Between the Bookends: 12 Books We Read in Sept-Oct 2017

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

In this bumper edition of Between the Bookends, Rebecca, Amy, Corrina, Chris, and Sophie share some of their favorite books from the past month.

Dystopian futures, gothic romps, persistent journalists, and some down-to-Earth mommy lit too–we hope you find your next must-read somewhere in our suggestions.

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The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman

The Widow's House, Image: William Morrow Paperbacks
The Widow’s House, Image: William Morrow Paperbacks

Rebecca Angel’s book club chose a fun, twisting, haunted house novel for their pick last month, The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman. The narrator is Clare, who grew up poor in the Hudson Valley, snagged a scholarship to the local private upscale college, married a fellow writing student, Jess, and abandoned her own career to support his in New York City. Years later, their finances, careers, and marriage are in trouble so they move upstate, back to where Clare grew up. They become caretakers in a large manor house owned by an old and ill writing professor. The house is creepy, ghost sightings abound, odd locals both enlighten and confuse history, and what is up with the puppet lady?

Clare is the epitome of the unreliable narrator and every chapter leaves the reader wondering if she is totally crazy, or they really ARE out to get her. It took Rebecca a few chapters in, but that is the fun of this book: every chapter twists the plot and your perception of characters. The murders and/or suicides from the past and present are constantly changing in details so the motivations are always in doubt. Rebecca was truly kept guessing until the final page (and then still not completely trusting the “truth”). Although disturbing events occur, nothing is gory or truly horrifying. A perfect gothic romp for the season.

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Mash Up: Stories Inspired by Famous First Lines Edited by Gardner Dozois

Mash Up, Image: Titan Books
Mash Up, Image: Titan Books

Mash Up: Stories Inspired by Famous First Lines, edited by Gardner Dozois, who knows his stuff, being editor of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, is an award-winning anthology. Rebecca Angel’s husband was given this book as a present from their children on his birthday. He doesn’t have time to invest in novels but enjoys a short story here and there. In fact, one of their family pastimes is for someone to read a short story out loud. Several of the stories in this book have been shared and enjoyed that way.

The authors in the collection start each story with the first line of a famous work of literature. The best story in this collection is “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal, which uses the opening line from The Wizard of Oz. What a gem of writing. The narrator, an astronaut in her sixties always hoping to go back into space, married to a computer programmer who is dying. They live on Mars on a colony she helped establish decades ago. She is called to do a final mission, but in a marriage that always put her career first, can she leave her husband on his deathbed for her last chance at going back to the stars? The beauty of the story is how the details of life on Mars, the history of how it all happened, and what illness and a real marriage look like are all written with equal deft. Rebecca totally bawled at the end. If you want to know what love is, read this story. It is worth the price of the whole book.

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A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

A Face Like Glass, Image: Amulet Books
A Face Like Glass, Image: Amulet Books

Amy wrote an article about struggling to make time to read after getting sucked into A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge, published earlier this year in the United States but several years ago in Hardinge’s native UK. She always tries to make time for Hardinge because her words are so delightful to get lost in–Amy never feels impatient to move on or overwhelmed at the thickness of a Hardinge book, because the time spent in her world is so worth it. Hardinge’s worldbuilding is thoroughly unique, and attempting to describe the plot doesn’t do it justice because it is too full of twists to summarize (and you don’t want to spoil the twists anyway).

A Face Like Glass centers on an underground city called Caverna, whose citizens create exquisite delicacies with magical and often dangerous properties, and no one has a facial expression that isn’t carefully learned. No one except Neverfell, who showed up in a vat of cheese curds at the age of five with no memories and an overactive, expressive (and frightening to the expressionless folk of Caverna) face–which means she must have come from the Overworld. But how? And why? The political intrigue is intense, and did we mention twisty? There are memory-modifying wines and killer cheeses, professional Facesmiths and mad Cartographers, a ruler with a literally split personality and a thief who doesn’t even know why he takes what he does. It’s appropriate for elementary listeners and readers-as-soon-as-they’re-able (who can handle a bit of murder), and complicated enough for the most jaded of adult readers as well.

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Star Wars: So You Want to Be a Jedi? by Adam Gidwitz

So You Want to Be a Jedi? Image: Disney Lucasfilm Press
So You Want to Be a Jedi? Image: Disney Lucasfilm Press

When Amy purchased 2015’s three middle-grade Star Wars original trilogy retellings for the library, she hadn’t given them much thought–why would she need to read a simplified version of stories she knew by heart? But while setting up a Star Wars Reads display last week, she flipped open So You Want to Be a Jedi? by Adam Gidwitz, and was sucked in by the unique voice. Rather than a straightforward retelling, Gidwitz tells the story of The Empire Strikes Back in the second person, putting the reader, on the assumption that they want to be a Jedi and need to know what it takes, into Luke’s shoes. Between each chapter is a short lesson on philosophy and/or meditation (i.e. learning-to-feel-the-Force), that applies to the part of the story you’re reading.

Gidwitz (who wrote The Inquisitor’s Tale, which is still Amy’s favorite book she’s read this year) is a folklorist–a highly irreverent folklorist, tone-wise, but one who takes the idea of folklore itself very seriously, and it comes out fairly blatantly in his interpretation of Empire. He even incorporates separate fable-like tales that don’t actually appear in Star Wars into his telling, as if he can’t help throwing a few more folktales in. The whole book is written as if he is telling the story aloud, very directly. It’s an extremely intrusive narrative style, which might be annoying in a story you’re not as familiar with (some folks may still find it annoying), but to Amy, it was a neat way to show a familiar story in a new light. Adults who, like Amy, geek out over storytelling and The Hero’s Journey and the like, will get a kick out of it, but it’s clearly directed at middle-grade audiences, so kids, get on that.

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Lois Lane: Triple Threat by Gwenda Bond

Lois Lane: Triple Threat, Image: Switch Press
Lois Lane: Triple Threat, Image: Switch Press

Corrina has been on a reading binge these past few weeks, as part of new vow to read before bedtime rather than remain glued to her laptop or phone. Finally, she’s getting to some books picked up at Book Expo America back in June.

She started with a long-overdue dive into Lois Lane: Triple Threat, the third book in Gwenda Bond’s terrific Young Adult reimagining of Lois Lane. Lois is in high school, works part-time for the Daily Planet along with a team of promising student reporters, and her online relationship with SmallvilleGuy is going well. Alas, given this is Lois, things don’t stay quiet for long. A group of enhanced teens with super-powers show up to taunt her and her friends, leading Lois to worry that past enemies are back after her again. Plus, her Dad is still looking into a mysterious flying man who Lois suspects is somehow related to SmallvilleGuy and, naturally, she wants to project her virtual boyfriend.

Which leads up to one of the joys of the book: Lois Lane and Smallville Guy (aka Clark Kent) finally meet in person! It’s super-awkward and sweet and awesome. Now if only regular DC creators could write Lois even close to half as well as Gwenda Bond does. A must for fans of Lois Lane AND Superman.

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Secrets in Death by J.D. Robb

Secrets in Death, Image: St. Martin's Press
Secrets in Death, Image: St. Martin’s Press

Corrina then moved onto another fictional journalism-centered story in Secrets in Death by J.D. Robb, the latest installment in the Eve Dallas series. This is set in a near-future New York City and our heroine is NYPSD Lt. Dallas, a homicide investigator. This one begins with Eve herself witness to the death of the latest victim, a gossip columnist who is soon revealed to be a nasty blackmailer.

Whatever the merits of the mystery, the charm of this series is spending time with Eve and company: her husband, Roarke, her partner, Det. Peabody of the awesome pink boots, and the cops of the homicide department. In this case, because the murder victim was a gossip reporter, we also spend time with Nadine, the intrepid reporter who’s slowly become one of Eve’s best friends. Since Corrina loves Nadine, this made her happy. A nice installment and a great comfort read.

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Breach of Containment by Elizabeth Bonesteel

Breach of Containment, Image: Harper Voyager
Breach of Containment, Image: Harper Voyager

Onto science fiction! Corrina also read Breach of Containment by Elizabeth Bonesteel, which is the third installment of Bonesteel’s Central Corps novels. The appeal is a fascinating lead character, Elena Shaw, an engineer who’s had to leave the Corps because she was part of exposing corruption at its highest ranks. But she still keeps in charge with her former shipmates, including Captain Greg Foster. Foster and Shaw have been dancing around a relationship for years, with the timing all wrong for them. Until now.

But first, they have to deal with the shadow government attempting to inflame tension on a far-flung world, part of a greater plot to destabilize certain aspects of the government and cover their own crimes. This leads to Foster breaking all the rules to save lives, while Elena decides to go on what looks to be a suicide mission.

I love how the tech is explained in this series–just enough for it to be interesting, but never enough to overwhelm the story. There are also a plethora of fascinating supporting characters, including the second-in-command on Foster’s ship, a woman who becomes quietly involved with one of the local female scavengers.

But perhaps the most interesting mystery, even beyond how to stop an interstellar war and the fall of a democratic government, involves the odd action of a Psy Corps ship, where something most odd has happened to its passengers and computer systems–and Foster has to figure out what before it is used as a weapon against all of them. (Hint: if you’ve watched Farscape, you may see where this part is going…)

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Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Scythe, Image: Simon & Schuster
Scythe, Image: Simon & Schuster

Chris rolled the dice again this month by spending an Audible credit on a recommendation churned out from the Amazon mothership. Results have generally been positive, though there have been some real misses. Nevertheless, he is happy to report that Scythe by Neal Shusterman is a real winner in the Young Adult genre.

Set in the not-too-distant future, this novel tells the story of two teens who have been selected to compete with one another to join the ranks of the Scythe. This is one of the most coveted positions in the world; the Scythe know no hunger, have no want, and move through society with no rules but their own. The only catch is that in a world where humanity has conquered death and immortality is available to anyone, the Scythes must act as judge, jury, and executioner to end the lives of enough individuals to help keep the population at a sustainable size.

This is a thoroughly fascinating book that examines several very deep concepts. What kind of future could be in store for the planet if competing resources approach infinity? With the ability to solve any problem and to store all information, what kind of idyllic world could humanity create for itself? In a world with no hunger, no threat of death, and limitless resources, what remains to motivate and inspire people? In addition to being a thoroughly engaging story with intensely relatable characters, Chris really believes this is a novel that will get your brain humming and he can’t wait to dig into the rest of the Arc of a Scythe series.

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A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

A Plague of Giants, Image: Del Rey
A Plague of Giants, Image: Del Rey

Being an Arizonan and a huge fanboy for the Iron Druid Chronicles, Chris absolutely could not restrain himself from devouring Kevin Hearne’s newest epic A Plague of Giants as soon as he could get his hands on it. Hearne does not disappoint, and this novel is sure to find itself in the rarefied heights with the masters of high fantasy.

It’s hard to set the stage for a book like this without turning this review into a novel of its own. Hearne has crafted a world rich in ancient lore with a magical underpinning that feels somehow incredibly familiar and at the same time wholly unique. As the story of the magical Kennings unfolds, Chris found himself nodding along as if to say, “sure, sure, that makes sense.” It’s hard to describe how important this is to the story, as the scale is so grand that any time the reader spends scratching their head would jeopardize the thread of the narrative that the bard is spinning.

The bard? Oh, how fantastic is the bard of this story! Hearne sets the stage early by settling the reader into an eager crowd that has gathered to hear Fintan share an incredible tale of how the world has come to find itself at war. Fintan uses his magic, the ability to take the shape of those he has met and perfect recall of past events, to spin a tale that winds up having eleven distinct points of view. It is through this magical ability of the bard that we hear the story of the war being waged on the world by the terrible Bone Giants from individual narratives, learning about the world and the struggle to survive a brutal war from people who have lived to tell their story to the Fintan.

Chris highly recommends this novel and cautions that it is a slow burn. As much as he wanted to tear through it at a pulp fiction pace, it is a story that deserves to be savored and pondered. He reread the first chapters a few times until he was able to get himself in the right frame of mind, and once he realized the complexity and flavor of the book, it began to occupy his every thought until the last page was turned. Be forewarned, by the end of A Plague of Giants, Chris screamed out loud at the prospect of having to wait for a sequel. It can’t come soon enough!

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The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution by Jonathan Hennessey and Jack McGowan

The Comic Book Story of Video Games, Image: Ten Speed Press
The Comic Book Story of Video Games, Image: Ten Speed Press

Chris finished off a month’s worth of reading with a delightful trip down memory lane. In The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution, he found a delightful retelling of the history of the modern video game in the pages of a beautifully illustrated graphic novel. Taking full advantage of their unique medium, Jonathan Hennessey and Jack McGowan craft a brilliant piece of art that brings the excitement and energy of the computer revolution alive in a way that might not otherwise be possible.

Beginning the story in the earliest days of science, this book traces a wonderful, twisting, turning path that leads the reader through brilliant and accidental discoveries, devastating wars, forgotten side-show amusements, and the earliest efforts at bringing games into the home to the enthralling games that pervade our modern world. To call this work incredible is to understate the magic that Chris found between the covers. It’s almost an accidental history. The reader learns almost as an afterthought as they are drawn page by page through this incredible narrative. With side notes, a staple of the comic book medium, and the occasional full-page aside, there’s never a dull moment and more than enough snark to make the reader wonder if Wolverine might just show up in a frame on the next page.

Chris has often thought that the comic was a medium destined to tackle the problem of making history exciting, and this book certainly takes a giant leap towards making that a reality. He looks forward to sharing the story of how we got to the point where we carry supercomputers capable of playing the most fantastic games ever imagined in our pockets with his kids and highly recommends that you check it out if you’ve got a junior gamer in your household.

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Welcome to Night Vale: It Devours! by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

It Devours! Image: Harper Perennial
It Devours! Image: Harper Perennial

This month, Sophie finally sat down to read It Devours! This is the second novel from the writers of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, which is now into its fifth year of production. As with the previous novel–both are written by the podcast series writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor–this is a standalone story that can be picked up by those who have never listened to the show, although, naturally, regular listeners will pick up on many more details.

It Devours! is written from the perspective of Nilanjana Sikdar, a scientist who moved to Night Vale several years earlier. She is asked by her boss, Carlos the Scientist, to investigate a series of holes that keep appearing below the town causing people and buildings to disappear. The appearance of these holes seems to coincide with experiments Carlos is running on the House That Doesn’t Exist and Carlos believes the City Council is causing the holes to appear in an effort to derail his work. Nilanjana’s investigation leads her to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, and to Darryl–a devoted member of the church. The pair has wildly differing views on life but soon find themselves working together to try and uncover the truth behind the holes because it appears that both the church and Carlos too may be more involved than Darryl and Nilanjana want to believe.

This book feels very relevant to current events–as much as a book filled with emotional surveillance helicopters, mysterious hooded figures, and a shapeshifting teenager ever could. It is a book about science and faith, about how the two can clash but can also work together, and about how blind devotion to either one can cause its followers to miss out on seeing the real truth. There is no preaching here, no parable about the superiority of science or of religion. Rather, it is a book about how both systems of belief can fit together into society and work to improve life for everyone, if only we open our eyes to the problems that can hide within either one. As with all Night Vale stories, it is filled with queer characters and people of color, making it a refreshing change from so many other sci-fi/fantasy novels.

Sophie loved this book, although not quite as much as the previous Welcome to Night Vale novel. She enjoyed getting to know new Night Vale residents like Nilanjana and Darryl, and also the opportunity to learn more about some recurring background characters like Larry Leroy out on the edge of town, and Big Rico. Sophie especially loved the illustrated sections of the novel, a slideshow presentation at the church, and a pamphlet, “The Good News About the Smiling God,” and felt they added another dimension to the story. Night Vale devotees will undoubtedly enjoy this, and she hopes it will inspire some new readers to try out the podcast too.

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Why Mummy Drinks by Gill Sims

Why Mummy Drinks, Image: HarperCollins
Why Mummy Drinks, Image: HarperCollins

In a completely different vein, Sophie also read Why Mummy Drinks by Gill Sims. In all honesty, Sophie usually avoids chick/yummy mummy/mom lit like the plague, but she was curious about this particular book because it was written by the author of Peter and Jane–one of her favorite (NSFW and completely swear-filled) Facebook pages.

On the Facebook page, Mummy regales readers with hilarious, laugh out loud stories of her days with Daddy, Judgy Dog, and her two Precious Moppets Peter and Jane. These days usually start out with Mummy attempting to get her family to take part in lovely British middle-class activities such as strawberry picking, going to the beach, or decorating the Christmas tree. By the end of the day, Mummy and Daddy have often had a huge row, the children are attempting to set fire to something, the dog is unimpressed, and Mummy is consoling herself with a very large glass of gin–or five. Each post is timed to match with what parents are likely to be doing in the real world (back to school, Easter egg hunts, summer vacations etc) and are often shared around as they reflect how many parents are feeling on the inside during these events–usually wanting to tear out their own hair in frustration.

Sophie was curious how this style would translate to the much longer format of a novel over a brief Facebook post. First, and most obviously, the laughs don’t come nearly as often. Trying to keep the same pace as a Facebook post across an entire book would be impossible, and so the book takes a more relaxed approach. The story is set across a year in diary format and draws obvious comparisons to Bridget Jones’ Diary–not least from the slightly overweight, heavy drinking, British female protagonist, now named Ellen. The book also moves away from having Peter and Jane being the center of most family dramas by bringing in an array of relatives and friends–Ellen’s rich and posh sister Jessica, her hippy commune living sister-in-law Amaris, and newly single best friend Hannah.

Sophie regularly found herself laughing out loud at the book, particularly over specific scenes that reminded her of her own family–trying not to drift off while her son recites a litany of Pokemon facts being a prime example. She was, however, unimpressed with one of the main plot points, which seemed to strongly suggest that money is the key to happiness. A sudden windfall halfway through the story dramatically changes many family dynamics, and suddenly having the money to go on weekends to London–traveling first class, staying in an eye-wateringly expensive hotel suite, and buying designer shoes–is portrayed as depressingly vital in keeping Ellen’s relationship with her husband Simon on solid ground. This aspect of the plot aside, the book was good fun and frighteningly accurate at times, although it hasn’t convinced Sophie to start reading mom lit just yet.

GeekMom received some titles for review purposes.