Between the Bookends 10/16: Batman, Bruiser and Bones

Between the Bookends Header (c) Sophie Brown
Between the Bookends Header (c) Sophie Brown

It’s almost Halloween! Time for spooky stories told around fires while we try to ignore that creeping feeling moving up our spines. There’s no true horror in our collection this month (unless you count the Smiling God shining down upon the town of Night Vale) but there are dystopian visions of a future worryingly similar to our own, rivery magic in Mississippi, and giant hairy monsters in the woods. Happy Hallo-wishes everyone!

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London Belongs To Me, Image: Kirkwall Books
London Belongs To Me, Image: Kirkwall Books

Corrina thought the premise of London Belongs to Me by Jacquelyn Middleton was excellent: a woman graduates from college and heads off to London for a year, especially since the lead, Alex, is a complete and utter geek, to the point of writing fanfic, swooning over various Doctors, and in general just being intense about her interests, which include writing a play that she hopes to have produced.

Unfortunately, Corrina forgot that coming-of-age stories tend not to be her favorite. The book has much to recommend about it including a protagonist with similar interests, terrific descriptions of London, and a fine cast of supporting characters. It also focuses on several moments of physical comedy, at least initially, and they’re well-written–it’s hard to block those out in prose!–but those aren’t Corrina’s favorite type of scenes so the quality might be a bit lost on her.

If you’re looking for a Bridget Jones-style partial comedy/partial drama about an American who loves London and geeks out about numerous interests while finding love and growing up, this might be for you. For Corrina, it just didn’t have enough stuff blowing up. Now back to her regularly scheduled reading with magical battles….

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Lowball, Image: Tor
Lowball, Image: Tor

Wild Cards #22 and #23, Lowball and High Stakes respectively, are the most recent entries in the George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass edited series, which sprung from the aforementioned’s gaming group like Athena from Zeus’ skull back in the ’80s. While Shiri hasn’t read the first 21 books, she’s been told they are worth time spent delving into the back catalog, and if Lowball and High Stakes are any indication of quality, she will have to make some time to do just that.

Both “mosaic” novels, books 22 and 23 are co-written by several different authors and molded essentially seamlessly into a single work. The basic premise of this shared world is an alien virus altering the DNA of the humans with whom it came in contact: most die immediately though a few find themselves changed into “Jokers,” beings who are part human and part animal, who have metal skin, or who are affected by some other visible, often debilitating change. One percent of those affected are transformed into “Aces,” who look human but who are granted paranormal powers such as earth moving or universal translation but the genetic changes. It is a fascinating world and Shiri highly recommends putting at least a toe in. Just make sure nothing bites it.

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The British Invasion, Image: Sequart Research & Literacy Organization
The British Invasion, Image: Sequart Research & Literacy Organization

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer by Greg Carpenter is by far the best non-fiction book Shiri has read in ages (with the possible exception of Gaiman’s The View From the Cheap Seats, but that book is a completely different sort of glorious beast). It’s pretty much all there in the title: DC did comics and comic readers a massive service one day a few decades ago when a couple of editors, one of whom would later go on to spearhead the Vertigo initiative, crossed the pond to recruit new writers. While Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison certainly weren’t the only writers influencing the massive upswing that turned comics from genre to literary medium, their influence on the revolution cannot be denied.

Shiri wrote a full review for GeekMom not so long ago, should you wish to read more about the book. Shiri learned about a great number of gaps in her comic reading and is currently attempting to fill them, in part with…

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Batman Arkham Asylum, Image: DC Comics
Batman Arkham Asylum, Image: DC Comics

Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on Serious Earth, and Batman: R.I.P., both by Grant Morrison, and Marvel: 1602 by Neil Gaiman. Three books Shiri considers to be really phenomenal gifts of the British Invasion. Morrison brought something very different to the character of Batman, made his readers question the Caped Crusader’s motivations and mental stability in a way that made Bruce Wayne all the braver and, simultaneously, shaded his deeds with a certain creeping chill. Excellent reading for the fall season in particular, as things begin to darken earlier and the shades begin to roam.

1602 is a sort of alternate universe with some of Marvel’s major heroes including Nick Fury, Doctor Strange, Magneto, the X-Men, Peter Parker, and Matt Murdock mucking about in the time of Queen Elizabeth. The story is, of course, much more intricate and nuanced than that, but Shiri doesn’t want to spoil it for those who have not yet had the opportunity to partake. She will say that in Gaiman’s very capable hands, something that could, and perhaps should, have been rather silly is an epic and worthy read. Keep in mind the Morrison books are rather violent, as is much of Morrison’s work. 1602 has less overt violence, though there is some, and a major plot point toward the end is definitely over the top gory.

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Dark Sky, Image: Del Rey
Dark Sky, Image: Del Rey

Dark Sky by Mike Brooks is the second novel in the Keiko series and it is at least as phenomenal–if not more so–than the first. (It was reviewed in full by GeekDad James Floyd Kelly last weekShiri also ordered it from overseas because there was no way in Hades she was waiting any longer than necessary to read it). Still full of action, Brooks also takes the time to introduce us to some of the world’s more skittish characters, which serves to deepen the story and the bonds between characters and give the reader a view into the minds inhabiting the Keiko.

Shiri is an absolute sucker for the rogues and Dark Sky is chock full of them, though Brooks skillfully avoids tropes and creates actual people, individuals who fairly jump off the page to punch the reader in the face. Shiri had a great deal of fun watching Ichabod Drift and Company try to navigate a revolution and she can’t wait to see what sort of trouble they get into next.

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The Winter Queen, Image: Phoenix
The Winter Queen, Image: Phoenix

On the train to and from New York Comic Con, Anika read The Winter Queen (Erast Fandorin Mysteries #1) by Boris Akunin, translated by Andrew Bromfield. It is an exceptional “read while traveling” book–a quick-paced, witty, mystery tale which includes lots of twists and turns and silly fun. The identity of the villains was not at all surprising, but the winning protagonist, Erast Petrovich Fandorin, saves it. Erast’s youthful enthusiasm is utterly adorable, and, while less developed, the supporting cast is full of character.

Besides the hero, two things stand out to Anika. First, the majority of named characters are orphans. This is not unusual in adventure stories. An orphaned character starts out damaged, and often with something to prove. It is the easiest road to both sympathy and empathy. But this novel does something interesting with that trope. Second, the novel is incredibly Russian. Anika didn’t believe the review blurb on the back that read “as though Tolstoy had sat down to write a murder mystery” but having finished it, she agrees at least in as far as plotting. It’s all very sociopolitical with an underpinning of tragedy that none of the characters can avoid. Anika can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

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Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Image: Little, Brown
Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Image: Little, Brown

For the past month, Cassie has been binging on Young Adult reads to get herself in the right headspace for writing a new novel. She kicked things off with Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor–a book others have been recommending for years. It could be because both Karou and Cassie have blue hair, but she really enjoyed delving into this characters worlds. So much so that she immediately started reading Days of Blood and Starlight!

These are weighty volumes, but easy to disappear into. Karou’s evolution as she tries to unpick the mysteries of her life is fascinating to watch, and there are many excellent secondary characters which really help to flesh out the world and make it real–particularly in the second book, which includes a wider range of points of view than the first. Cassie particularly liked that even though the book contains a love story that spans hundreds of years, it’s not the primary focal point of the book, and there were no pesky love triangles to be seen. If you like angels and monsters, love and betrayal, hope and revenge, then these books are well worth your time.

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Bruiser, Image: HarperTeen
Bruiser, Image: HarperTeen

Between the two Laini Taylor books, Cassie managed to devour Bruiser, by Neal Shusterman. When Bronte starts dating Bruiser, a boy thought to be violent, and voted to be most likely to get the death penalty, her brother is naturally concerned for her safety and her state of mind. He sets out to learn more about Bruiser, and in the process discovers something he never imagined possible. This quick read, told through the perspectives of twins Bronte and Tennyson, as well as Brewster “Bruiser” and his younger brother, explores the life of a boy who soaks up the pain and suffering of those he cares about–empathy made physical–and explores the ways in which this impacts those around him.

Brewster/Bruiser, while on the outside a tough, potentially scary character, is actually just trying to protect himself. Cassie thought it was fairly sensitive in the telling of the story, and enjoyed the way the complexities of the situation were teased out, and how it seemed to be a good allegory for a range of addictions.

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Winter, Image: Puffin
Winter, Image: Puffin

Cassie‘s month was rounded out by finally reading Winter, the final book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. Another epic tome, but so fantastic that Cassie wishes she could read it all over again. Meyers is the mistress of weaving many interconnected stories into a cohesive narrative in which not one of the many characters feels like they are left behind.

The title character of this book is Winter, the damaged, mentally unbalanced Lunar Princess. Cassie adored the way in which this broken girl held herself together and always chose love and kindness, despite the cruelty directed at her. She struggled with hallucinations and frequently not knowing what was real and what wasn’t, but despite that, was determined to do what was best for her friends and her subjects, no matter the cost. There were many “oh!” moments along the way, and a good few tears shed. This action packed book weighs in at over 800 pages but feels like less than half of that in the reading. If you love fairytale retellings and YA science fiction, this is a series you should definitely try out.

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Horns & Wrinkles, Image: Houghton Mifflin
Horns & Wrinkles, Image: Houghton Mifflin

While brainstorming what the next family read-aloud might be, Amy‘s fourth grader said, “We should read the book our teacher is reading to us. It’s really good.” They nixed the suggestion the first time, because if the teacher was reading it at school, did they really need to read it at home, too? But he kept suggesting it off and on for a couple of weeks. “It’s called Horns and Wrinkles.” This made children’s librarian Amy blank out; if it’s so good and the teacher had chosen to read it to the class over the course of weeks, how had she never heard of it? She looked it up in the county library system and found several copies at other libraries, one of which she dutifully requested.

Horns and Wrinkles is written by Joseph Helgerson and came out in 2006, just before she started regularly reading book reviews, and seems to be the sort of high-quality mid-lister that got lost in the shuffle and relatively forgotten. Which is a shame, because it’s an utterly unique (and, yes, really good) middle-grade fantasy that borrows and reimagines many tropes from Pinocchio while somehow not remotely being a retelling. It’s extended-family (comedic) drama in a complicated fantastic adventure on the Upper Mississippi, a place where “rivery magic” has settled and largely goes unspoken of, where bullies get turned into rhinos and messages are passed through abandoned neon-orange sneakers. It is home to trolls, fairies, and “shooting stars” that are really just hyperactive music-loving glowing rocks. The fourth grader, the second grader, and the mom are all enjoying themselves thoroughly.

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Oddly Enough, Image: Harcourt Brace & Company
Oddly Enough, Image: Harcourt Brace & Company

This month, Rebecca Angel is revisiting a short story collection she enjoyed years ago, Oddly Enough by Bruce Coville. She was looking for a quick read-aloud to her young nieces to get into the Halloween spirit but without being too scary. She remembered, “Duffy’s Jacket,” one of the stories in this collection. The writing style is funny, even though the story involves a giant hairy monster tracking a family in the woods. Her nieces were wide-eyed and then laughing at the end. Perfect.

Bruce Coville is a prolific writer. He is best known for his funny science fiction and fantasy novels for elementary and middle school readers. He also has picture books and YA books as well. Rebecca’s son enjoyed the Sixth Grade Alien series very much. Coville is also a great speaker; Rebecca was able to hear him a few times and highly recommends it if you get the chance.

She purchased Oddly Enough originally because she read, “The Box,” in the store and was blown away. It is still one of the most beautiful stories she has ever experienced. It is about a boy accepting a closed box from an angel. His choice to keep it safe while never looking inside shapes his entire life. What is more interesting is the author’s note about this story: “Every once in awhile a writer is given a gift–a bit of unearned grace. That is how I think of this story, which, of all the things I have written, is probably my personal favorite. In fact, it is my own feeling that it may well be the best thing I will ever write. At one time that realization bothered me, particularly because it was written while I was still in my twenties…”

The collection varies greatly from the intense unicorn themed, “Homeward Bound” to the sweet, silly brownie in “Clean As A Whistle.” Although Rebecca’s nieces enjoyed “Duffy’s Jacket,” most of this collection would be above their level. Recommended for middle school and up.

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Flawed, Image: HarperCollins
Flawed, Image: HarperCollins

Sophie started reading Flawed by Cecelia Ahern at 10pm on a Sunday night, stayed awake far too late, and finished it at 2pm the following day. After several months struggling to find a book that really drew her in, it was a relief to once again experience that sensation of needing to keep returning to the pages for just “one more chapter.”

Flawed is a dystopian YA novel set in an as yet unknown time and place but which doesn’t feel all that dissimilar from the present. In this vision of the future, individuals who make moral mistakes are judged to be “Flawed.” They are physically branded and forced to live lives devoid of luxury, barred from positions of authority, kept under strict curfews, and even have their diets strictly controlled. Non-flawed individuals are banned from “aiding” Flawed members of society, facing prison if they do so. Celestine North has always believed in the Flawed system until she finds its consequences right at her doorstep. In mere hours she has turned her whole life upside down and will have to learn to live with the consequences.

Sophie found the book breathtaking in its speed and constant sense of urgency. The tension, which begins in the opening pages, never lets up throughout the whole of the story which kept Sophie turning page after page. Flawed also opens up many moral questions. At first, the idea of holding our leaders to some form of moral accountability is deeply appealing–who in their life has not been appalled at a politician’s corruption?–yet as the story continues the dubious ethics of such a system become harder and harder to ignore. Sophie is already looking forward to the book’s sequel–Perfectwhich is released next year as she cannot wait to find out what happens next for Celestine, Art, and Carrick, and to figure out just what Granddad is hiding!

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Grief Is The Thing with Feathers, Image: Faber & Faber
Grief Is The Thing with Feathers, Image: Faber & Faber

Sophie also read Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. She picked it up to satisfy the “first book you see in a bookstore” item in the 2016 PopSugar Reading Challenge. It might not have technically been the first book she laid eyes on (that was probably the giant display of Great British Bake-Off coloring books by the door) but it was the first that leaped off its shelf and into her subconscious. She had it downloaded from her libraries eBook collection by the end of that day.

This is a weird book about loss. A man, his two sons, the aching space of a recently deceased mother, and Crow. Crow arrives to be their guardian, babysitter, drinking partner, and more to the family and it’s never entirely clear what he is. Shared hallucination? Supernatural being? Metaphor? It almost doesn’t matter. What did matter to Sophie were the words. As someone who has experienced not only grief, but the confusing, meandering grief of a small child suddenly missing a parent, she connected with the words in ways she didn’t anticipate. Sophie found herself wanting to screencap and share line after line with others to tell them, “this, this is what it feels like,” while knowing that without that grief in their own past, those same words would just be words. You have to have been there.

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The Great, Glowing Coils of The Universe, Image: Harper Perennial
The Great, Glowing Coils of The Universe, Image: Harper Perennial

After reading the first volume of Welcome to Night Vale scripts–Mostly Void, Partially Starslast month, Sophie was eager to dive into volume two as soon as possible. The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe covers all the episodes from the show’s second year, plus “The Debate”–a live show that fitted into the Night Vale mayoral election plot arc. Throughout its second year, the town od Night Vale bore witness to the rise of the malevolent StrexCorp, and heard campaigns from mayoral candidates Hiram McDaniels who is literally a five-headed dragon, and The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. Year two was the first year to feature extended plot arcs, and Sophie found that reading the whole year’s story over just a few days allowed her to appreciate it in a different light.

As with volume one, each episode is introduced by some of the cast and crew of Night Vale, including writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the voice of Night Vale Cecil Baldwin, and guest stars such as Maureen Johnson and Mara Wilson. These introductions are, once again, the real draw of the book for Sophie who listened to these episodes when they were first broadcast as they add so much background to the show’s creation and shed new light on the storytelling.

Volume two also contains Sophie’s all-time favorite Welcome to Night Vale line, one that she believes sums up the strange, dangerous, yet wonderful town of Night Vale. “Are we living a life that is safe from harm? Of course not. We never are. But that’s not the right question. The question is, are we living a life that is worth the harm?”

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Presidential Pets, Image: Charlesbridge
Presidential Pets, Image: Charlesbridge

Finally, Sophie and her seven-year-old son read Presidential Pets by Julia Moberg. This factual book takes a look at all former US presidents and the pets they kept at the White House, from dogs and cats through to bear cubs, mockingbirds, tigers, and alligators.

Each President is introduced through a short rhyme which is followed up by bullet points about their animals and some interesting facts about their lives. Finally, each President gets a list of stats including their term dates, First Lady, Vice President, Occupation before their presidency, and even their nickname, before their chapter concludes with a list of their accomplishments and events. These lists make this a perfect starting point for school projects and research homework.

This is a fantastic book to introduce children to US history. The fun rhymes about each President’s pets engage interest (my son was particularly fascinated by the tale of Thomas Jefferson’s bear cubs and his pet mockingbird, Dick) while the rest of each section adds detail about their lives without becoming bogged down in complex detail and politics. Sophie–who is British and thus never learned about the Presidents at school–also found the book very educational, although she didn’t particularly enjoy the style of artwork found throughout. She found the early chapters particularly interesting as they focused on individuals in the Hamilton musical about which she is not at all obsessed…

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