Here are the bare bones: Two female time-traveling agents, Red and Blue, from the opposing sides of a war raging across time and space. They are, each of them, the very best at what they do, traveling up and down a vast complexity of multiple timelines, altering events both mind-bogglingly large and infinitesimally small. They commit the wholesale slaughter of entire armies, then change the path of a single wandering monk. Both are playing an unfathomably long game that stretches across thousands of years.
If you read the above description, you might mistake this novella for rather old-fashioned, hard science fiction, something that could have been written by Heinlein, or maybe Bester.
Nope. This is a different and much wilder animal.
See, as they work the timelines, braiding and unbraiding events, the agents become aware of each other. They begin to leave notes, letters, for each other to find, at first taunting, then showing a certain grudging respect for each other’s skill, and finally, haltingly, love. This Is How You Lose the Time War becomes, at least in part, an epistolary novella, and the most unusual, ravishing love story I’ve ever read.
Take, for instance, those letters I mentioned. Yes, some are written by quill, in longhand. But some take forms by turn whimsical and scarifying—in birds, in seeds, in lava flows, in words that can be ingested into the body.
What sets this novella apart, and one of the reasons I think it was recently nominated for a Hugo, is the language. El-Mohtar and Gladstone are working in rarified air here. The words leap and dance off the page, incandescent, intoxicating, alive. There were moments here where I was a little adrift, not exactly sure what I was reading, and I never gave a damn. I just went with the flow of the story, let it wash over me, and came out the other side.
Whatever I say, I can’t possibly do This Is How You Lose the Time War justice. Just read it, fall in love with Red and Blue, and get lost in the best possible way.
Portal fantasy is a well-loved trope in the literature of the fantastic. The basic idea—a person (or persons), almost always a child, is transported to another world through some sort of magical door, or mirror, or rabbit hole— has been around forever. From the Alice books to The Chronicles of Narnia, from Howl’s Moving Castle to Peter Pan, from The Wizard of Oz to Cat Valente’s Fairyland books, from Percy Jackson to Akata Witch, portal fantasies exist because they provide such a useful entry point, such a sturdy scaffold on which to construct a magical world.
To all of those books, even your most treasured, I say make room. Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, of which Come Tumbling Down is the fifth entry, has set a new standard in portal fantasies. The first novel, Every Heart a Doorway, asked an intriguing question—what happens to all those children when they return from magical worlds. In that novel we were introduced to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, the place those children end up when their parents don’t know how to deal with them, and to several of the kids now trying to make their way through our drab, disappointing world after having left the magic behind.
Through the subsequent novels—Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, In An Absent Dream, and now Come Tumbling Down—we visit some of those worlds and see them through the eyes of characters we’ve come to know and care for. The stories are by turns funny and heartbreaking, whimsical and terrifying, and always deeply humane. McGuire has a true gift for thoughtful inclusion. Even in the most outlandish of circumstances, her wayward children are all fully realized characters, their virtues balanced by flaws, their pain and yearning always deeply felt. McGuire’s world building is rigorously thought out. Even her nonsense worlds make internal sense.
I realize that this review of Come Tumbling Down hasn’t really talked about the novel much. That’s okay. You should know that it continues the story of twins Jack and Jill, who we’ve already met in Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones. You should also know that Come Tumbling Down is just as satisfying. My suggestion is that you read all the Wayward Children books, in order preferably, as each one does build, sometimes in subtle ways, on the last.
If a very few years McGuire has become one of my favorite writers. She’s nominated for several Hugo awards this year, including one for In An Absent Dream. Her novel Middle Game, also nominated, was one of my favorite books of 2019. McGuire is prolific, and has several series ongoing, but don’t be afraid to dive right in. The Wayward Children series is a great place to start.
Anyone who reads this blog regularly has probably realized that I read mostly genre stuff, specifically science fiction, fantasy and horror. Once in a while, however, I don’t mind a good, taut thriller. Karin Slaughter’s The Last Widow is part thriller, part police procedural, and an altogether fun, sometimes nerve-wracking read.
The Last Widow concerns a terrorist attack, an off-the-grid white supremacist group, kidnapping, and an undercover government agent. Slaughter does a lot of things really well here. She seems to have a deep knowledge of how law enforcement works on both the local and national level, from city police to government agencies including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the CDC. Everything she details rings true. Grudging cooperation, inter-agency squabbles, heroics and bone-deep weariness, it’s all there.
The terrorists’ plan, particularly given the current state of the world, is relevant and terrifyingly plausible.
One final thing I’d like to mention is pacing. Slaughter does something I found extremely effective, almost cinematic. Bear with me as I digress here. Did you ever notice when watching Goodfellas that in the final quarter of the movie, as Henry Hill’s life unravels, the pacing accelerates, the scenes are shorter, choppier? Slaughter’s chapters in The Last Widow start out long and dense, and then get shorter, punchier, almost breathless, toward the end. It works like gangbusters.
Another round of favorite opening lines. Some of these are long, some very short, but all of them not only draw you in and make you want to keep reading, but tell you what kind of book it’s going to be.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE, WILLIAM GOLDMAN:
This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
CARRIE, STEPHEN KING:
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.
THE MARTIAN, ANDY WEIR:
I’m pretty much fucked.
THE HOBBIT, J.R.R. TOLKIEN:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
GOOD OMENS, TERRY PRATCHETT & NEIL GAIMAN:
It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one. The angel of the Eastern Gate put his wings over his head to shield himself from the first drops.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ARTHUR C. CLARKE:
Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.
A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, DOUGLAS ADAMS:
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE:
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.
THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS, JOHN CONNELLY
Once upon a time – for that is how all stories should begin – there was a boy who lost his mother.
My son, Eric, is a third year high school English teacher. He wrote this as part of his final capstone project in college, just before starting full time student teaching. I think of this as his teaching manifesto. I asked him if I could share this, and I also asked him to write a followup on how it’s going, now that he’s been teaching for a few years.
Not Just Old, Dead White Men:
Adding Contemporary Young Adult Literature to the Secondary Curriculum
When one thinks of the traditional novels read in high school, many come to mind. From The Scarlet Letter, to The Great Gatsby, to the works of Shakespeare, students across the country are reading texts written before most of their teachers were born. In fact, often before their grandparents were born. While these texts have provided important themes and subject matter, many students have difficulty both comprehending and connecting with these canonical pieces of literature. Because of this, students are not learning to the best of their abilities. They are getting lost and frustrated in the writings of old, dead white men, instead of opening their minds with texts they can identify with. I believe that instead of strictly teaching these canonical texts, one should incorporate young adult fiction into the curriculum.
Young adult literature looks very different from canonical pieces. Many works of classic literature look very similar, with the exception of writers like Joyce and Pynchon, but those writers are not typically read in high school. Young adult literature today, on the other hand, covers an incredibly varied number of formats, and often traffics in genres like science fiction and fantasy. Some contemporary young adult literature has nothing to do with genre at all, not an alien civilization or dystopia in sight, but the difference is, the story is set in today’s world, with characters the students can relate to. And if the characters are not like them, they are at least their contemporaries. Students can easily identify with the novels, and with characters who are like them, more so than with canonical texts. This leads to students actually reading the assigned books, and learning more.
When one reads a canonical piece, the formatting is often essentially the same. There will be a narrator telling their story, set in some historical setting. There is nothing really unique about them. For the most part, these classic texts look the same to today’s student readers. This is in sharp contrast to what is currently popular. As an example, take the novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, written by Ransom Riggs. The novel is built around vintage photos that both catch the eye and propel the story forward. This helps the student identify the plot and themes. As James Serafini says, “Using storyboards to simultaneously display images from a novel allows readers to focus on the images and design features necessary to construct meanings.” This method of writing works to engage the student with the text. A student connects with this kind of writing more than a canonical piece. Samantha Beatty, an eighth grade teacher at Wellston Middle School, in Wellston, Ohio, teaches this novel. She says, “Miss Peregrine’s is a text that is very popular at this age, and is something that my students really enjoy reading. The students connect with the text and its themes, allowing an excellent learning environment.” Because the students connect with the text so well, learning is not only easier, but it makes it fun, and fun translates to reading more. That is one of the most important facets of adding young adult literature to the curriculum.
I mentioned that young adult literature looks very different from canonical texts. Books like The Hunger Games trilogy, or the Divergent series, present dystopian worlds that are clearly offshoots of our own. At the time of this writing, six out of the top ten novels on the NY Times Young Adult Bestseller List use dystopias as their settings. This is not just escapist literature. These novels, and many like them, use the dystopian setting to talk about important things like the corruptive threat of power, the role of media in society, the danger of totalitarianism, even religion. All in a palatable way that should be included in the curriculum. Instead of trying to jam something like The Great Gatsby down student’s throats, a book set in a world few of today’s teenagers can identify with (unless those teenagers live in Beverly Hills), including a novel that students can connect with helps them learn better.
Traditionally, guys like reading novels about guys, and many girls like reading novels about other girls. One issue that canonical texts face is that many of them are strictly geared towards the young men in the classroom. Many of these novels are written by men, about men, and for men. Even when the writers are women, the results are often the same. Very few canonical pieces feature a female character that young girls can look up to, and identify with. Novels like The Scarlet Letter and Jane Eyre feature a female lead character whom many consider to be weak; not exactly a role model for today. Without a lead character to identify with, many young girl students lose touch with the novel. However, young adult literature is a place where many young girls can find a character to look up to, to emulate. Hermione, Katniss, Tris, Eleanor; these characters are all powerful young women who make excellent role models for students, male or female. For teenage readers without good role models at home, they may turn to fiction to find their heroes. This is almost impossible to find in canonical pieces, so incorporating young adult literature into the curriculum fills an important role.
Why should one include young adult literature into the curriculum? Well, at one Chicago high school, “Student’s don’t audibly groan when they whip out their books at the start of English class” (Eldeib). Many students have trouble connecting to canonical texts, either because of the language it is written in, or the content. Young adult literature can change all of that, as many of the themes are the same as canonical texts. Young adult literature “Can be just as complex as classic canon, but can be more accessible and relatable” (Connors). This is an important point made by Connors, as it shows that young adult literature should be fully encompassed inside the realm of traditional texts. It is important that teachers instill upon their students that reading is important. Some believe that “The THAT of teenagers reading is more important than the WHAT” (Gibbons). In this day and age, with computers and iPhones and the internet, with videogames ever more popular, literacy is something that slips through the cracks sometimes. Young adult literature can help increase literacy. Instead of high school students just reading The Scarlet Letter, full of purple prose, moralizing, and what people today would call slut shaming, you can pair it with Jennifer Mathieu’s The Truth about Alice. This novel covers the same themes as The Scarlet Letter, but in a much more accessible way. Reading a young adult literature take on a canonical piece, specifically pairing them together, gets students interested and able to identify with both novels.
Traditionally, resources such as SparkNotes, CliffsNotes, and No-Fear Shakespeare have been the bane of the teacher’s existence. These resources allow students to take the easy way out, and not actually read the texts that are assigned. They just read the shortened version, try to pass the quiz or test, crank out a paper, and forget about it completely. One of the best parts of teaching a contemporary young adult novel is that often a SparkNotes has not been created for it yet. As Connors says, “…Used to promote close reading, which is considered essential for standardized tests”. Because the students do not have anywhere to go for answers but the text, they will be forced, at first through necessity but later through their own wanting, to closely examine the text. Students will have “discussions… [that] are an essential part of what happens within our classrooms nearly every day” (Roberts). Having full class, or small group discussions about the text opens students’ minds to what others think, and makes them really explore the text on their own accord. Using young adult literature truly opens new doors to students.
Some feel that the current Common Core Exemplar Novels are dated. In fact, a survey done by S. Wolk, as quoted by Rybakova, says that, “Of the top ten books read in secondary schools nationwide, Shakespearian plays make up 30%, and of the top texts, one was written by a White woman; all other texts were written by White males. The most recent book that students read out of the canon is To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960”. It has been 56 years since the latest novel was added to the canon. The world has changed by leaps and bounds in that time, and yet, the literature students read in school hasn’t. That is an issue; this is why young adult literature should be supplementing these texts. How are students expected to identify with characters and events that were written decades before they were born? The literature taught in classrooms needs to change with the students, not be held rigidly in place. A changing of the guard needs to happen, at least partly.
I am not saying that canonical pieces should be completely replaced, quite the opposite in fact. Young adult literature should be taught in conjunction with canonical texts. Many canonical pieces are part of the Common Core Exemplar lists, because of their importance as pieces of literature, and their importance to society. However, many young adult texts cover the same themes, in a more modern way that is relatable to teenagers. Look at The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Catcher is a classic novel, read in junior English classes across the country. Its main theme, of the struggle of growing up, and the loss of innocence, is still extremely applicable to students everywhere. However, it was written in 1951, when the world was very different than it is today. Holden Caulfield’s big loss of innocence in the novel is seeing the F-word written on a wall. However, in this day and age, that word is regularly said even in elementary school playgrounds across the country. The standards are different now than when Catcher was written. For those students who have trouble identifying with Holden Caulfield, there is a very suitable companion novel. The perfect novel to pair with The Catcher in the Rye is Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It takes the very same themes of growing up and the loss of innocence, but makes it more relevant for students. These novels are perfect to pair together, and can be used for close reading, and comparative essays. Pairing these two texts is an excellent way of blending the canon with the new.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most famous novels of all time, has themes that transcend time, and is still exceedingly relevant today. Racism is sadly alive and well; this is one novel that has aged well. But even To Kill a Mockingbird has a contemporary pairing. Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, is about a young African-American teenager on trial for felony murder. The novel focuses on racism in modern day New York. Monster is something that students can really relate to, as the main character is a teenager, instead of a young girl, like Scout. This pairing does an excellent job of combining the canon with the new, and is something that helps students learn.
Another pairing that should be done is the classic 1984, by George Orwell, with the newer Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. The conversation about government surveillance is currently at a fever pitch, with the San Bernardino shooter’s phone unlocking case dominating headlines. 1984 has never been more relevant. At the same time, Little Brother encompasses all that 1984 does, but it does so on the bleeding edge of technology, using words and ideas teenagers live with every day. Using both of these novels, in conjunction with current informative and non-fiction news articles, would make for an excellent unit that once again blends the canon with young adult literature, while keeping it relevant and interesting for students.
Chadwick and Grassie recommend first picking a theme, such as civil disobedience, and then finding both a canonical text and a contemporary piece to accompany it. In the case of civil disobedience, a classic work is Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which is a common text to read. However, instead of just reading that, one could accompany it with any of Cesar Chavez’s speeches. Chavez also offers an ethnic approach. Additionally, one could use any number of speeches from the Black Lives Matter movement, to give civil disobedience even more of a current twist.
As has been said before, the canon should not be replaced; only supplemented. While some students really do enjoy the classics, many others have a difficult time getting into these novels. Fisher outlines several techniques that are very useful in teaching these difficult canon texts. The first is that modeling is a fantastic technique to help students learn.
Students need to hear their teachers thinking aloud about complex texts. These events should provide them an opportunity to witness how another person works to understand the text. Importantly, teachers have to understand what made the text complex if they are going to effectively model aspects of text complexity. For example, if the sentence structure contributed to the complexity, then the teacher needs to model how she works to make sense of those sentences.
By modeling and using think aloud, students observe the proper way to dig into a difficult text. This method is extremely helpful for those students who are visual/auditory learners. Modeling is an excellent way to help students with difficult texts. Another technique is annotating. Fisher says that by color-coding as one underlines or circling words and phrases one doesn’t understand, or which appear to be key points, is very helpful (Fisher). A combination of modeling and annotating is one of the best ways to help students attack a text, and are great methods to use when using a difficult text.
Young adult literature is not always accepted in every classroom. In fact, some believe that young adult literature has absolutely no place in the English classroom. Gibbons says that “… young adult literature lacks sophistication and literary merit. Teachers in our study indicated that YAL does not have the qualities of canonical texts, and, therefore, will not help students to meet the same curricular objectives”. However, young adult literature can have incredibly complex themes that more than hold up to scrutiny, and are more than able to add value to the curriculum. If one were to look at a novel like The Hunger Games, one could dismiss it immediately as young adult escapism that adds nothing to the conversation. However, on closer examination, strong themes like the power of sacrifice, the importance of standing up for what one believes in, and even civil disobedience in the face of a corrupt government are evident. I think even Thoreau would find something of value in Katniss’ struggle. This contemporary novel has very complex themes that more than hold up under a microscope. Young adult literature has a lot of value in the modern day English Language Arts classroom.
Young adult literature has a lot of value in the classroom, if only teachers are willing to work with it. I recognize this would go against the grain in many school districts, and I do not think it could happen all at once. There are definitely challenges involved. For instance, when considering book pairings, one such pairing I thought of brought up something that should be briefly discussed. Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks with Cruddy by Lynda Barry. Both are heartbreaking and harrowing looks at drug addiction. But Cruddy, while one of the most deeply moving novels I have ever read, is also unsparing in its depiction of drug use, sex and violence. Books like this, and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and even His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman because of the treatment of organized religion, would be wonderful to teach, but could also lead to censorship challenges. In my view, the benefits would be more than worth the risk, but I recognize that this is one more thing a teacher must consider.
Baby steps may be necessary. I look forward to taking those baby steps when I become a teacher, and eventually giant steps, because I believe strongly that this is the best way forward to promote literacy and make fiction relevant to kids today. It makes many themes and ideas accessible to students, and for some it can instill a lifelong love of reading. While the canon has become that for a reason, adding young adult literature to it, not replacing it, is the key to an incredible, and incredibly relevant, ILA curriculum.
Not Just Old, Dead, White Men: Revisited
I wrote the above essay when I was a starry eyed, completely inexperienced 22 year old potential teacher, completing one of the last classes before I student-taught. In the five years since then, I’ve taught at two very different schools, and thought a lot about my ideals as a teacher, specifically relating to literature.
Let’s be honest here: Many English teachers get into the profession because they have both a love of literature, and at the very minimum, a desire to work with high schoolers every day, and help them learn and grow for the future. Graduating college, I knew that I was going to struggle to reach at least some kids with literature, kids who had never picked up a book willingly in their lives. Sadly, that was a takeaway from student teaching. My hope was that teaching more contemporary literature would help these kids embrace reading.
The first school I taught at, fresh out of college, was different than most. It was a boarding school for kids with emotional or behavioral disorders. Each of these students, while mostly of above average intelligence, all had issues that prohibited them from learning well at a traditional school. At this school, educationally, I could teach literally whatever I wanted. I was lucky enough, in my time there, to teach both a science fiction literature class, and a horror in literature and film class, two passions of mine. I was given the freedom to adjust my curriculum as I saw fit, and because of this, most of my students were highly engaged readers. This led to many in depth discussions and analyses during class, and ultimately led to them better understanding the meaning behind the content, the reasons why.
I also taught traditional 12th grade English during my time there, but in that case I had to follow the lead of my co-teacher. My co-teacher was using a very traditional curriculum, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, my students seemed a little lost until we were able to make connections to their world, to build bridges between the novels we read and their lives. Students today almost demand more current curriculum, just to engage them. Something I’ve found to be true so far in my few short years of teaching, is that the more students trust you, and enjoy the content you bring to them, the easier it is to get them to listen. However, not all, or even many, schools allow a teacher to teach whatever they please.
My current school has a very interesting background that affects some of my curriculum. It’s a relatively new school that has only been operating for about nine years. It was originally started by families who came from a biblical cult that has since ceased operation. This means that some topics, even as straightforward as evolution, really anything “slightly controversial” (I once got a small talking to for showing a documentary on Auschwitz while reading Night), are almost completely off limits. For example, I originally wanted to teach The Handmaid’s Tale, which I consider a brilliant work of fiction, as well as a novel that is easily relatable to modern society. That did not go over well. Additionally, my girlfriend, who also teaches at the same school, wanted to teach Monster, which is commonly read in ninth grade. That was also denied, for being too real. For my ninth and tenth grade classes, I am required to stick to the essentials. Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and the like. I try my best to connect these texts to the modern world for my students, but it isn’t always effective. I have a little more freedom with my upper grades, and I can teach just about whatever I want in AP Lit, but it can be a struggle.
This year, after literal begging from my tenth graders, I convinced my principal to allow me to teach something more modern. We read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, as a companion piece to 1984. In short, I was given the chance to test out my college ideals. This unit was done to great success, as the students had a very easy time identifying with the novel, the themes, the characters, everything. It led to some incredible conversations in class. I was lucky I was able to do something that could really show my students off.
Looking back on everything, I still have a very long way to go to really implement what I want to do. I know it depends on the administration, on the location of the school, and so many other things. I want to stress that in many ways this is a wonderful school to work for. Their academic standards are rigorous, and the students post some of the highest test scores in the state. My students in particular are doing very well. What really matters in this day and age is to get students engaged. And so far, in my very early teaching career, teaching literature that is relevant to the students is one of the easier ways to accomplish it.
I’m not big on long play-by-plays when it comes to book reviews. For myself, I prefer being surprised by the twists and turns a novel takes in getting from front cover to back cover. So this is all you’re going to get in terms of plot: When We Were Magic revolves around six friends who all share the ability to do magic, and one boy who is dead, accidentally, at the hands of one of those friends.
The other thing you need to know—this novel just may be my favorite read of the year, and it’s been a pretty good year so far. It’s being marketed as YA, and while it’s true that nearly all the characters are teenagers, I would recommend it to anyone who reads genre fiction. This is the fifth book by Sarah Gailey I’ve read, and each one has impressed me. Their world-building is well thought out, exactingly rendered, and intriguing. When each book ends, I find myself wanting to go back to that world again, immediately. Gailey creates fully rounded, wonderfully quirky characters, each with distinctive personalities. They do not truck with stereotypes. Their treatment of gender is a masterclass in sensitivity and inclusivity.
Gailey does all of those things in this novel, maybe even better than in their previous books. Two things I especially want to call out for special mention—their treatment of magic, and of friendship.
Magic, as presented here, is truly awe-inspiring. Each friend can do general magic, and also has a special talent unique to them. When they cast spells together, Gailey’s descriptions of cooperative magic, the way they work together, twining their talents, is quite simply beautiful. The other thing is, these girls are still learning about what they’re capable of. They’re not wizened, powerful wizards, bored with their immense powers. They are discovering their limits, or lack there of, and experience both wonder and fear as a consequence. Through their eyes we, as readers, get to experience that wonder and fear as well. So good!
If magic is one pillar this novel rests upon, then friendship is the other. These six friends have complicated, sometimes fraught relationships that feel real and lived-in. There is love, and lust, and jealousy, and the supreme joy of knowing that no matter what happens, this circle of friends will have your back. Gailey pulls this off with downright giddy assurance.
I finished When We Were Magic late last night, and have already recommended it to half a dozen friends and family members. This one is special.
As you may have noticed by now, I blog about writing, drawing and books. That’s it, pretty much…at least until now.
I spent this past weekend in New York City with my family, and we saw two shows—Hamilton and Six. After giving it some thought, though, I think this post is actually right at home here. The thing is, both of these shows are, for want of a better word, literary. Let me explain.
Hamilton has been around for long enough, and earned enough accolades, that even if you haven’t seen it, you probably have a general feel for what it is and what it’s about. Yes, it’s about Alexander Hamilton. But to me, most importantly, it’s about the power of words. The point is stressed, over and over again, that Hamilton both read and wrote obsessively. As one song says explicitly, Hamilton writes like he’s running out of time.
Not surprisingly for a show about the power of words, about the ability of language itself to inspire, ignite and rabble-rouse, Hamilton itself is drunk and besotted with words. The songs, many of them rapped, are dense with word-play, with rhymes inside of rhymes inside of rhymes. Lin Manuel Miranda is above all else a writer in every sense. This show must have more words per minute than any other show in Broadway history, and every word matters. Miranda has accomplished something rare and special here. I was going to say something really cheesy here, like he has not thrown away his shot, but that would be…well, I guess I just said it. Sorry.
Six is not nearly as well known. It started out in London, had a run in Chicago, and has only been on Broadway for a few weeks. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s how I describe it: Imagine if the six wives of Henry the Eighth were reincarnated as the Spice Girls and told their collective history, from their point of view, in song. Rather than rap, the songs are exuberant eighties pop, but they share similar DNA with the songs in Hamilton in that they’re clever, filled with word-play, and share a message of empowerment that’s sorely needed right now.
One other thing. Based on the crowd reaction, this show is going to be huge! I’m talking Beatlemania level excitement, which it well deserves.
John Scalzi has become one of my most reliably favorite authors, thanks predominantly to the Old Man’s War series of novels. They are military space opera in the best sense, with big world building, characters you come to truly care about, and exciting battle scenes. These novels are worthy successors to Joe Haldeman’s Forever War (one of my favorite novels ever) and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (minus Heinlein’s troublesome politics and misogyny).
Lock In is a different animal completely, but I really enjoyed it. Published in 2014, it’s set in the aftermath of a global pandemic, which is a little eerie given current circumstances. Lock In is a police procedural built around a meticulously rendered near future science fiction setting. Scalzi excels at this kind of world building, with absolutely believable, and absolutely terrifying, science that is complex yet easy to understand. Given everything I’ve read by Scalzi, I’m not surprised that the science fictional aspects of the story are riveting. What makes Lock In such a pleasure to read is that the murder mystery and subsequent investigation at the heart of the story is equally satisfying.
If you’re a fan of hard science fiction, police procedurals, or both, give Lock In a try.
Honestly, the cover blurb from Charles Stross is a perfect distillation of Gideon the Ninth: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor! Skeletons!” There’s more of course, so much more, but one of the many pleasures of reading this gonzo masterpiece is discovering for yourself what happens, so I’m going to leave it at that, except to reiterate—skeletons! So many skeletons, so many bones, so much bone and blood magic. Yes, I said magic, but this is most definitely a science fiction novel, with rigorous scientific world building.
Since I’m leaving the delights of the story for you to discover, what I want to talk about here is voice, that mysterious thing that makes a writer sound like no other. Holy shitballs, Tamsyn Muir has a voice unlike any author I have ever read. Reading this novel is like riding a roller coaster without being strapped in, part terrifying funhouse, part fever dream, all startlingly original. Muir writes sword fights (Did I mention there are sword fights? There are sword fights!) with thrilling precision. Her action scenes are heart-stopping.
There are something like twenty characters roaming the crumbling halls of Canaan House, the novel’s setting, and not a stock cliche in the bunch. Each of them are fully realized people, with unique personalities, styles, talents, and many, many secrets. Another thing—our two main characters, Gideon and Harrow, are still teenagers, and despite having formidable powers and skills, they are still recognizably teenagers. They are snarky. They develop crushes, even under the most dangerous circumstances.
I have to mention the dialogue. It is sharp-tongued and profane, and often feels utterly modern. Muir is walking a tightrope without a net, and it shouldn’t work at all, it really shouldn’t, but damn, it works beautifully. I found myself reading the dialogue out loud, a big smile on my face.
This is Muir’s first novel, and the first fiction I’ve read by her. I can’t wait to read more. Happily, Gideon the Ninth is the first novel in a trilogy, and book two, Harrow the Ninth, is coming out this year.
One final note. The ending of this book broke me in ways I haven’t completely processed yet.
More of my favorite opening lines. I had fun with this last time, so I’m coming back for more. I like some of these for the language, some for the way they draw you immediately into the story, some because they tell you so much, and some because they tell you nothing at all, but make you want to know more.
NEUROMANCER, WILLIAM GIBSON:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
(I love this, but weirdly for what was, when written, bleeding edge cyberpunk, this hasn’t aged well since most folks no longer have dead TV channels.)
1984, GEORGE ORWELL:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.
THE LOVELY BONES, ALICE SEBOLD:
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, DOUGLAS ADAMS:
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
CRUDDY, LYNDA BARRY:
Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ARTHUR C. CLARKE:
Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.
THE MARTIAN, ANDY WEIR:
I’m pretty much fucked.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, KURT VONNEGUT, JR.
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.
WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, SHIRLEY JACKSON:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
I love short stories that pack a punch—emotionally, intellectually, even viscerally. Stories that may take only a short time to read, but stay with you for days afterwards. These are a few of my favorites:
THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS by Ursula K. LeGuin. Only a few pages long, but what an amazing few pages. Ones of the finest short stories ever written in the English language, don’t @ me.
SINGING MY SISTER DOWN by Margo Lanagan. This is the first piece of fiction I ever read by Lanagan, and she’s now one of my favorite writers (check out her miraculous novel, Tender Morsels). This is a shattering piece of anthropological storytelling that does not give up its secrets easily.
PONIES by Kij Johnson. This deceptively simple story of a young girl’s party is a kick in the gut wrapped in cotton candy. I remember giving this to my son to read when he was in high school, and he said to me, “This isn’t a fantasy, it’s a documentary.” If you were ever bullied, particularly in middle school, Ponies should maybe come with a trigger warning.
I can’t link to this one, but it’s available to read on Tor.com. Go check it out, I’ll be here when you get back.
MAN FROM THE SOUTH by Roald Dahl. I imagine more people know Roald Dahl for children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. While all of Dahl’s kids’ books have a deep undercurrent of darkness, it’s in his adult short stories that the darkness truly bubbles to the surface. This one has been adapted for both television and the movies, but it’s the original story, particularly the final sentence, that will send a shiver down your spine.
SURVIVOR TYPE by Stephen King. Auto-cannibalism. That’s all I’m gonna say.
I live in Northeast Ohio, where we have four distinct seasons—fall, winter, spring, and traffic cones. I kid, sort of. Anyway, my point is, fall is my favorite season, and we have excellent pumpkin patches here, with apple picking, corn mazes, apple cider slushies, pony rides, and pumpkin everything, much like the setting of Pumpkin Heads the graphic novel by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks.
This is an intensely sweet and nostalgic story that made me immediately yearn for fall to get here. It’s set over the course of just one night at DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch & Autumn Jamboree, the last night that best work buddies Deja and Josiah will work together before going off to college on their separate ways. There’s no big story arc here. Pumpkin Heads is a collection of small moments, of chasing crushes and unrequited love, of friendships and saying goodbye, of troublemaking kids and runaway goats, of Frito Pie, succotash, and other tasty fall treats. In a few short hours Deja and Josiah learn a lot about each other and themselves.
I first discovered Faith Erin Hicks back when she was doing web comics, and was immediately drawn to her line work and storytelling style. Now she’s a rising star in the graphic novel world. Her work includes the Nameless City trilogy, Friends With Boys, The Adventures of Superhero Girl (one of my favorites) and the young adult novel, Comics Will Break Your Heart. Her work here is assured and expressive. She captures the setting with perfect detail, and her characters’s emotions are clear and beautifully drawn.
I’m sure Rainbow Rowell needs no introduction—her novels include bestsellers like Eleanor & Park, Carry On and Wayward Son. Somewhat shockingly, I haven’t yet read anything of hers, but after Pumpkin Heads that will change. I love her dialogue here. It carries a surprising amount of emotional heft in a minimum of words. Her storytelling is warm and natural, and the combination of her words and Hicks art is a match made in heaven, or maybe a heavenly pumpkin patch.
Coyote Songs, by Gabino Iglesias, is a short novel, but don’t let the brief length convince you that it lacks literary weight. I finished it late last night and it hasn’t yet left me. I had unsettled dreams, and I find myself thinking of it at odd moments.
A mosaic novel, Coyote Song follows the lives of several characters, some living and some not so much, who live on either side of the America/Mexico border, La Frontera. The book is set on the bleeding edge of right now, with border patrols, shocking violence, political upheaval, human trafficking, child stealing and murder. There are monsters here, both supernatural and human, both corporal and not. And though the supernatural terrors are detailed and bloodcurdling (the chapters about the mother twisted me into knots), it’s the human monsters I will never forget. Iglesias is unsparing in his descriptions of immigrants left in the backs of trailers to cook, of men for whom disposing of bodies is just a job to do.
Iglesias’ writing style is captivating, his use of language evocative. Read Coyote Songs. You’ll be richly rewarded, but be prepared to peer into the darkness that humans are capable of. Try not to look away.
This post may be a little different than usual, because I’m going to talk about authors, rather than individual books. Well, actually, I’m sure book titles will come up quite a bit. Anyway, here we go, in roughly chronological order. This is all off the top of my head, and I’m sure I’ll miss some favorites, but it is what it is.
I wasn’t much of a reader in my early years. I guess I just hadn’t found anything that tripped my trigger. Then my first week of junior high I ventured into the library for the first time and started poking around. There they were, right next to each other on the top shelf of the section labeled SCIENCE FICTION—Asimov and Bradbury. I checkout out I, Robot and Martian Chronicles, read them each in a day.
That was that.
I read all the Asimovs and all the Bradburys, then I branched out. Heinlein juveniles, Arthur C. Clarke, Verne and Wells, and about 100 Andre Norton novels. Apparently junior high librarians truly loved Ms. Norton. Reading four or five books a week, it didn’t take me long to burn through that bookshelf. Happily, I discovered that my local city library had a large, well-curated science fiction section. I hit the motherlode.
Being a little obsessive, I started at the top left and worked my way alphabetically through it all. I discovered all the golden age giants in the field, and a lot of then-contemporary authors as well. I began to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t. Two goldmines: Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies and Terry Carr’s Universe anthologies. Through those I would find authors that I still read and enjoy today:
• R.A. Lafferty, the gentleman from Oklahoma who did not start writing until relatively late in life, but was, for a while at least, the best short story writer in the English language. No one, before or since, wrote like Lafferty.
• James Tiptree, Jr. wrote intense, lyrical, and altogether original short stories that pushed science fiction in new and intriguing directions. When it turned out that “he” was actually a clinical psychologist and grandmother named Alice Sheldon, my teenage self thought that was exceedingly cool.
• Harlan Ellison. Much has been said about Harlan (usually by his own self), but the fact is he wrote some of the most seminal short stories in science fiction, and edited my favorite anthology of all time, Dangerous Visions. Again, Dangerous Visions, the even-bigger sequel, is just as good.
• Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Barry N. Malzberg, Felix Gotschalk, Gene Wolfe, Norman Spinrad, Philip José Farmer, Poul Anderson, Clifford Simak, Frederick Pohl, John Brunner, Thomas M. Disch, this fella named George R.R. Martin who wrote really good short stories long before he started writing about dragons. The list goes on and on, this is just scratching the surface. A special shoutout to Alfred Bester, who wrote The Stars My Destination, still maybe the finest science fiction novel ever written.
Ursula K. Le Guin challenged me and thrilled me in equal measure with each new book. Her short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, is a masterclass all by itself, one of the world’s most perfect short stories.
As I got into high school, it wasn’t all science fiction, although clearly a lot of it was. My library had a spinner rack of beat-up paperbacks, where I found a novel called Carrie. In the 45 or so years since then, I’ve read nearly everything Stephen King’s written. His On Writing is my favorite writing how-to. In 1974, the same year Carrie was published, a writer named Robert F. Jones wrote a novel called Blood Sport. Jones only wrote a couple of other books, and I said I wasn’t singling out individual novels, but Blood Sport is special. It’s the violent, fever-dream story of a father/son canoe trip down a mythological river, filled with jarring magic realist imagery and audacious language. And because Jones wrote non-fiction for outdoor magazines, all the fishing and hunting details are spot on. I’m not much for re-reading, too many other books to read out there, but I’ve read Blood Sport at least a dozen times. It’s my favorite novel. When my son was 15 we took a canoe trip on the French River delta, and this is the novel I gave him to read on the journey.
Tom Robbins taught me that the through line from the beginning to the end of a novel does not have to be a straight line, and in fact the byways, asides, parenthetical comments, and wild-ass detours are what make his books so much fun. The death of Bonanza Jellybean in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was the first time a book made me cry. Hopefully that’s not a spoiler since it was published decades ago.
Reading Slaughterhouse Five was a revelation—how could seemingly simple language say so much, and move me so deeply? I read everything Vonnegut wrote, continuing to marvel that such a humane, beautiful writer existed in the world. So it goes. Poo-tee-weet.
Philip Pullman, for a simple enough reason—His Dark Materials is my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time, end of story. Sorry, Lord of the Rings. Also, I’ve wanted my own daemon ever since reading it.
Late high school/early college found me discovering more authors who would stay with me. A friend handed me his well-worn paperback copy of The World According to Garp, and I dove headfirst into the work of John Irving. A completely different writer from Vonnegut, yet just as humane. And as a high school wrestler, his focus on that sport from time to time made me happy. I love it when authors get the details right.
Harry Crews introduced me to a gritty, harrowing version of southern gothic. Brutally beguiling.
I certainly didn’t give up on horror. Along with King, I discovered Clive Barker and Peter Straub, two writers who weave together rich, complex meditations on the nature of evil. Add Robert McCammon to this list. He writes horror as well as anyone, plus, with Boy’s Life, one of the great coming-of-age novels in American literature. This is not an exaggeration. If Mark Twain wrote about small town Alabama in the 1960s, and sprinkled it with magic realism, it might have resulted in Boy’s Life.
So what am I reading today? Glad you asked! Many of the authors listed above are still a regular part of my TBR list, but I’ve added a bunch more to my collection of must-reads:
• I didn’t come to Neil Gaiman through his comics like many people. For me it was American Gods, after which I immediately read everything he had written up to that time. He understands that intersection between myth, magic, and fairytales better than just about anyone. Depending on the day, I tell people he’s my favorite writer.
• Speaking of that intersection between myth, etc., Margo Lanagan inhabits that same space. Her work is beyond original. I first discovered her with her story Singing My Sister Down, which will gently, sweetly shatter you.
• On the days when Neil Gaiman isn’t my favorite author, Joe Lansdale usually is. He writes horror, westerns, crime, and historical fiction with equal skill. His Hap and Leonard novels are the most consistently entertaining works of fiction being written today. Best dialogue writer this side of Elmore Leonard.
• Andrew Vachss writes crime fiction that’s so beyond hard boiled, it makes Raymond Chandler read like Goodnight Moon. Writing is only a sideline for him…he uses the profits from his books to finance the pro bono legal work he does exclusively for abused kids.
• John Scalzi reminds me of Robert Heinlein, but without the troubling politics and misogyny. Rip-roaring space opera, believable humans and aliens, wonderful world-building.
• Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels are of such a high degree of difficulty that it boggles the mind. Personal yet universal, which is hard to pull off.
• I first discovered Chuck Wendig through his blog, where he dispenses writing advice and expounds on the world with profane delight. His fiction is a nice mix of horror, fantasy and apocalyptic science fiction. Do yourself a favor and follow him on Twitter, as well.
• Seanan McGuire, who also writes as Mira Grant, is a true original, and alarmingly prolific. She writes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, all of it amazing. Her Wayward Children series is portal fantasy that I recommend to anyone who will listen.
• Lynda Barry is an award-winning cartoonist who has written several books, but truthfully, she’s here for just one—the graphic novel Cruddy. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and often downright scarifying. Should be required reading in every high school in the country.
• Joe Abercrombie is LordGrimdark on Twitter, and the name is apt. He writes dark, gnarly fantasy, blood-drenched and dense. I space his novels out, because they require concentration that is richly rewarded.
• Richard Kadrey’s singular creation is Sandman Slim, a half man, half demon whose adventures on earth, in hell, and all points in between span a bunch of novels, and I hope they never stop.
• Simple enough—Paul Tremblay is the best new horror writer working today. Starting with Head Full of Ghosts, he’s redefined the genre. His new one is coming soon, and I can’t wait.
I guess that’s it for now. There are many other authors I love, but they don’t yet have the body of work to make this list. Or I just forgot them. I know this went a bit long, but I’ve really enjoyed this read down memory lane. Thanks for joining me.
This is a werewolf novel unlike any you’ve read, possibly unlike any every written. There are no foggy London alleys, no windswept moors, no crumbling castles drenched in moonlight. Mongrels is a white trash coming-of-age novel that swings back and forth across the American south from Texas to Florida.
Mongrels also swings back in forth in time, telling its story non sequentially in vignettes that, taken together, present a mosaic of life as a family of werewolves. The narrator is a boy traveling with his aunt and uncle, both werewolves, as they cut a bloody swath through the south, stopping here and there to work odd jobs and live for awhile before the bodies pile up and they have to move on. We meet the boy at various ages, both young and teenaged. This is a coming-of-age story with a unique twist—at he grows up he’s consumed with wondering when, and if, he will turn for the first time.
Jones gives us werewolf history and folklore that is wholly original and fascinating. He writes with a hypnotic rhythm, mixing graphic mayhem with surprising spurts of humor to offset the spurts of blood.
I can’t recommend Mongrels enough. It’s a tour de force.
Sarah Gailey burst onto the scene, at least for me, with her American Hippo novellas, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow. Intriguing world building in an alternate history Louisiana where hippos have been imported and now run feral, and rugged hippo wranglers ride their hippo steeds into danger and adventure. Gailey writes complex, believable genderqueer characters that you’ll find yourself rooting for.
She continued to impress with Magic for Liars, a fast-paced murder mystery set in a school for young mages.
Now comes Upright Women Wanted. This isn’t actually being released until February, but I was able to snag an ARC at NY Comic Con, to my surprise and delight. Another novella, this slim book packs a ton of world building, doled out in hints and whispers.
Upright Women Wanted is set in a future American southwest, as we follow a wagon train of queer librarian revolutionaries, and their teenage stowaway, on a dangerous journey across a desert teeming with bandits and fascists, with war a constant rumble in the background.
By turns thrilling and heartbreaking, with characters I truly cared about, I loved this book. My only complaint is that is was over too quickly, and I want to know more about this world Gailey has so deftly created. I hope she returns soon to Esther and her comrades.
So, I plan on reviewing novels as I read them, but in the last couple of weeks holiday and family obligations kinda sorta got in the way. Here are somewhat abbreviated reviews of my last read of 2019 and my first read of 2020.
BLOOD AND LEMONADE, BY JOE LANSDALE
Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard books began with Savage Season, way back in 1990. There are now by my count 12 novels and many novellas and short stories featuring running buddies Hap and Leonard. Hap Collins is a middle-aged white shit kicker who avoids violence when at all possible. Leonard Pine is his best friend, a black, gay Viet Nam vet with a short fuse, who does not suffer fools. They are not criminals (although they sometimes stomp all over that line), and not law enforcement (although they work as private detectives in later novels), but their misadventures take them on a wild ride through the seedy underbelly of East Texas. The books are violent, profane, scatological, sometimes harrowing, and laugh-out-loud funny as long as you are not easily offended. Also, Lansdale is the best writer of dialogue this side of Elmore Leonard. Get to know Hap and Leonard, and you’ll be hooked.
Blood and Lemonade is a hybrid beast, a group of short stories held together with loose connective tissue. If you’re new to Hap and Leonard, this is not the one to start with. For fans, though, this is a goldmine, because we get to know Hap and Leonard as young men when they first met. I loved it.
THE INSTITUTE, BY STEPHEN KING
I’m going to keep this short and sweet. The Institute kept me up way, way past my bedtime for several nights running. I couldn’t put it down. This is King in full on thriller mode, with a breakneck plot and wonderfully realized characters.
I don’t want to go into much detail, as part of the reading pleasure here is discovering what exactly is going on. There’s a secret government organization, kidnapped children in harm’s way, an evocation of small-town American life that King is better at than just about anyone, and tension that just keeps ratcheting up.
As a long time King fan, I’ve often felt that the weakest part of his game is novel endings (I’m looking at you, Under the Dome), but here he nails it. The Institute is a big, satisfying page-turner.
Just a few of my favorite opening lines. I plan on returning to this theme from time to time, as I’m fascinated by what resonates for me and draws me into a novel.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, SHIRLEY JACKSON (ONE OF THE FINEST FIRST PARAGRAPHS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, I THINK):
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
THESHINING, STEPHEN KING:
Jack Torrance thought: officious little prick.
ANOTHER FROM KING, IT:
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, HUNTER S. THOMPSON:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, NEIL GAIMAN:
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
FAHRENHEIT 451, RAY BRADBURY:
It was a pleasure to burn.
GEEK LOVE, KATHERINE DUNN:
When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS, PHILIP PULLMAN:
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, DOROTHY ALLISON:
I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne. I was named for and by my oldest aunt—Aunt Ruth. My mama didn’t have much to say about it, since strictly speaking, she wasn’t there. Mama and a carful of my aunts and uncles had been going out to the airport to meet one of the cousins who was on his way back from playing soldier. Aunt Alma, Aunt Ruth, and her husband, Travis, were squeezed into the front, and Mama was stretched out in back, sound asleep. Mama hadn’t adjusted to pregnant life very happily, and by the time she was eight months gone, she had a lot of trouble sleeping. She said that when she lay on her back it felt like I was crushing her, when she lay on her side it felt like I was climbing up her backbone, and there was no rest on her stomach at all. Her only comfort was the backseat of Uncle Travis’s Chevy, which was jacked up so high that it easily cradled little kids or pregnant women. Moments after lying back into that seat, Mama had fallen into her first deep sleep in eight months. She slept so hard, even the accident didn’t wake her up.
EVERY HEART A DOORWAY, SEANAN MCGUIRE:
Together, they walked across the property; the girl, the boy, and the dancing skeleton wrapped in rainbows.
I’ve read nineteen books this year, which I think is pretty average for me. There were three graphic novels (I’m trying to read more), one non fiction, and the rest novels. I may sneak in one more before the end of the year, but for now, these were my favorite reads of 2019. Note, that doesn’t mean they were all published in 2019.
Fun Home, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. I first experienced Fun Home as a stage musical, and it was amazing, but the book is even better. The story of Bechdel’s childhood with her family, her coming out as a young gay woman, and her fractious relationship with her closeted gay father, Fun Home is raw and painful and funny, the art perfectly in sync with the words.
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire. McGuire has become one of my favorite authors over the past couple of years. Her Wayward Children series has set a new standard for portal fantasy. Middlegame, a standalone novel, is a revelation. It embroils twins Roger and Dodger in a complex world of alchemy, secret government organizations, and fractured timelines. Oh, and they just may be on the verge of attaining godhood.
Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig. Wendig burst onto the scene a few years ago with the gritty, violent Miriam Black series. Wanderers is a whole other animal, a massive post apocalyptic novel with great characters and a deeply involving story. There are echoes here of Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, but Wanderers puts an exciting new spin on the genre, and is a totally unique reading experience. I lost hours of sleep while I was reading this.
My Favorite Thing is Monsters, a graphic novel by Emil Ferris. The first thing you notice about this book is the artwork. It fills every page, edge to edge, densely crosshatched, chaotic yet exquisitely detailed. It reminds me a little of Robert Crumb’s work, but I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like this. You soon realize that the story is just as involving and mesmerizing as the art. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is the fictional diary of a ten year old girl in late 1960s Chicago as she investigates the murder of her holocaust-surviving neighbor, roaming back in time to Nazi Germany.
Growing Things, by Paul Tremblay. With just a handful of novels to his credit, Tremblay, a high school math teacher by day, has become one of today’s premier horror writers. Growing Things is a collection of short stories. Just as harrowing as his novels, yet far more experimental, the stories here keep you off balance. Unsettling in the best way.
Four books that I love, that I’m always surprised to discover people haven’t heard of:
BOY’S LIFE by Robert McCammon. McCammon mostly writes intelligent thrillers and horror novels (the apocalyptic Swan Song is a favorite of mine) but this is something altogether different. Part murder mystery, part the exciting and sometimes dangerous adventures of a 12 year old boy and his friends in small town Alabama in the early 60’s, Boy’s Life is infused with magic realism and wonder.
LITTLE, BIG by John Crowley. An epic classic of modern fantasy without an orc or a dragon in sight. This is the sprawling chronicle of the Drinkwater clan and their sometimes fractious relationship with the land and denizens of fae. Pure magic.
TERRITORY by Emma Bull. Bull starts with a meticulously researched novel set in Tombstone, Arizona, with all the characters you think you know, including the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday. Then she underpins it with a deep undercurrent of supernatural dark magic. Completely audacious, completely wonderful.
SANTA STEPS OUT by Robert Devereaux. This, um, very adult novel features Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny as the modern incarnations of pagan gods, with all their sensual appetites fully intact. I can’t even begin to describe the insanity that Devereaux spews onto the page in a fever dream that I guarantee is unlike anything you’ve ever read. As long as you’re not easily offended (and hell, even if you are) do yourself a favor and read this book. You’ll be amazed.
In 1995 I got several books for Christmas. This was not unusual. However, in 1995 I also received a small address book from my Uncle Ray, and although I didn’t really need it as an address book, I decided to use it to keep track of the books I read in the new year.
Because I can be a tad obsessive, I’ve kept track ever since. Like I said, a tad excessive.
So, books, by the numbers.
335: The number of books I’ve read since 1996.
23: Number of non-fiction books on that list. Okay, so I like fiction. The vast majority are genre novels of one kind or another—horror, science fiction, fantasy, crime. You get the idea.
5: The fewest book I read in one year, in 1998. That year I drew several wallpaper borders for a local company. These were huge, time-consuming projects that left me little free time.
31: The most books I read in any year, in 2002. For whatever reason, I must not have done much drawing or writing that year. No idea why.
8: the number of graphic novels on the list. I was surprised and a little disappointed that I’ve read so few graphic novels, and I’m trying to rectify that. I have several on my TBR pile.
17: The number of novels I’ve read by Joe Lansdale, the most by any one author. Lansdale is a modern-day Mark Twain, if Twain had written violent, scatological, deeply serious and laugh-out-loud funny crime, horror, westerns, and historical fiction, often all of those things jumbled together in a meaty East Texas stew. My favorites of his are the Hap and Leonard series, the misadventures of a middle aged white guy (Hap) and his best friend, Leonard, a gay Viet Nam vet. These books are violent, profane, tense, and hilarious, sometimes in the same paragraph.
Other authors who appear multiple times: Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, Seanan McGuire (writing as both herself and Mira Grant), Andrew Vachss, Richard Kadrey, Paul Tremblay, Joe Abercrombie. There are others, but these are the writers I come back to again and again.
First book on the list: Deviant Way, by Richard Montanari, a brutal serial killer novel set in my hometown of Cleveland.
Last book on the list: The Woman In The Window, by Dan Mallory, a twisty thriller that I’m about halfway through as I write this.
I first wrote this five year ago as a guest blog for someone else. My kids are five years older than they were then, and their lives have clearly changed. I no longer have a reason to stand on the sidelines in the cold spring rain and cheer.
So, think of this as a snapshot of an earlier time. Rereading this brought back fond memories for me.
CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK DAD
I’m a book dad.
I was a book kid and a book teen, on a first name basis with my local librarian, my nose always buried in one crumbling, broken-spined paperback or another. I know many intelligent, successful adults who put away books when they reached adulthood and never looked back. Not me. I kept right on reading, and became a book guy. When it turned out the woman I fell in love with and married was also a reader, it came as no real surprise.
When our son was born, reading to him seemed as natural as feeding and changing him, and just as integral to his proper care. Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar were early favorites. You just can’t go wrong with the classics. Eric was a young reader, also not much of a surprise. He devoured Magic Treehouse and Boxcar Children books, inhaled Goosebumps and Hardy Boys. We took turns reading the first Harry Potter book to him, a chapter each night, completely enthralled. My wife and I made a pact not to read ahead. I admit here, for the first time, that I sometimes cheated. Eric read the second Potter book by himself, and the die was cast. He was a book kid.
My daughter Hannah, born two years after Eric, not so much. She loved being read to, but the reading bug never really bit her. In a house filled to overflowing with books, she often had trouble finding something that interested her. She was, and is, smart and creative, a wonderful writer and musician, but finding a book that demanded her attention was challenging. When it did happen, she read and reread them obsessively. Harry Potter did the trick, as did Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging and its sequels, and the Mates, Dates books. Hunger Games had our entire family reading, in shifts. (By the time Mockingjay came along, we game up and bought multiple copies for the house.) The same thing happened with The Fault In Our Stars.
Our second daughter, McKenna, is also a reader. She’s 14 now. Her friends and her pass around books like they are sacred objects, from the aforementioned Fault In Our Stars to Divergent and The Mortal Instruments books. They write fan fic, and talk about their favorite characters as if they were real. In a way, the best way, I guess they are.
As a book dad, I love recommending favorites to my kids. Sometimes it’s easy. Eric is 21 now, and we have virtually the same taste in fiction. We buy each other books all the time, and it’s always something we want to read as well. Recent choices include The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, Lev Grossman’s Magician trilogy and Jo Walton’s Among Others. We have two main points of disagreement. One is e-readers, which I have accepted as a necessary, and convenient, evil, but which he refuses to truck with. I sometimes purchase something on my Kindle I know he desperately wants to read, just to entice him, but so far he’s resisted. The other concerns the subject of rereading, which I rarely do. Too many novels I haven’t yet read, is my position. Eric has reread Ender’s Game and His Dark Materials so many times that he’s had to buy new copies.
Recommending books to my daughters is much more hit and miss. McKenna may be a reader, but at least at the moment, her friend’s picks carry more weight than mine, and she likes what she likes. She currently favors, quote, “Dystopian series with a love interest.” Luckily for her, there are plenty of those floating around. I did score with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and The Coldest Girl In Coldtown by Holly Black. Hannah is the toughest nut to crack, but when I recommend something she likes, it’s uniquely satisfying. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Lynda Barry’s Cruddy are dark, challenging novels that I love, and that Hannah connected with. I’m hoping to get her to try Geek Love next.
For the record, all three kids have read Trapped In Lunch Lady Land. Voluntarily.
I’m a lot of things, like most people. A husband and father, a graphic designer and illustrator, a published author, a soccer sideline cheerleader. And proudly, a book dad.