Redwall

When I was nine or ten years old, my reading teacher beckoned me towards the cubbies on her wall, each containing a basket of books.  She fished out a volume and handed it to me saying “You should read this.”  As I reflect back, I know she meant “you should be able to read this at your age and comprehension level.”  All I knew was that this was one of the largest books I’d ever undertaken to read.  And so I discovered Brian Jacques’ Redwall series through The Outcast of Redwall.

I was instantly hooked.  It was my first exposure to anything that epic, and I was thoroughly enthralled.  And then to discover there was even more!?  I could find out about the founding of Redwall Abbey, the history behind the legend of Martin the Warrior, I could even read the book that started it all!  For the next several years, Redwall would become one of my favorite series of all time.

Yet it didn’t even last a decade.  By the time I was in highschool I read those books less and less, and gradually stopped buying the new volumes as well.  I’d realized that, while the books had been wonderful and new and exciting at first, they were almost all the same story, written over and over again with different variations.  In fact, it may be entirely the fault of this series for the bad reaction I had to The Lord of the Isles series as I realized that every single book would follow an identical format.

Flaws aside, I did love Redwall, and it still holds a special place in my heart.  When I did some serious pruning of my library a few years back, I dumped about half of the series, keeping only those books that hold some kind of special resonance for me that I won’t get from the others.  Those few are MossflowerOutcast of RedwallMariel of RedwallThe BellmakerSalamandastron, and Martin the Warrior.  (To be honest, off the top of my head I cannot recall why I still have Salamandastron besides the fact that it’s too damaged to sell in good conscience.  I may have to reread it to find out.)  You may wonder why not the original Redwall or its sequel Mattimeo. Frankly, Redwall suffers from a lot of first book syndrome and is, in the end, the simplest story in the entire series.  As for Mattimeo…I have honestly never really cared for that book.  I only ever read it a handful of times, which says a lot when I’ve just mentioned the amount of damage I’ve done to Salamandastron just reading it.

Looking back on Outcast of Redwall now that I’ve reread it for the first time in over a decade, I think how childish these books truly are.  Oh sure, they’re big books, usually 300-400 pages long, and they include violence, death, and politics.  But there’s something too simplistic about how the world is set up.  Woodland creatures such as mice, otters, moles, squirrels, shrews, badgers, etc. are all good.  Vermin, like rats, stoats, ferrets, foxes, etc. are all evil.  There’s no middle ground.  On reflection, I have to wonder if this is a form of racism that Jacques projected onto his books.  Sure, it’s particularly easy when producing content for kids to go for blanket good and evil.  But because it’s so easy it’s also shallow and unfulfilling.  The real world is shades of grey, not black and white.

Not to mention the fact that most of the different species have varied accents which are written out in the book, requiring readers to puzzle out what’s being said.  This may have been fun as a child, but now it’s rather annoying to translate “Aye, h’ex, that be moi mark, oi be gudd at makin’ et, hurr!” into “Yes, an x is my mark and I’m good at making it, ha!”  Those accents, combined with the endless couplets, rhymes, poems, and songs, fill up numerous pages and clearly show that yes, these stories were originally oral tales, meant to amuse children for a time.  There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, I just have a lot less patience for it than I did when I was younger.

Don’t misunderstand: the Redwall books are still good and worth reading as a child.  I simply found that I grew up and past them at some point.  That’s why it’s been so long since I last read any one of them: I know that most of my pleasure will come from nostalgia, not the work itself.

Well, now that I’ve rambled on for over seven hundred words, I think we can safely say that the contents of this book are of lesser importance in comparison.  If you’ve read a Brian Jacques book before, you can make some educated guesses on what happens here.  If you’ve read Mossflower, you may recall that very last scene of the book which was lifted wholesale and shoved into the middle of a chapter here, without even bothering to change a single word, despite the fact that it features the book’s main character.  If I’m still writing this blog the next time I reread Outcast of Redwall, I’ll try to make that post about the actual story.

Book

It occurs to me that I’ve probably read more nonfiction since starting this blog than I have since I graduated college.  Which is weird, because I read a lot of nonfiction as a kid.  I had a complete set of the Peanuts encyclopedias (volume 9 was purple and about space!), a bunch of miscellaneous Usborne books, some DK Pocket editions (some of which are still in my library), The Big Book of Tell Me Why, etc.  I still read more fiction than nonfiction, but it wasn’t as high a ratio as it is today.

Mulling over this change, the biggest conclusion I can draw is textbooks.  They are the driest, least engaging nonfiction books I can think of off the top of my head.  And we’re talking textbooks and editions from several years ago at the latest – my sister tells me that some of her new textbooks haven’t even been edited properly for grammatical mistakes.  I don’t remember many errors like that in the textbooks I had, but I honestly can’t remember much about them.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned the material and not just for the tests.  But aside from conveying information, there was nothing memorable about the books themselves.  I guess you could see that as a good thing from some perspectives – that there’s nothing getting between you and the information – but that’s a flawed view at best.  Any time information is being conveyed, whether it’s verbally, textually, or any other method, it is being altered.  Whether it’s the emphasis placed on a particular word, the choice of vocabulary, or even the structure of the sentences and paragraphs, the author is leading the reader to look at this piece of information in a particular light – though they may not even realize what it is they’re doing.

Back to my point, most textbooks are boring.  In fact, the books I remember enjoying were the “atypical textbooks.”  That is to say, books that aren’t really textbooks.  This includes the poetry and novels I read in Native American Literature as well as the books for Barbarians in History.  Yes, my university offered a junior-level history course titled Barbarians in History, and it was absolutely wonderful.  We talked about the big ones – Vikings, Huns, and Mongols – as well as less-publicized groups like the Vandals and Visigoths.  There were three “textbooks” assigned for that class, and not a single one was your typical specialized encylopedia.

One was a translated account from a monk who had visited the court of the Mongols, another was a look at Viking life as seen through the finds at a specific archeological dig, and the last is a collected series of lectures about the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  That third book, The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians by J.B. Bury, was by far the best of the lot.  It wasn’t cluttered by measurements notes from the dig, nor was it couched in language that I found difficult to understand even though my copy was translated into English.  It was written in a factual, objective manner by someone who was an expert in his field – likely one of the first modern books to be so objective (originally published in 1928).  The only complaint I personally had is that, as a book, the collected lectures lacked a conclusion.  But the reasoning behind that is simple when you remind yourself that yes, this was just a series of lectures that were printed and bound for public consumption.

(I really should find out what happened to my copy of that book.  Or I should get a new one.  It’d be worth rereading now that I don’t have to write a report about it.)

Anyway, I generally haven’t read much nonfiction for myself, unrelated to classes and grades, in years.  Sure, there’ve been some scattered volumes throughout, but those were about as frequent as my forays into other genres.  And yet, there’s something about that bookstore at the Renaissance Faire that just seems to get me to buy nonfiction!  First it was The Time-Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, and then it was Cary Elwes’ As You Wish.  Today it was The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston.

So, what was it that attracted me to this particular Book?  To start with, I am a sucker for a well-designed book.  And I don’t just mean a book made to look nice, with quality materials.  I mean a book that’s been laid out and designed by someone who is as much a designer as I am, and who understands that there is so much more you can do with a physical product than pinpoints of light on a computer screen.

 

The design is apparent from the start as the book describes the elements of its makeup and layout from the cover in.  It’s not on every single page, of course, as that would distract from the text, but when a new element is shown, there’s usually a descriptor alongside, just like the ones shown here.

Now, what is this Book about?  It is, quite simply, an overview of the history that is behind every single book we read today.  Houston discusses the materials, the methods of conveying text and images, and finally the actual physical shape and form in depth.  And he does so in a manner that I found to be interesting and engaging, as opposed to dry and interminable.  Of course, when you’ve got a quote from The Princess Bride snuck in there, I’m going to have a more positive opinion.

This book managed to hit so very many of my buttons – in a good way!  I mean, we all know I love books in general and we’ve looked at the design.  I think I’ve also made it clear that I do enjoy history as well, but that’s far from all.  There’s also etymology (the origins of words), art, typography, and just a friendly and open way of writing.  I found myself on multiple occasions hearkening back to recent reads like The Cat of Bubastes and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  The Book is the kind of book that takes what you know, reminds you of what you’ve forgotten, and then builds off of that to take you to the next level of understanding how all these disaparate pieces fit together.

Now, it is not the lightest of reads, given the subject matter and the fact that it takes more attention and time than a simple fantasy adventure.  But it does help that the last hundred pages or so (the total book comes in at 428) are reference material.  Suggested readings, sources, index, you get the idea.  So it has taken me a bit longer than usual to plow my way through.  And, as you can tell, I was thinking about other books at the same time.  Kind of like what happens when I reread Les Miserables.  Except in that case my brain says “I’m having a great time but dear sweet gods above when will it end!?

All in all, I did enjoy myself with The Book and found it quite educational and informative.  At this point in time, I cannot imagine myself rereading it, but I am keeping it anyway.  Design scores big with me.  If this post wasn’t already over twelve hundred words in length, I’d probably talk about The Octopus Rises as well.  But I’ve already digressed enough for one day.

Comparisons

A friend of mine told me yesterday that they didn’t care for Clockwork Heart’s sequels nearly as much as the original.  That Dru Pagliassotti had set the bar too high and these two simply couldn’t measure up.  I replied that I couldn’t accurately judge until I’d finished Clockwork Secrets: Heavy Fire.  At the same time, I was reminded of something I heard about Michael Jackson.  You see, after the massive success of his Thriller album, Bad seemed to be a letdown.  However, if we look back, some of Jackson’s best work was on Bad.  It’s just that everyone was so hyped up for Thriller that any merely human album following it would be a letdown.

Do I think Clockwork Lies and Clockwork Secrets are perfect?  Absolutely not.  But I don’t think that of Clockwork Heart either.  I will admit that all the cloak-and-dagger spy stuff kind of gets old after a while, but that’s because I’m not particularly interested in sensational thrillers.  And I think that there’s a fair bit of coincidences…but when Cristof Forlore is the only exalted ambassador and Taya is his icarus and wife…it makes sense that they’d end up in these crazy situations.

In the end, I find it difficult to complain a book that ends with me laughing.

They say you should finish strong, because whatever you end with will be the last impression a reader has of your book.  And that’s true.  I laughed as much after Clockwork Secrets as I did for C.S. Friedman’s The Madness Season.  Not that these two books have much else in common, but that’s not the point.  The point is that the last thing I read was hilarious and I loved it and even if this book isn’t perfect, it ended on a great note.

There’s more travel here than in the last book, and over larger distances too, so not quite as much time is spent describing the journeys, which is fine.  We do get to visit two new countries: one in greater detail than the other though.  There’s a fair bit on the horror of war, which has been touched upon in the first two novels, but is expanded and expounded upon here (war sucks, yo).  Most importantly, most of the storylines have been wrapped up by the finale, and it looks like things will finally calm down for a while.

Clockwork Secrets is described as the final book in the Clockwork Trilogy and I’d agree with that.  It is what a third book should be; the biggest, the messiest, the one that wraps it all up.  However, the world Pagliassotti’s created isn’t small and has a great deal of depth.  I could definitely see her revisiting these places and/or characters again in separate novels or short stories.  Either later on in the timeline or at different locations during the already-existing books.  I’m not demanding a sequel or anything, just observing that I feel more stories could be told, if the author so chooses.

One nice touch is that the reader gets a chance to consider several different viewpoints, such as that of Ondinium, Demicus, Cabiel, and even a bit of Mareaux.  That last seems best at keeping its opinions to itself and just trying to stay out of the war.  Kind of like a gamer sitting at a table declaring to their fellows “I’m Switzerland!”

Do I agree with my friend?  I don’t think so.  I like that Clockwork Heart can stand completely on its own, but this is no surprise considering that Clockwork Lies wasn’t released until five years later, with Clockwork Secrets following a year after that.  These books weren’t originally conceived as a trilogy and so while the two newer volumes twine together, they do have a different tone and feel in many ways from the first.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can’t possibly be surprising.

Authors are always growing and developing as they work, just like anyone else.  Clockwork Heart was Paglassotti’s first novel and we all know that nobody’s first novel is perfect.  I was talking to Lauren Jankowski about Sere from the Green and its revision process and she commented that its page count has jumped the most of her first four books.  Which is quite surprising given that it was the first book, the roughest book, the book that most clearly showed how much she has learned and grown since it was written.  I cannot hold a first book against an author for having normal “first book issues” so long as I enjoy reading it.  What’s important is that successive books improve from that jumping-off point.

So in that respect, I suspect that the later two books are probably technically better.  They don’t have the same sense of wonder and discovery as the first, but it’s difficult to do that when the first book in a world is our initial introduction and exploration of a brand new world.  And, to be fair, I think Clockwork Secrets captures a bit of that when our heroes visit Cabiel for the first time, Taya’s dream come true.

Actually, part of what works and creates that sense of wonder in both Clockwork Heart and Cabiel is Taya’s viewpoint.  Taya loves her country, her city, and her job, and that joy permeates everything she does and everything she is.  Cabiel is, as I said, a country she has always longed to visit, and being able to do so, regardless of circumstance, is a dream come true.  So of course those experiences are much more positive than say…Alanza.

At the end of the night, I guess I’m saying that I can’t really judge if one book is better than the other two or not.  I’ve enjoyed all three, and am pleased to own them.  And who knows, maybe someday soon I’ll see something else by Dru Pagliassotti.

I’m Shocked

Not too many months back I reread Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti.  I originally picked it up on a friend’s recommendation.  Reflecting back, I can see why she enjoyed it so: she is a pilot, and the icarii fly through the various levels of Ondinium. Does every pilot dream of free-flying?  It seems to be a common theme whenever the two are in the same story, pilots and free-flight.

Anyway, I discovered that there were two more books after Clockwork Heart and dumped them on my amazon wishlist for later.  Later, of course, being that large order recently.  And today I felt like finding out what happened to Taya Icarus and Exalted Cristof Forlore after the events of that book.  Thus, I read Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind.

Spoiler that you find out quite early: Taya and Cristof got married.  The book opens with the pair in Mareaux, the neighboring country from which Taya’s grandparents hailed.  They are doing the kind of diplomatic work discussed at the end of Clockwork Heart and seem to be doing a decent job of it.  It’s only been a year or so since the events of the previous book.  But everything goes wrong after the second attempt on Cristof’s life, prompting the delegation to return to Ondinium.  Then shit gets real.

In what is a standard move for trilogies and series, after an initial book that takes place within a single city, the second book involves multiple locations spanning a map that sadly, doesn’t exist.  Or if it does, it’s not available in the book.  It’s a minor complaint, since many books do not include maps.  Many of the side characters from the first book get cameo appearances, but the focus is on Taya, Cristof, and Lieutenant Amcaratha, Cristof’s lictor ally.  I’d say “friend,” except the man is quite stoic and difficult to get a read on, even through descriptive text.  I’m sure that’s intentional, though it does make Taya’s resolution towards him at the end of Clockwork Lies all the more amusing.

Like many second books, Clockwork Lies shows that the events of its predecessor, terrible as they may be, are really just precursors to what happens within its pages, and likely what is still to come.  The stakes are raised to involve the whole country, not just the capital city.  I was thoroughly enthralled.

I had paused in my reading to glance back at the front, hoping for a map that I had somehow overlooked, when I stopped and stared at the title page.  This book was purchased through amazon, but from a third party vendor.  Not off the marketplace, mind you, but bought brand new through someone partnered with amazon that utilized their free shipping.

And it is signed.

Signed by Dru Pagliassotti, dated “Steampunk Extravaganza 2014.”

I am, as you might notice, still having trouble processing this tiny piece of information.  There was nothing to indicate that this was anything other than a new book that happened to ship from somewhere other than one of amazon’s warehouses.  Did I get lucky?  Well yeah.  Is this company’s whole stock signed?  I have no idea.  I am just trying to understand how I randomly got a signed book without paying up for it in any way, shape, or form.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled.  The only thing that would be better is if I got her to sign my older, well-loved copy of Clockwork Heart.  And probably Clockwork Secrets because I doubt that one has anything special to it, having shipped from amazon directly.

(I just checked.  That title page is free of all pen marks, showing only the printed text.)

So, there you have it.  A totally unexpected bonus to my day.  And the book is good, even if I still prefer the first one.  But I may be a sucker for origin stories, not to mention books that can easily stand alone.  If I hadn’t chosen to look up Dru Pagliassotti randomly one day, I could’ve gone the rest of my life thinking Clockwork Heart was a standalone novel.  And I would’ve been fine with that.  In contrast to Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, not only does the book conclude it’s plot, but it ties up the loose ends in such a way that you didn’t need more.  More is great, but it’s not like Sunshine which barely scratched the surface of the available mysteries to unravel.

For Kids

I built up the Pile rapidly and recently with amazon and the Newberry’s book sale.  Now I’m working on getting it back down simply because the books are there to read and experience for the first time.  Which brings me to today’s read, A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mary Stewart.

This is a tiny little book, only 188 pages long, and some of those are full-page illustrations.  Not many, but just enough to, along with the protagonists and the writing style, make it clear that this is a children’s book.  Actually, it reminds me of Last Chance for Magic, that old Scholastic book I reread last November.  A Walk in Wolf Wood can never be as inherently disappointing because, having never read it before, I had no expectations.

A brother and sister are on vacation with their family in Germany.  Having toured a ruined castle, the group pulls off the road into the Wolf Wood for a picnic lunch and some relaxation.  When their parents fall asleep, the two see a strange man, tears streaming down his face, walk by.  He is dressed for days long gone, and curious, the two follow him.  They end up in the fourteenth century, and it is now their mission to help this man recover his life so that they can return home.

Well, maybe their return doesn’t hinge on completing the mission.  It does read to me as if, should they choose not to aid the man, they would be allowed to return to their own time with no harm done.  Except, of course, then we wouldn’t have a story.

What is an interesting difference between A Walk in Wolf Wood and Last Chance for Magic is the fact that the former magically helps the two adapt.  There isn’t some magical ability for everyone to speak the same language, just that the siblings are magically granted the knowledge necessary to fit in to the world in which they find themselves.  John (the brother) knows how to use an eating knife, Margaret (the sister) knows how to curtsy and properly address elegant ladies, etc.

An interesting twist is that the longer the two spend in the medieval era, the more they forget about the modern day (circa 1980).  They know they aren’t from this place or time, but they begin to lose their knowledge and vocabulary of the present.  In the context of the story it’s not necessarily a bad thing as this serves to protect the two from being killed as witches or enchanters, but it does pose some questions for what might have happened if they stayed longer.

Now, because this is a tale of correcting a wrong, it would be a stronger story if the castle tour that happened just before the book opened had conveyed a tragic legend of some kind, then the magic offered the children a chance to right this wrong.  That would make it a slightly more satisfying conclusion, like in a certain episode of Power Rangers: Time Force.  In that one, the yellow ranger is told a ghost story about the clock tower the group has made their home.  That night, she falls asleep and is somehow transported back in time.  She helps the spirit find his happiness and, in the morning, discovers she has changed the past.  No longer is the clock tower haunted, and everyone lived happily ever after.

It feels kind of awkward to be saying that a cheesy TV show from the early 2000s did a better version of this kind of story in 20 minutes than this book did in 200 pages.

Like I said, this isn’t a bad book.  Nor is it a great one.  It’s…acceptable.  I’ll keep it for the time being, but the next time I need to prune my collection it’ll probably go.

Diving In

Yet another book from that time I had an amazon giftcard is The Tree of Water, the fourth volume in the Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme by Elizabeth Haydon.  I really did want it in paperback, but considering the book was published three years ago and still has no paperback release in sight…I surrendered to my impatience to find out what happens when Ven chooses to go explore Amariel’s home in the ocean.

Like the rest of the Lost Journals, this is a book for younger readers.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s still a stark contrast when I reflect on the differences between the Lost Journals and the Symphony of Ages.  I mean, the former involves elements like…fish out of water, parent issues, all sorts of things that stop shy of even kissing.  Symphony of Ages, on the other hand, has a former prostitute for a main character and rape rears its ugly head more than once.

I suppose another way to look at it is the fact that Ven’s story takes place in the Second Age, and whenever we reflect on the past, where and whenever it may have been, we consider it to have been a better world, a simpler time, superior to today’s world.  In contrast, the Symphony of Ages takes place mostly in the Fourth Age and shows us a darker, grittier world.  Of course, most of the characters in those books are adults as opposed to the teenagers Ven knows, but still.

Also I am trying not to think too hard on the science of having to go to the highest mountain in the deepest trench because there is so very much pressure down there.  But, that’s where Frothta, the Tree of Water, has set its roots.  This is one of the five World Trees, the middle in age which range from Sagia, the oldest, to the “youngest” of the Great White Tree.  The Trees grow in the birthplaces of the elements, and their existence keeps magic in the world.  (Technically there is a sixth Tree, but we don’t talk about that one.  Just like we don’t talk about the Sleeping Child or the Vault.  And none of this is in Ven’s journals.)

From the pseudo-prologue at the start of the book, it’s clear that The Tree of Water was meant to be the first in another set of three Lost Journals.  That’s clear enough by publication dates; this one was released six years after The Dragon’s Lair.  I suppose there’s no real cause for concern at this time though, because it’s not the first time Haydon’s had a long break between books.  It was seven years after The Assassin King came out that The Merchant Emperor was released, though afterwards the other two followed in quick succession.  I don’t know what’s up in her personal life, so I won’t bother to hazard a guess.  All I know is that she intended to write more, so I’ll just have to be patient and keep an eye open.

As for the content and story of this book…it really does follow the same pattern as Ven’s previous adventures.  One or more people asks him to go somewhere, he ends up going for several reasons, picks up one or more friends, solves some problems almost by happenstance, has some terrifying moments wherein he or a companion nearly dies, and then makes it safely back to tell the King about his travels.  I’m not saying this is a bad formula, merely that this is a kid’s book and patterns tend to be more obvious in books for younger readers.

I enjoyed it.  I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time.  I do kind of wish these were adult books, but I’ll take what I can get from a good author in a deep and detailed world.

Secret Revealed

Imagine this post backdated two days.  Mostly because I didn’t want to do anything without the author’s knowledge and permission.  Because, two days ago, I finished beta reading the new version of Lauren Jankowski’s Sere from the Green.  This was one of those two projects which was distracting me.  The other is personal and unimportant to the world at large.

You may recall that I talked about how she’s been given a wonderful opportunity not only to have amazing new cover art made for the rereleases of her first four books, but also to edit and revise those books in ways she wasn’t free to when they first came out.  Readers of the original editions may recall that the word “asexual” doesn’t appear until the fourth or fifth book, though orientation is heavily implied and if you ask anyone they’ll tell you straight that these books star asexual women.

When I read Sere from the Green for the first time, I didn’t want to offer any critique on the actual content because I understood the book had been written under constraints, not under the best conditions, and was my friend’s first book.  So I complained about widows and orphans and general typography issues that tend to occur in self-publishing.  And I offered, in all seriousness, to help out should the need arise.

Which led to this manuscript in my inbox.

I personally don’t believe any fan of the first book could be disappointed in this updated version.  The story and pacing are the same, though the writing has been tightened and improved.  The word “asexual” appears, as do abbreviations like “ace,” “aro,” and “gray-A.”  It’s…like Cinderella.  Beneath all the problems the first edition had, there was a good, sound story.  And now, the clutter has been brushed away to reveal a solid book.

I don’t know what the new release date is, but “sometime later this year.”  That may be for all four, I don’t know.  You can check Snowy Wings Publishing’s website for more information.

As for me, I have Through Storm and Night in my inbox now.

Finding Fairy Tales

It’s no secret that I’ve always enjoyed fairy tales.  Whether it was The Snow Queen, a Disney movie, Tales for Telling or so many other memorable exposures, fairy tales have always been stories I’ve loved.  And, over the years, I’ve also come to realize that I truly do enjoy anthologies for a host of reasons.  So fairy tale based anthologies  probably can’t do wrong.

A few years ago, a friend of mine suggested a set of anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.  I noted down the titles (though I promise I didn’t realize they were anthologies at the time) and filed them away for bookstore browsing.  You know, something I’ll try to find every now and then, but not my regular authors by a long shot.

Then, as I was making my careful pass through of sci-fi/fantasy at the Newberry’s book sale, a spine caught my eye.  Silver Birch, Blood Moon it read, a title that immediately caught my interest.  Then I pulled it out for a closer look and saw the editors’ names.  Finally, after three years, I’d found one of the elusive books!  The fifth, as it turns out, as the back refers to “four previous volumes.”  This didn’t concern me because it won’t be the first time I’ve read anthologies out of publication order.  After all, as long as it’s not a Valdemar anthology, I shouldn’t be encountering sequel and ongoing stories.

Then I looked at the authors listed inside, and my smile grew even wider with all the names I recognized.  Not necessarily from reading them, but still, I knew these names and they shouldn’t be that successful if they were poor writers.  I knew Tanith Lee, Patricia Briggs, Nancy Kress, Anne Bishop, Neil Gaiman, Robin McKinley and Patricia A. McKillip off of the top of my head, and seven out of twenty-one is more than enough for me to grab an anthology.

In fact, of the twenty-one authors, ten had one or more short stories already in my library.  One of the other eleven I have books by, and two of the last ten I knew to be prolific and skilled authors, leaving eight that I had no previous exposure to.  When entering these stories into my database, I was tempted to look up these other stories to try and figure out what I knew about the authors based on their work, but that was more effort than I wanted to put in.  The only one I looked up whose other piece I did know off the top of my head was Melanie Tem.  Her older story is “Half-Grandma” and I remember it because I’ve practically memorized the contents of Immortal Unicorn.

In case you didn’t pick up on it, I thoroughly enjoyed this anthology.  I didn’t dislike a single story, though some were far better than others.  And Neil Gaiman’s “Locks” is actually a poem, not really a story.  It’s…not nearly as creepy as certain other stories. Ones like “Snow, Glass, Apples,” which is my go-to for making fairy tales terrifying.

I’d say that overall, every piece in this anthology was a strong one.  Some I had more positive reactions to, others more negative, but I never felt myself falling out of immersion or failing to be immersed.  And there are at least four other books that these women put together!  I’m quite confident that I won’t be disappointed by their other collections based on what I’ve read here.  Unfortunately, it’ll be some time, I’m sure, before I do find them.

I always seem to have one or more anthologies in my Pile of late and while I enjoy them, I prefer novels in most cases and use anthologies to take a break from the greater amount of attention a long, involved, and ongoing story requires.  I’m not yet ready to give up on the hunt as I feel no particular urgency for this set.  This isn’t some series in which I’m dying to know what happens next, it’s just an assortment of well-written stories.  Besides, by leaving it for another time, I know that there’s more good tales to discover in the future.

As for what’s next, I’m not entirely certain.  And here’s a vague update on those projects I mentioned: one has been completed, but may have more parts coming soon.  The other has had the simple stuff done, but there’s more I could do and will do as I find it necessary.  Why do today what I don’t need until next month or even next year?  So, the first project may rear its head again and eat my free time at home, but the second is only going to take small or medium chunks of time at unpredictable intervals and probably never again so much that I’ll bother mentioning it here.

Reminders of Better Books

How did I manage to read two books in a row about a woman named June?  It’s not an amazingly common name in my reading, so I’m still trying to figure that out.  Not to mention it makes it easy to get caught up and have to stop and remember which book I’m reading.  That was a bit distracting.

Today I read The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson.  This was the book I mentioned yesterday, that I saw on Book of the Month and opted to test it out for free before deciding if I actually want to commit money to it.  (The answer to that question, by the by, is no, I am not spending money.)  It’s not as long a book as it could be, though it’s certainly not short.

The story is told through two first person viewpoints.  June is our modern day heroine, as I mentioned, who researches and repairs ancient machines.  Then there’s Peter, whose story is told starting in 1709 and ending in modern times with June.  He is one of the ancient machines she’s been looking for all her life without truly knowing what it was she sought.

I have the weird feeling that I just read a book which was trying to be a vampire book.  There was also a lot of similarity to those immortal alien people from the newest Vampire Chronicles.  The only difference is that those are living, breathing, bleeding creatures and these are ancient machines made by gods only know who or what.  I suspect that there might be either a sequel or a follow-up novella, especially based on the epilogue.

One of my main problems with the book is likely that I am just not as interested in steampunk as I am with fantasy or science fiction.  Sure there’s a mystery.  Sure the main characters are fine.  Sure there’s a twist that I may or may not have seen coming.  But I just didn’t find this book anywhere near as engaging as yesterday’s, for example.  I kept thinking of other similar books I’ve read and enjoyed more, such as those vampire books, or Clockwork Heart.

I think I mentioned that steampunk can be very hit-and-miss for me.  Once, a few years back, I was wandering through the library collecting a pile of new and interesting things to read.  On the new shelf for the science fiction section sat a book entiled The Big Book of Steampunk or something along those lines.  It boasted some thirty-five stories within and, since I like anthologies, I checked it out.

I don’t remember how many I made it through, but I know it was less than ten.  Steampunk as a genre doesn’t get nearly as much love as other more popular demarcations, and while there are good authors who write it, there seems to be a lot more mediocre or worse authors.  Which means it ends up being like romance for me: I don’t know enough to wade through the chaff and find the diamonds.  And the more chaff I read, the less likely I am to want to find those diamonds.

Now, the two books that follow Clockwork Heart were part of those amazon shipments and they are now sitting on in my Pile, so there will be more steampunk in the future.  But it’s steampunk I have more reason to believe I’ll enjoy than this.  The Clockwork Dynasty was acceptable, but no more than that.  don ‘t consider it a complete waste of time, but a good reminder of why I tend to avoid steampunk.

Mysterious Romance Fantasy

I can enjoy a romance, as long as it’s more than just an improbably love story meant to satisfy a housewife’s fetish.  I can enjoy a mystery, as long as not your stereotypical thriller and has meaning for the characters beyond coincidence.  And I can enjoy A Million Junes by Emily Henry, my Book of the Month from June.

Admittedly, I suspected when I selected the book that it would have a romance central to the plot.  But, as I think I’ve said before, I don’t hate romance.  I just get bored with romance for romance’s sake and am more interested in how it furthers the plot.  If it doesn’t…then why bother including it?

Fortunately for me, A Million Junes isn’t just a romance and an old mystery.  There’s supernatural elements that give my fantasy-loving mind something to hang on to, even if this power isn’t so prevalent it needs to be categorized and understood.  Things happen because they can, and some are aware and some are not.

But let’s start at the beginning.  Jack O’Donnell IV is a senior in high school whose parents (mother, stepfather, deceased father) have two rules.  1. Don’t go to the falls. 2. No Angerts.  So when she (yes, Jack is a girl) meets Saul Angert (boy, if you couldn’t guess), she is absolutely positive terrible things will happen because of it.  Oh, also because she saw a dark, shadowy ghost whose appearance always seems to presage disaster.

The O’Donnells and Angerts have feuded for generations, and not just in a small-town legend type of way.  But the families also have strange ties: if something terrible happens to one, something just as bad happens to the other.  Such as Saul’s twin sister Bekah dying not long before June’s father.

I should clarify that Jack IV is also known as “Jack Junior” and “June” is a nickname from “Junior,” as well as the name she goes by most often.  She has a lot of names and they all get used over the course of the book.

As the story goes on, not only do we find our protagonist falling deeper in love, she’s also diving deeper into the sordid past of her family, and his, trying to figure out the curse.  It’s no easy task, with our without an ally.

I am quite pleased with this book selection.  I was thoroughly engrossed with the book, worried about June, cheering her on, and even felt my eyes tearing up at the end.  If there’s anything that Henry does well throughout the book, it’s convey what it’s like to have lost a close relative.  Anyone observant understands that society only has so much patience with mourning today, expecting us to “get over it” and move on with our lives.  Not only is it much harder in the immediate aftermath than that, that sorrow can sneak up on us years after the fact.  I still cling to my grandfather’s memory, and I know it must be worse for my mom because he was her father and was that much closer to him than I.

Since yesterday was the first of the month, new Book of the Month choices were available and I actually made a selection this time.  Which prompted me to remember that I had A Million Junes on my shelf, waiting to be read.  Sadly, it’s oddly timely, because I don’t remember what drew me to it and I wasn’t at all expecting it to spend so much time around remembering the dead.  As it so happens, I’m attending a funeral on Saturday.  The husband of my mom’s friend.  I didn’t know him really, but my mom’s friend is the nicest woman around and I cannot even begin to imagine what this must be like for her.  They knew it was coming because he had brain tumors, and he’d been put not only on hospice but in a facility, because she just couldn’t handle him at home anymore.  And this not so many years after her sister died of cancer, staying with them.  Shit happens to the kindest people.

Before I confirmed my box yesterday, I browsed around the extra books which could be added for an additional fee.  One caught my eye…but it was steampunk.  I’ve had mixed luck with steampunk in the past, enough that I didn’t really want to spend money on it.  Then I got an idea.  I got a wonderful, awful idea.  I searched my library’s catalog and lo and behold, not only do they have the book, it was on shelf.  I placed a hold.

Then it got to be almost 7:40pm tonight and I realized I was about 150 pages from the end of A Million Junes and you know, if I’m in a mood to read BotM selections, I should probably get over to the library and get my hold so I can start it in the morning.  Because, really.  150 pages left at 7:40?  No way was I not finishing tonight.

The trend of Book of the Month choices started by The Sun is Also a Star and continued with A Million Junes makes me wonder what would happen if I reconsidered my genre ban on romance.  But there are two main factors in keeping it.  First and foremost, I do not know a lot about romances other than the fact that they tend to be pure fluff with few redeeming qualities (as far as I am concerned) and what I don’t know can keep me from finding those which are worth my time and effort.  Secondly, the BotM selections are already curated.  Five judges each month choose one book each which is then offered to the subscribers.  These judges prepare an essay on why they liked and chose the book, and we also get to read a synopsis and excerpt if we want before making our selection.  Of course, given that I’ve also had a book that I despised, it just says that every book is enjoyed by someone, and that person may not be me.

Still, it’s not nearly as difficult as going to a library or bookstore and seeing the massive size of the Romance section and then having to make a decision.

Besides, like I said, I’m not wholly against romance or mystery in my books.  I just want something more to catch my interest.  At the end of the day, I need to be invested in the story I’m reading to truly enjoy myself.  The Cat of Bubastes was written so dryly, intellectually, and smugly that I couldn’t not read it as a self-important prick telling a patronizing story to a child.  I much prefer books like A Million Junes where the text isn’t a barrier to my enjoyment, it’s simply the medium through which I immerse myself in the tale.