Between the Bookends April ’17: War, Widow, and Warriors

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

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In this month’s Between the Bookends, Amy and her children discover the dream economy, Nivi makes progress on her reading challenge with a wide range of books while introducing her kids to some of her favorite fantasy stories, Sophie takes an in-depth look at The X-Files and Marvel’s Black Widow, and Lisa discovers the books that went to war. We hope you have an excellent Easter, pleasant Pesach, or just a sweet and sunny spring.

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The Girl Who Could Not Dream, Image: Clarion Books
The Girl Who Could Not Dream, Image: Clarion Books

Amy and her 10- and 8-year-olds just finished The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst, on the recommendation of a 14-year-old library patron. It’s an upper-middle-grade book, and a few of the twists may seem over-obvious to more jaded or well-read older readers, but the fun-level is sufficient for any age.

The title is a bit misleading because while our main character, Sophie, does not dream on her own, should she happen to drink the distilled dreams of other people, watch out: those dreams will come to life! Lest you find it unlikely that she ever would happen to drink the distilled dreams of other people, you should know that her parents run a secret dream distillery/shop out of the basement of their bookshop, and Sophie’s best friend is a Monster she brought out of a sampled dream when she was six… Her parents wouldn’t let her try any more dreams after that. But one day in middle school a man calling himself Mr. Nightmare shows up, frequent-nightmare-having kids are kidnapped, and Sophie’s parents (and their dream distiller) disappear, too. So now Sophie has to use some clever dreaming (and actually trust some friends that aren’t dream-creatures for the first time in her life) to save the day.

The dream culture is inventive and funny, and the characters are unique and memorable, especially lovable Monster. When the good guys suffer a terrible blow toward the end, both of Amy’s kids burst into devastated tears, even the oldest who had been playing Minecraft throughout most of their reading sessions and would frequently interrupt with off-topic remarks so she hadn’t thought he was even paying that much attention. Since she had a feeling how things would turn out in the end (although admittedly sniffling herself), Amy insisted on finishing the rest of the book that night so the kids could get closure before trying to sleep! The fate of one antagonist is left up in the air at the end, but, otherwise, everything wraps up satisfactorily.

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A Man Called Ove, Image: Atria Books
A Man Called Ove, Image: Atria Books

“A book that is being made into a movie this year.” To satisfy that category for the 2017 Popsugar reading challenge (and for a book club meeting she didn’t manage to attend), Nivi read A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman. The style is simple, the writing straightforward with a definite simplistic style to it that initially turned Nivi off (like it was trying to be mysterious without really succeeding), it very quickly redeemed itself by revealing the obvious “secret” at the end of chapter one. And then Nivi could enjoy as the story unfolded, and Ove’s life–present and past–revealed itself.

The beauty of this story is that the style of the writing is so perfectly Ove: seemingly simple and straightforward, but hiding a depth and compassion that you can’t help but love. The book was, in the end, a great feel-good, endearing tale that had surprising depth. It is also great for all ages, young and old.

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 Warrior Heir, Image: Hyperion
Warrior Heir, Image: Hyperion

Nivi’s 10-year-old found himself without a Rick Riordan book to read one evening at bedtime, so until she managed to go find book one of another series, Nivi convinced him to try something from the bookshelf. And so he began his journey with Cinda Williams Chima’s Heir Chronicles, a long-time favorite series of Nivi’s.

The first of this series of YA Fantasy novels, The Warrior Heir, hooked Nivi’s 10-year-old right away as he appreciated the real-life setting of the stories (which made it seem like it could happen) as well as all the fighting scenes. The idea of discovering that the small town you live in, that the neighbors you’ve known all your life, actually have magical powers, is fascinating. And visiting small college towns will never be quite the same. Jack Swift’s journey, discovering that he is a wizard implanted with a warrior stone, had the 10-year-old clamoring for more story time. A definite win.

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Flamecaster, Image: HarperCollins
Flamecaster, Image: HarperCollins

The second book of the Shattered Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima, Shadowcaster, was just released on April 4th, so Nivi absolutely had to re-read the first book, Flamecaster. As did her 12-year-old. They started reading it together, but then as time permitted, they took turns and knocked it out on their own.

A generation after the Seven Realms series, the queendom has been at war for twenty-five years. This new series, Shattered Realms, is darker, asking deeper philosophical questions about right and wrong. The story introduces new characters (of course), sometimes having chapters told in the point of view of the antagonist. Or, at least, one of the antagonists. In wartime, with so many different sides in this complex political drama, it’s hard to tell who is on whose side and that is one of the great accomplishments of this book. By delving into a close third-person narrative, exploring the thoughts and beliefs of multiple characters on different political sides, Chima manages to create a situation where there is no easy answer, and where the reader understands the human side of suffering. Ash kills with a conscience. Lila’s loyalties are constantly questioned. Who is Jenna? There are questions galore, some of which won’t be answered until later in the series, but the world building and character creating are strong and enjoyable.

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We Were Liars, Image: Delacorte Press
We Were Liars, Image: Delacorte Press

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart, was recommended as a book with an unreliable narrator and, really, the title of it promises the same. But as this was recommended by strangers, Nivi read this with some reservations about how unreliable the narrator could be.

Premise: 17-year-old Cadence is suffering migraines and other post-traumatic symptoms after some major event that happened two summers ago (during “Summer Fifteen,” when she, Miriam, Johnny, and Gat were all fifteen-year-olds hanging out together on Beechwood, the family island). The first three are cousins, while Gat is the nephew of Johnny’s mother’s boyfriend. The narrative weaves back and forth through time, filling in the blanks as Cadence struggles to discover the true events from summer fifteen.

The first-person narrative is necessarily limited, and that’s the point. It allows the reader to discover the truth along with Cadence. And while the secondary characters (Cadence’s aunts and other cousins) never quite gain the depth of character that distinguishes them as distinct individuals, the fact that the story is narrated by a 17-year-old girl who is accused of being self-centered, it makes sense that in her world view, as she has not distinguished them, we readers won’t see the distinction. Overall, Nivi found this to be an excellent read and highly recommends it.

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Marvel's Black Widow: From Spy to Superhero, Image: McFarland & Company
Marvel’s Black Widow: From Spy to Superhero, Image: McFarland & Company

Sophie read a copy of Marvel’s Black Widow From Spy to Superhero: Essays on an Avenger with a Very Specific Skill Set, edited by Sherry Ginn. As the title suggests, this is a collection of nine essays centered around Black Widow and examining the character from a range of different angles. Sophie especially enjoyed Malgorzata Drewniok’s essay on Black Widow’s use of language in The Avengers movie and Sherry Ginn’s examination of the use of mind control and brainwashing throughout the Whedonverse–taking in characters such as River Tam in Firefly, Echo in Dollhouse, and, of course, Black Widow and the other women who experienced the Red Room. As a strictly MCU fan of the character, Sophie also found Valerie Estelle Frankel’s essay on Black Widow’s comic book history deeply educational, and occasionally shocking as she read about some of the sexist storylines the character has been subject to throughout the years.

A lot of the book focused on Black Widow as a feminist icon, which Sophie has no doubt that she is. She does, however, feel compelled to call out the cover art of the book itself. For a title the spends so much effort examining the importance of feminist characters, the need for strong/complete female characters in fiction, and the obvious fan desire for Black Widow to front her own film–adorning the cover with an unapologetic butt pose (not to mention the abnormally long legs) feels at least like a disservice to the content, and, at worse, downright sexist in its own right. One should never judge a book by its cover, and this is a great example of why not.

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The X-Files, Image: Wayne State University Press
The X-Files, Image: Wayne State University Press

In a similar theme, Sophie also read the latest edition from the TV Milestones series–Theresa L. Geller’s The X-Files. These miniature books (each one measures only 5×7 inches and the X-Files edition contains just 132 pages) pack an enormous amount into a very small space. Academically inclined, the book consists of just four chapters, each of which examines the show from a specific angle. Geller splits her essays in half, with two focused on the stand-alone Monster of the Week episodes, and the other two on the Mythology episodes.

First, Geller examines the meaning of the word “alien” as it pertains to the show, which you may be surprised to learn is less about little green men from outer space and more about those people white Westerners consider to be “other.” The first chapter looks in detail at episodes such as “El Mundo Gira” and “Fresh Bones”–stories focused on illegal Mexican migrant workers and Haitian refugees respectively. These episodes may appear filled with outdated stereotypes on the surface, but use storytelling to show the ways in which we truly alienate those different to ourselves. Chapter two looks at the very opposite of those “othered” and viewed as monsters by society, average looking white men who hide terrifying secrets–the death fetishists, child killers, and (it is a sci-fi/horror show, after all) literal demons who move about our world unnoticed because they conform to our expected image of normal. These chapters ask us to consider whether the “monsters” we see on screen (mothmen, flukemen, el chupacabra, etc) are really all that monstrous at all compared to who or what may be living next door?

The latter half of the book examines the show’s mythology, looking first at politics and history as told by the writers who mixed fictional alien conspiracies into real world events. The book again makes us think, asking us to consider how the show’s Black Oil could act as an allegory for our own need for oil, and the political lengths that are gone to in order to obtain it. It also highlights the way The X-Files gave a voice to marginalized groups through its alien abduction and government experiment storylines. Most of the tests were carried out on women, immigrants, veterans, and other disenfranchised groups–bringing to mind real-life examples such as Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee experiments. Finally, the book looked at sexual politics, from Mulder and Scully’s gender-defying roles (he an easily-led believer, she a hard-nosed doctor and skeptic) to a well-deserved criticism of some episodes that use rape and sexual assault tropes for comedic effect.

Sophie has read a lot of X-Files books over the years and considers this one of the best. It’s certainly given her a lot to think about and she knows she will be looking at many episodes in a new light next time she watches them.

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The Cat, Image: Touchstone
The Cat, Image: Touchstone

Finally, Sophie picked up The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat by Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris. This light-hearted book is one of a series that helps “break down the most pressing and complex issues of our day into easy-to-digest pieces of information, paired with vivid illustrations even a child could understand.” Other titles in the series include The Hipster, The Hangover, The Meeting, and more.

The books were originally published as Ladybird Adult books in the UK. Ladybird was an enormously popular publisher that nearly all British children grew up with since the first title–Bunnikin’s Picnic Partywas published in 1940. Sophie herself had well over a hundred thanks to her mother collecting them, with titles covering everything from classic fairy tales to building and using CB radios to the monarchs of England. Each Ladybird book measured 4.5×7 inches, thus allowing the entire book to be printed on a single standard size sheet of paper without any waste, which meant they could be sold cheaply and nearly everybody could afford to purchase them. The consistent sizing and style of artwork meant that the Ladybird book soon became a British icon. The company began producing titles for adults that parodied their classic children’s books in 2015. The artwork in the adult books comes from the enormous Ladybird picture archive, meaning that each one appeared in a classic Ladybird children’s title at some point and has now been given a new lease of life.

The Cat introduces us to the internet’s favorite creature in a funny, if distinctly adult, way with dry and sarcastic humor throughout. “Nasmin loves every one of [her cats] equally, to no discernable effect,” one early page states, while a later page informs us that “it is a good idea to buy a lot of your cat’s favorite food, that way you will have something to throw away when she changes her mind.” Many of the pictures have come from titles that originally had nothing to do with the subject matter but have been captioned to make them relevant. One of Sophie’s favorites was a picture of two men in Ancient Egypt discussing a nearby sarcophagus, the caption informing the reader that Imhotep’s cat has climbed inside and refuses to come out, leading the men to consider whether it might be easier to just leave it in there and “convince everyone that cat burials are a thing now.” Although not every page is laugh-out-loud funny, Sophie recommends this book to anyone who has ever owned a cat and needs a little bit of extra joy in their lives.

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When Books Went to War, Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
When Books Went to War, Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Lisa discovered another way the written word is such a powerful thing in Molly Guptil Manning’s book about the Armed Services Editions book program, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Help Us Win World War II.

She ran across this book while casually browsing at a retail store, and was immediately taken with the subject. The ASE program, which ran from 1943 to 1946, featured more than 120 million small, pocket-size (yet unabridged) books printed by the Council on Books in Wartime to provide soldiers books. This program was created in response to the book banning, and book burning, by enemy forces during World War II. It not only provided an invaluable service to troops, it actually helped boost the popularity of books like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Both Lisa and her husband were so inspired by Manning’s book, they set out to find an actual copy of an ASE paperback, and acquired a copy of the 1933 classic western Danger Trail by Max Brand on eBay. Once she received the book, being able to actually see one of these compact little issues in person really brought out the importance of having access to literature–“Not a Digest” as the description on the cover declared–could help give a World War II era soldier far away from everything he loved, a little escape. Who carried this little book, and where were they when it was first read? Having access to such a vast range of stories and ideas contained in small packages was a simple reminder of the freedom of expression so many were fighting to preserve.

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GeekMom received some titles in this collection for review purposes.

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