Hellzapoppin’, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Sometimes I think back on the first book I read by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. I had just seen a tweet that John Scalzi had shared about a contest for writers interested in working on a collaborative novel. I wish now that I’d saved it because I can’t remember what it was about those hundred or so characters that piqued my interest. I felt compelled to click through and find out more though, and it led to a life changing novel writing experience for me. 

I’ve been writing books for many years, but learning to trust writers I’ve (still) never met was both a challenge and discovery of one of my true passions. I don’t just like to write – I want to collaborate. I love taking ideas generated by a bunch of half-crazy people and helpin71myanzzgzlg to turn them into something beautiful. Goody and Grant are, I suspect, a lot like me in that respect. They don’t shy away from the complications of writing books together, and what I discovered reading that first book was that they have a real gift for it. 

Of course, back then, I was lounging around in a coffee shop in London, soaking up my time as an ex-pat and grasping every opportunity that flew within reach. I was exploring a country and culture just different enough from my own that it felt like tripping into a mirror image. I was comfortable. I had spare time. I could consume caffeine with zero consequences. It was another time. 

Reading this latest installment of the Clovenhoof books took a lot longer. I mostly had to skim, juggling my phone while my all of a sudden loathes nursing baby flailed around, trying to smack it out of my hands. There was zero lounging involved, let me tell you. It was more like a full contact sport – how many pages could I get through before a tiny but surprisingly strong arm knocked it out of reach? (Somewhere between half a page and six, in case you were curious.)

As a result, it took me longer to get into this volume. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it as much as I had the earlier books until I was about a third of the way in. Once I understood where these new characters stood (and had more than fourteen seconds to read about them), I was hooked. I found myself trying to unwind where Grant began and Goody stopped, but it was seamless, just as their earlier books have been. 

I have to say that there’s something odd about visiting authors I read before I was a mother. I haven’t had much opportunity to do it, but with the few sequels I’ve gotten to since June, I find myself comparing the before and after experience. It was much different, being a reader before parenthood. Even at my busiest, in comparison to my life now, it seems like I had loads of time to lay around getting lost in a good book. It was a luxury I’m not sure I fully appreciated. I can’t get lost anymore. I can only dip in and out of a book like a kid learning to hold her breath underwater.

It has made reading even more of a necessity. My world has, at least temporarily, shrunk, and books – both new and familiar – make me giddily part of the wider world. Every day, my son and I read every one of his books (I’m guessing he has thirty or so in his budding collection), and then we move on to the library books. We fill our days with words, and it’s amazing to me that he seems to love it as much as I do. 

Even as he grows to appreciate his books more, the amount of time I have to read my own shrinks, and I cling to every flailing opportunity. I’ve come a long way since I first discovered Goody and Grant, and I suspect I still have a ways to go yet. I’m glad every now and again, I can grab one of their books and know I have a good laugh and a bit of nostalgia waiting for me.

Cry Wolf, Patricia Briggs

December is such a busy time that I have had far less time to read than I would like. I love to curl up in front of the fireplace with a great read, the Christmas tree joyfully lit up when the sky is dark so early. There’s really nothing cozier than the perfect book paired with a cup of tea and a plate of freshly baked cookies when my toes are toasty and warm. Of course, this year, we aren’t using the fireplace because exploring little people don’t yet understand the concept of “hot,” and I have to keep an eye on the tree lest it be mauled by over-excited little hands. We do spend a lot of time reading in front of it, but the books are small and hard, and they feature a lot of farm animals and rhyming. I’m not complaining. It’s a wonderful way to spend Advent. It’s just not quite as intellectually stimulating as some books on my to-read shelf (oh Sonia Sotomayor, I swear I’ll get to your life story eventually!).

Life being what it is, I’m going to talk instead about a series I read during the first few months of our son’s life. I kept a list of everything I read during parental leave on my computer since I knew I was far too sleep deprived to remember (and feel the deserved sense of accomplishment) how many books I got through. It’s been interesting to go back and look through it, remembering how hot the summer was, and just how many hours I was awake every day. During that time, I obviously wasn’t seeking out any life changing reads. I wanted light and fun, and because I was so devastated when I finished reading all of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, I was over the moon to discover her Alpha and Omega follow-up.

I don’t think I even took a breath from one series to the next. The Alpha and Omega books take place in the same world and feature a character I’d gotten to know in the original series, so it was easy to dive right in. I burned through my phone battery every night reading while holding a sleeping or nursing baby in my arms, and it was totally worth it. In my mind, it was the best of both worlds – sweet cuddles and a popcorn read – and there’s little else a book loving new mom can ask for. 

Of course, Mercy Thompson and I were so tight that I couldn’t bring myself to love the Alpha and Omega series quite as much, even though it was as well written and compelling. I loved the world, and I liked Briggs’ new protagonist, Anna, very much. It was just too soon for me to form a bestie bond with her. Of course, that didn’t stop me from devouring all four books in the series as quickly as I could download them onto my phone. When I think of all the books languishing in my kindle app right now, I feel just a hint of nostalgia for those days when our son slept so much of the day away…but just a hint, because that transition from “fourth trimester sleep confused little person” to “hey! the night is for sleeping little person” is a truly blessed gift. And hey, the long grey days of the new year are just around the corner – plenty of time to curl up under a blanket and read a luxurious page and a half before attending to more pressing things!

Godsquad, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

This is going to be my last review pre-baby arrival. Although I’ve discovered already how hard it is to take proper maternity leave as a freelancer, I think it’s important to try and separate from work to enjoy family bonding/spend any sliver of downtime I may have sleeping. The plan is to be back with new reviews beginning on September 17 (slightly more than three months so that I may enjoy traveling to and being in a wedding at the beginning of September), and I look forward to the new perspective motherhood brings to my literary life. While I suspect part of my brain will go numb from board book repetition, I also hope this change will lead me down even more interesting avenues.

That being said, this final book is one written by my colleagues across the pond (and for the record, even though I begged for a pre-release copy, I had to wait and purchase one at the same time as the rest of the world – truly a poor execution of cronyism if I ever saw one!). I read the first book in the series, Clovenhoofbefore I decided to work with Goody and Grant, and it remains a beloved favorite in the vein of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore or Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. 

Growing up the daughter of a UCC minister, I was privy to an odd perspective on the church, and on religion in general. While I have a deep respect for my own beliefs and those of others, I couldn’t help but see the thread of absurdity that often unravels in congregations. I never took my Sunday School lessons as seriously as my friends in part because I could see what was behind the curtain (the work that went into writing sermons, the vast energy required for counseling people, the patience necessary for handling disagreements over what tablecloth should be used on the communion table…). At a very young age, I determined that church was a place of instilling values and a sense of community, not necessarily having a relationship with God. I was content with that though, because as much as I love structure and routine, faith doesn’t really fit into such strictures. It’s found by those searching for it over some of the roughest courses of life. It lends itself to ridiculous situations, to the impossible, to moments of deep trauma and to great adventure. 

As a result of this flexibility, I’ve always found that the topic makes for some of the very funniest books. Humor is so revealing. We pretend that it protects us, but it often ends up exposing some of the most interesting conversations about the choices we make, the people we follow, and lives we have as a result of those decisions. All three of the books Grant and Goody have written in this series have fallen into that vein. I can’t help but laugh out loud when I read them, but I’ve also found myself quite moved by some of their subtle insights into human nature versus the divine. 

I think the greatest praise I can give them (and this series) can be best understood by a different yardstick though. I’ve never met either Iain or Heide in person, and yet not only did I desperately want to work with them on Circ, I also trusted and respected their talent enough to brutally edit down my own work when they suggested that it was necessary. I doubt writers are the only people who will appreciate what high praise this is – anyone who has put their heart into a project and then had to make major changes will understand such vulnerability. We often have to take feedback from editors, managers, and bosses who we think less of, but when we submit ourselves to the inspection of opinions we respect, it generally results in a combination of nausea and gratification…and, quite frankly, superior results. I know for a fact I’m a better writer having worked with them, and I also know I’m a happier reader knowing I have more of their books to look forward to in the future.

For more about Grant and Goody, head over here

The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley

Although the mother of one of my oldest friend gifted me both The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword for my birthday a few years ago, the books had ended up on my to-read shelf and I’d basically forgotten about them until we hosted our annual pancake party back in February. These books have such unassuming little spines, and although they’re readable in a day (I know, because I read Hero in less), I just hadn’t felt compelled to dive into that kind of fantasy novel until a new friend noticed them and began haranguing me to read them. 

I’m not exaggerating when I say that every time I saw her, she brought up the books, asked me if I’d read them yet, and then demanded to know why I hadn’t. Apparently, they were such a huge inspiration to her when she was a child that it was physically painful to think that I owned the books but hadn’t prioritized them. (And trust me, I understand that feeling – when I recommend a book or series to a friend and find out they haven’t started reading immediately, it bothers me because I know – even if they don’t – just how much awesome they’re missing out on!) We talked about how hard it had been for us to find fantasy novels with strong female protagonists, as well as how rare it was to find books with heroines that were also well written and appropriate for a younger audience. 

I survived by branching out and borrowing just about anything and everything from my local library that featured women, regardless of genre, but for her, that wasn’t a satisfying solution. Consequently, knowing that these two books existed and could be reread whenever she needed a reminder that women could have agency in YA fantasy was a cornerstone to her identity as a reader. 

I’d like to say that these discussions were the only motivation I needed to finally read these novels, but the truth is, I just wasn’t feeling good the other day, and I wanted to lay on the couch and read a paperback. The Hero and the Crown was the right size for the purpose (meaning it wouldn’t hurt my hand to hold it open while I lay on my side trying to will this baby’s feet out of my lungs). I wasn’t particularly in the mood for fantasy, but I figured if I hated it, I could always take a nap instead. 

You may have gathered by this point that I expected, if not to hate it, then at least to be underwhelmed by the book. I’m not sure why I felt I would be (especially given that I’ve enjoyed McKinley’s work in the past), but my expectations were sensationally low. It was with great surprise, then, when I realized a few hours later that I had become so engrossed in the story that I had not only neglected to pick up my prescription from the pharmacy, but also my husband from his train.

It wasn’t that the book was so perfect that I couldn’t pick apart some structural flaws, because I could. Occasionally, I made note to myself of sections where solutions were overly simplified or tasks too easily won; nevertheless, I found myself loving the book. I could completely understand why this story would appeal deeply to a girl on the brink of adolescence. It’s not a love story, although it has some tender moments in it, but is instead a call to arms for a young woman who has felt isolated and estranged from both family and country her entire life. 

Aerin’s successes stem from her willingness to understand and unwind tasks that come much more easily to those around her, as well as from her compassion for those whose suffering is much greater than her own. She’s no saint though, and the story is never cloying, even when it tugs at the heart. Her victories also come with a steep price, a truth we often learn more keenly as adults than we do as teens. 

What stuck with me most though was how pure the experience of reading this book was. I felt transported, not into Aerin’s world, but back to my own youth, to a time when I could enjoy such a story with unbridled enthusiasm. I’m weeks, or maybe even just days away from transitioning from daughter to mother, and yet I can still open a book like this and return to a simpler time. It’s such a peace-filled gift to have discovered on my very own shelf.

For more about Robin McKinley, head here.

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

Way back when I started this blog, I wrote a review about the second book in Grossman’s Magician trilogy. It was one of those stories that ripped out my heart, mutilated it, then tried to shove it back into my chest in only a rough approximation of where it had originally been. It was that good (or bad, depending on how you want to look at it). Either way, it was one of those books I can’t bring myself to reread because it was too painful the first time, even though I often find myself thinking about it and recalling specific lines with a sort of perverse heartbreaking pleasure.

I was fortunate enough to discover the first two books in the trilogy through John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” and of course read them back to back. I was surprised to find that the second was my favorite, since in general I find the middle book of a trilogy to be, at best, a placeholder, and at worst, a dull repetition of the first book.

I had two years to dwell on that second volume though, since Grossman didn’t publish his conclusion, The Magician’s Land, until early fall of this year. I thought I would tear right into my pre-ordered copy when it arrived in September, but I found myself putting it off again and again, strangely hesitant to reenter the world he had so lovingly created. I don’t know why I hesitated, but some part of me wasn’t ready. The end of the second book was just…well, I can’t quite explain it, but it stuck with me so deeply that it was nearly impossible to move into the end of the story. Let’s just say that I still get choked up when I think about that book, and reading the third one almost felt like a betrayal of what had come before.

I finally did it though. Christmas break turned out to be a good opportunity, especially given that the third book turned out to be a lot less devastating than the first two (not exactly holiday heart-warmers, I promise you that). I ended up reading it during breaks from family time and in the various airports we had to travel through, and I wonder if that stuttered timeline influenced my perception of the book. Grossman still writes a hell of a compelling story, it didn’t win me over nearly the way the first two did.

The biggest challenge seemed to be that the author himself was having a hard time saying goodbye to his world. It’s something I completely understand, and it actually makes me like Grossman even more than I did before, but it didn’t all come together for quite as powerful a conclusion as aI was expecting. Things were a little too easy for characters he had made suffer in the other books, and while I’m all for them catching a few breaks after everything they’d experienced, I wanted a little more of that pain he writes so beautifully.

I wonder what the experience would have been like if I’d been able to read all three of these volumes back to back. Hopefully, some of you will do it and let me know if I’m completely off-base with my interpretation of the final installment. Grossman is certainly a major talent, and his books are well-worth the emotional investment. Part of my problem is that I can’t tell if I set myself up with unrealistic expectations, or if he really did go a little too easy on his “children” this time around. The plot certainly filled in a lot of fascinating holes left in the first two books, and I enjoyed the story very much – I just did’t have that shot to to the heart reaction I was hoping for.

*As a side note, I do want to mention that these books contain material that may not be suitable for everyone. The second book, in particular, has a triggering scene so violent I still find it disturbing years later. The series is not, in general, overly violent or sexual in nature but I wouldn’t want to recommend these across the board without issuing this as a consideration.

 

For more about Lev Grossman, head over here.

Antebellum Awakening, Katie Cross

My friend Katie sent me the newest book in her Network Series over a month ago, and then she very patiently listened to my excuses about why I hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet (I’d planned to do it in time for her launch – one of the most important times for newish writers to get exposure – and I failed rather epically at that…).

Instead, it ended up being one of my crazy November reads, launch date long past, and more importantly (to me), long after her own site’s contest to win handmade caramels (lovingly described in the book) was over. That sounds petty, doesn’t it? Is it really so important? Getting to taste food from the book you’ve been reading? I don’t know. Personally, I’m obsessed with going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter where I can drink butterbeer and stuff myself with authentic non-muggle treats, so I’d say from my perspective, it’s pretty devastating!

It doesn’t help that one of her great gifts as an author is making her readers insatiably hungry detailing freshly baked bread with pots of butter, cinnamon rolls straight out of the oven then loaded with frosting, and hard-earned post-workout breakfasts of eggs sandwiches and thick slices of cheese. I had to stop at one point and pull out my bread maker lest I be driven completely insane.

Honestly, I think I turned into a hobbit reading the second book in her series. I ate at least six (not very small) meals the day I started it, and I harassed her on twitter about the cruelty of such beautiful food prose. This is not to undersell the rest of the story (which I love because it’s basically all women and witchcraft and learning to use a sword), but food is not easy to write well into a novel. Most writers glaze over meals, but she clearly loves good food and doesn’t shy away from the precious communal experience that comes from sharing it.

Food is a bond, an alliance that strengthens the most important relationships in her world. There is an incredible power in that, and a truth of the human experience. Sharing a meal is a sacred trust that we often take for granted, but she writes it with such purpose, it’s impossible not to be drawn to the table.

 

Find Katie Cross’ blog here (especially if you want to find the link to her pinterest page and get even more delicious recipes to stuff yourself with).

The Sheriff, Simon Fairbanks

When Simon asked me if I could read his novel, I suspect he thought I would either A) say I would read it then never get around to it, or B) read it, send him a few thoughtful paragraphs and be done with it. Ha! Jokes on you Mr. Fairbanks! There’s nothing I love more than taking a red pen to the book of someone I know and then bombarding them with my “helpful” “constructive” “criticism.” (Seriously. Just ask my mother. No bond is too sacred to escape my frenetic enthusiasm for improvement.)  It’s especially satisfying when that person is also the first place winner of the collaborative novel competition, Ten to One, that I participated in over the last eighteen months.

Now, as an American, I have been brainwashed since infancy to settle for nothing less than completely crushing the competition; because I came in second behind Simon, reading The Sheriff could have provided just the balm my ego needed. It could have served as my moment of triumph – a chance to tear his writing apart and reveal my own superiority! It occurred to me, of course, as I was reading (and enjoying) his entire novel in one day, that if he turned out to be a terrible writer, that would be a real blow to the self-esteem…so it’s actually for the best that after I was finished, I was hoping he had a sequel planned. (He set it up for a sequel, and it’s cruel to set a reader up for a sequel and then not provide one Simon.)

As it happened, I did write him an email immediately upon finishing the book. Mainly, I needed to figure out why he’s so obsessed with clowns. (His character in Ten to One was a clown and the God-like figure in The Sheriff was a clown. Are they one and the same? Is there even such a thing as clowns (plural) or is there just the one clown with many faces? Does his fixation stem from a childhood obsession? Too many viewings of that episode of The Simpsons when Bart had that clown bed? Or possibly just one extremely traumatic viewing of Killer Clowns from Outer Space?) You’ll be shocked to hear that he was much more interested in my other thoughts about the book. I got zero answers to my clown inquiries. I’m sure that has has nothing to do with the fact that the clown in The Sheriff played a minor role in the story and everything to do with him belonging to a society of clowns with a strict code of secrecy. 

Personally, I find the idea of a clown with the power to turn the clouds into a refuge for tribes of magical beings fleeing the earth to be terrifying. Clowns are scary enough without fantastical powers, but I can’t argue with the results. I loved that all manner of creature could be living up above us and that, if discovered, would be part of an air-bound war between the people of earth and those flying high above. I also thought the payoff regarding the Sheriff and his deputy was ingenious, and I don’t use that word lightly (especially when it comes to my former nemesis). One of his reveals was so lovely it’s actually quite difficult for me not to spoil it. I won’t, of course. We’re very anti-spoiler here on the internet…

Essentially though, in this one book, he manages to in squeeze in clowns, misunderstood villains, comedic violence, less comedic violence that sneaks up and tears out a little piece of your heart, cheeky old folks, red headed brothers, and worthwhile spoilers. Since I will read just about anything with heroic red heads and back-talking geriatrics, I was well and truly taken. I am, however, first in line with a red pen to get my hands on a draft of the sequel. Sweet victory, I await!

 

For more about (my friend and very good sport) Simon Fairbanks, head over here.