Weekly reading review: 11/4-11/10

Another week where I didn’t read much, sigh. It’s been a busy month and that’s not changing anytime soon, so I guess I should just accept it for now.

Books I finished

Making Friends by  Kristen Gudsnuk: One of a few kids’ graphic novels I’ve been catching up on recently. I liked this one a ton! It’s a kind of a zany premise but also I was full on giggling at some points. Bonus: a fictional tv series that’s an important plot point and clearly based on Sailor Moon! The art is perfect for the tone, and overall this is another nice entry in the “middle school friendship stories” subgenre.

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory [review]

The Witch Boy by  Molly Knox Ostertag: Another kids’ graphic novel–this time about a boy from a magical family where all the boys are shapeshifters & all the girls learn magic. No exceptions. Except Aster really doesn’t want to shift, and he does want to learn magic. It’s a compelling story about what happens when we’re forced into roles, and I loved the art and the depictions of Aster’s family. The feel of the world cozy & warm, but the story itself is challenging and nuanced, which I thought was a neat combination!

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by  Deborah Hopkinson [review]

Currently reading

The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein: The last published book in the Steerswoman series. I’m not very far in yet, but I’m curious to see if there will be any answers, or just (*dramatic music*) more questions.

Hamster Princess: Little Red Rodent Hood by Ursula Vernon: I love the Hamster Princess Series, as everyone should know, and I’m liking this latest book.

What I’m reading next

Mariam Sharma Hits the Road by Sheba Karim

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

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The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

When Nik’s boyfriend very unexpectedly proposes to her on the Jumbo-Tron at a Dodgers game, a stranger and his sister rescue her from a camera crew. Carlos just wants to do the right thing, but when after they keep meeting, it turns into something more. The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory is a contemporary romance featuring an African-American heroine and a Latino hero. It’s a sequel to The Wedding Date, which came out earlier this year.

I really adored The Wedding Date when I read it, so of course I picked up The Proposal as soon as I could. And it was the perfect light but smart read for the mood I was in.

Public proposals are a Thing, of course, and I’ve always kind of hated them. It turns out I’m not alone! Here’s a whole book whose inciting incident is a very, very botched public proposal. That in and of itself says a lot about the kind of book this is–very aware of the real world while also having that slightly-Technicolor version of reality that is often a feature of romance books.

I appreciated that Guillory didn’t just have Nik get over the proposal instantly. She deals with a very understandable range of emotions, and the anger that her ex-boyfriend throws in her direction for daring to reject him is entirely plausible. The fact that she doesn’t just instantly go back to okay did make it a little tough for me to root for her rebound fling with Carlos at first, but as the story went on, I started to buy their relationship and the way they’re both wary of it becoming something real.

I also loved the food in the book–it was so fun to read about characters who love cooking and eating. It’s a nice touch of grounding and creativity. Also, as with The Wedding Date, there’s a really nice sense of place here which is nice to see.

Carlos’s desire to take care of his family was the only aspect of the story that didn’t quite work for me. I understood the whys of it, and it theoretically made sense, but I didn’t fully buy that he had never had the conversations with his mother and sister that he needed to, and it seemed at odds with his truly supportive attitude towards Nik. So that made it hard to be as invested in his part of the storyline. That said, I truly enjoyed the rest of the book and his relationship with Nik was really fun to read.

Overall, I’d suggest this one for fans of smart contemporary romances, and I hope that we’ll have more books from Guillory soon!

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Previously, on By Singing Light
Complex & Haunting Adult SFF: Oyeyemi & Jemisin (2016)
Favorite Authors: Gillian Bradshaw (2014)
Jane Austen Goes to Hollywood by Abby McDonald (2013)

 

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Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

In Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, Deborah Hopkinson weaves together first person narratives from passengers and crew of the Titanic, to give a picture of the first and last voyage of the ship. It’s published for children, but written in an accessible enough way that adults might enjoy reading it as well.

I read this one because I had scheduled it for my homeschool book club at work and then realized I’d never read it. Due to reasons, I ended up reading most of it as an ebook.

Reading Titanic so soon after reading Patricia Sutton’s Capsized! was an interesting experience. There are certainly some similiarities between the books–children’s non-fiction focusing on a disaster, with an emphasis on the experiences of the survivors. Obviously, the sinking of the Titanic is much more well known than the sinking of the Eastland, and therefore the amount of material available to Hopkinson makes for what I think is a slightly more complex read.

I will say that although I’m familiar with the story of the Titanic, the progression of events has never quite sunk in for me. Having the information presented the way Hopkinson does here was actually very helpful and informative! It does make for a tough emotional read because, whoo boy, a lot of this tragedy could have been mitigated had things turned out slightly differently.

Overall, Hopkinson focuses on narratives from survivors, which makes sense on several levels. First, because there were almost no things saved from the Titanic–unsent letters, diaries, etc, most likely went down with the ship. Second, because it’s obviously the survivors who afterwards contributed the most to the historical record of narratives and remembrances. But also, I thought it made a nice way to approach this story for kids, in a way that engages with the reality of the disaster and the effects it had on the people who were present without being too horrifying.

The book also includes some information about myths that have sprung up around the Titanic and its sinking, with a quick summary of what historians and primary narratives say actually happened. I liked the approach here, which wasn’t to spend too much time on the myths while also debunking them.

I’d say that Hopkinson is a very strong writer of narrative non-fiction. There’s a decent balance of different types of people represented here, including some of the crew and some third-class passengers. I haven’t read a lot of Titanic non-fiction to know how she compares to others. But I’d recommend Titanic: Voices from the Disaster as a solid primer on what happened to the Titanic, or for any fans of non-fiction with an emphasis on the people involved.

See also: Capsized! by Patricia Sutton 

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Previously, on By Singing Light

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (2014)
What to read After Howl’s Moving Castle (2013)
The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (2009)

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Weekly reading review: 10/28-11/3

A late entry–my grandmother passed away early last week and I’ve been working and out of town since then. I haven’t been reading much either, so this is a relatively short post. I’m not sure if it’s just been a lot of things happening in my personal life, or if I’m in a bit of a slump.

What I finished

A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer [reviewed]

Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner: This is a pretty fun middle grade graphic novel, about a trio of friends. It hits that “where do I fit in now that we’re growing up?” theme that middle grade often does well, and it has some pretty humorous moments.

What I’m currently  reading

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden: I’m kind of confused, but it’s also super cool?

What I’m reading next

The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein

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A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

Samuel Lambert is an American sharpshooter who is hired by the Glasscastle College of Magic to conduct tests on a mysterious new weapon. Jane Brailsford is a witch of Greenlaw who arrives in Glasscastle to visit her brother and to call on the new warden of the west. When it becomes clear that someone means harm towards the college, Lambert and Jane must form an alliance to uncover the truth of what’s happening.

A Scholar of Magics (Tor, 2004) is a loosely tied sequel to A College of Magics, which I reread recently. So I thought I’d try rereading this one while the first book was still relatively fresh in my mind. It could probably be read as a standalone book, although it clearly happens after the events of A College of Magics and I think having the context of that book would probably be helpful.

Looking back over my reading history with this duology, I seem to have flip-flopped several times in my opinion about which of these books is better. I can’t say that I’ve made a final & forever choice, but I do know that I found myself significantly disappointed in A Scholar of Magics, mostly because of what it fails to think about or address.

First, and perhaps most importantly, this is a book that occurs at the beginning of the aeroplane, at the beginning of the automobile. Part of the plot is explicitly about the development of new and worse weapons. And not once does anyone stop to think that perhaps this is…a problem. There’s a steadfast looking-away from the results of the real weapons that were in development, in the fact that in a few years the real countries that are part of this world would be embroiled in World War I. It’s a weirdly regressive attitude that was very frustrating to encounter.

But it gets even worse, because the weapon that is being designed and tested (the mysterious “Agincourt Device”) is said to be necessary for the defense of the empire. And look, sure, I understand that Stevermer is to a certain extent replicating historical attitudes. But the British Empire was evil. Its effects were not benign. And the lack of any point of view characters to challenge that attitude, aside from a throw-away line at the very end about an excess of patriotism, is really troubling in a book that was published only fourteen years ago. We have no characters who push back on this, no characters who represent anything other than an upper-class British imperialistic view. Even Lambert, who supposedly acts as the underdog in this story (more on that later) is happy to go along with the whole idea. He never stops to ask who they’ll be using this weapon on.

So, that was all really frustrating and annoying and made me not really like any of the characters very much. And I don’t think this was an intentional choice. I think it was a flaw that historical fantasy often falls into: in attempting to recreate a time and place, the attitudes and prejudices that we associate with that time and place are also recreated, without thought or care for the readers.

Also, there are a lot of stereotypes of Native people in America which made me even more uncomfortable. It’s like Stevermer was writing in tropes and cliches in this book; although she theoretically makes gestures at subverting them, this never comes off. The whole treatment of America was a weird take, with Lambert feeling self-conscious simply because he is American, and Stevermer seeming to vacillate wildly between “we’re more cultured than you think” and “yes of course I should feel inferior to all of you civilized people.”

But also, this book really struggles under the weight of that sensitivity and self-consciousness of Lambert’s. The idea of that thread of the story–that an outsider comes to the college, feeling they don’t have a place and finding one for themself after all–is really lovely. But the fact that Lambert is a straight white man with education and marketable skills who keeps getting cast as the underdog sits uncomfortably with me. If Lambert had been in literally any other demographic, this could have been a lovely & empowering story. I don’t doubt that Americans were often looked down on, especially the non-millionaires. But really! There’s just so little self-awareness here that it made this storyline painful.

So, I think there are a lot of flaws with the parts of the story that go unsaid and operate underneath the surface of the plot (is there a term for this? It seems like there should be, other than subtext which is not exactly what I mean?). But I have to admit that I also just think this is not as well written as A College of Magics, which has truly beautiful passages of prose. I didn’t find that here, although it’s possible I simply wasn’t in sympathy enough with the book to feel them.

I guess it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t a book I’d necessarily recommend at this point. If you like the whole idea of being a scholar of magics but from a marginalized perspective, I highly recommend Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

See also:

Reading Notes: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

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Previously, on By Singing Light

A Brief History of Montmaray (2011)
Pegasus (2010)
The Queen of Attolia (2009)

 

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October 2018 books

A Scholar of Magics Caroline Stevermer 10.31

Fake Blood Whitney Gardner 10.28

Border Kapka Kassapova 10.27 [review]

Exit Strategy Martha Wells 10.26

Jade City Fonda Lee 10.23 [review]

Summer Bird Blue Akemi Dawn Bowman 10.21 [review]

Capsized! Patricia Sutton 10.18 [review]

Monstrous Regiment of Women Laurie Russell King 10.17

Drum Roll Please Lisa Jenn Bigelow 10.14

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Laurie Russell King 10.13

The Wild Dead Carrie Vaughn

Midnight Robber Nalo Hopkinson 10.12

Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea Lynn Rae Perkins 10.12

Spinning Silver Naomi Novik 10.9

She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah) Ann Hood 10.9

The Lost Scroll: The Book of Kings Sarah Prineas 10.4

 

Total books read: 16

Total rereads: 1

Favorites:

  • Spinning Silver
  • Midnight Robber
  • Drum Roll Please
  • Border
  • Exit Strategy

Weekly reading roundups:

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Border by Kapka Kassabova

In Border, Kapka Kassabova returns to Bulgaria, where she grew up, hoping to explore the border region where Bulgaria meets Greece and Turkey. Partly driven by the desire to flout the old Soviet restrictions, partly by the wealth of folklore and myth there, she finds a land that is strange and beautiful, full of ancient secrets and modern tragedies.

I must have heard about Border somewhere, because I don’t usually just find non-fiction books. But I don’t know where it could have been. I’m sure I was intrigued by the mention of Bulgaria–I’m part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, after all–and the premise of Kassabova’s travels. Borders and liminal spaces are fascinating to me in fiction, so why not here as well?

Kassabova’s prose is astounding here; the descriptions of not just the landscape but the emotion behind it are entrancing. Much of what the book revolves around are the ways the specifics of these lands come to inhabit the people who live there, and the trauma that happens when political motivations force populations to leave the place they are so deeply connected to. And so it makes sense that the land itself is a force, that some of the best writing in this book is about the landscape she encounters, both natural and manmade.

There is a personal aspect to the story she tells, but the portrait of herself are always a bit cagey. It’s not that I don’t believe what she writes, but rather that she invites ambiguity and uncertainty. This isn’t exactly a memoir, because the people she encounters and the places they encounter each other are both given more weight than herself, except for a few moments here and there. 

The stories those people tell are sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, but most often they are sad. This is a book full of sad things and yet there’s also a sense of celebration to it. A commitment that even if this way of life is dying out after all these thousands of years, we can take a moment to remember and savor it. Both Kassabova and her friends talk a lot about surviving in the face of adverse political powers, in a way that is obviously relevant to our political age but did not feel too on-the-nose. While she doesn’t forget the overall movements of the major players, this is history focused on the personal level and the effects the national and international decisions have on individuals.

I loved a lot of the book, not only the prose, but the sense of age. Of time going on and on, and of the depth of history and belief. I didn’t always agree with the stances here, particularly her opinion of the Orthodox Church, but it remained a very emotionally effective book for me. Perhaps this is because of how the mythology and the folklore of the places are treated; each section is prefaced with a brief explanation of an aspect of history or folklore that will be expanded on in the following pages in a more personal and lived way. In some ways it felt like a fantasy novel–or maybe it’s just that at imes the feeling reminded me quite a bit of The Winged Histories

There’s a lot here, between history, the stories of people she meets, and the way their stories interact with the story of peoples and nations in the 21st century. This is not a book that’s researched so much as felt and lived, but it’s also erudite and I wasn’t surprised that the back contains a list of scholarly resources. And she keeps the focus clear by following the path of her travels, circling through the ancient forest called Strandja, circling the border. 

All in all, this was not quite like any book I’ve ever read, and it will stay with me for a long time. If you are interested in Eastern Europe, or in liminal places, in the forces of landscape or history, I recommend it.

Background reading: an interview with Kapka Kassabova

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