All the Murmuring Bones$59.95 Add to cart
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American Christmas Stories$29.95 Add to cart
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Every now and then, a reader needs to step away from great literature, or horror as metaphor, or fantasy that reflects the end of civilization, and pick up an old-fashioned, sword-and-sorcery adventure. I have been a fan of Canadian writer Sebastian De Castell since discovering his four-book Greatcoats Series. Since then, there has been the Spellslinger Series, which has six books and, now, Way of the Argosi.
De Castell knows how to deliver a page-turning adventure with just the right mixture of humor, wisdom, and suspense. His protagonists go through, perhaps, way more physical and emotional trauma than is reasonable but, then again, they’re heroes. They tell their stories in first person, so you know that they won’t actually die. They also never leave horrible cliffhangers at the end of a book.
Way of the Argosi features a female hero who was a minor character in a Spellslinger book, and she is no more unbelievable than De Castell’s other heroes. She is incredibly resourceful for a teenager who is abandoned (three times), tortured, hated, and constantly on the edge of starvation. Her luck changes, sort of, when she meets a wandering, disreputable-looking dude, who calls himself an Argosi. It looks to be the beginning of many exciting, dangerous, and borderline insane adventures, which doubtlessly will continue in a new series. In fact, Book Two is called Fall of the Argosi, and should be arriving soon.
This book comes highly recommended by Neil Gaiman, who reports in the forward that it was Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite book as a teenager, and was a huge influence on his life and films. It took me a little while to get into it because I was expecting a children’s story, and it is not, really. It is instead a series of simple but profound philosophy lessons, written in 1937 and aimed at young teenage Japanese boys.
The story, such as it is, is about fifteen-year-old Jun’ichi, who is called Copper (short for Copernicus). His father is deceased, so his uncle writes long letters to him, more or less to give him advice and support. The book alternates between Copper’s fairly mundane school days and the uncle’s analysis of them. His uncle has a good deal of understanding and wisdom, but not exactly what you might expect. This is not an American story. It is already assumed that Copper knows how to study in school and respect his teachers and elders. It is obvious that fitting in, overcoming differences, and coping with his father’s death are considered fairly trivial. Romance doesn’t even come up.
Instead, Copper learns lessons from history, ethics, and philosophy. Standing on a rooftop in Tokyo, in a scene that seemed familiar from many anime, he realizes his own insignificance. He learns about greatness and the misuse of power from the life of Napoleon. He learns about poverty and wealth, cowardice and taking responsibility, and the interconnectedness of all human beings. But mostly, in the course of his lessons, he decides that, no matter what, he must work hard to grow up, so that he can become a “great example of human being.” This, too, should be a familiar theme to anyone who watches anime, from Miyazaki’s films to Naruto and My Hero Academia.
The cover copy states that “hope is a fragile thing,” yet this brilliant little book is full of it. Despite having an overwhelming number of things to despair about, the narrator, Tetley Abednego, feels herself beloved and living in a most wonderful place.
Tetley’s world is a dire post-climate-change future where dry land no longer exists and only a few humans, mostly those with boats, survived. But some of the poorest people seemingly found a floating pile of all of the unused things from our age, which had inexplicably been sorted by type. Tetley lives on this floating Garbagetown, well after the environmental disasters and the Great Sorting. She is born in Candle Hole, walks to Electric City to get her name, and travels as far as Pill Hill to find her destiny.
Everywhere she looks on her island of garbage, Tetley sees beauty and love. There are gorgeous sunsets over mounds of partly-used candles, lovely colors in backlit piles of pill bottles, amazing creatures (many dangerous), and interesting humans (who mostly hate her). The book is a reminder that even people living in circumstances that seem impossible can find happiness and moments of poetic beauty. It gives me hope that the world my generation (which Tetley calls the Fuckwits) is leaving behind will not be entirely filled with horror.
This is a second novel for Byrne, whose first novel, The Girl in the Road, won the Tiptree (now Otherwise) Award in 2015. It is a dense, disturbing work, spanning two millennia and three human civilizations: a well-researched Mayan realm called Toyna in 1012, modern Belize in 2012, and a world-spanning future in 3012. The civilizations in all three eras are poised on the brink of change and full of unacknowledged cruelty. The author posts a trigger warning for self-cutting, but not for human sacrifice, euthanasia/murder, or the individual attainment of another world, called Xibalba, which looked to me very much like suicide.
The protagonists in all three eras live with the philosophy that they, personally, if not all of humanity, do not belong in what we would call the real world. They center their lives around the possibility of reaching Xibalba, a place of fear and wonder, the true realm. In 1012, this seems to be only for the Mayan nobility, but by 3012 everyone lives for this goal, traveling constantly, mostly on foot, trying to find their own, personal entrance to that place where they truly belong. In a nice interweaving of stories, each civilization has been inspired by the ideas and accomplishments, slowly adopted over time, of the protagonists of the previous eras.
The world of 3012 is richly visualized and, to me, the most interesting part of the story, though the characters exist mostly to describe how they live. The civilization seems almost a utopia: with complete freedom to change gender, race, culture, and sexual orientation; worldwide wireless communication; and equal sharing of resources. But there are far fewer people, and they must use advanced technology and ongoing genetic engineering to survive the harsh climate. They have given up all personal possessions and also, sadly, all permanent ties with others. Like many well-imagined utopias, it raises questions about which parts of being human are essential and explores the place of humanity in the universe.
I have been a fan of British-American author Patrick Ness’ books since The Knife of Never Letting Go, which won the Tiptree (now Otherwise) Award in 2008. He also wrote another of my favorite fantasy books, A Monster Calls. His books are marketed for young adults but are deep and complex, and never hold back on the ugliness that some people create for themselves and their children. His teenage protagonists don’t so much learn to get over their problems as learn to go on living anyway.
Burn is no exception, living up to the cover copy which states, “How does the world end? It ends in fire.” It takes place in a fictional 1957 Frome, Washington threatened more by nuclear war than the powerful dragons which have mostly withdrawn to the Dragon Wastes of northern Canada. The end of the world will involve three teenagers; Sarah whose dead mother was Black, Jason whose mother died in a Japanese internment camp, and “Malcolm” who was raised by a pro-dragon cult to be an assassin (and is also gay). There is also Kazimir who, at 200 years old, is probably still a teenage dragon.
If you want a book where teenagers resolve their insecurities by falling in love or becoming heroes, you will be disappointed. This is a rich fantasy full of horror and wonder. It is a story of worlds within worlds, where an ancient rivalry between dragon nature and humanity is played out over millennia and where adolescent problems are just part of life.
Bookseller vacation time! DreamHaven will be closed Thursday, September 9th through Sunday, September 12th. We will re-open at noon on Monday, September 13th.
(What do booksellers do on their vacations? Why, buy and sell books, of course.)
Fatma el-Sha’awari, of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, prefers to wear European suits, always impeccably matched with shirt, tie, and bowler hat, of course. Since the 1912 Cairo in need of magical protection is a colorful and diverse city, host to people and magical beings from all over the world, this does not stand out. Well, not very much, anyway.
This is P. Djeli Clark’s first novel, but Agent Fatma and the magical cases she solves have appeared in several novellas (available at Tor.com). It is not the first appearance of Clark’s vibrant version of Cairo, either. This Cairo has been transformed into a world power by the emergence of magic brought about four decades ago by the genius magician Al-Jahiz. It is a fascinating place, run with the help of clockwork artificial intelligence and powered by magic and steam.
But this might be Agent Fatma’s toughest case yet. A person claiming to be Al-Jahiz returned, is terrorizing the people and djinn of Cairo, beginning by murdering an entire secret society of Englishmen dedicated to preserving the wisdom of the original Al-Jahiz. Plus, only slightly less concerning, Agent Fatma, who is famous for always working alone, has been saddled with a partner, a hijab-wearing new trainee who really admires her detective work.
The murder investigation makes a tense and entertaining read, highly recommended particularly for fans of snarky magical detectives like Ben Aaronivich’s Peter Grant.
Jake Livingston is a “medium” who can see ghosts and ghouls, mostly of people who died violently, replaying their deaths in fading “death loops” on street corners and in schools and just about everywhere. It’s disturbing and distracting and, since they come in his dreams too, exhausting. Jake is also gay, but hasn’t come out yet to anyone. His father is gone, leaving home after beating him for having a gay magazine. But Jake’s worst problem is that he is one of the only Black kids at St Clair Prep, an elite high school in the next town, where he daily encounters both bullying and casual, unrecognized racism.
He has all this pretty much under control until the kid next door is murdered. Matteo Mooney had been a survivor of a school shooting at nearby Heritage High School a year ago. The death loop replaying in Matteo’s home is gruesome, and the ghouls attracted by the death are horrific. Even worse, it looks like Matteo’s murderer is Sawyer Doon, the boy who killed six of his classmates at Heritage before killing himself. But ghosts are not supposed to be able to act on the world of the living.
Jake is unavoidably drawn into the mystery of Matteo’s death, not only because the haunting is next door but because Sawyer (or his ghost) is seemingly attracted to Jake’s power. In order to survive, and to prevent more murders of Heritage students, Jake must untangle Sawyer’s life and death. He must witness the death loops still replaying in chaotic profusion at the high school. It’s an angry and upsetting story, told in gorgeous prose that is almost too poetic for the violent events it describes.
Due to Coronavirus concerns, the reading originally scheduled for August 12th has been cancelled. Hopefully we will be able to reschedule it at a later date.
This brutal, magnificent historical novel takes place in central China (sort of around Wuhan, if my correlation between the map in the book and today’s maps is correct), when the Han Red Turban Rebellion was fighting against the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1345-1356). There is very little fantasy, except that some of the characters with the courage to maintain their destined paths can see ghosts and sometimes make themselves glow with the light of Heaven. Neither of these talents is particularly useful–though it seems to be necessary to glow in order to become Emperor, that ability does not guarantee survival. But there is plenty of sweeping war, calculated murder, and exquisite betrayal.
At the same time, it is an insightful novel of self-discovery, an exploration of gender and identity, and a critique of the idea of destiny. A peasant woman who calls herself by her brother’s name, Zhu Chongba, with a combination of skill and luck, becomes a leader in the Red Turban Rebellion. In order to rise in power, and claim the destiny of “greatness” her brother refused by dying, she must deny both gender and self. The brilliant general leading the war against the Rebellion, Ouyang, is an enslaved eunuch from a disgraced and murdered family. He lives despite the shame of his lost masculinity, feeling himself worthy of nothing except to carry out revenge. They both adhere to their misguided destinies regardless of the cost to themselves or those around them.
However, both the general who is not quite a man and the peasant risen to lead a rebel army, who is not entirely a woman, seem to want the same thing: the overthrow of the Yuan emperor in far-off Khanbaliq (near modern Beijing). Many of the characters in the book are actual historic figures, including Zhu who later renames herself Yuanzhang. Since the Yuan dynasty actually was overthrown by the Red Turban Army led by Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368, presumably that desire will be granted. This will have to happen in our imaginations unless, of course, there is a second book.
This was supposed to be a review of TJ Klune’s newest book for young adults, Flash Fire, but that is a sequel to The Extraordinaries, and I found that I couldn’t write about the second book without revealing spoilers from the first one. I am quite fond of Klune’s writing, and liked both books for their snide humor and ability to explore relationships between queer teens without the need for them to question their orientation. So I’ll stick with the first book.
The main protagonist (of both books) is sixteen-year-old Nick Bell, who has problems focusing and often blurts out things he shouldn’t say, but is totally focused when it comes to his crush, an “Extraordinary” who calls himself Shadow Star. Nick has never met Shadow Star, but has generated hundreds of thousands of words of fan-fic starring himself being rescued by Shadow Star, usually from his nemesis, Pyro Storm. His story seems to be stalled because Nick seems a little fuzzy on (if not grossed out by) what, exactly, is involved when it comes to post-rescue things like physical intimacy and being in love.
Nick is surrounded by a supportive and wonderful cast of both kids and adults. His best friend forever, Seth Gray, is ready to do anything for Nick, from beta reading his fan-fic to making sure he gets to school on time — anything, that is, except acknowledge their feelings for each other. At school, they hang out with Gibby, a Black self-described “baby dyke,” and her cheerleader girlfriend, Jazz, both mouthy and critical without being condescending. Then there is Owen, who lurks in the background but once was Nick’s almost-boyfriend.
Together Nick and Seth are feeling their way toward self-acceptance and adult relationships, despite the meant-to-be-helpful advice of their loving parents. (Okay, as in many YA books, most of the parents are dead. Nick has a father, and Seth an aunt and uncle. Happily, none of them ever question their offsprings’ orientation.) Their romance is hilarious and tormented, weird and completely normal, and unfolds as the real Extraordinaries Shadow Star and Pyro Storm become increasingly violent in their attempts to bring justice to the city.
We have so much going on next week here in the store!
Wednesday the 28th, we will be hosting a pop-up shop for Vinegar Syndrome, a fantastic boutique shop for the weird and wonderful on DVD and Blu-Ray. A representative will be here from 4-8 pm with a selection of their best, offering special deals and giveaways. Check them out online at VinegarSyndrome.com and if you like what you see, come on down and see what they bring!
Thursday the 29th, Speculations will be back with their first reading here at the store since the onset of Covid with two authors, Michael Merriam and Abra Staffin-Weibe. The event runs from 6:30-7:45 pm and refreshments will be provided. Merriam and Staffin-Weibe are guests at Diversicon 2021, taking place July 30- August 1st.
And finally, Saturday the 31st, authors Larry Correia and Mike Kupari will be signing their books from 3-5 pm as a fundraiser for Uncle Hugo’s Bookstore. All proceeds from the sales of their latest titles, Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter Bloodlines and Mike Kupari’s The Family Business will go toward helping Uncle Hugo’s reopen.
I have been a fan of Rainbow Rowell since reading her first novel for young adults, Eleanor and Park, which remains one of my favorite nerd romances. I also very much liked Fangirl, about a young fan writer who learns some difficult lessons about love, family, and writing your own story during her freshman year as a college English major. (Look for the new graphic novel adaptation from VIZ Media!)
In order to write about a fan writer for Fangirl, Rowell needed a popular fantasy series for her protagonist to be a fan of. She invented the “Simon Snow series,” a Harry-Potter-like fantasy that takes place at Watford School of Magicks, a residential school for magicians which is invisible and inaccessible to “Normals.” Her fangirl protagonist writes slash fan-fic about Simon Snow, who just might be the Chosen One destined to save the World of Mages, and Basilton (Baz) Grimm-Pitch, his roommate, who just might be his worst enemy. Rowell’s fictional series became real when she wrote Carry On, the story of Simon and Baz’s years at Watford, and then Wayward Son, which begins to deal with the effects of their traumatic experiences.
Any Way the Wind Blows is the third book in Rowell’s Simon Snow trilogy. By this time, Simon and Baz are past admiring each other in secret and on their way to becoming lovers. But memories and misunderstandings from their school years, when they fought for and saved the World of Mages, constantly intrude. I do not usually seek out angsty romance, but found Simon and Baz tender, funny, and engaging. I enjoyed watching them grope their way (literally at times) toward growing up and moving past their heroic roles. Not many books acknowledge that, when someone saves the world as a teenager, getting on with the rest of their life might be somewhat difficult.
The cover copy says that this book takes place “in the world of The Goblin Emperor,” a novel that I read several years ago and remember very much liking. It was one of the first books I encountered where quiet kindness was a clear force for good in the face of violence and injustice.
The Witness for the Dead does make reference to some of the events of The Goblin Emperor, but I did not feel lost or excluded by my lack of memory of the details. The Witness, Othala Thara Celehar, seemingly made some wrenching decisions in the first book, leading to the death of his lover. Rather than being confused, I found myself wanting to reread The Goblin Emperor to spend more time with him.
Now in a sort of self-imposed exile, Celehar continues to do his job as requested, listening to the last moments of the dead with integrity and without regard to the political ramifications of his findings. The book resembles a mystery novel as his duty calls upon him to solve several twisting murders, none of which is made easier by his ability to read the victim’s final moments. He pursues his witnessing with too much honesty to be tactful, and a self-effacing gentleness that ignores class and status. It is a lovely reflection on the value of service and competence; a portrait of a person whose innate sense of honor allows him no other options.
I have a particular fondness for books about people who work with books—booksellers, writers and, of course, librarians. I couldn’t resist The Library of the Unwritten, subtitled “A Novel from Hell’s Library” and “Join the Library. Raise Hell.” The story is, perhaps, less outrageous and far more wise than the cover copy suggests, but it certainly features the adventures of Hell’s Librarian and her assistants.
The idea that all unfinished books are stored in a magical, boundless library is not new, nor is the idea that characters can escape from books and make trouble. Usually, though, the library is not located in Hell and overseen somewhat dangerously by Hell’s bureaucracy. And it’s usually not the job of the library staff to go chasing after characters to force them back into their books, violently if necessary.
The current Hell’s Librarian is a practical, almost prim Black woman named Claire who would be middle-aged if she weren’t dead. Her assistant is a failed Muse named Brevity, a small joke that is never actually told. There are also two demons, who may or may not be reliable, and an otherwise unnamed Hero escaped from one of the books. Pursued by angels and demons alike, they must brave Earth, Hell, and a variety of Heavens in order to recover the lost pages of a book so powerful it could destroy the balance of power between the realms–not to mention endanger the existence of the Library.
This is the first novel in what will likely be a massive fantasy series by a very promising Nigerian author. Unlike several new epic fantasies, which I never quite got through, I finished this one in two long days of obsessive reading. It is a gritty novel that takes place on the continent of Oon, a small land of desert, rainforest, and savannah and home to several complex, interconnected countries. Though clearly not based on the European model of Courts and Kings, the warring states on the continent are every bit as domineering, corrupt, and nasty as those of any fantasy version of Europe.
The book has been described as an “African fantasy,” possibly because the phrase “African Game of Thrones” has already been taken (by Marlon James’ Black Leopard Red Wolf). As in Game of Thrones, the story is told from multiple perspectives. There is no one who is typically heroic, and almost everyone is misguided and a bit self-centered, if not actually evil. Unrecognized by most of the inhabitants, Oon is being threatened by drought and encroaching seas. Magic is rare, costly, and seems to involve a lot of blood and suffering. However, unlike in GoT, the author is acutely aware of the forces wrought by discrimination based on class and race, with the darkest Black people claiming superiority and very willing to kill to prove it.
The two main protagonists are Danso, a student of history at a prestigious university, and Estheme, his “intended,” studying law at the same university. They are both outcasts, though for different reasons, and will clearly have to take different paths to the gain the acceptance they crave. There is wisdom between the lines of their journeys; insight from the author into the causes and effects of racism, as well as acknowledgement of the difficulty of bringing about change. The end of this first book leaves a lot of questions, the answers to which will undoubtedly be riveting but not necessarily pleasant.