Archive | books RSS for this section

Rabbit Holes, Wardrobes, and Magical Doors—escaping into better worlds with sf/f

“A book, too, can be a star. A living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” —Madeleine L'Engle

(click to embiggen)

Among the albums my parents owned when I was a kid were a number by comedians who were popular back in the 50s and 60s—and there was one where the guy told a long, hilarious tale which ended with the words, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one.” Which led into another that was quite entertaining, but even moreso because you had heard the previous one. Which is a long way for me to say, I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but first I really needed to write about Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. Which I did last week.

When I heard McGuire say that as a child she loved stories where the child protagonists went to a magical world where they became heroes and warrior-princesses and the like, but was always so angry that they then had to go back home, I was nodding emphatically in agreement. I wanted to get lost in the misty woods and find myself caught in a war between goblins and elves. Or go around a bend on a lake shore and find myself face to face with a giant beetle who greeted me and told me we had to run because danger was coming and so forth.

Except I didn’t want to have to come home again after the first adventure was over. The other world was so much better than the real world. I recall one time when I asked a teacher I trusted why the stories always ended there, she wasn’t very understanding. “Wouldn’t you rather be home with your mom and dad and all your friends?”

She didn’t know what to say when I asked, “What friends?” I didn’t add that if I could run away and never see my father again I would be the happiest boy in the world. This isn’t to say that I never had friends as a child. But being the kind of kid who was always quickly labeled a sissy (or worse words) and a weirdo whenever new kids met me, combined with the number of times we moved because of my dad’s work in the petroleum industry (ten elementary schools across four states), I never had a lot of friends. This particular conversation happened less than two months after we had moved yet again, and I hadn’t yet really found a friend at the new place.

Another time that I told someone how much I wished I could live in one of those magical worlds, the person tried to convince me that the things which seemed like an adventure would not be fun. “Real monsters aren’t just scary, they actually hurt you.”

I had learned through multiple experiences that if I told such adults that I already lived with exactly the kind of monster who actually hurt you that I would be disbelieved at best. Because the kinds of adults who will see a ten-year-old with stitches and multiple contusions on his face and one arm in a sling, look that kid in the eyes, then lecture him that if he was just more well-behaved his father wouldn’t do these things to him not only don’t know what monsters are—they enable monsters.

That reality is precisely why portal fantasies appealed so strongly to me as a kid. And why the endings were always so frustrating.

Let’s pause a moment to go over some terminology. A portal fantasy is a story in which people from our mundane world enter into a different, fantastical world, through a portal of some kind. Classic examples are falling down a rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or through the enchanted wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or carried off by a tornado in The Wizard of Oz, or being injured and losing consciousness to wake up elsewhere as in the Thomas Covenant books.

A portal fantasy is different than an immersive fantasy, where all of the action occurs within the fantastical world and there are no characters who come from the mundane world. Think of Lord of the Rings or The Last Unicorn or any of the Conan the Barbarian stories. It is also different from an intrusive fantasy, where magical/fantastic creatures somehow come into what otherwise appears to be our mundane world—sometimes the narrative assumption is that the magic has been there all along, but for whatever reason most of us are unaware of it and thus don’t believe in it. Think of Dracula or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or A Wrinkle In Time.

The particular appeal of the portal fantasy for a kid like me is that in the fantastic world, I would have options that aren’t available to me in the real world. I didn’t see how any of the monsters and evil overlords in the fantasy books were worse than things my father (and the whole structure of society that enabled child abuse) did to me. As a kid, I may not have really understand the concept which is summed up by the old adage, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” but there was one thing that the protagonists of the portal fantasies had that I didn’t have in the real world: agency. The kids transported to the magical kingdom may have been put in perilous situations, but they weren’t powerless.

It wasn’t just when I was a young child that other people critiqued my enjoyment (and enthusiastic recommendations) of portal fantasies. In my teens and later, an additional critique was added: “You just want a happy ending.” This was usually served with a heaping helping of cynicism about how happy endings don’t exist in the real world, and people who don’t understand that are defective in some way. All of that judgmental cynicism is also the foundation of critiques (that often comes from certain people who call themselves fans of sf/f) which dismiss many works of speculative and fantastic fiction as merely fan service.

I have two responses to this line of argument.

First, go back up and re-read the bit about having to survive beatings from my dad that led to hospital trips. I suspect I know far better than the people who make the happy ending argument just how bad the real world can be. And I survived that. And you better believe that part of the reason I survived it is because fantasy books helped me to imagine a life where the monsters could be conquered. That alone should justify the existence of so-called escapist literature.

For the second and more important response, let’s go back to the Wayward Children books and the author thereof. There are two things I’ve come to expect from a Seanan McGuire book:

  1. At some point in the story she will break my heart,
  2. By the time I get to the end, I will be holding my hands out (metaphorically) toward the author like a Dickensian urchin and will plead, “Please, may I have some more?”

And to be clear, I mean there are things that happen in the stories (not just this series) to the main characters that make me physically shed tears as I’m reading. Sometimes McGuire has left me sobbing uncontrollably with some developments that happen. Characters in her stories do not always get a happy ending. Many very unhappy things happen to them. So if all I wanted was happy stories where nothing bad ever happens, why do I keep reading her stuff (excitedly pre-ordering things when I can; and recommending the stories to others)?

Because I never get the feeling that she is doing it just to shock me. She never allows harm to happen lightly—even to the bad guys. Death never happens senselessly. By which I mean both that the bad things always makes sense within the world, but also because the bad things are integral to the plot. It always feels genuinely that she knows this pain and she understands it. These stories don’t sensationalize or revel in pain and suffering, they show pain because real people suffer things that hurt this much. In the real world, far too often the pain of many types of people is ignored, rationalized, and even celebrated.

I don’t want to celebrate pain. Celebrate the moments of happiness and love that characters seize despite misfortune? Yes, please!

Advertisements

Lost Dreams and Wayward Worlds – or, more of why I love sf/f

<em>Every Heart a Doorway</em> by Seanan McGuire kicked off the Wayward Children series and won a Hugo award, Locus award, Nebula award, and an Alex award.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire kicked off the Wayward Children series and won a Hugo award, Locus award, Nebula award, and an Alex award.

I bought the Kindle edition of Every Heart a Doorway several months after it came out in 2016, but it sat in my library for a while unread. Several people had recommended the book, but there are always so many unread books in my queue. I think what prompted me to read it was that it was showing up on people’s recommended lists for books to nominate for awards in January 2017. I plunged in and devoured a lot of things that had been in my queue for a while in the first few months of 2017, in part because reading fiction was so much less fraught than paying attention to the real world right then. I liked Every Heart…, even though it broke my heart. And at the end, I really, desperately wanted to know what happened next. I understood that a sequel was coming out, but wasn’t sure when.

Then my husband and I attended Locus Awards weekend in June of that year, where McGuire was a guest. There’s an autograph session during Locus Awards Weekend, and the University Book Store sets up several tables with books that have been nominated for the Locus, along with other books by some of those authors, and I was delighted to see that the sequel to Every Heart… was available. So I wound up buying both a hardcopy of Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones (even though I already had the Kindle edition of the first), so I could get them autographed.

As of this month, there are four books in the series (I should note for the pedants: these are short books; for awards purposes they count as novellas rather than novels). I just finished the fourth a week or so ago, and I had originally intended this post to be a review just of the fourth book, but I realized I don’t want to review it without talking about the entire series.

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and emerging somewhere… else.

On a panel at Locus Awards Weekend, McGuire talked about why she wrote the first book. She described stories she adored as a child, where a kid or kids who didn’t seem to fit in at home would find themselves transported to a magical kingdom, have incredible adventures, save the world… and then were forced to go back home and just be the ordinary, unappreciated kid they had always been. “And I just wanted to know why? Why couldn’t they stay and keep being heroes?”

So the first book introduces you to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Eleanor was, herself, a girl who slipped through the shadows into another world, before eventually having to return to ours. She set up the school as a refuge for those children who were not happy to be sent back to mundania. She tells the parents and other outsiders that her goal is to help the children get over their delusions and learn to cope, but that’s just to keep them from worrying. The school is full of children who have been to many different kinds of worlds, and in the first book, seen through the viewpoint of the latest arrival, Nancy, we learn a bit about the many magical worlds, some of the rules of how they operated, the theories of why some children are drawn to those worlds and why the worlds discard them or push them out after a time.

We also deal with a series of murders that begin happening in the real world at the school. That’s where my heart got broken, because McGuire didn’t pull any punches. Characters the reader becomes very attached to are not spared, if it makes sense in the story that they die.

The second book is a prequel. It tells the story of two of the children we met in the first book, and how they fell into their magical world. The Moors are kind of an old Universal Studios Monster Territory. There is a nobleman (The Master) that everyone knows is a vampire. There are villagers who know that if they abide by certain rules they can go about their lives mostly unharmed and protected from other horrors that roam the countryside. There is a mad scientist (Dr Bleak) who can bring some of the dead back to life, and help put people back together if they are injured or maimed. The children who fall through are a pair of twins, Jacqueline and Jillian back home, though they prefer to go by Jack and Jill. Jack becomes the apprentice of Dr. Bleak, while Jill becomes the ward of The Master. More choices are made, and alas, some characters pay the price of other people’s choices, and we learn how the girls came to be sent back from the Moors, and why one of them did the things she did in the first book.

The third book, Beneath a Sugar Sky begins at the school, where we meet a couple of new characters, Cora and Nadya. Cora is a brand new student, recently returned from a world where she was transformed into a mermaid and became a hero. Nadya has been at the school longer. She also went to a water world, though hers was a much darker one than Cora’s. Their day is interrupted when an impossible girl falls from the sky and demands to be taken to meet her mother. The reason Rini is impossible is because her mother was a child who died in the first book, having never found a way to return to the magical candy land kingdom, yet Rini claims that her mother did return, re-unite with the farmboy she had a crush on before and defeated the evil Queen of Cakes. Rini was born about 9 months after the defeat of the Queen, and everything in her life was going famously until her mother mysteriously disappeared. And now Rini’s body is slowly vanishing.

Eventually Cora and Nadya join two boys we met in the first book, Kade and Christopher, in a quest with Rini to figure out how to bring Rini’s mother back from the dead and get fate back on track before Rini vanishes altogether. They wind up visiting two different magical worlds before everything is sorted out.

Cover for <em>In An Absent Dream</em> Book 4 in the Wayward Children Series by Seanan McGuire.

Cover for In An Absent Dream Book 4 in the Wayward Children Series by Seanan McGuire.

Which brings us to book four, the one I read most recently. In An Absent Dream is another prequel, telling the backstory of one of the characters we met in the first book. We meet the little girl first at her sixth birthday, when she makes piece with the that that, in part because her father is the school principal, she will not have friends at school. A couple of years later she finds a mysterious tree with a door in it and goes through, where she finds the Goblin Market. She finds a friend and a mentor there, has some adventures, and makes more friends. But while grieving over a death she returns to the real world, and is not able to find the door back for a couple of years. For the rest of the book we watch as Lundy tries to make a life going back and forth between the worlds. Because she does love her family (especially her younger sister), yet she loves her best friend in the Goblin Market, too.

Trying to balance both, she makes a magical deal that doesn’t quite work how she wishes.

This one is different in tone than the previous one. The narrator has more of a personality, rather than feeling objective. The narrator directly addresses the reader from time to time, telling us a bit about what is about to happen. Those of us who read the first book already knew how Lundy’s story would end. More so than we did for Jack and Jill in the second book. So I think the narration had to be framed this way.

I do believe that the second and fourth books can be read as stand-alones You don’t need to know anything that happened in the other books to understand anything that happens in them.

I’m less certain about the third book. The story carries on just fine, but I’m not sure a reader who had not read the first book would find it as compelling. Mainly because a lot of the emotional drive of the third book is whether the one character who died in the first book will be brought back. And it was in the first book that the reader meets her and gets to know her, and therefore would be invested in saving her.

I find the entire series a lot of fun. Not everyone gets a happy ending, or the happy ending that you want, but the stories contain joy and some triumphs. And there is more than a bit of the found family theme in several aspects of the series.

McGuire has mentioned on social media that the publisher has contracted for eight books so far in the series. She’s also said that her plan is to continue the pattern established thus far: odd-numbered entries will be stories that take place at the school, even-numbered books will be portal fantasies in which we see a wayward child or two find their magic door, of fall down the rabbit hole, or slip through a shadow in the back of the cupboard to find a magical world.

I’m looking forward to the rest!

Hitchers, and Reapers, and Phantom Riders—more of why I love sf/f

Cover art for The Girl in the Green Silk Gown.

Cover art for The Girl in the Green Silk Gown.

Before I get into this book review, I feel the need to disclose a few things. Seanan McGuire, the author of the books I’ll be discussing below, is a personal friend of some of my friends. Other than sitting in some panels that she has been on at conventions, and a short conversation (which consisted of me gushing like a fanboy) at an autograph session where she signed some of her books for me, I am not myself meaningfully acquainted with her. However, because we have these mutual friends in addition to me being a fan of her work and following her on social media, some might say that my opinions of her work are biased. On the other hand, any of the writers or artists who are my friends can tell numerous stories of me giving harsh critiques of their work to them, which I hope will provide some indication that I am able to judge the work of fiction as a work of fiction regardless of who created it.

But that isn’t quite full disclosure. Because I am also quite a nerd/fan of anything to do with Urban Legends. And I have a particular fondness for any sort of work of fiction that attempts to explore and more fully explain folklore. For example, see any of the blog posts where I talk about Mary Stewart’s Arthurian novels: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day.

Because of my love for urban legends and fiction based on folklores, I was aware of the existence of the McGuire’s earlier book, Sparrow Hill Road and had it on my list of books I intended to buy and read some day. Sparrow Hill Road is a fix-up; which means that a number of stories which had originally been published elsewhere are assembled (and sometimes altered or expanded) into a single story. This is different than an anthology, which is merely a collection of the previously printed stories. In a fix-up, the author transforms the series of pre-existing stories into a more coherent, novel-like structure.

I had not gotten around to buying and reading this book, when I became aware that a sequel—which was not a fix-up but was a new story conceived and written as an entire book from the get-go—was about to be published. As in, within a few days of me finding out it was in the pipeline, it would be available to purchase. So I went ahead and pre-ordered the second book, while buying and downloading the first, which I started reading right away.

The urban legend McGuire explores here is a subset of the Phantom Hitchhiker. There are many versions of the Phantom Hitchhiker, but McGuire focuses on is “the girl who asks for a ride home; the one who turns out to have been dead all along.” So the first book, Sparrow Hill Road, introduces us to Rose Marshall, who was 16 in 1952. When her boyfriend failed to pick her up for the prom, Rose got in her car and started down Sparrow Hill Road and wound up in a fight for her life against, well, that’s a detail that is revealed slowly over the course of the individual episodes in this first book. Suffice it to say that Rose is killed and she becomes the Phantom Prom Date.

Over the course of the stories we watch as Rose interacts with the living and certain supernatural forces. From the child separated from her parents at a rest stop who Rose leads to safety, to an angry ghost that doesn’t even remember why it wants to kill, to a retired banshee who still likes to lend a helping hand, we see a wide variety of people and other beings whose destinies are tied up in the highways and byways of America. McGuire builds a rich and multilayered mythology here, weaving in elements of folklore and other urban legends to create a fascinating twilight world.

Rose’s primary function is to help those who are fated to die on a roadway get through the transition and head on to the afterlife (one that is denied to her for various reasons) without becoming one of those vengeful spirits or other dangerous creatures. Sometimes she’s called to a scene where the mortal can be saved, and if Rose can, she does.

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown is where things start hopping. Rose’s first full-length novel opens up 60 years after her initial accident. She’s been 16 years old for all that time, and has become an expert at navigating several layers of reality—dipping into the mortal realm when needed—and familiar with a lot of supernatural threats. Throughout the 60 years she has been pursued off and on by the immortal Bobby Cross, who was responsible for her death. Killing her wasn’t enough. He is out to end her, because consumer her soul (or essence or whatever) being necessary to preserving his immortality. She has eluded him many times over the years, so he launches a more complicated scheme to strip of her powers and trap her in the mortal realm where he’ll be able to finish her off. With a very unlikely ally, she embarks on a quest the included going to the depths of the underworld in an attempt to not just survive, but get back what she’s lost.

The novel builds on and expands a lot of the secrets of the ghost roads and related phenomenon introduced in the first collection. There are some great new characters, as well as the return of several favorites. It’s fun. It is tense when necessary. McGuire kept me turning the pages, anxious to know what would happen next.

I think that The Girl in the Green Silk Gown can be read and enjoyed by someone who hasn’t read the first book. I recommend them both. I’ve seen some overall positive reviews that are less happy with the episodic nature of the first book, particularly the fact that the stories aren’t entirely arranged chronologically. So if you think that might bother you, maybe try the second book first.

I loved them both!

Thoughts on a book recommendation list

James Davis Nicoll writes book reviews and related articles that are published (among other places) at Tor.com. He recently posted “100 SF/F Books You Should Consider Reading in the New Year” where he gives brief (and fun) descriptions of each of the books. They include both fantasy and science fiction, and range over a rather long publishing time. He says in bold print in the introduction, and repeats in all caps at the end, that this list is not meant to imply that these are the only books one should consider reading this year.

Shortly after it went up, he found out other book bloggers were making a meme out of it, where they would list all 100 and mark them in some way to indicate which ones you have read. So on his personal blog he listed only the titles, authors, and year of publication with the suggestion: italics = you’re read it already, underscore = you would recommend a different book by this author, and strikethrough = you recommend no one read the book. And since I keep meaning to write more about books on this blog, I figure this is an easy way to start.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
The Stolen Lake by Joan Aiken (1981)
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (2001-2010)
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō by Hitoshi Ashinano (1994-2006) [partial]
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Stinz: Charger: The War Stories by Donna Barr (1987)
The Sword and the Satchel by Elizabeth Boyer (1980)
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue by Rosel George Brown (1968)
The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (1987)
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler (1980)
Naamah’s Curse by Jacqueline Carey (2010)
The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter (1996)
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015)
Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant (1970)
The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas (1980)
Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh (1976)
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (2015)
Diadem from the Stars by Jo Clayton (1977)
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
Genpei by Kara Dalkey (2000)
Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard (2010)
The Secret Country by Pamela Dean (1985)
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (1975)
The Door into Fire by Diane Duane (1979)
On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis (2016)
Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott (2006)
Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl (1970)
Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle (1983)
The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss (1997)
A Mask for the General by Lisa Goldstein (1987)
Slow River by Nicola Griffith (1995)
Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly (1988)
Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand (1990)
Ingathering by Zenna Henderson (1995) — (this is actually a collection of a series of stories, about half of which I have read separately)
The Interior Life by Dorothy Heydt (writing as Katherine Blake, 1990)
God Stalk by P. C. Hodgell (1982)
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (1998)
Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang (2014)
Blood Price by Tanya Huff (1991)
The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes (1980)
God’s War by Kameron Hurley (2011)
Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (2014)
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015)
Cart and Cwidder by Diane Wynne Jones (1975)
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones (2014)
Hellspark by Janet Kagan (1988)
A Voice Out of Ramah by Lee Killough (1979)
St Ailbe’s Hall by Naomi Kritzer (2004)
Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz (1970)
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (1987)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier (2005)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (2013)
Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee (Also titled Drinking Sapphire Wine, 1979)
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (2016)
Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm (1986)
Adaptation by Malinda Lo (2012)
Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn (1979)
Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy (1983)
The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald (2007)
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh (1992)
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (1978)
The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip (1976)
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (1926)
Pennterra by Judith Moffett (1987)
The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe (2010)
Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore (1969)
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2016)
The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy (1989)
Vast by Linda Nagata (1998)
Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton (1959)
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik (2006)
Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara (1993)
Outlaw School by Rebecca Ore (2000)
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (1983)
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)
Godmother Night by Rachel Pollack (1996)
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (1859)
My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland (2011)
The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
Stay Crazy by Erika L. Satifka (2016)
The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (1988)
Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott (1985)
Everfair by Nisi Shawl (2016)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (1986)
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (1970)
Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree, Jr. (1978)
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1996)
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge (1980)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (2017)
The Well-Favored Man by Elizabeth Willey (1993)
Banner of Souls by Liz Williams (2004)
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (2012)
Ariosto by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1980)
Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga (2005-present)

Nicoll tends to review books that don’t get reviewed elsewhere, and he reads a prodigious amount, it shouldn’t shock anyone that this list includes a lot of authors who don’t fall into the cishet white male category. I was pleased at how many of the books on the list were ones I had already read and liked. There were a few that were already in my to-read pile, and a good number that I’ve seen before and been interested in, but just hadn’t gotten around to.

And a bunch of these have been added to my wishlist, now.

I should try to put together some recommendation lists of my own. Or maybe just find a few more lists others have posted to link to.

The meaning of everything—more adventures in dictionaries

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn't 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

The most recent edition of the full OED. Please note that this isn’t 20 copies of the same book; it takes these 20 volumes to add up to one dictionary!

I’ve mentioned many times that my childhood was spread over ten elementary schools in four different states thanks to my dad’s employment in the petroleum industry. Those ten schools varied a lot, but one thing all of them had in common was a library; and one of the things each of those libraries had in common was a big dictionary. They didn’t all have the exact same dictionary, but there was always at least one large hardbound dictionary, frequently on display on a stand or lectern.

I distinctly remember the library at the elementary school in Kimball, Nebraska keeping its dictionary on a pedestal that was too tall for me to reach the book, and it had a sign that said it was off-limits to anyone below fourth grade. When I asked why, I was told that it was too heavy for us smaller kids to lift, that it was printed on extremely thin paper which was easily torn, and besides, us lower grade kids couldn’t really understand it. I argued, of course, which got me nowhere. In fact, a note about my bad attitude was sent home to my parents. Surprisingly, my dad wasn’t angry at me about that, and seemed to actually take my side (though he didn’t go so far as to do anything about it).

I was apparently so offended at the notion that I, as a second-grader, couldn’t understand a dictionary, that I ranted about it at Sunday School. Which eventually led the wife of the pastor at the church we were attending to give me a dictionary of my own. It was an old desk dictionary whose cover was held on by a lot of layers of black book tape, but it was mine. My parents didn’t have a dictionary in the house before then (though over the next few years we acquired a couple more).

But to get back to those big dictionaries in the library, all of them said “Webster’s” on the cover, often in gold printing. A large number of them were probably various printings of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary second edition. But because the original dictionaries edited by Noah Webster had fallen into the public domain by 1889, other publishers have been using the name in the title of their dictionaries. So some of them were probably from other publishers.

I was in the fifth grade when I learned the latter fact: that just because a dictionary’s cover said “Webster’s” didn’t mean it actually was Webster’s. But at the same time I also learned about the Oxford English Dictionary. The teacher in question was deeply enamored with the OED, having started using it at libraries while he was studying in the United Kingdom, and hoped someday to own his own copy. He told us that the dictionar was so big it couldn’t be published in one book, but was split into multiple volumes, like an encyclopedia, and cost thousands of dollars. I remember specifically him explaining that it was about 30 volumes.

I learned later that the last bit was completely wrong. At the time this teacher was studying abroad, the second edition of the OED hadn’t yet been printed. The second edition is 20 volumes, whereas the first was originally ten volumes, with only three supplemental volumes having been published by the time the teacher was back in the U.S. and teaching us in the tiny town of Roosevelt, Utah. I don’t know if he truly didn’t remember how many volumes it was (which suggests that he may have used it at a library only once or twice), or if he was exaggerating for effect (giving this teacher’s personality, either was likely), but he was incorrect about the number of volumes.

Still the image of thirteen big hardback books being necessary to contain all the text of a dictionary was pretty magical. And ever since I’d learned of its existence, I too, dreamed of a day when I would have a copy of the OED of my own. It is definitely a dream, because the retail price of the full twenty volume set is usually listed at $1295 – though you can usually find it being offered at just under a thousand. I found a set in a used bookstore once… locked up in a glass case and being offered for even more than that. It wasn’t the 20-volume second edition (first published in 1989) but the old 10 volume set from 1928.

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set)

The Compact Oxford is not an abridged dictionary. It contains all of the text of the full 20-volume set (me included for scale).

Given those prices (and once you learn how much work goes into producing a high quality dictionary {many years, dozens of editors, hundreds of readers scouring old books}, you’ll understand why the price tag is so high), I had to content myself with various abridged versions for several years. Until my husband surprised me on one birthday with the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. The Compact Oxford is a very clever book: it contains the full text of the twenty volume dictionary in a single book. They do that by printing on each page of this oversized book tiny images of pages of the dictionary—nine pages of the large dictionary on each page of the Compact. The resulting text is so small that you need a strong magnifier to read the text. So it’s a little weird… but also very cool. At least in a geeky way.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

Each of the blocks of text you can see is a page worth of three-column text printed very small.

I’d heard about the Compact Oxford long before I’d seen one. Sometime in the early 90s a co-worker mentioned that there was a one-volume version that they sold with a magnifying glass, but that’s all the details I had at the time. I didn’t realize that they were publishing a bunch of miniature images of full pages, nor did I understand just how tiny the type really was. I had been been quite happy with my copy of The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: American Edition because it is a big, hefty dictionary, almost the size of some of my other unabridged dictionaries, and it had those painstaking word histories that the Oxford is famous for. Then one birthday my husband hauls out a giant present and sets it in front of me. I thought it was a computer of something at first, until I tried to lift it. It was way too heavy for the size. Under the wrapping paper as a big box with the words “The Compact Oxford Dictionary” and “Includes Magnifier.” I was speechless. He was grinning ear-to-ear, of course. It came with more than a magnifier (and a velvet bag to keep the magnifier in). There is a secondary book with instructions on how to use the big book, a protective holder that the two books can slide into—you can put the holder on the shelf, read the spine of the dictionary, and tilt it out easily enough. The holder is substantial enough that even on a shelf with a whole bunch of equally ginormous books (such as six other unabridged dictionaries from other publishers) and it will hold the space open for the book. Which I realized is most useful when you got to put the book back.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Getting the light just right is often a challenge.

Being the kind of nerdy collector I am, getting this book has kicked off another obsession: trying to find the perfect magnifier. A regular magnifying glass that you might pick up for home use only magnifies about 2x or 3x, and that’s just not enough to read the tiny print. The one that came with the book is a 4x magnifier, which is adequate. In the years since I got the dictionary, I’ve found a couple of 5x that work better, though sometimes getting the light right is tricky. There have been many times I’ve slid the magnifier around with one hand while shining a flashlight with the other, finding the perfect angle to light up the words without creating a glare on the part I’m trying to read. It works best with a table big enough that you can lay the dictionary flat while you’re reading.

I’m more than occasionally asked by people why I need more than one dictionary–often with the admonishment, “You know, you can look words up online.” The free online dictionaries give you a fraction of the information about each word that even a $30 collegiate dictionary will provide, is the short answer. And most don’t have the word histories—telling you what year the first use of a particular meaning of the word appeared in print. There is also something to be learned by comparing the definitions in different dictionaries. Which people who aren’t word nerds don’t understand. Then, of course, for some of my dictionaries, there’s that Old Book smell. And you just can’t get that from an online reference.

It is true that more often I look things up in the electronic Shorter Oxford that I bought for both my Mac and iPad/iPhone, simply because it’s more convenient, and I’m usually not needing all of the extra information. (And the purchased app contains more information that the free online sources!)

But the real reason that someone who will suggest looking things up online instead of cracking open a dictionary will never understand is that the dictionaries aren’t just to “look it up” and go. Books have always been magical portals for me. They take me to far away places, or fabulous worlds, or just the mind and heart of another person. That’s true of both fiction and non-fiction. Dictionaries and encyclopedias aren’t just references to me. I love to read them. I love to browse from entry to entry, going down metaphorical rabbit holes as, while I’m reading about one word, a reference is made to a derivation of another word, or a different word that shares a similar root (I love the phrase some dictionaries use, “more at xxxx”!), and going off to read that, which leads to another, and another…

The whole world is contained in a good dictionary. Not just language and meaning, but history and culture (yes, the good and the bad). Finding all of that isn’t something you get just be reading an entry or two. You have to wander and browse and get lost among the words.

It’s an adventure!


I stole the title of this blog post from the very excellent book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. It’s a wonderful read about the decades-long obsession of many people to create the definitive English dictionary. You should also check out his related book, Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. They’re both great!

If you want a good, but affordable version of the Oxford Dictionary (technically small enough to fit in a pocket), it can be had: The Oxford Color Dictionary. It’s not just a dictionary about colors; they put the word color in the title because all of the main headings in the book are printed in a nice blue, which isn’t just meant to make it pretty. As I said it is technically a pocket dictionary. The pages are very small and the font is smallish. They use of color for the words and black text for the definitions, etymologies, et al. It really makes it easy to find the words you want. And it’s cheap! There’s also a companion Color Thesaurus.

The Secrets of the Universe

It’s been a really long time since I wrote any book reviews, so I’m going to try to get back in the habit of writing them more often.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, cover by Chloë Foglia.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, cover by Chloë Foglia.

So, let’s start with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. This novel is set in the late 80s and concerned a Mexican-American teenager named Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza. Ari is the youngest child in his family, but there’s a significant age gap between him and the next oldest. The other kids were born before Ari’s dad went off to fight in Vietnam, while Ari was conceived after his father returned. Ari is troubled by at least two family secrets: his older brother was sent to prison when Ari was too young to understand what was going on, and no one in the family will talk about what happened. The other secretive thing bothering Ari is that his father never talks about his experiences in the war, and many other things which Ari thinks might be important.

Ari narrates the book, and frequently describes himself as having no friends, until one summer day when he met Dante Quintana at the city pool. Dante discovers that Ari is hanging around in the shallow end because he doesn’t know how to swim. So Dante undertakes to teach him, and soon Ari and Dante are inseparable.

Even when Dante confesses he is gay, while Ari assures Dante that he is not, their friendship remains strong.

The official summary the publisher slaps on the back cover is: “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship – the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.”

That summary doesn’t really do the book justice. But I can’t explain much more about the plot without giving things away which I think a reader will enjoy discovering right along with Ari and Dante. Two different events that could have been tragedies happen over the course of the two summers plus that the book describes. Neither comes out of the experiences unscathed. Along the way both young men make important discoveries. And yes, by the time the book is over, they really do discover secrets of the universe.

One of the things I love about the book is that despite Ari feeling that his father is keeping part of himself distant, the relationship between each of the boys and their families is close. Each set of parents express their love and respect for their sons in different ways, but despite the secrets in Ari’s family, the relationships being shown here are not dysfunctional. That’s refreshing in itself.

The story explores lots of themes. Yes, there’s a coming of age through-line, but the novel also deals with identity (particularly intersectional identity: class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation), social expectations (what does it mean to be a man; what does it mean to be a Latino, et cetera), familial expectations, the nature of friendship, the meaning of the many kinds of love, as well as what it means to find answers. The characters feel real, their problems feel real, and nothing in the plot every requires any of the characters to be stupid. Yes, the teen-age characters (not just Dante and Ari) make foolish choices, but they are realistic foolish choices.

Unlike some books (and movies and series) I could name, none of the characters suddenly start acting idiotically so the plot can go a particular way. This kind of storytelling leaves me, at least, rooting for most of the characters—and that is not at all a bad thing!

I’m hardly the first person to notice that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is an awesome book. It was awarded a Youth Media Award by the American Library Association, as well as a Pura Belpré Narrative Medal, the Stonewall Book Award, a Michael L. Printz Award for the best writing in teen literature, a Lambda Literary Award, and an Amelia Elizabeth Walden honorable mention. Perhaps the most interesting recommendation I have read of it was a fellow subscriber to a literary mailing list who said that when another award-winning novel had wrenched her heart, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe had restored her soul.

This all may sound like hype, but the novel really is very good. I loved it so much, that after finishing the book, I bought the audiobook (narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda who does an incredible job), and listened to it again. (Spoiler: I cried and laughed at all the same points the second time through as I did the first).

If you want a story that will restore your faith in humanity—and restore your faith that good books are still to be had—you can’t go better than Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

The worst part of censorship…

BBW-logo122hIt’s Banned Books Week, which as both a writer and a reader is very near and dear to my heart. I have been a long time member/supporter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is one of the organizations at the forefront of fighting book banning. You can support them any time, but this week there is a special offer, Humble Bundle is offering a Pay-What-You-Want Forbidden Comics Bundle. Pay minimal amount and you can download eight comics/graphic novels and an audiobook. Pay more than the current average price and you get an additional seven-plus comics (more will be added as the week goes on). These bundles are a great way to raise some money for this good cause, and you get a look at some of the kinds of comics that have been banned or challenged in various jurisdictions.

These are the top 10 books Americans tried to ban last year.

It’s Banned Books Week again. Can we stop yelling at each other about it?

Banned Books Week celebrates freedom.

Books enlarge our minds; book bans shrink them.

In Defense of Banned Books Week: A Call to Expand the Debate.

And all the reading and thinking and mind expanding requires some mental leveling up, so it’s a good thing that today is National Coffee Day: Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts & More Celebrate With Free Deals!

So many books, so little time…

CI6ah4DW8AA49iBIt used to be that I had a rough measure of how busy I’d been by looking at the pile of books beside the bed. For most of my life, going back well into childhood, there has always been a pile of books beside my bed. These are books that I intend to read soon. Sometimes the ones on top are books I am in the middle of reading. I am almost always in the middle of reading several books at the same time, which complicates things. The pile shrinks as I finish books (or, occasionally, as I get far enough into a book to realize that no, I don’t want to finish this one). And it grows whenever I go to a bookstore, or a convention, or browse piles of free books, or… well, you get the picture.

Certain things about the pile have changed over the years, of course. When I was middle school aged, for instance, much of the pile was made up of library books. The pile changed out a lot quicker, back then, as well. I went through a period of a couple of years where I read at least one entire novel nearly every day. So I would take books back to the library every few days and bring home more. In high school my pace slowed down a little bit, and a much larger proportion of the pile was paperback books, usually picked up at one of the used book stores. I did a lot of trading books back in to buy more back then. I also borrowed a lot of books from friends (and loaned a bunch).

I’d also been a member of the science fiction book club for a long time. I got suckered into it when I was about 13 years old. I say suckered mostly because I didn’t really have a concept of just how difficult it was to remember to mail back in the little card that said, “No, I don’t want the automatic selection this month.” Which I had to do most of the time if for no other reason that, as a kid, I didn’t have the money to pay for the book and the shipping. I did acquire about a shelf worth of books that way, though.

But most recently the pile by the bed has become a lot more static than it used to be. Mainly because I don’t read hardcopy books nearly as much. Most of my reading is ebooks, switching between reading on my phone or iPad. The apps do a decent job of keeping track of where I left off on the other device when I switch. It’s just so much easier, when I find myself stuck in line at the bank, let’s say, to pull out the phone and open either iBooks or the Kindle app.

It didn’t happen all at once. My gateway drug, as it were, to non-paper books was the audio book—for which I usually blame my husband. He loves to listen to audiobooks, mostly sci fi and fantasy, while he plays video games. Usually listening over the stereo in the computer room. Except in the summer, because the fans make it a little hard to hear clearly, so then he switches to headphones.

I don’t know how many times I went into the computer room to do something that should have taken 5 minutes or less, only to wind up sitting in there for a half hour or more listening to the book he was listening to. Of course, often if it was a book that we also owned in hardcopy, I’d head into the other room, find the paper book, and sit down to finish it off; because of course I can read it myself much faster than the reader can read it aloud.

Though I have to admit that the real culprits are a pair of Jims. James Marsters and Jim Butcher, to be exact. But they had some accomplices.

I was in my late thirties when, somehow, I deluded myself into the idea that signing up for a book club would be a good idea, again, so I was a member of the science fiction book club, again. At least by then you could do your ordering and/or declining to order on-line, so the number of times I got books I didn’t mean to was a lot lower. I’d been mostly declining, only buying a few books a year for quite some time. I bought my first Dresden Files books because I’d had a few friends recommend the books, (generally by expressing shock when we were discussing the short-lived TV series when they found out I’d never read the books). In early late 2007 or early 2008 the book club had a deal on a four-volume set that contained the first eight books in the series. So I bought them, and then they sat in the pile by the bed for a few months. After being laid-off from the place I’d worked at for more than 20 years, one night when I was between contract jobs, I picked up the first volume and started reading. I stayed up all night reading through the first two books. Over the course of the next week or so I read through the rest of the series.

While chatting about the series with another friend, she expressed surprise, given what a big fan I was of the character of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series, that I’d never gotten the Dresden audio books. “I can have Spike read bedtime stories to me?” I asked, in disbelief. The original distributor of the audiobooks even offered a free download of the first four or five chapters of the first book!

One of the first purchases I made once I landed a job as a “regular employee,” was the audio version of the first Dresden book. Which began my pattern of reading the paper copy of the book first, then buying the audiobook and listening to it again and again…

I have noticed lately that my book buying habits have made another change. There are books I still buy in hardcopy. I am easily lured into used book booths at conventions, for instance, and almost always buy something. But generally speaking, I get annoyed for new books if I can’t find an e-book version. In the last year or so, there are books that I’ve just decided not to get because they are only available in hardcopy. If I really like a book once I’ve read it digitally, I may well buy a paper copy to cuddle up with for re-reads, but the e-book has become my preferred format.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a good or bad thing. Though given how much energy we’ve spent, over the years, trying to keep the book shelves in order, occasionally going through the lot and pulling out books we know we’ll never look at again to give away or attempt to sell, I have to admit that letting books pile up on the computer is a whole lot less work.

But it’s also the convenience of always having a whole bunch of books in my pocket that wins the day. So the pile by the bed changes much more slowly, now. I don’t think it will ever go away entirely, but it is no longer an indicator of how much reading I’ve been doing.

Runaway hits

I was working on a post about one-hit wonders of various kinds—both the pop song phenomenon and the runaway bestselling book version of that. The impetus, of course, was the upcoming release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey based on the book of the same name that should be more accurately titled Fifty Shades of Converted Fanfic of Predatory Domestic Abuse because it started out as a literal fanfic of the Twilight series which is a collection of godawful books with a heroine who is actually nothing more than a stalking victim suffering history’s worst case of Stockholm Syndrome.

Not that I have any strong feelings about it

Anyway, I had this post in progress, and then I took a break to skim through Tumblr where I saw a pair of short posts by Neil Gaiman that made all of the points I was making, only much more succinctly.

So I abandoned the post. But then comes news of a new Harper Lee novel-fifty-four years after the publication of her first novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. And that made me think about the idea of a one time runaway hit in a new way… Read More…

The Key to the Treasure

I think I was in third grade when I received my copies of Key to the Treasure, and its sequel, Clues in the Woods. The books, by Peggy Parish with illustrations by Paul Frame, were a pair of mysteries starring three siblings, Liza, Bill, and Jeb.

Hardcover copies of two books.

My old copies of these books are battered, but each still in one piece. (Click to embiggen)

My copies bear the Weekly Reader Book Club imprint. I remember reading and re-reading them many times as a kid.

I also remember, a few years later, finding another book in the series in a library. Turns out Parish wrote a total of six books in this particular series. From the descriptions of the plots, I think the book I found in the library was Pirate Island Adventure, which is actually the fourth book in the series. I remember being really disappointed by the book, primarily because the mystery solved in that book is nearly identical to the mystery in the first book.

It was probably also disappointing because the books seem clearly aimed at kids aged about 8 and under, and I was probably 11 or 12 when I found my third.

The books are currently out of print, so while I’m tempted to order the four volumes I don’t own, my choices are to spend either hundreds of dollars for old copies in “new condition,” or more reasonable prices for battered used copies.

Parish is, apparently, more famous for the Amelia Bedelia series, which I’d never heard of until I tried to track down information on these other books just this weekend.

I’ve re-read Key to the Treasure a few times as an adult (yes, including once this weekend). It doesn’t hold up too badly. The portrayal of the elderly Native America woman who had left a collection of “Indian artifacts” to the grandfather of the protagonist’s grandfather is a bit cringe worthy. And the artifacts themselves, representing a mish-mash of tribes—including the famous Gilligan’s Island Tropical Witch Doctor Tribe—is a bit more than cringe-worthy.

The dialog is a bit stilted, giving me flashbacks to my 1928 edition of a Hardy Boy’s mystery where the boys get scolded by their aunt because they got their ties messed up running home from school. Not sounding like the way real kids talked, even in 1966 when the first book was printed, but more like certain people thought children’s books should sound back then.

But I still enjoyed it. And even though I’ve read it a zillion times, enough years have passed since the last reading that I wasn’t certain how they were going to solve the puzzle. So at its heart the story still works.

And it passed the Lewis test. C.S. Lewis once said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

%d bloggers like this: