Tues. Nov. 19: Family via Trilogies #ReaderExpansionChallenge


image courtesy of badski007 via pixabay.com

For some reason, the third week of November has crept up on me. I’ve been looking for the “right” book for this post, and nothing I’ve read really spoke to me.

I don’t necessarily mean blood family by family; chosen family is just as relevant.

So, instead, I’m going to talk about two sets of books, by two different authors. One has to do with blood family; the other draws the contrast between blood family and chosen family.

They are Tanya Huff’s Gale Women books and Theodora Goss’s The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club books.

As different as they are, they deal with both magic and family.

Tanya Huff’s trilogy consists of THE ENCHANTMENT EMPORIUM, THE WILD WAYS, and THE FUTURE FALLS. The Gale women wield powerful magic and have to follow strict rules of behavior, conduct, and lineage. They have the capacity to tap enormous power, and are trapped by the responsibility that go with it. Those who break the rules are considered “wild” and tolerated for a time, until it’s felt they must be dealt with — especially the men. They keep it within the family through the few men in the family choosing among the many women. The men manifest the stag — which also means they challenge each other, and, when they are no longer strong enough to hold the magic, they are hunted down, killed, and replaced. That, and the way sex and magic are entwined, have made some reviewers (and readers) uncomfortable.

It draws on the myths of the hunt and the change of seasons, and translates them into modern day life. The magic system is detailed and thought out. Huff isn’t making everything all pretty and sweet. Life is brutal and cruel at times, and she doesn’t shy away from it. The necessity for change and cycles and the strong taking over from the week determines survival. When the world of Gale magic rubs up against the regular world, there’s friction.

How the protagonists of the series deal with that is what drives the books and makes them interesting.

Sex matters in the books. It’s both revered and a natural part of life. Many of the characters are pansexual and/or polyamorous without making a big deal out of it. Also, those labels we’re used to using for uncontained love are too limiting for this trilogy, and the characters aren’t labeled. It’s simply the way it is for them. When they find their true partner, that bond is strong, but not necessarily monogamous. Their world runs on a different concept of love and sex and partnership than most people are used to; once that premise is accepted by the reader, everything else makes sense.

The family members love each other even when they don’t always like each other or get along. They fight. They manipulate. The Aunties (who have the most power) try to run the lives of all the younger members, and each other. There’s rebellion.

Yet, when it comes right down to it, they are there for each other. It’s family first. Sometimes sacrifices of each other have to be made for the good of the family. How they disagree with these decision and either succeed in doing what’s needed or finding workarounds is part of what makes the series so interesting.

It’s also set in Canada. Americans don’t get enough books set in Canada, in my experience. As someone who believes setting is an additional character, I was delighted that the first book was set in Calgary and the second on Cape Breton Island. I got to visit places that have fascinated me and learn how important they are to the plot, story, and characters. (The third book is in a variety of locations and times, and that’s all I can say without giving too much away).

As an only child, I both loved the sense of family, and was glad I didn’t have to deal with all those complications!

There are also a lot of clever references to cultural icons. I hesitate to say “pop culture” because these books have been around for awhile, and pop culture changes so fast. But let’s just say that the choice of “Gale” was quite deliberate.

I love the way Huff weaves all the different elements of their world, the real world, and the magic together. It’s a terrific trilogy, and I kept thinking about it long after I read it.

I came across Theodora Goss’s books by accident. I read the second book in the series first, EUROPEAN TRAVEL FOR THE MONSTEROUS GENTLEWOMAN, and then went back and read THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER. I have not yet read the third book, THE SINISTER MYSTERY OF THE MESMERIZING GIRL, but it’s on my list.

This is a group of chosen family: Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappincini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. These women, who the men in their lives considered their “creations” have broken free and vowed to create their own future — working and living together. They know they’re considered “monsters” by the world, but not by each other. The fascinating way Goss turns what we learned in our literature classes inside out and takes it further is clever and inventive.

The books are told in multiple points of view, and the characters often interrupt each other in the middle of a POV. Difficult to pull off, but Goss does it, and does it well. I’ve read plenty of attempts at this type of style; all the others have come across as a mess.

The books are set in the late nineteenth century, when changes and thought and controversy abounded. How they make use of these changes, how it makes the leap weaving in the fantastical elements, is truly breathtaking.

The characters are strong and vulnerable and wonderful, the adventures heart-stopping, with high stakes for these women. They are committed to determining their own lives, not living at the whims of those who “created” them; and they are determined to help other women who are struggling with the same fate.

Again, there are conflicts between them. They often argue. Yet, they’ve created a family. When it matters, they are there for each other.

Both of these are trilogies. Because family can’t be contained in a single book. And, in both cases, you can’t contain love. It’s a force that’s beyond what humans can restrict, and when they try to micromanage it too much, there’s trouble and pain.

If you haven’t read them, I hope you will read them, enjoy them, and comment.

What did you read this month?

December’s book is a winter holiday-themed book, and we will discuss what we read on Tuesday, December 17. Have a great month!

Tues. Oct. 15: HAUNTED NIGHTS #ReaderExpansionChallenge

HAUNTED NIGHTS edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton. NY: Blumhouse/Anchor Books. 2017.

This anthology fell directly into the theme for this month’s Reader Expansion Challenge. All the stories in the volume are built around Halloween.

The book includes stories by Seanan McGuire, Stephen Graham Jones, Jonathan Maberry, Joanna Parypinski, Garth Nix, Kate Jonez, Jeffrey Ford, Kelley Armstrong, S.P, Miskowski, Brian Evenson, Elise Forier Edie, Eric J. Guignard, Paul Kane, Pat Cadigan, John Langan, and John R. Little.

One of the things I love about anthologies is that they expand my reading palette, introducing me to authors whose work I haven’t read before. The only authors in this collection I’d previously read were Seanan McGuire and Jonathan Maberry.

That’s going to change. I have every intention of reading more by every author in this collection.

Each of the stories is unique and imaginative. They are tied to the night of Halloween, but not to each other. Yet the way they’re arranged in the collection flows and builds.

While I enjoyed all the stories, the ones that were my favorites were: Seanan McGuire’s haunted house tale “With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfsbane Seeds” which opens the volume; “The Turn” by Paul Kane; and “Jack” by Pat Cadigan.

One of the things that interested me in “The Turn” was the situation causing the conflict/terror for the male protagonist by a male author. The very thing that causes that problem is something that, if a woman did not do it, is likely to kill her when she’s walking alone at night. So would a female character meet the same fate? That sense moves the story away from the bones of the plot, and what I felt was the author’s intent, but it was something that struck me as I read it. Which is what excellent writing is supposed to do — make you think long after the piece is finished. Make you expand in new directions, inspired by the author’s imagination.

These stories made me think, made me feel, made me wonder. Which means the book will become an annual (or so) re-read, so I can make fresh discoveries every time. Isn’t that great?

What did you read this month? How did you feel about it?

Next month, for November, we read a book (or collection) built around family. We reconvene on Tuesday, November 19th.


Tues. Sept. 17: Anthology #ReaderExpansionChallenge

Many Bloody Returns: Tales of Birthdays With Bite. Edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Keller. NY: Ace Books. 2007.

September’s challenge is an anthology. I love anthologies, especially themed anthologies, because it introduces me to writers whose work I don’t know, and I get the chance to enjoy short pieces by writers whose work I do know.

This anthology is about vampires and birthdays. There are thirteen stories in it (which makes sense). They aren’t linked to each other, but they are each author’s unique take on the theme.

All the stories I read are interesting. I skipped one, because it was in present tense, and I don’t like prose in present tense. But I enjoyed the twelve I read.

My favorites, however, were:

“It’s My Birthday, Too” by Jim Butcher. It’s a Harry Dresden short story, exceptionally well done. It reminds me why I enjoy this series so much, and makes me want to go back and re-read the series in order.

“Grave-Robbed” by P.N. Elrod, featuring un-dead detective Jack Fleming. I wasn’t familiar with that series before, but this story makes me want to read more. Jack helps a young woman protect her widowed sister from a scheming medium who wants to steal her fortune.

“Blood Wrapped” by Tanya Huff was my introduction to her Smoke series, and I’m going to read the whole thing. Vampires outside of Vancouver? One of them the bastard son of Henry VIII who writes romance novels under a female pseudonym? Yeah, I’m in.

“Vampire Hours” by Elaine Viets. I’ve been reading all three of Elaine’s series over the past few weeks, and enjoy her writing. This isn’t tied to any of those series; it’s a stand-alone, and it’s lovely and touching, about a woman facing menopause and divorce in Fort Lauderdale.

It’s always wonderful to find new-to-you authors and then seek out more of their work. I had a great time with it.

What did you read this month? Leave the answer in the comments.

We reconvene on October 15. October’s theme is to read something Samhain (Halloween) related.

Happy reading!

Tues. Aug. 20, 2019: The Secret In the Old Attic


Secret Old Attic

Reader Expansion Challenge August — THE SECRET IN THE OLD ATTIC.

It was difficult to pick a favorite book from childhood, because there were so many. I read all the time.

But I finally decided to re-read my very first Nancy Drew book, THE SECRET IN THE OLD ATTIC. This is the 1970 version, with the yellow spine. I bought it, along with THE MYSTERY OF THE 99 STEPS, with my allowance at a store called Mead’s Department Store on Greenwich Avenue. The books were $1.99 each.

It totally plays into the fantasy that I (and many of my friends) still have about wonderful finds in attic trunks and secret rooms. I’d completely forgotten that the main plot revolved around stolen music, and the subplot about black widow spiders and special formulas for fabric.

Nancy, as usual, can do anything. Bess and George were barely in the book, and Ned arrived at the end to break down a door. There was some caricature instead of character stuff with the way Effie the maid is drawn, and the villains.

I kept trying to remind myself that this is a middle-grade book; the characters won’t be as complex as other books. Plus, it’s a Strathmeyer Syndicate book — the Nancy Drew mysteries were comfort books for little white girls. Because Nancy didn’t let anything like sexism get in her way (and, in fact, depending on which ghost writer handled a particular volume, played against it), she made us believe we could do the same. Not just survive, but thrive and beat the bad guys.

I don’t remember a lot of diverse characters in the series as a whole. As I go back and re-read, I’m sure the racism and ethnic slurs will be more evident than they were when I was 8 and 10.

When people bring up those elements of the juvenile mystery fiction of the 20th century — Bobbsey Twins, Dana Girls, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Judy Bolton, Vicky Barr, Beverly Gray, Trixie Belden, etc. — I point out that these books were a snapshot of their times. Of the attitudes. The attitudes weren’t right then any more than they are now. Up until 2016, it was a reminder of the progress we’ve made, and a reminder of how much we still have to work. Sadly, we’re now moving backwards.

There are logistical lapses and a few times where I thought, “That didn’t make sense.” While I didn’t have the unbridled joy I felt the first time I read it, I still enjoyed it. And it was a definite encouragement for me to play with some of the tropes (attics, trunks, hidden rooms) in my own work. It was fun (I read it in about 90 minutes) while still being flawed.

And it’s sending me back to re-read (for the umpteenth time), one of my favorite books, Melanie Rehak’s GIRL SLEUTH: NANCY DREW AND THE WOMEN WHO CREATED HER. Several years ago, I wrote about that book, right here on Biblio Paradise.

September’s challenge is to read an anthology of short stories. We will reconvene here to share on September 17.

What was your favorite childhood re-read for this challenge? Leave your musings in the comments!


Tues. July 16, 2019: SAY UNCLE by Kay Ryan — #ReaderExpansionChallenge


Say Uncle. Kay Ryan. NY:Grove Press. 1991.

This month’s challenge was for poetry. I can’t write poetry worth a damn, but I love reading it.

Early in the month, I was blown away by Patty Seyburn’s THRESHOLD DELIVERY. However, I was paid to read it for a review site, so I couldn’t talk about it here. But seriously, it’s a brilliant book, go read it.

I thought about re-reading Sharon Olds or Jackie Kay. I’ve found all their work transformational. But part of the point of this month’s challenge was to read work by someone new-to-me.

I found Kay Ryan’s SAY UNCLE in the library. Ms. Ryan was a Library of Congress Poet Laureate.

I’m so glad I picked it up. The poems are energetic and delightful and funny and painful and powerful, all at once.

“The Museum of False Starts” could represent any creative project. “Crash” has so many things going on at so many levels in a short poem that it needs to be re-read multiple times, each one revealing another layer. “Say Uncle” is funny in a ha-ha-ow! kind of way.

Every poem has something dynamic and delightful about it.

I may have found it at the library, but I’m ordering my own copy to re-read often. And I’m searching for her other work now, too.

What did you read this month, and what was your response? Post in the comments, and we can share what we read.

Next month’s challenge is to re-read a favorite childhood book from your current perspective. We will reconvene here to discuss them on August 20th.

Fri. June 21: Signs of Life — #ReaderExpansionChallenge

Signs of Life by Deborah Brevoort. NY: Samuel French. 1990, 2007.

Hello, there, and I’m sorry this is up late. This has been a busy week. I’d planned to get ahead last weekend, but that didn’t happen.

Also, I changed my mind on the play about which I would write. The first one I read, I didn’t finish. Plays are short, so it’s rare not to finish. But the author broke one of the cardinal rules — he dictated the jobs of the director and designers, and designated every breath and gesture and inflection for the actors.

That’s an insulting thing to do to the creative team. Theatre is collaborative. Unless you are the director (and even if you are), the rest of the team has to have a say or there’s no point in working in this format.

So I put the play down and picked up this one.

I read a lot of plays, but the point of the Reader Expansion Challenge is to read authors you haven’t previously read, and Deborah Brevoort fit the bill. It won a contest, was workshopped in Banff, and had a couple of productions before it was published.

One of the reasons I love to read plays is because it allows me to engage my imagination in a different way than a novel does. A novel uses more description (in most cases) and chooses where to guide my eye. While a play has specifics and a more limited scope, because the protocol is to leave description and inflection to the rest of the creative team, and hint at it by specific placement and word choice, it allows my imagination more room to soar.

Only two characters, a couple determined to leave their life in a New Jersey trailer part and follow the omens sent by the stars (the ones in the sky, not those on the screen) to California. Odd and funny and poignant, it was a good read, and made me want to see it on stage. It was written to be deceptively simple, with plenty of subtext and room for actors and the director and designers to play. It was a lot of fun.

Reading a good play reminds me how much I love the theatre, and how happy I am that I had such a fulfilling career in it for decades.

Next month, the challenge is poetry. The date is Tuesday, July 16 — which just happens to be the full moon. I’m going to see if I can find a poet whose work is new to me, who writes about the moon!

What play did you read this month? How did it affect you?