Blog

The Ladies of Grace Adieu

“Above all remember this: that magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head and everything which is done, should be done from love or joy or righteous anger.”

I was in love with this book from the first line. The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke is a collection of fairy tales. The title story returns to the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a book I have gushed about in a couple of other blog entries. I see a lot of reviewers comparing Clarke’s style to Jane Austin, and I think that is accurate. If you like classic sounding English literature sprinkled with magic, these are the books for you.

Now, I must admit, I am a bit of an Anglophile. I have been enjoying English books since my days of Paddington Bear. Just before I started writing this, I watched an episode of Escape to the Country­– a show where people look for homes in the English countryside. And when I recently discovered that the English think Americans are barbaric for microwaving water for tea, I decided to get an electric kettle.

 The Ladies of Grace Adieu is very English. The introduction claims this book to be a collection of tales selected to educate readers about the history of magic and fairies in the British Isles, as brought to you by a Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies at the University of Aberdeen. This is very in keeping the spirit of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Clarke maintains a similar style and humor throughout this collection as well. My favorites include the title story, which teaches the lesson that lady magicians are not to be trifled with, and “Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower,” a tale told by a man discovering his father was not Italian but was, in fact, a fairy. As an added bonus, Neil Gaiman fans (like myself) will enjoy a story set in the town of Wall, from Stardust.

I also enjoyed reading about the Raven King, a magician who figures heavily into Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. It would be fun if Clarke were to do a collection of stories just about the Raven King as a companion piece.

I hope, most dearly, that Clarke publishes another book. This collection of tales will have to get me through until then, and I am glad that I have them.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Fate of the Tearling

Before I get to the book, I have a confession to make. I’ve gotten a bit behind in my Young Adult reading. I say this with shame because I was once able to converse extensively on the latest series and award winning titles. Now I can’t even name the current Newberry Award winner, let alone say that I’ve read it and some of the nominees.

When I was teaching, my students were always ready with suggestions of their favorite books, and the school librarians were endlessly helpful. When I talk to people currently in schools, I ask what they recommend and then I add it to my Goodreads. I recently got to visit a school in New Orleans with some amazing bookshelves. I hesitated only a few moments, slightly embarrassed, before I started recording titles.

I wish I could remember where I found the recommendation for the Tearling series, because I owe someone my thanks. I decided to read it in an effort to get up-to-speed on some contemporary YA titles. The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen is the last in the trilogy. I read the first two books in the series, The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling, just before I started this blog and I was glad to find the last title as an ebook from the library.

I went into the series without knowing much about it. I would recommend the same approach to anyone else planning to read it. I will keep my summary pretty basic: Princess Kelsea Raleigh Glynn is raised in seclusion, out of the way of potential dangers of an unstable government. On her 19th birthday, she is claimed by the Queen’s Guard to take the throne. Few expect her to survive long enough to have much of a reign. Her trials begin before she even gets to the keep and intensify as she discovers disturbing things about kingdom. Readers going into the first book without knowing much more than this get to discover several mysterious pieces of the plot that I really don’t want to spoil. I enjoy the unexpected.

I won’t spoil the ending either, but I do have cautions for potential readers. This book, like the others, lost me several hours of sleep because I had trouble putting it down. While this is a good thing, it got me to an end that was. . . I must say. . . somewhat unsatisfying. Many things that seemed to be leading to something important in the plot didn’t lead anywhere and left unanswered questions. Overall, I still very much enjoyed the book and the series as a whole.

Now, for those who have already read the book or like spoilers, I have a more detailed review of the end of the series with more specifics about those unanswered questions.

Rating: ★★★★

Beware: Spoilers Ahead!!!

 

The Fate of the Tearling starts with Kelsea in the custody of the Red Queen and Mace sitting in as ruler of the Tear. Things are not going well. While in custody, Kelsea begins reliving the memories of a girl, Katie, born after The Crossing. In these memories, we start to see the origins of The Fetch and The Orphan. Many questions are answered, but many are also raised that are never resolved.

Here is what we still don’t know:

I expected to learn more technical information about The Crossing. Where are they? Are we talking a different planet? Different dimension? Different time?

And what’s the deal with the sapphires? We find out William Tear’s sapphire was passed down through generations, but we still don’t know the origin. Tear came from a place that seems like our world, but the sapphires are found in this post-Crossing world.

We get  background about the vampire/zombie children, but they also don’t make a ton of sense. There is a missing piece to this as well. There are also hints about Mace’s past that are never developed. There is so much more I want to know!

I have read that Johansen is not done with the world of the Tearling, even though this is the end of this trilogy. I’m hoping that means there are explanations in the future.

 

 

The Unwritten

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words

I became a fan of the graphic novel with The Sandman series. I admit they take some getting used to if you are not a regular reader of the genre. I always have to remind myself that much of the story is told in pictures because I tend to focus on the words. If you are a big reader and graphic novels aren’t typically your thing, this may be a good series to get you started.

Tommy Taylor and the War of Words is the 6th book in the series. There is a lot going on, with stories told within stories.

Don’t let a familiar sounding story fool you . . . a bespectacled young wizard and his two friends fight an evil figure threatening the world . . . you have not wandered into the wrong book, though that is entirely possible in this series. In the world of The Unwritten, Harry Potter is popular, but Tommy Taylor has the real super series.

Tom Taylor is the son of the author, Wilson Taylor, and the namesake of the boy wizard. His father had mysteriously disappeared a few years before, leaving Tom to support himself by attending cons in place of his father. The story gets interesting when the question is raised ­– Is Tom just the loser human son of Wilson Taylor or the character from the books made flesh? A mysterious ancient cabal then takes an interest in Tom in such a disturbing way that it makes him question what he thought were facts about his existence.

The lines between reality and fiction are blurred. Much of the action of the series takes place in other books. As someone who likes books, this obviously appeals to me. Tom’s friend, Lizzie Hexam, has origins in the Charles Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend. Frankenstein also makes a few appearances.

Tommy Taylor and the War of Words has Tom and his friends finally confronting the cabal that has ruined Tom’s life and poses a threat to the rest of humanity. I have heard people say the series can be a little slow, and I can see that in places. However, I have been totally pulled in as I keep reading. This book starts to answer a lot of questions.

As with the other books in the series, this one contains many smaller stories within the larger story. Different artists illustrate each of the mini stories, and I really enjoy seeing the range of styles.

Rating: ★★★★

P.S. I would not recommend this series for kids. Despite the Harry Potter-ish qualities of the Tommy Taylor books, the world of Tom Taylor is not child friendly. The series is pretty violent.

Tales from the End of the World

Occasionally, I get stuck in a genre. I go on binges reading fantasies, biographies, or historical fiction. I often have author binges or series binges. One time I read so many Murakami books, I had to switch to nonfiction for a while just to get back to a more solid reality.

Recently, I unintentionally got stuck on a theme: the end of the world. It is a theme I can’t escape. It seems there has been a resurgence in the popularity of books about the apocalypse and dystopian futures. Can’t imagine why . . .

The first book I read, Station Eleven, kept popping up on so many reading lists and recommendations with books like 1984 and Brave New World that I had to read it. Next, I knew I needed to make progress on the Dark Tower series before the movie comes out this summer, so I read The Waste Lands. Finally, from my stack of books I got from Christmas, there was Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. I didn’t think of any connections at first. Before I started reading the book with the very long name that I am already tired of typing, all I knew was there were genies. All of these titles take very different approaches to the end times, but here they are, united by happy accident.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This book was terrifying to read while traveling. A superbug seems so probable a way for most of humanity to get wiped out. Prior to reading this book, my first bet would have been a robot apocalypse, but now I get jumpy when someone sneezes. Unlike my other selections, this novel takes a very realistic approach to telling the story of those who survive. Despite the horrors of a new world left devastated by a plague, a group of traveling actors and musicians put on concerts and perform Shakespeare at settlements amid the ruins of the world that once existed. Painted on the side of their caravan is a line from Star Trek: Voyager – “Survival is insufficient.” The story is told through flashbacks between the pre and post time of the cataclysmic event. Flashbacks can go badly, but this book manages them well. Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)

The Waste Lands by Stephen King

This is the third book in the Dark Tower series. I struggled through the first half of the first book in the series because so much of the plot is unclear, but I know King to be such a masterful storyteller that it would ultimately be worth it. It most definitely is. The Drawing of the Three pulled me in even further, with the introduction of two amazing new characters. The story is about the end of a different world that overlaps sometimes with our own. The world is “moving on” and Roland (aka The Gunslinger) and his new gunslinger recruits are in search of the Dark Tower. Reasons for this search are still unclear, but following along on the journey is fun. There is even an insane train. I recently learned King has published a vaguely disturbing children’s book inspired by The Waste Lands called Charlie the Choo-Choo and I WANT IT. Rating: ★★★★★

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

I am a fan of magical realism, which draws me to many of Rushdie’s books. However, this one may be making that step into full fantasy. I also think I like Rushdie’s books so much because his sense of humor seems similarly warped like mine. This book maintains its sense of humor as humanity is destroyed in the wake of some vengeful djinns. The book is narrated 1000 years into humanity’s future, so not everything is a total loss. This is thanks to a djinn princess who found love in humanity. Her love of a human long ago led to birth of many, many children. Through the progeny of her progeny, she is able to assemble an army of humans who get in touch with their genie genes in order to fight back. Rating: ★★★★

I just realized as I was writing this, Norse Mythology (recently reviewed) also deals with the end of the world. All of the stories build to Ragnarok. Hmmm . . . now to figure out what to read next. I’m thinking historical fiction or a graphic novel.

Do you have any apocalyptic recommendations? Or how about books with cheerier themes to balance out all the doom and gloom?

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Movie

In an earlier blog, I made a list of my top five film adaptations of books. Now is time for my worst five. These may not be the worst adaptations of all time, but they are especially painful to me because the books are so wonderful. You can probably tell from the state of the spines in the picture that these are well read books.

  1. The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien- I think these movies took me by surprise because I liked the Lord of the Rings movies so much. They didn’t get off to a bad start. I was even fine with some of the additions to the plot. I liked Gandalf’s side adventures. But I really started to have problems when the Orcs started flooding the screen . . . and just kept coming. The scene on the river felt like a tedious bit in a video game that you can’t seem to get past. When I was in the theater, I could only yell at the screen in my head. I watched the third movie at home, so I got to yell and groan in disappointment all I wanted. Much of that movie was unnecessary. I was also disappointed by Bilbo’s interactions with Smaug. They cut out some of the best parts from the book.
  1. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher- This is a lengthy urban fantasy series, so a TV show seemed appropriate. Harry Dresden is a wizard for hire in Chicago, and the book series follows his cases and his battles against personal demons (both literal and figurative). However, the TV series quickly started burning through the books in a very unsatisfying way. They barely scratched the surface, and they had ample opportunity to take advantage of the rich story lines. Even if it hadn’t gotten canceled, I don’t think it would have gotten better. It is a great, addictive series that deserved better. These books have been turned into graphic novels, and I just added the first ones to my Goodreads list. I’m hoping it proves a better treatment.
  1. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams- I just realized as I was writing this that this is the second book on my list with Martin Freeman, but I don’t blame him for the issues with either of these adaptations. I had high hopes for this movie because it had some good casting. Alan Rickman is the voice of Marvin! Alas, my hopes were dashed. It turned out to be one of those movies that only made sense if you read the book. I have read and love the book, so I got what was going on and was able to laugh at things that were only funny if you read the book, but I can’t help thinking about an adaptation from the point of view of someone who hasn’t read it. This movie leaves most people confused and not in any rush to go read this wonderful book. The movie version of anything should be able to stand on its own.
  1. Nightwatch by Sergei Lukyanenko- Most of my Russian literature experience is with the classics, but this is one of the few contemporary works I have read. It is the first book of a dark urban fantasy series that I have not yet finished (but really need to soon). Don’t let the “light” and “dark” sides make you think that this deals with good and evil in a strictly dichotomous way. In fact, it really challenges the idea . . . not that you would get that from the movie. If you never read the book, I would be impressed if you could get much of a storyline from the movie. The movie seems to take for granted that you already know the backstory to follow the scenes from the book strung together. It had been awhile since I read the book, so I got lost a few times. This is a complex book that may be better suited to a miniseries. I find myself often thinking that about book adaptations.
  1. The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman- Speaking of complex books, I had a bad feeling that this one could not be done as a Hollywood blockbuster. It is another one that would be better suited to the miniseries treatment. The CGI was good, but the plot really suffered. As with Nightwatch, the fantasy world is intricate. People’s souls manifest themselves as creatures called daemons, and the characters set off to seek an alternate universe. There’s a whole lot going on that can’t just be glossed over so the story fits neatly into a feature film. Daniel Craig and the talking polar bears could not save this one.

Norse Mythology

Traditional stories and myths are essential reading because they enrich your reading experience. I know my Greek myths fairly well. My husband’s college Greek mythology book has survived multiple purges of old college textbooks. However, I am less familiar with Norse mythology. I knew Odin, Loki, and Thor to some extent, but I couldn’t tell you a specific story about any of them. As I was reading American Gods, a book that features Odin as a main character, I regularly looked details up online or asked my husband (he likes Norse and Egyptian myths) what he remembered about certain gods. I was excited to hear about the release of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman because these tales have clearly inspired him for a long time, creeping regularly into work.

myths

The stories are beautifully done, with the gods coming to life. Despite all of their godly feats, they seem very human. One of my favorite themes in classic tales is the self-fulfilling prophecy. Even with all of Odin’s wisdom, he doesn’t see how his actions towards Loki’s children are going to lead Ragnarok. And Loki, for all his cleverness, frequently causes his own problems that he is forced to solve. There is also Thor. A character of simple motivations, he chooses to solve his problems with his trusty hammer.

I knew I would eventually read this book, but it happened a little sooner than planned since I bought on an impulse in the Atlanta airport. I’m glad I did. It was a quick read, prefect for the short snatches of time I had to read for a week. I know I will reread stories from this book, and I definitely enjoyed it. However, I gave it four out of five stars out of greed. I wanted more. I felt like it was just starting . . . and then the world ends. It was a surprisingly satisfying ending, but I still wanted to read more. There must be more stories about Kvasir, Freya, and Balder. If anyone has suggestions for other mythological tales I should read, I will happily take them.

Lud-in-the-Mist

 

Fairies are always up to no good, at least in my reading experience. “They’re mischievous creatures, I daresay, and best left alone,” says wise, old Hempie in Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees.

The town of Lud-in-the-Mist is dull and ordinary in what sounds like an extraordinary world, with dragons and unicorns existing elsewhere, referenced only as side notes. The leaders of Lud-in-the-Mist aspire for the town to be a respectable place, free of fairy fruit or anything relating to fairies. The most disrespectful thing to call someone is “a son of a fairy” and most disreputable thing to do is eat fairy fruit. The town has been fighting a seedy, illegal trade in the fruit, but it typically does not affect the more prominent families. That is until mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer’s son displays some strange behavior at a party, prompting the discovery that he may have eaten some of the forbidden fruit.

I realize the description sounds silly. This book does not take itself too seriously, and I found myself laughing at the characters who frequently do take themselves far too seriously. The author seems to be poking fun at the fears of the ruling class and their ideas about propriety and superiority. While the book is fantasy, many of the characters do everything to resist anything fantastical.

The best heroes are flawed and unlikely. Nathaniel Chanticleer, the hero of Lud, is most definitely both. I found his role in the story unexpected, and I usually enjoy the unexpected.

What I enjoyed most was seeing how this book has inspired others like Stardust and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell that feature a fairy world. I think there is a parallel between the character of Duke Aubrey in Lud-in-the-Mist and the Raven King in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. They are both characters who have become almost mythical in their world and are tied to a past time of magic.

I rated this book a 4 out of 5 stars. I would recommend it to other fans of this genre. There is a possibility I will read it again when in need of a good fairy tale.

 

 

 

My Five Best Book to Film Adaptations

Let me start off by saying that this list is based only on adaptations for which I have read both the book and seen the filmed version. I started thinking about adaptations as I watched the first episode of The Magicians (not impressed) and A Series of Unfortunate Events (very impressed) on Netflix.

I also have high hopes for some adaptations coming out in the near future like American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale, and something (still confused about what) based Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

5. Empire Falls

Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls by Richard Russo was adapted as a miniseries for HBO in 2005. I think the miniseries was the perfect vehicle for this story. It jumps time periods in the life of Miles Roby in a small town in Maine and is full of interesting characters, none of whom feel any less solid in the miniseries. This is partly due to the amazing casting. It is one of the most faithful adaptations of any book I have ever seen. You can watch the trailer here.

4. A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones

A TV series seemed a much more appropriate way to adapt this series than feature length movies. It is a favorite of mine for binge watching. There are so many good things about show­­- the actors, they storytelling, the cinematography- that make up for some of the differences from the book. I will admit that I still yell at the screen, “That’s not what happened in the book!” But the show is able to maintain coherent storytelling in a way that is engaging regardless of your familiarity with the books. I had been troubled that the show outpaced the books, but at this point, it is hard to blame them.

3. The Lord of the Rings

I was cautiously optimistic about these movies before they came out. The books are so epic that it was hard to imagine a film series that could capture the essence. They could have gone badly (see upcoming blog regarding worst adaptations). Instead, I thought they were so well done, I bought the series three times: first on DVD, then on Blue-Ray, and then the extended edition Blue-Ray. The extended versions are really extended, but none of it seems unnecessary. I wish I could say the same for The Hobbit movies (again, see upcoming blog).

2. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

As with all of the books on this list, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is among my favorites. The miniseries, again, serves as the perfect way to translate this book to screen. It is an alternate history of an England with magic, set during the Napoleonic Wars. The two main characters drive the story, and the actors really do a brilliant job. Also important to the story is “the gentleman with thistledown hair,” a pesky fairy who finds his way back to the human world. The whole time I was reading the book I pictured him as David Bowie in Labyrinth. However, that portrayal was also so good that I was able to get over the image in my head. Though when I read the book again, it will still be David Bowie I picture. You can watch the trailer here.

goblin-king

 1. Anne of Green Gables

I am referring to the 1985 version, as I have not yet seen the new one. The original was so perfect that I can’t imagine why they needed to remake it. That’s not to say I won’t watch the new one. This adaptation is another miniseries. I really think it is a smart way to go when adapting books. While there are some minor changes in the storytelling, nothing is lost. The characters are rich, and you quickly become caught up in this beautiful world of Prince Edward Island. I have watched it again as an adult and it does not dull with time. You can watch the trailer here.

White is for Witching

I finished White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi the other night, and I had to stop and consider what I thought of it. I am torn about this one. I’ve always used the rating system on Goodreads, but I felt like I needed a clearer definition of what each rating meant to me to be able to rate this one. I created one and added it to my profile. I still had to think about it a bit, but I landed on three stars: It was all right and had some good qualities that made it worth reading.

The Silver family house is a creepy one, influencing the lives of the family within it in rather sinister ways. Miranda, one of the central characters, is especially susceptible to the machinations of house. She suffers from pica, eating things like plastic and chalk, and her condition becomes increasingly serious after the death of her mother. I was unclear whether the pica is genetic or the fault of the house. I blame the house. This is not my first book with a sentient house, but it is definitely the scariest.

Despite this interesting aspect, the characters were my least favorite part of the book, which is why this one was a challenge for me. I think it was intentional that Miranda and her twin brother were not complete. They had trouble thinking of themselves as individuals. I liked Ore the best, but she seemed incomplete too. Some characters entered and left the story suddenly.

One of the most interesting qualities of the book was the social relevancy. If houses were able to vote, this one would have voted in favor of Brexit. It would also approve of our president’s position on immigration.

Overall, I had issues with the characters but was intrigued with the premise enough to keep going. The most important thing I can say is that it made me continue to think about it when I was done reading.

RELISH

relish

On a lovely winter day off, I grabbed the graphic memoir Relish and headed to Sakura to start reading. I ordered my favorite soft shell crab rolls, and settled in to read about Lucy Knisley’s life with food. This tale told in words and pictures is beautifully done. It even includes recipes with fun illustrations! It inspired me to try to make my own sushi.

sushi

They were no soft shell crab rolls, and no one is going to hire me as a sushi chef any time soon. Despite my limited success (they tasted good at least), I had fun trying to do something new. I also made some chocolate chip cookies, but all evidence was devoured before I remembered to take a picture.

Knisley’s memoir takes the reader through her early life with foodie parents to her adult life trying out her own skills in the kitchen. Tales of new experiences and journeys are told with memories of food; her mom’s pesto is a reminder of her time living in upstate New York, and a hot chocolate in Rome provides some comfort in the midst of teenage angst.

I really loved this book, and I am planning on reading French Milk, her book about a trip to Paris, soon. When I do, I will make a stop at Rene’s Bakery first.