Gather Her Round by Alex Bledsoe

Gather Her RoundGather Her Round

by Alex Bledsoe
Series: Tufa, #5

Hardcover, 315 pg.
Tor Books, 2017
Read: Jay 29 – 30, 2017

Man, it’s hard to write much that doesn’t boil down to: It’s the new Tufa book by Bledsoe — it’s great, go read it. Which is essentially a tautology followed by a natural conclusion. And isn’t that interesting (then again, I never promised you interesting, Dear Reader).

So, what sets this one apart? Well, there’s the pretty mundane nature of the inciting incident (mundane meaning not magical, not mundane meaning ordinary), the framing device, and the . . . I don’t want to say resolution (because there are a few — and yet none), I guess the way things end.

The framing device is perfect for a Tufa novel — Janet Harper, a noted musician and actress is at a story-telling festival and brings her guitar onstage to use with her story — one that’s true, but that no one in the audience will believe, as much as she says it. She does change the names of the participants (which makes her different than Ray Parrish) to protect everyone involved — including herself (see Ray Parrish).

Janet tells the story of Kera Rogers, who goes for a walk one morning to go play a little music, relax a bit, sext a little with a couple of guys, think a little about cutting out one or both of the guys when she’s attacked by a wild animal and is never seen again. At least not most of her — a small body part or two shows up. The community is horrified that this happens and her parents grieve the end of her young life. Duncan Gowan is one of the boys she was involved with — and thought he was the only one — is wrecked by her death and learning that she was also sleeping with someone else.

The rest of the tale traces the ripples from this event over the next few months (almost a year) — and the next victim to fall prey to the animal — Kera’s family moving on, Duncan getting involved with another woman, the hunters that come in to track the beast (which will also hopefully prevent any police investigation). One of the hunters gets involved with a Tufa we’ve known since the first book, and is introduced to the real culture of Needsville.

While all this is going on, we get the best picture of how things are going with the faction formerly led by Rockhouse Hicks, now led by Junior Damo, and it’s clear to everyone that Junior is not the new Rockhouse — which is mostly good, but there are some real drawbacks. Mandalay Harris takes it upon herself — even though the dead are Junior’s — to get to the bottom of what happened. Sure, it was a wild animal attack — but is that all it was? Her methods aren’t exactly anything you’ll find in a police procedural, but produce results that Gil Grissom and his kind would envy.

The best parts of these books is the way that people like Junior, Mandalay, Bliss, and Bronwyn are secondary characters; while people we’ve never met (or just barely) like Kera, Duncan, Janet, and Jack Cates (the hunter) are the focus. Yet somehow, we care about them almost as much — and through the eyes and experiences of the new characters we learn more about our old friends and see them grow and develop. Bledsoe is fantastic at making each of these books very different from the rest, yet clearly part of a series.

Like every novel in this series — this can be your introduction to the world. Actually, this one may be a better intro-book than any but the first (even as I write that I can think of arguments against it, but I think I can stick with it). You don’t have to have any advance knowledge of this world to appreciate 98% of the book.

There’s heart, magic, fun, wonder, vengeance, a dash of romance and mystery wrapped up in this novel — expressed through very human characters. The humanity shown by these people who aren’t all that human shines through more than anything else.

—–

4 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and BonesDown Among the Sticks and Bones

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #2

Hardcover, 187 pg.
Tor, 2017

Read: June 14, 2017

Some adventures begin easily. It is not hard, after all, to be sucked up by a tornado or pushed through a particularly porous mirror; there is no skill involved in being swept away by a great wave or pulled down a rabbit hole. Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.

This is the story about how Jack and Jill, the twins in the middle of the events in Every Heart a Doorway, got to The Moors, the dark world they had their adventures in before being returned to ours.

They were born to people that never should have had kids, had miserable childhoods (not that they realized it) — with two bright spots. The lesser, but more constant, bright spot was each other — they always had their twin. Just before this relationship was torn apart by the ways their parents were dividing them, the find themselves in a magic kingdom. They’re split up again, but this time the lifestyles they are immersed in better fit their personalities than what had been imposed on them by the World’s Worst Parents. Jack is trained by a mad scientist, learning to deliver medical care, reanimate the dead and more. Jill is pampered by a vampire that rules The Moors — being coached and guided into becoming one herself. We see them grow into strong individuals in this dark and deadly place before being returned to Earth.

The story is one we know already (assuming we read the first book), and even without that, it’s pretty clear how things are going to go. But that doesn’t make this any less gripping — the character work, the development of these two girls is fantastic. And the world created in The Moors is fantastic, you can see it — practically smell, feel and taste it. Best of all is the way that McGuire tells the story, the way she describes things (emotions, internal actions, external actions). It’s almost as magical as the first book.

It’s not a perfect novella, however. I’d have been tempted to call the previous one perfect, but this doesn’t quite make it. It seemed like half-story, half-manifesto against the kind of parenting McGuire hates.

This, you see, is the true danger of children: they are ambushes, each and every one of them. A person may look at someone else’s child and see only the surface, the shiny shoes or the perfect curls. They do not see the tears and the tantrums, the late nights, the sleepless hours, the worry. They do not even see the love, not really. It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the lofty shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own.

It can be easy, in the end, to forget that children are people, and that people will do what people will do, the consequences be damned.

It’s McGuire’s book, I’m not saying she shouldn’t feel free to use the space the way she wants — but it detracted from the story. Their parents have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, McGuire’s usually better than that. I think you could make the case that their shallowness, their utter horribleness fits the fairy-tale-ish story she’s telling. Honestly, I think that was the case — but it just doesn’t feel right. I would’ve like a little more time with the vampire himself — although maybe not getting more time with him, and learning about him primarily from the way that others react to him and his actions does make him creepier.

I was hoping (but didn’t expect) to see a little about what happened to the pair after Every Heart, oh well — hopefully soon.

I thought it a little heavy-handed in some places, but overall, I was just so happy to return to this series that I can get past it and recommend this one almost as highly as the last one.

—–

4 Stars

Lowering Expectations

When I get home from work today, my copy of Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire should be waiting for me, I’ve been eagerly waiting for this book for about a year now.

I know (well, I fear) that it won’t be as good as Every Heart a Doorway — it can’t be.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be good, just not as good. As long as I remember that, I won’t be disappointed. Which is my biggest fear.

Am I the only one who plays mind-games like this?

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness

Paperback, 225 pg.
Candlewick Press, 2013

Read: June 1, 2017


I hadn’t even heard of this book until a couple of weeks ago, when it was recommended to me by a loyal reader. And I wasn’t given a lot of details, just a strong recommendation and something about it being “about grief.” I could’ve used the warning that it was a YA book, but otherwise, that’s all I needed to know (and the YA wouldn’t have been a deal breaker or maker — I just would’ve liked to know what I was grabbing). I’m not going to say much more than that, really. It’s about grief, there’s some magic, and it’s one of the most effective novels I’ve read this year.

There’s been so much said about this book by others — I’m almost afraid to say much, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s discovery.

You’ve got a 13 year-old boy, Conor, whose mother is undergoing cancer treatment — and it’s not going well. His grandmother (not at all the stereotypical grandmother-type, as Conor is very well aware), comes to stay with them with every new round of treatment, and Conor hates it. His father and his new wife have started a new life in the US. All of this has left Conor isolated, emotionally all alone — except at school, where he’s bullied (when not alone). Somehow in his despair, Conor summons a monster, a monster older than Western Civilization, who visits the boy to help him.

He helps him via stories — I love this — not escapism, but through the lessons from stories — and not in a “You see, Timmy . . . ” kind of moralizing — just from understanding how people work through the stories.

After reading page 15, I jotted down in my notes, “Aw, man! This is going to make me cry by the end, isn’t it?” I didn’t, for the record, but I came close (and possibly, if I hadn’t been sitting in a room with my daughter and her guitar teacher working on something, I might have.

The prose is easy and engaging — there’s a strong sense of play to the language. There’s some wonderfully subtle humor throughout, keeping this from being hopelessly depressing. The prose is deceptively breezy, it’d be very easy to read this without catching everything that Ness is doing. But mostly, what the book gives is emotion — there’s a raw emotion on display here — and if it doesn’t get to you, well, I just don’t know what’s wrong with you.

The magic, the monster and the protagonist remind me so much of Paul Cornell’s Chalk (which is probably backwards, Chalk should be informed by this — oops). Eh, either way — this is cut from the same cloth.

That’s a bit more than I intended to say, but I’m okay with that. I’m not convinced that this is really all that well-written, technically speaking. But it packs such an emotional wallop, it grabs you, reaches down your throat and seizes your heart and does whatever it wants to with it — so who cares how technically well it’s written? (and, yeah, I do think the two don’t necessarily go together). A couple of weeks from now, I may not look back on this as fondly — but tonight, in the afterglow? Loved this.

Love, grief, hope, loss, anger, fear, monsters and the power of stories. Give this one a shot. Maybe bring a Kleenex, you never know . . .

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

The Hammer of Thor (Audiobook) by Rick Riordan, Kieran Culkin

The Hammer of ThorThe Hammer of Thor

by Rick Riordan, Kieran Culkin (Narrator)
Series: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #2
Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs., 34 mins..
Listening Library, 2016
Read: May 10 – 12, 2016


Thor’s hammer is missing, so not only can he not stream Netflix (I’d forgotten that was a thing in this series) on it, he can’t intimidate the giants into not invading. You can guess which bothers him more. The Valkrie Samira and her pal Magnus have to go find it before things get out of hand.

I didn’t like this one as much as the first book in this series — but I didn’t dislike it. It’s still the same outline that Riordan is following with these books — there’s a quest; the hero and his friends have to go find the whatever to stall doomsday a little longer; to get the X the group has to beat a series of mini-challenges and then they’ll have a shot at the X. Since this is a book 2, they’ll get X, but many other things will go wrong, forcing the series into another book. For the most part, the minor challenges worked better for me than I expected.

I enjoyed Magnus’ friends — Samira in particular; although I’m pretty torn about the new character added to Magnus’ group: Alex Fierro — a child of Loki. I understand what Riordan was trying to do with this character, but I’m not sure he succeeded. I’m not convinced that Alex was a person, and not just a conglomeration of traits. But I have hope. Alex’s presence, I thought, ended up short-changing some of the other characters when it came to action and involvement in the plot, which I wasn’t crazy about.

I really enjoy seeing different authors’ take on the same mythological characters. Comparing/contrasting Kevin Hearne’s and Riordan’s Thors and Lokis would make for a very entertaining piece (I think Riordan’s Thor is more comical, but his Loki just might be more sadistic), and I will admit I got distracted a couple of times listening to this by thinking about the differences.

The best part of this was seeing how the problems Magnus, etc. are dealing with intersect some of what Percy, Annabeth and Apollo are going through in Riordan’s other series, and the strong hint that we’ll see some sort of cross-over soon. We’d understood that the Egyptian gods were threatening the earth about the same time that the Problems with Camps Jupiter and Half-Blood start up, but this was a much more explicit description. I like thinking that the various pantheons are having troubles at the same time, and that Earth could be doom in any number of ways simultaneously.

I bought this in hardcover the week it came out (last October, I think), but haven’t been able to find/make the time to read it. When I saw it as available on my library’s audiobook site, I figured I’d jump — just to get that TBR pile a little smaller. I hadn’t listened to Riordan on audio before, and was curious ow it translated. I was surprised to hear Kieran Culkin’s name (and voice) at the beginning of this — he didn’t strike me as the kind of actor who’d do audiobooks. I’m glad that he did, though. I really enjoyed his work throughout the novel — the narration, the characters — he just nailed it. That’s how Magnus Chase should sound.

It was entertaining enough to keep going, and I trust that Riordan knows what he’s doing, I’m just not convinced that he did all he could to make this book as good as it could be.

—–

3 Stars

Chalk by Paul Cornell

ChalkChalk

by Paul Cornell

Kindle Edition, 206 pg.
Tor.com, 2017

Read: May 5 – 8, 2017

There are kids who went through school experiences like mine who will never watch football, and there are those who end up playing for Arsenal. Okay, who will end up with season tickets. Stockholm syndrome will only take you so far.

Enough about what I am now. That comes later.

Everyone keeps talking about this as a story about bullying — sure, there’s a little bullying here. But mostly, that’s like saying that Hannibal Lecter enjoys an unconventional diet. What happens to Andrew Waggoner is so far beyond bullying — it’s flat out assault (but with a psychological component that matches bullying). After a Halloween dance, Waggoner is forced into the woods by the school bullies and is assaulted. Somehow, his trauma links him to some long-dormant forces who take the opportunity to reassert themselves. One manifestation of the mystical/magical works with (compels? coerces? convinces?) Waggoner to take his revenge against those who permanently scarred him mentally and physically.

And over the next 12 months, that’s just what happens — Waggoner and/or his mystical companion (it’s never clear exactly how much is done by each) exact their revenge — Waggoner vacillates in his commitment to this project, and comes close to stopping on many occasions. In the midst of this, he becomes a writer and makes a friend based on shared interest, rather than just being social pariahs. In short, he starts growing up.

Meanwhile, the ancient forces tied to Waggoner are in open conflict with the dominant, more modern/contemporary, forces/beliefs. The school — and the students’ lives — become the major battleground for them, the final conflict coming on the anniversary of the attack that changed Waggoner’s life forever.

I kept seeing the school as the school from Sing Street (except, in the West Country, not Dublin — but roughly the same era), which I know is inaccurate, but I couldn’t stop myself. Pop music plays a large role in the story, and as it’s set in the early 80’s I didn’t have to google most of the songs (there were a couple of tunes that didn’t make it to Idaho that long ago) — which was a plus for me, and probably most readers.

You can tell (well, you can guess) that Cornell and Waggoner had similar experiences in their early lives — the language he uses to describe the bullying speaks to that. But more than that, the way he describes how the bullying shaped him, both then and when Waggoner reflects on those events from the vantage point of adulthood, resonated with me, and will with many readers.

The characters — bullies, victims, other children, or adults — were all wonderfully constructed. I’m not sure that I liked any of them (including Waggoner), but I was drawn into this world, and was very invested in what happened to each of them.

This was intense, gripping, strangely something (I want to say beautiful, but that doesn’t seem right) — there’s a je ne sais quoi about Chalk that inspires and repulses at the same time. I know I haven’t done a good job describing this book — I’m trying hard not to ruin anything for future readers. It was one of the more affecting, compelling books I’ve read this year. Cornell does a masterful job of mixing our reality with his fantasy — as he’s shown in the Shadow Police and Lychford books — this time you add in a layer of childhood horror and wonder to that combination.

This is something special, you won’t read much like it.

—–

4 Stars

The Temptation of Dragons by Chrys Cymri

The Temptation of DragonsThe Temptation of Dragons

by Chrys Cymri
Series: Penny White, #1

Kindle Edition, 232 pg.
2016

Read: April 24 – 26, 2017


Penny White, an Anglican priest of a small town who seems to be working on becoming a functional alcoholic, is driving home one night when she feels her car hit something. She stops to investigate and comes across a dragon who claims to be dying and requests last rites. Without thinking, she gives them, gets home without further incident and goes to sleep. By the next morning, she’s convinced herself it didn’t happen.

Until the next day, when her bishop asks her to take a role in ministering to magical creatures like dragons, unicorns, vampires, and more in a parallel reality to ours. Being a pretty big fan of SF/F, she jumps at the chance, and ends up ministering in both worlds. A gryphon named Morey is assigned to live with her and help her navigate between the two worlds (and other reasons). Actually, his name isn’t Morey — it’s something long and fairly unpronounceable because it’s Welsh — in the magic reality, everyone speaks Welsh.

I really dug Penny — I could understand her emotional arc and thought it was dealt with in a pretty solid way (I’m a little worried about the semi-triangle thing set up here, and hope it doesn’t get too overplayed in future books). But a big part of Penny’s character — and what helps her adjust to this new life — is her SF/F fandom. I share most of her tastes (including her love for the Seventh Doctor and Ace). Morey was another strong character, and I appreciated that there was a pretty strong theologically conservative voice sympathetically portrayed in this book — I didn’t expect to find myself agreeing with a gryphon’s theology more than with a human’s (a clause I never thought I’d write) — even if there was a patronizing explanation offered by one character (and seemingly shared by others) for his stances. His emotional arc was just great.

The rest of the characters were almost as engaging as these — human or not, they were people. Many of them need more time to be developed, but given the constraints of this one novel, I didn’t think many of them got short-changed.

I thought the plot was pretty strong, and I did quite enjoy it — particularly Penny’s search for balance between her two callings, Penny and Morey’s bonding, and Penny’s family life. But the books isn’t that much about the plot — this is primarily about the characters and relationships throughout. This was more about setting up the series, introducing the characters, species, and worlds — all of which Cymri did very capably. But the book’s core was in the character moments, the characters themselves and this very interesting world that we’re starting to learn about.

This is a comparison that won’t mean much to most of my readers, I imagine — but for those who get when I’m saying, you’ll understand this book. This book reminded me of reading the early volumes of Christopher Stasheff’s Oathbound Wizard series — I think it’s more than intelligent, articulate fantasy monsters and an Anglican/Roman Catholic approach to faith, the sacraments and the world, but that’s part of it. Mostly, it’s the warmth, confidence and charm in these pages that lured me in and kept me interested.

This is truly a lot of fun, give it a shot.
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post — thanks so much for this. Sorry it took so long.