Tag Archives: Books in the Pie-Cooling Cupboard

An Imaginary Curriculum: Which it’s Part the First of Kate’s Wild and Crazy Summer Reading Thoughts

A couple of days a week I work at my favorite bookstore, and last week I started one of my favorite projects: building the summer reads table for kids and teens. This got me thinking about all the research reading I’ve done over the last couple of years, the things I’ve learned since that weren’t part of my middle and high school education–discoveries of history, science, math, information theory, literature that I was lead to by people and projects I’ve met and worked on in my post-student years. Some of these subjects are things that I don’t think I would have looked up if not for those people and projects. My husband, for instance, frequently browbeats me into reading things he thinks I’ll like, oftentimes having to overcome heavy reluctance on my part before I’ll finally make space on my TBR pile. A prime example of this was when he finally got me to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. I had absolutely no interest in starting them, but Nathan is, shall we say, persistent. And lo and behold: I LOVE THOSE BOOKS. Love them, love them, love them.

Anyway, long story longer, I got to thinking about these latter-life surprises, especially in subjects like math, which I stopped being good at in 7th grade and feared for the rest of my school days but which I love to read about now. I started thinking about whether my experiences in math, chemistry, physics–even history and literature, which I always loved–would’ve been different if I’d been introduced to some of these books earlier. Would they have opened my mind to aspects of those subjects that would’ve given me different ways to access them, to understand them, to find a reason to care about them even if I wasn’t good at them? For that matter, might I have discovered that struggling with math didn’t mean I couldn’t be good at physics? What if I had discovered something of the poetry of math back before I started to think I wasn’t good at it?

So with that in mind, a couple days ago I started making a special summer reading list of books that have changed my mind or showed me something fascinating where I didn’t know there was fascination to be found. Then the list started growing, so I think this may turn into a couple of posts rather than just one. These are books I think would be fantastic reads for teens, and in my wildest dreams I imagine some of them would be so cool to use in the classroom. I could be wrong; I’m not a teacher–but its summertime and I am going to indulge my wild imaginings. And here they are.

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The Informed Voter Project Returns: The Andre Norton Award Finalists

When last I posted in this series it was a little over a month ago, the day before the voting deadline for the Nebula, Bradbury and Andre Norton awards.  At the time I still had the two full-length novel categories left to review–and, er, two books left to read. It was a close thing. All I have to say is, thank goodness for my two hours of daily subway time and my shocking ability to function on zero sleep. You all voted, right? Of course you did. So did I. And in just over a week, the winners will be announced at the Nebula Awards banquet in Cape Canaveral, Florida. What better reason to leap back into one of my favorite bloggy projects? So without further ado, may I present the finalists for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. My thesis for the Norton finalists is a return to the idea that it’s all about identity–but more specifically, these are books about the quest to discover where one belongs, and The Hotel Under the Sand is the perfect place to start.

Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, Jul09)

The Hotel Under the Sand begins with these words: Cleverness and bravery are absolutely necessary for good adventures. With this opening, we are promised something classic, and that’s exactly what Ms. Baker delivers. A storm at sea deposits Emma, violently separated from everyone and everything she knows and loves, on the wastes of the Dunes. But it turns out the castaway isn’t as much alone as she thinks: when night falls, she is visited by Winston, the ghostly bell captain of the hotel of the title, the Grand Wenlocke. Built by a strange and brilliant hotelier, Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke the Fifth, the Grand Wenlocke entertained strange guests and was able to boast that within its walls time was forgotten, thanks to the owner’s Patented New Advanced Temporal Delay Engine. Until, that is, it was buried under the sands by the Storm of the Equinox. When another storm on the Dunes uncovers the hotel, Emma, Winston, and the Grand Wenlocke begin their adventures together, along with a pirate called Captain Doubloon; the hotel’s cook, Mrs. Beet; her dog, Shorty; and Masterman, descendant of the hotelier and last of the Wenlocke line. Emmadiscovers a home, a family, and a living, which she defends from pirates, storms, and predatory lawyers. We see her use her cleverness and bravery, but we also see her work hard. We see her lament the family she lost to the waves, and we see her build and protect and come to love the new family the strange hotel has collected to itself. Plus, there are fantastic machines, dread pirates, and the oddest collection of guests any hotel has ever played host to.

Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster, Oct09)

Ice takes East of the Sun and West of the Moon as its starting point, but it’s no simple retelling. Cassie Dasent ‘s grandmother (much to the chagrin of Cassie’s scientist father) always explained the fact of her missing mother’s absence by telling her that her mom, the daughter of the North Wind made a deal long ago with the Polar Bear King and is now being held at the end of the earth. When she turns eighteen, Cassie, who lives at an Arctic research station with her father and never credited her grandmother’s tale as anything more than an attempt to comfort her,  suddenly finds herself face to face with the Polar Bear King himself, who promises to bring Cassie’s mother back from the end of the earth…if Cassie will marry him. It’s a great, great adventure, and while plenty of books update classic fairy tales by resetting them in the present, Ice sets up a powerful contrast between the meticulously detailed scientific world of the research station and the magical realm that Cassie must find and journey through when things go wrong. Also, although while she is with Bear and protected by his power Cassie remains unaffected by the freezing polar setting, it isn’t long before she’s forced to cross the Arctic wilderness on her own, and must draw on all the real-world survival skills she has been taught by her father. But this isn’t just an adventure in which a young woman learns about herself and the depth of love while journeying from the familiar world into fantastic realms to rescue her beloved. Or rather, that’s exactly what it is, but it isn’t only her beloved for whom she is fighting. The stakes are incredibly high. And of course, Cassie finds her place, her family, and her way in the world.

Ash, Malinda Lo (Little, Brown and Company, Sep09)

Like Ice, Ash is a re-imagining of a classic fairy tale, but that’s where the similarity ends. Forced to work as a servant in her stepmother’s household after her father’s death, Ash’s only solace is in moments spent with Sidhean, a dangerous and seductive faerie with whom the girl desperately wants to escape. Ash’s mother had some connection to the faerie realm, and it looks like being kidnapped by Sidhean is the only way out of her new life, so she seeks him out over and over, each time only to be told that it isn’t time for him to take her away. Then she meets Kaisa, the king’s huntress, and begins to think there might be a potential reason to stay in the human world. Malinda Lo does a wonderful job conveying the agonized desperation and confusion of this girl even before she’s faced with choosing between the seductive faerie (and the world she’s convinced herself she’s meant to be part of), and the huntress, who is not only human, but a woman. One of the really nice details is that it is Sidhean who plays the role of the fairy godparent enabling Ash to attend royal gatherings, which adds a layer of complexity to their relationship. Also, while Ash is torn between her attractions to Sidhean and Kaisa, this is not presented as an epic issue of sexuality, but rather the necessity of choosing between two very different people the young woman is drawn to. It’s a story about risk and sacrifice and incredibly difficult choices, and, in the end, about finding one’s place and one’s true home.

Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, Jul09)

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith has lived in the Theatre Illuminata ever since she was very small–although the details of her arrival there from the outside world are fuzzy at best, and she knows nothing about her mother and father. Surrounded by players bound to the Theatre by the power of a mysterious Book containing all the plays of all the ages, Bertie grows up enjoying something of a privileged existence among them until she told it’s time for her to leave at last. Unwilling to leave the only home she knows, she bets everything on an effort to make a contribution to the Theatre and earn the right to stay, and announces her intention to become a Director. And then things start getting complicated: what begins as an act of desperation meant to keep herself from being turned out into the Outside World becomes much, much more as the very existence Theatre Illuminata itself is threatened from within. It’s been a while since I spent time working in the theatre, but this book brought back memories. It evokes the world backstage, below stage, in the wings, in the flies, in the Green Room, in the Prop Room. It’s peopled with characters so familiar it seems it would be nearly impossible to invoke them in any new or surprising ways, and yet they do surprise, over and over. Bertie herself is an absolute treat, part uncontrollable teen, part lonely child, part artist in search of her magnum opus as she transforms herself to save both the Theatre and her place in it, and along the way, begins to work out the truth of her past. (The second tale of the Theatre Illuminata, Perchance to Dream, comes out later this month.)

Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Aug08)

This book is the fourth installment in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, taking place during the same events as the third book, The Last Colony. In this vision of the future, where the universe is constantly at war because there are so few planets capable of sustaining life, a group of human colonists are sent to a previously unknown but habitable planet called (ha ha) Roanoke. Zoe is the sixteen-year-old adopted daughter of the leaders selected for the new colony (the protagonists of the first three books), and this is the story of Roanoke told from her point of view as she comes to discover that the survival or destruction of the colony and all who have made it their home just might wind up depending on her. Zoe’s is one of the best teen voices I’ve ever read. She deals with the standard teen issues (picking up and moving, making new friends, first boyfriend, fights with the boyfriend, that kind of thing) and several non-standard ones (issues with her identity as the blood daughter of a man considered both a traitor to humanity and a savior to an alien race called the Obin; frustrations related to being an all-but-religious icon among the Obin; vexations caused by the constant presence of Hickory and Dickory, two very devoted Obin warriors who have lived with Zoe as protectors ever since she was small). The manner in which this book addresses the questions of identity, purpose, and place in the world embraces all of the usual aspects and several very uncommon ones. To give just one example, there’s a wonderful climactic scene in which Zoe is forced to finally come to terms with her iconic status among the Obin so that she can ask of them a tremendous sacrifice and, well, that scene took my breath away.

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)

New York, 1979. Life starts to change for Miranda when her best friend Sal gets punched seemingly at random by a strange boy as the two walk home from school, then withdraws without explanation from their friendship. It’s a tough time to be without friends; a strange man’s been seen streaking near the school, there’s a crazy homeless man who spends his time lying under a mailbox near Miranda’s house, the boy who hit Sal turns out to be even stranger than the unprovoked punch suggested, and Miranda’s mother is preparing for a possible appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid. Oddest of all, and most worrisome, someone is leaving notes for Miranda inside her house–someone who isn’t her mother or her mother’s boyfriend, someone who seems to somehow know things that haven’t yet happened. This is hard, the first note begins. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter. Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key. The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you. The events  the letter writer claims to be coming to alter creep inexorably closer, until at last the pieces fall into place in a shocking act of love and sacrifice. This January, When You Reach Me was awarded the Newbery Medal, the same award Miranda’s favorite book,  A Wrinkle in Time, won in 1963.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, Jun09)

Just after her eleventh birthday, while her father is away at war and her mother is at work in a factory, September is washing teacups when the Green Wind takes pity on her and whisks her away to Fairyland on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes.  September’s adventures begin immediately: she encounters the Wyverary (part Wyvern, part Library) named A-through-L, the Marid Saturday, and the Marquess who, after succeeding the much beloved Queen Mallow as the ruler of Fairyland, introduced the realm to the wonders of bureocracy, red tape, and rules upon rules upon rules. There’s also a soap golem called Lye, an animate red paper lantern, and all manner of strange wonders, from a city sewn from fabric to a great, elaborate gearwork barrier that separates our world from Fairyland. September discovers that she has been set upon more than one quest, and determines to be as ill-tempered and irascible as she must in order to complete those quests and save Fairyland and the new friends she has made. This is a classically-structured fairy tale quest that pays sly homage to all manner of classics that came before, and the telling is beautifully tongue-in-cheek and begs to be read aloud. It feels old-fashioned, and yet there are tons of bizarre and not-at-all old-fashioned details (the soap golem, for instance, or the much-sought-after sword that turns out to be a wrench, or the volery of wild high-wheeler bicycles that carries September and her friends away from the city of Pandemonium). But most wonderful of all is September, who while being neither ill-tempered nor irascible, is the perfect heroine for this beautiful imagining of Fairyland.

Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon, Oct09)

Alek, Prince of Austro-Hungary, is roused out of bed, ostensibly for a piloting lesson in one of the two-legged war engines known as Cyklop Stormwalkers. It doesn’t take Alek long to realize something’s up and wrestle an explanation from his teachers: in Sarajevo, his parents have just been murdered, and the race is on to protect Alek from the same fate. In London, a Scottish girl named Deryn Sharp is preparing to take the tests that will start her on the way to becoming an airman. The actual aeronautics are no problem; it’s the fact that Deryn has to pass herself off as Dylan Sharp, a boy, that’s worrisome. But when “Dylan” volunteers to demonstrate her air sense by going up in a Huxley–a fabricated military airbeast crafted from the dna of jellyfish–the creature is blown off course and Dylan is rescued by the airship Leviathan, where she quickly becomes a member of the crew. It isn’t long before Leviathan’s mission brings it, and Dylan, into contact with Alek and his entourage, where their hesitant friendship alters the early course of the brewing conflict. In his reimagined World War I, Scott Westerfeld’s Axis powers are known as Clanker nations on account of their reliance upon elaborate mechanical war engines. The Allies are Darwinists, and through the use of natural philosophy they craft war beasts like the hybrid wolf-tigers called tigeresques, the Huxley ascender, and the Leviathan, a thing more like flying ecosystem than an airbeast. Both teens struggle with issues of who they are and who they can afford to trust, and although they could not be more different, they are equally wonderful characters and I can’t wait to see where the next phase of their story takes them. The book is decorated with gorgeous illustrations, which are just icing on the cake. (Behemoth, the second installment, comes out in October.)

And with that, friends, it’s nearly 1:30 in the morning, and I have to work tomorrow, so here I leave you for now. I’ll be back next week with the final installment of the Informed Voter Project, which will cover the Nebula Award nominees in the novel category:

  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, Sep09)
  • The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
  • Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
  • The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)
  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
  • Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

Subway Literature: Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road

Nathan attempted to have me stop what I was doing to read the first chapter, in which Dr. Alimantando, while riding his wind-board across a great desert, is visited for three consecutive nights by a greenperson who claims he is there to lead Alimantando to his destiny. That’s how I knew this one was going to be good. I read the first few pages and gave it back. I was pretty sure if I finished the chapter, I wasn’t going to get any writing done that day because I’d sit and read the whole thing. When Nathan finished it, he handed it over and said, “Eh. Reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I lost track of the characters. But you’re going to like it a lot.”

It was a safe bet. He knows One Hundred Years of Solitude has been one of my favorite books for, oh, ever. And he was right. I loved Desolation Road, and it is just like One Hundred Years of Solitude, only on Mars instead of in Macondo. If there were mechanical angels in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And sentient trains. And a garden straight out of Jorge Luis Borges. And the Greatest Pool Player in the World. And a man who charms broken machines back to life. And a guitar player known only as The Hand, who calls down the first rain ever to fall on the town of Desolation Road with a red guitar.

So actually, there are several points of difference.

Basically, the idea is this: led by the mysterious greenperson, Dr. Alimantando finds himself sheltering at an oasis in the red desert. When his wind-board is swept away as he sleeps, Alimantando is trapped at the oasis, his only companion a dying, abandoned ROTECH environmental engineering module who wants Alimantando to shut it off and put it out of its misery. From the body of the module, Alimantando extracts enough material to build what will become the infrastructure of Desolation Road: a solar collector and a wind-pump gantry. And then, slowly, slowly, the little oasis begins to gather its people to it: Mr. Jericho, the Patriarch of the Exalted Families, who is fleeing across the desert to escape assassins; Rael Mandella, his father Haran and his pregnant wife Eva, attempting to outrun a dust-storm in a rail-schooner; the Mandella twins, Limaal and Taasmin, born seconds after Dr. Alimantando and Mr. Jericho rescue their parents and who are accidentally cursed by their father as he names them, one with pragmatism and the other with mysticism; Rajandra Das, a railway tramp with the power of charming machinery who wins the Great Railroad Lotto and passage out of Meridian on any train he chooses (but is not permitted to decline the honor). When the trains begin to recognize the oasis-turned town as a legitimate stop, Desolation Road becomes a collective of misfits, mystics, betrayers, time-travelers, stunt-plane flyers, even the occasional trio of clones.

This book, by the way, is the perfect subway read, because each chapter reads like a short story. It does cover the entire existence of the town from its birth to its demise, but I, possibly because I am just wired differently from my husband, did not have any trouble keeping anyone or anything straight as I read. It’s chock-full of just the kind of weird detailing that keeps me riveted (reference the above-mentioned examples), and it’s written in some of the most beautiful prose I have ever encountered. McDonald’s writing has just gorgeous rhythm to it, and it goes from hilarious to heartbreaking with devastating ease.

It is definitely a book for the pie-cooling cupboard that holds my most favorite favorites. If, that is, Nathan doesn’t mind my squirreling it away in my room rather than his. Even if I loved it and he just liked it, Nathan likes his books just so. I can appreciate that.

Subway Literature: Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia

This book is going on my special bookcase, the one that used to be a pie-cooling cupboard and has chickenwire screens in front of each shelf. Only my very favorites go in the pie cupboard. Fortunately Tales from Outer Suburbia is very narrow, because there’s not much space left in there. If I can manage it, I will file it next to Barry Yourgrau’s Wearing Dad’s Head, because Outer Suburbia reminded me a lot of reading Yourgrau. Both books are made up of brief, perfect, odd moments just long enough to get under the skin, and in one case in Outer Suburbia, to actually make me cry (“Undertow”). Both books promise that the strange can–and likely will, if you bother to look–turn up right in your front yard and in your own family. If I was going to really geek out, I’d be tempted to start talking about Freud’s essay on the uncanny and how these books perfectly exemplify the way in which the familiar and the strange are so deeply intertwined, but I do my best geeking out after a glass of bourbon and I haven’t eaten yet today so the whole thing would probably result in a lot of misspellings and even longer sentences than this one.

And let me not begin to gush about Mr. Tan’s artwork.

In the negative column, you have to keep yourself from rushing through this book or you come up for air and not only is it already over, but you’ve also missed your subway stop. Unfortunately, although I tried to slow myself down, I wound up rushing from one story to the next way too quickly, and Tales from Outer Suburbia wound up being a one-way subway read (darn, had to go buy another book for the trip home). But I think that’s really my only complaint. Anyway I’m sure I’ll read it again.