Book – Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal, is having a rough time of it. England’s magicians are torn by internal strife at the same time the country is demanding their assistance in the war against Napoleon, and Zacharias’s own reform ideas are being shoved to the side. And the rumors surrounding his own ascension to the post after his mentor’s death are stirring. As the first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias is none too popular among England’s magical elite.
Meanwhile, Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race orphaned daughter of a mysterious wandering magician who has been raised by the mistress of a School for Magical Ladies, is growing frustrated with her lot. Ladies, after all, are not supposed to be magical, and those who are unfortunate enough to suffer the affliction have to be carefully trained to avoid using it at any cost. Prunella, on the other hand, is sure she could do something great with her life, if only she were given the chance.
The collision of these two – Zacharias who desperately wants to keep the peace, and Prunella who is determined to fend for herself no matter what society thinks – provides the largest part of the enjoyment of Cho’s first novel. Despite the cover, this is a Regency fantasy of the best kind, featuring dignified English magicians, grasping English politicians, and, uniquely, powerful and fascinating main characters from the underside of the empire. Fans of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Mary Robinette Kowall’s Glamourist Histories should love this.
Book – Lots of people have this idea that science and faith are inherently opposed, but the authors of this book – both astronomers with the Vatican Observatory, one a Jesuit priest and the other a Jesuit brother – are good evidence that doesn’t have to be the case. In six casual, chatty chapters, they discuss everything from the beginning of the universe to the end of it; the nature of Pluto, the Star of Bethlehem, and Galileo’s persecution; and, yes, if they (or rather, if Father Paul) would baptize an extraterrestrial.
The authors are Jesuits, so this is definitely a Catholic perspective on both the universe and on the Bible, but I think it’s illuminating for anyone. They argue that both of those vast and profound entities require you to choose how you’re going to go about understanding them, and that if you choose wrong, you’re just going to be more confused than you started – and they offer examples both from the history of science and from the history of theology.
My favorite chapter, though, was the chapter on Pluto. It turns out that both authors were part of the process of re-defining the elements of our solar system that removed Pluto from the list of planets, and they explain the complicated tangle of human categories, actual celestial bodies, and plain old human emotion that made that process so difficult and controversial.
Book – As the weather turns colder (at last!), my fingers itch to be knitting again. When planning new projects, I always take a look at this book first. Parkes knows her stuff. The book goes into detail on everything from the microscopic structure of different fibers to the confusing technical terminology of how yarn is spun to help you pick out the perfect material for your project. (Something I learned the hard way before reading this book: cotton just is not good for socks.) Best of all, there’s a nice array of patterns in the latter part of the book, designed specifically to show off the best qualities of the yarn used.
If you’ve ever been intimidated by the selection in a knitting boutique, or if you’re reluctant to branch out from acrylics and superwash wool because you’re concerned about delicate care requirements, this is the perfect book for you. But even if you’re an expert knitter, or you know you don’t have the budget for angora or mohair or buffalo wool, The Knitter’s Book of Yarn is an interesting and informative way to spend an afternoon. Unless, of course, you could be knitting.
Book – Dr. John Montague, eager to find incontrovertible proof of the supernatural, has invited a few guests to stay with him in the notorious Hill House for the summer. Luke, heir to the property, owns it but has never lived there; Theodora, the professor’s assistant, expects the whole thing to be a nice vacation. And Eleanor Vance, who has spent the past eleven years nursing her ailing mother, is finally free and hoping for some kind of adventure. She was not expecting the kind of adventure that Hill House has to offer.
The Haunting of Hill House is, quite simply, the best haunted house story ever written. (That’s not just my opinion – it’s been adapted twice to film, excellently in 1963 and somewhat less well in 1999, and Stephen King cites it as influential on The Shining.) The horror is subtle and omnipresent, but it never comes out into the light for you to see clearly (and be disappointed by). The characters are certainly of their time, contemporary with the book’s publication date of 1959, but they’re all fascinating, well-rounded people. Well – well-rounded characters, certainly, but Eleanor at least is not a particularly stable person. It’s her insecurities, combined with the house’s malevolent influence, that make this book so unforgettably chilling.
Book – Dr. Faraday is a respectable country physician, but he keeps his childhood a secret – his mother was a maid at Hundreds Hall, home of the ancient and established Ayres family. And now that the new maid of the household is his patient, he’s even more reluctant to let it be known where he came from. But the Ayreses – widowed Mrs. Ayres, her spinster daughter Caroline, and her son Roderick – have much more to worry about than their friend the doctor’s history. Strange things are happening at Hundreds Hall, things that are putting a strain on the well-being of the family. Dr. Faraday is convinced that it’s only the effects of living in an old and decrepit house, but the family is sure there’s something more sinister going on.
The Little Stranger takes its time getting where it’s going; this is no fast-paced thriller. Rather, you have plenty of time to get to know Dr. Faraday, Mrs. Ayres, Caroline, Roddy, and Hundreds Hall itself. It’s the kind of haunted house story where you’re never quite sure who’s right and what’s really happening – although it helps to remember that the narrator, Dr. Farraday, has his own biases that may be getting in his way and ours. This is the perfect novel for a cup of tea and a gloomy October afternoon.
Book – In a lilac wood lives a unicorn who has heard a rumor that she is the last of her kind. Although unicorns are solitary creatures, she does not like the thought of being the last, so she sets off on a quest to find the rest of them. Along the way she meets a witch running a questionable carnival, a slightly (but not entirely) inept magician, a band of outlaws and their long-suffering cook, and (of course) a prince.
Reading The Last Unicorn is like reading your favorite fairy tale for the first time. It’s a tremendously deep, rich fantasy story that is nothing at all like Tolkien, but contains all of those things that made you like fantasy stories when you were small – talking animals, wizards, an evil king, true love, and, of course, unicorns. When I was a kid, I wore out the local video store’s VHS copy of the movie, which is not only gorgeously animated but is a remarkably faithful adaptation. (The singing, well, the less said about Mia Farrow’s duet with Jeff Bridges, the better.) This is the book I always turn to when I want to feel good about the world.
Book – Alice Sheldon was one of the most remarkable science fiction writers of the sixties and seventies. Uninterested in once again being The Woman in a man’s world, she wrote under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. entirely anonymously until 1977, at which point several people who had praised the masculinity of her writing were very embarrassed.
Personally, I don’t see how people couldn’t see she was a woman. “The Women Men Don’t See” is a story that could be comfortably classified as women’s fiction, even with the aliens, and “The Screwfly Solution” is a science-fictional horror story of women’s fears. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” is a response to the feminist utopia novels popular at the time.
Every story in this collection (admittedly a best-of collection, but it represents a huge proportion of her short fiction overall) is outstanding. Many of them will linger on in your memory, cropping up in conversation when you’re talking to people who’ve never heard of Tiptree before. That’s all right – you’ll get to introduce them.
Book – I don’t know what it is about Allie Brosh’s style that is so deeply hilarious. Is it the choppy storytelling, half-illustrated and half in prose? Is it the expressions on the faces of her MSPaint-drawn characters? Is it the stories themselves? Or is it a combination of all three that so regularly leaves me giggling helplessly for minutes at a time?
I first discovered Hyperbole and a Half as a webcomic in 2010, when it was still being updated semi-regularly. Then Brosh took a long hiatus due to a bad bout of depression, and then she came back with two outstanding comics about it (both of which are included in the book). There are a few other extras in the book as well, stories that were never published on the website, so ideally you should read both: once you’ve polished off Hyperoble and a Half, head over to the website and work your way through the archives. It’ll be fun, I promise.
Graphic Novel – Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley are spending the summer at Lumberjanes scout camp, officially known Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. In addition to earning badges like the Up All Night Badge and the Pungeon Master Badge (earned for being especially pun-ny), they’re discovering that something is very, very wrong in these woods. The three-eyed foxes might have been their first clue. Or the bearwoman. Or the creepily well-behaved boys of the scout camp next door…
This comic is just really fun. The girls are all tough and interesting, each in their own way (although I admit to being partial to Ripley, a half-feral kid younger than most of the others), and their counselors display a laudable degree of common sense in the face of all these supernatural shenanigans. It’s gotten an outstanding critical reception, too – originally slated for just an 8-issue miniseries, Lumberjanes will continue as an ongoing comic series and has already won two Eisner awards and been optioned for a movie
Book – Paula hasn’t been back to Haven Woods, the idyllic suburb where she grew up, since she was sixteen. That summer she found out she was pregnant, her boyfriend died in a terrible accident, her father died in a car crash, and her mother sent her away, so in spite of the good memories she’s got plenty of reasons not to come home. Until one day she gets a call from her mother’s old friend Izzy, saying Paula’s mom is in the hospital and won’t she please come see her. Paula and her fifteen-year-old daughter Rowan don’t have much of a life in the city, so it’s not like they’re giving up much to go live in Haven Woods until Paula’s mom is back on her feet. But Haven Woods has more going on than Paula ever suspected, and Izzy has her own reasons for wanting Paula – and Rowan – to stay forever.
This book was just a lot of fun to read. Although nominally a horror novel, Moloney doesn’t mess around with making you guess at what’s going on – plenty of scenes from Izzy’s point of view at the beginning of the novel clue you in right away that these are bad, old-fashioned Devil-worshiping witches that Paula’s going up against, ignorant though she is. Aside from the supernatural elements, though, The Thirteen is also a story about the powerful bonds between women – mothers, daughters, friends – and the ways you can never entirely escape your own childhood. Like Moloney’s other novels, including her haunted-house story The Dwelling, I think this would make a great movie.