Recent reading: 7-13-2016

The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos: YA mystery about a girl whose father disappears. It’s a quiet-ish book that’s less about the mystery as such and more about Imogene’s journey as she tries to find out the truth about her parents. Podos grapples with the complexities of family and identity, as well as the stories we tell ourselves. There’s also an understated romance and an important friendship, which really help to round the book out. This is a debut, and I look forward to seeing what Podos writes next.

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly: This is Erin Entrada Kelly’s second middle grade book, about two sisters trapped with an actual evil stepmother. There’s a colorful cast of characters, but the heart of the book is really centered on Sol and Ming. From an adult perspective, I felt frustrated with the ending, and yet I can also see the realism there. Not every story ends perfectly, but this one does end well.

Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson: For me, I think this is the standout of the recent crop of YA titles about fandom. I really saw the involvement with fandom, the relationships and how life-changing they can be. The last, oh, third? of the book took a turn away from this with some twists and revelations. I didn’t mind these, but I also wasn’t that invested in them. I’m also curious because I feel like several reviews and comments downplayed any romantic tension between Gena and Finn, and I saw quite a bit. Am I alone here?

Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan: A YA fantasy retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, set in an alternate world where New York City is divided into the Light city (with Light magicians) and the Dark city (with Dark magicians). Lucie Manette becomes the main character, and we see the story unfolding from her point of view. SRB did a great job overall of engaging with the source text in interesting and resonant ways. However, this fell pretty flat for me at the end, when the plot seemed rushed and constrained by the original; I wanted to understand what this meant, for Lucie and for the other characters. I wanted to really feel something, and I almost did–but not quite. All in all, this is a really fascinating book, although maybe not for the reasons that I expected.

False Hearts by Laura Lam: Lam has written a couple of YA books, I believe, and this is her first adult. It’s set in a futuristic San Francisco, as Taema must rush to save her twin, Tila. They were once conjoined twins who were born into a cult and after their escape they were surgically separated. If that sounds like a lot to fit into a story, I had the same concern. But Lam pulls it off, by keep the focus pretty squarely on Taema, and weaving in the different strands around her. I also liked that Lam shows the shadowy side of San Francisco’s society, with its insistence on being perfect and blemish free, as well as conveying the very complicated relationship the twins still have to the cult. This rang pretty true with accounts I’ve read from cult survivors; that you never ever want to go back, and yet you still miss the good things about it. All in all, this was a fast, immersive read that pulled me in right away.

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Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Empty Kingdom

In June, I’ve been looking at Elizabeth Wein’s Aksum series. This is the last published book in the series, which continues from The Lion Hunter and concludes that arc.

The Empty Kingdom opens with Telemakos still in disgrace, and yet–because he’s Telemakos–trying to get a message to his aunt and father about Abreha’s betrayal. It’s an amazing scene, that shows both Abreha and Telemakos in a complicated light. As a reader, I can see Abreha’s desire to both honor Telemakos and make him his own. Telemakos, I think, can sense this without quite seeing it.

I mentioned the Scions in my last post, and in this second book we see the payoff of their companionship with Telemakos. This book is full of quietly heartbreaking scenes, but the two when the Scions, at some personal risk, declare themselves are among the most powerful. There’s an understated bravery here when Inas tells him, “We are with you. We are all with you,” which in turn gives Telemakos hope and courage.

There’s a running theme of Telemakos being compared to his uncle, Lleu, the lost Prince of Britain. And it happens again here, almost immediately. A visiting Roman (Byzantine) legate tells him, “You put me in mind of Lleu…[who] had a backbone of steel beneath his winning charm.” This is one of the clearest and most personal comparisons, and it’s very true, both of Lleu and Telemakos.

One of the other major themes throughout the series is the question of trust. And in this book that really comes to the fore. The conflict between Abreha and Telemakos is really one of trust. Does Abreha trust Telemakos to be loyal to Himyar? Does Telemakos trust Abreha to have his best interests at heart? Unlike the past books, Telemakos faces an antagonist who isn’t truly an antagonist, who wants Telemakos to like and respect him. You could write a mirror image of this book from Abreha’s point of view and it would be almost as true.

Because, of course, they’re both manipulative and conniving, and fairly ruthless. Telemakos is at this point a practiced spy and is so used to being secretive that at one point he thinks, “It was wonderful to be damned. You did not have to guard yourself at all.” If that isn’t a revealing statement, I don’t know what is. And Goewin warned Telemakos of Abreha’s cool ruthlessness like a book and a half ago; we see him again be both kindly and cruel. He takes everything away from Telemakos, and then holds him during a nightmare, ” clasping him firmly hand in hand and stroking his hair.” (HANDS AGAIN.)

But there are two other characters who in their own way are also part of this dance. Medraut, who shows up in a scene that’s heartbreaking but also the moment I like him most in the later books because he is finally present, using his strengths in defense of his children and not lost in regretting the past. And Athena. It’s so easy to see her as only little and to forget whose child she is, to forget that Telemakos himself was sneaking through the palace just a few years older than she is here. The moment when she shows herself is so viscerally heartbreaking. It reminded me not just of her relationship to Telemakos and Medraut, but Goewin too.

Underlying the outward political issues, there’s also the recurrence of Telemakos’s fear and the anger and hatred he feels stemming from it. It’s a weakness that Abreha both uses and tries to train out of him, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Anako at the end of the book that he’s truly freed. There’s an arc from fear and hatred to pity and mercy which is shown almost as miraculous: Telemakos thinks, “In the end all my fear is gone. How can it have happened? but there’s only pity left.”

I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s after this moment that Telemakos begins to act, rather than react. We see him take authority over himself, rather than being a tool in the hand of powerful adults (he’s always been an uneasy tool, but still). We see him find himself again, when he’s been everything but just Telemakos Meder and has been so far from home. (I love the moment when Priamos greets him: “Peace to you, Telemakos Meder. You’ve been lost.” That greeting has been used to great effect throughout the series, but nowhere is it more emotionally resonant than here.)

I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s after this that he and Abreha finally coming to a wary understanding with each other, that we discover Abreha’s threats were hollow all along and Telemakos is heir to three kingdoms. Both have misjudged and mistrusted the other; both have been strict where they could have been kind. And yet in the end they manage to reach a kind of stalemate, but also a new appreciation of each other.

All of this finally leads up to the ending, which I love dearly. It leads to Telemakos going home, to Athena calling him by name. It’s all hopes fulfilled, when they were lost. “She did not walk. She ran.”

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2008, Viking; YA

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June 2016 round up

Well, that was…a month. Also, just so everyone knows, I’m going to be mostly taking July off here. I’ll probably do a weeklyish round up, but I’ll be spending the time in planning, reading, and writing ahead.

Books I’ve talked about already
A Coalition of Lions by Elizabeth Wein
The Sunbird by Elizabeth Wein
The Lion Hunter by Elizabeth Wein
The Empty Kingdom by Elizabeth Wein (coming tomorrow)
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
Chocolate Heart by Laura Florand
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
Peas and Carrots by Tanita S. Davis (read last month)

Other books
Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling by Tony Cliff: This is a fairly enjoyable historical fantasy graphic novel. I remember hearing there were some issues of accuracy or representation after reading the first one; I’m not really qualified to comment on that. I did notice a fair amount of “not like the other girls” in this one, and yet I do also like reading them.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand: I loved, loved, loved this book. I wanted to talk about it in more detail, but ran out of time. It’s a wonderful mix of families, secrets, the stories we tell ourselves, and magical forests. It’s also a great way to show the realistic experience of a child with anxiety, who also gets to be the hero. More, please.

First Comes Marriage by Mary Balogh: I’ve read some Balogh before, but I wanted to go through an actual series. I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would, based on a number of friends’ enthusiastic responses.

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro: Modern-day take on Holmes and Watson which engages a lot with the implications of being descendants of the most famous Holmes and Watson. I appreciated it without necessarily loving it.

The New Guy and Other Senior Year Distractions by Amy Spalding: I enjoy Amy Spalding’s books a lot and this was an fun premise. The plot was a little all over the place, but the characters were great.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: This was my first Oyeyemi and I LOVED it. It’s an immersive book, full of gorgeous language and unusual but not overly mannered. It’s also about a lot of my favorite themes and things. I will definitely be reading more Oyeyemi.

Chase Me by Laura Florand: Florand’s latest; I liked the characters and their dilemma a lot. The background was less specifically my thing than her other books, as I’m not generally invested in military stories (probably a result of being raised by two former anti-war protestors), but Chase and Violette were enough to get me through the story.

Mind Your Manors by Lucy Lethbridge: An interesting mix of historical detail about middle-class Victorian/Edwardian housekeeping, and practical tips for cleaning today. It was a little heavier on the historical detail than I was anticipating from the description, but it was certainly well-researched and engaging.

Company Town by Madeleine Ashby: I liked a LOT about this one–the world, the voice, the characters. There’s a lot to think about in terms of the implications and themes. I especially liked the fact that although it’s a brutal world, and horrifying things happen, Hwa herself is definitely a competent person who’s trying her best. It’s not necessarily perfect in all regards–there were a couple of moments that seemed a little tone-deaf–but overall this was a well-done futuristic story that’s gritty without being grim.

Other posts
Links 6-29
Ten favorite 2016 releases to date
Ten anticipated releases in the rest of 2016
Books for lazy days
What I’m reading 6-7

TV & movies
Grantchester: I’ve watched most of this series now and I like it a lot. I have reservations about the Amanda storyline which seems lazy and cliche’ but overall it’s pretty fun.

Rosemary & Thyme: I’ve now finished Rosemary and Thyme, which is a little sad. The mysteries are pretty predictable–I think I correctly identified both killer and motive for 7/8 of the episodes in the last series–but Rosemary and Laura are why I kept watching.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries: It had been too long since I delighted in Phryne and Dot, and Jack and Hugh, and Jane, and Mac, and I just love this show, okay.

Finding Dory: I went to see this primarily to hang out with a friend, and I ended up liking it more than I expected. Like most Pixar/Disney films, much of it seems geared at adults vs. actual children–the Sigourney Weaver bit is hilarious but kids don’t care. I actually think I would have found it terrifying as a kid, since getting lost/separated from my parents was a big anxiety of mine. However, as an adult it’s pretty fun.

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Links from around the web 6-29-2016

I haven’t done a links post in a looong time! Let’s see if I remember how.

Two ebook deals! My dearly beloved Code Name Verity is 1.99 right now. Also, completely coincidentally, Roses and Rot is too! I absolutely recommend both of them.

A Tech Writer Explains Fashion” to women, who obviously don’t understand how it works. I haven’t read the original because I can’t handle how angry it would make me, but this takedown is superb. (via Natalie Luhrs)

Steering Into It” is a really good post on how to be helpful to someone who’s hurting.

Terri Windling gave a lecture about Tolkien’s legacy in the fantasy world awhile back. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it sounds like it’ll be fascinating! (via Stephanie Burgis)

Want to learn about an amazing Native lady? Of course you do! Musician, writer and activist Zitkala-Ša.

Living with high-functioning anxiety. So, uh, yeah. This is me. (The part about making a list to get through a Sunday made me wince.)

I will miss The Toast, especially for pieces like this one. “There is lace at your throat and wrists and disdain in your eyes and heart” is perfection.

Finally, a good number of internet friends and acquaintances got together to discuss in depth one of my favorite books ever, Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It’s a great discussion, and I even got a shout out!

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Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

roses and rotI won’t pretend that this is in any true sense a review, or that it’s unbiased and objective. Roses and Rot is a book that I do actually know was not written literally and specifically for me, but I don’t entirely believe that’s the truth. It combines so many elements that are not only Relevant to my Interests, but really, really important to me. And it does them well. The prose throughout is a joy to read, and there’s just enough, but not too much, meta-self-awareness to make the story shine. It is maybe not utterly perfect–it’s clearly written by someone who often writes short stories and this usually works and once or twice becomes a little too apparent in a way I can’t quite articulate. Nonetheless, it will absolutely be a favorite book for this year/forever.

I suspected I would love this book when I got to page 16 and this bit:

“Even though I hadn’t said so, I knew exactly the thing I had come to Melete to write–a novel told in stories, told in interweaving fairy tales, about the girls who get lost in the woods, and how it is that they come to be there, and whether or not they can save themselves. About the stories that lead them into the dark places of the forest, of their lives, and then become the maps by which they find their way out. I had known for a while that this was something I wanted to do, a story I needed to tell.”

Fairy tales are woven throughout this book, the ones Imogen knows–and she does know them; I grew up reading the complete Grimms and The Fairy Ring and Andrew Lang and Pepper and Salt and so often people say they love fairy tales and they just mean Beauty and the Beast. Imogen knows them. And she takes their elements and writes them again, fresh and beautiful. Fairy tales are not exactly morality tales in this story. They’re what Imogen calls them above: maps to find your way, stories that lead you through.

I knew I would love this book when I reached page 18 and recognized myself:

“So you learned the power in silence, and in secrets. Maybe you still look over your shoulder, but at least you got away. And after all, if you’d had a childhood that was different, one that didn’t always feel like walking on knives, maybe you would never have found your voice. If you hadn’t been forced to swallow your words, you would never have learned the power in speaking them. This is what you tell yourself. This is how you keep breathing. This is what happily ever after means.”

This is a book about surviving, and escaping, and living afterwards. It’s about finding ever after in a shape that’s real. It spoke so many things that I recognized, deep down, as true. They were things I needed to hear; they were things that helped because it meant someone else had felt them too.

But it’s also about the stories we tell ourselves. Some of them are true and some of them aren’t. Some are mostly true, but we can only see it from our own angle. Part of what Imogen has to learn over the course of the book is how to see stories from someone else’s point of view.

Often that point of view is her sister, Marin. They have a complex, tangled, relationship that is nonetheless the most important in the story. I always want stories about sisters, and this one gave me a version that didn’t have easy answers, and yet was entirely satisfying. Marin and Imogen are kind of mirror images of each other; dark and light, dancer and writer, praised and hurt. But it’s not that simple, and Howard also presents women who are vivid and complicated, who both engage with tropes and resist them.

Furthermore, I often find books that talk about writing from the perspective of a writer to be either unbearably overwrought or else so heavy-handed that I feel like they’re wink-wink-nudge-nudging me. Roses and Rot was neither; it gave a sense of Imogen as really a writer, in the way she approaches the craft as well as the art.

AND THEN, as if all of this was not enough, THEN–oh, I suppose this is a middling sized spoiler–I reached a certain point and started to say, “Wait. Wait. Is this book going where I think it’s going?” IT WAS. As if fairy tales, and surviving and sisters and writing weren’t already enough to make me love this book, it turned into a Tam Lin retelling where Imogen has to save Marin.

Tam Lin, in case you have not already gathered this, is probably in my top 2 fairy tales and a retelling centered on sisters is all I didn’t know I wanted. I can say that it ties back into the theme of Imogen escaping and leaving Marin behind, that it’s the task she has to complete to leave the forest, but that’s all too rational for my actual experience. I might have shrieked a little bit.

Also, I will mention, it contains both properly scary fairies AND a really insightful bit about the relationship of fairy tales and properly scary fairies. As if I still needed to be charmed.

So, like I said, I can’t be in any way objective about this book. It wasn’t a book I enjoyed; it was a book I needed. Like An Inheritance of Ashes last year, it was a book that made me feel recognized and seen. It is in its own way a map out of the forest.

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Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: The Lion Hunter

lion hunterThis month I’m looking at the Aksum series by Elizabeth Wein; I’ve already talked about A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird. This post discusses The Lion Hunter, which is the first of a two-part sequence within the series. Please note that there are spoilers!

This book opens with the birth of Telemakos’s baby sister, and a catastrophic attack by the lion he loves. These two interwoven events set up a kind of cascading effect that ties together many of the plot threads and themes from the previous books, and sets up new complications.

So it’s only right that siblings are one of the things that run through the book. Medraut and Goewin; Goewin and Medraut and Lleu; Telemakos and Athena; Abreha and Priamos (and their dead and absent brothers). And, although it’s not stated in this book, nor does Telemakos know this is the case: Gwalchmai and Medraut (which becomes significant later). While Athena and Telemakos are the most obvious sibling pair, the relationship between the other siblings I mentioned all have their own complexity and place in the story.

It’s also right that much of the book deals with what are called at one point, “wounds to the soul.” Turunesh, Medraut, and Telemakos all suffer in their different ways with what we might call post-partum depression and/or PTSD today. This was generally treated with sympathy and depth throughout the story, and I appreciated that a lot. I also liked the “wounds to the soul” phrase as something that both fit the characters’ understanding of the world and was not horribly ableist.

But what this book sets up and builds toward is really Telemakos’s leaving of childhood. In the past two books, he has been extremely competent, resourceful, and wise, but he has still been a child. Now he is growing up, which I think is symbolized by the loss of the lions he captured when he was younger.

This means that Telemakos is so much in a transitional stage–at one point, Abreha says, “I expect he does not yet have the measure of his dominion” and this is true on several levels. There’s a running theme throughout this book and The Empty Kingdom of Telemakos being almost literally unable to see himself as others see him. For instance, he seems to truly believe that people call him Morningstar to laugh at his fair hair, whereas a reader might see the real affection and respect that others feel for him. I suppose this belief does keep him from being insufferably arrogant, however.

It’s also quite interesting to note what other people name Telemakos. Telemakos Morningstar, Lij Bitwoded Telemakos Meder, Beloved, Bright One, Sunbird, Boy. The different names and titles have varying resonances throughout the book, but it’s interesting to note how many of them are how others see Telemakos. None of them, even Athena’s Boy, are necessarily how he thinks of himself, although to me Morningstar felt the most accurate. (As is the case throughout the series, there are some comparisons to Lleu, specifically via the title of Bright One.)

Both Morningstar and Bright One are nicknames given to Telemakos after he and Athena arrive in the South Arabian kingdom of Himyar, which is ruled over by Abreha Anbessa, who is himself Aksumite and the brother of Priamos. Abreha is a fascinating character to me; Goewin calls him a “manipulative political serpent” and he is. But Telemakos also sees his kindness, before he learns to see what Goewin does. Abreha is really, I think, quite a bit like Telemakos: clever and kind, but also utterly ruthless in defense of what he loves.

One of the things that Himyar gives Telemakos is a sense of companionship. He is used to being set apart from other children, but this changes from his first meeting with Iskinder to his later dealings with the Scions. “Never in his life had Telemakos felt so loved, and so at ease, with others more or less his own age.” And this companionship pays off later.

The last major thread that I noticed is of maps, tracking, navigation. He’s given Ginevra’s cross-staff, he has his father’s skill in tracking, and he is sent to be an apprentice to Abreha’s Star-Master. The maps that he copies are a plot point, but they also have a deeper resonance. So much of this story is about Telemakos learning to find his way, both literally, and symbolically.

However, this book is not the entire story. The ending shifts from the sense of warmth and companionship that has typified Abreha’s court, into a sudden reversal of betrayal (arguably on both sides) and distrust. It’s not quite as bad as the ending of The Two Towers, but not by all that much. I’ve never successfully managed to read it and not begin The Empty Kingdom as soon as possible. So I don’t quite have a conclusion, because there isn’t quite a conclusion; there’s an ending, but that’s not the same thing. It’s not until the second book that the build up begins to pay off and Telemakos comes into his own. Also, spoiler: I cry many tears. Next week I’ll talk about why.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2007, Viking/Firebird; YA

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Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite 2016 releases to date

top-ten-tuesday
This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

You know, I really thought I hadn’t been reading a ton of new books so far this year, but I came up with ten favorites no problem.

gentleman jolemasks and shadowskeeper of the mistpeas & carrots

Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here by Anna Breslaw

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

Peas and Carrots by Tanita S. Davis

To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner

 

I also have not yet finished Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot, but so far it is definitely one of my favorites of the year.

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