The Tough Guide To Fantasyland Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was recommended to me by one of my college friends because of my fondness for the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and it is hysterical! Popular fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones has written a fictional “travel guide” for “Fantasyland,” a typical sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy setting, that hilariously eviscerates many of the fantasy genre’s favorite cliches and stock phrases. This book will get funnier the more fantasy novels you’ve read, but even a passing acquaintance with the Lord of the Rings movies or similar should be enough to get a few chuckles of recognition out of you.

If you like this book, I also recommend The Book of Weird, by Barbara Byfield, which is very similar but focuses more on fairy tale cliches (i.e. princesses always come in sets of 1, 3, 7, or 12) than those of the modern fantasy genre, and The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

 

Hamilton’s Mythology Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Although this wasn’t the book that began my love affair with Greek mythology (that was Favorite Greek Myths, by Mary Pope Osborne), Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is the one that confirmed it. I first read it about age 10 and it’s been one of my favorite books ever since.

Although Bulfinch’s Mythology is also an excellent and comprehensive choice for someone interested in learning more about the Greek myths, I think Hamilton is the better storyteller of the two. I especially like how she intersperses clips of the great plays and poems the stories have been passed down in, which give you a feel not just for the stories themselves but the beauty of ancient Greek literature.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Baryshnikov At Work Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

If you have even the slightest interest in ballet, you’ve probably heard the name of the legendary Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974 and has lived and worked primarily in the United States ever since. First published in 1976, while he was still in his prime as a dancer, this big, coffee table book includes black and white photographs of 26 of Baryshnikov’s roles, taken during rehearsal, performances, and in the studio. Some of the pictures are higher quality than others, but there are many excellent ones. As someone who took ballet classes for many years myself but could not be said to be naturally talented, a bunch of them made me want to weep with envy over the perfect technique and form on display by both Baryshnikov and his partners. Also – not going to lie – some of them are sexy as hell. Heck, most of them. Dancers have the most beautiful bodies.

The photos are accompanied by text written by Baryshnikov himself (with Charles Engell France), discussing each role and some of the thought processes that went into his interpretation of it. I found this a very interesting peek into the mind of a great dancer, but it will likely be more interesting to people with at least some dance experience, as he does use some technical terms. Some of his comments are even pretty funny. For example, he describes his early efforts to prepare for “Pas de Duke” with Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison as “a cow on ice.”

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

The Legend of Eli Monpress Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

I picked this three book omnibus up on sale for Amazon Kindle and was pleased that I did. The Legend of Eli Monpress, by Rachel Aaron, is a light, fun, and entertaining read, and sometimes that’s exactly what a body needs.

It contains the first three books in the five book series:

  1. The Spirit Thief
  2. The Sprit Rebellion
  3. The Spirit Eater

The series follows the adventures and misadventures of Eli Monpress, a rogue, a thief, and a wizard in a world where inanimate objects have personalities and spirits that can be enslaved (by bad wizards) or bargained with (by good ones), as well as his companions Josef, a swordsman, and Nico, a demonseed.

I thought the books themselves got better as they went on. Though The Spirit Thief was a lot of fun and did a pretty good job of setting the world up, the characterizations were mostly paper-thin and the plot was formulaic and relied too heavily on (sometimes literal) deus ex machinas. The later books fleshed out the characters much better and the plots were also stronger, although I remained irritated by the author’s frequent tendency to land Josef at death’s door, only to have him in fighting shape again, like, three days later. Even with an ancient sword that helpfully mends wounds as well as causing them, it was a little excessive.

However, the books were just so FUN that these irritations remained minor.

My favorite part of the series was the worldbuilding. As much as I admire the incredible worldbuilding in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, if somebody gave me a one-way ticket to Westeros, my answer would be an emphatic and instantaneous, “Hell, no!” Dragons or not, I’m female. I have no illusions about what would happen to me in a place like Westeros. The Council Kingdoms of Eli Monpress and his friends, on the other hand, I might have to think a little about. Not only are they a heck of a lot more gender egalitarian, but the ability to interact with inanimate objects is something I’ve always thought would be fun and the interactions in the series are frequently hilarious and sometimes just plain AWESOME. Aside from their occasional problems with demonseeds, enslavers, and capricious goddesses, the Council Kingdoms sound like a pretty darn fun place to live, especially if you’re a wizard. Certainly, they were a fun place to spend a few hours.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

The final two books in the series are The Spirit War and Spirit’s End. I’ve been told they are somewhat darker in tone than the first three books, and haven’t read them yet.

Enlightenment Series Review

Review:

The Enlightenment series, by Joanna Chambers, is an entertaining m/m romance trilogy set mainly in 1820s Edinburgh. Although the covers are a little more in-your-face than I like (thank goodness for Kindles!), the series caught my attention because of its strong reviews on Goodreads, and despite some mixed feelings in book one, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

The main character is David Lauriston, an up-and-coming lawyer from a farming family. Although he lacks the family connections and personal wealth of many successful men of his profession, his strong work ethic and intelligence catch the eye of a prominent Edinburgh lawyer who becomes his mentor and friend. Unbeknownst to his coworkers, however, David’s workaholism is partially to keep himself too busy to give in to his illicit attraction to other men. Raised in a religious family, David is full of self-loathing for his “unnatural” desires, and drinks too much in an attempt to dull the shame and guilt he feels for his periodic “lapses.”

This all starts to change when he meets Lord Murdo Balfour, the handsome and wealthy younger son of an Earl, who is as unapologetic about his homosexuality as David is tormented. After a chance meeting at an inn, they are unexpectedly thrown together again in Edinburgh. Though Murdo prefers to avoid “repeat performances” and David prefers to avoid sexual encounters with other men completely, the two find themselves unable to deny their growing attraction to each other.

Like One Indulgence, the Enlightenment series is a fairly typical Regency(ish) romance, just with two men instead of a man and a woman. The sex scenes were steamy and well-written, but as I mentioned above, I was a little conflicted about the romance in the first book, because Murdo behaved a bit too much like a standard romance hero for my taste – too mercurial and prone to acting angry and even aggressive over things that would have resulted in less angst and fewer misunderstandings for all if they’d just been talked out calmly. (To be fair, David’s tendency to put his foot in his mouth when trying to discuss anything resembling feelings and relationships with other men couldn’t have helped.) However, Murdo mellowed out in the second and third books and showed a more vulnerable side, and I found them more enjoyable.

All three books have interesting subplots concerning the social and political changes of the time, as well as actual historical events of the period. I found the second book’s portrayal of King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 to be especially interesting, and also enjoyed the subplots involving Elizabeth Chalmers, the daughter of David’s mentor.

Trigger warning (click to view): The series does contain depictions of period-typical homophobia, m/f spouse abuse, and references to past rape.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

1491: New Revelations About the Americas Before Columbus Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

1491, by Charles Mann, is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Thanks to a lifelong interest in Plains Indian cultures, I thought I knew more about American Indian history than most white people, and technically I probably do. But this book still managed to blow my mind – repeatedly – with some of the information it contained about pre-Columbian life.

It begins with an argument that will be familiar to most people with more than a passing knowledge of pre-Columbian history: that there were far more people living in the Americas in 1491 than most historians and archaeologists have traditionally assumed. 19th century estimates put the figure as low as 10 million people in all of North and South America, and the mainstream estimate today is about 50 million. Mann argues, carefully backed by evidence from primary sources and archaeological digs, that the population may actually have been closer to that estimated by the “high-counters” – as much as 90-112 million!

It is extremely likely that in excess of 90% of the population was destroyed in the aftermath of Columbus’s discovery of America, primarily by epidemics of Eurasian diseases such as smallpox, to which the indigenous people of the Americas had little or no immunity, though many were also killed directly through war, slavery, etc. Many of the victims would have died without ever knowing that Europeans existed, but the devastation of the population had long-lasting effects on both native cultures and the American landscape.

Mann goes on to argue that pre-Columbian Indian populations were not just larger and more culturally and technologically sophisticated than previously assumed, but that they also had a greater impact on the American landscape. He argues that what appeared to early European explorers to be untrammeled wilderness was in many cases what remained of once-carefully tended gardens and fields that had become abandoned and overgrown following the holocaust of the local human population. This is the largest and most fascinating part of the book, with examples drawn from many regions and cultures across the Americas. As in the first section, Mann is careful to show the evidence for his claims, and also does a good job covering the opposing arguments in areas where there is much still up for debate, such as a bitter and ongoing dispute between archaeologists Betty Meggers, Anne Roosevelt, and their supporters about pre-Columbian Amazonian cultures.

My only real complaint about the book is that it focuses much more on Mesoamerica than North America, so while the Mesoamerican stuff is extremely interesting and was in many cases totally new to me, there are big gaps in the coverage of North America. Sadly for me, the Plains region is almost entirely ignored, although there is some interesting stuff about the moundbuilding cultures of the nearby Midwest and Mississippi regions.

1491 is also, unfortunately, a somewhat dangerous book, and there is a certain type of person I would be extremely hesitant to recommend it to. It lays out a lot of pretty convincing evidence that humans have had a massive impact on American ecosystems and landscapes for thousands of years; that, in fact, certain iconic American landscapes may have been partially CREATED by human intervention. In certain minds, information of this sort could become a blunt weapon to justify the continued exploitation and destruction of America’s remaining wild places. As someone approaching the book from the perspective of a lifelong environmentalist, however, what struck me over and over again while reading was how careful American Indian land management actually was. Although Mann presents multiple examples of Indian cultures that failed due partially or entirely to ecological overshoot, he also finds many examples of cultures that managed the landscape intensively yet sustainably.

One of the most striking examples comes from the Amazon rainforest, which Mann argues was treated essentially as a massive orchard by pre-Columbian cultures in the region. He argues that the primarily nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures that characterize indigenous peoples in the region today are most likely a historical anomaly – that many of them are likely to be the descendants of settled, agricultural people who survived the epidemics that swept through the region in the 16th and 17th centuries but were forced back into the nomadic lifestyle by demographic collapse. Instead of logging the forest, growing crops for a few years until the soil is exhausted, and moving on as all too many modern farmers and ranchers in the region do, pre-Columbian Indians found a way to preserve the fertility of normally nutrient-poor rainforest soils for centuries through the creation of terra preta. Created primarily between 450 BC and 950 AD, the terra preta soils of the Amazon remain fertile today. Now that’s some long-term planning! Although the population supported by such techniques would have been far lower than the modern world even if the “high counters” are correct, I thought the book offered some very interesting implications for how modern societies could improve the sustainability of our own land management practices.

Highly recommended!

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Buy at Amazon

My Favorite Horse Novels For Kids

I’ve loved horses for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I don’t come from a horsey family, so I had the opportunity to ride only briefly, when I studied dressage for a couple years in my late teens. As one of those girls who asked her parents for a horse every year for Christmas, I had to content myself for most of my childhood and early teen years with reading about them. Luckily, there are tons of great horse stories out there. I was desperate enough to read quite a few books that were pretty terrible in terms of the quality of the writing, but also many that are legitimate classics. My favorite horse stories included:

Buy at Amazon

King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry

My all-time favorite. Based (though with many historical liberties) on the true story of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the founding sires of the thoroughbred breed. Born in Morocco, the fleet-footed but small Godolphin Arabian (or Sham, as he is known in the book) is sent as a gift by the Sultan to the young king of France, who fails to recognize what he’s been given and turns the young stallion into a carthorse. Along with his loving caretaker, Agba, a mute horseboy from the Sultan’s stables, Sham is passed from owner to owner, some kind, some horrible, before his worth is finally recognized by the Earl of Godolphin. It’s a thrilling and emotional story, bookended by an account of Sham’s great descendant Man O’War and his match race with Sir Barton.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

I read all of Marguerite Henry’s horse books as a kid and loved them all. My other favorite was Black Gold, the story of the 1930s-era Oklahoma racehorse who finished his last race on “three legs and a heart.” (Needless to say, a tearjerker!)

Buy at Amazon

The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley

The first and best of the popular Black Stallion series, which I read most of. The series stars another fleet-footed Arabian, the wild and savage Black, who survives a shipwreck and a stint being marooned on a desert island with a young boy before returning to New York and becoming a mystery entrant in the match race of the century. Both a great adventure story and a great sports story!

The Black Stallion was made into a pretty good (though not entirely faithful) film during the 70s, with champion Arabian Cass Ole as The Black. The scenes on the desert island are particularly beautiful and well done.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Farley’s fictionalized biography of the legendary Man O’War is also a great read.

Buy at Amazon

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

Fiction with an agenda can sometimes be pretty overbearing, but Black Beauty, which Sewell wrote to bring attention to the widespread mistreatment of horses in the late Victorian era, is a great story as well as a convincing piece of propaganda. Beauty narrates the story of his life, from his happy period as a foal playing with his mother in the green English countryside to the cruel life of a London cabhorse and beyond. It’s probably the world’s most famous horse story, and deservedly so.

There have been several attempts to make a movie out of the story, of which the best and most faithful is this 1994 one, starring Sean Bean (who doesn’t die, for once), David Thewlis, Alan Cumming, Alun Armstrong, and Jim Carter.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Buy at Amazon

Mr Revere and I, by Robert Lawson

A fun historical fiction novel about the American Revolution, told from the perspective of Paul Revere’s horse Scheherazade (aka Sherry). Sherry begins her career as the pride of the British Army and a dyed-in-the-wool loyalist to the British Crown, but is gradually converted to the colonial side after being “liberated” by Sam Adams (who’s given an especially entertaining portrayal here) and given to the Revere family. It’s a very funny and well written book on top of being educational and exciting, so it’s a great read by itself and would also make a wonderful addition to any Revolutionary War unit study.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Lawson’s other Revolutionary-War-from-an-animal-perspective novel, Ben and Me, which narrates the life of Ben Franklin through the eyes of his pet mouse, is also very enjoyable.

Some of my other favorite horse novels for children are sadly out of print and hard to find, such as Sky Rocket: The Story of a Little Bay Horse, another riches-to-rags-to-riches story similar to Black Beauty, and the flawed but interesting And Miles To Go: The Biography of a Great Arabian Horse, Witez II, about a Polish Arabian stallion who was caught up in the events of World War 2 before being imported to America.

What are your favorite horse stories for children?

John Denver Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits Album Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

John Denver is one of relatively few singers that both my parents like (their tastes are not very compatible at all in general – my mom is all about classical music and opera, while my dad’s favorite genre is 60’s and 70’s folk-rock), so we listened to quite a lot of him when I was growing up and he’s been one of my favorite singers for pretty much as long as I remember. This album is a fantastic collection and contains almost all of my favorite Denver songs (the main exception being “Grandma’s Feather Bed”), so it was a must-buy for me. I also managed to convert my husband and a bunch of his family members into fans, so this album is a regular in our car rotation, especially on long trips. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is a special favorite for us, as it was the first English language song my husband’s nephew loved when he came to live with us in the United States, and he’d always get the whole car singing along.

I imprinted so hard on Denver’s music that it’s practically a part of me and it’s hard to consider it objectively enough to write a good review. He certainly has a pleasant singing voice, but I think the real magic is from his beautiful and evocative lyrics. He also handles a range of emotions very well – from the achingly romantic “Annie’s Song,” to the melancholy “I’m Sorry,” to the just plain fun of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” I do think a few of the songs go on a little too long (“Sunshine on My Shoulders” in particular always stands out to me as a song that’s beautiful but should be about half as long as it is), but these are relatively few.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Macdonald Hall Series Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

When I was about 12, my mom attended a reading conference where Gordon Korman was a guest speaker. She was so impressed, she brought home a bunch of his books. We read This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! out loud together, and my sister, brother, and I have been Korman fans ever since.

The incredible thing is that Korman wrote the novel in 7th grade English class, and it was published in 1978, when he was just 14. Although not as polished as his more recent works (the man is ridiculously prolific and has written more than 85 books total), This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! is shockingly good for a novel written by a kid, and absolutely hilarious.

The Macdonald Hall series revolves around two roommates at an all-male boarding school in Canada. Melvin “Boots” O’Neal is the more studious and well-behaved of the two; his friend Bruno Walton might best be described as a hurricane in human form. Despite their differences, the two are inseparable friends, but in the first book, the school’s headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (aka The Fish) decides that Bruno is a bad influence on Boots and decides to split them up. Wacky hijinks ensue as they try to get back together.

Buy at Amazon

It is exactly as bromantic as it sounds, up to and including sneaking out at night to meet up, but despite the powerful central bromance and the single-sex setting, the series also does have several fun female characters, including Diane Grant and Cathy Burton, two students at Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies across the road, the grandmotherly Mrs. Sturgeon, and Miss Scrimmage herself.

None of the characters in the Macdonald Hall series is especially well-rounded or complex. In fact, many of the secondary characters are little more than a single characteristic come to life. For example, Sidney Rampulsky’s personality is “clumsy” and Wilbur Hackenschleimer’s is “obsessed with food.” However, the different personalities bouncing off each other make for lots of hilarious dialogue and misadventures, and despite their simplicity, you get attached to all the characters, from Bruno and Boots themselves to crazy old Scrimmage.

Although the series is currently out of print, copies of the books can still be purchased on Amazon and other websites. My favorite novels in the series include:

Buy at Amazon

This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall!

The book that started it all. I recommend starting with this one, but the rest of the series can be read in pretty much any order.

Go Jump in the Pool!

Macdonald Hall keeps getting creamed in swim meets, so Bruno and Boots decide to raise enough money to build the school a pool. Wacky hijinks ensue.

The Zucchini Warriors

A wealthy former student donates the money for a fancy new football stadium, but unbeknownst to him, his star quarterback is secretly a girl! More wacky hijinks ensue.

Beware the Fish!

Bruno and Boots accidentally set off a police investigation into the activities of an operative known only as “The Fish.” Seriously, this series is basically the embodiment of “wacky hijinks ensue.”

Have fun!

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

A Song of Ice and Fire Series Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

A good friend recommended the A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin, to me and my husband back in 2005, shortly before the release of the fourth book, A Feast For Crows. We both read the first three books in just a couple weeks, waited a couple months to read the fourth… and then were stuck with all the other book readers waiting nearly six years for the next! Your guess is probably as good as mine when next book, The Winds of Winter (book six out of the planned seven), will be published. I’m hoping we’ll at least have an announcement before the end of the year, but who knows?

The long waits between books notwithstanding, I think the series’ reputation as one of the best (if not THE best) fantasy series ever written is well deserved. The depth, breadth, and richness of the worldbuilding is exceptional even by epic fantasy standards. What I like most, however, is the characters. Although there’s SO many it can sometimes be hard to keep some of the minor ones straight, most of the primary and secondary characters are complex, well drawn, and very memorable.

I especially appreciate the diversity of Martin’s female characters. Although I think the extent to which he’s a feminist writer is sometimes overstated and the later books have several parts that I considered rather problematic from a feminist perspective, Martin undeniably has a whole bunch of the most complex and interesting female characters in the fantasy genre populating his books. I especially like and appreciate his ability to show different types of female strength. There are a number of classic tomboy-style “Strong Female Characters,” including Arya, Brienne, and Asha, but also many characters who are both strong and feminine, such as Catelyn, Olenna Tyrell, Arianne Martell, and (increasingly) Sansa. With such a large and diverse female cast, Martin also has the freedom to show women who are not “strong” by any definition of the word without being accused of misogyny or sexism, as well as female characters who are villainous, incompetent, or just plain unlikable.

I enjoy moral ambiguity and byzantine political intrigue, so I enjoy the plotting as well, although it sometimes gets a little too dark and relentless for me. My favorite book is the third, A Storm of Swords, largely because the grayer side of Westeros’s black-and-gray morality actually wins a few battles for once. A Storm of Swords is also packed with many of the series’ most memorable scenes, and some of its most interesting character development. It’s the literary embodiment of epic, and the fourth and fifth books were unfortunately a little bit of a let-down by comparison, but I’m hoping to do a full re-read when the sixth is released, and hopefully I’ll enjoy them more back-to-back than I did six years apart.

Aside from that, the only major complaint I have about the series is Martin’s tendency to overuse catch-phrases to the point of extreme irritation. “Winter is coming” and “You know nothing, Jon Snow” are probably the most famous, but far from the only.

Book 1Book 2


Buy at Amazon


Buy at Amazon
Book 3Book 4


Buy at Amazon


Buy at Amazon
Book 5Box set


Buy at Amazon


Buy at Amazon

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)