Between the Bookends June 2016: Fantasy, Family, & Flight

Reading Time: 11 minutes
Between the Bookends Header © Sophie Brown
Between the Bookends Header © Sophie Brown

Now spring is moving into summer, the GeekMoms have been finding time to get some serious reading done. Read on to see what they’ve enjoyed, including much of Rick Riordan’s latest work, Australian family drama, a true epic from Greece, and an in-depth look at the lessons learned from ’80s movies.

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The Trumpet of The Swan, Image: HarperCollins
The Trumpet of The Swan, Image: HarperCollins

Nivi’s 9yo, a self-proclaimed non-reader, declared that The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White was his favorite book. He had been assigned it at school, and got a copy of the book from the library, so before returning it to the library, Nivi read it one day.

This is a delightful tale of a swan, Louis, that can’t honk, so he runs away (well, technically flies away) to stay with Sam, a human friend of the family that had witnessed his birth. He goes to school and learns to read and write. As she read, Nivi tried to determine what about the story appealed to her son, and it certainly was absurd in a fun, light-hearted way, and her son can be silly. But then he pointed out that he liked it more than the other novels he had been assigned, not necessarily on its own merits. Nonetheless, Nivi is all for books that stretch imaginative bounds.

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The House of Hades, Image: Disney Hyperion
The House of Hades, Image: Disney Hyperion

Nivi and her family finally finished the fourth book of Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series, The House of Hades. It’s bedtime reading with Nivi’s 9yo, and between soccer and homework, they don’t get a ton of time to read. But we plodding along, both of them hating to put the book aside for that pesky sleep requirement. Nivi must applaud Rick Riordan. The first five-book Percy Jackson series was all written in Percy’s point of view. It was well-written, engaging, and well-structured. Quite a feat. It tapped into her son’s interest in Greek mythology and built upon his knowledge base. Her son was able to follow a complex plot and follow along with a story that took five books to complete the story arc.

So when they finished that, of course, they would continue on to the next series. The Heroes of Olympus books introduce many points of view, and that is awesome. It’s developing her son as a reader, and she’s all for that.

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The Blood of Olympus, Image: Disney Hyperion
The Blood of Olympus, Image: Disney Hyperion

Nivi and her 9yo have now started The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan, the fifth and final book of the Heroes of Olympus series. They’re not going to give anything away, because, well, they’re still reading it. But you know how she liked that this series is written in multiple points of view? Well, this one is told in even more points of view. By shifting the narrative to characters who are in different locations with their own mini-story arcs, and sticking with them for a few chapters before returning to what’s happening to the main characters, this book is making us work. A narrator starts and you have to think back to where that particular storyline left off and reorient yourself in the story. It doesn’t take long to do (Riordan does a great job at re-establishing you) and the little bit of work that the reader has to do to figure things out is just enough to start those gears turning before being rewarded with the answer. And she continues to love the integration of the Greek and Roman equivalents of the gods. So cool. Best of all, she keeps having to berate her son not to read ahead without her (because reverse psychology works wonders for her boys, even when they know she’s using it).

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Big Little Lies, Image: Berkley
Big Little Lies, Image: Berkley

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is a fun summer read. It’s light and full of interesting characters. It takes the Mommy Wars to a whole new level. Set in a small surfing community in Australia, the mommies all have kids starting in the same pre-K class. Nivi’s only halfway through it right now, but she’s been enjoying it. The book jumps between narrators, sometimes in the middle of a chapter, which can be momentarily jarring, but while those transitions could be slightly smoother, it’s not enough of a turnoff to stop reading.

Now, seeing as she’s only halfway through, it’s entirely possible that the story completely falls apart and the ending is unsatisfying or predictable, but Amazon ratings seem to indicate otherwise (it has earned four stars; Nivi hasn’t read the reviews yet since she’s still reading the book and doesn’t want any spoilers). She’s reading this for book club, and she’s glad she is. It’s one of those books that is popular enough to elicit discussion about plenty of topics (parenting, relationships, school choice, the silliness of societal norms), but also about writing (did the narrative technique serve the story or could it have been more effectively done another way). That said, it’s likely to be light enough not to offend anyone or end the book club with any hurt feelings (not that they’ve had any of those, but she can’t speak for your book club).

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The Demon King, Image: Hyperion
The Demon King, Image: Hyperion

Nivi has already read The Demon King, by Cinda Williams Chima several times by herself, but now she’s reading it with her 12yo. With the end of the school year upon us, and before that lots of homework, soccer practice/games, and Cavs playoff games, they haven’t had many evenings when she would read to him. So it’s slow going. Nonetheless, he’s read her other series (The Heir Chronicles) and is on board with reading this one.

Here is a story about the princess heir of a queendom. Actually, book one of a four-book series about a Queendom. Where other kingdoms in the realm (the Seven Realms, to be precise) are a bit more, let’s say, regressively male-centered. But this political drama is character focused. It’s a fantasy series that explores the good and bad of magic, trust, responsibility, knowing who you are and what you believe in. The stakes are high, the characters rich and complex, and the story altogether enjoyable. This series does have more focus on romance than The Heir Chronicles (which is part of why she introduced the other series to him first), but it’s still a great series that she’s eager to enjoy with him.

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The Trials of Apollo, Image: Disney Hyperion
The Trials of Apollo, Image: Disney Hyperion

Shiri has heard bits and pieces of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, as well as Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus, and The Kane Chronicles when her husband read them to the kiddos (she works a variable schedule and, sadly, isn’t always home for bedtime). Shiri herself read the first Magnus Chase and the Gods Of Asgard novel, The Sword of Summer to said kiddos and enjoyed it quite a lot herself. She was so excited about The Trials of Apollo that when the boy told her he wanted to wait until he and Dad finished their current series before partaking, she went ahead and read it on her own. Cast down to Earth in an extremely mortal body by Zeus, Apollo must learn to navigate the world has a human teenager, with only the most basic of divinely-inspired abilities, while on a quest to save the most sacred of the Greek oracles from a mysterious cabal of immortal, nefarious, Roman emperors. With the assistance of feral demi-god Meg, his children and nieces/nephews at Camp Half-Blood, Chiron, and Percy himself, Apollo may survive long enough to fulfill his mission. Then again, he might not. And, even if he does, there’s no guarantee he’ll get to be a god again.

As someone who didn’t read a lot of YA herself, and whose offspring are only old enough for certain selections, Shiri often hesitates before picking up a book so classified for her own edification, but Riordan is a fantastic writer who avoids the cliches and tropes prevalent in the genre to craft well-developed characters and interesting, enjoyable plots. He presents the various mythologies honestly and accurately, if in age appropriate fashion, without sanitizing them or talking down to even his youngest readers. A thoroughly enjoyable reading experience and Shiri would like boy and hubs to please hurry the heck up with their books so she can read it again. She is also very much impressed with Riordan’s skill at crafting humorous haiku, one of which initiates each chapter in honor of Apollo being the god of poetry. So enchanted was Shiri she went back and read the Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief ; she found it equally engaging. She intends to partake of the entire back catalog as time, and library due dates and writing deadlines, allow.

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The Odyssey, Image: Oxford University Press
The Odyssey, Image: Oxford University Press

Shiri’s next read was, in fact, a re-read of an old favorite: The Odyssey by that Homer dude. Prompted by the need to do research for her current novel, she quickly found herself lost in a world of magic and divine anger, love enduring and murderous rage. Also, just plain murder. Lots and lots of murder.

For the uninitiated, or those who haven’t partaken in some time, The Odyssey is comprised of two main elements: Odyssey’s journey home from Troy after a certain itty-bitty conflict there and the extension thereof due to the man’s irking Poseidon, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus holding off the group of suitors who claim to want Penelope’s hand, but really want Odyssey’s kingdom, money, and power. With Athena’s aid, Telemachos initiates a plan to hold the invaders off until Odysseys makes it home. And then, as promised above, there’s lots of murder. Though Shiri doesn’t always subscribe to the idea that everyone should read “The Canon,” of which The Odyssey has long been a part, there is something to be said for enjoying the seedpod of the modern epic fantasy, for experiencing a world we can never know made rich by poetry and visceral description. Shiri had forgotten, however, how much of a difference translator style can make and learned she much prefers the Fagles (the standard for decades now) to any of the translations available at her library.

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The Emperor's Blades, Image: Tor
The Emperor’s Blades, Image: Tor

Unable to shake the desire for fantasy with depth and breadth, Shiri next turned to the first two books of Brian Staveley’s The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series: The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire (she is currently engrossed in the third and final book of the series: The Last Mortal Bond). The emperor Sanliturn is dead, murdered by his own general, who is himself secretly a member of an ancient race set on destroying humanity as corrupt and weak. The series follows Sanliturn’s three children: his daughter Adare, and sons Kaden and Valyn, as they each try their best (and we all know what that means where good fiction is concerned) to preserve that which their father sought to protect. The siblings, separated for more than a decade (Adare grew up in the palace, Kaden was trained by a group of monks, and ‘Valyn as an elite soldier), are manipulated, misled, and twisted to the means of others at every opportunity, set against one another and prodded to war. The world The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne inhabits is rich, complex, and as varied as the story and characters themselves, borrowing from a variety of different cultures and historical periods, without ever making the error of appropriation, to create an engaging and fascinating world. There’s also plenty of intrigue, piles of secrets, and cruel gods walking among men and women, intent on preserving their worship and their hold over the empire. It’s been a while since Shiri was this engaged by an epic fantasy cycle and she’s going to be bummed when this ride comes to an end. She did notice that Staveley has set a novella in the same world and hopes that there are more stories to come from both the Annurian Empire and her sister states.

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The Wright Brothers, Image: Simon & Schuster
The Wright Brothers, Image: Simon & Schuster

This month, while on her annual family road trip, Patricia and her sons are listening to an audio version David McCullough’s latest historical biography, The Wright Brothers. She has only two chapters remaining, but definitely wants to recommend this book to others! Most American students will learn the cursory facts about Wilbur and Orville Wright: brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, had a fascination with flight, designed a “flying machine” and tested it on the North Carolina Outer Banks. The first successful powered flight took place in December 1903 but this book will take you much deeper into the lives of these pioneers, giving you a true glimpse into the types of Americans the Wrights are. They weren’t privileged; nor were they wealthy, dedicating themselves to their bike shop operations to earn enough money to cover their materials and travel to North Carolina for the first three trips before investors helped them out. The anecdotes and correspondences used for this biography are exciting and entertaining to listen to.

Two things, in particular, caught Patricia’s attention and presented a new view of the early days of American aviation. First of all, the Wrights tried for nearly three years to hold off European investors in hopes that Americans would find The Wright Flyer worth their time. It didn’t happen, so the Wrights took their invention to France and garnered foreign interest through demonstration flights. Secondly, many might not know that Wilbur and Orville’s younger sister Katharine was heavily involved in the brothers’ project decision making, financing, and general well-being. She had the most flying hours of any female by 1910 (as a passenger), and was by her brother Orville’s side as he recovered from a devastating crash that resulted in a passenger’s death, the first-ever aviation-related fatality. McCullough makes it clear that Katharine’s impact on Wilbur and Orville’s success was downplayed significantly all these years. He also makes is clear that perseverance and hard work, regardless of money or college pedigrees, can yield amazing results. Patricia’s 13- and 11-year-old sons are listening to this audiobook with her and are just as intrigued by McCullough’s research and primary source material as she is!

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Station Eleven, Image: Knopf
Station Eleven, Image: Knopf

Rebecca Angel just finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Although not a big fan of the apocalyptic genre, this particular take about traveling musicians and actors twenty-five years after a plague has wiped out 99% of humanity, intrigued Rebecca. She is a musician herself and has often wondered if that “skill” would be considered important in the event of the collapse of civilization. (Yes, she has given it some thought.) According to this book, the answer is ‘yes.’ Maybe not in the first few years of chaos and basic survival, but the arts are essential to establishing a culture.

“Survival is insufficient” is a quote from Star Trek: Voyager. It is also the motto of the traveling art group, and a tattoo of one of the main characters, Kirsten, a woman who was a young girl at the time of the collapse with spotty memories of the “before,” completely gone memories of right after (which is not a bad thing), and now an actress in the troupe. She keeps comic books with her that are set in a science-fiction world called Station Eleven. The comics were given to her by Arthur Leander, a famous actor. Although he dies just days before the plague hits, he is the common thread for all the main characters. The story moves expertly between time periods and characters. This is not a thriller, but rather a thoughtful look at what really matters both individually and for all of humanity. Highly recommend it.

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Life Moves Pretty Fast, Image: 4th Estate
Life Moves Pretty Fast, Image: 4th Estate

Sophie really enjoyed Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman, a look at “The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Don’t Learn Them From Movies Any More).” Don’t expect dissection of high-brow fare here—sorry, Salvador—instead, the book takes an in-depth look at the messages you can take away from classic eighties fare such as Ghostbusters, Dirty Dancing, The Breakfast Club, Back to The Future, and Coming to America. You may wonder what kinds of lessons exactly we can learn from such films, but Freeman is adept at drawing out not only what drew us to these films in the first place (there’s a reason they were so popular after all), but also how they may have influenced our lives for the better. Sophie found herself considering not only the messages in the films being discussed, but also what she had subconsciously taken away from her own favorite movies – her own era is the ’90s – and now she wants to write a book of her own about just that!

The chapters are interspersed with funny top ten lists – The Ten Best Power Ballads on an Eighties Movie Soundtrack, Top Ten Fashion Moments – which do a good job at breaking up the longer, more intense discussions which cover topics such as abortion, teen sex, and body image. Sophie was particularly affected by the book’s assertion that teenage actresses such as Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy would never be cast as leading actresses today – they simply look too real with their average bodies and imperfect hair. In When Harry Met Sally, the book points out that Sally looks positively “‘frumpy’ (that is, normal)… compared to the glossy female stars of today’s romcoms.” It’s something Sophie had noticed recently herself while watching some ’80s classics. Just look at Dana in Ghostbusters (before the Zuul takeover): can you honestly imagine the female romantic lead of any movie in 2016 dressing the way she does and not rushing for the straighteners? Didn’t think so…

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Independence Day Crucible, Image: Titan
Independence Day Crucible, Image: Titan

Sophie has also been reading Independence Day: Crucible by Greg Keyes, in her continued effort to absorb every drop of information available before the release of Resurgence later this month. Crucible serves as the official prequel novel to the new movie and covers events from during the original 1996 invasion, right up to mere hours before at least one incident we have seen in the trailers.

Sophie considered the book to be more a series of short vignettes rather than a cohesive novel. It consists of dozens of short scenes that often jump months or even years between them – apparently absolutely nothing of note happened to any of the characters between April 2007 and February 2012 – however, she still enjoyed it immensely. The book explored the backgrounds of the new characters being introduced, including Luke Morrison and Rain Lao, while bringing us up to speed with what the characters from the original movie have been doing over the last 20 years. It also explains the fates of those characters who will not be returning – specifically Steven Hiller and Connie Spano.

Sophie was pleased to note a far greater number of female characters in this story than we saw in the original movie, and a fair number of non-white characters as well. She is particularly looking forward to seeing both Dr. Catherine Marceaux and Dikembe on screen in a few weeks time. On the downside, she could have done without the now apparently mandatory love triangle between some of the younger characters.

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