Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Book – “What’s your favorite book?” is a cruel and unusual question to ask any librarian, but when absolutely forced to give an answer, Good Omens is where I tend to land.  In an effort to keep this review from getting too gushing, then, I’m going to try to focus more on comparisons than description, because allowing me near superlatives in this case is a dangerous prospect.  Let me just give the basics on plot–namely, it’s a humorous take on the Apocalypse (no, really)–and hurry from there to the land of “you’ll like this if”.

The obvious ones first: if you already enjoy the solo work of either Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, then Good Omens is unquestionably worth your time.  Even though it was written before the explosion of the internet and the resulting acceleration of mashup culture, it’s a perfect example of the kind of textual remixing that both writers did and do so well, deconstructing classic stories and themes and rebuilding them into something fresh and self-aware.  It has all of Sir Terry’s boundless humor (and footnotes!) and sudden moments of profound emotional insight, with Gaiman’s unpretentious lyricism and finger on the pulse of the collective unconscious, and it reads so seamlessly that it’s impossible to tell that it comes from two different authors.

But you by no means need to already be a fan of either writer to love Good Omens; it was the first thing I read of either of theirs, and I was hooked from page one.  If you already love Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Eddie Izzard or Christopher Moore, you’re a shoe-in; Good Omens is all about that same irreverent sense of humor.  It’s a great choice, too, for fans of Roald Dahl or Ray Bradbury or  Kurt Vonnegut, sharing their sometimes dark yet deeply compassionate lens on humanity.  It’s for fantasy and sci-fi fans, but for humor fans too.  It’s for the reader who wants a quick read that deserves to be called ‘light’ yet tackles big themes and doesn’t shy away from emotional impact.  It’s for pretty much anybody who doesn’t mind allowing humor and religion to mix (never, in my opinion, in a way that mocks anyone or their beliefs).  And it is–to allow myself just the one moment of gushing–an absolute, unqualified delight.

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.

 

 

 

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

Book – I frequently tell people that some of the best science fiction and fantasy is happening in short stories. It seems counter-intuitive that you could squeeze a satisfying world and characters both out of a couple dozen pages, especially when it’s so hard to find a novel that isn’t part of a series, but there’s something about the short format that really packs a hefty punch. Kij Johnson is an excellent example: her stories are complex, rich, and deep, set in spectacular worlds ranging from just different enough from ours to be intriguing to so different they should be hard to imagine (although she makes it easy). And they’ve won three Nebula awards, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The stories in At the Mouth of the River of Bees circle around themes of grief, loss, rebuilding, and the power of story itself to help us through these. In “The Horse Raiders,” a young woman is the only survivor of an attack that wipes out her clan, only to discover that a plague is wiping out their entire planet’s way of life. In “Dia Chjerman’s Tale,” women captives on an imperial spaceship tell the stories of how their ancestors stayed alive. And in the title story, a road trip leads to an unexpected pilgrimage and an even more unexpected chance for grace on behalf of a woman’s dying dog. The characters in these stories are angry, they’re hurt, they lash out and they make mistakes, but they also pull themselves together and carry on.

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Book – Best friends Miel and Sam are inseparable, and have been since Miel spilled out of a water tower when she was five, screaming that she’d lost the moon, and Sam was the only one who could comfort her. Now teenagers, Miel grows roses from her skin and assists her guardian in magic to remove people’s lovesickness while Sam paints moons of every size and color and hangs them in the trees. They’ve loved each other since they were children, but their relationship is tested when the beautiful, cruel Bonner sisters – las gringas bonitas – decide that they want Miel’s roses for themselves, and threaten to reveal all of Sam’s secrets.

When the Moon Was Ours is a beautiful combination of elegant magical realism, reminiscent of Alice Hoffman, and an emotionally wrenching story about coming to terms with your self. Sam was born female but is living as a boy, struggling toward a transgender identity but not sure of it yet; Miel lost her family at a young age and blames herself. Their struggles feel real, and its immensely gratifying to watch them both pull through them. Although published as YA, this gorgeous book is one that anyone who loves fairy tales would enjoy.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Movie – I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of the whole genre of action films, but after being coerced into seeing the newest King Kong film, Kong: Skull Island, I was pleasantly surprised that it actually exceeded my expectations.

In Kong: Skull Island, we meet the eccentric Bill Randa.  Most people think he’s mad, but he manages to find funding for a crazy expedition disguised as a geological study, with  military escort in tow.  In reality, Randa is out to find something big on unexplored island where all planes, ships and people who’ve ventured there were never heard from again.  A Bermuda triangle kind of place.  However, Randa’s comrades and the military personnel are none too pleased to discover the monstrous inhabitants that lurk beneath and above the ground, especially the incredible Kong.  It’s a fight to the death for the remaining survivors.

The moral of the story? Don’t explore remote islands from where no one returns.  Don’t inflict the wrath of a giant ape beast (he’s not stupid). And please try really hard not to unearth some demon-like alien creatures that will surely kill all of your men.  Just turn back now while you can, and never look book.

I enjoyed this film.  The reason?  I often find myself bored by  intense and lengthy fight scenes that seem neverending and repetitive.  (That might also just be a me thing, though)  Luckily for me, this film came across as more creature feature, a genre that I love.  It’s an unrealistic story (Because giant apes), with a fair share of comedic elements and some pretty cool creatures.

 

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

Book – In the city of Amberlough, morality depends upon the time of day and everything is for sale. The Bumble Bee is the city’s most notorious club, and Aristide Makricosta the club’s most notorious performer. His lover, Cyril DePaul, is a covert agent, adept at keeping Aristide’s secrets as well as his own. At least, until he’s sent on a mission to the northern reaches of the country, investigating a new political party that seems convinced they can take over the country despite their unpopularity. And if they do, both Cyril and Aristide are going to find themselves in dire straits.

Amberlough is a kind of fantasy mashup of Cabaret and the novels of John Le Carré, with lots of intrigue, behind-the-scenes nightclub shenanigans, and the creeping shadow of totalitarianism looming behind all of it. I found it rough going, emotionally; Cyril sacrifices his principles early on, and watching him attempt to play both sides is painful, especially when he’s dragging other people down with him. By the end of the book, though, I couldn’t bear not to know what would happen next. I’m immensely relieved to report that there are sequels in the works, but this book stands well on its own.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Book – Onyesonwu is a child of rape, a child of war. Her mother named her “Who fears death?” because after being attacked and impregnated, she didn’t any more. Onyesonwu is Ewu, the light-skinned offspring of a dark Okeke woman and a pale Nuru man, and she encounters disrespect and fear wherever she goes. But she’s also a sorcerer, thanks to her mother’s fervent prayers, and the older she grows, the more powerful her sorcery becomes. And then she learns of a prophecy, about someone who will turn the whole order of the world upside down…

It took me a little while to get into this book, because it’s got some pretty rough going – Onyesonwu’s mother’s rape; the genocide of the Okeke by the Nuru; and Onye’s Eleventh Year Rite, with an explicit description of female genital mutilation, all feature heavily in the first hundred or so pages. But Onye is such a strong character, so full of promise and determination, that I had to see where she was going to go. Your reward for making it through the brutality of her early years, like hers, is an amazing story of love, female friendship, solidarity, and the pursuit of justice. Onyesonwu isn’t perfect – she frequently loses her temper, and sometimes does irreversible things as a result – but she loves life and she loves her people and her world, and is determined to make all of them better. By the end of the book, I couldn’t put it down.

Monstress: Volume 1: Awakening

Graphic Novel – In Monstress, arcanics are a hybrid of ancient ones and humans. Ancient ones are mystic beings with immortality and special abilities. Known as witches, human women have evolved to have special abilities too. They have been at war with the arcanics for some time. Humans capture arcanics sell them into slavery, experiment on them, and kill them.

Maika was donated to The Order by a local merchant. The Order is a group of powerful witches that have waged war on arcanics. Maika is not a normal arcanic. There is something different about her. Maika is trying to find out was she is. She knows she is more than an arcanic and goes in search of answers. Joining Maika on her journey are Kippa, a young foxlike arcanic and Master Ren, a talking cat with several tails, from a race known as children of ubasti in the story.

This being the first volume very little is revealed until much later in the story. The first three chapters do not give the reader much of a backstory. The story is intriguing and made me want to keep going once I got through the first three chapters. With several storylines to keep track of, it makes the read a little overwhelming and confusing at times. I have found this to be normal with first volumes though.

The style of drawing is a cross between manga, steampunk, and contemporary comics. The world the creators have imagined is stunning. Arcanics are varied and beautifully imagined. Some include wings and horns, talking monkeys, ram headed humanoids, talking cats, and some ride unicorns. There is some violence and blood, along with some nudity.  I would recommend this for readers looking for something imaginative, interesting storyline, and intricate artwork. I welcome what is to come in this story and am sure to will enjoy the future volumes.

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).