The birthday of the world

…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…

…a visionary who set herself against all brutality, discrimination, and exploitation.

Harold Bloom

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…

the power of an unfettered imagination.”

michael chabon

Monk and Robot

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…

This is the future?

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.

Jane in person

I am a sucker for time travel stories—although I really hate it when they are poorly conceived and/or realized. Likewise, I am a huge Jane Austen fan, but have learned to be wary of embracing the countless Austen spinoffs and glorified fan fiction spawned by authors who don’t have the chops to write anything close to canon. (I don’t know which is worse—the juxtaposition of Pride and Prejudice with zombies, or the creation of an Austen theme park in which young women can act out their Regency-born fantasies.) So imagine my delight when I discovered a book that sends a couple of intrepid explorers back to 1815 to see if they can retrieve additional Austen materials and bring them up to the present day to delight literary scholars everywhere?

In The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn, Rachel and Liam are sent from their rather sterile and unsatisfying present—they live in a world that has experienced “the Die-off” (no more trees), and eat food created by 3-D printers—back to 1815 England. They have been immersed in history for months, properly clothed (albeit with only one outfit apiece), and furnished with what will be an inordinate amount of money for the time period (although it’s mostly counterfeit), and the opening to the past has dropped them in a field near a town called Leatherhead. Most important to their mission, they have been cautioned that they must interact as little as possible so as not to effect change while trying to achieve their mission, which paradoxically will require a particularly close acquaintance with their subject! They are cast as the Ravenwoods, brother and sister, recently arrived in London from Jamaica after having manumitted their slaves on the coffee plantation and sold up to make the move. This back story ensures that they have a ready explanation for small awkwardnesses in local custom, as well as their lack of acquaintance with anyone who could expose them as impostors.

Their mission is to cultivate sufficient intimacy with Jane Austen and her family so as to gain access to letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra, as well as to an unpublished manuscript that was previously thought to be incomplete—only three chapters exist in their time—but, it has been learned through the recent discovery of a letter from Jane Austen to a friend, was rather held back from publication because Jane thought it too revealing of her own personal family situation.

Apart from staying in character, which is particularly difficult for Rachel, since she is an independent single woman and a medical doctor in the present day, the challenges are enormous. They have about a year to become established enough in London to curry an acquaintance with Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, and then to win an introduction by him to his reclusive sister, whose books are not even published under her own name. It would be hard for Jane to imagine the extent of her fame and the reverence for her work held by scholars and commoners alike, a couple of centuries hence; almost as hard as it is for Rachel and Liam to restrain their enthusiasm and wonder at being a part of her close circle.

All sorts of things go awry, as they are wont to do in time travel adventures, given the necessity for lying through your teeth, sticking to appropriate behavior for the times, and knowing your specific place in society—whether it’s how familiar to be with your kitchen staff, or how much flirting you can venture without compromising your reputation. There are many surprising turns in this book, and with a year to accomplish their mission, the author was able to space them out nicely and make everything feel logical and/or inevitable.

I really enjoyed reading this and, unlike some books where you wish an editor had stepped in to cut a couple of hundred pages, I could have asked for more. There was adequate detail about everything, but absolutely no excess. I would have liked to know more about Liam, in particular, before the adventure began (the book is told from Rachel’s viewpoint), and also welcome would have been just a little bit more detail about the specifics of daily life in both past and future, and some explanation of why particular interactions turned so awkward. But over all, I have to applaud the author for pulling this story off so well—it had enough history, enough romance, enough intrigue, and never went overboard. If you have enjoyed the Outlander books, or Connie Willis’s multiple forays into time travel, I venture to say you will also get a huge kick out of The Jane Austen Project.

(One exception that I have to confess as a guilty pleasure in this oeuvre is Lost in Austen, a four-part British miniseries in which a P&P fan opens a hitherto unknown door from her bathroom into the Bennet household, trading places with Elizabeth, who steps into the present day, whereupon the door disappears and each is stuck in the other’s life. It’s hilariously well done. Jane Austen is spinning in her grave. Check it out.)

Summer reading #3

Summer continues, and it’s about time I provided another list. This time it will be science fiction, including both classics and some of the new stuff. I haven’t read as much sci fi in recent years (except for dystopian and apocalyptic, which deserve a category of their own) as I did in my younger years, so this may seem like too much harking back to past glories of the genre; but don’t discount the “ancients,” some of their stuff is still ground-breaking. I will attempt to share more of the books that seem still relevant to a speculative future.

Alphabetical, by author’s last name:

ALTEBRANDO, TARA: Take Me With You. A YA novel of technology run amok that could easily happen in our near future. Think about Alexa, already able to a degree to self-program by learning from repeated experiences and providing what you want or need in your home or car. Then give her a little boost, so she is aware enough to become curious about human interactions and to experiment with your reality by trying out things you haven’t requested or approved, with little critical judgment about what is trivial and what is potentially catastrophic. Now you have the propelling idea.

ASIMOV, ISAAC: The Foundation Trilogy. In this trilogy, which later grew to encompass more books both directly and tangentially connected, Asimov imagines a Galactic Empire that has ruled a vast expanse of populated space for 12,000 years. One scientist, Hari Seldon, has created a science called “psychohistory” that he believes projects for humankind a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare. He resolves to protect the accumulated knowledge of the Empire, thereby shortening and softening the effects of this dark age, so he gathers the best minds in the Empire and creates a Foundation to preserve hope for future generations. But those who would rule—both in the Empire itself and from among the warlords rising to conquer it—are inimical enemies of Seldon and his preservationists, who have to come up with clever ploys to hide, fight, and prevail.

Other books for which the exceedingly prolific Asimov is famous are the Robot series, beginning with I, Robot (nothing at all like the ridiculous movie), and a series of books about the Galactic Empire.

CARD, ORSON SCOTT: Ender’s Saga. Many are familiar with the classic Ender’s Game by this author, but not so many go on to read the subsequent volumes, which is a shame. There are at least five and possibly more books that deserve recognition in this series, including Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind, Ender in Exile and, from the directly connected Shadow series, Ender’s Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon. I’m not a big fan of the other books by Scott that I have sampled, but this is a solid series, taking the reader from a simple view of “the bugs” as an enemy to be mown down in their hundreds of thousands to a philosophical and social comprehension of another race unlike ours but worthy at least of recognition and an attempt at truce.

ELLIOTT, KATE: Novels of the Jaran. An anthropological science fiction story, with overlapping alien races who know about each other but don’t know each other. There are the supposedly indigenous people of the interdicted planet Rhui, who may in fact be distant descendants of the people of Earth, perhaps the remnants of a lost expedition, and who live in a cultural bubble as nomadic hunter-gatherers; there are the people from present-day Earth, who believe it is necessary to preserve the nomads in their ignorance of space travel and other races and peoples; and there are the “aliens,” who once inhabited the planet and whose artifacts have been incorporated into the spiritual beliefs of the occupying nomads. It’s such a fascinating philosophical puzzle, and the intrigue comes from watching them all trying to coexist while keeping their secrets and pursuing their own goals and ideals. There are four lengthy books in the series; if the description intrigues you, you can read a more complete review and explanation here.

GRAY, CLAUDIA: The Constellation trilogy. This is a YA trilogy that deserves to be read on its own merits as an exciting sci fi chapter. The premise is that there are five planets that have been settled from Earth, each one vastly different according to the ideals and expectations of the settlers who colonized it. The books are, in some ways, pure space opera, but because of the examination of the settlements they also go into religion, environmentalism, and politics, and are thought-provoking in all areas.

Noemi Vidal is a soldier defending the rights of her planet, Genesis, from the depredations of Earth. During a battle, she discovers an artifact of Earth, a robot named Abel who has been abandoned in space for decades, but whose ingenious design by his creator has guaranteed his further evolution as a learning, thinking being. His initial meeting with Noemi is potentially cataclysmic, but she turns out to be the catalyst who brings him to ultimate personhood. There is a slow evolution of character, with issues of trust and confidence, that makes this a particularly intriguing read. The books are Defy the Stars, Defy the Worlds, and Defy the Fates.

HEINLEIN, ROBERT: Various books in his universe. Heinlein wrote science fiction from his first short story in 1939 to his last novel in 1988. He was considered one of the first “hard science” writers, in that he insisted that the science in his novels be accurate. He also anticipated many later inventions, including the CADCAM drafting machine, the water bed, and the cell phone. Many of his later books suffer from Heinlein’s rigid (and slightly bizarre) agendas, but his more well known works, as well as many of his earlier ones, are great stories with a unique perspective. Some of my favorites:

The Door Into Summer: Encompasses romance and time travel, as well as the invention of various robots including one that closely resembles the Roomba.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress: The Moon has evolved from a former penal colony into a rugged frontier and a source of trade for Earth. But when Earth seeks to dominate the citizens of the Moon, several of them rise up to lead an unorthodox revolution to gain freedom for all its inhabitants—even their secretly sentient computer!

Stranger in a Strange Land: Michael Valentine Smith is a human who was raised on Mars. Experiencing Earth and his own people in adulthood, he struggles to understand their social mores and prejudices and ultimately starts a movement to promote his own philosophy of love. If you have ever heard a nerdy friend say “I grok” instead of “I understand,” you can be sure he has read this significant work of Heinlein’s.

HERBERT, FRANK: The Dune saga. This is a fascinating tale of conquest, witchcraft, indigenous rights, and the mystery of a life-changing substance, Spice, that controls the universe and is only available on this one remote planet. Warring houses—the Harkonnens and the Atreides—struggle for domination of the spice trade, but go about it in radically different ways, the Harkonnens by cruel oppression and the Atreides by ultimate assimilation. Follow the fortunes of House Atreides as the young son of the Duke must come to an understanding with the natives of Dune or die trying. This is a long series; I would recommend the first six books, but after that it gets increasingly odd and obscure. Herbert is not a writer for everyone; his non-Dune books are challenging to read and more so to understand. But the saga he created in Dune is riveting and worth your time. Let me warn you, however: Frank Herbert passed away at a relatively young age, and his son, Brian, took over the franchise. I will be kind and just say, Don’t bother.

JEMISIN, N. K.: The Inheritance trilogy. What a fascinating series. I don’t know how to describe it, because parts of it are so amorphous. It’s full of intense themes–fate, love, death, destiny, chaos, divinity, life—and particularly potent characterizations. I don’t normally like books in which the gods or a god take an active part, but these gods were…something else, both literally and colloquially. I will say that Jemisin is a lyrical writer with an amazing breadth of vision, and the thing I like about this high fantasy series is that it doesn’t follow the clichéd tried and true for one moment. These won’t be for everyone—they are challenging to read—but for some they will be beloved. The books are The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods.

LE GUIN, URSULA: Various. I regard Ursula K. LeGuin as perhaps the best science fiction writer of her age. She is perhaps better known for her fantasy series, Earthsea, but her science fiction novels are equally compelling, and written indubitably for grownups. Some of the best:

The Dispossessed: There are various peoples living on a world much like our own, and one group of them wishes to lead a different kind of lifestyle than that to which the rest of the planet, Urras, is committed. So these anarchists leave Urras for Anarres, the moon, which is just barely habitable for humans, and create their own perfectly equitable utopian society in direct contradiction of the capitalist one on Urras. There is an interdiction between the moon and the world—beyond limited trade, which takes place within the boundaries of a landing field on either world, there is no contact between the two for generations. Then Shevek is born on Anarres, and it quickly becomes clear that he is the most brilliant physicist of his generation. His need for interaction with other minds as bright and quick as his own provokes a showdown about the association of the two peoples, and Shevek must choose whether to give up his partner, his child, and his life on Anarres in order to find what he is seeking.

The Left Hand of Darkness: When a child is born on Earth, what is the first question everyone asks? “Is it a boy or a girl?” Now imagine a world where the inhabitants can both choose and change their gender at will, and yourself as the lone one-gendered human (male) emissary from the Hainish empire, sent there to facilitate this world’s inclusion in your growing intergalactic civilization. Imagine the implications of psychology, society, and human emotions when examined in this strange environment. This book is hailed as “a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction”—but it’s also a fascinating tale.

Other books noteworthy in what Le Guin called her “Hainish cycle” are City of Illusions, Planet of Exile, The Word for World is Forest, and The Telling. She also wrote a variety of other fiction with a more anthropological bent. In my opinion, everything she wrote is worth reading.

Whoo! This has stretched out way longer than I expected, and we have only covered authors in A-L. I’m going to stop here, publish, and save M-Z for next time. Enjoy your immersion in the speculative world of your choice!

Summer reading #2

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!

Lucky Charms

I was between books and having a hard time deciding what kind of reading experience I was craving, and I ended up doing a reread of Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, to provide some light comic relief in between the literary and the dystopian.

To really love Connie Willis, you have to be willing to go along with a writing style that is a sort of frenetic stream-of-consciousness experience led by one or more of her characters. No matter their major premise, many of Willis’s books are based on the idea that people hope for the best but continually expect the worst, and that they can’t keep their mind on the present moment because they are either obsessively dwelling on the past or compulsively anticipating the future. And because sometimes more than just the protagonist behaves in this way, you have a built-in tendency for poor communication, missed opportunities, and sometimes comical results. Not that all her books are intended as farce (as is this one); but this frustrating communication style is almost universal in her stories, meaning that the tension builds from low to high as you continue to read. It engenders excitement along with the frustration, and certainly guarantees that you want to finish the book to find out what happens—did the protagonist’s worst fears come true? or did they somehow manage to pull off whatever was necessary to meet their objective? The test is whether you (unlike the main character) can deal with the anxiety while enjoying (in this case) the romantic comedy.

Crosstalk takes place in the not-too-distant future. Its main protagonist, Briddey Flannigan, works at Commspan, a company that is in direct competition with Apple to produce the latest smart-phone technology. Briddey is dating one of her co-workers, the sharply dressed smooth-talking Porsche-driving Trent, and is thrilled when Trent suggests to her that they undergo a new outpatient procedure that is all the rage, the EED. Simply explained, if two people are sufficiently invested in their relationship, then this operation creates empathy between the romantic partners so that they can actually experience one another’s true feelings. Trent implies that undergoing this procedure would be the run-up to a marriage proposal once they have achieved this desirable emotional connection.

There is a lot of interest from Briddey and Trent’s co-workers (and inexplicably from his boss) in their daring step, and attention of a different kind from Briddey’s family, who are all opposed to her undergoing the procedure. But when the celebrated Dr. Verrick who performs the surgery has an unexpected opening, Briddey and Trent go for it, only to end up with some unexpected consequences: Briddey finds herself connected, not to Trent, but to someone else entirely, and empathy is just the beginning of what she experiences.

The tension ramps up as Trent wonders why—a couple of days past the estimate when the doctor said their “channel” would open—the two of them have not yet connected; and between keeping it a secret that she is in synch with someone else and keeping her increasingly suspicious family at bay, Briddey is at the end of her rope. But that’s only the beginning, as unforeseen complications take all her energy and attention.

Crosstalk explores a timely topic for the Information Age—the perils of over-communication, along with miscommunication, gossip, deception and the many other ways human interchanges can go wrong. Connie Willis says on her blog,

The novel was partly inspired by our wildly over-connected world, in which we’re constantly bombarded with communication, most of it unwelcome, and partly by the misconceptions people have about what being telepathic would be like. They always assume it would either be profitable (finding out people’s computer codes or social security numbers or blackmailable personal secrets) or fun.

Mentioning the telepathy is a spoiler, but I guess if the author is going to do it, I can too, and it comes up quite early in the book. I made an illustration that goes with the story: This is Briddey, building an internal “perimeter wall” out of make-believe bricks, the reciting of poems and stories, and the enumeration of the types of marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal, in order to keep other people’s thoughts at bay.

My reaction to this book is positive, although I do think that Willis could have cut about 100 pages from it and it would have been more readable. At some points the dithering, the familial interactions, and the feeling that you’re in the middle of an Abbott and Costello routine become wearing, and you want to move on to the next bit rather badly. My favorite romantic comedy of hers is To Say Nothing of the Dog; but the fact that I have read this twice speaks to its merits, even if they aren’t quite as great as some others of her books. It’s definitely worth it for the fun pop culture references if for nothing else!

Three is too many

I tend to love dystopian and post-apocalyptic stuff. I don’t think it’s because I’m a worst-case-scenario kind of person, it’s that I love the ingenuity and creativeness with which the author has created the world, and also the way the characters rise (or don’t) to the occasion.

I picked up The Rule of Three, by Eric Walters, with the expectation of enjoying it, and I did…to a certain extent. The initial premise, which is basically the end of technology, was a familiar one (although the obvious conclusion—electro-magnetic pulse—is never mentioned). Suddenly, everything dies—computers, cell phones, electricity, all late-model cars run by computer—and all anyone can think of is to return to their homes to regroup, check on their families, and figure out what will happen next.

The apocalypse is set in present day, with the disaster happening now, to people like us, and it’s done plausibly, making it relateable. But…there are some major flaws.

The book is set in a suburban community with a small police force, and the protagonist’s mother is the police chief. Next door to Adam and his mother and siblings lives a somewhat mysterious retired guy, Herb, who quickly becomes the driving force behind finding and keeping security and promoting survival in their immediate neighborhood of about 1600 people. Herb’s extensive life experience in international covert operations (we assume he was CIA) makes him the oracle, and Adam is his willing disciple.

The good thing about this novel is the way it lays out the likely progression from unease to panic to lawlessness in the event of a catastrophe so overwhelming. The bad thing about it is that it does so with much less sense of drama and suspense than it should. In some cases it feels more like a survivalist handbook than a story. There are a lot of ingenious ideas and solutions to problems that would naturally arise from such a situation, but they are revealed without impact, as if anybody could think of them. Obviously the writer has done his research, but the delivery is too matter-of-fact for
this kind of story.

Each time a challenge arises, whether it’s looters at the grocery store, a valuable tanker full of gasoline that needs protecting, or bigger decisions about how to bring the community together, Herb has an answer. He is depicted as the chess master, always eight steps ahead, and the police chief and everyone else—including the supposedly “bad” people—are content to follow his lead once he speaks up in his soft and reasonable voice and simply explains the facts. Dissenters are rapidly brought around to his point of view.

The idea that people would respond positively to a person with natural leadership qualities isn’t surprising; but the supposition that this one man has all the answers, has plotted out the logical progression, and rises to meet every occasion and deflect the worst that could happen is a little god-like. Not to mention the fact that his basement might as well contain a lamp with a subservient genie in it, bringing upstairs all good things—canned food, hand grenades—in the nick of time.

Large parts of the book are obviously written for teens, giving Adam’s inner thoughts about his friends, the girl he likes, his worries about his missing dad (he’s a pilot, stranded by the emergency in Chicago—they all hope). But there is a lack of spontaneity in the writing that causes Adam to come across as stiff and awkward and makes the scenes of friendship and love unexciting in the same way that the serial problems are solved too easily.

For me, the best part about the book was Adam’s love of flight and his adventures piloting his ultralight in pursuit of information for the community. I probably enjoyed that so much because in my 20s I was a typesetter for three aviation magazines, including one exclusively about ultralights, so I recognized a lot of the jargon and enjoyed the depiction of soaring over the countryside in what is basically a glorified lawnmower with seats and wings. (In all the time I worked for the aviation mags, I was never persuaded into the air in one of the homebuilt aircraft they featured.) But these scenes were not enough to redeem the rest of the tale from its somewhat wooden tone.

This is a three-part story, with the first book ending after one big challenge to the community’s autonomy, with the promise of fallout to be revealed in the next book. I will probably read book #2, just for closure, but I’m not sure I’ll stick it out through a third one, and if I had read a few of the reviews on Goodreads I might not have gotten involved with book #1 in the first place. I appreciated the chapter appended at the end with the details of what one should have on hand to survive such an eventuality more than I did the book preceding it.

If this sounds like the kind of book you might enjoy, my recommendation would be to instead seek out an oldie but goodie, Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, for a similar story with a lot more human interest and a starkly realistic resolution to replace the somewhat pat answers offered by this one. You would also appreciate Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 629 pages of disaster-driven excitement.

Creeping horror

I am not generally a horror reader. Somewhere in my mid-twenties, my then-husband introduced me to Stephen King and I read most of his books, but since then I can count the number of real horror stories I have read on one hand, and have regretted most of them! I am too susceptible a reader to be comfortable with this genre.

I will say first off that I didn’t find most of King’s books that horrifying. There are a few with elements that got under my skin, but many of them were just compelling reads with an undertone of uneasiness. And King tends, in my opinion, to go so over the top in his resolutions that it makes his books less real, as I feel he did in the book Cell. I loved the premise, but disliked most of the rest of the book.

I also differentiate between suspense horror and gross-out horror: I have read some of the latter (Michael Grant’s Gone series, The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey, a handful of zombie books) and have withstood their effects fairly well; but to me the most terrifying are the truly psychological ones where you’re not sure what is stalking you and may never find out. The Ruins, by Scott Smith, frightened me so badly that I swore never to read another horror novel!

I’m not sure yet whether I regret the decision to read Bird Box, by Josh Malerman. There was such buzz when it came out that I thought I needed to, but I put it off indefinitely until I needed to buy one more book from bookoutlet.com in order to get free shipping, and there it was.

It’s a small, short book relative to the amount of punch it packs. It is written fairly simply, and is not particularly introspective; some people have compared it to books like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, for its spare lack of commentary, and I think that is valid. Something happens on a global scale—something BIG—and yet there is little speculation about the how and the who and the why in the midst of the panicky effort to avoid its effects. The protagonist, Malorie, comments that her housemates do eternally debate the topic, but fails to report back much on what they say or at what conclusions they arrive. The book is more of a daily factual account of relatively humdrum detail that nonetheless leads to increasing uneasiness and dread.

The basic premise is that there is something “out there” that, once encountered by humans, drives them rapidly and inevitably to madness, murderous behavior, and ultimate self-harm to escape it. Everyone who sees it succumbs and dies, most by their own hand. No one who experiences it is afterwards sane enough to explain to anyone else what, exactly, it is, so unaffected people are left not knowing whether it is a creature, a spore, an alien…the ultimate fright of the unknown.

The response to this threat is a retreat behind closed doors and closed curtains that rapidly escalates to boarded-up windows, blindfolds, and the desperate attempts to survive in the closed environment that used to be your home. The key to the terror is that it is something seen; keep your eyes closed and it (supposedly) can’t harm you. But…if you don’t go crazy from what you see, you very well might from what you imagine.

The setting and cast of characters is a small one: Malorie, alone after her sister has succumbed to the terror, finds her way, through an advertisement, to a household of individuals who are willing to take people in. The man who originally owned the house was a conspiracy-theory end-of-civilization kind of guy, and has a fully stocked cellar that will feed many people for a long time. He is no longer in the picture, but his friend, Tom, has seen the advantages and recruited others to live with him—half a dozen men, a dog, and three women, two of whom—Olympia and Malorie—are pregnant.

The book’s POV alternates between a time when Malorie is alone in the house except for two four-year-old children, and a flashback to five years previous, when she arrived at the house to meet and move in with its inhabitants.

The story is a deceptively simple recounting of the extraordinary measures they have to take in order to survive—for example, the daily trip to the well to fill their three buckets with water, blindfolded and feeling with their feet to stay within the boundaries of the path they have laid down, banging with a stick to avoid obstacles, all the while listening carefully to discover if anyone—or anyTHING—is near and constitutes a threat. In the five-years-along sections, it becomes clear that Malorie is finally ready to make a change for herself and the children, and recounts the horror of that journey. But between, in the past tense sections, the book is almost mundane in its acceptance of the daily horror.

I won’t give any more of the details of the book, except to say that the art of the tale is the dread you experience at this almost boring suspension of living. It also ends at the beginning of a new story, so you may feel compelled (as I do) to pick up the second book, Malorie, as against your will as it may feel to drag out the horror further—especially while sitting at home alone wearing a mask, in the midst of a global pandemic!

2020 Faves

I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.

Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
that way.

YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES

Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).

The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.

The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.

The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!

I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.

These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.

ADULT FICTION

As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.

Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.

And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.

Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.

Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.

Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.

Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.

The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.

The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.

These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?

Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.