And now for something completely different: Raymond Feist's fantasy novel "Queen of Storms."

I used to read a lot of fantasy when I was younger, and every now and then I still like to read a good fantasy book. It doesn't happen very often, because I don't really have a good way to tell what fantasy I'll like just by looking at it, and there is too much fantasy published each year for me to plow through. But when I saw Raymond Feist had a new series out, I decided to go for it.

Queen of stormsWhen I was younger, Feist was one of my favorite fantasy authors. I still fondly remember his books Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master, featuring his main character Pug. I tend to read primarily because I like good characters (as opposed to needing a page-turning story or real comprehensive world-building, as you might see in Tolkien) and I thought Feist did a nice job of developing real characters and including some humor in his books.

The first book in the new series is King of Ashes, and I blew through that a few months back, so quickly that I barely remembered any of it when I finally got the sequel, Queen of Storms, from the library a few weeks ago. (Mr. CR liked the book too and was interested in getting the sequel as well, so hey, look at me, still playing librarian at home.) The story was pretty basic: One power-hungry king destroyed a neighboring kingdom (and bullied other nearby rulers into going in on the "betrayal," the invasion, as well), but the youngest member of the killed king's family was spirited away. Later in the book we see him growing up and being trained to be an assassin/spy, before...well, traveling somewhere.

I wasn't kidding when I said I really couldn't remember much of it. But it doesn't really matter. I remembered enough of the characters' relationships to one another that it was pretty easy to step right back into this world. The hidden heir, named Hatu, is now running an inn with a woman that he trained with when they were children (Hava). But all is not well in their world: an invading army, led by nobody knows who, is destroying cities left and right, and generally trying to send the message that they mean business. Meanwhile, Hatu is kidnapped by people who know who he really is, leaving Hava to try and find him. In the course of trying to do that, she herself is captured and sold as a slave, but she manages to take over the ship she and a bunch of other slaves are being transported on.

Yeah, I really liked Hava, if you can't tell.

It's a fun series. Good escapism of the sort I really kinda needed right now.

Contours: A Literary Landscape, published by the Driftless Writing Center.

1contoursI am totally excited to announce that an essay of mine titled "Open Season" has been included in a regional anthology: Contours, A Literary Landscape: New Work Collected by the Driftless Writing Center.

The Driftless Writing Center is this neat place in Viroqua, Wisconsin, that "provides literary and educational opportunities, readings and discussions, writing classes and workshops, and an outlet for the presentation of original writing by area writers." They also do a lot of work helping homeschoolers, and for that I feel very warmly toward them, as I wholeheartedly believe in homeschooling.*

So the DWC has published this anthology, Contours, which includes poetry and essays and fiction and original artwork (from 64 contributors). I haven't read the whole thing yet, but every now and then I read a few chapters and just enjoy them. They truly do all have the flavor of my native state, and I enjoy that, because, let's face it, the wonders of Wisconsin are not over-explored in the national media or publishing industry.

Family members have asked me what my essay is about, and I have done a terrible job of answering them, because what my essay is about sounds vaguely stupid when I say it out loud. But I must really work on my "elevator pitches" and summaries, so here's what I'll tell you: My essay is about my brother Brian, who I loved and who was a golden god to me when I was little (he was fourteen years older than me).** He died in a farm accident in 2003, and I just realized recently that I'm older now than he ever got to be. This seems wrong, because in his outgoing way he really enjoyed the hell out of other people and out of being on earth in general. I am not like that. In short, he was a summer person, reveling in getting outside, and I am a winter person, reveling at getting back inside and locking my door behind me. But I find as I age that I want to be a little bit more like Brian, especially since he is not here to enjoy the world.

See? Terrible at summarizing. Here's an excerpt instead:

"In spring I often think of my brother Brian. Which makes no sense, because he died in July and his birthday was in November, so there's no particular reason my thoughts should turn to him more often in this season than in any other. This spring I thought about him, did the math, and realized that I am now older than he was when he died. I feel very old some days. My back is dodgy and I never stopped doing the sideways "C-section roll" out of bed in the mornings that they told me to do after my first son was born and I don't earn enough money and I feel I haven't accomplished anything even though I'm forty-two. And yet, if I were my brother, I would be gone."

I am very honored to be part of this publication. I particularly like the DWC's advertising copy for the book: "Explore the Driftless with 64 of your friends."*** Nice.

*Although I don't get to homeschool the CRjrs, because they actually like other people and seem to enjoy going to school. If someone had offered to homeschool me while I was in grade school? Holy crap. I would have been in heaven.

**Once when I was little, a neighborhood bully I rode the bus with stole a wheel off my toy car, which I was taking to school for show and tell, and which I had taken out of my backpack to show off because I was so proud of it. When he heard this story later that night, my brother Brian drove to the bully's house and demanded he return the wheel. The bully didn't have the wheel anymore, so it didn't help my car, but the bully certainly left me alone after that. No matter what faults my brother had, and he certainly had them, I will love him to my dying day (and hopefully beyond) for that act of older-brother kindness and chutzpah.

***The "Driftless" refers to the southwest corner of Wisconsin (and corners of other states), where glaciers didn't grind the landscape down, and there's a lot of beautiful ridges and woods and river valleys.

Holiday Book Buying Guide 2015: For the kid in your life who's read everything else.

You know this kid, right? You give them a three- or five-book series for a birthday or the holidays and they burn through all of them in about a week? It's hard to keep up with kids like that, when buying books for them, but on the other hand? What a great problem to have.

So today I'd like to suggest a nice little series that hasn't been talked about much lately, so maybe it's something the voracious reader you know won't have encountered yet. That series is Lloyd Alexander's Westmark* trilogy.

Now, of course, Lloyd Alexander is fairly well-known as the author of the Chronicles of Prydain series. And those are good books too. But this three-book series offers a bit more for the slightly older reader (maybe 9 or 10 to 12 or 13?) to get their teeth into. In the first book, the kingdom of Westmark is in a bad way: its king is faltering under grief caused by the death of his daughter; his kingdom is effectively being ruled by the evil advisor Cabbarus; law-abiding people are being harrassed for no reason. In this atmosphere the orphan Theo, a printer's apprentice, finds his life turned upside down when his boss's shop is destroyed and Theo is forced to run. While on the run, he takes up with a con artist and his servant/friend, and eventually they chance upon an extremely talented young girl/street urchin named Mickle. Adventures ensue, and all is most definitely not what it seems when it comes to who the characters really are.

There are some fights and, especially in the second book in the trilogy (The Kestrel) some military battles, but nothing is described in horrific detail. Characters die, and tough choices are made, but in such a way that it shouldn't be too much for the younger kids to read. The pace moves right along and there's some humor, so these are even books that an adult could read to a kid or with a kid, and not mind it at all themselves.**

The third book is called The Beggar Queen***. And of course you can't find these books new****, but you can certainly find them online at Powell's Books.

*Although I see that Westmark won a National Book Award. So perhaps it is better known than I think. But, it won the award back in 1982. So maybe not.

**I read the whole series in a couple of days and really, REALLY enjoyed it.

***This is also a great series for girls. Mickle, the main female character, is all kinds of awesome.

****I take it back. I just checked and you can find them new at Amazon. I thought they might be too old.

Still missing you, Ray Bradbury.

Halloween snuck up on me this year (and everyone on the poor East Coast has probably even forgotten it's today), so I did not get in my usual autumn re-reading of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. I particularly wanted to, as Ray Bradbury died this past year.

But perhaps I will find something suitable of his to read this winter. I know his novel Dandelion Wine is considered a good "summer read"--which is most likely why I've never been able to get through that one, as I am NOT a summer person--but are any of his books good "winter reads"?

In the meantime, I may go back and re-read a few of my past experiences with Something Wicked... Still one of my favorite books ever. Happy Halloween, all.* And RIP, Mr. Bradbury.

*I'm just glad it's here and I can finally hand out and get rid of the candy I've been loading up on when it was on sale. It has not been good for my recent "try to eat a diet that is less than 100% sugar" plan.

The Something Wicked hiatus.

As you may know, every year around this time I generally re-read, and fall in love with all over again, Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes.

But I'm not going to this year. October is almost gone and although I have thought of bits of the book periodically (when I take walks with CRjr, and hear the skittering leaves and the whisper of broomsticks around corners, most particularly), I have not had the urge to re-read it that I usually do. So I'm not going to force the issue; it'll be there for me next year.

Instead I'm going to spend some time with an older book that I've had for years, purchased at some sort of library sale: The Dodd, Mead Gallery of Horror. I like a good horror story and hope I can find one in the collection to enjoy. Has anyone else read any good scary stories this year they'd like to recommend?

In the meantime: Happy Halloween to all of you, beasties. CRjr's a little young to go out and beg for free candy, but I'm looking forward to those days when I can steal some fun size candy bars out of his bag. Don't look at me like that. I gave that boy life, he can give me a teeny tiny Snickers bar every now and then.

Did you think I'd forget?

"The only three people in a sleeping world, a rare trio of tomcats, they basked in the moon.

'What happened?' asked Jim, at last.

'What didn't!' cried Dad.

And they laughed again, when suddenly Will grabbed Jim, held him tight, and wept.

'Hey,' Jim said, over and over, quietly. 'Hey...hey...'

'Oh Jim, Jim,' Will said. 'We'll be pals forever.'

'Sure, hey sure.' Jim was very quiet now.

'It's all right,' said Dad. 'Have a small cry. We're out of the woods. Then we'll laugh some more, going home.'"

I got my annual re-read of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes in just under the wire this year. It was particularly nice to read it after learning more about Ray Bradbury, and it was spectacular reading it with my own new young boy sleeping in my lap. I hope he grows up to have both a little Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade in him.

So: there's my autumn wish for you. I hope you can get out of whatever woods you're facing this week, and that then you can have a small cry but still end up laughing on your way home.

October 24.*

Well, you know that every October I have to re-read and talk about Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. My reading it this year was even better than usual because I had my very own copy, given to me by Mr. CR last Christmas with a card that said, "Now you have your very own copy!"

Why do I have to read it every fall? Well, because:

Bradbury "So it was on this night that blew warm, then cool, as they let the wind take them downtown at eight o'clock. They felt the wings on their fingers and elbows flying, then, suddenly plunged in new sweeps of air, the clear autumn river flung them headlong where they must go.

Up steps, three, six, nine, twelve! Slap! Their palms hit the library door.

Jim and Will grinned at each other. It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust." (p. 13.)

I love autumn, and Bradbury's book is like experiencing an especially intense prototypical autumn. Every year I re-read it, and every year I find something new in it, and every year something in it soothes me like you can only be soothed when you know what it is to be up at three a.m. with worry or sickness (and most adults know what that is) and need something both completely removed from your surroundings and something which gives you the strength to accept your surroundings.

This year what particularly struck me was remembering that this book stands as one of my greatest readers' advisory triumphs and one of my biggest failures. I gave it to my sister and now it is one of our literary touchstones ("it reminds me of that part in Something Wicked this Way Comes..."); we both thought our Dad, who always liked Arthurian legends and myths and fiction, would really take to it, and so passed it along. He hated it. Hated it from the very start. He just brought it up to me the other day as the weirdest book he's ever started, and what was I thinking giving it to him? So that just makes me laugh. Now, I know my Dad about as well as one reader can know another, and I still am capable of misfiring on what he'll love or hate (he recently read and loved the religious allegory The Shack, which I had no time for). So, all you readers' advisors out there? Give yourself a break if you can't always find readers books they love. Books are bigger than we can always define, and know, and really, so are readers. So don't be so hard on yourself.

*"One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight."

David Eddings, RIP.

Pawn "The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor's farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen...

The center of the kitchen and everything that happened there was Aunt Pol. She seemed somehow to be able to be everywhere at once. The finishing touch that plumped a goose in its roasting pan or deftly shaped a rising loaf or garnished a smoking ham fresh from the oven was always hers..."

I have not always been a nonfiction fiend. When I was little I read a lot of fantasy books, including David Eddings's Belgariad series, which started with Pawn of Prophecy. (The above is the opening page of that book.) And when I say read, I mean consumed. I read all the books in the series roughly a million times. I'm so old that when I first started reading them, Eddings was actually still writing them, and I had to wait for the subsequent volumes, which was unbelievably exciting. Let's put it this way. I lived on a farm. I didn't get to the city very often. So when I did get to town, and could sneak a visit to the bookstore (luckily, there was one in the mall where my parents and I sold vegetables at a farm market), and then found that the new volume in the Belgariad was out, well, as they would say on South Park, spank my ass and call me Charlie. Those were not only some of the most exciting moments of my childhood, they remain some of the most exciting moments of my life.

The point of this long and ridiculously self-centered story is that David Eddings has died, at the age of 77. The news made me very sad and I had to go downstairs and retrieve my copy of Pawn of Prophecy,* just to hold it a little bit. It's a pulpy old paperback, cover price $3.50, and the spine and pages are just starting to loosen it up. It smells pleasantly old. But just holding it and re-reading the above** made me very happy.

So here's to you, David Eddings. Mr. CR tells me you're derivative of Tolkien, but I don't care. I spent lots of happy hours with you in my youth and I'll spend more this winter when I re-read all your series, which I am now planning to do.***

*Unlike Mr. CR, who has kept every book he has ever bought, very few books moved with me from my childhood home to college and subsequent homes. During the last move I almost got rid of my David Eddings paperbacks, but I couldn't quite get myself to do it. And, although I like to jettison stuff whenever possible, just this once, I'm glad.

**How great for a fantasy series to start in a kitchen. Please note: I lived on a farm too, and I also loved our kitchen. I knew this series was meant for me from that very first page.

***I also had a crush on the hero Garion, and can't wait to relive that while I re-read. Super!

New fiction crush: Martin Millar.

Fairies I'm developing quite the little thing for Scottish author Martin Millar, who wrote one of my favorite novels from last year: Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me. After enjoying that book, I picked up another one of his novels, titled The Good Fairies of New York. Although I started it, then stopped, and didn't go back to it until weeks later, I just finished it last night and was completely amused. I even laughed out loud--a completely unexpected and involuntary giggle that just bubbled up as I read--at one bit, and that doesn't happen to me real often with fiction. It was just what I needed.

I don't have to quote copiously from this one to give you a feeling for it. I can just rely on the first page:

"Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth-floor window and vomited on the carpet.

'Sorry,' said one.

'Don't worry,' said the other. 'Fairy vomit is no doubt sweet-smelling to humans.'"

Just re-reading that now makes me giggle. If you're charmed by that, you'll most likely enjoy the rest of the book. If not, I wouldn't bother.