Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Books From the Book Club that Never Was

A while ago, I was going to lead a book club. I was very excited about the idea and spent some time choosing the books--which involved lots of reading of all kinds of authors I had never heard of before. Other demands kept taking my time, though, and when someone else volunteered to lead the club, I stepped aside

Still, I spent a lot of time working on the list, and I still think it's a good list, so here, for your own book club and private enjoyment, is a list of twelve books for the year, plus some "Maybe next year" books with shorter blurbs.

I had three rules when I was making this list. I wanted:

1) Books written by women

2) Books that were easily available

3) Some diversity.

They also had to be good, of course, and if the book was a part of a series, I chose the first book.

1.  The Book The Last Planet by Andre Norton  (also published as Star Rangers; it's out of print in either title, but there seem to be plenty of second-hand books available.)

What It's About: The Patrol are proud members of the Galactic Empire's Fleet. They're also in the way, and the Starfire has been ordered to re-map lost territories, going past the edges of currently known space. Ultimately, the ship crashes irreparably on a world so far off the map the crew doesn't know the name. Now, they must choose between reviving an ancient city or striking out into the wilderness. They also have to deal with long-standing divisions in the ship, divisions between human and non-human and between Patrol and Rangers. There may also be allies out in this new world—or enemies.

Why I Chose It: Andre Norton is the Grand Dame of science fiction and fantasy, one of the Golden Age writers (the Andre Norton Award was named after her) and author of over three hundred published works. The Last Planet combines her interest in history (the Starfire's mission was inspired by a tale from Roman history) with her loosely developed Galactic Empire. Many of the races and relationships shown here appear in her other books. Also? It's good, one of her best.

Additional: Adult, older book not currently in publication. There are plenty of second-hand copies, though.

Ultimately, I might have chosen a more readily-available Andre Norton. There are even some free ebooks. But—this is my favorite of her books.

2. The Book: Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

What it's About: Lud-in-the-Mist is a quiet, staid, and sensible town. So what if it is near Fairyland? Everyone knows better than to eat fairy fruit or to follow the fairies anywhere. They don't even mention it, if they can help it. Then the mayor's son turns out to have eaten fairy fruit and several young women from Miss Crabapple's Academy for Young Ladies disappear. Now what?

Why I Chose It: It's early fantasy. It's beautiful. It was written by one of Virginia Woolfe's friends. Really, the question is why not read it?

Do give yourself some extra time for this one. It asks for the reader's full attention.

Additional notes : Adult; just barely out of the Victorian era.

3.  The Book: Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh

What It's About: Bren Bren Cameron is the paidhi, the only human allowed to set foot on the atevi mainland, the ambassador between the two races. Most humans, descendents of a group who landed on the planet long ago, live on the island of Mospheira, the place they were allowed after a disastrous war between the races. Mostly, Bren's job is ceremonial and quiet—until it isn't. Suddenly, he's being shot at, shuffled off, away from the capital where he has always lived, trying frantically to figure out what has changed and why, and which of the factions is telling the truth.

Why I Chose It: Cherryh creates some of the most fully-realized aliens in contemporary science fiction. The Foreigner series is her most elaborate and layered creation, featuring a planet full of aliens with varied cultures and responses—and humans with almost as much variation. Also, there is intrigue, some fighting, and cross-country rides on beasts that are rather like mammoths. And this is the book where it all started.

Additional notes : Adult, the first of FIFTEEN books and counting.

4. The Book: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

What It's About: Magic in England is entirely theoretical, something clubs of magicians sit and chat about comfortably. Oh, it was real once, but that was a long time ago. Then Mr. Norrell announces he can work real magic, Jonathan Strange figures out how to do some spectacular works, and it's being used in warfare. A fairy (not the little kind; the scary sort) shows up making dangerous bargains, and the Raven King may be returning.

Why I Chose It: Footnotes! This book has some seriously funny footnotes. It's also the best Victorian novel written in the twentieth century. There's great world-building, some terrifying fairies, and an eccentric pair of not-exactly heroes. Also, Mr. Norrell is a book-miser.

Additional notes : Adult, long, so far the author's only full-length book.

5. The Book: Shadows by Robin McKinley

What It's About: Maggie's new stepfather may make her mother smile, but he comes complete with terrible taste in shirts, an odd accent, and far, far too many shadows. The shadows are oddly shaped and they don't move the way they should. Maggie has enough to handle dealing with her senior year of high school, hauling around an enormous Algebra book, and helping out at the animal shelter to cope with shadows that shouldn't be there, and that she shouldn't be seeing anyway. Then she meets a handsome young man who recognizes her stepfather, gaps in reality start opening near her town, and the army moves in to help out, and magic, which should not exist in Newworld, where Maggie lives, becomes increasingly important.

Why I Chose It:  Robin McKinley. Also, there is a friendly Algebra book. It's has a unique look at magic, good character development, a cheerful and mostly obedient dog, and is simply well-written.

Additional notes : MG.

6. The Book: The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

What it's About: Mr. Chesney offers Pilgrim Tours to a magical realm where people are promised the chance to go on a quest, slay a dark lord, and see some magic. The trouble is, the people of the magic realm are getting tired of the tours. They have to take turns being the Dark Lord and they're tired of keeping their villages looking just so. They're obligated to continue hosting the tours, however, unless someone can think of a way out.

Why I Chose It: It's funny and a good story, both. The author of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland had taken all the fantasy clich├ęs she can think of, given them a good shake, and told a story with them. It even includes a genuine quest as the Dark Lord and his children try to figure out how to get rid of the tourists once and for all.

Additional notes : YA/Adult

7. The Book A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

What It's About: Felicity Pickle and her sister, Frannie Jo, travel with their mother from place to place, never really settling down. The two girls are getting tired of it, and when the family arrives in Midnight Gulch, a town that tales say was once full of magic, Felicity feels at home. She decides that in order to stay she has to bring the magic back full force. As she moves through the town learning the town’s stories and that of its people, she figures out the magic that is left and the mending that is needed to bring it back.

Why I Chose It: It is beautifully written, as in the prose itself is beautiful. Lloyd is writing about small, everyday magics and how they affect life. She is also a word-lover, writing about words.

Additional notes : MG.

8. The Book: Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyuki Miyabe

What It's About: A series of short stories based on Japanese tales, now translated into English. There are ghosts, of course. Some of them are harmful, some are quite helpful. The tales are borderline fantasy/horror stories.
Why I Chose It: These stories are haunting in both senses of the world. They are full of ghosts, and they will linger in your mind long after you have finished reading. They are somewhere between fantasy and horror.

Additional notes : Adult, Japanese author; borders on horror.

9. The Book: Half World by Hiromi Goto

What It's About:  Fourteen-year-old Melanie Tamaki is struggling to take care of her often-ill mother and struggling to figure out what they will eat at home. She's more or less used to being bullied. Then her mother disappears, and she finds out that both her mother and father are in the Half World, a kind of Purgatory. She follows to rescue them and learns that the half world, the spirit world, and the material world split long ago, trapping everyone in the Half World in an endless cycle, and the only way to save her mother is to break the cycle.

Why I Chose It: It has one of the spookiest villains in literature. It also has a stubborn heroine who keeps on putting one foot in front of another, even when life gets difficult. Add to that a green Jade rat who gives advice, an eight-ball that asks more questions than it answers, and an unusual and detailed setting, and this book is a winner.

Additional notes : MG, Japanese-Canadian author

10. The Book: Prophecy by Ellen Oh

What It's About: Kira is the only demon-slayer in the king's army and bodyguard to the prince. When treachery and a demon invasion endanger the prince, her cousin, she is charged with keeping him safe. Some think that he is the savior predicted in the Dragon King's prophecy, the one who will drive back the demons and restore peace. She has to keep him alive for this to happen.

Why I Chose It: It's not just that Kira is a skilled fighter and a determined bodyguard, though she is. It is also the way Ellen Oh has written the family dynamics in the traveling group: The king is Kira's cousin and they travel with her older brother. Then there is the beauty of the kingdom they travel through, and the way Oh weaves the kingdom's mythology through the book. This is the first book in a trilogy, but it functions well as a standalone

Additional Notes, : YA, Korean-American Author

11. The Book: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

What It's About: Yeine Darr spent her life in her father's homeland of Darre, a small kingdom looked down on by the ruling Aramari, her mother's people. Then, four months after her mother's death, her grandfather summons her to the capital and makes her one of his heirs. The trouble is, there are two others—and she is in competition with them. She finds herself dealing with unfamiliar people and manners and meeting the captive gods, held as servants to the royal family. These gods might be her friends, but they also want something from her.

Why I Chose It: N. K. Jemisin does a first-class job of world-building here. The mythology is strong, well-developed, and memorable. Yeine has to balance what is true and what is not from the conflicting tales she has been told in the past and is told now.

12. The Book: Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

What It's About: Fourteen-year-old Sophronia Temminneck is extremely annoyed when her mother sends her to finishing school.  The school catches her attention when she learns that, in addition to teaching social discourse, proper deportment, eyelash fluttering,  and how to curtsy properly, it includes courses on “the fine arts of death, diversion, and the modern weaponries." There are is also a mystery to solve: What and where is the "prototype" everyone keeps hunting for?

Why I Chose It: It's a funny, light-hearted book with plenty of wit and whimsy—perfect for reading during the busy holidays when most people are "too busy" to read. There are plenty of read-aloud and laugh-aloud lines included.

Middle Grade

Other Possibilities:

Sister Mine by Nolo Hopkinson (Strong characterization, great use of the mythos. Makela and Abby keep on having the same argument. It may be realistic, but it's also tiresome. Adult, African American author.)

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (MG, a fantasy classic; haunting in spots; annoying in others)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

In the Forrests of Serre by  Patricia Mckillip

Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Jinx by Sage Blackwood

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Don't Look Now: and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow (will make you cry)

Speed of Dark Elizabeth Moon

Zahrah Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafo (Great world-building, overused exclamation marks; middle grade, African American)

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Japanese. Adult(?) I totally loved this story—the warrior guardian has to take care of the prince while he serves as a "nursery" to the egg of a rain spirit; Uehashi has a fantastic supporting cast, too. The drawback? The translation is stilted. There's nothing overtly wrong with it in terms of grammatical construction, but it gets dull after a time)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pickiness That Can Trouble A Reader

I'm back to looking for a new cozy series to follow again. Part of the problem I am having is that, while I really enjoy a lot of the tropes, I've now read enough books to be getting picky.

I'm not sure how to categorize the kind I've been devouring lately, but they are a subgenre of the cozy and usually include:

1) A female amateur detective
2) A bitchy rival--often she's the person who dies in the first book, thus making Our Heroine suspect number one and getting her involved in crime solving.
2) Sexual Tension between the amateur detective and the police detective in charge of the crime.
3) A carefully described, usually idyllic setting (Idyllic except for the bodies)
4) A punning title
5) Lots of good food.
6) A murder that really doesn't bother the reader significantly and is usually not that big a deal to the protagonist either (Unless it's bitchy rival; then she gets whatever niche to herself).

Also 7) They tend to be written quickly for summer reading and therefore don't generally have the best prose (though there are exceptions).

And...I am probably missing a few traits.

The thing is, when I'm in the mood for these, I really love them. They are reassuring and comfortable, like a favorite pair of jeans, or the baggy T-shirt you wear just for watching TV or reading in.

But--even while I love them, I eventually turn away because some of the tropes start to grate. Like--Why does the heroine have to date the policeman in charge of the investigation? Can't she just investigate alone? Or date the local chef or something? And, can we please, forever and always ditch the bitchy alternate? All she really does is prove Our Heroine to be good by contrast. And die. Like I said, she often dies. Surely the heroine can start elsewhere?

Yet, it's almost impossible to find a punny-titled cozy that doesn't include those two things, and I'm left with a quite unreasonable push and pull.

Do you ever find that pickiness gets in the way of enjoying something? How do you overcome it?

This doesn't mean I haven't found any to enjoy, on the contrary. It just means sometimes I get in my way!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Postman Always Purls Twice by Anne Canadeo is an Extra Cozy Cozy Mystery

The Postman Always Purls Twice is the seventh book in the Black Sheep Knitting Mystery series. I have read them all and am constantly checking the library to see if the latest one is in. These are extra-cozy cozies. In each of them, a group of women get together to knit, chat, and eat delicious food. Somewhere along the line, someone is murdered, and the women pool their resources to figure out who did it and why. There's not much gore, and the victim is usually someone the women like, but not someone the reader has necessarily gotten too fond of. In other words, they're perfect for those times when you just want a really relaxed read. It's like snuggling in a warm blanket.

The focus in these is really on the friendship between the women. They generally walk over to Maggie's shop, Blacksheep Knitting, at least once a day to exchange news and speculate, often carrying something edible—this is in addition to the regularly scheduled meet and knit. They chat, exchange news about their lives, and generally enjoy being together. The Postman Always Purls Twice is no exception. In this one, a studio is filming in Maggie's Black Sheep Knitting shop, and a series of suspicious accidents has everyone on the alert even before someone dies. Feeling a proprietary interest in things, the women get to work right away. With an entire film's worth of people to suspect, there is no shortage of suspects.

Much as I enjoy these books, there is one caveat: Each and every one of them has several typing errors. This one has what looks as a Find-Replace error running through the whole book. I can more or less ignore them, but they are there. Also, Anne Canadeo has yet to meet a sentence she can't fragment. That is a little harder to overlook. For me, the atmosphere and friendship overrides the grammar and punctuation concerns, but others may find it harder to overlook.

I will say, though, that she has recovered nicely from her desire to show everyone's texts and emails. The first couple of books were rougher going as each email would summarize events that had already been described in the book, usually right before the email or text. Now, if someone texts, she just writes "she texted" rather than detailing the text.

If you're looking for a really relaxing cozy with good friends working together and can overlook some grammatical faux pas, The Black Sheep Murder Mystery books are perfect.

Supergirl! Who else is looking forward to her?

So who else loves the action-girl version of Supergirl?

The newest Supergirl trailer has all the action anyone could ask for, showing her in costume battling an array of villains and carrying out daring rescues. She's going to be as active as anyone could wish. Add in the strong supporting cast and the fact that the last trailer showed her apparently having fun with her powers and it looks like Supergirl is going to get off to a strong start.

Now I'm starting to look forward to this! Always assuming, of course, that I can manage to squeeze watching it in! I am woefully behind on my superhero shows. Don't tell anyone, but I haven't actually finished Season One of Flash yet, and I liked it! Barry may be an idiot, but he's a likable idiot. I'm also still early Season Two on Arrow. Oliver is also an idiot, but he's a handsome idiot and he has Felicity on his team.

Anyway--Supergirl trailer:

Synopsis for Supergirl
Born on the planet Krypton, Kara Zor-El escaped amid its destruction years ago with her famous cousin. Now at the age 24, she finally embraces her superhuman abilities to be the hero she was always meant to be.

This a chattier version of a post I wrote earlier for FangirlNation. Post update/repost made with permission!

Friday, May 15, 2015

First-Century Silk Scams, Popcorn, Elephants, and Other Answers with More Questions

Things I have learned and things I still need to find out:

1) I have learned that Chicago Style Popcorn is mixed Caramel and Cheese Popcorn

I still need to know what makes this Chicago style popcorn, not just "yummy, mixed flavor" popcorn.

2) I have learned that trees share nutrients through the fungal web, even with trees of different species. Douglass firs and paper birch, for an example, have a seasonal relationship: Paper birch trees send nutrients to Douglass fir trees when the latter are shaded by other trees; in the fall and spring, when the birch have no leaves, the Douglas firs send nutrients their way. It's very tidy.

I still need to know how many other trees do this? How much is the fungus deciding and how much the tree? Or can we even say "This is the tree, and that is the fungus"?

3) I have learned that the Syrians spent years in the first century unweaving heavy Chinese silk and reweaving it into something lighter. The Parthians then took it back to China claiming that the Romans just had better silkworms (See Justinian's Flea)

I still need to know how long this went on, how many people were in on the scam, and what the Chinese did or thought when they found out.

4) I have learned that all comic books should have T-Rexes

I still need to know why they don't.

4) That some farmers in Kenya are using bees to protect them from elephants, and have been for a while. It seems that in 2002 someone noticed that elephants don't bother acacia trees with hives in them. In 2011, this was taken to the logical conclusion: The hives are placed on a fence around the crops, and when the elephants bump the fence, the bees get mad. Elephants do not like being stung and usually steer clear. As a bonus, the farmers are harvesting the honey.

Apparently, the elephants don't always even need to bump the fence since they know what bees smell and sound like.From the 2002 acacia observations:

Elephants may even avoid the sound of bees. One old bull that had been badly stung several years earlier turned tail at a tape recording of a buzzing hive, the researchers point out. The control treatment - a Bach violin concerto - left elephants unmoved.

I still need to know how the farmers get in and out of the field without getting stung, how widespread it is (there is a Facebook page that may help with that), and what elephants really think of Bach.

5) Yes, that adoring doggy gaze is adoring, and dogs actually respond positively to holding the gaze of a known human.

I still need to know how this relates to all that advice about not looking directly at a dog because it signals an attempt at dominance. Is this only true with strange dogs? Or was it never true at all?

6) That bees may actually like some of the new neonicotinoids pesticides (IMD & TMX). In the lab, when given a choice between sugar water and sugar water with just a teeny bit of pesticide--the equivalent of what would be in nectar--they actually sought out the pesticide-laced stuff. This is not good, as they are still damaged by it. The researchers who did the experiment were extremely careful not to say that the bees were addicted to the pesticides, and to say that there needed to be further study, but if the bees do find the pesticide tasty, that's...not good, to put it mildly.

I still need to know: Are they addicted? Also, what are IMD & TMX compared to everything else?

7) That spiders sprayed with graphene produce silk that is 6x stronger than regular silk.

I still need to know: Why would anyone spray a spider with graphene? What were the researchers doing, sitting around and spraying spiders with whatever they had on hand? Hairspray? Paint?

It's nifty in a way because it does raise the possibility of making other "bionic materials" and it leads to more questions about how spiders spin their webs anyway (Why did the graphene end up strengthening the web?). It's hard on the spiders, though. Four of the five died shortly thereafter.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

US to See Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in June

Hey, they've finally given us an air date! Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell the miniseries will start in the US on June 13 at 10 PM on a Saturday.

I guess we can analyze the three minute clip obsessively in the meantime. Or reread the book--or listen to it. I really do like Simon Prebble's narration.

Anyway, the blog will probably stop being almost entirely about J&N for a while now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell--UK release date and THREE MINUTES from the first episode

Ok, so those of you in the UK will get to see Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on May 17th. We in the US apparently still have to wait until "this summer." In the meantime, we can all console ourselves with three minutes from the first show. I also want to know why the US is watching it later than the UK when it is described as co-produced by BBC America and BBC One--as in, they made it together.

The official description from the BBC America page to prove I'm not making that made-it-together thing up:

BBC AMERICA’s new original drama series, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, is based on The New York Times bestselling novel by Susanna Clarke. The series is adapted by Peter Harness (Wallander, Is Anybody There?) and directed by Toby Haynes (The Musketeers, Doctor Who).

The seven-part series stars Eddie Marsan (Best of Men, Ray Donovan, Filth) and Olivier award-winning Bertie Carvel (Restless, Hidden, Matilda) who take on the magical roles of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Further casting includes Alice Englert (Ginger & Rosa, Beautiful Creatures), Marc Warren (Hustle, Mad Dogs, The Musketeers), Samuel West (Mr Selfridge, Fleming), and Charlotte Riley (Wuthering Heights, Easy Virtue).

Set at the beginning of the 19th-century, England no longer believes in practical magic. The reclusive Mr Norrell (Marsan) of Hurtfew Abbey stuns the city of York when he causes the statues of York Cathedral to speak and move. With a little persuasion and help from his man of business Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), he goes to London to help the government in the war against Napoleon. It is there Norrell summons a fairy (Warren) to bring Lady Pole (Englert) back from the dead, opening a whole can of worms…

The series is produced by Cuba Pictures for BBC One and co-produced with BBC AMERICA, in association with Feel Films, Far Moor, Screen Yorkshire and Bell Media’s SPACE. It is distributed by Endemol Worldwide Distribution.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will premiere on BBC AMERICA in 2015.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Guardian article on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

My thanks to Georgina Malcom for pointing to this lovely article by Susanna Clarke on her visit to the set of the Johnathan Strange and Mr Norrell miniseries:

Susanna Clarke on the TV Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: ‘My own characters were walking about!’:

But nothing, I find, has prepared me for the sight of my own characters walking about. A playwright or screenwriter must expect it; a novelist doesn’t and naturally concludes that she has gone mad. (What do they need so many umbrellas for? Don’t they realise that they are imaginary?)

In other news, I am beginning to suspect I should rename this blog. Is "Obsessing about a miniseries" a suitable title, do you think?

In truth, I am enjoying rounding up bits and scraps and wondering. As I have every expectation of the show being worth the wait, I can be quite happy in my impatience (I still hope we get a US airdate soon, though!).