Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead: I was really blown away by this book, and I wish I had it together enough to talk about it at greater length. Stead weaves together two connected narratives that are really powerful. The themes of friendship and growing up are treated gracefully, and I think this is a really valuable addition to middle grade fiction.
The Scent of Holiness by Constantina Palmer: Reflections and stories from a Greek women’s monastery. I really like this one–I’d read it for Lent a year or two ago–and find it both challenging and inspiring.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness: I wasn’t sure how this one was going to go, but I ended up really liking it. It’s quite funny, and it has a really enjoyable and diverse cast of characters. I can only judge the representation of anxiety, but at least that part was done really, really well. And if you want a fun meta take on Chosen One tropes, this is a good one. (see also: Carry On and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Turn of the Story)
The Girl Who Fell Under Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente: I’d read the first few books in this series when they came out and then got somewhat distracted. I did like this one, but I didn’t feel the same level of engagement/enjoyment as I once had. I’m not sure if this is a function of being older or if there’s a flaw in the book itself.
The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine: Oh, I wanted to like this one. I really, really wanted to like this one. For one thing, the cover is flat out gorgeous, and the worldbuilding and characters were initially really engaging. But I felt like the early promise of something really unique turned into a story that just repeated the same tropes, with constant betrayals and plot turns that didn’t seem earned. And I was really distressed by the death of one of the characters [I have spoilery thoughts about this + representation]. Unfortunately, this one just did not work for me.
A Question of Magic by E.D. Baker: Middle grade fantasy in which a young girl ends up becoming the next Baba Yaga. But it’s more complicated and dangerous than that initially sounds. This was an interesting mix of light-hearted and serious, which I think actually works really well for the target audience. I have some small reservations about the ending, but overall really liked this fairy tale retelling.
The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley: I’m not super in love with this book–it seemed sillier than the other Flavia books with all of the spy intrigue, and I felt like the story just keeps stringing us along without answering questions. I think I might be done with this series for now.
A Crooked House by Agatha Christie (audio): Pretty typical Christie, with maybe a slightly larger emphasis on the psychological details. It’s one that I both enjoy and argue with in my head a lot. Hugh Fraser read the audiobook and I would really just like for him to read all of the audiobooks for everything. He’s great with voices and narration.
Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan: Someone on Twitter (can’t remember who!) mentioned this memoir of Christie’s years as an archaeologist–or archaeologist’s wife? I found that it’s a gentler and more witty version of Christie’s writing, full of funny stories about herself and the others in the expedition. Also, sadly, full of paternalistic racism & imperialism. She’s maybe slightly more self-aware here? but it’s still very present.
Little Robot by Ben Hatke: This is the most adorable and heartwarming story about a girl and her robot. It’s largely wordless, with lovely art. I loved the fact that Hatke manages to telegraph details of class and race very clearly, and at the same time the story focuses on the relationship between the girl and the little robot.
The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands: I’d been hearing good things about this middle grade book from several people I trust, and it didn’t disappoint! A very enjoyable and dramatic story about alchemists in Restoration England. Christopher has to decipher a series of clues to uncover the shadowy group that murdered his master. It’s also a nice look at family and friendship and finding a place for ourselves.
Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson: Johnson has done a couple of interesting books about different professions, including one about librarians. I liked this look at archaeologists and archaeology a lot (and it fit very nicely with the Christie book above). I will say, though, that I wish Johnson had faced the extremely dodgy past of archaeology a bit more head on. She’s certainly aware of it, but tends to leave it out. I suspect this is partly because she’s interested in the state of the field today, but also partly because she doesn’t want to bring up the fact that it’s based on a lot of theft from native peoples.
Stiff by Mary Roach: A look at what happens to human bodies after we die. It was interesting, but for me it bore almost no resemblance to my personal experience or belief system. My major experience of death had nothing to do with either the funeral home industry or the other scenarios Roach lays out. It was gentle; religious; intimate–all things that Roach doesn’t portray. So I accepted that the experiences she describes may be true for others, but they didn’t have much resonance for me.
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: I really, really, really liked this one–there were parts that made me cry, although I persist in thinking that the German spy subplot is just a Bit Too Much. I suspect that thinking too much about it as historical fiction might cause issues, but for me the heart of the story is really about Ada and Jamie and their struggle to find a home. That part absolutely worked for me, and I found it gripping despite the fact that the overall plot is a familiar one.
TV & movies
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel, which is one of my all-time favorites. I think this is a decent adaptation of the surface level story, although they made some odd and–as far as I can tell–needless changes to the ending which annoyed me. The casting is lovely (Eddie Marsan as Mr. Norrell is especially good and Enzo Cilenti as Childermass brought a complexity to the character that made me care a lot about him). But I think it missed the deeper layers of the story, and perhaps more so, the sense of the wonder and beauty of magic that the book captures so well. I never felt the Raven King behind every door, behind the sky, on the other side of the rain.