Between the Bookends Feb. ’17: Fandom, Fables, and Fantasy

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

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It’s February, the month of love (supposedly), and while the GeekMoms love lives may be varied, there’s one thing we all have in common: a love of books! This month, Sophie has been checking out the latest in psychological thrillers, fandom, and facts, Amy hung out with some magical children and their Holy dog, and Shiri ventured back to the Star Wars universe before spending time in ancient Rome, a New York filled with fantasy, and the Gemini Cell. We’re sure you’ll find something to fall in love with yourself.

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Behind Her Eyes, Image: Flatiron Books
Behind Her Eyes, Image: Flatiron Books

Sophie finished reading Behind Her Eyes, the new thriller from Sarah Pinborough, the same night that Sherlock: The Final Problem aired, and she couldn’t help noticing how appropriate that was. Actually, she technically finished the book early the next morning. At 2 a.m. On a work/school night. She simply couldn’t stop reading until she reached the end. The book is marketed as a psychological thriller, and it certainly is that. As with The Final Problem, the story revolves around mind games, trickery, and a group of people with deeply disturbed backgrounds—some far deeper and darker than others. There’s also a twist at the end, a big enough one that the publicity hashtag for the novel is #WTFthatending, which convinced Sophie to pick the book up in the first place, given that she’s not much of a fan of the psychological thriller genre—she only read Gone Girl because her book club picked it.

Behind Her Eyes introduces readers Louise, a single mom living in North London who meets a guy in a bar on a rare night out and ends up kissing him, only to discover that he is her new boss (David) when he arrives at her office the next morning. A few days later, she literally bumps into Adele—David’s beautiful wife—and finds herself drawn into a friendship with the lonely woman despite keeping the secret of the kiss from her right from the beginning. Very soon, however, the chick lit curtains fall away and Sophie spent the remainder of the book trying to figure out where it was heading, all to no avail. Unlike many books and films marketed on their big twist finales, Sophie was actually impressed, and more than a little disturbed, by this one, and she hopes to soon find someone else who has read it so she can discuss it in depth.

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Fan Phenomena: The Lord of The Rings, Image: Intellect
Fan Phenomena: The Lord of The Rings, Image: Intellect

Down a totally different path, Sophie read Fan Phenomena: The Lord of The Rings edited by Lorna Piatti-Farnell. The Fan Phenomena series is one of Sophie’s favorite non-fiction book series, each edition collecting together essays on a specific fandom and covering many different aspects of that culture.

Fan Phenomena: The Lord of The Rings includes essays on fan interactions with real world locations which have a connection to Middle Earth—such as Hobbiton set visits in New Zealand and tours of Birmingham in the UK where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up—the ongoing battle between the Tolkien Estate and Middle-earth Enterprises regarding IP rights for the franchise, and the concept of the double-canon, in which the slightly differing narratives in the book and cinematic versions of the story can each be considered to be “correct.”

Sophie found herself particularly fascinated by Alexander Sergeant’s essay on “the Legitimization of Fantasy Cinema” in The Lord of the Rings, which noted how the films were shot in a style more akin to classic historical movies such as Zulu and even Gone with The Wind, rather than fantasy movies which had come before, such as the much-maligned Dungeons and Dragons. This, the essay claims, helped bring the fantasy genre into the mainstream in the early 2000s and allowed for the critical acclaim the film series received, which was and remains unusual for a genre picture.

Sophie also enjoyed Cait Coker and Karen Viars’ essay, “Looking for Lothiriel: The Presence of Women in Tolkien Fandom,” which looked at both the admittedly limited women of the book fandom, and the shifts that occurred in the cinematic versions. Sophie distinctly remembers the controversy over the addition of Tauriel to The Hobbit movies, and this essay explores some of the other changes which have prompted objections from book fans such as the expansion of Arwen’s role. Sophie found this subject of particular interest as a woman who grew up noticing the lack of female characters in her favorite franchises—Star Wars being a notable example—and found it gratifying to read about why the filmmakers, and many fans too, felt that the expansion of women’s roles was vital in bringing The Lord of the Rings into the 21st century.

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Do Geese Get Goose Bumps?, Image: Portable Press
Do Geese Get Goose Bumps?, Image: Portable Press

Another book Sophie enjoyed this month was Do Geese Get Goosebumps? This is one of those “fun facts” books that pop up in bookstores during the holidays and attempt to answer dozens of interesting questions on a wide and varied selection of subjects. Do Geese Get Goosebumps? answers 199 such questions, but it was the depth of the answers and choice of the subjects that really helped to keep Sophie’s interest.

The book contained a number of questions on subjects very relevant to life in 2017. A whole section on politics is included, with questions including: How come U.S. legislators and Supreme Court justices can serve indefinitely, but the president only gets two terms? What exactly is the Electoral College, and how does it work? And, What exactly is a filibuster and how did it come to be? The answers all used up-to-date facts and anecdotes in their answers, in fact, the answer on filibusters mentioned the epic 2013 filibuster by Texas state senator Wendy Davis.

There were a lot of less serious yet still interesting questions to be found as well. Some of Sophie’s favorites included: Why are ghosts depicted as a white sheet? Can sinkholes form anywhere and could one form under you right now? Why do we eat popcorn in movie theaters? Why were there moons on outhouse doors? Why are no adults shown in the Peanuts comic strips? And, how is “Peggy” short for “Margaret”?

If you’re looking for a bunch of interesting facts to drop into your conversations over the next year, or some well-explained, simple yet precise answers to pressing questions, then this very well suit your needs.

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The Inquisitor's Tale, Image: Dutton Books for Young Readers
The Inquisitor’s Tale, Image: Dutton Books for Young Readers

Amy just finished one of this year’s Newbery Honor books, Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, and now she wants everyone to read it. She’s still debating whether it’s time to share it with her second grader and very sensitive fourth grader, as there are a few horribly violent scenes: anyone familiar with Gidwitz’s “awesome” fairy tale retellings, the Grimm books, will have a good idea of the sort of violence. It will depend on what your own kid can handle (and other kids have certainly surprised Ms. Amy on the subject before), but while the book is technically “upper-middle-grade,” meaning targeted at ages 10-14 and reading level 4.5, any age can learn and be moved by this story of religious tolerance and the importance of books, and late-medieval France has many applicable parallels with today, which is part of why Amy wants everyone to read it.

There’s also humor and pathos in equal measure, dangers both mysterious and mundane, magic and suspense and more than one unreliable narrator, a wide and diverse cast of characters, real history woven through (with extensive backmatter), delightfully distracting illuminations drawn through all the margins by Hatem Aly, one death-defyingly loyal doggie, and plenty enough scatological humor for any proper medieval tale. (Yes, as the official description promises, there IS a farting dragon. There’s also vomit and stinky cheese and donkey jokes galore.) Mostly it’s what the subtitle says: three magical children and their holy dog trying to make their way through a society that doesn’t know whether to fear or rejoice in them, headed inevitably toward martyrdom–whatever that might mean. Something a lot more fun than that sounds.

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A New Dawn, Image: Del Rey
A New Dawn, Image: Del Rey

Shiri had no idea there was a When Kanan Met Hera novel floating around in the world (she is still appalled she missed it at all) and she was pretty ecstatic when she discovered its existence. A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller and Dave Filloni was, if not the strongest of the Star Wars books out there (Shiri is of the firm opinion that such an honor goes to Claudia Gray’s Bloodline and Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath books), a fun, escapist novel of exactly the sort Shiri finds herself in need of in the current climate and she has no regrets about the time spent lost in its pages.

Besides delightful banter and roguish gunslinging of excellent caliber, the reader is treated to some glimpses of Kanan Jarrus’ life between his escape from Order 66 and his time as a member of the Rebellion, the better to appreciate his quick wit, quick draw, and his maturation into someone worthy of bearing the title of Jedi Knight by the time season 2 of Rebels rolled around. Also engaging and fascinating is a Hera who is clearly a born leader but not yet a seasoned one, who is more willing to take risks and damn the torpedoes.

A New Dawn is definitely aimed at adults in terms of length and reading level. There is a fair bit of Star Wars-typical violence, and a bit of benign innuendo; no sex, though, nor is there any problematic language Shiri can recall. The book might be a bit hefty for younger readers on their own, but Shiri would read it aloud to her four- and seven-year-olds without reservation (expecting some making of “ew” faces when Kanan talks about how lovely Hera’s voice is), and she thinks any older kids who managed Harry Potter could make his/her way through A New Dawn without difficulty. Fans of Rebels and Kanan: The Last Padawan will definitely enjoy A New Dawn.

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The Roman Army: A History 753BC - AD476, Image: Amberely
The Roman Army: A History 753BC – AD476, Image: Amberely

Shiri switched gears with her next selection: The Roman Army: A History 753BC-AD476 by Patricia Southern. Ostensibly research for a novel she’s working on, Shiri was reminded quite early in her delving of how fascinating, and oddly relevant, the history of the Roman Empire continues to be.

Despite our protestations, it’s quite clear modern folks haven’t learned as much from the past as we like to think, nor is humanity all that much more civilized than we were two thousand years ago. Clothing and weapons may change but we continue to fight the same battles over the same patches of land, to quarrel about the same things with guns and tanks, as we did with spears and swords. The Roman Army: A History is a well-researched, dense, thorough tome and Shiri is glad to have discovered it as a resource and reminder.

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Battle Hill Bolero, Image: Roc
Battle Hill Bolero, Image: Roc

A bit spent, Shiri turned next to Daniel José Older’s Battle Hill Bolero, book three of the author’s Bone Street Rumba series. These books continue to shock and awe Shiri with their seamless fusion of macabre fantasy, slick urbanity, and cultural exposition. The characters are so alive, one believes she might meet them walking down a New York street or in the neighborhood coffee shop, and accepts as fact, at least for the duration of novel, that the dead, and the only-mostly-dead, walk amongst us, waiting for us to look a little bit harder, listen a little bit more completely, and believe.

There is real magic in the pages of Older’s work, in his way with imagery and words; Shiri feels lucky to have discovered his work. There’s also the fact the man could teach a master class in strong, complete, female characters any author would be lucky to sit in on. Shiri can’t wait for the next.

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Javelin Rain, Image: Ace
Javelin Rain, Image: Ace

Speaking of the undead, Shiri returned this month to the pages of Myke Cole’s Javelin Rain, book five in the Shadow Ops universe and the second of the Gemini Cell novels. Mind, the delay had nothing to do with the book, which Shiri enjoyed immensely, but with review deadlines, research deadlines, and a couple of innocent wanderings.

Shiri isn’t usually one of the military sci-fi/fantasy types, but she will always make an exception for Cole’s work, which is so much more than the genre label it bears, exploring, as Heinlein’s original Starship Troopers did, into the effects of war on individuals, both those who serve and members of their families while, at the same time, carrying the reader along with a much, much more compelling plot. And also zombies. And jinn. And sorcerers. Like Older above, Cole manages to combine diverse, disparate elements into a world that’s just one offbeat decision or impossibility away from our own and all the more believable for it.

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GeekMom received some titles in this collection for review purposes.