even a walk around the block on her own; Isra is essentially a prisoner of her new family’s culture, as stultifying as the old. Fareeda’s obsession with a male grandson prompts pregnancy after pregnancy for Isra, who is “unlucky” enough to bear only girls.
Seventeen years after Isra came to New York, we see the same household, headed by Fareeda, from the viewpoint of Deya, Isra and Adam’s eldest daughter. Adam and Isra are dead, and the girls are being raised by their grandparents. Deya is now the one in the hotseat being exhorted to pick a suitor, and though she has expressed interest in college and some kind of life outside the home and the marriage bond, no one is listening to her…until she meets a strangely familiar woman who urges her to stand up for herself and refuse to perpetuate the life of restriction and abuse experienced by her mother.
I’m really torn by how to react to this book. I feel like the representation rings true, but I’m not sure how widespread is this author’s experience in the context of present-day Palestinian Americans. I applaud the author for taking on the difficult subjects of generational discrimination and family/spousal abuse, but even though the point she is making is that the women who suffer from this are essentially prisoners of a tiny sequestered life, I found myself becoming bored and impatient with the incessant, repetitive details of that life. Despite being the recipient of awards and encomiums from critics, this is not beautifully written literary fiction, but simply a straightforward narrative. There are occasional flights of fancy that draw one in, but it’s mainly kind of a slog.
Also, the usual result of telling a story from the perspective of two generations is that the more recent one has learned something from the experiences of the previous one; but in this book, I feel like in some ways Isra and Deya are almost interchangeable, both in their experience and their thought patterns; neither of them is able to articulate their situations. They dither a lot without drawing conclusions because the basic question, “What do you want?” seems to be so far beyond them, which, while possibly being the point, is also deeply unsatisfying. It made the story both horrifying and boring, and I don’t know what to do with that. I kept reading to the end, and was confused all over again.
I can’t say I’m happy to have read this book, but perhaps I can express gratitude that it’s in the world for those who need it and will benefit by it? It gives a voice to a certain sector of the Arab Muslim community, but its lack of nuance will enrage some, even as they acknowledge the representation.
From my first glimpse of the whimsical cover illustration with its charming lettering,
I had high hopes that I would love this book. It reminded me in some ways of another unexpected pleasure, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, by Trenton Lee Stewart. They have some similar central themes—difference, acceptance, empathy, friendship—but I would say that whereas Nicholas Benedict is primarily written for children, this book—though certainly appropriate for youth above a certain age—is definitely targeted towards the adults in the audience, despite its population of characters who are six years old. Just like another favorite of mine—The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde—this is fantasy that, while it may appeal to people of all ages, can only be fully appreciated by an understanding of the nuance, the inferences, the underlying message.
Linus Baker is the quintessential civil servant. He works hard at his mid-level job, refrains from involvement in the petty office politics that surround him, and spends his scant leisure time snug at home with his cat, Calliope, and his vintage record player. He is occasionally made unhappy by the arbitrary pronouncements of his immediate supervisor and her lackey, and is also sometimes discouraged by the unrelenting rain that afflicts the city in which he lives, but since these things have been essentially the same for the past 17 years, he doesn’t think about it much.
Linus works for DICOMY, the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, as a Case Worker. His job is to investigate the state-run orphanages specifically designated for the housing of children with special powers and gifts, and to make recommendations regarding the best care of the orphans. He is painstakingly thorough at this job, but has learned not to look past his final reports to wonder what happens once he has been and gone.
One particularly miserable morning, Linus is summoned to meet with Extremely Upper Management, and they tell him that because of the excellence of his reports related to previous endeavors, he has been selected to investigate Marsyas Island Orphanage, a level-four classified institution that houses some of the rarest and most dangerous children, to comment on the welfare of those housed there and also on the caretaker, one Arthur Parnassus.
Linus’s journey to the island is the beginning of an adventure that initially seems wasted on this stuffy 40-year-old bureaucrat, but which proves to be a transformation for all involved.
This story was an unalloyed delight from start to finish. The level of exaggeration in the set-up is borderline ridiculous, and yet renders the rest of it perfectly realized. It’s a character-driven tale, and oh what characters! In contrast to the stereotypical nature of those appearing in the first section, the children of the orphanage are as diverse as an author could imagine: The six children are either completely or virtually unique, either the last or only of their kind, or at least exceedingly rare, and this isn’t just a commentary on their magical natures but also on their personalities. Likewise, Arthur Parnassus is an enigma worth exploring, and Linus Baker soon discovers that he is very much interested in doing so, though it be against his conscious will, which is obsessed with strictly following the Rules and Regulations.
Linus has been allotted a month on the island to do his research, write four weekly reports, and deliver his conclusions to Extremely Upper Management, and though initially dismayed by the prospect, Arthur and the children soon draw him into their isolated little world and cause him to embrace feelings he has never before experienced. The level of unconditional love and kindness expressed is heartwarming, and yet this is not a cloying story but rather a plea by the different among us to be seen, recognized, and accepted with all their idiosyncrasies. It asks tough questions about prejudice and complacency, and challenges our need to categorize people into stereotypes in order to deal with—or forget—them more easily. But ultimately the book is all about hope and about love that doesn’t discriminate. As I said in my title, it has all the feels. I can’t give it higher praise than to say that while it made me laugh and entertained me thoroughly, it also made me want to be a better person. It’s the perfect book for that moment when your faith in people is slipping.
Just for fun, I decided to illustrate one of the opening scenes when Linus Baker arrives on the island and confronts some of the children. The green blob is Chauncey, whose sweet nature belies his monstrous form, and whose most dearly held wish is to become a bell-boy at a hotel in the city (thus the bellman’s cap). He has come to greet Linus and deal with his luggage. The Pomeranian peeking out from behind him (and faintly visible in his entirety through the amorphous blob of Chauncey’s body) is Sal, a large, shy, silent boy who shifts, in moments of panic, into the form of a small dog.