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Musicians in fantasy books

Today I’m taking a look at fantasy books which feature musicians–I’m less interested in this case in the generic bards that litter high fantasy, and more in books where there’s a specific, deliberate relationship to music. (These are all books I’ve read! If you know of others, let me know.) This is a bit of a subjective criterion, and probably Patrick Rothfuss should be on this list, but I couldn’t quite decide. When it’s done well, this is one of my favorite themes–the mix of magic and music can be a really powerful thing to explore.

masks and shadows seraphina 7ae48-cover_of_fire_and_hemlock

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

The Story of Owen and Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston

The Dalemark Quartet (esp. Cart and Cwidder) by Diana Wynne Jones

Fire & Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

All Our Pretty Songs  by Sarah McCarry

Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip

Lament and Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater


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Alternate takes on portal fantasies

rest of us just live hereI’m not 100% sure that I exactly mean portal fantasies. What I really mean is that these books look at the structure of classic fantasy and play with it. By classic fantasy, in this case, I mean things like Harry Potter and Narnia, which of course are both portal fantasies, so maybe that’s what I mean after all.

At any rate, recently there’s been a little spurt of these books and I thought it’d be interesting to highlight a few.

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is possibly the best known. I have to admit that while I’ve appreciated his writing about fantasy, I really really really disliked this book. I don’t think I even finished it. For me it was simply too anti, too negatively set against things I might critique but also love.

Second is one that I read as it was coming out, with both great delight and great nail-biting: Sarah Rees Brennan’s Turn of the Story. I loved the characters, and SRB’s thoughtful interrogation of fantasy tropes worked really well for me. (There’s also a follow up short story in the Monstrous Affections anthology.)

Of course Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On was one of last year’s big releases. While Simon Snow might seem like a simple Harry Potter analogue, I did appreciate that Rowell both critiqued and honored her inspiration.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness, is an interesting example in that the main story is all about the kids who live just outside the usual portal fantasy. The chapter descriptions tell us the Chosen One story, but the rest of the book is concerned with, well—the rest of us.

Finally Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway is a new book that I haven’t yet read but have heard good things about (and have on my library book bookshelf).

Are there other recentish books that fit this list? It’s an interesting mini-trend to me.

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Favorite YA mysteries

yaThe Agency series by YS Lee: I looove these books. Mary Quinn is a great main character, and Lee is such a deft writer when it comes to both the historical details and the mysteries (two things it is easy to get wrong). This series is wonderfully immersive, and Lee recognizes Mary’s liminal, somewhat precarious status while also not letting that limit who she is and what she does.

Palace of Spies & sequels by Sarah Zettel: I can’t think of any other YA books set in Georgian England (and why not! It’s such an interesting time period), and I’ve really been liking Peggy’s story. They’re slightly frothy mysteries that are engaging for the historical fiction fan.

Jackaby by William Ritter: A historical supernatural mystery, with a Sherlock-like main character. This sounds like a lot of buzz words, but Ritter manages to pull the story into something cohesive and interesting. The second book is out now, but I haven’t read it yet.

Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley: I hesitated over whether to add this series for two reasons. First, I don’t actually love them quite as much as other readers seem to. Second, they’re usually considered adult rather than YA. However, I think that for the right teen reader, Flavia’s exploits would be hugely fun.

The Ashbury High series by Jaclyn Moriarty: Some of the books in this series are more mystery-y than others, but all of them are hugely delightful and The Murder of Bindy MacKenzie is 1) a mystery and 2) MY FAVORITE so they’re going on the list anyway.

Heist Society by Ally Carter: While heist books aren’t exactly the same thing as mysteries, this series from Carter does have a mystery aspect to it. It’s light, fun reading, and I’ve really enjoyed this series.

The Caged Graves by Dianne K Salerni: I read this book for the Cybils a few years ago and was surprised by just how much I liked this historical mystery. Both the characters and the details of time and place worked well for me, and I liked the way the mystery was set up.

Looking at this list, it seems woefully lacking in any kind of diversity, aside from YS Lee’s books. Any suggestions for #ownvoices YA mysteries?

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Favorite middle grade mystery books

favorite mg mysteriesI decided that it would be fun to take a look at a few of my favorite middle grade mysteries. I love mystery stories, especially when I’m looking for something thought-provoking but also usually fairly quick. I feel like middle grade mysteries are often not talked about as much, but I really enjoy them! Some of these books are from recent years, while others are quite a bit older.

Murder is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens (Wells & Wong #1): Best friends team up to solve a murder in a 1930s English boarding school. One of my favorite books from this year for sure!

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry: I went back and forth on whether this one was mg or YA (Berry has written both) but ultimately I went with mg. A group of wayward girls have hide the fact that someone poisoned their headmistress and her brother while also trying to find out who.

The Unstoppable Octobia May by Sharon G Flake: Octobia May is a young African-American girl in the 1950s, with many rules about what she can and can’t do. None of those involve solving crimes, but Octobia does it anyway.

Lockwood & Co by Jonathan Stroud: This one is a mystery/fantasy series. In each installment (to date) the team of Lockwood and his friends Lucy and George, solve some sort of supernatural crime. The fantastic elements are wonderfully spooky, but the mysteries are also really well done.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd: When Ted and Kate’s cousin Salim disappears mysteriously, it’s up to the siblings to figure out what happened.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead: This is a mystery wrapped in a story about time travel and fate, and Madeline L’Engle. I loved it, and I definitely cried.

Pish Posh by Ellen Potter: Clara Frankofile is an unusual girl. She sits in her parents’ restaurant and points out those who shouldn’t be there. She doesn’t have many friends, and she relates better to adults than kids. But then she discovers that something mysterious is happening in the restaurant and she has to find out why.

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Guest post!

I have a post up today at my friend Katy’s blog, talking about some of my favorite heroines. I cut my list to 10 names, but here are a few that were on my extended list.

Ekaterin from the Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold

Charis from Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Brandshaw

Ida Mae from Flygirl by Sherri Smith

Tilda from Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Roza from Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Otter from Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow

Anna from Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt

Ista from Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Laura Chant from The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

Clearly I could have easily tripled my original as this is only half of my brainstorming list!

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Character-driven SF

I mentioned on Twitter when I was reading Ancillary Sword recently (SO GOOD) that Leckie makes me want to read and write all the character-driven SF. To be honest, “hard” SF bores me, and I am generally a very character-oriented reader. So I thought I would at least list a few of my favorites. If you have recommendations, please feel free to chime in!

Since I’ve already mentioned her, Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary books obviously belong here. She’s so good at writing a story that’s both intensely personal and all about implications for the wider world and I looove it.

Leckie has a couple of clear influences (and if anyone lists her influences and leaves these two off, I give them a SEVERE side-eye): Lois McMaster Bujold, especially the Vorkosigan saga and perhaps even more so, C.J.Cherryh‘s Foreigner books.

Also: Doris Egan‘s Gate of Ivory, which I believe I first heard about on Jo Walton’s blog, are not nearly as well known as they should be. These are just barely SF as opposed to fantasy, but they’re also fantastic.

Connie Willis‘s Oxford books go in a very different direction (time-travel) but they are amazing and heart-breaking precisely because they are intensely concerned with characters, both past and future. Also, Promised Land, which she wrote with Cynthia DeFelice, and is one of my favorite comfort reads.

The Touchstone Trilogy, by Andrea K. Host, is definitely character-centered, as is And All the Stars. Touchstone, arguably, is science-fantasy rather than science fiction, but I’m putting it here anyway because I can.

R.J. Anderson‘s Quicksilver/Ultraviolet duology, rare and wonderful YA SF, are also thoughtful explorations of identity and family and growing-up.

(Authors I have deliberately not included in this post: John Scalzi, and Orson Scott Card. Both look like they’re character-driven, perhaps, but are actually primarily concerned with quite different things, in my reading.)

Okay, so what else am I missing?

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Noor Inayat Khan and the SOE

Caveat to the rest of this post: I am waaay not an expert in this field. I’ve done what I would call a fair amount of amateur reading about WWII generally, and a bit about the SOE and its female agents specifically.

Wartime photo of Noor Inayat Khan, from the Imperial War Museum
Wartime photo of Noor Inayat Khan, from the Imperial War Museum

Since Code Name Verity was published in 2012, I’ve become much more aware of the history of the British WWII spy organization called the SOE. One of the main characters in Verity is an SOE agent and wireless operator, the other is a pilot in the WAAF and ATA. One of the interesting aspects of the SOE is its use of female agents, especially in France. This is, of course, a big part of Verity, but it’s also based in fact.

In following Elizabeth Wein’s blog and Twitter, I discovered that one of her inspirations for Verity was a fascinating woman named Noor Inayat Khan (who, it’s worth noting, was half-Indian and Muslim). I’ve seen several posts on Tumblr about Noor recently, and through them discovered that there was a recent documentary that aired on PBS*. The documentary is called “Enemy of the Reich” and should still be available for online viewing if you’re in the US.

Since there’s a bit of a surge of interest, I thought I would pull together a few resources for those who are interested in finding out more about Noor Inayat Khan and the SOE more generally. Again, see the caveat: if you know of resources I haven’t listed here, PLEASE let me know and I’ll add them!

Wikipedia page
2006 article from The Independent
An essay from the producer of “Enemy of the Reich”
Nice overview profile
The Imperial War Museum’s SOE page
Some more photos from various points of Noor Inayat Khan’s life
(There are also some articles in the Times (London) which I’m not linking to because they’re behind a paywall. If you have access, they’re easy to find by searching.)

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm (my review)**
Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu
The Women Who Lived For Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War by Marcus Binney
Churchill’s Angels by Bernard O’Connor (I started this one and somehow O’Connor manages to render his subject extremely dry)
Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine by Jean Overton Fuller (a personal friend of Noor Inayat Khan in England)

In the end, it’s easy to get hung up on the romantic details of Noor Inayat Khan’s short life. But what strikes me is her bravery, her resourcefulness, and her sheer toughness in the face of conditions that would overwhelm most people.

* I thought it was quite touching and well done overall, although I believe they completely messed up on the fact that Noor was born in Moscow, not St. Petersburg! I appreciated the fact that they were able to get quite a bit of information and commentary from Noor’s family, which gave a very personal sense to the documentary. I did wish they had mentioned Vera Atkins, although I know they were trying to fit everything in an hour.

** Helm is also coming out with a book about Ravensbruck

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Fairy Tales and Retellings

vasilissa the beautiful bilibin
Vasilissa the Beautiful by Ivan Bilibin

February 26th is Fairy Tale Day, which I didn’t know until recently. Fairy tales are a really important part of my internal mythology, so I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight some of them. For this list, I went with a fairly limited definition of fairy tales. I want to do another post that highlights some folk and fairy tales from other countries, but I thought including those here would expand the scope a little too much for one post.

I’ll also note that this is list is not meant to be exhaustive. I haven’t necessarily read all of the books here, and in the Middle Grade & YA Retellings section, I starred the books that I’ve actually read and recommend; the others I either had more mixed feelings about, or haven’t read yet. These are all, however, books I have some personal knowledge of. If there are great books I’m missing, let me know!

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Arthur Rackham
The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Arthur Rackham

Classic fairy tale collections
Peppper and Salt by Howard Pyle
The Fairy Ring by Kate Douglas Wiggins and Nora Archibald Smith
The Blue Fairy Book (and sequels) by Andrew Lang
Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (obviously the Pantheon version is the Only Correct Version)
The My Book House series has many folk and fairy tales in it.

Pepper and Salt by Howard Pyle
Pepper and Salt by Howard Pyle

Newer collections
The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon
The Fairy Tales by Jan Pienkowski
Fireside Stories: Tales for a Winter’s Eve by Caitlin Matthews and Helen Cann

Fairy Tales, by Jan Pienkowski
Fairy Tales, by Jan Pienkowski

Individual picture books
Vasilissa the Beautiful and The Firebird by Ivan Bilibin
Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman
The Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman
Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman
The Lady and the Lion by Laurel Long
The Tale of the Firebird by Gennady Spirin
Snow White and Rose Red by Kelly Vivanco
The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Mahon and Kinuko Craft
Beauty and the Beast by H. Chuku Lee and Pat Cummings

The Six Swans, P.J. Lynch
The Six Swans, P.J. Lynch

Middle-grade & YA retellings
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
East by Edith Pattou*
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George
East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris Kessler
Ice by Sarah Beth Durst
The Twelve Dancing Princesses
The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell*
Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George
The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler
Entwined by Heather Dixon
Beauty and the Beast1
Beauty by Robin McKinley*
Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley*
Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley*
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
Sleeping Beauty
A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan
Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters by Diane Zahler
The Wide-Awake Princess by E.D. Baker
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine*
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Ash by Malinda Lo*
The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry
Snow White and Rose Red
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan*
Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede
Maid Maleen
Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale*
White Cat
White Cat by Holly Black*
Seven Swans
Swan Kingdom by Zoe Marriott
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
Deerskin by Robin McKinley*
Goose Girl
Goose Girl by Shannon Hale*
A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce
Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack by Shannon, Dean, and Nathan Hale*
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
Once Upon a Time series by various authors

Grimm's Fairy Tales, Pantheon edition
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Pantheon edition

Adult retellings
The Firebird
In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip*
Laura Florand’s books often have a fairy tale element to them, but since part of the fun is finding it, I’m not going to spoil them!

The Lady and the Lion, Laurel Long
The Lady and the Lion, Laurel Long

Other resources
Sur La Lune
My Pinterest board
Theodora Goss’s Pinterest board

1. Note on retellings of Beauty & the Beast and Cinderella: these are both really important stories in Western culture. I have not attempted to collect anything like all the stories that have an element of either, because that would be half the books ever published. Instead I’ve gone for those that are directly inspired by the fairy tales.