A Man With An Agenda

I'm an indie bookseller in Vermont, sometime public servant, and voracious reader. My public commitments have not kept me from weekly D&D sessions or thinking about getting more cats and ways of keeping said cats off my antiques.


Catching up on half a year of not reviewing, please pardon my flurry of updates. Hoping to get this blog current by the end of summer so that my currently reading and shelves reflect my actual state of Read.


6-6-18: 48 Reviews Due

The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Wintrop

The Castle in the Attic - Elizabeth Winthrop

William is having a hard time adjusting. He's just found out that his beloved Mrs. Philips is leaving him to return home to London. She's been his companion since he was born, but now he's old enough to look after himself, and, hey, his parents are going to spend more time with him now. William is taking it so hard, because Mrs. Philips is family, but also because he's a bit of a loner, with only one friend not a British nanny, and - dare I say a - crybaby? I scrubbed away a lot of this characterization when I was little, so it was surprising to read it now. That is not why the book has faded for me. William's character, as atypical as it is for such an 'early' kids novel, is vital to the success of the story. His success is so much more meaningful knowing his struggles.

My problem was everything else. 'The Castle in the Attic' was full of mystery and magic, and I imagined myself exploring the castle, meeting Sir Simon, learning swordplay and, why not?, gymnastics. The prophecy was thrilling, the danger so clear. As an adult all of this faded into the simple language demanded at the time. The world William travels to didn't feel convincing, and the nanny problem seemed absurd to me. Has William never really bonded with his parents before this? Who would hire a nanny knowing that was the result? Winthrop likely didn't intend this, but it felt as if Mrs. Philips was responsible for coddling William and her presence isolated him most of the other children.

This is still a worthy book for kids, but I'm afraid its another one lost in the nostalgia wars.

White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig

White Rabbit - Caleb Roehrig

A ticking-clock thriller set in Vermont. Rufus has one night to prove that his privileged half-sister didn't kill her boyfriend before the cops get involved. April has clearly been set-up and the drug 'White Rabbit' is Rufus' best lead. With time so short he's unable to turn down any help, even if that help is coming from his ex-boyfriend, Sebastian.

Roehrig brings a noir sensibility to 'White Rabbit' that carries what would have been a sanitized thriller into an entertaining read. That noir sensibility includes some pretty fucked up ideas about relationships, and interacting with people in general. That's part of the genre, even if your world-weary detective is a teen with a bad case of the why-mes.

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil - Soman Chainani

Every year in Sophie and Agatha's village two children are taken away. The children are always opposites of each other: one kind, one mean; one handsome, one ugly, etc. The children never return, but a new book of fairy tales arrives every year, and children will sometimes recognize one of their former friends in the pages of the book.

Most children dread being taken away, but Sophie can't wait to be taken. She knows she will go to the School for Good. She's pretty, does what she thinks are good works, she's pretty, and....Then there's Agatha, who is an outcast, dresses in black and likes cemeteries. Sophie is sure Agatha will go to the School for Evil. Agatha doesn't seem to care.

The one aspect of 'School for Good and Evil' that truly worked was the switching of the obvious roles Agatha and Sophie play in their respective schools. Hideous, hideous Agatha is set down amidst wannabe princes and princesses and taught etiquette and cosmetics use (because she's a girl, the princes learn sword-fighting and whatnot), while Sophie is cast in with the uggos and taught 'uglification' and black magic. At least the School for Evil allows the girls equal opportunities. Within your school you compete to be the leader of the story, while lower-ranked classmates become bit players in new fairy tales. Good and evil compete with each other to see who triumphs in the end. The headmaster(s) is a two-headed dog with a dual nature played for comic relief. Does not scan.

So, the switching of expectations worked for about five to ten pages, but the book doesn't go deep into morality, but focuses mostly on how appearances determine how good or evil you are. The book challenges that assertion, but not soon enough. It makes the argument about appearances for too long and


Agatha is celebrated as being super pretty when she embraces her good side

(show spoiler)


Boooooo. And don't tell me its self-confidence, either.

Still, the book does raise some interesting questions about the nature of good and evil. It doesn't have any answers, maybe the raising of the question is what matters - even if they're paired with half-hearted answers. It was readable, if regressive. Younger readers probably won't care about the drawbacks. I'm hoping that Chainani addresses a lot of these issues with the Schools in next parts of the series, as part of the resolution of what happens at the end of this book.

Evil had controlled the school for ages. So maybe it threw in the gender stereotypes and the emphasis on appearance.

(show spoiler)

But that seems a little too subtle. The doubt keeps a star on the review, however.

The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci by Dmitry Merezhkovsky

Leonardo - Dmitry Merezhkovsky

I read this on the recommendation of a friend whose taste in literature is even more antiquated than mine. I know that's ridiculous considering how many new books I'm reading, but I'm most happy when I'm deep in a Trollope.

Merezhkovsky follows the life of Leonardo da Vinci mostly through the lens of his time in Florence and the attitudes of the people, the politics and life in Renaissance Italy. Often the man himself fades into the background in favor of other characters, particularly his apprentice Beltraffio who goes through many struggles with his faith and the genius of a man like da Vinci. I've seen some criticism at how 'Romance' seems to be an awfully Russian sounding Italian Renaissance, but to that I say booooo. Merezhkovsky clearly did his research here, creating a meticulous image of the era as understood by scholars of the time. The philosophy and the style, I grant you, being written by a Russian, will likely be Russian. They have little to do with one another apart from setting and time-frame, but I kept turning over George Eliot's 'Romola' in my mind as I was reading this. It was a startling time. His characterization of Machiavelli and that man's relationship with Da Vinci was the most interesting historical speculation, but I'll be honest and say that the witches sabbath was just the most bat-shit crazy and unexpected bit of reading I've ever found in a novel of this period. It was pure fun.

This forms the middle volume of a thematic trilogy involving the decay of the classic tradition and its inevitable revival. I don't know if I'll read the others, but I'm intrigued.

Manfried the Man by Caitlin Major, Illustrated by Kelly Bastow

Manfried The Man - Caitlin Major, Kelly Bastow

'Manfried the Man' is about a young white collar cat named Steve living the dream with his pet man Manfried. The book is full of sight gags about the foibles of crazy man cats and their obsessions with their pets.

The illustrations are fantastic, I've seen some complaints about all the little man genitals, but is that really so shocking? Maybe the artist could have drawn big clumps of man pubes to decently cover them, but I think that would be weirder.

The plotting of the book could use a little love. Steve just doesn't have it in him to carry the show by himself for that long - he needs Manfried for backup. The other quibble I have is where are the women, all of the little pets humans were men. That doesn't seem to make sense.

It probably doesn't bear thinking about that much. This is a cute comic book about reversing the roles of people and cats. I liked it.

If I Die Tonight by Alison Gaylin

If I Die Tonight - Alison Gaylin

Thrillers are not really my forte, but there have been a few that I've liked. This isn't one of them. I didn't find the plot compelling. All that melodrama.

'If I Die Tonight' begins with a message from high school outcaste Wade Reed saying he's gonna end it all and you'll all be better of without me. Hundreds of 'likes' support the post. Flashing back we find there's been an accident. An 80s has-been musician has been robbed of her purse and her car stolen. A local football hero was hit by the car in the aftermath and is in critical condition in the hospital. Blame soon falls on Wade, a weird kid and not much liked who was out that night without an alibi. Pearl, a cop with a dark secret, has a bad feeling about the witnesses and doubts about the suspect, but the community doesn't hesitate to make judgements.

Gaylin does demonstrate effectively how social media can be the most destructive influence on communities. Her characters, with the critical exception of Wade our maligned prime suspect, are well drawn. Wade and his silence was just not believable. It was too visible of a plot mechanism. I did like Pearl and Wade's mother, they managed to give life to the book.

Anyway, it was quick and there's worse out there.

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

Girls Burn Brighter - Shobha Rao

The debut novel of Shobha Rao, 'Girls Burn Brighter' is a revelation. Rao has released a collection of short stories before this and won the Katherine Ann Porter prize and is no novice. This novel was startling, complex, and illuminated a world I'm shamed to have not thought much about. That has changed.

'Girls Burn Brighter' is the story of two girls, Poornima and Savitha, who grow up in small village in Indravalli, India. They are both from weaver families, but Savitha's family is impoverished and she comes to work for Poornima's father. They become friends and bond over simple pleasures and hopes for the future. They are torn apart after a shocking crime and breach of trust on the part of Poornima's father forces Savitha to disappear. Poornima is determined to find her friend, but her movement is restricted and custom demands she marry and it is some time before she can take up the search for her friend.

There is terrible, callous cruelty in this novel, but threaded through it is the strength of a friendship and even after years of separation the fond memories of their time together help both women through the hardships they face. After years, the novel moves both women, still apart, to America and still more difficulties. Alone, they learn to rely on their inner light and refuse to allow anyone to extinguish it. A marvelous story.

Blue Window by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

Blue Window - Adina Gewirtz

This is the portal fantasy with teeth you didn't know you were waiting for. Many authors have explored this territory, but very few have gotten the danger across without their books ending up intended for a grown-up audience, think 'The Magicians' and 'Wayward Children'.

Gewirtz has five siblings fall through their living room window after it mysteriously turns a deep blue and they end up in the world of Ganbihar. The rules are subtly different. The dangers of Ganbihar are its people. Language and intent and the people themselves are twisted, made somehow bestial by a great wrong of the past. The story's narrative is told in the third person and is passed in turns to each of the five children. It is a long journey for them, and the reader must share that, as they travel from the wilderness into a strange city and must flee to a sanctuary that isn't what it appears to be.

There is a message here, and I often have issues with books that that try to impart a lesson on a reader, but I feel Gewirtz handled the story well. The children's characters were distinct, the setting creepy, and the ideas underpinning the fabric of this world were fascinating. Echoes of Narnia are inevitable, but 'Blue Window' doesn't suffer from the comparison in my opinion. I'll be keeping an eye out for Gewirtz's next book.

The Oracle Year by Charle Soule

The Oracle Year : A Novel - Charles Soule

Will Dando is an accomplished bassist making ends meet at various gigs and studio sessions, heck he's even working on some original material that goes over well at the open mic! Yeah! Then he wakes up after a vivid dream and writes down 108 predictions spaced out over a year.

Those predictions range from seemingly inconsequential to life-changing, and they're all coming true. Will sets out to release some of these predictions while protecting his identity, enlisting his friend Hamza to find out how to create a secure website and make a ton of money.

Dando cannot escape the conviction that there is some kind of logic behind these predictions, some kind of higher plan that was set in motion the moment the first prophecy was released into the world. Dando finds he's made powerful enemies, and that events are spinning beyond his control.

This was a great slice of sf and techno-thriller. I read it as pure entertainment, the satire not really cutting deep enough to work on that level. There was some good characterization here, but the ultimate depth of their relationships left something to be desired. Very much worth checking out though.

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo

The Feed - Nick Clark Windo

Post-apocalyptic sf with an interesting edge to it.

In the near-future, just about everyone is on 'The Feed', it is social networking wired into your head with the ability to interface with everyone simultaneously, alter your perceptions of your surroundings, look up facts, videos and even your own memories - perfectly captured - so that overall one can do everything and anything but talk to other people. Tom has the feed, of course, but resists using it and convinces his partner Kate to disengage from it as well from time to time.

The novel jumps forward and reveals a world torn apart by The Feed's sudden absence. During a global crisis it is shut down, but it is too late. People had become so dependent on the Feed that it was difficult to function without it. Few remembered anything. There is something more sinister, however. It is revealed early on that there is a strange possessive force that anyone who was once connected to the Feed is vulnerable to.

Tom and Kate are a part of a group of survivors who are trying to raise a new generation, but there are many difficulties and when disaster hits them again, they have to do whatever it takes to survive and bring their daughter home again.

Truly enjoyable. What was really interesting was how Windo approached humanities connection with technology from a philosophical point of view and then encased it in this novel.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers

The Lifters - Dave Eggers

'The Lifters' made me question my decision about not reviewing books before their release date. I hated this book so much, I felt like it would be unfair.

I know, I know, someone was kidding themselves about their influence on bookface. I also didn't realize I'd stop reviewing books for six months. So many of you have read this incredibly lazy book who could have avoided it!

Dave Eggers was my favorite author the summer I read 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius', but he was replaced after, and none of his other writing have ever sparked my interest aside from an essay here and there. So, when I saw the arc for his new MG book I was pleased to bring it home.

Granite, or 'Gran', is unhappy because his family has been forced to move away from the coast to his father's old hometown in the middle of nowhere. Worse still, his father must commute so far to get to work that he's often not home.

The town of Carousel is full of quirky residents who are divided on POLITICAL ISSUE and are so distracted by it that they ignore the many problems of their community, including the sinkholes opening all over town. Gran discovers one girl, Catalina Catalan, who is a Lifter, who sneaks out at night and works underground to combat the forces gnawing away at it.

I found nothing to wonder at in this story. Eggers goes and explains most everything that isn't a lazy allegory right away. The allegory of the force tearing apart the town (and the WORLD) is driven home eventually and is all the more...uninspiring...for the waiting.

This is a humorless book written by a smug adult who doesn't remember why kids love reading, or fantasy, and delivers a knee-jerk of a novel that gives the illusion of instruction. What kid wants to sit through a 'it'll get better if you just believe in yourself' sermon that doesn't actually give them any tools to MAKE it better? So I'm shelving this with 'The Education of Little Tree', 'Go Ask Alice' and 'Mein Kampf', because fuck this book.

What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw by Leah Stewart

What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw - Leah Stewart

Charlie Outlaw is a celebrity. His rise to fame has been an enjoyable one despite the attendant problems of becoming famous and never being able to go anywhere every again, but unfortunately his rising star coincides with the fall in fortunes of his girlfriend Josie Lamar. She was the star of a cult tv-series, but has failed to match that in the years since the show's end. At the start of the novel this has caused them to break up and after some ill-chosen words during what should have been a puff-piece interview, Charlie is on the run to 'find himself'.

Charlie picks an obscure island nation and tells no one where he is going and ends up kidnapped. Meanwhile Josie is doing some soul-searching of her own and discovers that she needs to find Charlie, little knowing what she is going to find out. Both of them will be severely tested before they get through their ordeals. Stewart builds up a microcosm of Hollywood and creates empathetic and strong characters in Charlie and Josie. Almost eight months later, much of the book has faded from memory, but while it was happening it was hard to put down.

Is this chick lit? If so, I might be in favor of more of this.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation - Justina Ireland

As a black girl born in July of 1863, in the South no less, Jane McKeene did not have a promising future ahead of her. Her birth just so happened to coincide with the dead rising from the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville. The dead have plagued the United States ever since. A divided nation agreed on re-education acts that required black and native American children to be trained to put down the dead. Jane is in training to be an Attendant, a young woman set as a personal bodyguard for wealthy women.

I love this, because of course white people would make minorities do the dirty work. It makes a sick amount of sense. Ireland's vision of how 19th century society re-arranges itself around the constant threat of attacks from the dead was entertaining and sobering. This novel works as an action and adventure story, raises issues of social justice, and provides a few key perspectives on life in the 19th century.

'Dread Nation' is the first zombie book since 'World War Z' that kept my attention. Don't even get me started on films and television. My fellow readers who have become numb to anything zombie related, I ask that you check this out. Jane and Co.'s struggle to save themselves and others from the undead as well as other humans is a great teen read full of humor and adventure, may wake you up to the possibilities of the zombie genre again.

Christmas Through the Decades by Robert Brenner

Christmas Through the Decades - Robert Brenner

My verdict is in: Despite the similarity of star ratings, Christmas Through the Decades is the better of his Christmas collecting books I've read.

In Christmas Past Brenner would not often make it clear what exactly were the differences between a style of ornament manufactured in Germany vs Japan, or more often, how they changed over the decades. To be clear, he still doesn't spell it out clearly, but this book is furnished with more (and (mostly) better) photographs and everything is divided by decade. A reader can decide for themselves about a particular ornament by going through the chapters themselves and looking at the images.

A problem is that the text is absurdly small and at least one paragraph is cut off in mid sentence never to be completed (about wax ornaments of the 1950s). The organization by time means that side by side comparisons can't be made on the same page, and his descriptions can still seem to contradict each other. Some of the text is directly lifted from Christmas Past (and likely, though I haven't read it Christmas Revisited), but the photographs are a boon for up and coming collectors such as myself who've had a hard time finding accurate sources. Brenner has done a great job with his research, and though other discoveries may have been made this may be the best general guide available to collectors (at least in the secondary market).

Complete Elfquest, Volume 1 by Wendi & Richard Pini

— feeling misdoubt
The Complete Elfquest Volume 1 - Wendy Pini, Rick Pini

Elfquest debuted in 1978 and has a strong cult following - its notable in having a planned conclusion. It takes itself very seriously. This volume collects the first story arc in which the Wolfrider clan of elves is put on the path to seek out others of their kind, and ultimately, their origins in the distant past.

There were many characters, but very few of them get anything like development - at least in these pages, there are hundreds and hundreds more that follow, but I'm not going to read them - they have unique faces and names that are helpfully mentioned when they enter a panel but otherwise they're defined by um....their faces and names and that thing that they do.

I did want to know what happened and certain points of lore that were hinted at, the story does its job, but I hated having to page through the machismo bullshit of submitting to 'recognition', twice, and all of that other ur-'Tarnsman of Gor' nonsense. I get that this was ground-breaking, and that female elves had an unquestioned equality within the clan which is a big deal, but there were too many time when I had to sift through seemingly endless exposition panels instead of something more dynamic.

This isn't a series I'd invest in.

The Infinite Future by Tim Wirkus

The Infinite Future: A Novel - Tim Wirkus The Night Ocean - Paul La Farge
— feeling grin

The Infinite Future involves nesting stories: There is a fictional 'Tim Wirkus' who receives this manuscript out of the blue from a distant acquaintance. The manuscript is the story of how the acquaintance, Danny, uncovers a literary mystery with two other people that leads them on a altogether different kind of spiritual quest. Danny begins as a former Morman missionary and financially strapped would-be author who has run afoul of the thugs of the religious-fiction industry. In Brazil, while doing research for a doomed novel he is befriended by a librarian, Sergio, who introduces him to an obscure Brazilian sf writer - Salgado-MacKenzie - who left hints of a trans-formative novel, 'The Infinite Future', and vanished without a trace. On their search for more answers they meet Harriet, an excommunicated Morman historian who had corresponded with the author some years before.

The three of them have little in common, but they are inextricably drawn together by what Salgado-Mackenzie's work makes them feel. Each finds themselves hinging their different hopes on what they may find when they track down the elusive author and the manuscript for his masterpiece. What they discover is too good a story to reveal here. The second half of the book is the novel-within-the-novel 'The Infinite Future'. Readers can judge for themselves its worth.

Along with Paul LaFarge's The Night Ocean, The Infinite Future is inaugurating a new generation of genre-fiction that is examining itself and pushing into new boundaries. This is an unusual book, but that is its primary strength.

Currently reading

The Big Book of Science Fiction
Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer
Progress: 76/1216 pages
A Modern Comedy
John Galsworthy
Progress: 309/862 pages