As I have previously mentioned here, sometimes I take a break between what I would consider more “significant” works (or at least the works of writers unknown to me) to read something lighthearted, whether that is a book written with juveniles as its audience, or a “bit of fluff” characterized by chick lit or Regency romance. This past week or so, I did both, with some surprising results.
The first book I picked up was The Extraordinaries, by T. J. Klune. Given that Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, is one of my favorite books ever, I had high expectations for a book in which ordinary people have the potential to become extraordinary, and the extraordinaries have complicated relationships with their ordinary contemporaries (and with one another). What can I say? First, I have to face that there is no comparing any book with the brilliance that is Vicious. It stands alone (well, except for its sequels). Second, I read Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea first, absolutely fell in love with that, and then read this. Who could not be a little disappointed?
The Extraordinaries is exactly as billed: A YA novel about a kid with ADHD who wants to be a superhero or, alternatively, wants to be beloved of a superhero. It’s cute, it’s inclusive, it’s frank and matter-of-fact about sexuality, it has some great characters, and teens will love it. Me? Not as much. I see its worth and its value without being able to immerse myself in its story. Also, I feel like the (ultra-serious) post-er who decried the glorification of the police (always the good guys, regardless of bad behavior) in this had a point. Not to the extent he carried it, but still…yeah. But for kids who like comics and graphic novels, this is a next step, and a fun one. I had planned to read the sequel, Flash Fire, but after the first couple of chapters I put it aside. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s just not for me. But like I said, teens (especially lgbtq etc. teens) will be enthused. (I do, however, look forward to the sequel to Cerulean Sea with unabated hope.)
I decided instead to move on to my reliable go-to author for light relief, the inimitable Georgette Heyer, writer of the quintessential Regency romance. But I ended up being surprised by a book that was not quite like most others she has written. A Civil Contract is surprisingly serious in tone compared to her light, frothy stories of witty, clever people, and owes much to Jane Austen’s book Sense and Sensibility.
It has a common theme of star-crossed lovers who may or may not prevail, and who probably appreciate the person with whom they end up more than the one they initially desired. But in this case there is no blinding realization that they have come to love that person, but rather a quiet acceptance that the relationship they have created will in the long run suit better, regardless of their feelings.
Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, an officer in the Peninsular War, is called home upon his father’s demise to discover that his family’s fortune has been decimated by his happy-go-lucky, completely improvident parent, and that he is on the verge of ruin. He has a mother and two sisters to support, and the youngest is not yet “out” (presented to society); without a dowry or indeed any basic support, her fate at least will be grim if he can’t figure out their financial situation in a hurry.
Before he left for the war, Adam had an understanding with Julia Oversley, for whom he has conceived what he believes to be a lasting passion, and which is returned by the beautiful Julia. But he knows that her father is not so unworldly as to agree to a marriage between his daughter and a man who can’t support her. While he is steeling himself to sell significant parts of the family’s estate, including the country seat, Julia’s father approaches him with the idea that he make a marriage of convenience with the daughter of a fabulously wealthy but admittedly vulgar merchant, Jonathan Chawleigh, to whom Mr. Oversley owes a favor. In exchange for his daughter Jenny achieving the social status that comes with marriage into an aristocratic family, Chawleigh will pay the myriad bills accrued to the estate and buy back all of Adam’s mortgages on the country home. Jenny, a school friend of Julia’s, goes into the marriage knowing that Adam still loves Julia. And the rest of the book details the emotions still held by the two parties in the doomed love match, as well as the new wife’s adaptation to being married to a man who not only doesn’t love her, but holds her father in revulsion, despite his own resolve, for being who he is and wielding power over Adam’s every decision.
This book, rather than a recounting of the making of a marriage, is an exploration of what constitutes a successful one once the deed is done. It incorporates the many sacrifices one has to make by tolerating the baggage of relatives and friends that come with a partner; it reveals the necessity of kindness, tolerance, patience and, above all, a sense of humor. It showcases, in fact, that the significant parts of married life are the ordinary, everyday events rather than the moments of exaltation or grand passion.
Julia Oversley is the Marianne Dashwood of the story—beautiful, impulsive, sensitive, willful, and somewhat selfish—while Jenny is Elinor—practical, somewhat shy and retiring, and more concerned for the feelings of others (specifically Adam’s) than for her own. Jenny’s father, Jonathan Chawleigh, is somewhat reminiscent of Sir John Middleton, in that he speaks his mind in an embarrassing manner without thought for what he is saying or how it will affect his listeners. But he goes far beyond that character in both coarseness and good-heartedness, and steals the show whenever he appears on the page.
There was rather too much historical narrative for my taste regarding the various engagements between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, but it’s well written and definitely pivotal to the plot. This is one of the few books of Heyer’s that has a quiet, satisfying ending rather than an “Ahah!” moment, but it doesn’t suffer for that. While it was an unexpected read in the midst of Heyer’s others, I still both enjoyed and appreciated it.
I was trying to decide what genre would next receive attention for possible summer reading recommendations, as August winds down. Some people who are turned off by traditional fantasy (quests, medieval societies, talking animals, etc.) are hooked by what some designate as urban fantasy—a story that takes place in a contemporary setting with “normal” people, but eventually fantastical creatures or events invade that space and change it or them. I started pondering, then, what crossovers there are with urban fantasy—so often, paranormal creatures are the fantasy part of urban fantasy, so I looked to my paranormal list to see what fit and what didn’t within that broader category. It also crossed my mind that works of magical realism could, in some cases, twin as urban fantasy. So this will be a mashup of all of those, which, while technically being separate genres, share the characteristic of something “wyrd” intruding on everyday life. (It is obviously not comprehensive, since that would take a post five times as long. But hopefully it is a representative offering.)
The first urban fantasist who comes to mind when thinking about that genre (at least for me) is Charles de Lint, a writer who sets all of his stories in the fictional Canadian city of Newford. People refer to his work not only as urban fantasy but as magical realism and mythic fiction but, whatever you call it, it’s compelling. He has written at least two dozen books that are consciously numbered Newford #1-21 etc., but many of his nondesignated works also take place in and around that city and its anomalies, as well as several collections of short stories featuring characters from various novel-length works.
I have enjoyed reading most of his books, but my two favorites are Memory and Dream, and Trader. Memory and Dream takes place mostly in flashback: It begins with the story of an artist, Isabelle Copley, who has retreated from the city to an island where she isolates herself and paints only abstract works; but in her youth, she was a vital part of the art scene in and around Newford, and studied with a master painter who abused her but also taught her a method of painting that could (at least theoretically) bring the subjects of her portraits to life. Trader is about a musician and craftsman (he makes musical instruments, mainly guitars) who is going through a bad patch in which he has no joy in life and no appreciation of his situation. Across town, there is another man who is going through an actual (rather than psychological) life crisis generated by his own bad behavior—he’s a gambler and a cheat, and has just been evicted from his home with only the clothes on his back. He has come into possession of an Inuit artifact and, as he goes to sleep that night, he clutches it in his hand and wishes hard for his life to get better, just as the other man is wishing the same. In the morning, everything has changed for both of them.
While de Lint’s books are filled with both events and characters who are out of place in their everyday environment, his are based on myth and legend (mostly from the Original Peoples), with archetypes such as Coyote and Crow (as well as more whimsical made-up characters) making appearances. But the next writer who springs to mind—Seanan McGuire—has much more crossover with the paranormal genre than with magical realism, because her unorthodox characters are mostly scary supernatural creatures—were-people, sentient snakes, monsters that cause those bumps in the night. The protagonist and her family call them cryptids. The early books take place in New York City, where Verity Price (a cryptozoologist) is working in a bar while trying to become a competitive ballroom dancer. But she keeps getting drawn into conflicts between the native cryptids, both advocating for and fighting on their behalf for their right to life against the monster-hunting society called the Covenant of St. George, whose members are dedicated to wiping out the monsters one and all, regardless if they are talking mice or dragons in the subway system.
In addition to these InCryptid stories, McGuire writes another urban fantasy-ish series called Rosemary and Rue, around the protagonist October Daye, a half-human, half-faerie changeling who keeps getting burned by both sides of her heritage. It is set in San Francisco, and is about the remains of the fae (faeries) who exist in the cracks of that city and keep intruding on its existence, sometimes in nefarious ways. Although McGuire has a lot of fans for this series, I found it wordy and tedious compared to the witty, light-hearted tone and fast pacing of the Incryptid books.
Finally, McGuire has a new series about which I have raved in reviews on this blog: the Wayward Children books. They are compact little gems of literary writing based around the fascinating premise that some of the children who disappear every year into the back of the wardrobe or under the faeries’ mound on the heath or down the rabbit hole have been kicked out of their alternate worlds back to this real one, and their sole desire in life is to return to whatever world they discovered when they walked through that mirror. Eleanor West runs a Home for Wayward Children that takes in these unhappy souls; their parents believe that West is attempting to re-acclimate them to their mundane life in this world, but Eleanor’s secret goal is to aid them in finding their way back to the magical lands they long for.
A couple other well-known urban fantasy writers are Jim Butcher, who writes the engaging Dresden Files, about wizard Harry Dresden, who consults with the Chicago P.D. whenever a crime seems a little “out of this world” to be solved by a mundane police force; and Charlaine Harris, who has written full-on paranormal (vampires as a part of everyday life in the Sookie Stackhouse books) and also has been more restrained (as in the wonderful Harper Connelly series, about a woman who was struck by lightning and can, as a result, stand on someone’s grave and tell you how they died). Harris has recently extended her imaginative worlds into both alternate history and dystopian fiction with her Gunnie Rose series, which is also urban fantasy with the inclusion of wizardry by Russian and British practitioners.
There is some debate about whether Melissa Albert‘s books The Hazel Wood and The Night Country should be included in the urban fantasy category, since they are predominantly new fairy tales. But the fact that the protagonist and her mother live in the real world while her grandmother, who wrote a cult classic book of dark fairy tales, has thus created the Hinterland, a parallel land into which the protagonist ultimately travels, makes this duology a candidate for both.
It is difficult—and sometimes arbitrary—to differentiate between urban fantasy and paranormal as two different categories, and after thinking it through, I have decided for myself that the paranormal books only qualify as urban fantasy if the urban setting and mindset predominate. In other words, the scene is first and primarily set in the real world, and the fantasy intrudes upon it to the surprise of the characters living in that setting.
One young adult duology that I adore that qualifies in both categories is Lish McBride‘s Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and its sequel, Necromancing the Stone. While both books are filled with all sorts of paranormal critters, the first book starts out in a commonplace setting and with an all-too-characteristic protagonist. Sam lives in Seattle, still at home with his single mother despite having graduated high school. He’s not exactly a loser, but he lacks focus and ambition; rather than going to college, he has chosen to continue working in the fast food joint where he and his friends have a light-hearted routine of playing “potato hockey” in the back parking lot during slow periods. But when a potato flies out of control and smashes the headlight on a brand-new Mercedes, Sam comes to the attention of Douglas, a scary dude who turns out to be the neighborhood necromancer and reveals to Sam that he, too, has this “gift.” Douglas is threatened by the presence of what he sees as a rival for his territory, and gives Sam an ultimatum; but Sam, baffled by this amazing discovery, feels helpless to know what to do. Fortunately, his mother, his uncle, and even some of his friends have abilities that can help him out of his dilemma.
Another young adult author who specializes in the urban fantasy/paranormal mashup is Maggie Stiefvater. Some, like her Wolves of Mercy Falls books, fall more heavily on the supernatural side, with setting being instrumental (the necessity of a cold climate) but not primary, while others, such as her Dreamer books, feel a lot more like urban fantasy. The Raven Cycle, four books set in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia, straddle the line between urban fantasy and legend. All are intriguing and beautifully written.
Then we come to the crossover with magical realism. Urban fantasy and magical realism have the connection that there are uncanny things happening within a mundane setting; but in magical realism, the setting is often not as important, and this is seen by some as the dividing line. Who could argue, though, that it wasn’t crucial for the book Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, to be set in the straight-laced French village of Lansquenet, with its narrow-minded mayor and contentious residents? Or that the events in Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, would have had the same impact had they not taken place in the Massachusetts town where the Owens women had been renowned for more than 200 years as witches? Or that the events of Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield, would have differed significantly had they not been centered on an ancient inn on the banks of the river Thames? Looking through my list on Goodreads of the 50+ books of magical realism I have read, these are three that stand out for their significant settings, while the others could most of them have happened anywhere, as long as it was within this ordinary world and featured extraordinary events or characters. But you can see that there are commonalities that can be significant.
The bottom line for me is that all of these permutations contain the wonderful premise that there are things taking place around us in our everyday lives that, could we only look up at the right moment and see them happen, would change everything in a heartbeat. I love this premise and, therefore, the books that promote it, be they classified as magical realism, paranormal fiction, or urban fantasy. I hope you will find a book or two from this blog post that appeal to you in the same way they have to me.
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!
Lizbeth “Gunnie” Rose is back, in The Russian Cage, the third book in this quirky dystopian urban fantasy series by Charlaine Harris. I reviewed the first two books here. This one was published in late February, but I’m just getting to it now, mostly because I have been well and thoroughly distracted by about 6,000 pages of the Farseer saga by Robin Hobb! But I’m happy to check back in with this interesting world that could be our own with just a few divots gouged out of our history. Well, maybe minus the magic.
Lizbeth’s half-sister, Felicia, is now living in the Holy Russian Empire (HRE), which extends down the west coast of the former United States of America where Oregon and California used to be. The capitol city is San Diego, where she is going to school (and training as a grigori, a magician) while making herself available as a blood donor to the Tsar, Alexei, who suffers from Russian royalty’s fatal flaw of hemophilia and can only maintain his health by periodically receiving transfusions from the descendants of Rasputin, of whom Felicia is one.
Lizbeth, back home in Texoma (the former Texas and Oklahoma plus a few other territories) receives an exceedingly cryptic letter from her sister, and it takes her a little while to figure out that it’s a secret message telling her that her former lover and partner in magical shenanigans, Eli Savarov, is in prison; Felicia is hoping that Lizbeth can come up with an idea to break him out. Lizbeth immediately packs her bags and her weapons, borrows money from her stepfather, and hops on a train to California, er, Russia-in-exile.
The HRE is completely foreign territory to Gunnie Rose, and at first she is helpless to imagine how to help Eli. But with support and collusion from her sister, Eli’s family, and Felix, a grigori wizard she knows only slightly but has to trust as an ally, a plan comes together. She’s up against a lot—a seemingly impenetrable foreign system of bureaucracy with which she is unfamiliar; enemies masquerading as friends; the impulsive actions of Eli’s younger brother, Peter, who keeps making everything worse; and her own inability to carry weapons openly as she can at home in Texoma. But Gunnie Rose isn’t to be deterred, so she has to work all these things out, and it’s big fun to watch.
You definitely need to have read the first two books to understand at all what’s happening here and to whom, especially as regards the historical setting and background of this western urban fantasy. It’s a crazy hybrid, but once you get all the details down, it just works, somehow. And I love that at the center of it all is this 20-year-old gunslinger, tough and nearly humorless but with a tiny gooey center she shows to nearly no one. I have included a tag for (among a bunch of other things!) young adult fiction because, although it’s not written as such, high school-age teens would love this series.
The conclusion of this book could signal the end of the trilogy…but I’m hoping Harris has more adventures up her sleeve for Lizbeth and her Russian prince.
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.
Finally—a suspenseful story that I actually enjoyed! Take Me With You, by Tara Altebrando, is a combination of science fiction and suspense…although the science fiction is so close to reality that you could drop that out of the description with some justification. When I say that the events of this book could be “near future,” I’m talking weeks or months,
Four teenagers who attend the same school but barely know one another—Eli, Marwan, Eden, and Ilanka—are all summoned via the school’s messaging app to report to the music teacher after school about “an important matter.” When they arrive, there’s no sign of the teacher, and after waiting for a while, they think it must have been a mistake and prepare to leave. But there is a small black cube sitting on one of the desks, and as they talk it over, its sides light up with messages:
They all agree that it’s weird, and the best thing might be to walk away, and then…
“TAKE ME WITH YOU…OR ELSE” appears on the cube, immediately followed by a fire alarm going off. As they evacuate, Eden grabs the cube and shoves it into her backpack, setting in motion a bizarre interval in all their lives as the instructions from the cube grow more arbitrary and more adamant and they all scramble to meet its demands. When one of them decides to disobey, there are scary consequences that make them all wonder how this is going to end.
The thing I think I liked the most about this book was that the characters, although invested in this mystery, were multi-dimensional (and multi-cultural, by the way) and had a lot more going on in each of their lives, so that the advent of the cube was mostly an irritant and an inconvenience (at least at first) rather than the main thing on which they were all focused. Too many YA books are mono-focused, and unless it’s very well done, it gets monotonous. But in this book, which takes on the topics of stereotyping, anxiety, grief, and racism, Eden has boy problems and family issues, Marwan and his family (and their restaurant) are experiencing xenophobia for being Egyptian, Eli is a gamer who is more comfortable in his created world than in the real one, and Ilanka is busy figuring out priorities, trying to decide whether it is more important to her to be accomplished or to be happy. So interaction with the cube either accentuates their dilemmas or brings up new ones to distract them, and becomes a part of the story rather than the whole. It also brings them together as a unit as a result of outward motivation rather than choice, which shows all of them how little they knew the people around them and how, if they paid attention, they might find previously unrecognized value in their classmates.
As for the cube itself…a fairly classic story of artificial intelligence gone wrong, but with the advantage that it’s something that could actually happen. Consider all the data collection, spying, and hacking that is already going on in the world. Then 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. Now 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.
The story, which is presented from the teens’ multiple viewpoints (mostly according to who is currently in possession of the device), is a compelling page-turner. I wanted to know what would happen to the characters, and I also wanted to know the origins and rationale behind the device and why it was presented to these four, at this time, and for what reason(s).
The whole tale definitely makes you think about the various uses of technology, and how vulnerable we are when we allow its intrusion too far into our lives. It’s time to wake up and make the hard choices about tech: whether to surrender to it, tame it and keep it on a tight leash, or banish it in the name of autonomy. This could be a great book for a group discussion in a book club. Pair this with Cory Doctorow’s For the Win to expand your ideas on this topic.
As do many, I love a good twin story. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of being a twin, probably because I’m an only child and so have never had a sibling, period. The idea of having one who looked just like me has appealed ever since childhood days with the dual incentives of the 1961 version of The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills, released when I was an impressionable nine-year-old and, two years later, the advent of The Patty Duke Show (in which American Patty has a British cousin, Cathy, who looks just like her, and can pass if she can manage the accent).
In the YA novel The Secrets We Keep, by Trisha Leaver, there is a lot happening on top of the two protagonists being twins. Ella and Maddy are in their senior year and, although they were inseparable and likeminded up through middle school, in high school there came a parting of the ways. Maddy somehow managed to ascend almost instantly to the heights of popularity, including being both a star athlete and the girlfriend of the prom king, while Ella, more independent and less outwardly motivated, got over her initial hurt at Maddy leaving her on the sidelines, made one close friend in Josh, and focused on scholastic achievement and art. She and Josh have plans after high school that include the Rhode Island School of Design, while Maddy seems wholly taken up with the high school experience. And although each girl has chosen the path that seems right for her, there can’t help but be some bad feelings between them as a result of those choices. Ella feels simultaneously excluded and put-upon, as Maddy avoids her most of the time but still relies on Ella to bail her out by lying to their parents and even taking an occasional Spanish test for her so Maddy doesn’t flunk out. Maddy, on the other hand, doesn’t understand why Ella won’t make an effort with her appearance and her social status, and feels like Ella is judging her when Maddy prioritizes the frivolous over the serious. Ella is tired of being “the sensible one” to their parents while Maddy gets to be carefree and irresponsible, while Maddy resents Ella’s good standing.
All of this comes to a head one rainy night when Maddy calls Ella in the wee hours to come fetch her from a party. Ella grudgingly goes, but the two get into a fight on the way home that ends in catastrophe when Ella jerks the wheel in irritation and the car hydroplanes into a tree. Ella wakes up two days later in the hospital; not only does she not remember the accident, but she also doesn’t remember who she is. There is a boy in her room, however, who seems familiar to her and keeps calling her Maddy, so she assumes that’s her name. It’s only a day later, after her parents and friends follow Maddy’s boyfriend’s lead in believing that she is Maddy that she realizes everyone has made a mistake and she is actually Ella. When she discovers Maddy is dead and that the last words they shared were hateful, Ella is overwhelmed by guilt and grief. She also sees how glad her parents are that she is alive, and jumps to the conclusion that they would prefer Maddy to Ella if they had to pick a sole survivor. In this confused and heartbroken state of mind, Ella decides that Maddy deserves to have the life she wanted and therefore, Ella will give it to her by becoming her.
This is where the whole thing began to break down for me. I could understand the mistaken identity thing and the survivor being reluctant to reveal she wasn’t who everyone thought she was, especially given that she assumes they would all have preferred her sister to herself. What I couldn’t fathom was Ella believing that it would make any difference to anyone but her whether she continued life as Maddy. She certainly can’t make anything up to Maddy; Maddy is dead. And whether or not her belief is true that everyone would have preferred that Maddy be the survivor, the idea that she can pull this off is laughable.
First of all, her sister is co-captain of the soccer team, up for a scholarship to college. Ella doesn’t play soccer. Second, she’s been with her boyfriend, Alex, for more than two years, and they have been having sex during all of that time. Ella is a virgin. Third…oh hell, there is no third. Maddy is dead! You can’t change that. You can’t be her. Get over it.
I guess it’s possible that grief could drive someone to these ridiculous lengths for a day or two, but…weeks? Weeks of pretending to be dumber than you are (Ella was in all Honors classes while Maddy is barely passing), less artistic (Maddy doesn’t draw), more fashionable (Ella hasn’t got a clue and resorts to old photos of Maddy to put outfits together), and reluctant to even exchange a kiss with your steady boyfriend of two years? Weeks of letting your parents believe this lie? Weeks of betraying your best friend by pretending not to know him? All in the goal of “giving Maddy a life”? C’mon.
Then there’s the whole sub-plot when Ella finds out that Maddy did something really bad and wants to put it right but doesn’t want to give herself away. The whole thing was so anti-climactic it might as well not have been included.
I guess I’m just on a roll for picking out suspense novels with implausible plots this week. There are a lot better books about twins out there, too, from the Bobbsey Twins to The Man in the Iron Mask! Or hey, go watch one of the two versions of The Parent Trap, 1961 or 1998: Deception is minor, hijinks ensue, true love wins, the end. Much the better choice.
So, on the Facebook page “What Should I Read Next?” a lot of people have been touting the book The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, as a really good read. I took note because, as you know if you read this blog, I love books about books and reading, plus I’m a former librarian. Also, the description sounded intriguing! So the next time I had a break in my reading schedule, I remembered that there was a book about books that I wanted to read, and…I somehow ended up with The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, by Garth Nix.
It’s on my Kindle, which The Midnight Library is not; but I’m pretty sure that I have a physical copy of that book floating around my house somewhere (although I may have confused it with The Librarian of Auschwitz, which is definitely in my living room pile), so I will get to it. But in the meantime…Garth Nix!
I have several friends who are huge fans of Garth Nix, particularly of his Abhorsen series that begins with the book Sabriel, and also the series containing The Keys to the Kingdom. I have picked up the book Sabriel several times meaning to read it, and then put it down again, because the whole necromancy theme doesn’t, in general, appeal to me. But people whose reading tastes I trust have consistently raved about him, so last year I purchased his YA book Newt’s Emerald as a remainder from Book Outlet. The description roped me in because Nix said he was inspired to write this historical fiction based in Regency England by one of my absolute faves, Georgette Heyer. And he got all the details right, plus he added magical elements, but…there are some books that—no matter how much you enjoy them in the moment—are just not memorable. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the book, but the things that were right with it were not quite enough. I liked it, it was cute, it was mildly entertaining, and…that’s it. So I wasn’t sure, when I started Left-Handed Booksellers, of what my experience would be.
I can definitely say that I liked it much better than I did Newt’s Emerald. There were several things that made it instantly appealing. First, it’s a “quest” book. The protagonist, Susan, is enrolled in art school for the fall semester in London, but decides to come a few months early, for several reasons: She wants to scope out her new surroundings, having visited London before but never lived there; she wants to try to pick up some work waitressing in a café to put some extra spending money by for the school year; and, last but not least, she wants to find her father. Her mother, an exceedingly vague lady whose manner most assume is the result of an excessive intake of drugs during the 1960s, has never told her who her father is, and in fact Susan isn’t positive Jassmine even knows for sure. But Susan, with a keen desire to find out, has written down a list of men her mother has mentioned over the years, and has collected a few artifacts that might be related to him in some way, and she is fully prepared to play detective.
Unfortunately, her first research foray is not only unsuccessful, but lands her in the middle of a situation with which she is not prepared to cope. The first man on her list was a vaguely gangsterish fellow named Frank Thringley, who used to send her a birthday card every year, but before she can question him, he is turned to dust by an exceedingly handsome young man wearing a glove on his left hand like Michael Jackson. Merlin turns out to be a left-handed bookseller, and explains to Susan that along with the right-handed ones, he is part of an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world, in addition to running several bookshops. This is the second thing that makes the book appealing: It is full of beguiling concepts and characters that all hang together to make a plausible, if not entirely logical, alternate London, offering constant surprises as you continue to read.
Susan has drawn unwanted attention from the wrong people, both human and otherworldly, with her mere presence at the death of Thringley, and discovers that her best bet is to stick with Merlin and his sister, the right-handed Vivien, to gain some protection and some aid from the booksellers, while trying to find her father and, incidentally, helping the siblings with a quest of their own.
Although the main and two subsidiary protagonists in this tale are all around 18 years of age, I would not necessarily characterize this book as Young Adult, although I’m sure it would appeal to any teenager who likes fantasy. But I think it would equally appeal to any person who likes fantasy, regardless of age. It’s briskly paced and intelligently written, and immediately engages you in the story, which is full of fanciful descriptions of all the old-world denizens. There are lots of adventures, mysteries, and surprises contained within its pages, and it comes to a satisfying conclusion while leaving the door open for more possible stories about the booksellers of London, which I, for one, would welcome.
I don’t know how it stacks up to Sabriel, but based on my enjoyment of this book, I may decide it’s worth my while to find out someday.
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
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.
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.