a life in books

A Life in Books: La Belle Sauvage

B86DD495-FB2D-4816-BD5F-3AEA9D5214F8Welcome to a new category on this blog, “A Life in Books.” This is a catch-all for posts that aren’t reviews, or round-ups. They’re just about my life…  in books.

I don’t remember when I first read those words, “The Book of Dust.” Sometime after I finished reading His Dark Materials for the first time; that means I heard about it before my dad died, because I remember talking about the end of The Amber Spyglass with him in the library parking lot.

I went online, like I always did – even back then – because I wanted to share this reading experience with someone and nobody in my hometown ever wanted to talk about books as much as I wanted to talk about books. At the tender age of twelve, I was already spending hours a day online, talking to strangers all over the world about Redwall, and Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings.

This was couldn’t have been later than 2002, so we’re talking Web 1.0. The old web was a veritable Wild West of rumors, and I loved them all – even the ones that weren’t true. Does anyone else remember Pikablu? Or Harry Potter and the Green Flame Torch? I chased that delicious thrill of speculation, and in my search for more of Lyra’s world, I read those words: The Book of Dust.

Philip Pullman was writing a companion series, called The Book of Dust. Serafina Pekkala would be in it. Nobody knew when it would be published. This was maybe 2002. I forgot about it for awhile. I hardly believed it when I heard the news: The Book of Dust was real, and I could preorder it right that very moment. I wasted no time.

My copy came in the mail today, delivered to me not in my hometown of Nowhere, Vermont, USA, but my apartment in Tokyo, Japan. It’s sitting on the floor next to a stack of books and tarot cards. I’m going to finish rereading His Dark Materials before I pick it up. I want to savor it.

… and I am afraid.

Rumor had it for years that the last word of the mythical Book 7 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) would be “scar.” I held onto that for years, and when it wasn’t… Well, I felt betrayed.

So I’m excited, and a little afraid.

irregular review

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones

31450908Down Among the Sticks and Bones
Seanan McGuire
★★★☆☆ (I liked it.)

The Good
I love a multiverse. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second in the Wayward Children series that started with Every Heart a Doorway, which took the “Narnian exiles” thing in an unexpectedly murder mystery direction. Down Among the Sticks and Bones expands on the backstory of two of the characters, Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill (Jillian) from the first book, and how they ended up at the Home for Wayward Children.

Without that context, would this book be as good? I don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend reading the series out of order.

The Bad
This section contains spoilers.

Two things stood out to me while I was reading that really rubbed me the wrong way.

First, Jack’s OCD. Although the words “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” are never used, Jack exhibits a lot of classical (stereotypical) symptoms of OCD. She is intensely afraid of germs and dirt, and even wears gloves to keep her hands clean. She makes her lover bathe, gargle, brush her teeth, etc. before any romantic escapades. Which… fine. Germophobic neat freaks are kind of stereotypical OCD characters, but those symptoms do exist.

What bothered me about Jack’s OCD was the implication that her parents made her that way. As a child, her mother admonished her to never let her frilly dresses get dirty. OK, so she might’ve grown up to be a neat freak, a little neurotic about cleanliness, but Jack seems to have full-blown OCD, which I don’t think you can “catch” from your parents like that.

Second, Alexis. (Spoilers follow.) Alexis is a beautiful fat queer woman in a happy relationship with Jack. Everyone is OK with this. So of course, she gets murdered.

Alexis isn’t murdered because she’s queer, or but she is murdered because she’s in a relationship with a woman. If Jack were a boy, she would’ve been murdered just the same, but the whole thing smacked of dead lesbians, and that was a let-down. Especially since Alexis probably can’t be resurrected (again). That cost the book a couple of stars.

Judging a Book by Its Cover
I don’t know how I feel about the cover. It does exactly what it needs to, setting the scene on the Moors, with the treasure chest cracking open, but it doesn’t wow me. It’s serviceable, but I wouldn’t buy a print of it for my wall.

I enjoyed reading Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but the murder really knocked the wind out of me. I knew it couldn’t have a happy ending – after all, Jack and Jill have to be back in our world by the start of Every Heart a Doorway – but it didn’t have to end like that.

judging a book by its cover

Judging a Book by its Cover: Among Others

(This post was originally published at my old blog.)

I have this thing about Among Others. I can’t decide how I feel about it. I liked parts of it and didn’t like other parts of it, and I’m not sure I’ll ever reconcile those bits into a book I have a definite opinion about.

Among Others

I thought it was a strange design choice, because it doesn’t hint at all about the fantastic/magical realism elements that make this book this book – but it is right there in the title, 図書室の魔法, “Library-room Magic,” or “The Magic of the Library,” as best as I can translate. But it looks, visually, like a school story; I get an almost Anne of Green Gables-ish vibe out of these. They looked much “younger” than the book; I think this is just “kawaii” in action.

Among OthersI read this in ebook format originally, and thus I rarely even saw the cover as I was reading – one of the major drawbacks of ebooks, if you ask me. I have a lot of opinions about cover design, which is why I write this series. (Obviously.)

So of course, I went to Goodreads to investigate.

Morwenna’s injury and her subsequent disability is a major part of this book, and the American edition (left) shows a slender girl frolicking in a field, wearing a floaty white dress. I think the hazy photograph captures the feeling of the book, but maybe not the orange.

Among OthersThe French edition, retitled Morwenna, has the same vibe: a white girl in a white dress, skipping and surrounded by stars or glitter or fairy dust for some reason. This one is a little more excusable; I think this is little girl Morwenna, before the accident, working magic somewhere as a young girl.

What gives with the frolicking? Morwenna is a protagonist with disabilities. The French and American editions erase that part of Morwenna’s character which, in an age of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, is honestly a bit disappointing. Even the oddly kawaii and not-at-all magical Japanese edition clearly shows her with a cane in the first book, though she’s lost it in the second where she’s holding hands with her friends.

(*Note on Japanese books: many longer books are published in two or three sections to make them smaller and easier to carry. Among Others is split into two, 上 and 下 (first half and second half); other books are divided into thirds, 上, 中, and 下.)

Among OthersThe Spanish-language version ignores Morewenna’s cane and looked too genre for the book, which I guess is a strange thing to say about a story that’s a love song to science fiction/fantasy genre fiction, but I don’t think that’s the tone of this story. This cover comes off too paranormal romance for my tastes. This isn’t a book I would be “selling” to my students, but if I was trying to get a friend to read it, I’m not sure this cover would tell them what I want them to know, going in, about the story I’m asking them to read.

I ask people to read this book a lot. I’m always saying, “I don’t know how I feel about this, please read it.” I want someone to make up my mind for me. I want someone to work out the tangle of opinions I have about this book, because I can’t decide how I feel, and so I ask people – smart people, people I trust, people whose book recommendations I always accept – what they think.

Among OthersIf I had my pick of any cover, I would go with the Polish edition. Morwenna is depicted, and although you can’t see her cane in the cover art, it also isn’t not there; there’s no reason that it’s not just out of the frame. I think this artwork captures some of the magic of the story, carrying over the sparkles and stars from the French and American editions without any frolicking in sight.

It also recalls a specific scene for me, which I think is strong cover design. I like the aha! moment when you read a book and realize, this is that picture. Maybe that’s just me, though.

The reflection is a nice touch. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I think that adds a lot to my fondness for this cover. This is the one I would most like to give to a friend and say, “read this.”

Among Others

The next-best option would be the Turkish edition. Morwenna isn’t depicted at all, which is un/fortunate: fortunate, because at least she’s not depicted frolicking, and unfortunate because it missed the opportunity to say, this is a book about a protagonist with disabilities. But it gets the mood right for the story. It highlights the awards won, and the Ursula K. LeGuin review quote signals what kind of fantasy we’re in for, here; Among Others is a magical realism/urban fantasy border story. It’s an ode to the kind of story that Ursula K. LeGuin writes, and the kind of story that wins genre awards.

I would hand this book to my friends, if any of my friends read Turkish.

Among OthersI think the Polish cover deserves a special mention. It’s got the genre (although this “reads” a little more sci-fi and a little less magical realism, but that could just be me), the awards, and it very prominently features Morewenna as she’s described in the book, using her cane. I wish I liked this cover better. It has everything that I said I wanted, but somehow it doesn’t speak to me. However, if I were buying this book for the secondary library, this is the edition I would want… too bad our collection is mostly in English, not Polish.

I think I would actually like to suggest this for the secondary library. Regardless of how I feel about it, it won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the British Fantasy Award. There are kids in my school who need to read this novel, and this is the cover they’ll first encounter in my library:

Among Others

meme · this week in books

This Week in Books: April 30-May 6

This week is Golden Week in Japan, and I’ve got the whole week off from work. Sweet, right? Extra blogging time!

Nah. I’ll be at Dyke Weekend from today until Thursday – no WiFi – and then there’s Tokyo Rainbow Pride. (I’m running the Stonewall Japan booth on Sunday, so stop by and say “hi.”)

So I won’t have much time to blog, but I will have more time to read!

I haven’t quite finished last week’s books; I’m a slow reader, and there were a lot of them. I’m nearly finished with Come As You Are, and I’ve requested the The Girl with No Shadow audiobook for the third time (sigh) so hopefully I can finish that soon…

(I’ll admit, that makes these memes hard for me. There was a time when I finished a book (or more) every week, but now I have a full time job, my own apartment, I cook all of my work lunches, and there’s always Tokyo to explore… This “having a life” thing is great, but it does put a dint in my reading time.)

Like I said, I’m still working on everything from last week. The Gauntlet is due back in four days, and I haven’t even had a chance to start it yet. I’ll have to get on that real quick, especially if I want it ready to recommend for the local book award (nominations are due by May 8).

I’m going to pack a print book for my little Golden Week getaway, too; either My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer or Good Omens. Depends on how I feel when I pack… in about an hour.

Reading on my phone is so convenient, but it’s not quite as peaceful as sitting around, looking out at the mountains and drinking tea with a real, ink-and-paper book in my hand.

First I’m gonna catch up with all this stuff. I shouldn’t even be thinking about what I want to read next.

… but lately I’ve been in the mood to reread either The Silmarillion and/or The Drawing of the Three (which is my favorite Dark Tower book).

This Week in Books is hosted by Lipsyy at Lipsyy Lost & Found.

irregular review

Irregular Review: The Female of the Species


Please note, this review contains spoilers.

The Female of the Species
Mindy McGinnis
★★★★☆ (I really liked it.)


The Good
 Let me start my review of The Female of the Species by saying two things: first, this is not my usual kind of book; second, I love crime dramas, but I’ve always wondered what happened to the communities left behind. What happens to Burlington, VT after a serial killer snipes poachers, and breaks into peoples homes? Certainly, that wouldn’t be the Burlington, VT that I grew up near; violence like that would fundamentally change a community, maybe forever. What happens to a community after it’s “wheels up” and the BAU goes home to D.C., leaving the locals to pick up the pieces?

The Female of the Species is the answer to that question.

“Alex Craft knows how to kill someone.”

That’s how the blurb starts: “Alex Craft knows how to kill someone.” Even the blurb is expertly crafted.


The Bad
I didn’t like the ending. (Spoilers follow.)

By killing off Alex, McGinnis closes off the possibility of continuing to explore what this kind of violence does to someone, and whether it can be undone. Alex knows there’s something “wrong” with her – she’s killed one man, her sister’s murderer, at the start of the novel, and she kills another man during the story after he’s accused of molesting a friend’s sister, and she feels no remorse. It’s not, as she explained, that she doesn’t have feelings; it’s that she feels too strongly. She must protect others, and if she can’t protect them, then she’ll avenge them.

… but then what? Alex Craft has killed two men and disfigured a third. I really wanted her to go to college, not because I thought getting away from town would magically “cure” her, but because it left open the possibility of continuing to explore what I talked about in the first section of my review: then what? What would’ve happened to Alex next? Would she have ever been caught, or would she have turned herself in? Could she change?

Those answers are a closed door.

Then, after Alex’s death, the sudden – and dramatic – culture change at the school just felt too… easy. Like all it takes is one girl’s murder to start undoing rape culture, but why didn’t that happen after her sister’s (horrific) death? That just seemed a little too easy, after the gut-wrenching ride that was the rest of the book.


judging a book by its cover

Judging a Book by its Cover (& Title): The Girl with No Shadow

3427448I have a very… hm, complicated relationship with The Girl with No Shadow. Someday, we’ll sit down together over a cup of tea (or hot chocolate) and I’ll tell you all about it. There are cults and ghosts and boys disappearing through magic doors.

For now, let’s just talk about the book. No. We’re not even going to talk about the book: we’re going to talk about the cover (and the title) of the book.

In the U.S., the book is called The Girl with No Shadow. In the U.K., it was published as The Lollipop Shoes.

Both titles echo in the plot: The Girl with No Shadow recalls a story told within the story, about a boy who sells his shadow to an old beggar in exchange for immortality, but, oops, the old beggar was the devil and the shadow was his soul, and so now he’ll be forever alone. Yanne(/Vianne) tells it a lot more eloquently than that, but you get the gist.

The Lollipop Shoes are a reference to Zozie’s fantastical shoes: she’s wearing a pair of candy apple red pumps when she meets Yanne(/Vianne) and Annie(/Anouk) and she later uses them to create a display in the chocolaterie window. Zozie uses her glamour (like a fairy glamour) to draw in Anouk and the people of Montmartre.

2227371The warm toned cover, with the old fashioned automobile, is the edition I own; the blue cover with the street, presumably Montmartre, is the cover on the Overdrive audiobook I’m borrowing from Boston Public Library right now.

Neither one shows any of the characters. I suppose the romantic setting – a chocolatrie in Paris! – is itself a selling point; I know I’ve found myself daydreaming about my imagined Montmartre while I listen. (I’ve never been to continental Europe, so I’m sure my imaginings are as wrong as the way I was pronouncing all that French in my head.)

The German edition gives it an entirely different title: Heavenly Wonder. I’m not entirely sure (read: I have no idea) how that fits with the story, but… Okay. It is not the weirest thing we’ll see today.

Honestly, I’m kind of surprised how few of these covers actually feature Zozie’s signature – titular, even – red shoes. The Lithuanian and Dutch versions do.

The Dutch version even recreates Zozie’s display: the red shoes with the gold-wrapped truffles, against a blue velvet background. The other covers all seem to use stock images, like this inexplicable Russian edition:

25947191What’s going on, here? No. Seriously. I have no idea why they chose this painting and not any other (presumably public domain painting) in the entire Western art canon. Is there something I’m missing? We just don’t know.

26841359.jpgSpeaking of oddballs: I try to feature only covers with decent images available, but I had to share this one, even though I could only find it in thumbnail: This Czech edition, with a chili pepper, coated in chocolate, against a bright yellow background. All of these things are relevant to the novel – Yanne uses chili in her hot cocoa to give it a bit of zing! – but, uhm… Wow.

Coming back to the story, we have some covers with Yanne, and (presumably) Anouk:

I assume the little girl in red is supposed to be Annie, and would someone please fire whoever designed the Hungarian cover? It is a mess. (I used to be a graphic designer. That’s why I write these things.)

Interestingly, only one cover I could find featured Zozie herself, and it referenced both titles: The Lollipop Shoes and The Girl with No Shadow.


this week in books

This Week in Books: April 23-29

This is This Week in Books, a weekly feature to let you know what I’ve been reading!

I dropped Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners, because it wasn’t funny or informative. Expect a scathing review soon.

I’ve temporarily set aside my reread of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, but I’ll get back to that as soon as I catch up on some of my library holds.

I had one of those #bookwormproblem weeks when suddenly, everything I’ve put on hold over the last several months came  in… at once. So I’ve got The Girl with No Shadow and The Princess Diaries on audio; Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, Ireland: A Shot History, and The Gauntlet in ebook; and My Mixed-up Berry Blue Summer in print.3427448

Phew! I actually returned Ireland, and The Princess Diaries almost as soon as they came in, because I knew, realistically, I could never finish all of those books at the same time – especially the audiobooks – so I’d go to the back of the line and let someone else have them.

In a way, I’m grateful for the sudden glut: not only do I have several books to bounce between while I can’t focus, but it’s forced me to drop books that actually weren’t that good. If I’d picked up Unmentionable at any other time, I probably would’ve slogged through it for want of anything else.

First, I’m gonna get through this mess of holds, and then I’ll get back to The Magician’s Book.

Plus, who knows? I’m always finding things to read that aren’t on my TBR, and never getting around to reading things I added ages ago. I like to live dangerously.

This Week in Books is hosted by Lipsyy at Lipsyy Lost & Found.