In this month’s Between the Bookends, K, Lisa, Nivi, and Sophie share some of their summer reading. From time travel to wizards in disguise, Leonardo da Vinci to the US President, and from fantasy New Orleans to 1930s England, there’s a real mixed bag here. We hope you’ll find something to enjoy now summer vacation is upon us.
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
If you read this book as an adult, you absolutely must remember that the target audience for this novel is young adult. The Belles is a story about a set of girls in a fictitious and fantasized New Orleans who have the ability to physically manipulate bodies into different, more fashionable shapes.
The book is getting praised up and down—deservedly—for its representation of queer girls and a variety of skin tones; it also badly misses the mark with a couple of sharply transphobic comments. Everyone basically wants the same—slim—body type. There’s some conversation about bringing “curvy” figures back into fashion, but the idea of “fat” being desirable is absolutely nonexistent. This book also contains a sexual assault which initially appears to be dealt with properly, but there is a serious betrayal of that handling at the end of the book which bothered K greatly.
The pacing felt strange because K didn’t realize until the cliffhanger ending that The Belles is the beginning of a series. Knowing that in the beginning might have positively affected her appreciation of the story.
K will recommend The Belles to people who she knows like YA, but this isn’t a book where she’s going to run around shoving it into the hands of everyone she knows.
The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs
When Lisa was a young girl, she remembers curling up in the fall weather and reading The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs. This month, she and her youngest daughter found it in a used bookstore and read it together.
Set in the fictional Michigan town of New Zebedee in the late 1940s, the book follows the adventures of the recently orphaned Lewis, who comes to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan in a strange and wonderful house at 100 High Street. As much as Lewis enjoys his stay with his uncle and their friendly yet fierce neighbor Mrs. Zimmermann, he learns this house has a dark secret and an even darker past.
For parents looking for a page-turning summer read for their kids age 8 or older, Lisa recommends this book for all those who love magical escapes. It is also a fun trip back in time for adults looking for an easy afternoon reading break that will only take a couple of sittings. The book features illustrations by Edward Gorey, which are a perfect fit for the story.
Long before Harry Potter was a household name, Bellairs was sharing tales of the wizard and witches living in seemingly domestic normalcy, but with strange and fascinating talents. The book is hard to find in retail bookstores right now, but with a movie version coming out this fall, Lisa predicts new printings will soon be popping up very soon.
Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey
Did you know Michelangelo finished David and Leonardo da Vinci completed the Mona Lisa in Florence, Italy in 1503? Two beloved masterpieces, created at the same time in the same place. That fact alone fascinated Nivi. Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey delves into the lives of these two artists, who couldn’t have led more different lives. Da Vinci was fifty years old, renowned, and well-off, while Michelangelo’s family derided him for not getting a real job.
The book is well-written and compelling, making Nivi feel like she was stepping into 16th century Florence. What a trip. So good, in fact, that she had a book hangover that lasted for days.
The only negative (and this is totally not a real complaint) was that she spent the majority of the book trying to remember the name of the fourth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (because they really were a little after her time).
Downtimers by P.J. Hammond
Downtimers is set in Gate Town, a run-down English community where several people have recently arrived from the future and a special police unit has been assigned to track them down and detain them at a secure facility. Detective Inspectors Bonner and Pierce are the officers in charge of investigating the downtimers situation, supervised by their gin-guzzling boss Mrs O’Day and colleague Allie, while the downtimers themselves are a mixed bag of people.
Sadly, Downtimers simply fails to get off the ground. The reasons why the downtimers had come back and who was selected to travel—points central to the plot—seemed entirely arbitrary, and the method of travel didn’t make much sense. And speaking of time travel, it appeared that most of the male characters were stuck in the 1970s. While it was great to have a strong female police officer character, it was less so to have her introduced by a man wondering, “what it would be like to have those fine big thighs wrapped around his neck.” Despite his dated attitude, Sophie did find herself liking the character of DI Bonner and found him the most interesting of the bunch, although the other characters were so flat that doesn’t end up being much of an accolade.
Downtimers ended up being a depressingly run-of-the-mill novel that read like something by a new writer just starting his career, rather than one by someone with decades of writing experience. The story felt unfinished, there were several unnecessary sexually violent scenes that felt entirely out of place, and the ending just kind of happened. Sophie recommends you go watch Sapphire and Steel if you want a great P.J. Hammond time travel story, rather than reading this.
After the Party by Cressida Connolly
Sophie also picked up After the Party by Cressida Connolly. From the description and cover, she was expecting a Gatsby-esque novel with an Agatha Christie murder influence. What she read was something very different indeed.
Narrated by Phyllis from the 1970s, After the Party is set in the privileged social circles of southern England in 1938 when the threat of another global war was looming. Phyllis has just moved back to England and soon finds herself becoming increasingly involved in a new political movement. The movement is anti-war and believes that Britain should not get involved with European politics. Right from the beginning, the warning signs are there with anti-Semitism and xenophobic attitudes barely hidden behind the fun and games of the group’s summer camp. Soon it is revealed that Phyllis is involved with the British Union of Fascists and, as the war takes hold, she finds herself suffering consequences for her membership.
Sadly, the characters in After the Party were all rather flat. Despite her involvement, Phyllis barely shares any opinions about the BUF or fascism itself and comes across as more selfish than anything. The death she blames herself for in the blurb is such a non-event that Sophie spent the rest of the book waiting for something more shocking to occur.
Sophie found After the Party an interesting and illuminating book. It taught her a lot about a period of British history she knew little about, and educated her on some events she was never taught at school. It also raised many questions, such as whether imprisoning BUF members without trial was the right course of action to ensure the nation’s safety, and whether countries should embrace isolationism to help their own citizens. These are questions which are still relevant today thanks to Brexit and some recent immigration policies and After the Party casts a new light on them.
The Outcast by Taran Matharu
Earlier this year, Sophie finally got around to reading the Summoner Trilogy by Taran Matharu and greatly enjoyed the, “Lord of the Rings crossed with Pokemon” (to quote a very simplistic description) stories. The Outcast is a prequel to this trilogy and focuses on Arcturus, a character who provided mentorship to the main character in the Summoner books.
Arcturus is an orphaned stable boy who, in the course of trying to escape his miserable life of poverty, accidentally summons a demon. As the nobility of Hominum are the only ones supposedly able to summon demons, the ruling classes quickly move to hide this from the masses who are dangerously close to rebellion.
Arcturus is taken to Vocans Academy where he is taught about summoning, spellcraft, and demonology alongside the children of the nobility. Inevitably, his presence as a commoner at the Academy are questioned by the teachers and noble’s children, and he must prove himself against the open enmity he faces.
As the reasons for Arcturus’s abilities and his parentage become clear, and tensions and hostility between the nobility and commoners escalates, he finds himself in the middle of a political conflict which sends him on a mission and adventure deep within Orc territory, and the lines between allies and enemies blur.
For fans of the Summoner series, there is much to enjoy with little deviation in the established narrative style. There is plenty of action and adventure plus historical events mentioned in the trilogy fleshed out. The Outcast is also a gateway for newcomers too, essentially providing a snapshot of the history of human politics, conflicts, and relations with dwarves, elves, and orcs, the summoning of demons, and the bonds created. If you like The Outcast then you’ll enjoy the Summoner trilogy.
Zak Fisher and the Angel Prophecy by Carl Ashmore
Author Carl Ashmore has already delighted and enthralled readers with his self-published Time Hunters book series, so expectation was high (at least with Sophie) for his new Zak Fisher series. Thankfully this first book, Zak Fisher and the Angel Prophecy, does not disappoint.
Zak Fisher is a fourteen-year-old orphan who has lived an unusual life having moved between a succession of foster families who each taught and trained Zak in a variety of subjects and skills not usually found on a school syllabus. One day he and his family are attacked by nightmarish creatures only to be saved by a Templar Knight who brings revelations of how special Zak is and his importance in a coming war with hellish monsters bent on conquering the world. Alongside three other orphaned teenagers his age, Zak discovers that he is part of an ancient prophecy to save Earth in its 3,000-year-old war with Hell.
In his typical style, Ashmore’s narrative proceeds with heady pace and is filled with action, adventure, and mythology, along with injections of banter and humor throughout. He avoids weighing down the plot with too much exposition or character and story backgrounds, something which can affect the pacing of many first books in a series. There are, however, plenty of threads, hints and teases that will be picked up and answered in later books—something deftly handled in his previous Time Hunters series.
Fans of Time Hunters will find much to enjoy and should spot some references and nods to Ashmore’s previous book series. Although written for middle-grade readers, there are plenty of thrills, magic, delight, and charm to appeal to any age—comparisons with the easy reading styles of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are justified. Sophie is now eagerly awaiting book two.
The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson
Finally, Sophie read The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. This was the first time she had read anything by either author and she was curious about whether she would enjoy such a mainstream book when she tends toward more obscure titles. She ended up racing through it in only a few days and squeezing in an odd chapter wherever she could because she was enjoying it so much.
The President Is Missing isn’t a hard book to read. It’s all rather formulaic: a cataclysmic threat to the USA, tension in the White House, lots of action scenes. President Duncan experiences more drama and near-death moments in 24 hours than most real presidents will in a lifetime, but it’s a lot of fun. Sophie did find the title somewhat misleading because the book is narrated from the President’s perspective, so he’s never missing from the reader’s point-of-view (he’s barely ” missing” to the rest of the country), and there’s more than a few moments where it all gets utterly ridiculous in a National Treasure kinda way, but Sophie didn’t exactly go into this expecting a great work of literature…
There were a few things Sophie really liked about this book. First, the very likable President Duncan has a chronic illness and Sophie is very much in agreement with GeekMom Karen that we need more fictional characters with those, although the illness did seem to conveniently vanish in the later chapters. Second, there’s lots of detail as you would expect from a book which was co-written by a former US President, and third, there’s a nice moral to everything. It does come across a bit heavy-handed, but the good intention is there.
This book is the literary equivalent of a blockbuster popcorn movie, but it does what it set out to do with gusto and is thoroughly enjoyable for it. A great summer read.