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)


  1. I enjoyed all Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series but liked The Dark is Rising much the best. Partly because I have a soft spot for stories set at Christmas time. And I love books with lots of weather - and this has plenty of snow and then a flood following the thaw. But Will and his family seem very real and normal even in the face of all the magic.

    1. I like enough things about the books that I have read them all more than once. The mythology is great, and the atmosphere. What I find annoying is the habit Wil has of erasing everyone's memories. His family has very little time to seem normal in the face of magic because as soon as they see anything much, Wil wipes their memories.

      I think that is one thing Alan Garner is responding to in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath: If the "ordinary" people see magic, they remember.

    2. I guess you're right about that. But sometimes he does it to protect his family from something frightening. And maybe if you were 11 and for father was frightened you'd try to do something to make him feel better? I don't know. But the atmosphere in that particular book is beautifully woven together. All the stuff with the rooks and the snow and the dark cold and the Walker, contrasted with Will's warm safe ordinary home.
      It's a little unfortunate that I find Bran a difficult character to like. Obviously the author intends him to be something special but quite often I find him really irritating. I much prefer the other children.

    3. Yes, the atmosphere is very well done in all the books.

      I like the children in Green Witch much better, though I am always upset that they, too, are made to forget in the end. How is that fair?

  2. And I have loved Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword for years. Such fun and I would so love a little stone house with a stream running through it.

    1. I had a hard time choosing just one McKinley book! I have a whole row of them on my "Must have" shelf.

    2. I have only read two. The Blue Sword, and some time after, the Hero & the Crown.

    3. Ooh, you should definitely read more of them.

  3. What an excellent list! I'd probably bump something in favor of The Raven Boys, just cause that is a book with which I am mildly obsessed. :p

    Shadows is a good pick especially! I frantically love a few of Robin McKinley's books and can't be bothered with any of her others, so it was a nice surprise to find that I liked Shadows.

    1. I love Raven Boys. There were a lot of books crowding to get on this list! So many lovely things to read.