Kingdom of the Gods

kingdom of godsI read and thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. I especially liked the way she played with ideas about religion, class, and race, and while her plotting is intricate (maybe even Byzantine), her characterization and worldbuilding are compelling enough to support it. She is very good at creating intense relationships, and each book has had a kind of character arc that has been satisfying and has earned its keep.

This third novel, Kingdom of the Gods, though, is a different beast. This novel focuses on the god of childhood, Sieh, a minor character in the other books. The child of Enefa (now Yeine) and Nahadoth, the oldest of the gods after the first three, he embodies youth, mischief, immaturity, tricksiness, play. It’s a contradiction that Nemisin does well.

The book takes place long after the events of the first two novels, and the Arameri are in decline. One day, Sieh is wandering the palace, and meets the latest generation of Arameri scions, named (very unfortunately, if you’re up on the books) Shahar and Dekarta. On a whim, he makes a blood pact with them to become friends, and this pact turns out to be a catastrophe: when Sieh wakes up, part of the palace has been destroyed, the twins have been separated, and he himself, the god of youth, has begun an irreversible process of aging.

Well, if the book had stuck to this — the relationship between Sieh and the twins, and the implications of a god whose power comes from childhood who is rapidly maturing — I think I could have kept the lid on. However, there are about ten other plot lines, including an assassination plot, a brewing war, demons, internecine politics, the creation of a new home for the Arameri, what’s happening with Itempas, and so on. The book is over 500 pages long, and to be honest I lost track. I was interested in some of what was happening, but not all of it. (Some of this was my fault, because the book relies heavily on your remembering the details of plot in the first two novels, and it had been too long since I’d read them.)

I will say, though, that I still liked all the things I liked in the first two novels. Jemisin does a great job of thinking about how gods interact with human beings, and what that power dynamic would be like, in terms of worship and touch and emotion. She also does a lovely job with differentiating cultures in her world. Despite quite some time having passed since I read the first two novels, I remembered details about that world. And I really liked the way the book ended. Jemisin has a sense throughout all three novels that balance is important and that certain ways of being in balance are natural; this played itself out beautifully at the end of the trilogy, with every ending being a beginning.

Overall, I’m glad I read this. I understand from my friend Katherine that The Fifth Season (the first of her Broken Earth trilogy) is absolutely awesome. Has anyone ever read that one, or others of hers that you can recommend?

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

Work Like Any Other (and the WoMan Booker Shadow Panel)

The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, made up of me, Meredith, Nicole, Rebecca, and Frances, is back again for another round with the Man Booker longlist. I have to confess that when I saw this year’s longlist, I might have let out an audible groan because I’d only read one book on the list (My Name is Lucy Barton) and didn’t find it particularly deserving, and I’d abandoned two others out of boredom (Eileen) and a mix of boredom, irritation, and a mildew-triggered headache (The Sellout). Most of the others weren’t even on my radar. This does not bode well. But off to the library website I went to see what I could find, crossing my fingers that something I could enjoy would be readily available, so this process could get off to a better start.

The bad news is that The Sellout and Eileen were two of the first books to become available. The good news is that Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves was the third. It was very good news.

Work Like Any Other

Set in 1920s Alabama, this novel focuses on Roscoe T Martin, an electrician who gets caught siphoning electricity from the power lines that run near his property. The plan was to electrify his house and power a thresher, bringing prosperity and happiness for his wife and son. He draws the farmhand, Wilson, into the scheme, and it works. But the golden days come to an end when an employee of the power company finds the line and, in his investigation, electrocutes himself and dies. Now Roscoe and Wilson are killers and must face the consequences.

The book features two timelines, one in third person describing the events leading up to Roscoe’s imprisonment and telling the story of his wife Marie and a first-person account of Roscoe’s time in prison. The story gets at ideas of guilt and blame and living with limitations.

Roscoe starts out with a clear vision of what his life should be. He’s determined to grow past his roots, which include a father who worked as a foreman in the mines. He chooses a schoolteacher wife who’s not only above that life but disdainful of it, horrified at the practices of white foreman who endangered the lives of black prisoners leased out to the mining companies. Roscoe has no use for mining, and he dreams of a big family with Marie and a big career in electricity. But they have only one son, and when Marie’s father dies, she insists on returning to the family farm to keep it running. Farming is beneath Roscoe, and so the ill-fated electricity scheme is born.

In prison, Roscoe has to learn to work within limitations. It’s the only way to survive and the only way to get out. One of his jobs, in fact, is to help track down escaped prisoners. He has to accept other ways of working. But Reeves avoids what I’d consider easy answers. This is not a story of a man going to prison and learning how lucky he really was when he was free. There’s some of that, and there’s some growth in realizing that others have internal lives entirely outside Roscoe’s own. But it didn’t feel pat to me.

One of the book’s strengths is in the complexity of the character relationships, particularly between Roscoe and Marie. Both of them have reasons to be hurt and resentful, and those reasons run deep. My loyalties between the two shifted several times during the book. I could understand and related to each character’s point of view, but I could also see the problems within their individual perspectives. Neither one is entirely likable, but it’s possible to sympathize with them both. The rest of the characters are mostly just there for support and to move the plot along. Because of this, Wilson and his family edge a little close to being “magical Negro” types, which is unfortunate. I do think Reeves attempts to subvert the trope, partly by making it clear that they have lives outside the plot of this book.

This book falls squarely in the realm of perfectly good 21st-century literary fiction. I enjoyed reading it, but it never knocked my socks off. But it also never grated on me, and that’s a pretty good accomplishment.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 11 Comments

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature

Forest UnseenI am not, in general, a big fan of nature writing. It’s not that I haven’t read and enjoyed any nature writing. I loved, for example, David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo and Monster of God. It’s just that nature writing doesn’t always hold my interest, even when it’s very good. So I would not have been inclined to pick up this book by David George Haskell if Jenny had not put it on my book swap list for this year.

The book chronicles a year in a small piece of an old growth forest in Tennessee. This area, a circle a little over a meter across, becomes Haskell’s version of a mandala. Throughout the year, Haskell comes to sit by the mandala, watching and contemplating what he sees. He watches the plants, the animals, the weather, and even the microorganisms, and he considers what they reveal about the life of the forest and the natural world. The result is a series of short chronological essays, usually no more than 3 or 4 pages, about some aspect of forest life.

Each essay tends to begin with Haskell’s observations at the mandala that day. He then builds on those observations, spiraling out beyond the mandala and into the wider world. For example, the May 18th entry, titled “Herbivory” begins with the observation that the leaves in the mandala are looking ragged from being chewed by insects. He then goes on to discuss herbivorous insects and how they draw nourishment from plants and how plants fight back by developing toxins. This leads to the fascinating fact that insects don’t survive in container lined with the New York Times, but they do survive in containers lined with the London Times. “The quality of the insects’ reading material is not the culprit,” Haskell notes. It has to do with the trees used to make the paper. The balsam fir used to make the New York Times produces a chemical that stunts insect growth.

Many of the essays concern this kind of interplay between elements of the ecosystem, both within the forest and across the world. And Haskell shares lots of fascinating facts along the way. Did you know that the presence of bird feeders has affected migration patterns? The stable food source for songbirds also “gather songbirds into clusters that make convenient feeding stations for hawks.” If songbirds stay in place because of the feeders, so do the hawks. Haskell goes on,

The expression of our yearning for the beauty of birds sets off waves that circle outward, washing over prairies and forests, lapping onto the mandala. Fewer migrant hawks from the north make life a little easier for the hawk in the mandala. Winter becomes less dangerous for songbirds also, perhaps edging up winter wren populations. More abundant wrens may nudge down ant or spider populations, sending an eddy out into the plant community when the spring ephemeral flowers offer their seeds to be dispersed by ants, or into the fungus community when a dip in spider numbers increases fungus gnat populations.

We cannot move without vibrating the waters, sending into the world the consequences of our actions.

Haskell is clear about the complexity of this interplay and how we can’t always be sure whether the consequences of our actions are entirely good or bad. Sometimes, as in the case of deer populations, our vision of how things should be is based on a short view. Haskell rarely gets specific about environmental policy, although he does raise various issues that arise from his observations in the mandala. His main interest seems to be in developing a respect and appreciation of nature. He’s so respectful, in fact, that at one point, he allows a mosquito to sting him so he can observe it more closely and contemplate its feeding routine. (He does not do the same when it comes to a tick as his body reacts very badly to tick bites, and he’s more worried about tick-borne disease. But he lets the tick move on to find other prey.)

This was a good book for me. Each essay was so short that if I happened to lose the thread in one, it was easy enough to backtrack and pick it up again—or just decide to move on without feeling I’d lost a key argument of the book. It’s pleasing writing, and I learned a lot. (Did you know that dichromatism—colorblindess—offers an evolutionary advantage by making it easier to detect certain patterns and thus find food? This book is full of information like that.) If you enjoy nature writing—and maybe even if you don’t—this is worth checking out.

Posted in Nonfiction | 9 Comments

Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith

Bipolar Faith CoverMonica A. Coleman’s memoir touches on a lot of significant themes: faith, grief, trauma, rape, depression, prayer, race, family, friendship, and history among them. She begins with the story of her great-grandfather who died, it was said, “of grief,” hanging himself, with the help of his son, in a shed where the noose hung for decades after. The memory was there, but the conversation about it was not.

Coleman herself faced grief for the first time when her grandmother died. Her grandmother’s DC home was a summer haven for Coleman, who, back home in Michigan, feared her father’s anger. Later, she experienced a different terror when her boyfriend raped her. With each trauma came a period of feeling frozen and unable to cope, followed often by periods of drive and ambition. She studied theology and started a ministry for rape victims. She learned African dance and found solace in considering her ancestors. It took years for her to recognize that the periods of pain were something more than grief and to seek treatment for depression. In this book, she chronicles how her faith and her feelings about life were transformed throughout that process.

It took a while for this memoir to grab me. The early chapters are largely pretty ordinary in both style and substance. A lot of the pain Coleman describes seems like typical teenage angst, ramped up a bit by her parents’ divorce and her grandmother’s death. Coleman ackowledges this, noting, “I can imagine how easy it is to miss depression in teenagers. Where is the line between normal angst and frustration, and a depression that can kill?” It’s an important section because it establishes a pattern of missed diagnoses and eventually helps Coleman and her therapist see her recurrent depression and possible bipolar. But the storytelling feels less immediate than in the later chapters.

When Coleman begins discussing her rape and its aftermath, the book becomes more intense and the insights feel deeper. Coleman expresses frustration at others’ reactions to her rape, their questions about her judgment, their assurances that she could pray the pain and anger away. It takes her a long time to understand just how profoundly the experience changed her:

But everything was gone. My sense of safety. My sense of trust. My faith. The woman I was for twenty-one years ceased to exist. To whatever extent I get those things back, they will not be the same. Because I changed. I cannot go back in time. I cannot be who I was before the rape.

When Coleman discovers process theology, she finds a new way of understanding God as standing alongside her and moving with her through change. Her explanation of how her experiences led her to a new way of being with God was powerful. She went through a long period of doing ministry but being unable to pray. It took time for her to incorporate what happened to her into her vision of who God is, and until she could do that, talking to God seemed impossible.

Another striking moment was Coleman’s coming to terms with her diagnosis of depression. Although Coleman had seen therapists at various points in her life, a terrifying illness and poor medical treatment had made her reluctant to seek medication to treat the depression, even after experiencing suicidal feelings. But the depression wouldn’t go away:

Depression mocked me. I was the kitten pawing, lunging, and chasing after the string unraveling from a spool held by an entertained owner. Except there was no force outside of me playing catch-me-if-you-can with my life. The depression was inside of me, asking in every known language: “Will you take me seriously now?”

Becoming open to herself and to her friends and family about her suffering led her finally to a diagnosis and medicine that helped. That was not, of course, the end of the story. Acknowledging the depression and later the bipolar meant recognizing that the struggle will always be there and finding a way to built a life and a spirituality that takes this reality into account.

The lessons Coleman learns are not easy ones, especially in a culture that doesn’t always want to acknowledge that faith doesn’t erase people’s struggles. This memoir adds a valuable voice to the conversation.

I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Religion | 8 Comments

A Kind of Intimacy

A Kind of IntimacyWell, that was disturbing. And amazing. I loved it.

Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel from 2009 is the story of Annie. As the book opens, narrator Annie is just moving into a new home, alone with her cat and eager for a fresh start. It quickly becomes evident to readers (and later to her new neighbors) that Annie has some secrets from her past. Her husband and daughter are mysteriously absent, and her stories about them change.

But Annie’s troubles don’t stay confined to her past. Shortly after moving into her new home, she becomes attached to her neighbor, Neil, and resentful of his girlfriend, Lucy. She listens to their movements, finds excuses to invite herself over, and starts engaging in what she seems to see as innocuous acts of anger, like putting garbage through their mail slot.

One of this novel’s pleasures is watching how Annie’s mind works, seeing how she interprets events to her own advantage and Lucy’s disadvantage. Sometimes, she appears merely socially awkward; she dresses oddly and serves food that’s not exactly fashionable. By this reading, Lucy appears to be a snob who looks down on Annie for being a little behind the times. But the more Annie reveals about herself, the clearer it is that Lucy’s apparent disdain stems from real unease. Annie herself is not always up-front about everything she’s done. She tells readers about her garbage “prank,” but she’s cagey about reading Neil and Lucy’s mail.

The book also skillfully shows how a sociopath might be able to win people over and gain control over a situation, if only temporarily. For much of the book, Annie’s neighbors try to write off her behavior and give her fresh starts. She gains the sympathy of Sangita, who attempts to broker peace between Lucy and Annie. Neil, too, tries a create a pleasant relationship, despite Lucy’s protests. Despite being extremely socially clumsy, Annie skates by on the fact that everyone assumes the best. Her neighbors are flawed, sure. Sangita is a gossip and Lucy is perhaps a snob, but they’re basically decent. The idea that someone could be as deceptive as Annie doesn’t cross their minds. Part of Annie’s deception, too, is self-deception. That’s one reason she’s able to hide her true nature. When she tells stories of her past, it’s easy to see how she misreads people. She mistakes politeness for friendship and sex for love.

I did feel some unease at Ashworth’s depiction of Annie’s obesity. Annie clearly has a food problem, and it would be easy to assume that Ashworth is equating being fat with being mentally ill. But that’s not necessarily true. Annie’s constant hunger is all of a piece with her character. She feeds her hunger without a thought for the consequences. It’s true of her sex life as well. In both cases, she’s not interested in pleasure. She’s trying to fill time or fill herself. It’s not clear that Annie’s even able to properly feel pleasure. It’s sad, really. Part of the genius of this book is the way Ashworth’s dive into Annie’s history shows that there are reasons to be sad for her without justifying her actions. There are reasons why Annie is the way she is, but these reasons are not excuses. Annie is bad news.

As far as the book’s payoff, I found it satisfying. One worry I had was that the book would lean too hard on a shocking reveal of Annie’s history, but Ashworth lets that story spin out gradually, not presenting it as a major twist, but just filling in details of a story whose outlines readers are likely to guess at early on. She also, interestingly, never goes past hinting at the most shocking aspect of the story. The tension in the narrative is less about what Annie has done in the past and more about what she will do next. And the book’s final moments offer at glimpse at what Annie has lost, leaving an impression of sadness instead of shock. It’s marvelously twisted in the very best way.

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Wicked BoyIn July 1865, a 13-year-old London boy named Robert Coombs murdered his mother Emily. After the murder, he and his 12-year-old brother Nattie attended cricket matches, played games, and went fishing, all the while claiming their mother was away visiting family. When her body is discovered, rotting away in a back room, Robert stands trial for the crime.

Kate Summerscale presents a straightforward and focused account of Robert’s life, gathering information from court transcripts, newspaper archives, and more. She even finds someone who knew Robert, although that story is reserved for the book’s epilogue.

Summerscale sticks very closely to Robert’s own story, which, for the most part, is a good thing. She keeps tangents about penny dreadfuls and treatment of Broadmoor inmates brief, always coming back to Robert and what his experiences were like. She also avoids extensive speculation about what Robert was thinking, leaving most of that to those who testify in Robert’s trial. At times, this straightforward approach feels a little rote and lifeless, but I appreciated Summerscale’s discipline. And Robert’s story offers enough material of interest to keep me reading. It raises questions about evil, about nature and nurture, about mental illness, about the potential for reform, and about the innocence (or not) of children. Summerscale doesn’t pursue these questions in depth, but they’re very much present.

Much of Robert’s story had previously been lost to history, and Summerscale’s account of how she came upon his story and began researching it was, for me, the very best part of the book. This epilogue includes some speculation, although Summerscale never presents a definitive theory, and it includes her discovery of Robert’s ultimate fate. This portion of the book is truly remarkable. It’s the part I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. It’s an oddly lovely story in the end.

I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 18 Comments

The Givenness of Things

The Givenness of Things CoverIf you’re a regular or long-time reader of this blog, you’re probably aware that I’m a tremendous fan of the work of Marilynne Robinson. I’ve read and loved all her novels, and I marveled at her 2012 essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read BooksI consider her one of America’s greatest living writers. So I’m disappointed to tell you that this essay collection didn’t entirely work for me.

I will accept some of the blame myself. When I was reading this collection, I was having trouble focusing on anything, and these essays require focus. And when I was able to focus, I found that at times she was taking on topics that I’m simply not knowledgeable about. Some discussions of ontology and cosmology just went over my head. And I wasn’t quite interested enough to try to look things up and figure it out. (I blame my distracted state in part for this. I just didn’t want to work hard on my reading.)

However, I also think there were some problems within the essays themselves. I’ve seen some reviews that complained at her tendency to paint certain disciplines, notably neuroscience, with a broad brush. I’m not knowledgeable enough about this to make a judgment one way or another, but I was at times frustrated by Robinson’s lack of specificity when critiquing certain elements of contemporary thought. For example, several times she mentioned higher criticism of scripture, a discipline that can be fruitful but has its limits. Her view, however, seemed wholly dismissive, and I wanted to know which trains of thought trouble her. And because Robinson is a thoughtful and curious person, widely read, but not a specialist, I wondered how accurate some of her comments were. In one essay, she notes that the concepts of original sin and predestination have always been universal across Christian theology, which is not accurate unless you’re defining those terms very broadly.

However, all that said, I did find much to appreciate in this collection, as I always do when reading Robinson. Before ever reading this book, I already admired the essay “Fear,” as I had previously read it in the New York Review of BooksI also loved her insistence on God’s comprehensive and stubborn grace, a topic that comes up again and again, as in the essay “Theology”:

If [Jesus’s] presence in the Creation asserts the human as a uniquely sacred and intrinsic aspect of Being, and his presence on earth underscores this, then how are we to believe that he, call him Christ, call him God, would sweep almost the whole of our species out of existence, or into some sort of abyss, because of historical accident, or because of the terrible and persistent failures of our churches and of those who have been smug or cruel or criminal in his name. Granting all complexities, is it conceivable that the God of the Bible would shackle himself to the worst consequences of our worst behavior? Reverence forbids. Is it conceivable that the reach of Christ’s mercy would honor the narrow limits of human differences? It might be that the Christ I place at the origin and source of Being would be called by another name and would show another face to all those hundred of billions who are or were not Scots Presbyterians or America Congregationalists or anything remotely like them. This is my devoutest hope, not least because it promises our salvation, too. Maybe his constant blessing falls on those great multitudes who lived and died without any name for him, for those multitudes who know his name and believe they have only contempt for him.

Robinson is at her best here when she gets specific, as in the essay “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” where she digs into the Gospels to find meaning in Christ’s divinity (a doctrine I happen to cherish a great deal). I always enjoyed her explorations of Shakespeare, particularly the theme of reconciliation, which she discusses in the essay “Grace.” The fact that this collection didn’t live up to my expectations doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. It just means that my standards for Robinson are very high.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion, Short Stories/Essays | 3 Comments

We Love You, Charlie Freeman

We Love You Charlie FreemanThe Freeman family has an opportunity to be part of scientific history. Laurel Freeman learned sign language at a young age, but she hit a road block in her career as an interpreter because she refused to sign like a white person. She taught her daughters the black dialect of sign language, and thanks to the family’s fluency in sign language, they were accepted to move into the Toneybee Institute. There, they would gain a new family member, a chimp named Charlie, and they would teach him to sign and to live among humans.

Charlotte, the older daughter, attends the local high school, where her father teaches. Her younger sister, Callie, attends the junior high and longs for connection with anyone, but especially Charlie. And Laurel spends her days at the institute, loving Charlie as a son.

Although Charlotte is the book’s primary narrator, some chapters offer third-person narratives about how the other Freemans are coping with what quickly turns into a difficult year. In addition, there are excerpts from a narrative from 1929 by a woman who calls herself Nymphadora. Nymphadora also became involved in the studies at Toneybee, and it’s from her story that the racist roots of the institute’s work become evident.

Debut novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge takes on a lot of ideas in this engaging novel, and she acknowledges the complexity of each one. Charlotte falls in love for the first time with Adia, a girl at her school, and through Adia, she learns to find her voice for social justice. But she’s young, and her expressions are clumsy and possibly misdirected. Laurel knows Toneybee’s history, but she loves Charlie and the opportunity to mother him so much that she’s willing to overlook it. Her actions, and those of Nymphadora, raise questions about choice in the face of a corrupt system.

I think that much of this book revolves around the idea of choice and how free any of us are to choose. Who we are and who we will become are guided to some extent by our families, by society, and by our own internal drives, which we can’t understand. Charlie can only ever be a chimp, but living among humans alters some of his wants. He can’t help who he is. The Freemans have the ability to think through their choices, but they too face limits, some imposed by history, some by love, some by their own natures. I enjoyed watching each one grapple with these choices, and I appreciated that the right answers weren’t always clear.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 9 Comments

End of Watch

end of watchThis is the third in Stephen King’s trilogy about Bill Hodges, a retired police detective. The first two, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, were solid, fast-paced thrillers, nothing paranormal about them. Hodges and his two sidekicks, Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson, track down clues and find a couple of nasty killers; it’s satisfying and fun, if not especially deep. (I particularly liked Finders Keepers for the way King blew a drive-by raspberry at a couple-three literary authors.)

End of Watch, though, takes a turn into more… what would you say? typically Kingly territory. Brady Hartsfield, the vicious Mercedes killer from the first book, was in the background of Finders Keepers. In End of Watch, he takes center stage again as it becomes clear that he has new powers (why? there are a couple of reasons proposed, but it’s left a little fuzzy) that allow him to move objects with his mind, and, eventually, transfer his personality into other people’s minds. There, he begins to enact a complex and blackly evil plan to push people into an unstoppable wave of suicides, and so kill as many young people as he can — making up for those he failed to kill in Mr. Mercedes.

I suppose it’s not surprising that a 70-year-old author who’s been in a near-fatal car accident would be thinking a lot about mortality these days (see also his recent books Revival and Doctor Sleep. Not that he didn’t think about death a lot before, too, so there’s that.) The themes of life and death weave through this book in a nuanced way and at several different layers. One especially nice thing about End of Watch is that you can see the arc of the entire trilogy: while each book stands alone quite well, it’s also a pleasure to see the way King kept certain elements at a simmer in each book, reminding us, and how certain themes have been important the entire way through until they come to a head at the very end.

One thing that really doesn’t work well about this novel is that it leans heavily on technical know-how. Brady Hartsfield gets into other people’s minds by lightly hypnotizing them with a hand-held video game. Great! I just explained that to you in one sentence. Maybe — maybe! — you would need a little more explanation about how someone who was supposedly paralyzed and brain-dead could do that. Maybe a paragraph. This novel goes into so, so, so much more detail than it needs — agonizing detail — detail like someone from the American Civil War might not need. King uses the excuse of Bill Hodges being old and needing help with technical stuff, but ugh! It reminded me of Jo Walton’s saying in What Makes This Book So Great that people who aren’t used to writing science fiction sometimes don’t do it so well. King should do it better.

Overall, though, this was such an enjoyable book. The first two novels were detective novels, and this one turns into more of a supernatural novel that has a detective as its protagonist — but the transformation seems realistic, because King has been preparing us for it all along. I do recommend these books as good, middle-of-the-road King — keep them coming, and I’ll keep reading.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

How to Train Your Dragon

how to train your dragonI just returned from a short road trip to Portland, OR with my two children (aged, incredibly, 11 and 8.) The trip from where I live in Spokane is about 6 hours each direction, so naturally I got the requisite materials to make it go smoothly: snacks, a small bag of entertaining items, and a selection of audiobooks. On the way there, we listened to Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon. Since none of the three of us had read any of the books or seen any of the films, this turned out to be the perfect choice.

How to Train Your Dragon is about (and, actually, theoretically by) Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third. He is a small, weedy, rather useless adolescent Viking from the island of Berk, where Only the Strong Belong. Hiccup doesn’t belong (and neither does his best friend, Fishlegs.) He’s no good at bashyball or advanced rudeness; he can’t run fast or yell loudly; he isn’t heartless or cruel; and now that he’s supposed to go and get himself a dragon to train, he just knows he’s going to be exiled from the tribe instead.

Well, Hiccup does get his dragon, a Common or Garden dragon about the size of a Highland terrier, named Toothless (guess why.) The story of how Hiccup learns to train his dragon and makes himself a hero The Hard Way is consistently funny, even if it borrows heavily from Tolkien in spots. It’s not… shall we say… unpredictable? I rather wished that the message that was forming early in the book (that there should be space for ordinary people in a tribe, and that Only the Strong Belong is kind of a bogus slogan) had been fully delivered. But it’s a lot of fun, nonetheless, and my kids gasped and ooohed and laughed along with it, right up to the end.

The one thing that did surprise me about this book was that there were absolutely no girls in it. Not a single girl. There was one Viking mother in the background, but she had no lines. Given that this book was written in 2003, I found that… odd. It didn’t by any means spoil my enjoyment, but I haven’t read a book written about an all-male environment — and certainly not one for children — in yonks. Huh!

I haven’t told you the very best part, though. The narrator of this audiobook (and part of the reason I chose this one) is David Tennant. He did the most amazing job (because of course he did) and I enjoyed every single second of his performance. It was an absolute joy to listen to, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly as an audiobook. I think I’ll look for more of what he’s read!

Posted in Audiobooks, Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 13 Comments