Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: WISHING SEASON by Esther M. Friesner

WishingSeasonCover and interior illustrations © Frank Kelly Freas

Khalid is attending Genie school in the mysterious land of the Genies, and is very skilled in magic, but not so much in understanding the humans he will need to deal with when granting wishes. Khalid is admired by his classmate, the lovely Tamar, and envied by another classmate, Gamal, who covets the attention of Tamar, which Khalid doesn’t seem to notice. Khalid is sure he knows everything he needs to know about being a Genie, and their teacher Ishmael decides to give him a trial run in a magic lamp to see how things go. Unfortunately for Khalid, they can’t possibly go worse. When he emerges from the magic lamp in the hands of his new master, Haroun, he forgets to tell him a crucial rule: you can’t use one of your three wishes to get more wishes. When Haroun asks for unlimited wishes, Khalid finds he is bound to grant that wish, essentially making him a permanent slave to Haroun’s every greedy thought and desire.

When Khalid doesn’t return to class as expected, Tamar goes out to help him, but finds that challenging. Meanwhile, Gamar is also on hand to make Khalid’s life as difficult as possible. New allies like a very smart alley cat are some help, but Khalid is so mired in trouble, it seems he’ll never get out. Before long the ruling council of Genies is involved in this mess, and Gamal is upping his evil plans, and things go from bad to worse.

This is a fun book, and the art by Kelly Freas is a delightful bonus. Friesner’s writing is light and humorous, but her characters are appealing and her plot reasonably believable (at least while you’re reading). It is a bit hard to get one’s head into the Arabian Nights world the book takes place in, since the real world now occupying that space is so different, but once you do, the story carries you along on a nice magic carpet ride.


And Then I Read: UNDER WILDWOOD by Colin Meloy

UnderWildwoodFCImage © Carson Ellis

This is the second book in a new fantasy trilogy (the first was simply “Wildwood”) by the singer/songwriter of the group “The Decemberists,” illustrated by his wife. While they do at times hearken back to classic fantasy tales, they also mix in modern elements in a way that makes them feel fresh, a trend I like. The illustrations also have a fresh approach, simple and stylized in some ways, but with lots of detail in others. They make a great addition to the story. Colin and Carson live in Portland, Oregon, and have crafted a fantasy version of that city’s Forest Park for their series, The Impassable Wilderness, a large woods filled with magic, talking animals, people from old tales like a Bandit King and his band, as well as dangerous shape-shifting assassins and an underground mole kingdom. Magic keeps the population of nearby Portland from noticing or getting into this place, though there are some who desperately want to, as well as some people from Portland who are trapped in the edges desperately trying to get out.

Prue McKeel is a teenage girl we met in the first book who has some Wildwood blood in her, and a little subtle magic that allowed her to enter the wood to rescue her baby brother, along with her friend Curtis. Prue is back home in mundane Portland, trying to fit in at school, while Curtis chose to stay in Wildwood, joining the Bandit King’s band. Both are beset by new trouble in this book, with Prue attacked by one of those shape-shifting assassins, and Curtis dealing with new threats inside Wildwood. They are soon both back in the struggles of Wildwood, and eventually together again. We also follow the sisters of Curtis who are placed in a horrible child-labor factory masquerading as an orphanage at the edge of Wildwood whose owner is trying desperately to break through the magic barrier into the wood so he can pillage its natural resources. Then there’s the political struggle for control of the many diverse areas inside the magic barrier that has made some outcasts and others powerful.

This is a long book, but the kind where length means lots of entertaining reading. The characters are well-developed and fun to read about, full of good and bad qualities like real children/people, even if some are animals, and there are lots of them. The plot is complex but satisfying, and the adventure engrossing. The only down side to this second book in the trilogy is that it leads directly to the third volume, “Wildwood Imperium,” without very much of a satisfying conclusion in this book. I’ll be reading that soon.



And Then I Read: FLASHMAN by George MacDonald Fraser

FlashmanI’ve long been curious about the “Flashman” series by Fraser, and finally decided to read this first one, published in 1969. Harry Flashman was a minor character in an early British school-boys novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days,” which I liked. There he was a bully and a villain. In this book he’s no better. Worse, if anything, though as he narrates the story in his old age, at least Harry Flashman is honest about his own character failings and bad deeds. The other thing that interested me is the way the author has woven Flashman’s story into many aspects of true history. Here it’s the British army in India and Pakistan in 1839. Flashman’s role is made up, but the history is accurate, and the monumental mis-management and huge blunders made by the British was fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way. While I can’t say I liked Harry at all, he’s put through so many battles and tortures both mental and physical that by the end I had some grudging respect for his ability to survive against such high odds. If you like historical fiction with elements of bawdy adventure and sly commentary on the failings of humanity, this series may be for you. I’m not sure if I will read more, but I’m tempted.


And Then I Read: GOING POSTAL by Terry Pratchett

GoingPostalThe leader of the Discword city of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Vetinari, has an interesting method of hiring high-ranking government officials. He appoints condemned criminals. Moist von Lipwig is one, a clever con-man whose career of crime has brought him to a dead end, literally. Or, he can become the new Postmaster General of Ankh-Morpork. Seems like an easy choice, but as Moist soon finds out, the postal service is not only defunct, the very building he’s supposed to run is crumbling, rotting, and filled to the rafters with undelivered mail. Moist tries to run for it, but Lord Vetinari has appointed a tenacious warden — a very strong and unkillable golem named Pump. Wisely, Moist decides to make the best of it.

The decline of the mail service is due to a new and much faster system of sending messages called Clacks, a complex system of visual semaphore sent from tower to tower across the country. That system also has it’s problems, due to mismanagement and failing equipment, and Moist sees a chance to gain traction by challenging the Clacks and their owner, promoting the mail as a much cheaper and (somehow) faster service. Moist is at home with the kind of scam this seems to be, or is it? With help from his very aged employees, Pump and his golem friends, and other unexpected allies, Moist actually might make a go of this mail thing. And the invention of the postage stamp is just the kind of racket he knows well — it’s as good as printing money, especially when people start collecting the stamps instead of using them. But Reacher Gilt, the pirate in control of the Clacks, has other ideas…

Great read, not only clever and insightful, but often very funny. The characters are more than punchlines, though, and their struggles against bureaucracy and human nature are epic. As a former stamp collector, this book delighted me, but I think it would appeal to almost anyone. Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: MISTER MAX, THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by Cynthia Voigt

MisterMaxLostThingsCover art by Iacopo Bruno

Max Starling is the son of William and Mary Starling, owners of the Starling Theater where their popular theater company performs in the Old City part of Queensbridge. One day an extraordinary offer appears by mail, accompanied by lavish gifts. The offer is to perform exclusively, and at excellent pay, in a distant country. The Starlings have a fine life, but William and Mary find the adventure tempting, and agree. Max is told he will go with them, but on the day they are to leave by steamship, Max arrives at the harbor to find his parents have disappeared, leaving only a cryptic note. Max’s only remaining family is his grandmother, who fortunately lives in the house next to his, and Max concocts a plan to continue living at home in secret. The theater is closed, and all Max’s friends believe he’s gone with his parents, except for Max’s art teacher.

Meanwhile, Max and his grandmother begin investigating the disappearance of Max’s parents, and Max finds other opportunities coming his way to be a sort of private detective. He discovers he’s pretty good at it (except for the case of his parents), and with the help of a few new friends, Max becomes what he calls a “solutioneer,” a solver of problems and finder of lost things. This gives him enough income to survive, and the hope that he will eventually be able to find out what happened to his parents.

This book is charming and well written, the characters are believable and entertaining. The setting is sort of English Victorian, but kept vague, and the town of Queensbridge is nicely mapped so we can follow Max’s exploits from one end of it to the other, and beyond. Max’s new “assistant” Pia is a very talkative girl who can be quite annoying, but also resourceful and helpful. Max’s cases run from small ones like a lost dog to large ones like an extremely valuable silver serving spoon carved by a master silversmith. Hovering over Max at all times is the danger of being discovered as a parentless child living alone in his home, not going to school, and not under the care of anyone official. That makes the many disguises Max has borrowed from his parents’ theater props all the more important.

Great fun, and the first of a trilogy. I’ve already read the second book, and am looking forward to the third, which is out this fall. Cynthia Voigt has had a long career as a writer of children’s novels, and a Newbery award for her book “Dicey’s Song.” This series is lighter than some of her other books, but even more to my liking.