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Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

thinking I enjoyed this debut fantasy by Emily Croy Barker. And I’m torn with how to write this review–because a big part of what I liked about the book was not expecting the plot twists.

So before going into a brief summary–here are some of the book’s other appealing features:

There are plenty of interesting characters in the story. Nora, a graduate student in English Literature, is the central character. One reviewer described her as an American Hermione (from Harry Potter fame, of course). I don’t know that Nora was that studious! In fact, my one complaint about the book is the title: “The Thinking Woman’s Guide.” No doubt Nora is smart, but there were times I wanted to smack her because she seemed to miss the obvious. The main male character is the magician Aruendiel–he’s talented, but flawed. He makes no apologies for his arrogance. I would probably hate meeting him in real life, but he keeps things interesting within the pages of a book.

The setting is a mix of modern and medieval. Putting a modern woman in the medieval world creates interesting situations, some I found myself thinking about long after the book ended. I also got a kick out of the period quotes from English literature. It was fun trying to identify the literary references, and I was amused with how the author was able to fit some of these in the story.

So stop reading the review now and pick up the book if you want to avoid the plot summary.

The book begins in our modern world with Nora Fischer having a crappy day. Her advisor is unhappy with the progress on her thesis, her boyfriend dumped her for another girl, and there’s a mouse in her kitchen!  Although Nora is oblivious, the reader quickly realizes that when Nora wishes for something it unexpectedly comes true. I was all ready for her fairy godmother to swoop in and tell her about her magical heritage when–SURPRISE–that didn’t happen!

Instead, Nora stumbles through a hole in the fabric of universes and ends up in a medieval world where magic and wizards exist. Nora is enchanted, literally, by the Faitoren. The spells are particularly powerful, and she is caught up in the life of these fae-type creatures who love beauty and fun. It isn’t until after she has a devastating emergency that she realizes she is in danger. She calls on the magician Aruendiel to come to her aid.

The next 500 pages of the book include magic, romance, battles, kidnappings, murders, and more!

I listened to much of this hefty story as a downloadable audiobook. AudioFile magazine gave the book well-deserved double honors—naming The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic one of the Best Audiobooks of the year in Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Audio Theater, and Alyssa Bresnahan one of Best Voices in the same category for her excellent narration.

The author has an excerpt, map, and book club guide available on her webpage.

Check the WRL catalog for The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic

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jacketEvery century, one is born who is chosen by God to be the bearer of the Godstone. This time, he has chosen Elisa, an unlikely princess whose primary loves are reading religious texts in their classic form and making frequent visits to the kitchen for pastries. Those who bear the Godstone are expected to carry out a mission on behalf of God at some point in their lives. However, many die young and never realize their goal, or at least that’s how history records them. Though she’s a studious scholar of the religious text, Scriptura Sancta, Elisa knows very little about the Godstone and often wonders what task she will have to perform.

On her sixteenth birthday, Elisa is married to the handsome and charming King Alejandro de Vega of Joya d’Arena. But after arriving in his kingdom, she realizes things are a bit off. He is keeping their marriage a secret and is more interested in her serving on a military council than building a life together. Elisa soon discovers it was her powerful Godstone and her father’s promise to send troops to assist Joya d’Arena that ultimately led to their marriage. Disappointed and confused, Elisa finds the only comforts to be her lady-in-waiting, the church, and of course, copious amounts of food.

The story takes an unexpected turn when Elisa is kidnapped and taken to a far-off desert town. The kidnappers know that she is the one who bears the Godstone, and they have high hopes she can help them to defeat their enemy. Because if she cannot, if she fails, all the kingdoms will fall, one by one, to the darkest and oldest of armies, the Inviernos. Yet despite the fact that everyone has put their faith in Elisa, can she find it within to have faith in herself? A good choice for fans of Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

Check the WRL catalog for The Girl of Fire and Thorns

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levA few months ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Magicians. After finishing it, I picked up the sequel, The Magician King. This book picks up immediately after the previous story ends, although you don’t necessarily need read the first book to follow the second one. In The Magician King magic is real, but mostly kept hidden, at least on Earth. That sounds like the world of Harry Potter, but it is not. For starters, the characters in The Magician King are much edgier, and the dark places Harry Potter characters delve into are shallow in comparison to where this book goes. This is modern fantasy fiction, set in the present day, featuring 21st century people.

Here, author Lev Grossman revisits many of the main characters from his earlier novel, including protagonist Quentin, his Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy classmates Eliot and Janet, and his public high school friend Julia. The author also centers this book on the world of Fillory, a delightful land written about in a series of children’s books that any reader familiar with C S. Lewis will recognize as Narnia-esque. It turns out Fillory exists; you just need to know how to get there. Quentin and his friends have found out how. In fact, as The Magician King begins Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia are the royalty of Fillory. Keep in mind that Fillory is to Narnia as Brakebills is to Hogwarts, which is to say, both of the former places are much less safe, secure, and pleasant than the latter locations. Fillory is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface. There is turmoil, terror, and evil with which to contend. In Fillory, quests are a part of life. Quentin recognizes and embraces this fact and is determined to discover and pursue his quest to the end.

I hesitate to give more away about the plot, since this is a book that is enhanced with each turn of the page. The basic story is simple: A man has a worthy quest and follows it to its conclusion. Grossman takes that simple thesis and forces the reader through some scary, unappealing, and challenging machinations. His characters are both flawed and powerful and the combination has serious consequences.

The Magician King also provides the reader with numerous underlying philosophical, or perhaps metaphysical, questions about power, life, elitism, what is important, love, death, and responsibility. These topics are not directly explored, but are, nevertheless, present throughout the story. A reader can try to grapple with them or simply set them aside.

Grossman has written The Magician King in an engaging and fluid manner. At times I put the book down because the story was a little too intense for my mood. But, I always picked it up again. Pieces of this book are haunting, other portions are illuminating. Either way, reading The Magician King is a kind of dark magic all it own.

Check the WRL catalog for The Magician King

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Orphan BlackA young grifter unwittingly stumbles upon a dangerous conspiracy in the first season of BBC America’s edgy and mind-bending sci-fi series Orphan Black.

Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is trying to escape an abusive boyfriend and a criminal past. Following a train ride home, she finds herself alone on the platform with a distraught woman who sets her purse down before taking off a pair of stylish high heels. The woman turns and stares at Sarah, who is struck by the uncanny resemblance between her and the stranger. The woman then walks off the edge of the platform and into the path of an oncoming train. In the aftermath of the stranger’s suicide, Sarah makes a split-second decision that puts her in the center of a mystery. With emergency personnel focused on the stranger, Sarah sees an opportunity for a quick score, and she walks away with the woman’s purse. Sarah learns her doppelgänger’s name is Elizabeth (Beth) Childs. Beth shares an expensive house with her boyfriend. She also has a large sum of money in the bank. Sarah decides to use her resemblance to Beth to her advantage and assume Beth’s identity. Once she has emptied Beth’s bank account, she’ll use the money to start a new life with her daughter, Kira, and foster brother, Felix.

Sarah believes she will be able to pull off the scam and quietly slip out of town; however, Beth’s life is far more complicated than she originally thought. First, there are calls from a man named Art and texts from an unknown number. There is also the matter of a safety deposit box containing copies of the birth certificates and photographs of other women who bear a striking resemblance to both Sarah and Beth. As additional secrets from Beth’s life surface, Sarah learns that the women—Beth, Alison Hendrix, Cosima Niehaus, and Katja Obinger (also Tatiana Maslany)—are all clones and she is a clone as well. This discovery is the gateway to a mystery involving a scientific movement called Neolution, led by the charismatic Dr. Aldous Leekie. Will the women unlock the secret of their connection to this group before they become the next victims of a killer who’s on a mission to eliminate the clones?

Orphan Black is a thoughtful and complex show that deftly balances questions of personal freedom and what it means to be an individual with a delightful streak of dark humor. The acting is first-rate. Tatiana Maslany succeeds at giving each clone her own distinct personality and unique set of characteristics. My favorite clone is Alison Hendrix, a conservative wife and mother whose sense of self is completely upended by the discovery she is a clone. The fine supporting cast includes Kevin Hanchard as Beth’s partner Detective Art Bell; Maria Doyle Kennedy as Sarah’s foster mother Mrs. S; Dylan Bruce as Beth’s boyfriend Paul Dierden; and Jordan Gavaris as Sarah’s foster brother Felix Dawkins. In a clever bit of casting, Dr. Aldous Leekie is played by Matt Frewer, who became famous in the mid-‘80s playing a character named Max Headroom.

Fast-paced and well-plotted, Orphan Black quickly builds momentum and maintains it throughout the season. Now is a good time to catch up with the show—or discover it—before the second season starts in April.

Check the WRL catalog for Orphan Black.

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“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”

DoctorWhoDoctor Who has clocked  almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.

November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.

The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.

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MrWufflesDrama! Danger!

Aliens invade and then …

encounter the cat.

David Wiesner once again proves that you don’t need words to tell a full and satisfying story.

Mr. Wuffles, as his name suggests, is a cat. He is a handsome beast, black with a white front and white socks. David Wiesner has perfectly captured his cat-arrogance as he moves through the pages with his golden green eyes wondering what’s in it for him. His jeans-wearing, green-shirted owner (who only appears as legs and arms) tries to engage him with new toys, but he stalks off past all the old rejected toys with their price tags still intact.  He finally finds one that engages his interest because it is full of tiny ant-sized green aliens. The appealing nose-less green-faced aliens know they are in mortal danger from Mr. Wuffles so they have to partner with friendly ants and a ladybug to attempt their escape. They communicate with each other in speech bubbles resembling hieroglyphics and with the reader in expressive gestures. They don’t notice the humans at all.

I enjoy reading graphic novels but at forty-mumble I am starting to struggle with the tiny print in some of them. I thought someone should invent large print graphic novels for the chronologically challenged, but realized they already exist and that they are called picture books. Most picture books aren’t interesting to adults on their own merits, unless they are planning to share them with a child. Some picture book authors break this rule frequently such as Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak and David Wiesner, with stories on multiple levels and gallery-worthy art. David Wiesner has a talent for turning things around like his award winning Flotsam with its changes in viewpoint.

The title, Mr. Wuffles, sounds positively sappy (which I don’t mind as a secret Reddit Aww viewer), but it isn’t a sappy book. Despite his name, Mr. Wuffles is portrayed as the terrifying hunter that any domestic cat really is to anything smaller than it. Older children will be able to follow this almost wordless story, but SF fans of any age and cat lovers will also get a kick out of it.  My sixteen-year-old loved it. See if you can spot when one of the aliens cries in his hieroglyphic script, “To infinity and beyond!” as he flies away on the back of a ladybug from the approaching killer cat claws.  Mr. Wuffles  raises important questions like,  what would happen if aliens invaded and they were not godzilla-like orders of magnitudes larger than us, but orders of magnitude smaller? What if it already happened? What if they just met the cat, who was only interested in cat things like chasing them and perhaps eating them?

And it may leave you wondering the next time your cat snubs the toys you buy, that maybe it’s because there are aliens under the radiator?

Check the WRL catalog for Mr. Wuffles.

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dickensEach year about this time, I try to find a set of new horror titles to look at that are eerie without being gory. The sort of book to read when evening comes early and mist hangs on the fields. My favorite scary stories come from the late Victorian period or from those modern writers who carry on that tradition.

“One winter’s evening, about five o’clock, just as it began to grow dusk . . .”

What better start to a story for a blustery autumn evening?  I was delighted this year to come across a new collection of Charles Dickens’ tales of the supernatural. The quote above starts his tale “The Bagman’s Story.”

I love the way that Dickens conjures up characters. His novels are filled with memorable people, often with memorable names, and his short fiction displays the same skill. Here, we meet a range of fascinating people, from Tom Smart— who finds true love and a great pub with the help of a haunted Windsor chair— to Mr. Goodchild, who hears the confession of a ghostly murderer in “The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber.” Many of the stories here resonate with themes that Dickens explored more fully in his novels: the miser whose lust for money poisons his life, the man who despises others’ joy and cheer until supernatural beings show him the error of his ways, and the young woman bilked of an inheritance by an cruel guardian.

More atmospheric than horrific, these stories can still bring a chill, and cause you to look over your shoulder as you climb the stairs or peer out the back door into the dark night.

Check the WRL catalog for Supernatural Short Stories

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houndedAtticus O’Sullivan looks a youthful 21, with blond hair, charming grin, and a trace of surfer dude attitude.  Atticus enjoys the sunshine of Tempe, Arizona, has a close connection with nature, and enjoys hunting with his Irish Wolfhound Oberon.  He owns his own business and has a relaxed, carefree life.

Atticus is the last of the Druids; he’s made it 2,000 years by keeping a low profile and communing with nature.

So far Atticus has managed to stay far ahead and hidden from a crazy Celtic god, but his luck is about to change.  Aenghas Og has found Atticus and wants his sword, Fragarach, back. This time he won’t quit until he has beaten Atticus, even if it includes unleashing a few demons to get his way.

There are other magical beings in this world, including many from Celtic mythology.  The author adds the requisite vampires, werewolves, witches, and fairies to flesh out Atticus’ story, but they aren’t the main focus.

Hearne weaves old mythology, popular references, puns, and witty repartee to create a funny, action-filled story.  If you enjoy urban fantasy but have been looking for something that feels fresh and different, while also providing a sense of comfort  familiarity, this is the book to pick up.

Prepare to put your feet up for a few hours of laughs, action, and a refreshing new perspective of a modern magical world.

Check the WRL catalog for Hounded

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battlepugA destroyed tribe, a talking pug, enslaved elves, a cruel Santa, a murderously evil and monstrously large baby harp seal, and a revenge-filled barbarian. Turning the first pages of Battlepug might make you wonder if the author had taken a list of all the random ideas he had during his entire childhood and created a mad-lib of a graphic novel. In a world of super-intense angst-ridden, save-the-world superheroes, it’s refreshing to have an artist break free and just draw whatever they think is cool and/or amusing.

There is no pretension to this story; it is narrated by a naked (but coyly covered), tattooed woman who is retelling this legend to two dogs: a pug and a French bulldog because one asked for a bedtime story with flaming devil monsters while the other one asked for one with puppies. She promises the dogs it will be both terrifying and sweet to appease both their desired flavors.

A gentle but unnamed boy witnesses the murder of his entire village, including his doting mother, by a smiling and sweet-faced baby seal of Godzilla-like proportions. He is saved by a fateful flick of the monster’s tail and rescued by several elves and taken to their evil master, the King of the Northland Elves (a glaring, thinly veiled Santa Claus) only to be enslaved and sentenced to a cruel life of hardship and toil. The difficult life doesn’t break the child. Rather his hate and need for revenge become magnified and he learns the art of combat, originally for their amusement, eventually for their doom.

The warrior (who seems to be based on Conan the barbarian) seeks the scarred man who let the seal loose on his village, and his travels lead him to a swamp where he first encounters the elephant-sized pug. Despite a bumpy first meeting (and not an insubstantial amount of slobber), the warrior and the rideable dog team up with a crazy old man named Scrabbly to track down his nemesis, Catwulf.

Mike Norton launched Battlepug in February 2011 and in 2012 won an Eisner award for the best Digital Comic. While it could be easy to dismiss this story based on any one of its ludicrous parts, the storytelling is deft and the artwork is solid and amusing without being silly. The pug’s eyes pointing in two different directions and lack of a convincingly ferocious bark play perfectly against the warrior’s grim and unsmiling presence.

A promising start to a unique series, I would recommend this to graphic novel, fantasy, and adventure readers and anyone who has a strong sense of the absurd.

Search the catalog for Battlepug

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SwampThingI have a fascination for Swamp Thing that started a few years ago when I picked up a copy of one of the volumes penned by Alan Moore (he of Watchmen fame). Swamp Thing isn’t your normal Superhero. He doesn’t fight supervillians, although he has had occasion to save the earth and humankind before. He’s a conflicted creature, no longer quite human but not fully removed from the person he once was. He is pulled between two worlds, caught between his human memories and the pull of The Green, a force that connects all plant life on Earth. Swamp Thing generally keeps to his damp living space, communing with nature and trying to find a semblance of peace.

The character of Swamp Thing has been reinvented and restarted many times over the years, with admittedly varied success. When I saw that Scott Snyder was taking the helm for the new Swamp Thing series I was excited. Snyder is one of my favorite current graphic novel writers (see my review of American Vampire) and I was confident that the story would be done justice to in his hands. Rather than ignoring the past incarnations of Swamp Thing, Snyder was able to build upon the legend, keeping the past intact while carving out his own unique storyline. He is even able to pull in the character of Abigail Arcane who is typically the partner/wife of Swamp Thing and helps to ground him and keep him connected to his human past.

Swamp Thing has always been most easily classified as horror, although that seems unfair as it classifies him more by how others react to him than how he actually conducts himself. Snyder has always shown himself to be remarkably adept at this genre. He is able to build an atmosphere of eerie menace in even the most mundane scenarios but also doesn’t shy away from gore or shock. This is the first of two published volumes in the DC Comics New 52 Swamp Thing series. The third volume will be released in November.

I would recommend this book to anyone who reads horror, especially graphic novels.

Search the library catalog for Swamp Thing

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OceanatendofLane

“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr.”

Neil Gaiman has a great talent for seeing the sinister and malevolent under the everyday and mundane. But he also has a talent for pointing out the beauty and wonder that simultaneously exist in the same everyday and mundane things. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told mainly through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy, which gives the book a simple, direct style as the boy is without preconceptions. He reports matter-of-factly that his new nanny is an evil monster who rode out of another dimension in a worm hole in his own foot, but this is not the sort of thing that adults believe.

The book starts as a middle-aged man returns to his childhood village to attend a funeral, so we know that the narrator survives (something I would not have been sure of otherwise). Forty years ago, the tragic suicide of an almost-stranger and a series of seemingly small, but bad, decisions, lead to dramatic and possibly world-ending events, all under the eyes of oblivious adults.

Neil Gaiman has created a complete, but never fully explained, fantasy world living just under the surface of the world we see. His Hunger Birds are close to the creepiest fantasy creatures I have ever encountered. I can see glimmers of the best of other British fantasy. The woods that the boy first enters with Lettie Hempstock reminds me of the damaged, dimensionless woods in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Pinhoe Egg. Lettie Hempstock herself, being a non-human in human form, with her Universe-saving sentiments, reminds me of Doctor Who. These may be plausible connections: Neil Gaiman knew Diana Wynne Jones and considered her his mentor, and he has written for Doctor Who.

This book is being marketed as an adult novel and lots of adults and teens love it.  I think older children who are strong readers and fantasy fans will also enjoy it. They will appreciate the main character’s impotence in the face of the seamlessly complacent adult world. It has a few oblique references to sex, but they will probably go over the heads of many children. Simply, but poetically written, this a beautiful short book that I wanted to come back to and immerse myself in. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and have heard several read by the author. Neil Gaiman is by far the best reader of his own work that I have come across. From his pleasant English accent to the menace in the voice of the monster, I can’t wait to hear more.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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My family discovered this story a few years ago during a road-trip stop at a popular restaurant and gift shop franchise where you can actually rent audiobooks on CD then return them at another location anywhere in the country. It delighted us that this alternative take, or prequel, on the lost boys, Peter Pan, pirates, magic, plus mermaids and a jealous fairy was equally appealing to the males and females, young and old, riding in our car. No one wanted to miss a single word as our car rolled along and it really helped pass the time!  We even couldn’t wait to get up the next morning from our hotel beds to hit the road and continue listening!

My kids have since taken up the reading of the complete series of five tales that concluded publication in 2011. This first audiobook is nine hours long.  I’d say this is the best road-trip audiobook ever and have recommended it to a lot of grandparents and parents seeking something to please whole carloads.

The book has boundless high-seas adventure, a mystery, and a heroic quest complete with a strong teen female character named Molly plus plenty of swashbuckling danger. Readers will learn the origin of the stardust that enables Peter and his friends to fly, and we get to know characters who feature in the timeless J.M. Barrie story Peter and Wendy. Humorist and novelist Dave Barry is a great storyteller and has ensured that the laughter almost never stops; Ridley Pearson’s skill with fantasy and fast-paced suspense is as adept in this young adult title as in his many books for adults.

Look for Peter and the Starcatchers in print or audiobook in the WRL catalog.

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Dandelion WineSomewhere out there, a retired teacher is laughing.

My first encounter with Dandelion Wine was in a high school creative writing class. The teacher, not the kindest I ever experienced, wanted us to read Ray Bradbury’s novel (actually more a collection of linked tales)  about growing up during a summer in Greentown, Illinois in 1928. It was 1984, my friends and I were far too sophisticated and modern to be interested in nostalgia for small-town America in a simpler time, and besides, it was a creative writing class and we wanted to write, not read. We read as little of the book as we could get away with, perhaps not any of it.

Jump forward a few years, and I’m participating in the National Undergraduate Literature Conference, reading a paper that I’d written. The guest of honor for the conference is none other than Ray Bradbury. He’s funny and engaging and friendly and I have great intentions to read more of his work. But I’m also a college student, busy with studies and intercollegiate debate and pining after girls that didn’t want to give me the time of day. So my intention to read Bradbury goes by the wayside.

Well since then, I’ve put my life in a different order, and part of that is time for reading. I’ve enjoyed other Bradbury titles, classics like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, but Dandelion Wine is still sitting on the shelf, teasing me. One day, sadly the day that Bradbury died after a long and productive writing life, I finally decide it is time to go back to Greentown.

It turns out, of course, that I love the book. The predominant themes are the passage of time and aging, that I’m perhaps more prepared at this point in life to appreciate. Other tales address our youthful sense of wonder, the power and spread of fear, and the pursuit of happiness. In one particularly memorable tale, an old woman tries to convince the neighborhood children that she was young like them once. They laugh at her. She produces memorabilia to prove her argument, and they accuse her of stealing it from other children and take it from her, ultimately goading her into burning a box of her most precious mementos. It’s a perfect example of how Bradbury can blend horror and nostalgia and wonder and philosophy all into the same little tale.

Bradbury captures the wonder of summer vacation for an American child perfectly, especially if you can remember the days when kids played games like kick-the-can in their neighborhoods until after dark, a time when the biggest thing to fear was the scary stories that we frightened each other with in the night. He captures the lengthy twilight hours, the warm nights where anything seemed possible. Looking back, my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s had more in common with the childhood of the 1920s that Bradbury describes than contemporary childhood, with all its technology, its early exposure to  adult concepts, and the real and perceived dangers that keep most kids in their houses.

While he’s often shelved in the fantasy/science fiction section, Bradbury is a writer for all readers. Yes, his work touches on speculative fiction, but he’s more about finding the wonder and magic in everyday life. Whether his setting is future Mars or bygone American small towns, his real subject is about the wonder of what it is to be human.

Check the WRL catalog for Dandelion Wine

Or try Dandelion Wine as an audiobook on CD

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Game“Most people like to take apart their problems, look at them in smaller, more manageable pieces. Trolls, he mused, simply take this to the extreme.”

Thirteen-year-old best friends, who describe themselves as “two lobes of the same brain,” visit an eccentric uncle at his Vermont mansion, and in the tradition of such vacations, end up in peril. Gregory, the smart-alecky one, warns his friend Brian that Uncle Max is eccentric, but it becomes obvious when they arrive and he has the butler burn all of their luggage. Uncle Max prefers that boys wear knickerbockers and speaks like a character out of Dickens.

Exploring the house, the boys discover a curious board game without any rules but with a layout that seems to correspond to the old, Victorian house and its grounds. As the boys solve puzzles, the board expands to reveal more pathways and tests. It’s no Candyland, though… more like Zork, with gruesome monsters lurking in the dark, trolls, and a mysterious stranger with a bladed yo-yo. Someone really should have taught these boys not to get involved in a magical game before they know the rules… or the stakes.

A bit like Narnia by way of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, this first book in a series has marvelously despicable villains and writing that combines a real sense of malice with a wicked, nutty sense of humor. Like Philip Reeve’s Larklight, it’s published for kids and younger teens, but there are jokes for the adults mixed in.

I liked the friendship in this book. The boys are very different, but they “get” each other; Gregory’s off-the-wall sense of humor is balanced by Brian’s quieter, deep-thinking approach to problems. They may get on each other’s nerves, but neither doubts that the other will be there when it counts.

The ending has some nifty twists and sets the story up to continue in three more books.

Check the WRL catalog for The Game of Sunken Places.

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worm ouroborosDo you re-read books? I am an avid re-reader, although I know that some people think that this is a waste of time when there are so many new books to explore. But I find that going back to books I have read once can offer new insights into a familiar story or simply the comfort of spending time with characters that you like.

That being said, quest novels do not seem to automatically lend themselves to re-reading. You already know that the heroes manage to get the ring to the fire, or find the hidden sword, and that all is set more or less right at the end. But even here, in the world of fantastic fiction, there are stories that bear a second or third or fourth reading. In many cases, what draws me back to fantasy titles is sheer pleasure in the use of language, especially in tales of high fantasy, with their reverberations of Mallory and faint echoes of Beowulf and the Norse sagas.

The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison is a fantasy classic that always seems to have something new to offer. Originally written in 1922, The Worm Ouroboros shares some characters with Eddison’s later Zimiamvian trilogy. Here, Eddison tells the tale of the bloody war between the Lords of Demonland, led by the masterful Lord Juss, and the witches, led by two crafty and treacherous kings, each named Gorice. Eddison’s tale set the standard for many of the high fantasy tales that were to follow. He deftly mixes swordplay, massive battles, magic, a perilous quest, politics and statecraft, and betrayal and revenge into a forceful story that is filled with lavish descriptions and lush language. It is the prose that brings me back to Eddison, a chance to enjoy long, luxuriant sentences filled with old-fashioned phrases and words. This is a story that would benefit from being read aloud. In mythology, Ouroboros was depicted as a snake or dragon swallowing its own tail, a symbol of the cyclical nature of life. The close of Eddison’s saga finds the Demon lords downcast at their enemies’ defeat. Life is not worth living without a foe to fight against. But like the snake that gives the book its title, the Demon lords’ story ends where it began, with the arrival of an emissary from the witch court, demanding fealty.

We have Eddison’s wonderful story only in ebook form, for iPad, NOOK, Android tablet, or PC. So if you have a mobile device:

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golemIt has been a while since I have found a fantasy novel that really drew me in, so I was quite pleased to discover Helen Wecker’s debut novel, which deftly blends elements from Jewish and Arab folktales into a more than satisfying read.

In 1899, a ship arrives in New York City’s harbor carrying immigrants from Europe. Not unusual for the 1890s. What makes this an uncommon arrival is the presence on the ship of a woman made of clay, a golem, created to be the obedient wife of Otto Rotfeld, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia. But Rotfeld dies as the ship is crossing the Atlantic, freeing the golem from his control, but leaving her doubly adrift. Not only is she a stranger in a strange land, but as a golem, she exists to serve, and she no longer has a master. When the ship arrives, the golem leaps into the harbor and makes her way to shore to avoid a confrontation with the immigration service. She arrives in the city soaking wet and knowing no one.

At the same time, a Syrian tinsmith named Arbeely, living in New York’s Little Syria, begins work repairing a copper flask brought to him by a local baker. When he touches his soldering iron to the flask, Arbeely finds himself blasted through the air, and discovers a naked man lying on the floor of the shop. It is a jinni, trapped in the flask for some thousand years.

From this fascinating beginning, Wecker weaves a complicated tale as the golem and the jinni must learn to live as humans in that most complex of cities. The golem, given the name Chava by a rabbi who recognizes her as a supernatural being and befriends her, and the jinni, whom Arbeely dubs Ahmad, and who reluctantly begins working with Arbeely, eventually meet and slowly develop a friendship. Wecker tells a moving story of two beings who share not only the challenges of being immigrants but also a further isolation from normal society. Their growing friendship and the lives of the people they meet in the Jewish and Syrian neighborhoods of New York make for a delightful story.

But more than friendship binds the two, as the reader and the pair discover. The lives of both the jinni and the golem are bound to the life of a malevolent spirit who created the golem and who imprisoned the jinni in the flask. This spirit, appearing variously as a dissolute rabbi, a Syrian wizard, and a recent immigrant to New York, seeks to control the lives of Chava and Ahmad. Only by facing together the danger that confronts them can the golem and the jinni achieve surcease of sorrow.

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LibriomancerI’m an unabashed fan of fantasy fiction, but the genre has changed massively in the last five years. A few years ago, most fantasy novels were fat books with lots of story lines and a setting that was usually medieval. These books take a certain patience until all of the plot lines and characters are clearly established, but can pack a real wallop of excitement and emotion when the story comes together.

Now, urban fantasy has at least half of the market. The books are shorter, have a clear central character, and are lighter reads. It’s a format that doesn’t usually work for me. The books don’t have enough depth for my tastes, and when they do, that depth often comes after several books. In particular, the contemporary setting makes it hard for me to suspend disbelief, and I can’t buy into the fantastic elements enough to become engrossed.

Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer, the first in a new series, was a happy exception for me, perhaps because it’s centered on the book world and the magic that can come from reading good fiction. In this case, that magic isn’t just symbolic, it’s a literal manifestation. The book follows Isaac Vainio, a librarian on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As an encounter with vampires in the book’s first chapter makes clear, Isaac is more than just a book lover: He can reach inside books and pull magic from the pages.

As the story develops, the reader learns more about Isaac’s back story and the limits and costs of his magic. Isaac was once a practicing field agent for the Porters, a group founded and led by the still-living Johannes Gutenberg. They work, unknown to regular folk, to keep other magical figures like vampires under control and to prevent rogue libriomancers from doing wrong. Isaac got in trouble and has been reduced to the role of cataloger. He looks at new books and makes sure that the magic potential in them won’t accidentally destroy the world. As the book opens, the Porters are losing control as mysterious forces attack them on several fronts.

Isaac returns to active duty, but he’s in a precarious position, without the full support of the Porters, who may be succumbing to internal forces, and targeted by a host of powerful enemies. His allies are his pet fire spider Smudge and Lena, a dryad who’s a fierce warrior and whose magic makes her a powerful love draw to those with whom she bonds. These two provide plenty of comic relief and add some physical power to Isaac’s magical gifts.

What really makes this book click for me, however, are all of the loving references to fantasy and science fiction titles that Hines works into the plot. He clearly loves this literature, and cleverly finds a way to make its imaginative power into something more real in his book. Libriomancer is the start of a series which I’ll follow closely. I predict it’s the series that will make the well-reviewed Hines into a more household name.

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king cityKing City is more than a comic book, it’s a love letter to all of geekdom. Every drawing overflows with detail, containing little Easter eggs tucked into the background that make readers search each page before turning to the next one. A city setting is naturally dense, and artist/writer Brandon Graham doesn’t let any opportunity pass by to include a sly off-color pun, so everything from signs, graffiti, and character’s t-shirts are used as a canvas for amusement. This cacophony can be distracting, but it makes multiple re-reads an enjoyable requirement.

The story follows Joe, a ninja/spy/thief, who has recently returned to California after a few years away. During those years, he trained to become a Catmaster, and the main tool of his trade is a cat named Earthling whom he carries around in a bucket. But this is no ordinary cat; depending on the injection Joe gives it from a collection of syringes he carries around on his belt, the cat can transform into a variety of tools or weapons. Armed with his feline and his knowledge of the Way of the Cat, Joe travels the city.

Lest one think Joe is an anomaly in an otherwise normal population, we are introduced to a host of other misfits. Pete, Joe’s best friend, is a wrestling mask-wearing petty thief who falls in love with a water-breathing alien woman and embarks on a quest to free her from her captors. Anna, Joe’s ex-girlfriend, paints large and often intricate mustaches on billboard faces. And then there is Anna’s current boyfriend, Max, who is a veteran of the recent Xombie wars and is fighting the drug addiction he picked up in order to cope with his memories.

The artwork has ska-punk vibes and it is busy and sometimes manic. The plot twists over itself like a Moebius strip with no pretense of plausibility, so readers shouldn’t get caught up on the hows or whys of some situations while reading this book. Where Joe gets the syringes he needs to inject Earthling and who pays Anna to paint mustaches on billboards are questions that never get answered. There is sex and violence, but they play a secondary role to humor, taking the edge of seriousness off of both. Originally released as a serial, King City doesn’t really lend itself to that format. However, as a book, it is an engrossing experience, though definitely not a quick read. Recommended to readers of comics and humor.

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