Between the Bookends March ’17

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

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It’s March, the month of International Women’s Day, and the GeekMoms have been reading about some incredible women recently. Shiri met a brave young woman in an unexpected era, Amy spent time with a wicked witch who may be more than she seems, and Rebecca introduced her nieces to a young heroine with an unusual fight—saving her very own story. Meanwhile, Sophie embarked on a three-book journey to discover more about the country she calls home. We hope you find something to love as we spring forward into spring.

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Goddess of Fire, Image: Severn House
Goddess of Fire, Image: Severn House

Goddess of Fire by Bharti Kirchner is the sixth historical fiction novel published by the author (she has also written cookbooks and numerous articles for various outlets). The story centers around Moorti, a young woman who escapes a brutal death by sati and goes on to become a successful business woman… in 17th century India.

This is an incredible novel, outside of Shiri’s usual purview, which she happened upon in preparation for her “Nasty Women: Girls Who Get Things Done In Genre Fiction” panel for Emerald City ComicCon; she has rarely been so thrilled to have a book thrust upon her. Ms. Kirchner’s writing is gorgeous and rich, and Moorti is a true, strong female character in that she is intelligent, wise, and has thoughts and dreams, plans and ambition, rather than being lauded for her physical strength alone. Shiri is very much looking forward to going back to the rest of Ms. Kirchner’s novels and to those still to come.

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Stonehill Downs, Image: Harper Voyager
Stonehill Downs, Image: Harper Voyager

Shiri also read the first three books of Sarah Remy’s Bone Magic series (book four, The Exiled King, is out September 2017)—Stonehill Downs, Across the Long Sea, and The Bone Cave—as panel prep. Featuring an extremely well-built world populated by deftly written, nuanced, living, breathing characters, the main arc of the series centers around Malachai Doyle, the most powerful man in the kingdom besides King Renault, and thought to be the only remaining mage in the kingdom who has the ability to speak to the dead; and Avani, one of the last denizens of a lost culture who has been hiding those same abilities for years.

When the two meet during a murder investigation, Malachai tries to convince Avani to join him as King Renault’s right hand. Avani, however, has no interest in power or fame, a stance the men in her life, Malachai included, have difficulty understanding. While Avani does relent, to some extent, it is only on her own terms and within the confines of what her soul will allow, with the intention of helping others in dire straits rather than gaining for herself. Shiri is eagerly awaiting the final chapter of this epic.

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Dr Potter's Medicine Show, Image: Angry Robot
Dr Potter’s Medicine Show, Image: Angry Robot

Part historical fiction, part dark fantasy, and part straight-up horror, Eric Scott Fischl’s Doctor Potter’s Medicine Show is as much a work of alchemy as the Philosopher’s Stone the characters therein seek. The tale follows a traveling medicine show with a dark secret and a mysterious, horrific mission. It kept Shiri awake on the flight back from Seattle—no small feat considering the lack of sleep during Con—because she absolutely had to know what happened next, and she was greatly perturbed by the reality of having to go back to work, further delaying the reveal.

Shiri doesn’t want to delve too much into characters and plot as this is a book best experienced directly, but she will say this is another novel in which the characters took on lives of their own and the story, though fantastical, is something which could almost have happened in some bygone age or in a history only slightly different from our own, its nearness adding to both her connection to the ongoing story and the creep factor. Shiri recommends that, if you’re easily freaked out, you read this one with the lights on or with a buddy, and if you have a strong reaction to violence, proceed with caution. If, like Shiri, you’re okay with such things so long as they serve the story, then you need merely proceed.

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Signs Preceeding The End of The World, Image: Periferica
Signs Preceding The End of The World, Image: Periferica

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (translated by Lisa Dillman) says so much about life and family with so few words. Shiri was so entirely blown away by Herrera’s skill as both a wordsmith and storyteller, she still isn’t sure what to say about Signs Preceding the End of the World except anyone who has ever taken a risk for someone, anyone, he or she loves must experience this little volume at some point in his or her life.

Ostensibly the story of Makina, who crosses the border from Mexico to the US illegally to find her lost brother, Herrera has given readers something so much more, so much deeper, and so much more tragic, Shiri is still thinking about it even a month later. She is hoping to go back and read it in Spanish at some point if at all possible.

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The Girl Who Drank The Moon, Image: Algonquin Young Readers
The Girl Who Drank The Moon, Image: Algonquin Young Readers

Amy has noticed she only manages to read consistently through reading to her children in the evenings, so when they finished all the Narnia books she brought home the latest Newbery Medalist, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, announcing, “HERE’S what we’re reading next!” mainly because she wanted to read it herself. Luckily it is indeed perfectly appealing (read aloud) to her Narnia-loving 4th and 2nd graders, with magic and danger, humor and heartbreak.

It tells the story of a society living around a not-quite-dormant volcano, where the Protectorate, a town living under a totalitarian Council and a brutal warrior-nunnery, sacrifices a newborn every year to The Witch In the Wood, lest she set the horrors of the volcano upon them. But the actual Witch who collects the babies is a good witch, who takes the babies to be adopted by families in the free villages on the other side of the woods. But when one baby girl becomes seriously enmagicked on their journey, she decides she’s going to have to raise her instead, to teach her to control that magic. Luna’s magic is so out of control that her plan backfires, so that her efforts to contain the magic make Luna oblivious to magic, so unable to be taught how to control it herself. Meanwhile, one young man in the Protectorate has had enough of this annual horror and is making plans to end it; and Luna’s birth mother, driven mad by the loss of her child, is locked up, but she herself finds a magical outlet through the seams of reality and is making her own plans; and there IS an evil witch terrorizing the Protectorate before their very eyes!

The characters are compelling, particularly Luna’s friends, the kindly poetic swamp monster and the Perfectly Tiny Dragon who thinks he’s a Simply Enormous Dragon. Amy is having a hard time not reading ahead of everyone else!

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The Great Good Thing, Image: Scholastic
The Great Good Thing, Image: Scholastic

Every week Rebecca Angel reads aloud to her nieces. They just finished The Great Good Thing By Roderick Towny, a book she read to her own kids years ago, which was part of a mother-daughter book club, and one she regularly recommends for kids of all ages. Sylvie is the main character of this book, but she’s also the main character in the book within the book, and sometimes is the main character in dreams of the characters in the main book. If you’re confused, so was Rebecca’s seven-year-old niece. But her nine-year-old niece was thrilled with the heady plot.

Sylvie is the literary heroine in a book called The Great Good Thing, a princess that longs for adventure instead of getting married, and does just that. But when there isn’t a Reader for the book, and at the start of our novel there hasn’t been a Reader in a long time, the characters inside just hang around the kingdom between the pages and paragraphs. Sylvie is bored. But then a new Reader comes along and everyone gets to act out their parts and say their lines. Sylvie wants an adventure beyond her written story, so crosses the boundaries of imagination into the dream world of the Reader. And that’s just the very beginning of this book.

Towny does an excellent job keeping the plot clear and moving along. Sylvie is a strong heroine trying to write her own story while still being respectful of the story she was written for. The novel spans generations of Readers while Sylvie stays a twelve-year-old character, trying to figure out the world of Readers, and how to save her story when the only copy of her book gets destroyed. This is the start of a trilogy. The second book takes place within the internet, and the third book goes into the far reaches of outer space. Recommended for ages nine and up, Rebecca often recommends this book for younger kids who are ahead in their reading level but not ready for YA plots.

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Bless This Mother-effing Home, Image: Sourcebooks
Bless This Mother-effing Home, Image: Sourcebooks

Sophie has been a cross stitcher for many years now, and in that time has often come across designs by Katie Kutthroat. You might well have too if you spend any time browsing on Pinterest or Etsy, or if you watch the HBO show Girls where her work hangs on a set wall. Katie’s Etsy store sells completed cross stitch designs and patterns for stitching your own copies. All of them are designed to be subversive—don’t expect to find kittens or idyllic scenes here—so when Sophie learned that Katie was publishing a book, she was keen to take a look at it.

Sadly, Bless This Mother-effing Home: Sweet Stitches for Snarky Bitches turned out to be something of a disappointment. Instead of being filled with patterns, the pages simply feature photographs of completed cross stitch patterns on perforated paper designed to be torn out and framed. Sophie couldn’t quite figure out why anyone would want to frame a photograph of a cross stitch that a stranger created; surely the joy of having such an item is knowing the time and effort that went into creating it, not tearing it out from a book? She also felt that the blurb on the back of the book doesn’t make this fact clear; if she had been considering purchasing it online where she couldn’t flick through the pages herself, she would have assumed it contained patterns, not just photos. Of course, the designs are simple enough that they could be copied easily enough without the need for an explicit pattern giving thread colors and other requirements, but that is beside the point.

As such, Sophie ended up flicking through the book just once to see the designs, then not looking at it again. She couldn’t think of anything else to do with it and she wonders if you’ll be able to either.

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Knights of The Borrowed Dark Series, Image Penguin
Knights of The Borrowed Dark Series, Image Penguin

Sophie also received books one and two in Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy, ready for the imminent release of the second book in April. The first book, Knights of the Borrowed Dark, introduces the reader to Denizen Hardwick, an orphan approaching his 13th birthday who knows nothing about his parents or how he came to be left at the Crosscaper orphanage at the age of two. As he approaches his thirteenth birthday, a mysterious visitor arrives at Crosscaper to take Denizen to meet a previously unknown Aunt, but en route to Dublin, the pair are attacked by an impossible monster.

Denizen’s world is turned upside down as he discovers his family was part of a secret organization, the Order of the Borrowed Dark, who are engaged in a centuries long war with the Tenebrous—creatures from another reality who appear in our world to cause destruction. Denizen must quickly learn about his newly awakened powers, the Tenebrous, and the mystery of his parentage, as the King of the Tenebrous accuses the Knights of stealing something precious to him and threatens to escalate the war to new heights.

The second book, The Forever Court, picks up six months later with Denizen exploring his new powers and the Dublin cadre coming to terms with the devastating consequences of the first book’s finale. An unexpected request from the Tenebrous Court brings the leader of the Order of the Borrowed Dark to Dublin, setting off political and emotional turmoil within the Order and the Dublin cadre. But unknown to both, a new deadly threat lurks close by.

These fantasy novels are well written and avoid most of the stereotypical “orphan rescued from the orphanage” and “monster in the dark” tropes. Although aimed at the middle school market, there is plenty here to entertain older readers, particularly those who enjoy creepier stories but stop short of full horror. Sophie enjoyed the rich descriptions and the characters were drawn just enough to care about their fates but leave enough mystery for more of their past to be discovered in the final book.

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Travel Books, Image: Black Swan/Not Bad Books/Doubleday
Travel Books, Image: Black Swan/Not Bad Books/Doubleday

Finally, Sophie spent the first half of March working her way through a trilogy of travel books, all of them focused on her home country of Great Britain.

She began her journey with Bill Bryson’s now legendary Notes From a Small Island. Written during the early years of the 1990s and since voted the “book which best represents Britain” in a BBC poll, this is the Great Britain of her childhood. In it, we see a country stumbling wide-eyed into the boundless optimism of the ’90s—Cool Britannia, New Labour, and over a decade of incredible economic growth were on the horizon—but still carrying the scars of the miner’s strikes, the three-day week, and battling the cynical austerity of a dying Conservative government. It’s hard to say precisely what has changed in the 22 years since the book was written, but reading it again now (Sophie first read the book in her late teens) invoked a sharp sense of nostalgia for something she hadn’t realized she’d lost.

Next up was Dear Bill Bryson, a tribute to Notes… written by Ben Aitken who decided to retrace the author’s original route, copying his every move as precisely as possible—right down to the same hotels and meals whenever possible. Written in 2015, the book does a good job at tracking the changes the country has seen in two decades characterized by periods of staggering growth and shattering recession. This is no sociology or economics text—Aitken admits he is no expert on the causes or solutions to the problems he witnesses—rather, it is the thoughts of a man wondering exactly what has become of the place he calls home over his lifetime. The writing didn’t quite match the amiable, witty tone of Bryson’s original, but it doesn’t pretend to either, rather establishing its own equally enjoyable style, and at less than $2.50 for the Kindle edition, Sophie can’t think of a cheaper way to get a real feel for what her country is all about.

The third book of Sophie’s trilogy took her back to Bryson with his latest offering, The Road to Little Dribbling. This time out, Bryson charts a new course across the country, mostly visiting places he missed out on his original trip. Bill has grown older and more cynical in the twenty years that have passed, and this is obvious in the writing which came across somewhat more mean spirited than anything Sophie has read from him before. That being said, his courser tone reflected the nature of Britain in 2015, which feels as if it has become a less friendly place as the years have gone by, replacing charming high streets with lines of betting and pawn shops—and this was written prior to the Brexit nightmare into which the country would propel itself less than a year after publication. The Britain which would vote to stick its collective middle finger up at its European neighbors must feel a million miles away from the one Bryson first visited in the 1970s. Because of this, Sophie found The Road to Little Dribbling the hardest of Bryson’s works to read, and that was before she got to some very unfortunate phrasing surrounding Caitlyn Jenner—at least she hopes that’s what it was and that no malice was intended.

The biggest thing that Sophie took away from this collection of travel books wasn’t how much has changed in Great Britain over the last twenty years, however, it was how much of it that she has yet to see. Great Britain is not a large place, yet Sophie came to realize what a tiny percentage of her country she has ever visited. During reading the books, her wish list of places to visit grew to a financially terrifying length, and she realized that she’d better get a move on and start traveling more.

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GeekMom received some titles in this collection for review purposes.