Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde by Harold Lamb

Read: 6 July, 2017

Another entry from my mother’s biography collection from the 1950s (the first being William the Conqueror).

This, along with the one about Odysseus that I’m sure I’ll be reading eventually, were my childhood favs. As I was reading this book to my son, I was surprised by how many of the stories and pictures were carved into my memory.

That said, it isn’t terribly great. The writing style is a bit clunky, and the scenes themselves aren’t nearly as evocative as they could be. I had hoped to infect my child with some of my enthusiasm for the Mongols, but this book failed to capture his interest (even when I tried to supplement it with a Crash Course History video!).

Still, it’s not a bad primer for interested kids, especially in a market that has so little world history offerings for the early/middle readers.

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A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein

Read: 30 June, 2017

As the front cover puts it, this is “the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today.” Phew, talk about a rollercoaster!

There’s a lot in this book to offend. While Bornstein seems to have loved her time as a Scientologist, her criticisms of the Church are biting. She talks casually, even somewhat positively, of her eating disorder and her self-harm, of her smoking and binge drinking. She discusses seeing herself as a “transsexual” rather than a woman, and her disagreement with the idea that trans women belong in women-only spaces. She describes, in a fair bit of detail, her sexual conquests as a man, and her submission in an S&M relationship. There’s something in this book to offend nearly anyone.

But Bornstein’s writing style is so warm, so friendly… it’s hard to stay mad. Even when she’s at her hot messiest, she just seems so vulnerable and trusting that it’s difficult not “agree to disagree”.

Hers is a valuable and thoughtful voice, and I’m glad to have stumbled upon this book.

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Earthsea Cycle #2: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin

Read: 1 June, 2017

I remembered less of Tombs than I did of Wizard. I think I may have read Wizard more than once as a child, and maybe that’s why.

But while I remembered details, plot points, of Wizard, it’s feelings that I remembered from Tombs. The image of Tenar walking through a dark subterranean corridor, her fingers brushing along the walls to either side. That fear of the dark itself – as a living creature.

And I think it reflects the different kinds of stories these are. Wizard is your classic hero’s cycle – the mentorship, the call, the journey, the discovery, the return. It’s a beautifully imaginative story in many ways, but it’s skeleton is straight out of Joseph Campbell.

Whereas Tombs is slower, more meditative. It’s almost a sort of character study, focusing on a single individual faced with a single choice, and leading us through the process of her making it. It is a metaphorical dark maze as much as it is a literal one.

In many ways, it’s also a more complex story than Wizard. It has more going on under the surface.

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My Side of the Mountain by Jean George

Read: 28 May, 2017

This book was utterly up Kid Me’s alley. I was that loner child who used to sneak off into the woods every afternoon to make my own bow and arrows. I’m that kid who once got a bunch of sticks smoking using nothing but forest stuff and a piece of string pulled from my school uniform tie. I’m that kid who read “kid survives in the wilderness” stories almost exclusively. And I loved this book.

My kid has been getting into the same spirit, so I figured it was time to share My Side with him. And he really loved it. The best part is that it’s been great for getting him to come out on nature walks with me, and he’s been really interested in how different plants can be used, what’s edible, that sort of thing. I’m looking forward to camping season starting to see if he’s more engaged there, too.

I have to admit, though, all the talk of running away made me rather nervous. I ran away all the time as a child, and I’m sure I worried my parents grey. But, blessedly, the idea never seems to have occurred to my child. Even when he’s upset and totally hates me,he still stays close to home. It made me super nervous that this book was going to put the idea of running away from home into his head. So far, though, that seems to have been unfounded. We’ve talked about going into nature together, and made plans for camping together. For whatever reason, running away just doesn’t seem as appealing to him as it did to me. Maybe he’ll age into it.

As a story, I found that My Side dealt a lot more with Sam’s contact with people than I remembered (I actually didn’t remember these parts at all!), and less with the nitty-gritty of his survival. On the whole, though, I found that there was a good balance between the two.

I had also completely misremembered the ending – which I recall as being a traumatic ripping away from the mountain with police and such. I’m not sure why I remember it that way, or if I’m crossing memories of another book.The real ending, however, is much gentler.

This is a charming book with fairly good pacing. It’s also great for teaching kids that they are resilient and capable of being useful, despite their small bodies. Some aspects of it are a little dated, but not nearly as much as I would have thought.

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The Change #1: Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith

Read: 15 May, 2017

Like most people, I have a bit of series fatigue, and have been trying to aim for more stand-alone novels. But then I accidentally picked Stranger up after seeing it recommended somewhere, not realizing that it was a series until I started writing this review.

This is an ensemble story, beginning with a scavenger (called ‘prospector’) coming upon a small town. He tries to fit in while each of the other characters deal with their own drama and the regular dangers of their environment, while their own local Lord Humungus brews up dastardly designs on the town.

The most obvious thing about this book is it’s diversity. There are many different ethnicities, many religions, many sexual orientations and types of romance… This is a book that is chock full of diversity.

It does read a little odd at times. This town, that seems to be so inclusive (except, of course, along the Changed/Norm axis), has preserved its distinct ethnicities for generations. It also feels almost a little collectionist, in the “one of each” style of diversity.

But, you know what? This is not a complaint. Maybe I’d count it against the book if diversity were so common that it were humdrum. But I don’t live in that world, so I will clutch to any book that intentionally and thoughtfully gives as many people as possible a character they can identify with.

I really really loved the romance triangle in this book. I don’t want to spoil it, but this is how love triangles are done right. When the romance stuff first started and it was clear that a potential conflict was coming up, I groaned because I have just been through this love triangle biz far too many times and I just can’t even. But then it resolved, almost immediately, and to great satisfaction, and it was wonderful.

This is YA, and perhaps even on the younger side of that bracket. There were times when it felt a little extra kiddy, maybe even late middle school-ish. It was still a perfectly enjoyable read for this 32 year old, but there was a certain naivete to the narrative that reminded me that I’m not the intended audience. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to the 12-16 crowd, though. It’s a very enjoyable read with great representation, interesting worldbuilding, meaningful conflict, and some great messages scattered along the way.

Some of that naivete is in the worldbuilding – little details that feel off. Like when a town of about a thousand people, a town that rarely gets visitors and then only one or two at a time, has street signs. I grew up in a town about that size and most of our streets didn’t have signs. They probably had names, though I never knew them. Places were referred to as “by the bakery” or “next to so-and-so’s house.” Small towns get by perfectly well on relational descriptors, and yet these are completely absent in Las Anclas.

While part of a series, Stranger does work as a stand alone. There are plot threads that don’t get resolved, but not in a terribly unsatisfactory way. I’d say it’s a safe book – fine for people who might be feeling a bit of series burnout, but with the option of continuing the story if desired.

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Earthsea Cycle #1: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Read: 24 April, 2017

The first book in the Earthsea Cycle gives us the origin story of Ged – a boy with promising magical talent who, in a moment of weakness, makes a terrible mistake that shapes the rest of his life.

I first read this book as a young teen, and I was surprised by how much of it I could remember. The unleashing of the shadow thing, in particular, was still vividly in my memory. It was particularly interesting to revisit scenes that have stuck with me all this time and to go “uh, so this is where that’s from…”

This was written in an era when fantasy was still very much tied to oral storytelling – “Tolkienish”. It makes the narrative pace very fast, as we get little more than brief sentences to cover weeks and even years of the story’s chronology. That doesn’t mean that the story’s pace is fast, though. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it does drag a bit as Ged travels around the world and meets with largely unconnected side quests.

The style also adds a distance between the reader and the action. Rather than seeing the action, we are told about it. This used to be standard in fantasy, but a book written like this now wouldn’t get anywhere near the same reception.

That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It’s beautifully written, and the worldbuilding is magnificent, but it does mean that people who aren’t either at peace with older fantasy genre conventions, or who have adjusted their expectations to the newer expectations of the genre are going to struggle with the book.

All that being said, it fully deserves its place in the canon, right alongside Tolkien for its worldbuilding and lyrical narrative. And for me, specifically, it’s wonderful to visit again with an old friend.

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Read: 12 February, 2017

There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

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Gentlemen Bastards #1: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Read: 29 January, 2017

Venice is such an obvious and wonderful setting for fantasy, it’s hard to imagine why it doesn’t get more use. Everyone always jumps on medieval England or France, maybe with a bit of Scandinavian, but Renaissance Venice? With its glass works, its intrigue, its cloaks, its daggers, its Carnival… That is a rich and fertile ground for fantasy!

I had a little trouble getting into this one at first because it does an awful lot of time hopping. I can understand why this was done – giving us the exhilaration of the adult Locke Lamora on a heist, while also feeding us some of his backstory in the form of child Locke. On the one hand, I’m not sure it was necessary to do it this way since child Locke gets up to quite a few exciting adventures of his own. On the other hand, it gives us a tighter narrative in which the beginning connects directly with the ending. Having gotten through the difficult beginning, I can appreciate it. But having to keep track of time skipping on top of all the new characters, the new setting, the new terms… it makes the book just that little bit less accessible.

Once I got into it, though, I loved this book! It was exciting! It was fun! There were times when the main characters got themselves into a scrape I couldn’t see a way out of and my stomach tightened and I read as fast as I could to find out what would happen.

I wish that there were more central female characters. There are women around – really cool and interesting women, women with power, active women – but none in the core group. Well, that’s not quite true. There is one woman in the Gentlemen Bastards, but we don’t see her in this book. She’s talked about, but always out of the picture for one reason or another. It’s obvious from the first mention of her that she’s Locke’s One True Love, and this gets brought up a lot, so having her be completely absent from the first book is a very interesting choice. It’s a good choice, too, since it lets us see more of Locke’s friendships. We need more books that centre platonic friendship! But now I’m worried that we’ll meet Sabetha and she’ll just be your standard “pretty but tough as nails” love interest. I like that she’s held back from the story for now, but my fingers are crossed that she’ll be given some proper development.

In conclusion, I loved this book. I devoured it. It was fun, it was exciting, it had some great character development, it had a fantastic setting, and it had one of those excellent plots that feels meandery but then ties up neatly at the end and I loved it so very very much.

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Graceling Realm #2: Fire by Kristin Cashore

Read: 22 September, 2016

In this sequel (or, rather prequel) to Graceling, we journey across the mountains to an isolated country where graces don’t exist. Instead, the Dells have monsters – variant forms of ordinary animals, but brightly coloured and capable of influencing the minds of those around them. Fire is the last of the human monsters, and it seems that everyone wants a piece of her powers.

WARNING: This review contains a lot of spoilers.

As I mentioned above, Fire is actually a prequel. The book begins with the birth of Leck -the Big Bad of Graceling – and his journey into the Dells. He disappears from the story, which then becomes more about Fire, her personal relationships, and her role in the bigger politics of the country. But the child Leck still hands around, skirting the edges, and seems to be pulling strings of one sort or another.

Which leads me to my first complaint. For a while, I thought Leck was to be the Big Bad here, as well. As in Graceling, we don’t really meet the political enemies for a very long time. Rather, the story focuses on Fire working through her own life choices. So I was led to believe that Leck was somehow behind the rebel lords’ uprising, or was making them far more dangerous by getting them to work together. Instead of an ominous puppetmaster threatening from the shadows, Leck was a red herring.

A red herring with very odd motives. Even though we first see his handiwork when he sends brainwashed archers to kill Fire, he only kidnaps her when he has a chance, with a story that he wants them to be partners. He seems to want to take over King’s City, but his actual role in the civil war is unclear.

Maybe I just missed it because I wasn’t paying enough attention, but Leck’s presence in the story seemed superfluous – there only to tie Fire to Graceling.

The novel also suffers from what I can only call a Love Octagon. Absolutely everybody is sleeping with absolutely everybody else, and much of the third act is devoted to uncovering everyone’s secret parentages so that everyone can have a supportive family as a reward for making it through the plot.

The idea of not letting one’s parentage define us (as both Fire and Brigan work to forge identities for themselves separate from their fathers, and Archer’s own relationship with the father who raised him) is a good one, but it was all watered down at the end when all the characters get to be reunited with their unknown relatives, and Brigan gets to find out that he never was his father’s son in the first place!

Aspects of the book do play out melodramatic, and the premise itself is rather silly. But the books are clearly intended for a younger audience – preteen or early teen girls – and for that audience, both Graceling and Fire are absolutely fantastic. When I think back to who I was at 12-13 and what books I loved, I can easily see how I would have adored Cashore’s works. Even better, these books are good for girls of that age, because they redefine what it means to be a woman, and they give girls options. Katsa didn’t want to marry or have children, Fire wants children but can’t have them. Their relationships are ones of mutual respect and caring, in which the women have boundaries and have them adhered to.

That idea of priming girls to expect appropriate treatment from men is woven throughout the series. Fire, as a monster, is irresistible to men – they find her so beautiful that she is sexually assaulted several times in the story as they “lose control” upon seeing her. When King Nash does this, when he tries to defend his actions by explaining that he just can’t control himself when he looks at her, Cashore puts the perfect response in the mouth of his brother: “Well don’t look at her, then!” Never is their behaviour Fire’s fault, and she has the right to expect the men around her to behave. She has the right not to be jealously kept by someone, even if she does love him.

Fire has a lot of flaws, and I wish that Leck were better integrated into the story, but it’s a good and healthy book for young girls to read, and I think it would be very well liked within that age bracket.

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Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Read: 8 August, 2016

Who Fears Death takes place in post-nuclear holocaust Africa, though save for a few mentions of computers and scooters and other relics of modernity, it might as well have been set in mythic time.

The story follows Onyesonwu, a mixed race child born of weaponized rape, as she comes into her power as a sorceress and ends the genocide of her mother’s people. On the way, she gathers friends and allies, falls in love, and learns about her mother.

I really enjoyed Onyesonwu as a character – it’s rare to find a narrating main character that has quite so strong a personality. She’s certainly no Bella Swan! And while she tends to get angry and lash out, I never felt annoyed by her. That’s no small feat when she keeps impatiently interrupting characters who are trying to explain things to her because they aren’t getting to the point fast enough!

I loved the setting. I loved Okorafor’s descriptions of the desert, and I tend to favour that mythic, mysterious brand of magic. The early parts of the book, as Onyesonwu is learning about magic, what it can do, and how it works were, in my opinion, the best.

That said, the book has its flaws. The big one that I see mentioned a lot in other reviews is that it follows that “be mentioned in a prophecy, get mentor, kick ass” formula. I actually found this to be the least of the novel’s problems – mainly because I enjoyed the mentorship sections of the books so much, and because the prophecy bit took a backseat to the characters. It was brought up every so often (along with the plot-paradoxing issue of the two main characters knowing how they were going to die), but Onyesonwu’s strong personality drove the plot forward. Until the very end of the book (which I’ll talk about in a bit), I never had the sense that she was being driven by the prophecy. Events seemed to line up conveniently, but it worked within the context of the world, and Onyesonwu made deliberate choices every step of the way.

The much bigger issue with the book is its second half. (SPOILERS: Once the group of friends leaves Jwahir, the plot loses its focus. Long passages are spent on side missions, and most of the narration is devoted to the in-group bickering. Toward the end of this, they meet the Vah – a group of people who live in the centre of a sandstorm. The Vah are literally only introduced right before they appear, when Mwita sees the sandstorm approaching and asks if Onyesonwu has ever heard of the “Red People.” These people pop in so late in the story, with no build up, and they end up providing the main characters with the means to destroy their enemy. It’s too convenient, and it stinks of poor planning.

The ending itself – where the Big Bad is defeated and the corrupted holy book is rewritten – felt horribly rushed. They confront the Big Bad, Onyesonwu is completely incapacitated, and Mwita whips out the magical item that can defeat their enemy. That’s it! After all of that build up and all those journeys and all that accumulation of power, it’s all over in a page or two. And then, when Onyesonwu goes to rewrite the holy book, she does so with a little bit of handwaving. That’s it?!)

The final thing I want to touch on is the lack of consequences. There are times in the novel when choices are made that have negative consequences, and the impact is just sucked out of them. (SPOILERS: A perfect example is the treatment of FGM. Bringing it up, and having the female main characters all undergo it, is interesting and has consequences for their relationships with others – specifically, Onyesonwu’s friends link the idea of freedom to the physical fact of having a clitoris (much is made of heterosexuality in the novel). But when it comes right down to it, Onyesonwu just uses her magic to grow everyone’s clitorises. That’s it, conflict over, everyone healed, the end. And just when I’d thought it so interesting to see a pre-pubescent girl choose FGM, against her parents’ wishes, for the sake of her family’s honour suddenly hit puberty and rage at her choice. But then she gets to Ctrl+Z and the consequences are just gone.)

Overall, I did enjoy Who Fears Death a lot. I think that I would have judged it more harshly if it had been written by a white author and set in, oh I don’t know, Chicago, but my library needs a lot more colour. As it was, I welcome Okorafor’s perspective and I was glad to see a non-western European take on magic. If I’m going to read fantasy about Chosen Ones defeating the Big Bads in accordance to prophecy, I’m happier for it to be Who Fears Death than The Fionavar Tapestry.

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