Category Archives: On Books

reviews of newer books and musings on older ones

My Instagram Adventure

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I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve started a little Instagram project that allows me to play with my old books. This post essentially is an introduction to the content I’m putting into the Instagram series. Technically, these are supposed to help with promotion of my own book, but if I’m to work on a new platform several times a week, there has to be something in it for me–and renewing old acquaintances is as good a motivation as any.

Since this is my first try at an Instagram project, naturally, I’ve let myself start on a softer topic: ponies! yay, ponies! Below are my first two posts in that series:

Joanna’s Special Pony, by Hilda Boden, 1964 paperback edition

A friend put up a challenge on FB for us to tell about the first book we read on our own. I was stuck; I couldn’t remember. My mother used to say I learned to read “too early”, so that memory is, I suppose, lost to the fuzziness of preschool memory neurons.  But . . . I do vividly recall the first book I bought by myself, for myself, and read until it was so ragged with overreading. It was about this girl, Joanna, who was just awesome–she could tame a wild horse, she could take care of herself on a deserted island, she could stand up to bad guys. I wanted to BE that girl so very much–so much so that when I had to choose a saint’s name for my Catholic confirmation (and, yes, we did that at age 10 in those ancient times), I insisted on Joanna. My mother was dismayed–she had already picked out a name I was supposed to use–Ann. It wasn’t too far off, though, so maybe Mom just had slightly-off foresight.

Anyhow, while trying to explain the book to my friends, I found a copy for sale on ABE Books UK. It was the exact paperback edition I’d owned back then–so . . . now it’s mine. Again.  Joanna’s Special Pony is a classic “pony book”, with clever, courageous young teens up against adult malfeasance and bonded together by their love of horses and nature in general.  The characters are distinct, not cookie-cutter–even the villains of the piece have second thoughts about what they’re up to.  (Spoiler alert . . . When they connive to strand our heroine, one packs her a nice big picnic and the other insists she bring along a warm coat.) It’s set in Scotland, too, which for me is a nice bonus. (There are these little asides about “the English” that still ring true.)

I wish my mom had saved my pony books–but, then, they’re still out there to find.  You can explore this wonderful “lost” genre at https://janebadgerbooks.co.uk/ or snag the Kindle edition of Jane Badger’s comprehensive book on the topic, Heroines on Horseback at https://www.amazon.com/Heroines-Horseback-Pony-Childrens-Literature-ebook/dp/B07S2ZSKNN/.  

#formativebooks #whatimreading #mybookshelf #ponybooks #outofprintbooks #ilovebooks

Joanna Rides the Hills, by Hilda Boden, first edition, 1960

Once I found my first favorite book, it dawned on me there could be more out there. For one, my favorite book had a sequel . . . I actually found Book 2 while searching for Book 1. In the sequel, Joanna and her friends grow closer and become better friends. And they do a bunch of riding around on ponies.

It’s difficult to explain why finding the sequel to a kids’ book that I liked when I was 8, 9, and 10 got me so excited. Back when I was collecting pony books (in between the boarding-school books, the mystery books, and the cowboy books–no, cowboy books are not the same as pony books), I never managed to get my hands on the continuation of my absolute favorite book, to spend just a few more hours with the girl who was my childhood idol. Someday, I was sure, I’d find and rescue a wild pony and it would be my best friend and we would have people friends too, and we’d ride the wild hills all the time. Or at least until time for supper.

According to Jane Badger Books (The Source for all things pony-book, e.g., https://janebadgerbooks.co.uk/product/joanna-rides-the-hills/), this particular book is actually kind of rare. Some crazy has a “new” copy up on Amazon for nearly $1,000. Yeah, right, it’s “new”.  I hesitated only long enough to be sure my copy of Joanna’s Special Pony was paid for on ABE Books UK, before clicking back to the Other Bookseller for a properly-priced, accurately described copy of sequel. Other Bookseller actually happened to be on this side of the pond, so I received the two books in reverse order–but both of them in time for my birthday!  So, Quarantine Birthday came with lovely memories of wishing so very hard for my very own pony, while looking out the back door at . . . our family’s current pony-pet, Echo, as he whinnied for an extra round of supper.

Though I’ll try to keep the blog and the Instagram distinct, please don’t imagine it’s only pony books. The theme is “formative books,” which offers a broad landscape to roam. I’ve just done a post on a recent fantasy landmark work by Leslie Ann Moore, Griffin’s Daughter, which does have horses in it, but they are by no means the focus of the story. And I’m currently re-reading Leonard Wibberly’s The Road From Toomi, which, though two characters do make a long trek on horseback, primarily offers insights on racism and colonialism that survive the over fifty years since its publication. The next one on my list, Missing Man, by Katherine MacLean, has no horses whatsoever, so the streak will break there.

Rediscovering Old Books

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I spent my elementary-school years soaking up the very best in English literature.

For a preteen horse-mad bookworm that meant: Enid Blyton, Hilda Boden, Josephine Pullein-Thompson, her sister Christine Pullein-Thompson, and Many More. I didn’t notice at the time, but now it’s obvious:  all my early writing models were women. My very first book purchase was a pony book by Hilda Boden, who took up writing stories to help support her family. I kept that book–Joanna’s Special Pony–for years, and reread it many times, imagining the windswept Scottish coast populated with wild (but tameable) ponies and admiring the resourceful, determined heroine of the tale.

I’d nearly forgotten Lilian Buchanan’s illustrations–until I saw them again, and recognized them.

From that day onward, every smidge of my allowance (well, sparing a few pennies for sweets) went for the next installment of the Famous Five or Malory Towers or any number of pony books.

All of those books stayed behind in Yorkshire when my mother had to pack us all up for the move to the States. My British childhood was over, and military moving allowances are based on weight, so . . . my pony books, boarding-school novels, and mysteries went to the thrift store for some other child to collect.

“I thought you were done with baby dolls, you still have the Barbies,” my mother argued.

“Not all of them,” I countered. “I promised that one, the littlest one, that I wouldn’t ever ever give her away.”

But it was too late. 

I think maybe I broke my mom’s heart a little bit. Well, a little bit more. Motherhood involves a lot of heartache. Well, Baby Doll may have been lost to me forever, but I’m sure she had at least one more little girl make her similar promises.

The only good thing about the move was that all my friends had to study up for the Eleven-Plus, which would determine whether they’d go to a nice boarding/academic secondary school (like Malory Towers), get stuck in a dead-end “modern school” with no college track, or take up a trade and actually be able to earn a living. Me, I got to spend a couple of weeks coasting through the end of what Americans called “fifth grade” sitting in a classroom with children who–it seemed to me–hardly read at all, before being unleashed to a long, long American summer vacation. Luckily, my grandparents’ house was packed with books–mostly Reader’s Digest collections, but also a classic edition of One Thousand and One Nights and my dad’s stash of science fiction magazines.

Over the years, those old-style children’s books have been supplanted in the market by more literary-style books for children, others with science-fiction or fantasy roots, and thankfully many with more diverse casts of characters. A few have received a dusting-off over the years . . . there’s even a 2020 BBC-TV adaptation of Malory Towers that puts the storyline in a historical-fiction context while also envisioning a more diverse enrollment and faculty at the school.

Now, it’s my turn to have a house packed with books, and it’s an eclectic collection–not even taking into account all the books that aren’t technically mine, but my husband’s.  No matter–I put them on the shelf and dust them (occasionally), so they’re mine in that sense. I’ve launched a little Instagram project to share a few of those books, on a regular basis–mostly the out-of-print ones, the ones I inherited from my Dad (a fellow SF fan), and ones that may be old but that still speak to current issues.  The hard part is figuring out how to photograph them–top bookish instagrammers have such lovely still-life setups for their book posts. I’ll do my best to at least not to give people eyestrain.

None of that means I’ve stopped gathering-in books. Just in time for my birthday, my very first Quarantine Birthday, I retrieved a book long-lost in the move from England, my first book purchase, my favorite book from that day until the day it vanished to the thrift store with my dolls. 

The dolls are gone, my mother long forgiven, but the books never have left my mind. Just this month, I made a birthday present for myself of a copy of Joanna’s Special Pony, dusted off from some other collector’s shelf–one in better condition than the one I left behind, PLUS a copy of the sequel. That was a book I never got my hands on, because it was only in hardcover and my allowance was two shillings sixpence, exactly the price of a paperback (my, what a coincidence–almost as if my parents wanted me to buy books).

If you like Instagram, the series is here. I’ll try to remember to link to those postings from the Facebook page as well.

Review: Best Intentions, by J Dark

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I love a good crossover novel . . . or in this case, series of novels. An author who can successfully blend the tropes and themes of two kinds of worlds can perform that magical feat of pulling you outside your own world and showing you the things that bind people together, no matter what world they’re inhabiting.

The Glass Bottles series by J. Dark will give you that. Here, J Dark blends the noir detective story with urban fantasy. What makes it work is that the features of both worlds are both given their full due. Don’t think of this as a mashup–it’s more than that, it’s an overlay that draws on compelling elements of each type of story to bring fans of either just what they need. I’ve just finished the first one, Best Intentions, and I think you’ll agree that this is a dark, engaging tale that draws you in … and maybe kicks you a few times in the gut before it lets you go.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll get yours, you demanding film noir fan: the grim, gritty streets of The City, the denizens of the underworld–some better than they seem, some worse, the wiseacre Private Eye with the dingy little office, the mysterious crime that the police can’t handle, the stranger at the door…a stranger who may need her help…or may be about to kill her. Yeah, the PI is a dame, OK, a hot dame, no less, you got a problem with that?

Oh, and you, you urban fantasy addict, you get: a fully-worked out magic system that’s unique in its own way, but that you can pick up on as the story progresses, demons, pentagrams, spells, and rituals. These are all set against a backdrop of a seemingly ordinary city that’s fallen on tough times and normal complications of families, friends, and law versus order. All of these are contained within an ordered universe with an explanation for why-things-are-this-way…an explanation that ties directly to the deepest peril that the hero of the story must face.

While I don’t do spoilers, I will share a tiny content warning–this is not a story for children–got that?–not any more than the Maltese Falcon is a lighthearted romp for the kiddies. And while there are interesting magical–make that magickal–animals that play important roles, this is nothing like a Harry Potter story.

Here’s your setup. No Spoilers.

Fern Fatelli and her sister Fawn work on either side of the private-public law-enforcement line, in the city of Dayning (a fictionalized urban enclave of Halifax, Nova Scotia). Fern’s got her PI business to tend to, with equal parts moxie, magick, and good old-fashioned gumshoe footwork. When she needs a bodyguard, her old buddy–who also happens to be a troll–stands by her. There’s some baaaad stuff going down in the city…there are these strange little bottles that seem to suck something essential right out of a person, but no one knows what they are, where they came from, who is using them … let alone, why.

Our Fern is comfortable in the lower echelons of her city, using her limited magick on the old PI standards–scrounging up evidence on adultery for a disgruntled spouse. But this time, a seemingly typical case lands her in the role of hero, the one who has to solve an enormous puzzle to save her friends, her family, and her world…to save them all from an ancient evil that was set loose long ago, with the very best of intentions.

J Dark has a way with creating twists that will catch you off balance. Just when you think you sort of know what the solution to the mystery is going to be, something comes in out of left field–something that was there, all along, that you weren’t paying attention to–and everything changes again. You’ll enjoy the ride, but it’s like a roller coaster in the dark, so hang on tight.

At this point, there are three Glass Bottles books released, plus a short story, a prequel actually, A Last Good Day, that’s available for a free download at the publisher’s website. The books are on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and several digital-books sites. J Dark has a blog, too, where you can read about writing or try to catch up with a serialized sci-fi work-in-progress.

If, like me, you’re kind of curious about this re-imagining of life in Nova Scotia–or, as it’s been renamed in these books, New Scotland–there’s a trove of imagery on Google’s map images–check out this awesome shot by Mark Lamontagne that captures the blend of old and new echoed in J Dark’s vision.

Review: Black Nerd, Blue Box by T. Aaron Cisco

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Give yourself time to read when you pick up this book, because once you start, you won’t be able to stop reading T. Aaron Cisco‘s memoir, Black Nerd Blue Box: The Wibbly Wobbly Memoirs of a Lonely Whovian.

You don’t need to be a Doctor Who fan, or Black, or even a Nerd. If you love words, and the idea of extended bursts of witty, angry, insightful “one-sided dialogues” makes you just the slightest bit curious, you need to pick this up. If you happen to have all three characteristics, then you’ve finally got the chance to hang out with someone who … wait … is not exactly like you, because … what the heck were you thinking? Because you have three things in common, you’ll be the same? I bet you think you’re from Chicago, too. (Teaser: inside joke for readers of this book.)

I should also state clearly that, though it’s a memoir, and we all “know” it’s grown-ups who read memoir, this book could be an inspiring discovery for any young reader at YA-level or above who identifies with any of the above characteristics. Or for one who likes music their friends think is stupid. Or for one who self-identifies as anything out of the so-called mainstream.

Black Nerd Blue Box transports you into the mind of a fellow traveler in this universe and reveals just enough of that person’s experiences and inner life to allow you to connect with what resonates with your own. With that connection established, Cisco takes you on a journey, skipping through moments like the Doctor skipping across times and worlds. It’s not always a jolly adventure. There’s heartache as well as humor. Doctor Who asides will be enjoyed by fellow Whovians, but non-fans can catch up with the series later and not miss a beat in this life story.

Unless you happen to be an alternate-universe version of the author with only one or two minor differences from this time-line’s one, you will undoubtedly stumble across moments that teach you something about yourself, maybe a hard lesson, maybe one you need to go back and reread a couple of times, run a highlighter across until you really get it.

The chapter where he writes about his mother’s battle with cancer is wrenching in ways you won’t expect. Cisco was only a child at the time–but he has a stunning ability to convey the way that experience impacted his younger self. If you only have time to read ONE chapter, read this one, because it will change the way you think about talking to children about illness, about living with the prospect of dying, and about the nature of optimism.

I’m not saying Black Nerd Blue Box is a tear-blaster. It’s a humanity-sharing-lesson-learning experiment in self-revelation. About a third of the content is a hilarious inside-his-head discussion/ argument/ philosophy discourse. I laughed out loud twice while reading this on my phone–because I did not want to take the time to go back and boot up my computer after I’d read the first two pages on my phone–and I do NOT laugh out loud while looking at my phone. It’s embarrassing when people look around to see who’s the nerd laughing at their phone.

If you’re still hesitating, you know, you could do a trial of Amazon kindle unlimited and collect a copy-to-keep later. Make a note to remind your future self. Timey-wimey stuff isn’t just for nerds and aliens.

Cisco has fiction for you to read, too. Look for Teleportality, Dragon Variation, and The Preternaturalist. Amazon has all three, Barnes and Noble (my preferred shop) has only the first two at present. I can’t claim to have read them, but I skimmed the online sample of The Preternaturalist (love that title!), and the voice of the first-person narrator is lively and entertaining…much like Cisco’s own voice in this memoir.

You can find out more on his website, Black Intellectual. Lest you doubt his nerd credentials, you can find him writing for TwinCities Geek, such as his breakdown of Star Trek: Short Treks. Or if you’re in the Minneapolis area, you might meet him at the local Trek/Who trivia night.

Review: Memory and Metaphor, by Andrea Monticue

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Sharon Manders is having a very bad day. She’s been drop-kicked into the distant future–a thousand years out of time–and has no memory whatsoever of making any plans to go anywhen. She’s an archaeologist with a thriving career in good old 21-century Earth. And here she is in the 31st century, where everyone’s calling her by some other name that she doesn’t recognize. And she’s accused of treason, sabotage, terrorist acts. She has a lot on her plate, and she’s going to have to move fast while trying to figure out just what happened.

And you’ll be reading along, trying to figure that out, too. When she finally solves the last layer of that puzzle, you’ll lean back and say, “Oh, yeah, why on Earth didn’t I think of that?” But you won’t have thought of it. Andrea Monticue leads you quite a merry chase. I really can’t roll in too much detail without spoiling the whole thing for you.

Let’s just say a woman from our time finds herself plunged into a high-tech future with AI, biological engineering, and dangerous politics. Just when you think you have everything figured out, Monticue rotates the horizon by 37 degrees and you’re floating in space again, looking for answers. The book has to end (which you will not want it to do) and she ties all those twists and tangles together in one stunner of a unique conceptual shift.

Engaging characters, complex political situations that nonetheless remind you of the mistakes humans make right here on Earth in the “distant past”, and a plot that moves ever faster–all that will keep you glued to the page/e-reader.

At the very least, if all you take from this story is the tech (and there’s way more to it than tech), you will not think about artificial intelligence the same way, not ever again.

I got my copy directly from the publisher, at last year’s Bay Area Science Fiction Convention (BayCon), and was lucky to meet the author, who has the experience and technical background to make this story come alive.

So . . . my copy is autographed. You can get a signed first edition, too, direct from the publisher, at Paper Angel Press. Or you can choose your favorite digital medium or snag the trade paperback from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Full disclosure: at this point, I’ve also had a book published by Paper Angel Press. I was impressed by Monticue’s book and her publisher, enough so that I submitted my own book, hoping to follow in her footsteps. Rest assured there are way, way more explosions (literal and metaphorical) in Memory and Metaphor!

If you read it, review it

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In olden times, when you read a book that you liked, you would tell your friends. You might lend them your copy . . . then chew your fingernails anxiously until it came back safe. (Shall I digress to that time I found my best friend had thrown away my copy of Fellowship of the Ring . . . ? “But I thought you were done with it,” she said. Nothing like rummaging through a bag of garbage to retrieve your favorite book.) And then your friend would tell their friends, and so on.

Mysterious Box
Image credit: Diamondmagna
(CC BY-SA 3.0)

To perform this essential function in the publishing industry, we often employed these boxlike objects that sat on a desk or hung from the wall. Each one had a wire going from the back that plugged into a special kind of outlet, a useless-seeming outlet that you couldn’t plug a toaster into. And on top, there was a thing sort of like a front-door handle, though smaller.

When you picked it up, you’d hear a humming noise coming from one end of the handle-thing. Then, if you carefully pushed a certain sequence of buttons on top of the box–or even more interestingly, spun a dial on top of the box in a particular pattern–the humming noise would be replaced by your friend’s voice. And they could hear you, too! Then you would say something like, “I just read this book. You absolutely have to read this book. Make your mom take you to the bookstore tomorrow and get it. And there’s a whole series, too, I’ve got to go with you, so I can get the next book in the series!”

I have heard that there were other uses for this device, but they do not matter.

Now, big-city people may have decided what books to read based on some review in a newspaper or in a fancy magazine, but real fans relied on direct recommendations from friends.

The same is true today, but–like many of us–I’m guilty of not holding up my end of the stick. We’re all buying our books with the assistance of the internet–even if we’re relying on our local indie bookseller for product, we’re finding our reading online. And we need to be telling all our friends–and nowadays, that is apparently everyone else on the internet–what we liked and why.

So, I’m adding a section to this website dedicated to reviews. I’m being a better reader and adding reviews to my purchases at online sellers. Contact me if you think there’s a book out there I should review (not that I’m aiming to become a book reviewer, mind, but I do want to find books I’ll enjoy reading). And, by the way, when you buy a book from B&N or Amazon or Smashwords or wherever, if you liked the book, take a few seconds before you buy your next book and tell everyone. You don’t have to write an essay– this isn’t homework, it’s socializing. Just tap out a couple of sentences to let people know what was good about it. “hey, fellow readers, try this book, I liked this one thing especially –“

Or you could just pick up the phone and call.

© 2012-2020 Vanessa MacLaren-Wray All Rights Reserved