Underrated Books

I saw this theme floating around today, and I was intrigued. The stated limit is “books with under 2,000 ratings on Goodreads,” and I cheated a little by including one with 2,039 ratings. I was pleased to see how many of my favorite books were not as underrated as I always suspected–Emily of Deep Valley, for example, had too many ratings to make it onto the list, as did several of Lloyd Alexander’s books. I still managed to find ten, though, and probably could have kept going did not supper interrupt!

Seaward, Susan Cooper. I love The Dark is Rising series, but this book of hers is little known, and deserves better. It is haunting and mysterious, hope-filled with a hint of terror behind it, and it’s the sort of book that stays with you for days afterward. Lovely, lovely writing. More people should read it.

The Rope Trick, Lloyd Alexander. Much as I love Lloyd, I did not love this book the first time I read it. The second (because even an unloved Lloyd warrants at least a second read), I realized it was one of the more powerful books he’d written, and that the very aspects that turned me off at first were its strengths. By the third time I read it, it had become one of my favorites. Again, it’s the sort of book that seeps into your soul and stays with you for a long time after you’ve closed it.

Clover, Susan Coolidge. More confessions: I don’t really like What Katy Did. The next two books in the Carr family series are better (What Katy Did At School will always be cherished by me if for no other reason than it introduces the always-delightful Rose Red), and this one’s my favorite. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people give up before they get to this point. Don’t. As with Louisa May Alcott and LM Montgomery, and Maud Hart Lovelace, these books are more revolutionary and progressive for their era than they appear at first. Plus, this one has some of the most gorgeous descriptions of Colorado I’ve read anywhere in it. I’ve never been further west than Minneapolis, but boy does this book make me want to.

The Keeper of the Mist, Rachel Neumeier. I haven’t come across a Neumeier book I dislike yet, but this one is my favorite of them all. Dreamy, fairy-tale-ish, with a strong edge of practicality, with fabulous characters and beautiful prose. My review on Goodreads itself says it all!

The Gate of Ivory, Doris Egan. Sci-fi that is sheer fun, with some more serious matters snuck in around the edges. Can you say tailor-made for me? It’s delightful.

The Runaway Princess, Kate Coombs. This is the book that goes 39 ratings above the limit, but I don’t care. It’s so much fun, and it’s shamefully under-read. Plus it’s the book that introduced me to one of my best internet friends (hi, Amy!)–after reading it, I looked up the author online, discovered her blog, started commenting on her blog, discovered another blogger who shared my love for Henry Tilney also commenting on her blog, and the rest was history.

Resistance, Laura Josephsen. Laura is one of the first indie authors I ever discovered, and the one who proved to me that independently-published fiction could in fact be brilliant, gripping, and well-written/edited. Sadly, this book and its sequel are now out of print, but I believe you can read them, broken into four parts instead of two, on Wattpad.

The Grass Widow’s Tale, Ellis Peters. I love Peters’ Brother Cadfael books, but I also thoroughly enjoy her lesser-known Inspector Felse books. The Grass-Widow’s Tale focuses on Bunty, Inspector Felse’s wife, and it is another one of those books that makes me want to shout with joyous strength by the time I finish.

The Castle Behind Thorns, Merrie Haskell. A Sleeping Beauty retelling that is really well done, something hard to find for that particular fairy tale. Cinderella, Snow White, even Rapunzel … those all seem easy enough to put a spin on that remains true to the original intent while still making it engaging for readers. Sleeping Beauty, not so much. Which is understandable, given that the heroine of it has pretty much zero agency throughout her entire story, and in order to give her agency one has to twist said story into something else entirely. Haskell manages to avoid both pitfalls, and create an engaging story to boot. It’s lovely.

Seventh Son, A.M. Offenwanger. I am the lucky beta reader who gets to see each tale in this series before publication, and have watched this world and these characters grow from the first. Offenwanger is another of my dear internet friends, and her books are always a joy to read. Seventh Son is especially fun, combining fairy tale elements with everyday life, and introducing some truly lovely characters. I would love to see these books get more appreciation!

As an author who has yet to break double digits for Goodreads reviews myself, I know how hard it is when your books continually fly under the radar–especially when self promotion is so hard to do without being tacky*. So, give some of them a chance and try one or two from my list, and see what you think!

*granted, for the dead authors on my list self promotion is well nigh impossible, and they aren’t exactly weeping into their morning coffee over lack of reviews, but I’m sure their heirs would appreciate the attention.

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DE Stevenson

“I am grateful for all my blessings; amongst them the Gift of Storytelling, which seems to please and amuse so many people all over the world.”

“It seems to me that this job of interpreting my own people to other people is the most important contribution I can make to the world and to peace.”

-D.E. Stevenson.

I discovered D.E. Stevenson thanks to Goodreads recommending her “Miss Buncle’s Book” to me based on my fondness for Miss Read. Curiously enough, the Miss Buncle series are among my least favorites of her work; I prefer her stand-alones, or the ones with two or three loosely-connected books. However, they were enough to get me intrigued, and now I’ve read everything of hers our library has, and am starting to expand through ILL to others in our network.

Like Miss Read, Stevenson writes stories about ordinary people, stories in which (generally) not a lot happens. Nice, friendly, meandering stories, that give you a glimpse into somebody else’s life and fit into their shoes for at least a few brief moments. Stories which, as a kid, bored me to tears, and now I love.

And along with enjoying her books, I appreciate her philosophy as well. Aren’t those quotes up above lovely? Sums up a lot of my feeling toward writing and storytelling.

So, if you enjoy “quiet” stories, give D.E. Stevenson a try! She wrote dozens of books; if you enjoy them, you won’t run out of reading material for a long, long time. Also? She was the cousin of the great Robert Louis Stevenson!

Censorship VS Guidance

The Goosebumps books were at the entrance to the Children’s Room at the library growing up; you couldn’t help but see them whenever you went it. They were popular, too—very few of the books I loved were ever borrowed by anyone but me (this was back in the day when the patron’s name was written on the card in the back pocket, so you could see a book’s history whenever you picked it up. The nosy neighbor/author in me misses those days, when you could speculate about the other people whose names were on the card, especially if one name cropped up on several of the books you borrowed frequently. “I wonder who that person is,” you could muse. “I bet we’d be friends.” But I digress), but the Goosebumps books were always getting snatched up by kids about my age, and there were always gaping holes in the shelf.

“I don’t think so,” Mom said firmly when she saw me eying them speculatively. “Those are not a good idea with your nightmares.”

Saddened, but not wanting to mess with my nightmares—these were terrible, and plagued me well into my teens, and could be caused by nothing more than seeing a gruesome picture on a tabloid cover in the grocery store check-out line—I bypassed the Goosebumps books and went back to the delights of E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, Lloyd Alexander, and the like.

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An older friend of mine read and loved the Dark is Rising books, and lent them to me with a caveat that they might be scary in parts. So Dad read them first, and then handed them over to me saying that they did have some dark parts, but that he was pretty sure I could take it, and if I wanted to I could always talk to him about them. In fact, I loved them (as did he, and Susan Cooper remains one of our favorite authors to this day—I bought him King of Shadows for his birthday last year, in fact, and he was just as swept up as he’d ever been in one of her tales. But I digress again).

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My sister wasn’t much of a reader as a kid and teenager. While I would stay up late reading, she preferred to lull herself to sleep on logic problems. When she did read, she liked books such as Baby-Sitter’s Club, Sweet Valley Twins, and, as she got older, Sweet Valley High and Avalon romances. My parents called those “fluff” books—enjoyable but no substance to them—and the rule was you had to read a certain number of non-fluff books to the number of fluff books you were allowed. My sister grumbled a bit about this, more because she was the oldest and it was her job to complain about all of our parents’ rules than because she thought it was actually unfair, but she stuck with it. And a few years ago she was trying to convince me to give Dostoyevsky a try, because she’d read some of his books and thought they were awesome. She also still enjoys fluff books. And logic problems

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About a year ago, I was desperately trying to find books that Joy would want to read. Excited by her advanced abilities and unduly influenced by memories of the large tomes I enjoyed reading in kindergarten and first grade, I overdid a bit and overwhelmed her. While she was perfectly capable of reading the Little House books, she didn’t enjoy them, and her disillusionment with the “big” books I was giving her spread to reading in general.

Then we found the Rainbow Magic books at the library. Pumped out by computer, lame by any standards, they were nonetheless perfect for a six-year-old who enjoyed the thrill of reading “chapter books” but wasn’t ready mentally or emotionally for the themes in most MG writing. Despite the wrinkled noses of many of my friends, I cheerfully borrowed them by the armload each week for her, while at the same time giving her more picture books and other young readers (the Magic Tree House books were another big hit, which has worked out nicely with social studies, I must say—I never know when she’s going to pipe up over something we’re studying, “Oh! Jack and Annie went here.” Digressing again). I’m exceedingly thankful to have had them, especially now when I catch Joy happily curled up with any book from Ladybug Girl to the Frozen novelization to Winnie-the-Pooh to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. On the other hand, when this winter the library didn’t have the next one in the series, I deliberately did not suggest ILL or skipping that one to move on to the next. Thus far, she has plenty of other reading material, and she hasn’t seem to miss the Rainbow Magic too badly.

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There’s a lot of justified complaints about censorship out there. Including and especially parents censoring what their children read. Or what other people’s children read. But sometimes parental guidance gets lost or unfairly shuffled into the same category as censorship, and I think that’s a shame. Because gentle guidance and help with reading—whether it be in limiting the number of certain types of books your kids read, or reading books before letting them read them, or telling them to wait until they are older, or even swallowing your pride to let—even encourage!—them read books that are frankly crap (and then move on when said books have served their purpose), is something that I wish more parents would do. And it’s a far cry from censorship. It is, to be blunt, simply part of what being a parent is all about.

Clearly, Joy is much more comfortable with reading these days

Clearly, Joy is much more comfortable with reading these days

Thanks to Maureen, whose tweets on this subject got me thinking about my parents, and how grateful I am to them for the way they encouraged my sister and me to be readers, and then prompted this post.

Also, in case anyone is interested, the Little House picture books are well-loved by both Joy and Grace, and went a long way toward piquing Joy’s interest in the real books once she got a little older.

Narnia, Redux

We took a little break after finishing Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to read some picture books, some Christmas books, and Children of the Noisy Village, but now the holidays are over and we have finished traveling, and we have picked the Chronicles of Narnia back up with The Silver Chair.

Even as I type, sitting in my comfy grey recliner (“This is my silver chair,” I said smugly), Carl and the girls are curled up on the couch across from me, the girls utterly engrossed as Carl reads aloud. They are on the chapter where Caspian sails away and Eustace and Jill miss their chance to greet him. This is one of my favorite chapters, what with Glimfeather and Trumpkin and “If he’s useless, we don’t want him here!” (paraphrase) which is a favorite line in my family, and used often.

Joy especially is enthralled with Narnia. She wants to read other books like them (alas, there are few of those indeed, darling daughter!); she informed her grandmother that if she had a magic wand her first wish would be that Narnia was real; and when Carl read the description of Aslan’s Country in the first chapter of this book she had the most incredibly dreamy expression on her face, picturing it in her head. It’s the most delightful thing in the world, seeing her imagination so completely captured.

Gracie incorporates Narnia into all her play. Her stuffed moose become a reindeer, her rag doll made of white cloth becomes the White Witch, a doll stroller turned on its back becomes a sledge, and voila, all she needs is a dwarf driver (usually portrayed by one of her baby dolls). This is also a delight to observe. I have to be careful not to chortle too loudly, or she gets self-conscious and quits playing.

They loved Anne of Green Gables when I read it to Joy for school, and that was wonderful. Seeing them love Narnia so much, though … that goes beyond joy. Narnia was – is – such an integral part of my life, of my very identity. The Narnia books were some of Carl’s sole interest in reading as a child. For both of us, they helped to shape how we view the world, our ideas of heroes and sacrifice and love and friendship and adventure. It is wondrous to see our own children take fire with these very same stories.

I wonder if CS Lewis had any idea, when he wrote these books, of how deeply they would affect children of every generation ever since. I am so, so thankful for them, and for him.

Most Memorable Reads of the Past Three Years

… Which would be the past five years except I didn’t start keeping track of my reading list until 2012. Oh well! I saw this idea on someone else’s blog, and really liked it, the idea of going beyond just the year about to end, and seeing what books have stuck with you for the long haul.

2012:

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. And the sequel is coming out in 2015! I can’t wait.

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett. Meeting Tiffany Aching for the first time was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

Paladin of Souls (and Curse of Chalion, but especially Paladin), by Lois McMaster Bujold. The joy of reading an intelligent, engaging fantasy with a middle-aged woman as a heroine. We need more of those!

2013:

The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Oh, what a beautiful tale this was.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I don’t know that I’ll ever re-read this one, but it was so, so powerful and moving.

The Grass-Widow’s Tale, by Ellis Peters. Proving that sometimes a book doesn’t have to be deep to stir one.

2013 was also my year to read heaps of writing memoirs/collections of essays. All of them were wonderful, but the highlight of them all was The Wand in the Word.

2014:

Ultraviolet (and Quicksilver, but mostly Ultraviolet), by RJ Anderson. Gahhhh, this book.

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. Oh, how I adore this one! I keep looking for a used copy to buy for my very own – somehow a new one just wouldn’t feel right.

Bread and Wine, by Shauna Niequist. Not necessarily the best spiritual memoir book I’ve ever read, but definitely one that made me ponder, and gave me great encouragement in my constant struggle between being hospitable and being a deeply private introvert.

Cruel Beauty, by Rosamond Hodge. The closest any other book has ever come to conjuring up the sense of awe and beauty I got from CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces.

I read plenty more books, in the last few years, that I enjoyed and even loved, but these are the ones that went beyond that in one way or another, to really stick with me. I read so much, so quickly, that for a book experience to stand out in my memory, it has to have something about it that separates it from “ordinary” great books.

My reading goals for 2015 are to read fewer books (my desire as always, to soak in good literature instead of tearing through it at my usual blink-and-you-miss-it pace), to read some good long ones (Bleak House is sitting suggestively on my nightstand), and to read at least 12 non-fiction books. Non-fiction is so rewarding for me, and yet such a struggle for me to get through. I really want to improve in that regard.

I hope your past few years have been excellent reading ones, and that 2015 proves even better!

 

 

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors in 2014

0e479-toptentuesday2Check out The Broke and the Bookish for more great lists

I was surprised, when I looked at my list of 2014 books, how many of these authors were new to me this year – I feel in many cases as though I’ve been reading them for years! Always a good sign, when an author feels like an old friend upon the first read.

Sage Blackwood I read Jinx on January 2 this year, I believe. Just barely squeaked in for being new in 2014! I adore Jinx and the gang, and am eagerly looking forward to the final book in the trilogy, coming in 2015. As a bonus: I’ve gotten to know Sage through Twitter, and she’s an awesome person as well as awesome writer.

Rosamond Hodge I’m not always on board with fairy tale retellings, but hearing that Cruel Beauty was based more off the Cupid and Psyche myth than Beauty and the Beast, and that Hodge was inspired greatly by CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, I knew I had to read it. And I was not disappointed. Can’t wait for Crimson Bound, her next novel.

Helene Hanff I can’t believe I made it to the ripe old age of 30ish before discovering 84, Charing Cross Road. On the other hand, I might not have appreciated it fully had I read it when I was younger, so there is that.

RJ Anderson So I pretty much can’t go for too many blog posts before singing the praises of Anderson’s books. I like the Faery Rebels series, but my real love is for Ultraviolet and Quicksilver. I also kind of love the fact that RJ was a fanfic writer before her own work started taking up all her time, and that she still is a huge supporter of it. Woo-hoo! She’s also on Twitter, and also great to chat with there.

Jaclyn Moriarty I haven’t loved all Moriarty’s books equally, but the ones I loved, I really loved, and even the ones I didn’t like as much I still enjoyed. The only one of hers I didn’t care for was The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie, and that was mostly because I disagreed with some of her basic assumptions about teenagers in that book. All the rest of them, though, especially The Year of Secret Assignments and A Corner of White, I found great.

Martha Wells Another author for the “how on earth did it take me this long to discover her?” list. Wells writes fantasy, and I’ve yet to find a book by her – and I’ve read many this year – that I dislike. All of them thoughtful, nuanced, original, and grand.

Anna Dean A writer of Regency mysteries who doesn’t butcher the era! It’s a miracle! When looking for something fun, light, and not-irritating, these books are a great choice. Just try to ignore the blatant Emma references which give away half the plot in A Gentleman of Fortune.

Merrie Haskell Another writer of fairy tale remakes, but with such a thoughtful (and thought-provoking), lyrical, and lovely way of doing so that I don’t even mind. Castle Behind Thorns is my favorite of hers so far.

Andrea K Host Indie writer from Australia – do you really need me to say more? Yes? Well then, how about that I tore through her Touchstone trilogy, leaving most of my household chores undone to do so, in record time. Incredible world-building and convincing characters, with none of the pitfalls to which we indie authors are prone (in other words, well-edited, formatted, cover-ed, and just plain well written). I’ve also read her Medair duology, and am looking forward to delving into more of her works in 2015.

Sharon Shinn My most recent discovery. I’ve read Troubled Waters and its sequel, and loved them both. Shinn’s writing is quiet and strong, carrying you along with her characters and weaving you into her world almost without you even realizing it until you come up for air and wonder where you are.

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There you have it! 2014 proved to be a very good year for me, new author-wise. Hard to believe 2015 could match it, but then, I think I said the same thing in 2013. We shall see what the new year brings!

Characters I Would (or Have) Dress Up As

0e479-toptentuesday2

Visit the Broke and the Bookish for more!

I love costumes. I love theater, and acting. Carl surprised me this weekend by taking me to our community theater’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which was brilliantly done, and which I would have adored even if it had been less professional, because I haven’t been to a live performance since … well, before college. Carl had never seen live theater (aside from high school plays) before, so it was a whole new experience for him, and he was surprised at how much he enjoyed it, too.

Anyway. Because I love acting and theater, I also love dressing up as various characters. Always have, probably always will. Here are some of my favorites from the past, and some I still dream of attaining:

1. Raggedy Ann. My kindergarten Halloween costume! My mom sewed me a dress and pinafore, and made a red yarn wig; we couldn’t find striped stockings anywhere, so I still remember sitting in class and my dad showing up right before the parade with wide red elastic bands to put over my white tights, to look like red and white stripes. It worked beautifully, and set the tone for going all out with costumes in our family.

2. Robin Hood. This was for a friend’s 18th birthday party, where she wanted everyone to dress up as a character from their favorite movie. I chose Robin Hood, being a big fan of the Errol Flynn version, but also of the character himself from the many stories I read. Having short hair worked really well for that one; I recall I used an eyebrow pencil to give myself a mustache.

3. Joe Hardy. This was a last-minute costume. The well of inspiration ran dry, and we had a Harvest Party that night, and I had no idea what I was going to do. Staring at the bookshelves finally gave me an idea. I ran to the local department store and bought a pinstriped Oxford shirt and clip-on tie; borrowed my dad’s old leather bomber jacket, and slicked my (again, short) hair down with a disgusting amount of gel. Success!

4. Regency Lady. This was not any specific book character, but definitely inspired by my fondness for all the Jane Austen books and adaptations. In one week, I bought the pattern and fabric, cut the dress out, and sewed it. Still one of the fastest sewing projects I’ve ever managed to complete. I sewed the sleeves in backward, but no one ever noticed! We tied a wide ribbon around my head and my sister coaxed a few curls out of my hair, and there I was. (Fun side note: that was the night both Carl and I started having more-than-friendship feelings for each other.)

Now for characters I would want to dress up as, even still!

5. Lucy Pevensie. I want to wear this dress, and be Queen Lucy the Valiant. Someday.

6. Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan. Let’s face it, fantasy-medieval characters are pretty much the best, especially when they get to carry weapons with them. I made Joy a blue princess outfit for Halloween this year, and we are figuring out how to concoct a shoulder belt and scabbard out of ribbon for her foam sword, while her shield clips at her waist, and with a headchain/crown on her head, she is a pretty uncanny representation of Eowyn (not that she knows who that is, of course – she rolled her eyes when I called her a Shieldmaiden of Rohan).

7. Rounding out my medieval list would be Eilonwy, daughter of Angharad, daughter of Regat, daughter of – oh, it’s such a bother going through all that. Carl recently read “The Book of Three” for the first time, and he told me afterward: “So, Eilonwy … pretty much you as a kid?” Hey, there are far worse book characters I could have been.

8. Anne of Green Gables. Though to tell the truth, I would honestly mostly like to dress like Anne for everyday life, not just as a costume. After watching the movie with some of my neighbors recently, I found myself craving long wool plaid skirts and hand-knitted sweaters for autumn and winter wear.

9. Harriet Vane. An excuse to wear 1930s clothing and say clever and biting things! What more could one want?

10. I had a terrible time narrowing down this last one, but I think I finally settled on Albert Campion. I’ve already got the glasses and pale hair and indeterminate face (I love that descriptive phrase, by the way: indeterminate face. Isn’t it evocative? And since I cannot go anywhere without having people say “Oh yeah, I know you … don’t I?” because my face always looks like somebody else, I think I can claim that phrase for myself). All I would need would be a natty 1920s gentleman’s outfit.

Carl could accompany me as Lugg.