Board Games — a great antidote to boredom!

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August is National Anti-boredom Month. What better time to ponder the definitely un-boring world of board games, right?

First of all, I have to confess, I am a board-gamer. An avid one. My husband and I have a collection of over 400 board games (more broadly referred to as tabletop games), ranging from 10 Days in Asia to Euphoria to Starfarers of Catan to Le Havre. I have a stash of games at my desk at the library, just in case there’s time for a quick game during lunch. At home we play dice games such as Phase 10 Dice and Can’t Stop at meals (food doesn’t wreak havoc on dice the way it would on cards). I’ve attended the annual GenCon gaming convention in Indianapolis several times (the largest game con in the U.S., celebrating its 50th anniversary this month), which attracts over 60,000 gamers from all over the U.S. and beyond.

So when I encounter books and films that feature, or even mention, tabletop games of one sort or another, I definitely perk up. And there are a lot of them out there! Here are just a few.

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Chess is perhaps the most famous tabletop game of all time. It has been featured in many books and films, including that memorable scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry, Hermione, and Ron battle for their lives in a game of Wizard Chess; Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Chessmen of Mars in which the chessmen are live people, each piece taken being a duel to the death; Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which the whole book takes place on a county-sized chessboard, and Alice is a pawn who must make her way across the board to become Queen; and many more. If you’d like to find more such books to read, I suggest browsing through this generous annotated listing of some of the best chess-related fiction. Then there are the chess movies, including Searching for Bobby FischerQueen to PlayThe Luzhin Defence, and Queen of Katwe, among many others. Here’s one of many lists of ten of the best chess-related films.

go

Go is another enduring classic (it’s around 4,000 years old!), often considered to be the world’s most difficult game to master, and one that frequently appears in literature. Hikaru No Go is a popular 23-volume manga (graphic novel) series centered on the game. The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata is an exquisite novelization of an actual Go match which took place over the course of six months in the 1930s. The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa revolves around the game. And let’s not forget A Beautiful Mind, in which Go is also featured.

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More modern board games have been featured in books and films as well. Scrabble is one example. The children’s novel The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman is heavily focused on a school Scrabble competition (and also involves some students who would really like to cheat!). In the 1992 film SneakersScrabble tiles are used to help crack a code. The children’s book Games: A Tale of Two Bullies, in which a pair of middle-school bullies are forced to play games together every day in order to learn how to get along with each other, features a plethora of games including Scrabble as well as BattleshipConnect 4, and more.

There are films that bring a game to life. A memorable entry in this group is the 1985 film Cluewhich not only features all the characters from the popular board game, but offers three different endings (if you saw it in a movie theater, you had no idea which ending you would get — I remember that well!). A more recent game-to-film effort is Battleship, not the most successful film of 2012, but an opportunity for lovers of the 2-player tabletop game to see it come to life.

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Card games certainly come in for their share of attention. Who could forget the cards featured in Alice in Wonderland? Many a scene is played out over a card table in 19th century literature, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), in which characters flirt and court over whistloovingt-un (an early version of blackjack), and commerce (a forerunner of poker); and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), which includes cassino and piquet. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford (1851-53), the ladies of the village spend many hours at card tables playing cribbagepreferenceombre, or quadrille. As genteel women, card playing is one acceptable way for them to fill their days.

One of the most popular twentieth-century card games is bridge, which pops up in many novels. Two books that feature bridge particularly prominently are Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, in which a bridge game is the key plot element as Poirot analyzes the characters of the players through their bridge-playing styles; and Louis Sachar’s young adult novel The Cardturner, a delightful tale of a teen who is catapulted wholeheartedly into the game of bridge by his ancient (also rich and dying) uncle.

Not all games are real. There are, in fact, a plethora of imaginary games that appear in fiction. A good example is Vaccination, a complicated card game played by the Leary family in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist (you can catch it in the film version as well). In the Star Wars series, the imaginary holographic board game Dejarik is played; particularly memorable to me is the scene from the ‘first’ Star Wars movie, now called Star Wars IV: A New Hope, in which Chewbacca and R2d2 play the game. M. T. Anderson’s The Game of Sunken Places is a children’s fantasy book in which the protagonists discover a game board (The Game of Sunken Places, of course) which triggers the game to begin in real life. They encounter all sorts of hazards and strange characters as they attempt to survive and thereby win the game.

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As if that wasn’t enough, some of those imaginary games in film and literature have inspired the creation of real-world games. For example, the film Jumanji (based on the picture book by Chris van Allsburg) revolves around a mysterious board game some children find in a park. The film spurred the creation of a children’s board game recreating (as much as possible) the fictional game. And William Sleator’s book Interstellar Pig, about a group of teens who become addicted to the imaginary game of that name, spawned the creation of a real Interstellar Pig game.

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There are many games that are based on books or movies. Lord of the Rings is a challenging cooperative board game based on the Tolkien books, in which each player is one of the hobbits, and everyone works together to try to destroy the ring before Sauron overcomes the ring-bearer (there are other games with Tolkien themes, but this one is the most true to the original story). Game of Thrones is an epic strategy/war game based on George R. R. Martin’s epic novel, where each player is vying for rule over the kingdom of Westeros. Eldritch Horror (formerly Arkham Horror) is a cooperative fantasy game based on the Cthulhu novels and stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Pillars of the Earth, involving the building of a great cathedral, and World Without End, tackling survival during the 100 Years War and the Black Plague, are board games based on Ken Follett historical fiction works (Pillars of the Earth and World Without End). Two of the Mystery Rummy card game series are based on famous fiction: Jekyll & Hyde, based on Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Murders in the Rue Morgue, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. The card game Bottle Imp is based on the Robert Lewis Stevenson short story. And the list goes on. The gaming website boardgamegeek (the place to go for information of any sort about board games) lists over 1800 games based on novels.

With so many interesting game-related books and movies, and so many great games, the biggest question is which to read, watch, or play first! Queen of Katwe is on my viewing list for this week. How about you?

 

Audiobooks I Have Managed To Love

I have a difficult time listening to audiobooks. Usually when I’m driving I listen to music, and when I’m doddering about the house pretending to clean I listen to podcasts. For some reason, audiobooks fail to hold my attention long enough for me to finish them. However, since I do spend a lot of time in the car, and I will never ever ever ever actually be able to sit down and read all of the books on my to-read list, I keep trying with the audiobooks. I have started many. Here are a few that I have actually finished.

One of the audiobooks I listened to on a recent road trip is Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, a non-profit organization that works to protect and defend of the rights of those who have been unfairly punished and abused by this country’s criminal justice system. Just Mercy weaves his own life story in with the story of EJI’s founding, successes, and a few failures. This book is not a light “read” by any means – in fact, it’s quite disturbing, even with hopeful moments and joys interspersed throughout. Stevenson does not gloss over any of the negative experiences he has had working in the courts, but he does end with some thoughtful observations about what like-minded people can do about the problems he presents in the book. Listening to the audiobook is especially riveting since it is read by the author himself, making all the stories that much more personal. I listened to it on a trip to Alabama (of all places) and it was like he was sitting in the passenger seat the whole time. The only possible downside to listening to this one on a road trip is that I found myself sobbing a few times while zipping down the interstate, which could be hazardous.

Another fascinating non-fiction listen is The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley, an encouraging exploration of our capacity to survive disaster. Ripley tells the stories of people who have lived through such disasters as the collapsing of the twin towers on September 11, stampedes in Mecca, and massive fires. Most interesting to me are her explanations of our physiological and neurological responses as we’re in the midst of chaos that could kill us. I came away from this listening experience with a little more confidence that, should I find myself in the midst of disaster, my body and animal brain may have the ability to get me out of it alive. (On a side note, if you’re interested in the body’s response to trauma, check out Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. I’m in the middle of reading the book-with-pages version and it’s also fascinating, particularly Van der Kolk’s insights into the brain’s capacity to heal. I have a feeling I’ll be writing a blog about it in the near future.)

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Not really the Mr. Fox in question, but cute. Quite cute.

Veering from the non-fiction, one of the most delightful audiobooks I’ve listened to is Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox (Overdrive audiobook link here.) By delightful, I don’t mean lighthearted and fun – it’s Oyeyemi’s take on the Bluebeard folktale about a man who tends to murder his wives. The novel is written like a series of short stories about the same characters that jump back and forth in time, and one day I intend to sit down with the book and figure out how she was able to write such a complicated story in a seamless way that just really makes sense. In fact, I did have to finish this one with the book version since my e-audiobook automatically returned itself before I could finish listening – it reads just as well as it listens. (If you’re into the whole modern fairy tale thing, I also recommend Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi’s take on Snow White.)

Book Based on a Fairy Tale | 30 Books to Read For the 2016 Reading ...
I’m not gonna lie – I was initially drawn to this book by its cover.

I’ve been leaning heavily on podcasts and haven’t tried any audiobooks in recent weeks, but I have a couple more non-fiction titles on their way to me thanks to inter-library resource sharing. (Aren’t public libraries amazing and wonderful?) If you have any recommendations, please share them!

Three childhood books that changed my life

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I’ve always been a voracious reader (I started reading when I was 3), and what I read helped to shape my world. While I was in library school I took several courses dealing with children’s literature, and that spurred me to think about some of the books that most influenced me in my formative years. I’m sure the list is different for everyone, and it was difficult to narrow it down, but here is my top-three list: The Enchanted Castle (1907) by E. Nesbit, Freckles (1904) by Gene Stratton-Porter, and Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) by Jean Webster. I realize, writing this, that although I grew up in the 1960’s, my formative literature was definitely from an earlier era! That says more about my parents’ influence than anything else.

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I first read The Enchanted Castle when I was about seven years old. I had read lots of fairy tales, animal stories (especially Thornton Burgess’s books), Halloween stories about witches and such, as well as realistic fiction, but The Enchanted Castle was the first book I read that really blurred the lines between fantasy and reality to the point that I couldn’t tell where the lines were. I was fascinated by this, by the notion of alternate realities, the possibility that a fantasy could perhaps be real. To this day I can’t think of another book that, at least for me, did such an artful job of riding that edge.  E. Nesbit wrote many wonderful books, and I have enjoyed them all, but The Enchanted Castle still holds special magic for me.  Of course it made me want to read more fantasy, so I read other Nesbit books, Edward Eager’s Half Magic and Knight’s Castle , C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the rest of the Narnia chronicles, later Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (still one of my all-time favorites, though those weren’t published until I was a teenager), Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and lots more. Hmm, all but Eager are British authors — they seem to have a special gift for fantasy.

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I was introduced to Freckles when I was ten or eleven, and have reread it many times, as well as all Gene Stratton-Porter’s other fiction. I was brought up to appreciate nature and the environment, but this book really drove home ideas about the need to revere Mother Nature’s majesty and bounty.  The story is painful in ways, because at the same time that it exalts the glories of nature, the main storyline is about logging old-growth swampland and destroying the very Mother Nature the book celebrates.  Porter was trying to get people to see what was happening before it was too late.

Freckles is a story about a young man (an orphan, by the way) who leaves the city for a job as guard of a large timber lease in dense Indiana swampland, the Limberlost. His conversion from fearful city boy to ardent lover of nature is assisted by a great cast of characters, including the memorable Bird Woman who goes all over the countryside photographing wildlife. Another of Stratton-Porters novels, A Girl of the Limberlost, is set in the same area, with some overlapping characters including the Bird Woman.

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Gene Stratton-Porter in her outdoor gear

Gene Stratton-Porter was a remarkable woman, a pioneer in conservation thought, who pursued her early career in writing, nature photography, and conservation largely in secret. She was the real-life “Bird Woman” of her novels, photographing birds, moths, and other wildlife at all hours, in incredibly difficult conditions, in order to preserve it and share it with the world. She only agreed to write novels so that her publisher would print her non-fiction nature books.  I was strongly influenced by both her and her writings to be a more ardent environmentalist and a woman who stands by her values (whether they are popular or not).

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The first time I read Daddy-Long-Legs I was about nine years old.  There were many orphan novels written in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries; I read and re-read lots of them, including Understood Betsy, Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Jane Eyre, Eight Cousins, and Rose in Bloom, among others. Daddy-Long-Legs stands out in my memory for several reasons. We meet Judy Abbott as a young adult of eighteen rather than a child. Unlike most orphan novels of the period, she has grown up entirely in an orphanage, never experiencing a traditional home setting. She leaves the orphanage for the first time in order to attend college.

The novel is told in the form of Judy’s letters to her benefactor (she calls him “Daddy-Long-Legs,” thus the book’s title), who is paying for her college education (at a time when women going to college was still out of the ordinary).  This was the first novel I read that was in letter form, and I was very taken by that writing style, and impressed by how well I was able to come to know the characters despite what seemed (to me) to be a difficult form of delivery.  It helped me to see how I too could write letters that went beyond delivering facts, to set a scene and bring my reader into my world in a more complete way. 

Judy was experiencing the world outside the orphanage for the first time, and I was enthralled by her fascination with everything around her and her joie-de-vivre, though at the same time appalled at all the things she had missed growing up. She had never seen paper money, never been on a train or in a car, never set foot inside a house, never known anything of what it meant to have a family. It made me realize more fully just how fortunate I was, and how much I had experienced that I took for granted. I think this novel, more than any other, made me realize how different each of our experiences is, how varied our opportunities are. It made me more actively appreciative of my own childhood, and helped me to value each person’s perspective on life.

So there you have my three book picks. What about you? What three childhood books most influenced your life?

 

Celebrating Audiobook Month

audiobook icon      June is Audiobook Month!

When I was a kid (back in the dark ages when recordings were 12-inch LP records), my brothers and I loved sick days. Not because we wanted to miss school, but because being home in bed was a chance to listen to our recordings of Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass read by the talented Australian actor Cyril Ritchard (here’s a brief excerpt). The recordings, four LPs each, captivated us, and to this day my ideas about Alice, the Duchess, and all the other Lewis Carroll characters are influenced by those recordings.

We also had a few other spoken recordings, such as Lionel Barrymore’s rendition of A Christmas Carol and Thornton Burgess reading from Old Mother West Wind. Later we acquired a wonderful recording of J. R. R. Tolkien reading passages from his books – the Elvish poetry is especially fascinating, though my favorite reading is “Riddles in the Darkfrom The Hobbit (when Bilbo first encounters Golum, deep underground). But these spoken recordings were relative rarities in our lives.

Today, audiobooks are plentiful, ranging from early children’s books such as The Cat in the Hat through a complete reading of The Bible. You can checkout an audiobook version of The Hobbit, James Patterson’s latest hit, or The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. And you can listen to non-fiction too, including books such as Temple Grandin’s The Autistic BrainJames Kaplan’s biography Sinatra: The Chairman, and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.

There are many reasons people choose audiobooks; some like to read while commuting, exercising, or doing housework or chores. Others simply find it more relaxing or they are able to focus better on the words. Those with vision issues or reading challenges often find audiobooks much more enjoyable than trying to read print books. And audiobooks are portable! You can listen at home, in the car, at the beach, while walking or jogging, or anywhere else you happen to be.

There are numerous educational benefits to book-listening as well. Studies have shown that children who listen to audiobooks show a 67% increase in motivation, a 52% increase in accuracy, and a 40% increase in recall compared to print reading alone. Comprehension goes up by a whopping 76%, which makes sense since 85% of what we learn comes via listening. Listening increases vocabulary, aids in learning pronunciation, improves reading speed, and allows children to experience books at a higher reading level than they can read themselves.

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So if you thought using audiobooks wasn’t ‘real’ reading, think again! Audiobooks have as much to offer as print books; they’re neither more nor less worthy of attention, just different.

Audiobooks come in a variety of forms:

  • Most libraries offer CD audiobooks. And don’t forget that in addition to your home library’s collection, your library card gives you access to all the FRL library collections PLUS all of the NC Cardinal consortium libraries.
  • Playaways offer preloaded books such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Lee Child’s One Shot, each single title on a small device you can slip in a pocket and take anywhere.
  • You can check out e-audiobooks from our library website, including e-Inc and OneClickdigital for all ages, and NC Kids for additional children’s books.
  • For teens, SYNC is offering different free e-audiobooks every week through the summer.

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a few of the Playaways (top left) and CD audiobooks available at Macon County Public Library

Children’s audiobooks come in several forms these days. In addition to standard CD audiobooks, our libraries offer book kits which include both a book and a corresponding CD audiobook recording as a single checkout. Some favorites are Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Sandra Boynton’s Frog Trouble and Rhinoceros Tap, and the classic MadelineAnother book-audio combination is Vox books, which have an audio recording built right into each book. Don’t Push the Button and Going Places are examples of this recently-introduced format. And as I already mentioned, there are several e-audiobook sources accessible from the library website.

Many audiobooks are narrated by a single person, while others have multiple readers for a more theatrical effect. I happen to love books read by their authors. Hearing an author reading his or her own words gets right to the source. And often there is an accent to add even more to the experience. Some author-readings that are rated particularly engaging are Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

But books read by others can be equally appealing. Some recent award-winning audiobooks are Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train, Daniel Silva’s The English Spy, Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale, and Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy.

If you haven’t tried an audiobook before, Audiobook Month is a great time to give this format a try. If you are already an audiobook lover, what are some of your favorites?

Picture books!

Occasionally, I have to meet new people. Even more occasionally (thank goodness), I will meet a new person who, upon learning that I work at a library, will say some version of, “I like books – if they have pictures in them!” They will then look at me expectantly with an expression of inane smugness, waiting for a guffaw at their clever joke.

They don’t get the guffaw.

I actually do like books with pictures in them. One of the perks of working at a library is getting to see all the new books as they arrive, and new children’s books are the most exciting.

One of my favorite new books that came to us recently is I Am NOT A Chair! by Ross Burach. The story is about a giraffe named Giraffe who, on his first day in the jungle, keeps being mistaken by the other animals for a chair! Giraffe is not, in fact, a chair, but you’ll have to read the book yourself to see if he ever finds a voice to assert his place in the world.

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Yeah, right.

Now, if you’re a little over-analytic like I am, you might suppose that the other animals don’t recognize Giraffe for the giraffe that he is because the jungle is not his natural habitat. Luckily a quick online catalog search will turn up plenty of non-fiction books about giraffes to satisfy your need to be right. Libraries to the rescue!

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Oh my gosh. Look at that face.

Moving on, we have Escargot by Dashka Slater, a story about an arrogant a charming French snail on a mission to eat the salad at the end of the book, provided the salad meets Escargot’s distinguished culinary expectations. The plot moves along at a snail’s pace and is punctuated by solicitations for compliments from the self-obsessed self-confident title gastropod, but the character development and expressive illustrations will make it worth your time to read. I won’t entirely spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that Escargot’s gastronomic horizons are broadened.

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Hold the salt, please!

If Escargot whets your appetite, follow it up with one of the plentiful picture-laden cookbooks gracing our non-fiction shelves. Of particular interest might be Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking Patricia Wells’ Salad As A Meal, which has just enough salad recipes to make you feel healthy while flipping through its pages. (Feel free to skip straight to the bread chapter, though, and don’t forget about the perennially hungry public servants at your friendly local library when you’re handing out free samples!)

And here, because a book of poetry is really just the same as a book with pictures, I will end with a poem.

“It Was Early” by Mary Oliver

It was early,
which has always been my hour
to begin looking
at the world

and of course,
even in the darkness,
to begin
listening into it,

especially
under the pines
where the owl lives
and sometimes calls out

as I walk by,
as he did
on this morning.
So many gifts!

What do they mean?
In the marshes
where the pink light
was just arriving

the mink
with his bristle tail
was stalking
the soft-eared mice,

and in the pines
the cones were heavy,
each one
ordained to open.

Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.

Little mink, let me watch you.
Little mice, run and run.
Dear pine cone, let me hold you
as you open.

Repeat Readings

Several months ago I wrote about movies that I had re-watched again and again; specifically, movies I had seen at least 5 times. I talked about why I’d ended up watching those films as much as I had, and about the movies themselves.  I actually got a fairly big response to that blog posting – apparently lots of folks either liked the particular movies I mentioned, or they just shared the same habit of re-watching some of their own personal favorites.

I later realized that for some people, the urge to re-read favorite books is also strong.  While for some, reading a book once and moving on in search of something new is the preferred method, for others the desire to re-visit a favorite title is compelling.

Probably one of the biggest examples is how people read and re-read the holy writings of the world’s various faiths.  Or beyond that, for hundreds of years people have read the writings of the great poets, turning to them on multiple times.  Shakespeare, as well, is a perennial favorite.  I think part of the appeal in this class of writing is the depth of what is there – multiple readings reveal new insights, especially as we grow older.

Beyond the Bible, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, multiple readings are also a joy for readers of fiction, especially if the work is longer or part of a series.  I have read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien multiple times, and so have others I’ve spoken to.  I know a group of people who read and re-read the entire Harry Potter novels (in order, of course!) – sometimes on an annual basis.  I’m also aware of the following popular novel series that are re-read by fans:

One of the keys to this particular category is that many of the series can be started by fairly young readers and still have enough depth and detail to make an older reader want to pick them up.  The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling (see earlier link), in particular, follow a young set of protagonists as they age to young adulthood.  If read for the first time as a younger person, re-reading can evoke not only the pleasure of “discovering what happens” but also re-capturing in some sense the youth we may have had as first-time readers.

Another set of titles that are often re-read may or may not lead the reader to other books in what is actually a series, although many may not be aware there are sequels to the title that they are re-reading.  Titles that come to mind are The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Wizard of Oz, A Wrinkle in Time, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Tarzan of the Apes. [Although the latter title should make one want to read the next title in the series (The Return of Tarzan), as the first book really is a bit of a cliffhanger.]

Still another group of titles are those that are not necessarily part of a series, but where the author either creates a memorable heroine or hero or does such a strong job establishing the setting that they create a desire to re-visit the author’s creation.  Classic examples of this might be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Little Women by Louis May Alcott, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, or A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  (If you want to get a multitude of opinions from a group of Dickens fans, ask them to name the best of his 14 or so novels)

Besides individual titles, there are authors who have such a strong voice that people come back to their works, whether novels or short stories, repeatedly, regardless of genre or subject matter.  Three such authors that come to mind for me are P.G. Wodehouse, Neal Stephenson, and Roger Zelazny. I would read or re-read pretty much anything they wrote.  And I could name more, of course – all readers have favorite authors, but those three seem striking for how they create interest whether they are writing about golf, Baroque history, or the possible end of the world.

Finally, there are those “quirky” books that maybe no one else you know re-reads, but you find yourself picking them up again and again. I’ve heard of folks who re-read Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.  I think the title I’ll pick as an illustration of this type is one from an author I just mentioned, Roger Zelazny.

Late in his life and writing career, he wrote a book called A Night in the Lonesome October. It was his last book, and one of his five personal favorites.  The plot is pretty bizarre, incorporating a Chthulu-like end of the world scenario, and is narrated by Jack the Ripper’s dog.  But one of the reasons I read it, besides the references to other novels, movies, and fictional characters, is that the book has thirty-one chapters, each linked to October 1-31, and for some reason, I have often picked it up on October 1st and read a chapter each night as the month progresses.  I’ve done this enough times that, while it does not happen every year, it does seem to be becoming a tradition with me.

 

So do you have any books you re-read?  Share some in the comments, if so; and happy re-reading!

Rollicking Reads from 2016

It is the time of year for retrospectives.  And rather than recap celebrity deaths (Prince, Bowie, Mariah Carey’s career), I thought I’d pick a handful of materials I’ve checked out from the library that gave me hours of enjoyment this past year of 2016. They were not all published in 2016, but 2016 was the year I read them for the first time.

Overall, I’ve read 80 eBooks this past year, and about 20 additional books in print.  From those 100  I’ll select 10 things to recommend, all available from Fontana Regional Library or the NC Cardinal state system that FRL belongs to.

One explanation about my selections: I like science fiction and fantasy genres, but also like thriller and adventure novels, good comedies, and even some mysteries; when reading non-fiction I like histories, biographies, and memoirs.  So you will see “all of the above” in the ten titles/series I’ve chosen.  I’ll start with a memoir…about a movie, made about a book, that was written about a fictional book.

1.As you wish: inconceivable tales from the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (2014)

A memoir by the actor who played Westley in the now-classic movie The Princess Bride.  Hilarious and heart-warming, behind the scenes stories of how the movie came together, from the screenwriter (who also wrote the original book) to Billy Crystal to Andre the giant.

2.The Brilliance series by Marcus Sakey

3 titles: Brilliance (2013),  A Better World (2014), Written in Fire (2016)

An edge of tomorrow science-fiction thriller-adventure, about the social problems that occur when a percentage of the world’s children start manifesting savant-style gifts (like lightning calculation, but also mind-reading, pattern recognition, fantastic reflexes, etc.). It’s the story (somewhat similar to the story line of Blade Runner), about a special agent who hunts down the “Brilliants” who have broken the law.  And he and his youngest daughter are also Brilliants…

3.The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman

3 titles: The Invisible Library (2016), The Masked City (2016), The Burning Page (2017)

This fantasy series contains the tales of an alternate reality wherein many alternate realities can be traveled to, and the Invisible Library where the librarians attempt to collect all the versions of various books by travelling to the multi-verses involved.  Each alternate has a varying degree of Law vs. Chaos – Law based realities are like ours, with science and technology, whereas Chaos realities have fairies, dragons, magic, etc.  The realities are on a spectrum, so many of them have a mix. One of the first places the first book goes is a steampunk world with a Sherlock Holmes surrogate vs. vampires.

4.Chronicles of St. Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor

8 novels, plus novellas: https://www.goodreads.com/series/109102-the-chronicles-of-st-mary-s

In this fast-paced science-fiction series, St. Mary’s is an historical institute where historians study history via time travel.  A secret to all but their sponsoring Thirsk University, these tales tell of a the madcap adventures of the historian Madeline Maxwell, as she bounces with her colleagues from the fall of Troy to the Gates of Thermopylae to encounters with Isaac Newton and dodo birds.

5.Night School by Lee Child (2016)

Like all the Jack Reacher books written by Child, this one can be read as a standalone work, and not in any particular order.  Some of the Reacher books are “contemporary” and others are set back in Reacher’s past, while he was still in the Army.  This is a “past” title detailing how Reacher and a select team of both FBI and CIA agents undertake a secret mission to stop terrorists before they strike.  The appeal of the Reacher novels lies in the Jack Reacher character himself, as his unique brain and his indomitable physical gifts combine to thwart evil wherever he encounters it. In total, there are 21 books as of Night School.

6.Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo

2 titles: Six of Crows (2015), Crooked Kingdom (2016)

This fantasy duology is set in a steampunk world with some magic, and is sort of a fantasy version of Ocean’s Eleven. A group of six misfit but highly competent mercenary/criminals set out to infiltrate an un-breachable fortress and liberate the prisoner held there. There are lots of plot twists, with the leader Kaz usually (but not always) one step ahead of his opponents.

7.Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley

8 published novels and one novella : https://www.goodreads.com/series/46160-flavia-de-luce

A mystery series set shortly after WW2, whose heroine Flavia is only 11 (in the first book), but possessed of a mind like Sherlock Holmes, a rather morbid interest in chemistry (specializing in poisons), and the youngest of a very interesting English noble family.  Most of the books are set in the environs of the decaying mansion and grounds of the de Luce estate, but one of the books sees Flavia off to Canada.  The series has ongoing themes, and is not really designed for standalone reading, but it can be done that way without undue difficulty.

8.The Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson

3 novels and one novella: https://www.goodreads.com/series/93010-reckoners

An Earth where there are no super-heroes, only super-villains (the Epics), opposed by an extraordinary band of non-superpowered human rebels known as the Reckoners. Their goal – somehow defeating the Epics and restoring their world. Their only hope is to exploit the secret weakness of each super-villain.

9.Ex-heroes series by Peter Clines

5 titles: https://www.goodreads.com/series/67447-ex-heroes

{from the author’s website} In the days after civilization fell to the zombie hordes, a small team of heroes—including St. George, Zzzap, Cerberus, and Stealth—does everything they can to protect human survivors. Each day is a desperate battle against overwhelming odds as the heroes fight to keep the undead at bay, provide enough food and supplies for the living, and lay down their lives for those they’ve sworn to protect. But the hungry ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Former allies, their powers and psyches hideously twisted, lurk in the shadows of the ruin that lies everywhere…and they may be the most terrifying threat of all.

10.The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013)

[from the publishers webpage] “The art of love is never a science: Meet Don Tillman, a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers.

Rosie Jarman possesses all these qualities. Don easily disqualifies her as a candidate for The Wife Project (even if she is “quite intelligent for a barmaid”). But Don is intrigued by Rosie’s own quest to identify her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on The Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie―and the realization that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you.”

*****

As you can see, I discovered some wonderful series last year, as well as individual books, that kept me up too late, made me laugh out loud, and grabbed my imagination.  I hope you find something here that you will likewise enjoy!

[disclaimer: with series I am just linking to the first title in the series for you to get started, but I either list the existing books in the series or provide a link so they can be read in order]

My Favorite Mystery Writers 2

When I’m not reading history or biography I tend to read mysteries, suspense novels,  and / or thrillers.  I have written in this blog before about some of my favorite mystery authors.  Here goes with some more!   I love British police procedurals, series that have a strong woman as the main character, mysteries with a touch of humor to them,  thrillers with an international twist, the noir genre,  and mysteries that are set in the near past (19th and 20th centuries).  Over the years, I’ve come to realize that some authors mean to have their books read in the order in which they are published, so I read them thusly.

Some authors are content to let their characters live in a particular time and others stretch their lives out to encompass long periods of time.  Here are some examples.   Jacqueline Winspear enters Maisie Dobbs’ life when Maisie is a young teenager in the first decade of the 20th century.  In her twelfth book,  an adult Maisie travels to Berlin in 1938.   Contrast that with Sue Graftons Kinsey Millhone, who appears to be stuck in the 1980s and  ages  one year every two and half books.    Anne Perry‘s character Thomas Pitt has been combating criminals and traitors in London for the last twenty years of the nineteenth century through thirty-one volumes in the series.  He and his wife, whom he met in his first case, married at the end of the first book and now have two teen-aged children.   Elizabeth George‘s Inspector Lynley mysteries seem to follow chronologically one right after another.

Although I prefer British mysteries written by British authors, I have found there are American writers who write mysteries set in the British Isles almost as good as the natives.  Elizabeth George is one of these.   Inspector  Thomas Lynley is a peer who likes to downplay his title, but dates a woman who is also an aristocrat.  His creator has paired him with a duo of detectives, Barbara Havers and Winston Nkata from totally different cultures:  Havers is from a lower middle class background who lives with aging parents  in council (public) housing;  Nkata is a black man who came from a violent, troubled youth.

Martha Grimes is another American author whose main character is a Scotland Yard detective.   Grimes is unique because all her mysteries have titles that are the names of real pubs in Great Britain.   Her main characters are Richard Jury, and Melrose Plant, a friend who helps Jury with some of his cases.   Plant is a hereditary peer who has given up his titles to the dismay of his American born aunt.  Jury and Plant’s worlds go from Islington, the area of London where Jury lives, to New Scotland Yard where he works, to Long Piddleton, where Plant’s ancestral home is located.   Secondary characters inhabit these locales and other places where Jury has to go for his cases.

An author’s success with a series of books inhabited by the same characters, such as Grimes’,   depends on similar characteristics that make for hit series on television.  First, of course, there has to be good writing.   The main characters have to be believable and supported by an entertaining secondary cast of characters.  A good example of this is one of my favorite authors whom I haven’t mentioned yet, Daniel Silva, who writes thrillers that could mirror tomorrow’s headlines.  The main character of Silva’s books is Gabriel Allon, an Israeli art restorer who doubles as a spy/assassin.  Among Allon’s supporting cast is his second  wife, Chiara, also an agent for the Office, the Israeli intelligence agency they both work for.  In addition to her, he has a team who supports him in whatever op they are running.  Various agents from MI6, CIA, etc. also populate these books, along with villains from a number of Arab organizations, both real and fictional.

To close, I’d like to remember one of my favorite writers, Ruth Rendell.   She died in May 2015 at the age of 85.  She was honored by the Queen as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1996 and as a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, in 1997.  As such she was an active Labourite member of the House of Lords until she had a stroke four months before she died.  “The last words of Ruth Rendell’s 66th novel, which can be revealed without a spoiler, consists of someone declaring: “Now it’s all over. ” May she rest in peace!

Reading Series – a professional’s guide

Probably the first series I ever encountered was one my three older sisters had “bequeathed” to the family collection – it was the Trixie Belden mystery series.

As I read the single book in the series that we had on our bookshelves, I quickly became aware of (and somewhat annoyed at) the fact that the title in question was NOT the first book in the series.  In the book, references were made to events and characters from the previous novels. Starting the series in the “middle,” so to speak was certainly not ideal.

And that brings us to a fundamental feature of reading a series of novels – depending on the series, it can end up being virtually just one long story.  Many readers consider it vital that they start the series at the beginning.  It’s easy to see why that could be important – in a highly complex series, the plot development, character development, timeline and essential story being told are dependent on a linear progression of comprehension.  Imagine starting The Lord of the Rings trilogy at the second book: who are these people/creatures?  Why is the ring important? Where in space and time is the action taking place?  All these are set up in the first book.

Almost as important as starting at the beginning is having access to the conclusion of the series, or perhaps better stated as having access to the entire series.  Again, using one of the most popular titles as an example, imagine not having access to the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The second book concludes with a “cliffhanger” ending, and the reader is drawn inexorably on to the next/final piece of the story.  The term “cliffhanger” literally means a story (whether a movie, radio drama or book series) where “each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the [audience] in the next installment.” (From dictionary.com)  Of course, it comes from an installment of the story ending with the protagonist hanging from a cliff, and the audience does not know what is going to happen.

As story-consumers, we all want to know what’s going to happen next.  If the story in a book series compels the reader, we are eager to follow the series to its conclusion.  And that introduces another “downside” to becoming addicted to a series – if the series is ongoing, then the reader must wait for the next piece of the story to be produced.

I remember getting the first book in a series once for Christmas.  At the time, the series had four volumes.  Originally planned as a six-book series, I anticipated getting “hooked” on the story, but since the volumes had been getting published roughly a year apart, I did not foresee much difficulty in procuring the remaining volumes.  That book was The Eye of the World, and the series was the best-selling Wheel of Time series.  Well, that book series eventually ran to 14 volumes, and the author died after volume 11.  As you can imagine, distress by the fans was not insignificant.  Luckily for the readers, (if not the author), the author Robert Jordan died from a condition where death was foreseen (although expectations were for four years and he only survived about 18 months).  Therefore, he dictated and completed an outline for how the series was to be finished, and his wife/editor picked an excellent writer to complete the series.

This is not just an isolated example; right now, the highly popular book series A Song of Fire and Ice (on which the Game of Thrones television series is based) is uncompleted.  Originally planned to be a trilogy, it has expanded in the author’s vision to be a seven-book series, of which only five are complete.  The last book was published almost five and a half years ago.  Because of situations like this, some readers will not start a series unless they know that it has been completed.

BEWARE THE DANGERS OF STEPPING UNHEEDINGLY INTO A BOOK SERIES!

On the other hand, there are few reading experiences more potentially rewarding than a long, dense, well-told story.  A reader literally does not want the series to end!

Currently, I find myself following several ongoing series.  Here are some still open-ended series that I eagerly anticipate the publishing of each new installment:

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

The original name for the first title was Semiautomagic, and describes this blend of urban fantasy with noir detective story.

A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin [see earlier link]

The series that is the basis of the very popular HBO series Game of Thrones [see earlier link]; this series takes almost every fantasy trope and stands it on its head.  Compelling reading.

The Necromancer Series by Lish McBride

This is a YA series with a good-hearted hero who unknowingly is heir to dark necromantic powers.

The Checquy Files by Daniel O’Malley

The first book starts with the heroine having no memory, but awakening surrounded by dead bodies.  It gets even more intriguing after that.

The Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Superheroes in a post-apocalyptic world of zombies!  ‘Nuff said.

And here are five series that are completely finished that I’ve enjoyed:

The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkien

This is the ultimate high fantasy series.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

A children’s series with surprising depth, it tells the story of an alternate world of talking animals.

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson) [see earlier link]

This fourteen title high fantasy series is not for lightweights, but it is a richly developed world, has a multitude of interesting characters, and the long story’s destination is ultimately worth the journey.

The Baroque Series by Neal Stephenson

3 historical fiction novels (with cliffhanger endings) set in the period from the mid-1600s to the early 1700s – they span the globe, and while the main protagonists are fictional, they interact with real historical characters while telling an incredible tale of the real-life wonders that took place around the world during this time period when science was in its infancy.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

This series tells the story of a young wizard through seven titles, each covering a year of his schooling while he and his friends deal with dark and deadly adversaries. {And our library has the titles in Spanish too!}

Finally, there are series where each title is essentially “stand-alone” – if you are hooked by the setting and/or the protagonist, but want to feel free to “dip in and out” with no linear plotlines, I can recommend these:

The Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the first two books do have a “one story” theme, with the first book ending in a cliffhanger of sorts, but the rest are pretty much stand-alone).

A child of noble English lineage is orphaned in the deepest jungle of Africa and raised by apes.

The Reacher series by Lee Child

A lone wolf former military policeman drifts across the US righting wrongs and solving mysteries.

[The Fontana Regional Library system has some or all of the titles mentioned in each of these series!]

Have space suit – will travel

I was crazy about outer space as a kid.  I had astronaut pajamas, and I remember as a 5-year old jumping into bed to go to sleep and doing a countdown (5…4…3…2…1 – Blastoff!) before closing my eyes and pretending my bed was a rocket.

I also had the book “You will go to the Moon” and re-read it endlessly.  I suppose with that kind of a background, it is not very surprising to learn that I eventually ended up reading science fiction.  After all, astronauts had already gone to the moon – I needed something more.

My ticket to this interest in reading was granted by a kind librarian at my public library.  On my first visit to their new building, she noticed me wandering in the stacks and asked me what kind of books I liked.  I replied, “Books about outer space!”  She led me to a section of the stacks and pointed to some books that had rocket ships on the spines {something like this:  scifi-rocket}

She handed one to me titled “Have space suit – will travel.”

It was my first book by an author named Robert A. Heinlein.

Robert Heinlein is generally acknowledged to be one of the giants of early science fiction, not just by readers and fans, but also by other authors.  His writing career, started only after prematurely ended stints in the military, politics, and as an inventor (for example, one of the first modern designs for the waterbed in 1942) began with his first published story in 1939; originally written for a $50 prize in a writing contest, he instead sold it for considerably more.  He quickly dominated the science fiction genre; in the year after (1940), he wrote and saw published three short novels, four novelettes, and seven short stories. One could say that no one else really dominated their genre as Heinlein did in the first few years of their careers.

The book that won me over [Have space suit – will travel] was the last of his twelve titles that were known as “Heinlein juveniles.”  What would now be known as YA, or Young Adult, these twelve titles are considered some of his best works – I quickly found and read all the earlier titles after discovering this author. Published by Scribner’s, these books came out every year before Christmas between 1947 and 1958.  However, Heinlein felt constrained by his editors and their target audience, and he jumped to a new publisher (Putnam) when his 13th title was rejected by Scribner’s.  That book was Starship Troopers, and became rather controversial in its time for its admiring portrayal of the military; it was followed by titles that were real game-changers and blockbusters in science fiction: Stranger in a strange land, and The Moon is a harsh mistress.  Each of these is considered by many to be a contender for being known as his best (vs. his juvenile titles).

Heinlein wrote 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 collections published in his lifetime. Four films, two TV series, several episodes of a radio series, and a board game were derived from his work. He wrote a screenplay for one of the films. Heinlein edited an anthology of other writers’ Sci Fi short stories.

Three non-fiction books and two poems have been published posthumously. One novel has been published posthumously and another, based on Heinlein’s notes and outline and written by Spider Robinson, was published in 2006. Four collections have been published posthumously.

From waterbeds to waldos, from TANSTAAFL to “grok”, from Space Marines and powered battle armor to Tribbles and the concept of “paying it forward,” Heinlein left his mark and legacy on our time. He has had an asteroid, a crater on Mars, and an endowed chair in Aerospace Engineering at the US Naval Academy named after him.  Try one of the 153 works under his name found in NC Cardinal, and you might find him, as I did, to be a favorite.