Between the Bookends at GeekMom

Bookends © Sophie Brown

This month the GeekMoms have run the gamut from new interpretations of Beowulf to a murder mystery in post-Revolutionary War New England. There are graphic novels filled with aliens and wizards, shadowy government organizations, teenage boys painting models in their bedrooms, and girls being discovered floating in cello cases.  If something there doesn’t pique your interest then I don’t know what will!

Tolkein Beowolf © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Tolkein Beowolf © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Lisa has taken on the summer reading challenge of poring over two new books featuring until-recently-unpublished writings by two classic writers: Thomas Bulfinch and J. R.R. Tolkien.  

She was particularly excited to pick up Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Tolkien actually wrote this translation of Beowulf in 1926, before The Hobbit was even published, and apparently never intended to publish this translation. His son Christopher has recently granted permission for the release of both this meticulous translation and accompanying lecture-style commentary, as well as Tolkien’s own accompanying work in a similar style, Sellic Spell. In addition, Christopher Tolkien’s comments and contributions to this volume are both helpful and welcome.

A perfect companion to it is the Tarcher Cornerstone Edition of Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Classic Introduction to Myth and Legend — Complete & Unbridged by Thomas Bulfinch (Tarcher/Penguin), Thomas Bulfinch’s comprehensive compilation of myths, from Greco-Roman to medieval and Arthurian times, has been an essential element to booklovers’ collections since 1881, more than ten years after the writer’s death. This new collection, set for release June 12, not only includes his three volumes of myth and history in its original text, it features never-before published text from Bulfinch’s journals, and interpretations of more modern works published after his time.

Neither of these books is a simple read, and both demand the reader’s attention. With these new doses of familiar authors, however, readers will want to give it.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves © Plume
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves © Plume


Karen
has been taking advantage of the late-night feedings that come with having a newborn, and catching up on eBooks. Two that stand out from the last month are Karen Joy Fowler’s Nebula-nominated and PEN/Faulkner award-winning We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. A fascinating character study of a young woman in college in California in the 90’s whose story looks back to the past (an unusual childhood driven by her father’s psychology experiments—to be any more specific would be spoilery) and ahead to her future. Fowler captures the person, the times, the environment, and the skewed weirdness of the premise just perfectly.

In addition, she picked up a much-talked about sf/fantasy novel from last year, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. A wonderful blend of fantasy (jinn and a more-or-less magic book) and sf (hackers and coders subverting the national security state) set in an imagined Middle Eastern emirate, this fast-paced book puts one in mind of a really great comic book. Alif, our young hacker protagonist, can be kind of obnoxious, but he does eventually learn the error of his ways, and the characters surrounding him more than make up for his obtuseness. A nuanced portrait of an environment that is too often stereotyped, Wilson does an amazing job of bringing her setting (both realistic and fantastic) to life along with her characters. If the plotting sometimes falls into slightly cliched ruts, that’s a small price to pay for this fabulous and well-rounded story.

Cherub #1: The Recruit © Simon Pulse
Cherub #1: The Recruit © Simon Pulse

This month Helen has tried a couple of middle grade books, suitable for children around 8-12 year olds. First up was CHERUB: The Recruit by prolific award-winning author Robert Muchamore and suitable for readers around 10+ years. Published a decade ago, the first book in the CHERUB series sees young scamp James, who seems destined for a life of crime, recruited to a shadowy government organization after he is orphaned. He is whisked off to a plush campus where he begins his training to become a spy, making friends with his fellow trainees. James ends up carrying out a dangerous mission, all while dealing with the normal early teenage issues. It’s a fast-paced and exciting ride, with James navigating relationships both inside and outside of his training and missions, as well as attempting to overcome his fear of water and swimming. The CHERUB series would appeal to fans of the Young Bond or Alex Rider books, and hopefully the reissues will gather a new set of fans.

Tethers by Jack Croxall is the first in a trilogy of books with an interesting mixture of genres. Set in Victorian times in the north of England, it also has a science fiction and fantasy edge, as well as adventure and mystery. The main characters are Karl and Esther, friends whose curiosity leads to them becoming embroiled in a strange and fantastic plot to control a magical artifact. It soon turns out that more people are also on the trail, and that they will stop at nothing to control the artifact and harness its powers. Karl and Esther are placed in mortal peril, and with the help of their companions they set out to find out the truth. Helen particularly liked that Karl and Esther weren’t content to wait around for the life that people expected them to have, and that they chose to break away and follow their instincts rather than stay on the expected path. Esther wasn’t limited by the politics of the day, and was able to use a new-found skill which she wouldn’t have been able to develop had she stayed at home. Helen hopes that the next book in the series will cover the expectations of women in the society at the time and how Esther deals with the limitations placed on her gender. Tethers is a great start to the story and she’ll certainly be checking up on Karl and Esther in the next volume.

Depression is the theme in Brilliant, a new children’s story by Roddy Doyle. Set in Dublin, it follows the nighttime adventure of two siblings, Gloria and Raymond, as they attempt to rid the city of a metaphor which has taken form: the Black Dog. It’s a modern fable or fairy tale, filled with talking animals, a friendly vampire, and a pair of children desperate to find a way to rid their uncle of the Black Dog who has settled on his back. It could be a good way to talk to children about mental illness, although I’m not sure how much of the subtleties children will be able to pick up, or whether they’ll see it in a more literal sense. Helen liked the story a great deal, especially that it hinged on the power of a spoken word. Also, she likes that Gloria is the hero and lynchpin, the child who won’t give up in her quest to rescue her uncle.

Malorie Blackman’s Noble Conflict explores morality in a future setting. In a world which has been destroyed by war and genocide, can young soldier and idealist Kaspar find his way to the truth about the past, and decide which side he should be fighting on? As with all Malorie Blackman’s novels, this one has great characterization and a meaty storyline, full of events that really make you think. There are twists and turns as Kaspar uncovers the truth, which will keep you guessing throughout. There is some description of torture in the book, so Helen recommends it for older readers.

The final book that Helen has read this month is Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. This book has been well publicized recently, being shortlisted for a plethora of awards, and winning the prestigious 2014 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. When Helen visited her local bookshop to buy a copy, the sales assistant at the till enthused about it, saying that it was a brilliant book and that all of the staff loved it. So, this is the tale of Sophie, who is found floating in a cello case in the flotsam after a shipwreck. She is taken in by English eccentric Charles, as it is presumed that her parents had perished in the shipwreck. Sophie however, thinks differently, and knows that her mother is alive. Charles teaches Sophie the important things in life: music, books, and Shakespeare. However, he fails to teach her the skills to be ladylike, and when Sophie is threatened with being taken away from Charles, they go on the run to find Sophie’s mother across the rooftops of Paris. Sophie is a fantastic heroine: brave, focused, and tenacious. She explores the roofs of Paris on bare feet and tightrope, learning to trust her new friend Matteo and teaching him to trust her in return. Helen really loved this book. There’s a poetic feel to the prose, and the characters are really multifaceted. Charles is a great father, being supportive but also letting Sophie go when he knows that she must follow her belief that her mother is alive. There’s a great angle of following your instincts and also finding the solution to a problem by looking at it from a different angle, literally in Sophie’s case, as she surveys Paris from high above.

The Best of Connie Willis © Del Ray
The Best of Connie Willis © Del Ray

Fran devoured The Best of Connie Willis (Del Rey, 2013), enjoying the short stories that were old friends equally with ones she hadn’t read before. The biggest treats were Willis’ notes on each story, telling the how and why of their writing, and also the journey of this amazing author. Fran is also working her way through two anthologies, 21st Century Science Fiction, edited by David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor, 2014), and Women Destroy Science Fiction (okay, this is a magazine issue with the size and heft of an anthology, brought to you by Lightspeed Magazine and all of us Kickstarter supporters!). Fran and her daughter are reading Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Sea together, which is a WW2 story told from the perspective of 11-year-old Dewey Kagan, who likes science and math more than some feel a young lady should, and finds herself in a town that doesn’t exist, called Los Alamos, with her mathematician father. And, because Mount To Be Read is growing exponentially, she’s also started Jaime Lee Moyer’s wonderful sequel to her ghost-detective debut Delia’s Shadow, A Barricade in Hell (Tor, 2014). So gorgeously written.

Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind © Stripes Publishing
Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind © Stripes Publishing

With an official list now drawn up for this summer’s Young Adult Literature Festival in London, Sophie has begun attempting to read at least one book by as many of the attending authors as possible. Her journey has begun with Andy Robb’s Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind, the story of 14-year-old D&D geek Archie and his attempts to change himself to try and win the affection of new girl Sarah. It’s an interesting story that shows the pitfalls of changing who you are to suit another, whilst also suggesting that sometimes changes should indeed be made in order to move on in life. Next up on the young adult challenge is Holly Smale’s Geek Girl.

Sophie has been filling the Supernatural summer hiatus by working through some books on the show. She found Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls by Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis a fascinating and resonating read (look for a fuller review soon here) and also enjoyed the first official graphic novel from the series, Supernatural Origins, which tells the story of the first weeks of John Winchester’s change from average guy mechanic to hunter. The story gave her a fuller appreciation for the tough decisions John had to make in those early days, however the latter half of the book turned into something more akin to a Sandman story and didn’t feel as in-keeping with the Supernatural verse.

Sophie has also been slowly making her way through Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go which is a slow going if beautifully rendered story with the ability to really make you feel a part of the world created within its pages. She has just begun Charles Soule’s graphic novel Letter 44 where a newly inaugurated U.S. president learns the truth about aliens and what we’re doing to defend ourselves from them, a common enough trope given a new twist here. She found it refreshing to see a female captain aboard the spaceship, especially one that is pregnant—an outcome of long term space missions she had yet to see covered in comics.

Finally Sophie has been somewhat taken aback by her four-year-old son’s interest in the David Chauvel and Enrique Fernandez graphic novel adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The book has taken well over a week to read yet his interest has been maintained despite the strange and often distorted illustrations.

A Simple Murder © Minotaur Books
A Simple Murder © Minotaur Books

Rebecca Angel just finished A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns. Set right after the Revolutionary War in New England, nothing is simple about this one, with bodies being found, people and horses going missing, unexpected romance, and a father trying to understand his son. Our hero/detective is William Rees, and he’s not an official detective, but very good at figuring these sorts of things out. This time, the murders take place on a Shaker community, bringing discord to the brethren of what is supposed to be a peaceful society. Good book!

Copies of some books provided for review purposes.

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