Tag Archives: Book Friends

Love What You Love

Conversations about books are some of my favorite conversations.

Via https://3appleskdk.wikispaces.com/

recent discussions among some book-minded companions led to a fascinating discussion the other day regarding “books that you love but that are in some way objectionable to others.”  It’s a tricky subject, and one with which a lot of readers tend to grapple, especially as they grow up, and realize that the books they loved at one stage of their development might not fit them and their world view now.

Let’s use my own experience as an example: It’s something of an open secret that I love Jane Eyre.  It’s a book that enchanted me as a fourteen-year-old first discovering early Victorian literature, and one that sustained me in high school amidst all those books I had to read.   But, as an older reader, out of high school and navigating what we usually call “the real world,” I began to realize how whiny, self-centered, and, let’s be honest here, how reckless and dangerous his behavior was.  Secrets aren’t sexy, Edward.  Especially when they involve fire, bleeding, and/or locking people up in towers.  (To be fair, I would argue a great deal of the Rochester mystique is a product of more recent times, but still…).  But, after some soul searching, I realized that I could, and still did, love Jane Eyre.  Because, as I grew older, I began to really appreciate just how strong, how self-reliant, and how confident Jane had to be in herself to survive in the world she did, and to protect herself from Rochester’s more harmful tendencies.  Jane Eyre herself became one of my favorite characters all over again as a grew up, even as I got more and more fed up with Rochester’s fragile ego and his ceaseless emoting.

Similarly, a friend related that they had grown up adoring Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and that they still turned to it when life was being difficult and they needed something familiar to love.  Stephen King is a sensational author and a super guy, but, as my friend noted, Stephen King doesn’t do very well writing about people of color.  They tend to fall pretty hard into the character trope known as the “Magical Negro” trope (Note: the word ‘negro’ is used to denote the archaic view of Black people that this trope embodies).  Briefly put, “Magical Negroes” are characters (created by white authors) who are generally (though not always) outwardly or inwardly disabled as a result  of discrimination, disability or social constraint, and who appear to save the white protagonist through magic.  In other words, they are not human in the same ways that white characters are human.   In the Dark Tower series, Odetta Susannah Holmes is a”Magical Negro”; she is disfigured by a subway train after a white man pushes her onto the tracks.  She suffers from a magical kind of personality disorder in which she embodies two people (each figured and disfigured by American racism) and she is repeatedly victimized to save Roland, who is a white male in the novel.

This is not in any way, shape, or form to imply that Stephen King is a racist.  Far from it.  But it does indicate that he might not be the expert on creating realistic, thoughtful characters of color.

But sometimes, it can be an issue with the author.  Another book brought up in this discussion was Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game.  This is a novel that shaped the childhoods of many, and is still beloved by readers around the world.  However, it’s very difficult for many readers to reconcile their love of this book with the knowledge that Orson Scott Card himself holds very public, anti-gay and xenophobic views.  For those who find these views troubling, spending money on purchasing an author’s work can be difficult. It can also be difficult to separate the author’s views from one’s love of the books they write.

So what is a reader to do?

First and foremost, love what you love.  If a book or a film or a song has personal meaning for you, helps you to grow, or guides you through a dark time, or makes you a better person, then you deserve that thing in your life.  As The Velveteen Rabbit taught us, the things we love become real, and become a part of us and who we are.  I became a stronger person by reading Jane Eyre, even as I learned not to put up with whiners like Rochester.  My friends learned fortitude and strength and insight from the books they loved, above and apart from the problematic aspects of their construction and their authorship.  This does not mean to be blind to their faults or shortcomings, but, instead, to love the thing for how it helps you.

Secondly, as in so many other matters, the library can help you in these circumstances.  For example: do you love an author, like Stephen King, who may not be the best at portraying people of color (…or women? …or another group of people?)?  Why not come to the Library and learn about some authors who do?!  Use your favorite author or series as a jumping-off point to explore other works of literature than can become new favorites.  In the case of the Dark Tower series, we might recommend books by N. K. Jemisin, or Nnedi Okorafor, for example.

Finally, the library is a super-terrific place to access material that you might not otherwise want to contribute your hard-earned dollars.  As we discussed in our post on Fire and Fury, you can have your literary cake and eat it took by borrowing the book from us.

Ultimately, it’s a win-win-win situation when you come to the Library and learn to love the things inside it.  And we are here to help you find the books and films and music that you can and will love, and that will help you be better.  Just keep loving what you love, and we’ll be here for the rest of it.


Stories that save you

We all have stories that save us.

I’ve used this phrase a few times here, dear readers, and I really do believe it.  We’ve all had a person who came into our lives precisely when they were most needed, and gave us a new direction, some advice, or perhaps some comfort, and made an indelible difference on our lives.

Books can be like that, too.

Recently, Stephen Fry recorded the entire Sherlock Holmes canon for Audible.com.   You can hear a sample of it in the clip above.

…and let me assure you, the rest is just as glorious.  The best part is that he also wrote and recorded a series of introductions for the various books of stories, talking about the history of the stories, of Conan Doyle’s life (and his friendship with Oscar Wilde!), and Fry’s own relationship to Sherlock Holmes’ adventures.  In one of these introductions, he talks about how Sherlock Holmes saved his life.

And I kind of know what he means.

I found my first Sherlock Holmes story when I was twelve years old.  For some reason, my sixth grade teacher had a copy of six random Sherlock Holmes stories bound together–I know for a fact that “The Sussex Vampire” was the first I read, which is why, even though I know it’s really not one of the better stories, it’s among my favorites.  “The Blue Carbuncle” was in there, as well, which is also one of my all-time favorites.  I brought that book with me on a god-awful camping trip that they made all the sixth-graders take to “build character” and “bond socially”.  I got lost in the woods and nearly drowned, neither of which really helped my intense feelings of awkwardness, which were largely brought about by being taller than everyone else and not having a clue about how to fit into a group of my peers.  But at night, while everyone else was building their character and bonding socially, I hid in my sleeping bag and read about Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes, too, was an outsider; a man who admitted to not having many friends and not fitting in–and who was taller than most people.  And he, with all his weird quirks and socially awkward manners, was the hero of his story.  I also think I learned how to be a good friend by watching Watson.  Watson didn’t try, at any point, to be something he wasn’t.  He expressed everything he felt clearly, and he showed up when he was needed.  When we got back from that hellish trip, I used my savings to buy a huge collection of Holmes stories, which included A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, and all the stories up to and including “The Final Problem”.   Having those two around got me through what turned out to be one of the hardest years of my growing up, with bullies and mean teachers and the outdoors all conspiring against me.

Jeremy Brett is the best Sherlock.

By high school, I had read and re-read the entire Holmes canon multiple times.  I actually made a few friends who had read a bit about Sherlock Holmes as well–admittedly, not to the same obsessive level that I had, but who were willing to keep up a conversation with me, or watch the Jeremy Brett adaptations with me.  But college is when Holmes really stepped up to help me out.

I did my junior semester abroad in London, and trust me when I tell you I was living in the creepiest, most unsanitary, and poorly insulated dorm room you can imagine, with some of the least personable people this side of a sitcom.  But I had Holmes.  And I had David Timson’s recordings.  Timson, for the record, is a marvel.  He created a different voice for every character in the entire Holmes world.  And played them all accurately.  I saved up my tiny stipend once a month to buy a new CD collection of stories, and listened to them at night to help me fall asleep in my weird, dingy dorm.  No matter how bad things got, Holmes could set them right.  There is no story that doesn’t end with order being restored, and when you’re living in a place of disorder, that can mean everything. During the day, I learned to navigate London by the walks that Holmes at Watson took in the various stories.  I got hopelessly lost one day trying to get home from Oxford Street, and was about ready to cry when I remembered that Mr. Henry Baker walked from Tottenham Court Road to Goodge Street after his Christmas festivities in “The Blue Carbuncle”, and replayed the scene in my head as I walked.  I made it to the Tube in time to catch the last train home.

In grad school, I became slightly notorious for bringing Sherlock Holmes into every class I took.  Because to know Sherlock Holmes means to understand the tensions within the British Empire.  It means understanding a bit about the Victorian legal system, about social customs and attitudes, and about gender relations.  It also means understanding the impact of railways and travel on the average person in history.  And I made my students read a few Holmes stories for themselves, because they are more fun than a textbook, and more enlightening than my lectures in many respects.  In every case, Holmes was a kind of security blanket for me, easing me into a new, and potentially scary situation by being that familiar, that constant friend, that fixed point in a changing age.

Heck, I even, tangentially, got this job at the library because of Sherlock Holmes.  When I moved back to Peabody, I joined the Library’s Classics Book group in order to make a few friends.  The first book the group read with me as a member?  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I kid you not.   It was those stories that kept me coming back to the Library, and they haven’t gotten rid of me since.

And today, when anxiety crops its ugly head, I plug in my earbuds, or pull out that same battered old volume of Holmes stories, and transplant the angry, insecure voice in my head with Watson’s calm narrative, and Holmes’ practical problem-solving.  These two friends have been with me for twenty years now, helping me through every change in life, and every rough patch that I’ve hit along the way, from practical advice about growing up to navigating a foreign city, from intense historic analysis to calming stress-relief.  Those are the stories that have saved me.

I hope you have some, too.

On Sundays, We Talk Books…

Lady Pole and Arabella
Lady Pole and Arabella

One of the nifty things about being friend with Lady Pole, among myriads, is her excellent taste in literature, and her openness about discussing books.  So a little while ago, we came up with the idea of a book discussion here at the Free For All where we could air our real views about some of those “classic” books that everyone is “supposed to read”…and supposed to value/treasure/enjoy. 

The truth of the matter is that even when two people read the same book…no two people read the same book.  They bring their lives with them into the text, and that totally influences how they perceive, digest, and remember the book.  And this was something Lady Pole and I discovered as we chatted about some of those classics that we had encountered in our lives.  So here is a much more mature, adultish version of that discussion for you to enjoy.  While we are very pleased with our own opinions, what we really hope you, dear readers, take away from these discussions is the realization that: 1) Reading “classics” can be really fun and meaningful and significant (that’s part of what makes them “classics” after all!), 2) That you are under no obligation whatsoever to enjoy the classics that you read, as you’ll soon see, and 3) That your own story is critically important to how you read any book.  So here is our chat–we sincerely hope it encourages you to have a conversation of your own!

The next book in our series is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, first published in 1847.
First Encounter:
Arabella: I first discovered Jane thanks to the fortunate combination of a summer reading list and a family vacation gone awry.  I was heading into my freshman year of high school, my father had business in Italy, and my mother and I tagged along to enjoy the culture and the atmosphere….it turned out we were in something of an industrial area without a ton to do, and few transportation options.  So I spent a good deal of that vacation plowing through the list of books I had been provided by my new high school.  We could choose three off a pretty long list, so I chose The Picture of Dorian Gray, Jane Eyreand The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxywhich made for a very interesting trip, at least literarily speaking…And I think being somewhat alone with Jane on that trip made my reading of her story that much more intense.
Lady Pole: I was embarrassingly late to the game on this book. As in, I finished it this summer, having gone my entire life so far without having this classic in my repertoire. I’ve had a beautiful leather(ish)-bound copy compiled with Bronte’s sisters’ works on my shelf since high school (having gone through an intense classics phase after my encounter with Pride and Prejudice) and Waldenbooks (remember them?) was nice enough to fuel my newfound passion with beautifully bound discount classics that looked just beautiful on my shelf. And that’s where my copy of Jane Eyre stayed for a disconcerting number of years. Having seen a poster from the delightfully named project Recovering the Classics (http://recoveringtheclassics.com/) with the quote: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will” from said classic, I fell in love with the quote, grew covetous of the poster and was determined to read the book to which this fantastic quote belonged.
First Impressions
cbrichmondArabella: I had been told by a number of educators in my life that I had to read Jane Eyrebut while I was excited to make them happy, I was also expected something of a 19th-century moralistic slog, like a number of other books I had been assigned to read over the years (I’m looking at you, Little Dorrit).  And, I’ll admit, the early part of the book was much of what I had been expecting, particularly the scenes at Lowood School, where there is a considerable amount of discussion about being good and virtuous…but then, I realized that something very different way happening here.  Jane wasn’t terribly interested in learning how to behave.  Or to please others.  She had a moral compass that was far stronger and far more discerning than that.  And it meant that her story was going to be vastly different from what I had expected.  And by the time she left Lowood to take up residence at Thornfield Hall, I loved seeing the world through her eyes.  Especially, I loved how honest she was.  I remember very distinctly a chapter opening when Jane admitted she loved Rochester, even though she knew she could never do anything about it because of the huge differences in power and class that stood between them.  She didn’t downplay her feelings, or deny them to make things easier, which made her a startling voice in literature, even as a twentieth century reader.  I myself had (have) an enormous crush on Rochester, so the parts of the book without him were a bit of a challenge for me then (though not so much now), but, like Lady Pole, I thought their reunion was perfect and satisfying and wonderful.
charlottebronteLady Pole: I tried to read this book a few years ago. I have had wonderful discussions with Arabella about digging into a dense, rich book in the wintertime and felt Jane Eyre was to be that winter’s book. I started it. I enjoyed it. I put it down. I didn’t pick it back up again. If you press me for the reason why I didn’t finish it I really couldn’t give you one. My best guess is that I had a moment where I turned into Dug from Up and another book (or my Netflix queue, or something) caught my eye and… squirrel! That was it. The lovely ribbon bookmark that came stitched into my edition was still in the same place where I left it, but I’m happy to say that Jane, ever the stalwart heroine welcomed me back to that place and guided me on through the rest of the book. This time, there was no stopping me. I can’t tell you how fascinating I found Jane. I didn’t always agree with her choices (I guess I have more human foibles in me than her; let’s just say the story would have been much shorter had I been in her shoes…), but I’ve yet to come across a literary heroine that I respect as much. Bronte didn’t take the easy way out; Jane didn’t have the looks, money or other Victorian qualities that would make a heroine successful, but she had her morals, her own brand of plucky perseverance, and a willingness to withstand multiple hardships fairly stoically and this, to me, made her one of the best heroines I’ve read in a long time. Yes, there was a certain amount of deus-ex-machina in the ending, but nothing seemed out of character for Jane and, even though much of her late fortune came seemingly out of nowhere, it still felt as though she earned it, making the ending ultimately very satisfying. Oh, and the marriage proposal scene easily ranks as my favorite of all time in literature (and that includes both proposals in Pride and Prejudice).
Outside Influences
2421451Arabella: I knew nothing about this book going into it, except for the fact that it caused a big scandal upon its release because it advocated for an independent woman, and for a moral, fundamental good over social “goods” and “evils”.  But I never expected to find such a frank, self-confident, and marvelous heroine in its pages, or a love story that still strikes me as a wholly unique one, even today.  Since then, I’ve seen a number of adaptations of the book, none of which do it real justice, though the one with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens comes pretty close, especially in terms of Jane’s whole story.
Lady Pole: Though I hadn’t seen any movie interpretations of this book, I was well familiar with the “madwoman in the attic” trope that stemmed from this story. I also knew that this book had a Gothic tone to it, which is something I’ve gravitated towards since my childhood reading, making my late arrival to actually reading this book that much more puzzling. Aside from knowing it was one of Arabella’s favorite books of all time, I new scant little else about it.
Recent Reflections:
Arabella: As someone who feels very strongly about portraying equitable and honest relationships in romance I have to admit, in an attempt to be an adult here, that Rochester is a lying ass who treats his ward despicably (see the cartoon below).  And in any other hands than Charlotte Bronte’s, I think I would hate him.  But I also have to admit that she does such remarkable job showing his torment, and the trap in which society (again, with it’s ideas of “good” and “evil”) has caught him and Bertha, that I still sympathize with him..and still love him (if Jane can admit it, so can I).   I also love their relationship because Jane doesn’t tolerate any of his emo nonsense, chipping away at his woe-is-me veneer until we get to see that there is a decent man with a surprising sense of humor underneath.  I’ve also learned to feel a lot more towards St. John than I ever did as a younger reader.  I hate love triangles, and was so terrified that Jane was going to forsake herself and run off with him that I hated him on sight and sound.  But now I can see what Bronte was doing in creating his character, and showing how trying to be “good” can literally kill you, while following that higher sense of right and wrong can be your true salvation–and I try to feel for him the way Jane did.  It’s a work in progress.
Lady Pole: Considering that these reflections are all recent because I’ve only just read the book, let me just add that the Jane Eyre poster from Recovering the Classics now hangs on my office wall, nestled comfortably among posters of other favorite classics. I think that pretty much sums it up.


On Sundays, We Talk Books…

Lady Pole and Arabella
Lady Pole and Arabella

One of the nifty things about being friend with Lady Pole, among myriads, is her excellent taste in literature, and her openness about discussing books.  So a little while ago, we came up with the idea of a book discussion here at the Free For All where we could air our real views about some of those “classic” books that everyone is “supposed to read”…and supposed to value/treasure/enjoy. 

The truth of the matter is that even when two people read the same book…no two people read the same book.  They bring their lives with them into the text, and that totally influences how they perceive, digest, and remember the book.  And this was something Lady Pole and I discovered as we chatted about some of those classics that we had encountered in our lives.  So here is a much more mature, adultish version of that discussion for you to enjoy.  While we are very pleased with our own opinions, what we really hope you, dear readers, take away from these discussions is the realization that: 1) Reading “classics” can be really fun and meaningful and significant (that’s part of what makes them “classics” after all!), 2) That you are under no obligation whatsoever to enjoy the classics that you read, as you’ll soon see, and 3) That your own story is critically important to how you read any book.  So here is our chat–we sincerely hope it encourages you to have a conversation of your own!

The next book in our series is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudicepublished in 1813.

First Encounter
Lady Pole: I was in high school the first time I read Pride and Prejudice; I think it was sophomore or junior year. A friend of mine had read it and told me I would love it. It also helped that we were working together on finding material for a speech competition (yup, I was one of those kids) and the amount of dialog in the book lent itself to being a good option. We qualified for the state competition with our hand-picked excerpt, so this book brings back good memories, as well.

Arabella: I was in college, taking a course on The Early English Novel, which looked at novels from the 18th- and early 19th-centuries not only in terms of their stories, but in terms of their printing and distribution history.  It was one of my favorite classes that year, even though (and this is the mark of a good professor, dear readers, none of the books were particularly enjoyable for me.  Pride and Prejudice came towards the end of the semester, after ClarissaThe Mysteries of Udolpho, and Northanger Abbey, among others.


First Impressions
pickering_-_greatbatch_-_jane_austen_-_pride_and_prejudice_-_this_is_not_to_be_borne_miss_bennetLady Pole: I fell in love. This was one of the first classics I read on my own that wasn’t part of assigned reading, so that may have also heightened my enjoyment of the text, but for me, Elizabeth Bennet was the be-all-end-all of literary heroines. In a lot of ways, she still is. She is flawed, but strong. Level-headed and yet somehow headstrong at the same time. She wants love and she wants it on her own terms. She was exactly what my teenaged-self was looking for at the time and continues to be a pretty high standard for my adult self when it comes to literary heroines by comparison. I also enjoyed Austen’s writing-style.  The comedy of manners remains as one of my favorite types of books to read and Austen’s wit is a large part of why this book resonated with me.

Arabella: It took me a really, really long time to get into this book.  I think some of that had to do with end-of-the-semester burnout, but I also think that Austen’s writing style and I just didn’t (and still don’t, to a large extent) get along.  I appreciate her arch observations immensely, but I really didn’t enjoy her technique of stating characters’ opinions as if they were fact, as in the opening line of the book (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”).  I felt it put distance between me and the characters, which made it difficult to really get to know them.  I also had a hard time liking Elizabeth…what stood out to me was how much she derided other women in the book, which is something Miss Bingley notes.  She cares for Jane, who is very quiet, and Georgiana, who is very quiet, but is very scornful of all the other women around her–which made me think that she wouldn’t like me very much (and since I really appreciated her strength, this made me sad).  As we see throughout the book, her kneejerk reactions are often wrong (Wickham, Darcy…), which she sort-of realizes at the end, but not in so thorough a manner as I was hoping to see.


Outside Influences
jane-austen-008Lady Pole: I went into my first reading fairly uninfluenced, which is rare for me with a classic. I have since read this book numerous times, including during a freshman English class in college with one of my favorite professors, where I learned just how funny Austen could really be (particularly through Mr. Collins’ absurdities) and on a cruise where it was a refreshing change to visit an old favorite after reading about the ill-fated cruise passengers in Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos. I know what everyone is probably thinking at this point: what about the BBC adaptation with Colin Firth??? That adaptation made me love Mr. Darcy. I had my trepidations about the character even after Lizzy got her happily ever after with him, but Firth brought a level of tenderness and depth to Mr. Darcy that went previously unnoticed by me in the text. Pride and Prejudice also helped me appreciate the humor of Bridget Jones’s Diary (book and movie, though less so the sequels), which in turn helped me to appreciate re-imaginings of classic texts more.

Arabella: I had seen the BBC adaptation before reading the book, and I think I was looking for the same level of accessibility in the text, which, as I mentioned, I certainly didn’t find.  But it did help me understand some of the subtext in the book that I wasn’t getting from Austen’s narrative.  The group of historical re-enactors that I worked with also had constant debates over the immortal “Darcy or Rochester” question, which meant I was definitely holding Darcy to a much higher standard than I think I otherwise might have done.

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy
Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy

Recent Reflections
Lady Pole: I’ve never stopped loving Pride and Prejudice and still return to the text in whole or in part when I need a literary pick-me-up. While I don’t consider myself a Jane-ite, dressing in Regency costume and going to conventions, I’m still (and I think always will be) a huge fan, not just of P&P, but of Austen in general. Pride and Prejudice is one of those books that made a strong emotional impression on me because it was a book that I read at just the right time. I know it isn’t that way for everyone, but even more discerning opinions have never wavered my enthusiasm.

Arabella: I have really come to appreciate over the years what Austen was doing with her writing, and compare her in many ways to Oscar Wilde, at least in terms of her gentle, but unrepentant criticisms of society.  And, in that sense, I can appreciate her.  But I still haven’t been able to lose myself in her stories (except for Persuasion.  I did actually enjoy that one).  I still find her writing style too much for me, overall.  I also think that, when it comes to “classics”, I tend to enjoy later 19th-century works that challenge and scandalize, rather than tease, which is a matter for another discussion, I think….

Some words on Gaslamp Fantasy, Good Friends, and Great Fiction


If you haven’t been able to tell as yet, we here at the Free For All really enjoy talking about books–books in general, books we love, books we really need to read soon, and books that should exist, but don’t…yet.  And while this blog provides a beautiful outlet for those discussions, stories, and experiences, those discussions also spill over into Real Life.

Some time ago now, Lady Pole and I were talking about our love of books with historical settings that feature magic, magicians, and usually, a fair bit of mayhem.  And I wished out loud that there was a name for that category of books, so that they would be easier to find, and thus, to devour.

“There is!” Exclaimed Lady Pole, in all her bookish wisdom.  “It’s called Gaslamp Fantasy!”

And then I got so excited I fell over.
(Not really…but almost.)

62d92e28ef11c49995b50e9a3c8a3fc2Because it turns out, Gaslamp Fantasy is a thing.  And it is a beautiful thing, indeed.  According to the experts at the New York Public Library, Gaslamp Fantasy is an offshoot of the Steampunk Genre.  However, Steampunk deals with an alternative 19th century where steam (rather than coal) grew to be the dominant form of energy, resulting in a new world of science and gadgetry.  Gaslamp, instead, deals with an alternative 19th century that thrives on magic, and is controlled by magicians.  These stories can be set anywhere from the Regency Era (broadly speaking, about 1795) to the outbreak of the First World War, and can feature any and all kinds of magic spells, fantastic familiars, and fairy or elfin intervention, and can take on the trappings of any other historic novel; gaslamp can be comedic, tragic, gothic, epic–in terms of plot, they are limited only by the authors’ imagination.


2260048Perhaps the most well-known example of this genre is the Free For All Favorite Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrellwhich features two “practical magicians” during the Napoleonic Wars, who begin by working to save England from the French, and end battling each other over the fate of English magic.  In addition to the spellbinding narrative and the so-real-you-miss-them-when-they’re-gone characters, what makes this book such a joy to read is the seamless blend of fantasy and reality–the very real fears in England of the potential of a French invasion are appeased by a massive fleet of ships conjured from the rain.  Mirrors (a fairly new invention at the time) can serve as a gateway to a host of other realms, just as easily as they can be used as a reflective surface.

And therein lies the real magic of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and gaslamp fantasy in general, particularly for those of us who believe that ghosts and fairies and elves are real.  They give us the chance to visit a world where such things are present and visible, and teach us how to see the wonderful and the magical in our own world, as well.  So feel free to come into the library and discover Gaslamp Fantasy along with us–I promise, it will be an adventure you won’t soon forget!

For those interested in Gaslamp Fantasy, check out the following selections:

3269619Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: A literal smorgasbord of gaslamp fiction, this collection features some of the master of the genre, from Gregory Maguire and Leanna Renee Hieber to  Catherynne M. Valente and  Genevieve Valentine.  As Lady Pole has mentioned short stories are quite the under-appreciated art form, and this book offers some of the best in gaslamp fiction, and really showcases the range of styles and genres that nestle within that broader title.  Even better, you can use these stories to discover what aspects of gaslamp fiction you like best, and use them to help you find more books on our shelves (and we are more than happy to help you find more books, no matter what genre!)

3679669Sorcerer to the Crown: This is a sensational read on its own, but for those of you who also adored Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, this book is a perfect follow-up.  Zen Cho set her novel in a world very similar to that of Susanna Clarke’s–English magic is a unique form of magic that helps secure England’s pre-eminence in the world.  But in this novel, English magic is inexplicably fading away.  The task of restoring English magic falls to Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers, a man who was born a slave, and now finds himself at the pinnacle of his position, with plenty of rivals eager for his fall from grace.  His companion is the wonderfully complex and powerful Prunella Gentleman, herself an outsider in a society that values neither non-English people, and magical women especially.  But Prunella may hold the key to restoring English magic–if she and Wythe can navigate the trials of Fairyland and English society.  Not only is Cho’s story immediately arresting and consistently intriguing, but she also takes on issues of gender, class, and privilege with grace, wit, and a good deal of insight that make this book a rare treat for any genre.

3575642The Midnight Queen:  Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s tales of magic and true love center around the aptly named Merlin College, Oxford, where the noblest and most talented magicians in Britain learn their craft.  When a disastrous student prank lands the talented Gray Marshall in disgrace, he is ordered to spend the summer under the watchful eye of his professor, Appius Callender–and there meets Callender’s sheltered, but wonderfully wise daughter, Sophie.  Their meeting, and subsequent relationship sets off a series of events that will change them both for the better–and may have enormous implications on the state of British magic for good.  Like Cho, Hunter presents a heroine who has been prevented from realizing her true powers, and finds a way to set her free.  For those looking for a bit of romance with their gaslamp fantasy, Sophie’s relationship with the charming and introverted Gray is just delightful.


A Word About Book Recommendations



I led a very misguided youth, my friends.  A wild, rebellious life, full of dangling participles, chilled red wine, and moving parking cones around when I thought people weren’t looking…Ok, so maybe I wasn’t precisely a dangerous rebel, but there were mistakes made.  For our purposes, let’s say that the greatest of these was the inability to accept book recommendations.

When I younger, people would offer me suggestions for books that I should read, and I, in my omnipotence, would pull my sleeves over my hands and roll my eyes and proclaim to the Heavens “You don’t know me!  You don’t know what I should read next!” (Again, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point).

Eventually, however, as I grew older, and began to accept that I didn’t, and indeed, might never, know everything, I began to realize that other people might actually have some good ideas about books…and other things, as well.

stock-photo-23919442-giving-booksI’ve mentioned here before about the benefits of having bookish friends, but it’s worth mentioning again.  Because, very often, friends can see parts of us that we ourselves cannot.  Therefore, while some of their recommendations may be straightforward “oh, I just read this and it was good–read it too, so I have someone to talk to”, very often, these recommendations can speak to a part of you that isn’t readily visible, can speak to a part of you that you don’t normally acknowledge, or can help you though a problem that you didn’t know you had.  Sometimes, these recommendations speak to the nature of your unique relationship with anther human person, or just remind you of the reasons you entrusted yourself to this person in the first place.

For those of us who love to read, books are more than just entertainment.  They can very often become extensions of ourselves and parts of who we are.  So talking about books and their characters, their twists and turns, even their settings or details, can be a way of learning about ourselves and finding our way to others.  So for that reason, book recommendations should seldom be discounted, particularly when they come from a trusted source (human, or blog…book blogs are great places for recommendations, you know!)

And thus, I’ve included a list of some of the best and/or most memorable books I’ve read as the result of a recommendation, to show how diverse and wonderful a reading experience you can have when you rely on the kindness of others.  Please consider this my recommendation to you, as well!

2251443‘Salem’s Lot: I’ve waxed lyrical about this book before, and I will again, but I might never have read Stephen King were it not for my Dad.  When I was little, I genuinely thought Stephen King was a friend of ours, because his books (and, thus, his publicity photos) were all around our house.  He has a terrific story about the first time he read ‘Salem’s Lot that I’m sure he can tell you if you ask nicely, but hearing it had me convinced that if this book was enough to creep my father out, it had to be terrifying.  But the truth of the matter is that ‘Salem’s Lot is so much more than a scary book (though it is, indubitably, a scary book).  It’s a beautifully-written book that I have, in turn, passed on to a number of friends, and we have all enjoyed making our own memories of The First Time We Read ‘Salem’s Lot, too!

2255425Eugene Onegin: I was incredibly fortunate to have one of the best advisers ever in the history of undergraduate advisers, not only because she was infinitely wise and never let anything bother her, but because she began every conversation we ever had with “What have you been reading?”.  And she genuinely cared about the answer.  It was because of her that I first picked up Pushkin’s classic poem.  Even in translation, Pushkin’s brilliance is obvious, and his rhyme scheme is subtle enough that the book reads as much like a novel as a poem.  More than anything, though, I marvel at the way he can balance the humor and sarcasm of his narrative with heart-wrenching honesty and sympathy for all his flawed and unforgettable characters.  If you’re interested, there’s also a superb film adaptation, starring Ralph Fiennes, and directed by his sister, Martha.

2391030Silent in the GraveI discovered Deanna Raybourn first delightful historical mystery series from a dear friend who was, like me, an historian, a fan of mysteries, and a lifetime devotee of Jane Eyre.  In this series, Raybourn not only shows off her skill at creating complex and genuinely shocking murder mysteries, but her characters are total and unique treats to meet.  Her heroine, Lady Julia Grey, is a young widow from what might be the most eccentric family in England, and her interactions with her father, brothers, and sisters, are some of the funniest I have ever read.  But beyond this, there is her erstwhile and irresistible companion in sleuthing, the secretive Nicholas Brisbane, who is a slightly handsomer, slightly less angsty version of the great Mr. Rochester himself (swoon, sigh, etc.), making this series (in particular, the first three books), sheer delights to read.

3529152Bird BoxThis is the latest recommendation I’ve had, and it came from the lovely Lady Pole.  She is one of the few people who doesn’t flinch when I talk about scary stories, or dark fantasy stories, or creepy stories, because she knows that reading scary stories can be good for you.  It allows you to explore the feeling of fear in a safe place, it allows you to conquer those fears vicariously, and it also helps us realize that we are stronger than the scary stuff, both in books and in real life.  So when she heard that this book was a genuinely terrifying exploration of Things That Lurk Where We Can’t See Them, she knew who to tell.  And while I’ve only read the first few pages, I can confirm that this book is an immediately engrossing and unsettling one that is going to necessitate keeping the lights on–but it’s also beautiful and fascinating, and I can’t wait.