Friday, June 30, 2006

Books: Escapism Explored

So, work at the noodle factory (a.k.a. my textbook publishing gig) has been so gosh dang stressful lately (gosh DANG!), that I've found myself needing more than the usual amount of reality escapism. Reality escapism can come in many diverse and lovely forms, but after this past week, I am craving only one: young adult novels by Tamora Pierce.

My mom and I discovered Tamora Pierce several years ago in (Mom, correct me if I'm remembering wrong) a tiny little bookstore in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Mom was the official finder and original enthusiast; I was judgmental of the cartoony covers and silly titles. For example, "The Circle of Magic Quartet: Sandry's Book" shows a young noble-woman in several petticoats and a street boy wearing a billowing white peasant shirt sitting together on a rooftop overlooking a picturesque village of thatch-roofed cottages. Now, I will neither confirm nor deny the fact that I may or may not have once owned and coveted a billowy white peasant shirt of my own, BUT the fact remains that my first impression led me to believe that this was exactly the type of book that an ex-billowy white shirt wearer would write for the next generation of billowy white shirt wearers.

I scoffed; Mom ignored. Several months later, my mother kept telling me what great books these were. I still scoffed. Eventually a few Tamora Pierce books showed up in a care package, and I decided I needed to read them so that at least my future scoffing could reference specific page numbers.

And, well, the truth of the matter is that I was wrong. These are fantastic books. Tamora Pierce is an incredible story-teller and writer, this drawn primarily from the fact that her books are solidly character-driven. Very rarely do you as the reader feel that the writer is interfering with the plot or making a character do something contrary to the nature of the character she has built. Her characters are unique and each has a vibrant voice and complex personality. The plot enters into the story so naturally that you don't realize until you're halfway through the book that something more is going on besides hanging out with these really cool people.

Her main characters are primarily female (with one exception). This was a deliberate effort on Tamora Pierce's part to create a balance with all the books and stories she'd devoured when she was younger but that had mostly male main characters. (She talks about this and more on her website Her plots run the gamut from traditional fantasy "good mage vs. bad mage" to murder mystery. In the midst of character evolution and plot thickening, she incorporates such edgy topics as teen sex, homosexuality, drinking and drugs, race relations, and pretty much everything else that teenagers are insatiably curious about but about which there is little quality information that is geared toward that audience. (Tamora Pierce hands down does the best job of ANY author I've read, young adult or otherwise, of deftly incorporating main characters of many different races without making it into an 'issue.' Daja not black because Tamora Pierce decided she needed a little ethnic diversity; she's black because that's who she is.)

Tamora Pierce has a ton of books out (enough to see me through the busy season at the noodle factory), and she shows no sign of stopping. Keep in mind that these are young adult books, and while I find them infinitely escapism-worthy, they're still written with that audience in mind. Here's a brief-ish synopsis of the ones published thus far (I recommend reading them in the following order):

The Circle of Magic Quartet:
Book 1: Sandry's Book
Book 2: Tris's Book
Book 3: Daja's Book
Book 4: Briar's Book

This quartet deals with four unusually strong young mages. Their magic is manifested through ordinary things like gardening and knitting (see the appeal for me?!). They get to know themselves, each other, and their magic, and manage to get in to and out of lots of trouble at the same time.

The Circle Opens Quartet:
Book 1: Magic Steps
Book 2: Street Magic
Book 3: Cold Fire
Book 4: Shatter Glass

The story of the four mages from the Circle of Magic Quartet continues several years later. Now, they have separated and are traveling with their teachers. Each encounters a younger mage new to his or her power and assumes the responsibility of training that person. And along the way, they manage to get in to and out of a lot of trouble.

The Circle Reforged Quartet:
Book 1: The Will of the Empress
Other books due out in the next few years.

Again, we pick up the story of the four mages, again several years in the future. They have each had their share of tough growing-up experiences and have grown a lot since they were last together. Seeing each other again is like seeing strangers. In the first book of the series, the trouble they get into and out of manages to re-forge their old bonds.

The Song of the Lioness:
Book 1: Alanna
Book 2: In the Hands of the Goddess
Book 3: The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
Book 4: Lioness Rampant

This was Tamora Pierce's first series of books and are the most traditionally fantasy. Alanna, the main character in all four books, is a young girl who dreams of being a knight. Alas for her, only boys can become knights. She manages to disguise herself as a boy and hide her identity until she is fully knighted. Alas for her, she has made enemies along the way, who must of course be vanquished by the end of Book 4. All joking aside, these are a solidly written books and have several twists and turns that are unexpected and uniquely Tamora Pierce.

The Immortals Quest:
Book 1: Wild Magic
Book 2: Wolf-Speaker
Book 3: emperor Mage
Book 4: The Realms of the Gods

Taking place in the same world as the Lioness Quartet, this quartet follows the story of a young half-human/half-god girl with the ability to speak to (and become) animals. As Daine is growing into her powers, the land is becoming increasingly torn apart by mythological creatures called Immortals. Daine becomes involved in the quest to find the person behind the Immortals War and is key in bringing it to a close.

The Protector of the Small
Book 1: First Test
Book 2: Page
Book 3: Squire
Book 4: Lady Knight

The story of Kel takes place several years after the conclusion of both the Lioness Quartet and the Immortals Quest. Kel is the first girl to try for her knighthood after the ban on female knights was lifted post-Alanna. The quartet follows her years in training and is the only series to feature a non-magical main character. (P.S. Kel is my personal hero.)

Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen
This duo follows the story of Alanna's rebellious teenage daughter who accidentally (kinda) gets kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave in an island kingdom across the sea. We soon find that a trickster god has chosen Alanna to help him overthrow a coup to win back the isles from his bully older brother god and sister god. (P.S. These are my all-time favorite two books by Tamora Pierce--but they don't make as much sense if you haven't read the others first.)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

My Three Loves: Books, Baking, and Knitting

First a cell phone, now a blog...One small step for Emma; one giant leap for Emma-kind. After much deliberation, much encouragement from friends, and a great deal of soul-searching, I think I'm ready to join the 21st century.

Welcome to My Three Loves. This is a forum in which to share my on-going love-affair with books, baking, and knitting. My love for these guys is boundless. We've been through a lot. *sniff* Books, most of all, have really seen me through some tough times. Even now, in moments of stress and strife, there are certain Comfort Books that I will reach for as soon as I walk in the door. You know the ones--the first books you chose yourself and read on your own. The ones that never disappoint. The ones that you've read so many times, they're as much a part of you as any other memory. "The Dark is Rising" by Susan Cooper. "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card. "Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver. Others that I'm not quite ready to admit I still love and read on a regular basis. (Maybe I'll be ready for a confession in another few posts. We'll see how it goes.)

I knit scarves for about 7 years before I realized that were other things that could be crafted with needles and yarn. Like blankets. I love yarn. I love the way it feels in my hands. I love all the colors. I love walking into a yarn store and seeing all the cubby holes of yarn. All the skeins just waiting to be picked up and touched and made into something. I love how popular knitting has become in the recent years. I love seeing all the crazy things that people decide need to be made of yarn. (Knitted uterus=case in point. I'll post pictures soon.)

And baking. Credit for this one goes to my dad. Both of my parents always baked and cooked while I was growing up, but it was only recently that my dad really got into baking bread. A few years ago, his end of our phone conversations became increasingly peppered with such mysterious words as "yeast," "poolish," and "baking stones." I became curious. What was this "bread"? This...this..."hearth loaf" that was making my dad all bubbly and fluttery? I made Dad promise to show me how to bake a genuine hearth loaf during my next visit. What I thought would be an hour or two of Quality Father/Daughter Time turned into, well, a lot more than I anticipated. Since that fateful day, I have practiced a lot, memorized the appropriate vocabulary, and spent many more hours talking the talk with my father. I have even developed a signature loaf (she holds her nose in the air and sighs daintily)--the Mighty Sourdough. Secrets to this and other baking treasures to follow in upcoming posts.

What's next for Miss Emma? Most definitely a digital camera.