YA Books To Buy For Your Graduation Gifts

I’m away from the Somewhat United States at the moment, ceilidh dancing in Edinburgh and haunting my old haunts in St Andrews, but high school students all over America are getting ready to graduate within the next few weeks.  Congratulations to you all, especially to the young adults who are regulars at my bookshop.  I’m terribly proud.

It will come as no surprise that I recommend books for everyone’s graduation gift-giving needs.  Buy them from your local independent bookshop!  Fun, fast, creative YA novels are especially good for the end of the school year.  Seize the five seconds of not being a student anymore, before whatever further studies await, to treat your brain to something purely enjoyable.

Here are a few YA books that would make nice presents.  They’re clever, they’re intriguing, and they have wonderful characters.  Buy all three and your local bookseller might even gift wrap them for you.

The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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Not only has Patrick Ness created a group of friends who deserve six seasons of their own television show, he’s put them into a brilliant spoof of popular YA fiction trends.   Mikey and his friends just want to graduate high school and get on with their lives, but the “indie kids” in their school keep having to save the world from vampires or zombies or whatever eerie blue lights keep showing up in the darkness.  Patrick Ness’s subversion of the “chosen one” trend is witty and charming but also tremendously moving. Mikey, Mel, Henna, and Jared all have to fight their own battles in terms of mental health and identity, while the fantastical events around theme act as mere backdrop. I loved the notion of focusing on kids who aren’t the “chosen ones,” but just have to live there, doing their best to fall in love and find their place while the world keeps falling apart around them.  Give this book to someone who has already read a ton of YA – fantasy or realistic or both – and wants something totally unique for the summer.

2. Rebel Of The Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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For someone who has already read all the fantasy books you can think of, or someone who is tired of Euro-centric settings for their magical worlds, try this new gun-slinging adventure inspired by the 1001 Arabian Nights.  It’s the best of American Westerns (sharp shooters, fights on speeding trains) mixed with Middle Eastern mythology.  Amani needs to get out of her dead-end town, Dustwalk, where her dead mother’s family hates her and the best she can hope for us an unhappy marriage.  In secret, Amani is one of the best shots around, when she’s disguised, sneaking around at night, “not up to no good,” but not “exactly up to no bad, neither.” Her chance to escape comes raging into town in the form of Jin, a fugitive and a foreigner.  Amani sees Jin as a way out.  He looks at her strange eyes and her unusual talents and sees powerful origins that might not yet be known to herself.  Rebel Of The Sands picks up speed and keeps racing across the desert to a rebel camp, creatures from stories, and a clashing of forces that will broaden Amani’s world farther than she used to ever imagine.  I was happily swept away into Alwyn Hamilton’s exciting new fantasy realm.  Amani is a heroine to cheer for, and I think determined graduates who want to get away and see wonders will love her story.  Mythology nerds and action lovers will dig this one.

3. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

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The Raven Cycle is seriously the best YA series I’ve read in over a decade.  The final installment just came out, so buy it for the graduates you know who have followed Blue and her Raven Boys to the ends of the earth and beyond.  If they haven’t started the series yet, do them a favor and buy them all four.  The character development, the intense magic, the sharp dialogue, and the creative use of Welsh mythology are absolutely out of this world.  In this final installment in the quartet, all the mystifying, intricate threads from the previous books come together to weave a web that’s beautiful and heart-breaking.  Maggie Stiefvater is a master writer.  Give her books to the literature devotees in your life, or the kids who made intense groups of friends and can’t imagine a life without them.

 

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3 New Books I Recommend This Month

Happy February! I hope you all have tolerable months, or that at least all your troubles will be confined to the mere 27 days left stretching ahead of us, and thus over soon.

“February is the shortest month of the year, so if you are having a miserable month, try to schedule it for February.” – Lemony Snicket

There are a ton of exciting books on the horizon for this spring, and I can’t wait to see them on the shelves at my bookshop.  Prepare yourselves to have hardcovers lobbed at your heads.  (Can we really count February as early spring?  It’s more the depths of an unfeeling, cheerless winter, just with blessed daylight past four in the afternoon.  Whenever the sun can get through the gathering snowclouds…)   I get so focused on new and wonderful children’s books every season, sometimes I feel like the books for grown-ups don’t get nearly enough celebration.  So here are three non-children’s books that will be released into the world this month, and I’ll be recommending them right and left.  Loading them into cannons and aiming at likely readers.  I’ll volley  them at certain teens, too, because age barriers are for the unimaginative.  And anyway, each of these books feature young people in some context or another, struggling against forgetful families; ocean storms; or chess pieces made from butter.

(A note: the copies I read of Of Things Gone Astray and Get In Trouble were advanced reader’s editions, and some details may have changed before publication.)

thingsgoneastrayI read Of Things Gone Astray many months ago – before the Christmas craziness and in a much more peaceful frame of mind – so the magic of it has had some time to settle.  Several characters, seemingly with little to no connections to one another, wake up one morning to discover that they’ve lost something important to them.  Their sense of direction, or the keys on their piano, or the front of their house, or their connection with their child.  I think my little blurb for HarperCollins sums up my thoughts.  The book takes place in London, and oh boy do you wish you were in England as you read it.  Very charming, very thoughtful, and wonderfully strange; you need many cups of tea and a sunny armchair for this reading experience.

The elements of magical realism in Of Things Gone Astray are enchanting but mostly subdued.  It was fun to see how each different character tried to cope with the sudden, inexplicable losses.  Some get flustered.  Some turn into trees. Some bake cake in case of tea-time visitors. I’ll be recommending this book to people who don’t usually go for a touch of fantasy in their stories, as the all-too-feasible personal dilemmas that drive the intertwined plot appear in every recognizable corner of every day life.

I’ve been a fan of Kelly Link’s writing for a while.  Her collection Magic For Beginners delighted me beyond measure from the first story (“The Faery Handbag,” which is actually set in a thrift shop I used to frequent), and her stories for young adults in Pretty Monsters are pretty indeed.  And pretty twisted, too.  Get In Trouble will come out on February 10th, so get ready for some of the weirdest short stories to ever parade in front of your eyes.  And good luck turning your gaze away, because they’re mesmerizing in their oddity.

Short story collections are usually a little hit-or-miss in their quality, so naturally there are a few pieces in Get In Trouble that stand out as the best, and one or two with which I had trouble connecting.  A few of my favorites: “The Summer People,” opens the book and appealed instantly to my creepy-faery-story loving self, with its strange house and enticing illusions.  “Secret Identity” is a new twist on the Superhero genre, poking fun at themed conventions and involving the aforementioned butter chess set.  “Valley Of The Girls” features a cast of spoiled young people hanging out in the lavish pyramids, built early for their eventual afterlives.  Take Bret Easton Ellis’s reprehensible characters and stick them in futuristic ancient Egypt (yes I understand the paradox there), and you’ll get a taste of this opulent, satirically awkward, and inventive story.  “The New Boyfriend” was about teenaged girls and ghosts and secrets.  I would have read a whole novel based on that short story.  If Kelly Link and Maggie Stiefvater ever got together to collaborate, I feel like those unnerving events would come true just from sheer force of those ladies’ awesome powers. Finally, “Two Houses” is a layered cross-section of tales, each one so quick to drag you down you forget what brought you to such a scene in the first place.  Dreamlike; horrifying; tragic; and set in space, I’ve carried the after-effects of that story with me ever since I finished reading Get In Trouble.

There’s so much here that’s worth re-reading.  This collection might be a hard sell to people who don’t find themselves drawn to the wackier side of magical realism (unlike Of Things Gone Astray, which even staunch realists might enjoy), but I’m going to keep recommending it anyway.

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And now we’ve come to We Are Pirates.  This book has simultaneously ruined my year and entertained me to no end.  The premise sunk me into the pits of despair, but the writing perfectly put my own thoughts onto paper in sentences that were a damned joy to read.  This book is my sworn enemy, but I wish it had been around when I was a teenager, because it is exactly what I needed back then.

Here’s the dilemma: Daniel Handler has written a modern pirate story almost exactly like the modern pirate story I was writing.  The main character is a restless and disenchanted fourteen-year-old girl. Same.  The rag-tag crew of scallywags against the world steal a rigged-out ship and fail spectacularly to sail it into the distance. Same. Their chosen victims refuse to prepare to be boarded. Check mark in the ledger for stuff being the same.  Even the boots and coat our heroine Gwen sports during her life of small crimes are spot-on.  They quote from classic works of pirate fiction all over the place!  So many references, even, that I’m sure to have missed some.  I know that in the acknowledgements, Mr. Handler mentions Captain Blood and A High Wind In Jamaica specifically.  The latter of those is my bloody staff pick at the bookshop, by Jove!  My own 3/4 of a drafted novel is full of those very same references, trying to capture the very same sentiment. That sentiment being: Life is a mess and adults have no clue what they’re doing.  Piracy might be the only tolerable option.

I suppose there’s a sort of welcome commiseration to be found in the knowledge that one of my favorite authors dwells on the same anachronistic notions of violent, salty glory as me.  In a way, he has put teenaged Sarah’s troubles into words.  But only, if only, We Are Pirates had been released a decade ago, I might not have labored so hard on my own documentation of that same zeal for the old stories, and the craving for a knife in the hand and the wind at one’s back.

To stop whining on about my own misfortune: We Are Pirates is actually an adult book (mine will someday be for middle-schoolers) and deals with some other more mature themes than ransacking the “high seas” of San Francisco.   Half the book focuses on Gwen’s father, Phil Needle, who is having – if possible – an even harder time navigating the fraught waters of radio production, extra-marital affairs, and parenthood.  There’s that constant theme of grown-ups refusing to take young people seriously until it might be too late: a.k.a. my favorite subject for all fiction.

I don’t honestly know how many other people will react to We Are Pirates as enthusiastically as I did.  I ought to challenge Daniel Handler to a duel for sneaking thoughts out of my head while I was sleeping, but at the same time I was pleased as a pufferfish to read a story I could relate to so strongly. (Gwen’s chapters were far more interesting than Phil’s, to me.)  None the less, I feel it my duty as a fellow buccaneer to recommend We Are Pirates to people this February, in the hopes that at least now fewer customers might ask that tiresome question: “Why are you dressed as Charles II?” when I’m wearing my captain-y boots and coat on a Friday.  The answer should be obvious.

Finally, A Bonus Book I Haven’t Read Yet:

Neil Gaiman’s new collection of “short fictions and disturbances” is out this month.  I haven’t had a chance to look at a copy yet, but rest assured that any and all plans will be cancelled the first day I see it on the shelves.  If you have lunch plans with me that afternoon, or expect entertaining conversation in the evening, sorry but I’ll be reading.  And I’m not even that sorry, because if you’re friends with me, you’ll probably be reading too.

All Hallows Read: My Favorite NEW Scary Books in 2014

Happy Halloween!  (Cue singing: It’s the most wonderful time of the yeeaarrrr!)  I have had such a busy October that there’s no way I’ll be able to do a semi-thoughtful All Hallows Read post like last year’s.  Sorry!  Check there for a list of scary children’s books I highly recommend for this most joyous of occasions: the giving of books intended to horrify your loved ones. But I read some great new scary books this year, which I’d like to mention.  Just in case anyone needs something frightening for tomorrow and doesn’t know what’s come out recently.  (Click links and book covers to read my full reviews of these books.)

I was rather taken with the spooky, swampy atmosphere in Natale C. Parker’s debut YA  novel, Beware The Wild.  It just came out this month.  The premise is suspenseful, and the small Louisiana town feels wonderfully real despite all the sinister swamp action going on just beyond the fence.

Conversion by Katherine Howe is more thought-provoking and stressful than it is scary, but it centers around the events of the Salem Witch Hysteria, and so is very seasonally appropriate.  Katherine Howe expertly balances a modern story of inexplicable hysteria shaking up a girls’ Catholic school in Massachusetts with the historical narrative of Anne Putnam, one of the girls who was instrumental in accusing her neighbors of dealing with the devil in 17th century Salem.  Psychologically astute but also very compassionate, this is a book about teenagers which adults would enjoy just as much as teenagers.  (Plus – she’s so good at making historical accuracy readable and compelling! A difficult feat.)

On the note of Katherine Howe’s encyclopedic knowledge about the history of American witchcraft, may I direct your attention to the brand-new Penguin Book of Witches.  Edited by Howe herself, this little gem has first-hand sources relating to the belief in witchcraft and persecution of suspected witches, starting with the superstitious King James and then on even past those famous trials in Salem.  It’s not the sort of book you might want to read all in one go, but the individual documents provide a fascinating peep into the minds of people in a time when the influence of black magic was a constant concern.

The second book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series came out this fall, and I liked it just as much as the first one!  Truly terrifying ghostly action, punctuated with saber fights and lively dialogue between the teenaged exorcists who are the series’ heroes.

Another book starring a sarcastic fellow and a whole host of nasty supernatural creatures was William Ritter’s debut novel, JackabyThis one is recommended to both teenagers and adults: the plot is fun and fast, but the monsters are pretty grisly.  Like Sherlock Holmes in a monster movie, with an awkward partnership and false trails promised along the way.  I particularly liked the inclusion of banshees.  (And, of course, the witty banter.)

Jennifer McMahon’s thriller The Winter People came out –appropriately– in the late winter, but it’s got a very spooky atmosphere and some violent ghosts.  A modern girl reads the diary of the woman who used to live on her property, and finds herself enmeshed in over a century of dead children, threatening forest, and seriously bad vibes all around.  The secluded Vermont setting made me very nervous about driving through heavily wooded areas for a few days after I finished.

Josh Malerman’s debut novel Bird Box scared the crap out of me. Don’t ask me what was so scary; it’s better you don’t know.  Just buy it and read it.  But read it on a night where you don’t need much sleep, because you won’t be putting it down until you’ve finished.  I’m still on edge, ten months later.

W.W. Norton released a new annotated collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories just in time of Halloween!  It’s a big, impressive tome full of nightmarish images from the prince of horror himself.  And, if Lovecraft’s haunting stories aren’t enough to get your blood running cold, there are handy notes and further reading in the margins: tour guides to a truly sleepless night.  I grabbed a copy of this book the moment we got it in at the shop, and sent it to one of my closest friends, with whom I used to trade great old scary books every All Hallows Read when we were in University.  It gets his stamp (or shriek) of approval.

I love the Everyman’s Library Pocket series of poetry collections, and this year they blessed us with an anthology devoted to poems about the dead and undead.  It’s like they read my mind!  This macabre sub-genre of poetry isn’t always easy to track down on your own, and now it’s been kindly compiled for freaks like me.  Thanks ever so much.  Best read in a graveyard by moonlight.

The Quick, by Lauren Owen, came out this Spring.  Sort of a mix of Dracula and Oscar Wilde, with some great slaying thrown in for good measure.  I loved the fraught atmosphere of a Victorian London plagued by an otherworldly menace, but the secret societies and gangs of urchins made for some scary reading, too.  And the conversations between dandies were great fun, even while sinister forces lurked in the shadows.

A few new scary books I still need to read:

Anne Rice’s new Lestat book only JUST came out but I am dyyyying to read it! Lestat, Louis, Armand, and their whole gang felt like close friends of mine in middle school and high school. (The Vampire Lestat, Interview With The Vampire, and Queen of the Damned were my first favorites.)  Now there’s a new book featuring The Brat Prince, at last!  My fourteen year old self is just salivating to get sucked back into all that vampire drama again.

A customer bought Emily Carroll’s beautiful and blood-curdling graphic novel, Through The Woods, before I had a chance to read it thoroughly.  But what I flipped through… just wow.  Proper horror and folktale combined, told in few, well chosen, words.  And the images will haunt me forever.

I loved the dangerous faeries and sinister style in Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement, and her newest YA book looks even more disturbing!  Kirkus’s review had this to say: “The atmosphere in Yovanoff’s latest is eerily reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, if only Harper Lee’s Maycomb residents had been given magical families as a focus for theirbigotry.”  I’m so intrigued!

I’ve heard mixed reviews of Lauren Oliver’s new book Rooms, which is aimed at adults (unlike her very popular YA books).  But haunted houses are totally my jam, so I’ll almost certainly read it eventually.  Plus, look at that cover.  Dang.

The Book Smugglers’ review of The Girl From The Well, by Rin Chupeco, has me completely hooked.  Inspired by an old Japanese ghost story and featuring a violent, vengeful spirit, this sounds like exactly my sort of YA horror novel.  I hope to read this one before the year is out.

There are almost certainly new scary books I’ve neglected to mention, but this list has grown mighty long.  Obviously, 2014 has been a spectacular year for scary books. A reason to rejoice for those of us who spend way too much time reading scary stories on crumbling graveyard walls.  As it’s All Hallow’s Read, I hope you all give a scary book to someone, and read one for yourself.  Frighten your loved ones.  Unnerve your friends.  And hey authors: keep writing ghost stories and haunting tales, please!  I love the way you make my blood run cold.

What I Read In September: 13 Books and Then Some

Ahoy there, readers and spies. I’ve got a list for you, today, instead of a proper review. It was a busy month.  I moved into a new apartment, agonized over which books to bring to said apartment, and spent half the month without much internet access.  Maybe it was the stress of relocating that had me reading up a storm.  More likely, it was the lack of Tumblr and Facebook to distract me over breakfast.

Anyway, over at my blog I entertained the notion of listing what I read in September, only to find that this would be a more daunting task than I expected.  I read a lot of books last month!  Some of them I’ve already reviewed here, but I’m afraid others might get lost in the shuffle.  So here’s a (fairly) complete run-down on what I read, what I started, and what I hope to finish soon.  Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Do you think I should maybe get outside more often?  Possibly.  Though I did read some of these out under the first changing leaves.

What I Read In September:

Daughter Of The Forest by Juliette Marillier

A stunning, complex, magical, and heartbreaking re-telling of The Wild Swans fairytale.  Daughter Of The Forest is set in 9th century Ireland, and is the first book in Marillier’s Sevenwaters series.  I thought it was a wonderful story with great historical detail and lovely descriptions.  It also wrenched my heart into a hundred brittle pieces.  In a good way, I promise.  You can read my full review of the book here.

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

A lively Middle Grade novel from the author of Rooftoppers, starring a brave and wild heroine who is forced to leave her home in Zimbabwe for a stuffy English boarding school.  Rundell’s writing was still magical, though I still like Rooftoppers better.  You can read my review here.

Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

I had no idea what to expect with this one, which is a good thing, because Girl Defective rather defies expectations and generalizations.  Set in a wacky Australian record store, this was a YA novel that I think a lot of adults would enjoy, too.  I got really into the character development and the general vibe of Howell’s writing, even though the plot was hard to pin down exactly.  I’ll just say there’s a reason it’s not quite called Girl Detective.  Highly recommended to fans of good realistic coming-of-age stories.  Also recommended to the sort of people who hang out at record stores and bewail the death of vinyl.  I reviewed this one, too.

Jackaby by William Ritter

This one was hard to review.  (But I tried my best.)  I had a fabulous time reading about Abigail and Jackaby’s adventures as investigators of supernatural murders in 19th century New England.  Jackaby satisfied my desires for both banshees and witty banter.  At the same time, the characterization and plot occasionally veered too closely towards obviously well-known literature and/or pop culture.  Still recommended for anyone who likes their mysteries to be macabre, takes their suspects otherworldly, and prefers detectives who are more than a little zany.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This collection of Roxane Gay’s essays, musings, and rants is pretty much everything I love about this fascinating modern age of information.  I waste a lot of time reading literary reviews and criticism of under-representation on various  internet wormholes.  It’s how I learn what’s going on, and the hours of scrolling scrolling scrolling through Tumblr have made me much more aware of how my own privilege and environment have made me predisposed to selfishness.  It’s how I remember to try and look past myself and recognize what’s troubling people I might never meet in real life.  But that method involves a lot of scrolling past cyclical arguments and senseless trolling.  So glory be to the publishing powers on high that Roxane Gay has compiled a whole book full of her interesting, moving, important, and often hilarious thoughts.  She is everything I like best about the bloggy-type world.  Bad Feminist is super easy reading because her style is so convivial, but it actually contains a whole battalion of hard truths ready to rain down wake-up calls on the casual page turner.  Nothing terribly new for Twitter-ers or Tumblr-scrollers, but an enjoyable book which should be thrown at any head which appears to be buried in the sand.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

Click the photo to read my post which includes the recipe for baked apples with custard.

George Orwell’s strange novel was my “classic”-ish book for the month.  I appreciated Keep The Aspidistra Flying more than I would say that I enjoyed it.  The protagonist was frustrating and the setting was bleak.  But Orwell is very talented at relaying a character’s thought process without suggesting that we should agree with the hapless fellow.  I couldn’t hide my smile when Gordon griped inwardly about the more difficult patrons at the bookshop where he works.  This was a sharp look at class and ambition in 1930s England. While the characters’ philosophies put my teeth on edge more than once, I found it to be a smart, wry, and insightful novel.  If I see an aspidistra anytime soon, I’ll probably either laugh to myself or try to throw the plant out a window. I needed to eat a lot of dessert while I read this one, so my embellished thoughts on Keep The Aspidistra Flying can be found in this blog post, which is also a recipe for baked apples with custard.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater (#3 in The Raven Cycle)

I read the ARC of this the very same day I found it on the shelf at my store.  All other reading projects were put the hell on hold.  I’m not going to post my review of Blue Lily, Lily Blue until the book is released, but I can assure all followers of Blue Sargent and the Aglionby Boys that this third installment is a fine addition to The Raven Cycle.  I so very rarely keep up with a series anymore, not because I lose interest in extended story lines but simply because I don’t have the time when so many books for work or review demand my attention.  Maggie Stiefvater’s series is a big fat exception to that rule.  The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves brought our magnificent ensemble cast closer to finding the sleeping legendary Welsh king Glendower, with many a heart-wrenching twist and agonizing turn along the way.  Get ready for even more complications, my friends.  Prepare to tear at your hear and gnash your teeth in distress.  This volume might be the weakest of the three, when I consider it seriously, but the character development continues to be unparalleled even as the complicated plot gets a little muddled.  Oh, and the witticisms.  The banter.  The references to myths and legend and proper tea brewing techniques!  Check back for my full review nearer to the book’s release on October 21st.

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

I had trouble reviewing this book, too. (You can witness my attempts here.)  Nominated for the National Book Award for Young Readers, 100 Sideways Miles is most likely a humorously self-conscious work of realistic YA literature, but it could also be a perplexing story about fate and possible aliens.  No matter what, Andrew Smith has written some passages of freakin’ excellent dialogue between his teenaged characters.  The use of symbolism and wacky facts about the earth’s velocity were nearly as memorable as the central friendship, too.

A Book Of Scottish Verse selected by R. L. Mackie

a book of scottish verseI re-read about 3/4 of the poems in this little old book the night before results came in about the Referendum for Scottish Independence.  I bought the collection when I visited Scotland in the spring, and found it very comforting this month when I was afraid that my chest would explode from all the conflicting emotions.  My poor roommate had to hear to me declaiming William Dunbar’s 15th century verse in early-modern Scots, but she was very patient because I was in distress.  I may or may not have forced her to listen to James Hogg’s “Bonnie Kilmenie gaed up the glen” in its entirety, too.  55% of me – a slim majority – is happy that Scotland is staying within the Union for now, but reading these poems again was a great reminder that my favorite country in all the world needs more freedom and respect than it currently receives.  The more romantic, poetic, dramatic 45% of me is heartbroken.

Dark Spell by Gill Abruthnott

I wanted to read some of the books which have been nominated for the Scottish Children’s Book Award, and a history-infused contemporary fantasy set amongst witches in St Andrews seemed like the right place to start!  I thought the writing and plot were only slightly above average in Dark Spell, but the lovingly-described setting was like a powerful healing potion for my constant homesickness.  My full review of this book is here.

Poisoned Apples: Poems For You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

This was a collection of much more modern poetry than the late-Medieval stuff I was weeping over earlier in the month.  Heppermann bends fairy-tale expectations and society’s demands into thorny new images and broken reflections.  She writes about wicked queens and desperate girls in castles and high school bathrooms and all the fraught places in between. Some of these poems deal very closely with issues like eating disorders and self harm, and while it’s all handled very artfully I did feel my innards twisting up a little at some of the anorexia images.  I’d rather spend my time thinking about fairy tales instead of remembering my old nemesis the eating disorder, but it took a little while for me to shake off the paralyzing mental dust that settled after a few of Heppermann’s poems.  I really recommend this collection to teenaged girls who need a charm for strength or sincerity in the shape of frank and powerful verses, but read with caution if you’ve struggled with difficult issues that aren’t quite banished for good!

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

This book has been thrown at me so many times by my room-mate.  Now that we live under the same roof, have one meager between our bedrooms, and share all those glorious bookcases, it was high time I relented.  Sunshine is a smart urban fantasy with vampires and cinnamon rolls.  The future is weird.  The vampires are scary.  The bakery is wonderful.  McKinley’s writing was almost always incredibly strong, though I think this book could have been about 100 pages shorter and held my attention a little better.  I’m going to try to write a more in-depth review within the next week, as I only finished reading Sunshine two days ago and need to dwell on it a little more.  It stands out amongst a tired genre, that’s for sure, even though it was written several years ago.  Did you know that it was possible to get bent out of shape about baked goods, even while blood’s a-splatterin’ and curses are flying fast?  It’s possible and it’s fun.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The final book I read this month!  And what a way to end September.  Station Eleven deserves more thought than I’ve given it so far, and I don’t want to go into too much detail since lots of people I know are interested in reading it.  A Shakespeare company and Symphony travels around North America, performing to settlements twenty years after a terrible pandemic destroys life as we know it.  The non-linear narrative draws us into several different characters’ lives pre- and post- collapse.  Art, fame, immortality, and the nostalgia for a past which can never be regained are torn apart and put back together as characters alter others’ lives in big or little ways.  The beginning and end of Station Eleven kept my attention better than the middle bit, which focused on the End Of The World stuff too closely while still straining my willingness to suspend disbelief.  But the idea of a Shakespeare company wandering the wreckage is really good. I hope that Station Eleven gets a lot of attention for its lifelike characters and the level-headed writing behind those big ideas.  This is another one that I will try to review sooner rather than later.

Books I started in September, which I aim to finish ASAP:

Heap House by Edward Carey

I’m having trouble getting into this book, even though it’s exactly the sort of glum story I usually enjoy.  I think that I was too frustrated with England when I started reading it, around the time of Scotland’s referendum debates.  I’ll definitely give Heap House another try before it comes out, because I certainly expect to be in the mood for some dry Dickensian humor and Gothic misfortune sometime soon.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

It usually takes me over a week to read a book of nonfiction, since I tend to read a novel or two at the same time to balance out my brain.  I’m about halfway through The Other Wes Moore.  It’s a fascinating book about two boys who grew up in similar circumstances, but one went on to be a White House Fellow and Rhodes scholar while the other went to jail for murder.  The details about each boy’s life make the narrative go quickly, but it’s the portrait of what life was like for young black men in Baltimore (and other cities) at the time which makes this such a universally important book.  I’ll probably finish reading it next week.  October’s nonfiction book will, naturally, be about witches!

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

I read half of this when I visited my house one Sunday.  I had just finished reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue and didn’t want to start another fantasy or YA book for fear of finding it disappointing in comparison.  Wandering up to my old bedroom, which is now the library where the 80% of my books live, I picked this up at random.  Maugham was a good way to waste a few hours, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to it.

All The Wrong Questions # 3: Shouldn’t You Be In School? by Lemony Snicket

That dratted Lemony Snicket!  Can’t he ask the right questions for once in his mysterious life??  This third installment of our young apprentice’s attempts to find answers in an unfathomable town just came out on September 30th, but I read a few chapters of it when I got to work early and saw them sitting in a tantalizing stack by the register.  I guess I’ll have to buy it to find out why school isn’t the right place to be.  (Hint: School is rarely the right place to be when there’s something nefarious afoot.)

So, what’s the final count?  Thirteen books and some change.  Let’s hope that the momentum continues!  But now that I have internet back, it’s time to catch up on what my favorite bloggers have been reading.

YA Summer Books With Depth: My Life Next Door and We Were Liars

Huntley Fitzpatrick, author of My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, gave a reading and talk at my bookshop last Thursday night.  I had a great time hearing about little real-life details which inspire her, and the writing process in general.  Huntley read aloud from her newest YA book, What I Thought Was True, which is a love story between a girl who works year-round on a New England island and one of those dreaded rich “summer boys.”  I haven’t read What I Thought Was True yet, but the piece she read aloud was funny and unexpected and sweet.

huntleyfitz

But… wait a minute!  I don’t ever read novels with candy colored spines or pretty young people modeling beachwear in the sunset.  If I pick up a beach book, it had better feature a pistol duel between mutineering pirates, or some buried treasure, at least.  So why am I talking about realistic, romantic YA all of a sudden?

I’m thrilled that Ms. Fitzpatrick came to our bookshop because she was funny and interesting and started a great conversation with the audience.  But I’m also glad she came because it gave me a reason to pick up her first book, My Life Next Door, which otherwise I might never have read.  Hah… “might never have”…  I almost certainly would not have cracked the spine without an incentive.  And that would have been a big mistake!  Despite the swoon-y cover, My Life Next Door is actually an engaging story with thoroughly unique characters.  It isn’t one of the assembly-line summer romances which flood the shelves every season.  I couldn’t predict what would happen in each chapter according to some tired out pattern of insta-love, misunderstanding, dramatic rebellion, redemption.  The supporting characters and dramatic tension were a step above what I’d expected to find in a book of this genre, and I take back any judgements I foolishly made upon perusing the cover.  (Reminder to self: authors have no say in their book cover.  I guess international editions are even more surprising for the author, sometimes!)

source

Samantha was brought up to dislike the Jarretts next door.  Her mother is an all-too-tidy conservative senator and demanding single parent.  So Samantha has heard no end of complaints about the Jarretts’ messy yard, their overabundance of children, and the general joyful ruckus going on across the fence.  Though she’s not spiteful by nature, Samantha watches the Jarretts from her balcony every night, where she imagines what it must be like within that lively house with such a close family.  Then, one day, Jase Jarrett climbs up her balcony and asks if she needs rescuing.  Typically, this would be the part of the book when I throw up my hands in dismay and shout “UGH!” to the heavens. But I kept reading because…well…  I liked Samantha.  I wanted to see how she would react. And I liked what she saw of the Jarrett family.  No better fuel for good stories like a big, rambunctious family, eh?

The main characters were likable and not melodramatic about their attraction.  Huzzah!  The “minor” characters got plenty of attention, and had really interesting back-stories and plot-lines of their own.  Double huzzah!  When speaking at the bookshop, Huntley Fitzpatrick  said that she sometimes noticed that Tim – Samantha’s best friend’s deadbeat but complex brother, and my own favorite character – kept running away with the story and threatening to become the hero.  I wouldn’t have been surprised.  She did such a good job of making sure that each and every character had their own developments to undergo in the course of this one summer.  Nan and Tim’s family life, Samantha’s mother’s troubling new campaign manager, and the side-dramas experienced in the Jarrett household were all crucial elements to Sam and Jase’s story.   That’s probably why I liked My Life Next Door so much: it was a book about how different people interact, and two of those people just happened to fall in love.  Take away the romance and the (refreshingly frank/realistic) sexual tension, and the story would still have been utterly readable.  Good job, Huntley Fitzpatrick!  Thanks for writing about teens in a way which neither trivializes them nor tries to make them so-edgy-it’s-just-silly.

While thinking about My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, I also remembered how much I liked E. Lockhart’s new book We Were Liars.  I read that one in the winter, so my thoughts aren’t quite so fresh in my head, but it would be a terrible shame not to recommend it here.

We Were Liars and My Life Next Door were each rather stressful reads in their own way, with moral conundrums all over the place. While Fitzpatrick’s book has social and political tension to keep things exciting, We Were Liars has a dark mystery at it’s heart.  The reasons for Cadence’s damaged memory are as foggy as the details from the summer of her accident.  She’s been kept in the dark about what happened, but upon returning to the family island she starts to notice that things are a little different.  Her mother and aunts aren’t getting along very well.  Her demanding grandfather is being particularly difficult.  And her friendship with her two cousins and Gat Patil – who she’s grown to probably-love after so many summers with “the Liars” – is weirder than usual.

Why don’t the three of them ever go to the new big house for meals or activities?  Why is there a new house in the first place?  In her uncertain absence, everything seems to have been thrown out of balance, and it just might be her fault.  Unfortunately, no one will tell her what happened.  So she’ll have to find out for herself, even if it means destroying the careful peace of the family’s island paradise.

There was quite a bit of buzz circulating book-world about We Were Liars, but I was determined not to have any set expectations when I read it.  But it’s hard not to make early judgements… as I find out again and again.  My first thoughts upon reading the book were along these lines:

“Ugh, rich people on fancy islands are the worst.”

“Has this family ever set foot into the real world?”

“I wish the patriarch wouldn’t be such an asshole about his grandson’s Indian friend.”

But then I realized something: I felt like I was on the island myself.  I felt like a part of Cadence’s weird family.  When she and her cousins explored the ocean or told secrets under the night sky, I wanted to be part of their group.  It got to the point where I felt like I had seen the island before.  I could describe each and every house to you, even now, months after reading. The setting is so typical of these beachy YA summer novels, but Lockhart sets the scene for her events so well that you’ll forget about any other book’s vague sandy paradise descriptions you’ve had to slog through.  We Were Liars is a short, fast book and nothing is ever a slog.

The plot really extends over two summers, while memories from several previous years filter in and out of Cadence’s reminiscence. The first year she met Gat.  Happy younger days. Distinctly less-happy present ones.  A dreamy atmosphere – brought about by the gaps in her memory as well as the idyllic setting – sets the stage for a series of revelations which come so subtly.  The characters sneak into your brain and heart without asking permission first.  We see everything through Cadence’s eyes, her family and their messed-up priorities, so her dawning horror becomes our own.  I didn’t realize how invested I’d let myself become in the story until I closed the book and realized that I was crying buckets in a not-so-adorable way.

All that initial eye-rolling and frustrated exclaiming was actually adept build-up to the heart of the novel, and now I see why Lockhart chose to make it difficult to muster up sympathy for parts of Cadence’s family.  When you do end up feeling for them, you feel a lot. So yes, We Were Liars got to me, and the book-hype was not disproven after all.

(Last summer, in my back-to-school phase, I reviewed Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, which was not as good as We Were Liars but still pretty fun.)

Two YA “beach reads” with unforseen depths below the surface, lying in wait for the venturesome browser: is it a miracle for this modern age?  A stroke of luck?  Did I just happen to pick up the right two sun-dappled covers because of sheer dumb luck?  I will admit that books like these don’t usually commandeer my attention, but even with no mutinous duels and very little swashbuckling they were very much worth the few hours’ perusal.  If anyone has suggestions of other great stories masquerading as trashy beach reads, please direct my attention to them at once!  I’m not necessarily ready to chart a course for a season of summer romance stories just ey, as I don’t like the sun and heartaches make me seasick.  But I’m willing to re-think my position on them, if there are others like My Life Next Door and We Were Liars waiting just over the horizon.  Please leave suggestions.

Be they cannons blazing, or passions; masts shattering, or hearts, I hope you enjoy your summer reading.

Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings

“Tam Lin” is a Scottish ballad which has been adapted into a great many songs and stories. There are many different versions of the ballad, all of which follow the same general plot and central characters. My favorite musical recordings of the song are probably those by Fairport Convention and Tricky Pixie, though there are countless others out there for your Youtubing pleasure. If you want to look at a large selection of the ballad variations, have a scroll through this page. “Tam Lin” is Child Ballad #39, and the story is still well-known today. I’ve summarized the general story here, based on my own favorite versions.

tam lin

Tam Lin – The Faery Host by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

The legend: Janet, daughter of the lord who owns the land, breaks the rule never to go to Carterhaugh and picks a forbidden rose there. The woods are off-limits because, as the song tells us at its opening, young Tam Lin guards the place and takes either the green mantles or maidenhead of any girl who trespasses. Tam Lin appears to Janet, demanding why she’s come to Carterhaugh without his permission, and she retorts (rather smarmily, in some versions) that she can come and go as she pleases because she was given Carterhaugh by her father.

The ballads usually gloss over the following events, but it seems that Tam Lin likes her defiant/entitled spirit, and she falls for him too (once he stops shouting at her about flowers, I assume). The point is: things get consummated in the woods. Probably a little mossy, and most certainly a bit surprised by the un-planned direction of her afternoon, Janet returns to her father’s hall. It quickly becomes obvious that she’s pregnant, but Janet refutes everyone’s curiosity about who the baby’s father might be by declaring that her lover was an Elfin knight, who she’d not trade for any knight of her father’s human court.

After nine months, our forthright and loyal lassie returns to Carterhaugh (sometimes she’s looking for an abortive herb at this stage), and asks Tam Lin how he got stuck guarding the forest in the first place. It turns out he was kidnapped by the Fairy Queen and has become a human member of her court; he haunts Carterhaugh at the Queen’s bidding. Tam Lin also tells Janet that every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe to Hell, sacrificing a member of her court. Being a human, handsome, and one of the Queen’s favorite knights, he is almost certain that the sacrifice this year will be himself. Janet’s not keen to let the Fairy Queen give her lover over to the fiends of Hell. When Tam Lin tells her that she might be able to save him if she yanks him from his horse as the Fairy Host rides through the woods on Hallowe’en, she gets all heroic despite the added inconvenience of being incredibly pregnant.

At Miles Cross, Janet waits on a stormy night to witness the court go riding by. As Tam Lin had instructed, she lets the black horses pass by, and then the brown, and when she sees the white horse at the end of the procession she pulls the rider down. The faeries turn Tam Lin into all sorts of horrible creatures in an attempt to force Janet to release her hold on him: lions, snakes, bears – it varies from song to song but they’re always mean and bite-y. But she was warned of this, too, and hangs on. Even when Tam Lin turns into a burning brand in her hands, she holds fast, and eventually he turns back into himself, naked and rather bedraggled, and she covers him with her green mantle. The end of this action is usually the end of the narrative.

The Fairy Queen almost always ends the song with some bitter and imperious line about how she would have turned Tam Lin’s heart to stone; or his body into a tree; or taken out his eyes, had she known what would transpire that night. We’re left to assume that Janet and Tam Lin limp off into the night to figure out their unnatural family dynamic in peace, while the Fairy court presumably has some last-minute alterations to make to their plan.

It’s a wonderful ballad, with several important symbols and elements which make it work out both as a piece of fairy-lore and as a compelling story. You need the forbidden woods to be mysterious, and their guardian Tam Lin to be both powerful and vulnerable: frightened for his own life while still in touch with Fairy land’s magic. Janet’s got to be youthfully hot-headed at the beginning, and turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by Hallowe’en. The ballad might be named after Tam Lin, but the story’s actually about Janet. I think that her behavior upon learning that she’s pregnant is incredibly important: Janet’s not going to be bullied by the expectations of stuffy old court traditions. She’s comfortable with herself and generally the sort of leading lady you want to cheer for.

Most importantly, in my opinion, the scene at Miles Cross needs to be dangerous and otherworldly, so that Janet’s bravery in the face of the Fairy Court can be properly appreciated. The Fairy Queen is one of my favorite characters out of every myth, legend, and ballad I’ve ever encountered. She doesn’t ascribe to mere human manners or morals, but there are folkloric conventions her character really ought to fulfill. The Queen of the Fairy Court – sometimes specified as the Unseelie Court – should be powerful, impatient, and utterly self-obsessed. (You see why we would get along.) The dangers of crossing this lady cannot be taken lightly, so her formidable presence highlights Tam Lin’s peril and Janet’s courage.

Finally, the rules and magical logic which apply to freeing a knight from the Fairy Court are steeped in tradition and very important. Various interpretations of the story change up the forms Tam Lin takes, but the point is that Janet holds on. She gets beaten, bitten, bruised, and burned, with whole host of immortal creatures watching her agony from horseback. But fairy stories are governed by tests and loopholes, so when she wins her love fairly, there’s naught the court can do. Names are always important in fairy stories. Promises are binding and when you’re forbidden from speaking or moving you’d better hold your tongue and stand very still. Just as characters in these songs and tales must follow the twisted rules which create their world, so should re-worked interpretations pay attention to the necessary patterns. A novel which draws on any folk ballad or legend can change all sorts of characters and plot points to its heart’s content, in my opinion, as long as the canon functions of Fairyland get their due respect. Sometimes authors bend the rules, and when it’s cleverly done those alterations are exciting. If bits and pieces of similar stories are wisely, cleverly sampled to form one big narrative, the results can be spectacular; Fire & Hemlock contains threads from “Tam Lin,” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” all twisted into one big ol’ gorgeous novel. It’s frustrating when an author ignores vital parts of the folkloric tradition just to suit their own convenience, especially when drawing inspiration from such a well-known ballad as “Tam Lin,” but any story with hints of Fairy’s sinister, timeless magic is worth investigating.

Below are some of books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I’ve read. There are so many different versions of the ballad itself, so certain themes are more prevalent in each authors’ writing style. Not everything inspired by the ballad is necessarily a faithful re-telling; some of these books just borrow from the plot or make use of the key elements. Tithes to Hell, forbidden woods, and angry Fairy Queens tend to make for an interesting story. Anyone with books to add to the list and opinions to share should speak up in the comments, because I’m always on the hunt for more to read on the subject.

Books I’ve Read:

Fire & Hemlock by Dianna Wynne Jones

souce: goodreads

One of my favorite fantasy novels, making a near-perfect use of all those mythical rules I went on about, and then twisting them in the best of ways. Even though the main character is a child for most of the book, it is (and should be) a favorite amongst adult fantasy enthusiasts. I love that Polly recognizes the similarities between her own adventure and the old ballads, and uses this to her advantage. Very highly recommended to anyone who likes their stories to be full of layered inferences to the old stories and songs.

Tithe by Holly Black

source: goodreads

Again, a book which includes certain characters and plot points of the ballad without being a thorough re-telling. Good, gritty YA with a firm grasp on fairy lore. I loved Tithe as a pre-teen and still think it’s pretty great. The Fairy Courts (both Seelie and Unseelie) are described particularly well.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

source: wikipedia

You can read my full rant and review here, in its own post. Pamela Dean’s book contains interesting allusions to the old folk stories and songs, which are fun to hunt for through the pages, but with a title so obviously referencing the ballad I was disappointed with the re-telling. The action of the ballad is set on a college campus in the 1970’s, over the course of Janet’s four years as an undergraduate. Rather than just borrowing from the legend, Tam Lin enticed me with the idea of a thorough re-telling with connections between nearly every character and plot point. Unfortunately, it felt imbalanced with too much homework and not enough of a magical atmosphere.

Added July 13, 2014: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

I read Thorn Jack without so many expectations, after learning my lesson with Dean’s Tam Lin.  Despite some immature writing and a bothersome romance, I really liked it.  Goes to show that it’s better to read with an open mind.  Thorn Jack borrows from the Tithe aspect of Tam Lin, and has a magnificent Faery Court disguised as wealthy young people.  The plot twists away from the ballad’s original pattern, borrowing an awful lot from Celtic faery mythology to create a huge (and sometimes confusing) cast of minor characters.  The references to Tam Lin are pretty good, and it was a fun book despite the clutter.  My full review is here.

Books inspired by “Tam Lin” which I haven’t read yet include:

The Perilous Guard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson

Which of these should I read first? Suggestions? Opinions? Books I’ve not yet heard of that I need to track down ASAP? I’m always excited to read another take on my favorite fairy story – be it literary fiction or pulp fantasy or something in between – so please chime in with whatever comes to mind.

I feel like I’ve saturated the blog with fairytales and folklore this spring, so maybe it’s time for some other subjects, soon. I hope my unofficial Fairy Fest, 2014 hasn’t been too unbearable for those of you who prefer cutlasses to curses. Swashbuckling heroics and clever kid’s books are on the way, I promise. For now, I’ve just got to wait out this folklore virus and enjoy every page of it.

Some St Patrick’s Day Reading Suggestions

Way way back in 2011, in honor of Bloomsday (even though I couldn’t actually finish UlyssesI listed three examples of good Irish books to read.  Well, I figure it’s about time I expanded that list a little.  There are probably hundreds of Irish books I could recommend for the occasion, and even more which are inspired by that marvelous and literary country. But we’ve not got time to sort through a list of titles longer than the road is long, so here are some of my particular favorites chosen from the crowd:

The Burning Of Bridget Cleary is an astoundingly compelling book which Jane Yolen recommended to me years ago.  I usually have trouble getting into nonfiction, but this true story is so strange, so twisted, and so evocative of more magical times that I get fully absorbed every time I go back and read it.  The Burning of Bridget Cleary is the true story of a village in county Tipperary who believe that a clever and slightly strange woman, Bridget, is a changeling and to get rid of the evil faery spirits they burn her. Even her husband believes this to be true. Did I mention that this incident happened in 1895? That’s not much more than a century ago! I re-read the book while I was in Ireland last year, and looked at all the old cottages and the sprawling farms under the spell of this tragedy whenever I rode past small villages on the bus.  It’s a book you won’t soon forget, and shows how superstition and fear can influence whole communities through the lens of this one tragic event.  Angela Bourke is an excellent authority on the subject; she speaks Irish and lectures on the language and Irish oral tradition in several respected universities in Ireland and America. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in Irish folklore, 19th century history, and even true crime.

When I was a teenager, I picked up John The Revelator by Peter Murphy randomly one day because it had a crow on the spine, but lo and behold it was about two things I love: childhood and Ireland. I was told it compared to an Irish, modern Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and being one of Mark Twain’s biggest fans I purchased this book immediately. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it was as good as Tom Sawyer, John The Revelator gave a lasting impression of what it was like to come of age in the South East of Ireland under the guidance of a very sick mother, a nosy and intrusive neighbor (the perfect caricature of the traditional well-to-do old Irish woman), and a mischievous and persuasive best friend. The book tackles religion, the law, loyalty, and innocence without ever becoming too preachy, and in fact the moralizing characters are generally disliked. How could it be otherwise when the narrator is relatively normal boy with a slightly unhealthy obsession with bugs? There is also a certain creepy atmosphere of doom and very-Irish-gloom throughout the whole novel which, naturally, I rather enjoyed.

I read Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl over the summer, upon my bookshop manager’s recommendation (although he wasn’t my manager yet at the time, I’ve just always trusted his suggestions).  I actually didn’t know much about Ms. O’Brien before I read the book, but she wrote so beautifully about growing up in rural Ireland, and then about growing into a writer while trying to make a life in bigger cities, that I felt like I’d known her for ages as I read.  Memoirs aren’t always my cup of tea, but when the writer can describe the setting for her own life’s story in such vivid and amusing detail as this, I can be won over completely.  I particularly like her memories of being a young child in a small town – so different from my own childhood, and yet she captures the aches and joys of being young and in the country so accurately I forgot that I didn’t grow up in the same time period and place.  The later half of the book has some great details about her famous friends, as well, though I preferred the early half simply for the setting. 

If you’re after good memoirs about decades past in Ireland, also check out Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir Of A Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain.

My favorite Irish children’s book might be The Hounds Of The Morrigan by Pat O’Shea.  I wish wish wish it were still more readily available, but since it came out over two decades ago you’ll probably have to find it either from used bookshops or appeal to your trusty librarians.  This is a fantasy adventure in a similar style to Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series or even Dianna Wynne Jones’s children’s books, but with a wonderfully hilarious style akin to Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  Two young Dubliners – 10 year old Pidge and his hilarious little sister Bridget – encounter figures straight out of Irish mythology as they embark on an epic adventure, hotly pursued by the hound servants of the Morrigan, who wants to take control of a mysterious old book Pidge has come across.  The range of characters is spectacular, and the story moves along at a sprightly pace.  I loved this one as a middle schooler, but re-read it in University and was happy to recognize even more references to the legends and folktales I’ve read along the course of my life.  Highly recommended to anyone who misses the fantasy books of the past few decades, children and adults alike, as well as to people who like their Celtic Mythology to be lightened with a bit of clever, youthful humor.

Finally, I would be much remiss if I didn’t mention my beloved W.B Yeats.  I was lucky enough to see a whole exhibit devoted to his life and works at Trinity University last year, and have been a big fan of his writing for a long time.  I’ll admit that I only understand about 70% of his poems – the more metaphysical stuff goes right over my head – but he has such a varied and impressive collection of work there’s bound to be a poem which speaks right to the soul of pretty much everyone.  Most of my favorite English-language poems from Ireland were written by this fellow, and if you haven’t read at least one of his poems yet, do so without any further delay! Yeats covers pretty much every subject that I care about: Ireland, faeries, the troubles of growing old, and history. Actually, one of his poems, “To Ireland in The Coming Times” covers the majority of these subjects at once. My favorite of his poems has to be “The Stolen Child,” which I first heard while studying Irish Dance as a child, and I think it captures the appeal of Irish faery-lore pretty damned perfectly, and childhood as well.   Other favorite poems of his include “A Faery Song,”, “A Crazed Girl”, “The Wild Swans At Coole”, and “When You Are Old”.  Seriously, just go to the library, grab a collection of Yeats’s poems, flip open to a random page, and read what you will.  Flip around until you find something which has the power to move you to tears.  I promise you there’s at least one poem which will make you want to weep in the hills of Ireland somewhere until you can weep no more.

Other suggestions for newer Irish books, which I’ve browsed through at my bookshop but haven’t yet read, include:

The Gamal by Ciaran Collins

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

The River And Enoch O’Reilly by Peter Murphy

City Of Bohane by Kevin Barry

Greyhound Of A Girl by Roddy Doyle (a children’s novel by the author of Guts and The Corrections)

Any favorite Irish books to add to the list?  What are you reading this St Patrick’s Day?  I’m planning to eat soda bread, play the tin whistle very badly, and recite The Stolen Child at anyone who crosses my path.

Reading vs. Research: Pirate Edition (and a reading list)

This is yer Captain speaking.  We’ll be taking a quick break from the folklore and fairy tales for this very important compendium of pirate and nautical literature I compiled a while ago.  I’ve attempted to make clear the distinction between books I read for fun and books which are research, but those lines keep crossing over themselves whenever I least expect it. This is by no means a complete list, but for anyone who wants to read some jolly swashbuckling tales or learn more about the Age of Sail, you might find something of interest.  Please comment with any recommendations, if you will!

One of two pirate shelves in my room.

As if my poor brain wasn’t taxed enough trying to keep books I just want to enjoy separate from books full of information I need to understand, there are certain times when I think I’m just reading something for fun, only to realize that I ought to be taking notes for a novel or story I’ve got in the works. And there are times when the opposite is true: I expect to learn a lot from a book and then I close it hours later having had a jolly time between the pages, but I’m no more educated than I was when I started. I’m going to try and explain this distinction using some of the books I’ve read or researched on the subjects of piracy and maritime history/adventure, because no time spent reading about scurvy knaves and mutinous plots is time wasted.

1. Black Jacks: African American Seamen In The Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster = RESEARCH

This book is full of exactly the sort of information I desperately needed to figure out for the Middle Grade novel I’m writing. The author did a phenomenal amount of research, and has peppered his facts and figures with some truly excellent anecdotes of brave seafaring escapes and daring (well deserved) rebellions. It’s an exciting book, but definitely a history text instead of a fast-paced narrative. I doubt I’ll end up reading every page of Black Jacks, as it’s due back at the library soon, but will probably end up skipping around to all the passages which talk about black pirates specifically. That being said, there are some history buffs, nonfiction readers, and salty souls out there who could probably get through this book as a weekend’s reading. It’s written well and super interesting, and I do heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in this most worthy of subjects. If my own word is not enough for ya’ (and why should it be? I want to steal boats for a living!), here’s an article about an inmate who was imprisoned for bank robbery, but got inspired by Black Jacks to work towards a goal of eventually becoming a sailor, as the sea had always called to him.

Source: Washington Post

My weather-beaten and unfeeling heart was warmed near to cooking when I saw that W. Jeffrey Bolster and Gregory White had kept in touch throughout his incarceration, and that this fellow sea-rover had realized his dream of freedom at last. Good stuff, eh? That’s one of the most uplifting true stories I’ve read in a while. Three cheers for books, for the sea, for Gregory White, and for the long list of Black mariners from centuries past who are getting attention at last! Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

2. Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell = READING TURNED RESEARCH

I took this one off my nautical shelf after I finished reading Bird because I needed to get myself back into pirate-mode but I still wanted to get lost in some good children’s fiction. Powder Monkey is a novel for young people, though I’d not readily give it to any youngsters who are too faint of heart as it’s bloody and historically accurate in its grim portrayal of the 19th century Navy life. I thought this book would be a gripping adventure, and was thus prepared to get fully absorbed in the shipboard drama and perilous environment which I so adore in my favorite books about Naval sailing ships. Powder Monkey seemed like a Young Adult foray into a genre which boasts excellent historical fiction like Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series. There were plenty of similarities, to be sure, but Powder Monkey wasn’t quite so up-to-snuff in the plot and character divisions. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, I had a great time reading it, despite the many gruesome sights our poor young hero must face as a pressed lad helping to man a cannon in a time of war. The thing is, I think that I liked Powder Monkey so much because I expend an unusual amount of brain power worrying about press gangs and trying to figure out how a sextant works or what disaster would have to befall a person to warrant a hook for a hand. These are not necessarily the concerns of every young scamp. What might have been a somewhat less-than-inspiring quest for entertainment turned into a really exciting two days of research. Once I stopped grumbling to myself about the thin plot and started admiring Dowswell’s portrayal of life aboard the Miranda – not an easy life for a lad – I was happy to read Powder Monkey all the way through. Some of those harrowing facts and descriptions will haunt me for a good long while. I just wouldn’t press the book on a kid who wasn’t already interested in learning about the age of sail.

3. Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer = READING

Just read this book, you lubbers, and you can thank me later. This is everything a YA novel about the age of sail should be. It does provide a fairly faithful picture of life for a wayward ragamuffin at sea, but the story and – most importantly – the characters are so good that you won’t want to put the book down for a moment even to find a pen or look something up on Wikipedia. I’ve written a longer review of Bloody Jack here and can assure you all that it’s one of my top fifteen favorite books of all time. The following two books in the Jacky Faber series, The Curse of The Blue Tattoo and Under The Jolly Roger are also excellent, though the series gets a little drawn-out from there. No matter! Jacky Faber is one of the best narrators in children’s fiction, and the sort of scallywag I wish I could be. I re-read this first book frequently whenever I’m missing Bar Harbor, and while it certainly gets me keen to write my own pirate book, I’d absolutely call what I do “reading” instead of “research,” because I’m usually clutching at my heart in a fit of emotion or laughing way too hard to get any real booklearnin’ done from these adventures. Go and find this book right now. Captain’s orders.

4. On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers = READING

I bought this book years ago, when the pirate novel I was writing at the time bore very little resemblance to the book I’m working on now. I wanted to have a supernatural bent to my own story at the time, and maybe include the ghosts of some pirates past. Years went by, I read many a book which included real historical figures as characters and sent hapless young protagonists back in time, and I eventually decided to toss those notions overboard. Maybe when I was trying to fit ghosts and magic spells into my own story, On Stranger Tides might have had some useful information in it. But while it is definitely a thrilling and swashbuckling romp, the details of the plot must be taken with a whole fistful of salt. For one thing, there’s voodoo and magic. I love me some voodoo and magic – in fact, I write about them all the time! However, it’s important that we remember that most pirates terrorized the shores and sea without the assistance of talismans or curses. Even as far as superstitions go, Powers has definitely adjusted the historical facts to suit his narrative. And why shouldn’t he? This is storytelling, after all! I liked the supernatural aspects of On Stranger Tides just fine, but would not take anything I discovered from the story as historical inspiration unless I’d found some other trustworthy sources. There’s also the weird inclusion of very real pirates in the totally fictional story, which might be fun for some readers but never failed to trip me up. Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, Jack Rackham, and several of my other heroes make cameo appearances in On Stranger Tides, and whenever I encountered one of them I always wondered, “but what were they actually doing on that particular Wednesday?” These were real live ladies and gents of fortune, and it’s perfectly fine to fictionalize their lives to enrich the plot of a novel, but that makes the novel good for entertainment purposes only.

5. Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton = RESEARCH

This handy encyclopedia contains “a miscellany of the sea and all things nautical,” and it’s been a stalwart companion while I write. A good friend gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago, in Scotland, and she clearly knew me better than I knew myself because I don’t know how I would get through a chapter without it, now. The entries are brief and fascinating; it’s not exactly a complete account of every fact ever associated with the sea, but provides excellent inspiration when I’m wondering, what nautical fact could I throw into this chapter to make it more…briny? Breverton’s collection contains a whole list of Pirate Haunts And Targets; explanations of how common phrases originated from shipboard life; tiny biographies of impressive sailors, including scores of sea-dogs I’d never heard of before; and very helpful explanations of weapons from the Age of Sail, which I have consulted many a time this month. The chapter I’m working on right now deals with weaponry and I’m completely baffled by the amount of Things Designed To Kill You which existed back then. So thanks, Terry Breverton, for making my research so easy to tackle! This book is invaluable to my own research, but I promise you it would make an excellent gift for anyone who likes sea stories and/or random curiosities. Pages and pages of fun facts, I tell you! Amuse and impress your friends, enemies, and that person next to you on the ferry with obscure histories about doomed warships and the etymological origins of sea-slang. Or just give them Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities and they can amuse and impress themselves…

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Other pirate books to read for fun:

Pirates! by Celia Reese – Good historical fiction and girls kicking butt!

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson – A jolly adventure for younger readers.

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – My favorite story in the history of stories.  Captain Hook is a classic.

Capt. Hook: Adventures of a Notorious Youth by J.V. Hart and illus. by Brett Helquist – Great twist on Captain Hook’s backstory.  Obstinate young scallywags causin’ all sorts of trouble.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – Another classic sea adventure.  Long John Silver is one of the best pirate characters in history.  I want to be him when I grow up.

Silver: Return To Treasure Island by Andrew Motion – I bought this in Edinburgh last year and still haven’t read it.  Once it’s summer I intend to re-read Treasure Island and then dive into this continuation.

A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes –  Wildly under-appreciated novel about a pirate crew which ends up in charge of a bunch of children.  I get really excited about it here and even have it as one of my “staff picks” at the bookshop.

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – Ridiculous but fun swashbuckling thriller.  Best taken with the same grains of salt as On Stranger Tides.

Other pirate books recommended for research:

If A Pirate I Must Be: The True Story Of “Black Bart”, King Of The Caribbean Pirates by Richard Sanders – I read this when I was in high school and Bartholomew Roberts has been one of my favorite pirates ever sense.  Entertaining story of an unbelievably cool captain.

The Republic Of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard – I think the subtitle says it all.  A rather sensationalized account of pirates and their enemies, but includes tons of great facts and talks about several important figures.

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story Of Captain Kidd by Richards Zacks – Whole book entirely about Captain Kidd, which was a gripping read but had tons of great information.  Helped me appreciate the sea shanty, too. 

Under The Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly – Real pirate adventures were sometimes even more bloody and thrilling than the myths Cordingly dispels.

A General History Of The Robberies And Murders Of The Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (pseudonym) 1724. – Excellent contemporary account of real pirates written during the Age of Sail.  Shows how the world pirates lived in viewed them and profiles some Captains best not forgotten.  This book is still in print today.

Easy-to-read history books which mention some admirable pirates:

Famous Last Words by Jonathan Green – A morbid and entertaining collection of the last thing people said before they died.  Includes some great 18th century zingers as well as criminal’s last declarations before being executed, tragi-comical accidents, and some rather touching examples too.

Badass by Ben Thompson – An entire book devoted to famous badasses from history, written by the fellow behind badassoftheweek.com.  Naturally there are plenty of sword-weilding action heroes from the sea as well as land.  Includes Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, and Lord Nelson, amongst others.  You can read an old review I wrote of it here.

Princess Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie – Each chapter is about a princess from history who decided to lead thrilling lives of ill-repute.  Includes lady pirates and generally inspiring role models for every young lass who likes sporting a crown and a cutlass in equal measure.

There are plenty more books on the subject which I recommend, and infinitely more which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  Only last week I was at a bookstore in Central Square which had a whole little section devoted to Nautical resources!  As you might imagine, my inner pirate capered throughout the shelves in jubilation.

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By the time I’m finished writing this damned book, I’m sure that there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of additions to this list.  Some books will be full of shocking facts, others with thrilling stories, and undoubtably some with appallingly bad writing.  To all of the above, I say huzzah!  Bring it all on, me hearties, because there’s a lot I still don’t know about seafaring life.  The only solution is to keep on reading.

Four New Books from HarperCollins: The Bookshelf Pirate Has Dinner With Authors

People keep making the mistake of letting me out into public. A pirate on cold medicine in a restaurant full of book people: this situation had the potential to end in broken glass, spoiled endings, and elaborate apologies. But, for reasons which continue to befuddle yet flatter me, my coworkers and other literary grown-ups keep treating me like a real person. I got the wonderful opportunity to have dinner at Erbaluce – in Boston – with some fellow booksellers from the area, the lovely reps from HarperCollins, and four absolutely smashing debut authors. The food was amazing, the books sound fantastic, and as far as I can tell no one was physically injured in the course of the evening! At least, no one was run through with a cutlass or butter knife, and therefore I can call the night a success.

In a strange and delicious combination of musical chairs and literary speed dating, a knife was clanged against a wine glass in between each course to haul the poor authors out of their chairs and to a different end of the big table. This ensured that we got to speak to each of them for a part of the evening, and kept the waiters on their toes. (I should note that the staff at Erbaluce was so patient with us. They’re obviously enthusiastic about the food and the atmosphere where they work, and it was such a pleasant experience.) There was a really interesting mix of people; each of them had such a different writing experience to share and wacky areas of expertise gleaned from research and work and life. The books aren’t necessarily similar to one another in genre or purpose, but all four seem really interesting and I can’t wait to get started on the stack once I finish reading The Accursed.  Here are the books HarperCollins was promoting.

The book which intrigued me most, with its mysterious summary and a sinister atmosphere that practically leaked out of the pages, is called Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I’m certainly going to read this one first. I’m a grim little person and the very little I know about Bird Box makes it sound like just my cup of menacing and brackish tea.

No one will let slip any concrete details about the plot of Bird Box, but it seems to be one of those gripping, horrifying tales which ensnares your attention at the beginning and completely ruins you for any weekend plans. That’s what I hear from everyone who’s read it, anyway… Hugh Howey, author of Wool, says this about Bird Box: “A book that demands to be read in a single sitting, and through the cracks between one’s fingers” One thing I can say for sure is that no one seems to have read only a few chapters of this book. It’s of the dreaded “unputdownable” variety, the sort of tense and mind-blowing read – supposedly – which gets into your brain and shakes you awake at night.

The story follows a woman as she rows down a river with two young children, blindfolded. That image alone is enough to hold my attention hostage. If there’s a combination I love, its desperation and boats! Where are they going? Why aren’t they looking? So many questions, and I’m nervous about the answers. While I’m not always keen on post-apocalyptic settings, I am very keen on atmospheric adventure novels and surreal horror stories. Bird Box brings characters out of a boarded up house into an outdoors so dangerous you can’t look around you without going fatally mad. Damn it, I’m already desperate to find out more, and I haven’t even started the book yet!

An author willing to eat his own book. Photo from Josh’s twitter. (Note the fine photography skills of his portside dining companion.)

Josh Malerman was great fun to sit next to for the first portion of our dinner. He listens to horror movie soundtracks, is part of a band (I really hope we get to hear a sinister soundtrack to go along with Bird Box someday), and knew an awful lot about all things freaky and weird. I’ve got to say that it put me at ease to sit next to someone who would talk about about H. P. Lovecraft at my first-ever professional dinner. (At the last dinner party I attended, my dining companions were confused about my “halloween scarf” and no one had any opinions about haunted houses. This evening was way more fun.) Nice to let the inner demons out in public now and then. Josh and his fiancee were so interesting and full of creative energy; I envy their talent, and wish I could harness some of that artistic vigor. It sounds like the book has already been snatched up by the film world, too, and I’m intrigued to see what they do with a story which relies so much upon what is not seen and what is unknown. I can’t wait to read Bird Box and get stuck in a nightmarish world full of scenes to fuel my own sleep-screaming fests.

Smith Henderson, who used his years as a social worker to inspire Fourth Of July Creek, sat by me next when the wine glass was clanged and the appetizers cleared away. (My starter was a very good fishy broth with chunks of lobster and veggies.) If I recall correctly, it took him something like ten years to write this novel, but I get the feeling it will have been worth all the time and effort. Fourth Of July Creek will probably be the sort of book one person in Concord reads and then starts talking about to all their friends. We do love our stories of isolated weirdos and messed up families. So much fodder for book clubs and heated conversation!

Henderson’s book sounds like it will be a distinctly American and utterly fascinating read. Here’s the summary from HarperCollins:

After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face to face with the boy’s profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.

But as Pete’s own family spins out of control, Pearl’s activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.

You may recall from my University years that I am really interested in wild children living in wacky environments. I spent six months dwelling on (and writing about/weeping over) literature portraying kids in volatile environments where adults are either nonexistent or irresponsible. So the premise of Fourth of July Creek really appeals to me. I’ve also been thinking about the wilderness, survival, and the strange world of inland America a lot lately. I have never been to the Midwest; the bookshelf pirate clings to various coastlines, and Montana seems as alien to me as Antarctica or Saturn. But it’s important that we broaden our horizons, and since there’s a really compelling story to sweep my imagination across the country, I think I’ll really enjoy this novel’s setting.

Smith has lived in conservative Montana but also Portland, I believe, and therefore he has a really good grasp on the area’s unique brand of weirdness both as a first-hand observer and a rational outsider. I trust him to portray the situations in his novel with integrity and vivid detail, because when we spoke I was entertained by the details and stories he shared with us about each of the very different places where he’s lived. He might not be good at guessing peoples’ weird fetishes after a few big glasses of wine, but he has an eye for human nature and a talent for turning little oddities into really amusing anecdotes. (Do I look like the cloven-hoof sort? Now I’m re-thinking the scull scarf decision…) I hope that his experience in social work will ensure that this novel’s characters are believable and complex as well as dramatic. I can see myself recommending Fourth of July Creek to people looking for a riveting airplane read or something diverting to bring on a camping trip. It comes out in June, but I want to read my advanced copy before the summer starts as a reminder that the USA can be a stage for all sorts of big bad drama and strange beliefs.

The Bees, by Laline Paull, might give Bird Box a run for its money as the most unusual premise from the evening. I know that there are tons of books with “bees” and “beekeepers” in the title on bookshop shelves these days. There are mysteries, family drama, and plenty of historical fiction. But The Bees is genuinely about bees, and I think that’s awesome. The story follows Flora 717, one lowly bee who climbs the ranks from sanitation worker, as she challenges the natural order of the rigid hive system. Themes of maternity, loyalty, and natural instinct will come up as Flora 717 uncovers the mysteries behind her hive and brings danger upon herself with each question.

While The Bees is Laline’s first novel, she has written several plays which have been performed in the United Kingdom. One of them, Boat Memory, is about the “native hostages” brought back to England on the Beagle, during a voyage with Charles Darwin. I really want to see this play. The intensity of investigation which has to go into writing about such cool bits of history must be similar to that which goes along with a sudden interest in Entomology. She told me about all the research which went into writing The Bees; how she wasn’t always interested in them but got drawn into the fascinating world after the death of a friend, and realized how much there was to learn about nature and ourselves in the study of these creatures. My family actually keeps bees and makes honey, so I bet I’ll be seeing our own white-boxed hives differently this summer in the aftermath of this novel.

They’re advertising The Bees as a sort of Handmaid’s Tale set in the natural world, but I bet it’ll be more unique than that. Laline Paull has written a book exploring a brutal social order, but to do so without including any major human characters is ambitious. Even in The Handmaid’s Tale, we can imagine ourselves into the situations without too much difficulty. It will take careful writing and very precise descriptions to bring most causal readers into a beehive and keep them invested in the characters, when most of us only think of the honey bees who make our tea so tasty when we’re walking through clover patches in bare feet. George Orwell managed to seize us by the hearts and minds in Animal Farm, but even that had a setting which would be familiar enough to most of us. We can cast ourselves in a horrible future, and we can understand the predicaments faced by unhappy allegorical farm animals. I am so excited to see how Laline Paull will bring us into the complex world of beehives and natural politics – with plenty of creative license, I’m sure – and make us follow the adventures of an insect with emotional investment and suspense.

The final author I spoke to on Thursday evening was David McCullough Jr., the only author at the dinner from around these parts. He had given the graduation speech at Wellesley High School in 2012, and made quite an impression on the graduates, the community, and then the country at large. McCullough is the son of David McCullough the famous historian and author, and he teaches English at Wellesley High School. You can read the transcription of his inspiring and refreshing commencement here.

His irreverent words of wisdom made such an impact that he’s now written a whole book elaborating on the ideas he touched on. You Are Not Special…And Other Encouragements is full of the sort of truth-bombs I wish my fellow graduates and I had been hit with upon leaving our (honestly rather snobby and unrealistic) prep school. He’s a preppy guy but he’s got a realistic view of the world, striking the right balance between recognizing teenagers as individuals and reminding them that so many other people are going through the same stuff and want the same things out of life. I do think that we’d all be a lot less depressed about the post-high school and post-college years if we had stepped out of those hideous graduation gowns knowing that our futures didn’t need to be so competitive and self-centered. I barely remember the graduation speech from my own High School experience; I think it was some laughably unhelpful extended juice-metaphor, since the guy owned some big beverage company or something. But if McCullough’s students keep in mind his suggestion that you don’t need success to validate your own worth, but should work hard and keep learning simply because you love what you’re doing, I think they’ll be more prepared for adulthood than many.

Here’s a quote from the speech itself, and the sort of advice I really hope will be in the book:

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.

Now that there’s going to be a book elaborating on his tough-love (but still loving) rally to intelligence and passion, I predict that a great many classes of 2014 will be getting book-shaped graduation gifts explaining how they aren’t special, with other encouragements. The book comes out in April and I intend to press it upon all those doting grandparents and starry-eyed relatives who believe that their special little someone is destined to step out of that crowded gymnasium and into all sorts of gratifying superstardom. If they read the book before they give it to the hapless new adult, I hope they’ll find some fresh perspective within the pages. The adults in these situations are so often the worst offenders at cultivating a desire for adoring recognition at every step of life, and it seems like David McCullough Jr, who has teenagers himself, has found a way to articulate this in a way which might actually shake things up without tearing things down. It was great to hear him swapping stories about favorite vacation spots with other locals at the table and telling us about his own (rather literary) youthful years. If You’re Not Special… and Other Encouragements is as earnest and clearheaded as he is in conversation, then there might be hope for the future go-getters and must-havers of the world.

I left Erbaluce nearly four hours after dinner began with my stomach full of chocolate hazelnut truffles and my mind swimming with anticipation. I have to know what is lurking just out of sight in Bird Box! I want to find out what the characters in Fourth Of July Creek seem to think the End Times entails, and how a rational hero might possibly deal with all that nonsense. I’ve got to see if The Bees convinces me to rise against social expectations I didn’t even know existed, and if nature turns out to be utterly cruel to poor Flora 717. And I’m curious to see if learning how very un-special I am proves to be encouraging after all, as I suspect it will.

Bird Box might actually bump The Brothers Karamazov off my To Be Read Next pecking order. I’m so impatient to get sucked into a story which twists my dreams and makes me nervous – it’s been far too long since I spent a disturbed evening jumping at noises with a book and my own messed-up subconscious. Far too long.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

I’m very grateful to HarperCollins for treating us to dinner and for introducing us to such creative and hard-working writers. I’ve been inspired to read faster, to get to these books sooner. I’m also feeling the writerly energies building up in myself again after a week of not writing much at all, due to this damned cold, which took all the salt and gunpowder out of my piratical thoughts and replaced them with congestion and a desire for naps. All four of these writers were so encouraging and helpful when I told them that I was currently slogging through a novel myself.

Now that I can picture faces and hear voices behind the names on the spines of these books, I know I’ll be really excited to see the first printing on our shelves in a few months. The bookshelf pirate will be keeping a weather eye out for those readers who need to read them, even if they don’t know it yet, themselves. By then, I hope to have read all four galleys and formed opinions of my own. If we’re lucky, those opinions will be of the “Avast! Read this now!” variety.

13 Favorite Books For 2013

…And then it was the last day of 2013, which was a surprise for everyone involved in the passage of time, and they stared at their calenders and the sky in horrified incomprehension.  Last time I checked, I was lying outside reading W.B. Yeats to some barn cats who didn’t seem to like poetry very much.  Now the year’s over and I’m confused.  But, I suppose that’s what happens when you live on a bit of rock hurtling around a star at a rate which can be measured in four seasons carved into twelve months.   To bid 2013 adieu, and to remind myself what the heck I read this year, I’ve listed my three favorite novels from the age-ranges I read most, and then the three books I’m most determined to read as 2014 begins.  Plus one, because I’m the captain of this here literary vessel and I like to play favorites.  These books weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just happened to read them this year.  Some of them are old, and I can’t understand how it took me so long to read them.  Others haven’t been officially released yet, but made their way onto my list after the ARC shelf fell victim to one of my many plundering rampages.  I read an awful lot of books this year, but these thirteen deserve extra love for being the most exciting; charming; scary; funny; moving; or memorable stories to cross my path.

Favorite Children’s Books

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I only just finished reading The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson, and it doesn’t come out until next Spring, but I seriously loved it.  Great for fans of middle grade adventure, The Mark of the Dragonfly has a little steam-punk which doesn’t get all wound up in the inner working of the fiction’s own mechanisms, but also some great storytelling and a really cool train.  You can read my review here, and make sure to read the book in March.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell was probably my most recommended children’s book at the shop this summer; we still have to get a new shipment in every few weeks because I can’t stop forcing it into the hands of every parent who doesn’t know what to get their voracious-but-sensitive readers and every kid who doesn’t know what to read next but is getting bored of the same old routine.   It’s a beautiful, quiet, and mischievous book with a subtle sense of humor and gorgeous scenery.  I love a bittersweet story now and then, and when that takes place on the Rooftops of Paris I can’t help being swept away.  It should come as no surprise that nearly everyone who had my recommendation inflicted upon them ended up falling in love with Rundell’s nostalgic tone and captivating characters.  You can read my review of Rooftoppers here.

Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk was a ridiculous, fun, and very very British adventure for younger readers and/or their parents.  It’s exactly the sort of thing I would have loved to have read aloud to me when I was a wee terror, and the illustrations are glorious.  I guess Gaiman got tired of stories in which the parents are always absent or dead or useless, so he wrote this jolly jaunt in which a dad has many a harrowing experience in an attempt to get some milk for his kids.  Dinosaurs, pirates, volcanoes, temporal portals through space… it’s a story full of things kids like.  And, it being Neil Gaiman and his writing wizardry, many of the parents to whom I’ve recommended Fortunately, The Milk have been so very glad that they won’t be bored nigh unto tears during that night’s bedtime reading.  Think Douglas Adams meets Eddie Izzard meets Coraline.  I never reviewed Fortunately, The Milk after it came out this summer, but it’s a great new children’s book and you should have bought it for Christmas/Hanukkah/assorted Yuletide gift-givings.  Shame on you if you didn’t.

Favorite Young Adult Books

One of the first books I read in 2013 was Long Lankin by Lindsay Barraclough.  Nothing like getting the socks scared off you to start a year off right.  I can now safely say that it’s the best horror story I read all year.  The main characters may be only children, but the atmosphere is so dark and the monster is so chilling that it’s definitely for teenaged readers.  I loved that it was based on a great old-timey English ballad full of grisly murder and wickedness.  Here’s my review, from the beginning of the year.

I liked The Raven Boys when I read it back in 2012, but the sequel blew me away.  That so rarely happens, but somehow Maggie Stiefvater has managed to defy my expectations over and over again.  I should just give up having expectations all together.  The Dream Thieves brought the return of Blue and the Raven Boys — one of the best character ensembles in YA fiction today, if you ask me — and threw them together with a heavy dollop of tarot references, dream-drug addictions, mysterious hit men, and the ever-present witty banter which made me love the first book so much. The night I spent reading the sequel to The Raven Boys was one of the more entertaining nights of my year.  You can read my review of The Dream Thieves here.

I think that The Diviners is an appropriate addition to this list, not only because it rocked my freakin’ world but because it deals with New Years celebrations, swinging 1920s parties, and all sorts of revelry even while a terrifying evil is awakening under New York City.  I don’t have a review of The Diviners, because I read it right before I went on holiday, but I absolutely tore through Libba Bray’s hefty book to find out what was going to happen.  Her characters are even better than the plot; and that’s saying something, because an occult-horror-mystery set in flapper Manhattan is exactly my cup of tea (or gin).  The main character was feisty, but the supporting cast really gave an excellent taste of how the time period was for party people new to the city, for young artistic souls stuck in Harlem, and for everyone trying to carve a space out for themselves in such a volatile era.  I’m annoyed that the book ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, but I got so engrossed in the writing and the story that I can’t wait for a sequel.  The Diviners was maybe the most fun book I read all year, even though it’s made me officially terrified of ouija boards and empty houses.

Favorite Adult Books

I had grabbed The Round House from the library because I had a sunny weekend off and had heard great things about Louise Erdrich’s writing.  What I had intended to be a relaxed few days reading turned into a very intense day of reading this book and doing nothing else.  It was way more gripping than I’d expected and the story got into my bones and wouldn’t leave.  I loved the narrative voice of a young teenaged boy on the Obijwe reservation, and his family was so interesting and real, but the story itself just ate away at my heart.  It could have been written as a straight mystery – young boy needs to find out who attacked his mother – but it’s what the characters choose to do with that knowledge as they approach it which really makes this book stand out in my mind.  I recommend it as often as possible at my bookshop, now, and am so glad I read it this year.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was another book which I didn’t expect to be infect by so quickly.  I tried to read it a few years ago while I was still in University, but all that academia was a little too close to home.  This year, though, I got so sucked into the book that I had to write a whole post about literary hangovers just to get my mindset out of the pages.  I know that The Secret History isn’t even from this decade, let alone 2013, but I’m shocked that it took me so long to read it and definitely consider the two days I spent snapping at anyone who tried to interrupt my reading days well spent.

If it’s a bad thing that I didn’t read The Secret History in its proper decade, then oops indeed because A High Wind In Jamaica was written in 1929.  I started listening to the audiobook of this should-be-classic last fall, but only finally sat down and read the whole thing this year, so that totally counts.  It should be obvious why Righard Hughes’ seafaring adventure is on my top list for the year; it’s about children behaving violently in the company of laughable pirates.  It’s hard to describe this book, because it encompasses two very keen interest of mine: namely, pirates and youngsters with questionable morals.  Hughes does a bloody fantastic job of examining the weird little worlds which live inside the brains of children, and their accidental callousness is softened by the scope of their imagination and his ability to invoke the concerns which only troubled us when we were single digits of age.  The pirates themselves are comical but deeper characters than they might seem at first, and the travel/adventure parts of the book are pretty thrilling.  All around, I loved this book, and intend to read it annually from now on.

My Absolute Most Favoritest Book Read In 2013

How did I love this book? I would try to poetically count the ways, but I’m bad at math and don’t much care to learn about infinite numbers just to express how imperative it is that you BUY THE BASIC EIGHT RIGHT THIS VERY MOMENT AND READ IT! Here’s my review.  This was — hands down (and croquet mallets on the bloody grass) — the most marvelous reading experience I’ve had all year.  I laughed nonstop at Daniel Handler’s wry and blistering writing style.  I banged my fists on the breakfast table in triumph, and hid behind my hair in disgust, and nearly threw the book across the room a few times.  Like a funnier The Secret History with less-realistic characters but a more colorful view of life, The Basic Eight is what we should all have been reading as older teenagers.  Of the three High School books which I read during my week of nostalgia in the summer, this book easily came out on top.  But now, on the last night of the year, I can declare it the victor victorious!  Daniel Handler, please never stop being you.  Or at least delay the inevitable stop as long as you have words to write.  In between the Lemony Snicket books which defined my youth and the hilarious weirdness he talks about to grown-ups, I find life a little easier to bear when reading his books.

Three Books To Read ASAP in 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, because I have heard nothing but glowing reviews of it, nearly incomprehensible with excitement.  Some booknerd friends I trust say that it’s even better than The Secret History, and I love the sound of the plot.  I don’t know much about art, but I didn’t know much about Greek either, and maybe I’ll learn something.  Now that I’ll have a few days off in a row now and then – fare the well, holiday shopping season! – I’ll have to devote a weekend to this tome as soon as I can lay my hands on a copy.  The problem with recommending a book over and over is that soon enough it flies right off the shelf entirely.

I bought Boston Jacky while I was in Bar Harbor over the summer, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Despite the fact that I’ve missed several books in the middle of L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series, I think I’ll read this new installment as soon as possible.  It’s been far too long since I hung out with the lively and loveable Jacky Faber, and since this one takes place so near my current location it would be a shame to wait until to summer to read it, no matter my traditions of reading pirate books in the summer and other books in the winter.  I’m a pirate captain meself, and I can break tradition if I damn well please.

And, finally, I’ve had The Master And Margarita on my bookshelf since high school and I’ve yet to read the bloody thing!  I don’t know much about it, but I know it has occult weirdness, a talking cat, and diabolical themes in a Russian setting.  It’s about damn time I tackled this book.  And, now that I don’t have essays to write or medieval Scottish verse to translate, I’ve really got no excuse to let another year go by without finally understanding why I bought the book in the first place.

It seems I ended this on a series of New Years resolutions, which works for me, I guess.  It’s been quite a year, tossed around on an endless sea of book choices and not enough time to read everything.  But I’m glad with what I chose to attack, and these are some excellent favorites to stand beside with fierce loyalty and many huzzahs.  Happy reading in 2014, me hearties.  Onward into the fog ahead!