A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin

BookGame of Thrones is off the air again (the season seven finale hasn’t aired at time of writing, so I can say without fear of spoilers that I just bet it was spectacular) and The Winds of Winter still has no release date. What’s a Song of Ice and Fire fan to do?

In my extremely informal survey of Martin fans, I’ve found that even among heavy readers who’ve enjoyed the five books of the main Song of Ice and Fire series, few have taken the relatively brief (~350 page) foray into the prequel world of the Dunk and Egg.  That’s a crying shame. Planned for an eventual series of about nine, the first three Dunk and Egg novellas, collected under the title A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, are an absolute treat of a read. That said, they are very different to the main series, featuring none of the same characters and, more importantly, a significant tonal shift. Where the main Westeros novels espouse an almost noir-ishly grim, nice-guys-finish-last-and-without-their-heads morality, the stories of lowborn Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire–the boy who will someday become King Aegon the Unlikely–have an absolutely opposite feel, old-fashioned in a good way. Here, 100 years before Game of Thrones, chivalry and innocence are still very much alive and well. Ser Duncan is far from pampered, and certainly the stories see their share of moral complexity and bad things happening to good people, but ultimately kindness, generosity, honor and compassion are allowed to win the day.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is as page-turningly compelling as A Song of Ice and Fire, but with a brisker pace, a narrower scope, and, as aforementioned, a welcome optimistic tone. For any reader–even one new to Martin’s work–who needs a charming, well-written break from death and destruction (whether on the news or HBO), it’s a fantastic choice.

Modern Children’s Classics to (Re)Visit Soon

Books – Revisiting childhood favorites may be the definition of comfort reading.  Some children’s books inspire a ‘what was I thinking?’ response when revisited later in life, but some have enough depth to genuinely repay a fresh, or first, look from a grown-up perspective.  The following are four children’s classics which I find myself rereading often–not just for nostalgia, but because their messages still resonate and they still make me think even as an adult.  (They’re all from the mid-20th century, because I needed some limit or this list would be five miles long).  It goes without saying that they’re still great choices for today’s kids, too!

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid has a stiflingly samey middle-class upbringing and an indefatigable independent streak.  Accompanied by her younger brother Jamie, mostly because she needs the financial security of his scrupulously hoarded allowances, Claudia runs away from home to an astonishing destination: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The description of Claudia and Jamie’s escapades in the Museum will never fail to be delightful, but re-reading now, what sticks with me is the depth of the story’s messages about emotional resilience and how life’s challenges teach us who we are.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I think it’s a disservice to this fantastic mystery to call it a children’s book–and I say that despite thinking that children’s books are for everyone, and despite the fact that it’s a beloved Newbery winner.  The mystery at its core is deliciously twisty, but what’s striking about this story is the size and breadth of its beautifully-drawn cast.  You could cut out the mystery element entirely and still have a fascinating story about strong personalities thrown together through the simple circumstance of apartment living, not unlike Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series for adults.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I may be one of the two people in the world who loves the movie version of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I still really wish it had been better, because the book deserves the universal fame of better-adapted works like The Wizard of Oz.  All the classic portal fantasy elements are there: Milo receives a mysterious package in the mail and is drawn through it into a whimsical nonsense world that needs his help.  The Phantom Tollbooth is, sort of, a traditional good-versus-evil story, but it stands out because it’s actually less about outright wickedness and more about the perils of inaction: boredom, not heroism, sets Milo off on his adventure, and instead of moustache-twirling villains he faces enemies like the “Terrible Trivium”, the ultimate waster of time. Juster’s is a deeper, more complex, more contemporary and relevant kind of morality than usual in children’s fantasy, one that could easily be marketed as ‘fractured’ fairy tale were it not so full of genuine heart.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

If The Hunger Games is YA lit’s answer to 1984, then The Giver is its Brave New World.  I’m as much of a Katniss fan as the next Youth Services librarian, but The Giver did YA dystopia long before, and arguably better.  It’s a profoundly political story about every citizen’s complicity in government actions and the high price we pay for a life without discomfort, and it’s as touching, as painful and as thought-provoking now as ever.

 

 

 

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Book – Nancy’s parents don’t know what to do with her. She’s changed – she won’t wear colors any more, only shades of black and white; she doesn’t eat much, and sometimes, when no one’s looking, she goes very, very still. So they send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where they hope she will become more like her old self. But Nancy’s parents don’t know what Eleanor West’s real business is. She counsels children who, like her, like Alice and Dorothy and the Pevensies, once stepped through a doorway into another world. And then they came home, to a world much less interesting than the one they’d visited (a different world for almost everyone), and more than anything they long to go back.

This briskly-paced little novella is an idea wrapped in a murder mystery: what would that kind of adventure, the portal-fantasy adventures that so many of us grew up on and dreamed about, really do to a person? What would they be like when they came back? The mystery is just something to keep things moving along, to give us an excuse to hear about all these kids (many of them teenagers, but some younger) and the worlds they visited. Anyone who’s ever dreamed about falling into a fantasy world will relish this story (and its sequel, due out in June).

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity By A. Lee Martinez

indexBook–This skewering of the adventure genre follows Constance Verity, an adventurer since childhood who was blessed (or cursed, if you ask Constance) by a fairy godmother at birth to live an exciting life full of adventure and die a glorious death. Similar to how Poirot stumbles on murder mysteries even while on vacation, Constance’s life is never far from adventure. Her job interviewer turns out to be a member of a strange cult, her biology teacher is part of a vast conspiracy, and since adventure is par for the course of her life, Constance is perpetually exhausted, trusts no one, and suspects everyone of hidden motives. When your whole life is adrenaline and excitement, monotony and ordinariness become sacred. In a quest for an ordinary life, Constance and her best friend Tia set off, ironically, on an adventure, with the goal of murdering her fairy godmother and thus hopefully shedding her blessing/curse.

Part of the fun of this book is all of the crazy adventures that Tia and Constance refer to in their dialog and the loving way that Martinez sends up the classics of adventure.  This book is the start of a series, so it’s probably actually NOT the “last adventure” of Constance Verity.

Wild Ideas: Into the Wild and The Wild Truth

Books – It’s summertime, and what better time to read about people dying alone in the wilderness. Right? No? Just me then. I’m not a camping person, and maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by stories of outdoors adventures going horribly wrong. It’s safely scary: while it’s real, I can be comfortably certain that I will never starve to death in the Alaskan wilderness, because there is no way I would be there in the first place.

indexBut somehow I’d never read Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, a young man who trekked across the country alone, then survived more than a hundred days in central Alaska, on his own with virtually no supplies other than what he could hunt or gather, before succumbing to the elements (and, Krakauer argues, some toxic potato seeds). I knew I had to read it, though, when I saw that Chris’s sister, Carine McCandless, had written her own memoir, The Wild Truth.

51hCNy79jIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A lot of people, after reading Into the Wild or seeing the movie based on the book, thought of Chris as an irresponsible, immature kid, who never thought about what his disappearance would do to his family. Really, Carine says, their parents were physically and emotionally abusive, and Chris had tried over and over again to reconcile with them before cutting them out of his life completely just before embarking on his fatal trip – a hard, painful separation that Carine herself took decades later. She’d asked Krakauer not to write the truth about their parents in his book, hoping then that her relationship with them could still be saved. The two books together are a powerful story about how our families shape our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world, and the lengths people will go to when they need to escape that influence.

Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling by Tony Cliff

delilah dirkBook – It’s hard to believe that Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling is a graphic novel rather than a film, when any suitably enthusiastic description of it sounds like a collection of exclamations cribbed from a movie poster. Thrills!  Adventure!  Swash and buckle!  Flying boats!  Dastardly nemeses!  Really big hair!

(Seriously, though, where is my Delilah Dirk movie?)

Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling is the second volume of a series set in an only slightly fantasy-tinged version of the early 1800s.  The first book, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, introduces our two title characters to one another as well as to us, as the rip-roaring, fearless adventuress Delilah gains an unlikely sidekick in the well-mannered but initially cowardly Mr. Selim.  It’s a fantastic, rollicking ride, but without the necessity of scene-setting to slow down the action, the second book is even better. In that volume, Delilah and Mr. Selim face down problems both prosaic and epic as they simultaneously resist the social mores of their day and an old and deadly enemy.

What’s so great about the Delilah Dirk series is that it feels the better parts both of modern and old-fashioned.  The action sequences have all the joyous, laugh-in-the-face-of-danger lightness of Hollywood’s golden age, but we know we’re in 2016 because our daring protagonists are a woman and a man of color, and, moreover, a male-female pair who are allowed to be friends, colleagues and equals but without a hint of romantic tension. The gloriously rich art style is a not insignificant cherry on top, but what it comes down to in the end is this: reading Delilah Dirk is fun.  How much more can you ask of a book than that?

 

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

13158378BookTop Chef meets Pirates of the CaribbeanCinnamon and Gunpowder is a fun adventurous seafaring tale that mainly takes place on a pirate ship called the Flying Rose in 1819. Owen Wedgwood is the renowned personal chef to Lord Ramsey, the wealthy owner of the Pendleton Trading Company.  The ruthless pirate is Captain Mad Hannah Mabbot, who murders Owen’s employer and has her right hand man Mr. Apples kidnap the chef.  Though the ship has a cook, Hannah feels that she deserves a gourmet meal once a week and tells Owen that she will spare him his life as long as he obliges her.  Though his culinary skills are extensive, even Owen is challenged to create edible fare with the limited supplies on board, such as gruel, rat meat, and moldy potatoes.  Though a prisoner, Owen dines with Hannah weekly and learns that her mercenary pursuit of another rogue pirate, the Brass Fox, might be for noble reasons.  As time goes on his cooking skills evolve with the help of provisions picked up along the journey and the reader’s mouth will water with the delicacies he creates.  This swashbuckling read is a pure delight!

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

ciinderBook – Cinder is a cyborg mechanic earning wages in New Beijing to support a very unkind stepmother and two stepsisters. All around her, people are dying of a strange plague while under constant threat of invasion or annihilation from moon-dwelling people called the Lunars. And while Cinder can fix nearly anything, she cannot find a way to make her life her own.

When Prince Kai asks her to repair his broken android, she agrees and manages to keep her mechanical aspects hidden. As they begin to spend more time together, Cinder finds that she has been volunteered by her truly wicked stepmother to serve as a test subject. Under the care of a strange doctor, Cinder begins to uncover secrets about herself and her origins. But time is running out if she is to save her world and her prince from the Lunars and their diabolical queen.

It has been ages since I read such an interesting mash-up of classic fairy tales. It was really fun trying to spot the similarities between details in Cinder’s world and those found in other fairy tales, but I really enjoyed all of the differences along the way. I can’t wait to read Scarlet, Cress and Fairest.

If that is not incentive enough, Cinder is a 2016 Rebecca Caudill Award nominee. The entire Lunar Chronicles series is available in both print and on our Caudill Award Kindle.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

codeBook Code Name Verity follows the World War II adventures of two young Scottish women.  Sensible Maddie, who grew up in her grandfather’s bike shop, has a skill with machines matched only by her love of aeronautics.  As a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force she mostly flies supply planes, but her missions become a lot more interesting once she meets Queenie, the girl with many names.  Queenie is fearless and funny, brilliant and aristocratic—and a spy.  Thrown together under extraordinary circumstances, it isn’t long before the girls form a fierce friendship.  When Maddie’s plane is shot down over occupied France and Queenie is captured on a mission, however, both girls will find their strength, and their bond, tested to the limit.

Told through letters and documents written by both young women, Code Name Verity introduces two equally vivid lead characters whose affection for each other makes them jump off the page.  Elizabeth Wein does an extraordinary job of building tension and maintaining the novel’s pace, making it hard to put down.  Code Name Verity functions equally well as an action-packed war story and as a coming-of-age novel, but for me the absolute highlight is the friendship between the girls—perhaps the single best female friendship I have ever read.  There are mentions of off-screen torture that may be uncomfortable for some, and readers are definitely advised to keep their tissues handy, but the depth of emotion and exquisite writing in this top-notch story make it well worth the ride.

 

 

 

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess MMovie – This animated feature film was the highest-grossing Japanese film of its time. The director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), sometimes described as the Japanese Walt Disney, is a pioneer of anime. In this epic adventure set in pre-industrial Japan a young prince incurs a life-threatening curse and sets off to find a cure. He becomes a central figure in a war between man and nature when a mining clan battles a variety of forest gods led by Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by wolves. This film portrays mythology and surreal characters that are uniquely Japanese.

The viewer definitely picks up on the anxiety of the Japanese about the diminishing of their natural environment.  Although there is beautifully painted animation, it also contains some violence and it is not a story for young children. I appreciate that the characters and the social issues addressed in the film are complex and thoughtfully presented. A budding romance develops between the Prince and Princess Mononoke, but they often place duty above their personal relationship. This English version of the film was adapted by Neil Gaiman (Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane)  and it is voiced by actors that include Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith.