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: ★★★★★


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: ★★★★★


Bookish Eats #3: Porter Books and Bread

The Fort Benjamin Harrison area has some old buildings that are finally getting a new life. About a year ago, Porter Books and Bread opened their doors in a building that (I think) was formerly used for housing. I didn’t find out about it until a few months ago. As soon as I did, I paid a visit to grab a cup of tea and browse through their used book selection. I planned to come back for lunch and finally made it last weekend. They have only daytime hours and are closed Sunday, so it is hard for me to plan a visit.

It is a little tricky to find, with little signage. The primary entrance is in the back of the building. The exterior of the building does not look like much, but the interior takes advantage of some unexpected architectural features, including an iron spiral staircase. I didn’t get many good pictures because they were quite busy. I was glad to see that people were finding this well hidden place.

You enter into an upstairs seating area lined with bookshelves. To order, you go down the spiral staircase to an area with more books and the food service area. I had looked at their Facebook page that morning and saw a photo of giant cinnamon rolls. I arrived too late for those, and it was probably a good thing because I would have happily just eaten one for lunch. Instead I ordered the Dumas– a sandwich with ham, melted brie, and molasses dijon grilled on cinnamon brioche. If you like the combination of savory with sweet, it is an amazing sandwich. It came with Broad Ripple Chip Company chips. Books and Brews serve the same chips, and it is a good choice.

Also like Books and Brews, the sandwiches and salads all have literary names, including the Twain and the Vonnegut. This has made me curious about just how many places around town have Vonnegut themed food, since this is his hometown. I can think of at least four off the top of my head. It might be fun to try them all. . .

Porter's books

It is a nice place to sit and read, and many people seemed to be having a pleasant Saturday afternoon with their books and coffee. I’m planning to go back for another sandwich sometime soon. This Saturday I stopped in early enough to get a couple cinnamon rolls to go. They were as tasty as they look.


I am continually on the lookout for more bookish places around town. On my lunch break, I have been visiting some book-lending art installations that are scattered through downtown Indianapolis, so stay tuned!

Assassination Vacation

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I have managed to gain about an hour and fifteen minutes of book time every day! For years, I have somehow missed a prime opportunity to consume more books on my daily drive to work. I’m a little late to the party, but I have finally embraced the audiobook.

Assassination Vacation is not my first audiobook, but it is my first one in a few years. I’ve had a few qualms with them. First, they are crazy expensive if you buy them outright. Audible seems like a better option, but I don’t know if I would get through enough in a month for it to be worth it. Then, there is sometimes the issue of the reader. Some of them may be good cures for insomnia but not awesome to listen to when you are driving.

Reflecting on my previous issues with audio books, I set out with a new plan. I got the Overdrive app on my phone and connected to my library. I then sought out some titles that lent themselves well to audiobook readings, and I found reviews and recommendations specific to the format. But it was going through my Goodreads list that made me think of Sarah Vowell. She is known for her radio work on NPR, so I figured it was a fair bet that she read her own audiobook. Also, this book is not brand new, so I thought I would stand a good chance of being able to check it out right away. That is something important to consider with the library. I placed a hold on Ready Player One that I will hopefully get by the end of the year, but I probably shouldn’t be holding my breath.


I liked Sarah Vowell on the radio, and I have read a couple of her other books, The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Take the Cannoli. Take the Cannoli has the most moving essay about Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears called “What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill.” I highly recommend reading it. I enjoy her thoughtful insight on American history, and that lead me to Assassination Vacation, a book about America’s first three assassinated presidents. She tours places across the country related to those involved in the stories of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.

“I discovered that Robert Todd Lincoln was there for each of the first three assassinations. I wanted to write about the Lincoln Memorial, so when I found out he had attended its dedication, that helped focus it further.”
—Sarah Vowell on her book “Assassination Vacation”

Americans with average knowledge of American history (like me) know a decent bit about Lincoln’s presidency and at least the basic details of his assassination. He was, by far and away, the one I knew most about in this book. There was still plenty I did not know and many aspects of his presidency and assassination that I never considered. Vowell explores what made Lincoln who he was both as a man and leader of the country. Lincoln usually seems to be the president most easy for Americans to connect with, and this book reinforces that for me. Vowell even shows how people continue to connect as she recounts her experiences at the larger-than-life Lincoln memorial.

Vowell also carefully considers the role of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspiritors in the assassination. Booth genuinely thought people would be thankful for what he did and was shocked to discover just how wrong he was. The most fascinating story was of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the co-conspiritor who set Booth’s broken leg. His home has become a tourist site, still manned by his loyal descendants who dispute his role in the assassination. Vowell’s visits both his home and the site where he was imprisoned on the Dry Tortugas, off the coast of Key West, Florida. These chapters were among the most memorable of the book for me because Vowell explains her opinion of his role while also taking time to deeply explore who he was and his experiences.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about how compelling the other two presidents would seem after Lincoln. My knowledge of Garfield and McKinley was limited and so was my interest. However, Vowell’s narrative is continually engaging. I even found something to connect with about Garfield. His journals sound like tedious reading, but she said the general theme was, “I’d rather be reading,” and I can relate to that. I wish I could say the same for McKinley; the most interesting thing about him was his Vice President Theodore Roosevelt.

Historical figures like these, who are separated from us by so many years, can come to seem inhuman and almost mythical. Sometime history books add a sort of mystique around these figures and make us forget they were just people. Vowell is skilled at reminding us of their humanity.

As an audio book, this is well suited because Vowell’s reading really enhances the sense of humor and wit in her writing. Also, I enjoyed the guest readers. My favorite was Stephen King as the voice of Lincoln.

Rating: ★★★★


The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

I have a limited amount of reading time, so I try to use it wisely. I mostly make cautious selections—ones I’m pretty confident I will enjoy, often by authors I already know.  However, a few months ago, I spotted a book I’d never seen before by an author I had never heard of. The cover was appealing and the inside jacket sounded right up my alley, but I didn’t know anything about it beyond that. On an impulse, I picked up the book and bought it.

My impulse purchase worked out well. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t read this in the dead of winter. Winters in Indiana are thankfully nothing like those in northern Russia, but reading huddled inside on a cold winter’s day would perfectly put you in the mood for this book.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a fairy tale set long, long ago in northern Russia. The Vladimirovich family, with father Pyotr and mother Marina, live in relative happiness in their house on the edge of the wilderness in this harsh time and place. Marina reveals to Pyotr that she will have a daughter to add to the family, and the child will have the magical gifts of her own mother. Marina herself is in possession of only a small bit of this magic, but it is enough to foresee the birth of her daughter and her own impending death.

Vasilisa is born, and her mother dies shortly after. Years go by, and the girl grows up wild. Pyotr decides he must find a new wife to be a mother to his untamed daughter. You know how it goes with fairy tales and stepmothers. This is where all the trouble begins.

As a part of Vasilisa’s powers, she can see the spirits of the household and the woods. It turns out that the wicked stepmother can too; she just thinks they are demons. The idea of the spirits works much like the gods in American Gods; they exist because people believe in them and sacrifices give them power.

Aden does a powerful job with both the storytelling and the character development. The setting comes alive with the spirits that inhabit it, but that doesn’t happen until a little way into the book. I felt there was a  bit of a lull part way in, but that could have just been my impatience for magic. My favorite spirit is the vazila, who lives among the horses. The horses play a strong role in the book, as they are a big part of the people’s lives.

Often in fairy tales, the protagonist is the only character who is really developed so the reader has a focus for their sympathy. In this story, the reader also gets to see inside the head of the wicked stepmother and egomaniac priest, Konstantin. I found myself hoping that they would come to their senses at some point and redeem themselves.

When I read this, I thought it was just a stand-alone book. There is nothing on the cover or anywhere else to indicate that this will be a series. However, the story itself does leave room for more.  The Girl in the Tower, the next book, is set to be published this January. It couldn’t be better timing.

Rating: ★★★★★