Between the Bookends July 2016: Brontes, Blades, and Boys

Between the Bookends Header © Sophie Brown
Between the Bookends Header © Sophie Brown

The GeekMoms have been incredibly busy this month, somehow fitting in plenty of reading time despite summer vacations and end of school activities. Read on for their recommendations which, this July, include two new takes on the works of the Brontë sisters, a look at the book that inspired Hamilton, and some choices for the kids to read this summer as well.

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Dark Run, Image: Saga Press
Dark Run, Image: Saga Press

Dark Run by Mike Brooks had been on Shiri‘s radar for a bit but GeekDad James Floyd Kelly’s review and GeekDad Mike LeSauvage’s endorsement led said book to jump her rather massive TBR queue. Between being Firefly-esque (while, Shiri would like to make very clear, being entirely its own thing) with more attitude, a larger chip on its shoulder, and having a main character who goes by the spectacular name of Ichabod Drift, how could it not?

Dark Run definitely earned its place on this month’s roster: it is wicked and fun and exciting and darkly joyous. Brooks pulls off the difficult trick of making shady characters likable while also keeping them honest and exposing their flaws enough to keep them human without making them total jerks (except when they deserve it). And since Firefly comparisons do abound, Shiri feels duty bound to mention that while Whedon has a flair for writing badass woman, Brooks has taken things that elusive step further, surpassing Joss by giving his readers badass female characters who are also strong female characters; they have backstories, ranges of emotion, and the ability to stand entirely independently of the (also excellent and strong) male characters. In short, Shiri is of the mind you should all run along and read Dark Run immediately. The second book in the series, Dark Sky, is currently available in the UK and on Audible. Shiri’s instant gratification mewled loudly until she found a way to procure it for her very own and she’ll update when a US release date is announced.

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Broken Blade, Image: Ace
Broken Blade, Image: Ace

How Shiri didn’t hear about Kelly McCullough’s Fallen Blade series sooner she has no idea, but she’s rather put out by the fact. Also, for the record, she had no idea that there was a mini-griffin missing from her life but now that she does, she’s feeling its lack rather keenly. Broken Blade is a tight little fantasy that readers should know they will feel compelled to read in one sitting so they’d best clear their schedule.

Aral Kingslayer has fallen from grace and landed at the bottom of a bottle. Shame (sarcasm font) about that pesky conscience. With his deliciously snarky familiar, the dragon Shade Triss, Aral just can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble–which is most certainly to the benefit of the reader. Like the aforementioned Dark Run, Broken Blade is gloriously fun, perfectly paced, and dark enough to tweak Shiri’s black humor nerve to optimum vibration without descending into hopelessness; a difficult balancing act McCullough pulls off with flair and aplomb. Shiri immediately jumped into Bared Blade, the second Fallen Blade book, though she admits to finding herself in a bit of a quandary now that Dark Sky has arrived and finds herself wondering who would win if Aral Kingslayer brought his Namara-blessed blades to Ichabod Drift’s gunfight.

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Jane Steele, Image: Headline Review
Jane Steele, Image: Headline Review

Shiri is not a lover of Charlotte Brontë (*ducks tomatoes and excrement thrown at her as she is placed in the stocks*). She loves gothic and she loves period, but she has never been able to reconcile time spent on a Brontë when there was Austen to be devoured. She was, thusly, somewhat hesitant to delve into Jane Steele but was unable to resist when a friend, who is equally enthusiastic about books, called it “the only book I need for the rest of my life.” And Shiri is very glad she checked her inclinations because they would, in this case, have led her astray and been the cause of her missing out on yet another wonderful read.

Simultaneously a gothic-style novel and a satire of the same, Jane is murderess with a cause and that cause is righteous. By turns tragic, hilarious, hysterically funny, and romantic, Shiri found herself thoroughly engrossed by Faye’s original, innovative, and somehow grounded, work. There’s even a bit of education to be had as regards Sikhism and the religious and racial politics of the time. A third highly recommended read for the month.

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Anansi Boys, Image: Headline Review
Anansi Boys, Image: Headline Review

Shiri did another reread this month though it’s rather different from last month’s. Shiri wasn’t a huge fan of Anansi Boys the first time she partook; anticipating a sequel to Amercian Gods due to a misunderstanding on her part, or perhaps just a very strong desire, she was disappointed she didn’t get one and admits to having read Gaiman’s next book with very unfair blinders on. Now that several years have passed, she decided it was time to take another look and she’s quite glad she did.

While American Gods has been, and probably always will be, her favorite Gaiman creation, she quite enjoyed Anansi Boys on this second time through. Perhaps it’s because she’s matured not only as a reader but as a person and managed to find herself finally, if a bit later in life, just like Fat Charlie does. While a great story on one level, Anansi Boys is also a deep and deft exploration of how one reconciles the different parts of one’s self, especially the self we wish to be and the self our parents want us to be which is, perhaps, the most difficult reconciliation of all. Integrating ancient myth and modern style is something Gaiman does exceptionally well and, in Anansi Boys, raises the technique to true art.

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Panacea A Novel, Image: Tor
Panacea A Novel, Image: Tor

Shiri‘s full review of Panacea will have run by the time this month’s Between the Bookends goes live but she thought she’d include it because, well, she did read it this month. Imagine, dear reader, a potion synthesized in the jungles of South America that can, somehow, cure everything. Every disease, every injury, even the most fatal. This panacea does not mean immortality (as one of the characters so astutely points out, old age is a natural process rather than an illness) but it does mean longer life spans for any who partake. Is the panacea a good thing? A bad one? Who has the right to decide to whom it is given? Who gets priority given the extremely limited supply? F Paul Wilson raises these, and many other, ethical and moral questions in the context of Panacea‘s plot.

Part Da Vinci Code, part Indiana Jones, and part Parasite by Mira Grant with a bit of Medicine Man thrown in for good measure, if the style and characterizations weren’t Shiri’s favorite element of the book, both the issues raised, and the story itself, make Panacea worth the read.

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The Heir, Image: HarperTeen
The Heir, Image: HarperTeen

Given all the tragedy and venomous politics in the news over the last few weeks, Sophie wanted to read something very lightweight to help give her brain some downtime. She decided to finish reading The Selection series by Kiera Cass by reading books four and five: The Heir and The Crown. The first three books of the series followed America Singer on her journey through The Selection, a royal variant of The Bachelor in which Prince Maxon of Illea (previously the United States) invited 35 young ladies from all over the country to compete for his hand. Books four and five, however, leap approximately 20 years forward and focus on Princess Eadlyn, the daughter of America and Maxon and now heir to the throne, as she begins her own Selection–the first to ever be held by a princess.

Sophie considers these books to be the literary equivalent of glitter, they draw you in and keep your attention but there is nothing of any real substance here. The books do, however, seem keen to present themselves as feminist stories. Eadlyn is the first girl in line to rule the country in her own right and has been raised to believe in her own power and authority, “no one in the world is as powerful as you” is the motto she constantly asserts to herself. When we first meet her she is already working with her father in something of an advisory/student capacity and readers get to see her coming up with ideas and working to implement them with the goal of helping her country. However, the constant focus on her love life (Eadlyn’s Selection begins as more of a stunt to distract the nation from its problems by refocusing its attention on the princess and her pretty, shiny dates with pretty, shiny boys) and wardrobe (does a tiara work with this outfit?!) makes it hard to believe in Eadlyn as a true feminist character. The books do a good job of hiding who Eadlyn will eventually end up with, in the original trilogy it was so painfully obvious that reading them felt practically redundant, but the ending had Sophie rolling her eyes almost painfully and wishing it really was that easy to solve a nation’s problems. Maybe these books weren’t quite the escape from politics she was hoping for after all?!

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I Wish My Teacher Knew, Image: Da Capo Lifelong Books
I Wish My Teacher Knew, Image: Da Capo Lifelong Books

At the complete opposite end of the literary spectrum, Sophie also read I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids by Kyle Schwartz, a book based on last year’s viral trend when a teacher passed out notes to her class which read “I wish my teacher knew…” and asked them to fill in the blank. Honestly, Sophie had been expecting a collection of notes from the children mixing funny, insightful, and heartbreaking comments. Instead, this book is aimed at teachers and offers an eye-opening look at the realities of school life and the education system in 2016.

Although Sophie is not a teacher, she is heavily involved with her local school and she found the book very inspiring. She was shocked to read about many of the challenges faced by both students and teachers. She found the section of child poverty deeply troubling after reading that many teachers keep food drawers in their classrooms so that children who arrive at school still hungry can eat something without having to ask. It felt to her like a failure on an epic scale that teachers, already underpaid themselves, are paying out of their own pockets to feed their students because their parents are unable to make enough money to keep food on the table, even when they work two jobs. Besides child poverty, the book also included chapters on supporting students through grief and loss, including all forms of families in the classroom, recognizing and helping students in danger, and building a system of values within a school. Sophie believes this is a book that everyone who is involved with schools should read–parents, teachers, administration staff–because only by understanding where the problems lie can we all work together to help our children be their very best.

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Independence Day: Resurgence, Image: Titan Books
Independence Day: Resurgence, Image: Titan Books

Sophie also tore through the novelization of Independence Day: Resurgence by Alex Irvine. The book was a considerable improvement over the film (which, let’s be honest, wasn’t exactly the sensation of the summer) because it allowed significantly more nuance to be added to the characters instead of the mile-a-minute pacing of the film which was more focused on spectacle than subtlety. Sophie especially enjoyed getting to know more about Dr. Isaacs and his decades-long romantic relationship with the tragically comatose Dr. Okun, a relationship that was so glossed over on the big screen that her husband didn’t even notice it existed, and the depictions of what happened on Rhea Base and Mars–events that were mentioned in passing but never shown on screen. The book also allowed minor characters such as Jasmine Hiller (née DuBrow) to actually contribute something more to the story than being yet another face in the “Hey, remember this character? We brought them back too!” parade. Even the frankly idiotic school bus plotline was written in such a way as to give it meaning and emotional weight – that’s some damn impressive writing.

If you felt let down by the movie, Sophie suggests you pick up this book because maybe, just maybe, it will deliver something closer to what you were hoping for.

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The Madwoman Upstairs, Image: Quercus
The Madwoman Upstairs, Image: Quercus

Sophie‘s book club chose The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell and she tore through the 352 pages in only a few days. From the blurb, Sophie imagined this to be something approximate to The Da Vinci Code, only focused on the legacy of the Brontë sisters. Samantha Whipple is the sole remaining heir to the Brontë family and has grown up learning about their lives and novels inside and out, thanks to her obsessive homeschooling father. She arrives at Oxford University to begin studying English Literature soon after her father dies in a horrific fire that echoes the famous scene in Jane Eyre and there she meets her professor, James Timothy Orville III. When her father’s old copies of the Brontë novels begin appearing at her door, she is drawn into a hunt for her lost inheritance.

Sophie described this book to her husband as a pretentious book about pretentious people having pretentious conversations. That doesn’t necessarily mean that she disliked it, she grew up attending a very pretentious English private school herself and so the characters were very much speaking her language, however, she did feel that the book tried so hard to assert its own cleverness that it became bogged down by a strange lack of substance. She did find the ending particularly annoying, that being said, the book made her want to pick up all the Brontë novels she has yet to read (so… most of them) so if nothing else it was inspiring.

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See Me, Image: Grand Central Publishing
See Me, Image: Grand Central Publishing

After waiting nearly a month for the digital version at her local library, Patricia was able to read Nicholas Sparks‘ latest book, See Me. Set in Wilmington, North Carolina and the nearby beach communities, See Me tells the story of a troubled soul, Colin Hancock, as he tries to turn a tough childhood into a fruitful life. At the start of the story, he’s enrolled as a student at the University of North Carolina, working as a bartender at a beach restaurant, and spending his free time as a relatively successful amateur MMA fighter. He has anger issues that have often gotten him in trouble with the police, and he was under the watchful eye of a detective who was waiting for “the last straw” to get him into prison. Meanwhile, Maria Sanchez is an up-and-coming attorney who led a relatively stable life, full of ambition and TLC from her loving family. Colin and Maria meet on a rainy night, where the two seem like opposites. With plenty of encouragement from her sister, Maria and Colin end up hitting it off, and from there readers are sent on a roller coaster of romance, skeletons in Maria and Colins’ respective closets, and ultimately a showdown that shows that one can truly turn a life of poor choices into something wonderful.

Patricia enjoyed the storytelling (as she often does with Sparks’ novels), although she will admit it isn’t the most exciting she’s ever read, neither with the passionate romance nor with the series of events that makes you wonder if Maria can ever practice law again. Patricia still considers Nights at Rodanthe and The Lucky One her two favorite Sparks novels. Nonetheless, if you can find it at your local library or want a quick Kindle download, it’s a fun summer read.

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find-momo
Find Momo, Image: Quirk Books

Patricia and her sons also enjoyed Find Momo by Andrew Knapp this past month. Based on Andrew Knapp’s popular Instagram accountFind Momo is a compilation of the best photos from the account through 2013. When Patricia received this review sample from Quirk Books earlier this summer, her sons immediately grabbed it and fell in love. Even at ages 13 and 11, they can’t resist such a cute dog book. In fact, Patricia had to search the family room pretty thoroughly for the book to reference for this review.

Momo is a border collie who recently celebrated his 8th birthday. He lives in the Toronto area and loves to play hide and seek while his owner Andrew Knapp takes Where’s Waldo-style photos. In an interview, Knapp said Momo is very good about staying put for the photos, using little more than just a toy or a stick to keep him still.

The photography is pretty raw in this book, since they were compiled from mostly iPhone photos that were uploaded to Instagram in 2012 and 2013. Like a Where’s Waldo book, readers are presented with a photograph and is challenged to find the dog. The images vary from the obvious (such as his snout protruding from a slice of bread) to something as complicated as a field of tires in the snow… which happens to be the same colors as Momo himself. Throughout the book, Knapp presents little facts about Momo, such as his dislike of puddles and how he likes to cock his head to one side when he hears funny words.

Can’t find Momo in each of the pictures? That’s okay: at the back of the book is an “answer key” with miniatures of each photo and a red circle around Momo. In addition, there’s location information for each photo in the miniature.

In addition to the original Find Momo from 2014, fans can also find Find Momo: Coast to Coast which came out in 2015, and Knapp is currently working on photography for a more child-friendly picture book (while I think kids of all ages would love Finding Momo, it’s not bound as a children’s book, it’s more of a coffee-table style). According to Momo’s Facebook page, they’re currently scouting out locations where he can be photographed among kid-friendly locations, such as ice cream shops, gardens, and an old-fashioned bathtub for bathtime.

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Alexander Hamilton, Image: Penguin Books
Alexander Hamilton, Image: Penguin Books

Patricia is now working on Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. This is the biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original song about Alexander Hamilton that he performed at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009, which, as we all now know, blossomed into the Tony-Award-winning Broadway play Hamilton. This is definitely an academic book, full of well-documented information tracing Hamilton’s upbringing in the Caribbean. However, if you are a die-hard fan of the Broadway play, perhaps you have questions about some of the lyrics in the play. Reading the biography will help clarify things quite a bit.

Patricia is just now (as of this writing) at the part where Hamilton meets his future bride Elizabeth, so she has a long way to go (82% left according to her Kindle!). However, so far she’s understanding better the mercurial relationship between Hamilton and General George Washington, as well as his very close relationship with South Carolinian John Laurens. This book isn’t going as quickly as See Me, but it’s definitely very insightful and highly recommended if you want to dive more deeply into the story behind the story of Broadway’s Hamilton.

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Hello, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, Image: HarperTrophy
Hello, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, Image: HarperTrophy

Amy and her kids (9 and 7) pulled out Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald one week. For the uninitiated, this is one of a series of books that can be read in any order from the mid-20th century, about a woman who cures bad habits and behaviors in children through humorous magical means, technically didactic but without feeling so. It somehow managed to crack everyone up and spawn a lot of serious conversations about bullying and other behaviors discussed in the book, particularly one story where current child psychology and Mrs. P-W’s opinions diverge, “The Crybaby Cure,” which is an extremely triggering subject for Amy so that made for quite a long but important discussion. But the stories are still ridiculously funny over half a century later. And the NAMES! Whoever thinks J.K. Rowling’s names are ridiculous has clearly never met Harbin Quadrangle, Trent and Tansy Popsickle, Nicky Semicolon, or brothers Harvard and Cornell Foxglove.

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The Runaway Princess, Image: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Runaway Princess, Image: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Now Amy’s kids are reading a book by one of Amy’s internet friends (so buy it and support her!), Kate Coombs, The Runaway Princess. This and the sequel, The Runaway Dragon, are light-hearted fairy tales that gently upend fairy tale tropes in delightful ways (ask Amy about the frogs! ALL witches should have houses full of frogs!), perfect for fans of Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest books with a feeling reminiscent of Eva Ibbotson’s fantasies, too. The seven-year-old made some Minecraft fan art for it–that’s a statue of Meg, the princess in question, beside the tower where she is supposedly being held captive, and a horse from one of the many princes attempting in vain to win her hand via the contest she and her friends are doing their very best to sabotage.

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The Shepherd's Crown, Image: Doubleday Children's
The Shepherd’s Crown, Image: Doubleday Children’s

Amy has read for herself this month, too! She finally picked up Terry Pratchett’s last book, The Shepherd’s Crown. Amy’s first Pratchett had been the first Tiffany Aching book, The Wee Free Men, so it was a perfect closing of the circle, um, Disc. Reading the Afterward, which said that Pratchett still had further ideas he never got to when he died, kind of ruined the sense she’d had reading, that the story was an intentional goodbye from the terminally-ill author. The book can easily serve as a last message from the old guard on how those of us left behind cannot give up the work even though the deceased’s boots may seem impossible to fill, and that the only way to do it is to just worry about filling our own boots properly. It’s a beautifully satisfying way to wrap up a long legacy of stories: some things end, but other things go on in new ways.

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Copies of some books provided for review purposes.

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