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: ★★★★★


Black Hearts in Battersea

The Wolves Chronicles Book 2: Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

Before I talk about the contents of this book, I first have to say something about the cover. The Edward Gorey illustrations for these books are perfectly suited for their contents, with their dark and slightly mysterious air. The world in which these books are set is a dark and dangerous place for children.  They are less macabre than Gorey’s other work, but they still have that distinct style. Last year I almost bought a set of Gorey Christmas cards, but I figured people I sent them to would just think I was weird for sending creepy holiday cards. If I see them again, though, I don’t know if I will be able to resist. I’ve been wishing I bought them ever since. . . .

Black Hearts in Battersea heralds the introduction of one of my favorite literary heroines, Dido Twite. She does not have the most auspicious beginning as a beloved heroine, but there is something oddly likable about the unlucky urchin. Perhaps it is the way she is unfairly treated by her parents (kids always have sympathy for that) or the way she takes to an already known and beloved hero, Simon.

The book picks up after the events of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, with Simon headed to London to train as a painter. He arrives at the given address only to find his friend Dr. Field missing. The landlords, the Twite family, claim to have never heard of such a fellow, but they ungraciously allow Simon to stick around. As unappealing as the lodgings and the family seem, Simon stays on hoping to find his lost friend. In the mean time, he begins his studies at the art school and runs into an old friend named Sophie working for the Duke and Duchess of Battersea. Adventure inevitably follows.

Aiken began her alternate history of England in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but it becomes a much more prominent feature in this book. It is the 1830s, but England has a Stuart king. That leaves Hanoverian plotters wreaking havoc all over the place. Dido’s father is among them, keeping a pile of blunderbusses in the basement. As far as fiendish Hanoverian plots go, this is one of their less imaginative ones (wait until you get to Nightbirds on Nantucket for creative schemes). The plan is to blow up Battersea Castle while the king is visiting. Simon and Sophie are, however, endlessly imaginative in their efforts to foil the Hanoverians.

After the Hanoverians kidnap Simon, the Dido of the later books begins to begins to emerge. She’s brave, level headed, and selfless. This is her first step as the heroine she will become. However, Simon is left on his own to finish this story. Wild adventures with wolves and a hot air ballon await him.

This book is where the series takes off for me. I like the character of Simon more than Bonnie and Sylvia. I also liked Sophie and Dido a lot more. But I also think the plots of the Hanoverians (silly as they are) add something unique. There are many predictable plot devices, but they are used in a way that adds to the fun of the story. It never takes itself too seriously.

I’m reading the whole series in one go, and I am a few books in at this point, so my blog needs to catch up. After Dido and Pa, I will be in unfamiliar territory. I’m not sure what to expect with those books, but I’m looking forward to reading them.

The Wolves Chronicles: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

A few months ago, I began planning to read the whole Wolves Chronicles once I managed to get the last couple of books. Up until a couple of years ago, I thought it had ended with Dido and Pa. I was thrilled to find out Dido’s adventures weren’t over (and she had another sister). Through the wonder of the internet, I managed to pick up the missing books. All of the others were hard sought the old fashioned way, well before the days of Amazon.

I first embarked this adventure when I was in elementary school. The copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase I have now is still the same one I ordered from one of the book sale flyers our teacher would pass out a few times of year (I loved those flyers).

I knew Aiken from some of my favorite library books like Night Fall and Died on a Rainy Sunday, both of which I subsequently acquired through book sales at school. Between my admiration of her other books and the intriguing description in the flyer, I knew I wanted it. I had no idea it was a series. I only figured that out later when I started visiting a different library that had the others through The Cuckoo Tree. These were some of their “newer” titles (it was clear that they had not had adequate funding since the 1970s). I looked online a couple of years ago, and they STILL had them all. I’m betting they are the original copies.

The summary on the back of the book begins, “Wicked wolves without and a grim governess within the great English country house of Willoughby Chase prove sore trials to brave and resourceful Bonnie, her cousin Sylvia, and their faithful friend, Simon.” This premise and the lovely bit of alliteration was enough to hook me.

At the age of 10 or so, when I first read this, I didn’t know of Dickensian London, Victorian melodramas, or much real English history. However, the appeal of a plague of wolves and mistreated orphans was strong. The children were the heroes and the adults mostly bumbling fools. There were secret passage ways, a wicked governess, orphans subjected to eating gruel and doing hard labor, and adventure.

I immediately connected to Sylvia, a young girl leaving the only home she has known and traveling alone on the train into the wolf filled north. I recalled her only a few years later when I flew on plane by myself for the first time. There were no wolves, but I was still nervous. She was brave through her adventures with her cousin, which is (of course) how I imagined I would be myself.

Sylvia was an ordinary child placed in extraordinary circumstances, and she reacted admirably. A character like that usually makes for a successful children’s book. Her cousin Bonnie was a little less appealing for me but knowing she was in for some hardship made her more likable. She lived what sounded like an idyllic life, especially compared to her cousin. While I initially found her tedious, her kindness and general pluckiness made her okay.

The ultimate character for me, though, was Simon. He was fully independent of adults and making a comfortable little life in a cave with his geese. Orphaning child characters has long been a good literary means for granting them the necessary independence to become adventurers (e.g., David Copperfield, Harry Potter, the Baudelaires, the Boxcar Children). When you are young, there is something fascinating in seeing children who have what seems like an impossible level of freedom.

Simon lives the opposite existence of Bonnie; he provides entirely for himself, raising his geese in a cave (as an adult, I have to try not to think how gross that would probably be). When all the adults have failed Sylvia and Bonnie, Simon is there for the rescue. He leads them on their journey to London and discovers he has a talent for art on the way. He’s clever, level headed, and always kind.

As an adult rereading this, all of these impressions came flooding back to me. My memories can’t help but color my reading, and I still feel the same fondness I always have. I don’t think this will be the last time I read it, and I hope children will continue to take joy from these books for a long time.



The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories

The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories by Joan Aiken

I have spent the last couple of months in transition, with my books all in boxes and my spare time spent packing and unpacking. This entry has been sitting here half-finished, but I think things are finally starting to settle down again. I’m hoping to get into a more regular pattern posting.


Joan Aiken’s short stories are magnificently distinct. All of her stories have a similar surreal quality, and they can be terrifying, strange, and/or fantastical. I have read quite a few over the years, many of them repeatedly. I was happy to find a collection of stories that was mostly new to me; there were only a couple I recognized from other books.

I started reading Aiken’s stories as a child, and I remember finding a lot of humor in them. I don’t know if they already fit my sense of humor or did something to influence it. Either way, I can’t deny the impact they have had on me as a reader. My favorite has always been “A Room Full of Leaves” from a collection called Not What You Expected. It is about a boy who finds his (literal) family tree in his crumbling family estate. I still reread it periodically, and it hasn’t lost any of its fun and charm.

I have selected a few from this book that were among my favorites.


“Spur of the Moment”

This is the sort of story that leaves you in a better mood once it you have read it. Something about the tone seems familiar, but I had trouble pinning down another story to compare it to.  A father sends his daughter out to buy 10 random objects to inspire his creativity to write a script for his TV show. While the daughter is on her excursion, a young man takes notice as she makes up crazy stories to explain her purchases to the shop keepers. Before her shopping trip, her father admonishes her not to “pick anybody up.” So of course the young man follows her home, spinning his own crazy tales. The premise and the characters are quirky. At the beginning of the story, I particularly enjoy the description of the daughter’s fiancee, “He had a set of teeth worthy of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, but the disposition behind the teeth was, Mr Newbery privately considered, regrettable: like a houseleek.” Aiken’s best descriptions of people are the unflattering ones.

“Octopi in the Sky”

I know Aiken had some background working in the advertising industry, and it crops up occasionally (and usually humorously) in some of her stories. This story reminded me of another favorite, “Sultan’s Splash,” in which a man who works for an ad agency goes to visit his dying aunt and discovers some of her journals that contain a unique recipe that saves his job and another that he uses for revenge on his unpleasant boss. In “Octopi in the Sky,” a young man is junior partner in his horrible uncle’s business. He is valuable to his uncle because he is responsible for a successful advertising campaign involving an octopus. He begins to hallucinate octopi everywhere as he develops an increasing issue with insomnia. In addition to the octopi, he starts seeing water nymphs who invite him to join them. This makes his sleeplessness and hallucinations much more pleasant. His uncle, however, interferes, promising for him to marry as part of a business alliance. Aiken includes another awesome description, “He smoothed his white hair and leaned back smiling like an evil old saint, silky as an olive-stone. . .”

“Harp Music”

After I read this story, I started looking for another story I remembered about a little girl and her aunt who lived on an old bus outside of an apple orchard. I eventually found “The Cat Sat on the Mat” in a beautifully illustrated collection of Aiken’s short stories called A Necklace of Raindrops. I read it again and remembered that the notion of living on an old bus with a fairy cat seemed idyllic to me. As a slightly more practical adult, I find the idea of living on an old bus a bit less appealing, but I wouldn’t mind a fairy cat. In “Harp Music” a father and son also live on a bus, but it is one with a non-fairy cat. As often with Aiken’s stories, the child is the more sensible one. The father goes off on a frivolous mission to buy a harp while leaving his son to manage a favor he has promised a coworker. The favor is significantly more trouble than the boy anticipated, but all ends well and the harp winds up chucked in a pond.


I originally read this story under the title “Mousework” when I was a kid.  It stuck with me because you can never really forget about a colony of Marxist mice. The story beings with a young woman swept overboard a ship. She ends up seemingly alone on an island; however, she discovers a colony of intelligent mice. She learns to communicate with them but can tell them little about her world and “in the end they resigned themselves to the fact that her mind contained little beyond an exhaustive knowledge of knitting patterns and the difference between right and wrong.” She lives happily with them for awhile until she is “rescued” by a passing ship. The captain attacks the young woman, and two little mice friends take the captain out in a disturbing way. As a kid, I don’t know if I was more troubled by the intent of the captain or his grizzly fate. I never felt sorry for him. My take away from the story is that it’s not the zombies or the robots we have to fear; world domination will happen at the sharp little teeth of ideological mice.

I suppose I assign a lot of nostalgia to these stories. Even without that, though, I think they stand well on their own. Often as adults we are disappointed when we revisit things we loved as children, but I find just as much joy as I always have in Aiken’s work.

As I found this book, I also found that I was missing some titles of The Wolves Chronicles, a series beginning with Aiken’s most famous work, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I have been collecting what I don’t already own and should soon have the whole series. My plan is to read through the series in order and chronicle my experience here. I think I have tracked down a decent copy of The Witch of Clatteringshaws, and that should be all of them. I look forward to resuming my adventures with Dido Twite.

Books and Art: The Public Collection

In the depths of winter, it is pleasant to remember sunnier, warmer days when I could go for a walk at lunch without bundling up. This summer, I made a discovery while I was out walking on The Circle in downtown Indianapolis. I’d noticed the enormous green structure before, but I didn’t know what it was. I finally walked close enough to it to find out I was looking at a giant art installation designed to be a book sharing station. I thought it was a remarkable idea. I have seen those little free libraries in other cities, but this went a step further, combining books and art.  I visited a few times, browsing the books, when I saw a sign indicating that this was one of several structures around the downtown area, and these structures were known as The Public Collection. The books are stocked by the Indianapolis Public Library and are available for anyone to borrow and share. I wanted to see more, and I managed to get to three others before winter got out of hand.

My first stop:


“A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them.” – Mark Twain. This is the quote on the top of the first installation on the Indianapolis Circle. The Circle in downtown Indianapolis is the center of the city and home to the landmark Soldiers and Sailors Monument. I love how this station was built with the curve of the circle around the monument. Each of the stations I visited seemed perfectly fitted to their locations.

My second stop:


This one is located on the southeast corridor of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. It is actually a larger multi-piece work. I couldn’t get a full picture of it without standing in the middle of the street, so I haven’t done it justice. Indianapolis hosted a Super Bowl a few years ago, and downtown Indianapolis got a lot of upgrades, including pedestrian friendly trails that making walking downtown much nicer. This one was easy to get to and had a pretty wide selection of books.

My third stop:


The City Market is one of my favorite places in the downtown area. It is a renovated historical landmark with local food stalls.  In the summer, I go on Wednesdays to the weekly farmers’ market and stop inside for lunch. This installation was on the other side of of the building from where I usually enter, so I missed noticing it on my regular visits. It is not just the location that makes this my favorite of the Collection. It looks industrial and blends nicely with the structure of the market. You turn the wheel on the side to browse through the carousel of books. According to The Public Collection web page, “The sculpture is designed to look and act like agricultural equipment by digging the books out of the Earth and cycling them towards the viewer.”

My fourth stop:


The Alexander is a hotel a bit further out of the usual range of my downtown wanderings, but I had been there a couple of years ago for some meetings and recognized instantly why this installation was the perfect fit for its location. The hotel hosts an impressive modern art collection, and this structure really fits the aesthetic. The books are housed inside the larger structure that also includes benches for visitors. The colors are amazing, and it looks like it might be lit up at night. This location is the newest of the installations.

There are several more around the downtown area I would like to go see when the city thaws out. This idea contributes so much beauty to our city, and I hope they have plans to continue to expand.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

This is a hard review for me to write because I like this author, but I didn’t like this book. I have read the 15 books of The Dresden Files and am looking forward to more. It is my favorite urban fantasy series, and it is one of the few that will make me rush out and buy the next book as soon as it is released.

Now this book I didn’t even like to the point that I considered not finishing it.  I think this review is an important one for me to write because I need to think through what was so wrong about it for me.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is the first of a steampunk series called The Cinder Spires. Humanity survives far above the surface of the planet on tall structures called Spires (that I struggle to picture). Spire Albion comes under attack from Spire Aurora (for some vague reason). There are some characters (with undefined motivations) fighting the Aurorans, including an (underdeveloped yet annoying) young woman named Gwen Lancaster from one of the noble families, her (equally underdeveloped) cousin Benedict who seems to be part cat, and another girl named Bridget (who is only slightly more developed due to her associations with a cat). They meet up with an aeronaut named Captain Grimm (whose backstory is hinted at but never fully explained). They also meet up with some etherealists, who seem to have some interesting powers (but I’m still not entirely sure what they do). Oh yeah, and there are these (mostly unexplained) crystals that are a primary source of power for this world.

My summary did not turn out very objective, and I think it reflects my frustration. Clearly, I missed something reading this book.

Maybe I need to talk about what did keep me reading. First, there was a talking cat. Now some people may feel that this would be a good reason to put the book down right away, but it drew me in because it was different. . . and I like cats. Rowl’s character is fleshed out a bit more than the others. He accompanies Bridget on her enlistment in the Spire’s military as representative of his family. Cats are not generally recognized as members to this society, and he is looking to change that. I enjoyed seeing how his role in the story developed, and he brought out some of sense of humor I enjoy in The Dresden Files.

The etherealists, Folly and Master Ferus, were also a bright spot in this story. I still don’t really know what an etherealist is, but they seemed to have some promise. From what I gathered, they are insane wizardy people who have a sensitivity to ether that goes beyond other humans, and they have some ability to guide or control it. The idea of ether seems to be energy connected to the aforementioned crystals, but some mystery about what that means remains for the reader. The etherealists’ relationship to the ether makes them go mad. Master Ferus and his apprentice Folly certainly seem to be. Folly won’t speak directly to anyone other than her master; she otherwise speaks only to a jar of crystals she carries around with her. The uniqueness of these characters makes them intriguing.

Here comes the but. . .My biggest qualms with this book are a significant lack of character development and a lack of or inappropriately timed exposition. I think the intent was to have the reader be introduced to things slowly and discover them along the way. I’m not saying this strategy can’t be done effectively, but I don’t think it is done well here. Gwen is the first character you meet and she has a conflict with her mother over joining the military. The scene includes use of the crystals in a gauntlet. I think the mysterious introduction is intended to draw the reader in, but I felt like I didn’t know enough about Gwen to care about her or her dilemma. I was a little curious about the weapon, but I was never rewarded with sufficient information later in the story. It didn’t get better.

As I got further into the world of Spire Albion, I felt like I wasn’t given enough background to have a very solid idea of what to picture. I understand the spires are structures that are built high above the surface of the world and there are many levels. I don’t know how big they are, and I didn’t find out they weren’t open to the sky until a couple of chapters in. Some of the action takes place in ventilation tunnels, but I don’t really get how those work. Do they go between levels? Are they under the structures?

The second chapter has an airship battle. Again, I was at a loss because I didn’t have enough background to really get into the battle. This may be because I don’t have as much experience with the steampunk genre; the idea of the airship may be more established for readers of the genre. Much later in the book, there is an inappropriately timed conversation between Gwen and Captain Grimm IN THE MIDDLE OF A BATTLE in which she asks him all sorts of questions that are intended to help the reader get a better grasp on what is going on. I’m screaming, “Shouldn’t you all be too busy to have time for a chat?” It was information that would have helped me sooner in the story, but the delivery was too late and irritating.

Maybe my imagination failed me. I don’t understand Spire Albion’s government, I don’t understand why they were at war, I don’t understand why the surface of the world is dangerous, and I don’t understand why Benedict is part cat. These things may be revealed later in the series, but I won’t be reading any further to find out. I like Rowl and the etherealists but they aren’t enough to make up for other underdeveloped main characters. I keep picturing them as the flat characters in Jasper Fforde’s Bookworld.

Rating: ★★



Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Audiobook read by Wil Wheaton

I’ve been neglecting my blog for a few weeks, but I haven’t stopped reading. I am thoroughly addicted to audiobooks, and Ready Player One is one of the best I’ve come across so far.

I must start with a disclosure. This book is not for everyone. It is a shameless 1980s/sci fi/fantasy nostalgia fest. I am most definitely the right audience for it. My husband got me a t-shirt that says, “I never got my acceptance letter to Hogwarts so I am leaving the Shire to become a Jedi.” I can’t count how many times I’ve seen the Star Wars movies (I even have a Darth Vader spatula), and I also regularly rewatch movies like The Dark Crystal, Blade Runner, and Heathers. There may also be a life-size cardboard cutout of Commander Data wearing a Klingon hat in the room I insist on calling my library. . . and I have a Kurt Vonnegut finger puppet and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy socks. However, my video game background is somewhat shameful; I grew up without a game system and favored Skee Ball at arcades. I did pick up video games in my 20s with the Playstation, but I am sure I lose a lost of geek cred for this deficiency.

Darth Spatula
Darth Spatula- I hum the Imperial March when I use it.

If none of these things appeal to you, this is not the book for you. If they do, you must read this book or listen to the audiobook immediately because your life is incomplete. I highly endorse the audiobook read by Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher of Star Trek: The Next Generation). I can’t imagine a better choice of reader for this particular book, and he does an amazing job. Shortly after finishing the audiobook, I picked up a hard copy too because I anticipate rereading it at some point.

Ready Player One is set in a realistic, dystopian near-future of 2044. The narrator, Wade Watts, is a teenager whose life is consumed by the OASIS, an immersive online experience that has taken over most of society. James Halliday, a founder of the OASIS, dies and leaves behind the ultimate easter egg- his considerable fortune and control of the OASIS to the first person who can find it. Years go by, and no one makes any progress towards the first of three keys that lead to the easter egg. Many people have given up the search, except for an evil corporation, IOI, and hardcore “gunters” (egg hunters) who obsessively learn everything about Halliday and the pop culture he loved. IOI also spends much of their time figuring out ways to cheat. Wade is among the most hardcore of gunters and the first to reach the first key. He and his friends he only knows virtually (Aech, Art3mis, Daito, and Shoto) find themselves in a race against IOI to find the easter egg.

Overall, the story is pure fun. I enjoyed the quest and the characters. Geeking out over various references to nostalgic pop culture is no small part of the fun. Don’t expect a deep plot or a complex struggle between good and evil that makes you question anything. In the style of most 80s films, the bad guys go the great lengths to be bad, and the hero is clearly defined.

Amongst all the fun, you may find yourself momentarily troubled by the potential realism of this near future. Oil is nearly gone, the environment is destroyed, and most of society lives in poverty. People avoid reality by escaping to a virtual reality. It all sounds disturbingly plausible.

A Ready Player One movie is in the works, most appropriately directed by Steven Spielberg. I have a message for Spielberg: Please don’t mess this up. Leave in the book’s slam against Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and I may one day be able to forgive you for that travesty.

Rating: ★★★★★

Me, circa 1986

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

I found out Philip Pullman was releasing a new series to follow up His Dark Materials only a couple of months ago. In anticipation, I decided to reread the series by listening to the audio books. Unfortunately, everybody checking out audiobooks from my local library had the same idea at the same time, as there was a mile long wait list for The Golden Compass. I was, however, able to get a hold of The Subtle Knife. I was impressed with the reading (I’m going to have to go back and listen to the others), and I was reminded just how much I enjoyed this series.

The pending release of the first volume of The Book of Dust also brought about the re-relase of Once Upon a Time in the North, a novella about Lee Scoresby’s early days. I had been looking for it for a few years and was finally able to read it.  I also found the e-story The Collectors. I was now really ready for The Book of Dust, and ran out to get it the day after its release.

I also jumped it ahead in my TBR list because I was so excited. While I didn’t know this book was coming for very long, I was as ready to read it as if I had waited years. I found it as beautiful and dark as I hoped. It has an epic journey, a vile villain, young heroes, and mischievous fairies.

If you haven’t read His Dark Materials, I would recommend reading it before beginning this series. I think you could read it without that background, but there is a lot that won’t make sense. Also, if you haven’t read His Dark Materials, stop what you are doing this moment and read it because your life is incomplete without it.

According to Pullman, The Book of Dust further develops the story of His Dark Materials.  La Belle Sauvage tells the story of how Lyra comes to live in Jordan College at Oxford. Lyra is a six-month-old baby, already in hiding with a prophecy looming over her. A villain and a giant flood endanger her hiding place. In order for a six-month-old to flee and get caught up in an adventure, she needs help. This comes in the form of Malcolm, an 11-year-old boy, and 16-year-old Alice.

I mention the ages of Malcolm and Alice because it is important to understanding their characters. The beginning of the story references their initial conflict with one another. They are both young and innocent, but they are at very different stages in their innocence. Malcolm has grown up in a secure environment with the comfort of his parents and still sees the world in a fairly rosy light, while Alice is a little older and has known a harsher reality: “Lines of self-discontent were already gathering on her forehead and around her mouth.”

Malcolm’s world begins to change when he is introduced to baby Lyra and is drawn into aiding an organization opposed to the religious authorities who have taken over the government. The villain, Bonneville, provides his character with the most brutal education in the darker side of humanity. Initially, Malcolm is slow to understand what most of the grownups already know about Bonneville. The man himself seems nice, while his troubling hyena dæmon shows his true nature. Alice, in her innocence, is also slow to understand this.

Alice tells Malcolm of her first encounter with Bonneville, and Malcolm doesn’t understand Alice’s blushes as she talks about Bonneville or even “what a grown man would want with a solitary girl at night.” Alice does understand that part, and her realization of Bonneville’s nature comes when she learns his interest is not genuine. She is angry with herself for not realizing it sooner in the same way she is resentful of Malcolm’s innocence. While Malcolm has come to the conclusion that Bonnville is evil, his idea of evil doesn’t yet go beyond the idea that he means harm to Lyra as revenge against her parents. Alice has begun to understand another level of evil.

La Belle Sauvage deals with some darker issues in a way that I think works for younger readers. Many younger readers would have a similar perspective to Malcolm, and may struggle to understand just the way he does. Still, these books are a lot for young readers to take in and process. Malcolm learns many terrible things on his journey, and not everything can be set right at the end of the book.

In addition to complex themes, there is an epic adventure. La Belle Sauvage is the name of Malcolm’s trusty canoe. She becomes one of the stars their epic journey, saving the heroes from many of the dangers that hunt them. The characters encounter friends and foes on their journey, and they learn that sometimes it is hard to know who is which.

Even knowing this story won’t pick up exactly where it left off, I am looking forward to the next book in the series. Hopefully, the wait won’t be too long. In the meantime, I have a few more audiobooks to listen to.

Rating: ★★★★★




St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

The title alone was enough to make me pick up the book, but it was my familiarity with Karen Russell’s other works that convinced me to buy it. Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories (another awesome title) was my introduction to Russell. I’m going a little backwards since St. Lucy’s was her first published book. I also loved Swamplandia!, her first novel that followed St. Lucy’s.

All of the stories in this collection have a sort of thematic connection; they mostly feature desperately lonely children seeking acceptance and affection from family, friends, or strangers. One story takes a slightly different path and focuses on an old man in a retirement community trying to win the friendship of a juvenile delinquent sent to visit him as a punishment. While most books draw on the reader’s empathy to some extent, St. Lucy’s does so to a deep intensity in each short story. I found myself drawn in to the strange little worlds of these suffering characters.

Many of the stories take place in Florida. Russell’s Florida is somehow both mystical and mundane. In “The City of Shells,” a girl goes to visit an attraction of  gloriously gigantic conch shells. . . that are covered with seagull droppings and scribbled graffiti. In “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows,” a fantastical ice rink fills with artificial snow and has regular performances of skating orangutans, but the grown-ups of the town use the gales of snow to cover up their shame and the orangutans freeze miserably in cages.

This collection begins with the short story that grew into Swamplandia!, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” Twelve-year-old Ava and her sister are alone on the island that is their home and Swamplandia!, the island’s #1 Gator Theme Park and Swamp Cafe.  Ava’s sister is consumed with ghostly boyfriends, so Ava is more truly alone. The gators (aka Seths) are no kind of company, and Ava is left responsible for it all. When her sister decides to elope with one of her ghosts, Ava tries to save her. Ava is one of my favorite characters in all of the stories, and that may just be because I know her from novel.

Another character from the novel, Grandpa Sawtooth, has his own story, “Out to Sea.” In the Out-to-Sea retirement community, residents live in whimsical houseboats, but the sea is walled off to prevent escapes. He is surrounded by others, yet very alone.  I can’t help but think how much Grandpa and Ava could really use each other’s company.

The imagery of the stories is beautiful and the characters are memorable. I think these traits are even more evolved in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, but I enjoyed these stories as well and it was interesting to see the origin of Swamplandia! I look forward to reading more of Russell’s work.

Rating: ★★★★

A Crisis of Series

I by no means read exclusively fantasy books, but I read quite a few. It is a genre prone to serialization. Currently, I’m in the middle of so many I feel like I have no hope of catching up. I have started and intend to finish Red Rising, The Bear and the Nightingale (in all fairness I had no I idea there would be more when I started it), Elantris, The King Killer Chronicles, Thursday Next, The Dresden Files, and. . . this list could go on for awhile. I am making some progress on a few and accidentally added another one to my list, so I’ve decided to do a quick overview. I have abandoned a few series along the way since I feel like it is an extensive investment of my limited reading time, and I think it is helpful for readers to have some idea of what to expect before they continue on and make that commitment.

Dark Tower Book 4: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

If you are considering picking up the Dark Tower series or have started and are not sure about the first book, keep reading. This series just gets better. I wavered a little, waiting awhile before reading the second book, but once I did there was no doubt I would see this one through to the finish. Wizard and Glass takes the reader back to the main character Roland’s youth. Roland and his friends travel on toward the tower, but he tells them the story that started his part in the long journey. While the book only moves the storyline a little further along, the background knowledge adds a lot of depth to the story and Roland’s character. After I finished, I could barely stop myself from just starting the next one right away.

Rating: ★★★★★

His Dark Materials Book 0.5: Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

I would have read this book much sooner if I could have found a copy. I didn’t hear about it right away, and it must not have had many printings in the US. With Pullman’s upcoming release of the first volume of The Book of Dust, I looked again and found they were re-releasing it in September. I immediately preordered a copy. I was excited because I enjoyed Lyra’s Oxford, and I liked the idea of a prequel about how Lee Scoresby (a Texan aeronaut) and Iorek Byrnison (an armored polar bear) meet. I was engaged in a story that was socially and politically poignant, but I felt like something was missing. I suppose I was hoping for more interactions between Scoresby and Byrnison.

I have one more story from this series to get caught up on before the new release. I recently discovered The Collectors, a story that seems to only be available as an e-book. I will be reading that shortly on my Kindle.

Rating: ★★★

Lightbringer Book 4: The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks

This is an epic series. The books are long but well worth it, and you will be done with each before you realize it.  I wrote an earlier blog about The Broken Eye, the third book in the series. If you are interested in reading these, you may want to look back at that review. It is spoiler free, and I won’t spoil anything here either. This series reads like one long, continuous story. Thankfully, this one had a little recap at the front. The others I have read did not. The storyline of Gavin Guile and Kip Guile develops, and the political intrigue gets deeper. The books continue to surprise me; I love how unpredictable they are. I also found out there is going to be yet another book after this, The Burning White. I hope the wait won’t be too long; it is a lot of story to keep up with.

Rating: ★★★★

The Earthsea Cycle Book 1: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

I promised myself I wouldn’t start a new series until I finished a few others, but here we are. I somehow missed A Wizard of Earthsea in my childhood. I still can’t figure how it escaped my attention for so long; it seems exactly like something I would have read.  I had been meaning to get to it, but I expected it to not be for awhile still. Then, I was looking on the library site for a new audiobook and wasn’t having much luck finding something available. I’ve been very particular about trying to pick audiobooks with strong narrators, as it has so far paid off. I saw this one recommended with a female narrator, and I checked the library. They had a different version with Harlan Ellison as the narrator, but he had some good reviews too. It worked out well again, and I enjoyed the narrator’s style and pacing.

A Wizard of Earthsea is a beautiful story that I absolutely would have loved as a kid. Ged is a powerful wizard but still relatable with his very human flaws. The good news  I heard about this series is that the books can be read as stand-alones. That seems true for the first one. The reader can anticipate there is more to Ged’s story,  but there is some sense of closure by the end of the book. Unlike the Lightbringer series, you don’t have to keep a wide array of characters and complex plot lines in your head.

Rating: ★★★★

As You Wish

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

Audio books have really made my daily commute so much nicer. I have been sticking to the idea of selecting audio books with readers who I think will really bring something extra to the story, and it has been working out well.

Recently, I was in the need of something cheerful. I had added As You Wish to my “Want to Read” list on Goodreads when I read about it a few months ago on another blog (unfortunately, I can’t remember which one). As You Wish by Cary Elwes is about his experience making one of the most endearing classic movies, The Princess Bride. One thing the book reviewer noted was that is was almost overly positive. Really, that seems quite a relief because lurid, seedy secrets about such a fun movie would be depressing.

As you wish gif

Since Elwes is an actor, I figured he would read the audio version. If I had found it wasn’t him, there is a good chance I wouldn’t have made the selection and just read the book instead. I assumed he would be pretty good, but with my limited audiobook experience I wasn’t prepared for anything quite this impressive. His reading is lively and engaging, and he does amazing impressions and accents. Rob Reiner and several actors from the film, including Robin Wright (Princess Buttercup), Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdinck), and Billy Crystal (Miracle Max), also read their own pieces about the movie. If this book sounds at all interesting to you, I can’t recommend the audio version enough.

Elwes recounts a very positive experience filming the movie, but he also shares many of his insecurities in his first lead role in a major film. He and Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya) underwent extensive training for the fight scene at the Cliffs of Insanity and felt a lot of pressure to make it one of the greatest onscreen sword fights ever. They shot that scene near the end of filming to get in as much training time as possible.

Some of the details I learned about the filming made watching the movie again even more fun.  In the scene with the R.O.U.S (Rodent of Unusual Size), I would have never guessed there was someone actually sewn into the rat costume! There is an amusing story around the R.O.U.S that almost results in Elwes having the wrestle with a giant rubber rat instead.  Something else that surprised me was the revelation that Wallace Shawn (Vizzini) didn’t think he was very funny in his role. He still seems puzzled by the whole thing. Some of Elwes’s best recollections are of Andre the Giant (Fezzik). I don’t want to spoil any of those because they are lovely stories that are best to hear firsthand.

The Princess Bride

I couldn’t help but watch the movie again after listening to this audiobook. I also pulled out my copy of the book, and reread the introductions. My copy has both the 25th and 30th movie anniversary intros; like the whole book, they are hilarious. Even knowing that a successful movie has been made from it, it is easy to see why people thought it would be a difficult movie to make; the humor and tone are tricky to capture.

My love of this audiobook is partially from a sentimental love of the movie and book, but it is also highly entertaining by itself. If you are looking for something light and fun to listen to, this audiobook is well worth it. It will definitely make you want to revisit the movie.

Rating: ★★★★★