A Malaysian folk tale comes to life in this emotionally layered, chilling middle grade debut, perfect for fans of The Book of Boy and The Jumbies.
Suraya is delighted when her witch grandmother gifts her a pelesit. She names her ghostly companion Pink, and the two quickly become inseparable.
But Suraya doesn’t know that pelesits have a dark side—and when Pink’s shadows threaten to consume them both, they must find enough light to survive . . . before they are both lost to the darkness. (source)
Hanna Alkaf’s debut middle grade novel has been on my to-read list since it came out in 2020. I’m glad I picked it up at last! The Girl and the Ghost is a deliciously spooky story set in Malaysia and based on Malaysian folktales.
The narrative alternates between Pink (the pelesit) and Suraya (the girl). They’re both engaging characters with very different perspectives on the world.
As the story unfolds, we understand the ways that the history of Suraya’s grandmother and mother have spread like ripples to affect Suraya and Pink as well. I’ve seen the edges of some discussions about the way recent movies for kids engage with generational trauma and those themes seem very pertinent here as well.
Personally, I felt that Hanna weaves a nice balance between remaining in the child’s perspective and allowing enough hints for readers to understand that we’re not seeing the whole picture. And the facts of Pink’s life, death, and afterlife are slowly revealed in a way that was very effective. Hanna doesn’t absolve him for the hurt that he’s caused, but she also shows the reasons behind it.
I would absolutely recommend this book for fans of spooky mysteries that are strong in character and voice.
It’s hard to believe that 2022 is over halfway done! I haven’t been as consistent as I hoped with posting here, but I thought it would be fun to look at some of my favorite reads so far this year. This is a mix of rereads and new books.
Hello! It’s been a very intense spring around here (mostly good things, but all of them draining) and I haven’t gotten around to reviews here as much as I hoped to. As I ease back in, here’s a quick snapshot of my current reading list.
The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip
A reread, since it’s one that I haven’t revisited in a bit! It’s not my favorite of McKillip’s books, but I like the interweaving of past and present.
Siren Queen by Nghi Vo
Nghi Vo is rapidly becoming one of my favorite current authors. Siren Queen is a fairy tale-infused take on the Golden Age of Hollywood from the perspective of a Chinese girl who gives up everything to become one of its stars.
Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
I have read a bunch of Ursula Vernon, but no T. Kingfisher until now! I’m really enjoying this one so far; it’s one of those stories that feels familiar and fresh at the same time.
It just occurred to me that all three of these books take aspects of fairy tales and reimagine them, which is pretty cool!
America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
I’m really liking this one so far, but I may switch to reading it in print. The narrator for the audiobook is lovely, but I tend to be doing other things while I listen and for whatever reason I’m having trouble tracking the prose in this format.
The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
This is a frothy book that keeps reminding me of a blend of Knives Out and Westing Game. It’s not particularly deep but sometimes you just need a light YA mystery/romance/inheritance drama in your life.
We have moved! It’s been really nice settling into our new house and working on the garden, etc, but I didn’t do as much reading this month. Anyway, here’s what I did finish! A lot of Agatha Christie, because my brain flat out refused to take in more complicated stories for a while.
Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie, read by Hugh Fraser Novel 4/1/2022, eaudio, reread
Third Girlby Agatha Christie, read by Hugh Fraser Novel 4/3, eaudio, reread
Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott, read by Natalie Naudus Novel 4/10, eaudio, first read
The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie, read by Hugh Fraser Novel 4/13, eaudio, reread
Jade City by Fonda Lee, read by Andrew Kishino Novel 4/17, eaudio, reread
Premeditated Myrtle by Elizabeth C Bunce, read by Bethan Rose Young Novel 4/18, eaudio, first read
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells, read by Kevin R. Free Novella 4/19, eaudio, reread
Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie, read by David Suchet Novel 4/21, eaudio, reread
Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun by Charles J Shields Biography 4/24, print, first read
The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay Novel 4/25, print, first read
The Thousand Eyes by A.K. Larkwood Novel 4/26, print, first read
Thorn by Intisar Khanani, read by Shiromi Arserio Novel 4/27, eaudio, first read
Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie, read by David Suchet Novel 4/28, eaudio, reread
Merci Suarez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina Novel 4/30, print, first read
April round up
Books finished: 14
Favorites: The Thousand Eyes, Merci Suarez Can’t Dance
One of my current reading goals is catching up on some recent middle grade releases. Here are four I’ve finished recently!
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall
Novel, Harry N. Abrams, 2015 Read 3/1/2022, print, first read
“Through stories of Lakota leader Crazy Horse, a boy learns about his heritage and himself in this American Indian Youth Literature Award-winning novel from acclaimed author Joseph Marshall III” (Storygraph)
The story interweaves historical stories of Crazy Horse with a boy and his grandfather visiting the sites associated with his life. While I think this is a valuable book, I wished that the present day story had been developed a little more. Still a great recommendation for any reader interested in identity or Native history.
Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien
Novel, Henry Holt & Company, 2018 Read 3/5/2022, print, first read
“As the first students from the rural country of Shin to attend Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, Peasprout and her little brother Cricket have some pretty big skates to fill. They soon find themselves in a heated competition for top ranking.” (Storygraph)
Peasprout is a delightful main character and I enjoyed her voice a lot–it’s drily funny and sometimes melodramatic in a way that felt realistic. This is the first book in a series and I’ll definitely be recommending it to kids who are looking for an exciting adventure in a fantasy setting.
The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon read by Sullivan Jones
Novel, Penguin Random House, 2018 3/11/2022, eaudio, first read
“Caleb Franklin and his big brother Bobby Gene have the whole summer for adventures in the woods behind their house in Sutton, Indiana. Caleb dreams of venturing beyond their ordinary small town, but his dad likes the family to stay close to home.
Then Caleb and Bobby Gene meet new neighbor Styx Malone. Styx is sixteen and oozes cool. He’s been lots of different places. Styx promises Caleb and Bobby Gene that together, they can pull off the Great Escalator Trade–exchanging one small thing for something better until they achieve their wildest dream. But as the trades get bigger, the brothers soon find themselves in over their heads.” (Storygraph)
Kekla Magoon is just a fantastic middle grade writer, and I loved the way she captures that time between being a child and being a teen. Caleb wants so badly to be grown up, to be free to make his own decisions, and we really see how that impacts his choices throughout the story.
At some points it’s a tough read, but there’s a kindness and generosity to the treatment of all the characters. They’re all three dimensional and I thought this gave a real richness to the plot and the story. I appreciated the way Caleb and Bobby Gene’s relationship unfolds, and how they both react to the first challenges of their young adult lives.
Also, the Children’s Museum shout-out was nice!
My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi
Novel, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2019 3/17/2022, eaudio, first read
“Twelve-year-old Ebony-Grace Norfleet has lived with her beloved grandfather Jeremiah in Huntsville, Alabama ever since she was little. As one of the first black engineers to integrate NASA, Jeremiah has nurtured Ebony-Grace’s love for all things outer space and science fiction–especially Star Wars and Star Trek. But in the summer of 1984, when trouble arises with Jeremiah, it’s decided she’ll spend a few weeks with her father in Harlem.”
I listened to the audiobook edition of this one, which is narrated by the author! Zoboi has a really nice reading voice and it was neat to hear her interpretation of her own characters. I appreciated the depiction of Ebony-Grace’s inner life a lot, and there were also points when I just wanted to give her a hug and tell her it was going to be okay. Her slow journey to finding her own place, both in Harlem and Alabama, was challenging at times, but it was also rewarding. I loved that she doesn’t compromise on the core of who she is, but does start to see the richness and culture of her Harlem neighborhood and the other kids her age.
February was a busy, intense month around here, but it had some very wonderful moments and I got a fair amount of reading done! I didn’t quite get two reviews up, but given that we went on a big trip to see my mom and brother and spent most of the month looking at houses, I’m giving myself a pass on that one.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells Novella, Tor.com, 2017 Read 2/6/2022, eaudio, reread
Murderbot, Murderbot, it’s gonna murder your freaking butt. (Our household’s Murderbot song.) It was fun to revisit the first book and see how far everyone has come later in the series.
All the Feels by Olivia Dade Novel, Avon, 2021 Read 2/11/2022, print, first read
I had very mixed feelings on this story. I liked the point of view experience of adhd, which felt very natural and organic. But I felt an emotional distance from the main characters, and the solutions felt simplistic.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, read by Catherine Ho Novel, Macmillan, 2021 Read 2/11/2022, eaudio, first read
Ooh, I love Zen Cho and I loved this book! I was genuinely not sure what was going to happen throughout the story and the resolution worked very well for me! Also, I loved Ho’s narration, which really brought the story to life.
A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine Novel, Tor, 2021 Read 2/16/2022, eaudio, first read
Great follow up to the first book, taking a turn into very effective body horror. There’s some compelling ongoing tension between the main characters that works well within this world. Also, I love 8 Antidote!
The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells Novel, HarperVoyager, 2004 Read 2/18/2022, print, reread
I love Tremaine so much and I enjoy the Ile-Rien books a lot. I like revisiting them every few years and I always find them rewarding.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia Novel, Del Rey, 2020 Read 2/19/2022, print, first read
A deliciously creepy story! I loved Moreno-Garcia’s take on the Gothic genre, set in 1950s Mexico.
The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien, read by Andy Serkis Novel Read 2/26/2022, eaudio, reread
All in all, I found it pretty satisfying to reread this one! The audiobook was so-so; while I didn’t love all of the interpretations, there were some nice narrative choices too.
February round up
Books finished: 11
Favorites: Sabriel, Every Body Looking, Black Water Sister, A Desolation Called Peace, Mexican Gothic
Novel, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2020 Read 2/4/2022, print, first read
When Ada leaves home for her freshman year at a Historically Black College, it’s the first time she’s ever been so far from her family—and the first time that she’s been able to make her own choices and to seek her place in this new world. As she stumbles deeper into the world of dance and explores her sexuality, she also begins to wrestle with her past—her mother’s struggle with addiction, her Nigerian father’s attempts to make a home for her. Ultimately, Ada discovers she needs to brush off the destiny others have chosen for her and claim full ownership of her body and her future.
Description from Storygraph
Novels in verse can be a hard format for me, but when they click, they’re magical. Every Body Looking is a great example of a novel in verse that embraced the form and that I can’t imagine being written in any other way.
Weaving back and forth across Ada’s life, from elementary school through her exploration of her own identity and choices in her first year of college, the story allows the reader to slowly unfold the moments that influence Ada’s life and direction.
At the beginning of the book, she’s very much alone, shaped by the expectations and desires of the people around her. Over the course of the story, we see her begin to take the first steps towards connecting to other people and owning her own interests and boundaries. Her developing interest in dance is beautifully written and I think will resonate with any creative young adult.
Ada herself is a lovely character and her voice springs off the page. Iloh’s sense of rhythm and imagery really make the poetry sing and bring Ada herself to life. I also appreciated that the story is clear-sighted about the adults in her life and the impact of their choices on Ada, while not villifying any of them. Ada’s desire to connect with her mother while also knowing how their interactions are likely to end was especially powerful.
While I did wish that the book spent a little more time on the resolution, Every Body Looking is an engaging story that deals thoughtfully with many of the questions that young adults face in terms of identity, family, and making big decisions about your life.
It is February! I know it seems a little weird to be excited about the month that’s basically 1) the dregs of winter and 2) the shortest month. But R and I are supposed to visit my mom & brother and it will be the first time I’ve seen either of them in two years!
Anyway, I’m trying to get back into the groove of both reading on a consistent, focused basis and writing about what I’ve read. These are both activities that were absolutely second nature to me at one point. But the last–good grief–six years have been one doozy after another, personal and not. I don’t want to be 2015 Maureen again, exactly, but I do want some of that energy.
So! Here’s my January round up.
Books I finished
The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg Novella, Tachyon Publications, 2020 Read:1/1/2022, print, first read
The Hermit of Eyton Forest by Ellis Peters read by Roe Kendall Novel, Blackstone Audio, 2000 Read: 1/1/2022, eaudio, first read
As a mystery, this is one of the more complex Cadfael books, although the characters felt very much like a copy-paste of her usual types.
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett read by Stephen Briggs Novel, Harper Audio, 2004 Read: 1/4/2022, eaudio, reread
Tiffany is always a delight, but I forget how young she is in the first book!
The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones Novel, Greenwillow Books, 1993 Read: 1/7/2022, print, reread
Whewwww, the age difference! But I like the time travel bits and the way the different pieces of the series come together. It’s satisfying but also has that lovely dream-sense that runs through all the Dalemark books.
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold Novel, Baen, 2001 Read: 1/11/2022, eaudio, reread
I love the way this story focuses on those who have been disregarded for some reason. But in this reread, I also struggled with the pervasive fat shaming and the treatment of infertility.
Lavinia by Ursula K LeGuin, read by Alyssa Bresnahan Novel, Harcourt, 2008 Read 1/16/2022, eaudio, reread
As a note, I really loved the narration for this audiobook! It was a lovely interpretation of the text. Lavinia is one I hadn’t reread, I think since it first came out, but remembered liking. There were a few things I wasn’t wild about, but overall it rewarded another read. The interplay between everyday life and the numenous rituals gives texture to the world and the characters. There’s a fascinating look here at what is remembered and what is forgotten in history and stories.
Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North Novel, Orbit, 2021 Read 1/22/2022, print, first read
House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier Novel, Orbit, 2012 Read 1/26/2022, print, reread
I think I’ve reread this one since I bought it in 2012, but not for a while. It’s one of my favorite Neumeier books, with a lovely fairy tale quality to it. And–granted the genre typical attitude towards monarchy–I found the resolution satisfying and hopeful.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke Novel, Bloomsbury, 2004 Read 1/26/2022, eaudio, reread
Ahhh, my beloved! I really noticed this time how Clarke makes the fairies in this world almost incomprehensible to the humans, and yet they have what feels like a very consistent internal logic. It makes me want more stories set in Fairy!
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan Novel, Tor, 2021 Read 1/30/2022, print, first read
Oh, I loved it! A fascinating look at the historical period, and the tension between choice & fate, the determination of characters vs their expected paths!
The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia Novel, Tor, 2017 Read 1/30/2022, eaudio, first read
This is a lovely entry into the novel of manners genre, with exquisitely observed characters and an interesting look at the boundaries of choice. On a personal level, I didn’t find it particularly emotionally engaging, but did appreciate what it’s doing.
January round up Books finished: 11 Favorites: The Four Profound Weaves, Lavinia, House of Shadows, Jonathan Strange, She Who Became the Sun Format: 5 print; 6 eaudio / 1 novella; 10 novels Reading: 5 first reads; 6 rereads
Novel, Orbit, 2021 Read 1/22/2022, print, first read
Ven was once a holy man, a keeper of ancient archives. It was his duty to interpret archaic texts, sorting useful knowledge from the heretical ideas of the Burning Age—a time of excess and climate disaster. For in Ven’s world, such material must be closely guarded so that the ills that led to that cataclysmic era can never be repeated.
But when the revolutionary Brotherhood approaches Ven, pressuring him to translate stolen writings that threaten everything he once held dear, his life will be turned upside down. Torn between friendship and faith, Ven must decide how far he’s willing to go to save this new world—and how much he is willing to lose.
Description from Storygraph
I haven’t read North’s earlier books, so this was my introduction to her work. Having read this one, I’m still left unsure of whether I actually liked it or not. Not all books need to be liked, I think. Some challenge the reader instead, and some go out of their way to alienate the reader. Similarly, not all books have or need an argument, a philosophical or moral through-line.
But in the case of Notes from the Burning Age, there’s something about the seriousness of the themes and occasional archness of the narrative which made me feel that this book is one that wants to be liked and wants to put forth an argument. I’m not sure it quite does either successfully.
Then again, maybe I’m not the best reader for this whole genre. Near future fiction is not as interesting to me as other types of speculative fiction, because the mirror of our era is often too obvious. The themes and even cultural references are more about 2021 than they are about representing another culture. Where are the references to things that haven’t happened yet? The history that comes between our time and theirs?
This kind of setting can be done well (I do love LeGuin’s version in Always Coming Home, and Connie Willis’ historian books). Unfortunately, here it felt a bit haphazard in terms of what has survived to Ven’s age.
At the same time, I was gripped by the plot and Ven’s almost accidental careening from one disaster to another. In some ways, he’s a rather passive main character, but the banked fires of his dedication and belief are compelling nonetheless. North pulls off an interesting sleight of hand trick with his character that I’m still thinking about.
The Surun’ do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But Uiziya now seeks her aunt Benesret in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay. Among the Khana, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter as scholars.
A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother.
As the past catches up to the nameless man, he must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya, and Uiziya must discover how to challenge a tyrant, and weave from deaths that matter.
Description from Storygraph
This is the first full length work in Lemberg’s Birdverse universe, after a number of short stories set in the world. I came to this book without any background knowledge of the earlier works, but didn’t feel that my reading experience suffered.
On the contrary, I found a world that felt complex and natural, sprawling out beyond this singular story. I suspect that this is partly because Lemberg has been writing in this world for so long that it has acquired a sort of lived-in quality. (I was reminded a bit of Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate books in this respect, since the world appears in some earlier short stories in Conservation of Shadows.)
Not to make an awful joke, but The Four Profound Weaves did indeed feel profound. The descriptions of magic are lovely, and the system wasn’t overly complicated or overly smoothed out. This is in large part a story about living within tension and complexity, and I very much liked how the magic itself echoed that.
Moreover, we see magic and its possibilities and limitations through the development of the characters, very much within their perspective and experiences–which is to say that sometimes the story and the world surprise them, and so we are surprised as well.
On the surface, the writing style seems straightforward, but there are bursts of richness and even deep lyricism. Here’s one of my favorite moments:
To weave from death, you had to listen to the dead. To know them deeply, to attend to what had been silenced, to care enough to help the dead speak again through every thread that made up the great work.
Uiziya and nen-sasaïr are characters who have lived full lives before the story begins, which I loved. Their experiences echo each other, but they’re not the same. Lemberg explores the way identity is formed, bounded, transmuted, and celebrated in a complex interweaving of stories. I think the impression I’m left with is a sense that in the face of either/or questions, this story’s answer is: yes.