Fire Touched, Patricia Briggs

Is there anything better than seeing an email pop up saying a book you pre-ordered (and then forgot existed) is now available on your kindle this very second?! To me, it’s almost better than Christmas – a complete and wonderful surprise from a beloved author – it’s a happy enough occasion that it redeems even a week trapped inside watching the rain while a nine month old climbs the walls.

25776210Briggs, of course, was the author who got me through the last six weeks of my pregnancy and much of the summer caring for a newborn. Her Mercy Thompson series brings me so much joy with its lighthearted spin on werewolves, fae, vampires, and of course, coyote shape-shifters. It was painful that I could only read this newest volume in fits and starts, pages stolen during nap time (after chores and real work were finished – thanks a lot adult responsibilities!) and for a few minutes before I passed out at night. I told myself that I was just savoring it, but really, it was torture.

Now that I’ve finished, all I can think is, how long until the next book comes out? Do I really have to wait a year or two for more? This is a problem I often find when I’ve binged on a series and then caught up to real time production. My brain believes I’m entitled to infinite pages, but the reality is that I have to wait and hope that another email will pop up in the next few weeks telling me about a sequel in another beloved series I hadn’t remembered was forthcoming. The idea of such a treat will get me through the first long difficult hours after finishing, but the reality is, I don’t pre-order often, so I’ll eventually have to let go and turn to my shelf of perfectly good to-read books.

I’m not ready yet though. I’m still happy to daydream about characters I love, to swish this last novel around in my brain for awhile, sifting through it for bright shards of story I might have missed during my fractured read. It’s that bittersweet clingy stage all bookworms know, defiantly wrapped up in a favorite world even after the book has come to its satisfying end…

Finn Fancy Necromancy, Randy Henderson

Do you ever buy a book purely for the title? I have to imagine the answer is yes, and the main reason I want to believe this is that I really struggle with titling projects and I want to believe that at the end of the day, all that agony has meant something. I want to know that at least a few people who buy my books are doing so not because they know me or my work or even because they care much for the genre, but purely because it would be too hard to pass up the opportunity to buy something with such a fabulous title! As you can tell, I’ve clearly got my priorities in order.

While I was considering this question, I actually wished I had created an appropriate tag when I started this blog just to mark the books I buy and read for the title. I know I’ve done it more than once, and it seems like it would be fun to go back and compare how those books worked out for me. I feel like if I collected enough empirical evidence on the topic, I might be able to make an educated guess about how reliable it is to judge a book by its cover. (For the record, the cover art for Finn Fancy Necromancy is both amazing and completely nonsensical, and I love it – sheer bonus on top of the title, in my opinion.)

If I had to make a guess without any data (which is, admittedly, how I like to roll), I would say that books I’ve chosen purely for love of the title tend to score a six or a seven out of ten for me, whereas books I pick for the cover art alone tend to score much lower, averaging maybe a four or so. Again, I have no real evidence to back this up other than my memory (which has become, in the last nine months, not so much a sieve as a sucking vacuous black hole). Fortunately, I suspect it would be hard to prove me wrong on this point, and even if it were possible, it would be a tremendously unsatisfying victory. It would take so much work, and for what? To discover that taste is a fleeting concept? That the most enduring stories last regardless of title or cover? That it’s only in this wonderful age of book over-saturation that we even get to contemplate such a curious issue? Our time could be much better spent perusing the library shelves for titles, like this one, that make us giggle. Is Finn Fancy the best book I’ve ever read? No. Was it light and fun and perfect for my wandering brain this close to the end of my pregnancy? Yes. 

Henderson’s style is familiar and friendly, and his characters are people I can imagine befriending over a coffee even though their circumstances don’t seem to allow for many latte breaks. Every morning at the gym, as I battled exercise-induced heartburn (yes, that’s a real thing, and yes, I have it right now), I would read a chapter or two about Finn, returning from exile in a faerie prison world after twenty years, and I would appreciate how challenging it would be to try to pick up life where he left it, as a teenager in the eighties, now far from the cutting edge and pushing forty. 

Since he’s returned, he’s not only the target of the mysterious forces that framed him for his original crime, but he’s also been dumped back into the the fray of his family’s drama and his adolescent love interests. He has no personal memories of the last twenty years, has no idea what technological or political advances have been made, and has had no contact with anyone from his old life. What he does have is a healthy sense of humor (very much under appreciated by the people in his life) appropriate for a kid growing up with the Goonies. I couldn’t help but sympathize for the poor guy. No one should have to go to bed seventeen and wake up middle aged – it’s just not fair. 

When it comes down to it, the reason a book like this often ends up being a good fit for me, even when I do no research on it whatsoever before reading, is that silly wordplay is something I enjoy. While a beautiful cover might inspire or intrigue me, it often has little bearing to what’s on the page. The title, on the other hand, is an author’s wink at the world, a little peek into the particular twist of psyche that has turned a spark into an adventure.

For more about Randy Henderson, 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.

Skin Game, Jim Butcher

Michael snorted. “You destroy buildings, fight monsters openly in the streets of the city, work with the police, show up in newspapers, advertise in the phone book, and ride zombie dinosaurs down Michigan Avenue, and you think that you work in the shadows? Be reasonable.” (p 267)

There are few things I love more than a new Dresden Files book. I have to give Jim Butcher major props too, because come spring, he delivers. I’ve been reading this series since 2007 (seven years after he began publishing stories about Harry Dresden), and although it’s painful to wait for the next volume after I finish a new one, it’s comforting to know I won’t be left hanging indefinitely. I cannot overstate how much I value consistency when it comes to a series I love.

An author can buy my affection for the low, low price of a great book written every year. Piece of cake, right? If you have a pact with the devil, maybe. Or you’re heavily into witchcraft. I suspect Jim Butcher of both. And I am fine with that. He works hard, and his books are such fun that even while my rational brain is applauding him for the grueling writing schedule he must have to keep, I never get the feeling it’s hard work – just the contrary. His style is sarcastic adventuring at its best, and it reads like he enjoys spending time in his version of Chicago more than the world outside of its pages.

I don’t know anything about Butcher’s personal life. I don’t where he lives, or whether he’s married or has kids. I’ve never seen him speak or read any interviews, and yet I’ve created a mental image of him after reading his books that informs my own work as a writer deeply. I greatly admire his work ethic. I don’t need to do more than look at the number of books he’s published to know that he lives by the adage “a writer writes.” I, like many writers, go through periods over the course of every year where I write more or less, and at the moment, I’m in one of those lulls that forces me to confront the fear that I’m not doing enough to prove myself in my field. When I read books by authors like Butcher, I’m humbled by his dedication to his characters, to his fans, and to his own desire to tell stories.

It’s such a beautiful thing to read books by writers who are clearly in love with writing. That creative fire ignites their work to create spectacular energy on every page; Butcher is the kind of writer who stokes that fire for all its worth. He could just as easily fall back on the great novels he’s written in the past, but instead, he breathes new life into his characters with every book. When I finished Skin Game, I was reminded again of the joy that lies beneath his stories. It’s a feeling that makes me wish I had time to go back and reread the series every year. I could easily live in Dresden’s universe for months at a time, and the most butt-kicking part of realizing that is that knowledge I should take as much pleasure from my own fictional worlds as I do the ones created for my enjoyment…

 

For more about Jim Butcher, go here.

Midnight Crossroad, Charlaine Harris

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already know about my love of all things Harris. I’ve read every series she’s written as fast as she could write them, and when each of them ended, I experienced the kind of sadness unique to multi-book story arcs. (There’s a different sadness that comes with reading a great standalone book, or a trilogy – it’s not a question of greater or lesser – it’s just different.)

Since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to books with seemingly unending adventures though (Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, even back to the Berenstain Bears). Something inside of me felt this overwhelming joy at the idea of sinking down into a book with characters I knew and loved well. A friend once said it was just like me to extend my introversion to having a hard time meeting new fictional characters, and I think she was right. When it comes to novels especially, I am most drawn to both characters and authors I already know and love. That being so, this past May was a banner month. I got the latest book in the Dresden Files and the first book in a new series by Harris.

Now, first books are obviously not as exciting as sequels, at least for me (I suspect Harris was ready to start writing new characters with thirteen Sookie Stackhouse novels under her belt), but the transition was eased by the inclusion of a minor character from her Shakespeare series. I have to admit, when I realized who he was (some time before the connection was explicitly made), I mentally made the switch from “well, I suppose I can learn to love this new series” to “ooh continuity is the best – more please!”

I think what had also made me hesitate before that point was that Harris has decided to write at least this first book from the point of view of multiple characters. While that’s not uncommon, it is a different approach than she’s used in the past, and one of the biggest downsides of it is that it takes a lot longer to get to know those characters and establish trust in them as narrators. Having just finished writing a book where we had ten different characters telling the story, I have been on the receiving end of plenty of opinions about the technique, and it’s clear that I’m not the only person who has mixed feelings about it. I still remember when I started reading George RR Martin’s books over a decade ago; it took me three tries to get into A Game of Thrones because there were just so many people clamoring to be heard, and I still haven’t gotten around to reading A Dance of Dragons because I’m bitter about how he split the characters up in the fourth and fifth books. (Yes, I do realize it’s ridiculous to hold a grudge when the fifth book has been out for about three years, but I had roughly six years between those two books to really work myself into a snit, and I suspect it will take about that long before I’ve completely let it go. And no, before you ask, I don’t watch the show – his story was devastating enough the first time. No need to relive that pain in high def.)

I like to make one of the characters in any given book the friend I rely on, and it’s much easier to do that in books with only one narrator. The person I love best isn’t always in that primary role, but I know there will be a certain consistency in my interpretation of the characters when I’m not bouncing from one head into another. I don’t know that it bothers me all that much for an author to use multiple povs in most books, but it threw me for a loop this time because I wasn’t expecting it. I had to adjust to Harris’ new style in addition to setting, story, and characters, and I’m not too proud to admit it helped to have one familiar face in the crowd. That being said, I love that she went quite dark at the end of this first volume, and I’m glad as an author she’s generally consistent about getting a book out every year so I have something to look forward to next spring.

 

For more about Charlaine Harris, head over here.

Untold, Sarah Rees Brennan

“Good practice, everyone,” Rusty said at last. “Light on the actual learning, heavy on the emotional catharsis, and thanks to Jared I think I need a rabies shot, but them’s the breaks.” (loc 1627)

 

I’m going to come right out and say it. I read book 2 of The Lynburn Legacy because I wanted more Rusty. He’s only a peripheral character in the first book; fortunately for me, he plays a bigger role in the second. My hope is that by the third installment, he has completely taken over the narrative so that I’m no longer forced to read about an obviously unhealthy romantic triangle, and I can spend all my time delighting in the antics of Rusty, his badass sister Angela, and her spunky crush, Holly Prescott. I’m even happy to invite Brennan’s protagonist, Kami Glass, to the party as long as she doesn’t bring her mopey suitors along.

I like Kami and her friends, I really do. The first book had a lot more of her with them, and the romance was more of a side note. That was great. Although I have no problem with romance – not even fraught romance – I’ve never been a fan of the Romeo and Juliet school of pining, or the even more dire Othello method of investigation (guilty until proven…nope, just gonna kill her without bothering to talk it out). One of my biggest pet peeves is when assumptions are made over and over again without a single question ever being asked. One assumption? Sure. We all occasionally make decisions based on hearsay or a meaningful look, but how many times does a character have to be proven wrong before he or she figures out that a little conversation can go a long way?

This sort of thing is overdone in YA fiction, and it drives me crazy, especially when a character is written to be as smart and inquisitive as Kami Glass. She’s a journalist! She’s comfortable cold calling strangers to ask about their potential involvement in sorcery and murder, but she can’t be bothered to ask her quasi-boyfriend how he really feels about her? I know she’s a teenager, but I just don’t buy it. She hasn’t been written as a pushover, so why does she have to fall into that stereotype when it comes to romantic relationships? I’m not saying never write that person, but newsflash: some teenagers are comfortable talking about their feelings! Some teenagers are actually pretty mature about these things, and it’s okay to occasionally portray such a person on the page.

Maybe it makes good drama. I happen to think murder and sacrifice coupled with a major family meltdown is plenty of drama. Why can’t dating be a little less…extreme? Why can’t it be more of a comfort in the midst of all the craziness? I remember very few people in high school bandying around the word “love.” Instead, there were group dates, and people to dance with and giggle over. There were parties, and hooking up, and girls getting pregnant. There were summer flings at camp, and major school year crushes. There were notes passed, and occasionally, two people got their shit together and actually dated for longer than three weeks. They were looked on with a certain awe because, regardless of what books and television want us to believe, few teenagers actually have the time and energy to be in love, and even fewer fall in love with people who love them back. Between homework, sports, work, band, etc, the teenagers I know have about fifteen minutes of free time a day. I don’t think most of them would even have time to deal with the crucial murder-y part of this story, much less that, plus magic,  a love triangle, and running the school newspaper!

I’m willing to suspend my disbelief about how little time these kids spend in school, how often they spend the night somewhere other than their own homes without so much as a check-in text with their parents, or how every day seems to be about forty-two hours long, but after all of that, my powers of suspension are pretty much spent. The only thing I have energy for in the end is Rusty and the self-defense classes he teaches in a little room above the grocery store. Because that’s helpful, and adorable, and he deserves all the love.

 

For more about Sarah Rees Brennan, go here.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (post the second), Catherynne M Valente

“For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it.” (pg 8)

Tonight, I was sitting in our church’s tiny Ash Wednesday service, and we sang one of my all-time favorite songs. While I probably should have been reflecting on the season of Lent stretching ahead of me, or about sacrifice, or prayer, instead, I was thinking about this book. I finished it a few days ago, but after posting on Monday, I didn’t feel like I had much more to add. It was a beautiful read, but I couldn’t find the inspiration to write something as thought-provoking as I felt it deserved. It wasn’t until we started singing together that I was swept up by how the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” remind me of the journeys, like September’s, that I most enjoy reading about.

In case you’re not familiar with the song, these are the verses I love best:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
and Grace will lead us home.

I remember singing this at camp when I was a child, sitting with all my friends and looking out at the White Mountains, the night sky stretching above us. The words just flowed out of me, and when we finished, I wanted to sing it again. I get that same feeling still, this powerful surging desire for adventure with all the trials and growth it brings. I long for the mysteries that test me and make me stronger and more compassionate, that will tame my wild, raw heart without chaining it too tightly.

Of course, it helps that I think we create our own grace. We make it, give it, seek it, long for it – grace is, to me, an expression of our best, bravest, most selfless hearts – it is the part of us that steps up and becomes, even if it is only in a tiny way or for a single moment, heroic. It is our conscience and our grit, our faith in ourselves and our trust in the goodness of others.

“September did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts. They do this because they are afraid of the world and of being stared at, or relied upon to do feats of bravery or boldness. And all of those brave and wild and cunning and marvelous and beautiful parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms – and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts, too – end up in their shadow.” (p 77)

When we’re young, it’s so much easier to brave and wild and cunning and marvelous. Each of our worlds are pinpoints of light, and we are at the center, shining more brightly and callously than we could ever believe when we’re all grown up and looking back. We can’t imagine how it was that we were simultaneously so fearless and heartless and young! Our minds were hardly made up at all. We could take one road, then turn off into the darkest woods with only the tiniest of hesitations niggling in the back of our brains. We could intentionally lose ourselves again and again because somehow, some peculiar whirling internal compass compelled us to – for how else would we find ourselves if not by getting completely turned around?

Thus is the murky world of childhood. The monsters are more terrifying, or we maybe are just more helpless, and yet, we are also more resilient, more willing to risk everything for the chance at some unknowable reward. Valente has captured this gamble, this scrambling from the cold grasping of childhood to the passionate frustration of adolescence, leaving us, at the end, on the tricky cusp of adulthood.

Those of us who are already grown can see our own paths leading backwards – the enemies we have vanquished, and the ones who have vanquished us, the delicate lives we have trampled and the people we have saved, even the grace we have given and that which we have received – it’s all there for us to see and remember and regret. I can’t help but love September, with her bursting, untamed heart, even though I know, as does Valente, that the happy ending of this story is only a moment on the girl’s larger journey. There will be greater mountains for her to climb yet, and bitterness will seep in with love, but that’s the adventure of growing up for all of us, isn’t it?