Monday, July 27, 2015

Alex Is Reading...UPROOTED

As soon as it came out, I heard about a dozen ravingly positive reviews of Naomi Novik's new adult fantasy novel Uprooted (including Clarissa's--check out her shelf talker in Sci Fi). I finally pushed aside the vast piles of upcoming kids' books I absolutely have to read, and gave Novik's departure from Napoleonic dragon battles some precious reading time. Verdict before plot: if the first fifty pages don't grab you, KEEP GOING. It will be reading time well-spent. From that moment (really, page fifty, I mean it quite literally) 'til the end of the book, Uprooted is a tense, fast-pasted, highly creative and sometimes (satisfyingly) gruesome fight-for-your-life against the raging, dangerous and extraordinary power at the heart of a forbidding wood.

The plot of Uprooted is basically this: seventeen-year-old apparently average village girl Agnieszka is snatched from home by a magician called the Dragon, who protects the villages from the evil powers of the forest, but no one likes him much because he's a jerk. Everyone is surprised her pretty friend doesn't get taken instead, but it turns out this is because Agnieszka is incredibly magical, and in a really weird way, too. Which is good, because it turns out her weird way of doing magic is the best chance local humankind has of stopping the woods in its tracks before it kidnaps, murders, and buries the entire country in malevolent carnivorous trees.

A lot of the most interesting stuff, aside from the monsters, is how Novik writes about magic in this book, especially when the ways that Agnieszka and the Dragon experience the same spells are completely different. Complicated, original magic is one of the coolest things about good fantasy. Smart girls learning magic (and possibly frightening everyone in the process) is even better, and as it turns out, that is a genre that exists for all ages. So please, pick up the Novik, but do not stop there. Here are some suggestions for the entire family.


Among Others by Jo Walton -- (Found in SF, and currently on our bargain table) The magic learning doesn't really take place in school in this book, but the protagonist, while plowing through hundreds of sci fi novels and processing the death of her twin sister and the looming threat of her mother, is forced to learn how magic works, in order not to do any more damage than she already has by using it.

Circle of Magic by Tamora Pierce -- (Available online; recommended for middle school+) This quartet gives one volume to each of four young students of magic, who all use a different medium. The first three books are about girls Sandry, Tris, and Daja. The magic is neat, and the characters are among my favorites by Tamora Pierce. 

Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness -- (Fiction/SF) You can find this trilogy of magical academia, Oxford, and women's friendships in both adult fiction and science fiction, and they delight our readers from both sides of the aisle.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett -- (SF) Like most Discworld novels, this one stands alone just fine, as it tackles collegiate sexism through a girl who has the appalling gall to want to study magic at university.

Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell -- (Kids' Graphica) Antimony Carver is a poker-faced girl with a mysterious past, going to a boarding school populated with possessed students, sentient robots, ghosts, and monsters. She also learns magic from the gods that live in the nearby wood. This is an awesome, awesome graphic novel series that unfolds slowly, beautifully, and sometimes painfully, page by page.

Lirael by Garth Nix -- (YA/SF) The sequel to Sabriel stands firm enough without its predecessor. The first large chunk of it takes place in a vast library inside a glacier. There, teenage Lirael learns step by painstaking step how to use a power she does not want to gain the things that she does. The mythology of these books is always tremendous, and Lirael fails to make right choices in all the places that result in an extremely satisfying story.

I've previously mentioned Nnedi Okorafor's upper middle grade Nigerian fantasy Akata Witch, and I emphatically continue to recommend that. I'd also advise anyone who digs around in used bookstores to keep their eye out for Monica Furlong's Wise Child, Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics and Pamela Dean's Tam Lin. They're three very different but all very good books that I'd put in your hands if I could get them into my own. Last of all, it's not quite in the theme of the list, but I recommend Patricia A. McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and truly all McKillip novels for a delicious sense of place, magic, and wildness in full flower.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Harper Lee: The Mystery Thunders On

Go Set a Watchman drama is all over my various Internet feeds today. If nothing else it brings up questions about what constitutes a draft, a true draft, and what is an entirely new piece altogether. I probably would have let sleeping dogs lie, but our culture has an obsession with reboots and sequels and prequels. If we can resurrect something popular from the grave, we’re going to do it, no matter what. This is not to suggest that Watchman’s story is similarly disheartening to, say, the threatened Point Break remake, but there are similar themes at work here. There is no bad press in a situation like this; whether they like it or hate it, people will buy it. Some will buy it and never read it, fascinated by the story behind the story.

Ultimately the questions surrounding this book are things that only Harper Lee can answer, and she either won’t or can’t. Last May we had an event with Marja Mills, a Chicago Tribune journalist, who lived very closely with the Lee sisters for two years in 2001. Harper and her sister Alice welcomed Marja into their home and neighborhood, and for the next 18 months, Mills extracted a tremendous amount of  information about the private lives of the Lee sisters and published it in a book The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee. Mills is a warm and personable woman, who had many sweet anecdotes about the pair of Alabama born sisters. Because Harper was and is so private and eschewed the public eye so often, it is difficult to determine her true wishes for Go Set a Watchman. There is, naturally, controversy surrounding the legitimacy of the memoir, but one would have to assume that Marja Mills captured a modicum of truth in her work on the Lee sisters. I would urge anyone who is even the least bit curious about Harper Lee to read Mills’ book. It is in every way a book crafted with respect and care, and through its intimacy with its subject, might shed some light on the mystery surrounding this beloved American author.

Today is Watchman's release date, and many readers are disappointed by the book already; whether that disappointment is “Christmas morning syndrome” wrought by the building hype of the literary world, or whether it is a response to the unexpected changes exhibited by well-loved characters doesn't really matter. You are not required to read Lee’s new novel. You are welcome to believe what you like regarding whether or not the Harper Lee of 1960 would have published the book or not. However, what we must remember, as we do or do not read the book, is that to the millions of people who have read To Kill a Mockingbird and to the millions more to come who will read it, Atticus and Scout Finch can still remain as they always have been inside the very specific world of their original story.

Go Set a Watchman needn’t be the death knell of your favourite novel, nor should it change what has come before it. In truth, writers make all kinds of twists and changes to their characters while they are still wretched and unfinished on the page, before an audience finds them worthy of love. Go Set a Watchman is being published largely unedited, in accordance with Lee’s wishes, but it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s possible Atticus’ development is commentary, but it’s also possible that the character you’ll interact with in this new novel is merely a prototype of the one in Mockingbird, before receiving his final coat of paint, so to speak. 

It would be naive to suggest that you keep these characters unchanged in your heart, and that no one can ever change how they made you feel or think about the world, but in essence, that’s what I’m suggesting. Fiction is a world ultimately free from reality. We are drawn to or repelled by characters for reasons unknown. In life, human beings are forced into three dimensions, capable of disappointing their loved ones and making copious mistakes. “To err is human”, after all, but reading fiction requires a suspension of belief; would it be so outrageous to let these characters remain, suspended in your imagination, in the various forms and manners you’ve known them to inhabit for all these years? I think a character conceived in fiction could be the most malleable, safest thing in the world, free from the constraints of our real world entropy. But only if we let it be free.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Alex Is Reading...WINGS OF FIRE

WHEW. This last Thursday's event with Chris Colfer and his fourth Land of Stories book was a huge success! I was told by one fan that it was "the best book signing [they'd] ever been to," and from up at the register and outside with the loooooooong line, I saw so many glowingly happy faces. This kind of hectic day really is one of my favorite things about the job.

Our next kids' event is coming right up! Tui Sutherland, (local!) author of the Wings of Fire series, will be with us on the NINETEENTH OF JULY AT 2PM. The seventh book of the series, WINTER TURNING, has just come out, and it is time to celebrate!

(Look at this awesome cover art. LOOK.)

If you haven't read Wings of Fire already, it is not too late to start. They are quick-paced, action-packed dragon adventures, featuring warring tribes, peril, and cool dragon powers. The main characters are a growing cast of slightly unusual dragonets (young dragons, of course!)--starting with five dragonets from different groups, who have been raised in isolation with the hopes that they will fulfill a prophecy to end the war. But while they do want the war to end, they quickly discover they are not so interested in acting on the orders of any adult dragon they meet. Instead they set off to fix things in their own way--if only they can keep from being killed in the process.

In short: this series is dragon Game of Thrones for kids (9+ is the recommended age), and it is awesome.

If you have read the whole series, and you are looking for something to feed your reading appetites when the last page is finished, here are a few more books you might check out until, some day in the hopefully not too distant future, Wings of Fire eight comes out.

IN THE MEANTIME, top three:

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin -- In a fantasy landscape based on China and Chinese mythology, a young girl travels through legend and story in the company of a dragon to make her poor family's fortune.

Dragon of the Lost Sea by Lawrence Yep -- An evil witch has trapped the sea in which dragon princess Shimmer and her people live inside a single pearl. Although Shimmer is an outlaw, she may be the only hope of her people. Alongside a poor human boy named Thorn, Shimmer quests for the missing pearl that will restore her home, and perhaps her people's faith in her.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson -- A graphic novel about a villain (Ballister), a hero (Goldenloin), a morally questionable benevolent organization (the Organization), and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, a shapeshifting girl sidekick with ten times the personality of everyone else, who is much more than Ballister expects.

A Few More Great Choices:

Dealing With Dragons series by Patricia C. Wrede

The Thickety series by J.A. White

Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi

We hope to see you on Sunday! Until then--happy reading!

Monday, July 6, 2015

I Don't Want It to Be Over!

That might be the most lack luster book I've ever drawn. You should see the real cover. It's beautiful!