A quiet week

(from yesterday)

Just a note to say that I won’t be posting here this week–it’s Holy Week for Orthodox Christians, and I’m observing it partly by cutting down on online stuff. (Also will basically be at work, cleaning something, or at church.)

See you all next week!

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Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

masks and shadowsMasks and Shadows is Stephanie Burgis’s latest book, out this month. She’s a favorite author of mine–I absolutely loved the Kat Stephenson series–and someone I really enjoy on Twitter a well. Masks and Shadows is her first adult novel, and I was very curious to read it and see that switch.

Like the Kat books, this is a historical fantasy. It’s set in 1779, in the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy–another reason I was interested to read this one, since I couldn’t think of many other historical fantasies set in Hungary. The story takes place against a backdrop of a tumultuous political era, with many of the tensions appearing in the microcosm of the Esterhazy court. But it also weaves in the personal stories of Carlo Morelli, a renowned castrato singer, and Charlotte von Steinbeck, a widow and a new arrival to court. And there’s some really creepy magic, which probably didn’t happen. (Right?)

At first I was a bit taken aback because my impression had been that this book was focused on Carlo and Charlotte. As it turns out, there are actually a number of narrators! Once I adjusted my expectations there, I ended up really liking this story. It’s a complex and twisty plot with different threads that all come together at the end. And I did like several of the characters (the ones we’re meant to) quite a bit, especially Charlotte.

One of the things I really appreciated was the way Burgis depicted the society of the time, with its arranged marriages, acknowledged mistresses, and intrigues, while also giving us a character who is both part of that society and who also longs for something different. Both Carlo and Charlotte are, in their own ways, dependent on others, and they have a similar journey to finding a way to each other and to the life they actually want to live.

There’s also a lot of lovely writing about opera here. I happen to be an opera fan, personally, so I’m not sure how this would read to someone less interested in that aspect. Haydn is a minor character, and the whole plot hinges on the performance of one of his operas. Music is also the way that Charlotte and Carlo initially connect, as Charlotte’s talent allows Carlo to see beyond her conventional facade. There’s a clear sense of the love of music, especially opera, and its power, which I really liked.

[this paragraph is maybe slightly spoilery] I found the secret society that is the main magical force and the main antagonist a little less compelling. Although their presence makes sense given the fact that there were secret societies in Europe throughout this period, they never seemed entirely real as a threat to me. However, their magic is quite creepy!

That minor issue aside, I ended up really liking this book and the story it tells. It weaves different threads together in an expert way, but I found the central love story between Charlotte and Carlo, their slow recognition of the other’s worth, remained my favorite part.

Book source: ARC from the author

Book information: 2016, Pyr books; adult historical fantasy

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Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston (not a review)

exit pursued by a bear[content warning: both the book and this post contain discussion of sexual assault and rape. Skip this one if you need to. <3]

Continuing this week’s theme, I can’t quite manage to review this one in the normal sense. It’s a book that I loved deeply and that I felt deeply, but which I’m having trouble talking about. I spent the entire time I was reading it on the verge of tears and yet I couldn’t say exactly why. If you want a really good actual review, I’ll point you to Brandy’s, which does a great job of capturing the book’s strengths.

E.K. Johnston is at this point one of my favorite authors and one I’ll pretty much automatically read. This is her fourth published book, and it’s a bit different in that it’s within the contemporary and realistic genre, rather than the fantasy she’s published to date. And yet, as she’s said, this is perhaps the most fantasy book she’s written.

Part of the difficulty of talking about this book for me is that it’s just so complex. How can you do justice to this story when you’re pulling out different threads? Saying that it’s a Shakespearean retelling, or a cheerleading story, or even a story about friendship doesn’t capture it. And while it’s true that this is a book about the aftermath of rape, it’s doing something a little different from books like Speak or All the Rage (which are wonderful!).

Perhaps the reason I kept wanting to cry is the distance between what Johnston shows us and what we normally see, not only in fiction but in real life. Two weeks after this book came out, Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges and the judge basically put the victims on trial instead. The ongoing legal battle to free Kesha from being forced to work with the man who raped her also reappeared just after this book was published. Every personal story of sexual assault that I’ve been trusted with has had people doubting accounts, dismissing concerns.

Johnston gives us something different here: a story where something terrible happens, and then people react the way they should. By giving us a version of the world where Hermione is believed, where she is treated well by the adults in charge, where she is given space to remain herself, Johnston asks us to consider that our current reality need not be this way. There are certainly unkind people in this book (LEO, UGH) but they are exceptions. And Hermione refuses to lose herself: her love of cheerleading, her friendships, her identity. She refuses to become “that raped girl.” I appreciated that she is level-headed about this, and also that it’s a process that’s slow, hard, and ultimately hopeful.

I read this book feeling, as I’m feeling now, a strange mix of anger, sorrow, hope, and determination. It challenges us to make our world closer to this one, to make our reactions to terrible situations the kind that will foster belief, support, and healing.

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Links: 4-20-2016

Bid on advanced copies of Stephanie Burgis’s next two books!

If you’re interested in YA, Kelly Jensen’s massive 230+ roundup of new books (just through June!!!) is well worth taking the time to look through.

Although this essay on “How not to talk about African fiction” is about adult fiction, it’s equally relevant to YA and kidlit in general.

 

You probably have already seen the Rogue One trailer, but just in case…or you know, if you want an excuse to watch it again.

This thread on the issues with casting in terms of Ghost in the Shell was really informative in giving the cultural background of the anime.

No one wants this, James Cameron.
This nine year-old-girl reporter is AMAZING. ” I don’t think people should be able to decide for me who I should be and what I should be doing. I never began my newspaper so that people would think I was cute. I started the Orange Street News to give people the information they need to know.”

Dear New York Times: this is gross and you should feel bad.

This  thread of studies showing what Black people have said all along is something to read and sit with awhile if you’re white.

They’re finally just going to leave Hamilton on the $10 and take Jackson off the $20, which is what everyone wanted in the first place (because Jackson was horrible). *eye roll*

Laura Turner’s post about “The insufficiency of self-care” is a really thoughtful look at the subject, and it sparked some good conversations with friends.

 

This cat takes the train in Tokyo by himself. Bonus: he looks a lot like my cat and is the cutest!

Simone Biles & Gabby Douglas being happy for each other is so great!!

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books that make me laugh

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!

Writing this post was an interesting exercise in realizing that I’ve changed a lot over the almost ten years I’ve been reading and reviewing in this space. Looking back through my “Humor” BookLikes shelf, I found that I don’t read as many books that could be strictly called humor anymore, nor do I necessarily think I would love the books I used to enjoy in the same way. Nonetheless, I do enjoy a funny book, although some of these definitely make you laugh and then punch you in the feels.

me and earlstep asideprickwillow placetsnotd

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Hark! A Vagrant & other books by Kate Beaton

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Lynburn Legacy by Sarah Rees Brennan

All Creatures Great & Small (and sequels) by James Herriot

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

The Exiles series, and the Lulu series by Hilary McKay

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Jeeves and Wooster by P.G. Wodehouse

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“At least we’re not okay together”

Ms_Marvel_Last_DaysThis post was sparked by my reading of Ms. Marvel: Last Days which resulted in me choking up multiple times while I was reading it. But this isn’t a review as such, although it will probably include spoilers so tread carefully if that’s something you’re avoiding!

What Last Days is doing is wonderful and noteworthy for a couple of reasons. From a purely personal point of view, Kamala’s story has been my entry into superhero comics. I love what G. Willow Wilson and the other creators involved have done with the story, the art, and especially the characters. Last Days is everything I love about this Ms. Marvel series, ramped up to 11. It’s also full of tension which (uh, spoiler) is not resolved at the end of this volume.

First, it’s a story which foregrounds Kamala and all the influential girls & women in her life, and MY HEART. We’ve seen Kamala have important relationships with other women throughout the series, but here a sizeable portion of the volume pulls together these threads all at once. This centering of female relationships is still all too rare, and it’s still making me choke up thinking about it. (The scene with her mom is just perfect, and Nakia, and CAROL. Everything hurts, but in a good way.)

Moreover, it’s a story where once again Kamala uses her faith as a touchstone for her own responses and beliefs. I’m not Muslim, but I am religious and this rang really true to me. It’s how I hope I would respond in similar circumstances, and at the same time it’s entirely born out of Kamala’s personal cultural and religious background.

Most of all, I loved the fact that this is a story about the end of the world which doesn’t simply posit that humanity is going down in flames. Yes: people freak out and do silly things and tear things apart. But not all of them. Not all the time. This is a book about the end of the world in which not only Kamala, but multiple other characters, react by reaching out, by doing their best to meet whatever’s coming with warmth and dignity.

This is the kind of apocalypse story I want more of. The kind that reminds us that humanity has grace in it as well as evil. Maybe some people can afford stories where everything and everyone is terrible. I can’t; I need stories that face the world and yet still have hope. This one does exactly that, and I want to read more that have this same realistic-yet-hopeful take.

In the end, this is a story which is generous to its characters, to us. Like the rest of Kamala’s stories, it’s full of determination and heart and humor. That the situation she’s facing now is one that she may not be able to solve, but that only makes the courage and kindness with which she faces it more powerful.

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What I’m reading: 4-13

goblin emperorI’m considering changing things up a bit here, and one of my ideas was to start semi-regularly doing a snapshot of what I’m reading right now, rather than what I’ve finished. We’ll see how it goes–let me know what you think!

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner: I am allllmost done with my reread of QoA. Having now reached the point where most of the “ow-my-feelings” moments are over, it’s mostly the happy ending, yay!

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette): I don’t remember exactly where I am with this one–a little less than halfway through, I think. I’ve been reading it before bed, because it doesn’t matter that I’m tired and not in the best state for reading comprehension.

Dark North by Gillian Bradshaw: An Ethiopian auxiliary in Roman Britain. I think I started this one before and didn’t finish it, but I can’t remember why. It’s certainly not gripping me with the same excitement as my favorites of her books, but I am enjoying it and it’s a relatively quick read.

I don’t often read this many books all at the same time, but I’m kind of enjoying having different kinds of books for different situations–Queen of Attolia is perfect for lunchtime reading, for example, because I know it so well that it doesn’t matter where I stop or start.

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