Recent Reading: 9-9-2014

west of the moonWest of the Moon by Margi Preus: I’m struggling with whether to call this one fantasy or not. It’s clearly in conversation with fairy tales, sometimes literally, and Astri uses “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” to make sense of the world. But when it comes down to it, nothing that’s strictly fantastical happens, which makes me feel like it’s not exactly fantasy.

I’ve put the cart before the horse a bit: West of the Moon is the story of Astri, a young Norwegian girl who at the beginning of the story is essentially sold to a goatman by her aunt and uncle. Preus has a deft hand with a phrase and I loved the way the fairy tales were woven into the story, as Astri both draws on them to give her courage and frequently points out when they’re nothing like real life. I also liked the fact that the Astri’s major relationship is with her sister Greta, and the nuanced ways the antagonists are shown. And the theme of emigration to America and they way that’s also woven into Astri’s personal journey really helped ground the story in its time period.

At the same time, I liked it without absolutely loving it. Astri is occasionally a prickly person, which is nice to see in a middle grade book, and I generally loved her voice and narration. But for me it never tipped over from enjoyment into complete book-love. There was nothing wrong that I can point to, except that at a few points it seemed shallow where it should have been deep, but that’s unsatisfyingly vague even to me. All that to say, you may well love this one. Leila did, and so did Betsy Bird.

my real childrenMy Real Children by Jo Walton: I loooved Among Others, Walton’s Hugo-winning 2011 book. My Real Children is her first book after Among Others and I was a bit nervous about it because of that. Now that I’ve read it, I’m left with the most mixed of mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the premise! It sounds a bit gimmicky, but in Walton’s hands it’s not; it’s beautiful and dreadful and heartbreaking. And whether she’s Pat or Tricia/Trish, Pat herself is real and vibrant.

On the other hand, I struggled a lot with the middle section. I actually stopped reading for awhile, until I read Ana’s review. There were a couple of reasons for this, but it boils down to the fact that I couldn’t quite shake the sense that I was reading a treatise instead of a novel. Tricia’s life=terrible, Pat’s life=great. It turns out that if I had read just a few pages further, this becomes much more complicated, and it’s that sense of complication that carried me through to, as Ana says, the Rorschach test of the ending.

On the third hand, Walton’s writing is so wonderful! It’s this understated mastery of the voice of her character, and these quiet “wait, what did that say?” moments which disrupt our sense of knowing what’s going to happen. Neither Trish nor Pat live in exactly our world, and I really appreciated the little details that make that clear.

On the fourth hand, I had a personal reaction which is very much personal: I felt a bit preached at. Not enough to stop reading entirely, a la Handmaid’s Tale, but enough to feel like I was slogging a bit, even when things picked up in the second half of the book. I think some readers might find the same aspect of the book validating, a rallying call. For me, I had a hard time not reading the trajectory of both Trish and Pat’s lives as the replacing of one “right way to be a woman” with another. This is not a fair reading, exactly. Walton’s a much better writer than that, and things are more complicated. But it’s that sense that–oh, how do I put it exactly? In the sympathetic characters in this book, there’s no one who looks like me? I’m still not saying what I mean. I’m not quite sure how to say it, or exactly what I do mean. But it was a strong enough feeling that it created a bit of distance which kept me from completely engaging with the story in the way I wanted to.

But, as I said, that’s a very personal reaction. And in the end, I’m glad this book exists, and I’m glad I read it.

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Links from around the web: 9-4-14

- This is really beautiful. (via Miriam Forster)

- I’m not sure exactly where I saw this article first, but the title–“Russia Wants Bulgarians to Stop Vandalizing Soviet Monuments“–kind of says it all.

- 100 Actual Titles of Real Eighteenth Century Novels. Pretty sure I want to change my Twitter bio to one of these. But ““I Can’t Afford It.” And Other Tales.” OR “Socrates Out Of His Senses.” OR “Who Is The Bridegroom? Or, Nuptial Discoveries.” OR “The Fault Was All His Own. In A Series Of Letters. By A Lady.” WHICH SHOULD IT BE?

- For the period drama fans, a nice list of five more obscure period dramas to look up. These have just about all my favorite British actresses in them, so I’ll definitely be checking them out! (I feel like actress is kind of an old-fashioned term at this point; am I making that up?) (via Lady Business)

- Liz Burns had an interesting post the other day called “Dolls or Action Figures? Hints or Hacks? Inspiration or FanFic?” which was a thoughtful look at the terms we use to describe activities and how gender can contribute to what is considered cool and what isn’t.

- The Lev Grossman essay Liz references in her post has also been floating around and is worth a read. Here’s a nice quote: “Fantasy is sometimes dismissed as childish, or escapist, but I take what I am doing very, very seriously. For me fantasy isn’t about escaping from reality, it’s about re-encountering the challenges of the real world, but externalized and transformed. It’s an emotionally raw genre — it forces you to lay yourself open on the page. It doesn’t traffic in ironies and caveats. When you cast a spell you can’t be kidding, you have to mean it.” While I bounced really hard off The Magicians, I related to a lot of what he had to say here.

- Gene Luen Yang’s speech at the National Book Festival, which touches on writing diversely and the power of representation, made me choke up a little bit. Definitely check it out. (via Kaye on Twitter)

- I’ve found a number of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essays really powerful, but this one, “Acting French“, was just amazing.

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August 2014 book list

Books I’ve already reviewed
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
Stray and The Silence of Medair by Andrea K. Host
Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers–I listened to the audiobook, which was okay, but I wished that Ian Carmichael would turn off his plummy accent for the actual narration. Occasionally made it difficult to tell which was the narrator and which Lord Peter. However, he does women’s voices well, which I have learned is apparently a problem for some male voice actors.
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart: Leila was talking about this one recently and I realized I had to re-read it!
Blackout by Connie Willis: I’m glad I have a friend who doesn’t mind me spamming her with all my feeeeelings, because re-reading this book involves a lot of feeeeelings.

Other books
Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers: My first Courtney Summers book! I KNOW! It’s so good, such an interesting complex look at a character who has been the villain in many a YA book. I’m sure there are readers out there who hate Parker, but I loved her prickly, slightly-evil-but-never-as-evil-as-she-wants-to-be self.

Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell: I really liked Merrie Haskell’s first two books, and Castle Behind Thorns was one I definitely looked forward to. I liked it a lot, especially the way she showed the relationship between Perrotte and Sand. This is a very different, but quite compelling, take on the Sleeping Beauty story.

On the Fence by Kasie West: I was a bit worried about the “girl who doesn’t know how to girl” storyline before going into this one, but overall I thought West handled it pretty well. I liked the friends growing into romance storyline, although I did think some of the plot twists were a little unnecessary.

Faking It by Jennifer Crusie: This is one of my favorite Crusie books and apparently I’ve never actually reviewed it here! But let me put it this way: if you love “How to Steal a Million” (which you should, because Audrey Hepburn! And Peter O’Toole! And hijinks and romance in a cupboard!), you’ll probably like this book. Even knowing the whole plot, it’s entirely enjoyable as a re-read. Plus it’s set in Columbus, OH, where I grew up!

Lulu and the Cat in the Bag by Hilary McKay
Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door by Hilary McKay: Although I love Hilary McKay’s books for slightly older readers, as has been well documented, this recent early chapter book series is so lovely! Lulu loves animals and collects them everywhere she goes. Usually this involves the help of her cousin and best friend Mellie, who is a very different personality but understands Lulu. Hilarious, wonderful, and a nice example of everyday diversity, there’s nothing not to like here.

The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami: I loved the first book when I read it earlier this year, and The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic definitely lived up to my expectations. As with The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, the story is sweet, funny, heart-felt, and just a bit larger than life.

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins: After a long wait, Isla is ours! There were points when I felt a bit nervous about this one, but in the end I did like it a lot. The idea of the happily ever after is presented fairly straight, which is not my favorite trope ever, but I was rooting for Josh and Isla. And I definitely liked the cameos from the earlier books!

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier: Sisters is a graphic memoir, and I really liked it. Perhaps I’m also the oldest child of three (two girls and a boy in that order), and that so much of the sisterly dynamic seemed familiar to me, but I found myself totally engaged in the story Telgemeier told. I also loved the flashbacks to earlier family events, and the PETS!

Voice of the Lost by Andrea K Host: This was amazing! I loved the way Medair resolves her difficulties, I loved the romance, I loved the questions that the worldbuilding brought up. I felt in a couple places that the pacing could have been just a little tighter, but honestly I was invested enough in the characters that I didn’t really care.

The Eighth Day by Dianne K. Salerni: I really loved Salerni’s The Caged Graves when I read it for the Cybils last year. This went in an entirely different direction and, while I enjoyed it, I didn’t really find that it had much emotional resonance with me. Kids who like adventure and heroes with a bit of Arthurian mythology should like it, though.

Traveling with the Dead by Barbara Hambly: Second James Asher book. I liked getting more of an insight into Lydia’s perspective, and Don Ysidro as well, but the pacing and setting of the book seemed a bit too full of dashing about. Part of the strength of the first one was how well it conveyed the moody atmosphere of foggy vampire-laden London. I felt here that I never had time to quite settle into the story.

Unmade by Sarah Rees Brennan: I’ll put up a review closer to the release date, but for now I’ll just say that SRB is the dark mistress of my heart. She does terrible things and yet I love them.
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

Things I wish to share
– You can still be a Cybils judge! Apply here by September 5th

- The latest installment in my series of historical fantasies: the Victorian era. Some interesting comments on this too–check them out! Also, I posted a primer for people who would like to start reading that subgenre.

- Made & Making for this month–I posted this late last night so it could technically be an August post.

- And finally, I noticed that I’m listed on the “Places We Love” sidebar on Lady Business. I am tremendously flattered!

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Made and Making: August 2014

Cooking

Garlic Fries: Mmmm, these were so good. I ate almost all of them straight off the pan. Very garlicky, but delicious.

Zuccini and Ricotta Galette: This was a big hit at the church board meeting I took it to, and for good reason. Simple to make but really good.

Sugar Plum Crepes with Ricotta and Honey: I was on a bit of a ricotta kick because I’d made my own. This was one of my favorite ways to use it–also, I used some of the leftover batter to make savory crepes for breakfast, with ricotta and some sauteed vegetables.

Grilled Pork Chops with Plums: I don’t have a grill, but cooking the chops conventionally worked. Nice flavor and I liked the plums with the pork quite a bit!

Cherry Almond Scones: I made these for my own going away party at IMCPL. In my defense, I really needed to use up the cherries. They were nice and moist, and of course it’s hard to go wrong with cherry and almond.

Blackberry Cheesecake ice cream: This recipe intrigued me ever since Rachel posted it and I finally managed to assemble all of the ingredients at the same time. Really nice rich ice cream, with the bonus of not having to cook anything.

Roast Chicken and Vegetables with Mustard Jus from Working Class Foodies: There are so many ways to do roast chicken and almost all of them are delicious. I seem to remember making a few modifications and I know I cooked the vegetables separately, but this was a really nice company meal. And I ate off the leftovers for days.

Knitting
100_4093Rose Under Fire sweater, a few days ago.

100_4098Pretty in Purple sweater

100_4099

Much closer to the actual color for Pretty in Purple

I am kind of stalled on the sleeves for the Pretty in Purple sweater (Ravelry), so I started my Rose Under Fire sweater. Using the Twinned Roses Jumper pattern from Susan Crawford’s A Stitch in Time, Vol. 2 (Ravelry). One of the yarns I’m using is called Hare Heather. Ouch. The actual knitting is going really well so far, although I can’t find my ruler so haven’t been able to do anything the last few days. I’m almost to the armhole decreases on the back and finding the pattern so far easy to read and follow.

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Characters in exile: Stray and The Silence of Medair

stray I’ve been on a bit of an Andrea K Host kick recently, first with Stray and then The Silence of Medair. (I read And All the Stars earlier this year and loved it.

Stray and Medair are quite different in overall sensibility. Stray is written as a diary, from the point of view of a teenage girl, and the worldbuilding is more science-fictional. Medair is told in tight third person, Medair’s age is not given but reads as perhaps mid to late twenties or early thirties, and it is definitely a fantasy (unless some bizarre explanation in the second book pushes it into SF).

And yet, both share this sense of dislocation, of being set out of time or out of space. Cassandra walks from Australia into another universe, Medair wakes five hundred years late. The bulk of both stories deals with the fall-out from this exile, both personally and politically. In a world that they don’t really understand (Cassandra more so than Medair), both characters must decide whether they will stay, whether they will cast in their lot and engage with this unfamiliar landscape or remain separate and alone.

In case it’s not clear, I thoroughly enjoyed both books. I’ve already started Voice of the Lost, and asked for Lab Rat One on inter-library loan.

It’s also true that both Cassandra and Medair spend quite a bit of their respective books reacting rather than acting, but this makes sense in the context of the story, and I never felt like they were passive characters. Of course, I’m more of a character-based reader than a plot-based reader, so books where the plot is “character coming to terms with their situation and themselves” doesn’t turn me off the way it would some people.

Stray begins with Cassandra’s notes after she steps through into a different world. It’s at times a slightly frustrating read because we’re so much in Cassandra’s timeline, and from the reader’s perspective something is clearly going to happen. However, once it does the pace picks up quite a bit. And I did appreciate that Host spends so much time on the mechanics of survival–Cassandra has less than Robinson Crusoe and modern life is much less suited to surviving when you’re suddenly pitched into a wilderness. Especially a wilderness full of completely unfamiliar fruit, which might save your life or might kill you.

Cassandra herself is a familiar and beloved kind of heroine. Bookish and nerdy, inward-gazing if not introverted, she has a strong moral compass and part of the strength of the book is the way she considers the consequences of her choices. She’s also not as boring as this makes her sound: her voice is clear and quite teenagerish, and I really enjoyed her sense of humor.

The sense of dislocation comes from the fact that her family has no idea where she has gone, that she can’t go back. She’s pitched into a strange world, with (slight spoiler) people she can’t at first understand and a society which is dramatically different from ours. And she has moments when she resists the situation she finds herself in, using Earth-based humor in a way the others won’t get. But I also suspect she is in some ways mis-reading situations and relationships in a wholly understandable and very human way. With lots of unresolved strands, this book certainly read as the first book in a trilogy, but in a “I have to read the next one now!” way.

medairMedair starts off much more in the middle of things, and gallops off from there. Medair, a Herald of Farrakkan, went in search of a legendary magical object to end the war her people were fighting. But she comes back five hundred years too late, the war long gone and the invaders thoroughly ensconced. When Medair rescues an Ibisian and has a geas put on her as a result, she must face the world she had retreated from, and decide what her place in it is.

Again, I’ve made that sound way too boring. I liked Cassandra a lot, but I really liked Medair. She’s older and a little sadder than Cassandra, without the burning sense of her own rightness to keep her going. And she struggles with her growing sense of the Ibisians as people, not simply the enemy she fought against (even that was complicated by her stay with the Ibisian ruler). Her ultimate choices didn’t surprise me, but they did leave me a very satisfied reader.

I’ll also note that I really enjoyed the worldbuilding here, the sense of history and politics, and the descriptions of landscapes and settings. Perhaps it’s just that I’m really a bit more of a fantasy reader but: I liked Stray a great deal, I loved Medair.

(As a complete side-note, I really like the covers for these books! One of my small gripes with self-publishing is that the quality of the covers is often not good [granted that is also sometimes true of big publishing houses, but it seems to be more often true of self-published books] and I appreciate that Host has put in the effort and money to have really quality covers for her books.)

Book source: ILL (Stray), purchased ebook (Medair)
Book information: 2011 (Stray), 2010 (Medair), self published; YA and adult respectively, though there’s no reason they can’t be crossovers

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Historical Fantasies: Victorian era

Historical fantasy is one of my favorite subgenres, an awesome melting pot of historical fiction and fantasy. I even have a separate page listing the ones I’ve read! This feature will run for a few months, showcasing the major time periods I’ve read in. Goal: have a spiffy, updated page by the end!

queen victoriasconstable and toopspringsweet

The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley (England, upper mg/YA, highly recommended)
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray (England, YA, did not enjoy)
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (England, adult, recommended)
Soulless by Gail Carriger (England, adult, not really my thing)
Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare (England, YA, liked while reading)
Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore (England, YA, highly recommended)
Bewitching Season and Courtship and Curses by Marissa Doyle (England, YA, recommended)
Darkwater by Catherine Fisher (England, YA, recommended)
The Revenant by Sonia Gensler (US, YA, highly recommended)
Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly (England, adult, loved!)
The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker by Leanna Renee Hieber (England, adult, I did not enjoy it)
Constable & Toop by Gareth Jones (England, middle grade, recommended)
The Vespertine and The Springsweet by Saundra Mitchell (US, YA, highly recommended)
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz (England, middle grade, eh)
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton (England, adult/YA crossover, recommended)
Rose and its sequels by Holly Webb (England, middle grade, recommended)
Emilie and the Hollow World by Martha Wells (England, upper mg, recommended if you remember that this is not a YA book)
Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells ed. by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (England, short stories, YA and adult, highly recommended)
The Frontier Trilogy by Patricia Wrede: Across the Great Barrier, The Far West (note that these deal with American Indians in a problematic way) (US, YA, recommended with reservations)
The Monstrumologist series: The Curse of the Wendigo, The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey (US, YA, highly recommended if you don’t mind gore)
Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold (US, adult, recommended)
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (England/Indiaish, YA, recommended but note that there’s a bit of a Great White Savior theme going on)

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Why hello

I have sort of gotten over my reading slump, but I’ve been so focused on following the news from Ferguson that I haven’t really had the time or mental energy to read or write much here.

However, I will say that in the middle of a horrible few weeks, the Hugo Awards which were announced on Sunday made made quite happy. Not so much necessarily because of the specific awards given–although HUZZAH for Ancillary Justice and a double win for Kameron Hurley!–but because they seemed to be rewarding the kind of work and creators I think ought to be rewarded.

And I just finished Andrea Host’s Stray, having made a conscious decision to spend the morning actually reading a book (plus it is an ILL and due back on Friday). Great story, great characters. I’ll definitely have more to say about this one, hopefully soon.

Finally, I applied to be a judge for the Cybils again, and you can too! There’s more information here. I’ve been both a first and second round judge for the YA Fiction category and can definitely say that the experience has been challenging, but in the best and most rewarding sense.

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