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Warning: incoming booksexual.

342,745 Ways to Herd Cats
(Otherwise known as the Awesome Book Challenge)
May 1st - November 30th

SO. The jist, for those who forgot, or missed my last post about this:
    * Compose a list of ten books you love.
    * Link it here.
    * Over the course of the challenge (which runs 5/01-11/30), read at least three books from other people's lists.
    * Post reviews of the books you read and share them with the wooorld.
That's it! Sounds easy, right? Sounds fun, right? Sounds like a totally awesome way to be introduced to new books, right?

Then what the heck are you waiting for? Sign up! Without further ado...

My List

I am really no good at doing compelling summaries, so I'm taking a page from Memlu's book and quoting from reviews in italics. There's also a link beneath each book to for easier purchasing should you be so inclined. :3 In no particular order...

Watership Down - Richard Adams new | used

A phenomenal worldwide bestseller for over thirty years, Richard Adams's Watership Down is a timeless classic and one of the most beloved novels of all time. Set in England's Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

I am not at all ashamed to say that this is probably my favorite book ever. I discovered it in maybe fifth or sixth grade, and have reread it at least once every two or three years since. It never gets old. Adams here creates an entirely new society, one with its own language and steeped in rich mythic tradition, yet still subject to primal instinct. And, yes, it is "about" rabbits, but it goes far beyond the somewhat silly image of a typical "talking animal book". The characters rendered here are so interesting and their struggle so compelling that I'll bet in the end you'll be drawn in as completely as I was, and as captivated as I remain.

Tamsin - Peter S. Beagle new | used

Beagle's newest fantasy features characters so real they leap off his pages and into readers' souls. Tamsin Willoughby, dead some 300 years, haunts ramshackle old Stourhead Farm in Dorset, England, an ancient 700-acre estate that 13-year-old Jenny's new, English stepfather is restoring. Thoroughly American Jenny, miserable at being transplanted from New York City to rural Britain, finds a suffering kindred spirit in Tamsin, a ghost who is mourning Edric, a love she lost during Dorset's punitive Bloody Assizes under King James II. Tamsin leads Jenny through an engrossing night world inhabited by an array of British spirits: the Black Dog, a braggart Boggart, ominous Oakmen, the shapeshifting Pooka and a marvelous mystical army-booted Earth Mother. To save Tamsin and gentle Edric from eternal torment, Jenny faces evil personified: demonic Judge Jeffries, who sentenced hundreds of people to brutal execution during the Assizes. Slipping effortlessly between Jenny's brash 1999 lingo, the raw primeval dialect of ancient Dorset and Tamsin's exquisite Jacobean English, Beagle has created a stunning tale of good battling evil, of wonder and heartbreak and of a love able to outlast the worst vileness of the human heart. Fantasy rarely dances through the imagination in more radiant garb than this.

This is another book that I do my darnedest to push on anyone who cares to listen. I'm a huge fan of Beagle in general (truth be told, this isn't even my favorite book of his; that honor still goes to The Last Unicorn, but I also feel that one is more known, so this deserves the pimp) and this book is one I firmly believe that anyone interested in Hardy, ghost stories, things Faerie, or just a good old-fashioned tale well-told should read.

You'll probably notice a motif in the course of this list: I enjoy fantasy. Even in the books that aren't flat-out fantasy (or science fiction, in the case of The Left Hand of Darkness), there is an element of magic. I think one of the reasons I enjoy this book is that it blends more traditional magical/fantastic elements in so seamlessly with modern life, through the eyes of our narrator, young transplanted American Jenny Gluckstein. That Beagle creates such a strong and believable voice for her, so that she remains realistic even in the face of extraordinary, is a testament to his narrative skill.

Sabriel - Garth Nix new | used

After receiving a cryptic message from her father, Abhorsen, a necromancer trapped in Death, 18-year-old Sabriel sets off into the Old Kingdom. Fraught with peril and deadly trickery, her journey takes her to a world filled with parasitical spirits, Mordicants, and Shadow Hands. Unlike other necromancers, who raise the dead, Abhorsen lays the disturbed dead back to rest. This obliges him--and now Sabriel, who has taken on her father's title and duties--to slip over the border into the icy river of Death, sometimes battling the evil forces that lurk there, waiting for an opportunity to escape into the realm of the living. Desperate to find her father, and grimly determined to help save the Old Kingdom from destruction by the horrible forces of the evil undead, Sabriel endures almost impossible exhaustion, violent confrontations, and terrifying challenges to her supernatural abilities--and her destiny.

First off, this is the first book in The Abhorsen Trilogy (consisting of two other novels, and a novella set in the same world which has been collected in a book with other, unrelated, stories). I recommend going on from this to the rest of them, but it also can stand alone.

What blows me away about this book, besides the originality of the concept and how it's carried out, is how very rich the setting is. Nix has taken an idea that would be entertaining in its own right and made it fabulous by virtue of his setting and how he makes you believe in the Old Kingdom as a very real, very magical, very dangerous place. This book left me wanting to strap on some bells and fight zombies. I'm not even kidding.

Bone - Jeff Smith new | used

Mere months after publishing the final installment of the long-running fantasy saga Bone, Smith collects all 13 years' worth of it in a single, massive volume. As many comics fans know, the series chronicles the adventures of the Bone cousins--plucky Fone Bone, scheming Phony Bone, and easygoing Smiley Bone-- who leave their home of Boneville and are swept up in a Tolkienesque epic of royalty, dragons, and unspeakable evil forces out to conquer humankind. The compilation makes it evident how fully formed Smith's vision was from the very beginning--although the early chapters emphasized comedy, as do the final pages, the tale quickly found its dramatic bearings. His remarkably accomplished drawing style, in the manner of such comics masters as Walt Kelly and Carl Barks, was fully formed from the start, too. Libraries that have missed out on individual Bone series titles should seize this opportunity to make up for the fact, and those who have collected the series all along will do well to acquire the collected edition to supplement or supplant those doubtless well-worn volumes.

I followed Bone in comic book format for years, and let me tell you, this is a ride you don't want to miss. From the endearing artwork (clearly influenced heavily by Walt Kelly, but often also intricately detailed and sometimes surprisingly gritty) to the story (which starts out comedic and whimsical, but soon grows beyond the borders of a simple "funny animal" book), Bone is a winner from start to finish. I was so happy to hear that Smith was putting it out in a one-volume edition (though, just a warning, this edition is massive; it really does encompass the whole series, save for two prequelish mini-series) because I felt that would make it much easier for more people to check it out, and this, my friends, is a story that cries to be read.

Don't go into this book expecting simplicity; despite its initial facade, Bone quickly grows more complex and twisting as the story goes on. The comedy, however, does run throughout the whole story (often in the scheming form of Phony Bone and his amiable lackey, Smiley), and let me tell you: it is top-notch. I don't often laugh out loud at books, for some reason or other, but Bone frequently has me rolling. Add in to that the plot, which grows steadily more complex and intriguing, and one of the sweetest, most aching love stories ever (seriously, guys; omg, so cute and so heartbreaking), and this book is one you won't want to put down.

The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin new | used

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can change their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

Le Guin is another author that I follow pretty faithfully, and though I love so many of her books, this is the one that always resonated with me most. She's got this thing she can do; she's so damn good at exploring concepts we tend to take for granted in a meaningful and unique way. So here, she challenges our notion of sex and gender in a quiet sort of way. The entire culture of Winter is different from what we are used to, but it's not a constant, beat-you-over-the-head kind of message novel. In the end, it's really just a damn good story, but one that brings up ideas that can really get you thinking.

Tam Lin - Pamela Dean new | used

This delightful new entry in the Fairy Tale series, featuring children's classics refashioned for adult audiences, adapts the eponymous Scottish ballad to a Midwestern university setting. In the early '70s, scholarly Janet Carter enters Blackstock College as an English major. She and roommates Christina and Molly fall in with an attractive, often eccentric group of classics students who circle around Professor Medeous, a spectacular, enigmatic redheaded woman. The girls pair off with young male classicists, Janet beginning an affair with Nicholas Tooley, whose vast familiarity with Shakespeare and often distant approach to intimacy disturb her. When the liaison ends, she takes up with the young man formerly attached to Christina. The ghost of a pregnant student who committed suicide, mysterious late-night horseback forays led by Professor Medeous and the appearance in a list of Shakespeare's actors of the names of three of the Classics Department scholars urge Janet on a dangerous quest to save her lover. Dean has written a quintessential college novel, anchoring its fantastic elements in a solid, engaging reality.

I am so, so glad this had been re-printed (despite the ugly cover; omg, s-so green), because it was a shame how hard it was to find this book for a while. I am a huge fan of the original ballad and of books that adapt it, but more than that, I fell hopelessly, immediately in love with this book because of the setting and how Dean portrays it. This is a retelling of "Tam Lin" set in a 1970's-era liberal arts college and...I won't even lie, reading this book made me feel like I was back at school again, in all the good ways. Granted, the era was a bit different, but the description of the setting, the little details concerning social rituals, even the mildly infuriating slightly-pretentious-English/Classics-major mentality--the college in the book is even set in Minnesota, for Pete's sake (bigger deal to me probably than most of you; yes, I am an MNer)--all of it adds up to evoking such a strong feeling of being there.

A few caveats: first off, I know that not everyone will have the same affection for this book as I do. I wouldn't say it's a requirement to have studied liberal arts to get into this, but there are elements that I found charming that others may find off-putting (see above-mentioned mildly infuriating yadda yadda). I suggest just giving it a try and seeing how it agrees with you. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, don't go into this book expecting high fantasy. A complaint I've heard a lot about it in the past is that it's not "fantasy enough" or "it's easy to figure out where it's leading." Honestly, that misses the point. Dean doesn't set out to surprise anyone with the conclusion of the book; despite the change in setting, it's a pretty straight-forward adaptation of "Tam Lin," so anyone familiar with the ballad will find themselves in pretty familiar territory by the end of the story. Rather, this book is not so much about the destination, but the journey beforehand, starting off with both feet pretty firmly in the mundane and gently weaving in more supernatural hints and elements the further the story progresses. If you care to make the investment, I think Tam Lin is well worth the read.

Tracks - Louise Erdrich new | used

In her splendid new work, Erdrich retrieves characters from her first novel, Love Medicine, to depict the escalating conflict between two Chippewa families, a conflict begun when hapless Eli Kashpaw (who has passionately pursued the fiery, elemental Fleur Pillager) is made to betray her with young Sophie Morrissey through the magic of the vengeful Pauline. That simple summary belies the richness and complexity of the tale, told in turn to Fleur's estranged daughter by her "grandfather," the wily Nanapush, and by Pauline, a woman of mixed blood and mixed beliefs soon to become the obsessive Sister Leopolda. As the community is eroded from without by white man's venality and from within, even Fleur must realize that "power goes under and gutters out." Not so for Erdrich, whose prose is as sharp, glittering, and to the point as cut glass.

Erdrich has a whole canon of stories and novels of inter-connected Native American families and their friends, enemies, and loves; Tracks is a part of this, and the first I read. Though there is no particular order in which they are meant to be read, I think Tracks is the best starting point and besides that, it's probably my favorite (along with The Antelope Wife which is also highly, highly recommended). Here we're introduced to a slew of Erdrich's revolving cast of characters, including Fleur Delacour, who unrepentantly lives according to her own will, and (one of my favorite characters in the history of ever) Nanapush, the good-humored (and hilarious) tribal elder.

The story, focused on Fleur and her mysterious ways, is told through alternating POVs of Nanapush and Pauline Puyat, quite a character in her own right. I think that's one of the things I love so much about this book: while the main focus of the story is ostensibly Fleur, there are so many layers of narrative here, stories weaved into stories, so that ultimately we learn not only Fleur's tale, but much of Nanapush's, Pauline's and Lulu's (Fleur's daughter) as well.

Fingersmith - Sarah Waters new | used

Waters' third novel, set in Victorian England, opens when Sue Trinder, an orphan raised by a band of thieves, is recruited by Richard Rivers, a con man known as Gentleman, to help him in his quest to marry Maud Lilly, an heiress living in isolation in the country with her eccentric uncle. Maud stands to inherit a small fortune when she marries, and Gentleman intends to marry her, steal her inheritance, and imprison her in a madhouse. Sue agrees to pose as a maid to Maud and to gain her confidence. But Sue finds Maud sweet and trusting, and, to her surprise, she begins to fall in love with Maud and have serious misgivings about Gentleman's plan. But Sue only knows a small part of the scheme, and it will affect both her and Maud in ways she does not realize. The intricate plotting and startling revelations will keep the reader enthralled, rapidly turning the pages to get to the exciting conclusion. Waters' gripping, engrossing thriller would make the Victorian master of suspense, Wilkie Collins, proud.

Though I love pretty much everything Sarah Waters has written, Fingersmith seems the best choice as an introduction to her work; it's more accessible than Affinity and lacks the sometimes excessive bawdiness of Tipping the Velvet (not a bad thing, but I know that not everyone is into girlsex). Like all of Waters' books, this story features a lesbian protagonist in a historical setting, but though all of her novels have that fact in common, they are all distinct in story and tone. This novel, for example, takes heavy inspiration from Dickens (whom I don't particularly enjoy, but Waters makes it work without breaking a sweat) and ties the plot up in several knots along the way. The resulting story, while not always realistic, is a twisty-turny delight from start to finish.

(As an aside, I'd recommend not reading reviews for this beforehand, lest you are accidentally spoiled--I think coming into this book fresh will allow for maximum enjoyment.)

Stardust - Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess new | used

In the sleepy English countryside at the dawn of the Victorian era lies the village of Wall - a secluded hamlet that derives its name from an imposing stone barrier that surrounds a fertile grassland. The leisurely pace in Wall is disrupted only once every nine years as the mortal and magical meer upon the meadow for a market fair like no other.

It is here in Wall that young Tristan Thorn loses his heart to the town beauty - a woman who is as cold and distant as the star she and Tristan see fall from the sky on a crisp October evening. To gain the hand of his beloved, Tristan rashly vows to fetch the fallen star and embarks upon a lover's quest that will carry him over the ancient wall and into a world beyond his wildest imaginings...

Here's another one that's gained some more attention because of a recent film adaptation. However, I maintain that if you haven't read the fully illustrated version featuring Vess's original artwork, you haven't really read the book. Originally published as a comic book miniseries, Stardust was then collected into one volume. I'm aware that there are text-only editions of this widely available--in fact, these days it may be easier to find those editions than the illustrated one--but you owe it to yourself to see it with Vess's gorgeous artwork intact. As far as I'm concerned, stripping the book of its artwork strips away half of the story's context and charm, and I don't see the point in doing that.

Enough of that soapbox, though. I enjoy a lot of Gaiman's comics and novels, but this one is, without a doubt, my favorite work of his. It really embraces the concept of fairy tale and takes you places that only fairy tales can. I also adore Charles Vess, and this work is rich with his touch, filled with pictures that are by turns whimsical, frightening, and beautiful.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1 - Diana Wynne Jones new | used

For Charmed Life - Cat doesn't mind living in the shadow of his sister, Gwendolen, the most promising witch ever seen on Coven Street. But trouble starts brewing the moment the two orphans are summoned to live in Chrestomanci Castle. Frustrated that the enchanter Chrestomanci refuses to acknowledge her talents, Gwendolen conjures up a scheme that could throw whole worlds out of whack.

For The Lives of Christopher Chant - His father and uncles are enchanters, his mother a powerful sorceress, yet nothing seems magical about Christopher Chant except his dreams. Night after night, he climbs through the formless Place Between and visits marvelous lands he calls the Almost Anywheres. Then Christopher discovers that he can bring real, solid things back from his dreams. Others begin to recognize the extent of his powers, and they issue an order that turns Christopher's life upside down: Go to Chrestomanci Castle to train to be the controller of all the world's magic.

I had a slight struggle with this at first, because even though I knew Diana Wynne Jones needed to be represented, and that I intended to have a book from the Chrestomanci series (though I briefly flirted with both Deep Secret and Fire and Hemlock, ultimately the Chrestomanci books are my favorites of hers), I wasn't sure which of them to recommend. Charmed Life is the first of the series and a good starting point, but The Lives of Christopher Chant is first chronologically and my personal favorite. Then I remembered that they've both been published together in one edition. Problem solved! Possibly this is cheating, but I don't really care. The entire series is win, but these two really take the cake.

As far as DWJ goes, I feel like more people are familiar with the Howl books, because of the recent Miyazaki adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle, and I love them too, but I'd like to see more people exposed to her other stuff--she's really a treasure.

Tooth and Claw - Jo Walton new | used

A tale of love, money, and family conflict--among dragons

A family deals with the death of their father. A son goes to court for his inheritance. Another son agonises over his father's deathbed confession. One daughter becomes involved in the abolition movement, while another sacrifices herself for her husband. And everyone in the tale is a dragon, red in tooth and claw.

Here is a world of politics and train stations, of churchmen and family retainers, of courtship and country which, on the death of an elder, family members gather to eat the body of the deceased. In which the great and the good avail themselves of the privilege of killing and eating the weaker children, which they do with ceremony and relish, growing stronger thereby.

Okay, and here I just AM flat-out cheating, but I seriously couldn't pare this down to ten. I'm sorry, I tried! If it meant I had to leave off Tooth and Claw, I just couldn't do it. You will thank me. Really.

I already was a fan of Walton's after reading her awesome series of vaguely Arthurian-flavored Sulien books, and since had started to follow her livejournal (papersky, for anyone interested). When she started talking about this new book she was writing, the concept of which could be boiled down to "a manners novel about dragons," I laughed out loud and then proceeded to wait impatiently for it to be published. The concept seems so absurd, and it is, but it also really really works. If you enjoy Trollope or Austen, and you enjoy fantasy (especially dragons), you really ought to read this book. I think you'll be as delighted as I was.

It looks like it might be out of print, but you can still snag a used edition, or I'm sure you can have the library order in a copy for you, if nothing else.

Further Cheating
(Otherwise known as Honorable Mentions--books I could easily have included, but didn't)
  • The Hero and The Crown - Robin McKinley
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
  • Five Children and It - E. Nesbit
  • War for the Oaks - Emma Bull
  • The Once and Future King - T. H. White
  • Little, Big - John Crowley
  • ASH: A Secret History - Mary Gentle
  • The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus - L. Frank Baum
  • the whole of the Chronicles of Prydain - Lloyd Alexander
  • The Complete Saki - Saki (H. H. Munro)

    Aaaand, I'm spent.

    So that's it! If anyone else decides to join in, let me know~! I'd love to see your lists. Oh, and pimping this challenge is also highly encouraged, whether you participate or not!

    Happy reading!

    P.S. Please let me know if any links are wonky; this is highly likely as there were so dang many of them.
  • Tags: books, pimp, reading, reading challenge
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