A Man With An Agenda

I'm an indie bookseller in Vermont, sometime public servant, and voracious reader. I love antiques, cats, D&D, and vintage Ken. Though my job requires me to dabble across the board genre-wise, my heart belongs to the Victorians and epic fantasy.

 

I've been writing at least something about everything I read since May of 2010.

Restoration Heights by Wil Meaderis

Restoration Heights - Wil Medearis

The noir detective novel, if not resurrected, is complimented by Wil Medearis' debut novel 'Restoration Heights'. Reddick is an artist with a day job in Brooklyn as an art handler, until an encounter with a girl changes everything.  Hannah is the fiancée to the heir of a powerful family, but they don't appear to be lifting a finger to solve her disappearance. Reddick's quest for answers becomes an obsession that is set off well against the changing backdrop of Brooklyn.

 

This is such a cool book. I've become a little wary of New York stories, but I like how Medearis underlines racial and class divides that still exist, and points out Reddick's own blind spots in that area with humor. There will be no end of Brooklyn stories before you this season, and those following, but the nod to genre plotting makes this one stand out.

 

This is out today in your local bookstore!

Holy Lands by Amanda Sthers

Holy Lands - Amanda Sthers

The author skillfully justifies how her characters, a 21st century well-to-do family, communicate so often with letters - which make up this novel - but she does not create a satisfying story.

 

'Holy Lands' is the story of a scattered family, headed by a father and ex-husband, who is a Jewish pig farmer in Israel. The opening of the novel is a flurry of angry, perplexed letters between the farmer and a local rabbi. This argument turns into a friendship. The farmer's ex-wife and his two children are brought into the narrative. Each have their own struggles and successes - notably, the father has refused to speak to his son, or respond to any of his letters since he discovered his son was gay.

 

There are bright moments of humor and I really did get a feel for these characters, but the plot, such as it is, is spurred on by a diagnosis and with that characterization seemed to have been tossed out the window to further the emotional impact of the plot.

A Memory of Light, Wheel of Time #14 by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan

A Memory of Light - Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson

This series was a long road, there's never going to be anything like it for me ever again. There are other epic fantasies out there and there is one, still on-going, that I began around the same time I started this one - but, I'll admit it, 'A Song of Ice and Fire' can't match this. The Evil Empire is developing a fauxevision series of the show as I write this. It will be interesting to see them attempt it, but it won't be pretty. Gray Men can't make, duh.

 

This was my first time reading the entire series over again. The early novels I've read 6, 7, 8 times at least, but around the time I hit 'Winter's Heart' I wasn't feeling the love as strongly anymore. This reread, prompted by the 'Great American Read' (was it supposed to make me read something I hadn't before?), has made me fall in love all over again. Even with the typos that riddle these trade paperback editions. I've come to terms with the errors, the books still look pretty anyway, even if they aren't on the inside.

 

I also have to give huge amounts of credit to Leigh Butler, whose 'Wheel of Time Reread' on Tor.com made an excellent companion during my reading, helping me clear up long-standing questions and allowing me to see connections I never would have made on my own. 

 

In my first review of the book I praised Sanderson, and my only real criticism was my feeling underwhelmed by the conclusion and having been bored during a lot of the endless battle scenes. Some of that still holds true, but reading the whole series so close together this past year makes me appreciate even more how cohesive the series was and, frankly, amazed that more threads weren't dropped. The ambition of this series still staggers me.

 

These books still made me laugh, shiver with anticipation, and gasp in surprise - Sanderson wasn't great on laughs, but he nailed other important aspects and nixed arms crossed over breasts, so - it is so nice to be able to say that this series has aged well. I'm going to read it again. There's a lot that could be said about the sequel series in Seanchan Jordan talked about writing, or the other prequel novels, but this is what we have and its enough.

 

Oh, and I've been reading the official companion now that I've read the whole series over. I have some thoughts.

 

The Wheel of Time

 

Next: 'The Wheel of Time Companion'

 

Previous: 'Towers of Midnight'

In An Absent Dream, Wayward Children #4

In an Absent Dream - Seanan McGuire

This book kept staring at me from the new release shelves, and I couldn't resist it. The 'Wayward Children' series has entranced me even since I discovered it almost two years ago. McGuire uses the short length of the stories and the subject matter of the series itself to delve deep into the many facets of troubled childhoods.

 

I've had moments of disappointment with the series in the past, that's true, but only because I will always want deeper and more explicit answers than McGuire wants to give. Most storytelling, especially when it deals with the deep wells of adolescence and responsibility, requires a veil or two to coax the reader towards insight. Clear prose is desirable, bald prose not so much.

 

Sorry to be hedging around the point. 'In An Absent Dream' is the best entry yet in the series. McGuire tells the story of Lundy, a minor character in 'Every Heart a Doorway', and crafted a powerful story in her origins in our world and in the Goblin Market. More so than any other characters in this series I felt a sense of kinship with Lundy and sympathized with the choices she felt compelled to make.

 

Each of these stories can stand alone and publication order is almost always the most correct way to go about these things, but I wouldn't hold it against a reader if they wanted to read this one second.

 

Wayward Children

 

Next: ?

 

Previous: 'Beneath the Sugar Sky'

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Wayward Children #3

Beneath the Sugar Sky - Seanan McGuire

I can't recreate my original review, but it was mostly gushing anyway. This book took me completely by surprise, I remember. I had wanted something light to pass the time while helping my husband at a doll show. I ended up reading it in a single sitting, letting him take care of customers while I was lost in a fascinating candy world and reading intriguing backstories to the characters.

 

Little did I know that the characters are all about 90% backstory with their screen time not adding much to the 'present' at the school. That sounds bitchy, I know, but I loved this book and when I finally got a chance to read the first two books in the series I was disappointed there wasn't more substance to them.

 

That said, I still recommend them to fans of classic fantasy who want an author rooting around in the tropes box willy-nilly with fantastic results. It makes for great 'treat' reading. The fourth book has recently been released, covering the history of one of the more intriguing characters of the first book. Check it out at your local booksellers! That review is coming tomorrow.

 

Wayward Children

 

Next: 'In An Absent Dream'

 

Previous: 'Down Among the Sticks and Bones'

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Wayward Children #2

Down Among the Sticks and Bones - Seanan McGuire

This was almost disappointingly more of the same, but I still enjoyed it. 'Down Among the Sticks and Bones' follows twins Jack and Jill and how they came to the Home for Wayward Children, and why they left it in the manner that they did. By necessity this was more tinged with horror and gives a few more hints into the myriad mechanics behind children finding their 'doors' to other-lands.

 

A nice addition were the illustrations. Their dream-like quality helped balance the horrors of The Moors. It was an interesting setting - very 'Ravenloft' - and I liked how it flat out stated that the mortality rate of The Moors was so high that it needed constant importation of children (and, presumably, others) to keep things stable. At some point evil should have a long sit-down and crunch some numbers just in case the whole magical door thing doesn't work out. 

 

Wayward Children

 

Next: 'Beneath the Sugar Sky'

 

Previous: 'Every Heart a Doorway'

Every Heart a Doorway, Wayward Children #1 by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway - Seanan McGuire

The Wayward Children series explores the what-ifs and uncomfortable questions behind portal fantasies where children are brought to a magical other-land, save a kingdom or perhaps conquer their fears, only to wind up home again once the adventure is over. Classics of the genre include 'Alice in Wonderland', 'The Chronicles of Narnia', and 'Coraline'. McGuire is not the first person to ask these questions, sanity has always been a dubious virtue in many of the other-lands. I loved the concept of these books, I read 'Beneath the Sugar Sky' some time before this, but I seem to have misplaced that review somewhere on the internet.

 

This was the first book in the series and I suppose I expected more groundwork than from what I'd inferred or had been told outright in the exposition of the third book. That's the reason for my rating being less than perfect. This is a delightful slice of fantasy, I think I just want more. I'm not sure any of the characters had a chance to grow beyond their initial descriptions, which are repeated as they appear again in the next volumes. The series is a wonderful idea nonetheless, and I appreciated the small time I could spend with it.

 

Wayward Children

 

Next: 'Down Among the Sticks and Bones'

Help Me! by Marianne Power

Help Me! - Marianne Power

This was an amusing and self-indulgent memoir about the author's experiment with living by the advice of a different self-help book every month. Understandably, the experiment doesn't go great and extends half a year and more than planned and causes the author to seriously question her judgement.

 

I'm not immune to the desire of wanting to get my shit together, but I've always been skeptical of self-help books. It's easy to read or hear good advice, and completely another thing to have it actually inspire you to change your life.

 

Still, the book was enjoyable and I appreciated Powers' sense of humor and her honesty in describing the pitfalls of each book she adheres to each month. I was a little baffled that she didn't follow through on the advice that was working from one month into the next, but it wasn't my artificial experiment so she was allowed to make up her own rules.

 

Oh, and btw, they apparently changed the cover since I added the book to the database. It's pink now.

Joy Enough by Sarah McColl

Joy Enough - Sarah McColl

In 'Joy Enough' McColl writes about the woman her mother was, and the choices that she had to make while taking care of her mother in her final battle with cancer. This is a moving memoir about love, and family, and coping with end of life care. It is heart-wrenching and not to be missed.

 

McColl's book is made with the small details: the kindnesses, the fragile hopes, and day to day successes and failures in caring for loved ones with a terminal illness. McColl throughout this ordeal re-examines her life and, without minimizing her conflicts or attempting answers where there are none, finds a new path for herself.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field - Madhuri Vijay

In Madhuri Vijay's 'The Far Field' a young woman named Kalyani explores the fraught and tender relationship between herself and her mother, and the roots of a tragedy. This debut novel is astonishing in its ambition and in how it succeeds.

 

Following her mother's death, Kalyani leaves her privileged life in Bangalore for Kashmir, still scarred from the insurgencies of the 1980s and 90s. She seeks to find the man who was her mother's only friend. Her quest, and its consequences, matched with lucid prose makes for an engrossing and accomplished novel.

 

Kalyani is a young woman with little experience of the outside world, her circle at home, in college, and her stunted professional life, was limited by class and the trappings of a comfortable existence. Her mother was the only one who ever seemed to buck convention, and it was her that she lost the most touch with as she grew older.

 

The novel is told from the future, a world-weary and wiser Kalyani recalling her role in the events of the past. This tone lends the whole book weight as the reader follows this seemingly innocent quest of finding a missing person.

 

There are many fantastic books coming out this season, but this has become my favorite.

The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 4: 1957-1958

The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 4: 1957-1958 - Charles M. Schulz, Jonathan Franzen

After a long hiatus, I've resolved to start reading these again. Whenever I feel like I need a boost I'll go ahead and buy another volume. I mean, I'm never going to retire anyway so what's the point of having a savings account?

 

Edit: Also, sorry folks you have to click through to the blog to see the whole comic strip. 

 

These were good years for the strip, with Schulz continuing to refine his technique, there are long sequences here - notably Linus' pledge to go without his blanket for two weeks and Charlie Brown's epic baseball gaff - and thee are jokes with almost identical panels repeated many times. This repetition wasn't detrimental, it seemed more like Schulz working out a joke in his mind until it reached maximum absurdity. Violet's hi-fi parasol inevitably becomes Lucy's hi-fi jump rope.

 

 

 

Much of the humor appears timeless, but the Peanuts gang were children of the 1950s, young baby boomers as observed by the previous generation. Their are many gags that deal with no outmoded technology, branding, or early television, but those dealing with child psychology were some of my favorites. This was the beginning of parenting being serious business:

 

27Jul57

 

 

Snoopy's impressions took off in the last volume, but he adds many more to his repertoire in these years and in general is just delightful.

 

 

There were no additions to the cast, the last two comics have everyone in them (the very last even with names)  but Schulz has a lot on his hands figuring out the group dynamics, good and bad. Schroeder and Charlie Brown compete for who's better at despairing over contemporary pop culture:

 

 

It was truly difficult picking a Sunday for this review, but this one touches on a lot of things I love about the series. Poor Charlie Brown, he suffers all the pangs of childhood and rarely catches a break:

 

 

Maybe it gets better for him next year, but I doubt it!

 

 

Complete Peanuts

 

Next: 'Volume Five: 1959-1960'

 

Previous: 'Volume Three: 1955-1956'

Towers of Midnight, The Wheel of Time #13 by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan

Towers of Midnight - Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson

If the cover art weren't a clue, Perrin takes center stage in this volume with a final confrontation with the Whitecloaks under Galad. This is something that has been brewing since 'The Eye of the World', so it was very satisfying. Perrin's and Galad's plotlines conjoining puts Morgase into an interesting position. Perrin also faces down demons of self-doubt, and a Forsaken or two with varying results. Faile and Berelain Work It Out and we can truly lay to rest the ghost of the Plotline of Doom. As a united force, Perrin's forces march towards the Last Battle.

 

Mat has reached Andor and must delay there until he either opens a letter from Verin, or he receives instructions from her. While he waits he strikes a deal with Elayne for Andor to start building Aludra's dragons. Elayne also has to get Queenie on Perrin for awhile. Long standing darkfriend/Black Ajah threats come to a head and some rash decisions are made. Mat is awesome, and less problematic than he was in 'The Gathering Storm'. As with Perrin, a long-standing animosity - in Mat's case with the Snakes and Foxes - is dealt with on a rescue mission with Thom and Noal. 

 

Egwene and a united White Tower face down the lingering Forsaken threat - and something else - and take to the World of Dreams, with some unwitting assistance from Perrin engaged in battle with another old nemesis. The White Tower is whole and can prepare for the Last Battle, but now it must try to decide how they solve a problem like the Dragon Reborn. 

 

Rand still holds on to his new zen-like state and heads to Arad Doman and then Saldaea to take care of unfinished business, and make amends. With the help of Min he begins to form a plan that could make the coming confrontation with the Dark One the last. Meanwhile Aviendha sets out for Rhuidean to become a Wise One. There she experiences the past of the Aiel, but is given something else, also. A vision of the future that changes much.

 

And then, at the Black Tower (FINALLY, we get a picture of what's going on), some people are troubled by the constant echoing laughter and rubbing of hands. Androl, a Dedicated with a bit part in 'Winter's Heart', becomes the central figure there along with Pevara of the Red Ajah. 

 

As with 'The Gathering Storm', 'Towers of Midnight' (I don't fully understand the name) is clearing away old plotlines and advancing timelines so that all of our main characters are in sync at the start of the Last Battle. Sanderson does the best job that any writer could have, frankly. There are some reunions that we don't get to see and a whole lot of unanswered questions - but this is the penultimate novel we got and its pretty damn good.

 

The Wheel of Time

 

Next: 'A Memory of Light'

 

Previous: 'The Gathering Storm'

Podkin One-Ear, Longburrow # 1 by Kieran Larwood

Podkin One-Ear (Longburrow) - Kieran Larwood, David Wyatt

I had to look back over the past year's books to confirm this, but I think this was the most pleasant surprise of 2018. 'Podkin One-Ear' is the first book in the Longburrow series (known as Five Realms in the U.K.) which brings us to an Earth of the distant future where the dominant species are rabbits that have evolved into an intelligent, bipedal, medievalesque society. Which I love so much more than the usual this is a land of talking critters. I love you 'Redwall' but, yeah.

 

The story is framed so that the events of young Podkin's life are set in the past, some two or three generations ago, and are being told to young rabbits on the eve of a winter festival. It involves a time when the land was invaded by a terrifying force, known as the Gorm, that corrupted warrens and destroyed many lives. Podkin, a chieftain's son prone to slacking, is left homeless and on the run with his brave sister Paz and infant brother Pook. Together they have to make it through the cold winter, find shelter and warn others of the danger behind them. Their only weapon is a magic ancestral sword given into their safekeeping and the Gorm will stop at nothing to take it from them.

 

This is a story of family and friendship, of learning from one's mistakes, and finding the courage to do what's necessary. 'Podkin' delivers on adventure and some very real scares. This is writing that is appropriate for younger readers, ages 9-12 depending on their level, but it doesn't pander to them. I often find myself qualifying middle grade novels because I shouldn't expect storytelling savvy, epic world-building, and strong characters in a children's book, but Kieran Larwood meets a standard equal to other greats in young people's fantasy from Diana Wynne Jones to Lloyd Alexander

 

Longburrow

 

Next: 'The Gift of Dark Hollow

The Soldier's Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian

The Soldier's Scoundrel - Cat Sebastian

At a recent bookseller's conference I attended a session dealing with selling romance novels, a category I felt we'd been missing the mark on in my store. There was a lot of good advice - chief among them was that booksellers should actually read romance if they want to sell it. 

 

'The Soldier's Scoundrel' was difficult for me to get into. I'm willing to toss aside characters behaving anachronistically for the sake of the novel having to exist, but I could not get over the constant sexy interruptions.

 

Jack and Oliver were realistic characters with each having a supporting cast and convincing backstory, the mystery they were investigating was well plotted enough for me to be irritated every time they got over their self-loathing enough to get it on. The sex was...well described? Something about writing about romance reduces me to 6th grade book report-speak. I think it got in the way of what I was wanting from the story.

 

I'd dabbled with some romance awhile back - looking at you 'Tigers and Devils' - and, while it was a decent read and I still hypothetically plan on reading the sequel, I obviously haven't made it a priority.Perhaps the genre isn't for me, we'll see. I was given a whole reading list covering highlights of m/m in the genre, so I'll pick up something soon in another category.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton

'The Miniaturist' was a satisfying and weird historical fiction set in 17th century Amsterdam. Nella Oortman is the new wife of Johannes Brandt, but her life is not what she expected it to be. Her sister-in-law dictates everything in the household and Nella feels that her life is more restricted here in the city then at the backwater estate of her childhood. 

 

Johannes is an unusual husband in that he doesn't seem to take much interest in her, not even visiting her in the night. Instead, he gives her an extravagant house cabinet and instructs her to have it furnished. Despite the tinge of condescension in the gift, Nella places an order with the one miniaturist listed in Amsterdam and things really start getting strange.

 

The prose of this book was lovely, and I enjoyed the reveals. For the most part the book felt true to the period, but I would have enjoyed a lot more description on the methods used in crafting the miniatures such as the furniture making/restoration in 'The Goldfinch'. In all other respects I liked the descriptions of the household and daily life.  I wish there had been more time spent on developing Nella and Johannes' relationship, their bond was crucial to the last act of the story and I wasn't buying it. As for the fantastical elements in the story...I felt there was a lot left unresolved, but it didn't bother me. This is one of those books where the central mysteries of the book made it hard to put down, but didn't need to be explained at the end.

Reading progress update: I've read 170 out of 336 pages.

The Soldier's Scoundrel - Cat Sebastian

This is proving to be much more of a challenge. The story is good, the characters solid, but I probably shouldn't be irritated so much every time they stop everything to canoodle.

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