Between the Bookends: September 2014

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

Wondering what the GeekMoms have been reading this month? As the new school year begins, our choices include time travel romance, astronaut biographies, kings’ messengers, Irish immigrants, killer cakes, and The Doctor. Phew! Best get stuck in then…

Mirror Sight © DAW Hardcover
Mirror Sight © DAW Hardcover

Rebecca and her teenage son waited months for Mirror Sight: Book Five of Green Rider by Kristen Britain to come in the library. After wondering what was taking so long, she found out there was only one copy. So Rebecca got them to order another copy and it came in! There were two bookmarks in the book for the week, because they could not possibly wait for the other to read it!

It was good. The epic fantasy series is not as well known, but it comes recommended by this family. The story follows Karigan G’ladheon and her adventures in the highly dangerous messenger service of the king. Britain does not rush the series, and the plot moves along at an even pace, getting more and more complex as the books continue. Although there is plenty of action, the author favors character development and relationships more.

She won’t say too much about this latest book because everything would be a spoiler if you haven’t read the series, but this one took a completely different spin by adding time travel into the 19th century-like future. Since the series is a typical medieval/renaissance world, she was quite unsure if the author could pull it off. Britain was splendid and at the end of the book, she needed big hugs from her son when she cried and cried. He understood, because he just read it as well. A good one! Start the series!

Melanie has been reading Incarnateby Anton Strout, the third and final installment of the Spellmason Chronicles (preceded by Alchemystic and Stonecast).

Incarnate © Ace
Incarnate © Ace

With this book, Strout definitely proves himself to be a strong player in the urban fantasy genre. Alexandra, one of the two narrating characters, has such a strong voice and is so well developed, it was easy to forget this book was written by a person outside of the story. Events in the book played out like a fast-paced movie, yet there was a lot of emotion at play here as well. There are lots of laugh-out-loud moments, yet the humor is very nicely balanced with suspense and mystery. Come for the geeky entertainment—there is plenty to go around, with nods to practically every corner of the geekiverse, from gaming to TV to books. But stay for the emotional kick, as the relationships between the characters grow and change. Melanie didn’t want to close this book when she was done and honestly, got a little teary at the thought of not being able to go on new adventures with Lexi, Stanis, Rory, Marshall, and Caleb.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Acceptance is one of those books—one of those series—that just haunts long after it’s done. It’s a psychological-nature thriller that packs an emotional punch and stays with the reader long after they close the book. Even at the end, one never quite knows what is real, what is going on. VanderMeer has a gorgeous style of writing, and with this third book, Area X especially came alive with so many rich elements. Each character had his/her own way of telling their piece of events and it really added to the world of the story. The nature geek in Melanie really appreciated the amount of research VanderMeer did to write the Southern Reach series. Area X is a character in its own right in this story. There is so much detail in here, but it makes the story organic, it doesn’t bog it down at all. This is a tough thing for a writer to accomplish, and VanderMeer proves himself a master at it. Beautiful imagery fills the pages of this book, making the world come to life in the reader’s imagination—so much so that there were parts that really made Melanie’s neck prickle. The book left her with a lot to ponder.

Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks  © BBC Books
Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks © BBC Books

Lisa recently purchased William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return, the final book of the bestselling William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy by Ian Doescher, and just by chance, ran across a similar concept tailor-made for Whovian Bard fans: Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks by Justin Richards (Harper Design).

These “rediscovered” long lost notebooks compiled by Shakespeare indicate that The Doctor had long been an influential role in his creative life. Some of the Bard-Meets-The Doctor crossovers include “original notes” from Hamlet and notes on the origin of the faeries in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is an interesting and fun twist on both history and literature. The “lost works” of Shakespeare stay true enough to the original source to encourage readers to dig out the original Shakespeare works as basis for comparison. If anyone can bring a reluctant reader to Shakespeare, it’s The Doctor.

Also this month, she re-read the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett comic fantasy, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. There’s nothing like a botched apocalyptic prophesy to make a person feel better about their lot in life. The armies of Good and Evil are getting ready for the final battle, but unfortunately, the Antichrist was the victim of a switched-at-birth scenario. Instead, the evil nuns who were supposed to raise and prep him for his coming are looking over the wrong child and the actual Antichrist is now a boy named Adam, who is happily living a perfectly normal life. The story is lively, thought-provoking, and very, very, funny. The interaction between the angel and demon, Arizaphale and Crowley, both contented long-time Earth residents, is especially hilarious. Lisa’s reason for picking up this book once more was that she finally convinced her husband to read it. Having a second person read it for the first time made the second time through even better, particularly with the conversations it produced. “What do you think about their take on the Four Horsemen?” “Who will play Arizaphale and Crowley in the movie version, should there ever be one?” (Lisa’s choice, by the way, is to get the BBC Sherlock stars Martin Freeman (Arizaphale) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Crowley) some off-season work.) Picking up a Gaiman book again after several years was like visiting an old, silly friend who may tell a story that’s been heard before, but it is still just as entertaining.

Across The Winds Of Time © Bess McBride
Across The Winds Of Time © Bess McBride

This month, Maryann is fascinated with time travel romance novels. Maryann really enjoys reading romances, and mixing romance with a science-fiction twist is a perfect blend for her. The two books that stood out this month are Across the Winds of Time by Bess McBride and Echoes of Tomorrow by Jenny Lykins. In both of these books, the main male characters travel forward in time from the 1800s to modern times, and with time travel comes lots of confusion and humor about their situation. At times, the authors had Maryann laughing out loud as the characters tried to learn about and adjust to all the conveniences of modern times that we take for granted. Often, the main female characters took great joy in stunning the guys with modern technology like fast cars, hot showers, and microwaved food. Just imagine going from using a privy to having hot running water in the house! No more horse-and-buggy day trips to go to the nearest town; now you drive there and back in an afternoon. At every turn, there was something new to take in and deal with.

Just when their situation in the future seems to be stabilizing, the guys find themselves back in the 1800s with their ladies. Turn about becomes fair play, as the ladies now have to get used to doing things the good old-fashioned way. They have to adjust to strange clothing like hoop skirts, dealing with no AC in the summer, and trying not to use unknown idioms. The ladies have to be very careful to keep from saying something out of time and character. Minding their place becomes difficult for the spirited women.

The stories also contain a lot of discussion about whether time travel is possible and if the characters out of time are sane. The characters worry about whether they can count on their trip through time not being reversed. At first, they want desperately to go back to their own time, but after falling in love, they worry just as much about leaving their lovers. The characters have to deal with the sadness of family and friends left behind mixed with the joy of starting a new life with love and fulfilled dreams. Do the lovers go back to their right time, or do they stay with their new loves? You’ll have to read to find out. These books were very entertaining, and Maryann is already searching for another time travel romance book!

The Other Half of The Sky © Candlemark and Gleam
The Other Half of The Sky © Candlemark and Gleam

Fran read and re-read a heap of science fiction and fantasy short stories over the past couple of months in preparation for the London World Science Fiction Convention. Several of her favorites include Aliette de Bodard’s Hugo-nominated The Waiting Stars from The Other Half of the Sky anthology and John Chu’s Hugo-winning The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere from When she wasn’t reading short stories, Fran finished Max Gladstone’s latest novel, Full Fathom Five, which features an excellent mix of economics, man-made gods, and magic; Beth Cato’s upcoming steampunk spectacular, The Clockwork Dagger, with gremlins, assassins, and airships … a perfect blend for trouble; and Nalo Hopkinson’s wonderful Andre-Norton-winning young adult novel Sister Mine, where the heroine, Maketa, sets out to live on her own, but must come to terms with her supernatural family first.

Next up? Everything has come to a full stop so that Fran can read Steven Gould’s latest Jumper novel, EXO. There’s an R&D designer at dirigible company Blimp Werks named Fran Wilde who GeekMom Fran Wilde is very interested in meeting. In addition, and more importantly, Jumper is an amazing series, and Fran is delighted to see the latest installment hit the streets!

Sally Ride © Simon & Schuster
Sally Ride © Simon & Schuster

Karen has been reading books about astronauts! This year, in response to two sad passings, two new biographies have arrived about two groundbreaking astronauts. Lynn Sherr’s biography of her friend, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, is particularly informative. Much less has been written about the Shuttle-era astronauts than the Apollo era, so the stories here are fresh and new. Dr. Ride makes one heck of a role model: an athletic tennis player, physicist with an interest in literature, pioneering astronaut, tough investigator of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and science educator, as well as being (as only became widely known after her death) a lesbian. The kind of personality who could make all those things work together in a sadly too-short life makes for fascinating reading.

Jay Barbree’s biography of his friend and space pioneer in Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight, makes for somewhat less enlightening reading. So much has been written about the Apollo space program (and Karen had read a big chunk of those books even before joining NASA herself) that the incidents Barbree chooses to include don’t shed much new light. And while there are incidents from Neil Armstrong’s pre-Moon landing life that make for a real humanization (he lost his daughter to brain cancer when she was 3-years-old and his house in El Lago, Texas, burned down, almost taking him and his whole family with it), there is almost no insight into his very private years after leaving NASA. Karen was hoping for at least a story or two about how the students at the college where he taught reacted to finding out that their professor was globally famous, but aside from some vignettes about returning for NASA functions and celebrations, that portion of his life is almost entirely elided. A good book for someone casually curious about the behind-the-scenes stories of the first Moon landing, but not much here for those already familiar with the history.

We Are Not Ourselves © Simon & Schuster
We Are Not Ourselves © Simon & Schuster

Sophie has been enjoying We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, which she picked up on the glowing recommendation of Supernatural‘s Misha Collins. The book follows the story of an Irish immigrant family living in Queens through the 20th century. While not the fastest-paced book ever written, the level of character depth and nuance is astounding—every person feels utterly real, with realistic motivations and responses to every situation thrown their way. The “Salad Days” chapter left in a lump in Sophie’s throat and a tightness in her chest for days, after it perfectly encapsulated feelings she had never known how to articulate. Misha will be running a book club in late September/early October to encourage people to read it and Sophie will definitely be joining in.

Also on Sophie’s reading list have been several books on fandom, in preparation for attending the Fan Studies Network Conference in London later this month. She devoured one of the most recent additions to a favorite book series, Fan Phenomena: Supernatural. The book is edited by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen, the authors of Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, and is a compilation of essays about Supernatural and its fandom. Sophie found the insights from Misha Collins and Richard Speight Jr. fascinating, but one of her favorite parts was an interview with Supernatural fanvidder Ash48 (Sarah House), which also encouraged her to reopen Sony Vegas after several months of estrangement. Sophie is now slowly working her way through Digital Fandom: New Media Studies by Paul Booth, the conference’s keynote speaker. The book discusses the ways that media, consumption, interaction, and fandom have and continue to change as the digital era evolves.

Cuckoo Song © Macmillan Children's Books
Cuckoo Song © Macmillan Children’s Books

Helen has enjoyed catching up with a bit of reading over the summer months, in preparation for her move to teaching year 6 (10- and 11-year-olds) and a promotion to literacy coordinator this September. Although this is going to mean an increased workload, on the plus side Helen has been able to spend some of her holidays leisurely browsing in children’s bookshops and pretending that she’s actually working.

One book which Helen will definitely be using with her class this year is Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge. This spooky tale concerns Triss, who wakes up after an accident unsure of what happened. As the story progresses, strange things begin to happen to Triss and her family. There are leaves in her hair and she’s ravenously hungry, and suddenly her dolls start to move… Helen thinks that this is an extraordinarily well-written tale, with a great deal of rich description and wonderful, flawed characters. It’s probably most suitable for the 10- to 14-year-old age bracket, but older teenagers and robust younger children will also enjoy the story. They might put all of their dolls in the wardrobe though, just to be safe.

Another shoe-in for use with Helen’s class is a great new book in the mystery genre: Murder Most Unladylike (or Murder is Bad Manners in the U.S.) by Robin Stevens. Daisy and Hazel have their own detective agency at their boarding school, although they are only mainly called upon to locate missing ties. However, they are suddenly pulled into a real mystery when Hazel thinks she has witnessed a murder in the school gym. The girls have to work together to find clues and narrow down their suspect list, without letting the killer know that they are on to them. This is a great story which twists and unravels at a great pace. The boarding school setting is perfect for this, with its range of teachers and traditions, such as bun break. Hazel and Daisy are both wonderful characters, and Hazel particularly is drawn with a real warmth. Again, children of around 10 to 14 will probably enjoy this the most, although it really does have appeal to both older and confident younger readers. Helen is very much looking forward to reading the next volume over a bun break, and finding out what cases Daisy and Hazel solve next!

Doll Bones, a middle-grade novel by The Spiderwick Chronicles author Holly Black, is another spooky tale. This story centers on the friendship between Zach, Poppy, and Alice, as they grow up and their relationships change. The games that they play together are the platform for the story, and when one of dolls they use in their games turns out to perhaps be haunted, an adventure begins. Helen found the doll premise genuinely creepy, so would recommend this for readers aged around 8 to 11 who aren’t as easily frightened as she is!

Two books which would be great to use in school are The Mute Button by Ellie Irving and Smart by Kim Slater. Both books have the potential to not only be great reads, but also to help children who might be going through difficult times. Books are a powerful way to put the reader into someone else’s shoes, which can help children to find ways to deal with problems in their own lives. So, The Mute Button, suitable for children around 8 to 12, concerns a boy called Ant. He decides to stop talking and see how long anyone takes to notice, when a new older brother suddenly enters his already hectic life. The elective mutism is handled with real sensitivity but also humor, as Ant tries to deal with his problems without talking. Kieran in Smart also has problems. His home life includes poverty, drugs and abuse, and he is bullied in school for being different. Worst of all, he finds a homeless man dead in the river. He knows that the man was murdered, but no one believes him. Kieran decides to find the killer, using his drawing talent to help him solve the crime. Although it’s not mentioned overtly in the story, Keiran has some sort of learning difficulty or is on the autistic spectrum. This is handled extremely well in the story. It’s part of Keiran’s personality, but it doesn’t define who he is. Like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it gives you a window into his world. Helen thought that this book was suitable for slightly older readers, due to the subject matter and Kieran’s home life.

On a completely different tack is Cakes in Space, the new book for younger independent readers from Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. Like their previous book together, Oliver and the Seawigs, Reeve and McIntyre have crafted an epic adventure which is full of humor and daring escapades. Oh yes, and killer cakes. In this story, Astra has to overcome cakey fiends and spoon-obsessed aliens to rescue the ship carrying her cryogenically-frozen family to their new home on Nova Mundi. Astra is a great heroine, who bravely battles the sharp-toothed cakes along with her robot friend, Pilbeam. As always, McIntyre’s wonderful illustrations bring the story to life. Helen’s 4-year-old daughter loved hearing this as her bedtime story, and even asked for a Cakes in Space-themed cake for her birthday.

Finally, Helen has also been tackling a more grown-up tome: Hild by Nicola Griffith. This is a huge, complicated historical novel, detailing the life of Hild, a 7th century Northumbrian princess. Helen hasn’t quite finished the whole book, as she’s found that she can only cope with it in small pieces, to give her a chance to digest everything in between readings. The research which must have gone into this is mind-boggling, as the description and world-building is incredibly detailed and rich. Sometimes it feels like you can almost smell the woodsmoke or the dye vats, or hear the twang of the loom threads or quiet gossip of the ladies as they weave. The plot itself is fairly complex, with a number of warring factions and different religions and socio-economic groups to keep track of, as well as some very nuanced political machinations. Helen has even found herself having to reread some sections as she’s become confused. Hild herself is a very interesting character, who uses her intelligence as well as her station of birth to become an important member of the King’s household. Hild will certainly appeal to anyone who is interested in St. Hilda of Whitby or life in Britain in between the Romans and the Normans.

*Fran Wilde is a Tor author with a novel debuting in 2015. She has zipsquat experience designing dirigibles, though she’s planning on changing this. She’s been reading Tor books (and everything else) since long before she became a novelist.

Copies of some books were provided by their publishers for review purposes.