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

7-9-18: 45 " "  (I'm reading too fast)

The Boy From Tomorrow by Camille DeAngelis

Boy From Tomorrow - Camille DeAngelis

This is the kind of novel I would have loved as a kid, and happily it's one that I love as an adult. Josie and Alec share a house, even a bedroom, but have never met. It's because they live a century apart. Through the use of a spirit board - is Ouija trademarked? - the two become friends. Their communication is severed, but not before Alec gets a hint of danger ahead for Josie and her little sister. Is there anything that Alec can do to help them from a hundred years in the future?

Historical fiction is tricky business, and the hurdles may not be more difficult when writing for a younger audience, but they certainly get a little silly. DeAngelis skillfully leaps those boundaries without sacrificing any of the wonderful details of the past that she inserts into this story.

This is a great new-house story, historical mystery, and a touching depiction of an impossible friendship. OK, you won't cry as much as you did at 'The Fox and the Hound', but you have two children 100 years apart - there's sadness ahead, we both know it. A good story.

The Three-Body Problem, Remembrance of Earth's Past #1 by Cixin Liuy

The Three-Body Problem - Cixin Liu, Ken Liu

The look of incredulous disgust on their face when I admitted I hadn't read 'Three-Body Problem'. It was too much to bear, so at my earliest convenience I picked up a copy and devoured it.

This is incredible! I know I've been saying a lot of great, hyperbolic things about a lot of the sf I've been reading in the last years since getting back into professional bookpushing, but Cixin Liu is the real deal.

The official back-cover synopsis sets up the plot better than I can, but the story's roots are in the Cultural Revolution when a discredited scientist is sent to a remote laboratory to conduct experiments with a large antennae set up in opposition to SETI. The People's Republic would have contact with aliens before the corrupt West. Shockingly, they do. Or rather, one woman does, the discredited scientist, but she hides the evidence. It is an advanced and hostile civilization that is contacted, and they are coming to Earth. The invasion forces will not arrive for many years. In close enough to present-day China, and across the world, people are taking sides in the secret struggle to welcome the invaders and those who would oppose them.

Its a fascinating plot, but what makes the story shine is its roots in hard science and in how the story is slowly revealed. There are many surprises and the whole trilogy has been translated into English and is in paperback! Fuck Amazon, and get them from your local bookstore.

The Crown of Dalemark, Dalemark Quartet #4 by Diana Wynne Jones

The Crown of Dalemark - Diana Wynne Jones

Intro: It has been seven years since the death of Diana Wynne Jones, and I've been a fan of hers since childhood, but I had never read this series before.

The Dalemark Quartet, arguably the most effective series Jones ever wrote. Jones' genius didn't lend itself to sequels. When she created a world and characters she said all that she wanted to say in that first volume. That's why many sequels often had mostly new sets of characters, if not new worlds, and often, fell flat. Dalemark is a magical kingdom divided among feuding lords, with a sharp division between those in the North and those in the South. Ideology, prejudice, and history must be overcome and its fate rests in the hands of children, sometimes scattered over centuries.

 

This is where it all comes together. Our heroes, with some disappointing behavior from a certain young lady from 'Drowned Ammet' who I expected more of frankly, come together. Mitt and Moril strike sparks as protagonists must when colliding, but there is a fresh perspective in the form of Maewen. A girl of modern Dalemark, she has been transported into, for her, the distant past, and must help unite the disparate factions of Dalemark and trust her new friends, before an ancient evil arises and changes history.

 

'Crown' effectively ties together all of the loose ends of the series, blending Mitt and Moril's stories, the distant past and even the modern coda at the end of 'Spellcoats' into a whole greater then its parts. That very effectiveness takes away some of the thrill of the book, as a reader can see where much of the plot is headed, but is still a worthy ending to the series with a strong message of forgiveness entwined in its plots.

 

Previous: The Spellcoats

The Spellcoats, Dalemark Quartet #3 by Diana Wynne Jones

The Spellcoats  - Diana Wynne Jones

Intro: It has been seven years since the death of Diana Wynne Jones, and I've been a fan of hers since childhood, but I had never read this series before.

The Dalemark Quartet, arguably the most effective series Jones ever wrote. Jones' genius didn't lend itself to sequels. When she created a world and characters she said all that she wanted to say in that first volume. That's why many sequels often had mostly new sets of characters, if not new worlds, and often, fell flat. Dalemark is a magical kingdom divided among feuding lords, with a sharp division between those in the North and those in the South. Ideology, prejudice, and history must be overcome and its fate rests in the hands of children, sometimes scattered over centuries.

 

The Spellcoats takes us deep into the history of Dalemark, before there was a kingdom to be divided. It is a story of survival and overcoming prejudice and becoming one's own savior. Treated with Jones' characteristic wit, this was my favorite of the quartet by a long shot. There were additional puzzles to solve and it was wonderful coming onto every new bit of lore Jones threw my way.

 

Next: The Crown of Dalemark

 

Previous: Drowned Ammet

Drowned Ammet, Dalemark Quarter #2 by Diana Wynne Jones

Drowned Ammet  - Diana Wynne Jones

Intro: It has been seven years since the death of Diana Wynne Jones, and I've been a fan of hers since childhood, but I had never read this series before.

The Dalemark Quartet, arguably the most effective series Jones ever wrote. Jones' genius didn't lend itself to sequels. When she created a world and characters she said all that she wanted to say in that first volume. That's why many sequels often had mostly new sets of characters, if not new worlds, and often, fell flat. Dalemark is a magical kingdom divided among feuding lords, with a sharp division between those in the North and those in the South. Ideology, prejudice, and history must be overcome and its fate rests in the hands of children, sometimes scattered over centuries.

'Drowned Ammet' takes us to events slightly before 'Cart and Cwidder', to a boy in a port city of the dreadful South. Mitt sees his parents crushed beneath the ruthlessness of the Southern lord's greed, and after his father dies when a member of the resistance betrays him, Mitt vows revenge. This leads him to boarding a ship with two noble children on the run and what may be two gods guiding their journey.

 

A wonderful reversal. Jones tells us in one book what to expect out of characters from a certain region, and then she turns it on its head and creates an adventure that works very well on its own.

Next: The Spellcoats

Previous: Cart and Cwidder

Cart and Cwidder, Dalemark Quartet #1 by Diana Wynne Jones

Cart and Cwidder - Diana Wynne Jones

It has been seven years since the death of Diana Wynne Jones, and I've been a fan of hers since childhood, but I had never read this series before.

The Dalemark Quartet, arguably the most effective series Jones ever wrote. Jones' genius didn't lend itself to sequels. When she created a world and characters she said all that she wanted to say in that first volume. That's why many sequels often had mostly new sets of characters, if not new worlds, and often, fell flat. Dalemark is a magical kingdom divided among feuding lords, with a sharp division between those in the North and those in the South. Ideology, prejudice, and history must be overcome and its fate rests in the hands of children, sometimes scattered over centuries.

'Cart and Cwidder' is the first novel of the series, and follows Moril and his siblings as they travel as musicians in their parent's cart. A journey across the treacherous South is dangerous enough without a price on their heads and being armed only with an ancestral cwidder, a musical instrument rumored to have rare powers.

This is a classic Jones novel, and I enjoyed the interplay between the young characters. It sketches out many elements of the plot that will be revealed as the story continues. In particular, the rules of magic were noteworthy, and the hints of the Undying, to be revealed further in later novels. This is a complete adventure, and can be read by itself.

Next: Drowned Ammet

The Trespassers by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The Trespassers - Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Huzzah! Here is finally a book that has improved on reading it as an adult. I remember reading this in 6th grade and being so disappointed in the story. I missed the point completely, this was scary.

'The Trespassers' is about siblings Neely and Grub who live in a then-contemporary Northern California town. Faced with a summer of minding her little brother, Neely is thrilled when they accidentally discover a way into Halcyon House, a mansion abandoned for decades. Exploring, they discover a playroom filled with antique toys. Unexpectedly, the owners return to the house and Neely befriends their son, Curtis. Rumors of a curse on the house and hauntings resurrect themselves as the children get to know one another.

Snyder creates one of her best villains in this novel. As a young reader I should have realized that what made 'The Headless Cupid' was in how human the paranormal events of the book turned out to be. Could we please put more funding into dealing with mental illness? Thanks.

Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day - David Levithan

'Every Day' is the story of A. A is an entity who wakes up in a different body every morning. The hosts are roughly the same age of A, as far as A can calculate, they have to be geographically close in some fashion and at midnight A is transported to a new host. A doesn't know what its deal is, just copes the best it can. A tries not to interfere too much with a host's life, that is, until A meets Rhiannon and is smitten.

There are many logical inconsistencies with the whole A thing, but I'm willing to suspend disbelief. I can't however, be OK with the icky stalker behavior A resorts to to stay in touch with Rhiannon. A does some serious damage to innocent kids. A big plot point is ruining one kids life because he retained some memory of his possession and freaks out about it, with only some belated sympathy from A. The plot touches on some other 'diverse' viewpoints, but so shallowly Levithan might not have even bothered.

The idea was refreshing enough and has potential, which nets it another star. The plot's resolution begged for sequels, which it has received. I'm not going to bother.

Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

The Silent Companions: A Novel - Laura  Purcell

Its hard to get the right vibe for gothic fiction in our modern times. Purcell wisely decides to set her story in the Victorian period and adds a healthy dose of 'Yellow Wall-Paper' paranoia.

Soon after her marriage Elsie Banbridge is made a widow and sent to wait out her pregnancy at her husband's remote family estate, The Bridge. Her only companion is a cousin, her deceased husband's only living family, and a few servants. The estate has something of a dark reputation in the village and Elsie feels isolated. The discovery of a 'silent companion', a trompe l'oeil figure painted on a board, in a locked attic room awakens old rumors and fears. The figure, painted in the late 17th century, looks like Elsie, and soon she discovers it is not alone.

A quick read, and quite chilling. The use of the Companions, or dummy boards, was genius. Good period detail and flawless setting.

Side Life by Steve Toutonghi

Side Life - Steve Toutonghi

I will read just about any alternate universe book, but this one is a gem. An out of work software tech is offered a job house-sitting while he recovers from the sting of his start-up being taken out of his control. The house is ultra-modern, empty, and the anonymous owner apparently has no plans on coming back. Vin, suspicious by nature, follows clues and discovers the secret of the house: A basement lab with tanks for suspended animation and a notebook filled with cryptic data. Once Vin decides to enter one of the tanks....things gets weird.

A fabulous bit of cerebral sf that takes the time to examine the emotional consequences of Vin's journey.

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Picture Us in the Light - Kelly Loy Gilbert
Danny Cheng is the product of his environment. He's been under pressure from his family, peers, and community to succeed, but at least its been allowed to be on his terms. Danny wants to be an artist and has a rewarding talent. However, his last year of high school has been fraught with the recent death of a classmate through suicide, and the troubling secrets his parents have kept from him coming out into the open. With everything else going on Danny's crush on his friend Harry - already dating his other good friend Regina - seems more emotion than a teen should handle. Life is that complicated.

Even if the story wasn't a compelling one, I'd give Gilbert extra credit for depicting Danny's art in a way that makes sense, and is not simplistic. It is difficult to talk about artists and art in a novel or a film, but the reader gets a sense of what Danny is doing, and also, why its a big deal. This is a young adult story, so there are certain elements of drama and quotidian teen age crap that has to be dealt with, but it did not detract from this story.

'Picture Us in the Light' packs a lot of emotion into its pages, and handles issues of race, immigration, non-traditional families, and suicide, among others effectively and compassionately. Highly recommended.
 
 
 

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.

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