Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

palace of stonePalace of Stone is the sequel to the Newbery Medal-winning Princess Academy. I liked Princess Academy and appreciated how Hale played with our expectations of what was going to happen, but it wasn’t one I completely and utterly loved. I’ve also found that Hale’s sequels tend to be less impressive for me than her first books. All of that is to say why it took me so long to read a book by an author who I admire and generally enjoy.

As it happens, Palace of Stone is nearly a standalone. Events from the first book are referenced, and it certainly helps to have read Princess Academy, but the events are distinct enough that it could be read on its own.

Miri and her friends from the Princess Academy travel to Asland, to the flatlands where Britta is engaged to Prince Steffan. But they step into a world that they do not understand, where the nobles take and the Shoeless whisper against them. Miri and the other Eskelians must decide where their allegiances, both personal and political, lie.

The personal side of the story is the part I appreciated the most. Miri struggles to find her place in Asland, but her loyalty to her home and her friends remains central to her character. That her difficulties are reflected in a romantic tangle between Timon, a young man who has aligned himself with the Shoeless and their cause, and Peder, her old friend from Mount Eskel, is actually not something that bothered me too much. Maybe because I was never in any real doubt about what choice she would ultimately make.

I had a more mixed reaction to the political side. The situation is fairly clearly based in some measure on the French revolution. The abuses by the nobles against the Shoeless are shown clearly, and Miri has a lot of sympathy for them, as an outsider herself. On the other hand, Miri’s best friend is engaged to the Prince. That tension drives most of the book.

Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, both the depiction of the different groups and the solution are a little too easy. I know it’s a middle grade novel, and I appreciate that Hale is willing to take on the subject, but I wanted the end result to be a bit messier, to feel less emphatic and determined. (I will also admit that Frances Hardinge has given me perhaps ridiculously high standards when it comes to potrayals of revolution in middle grade books.)

So in the end, I’m glad I read this one, but it’s not my favorite of Hale’s books, nor do I think it’s quite successful in what it sets out to do.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2012, Bloomsbury; middle grade


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My favorite sailing books

It’s my dad’s birthday today. He would have been 64. I’ve memorialized him enough here. And yet, I didn’t want today to pass without a little bit of notice.

A love of the sea, ships, and books about both was one of the things we shared. It was a family passion, but it originated with his craftsman’s respect for the beauty of tall ships. Here are some of my favorite books that touch on the sea and sailing.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham: Nathaniel Bowditch’s story of adversity and at points downright tragedy is amazing. Latham’s account tends towards the bootstraps mentality, and yet it’s impossible to mistake the sheer determination with which Bowditch faced life.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome: I took to these books so completely and so thoroughly that I wanted to be Nancy Blackett, as the August 1999 entries here will attest. They are best read in order, at least the first time, but my favorites are: Swallows and Amazons, Pigeon Post, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Secret Water, and Coot Club.

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian: I read this at an astonishingly early age, not so much in terms of difficulty as content. These are the books that bring back my dad most vividly: he had read all 21 of the books at least twice and whenever he re-read the first, he would call me over and read the opening aloud, his delight in them so wonderfully apparent. I do enjoy them quite a bit, especially the first few, but I never made it all the way through the series.

Horatio Hornblower by C.S. Forster: I’m not sure exactly when I started reading these, but certainly by eighth grade. I know this because I was convinced, and tried to convince my eighth grade history teacher, that C. Northcote Parkinson’s (fictionalized) biography was in fact real. Ah, the innocent days before Wikipedia! Anyway, in some ways these were more to my young taste than O’Brian. Perhaps the fact that I had already seen the TV adaptation and was therefore imagining Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower helped.

Looking over this list, it’s a very classic one. Perhaps it’s only my own niche interests speaking (probably not many other children amused themselves by pretending to be a tacking ship at recess), but O’Brian and Forster have been popular for years for a reason. I’d love to see a great YA book set on a ship, whether it’s historical, fantasy, or something else entirely. And if I’m missing your favorites above, tell me!


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Getting organized

I don’t normally do major posts on Tumblr, but I did want to participate in the #Get Organized project this week and that seemed like the best place. So head on over to see how I keep track of the books I want to read.


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May and June 2014 reading list

Books I’ve already talked about
The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston
Destroyer by C.J. Cherryh
The Wolf Hunt by Gillian Bradshaw
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Sun-kissed by Laura Florand
Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
Clair-de-Lune by Cassandra Golds
The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
Torn Away by Jennifer Brown
Pretender by C.J.Cherryh
A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Kirshnaswami
Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson
Pointe by Brandy Colbert
A Bride’s Story, vol 2 by Kaoru Mori
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci
Flygirl by Sherri Smith
My Neighbor Totoro
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Melusine by Sarah Monette
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks

Other books
Blood Royal by Eric Jager: Non-fiction account of the murder and aftermath of Louis of Orleans. It’s an interesting book, engagingly written, and Jager manages to make his points without hammering them home too often. It’s also a slightly depressing story; justice was never really done, and the man who pursued it the most lost a lot because of it.

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan: I enjoyed my re-read of this a LOT, and yet I can’t help feeling that it’s fundamentally the first half of a story, that it needed the unwritten second book to really round it out. As it is, Mel is only just beginning to change, and I can’t quite see where that journey will take her. I know that things happen, and I do very much enjoy what we do have. Especially Kit.

Cleopatra’s Heir by Gillian Bradshaw: Bradshaw takes a what-if–what if Cleopatra’s son had survived the Roman invasion of Egypt–and weaves a very compelling story from it. The sense of a young man who has been used to complete privilege and who must now find his way in the world isn’t a new one, but Bradshaw treats it deftly, with both affection and enough distance to be convincing.

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb: I read the YA version of this last year and I wanted to see if the adult version presented a more complex version of events. It did and it didn’t–I certainly understood more of what was happening, but that’s simply because it’s a longer book with more information. For me, the most powerful moment is still Gideon Hausner’s spine-tingling speech at Eichmann’s trial.

Hild by Nicola Griffiths: Hild is a much more fascinating and complex book than I can convey here. I may have to come back to it, because I keep musing about a particular aspect. But for now, I’ll just say that it provides a marvelous counterpoint to certain fantasy sub-genres, and does so in a way that doesn’t refute so much as stand outside a certain viewpoint. I loved the first three-quarters unreservedly; the last quarter didn’t quite have the same weight for me, although I wound up still liking the book a great deal. There’s so much more I want to say, but I’ll just leave it at this: if pseudo-medieval fantasy epics always strike you as lacking specificity and reality, this is a book you’ll like.

Sekret by Lindsay Smith: For a book about psychic KGB spies, I found this one a bit tedious. Smith has done her research, but there were a few awkward moments that bounced me out of the narrative (as when Yulia mentions that Masha means Maria, a fact she would certainly know). I wonder if this would have worked better for me if it hadn’t been first person, if we had a little more narrative distance from Yulia’s perspective. Still, it’s overall fairly enjoyable.

Die For Love by Elizabeth Peters: I normally like Elizabeth Peters, but this one came across as less “loving spoof on romance readers and writers” and more “caricature of romance readers and writers.” Compared to, say, Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, which lovingly and accurately sends up scifi conventions, this one seemed a bit petty and unkind.

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman: I wasn’t quite sure how I would like this one when I started reading, but I ended up liking it a lot. Gretchen came across to me as a young woman very much in her elders’ shadows–both her father, her brother, and her uncle Dolf–and her journey read as believable to me. It did happen very quickly, and I wished there had been a way to slow that down a bit, but overall I found it an interesting and engrossing book.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones: Last Diana Wynne Jones book ever, I am so sad. I did like it, which I had worried I wouldn’t; I’m not terribly fond of Earwig. This felt like a return to classic Jones in a lot of ways, and while I wish she had been able to finish it, I am happy with what we got. Did anyone spot the join? I wasn’t quite sure where it came in.

Delancey by Molly Wizenberg: Perhaps because it’s a bit more focused, I enjoyed Delancey more than Wizenberg’s first book. While I did occasionally mutter about getting the point already, it is one that shows how we can have a changing relationship even to things we love, and have to re-find our way to them.

Swift by R.J. Anderson: The last in Anderson’s Knife series. I’ve really enjoyed these books, and I’m so sad they’re not being published over here. Swift seems especially complex and interesting. And I loved that a particular character quotes from Richard III–it fits so well with how {spoiler} is portrayed, as well as being a nice reference.

Curse of the Team Spirit by John Allison: I had read this before, when it was published on the Bad Machinery website, but it was so fun to see the little detectives in their infancy! And while it’s one of the weirder mysteries, it wasn’t at all annoying, which sometimes things are when you revisit them.

The China Garden by Liz Berry: My main reaction to this one was to feel a bit dated. It came out in 1994, when I was seven, but it feels very old-fashioned, in the romance and the attitudes about the world and environmentalism especially. It’s an extremely atmospheric read, but I didn’t find myself really liking it, or the characters very much. Not sure if the fault lies in me or the book–I suspect me as I probably would have loved it in middle school.

Render Unto Caesar by Gillian Bradshaw: I liked this one perhaps a little less than most Bradshaw books; it lacks some of the clear plotting that distinguishes the others, I think. But the setting and characters are, as always, compelling, and she remains practically unequaled in her ability to paint a picture of the ancient world.

The Bride’s Story, vol. 1 by Kaoru Mori
Lulu and the Mysterious Mission by Judith Viorst
Saga, vol 2 by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond
Blackwood by Gwenda Bond
Forget You by Jennifer Echols
The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E Smith


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Made and Making: Early 2014

It’s been a few months since I’ve managed to get a Made & Making post pulled together. Sigh. Life is busy.

– I made a hat for someone from church, Bramble Beret in black Patons Worsted. Unfortunately, the brim needs to be lengthened a bit and I keep forgetting to do it. This was a slightly difficult project because the black yarn made the blackberry stitch hard to see. I think–I hope!–all the stitches worked out. (My Ravelry notes)

- I also knit the Echo Flower Shawl, which is a lovely, lovely pattern. I used Knit Picks Shadow in a Vineyard Heather, which is a rich, deep red-purple. A very satisfying project.

- It must be the season of blankets, because I’m also knitting the Lover’s Knot Afghan for a coworker. It’s a big project, but not difficult, and I do love knitting cables. People are very impressed by them, but it’s simpler than it looks (take heart, new knitters!). Three-dimensional Celtic knotwork, which is something I really enjoyed doing in the past anyway. This project is temporarily on hold because wool in Indiana in July = misery.

- In general, I suffer from a severe desire to knit EVERYTHING. Ravelry does not help with this.

- I still haven’t really finished the BSJ from my last post. The problem is the sleeves, which need to be sewn up. I started a blanket stitch and that looked bunch and dreadful, but I haven’t figured out a better method. Nor have I felted that bag.

- I bought the yarn for my Rose Under Fire sweater, after my awesome friend Brigid bought the pattern for me as a housewarming gift. One of the yarns is called Hare Heather, which is almost too appropriate.

- I also started the Pretty (me) sweater in a bamboo/cotton mix, since that will be much better for summer knitting. It’s got a lovely sheen to it and is knitting up beautifully.

Thyme lemonade: love the combination of lemon and thyme, but even with the sugar reduced to a cup, it’s on the sweet side. Next time: reduce sugar further, or just add some thyme sprigs to my usual sliced lemon when I fill the water pitcher.

- Salmon and Berry Salad: made this for dinner recently. Pretty much followed the recipe except I didn’t have any scallions, and I used 1/2 c blueberries and 1/4 c raspberries. Also topped with some homemade croutons.

- A cousous and chickpea dish that I made up: sauteed vegetables, added couscous and vegetable stock, 1/2 stick of cinnamon. Cooked until couscous was done and vegetables tender, added chickpeas. It was okay. If I made it again, I would sautee the vegetables longer, and maybe on a higher heat so they get seared a little, and add more spices.

- No-knead crusty bread: Used 2 c white, 1 c white whole wheat flour. So good; I want to try other breads, but I know this one will be a staple.

- Also made a couple of good white bean soups, one creamy white bean tomato soup from The Great Vegan Bean Book, the other a recipe of my own invention, with tomatoes, onion, red pepper, and garlic, plus lots of herbs.


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Library Display: Nellie Bly/Around the World

I’m in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, so I’m pulling an old library display out from the files.

Last year, it was the 100th anniversary of Nellie Bly’s historic trip around the world, an attempt to beat Jules Verne’s fictional 80-mark. It’s a fascinating story, and I definitely recommend Matthew Goodman’s book, Eighty Days, for teens and adults who are interested in finding out more about Bly, her competitor Elizabeth Bisland, and the race. So far the race, I made a display focusing on books about different places around the world, as well as travelers and Nellie Bly herself. The idea could easily be adapted for a general travel display, or for a display focusing on a specific country or state.

travel 1

I was lucky enough to find an old atlas that had been discarded, from which I took a page to make the background for my display. I believe it was actually a map of Alaska, which is kind of fun.

travel 3

The font I used for this display was Matura, not a font I normally gravitate towards, but it seemed to fit the image I was trying to create. So once again sacrificing personal taste in the interest of making a display (remember the fairy wings?) I went with it. I wish, in retrospect, that I had manged to cut out the lettering in a more professional-looking way, but oh well.

travel 2

And here’s a view with all of the books. I tried to find things that looked interesting and more modern than the kind of straight non-fiction informational books about countries and so on. There are also lots of different books about travelers and journeys as you can see.

Books about Nellie Bly, travelers, etc
Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly by Sue Macy
Around the World by Matt Phelan
Miranda the Explorer by James Mayhew
Journey by Aaron Becker
The Adventures of Odysseus by Hugh Lupton
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
Around the World in 100 Days by Gary Blackwood

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The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

greatgreene This is in some ways a pretty easy book to talk up to people. Look at that cover. Do you think it looks awesome? A middle school heist book with a diverse cast sound like something you’d enjoy? There you go.

Personally, I do love a good heist story. Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Ally Carter’s Heist Society books–they all satisfy that part of me that likes a fast-paced story with some derring-do and slightly criminal activity. The Great Greene Heist is a fun example of the genre. Johnson clearly knows his stuff: snappy dialogue, main character who leads an unlikely team, betrayal, revenge, and a little bit of romance. He scales the normal heist story down so it fits in a middle school setting, but he never talks down to his audience. He expects them to follow the dialogue, to get the references.

And then there’s the setting. I started flailing on Twitter last night because no one had mentioned that The Great Greene Heist is set in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived from September 1993 to June 2006. Maplewood is a fictional school, but Easton Town Center, where Gaby goes with her aunt, and the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library are not. (I loved the Whetstone branch because they had a little flower garden.) I am always happy when books are set in the Midwest, since it’s one of the less-valued areas of the country, even today seen as boring and full of farms. The reality of the Midwest is so much more interesting and complex than that and I love seeing authors choosing to show that in their books.

Johnson also chose to create an extremely diverse cast, and to consciously push back against stereotypes in several different ways. I actually prefer the second cover the book was given, because it shows more accurately what the story looks like, and because it makes it clear that Jackson is the main character but not the only character. The characters in the book are racially and ethnically diverse. They are also all firmly middle class; Jackson’s parents are professionals, and his mother is a professor at Ohio State. We don’t see many books written from this perspective, and it’s great to see it here.

At the same time, the characters also encounter casual racism, especially from Ms. Appleton, one of the school secretaries. Here’s the clearest quote, but it is echoed several other times in the book: “Jackson looked at his skinny brown hands. He never quite knew what Ms. Appleton meant when she said ‘boys like you.’ He hoped she meant something like ‘boys named Jackson’ or ‘boys who are tall,’ but he suspected her generalizations implied something else.” I mean, can’t you just hear someone saying that? I know I can. It’s not a violent racism, but rather the assumption that brown boys will always be in trouble, that they’ll never get anywhere. And by middle school, kids will most definitely have encountered this attitude from someone. They’ll get it.

But diversity of race is not the only kind we see here. Megan is a blonde cheerleader, the punchline of innumerable jokes, except that she’s also very smart and talented with computers (and speaks Klingon). Gaby plays basketball and it’s clear that she–and the rest of the girls’ basketball team–is much better than any of the boys playing (when she’s playing Jackson she is relieved because at least she doesn’t have to hold back). All of the main characters are shown in multi-faceted, complex ways.

All of this adds up to something really interesting–a mixture of the excitement of the heist plot, and this detailed realism that keeps the story on an everyday level. Normally, heist stories take place against the backdrop of a huge city: New York, Paris, London. It’s part of their glamor. But Johnson sets his in Columbus, gives us a cast that accurately depicts the diversity of our world, gives them a goal that fits into their concerns. These are not teenage spies or jewel thieves; their goal is to get the right person elected as Student Council President. As much as I love the good old-fashioned heist story, this is exactly right. It gives the kids it was written for a chance to see themselves, a chance to feel understood and valued.

In case it wasn’t clear, I also loved reading it myself. It was just plain fun. I’d love to see a sequel or two (or three!) and I’m so glad the Great Green Challenge gave it a boost to my radar.

Book source: bought
Book information: 2014, Arthur Levine; middle grade

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