H.L. Burke made her mark with dragons (the Dragon and the Scholar series), then moved onto a fantasy series about elemental beings competing to take over the human world. Her Nyssa Glass series marks a departure from fantasy, into steampunk. However, her main character is still the same – a strong female who isn’t going to let anything stand in the way of her goals.
And Nyssa has a lot standing in her way. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by an uncle who forced her into a life of petty crime. She managed to escape (before the series begins) and reform her life, but just as things were getting turned around for her, she was forced back into that life. This time, though, she wasn’t going down without a fight.
The rest of the books in the series detail her attempts to stay honest despite her past following her around. She makes some friends along the way that support her based on who she is, not what she did, giving this series a good moral for its readers.
The five books in the series are a quick read that would be great for anyone looking for an imperfect yet strong female role model.
The books are a bit dark at times – there’s a lot of violence – so for the song I picked this instrumental number by Apocalyptica. Generally I try to match song lyrics to book themes, but in this case the music sets a fitting tone for the series.
The music: “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” by Sigur Rós
Tangled Ties to a Manatee takes us through the interconnected lives of a large cast of characters – college students who work at a group home where the nephew of a wildlife retreat owner/director lives, and some of the college kids’ friends work there too. The residents of the group home like to go to the local zoo, where the ex-wife of a professor at the college works. And one of the retreat employees is actually a private investigator undercover because some people think it’s a cult, and her supervisor is undercover at a coffee shop where the professor’s brother works and so does that nephew. Oh, and the husband of one of the cultists works at the zoo too, and one of the college students is also a fortune teller for the cult leader. And then a couple guys come along trying to run a scam using the wildlife retreat, but a pregnant manatee named Ankh manages to save the day.
Although confusing at times, the author skillfully brings it all together throughout a plot that’s reminiscent of a PG-rated Big Trouble (which is an awesome movie you should definitely watch). The only thing I’d want changed is to spend more time on a few main characters, rather than a little time on everyone. However, each character has his or her own voice and personality, and each contributes something to the storyline.
Overall, a fun, light read that I highly recommend.
As for the song – I’m on a bit of an Icelandic kick recently, from their Viking heritage to their modern day politics and awesome music. One of my favorite Icelandic bands, Skálmöld, just released a new album this week and included a cover of one of my favorite songs by one of my other favorite Icelandic bands, Sigur Rós. It’s a fun song, to pair along with a fun book.
(Also, Sigur Rós aren’t really Vikings but Skálmöld are. Not that that has anything to do with this week’s book or song.)
The books: The whole Anne of Green Gables series by LM Montgomery
The music: “Big Bird in a Small Cage” by Patrick Watson
Grounds at the Anne of Green Gables Museum, PEI
Earlier this month I wandered up through New England to the Maritime Provinces. I was especially excited to get to Prince Edward Island, home to a couple book series I enjoyed as a kid: the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily series, both by LM Montgomery.
PEI is beautiful: gently rolling fields of wheat and potatoes interspersed with small groves of trees, farmhouses with the sea in the distance, little villages with charming little houses. But after a couple hours driving around (from the bridge at Borden-Carleton up to Cavendish), we were bored out of our minds and ready to go back to New Brunswick, where we’d set up camp for a few days.
I’ve been rereading the Anne of Green Gables books since I got back, and they’re yet another series from my childhood that I would’ve been better off leaving to my memories. In case you’re not familiar with them, they follow Anne Shirley, a little-red headed orphan adopted by an aging brother and sister. She grows from lovable scamp to lovable adult. Everyone who meets her either loves her at first sight or grows to love her (or at least like her a lot). She solves the problems of everyone she comes across, especially when it comes to relationships. Despite her faults (a temper, having a way too active imagination), she’s the ultimate Mary Sue – perfect, with nothing bad ever happen. The books are more a collection of vignettes of her life and the characters in it, rather than vignettes.
As for the prose, dear God but it’s purple. Going on and on about sunsets and trees and beauty – beauty everywhere. Everyone wants to be beautiful and wear beautiful clothes, as if there’s no more to life than beauty.
Contrast this another series by Montgomery, the Emily books: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest. Emily goes through all kinds of defeats in life (illness, broken engagements, fights with friends, relatives who hate her) and is determined, by the end, to accept her fate and die alone. Emily is keeping it real.
PEI doesn’t focus on Emily, however. It focuses its attention on Anne – the pretty but boring Anne, who has adventures but you know everything will work out for her so you really don’t care after awhile.
The song doesn’t really fit with the books but it fits with my impressions of PEI. I heard it while driving through Manitoba this summer. It’s pretty but unmemorable, because I really just don’t care about the bird or its cage.
If I, as a rational adult, were pressured to break into an abandoned nursing home in order to appear cool in front of my peers that I didn’t even really like, there’s a good chance I’d have a brief two word response and then I’d promptly leave. Same if I were pressured into having a scavenger hunt in that same creepy building.
The plot of Resthaven, however, revolves around teenagers doing teenage things – like breaking into said creepy nursing home. Once inside, either in order to look cool or simply because their frontal cortexes are far from fully developed, those teens continue making irrational – but wholly teen-logical – decisions in a quick-read story packed with thrills and surprises at every turn.
The story starts out with new girl Kaylee arriving at her classmate Jamie’s house for a routine sleepover, only Jamie strong arms the girls into exploring Resthaven, an old empty nursing home. She promptly gets mad at them and abandons them to a night of horror.
I kind of expected the book to be more supernatural, but the fully-human villain is even scarier than a ghost or monster. Every twist is possible, if not plausible, as Kaylee and her friends find themselves deeper and deeper in a mess that rivals any 90s teen horror flick.
As for the music – on of my son’s favorite bands is Disturbed, so we’ve been listening to a lot of their CDs to get ready for his first rock concert (Disturbed and Breaking Benjamin last night in St. Louis – it was awesome). The music from the song really fits the mood of the book. The lyrics don’t fit very well, but since you can’t really understand what the guy’s saying half the time, it doesn’t really matter.
The music: “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band
I don’t watch a lot of movies. But when I do, I almost always try to read the book as well, to compare. Such was the case with No Country for Old Men, which I watched a couple weeks ago (yes, I’m a bit late to this one, I know). And A Simple Plan, which I first watched a couple years ago but rewatched not too long ago.
In No Country for Old Men, a Texas guy hunting antelope comes across the remains of a drug deal gone bad. Everyone involved is dead, so he takes the money and runs, thinking the money will solve all his problems. A psychopath bounty hunter pursues him, as does a bunch of nameless Mexican thugs. Lots of people die in very bloody, matter-of-fact ways. The book is an excellent commentary on perceptions of changing society and what role, if any, we’re required to play to change society for the better.
In A Simple Plan, some guys hunting in Minnesota come across a downed plan. The pilot is dead, so they take the money and run, thinking the money will solve all their problems. A fake FBI guy pursues them, and no one can keep their mouths shut about the money. Several people die.
In both cases, maybe the main characters’ lives weren’t perfect, but they were a lot better before they found the money than at the end of the stories. Had they just left the money, or turned it over to real law enforcement, their lives at the end of the stories still wouldn’t be perfect, but everyone would still have be alive.
So, despite what Steve Miller tells us about Billy Joe and Bobby Sue, if you find a bag of money, do not take the money and run! Because people will die.
(Also, these are both very good movies. McCarthy’s book is better than the movie – it ties up a lot of stuff left out of the movie – and Smith’s book is not as good as the movie. In fact, don’t read his book; just watch the movie.)
As a kid, I really enjoyed reading historical fiction. I read all the books in the Sunfire series, in which a young heroine had to choose between two suitors while going through an event in American history (the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, piracy in New Orleans, the Galveston Hurricane, etc). I learned a ton about history this way, especially obscure events that received little, if any, attention in the classroom.
I also remember enjoying Morgan Llywelyn’s Druids, about Vercengetorix and the Celts, so when I was in Goodwill looking for a book and saw 1916 for just $.88, I picked it up; I liked the author and didn’t know anything about the Irish struggle for independence, so it seemed like a good fit.
1916 fictionalizes the events leading up to the Easter Rising – on April 2014, 1916, a group of men seized government buildings in Dublin and proclaimed Ireland’s independence from Britain. The book follows Ned Halloran, a young teen who gets caught up in the action while attending a school run by Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the rebellion. In addition to tracing the Irish independence movement through the eyes of an Irish citizen, it tells the story of Ned’s sister in America and her attempts to establish a new home there while trying to maintain ties with her home country.
First off, this book is dense – nearly 500 pages packed with historical figures and events over four years. Because of my lack of knowledge of the subject, I struggled to keep many of the characters straight, especially since they played minor roles in the overall fictitious plot. I think I would’ve had a better time of it if I’d had any familiarity with the topic.
Overall, however, I enjoyed this book. It explores a lot of themes: class and its relationship with British colonialism, patriotism, honor, self-determination, and feminism, just to name a few. I realize the author – winner of the 1999 Exceptional Celtic Woman of the Year award – is biased with her allegiance to Ireland over Britain, but she manages to keep the opinions on Home Rule to her characters without preaching.
Amazon has informed me that this book is the first in a series of novels about Ireland’s fight for independence; I’ve added the rest of them to my to-be-read list. This is a topic that doesn’t come up in America very often, and I’d love to know more about it.
As for the music, a local radio station plays songs from the “Alt Vault” – mid-90s alternative songs. I heard them all thousands of times when they were originally aired, especially The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” I knew they were an Irish band, but I’d never really paid attention to the lyrics. However, when the song came on a couple months ago, these lines stuck with me:
It’s the same old theme Since 1916 In your head, in your head They’re still fighting With their tanks, and their bombs And their bombs, and their guns In your head, in your head They are dying
The song was about the IRA’s violent struggle at the time to gain independence from Britain, and about the lengths people will go to for freedom. There aren’t any armed struggles in Ireland anymore, but we see the same issues – the same theme – in Syria, in Palestine and Israel, in Darfur and dozens of other places around the world. This song is fitting for today, Memorial Day, as we remember those in the armed services who gave their lives for their cause. But it goes a step further in memorializing those who didn’t serve and lost their lives as well.
Last summer, I reviewed the first book in this series, The Viper and the Urchin (now titled The Bloodless Assassin), about an assassin who teams up with a street urchin to solve a string of copycat murders. This book pairs the two of them again, although this time they’re now working for the city-state ruler, the Marchioness – and completely bored out of their minds. The action picks up when the team is pulled in to investigate a murder in a rough part of town. They stumble on a big conspiracy where no one can be trusted, as the body count mounts.
Like the first book, this one was great in that I didn’t really predict the ending. The author is great at misdirection; like the characters, you’re not sure who the good guys or bad guys are, as everyone has motives that aren’t completely revealed until the end.
Also like the first book, I loved the diverse cast of characters thrown in so nonchalantly. In addition to the rainbow of skin tones, the Marchioness has a female consort that no one bats an eye at. I’d love to see more books follow this path of mirroring the diversity found in the real world.
It also touches on class issues: are certain people expendable based on their role (or lack of) in society? What happens when classes mingle – is it okay socially? Will both sides be able to accept each other, or will there always be the urge to change one of them? How fluid is class, and what happens when you move into a new one?
The Black Orchid focused as well on relationships: the one between assassin Longinus and street urchin Rory, between Rory and a nobleman working in the Marchioness’s guard, and between the Marchioness and her longtime consort.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was a good balance of fluffy escapism and social commentary. I’m looking to see what we get in book 3.
The music to accompany the book is a new song by one of my favorite bands, Blue October. The album just came out a couple weeks ago so there’s no audio floating around YouTube yet, so I leave you a link to the song on Amazon. This particular song ties in with the relationships between the characters.
Imagine you’re in your mid-thirties and given a terminal medical diagnosis. Or imagine you receive that same diagnosis when you’re in your teens. How would you react? What if it were a loved one with that diagnosis – what would you do?
That’s the issue explored in these two short stories. In “The Sunset Matinee,” Grady, a teenage boy whose main hobby is getting high with his friends learns he has cancer, probably terminal. His friends and his little brother are scared but unable to lose face by showing it. His single mom blames herself for poor life choices that led them to this point. Grady has a choice: he can keep on his current path as one of his trailer parks’ Stoner Boys, or he can give back to the only community he’s known.
“A Place to Die” tells the story of a college girl, Libby, who spends the summer helping out at her mom’s bed-and-breakfast-turned-hospice. She’s tasked with keeping an eye on Mr. Calloway, a mid-thirties businessman who’s determined not to let his illness get in the way of life. As their friendship and his illness progress over the summer, her ideas of what death should look like – and how we should react – are challenged, leaving her a different person at the end.
This week’s song is one of my favorites by Shinedown. It’s a song with a strongly mixed response to loss: blame, regret, sadness, resilience.
Imagine a world where everyone can be healthy: no cancer, no failing organs. What would you be willing to give up to make this a reality? Or, more importantly, what would you be willing for others to give up for you to be healthy?
Those are the questions explored in this week’s books.
First, RJ Crayton introduces us to the Federation of Surviving States (FoSS), a country made from the remnants of the United States after pandemics wiped out 80% of the population. In this future country, life comes first. No exceptions. That means risks are discouraged, and if you’re a match for an organ donation to someone who needs it, you’re required to comply. But Kelsey, the MC of the first book, Life First, doesn’t want to comply. It’s not that she’s selfish or wants the recipient to die; it’s that she wants to make the decision herself. What follows is a massive legal battle that culminates in a fight for her very life, not just her kidney.
But the FoSS government isn’t necessarily all bad. As we learn in book two, Second Life, they just want the best possible medical outcomes – even if sometimes it’s at the expense of the first experimental patients. In this book, Kelsey’s paraplegic best friend, Susan, is given the opportunity to walk again, and must decide if the strings attached to the offer are worth the reward.
Jeff Altabef also explores the dark side of government intervention in his psychological thriller Shatter Point. Government scientists have developed a drug that can improve cognitive functioning, as well as a vaccine that cures cancer. The key question becomes, who has a right to these drugs? Is it okay to maintain a second class of citizens, so that others can thrive? Is it okay to experiment on people without their knowledge, given the possible greatness of the implications for everyone else?
Kazuo Ishiguro takes this a step further in Never Let Me Go, a deceptively simple novel about a group of kids raised in privilege at a secluded boarding school. As the MC, Kathy, reflects back on her life, she reveals the dark reasoning for the existence of her and her friends. The end is heartbreaking, as we’re told in plain terms just how selfish people are willing to be – as long as it’s not their lives being destroyed.
The song I picked for this week is dark, just like the books. The singer asks to be “set free” because “your heaven’s a lie” – exactly what the characters in this week’s books come to realize too, as their government’s heavens turn into their own personal hells.
H.L. Burke is well on her way to becoming the next Dragon Lady. Her first series, The Dragon and the Scholar (first book is free here), followed the relationship between a cursed dragon and the woman he loved.
Cora and the Nurse Dragon is a fun read. Cora lives in a world where dragons are common pets – for those who can afford them. She dreams of racing dragons one day but is stuck raising cheap, tiny mayfly dragons who only live a few months. Her luck changes when her nemesis throws an egg at her, which hatches into a rare nurse dragon with a very unique ability.
While I enjoyed this book as an adult, it’ll definitely appeal to its target audience of kids. Cora and her best friend Abry strike a fine balance between following and breaking rules, between independence and reaching out to the adults in their lives for help. They find a way to deal with bullies, as well as higher issues of what makes a law moral. The climax is darker than I expected, but nothing kids can’t handle. Overall, it’s a great clean read for kids with some good messages along the way.
Even though the story only takes place over the span of a few months, Cora manages to grow quite a bit throughout the story, as evident by the choices she makes at the end and her reasoning for them. Because of this, the song this week is AOLNATION’s “Kill Your Heroes.” Because sometimes, what you thought you wanted isn’t the right choice at all.