Category Archives: bookish posts

Upcoming Workman books I’m intrigued by

Once a month, I talk about some upcoming titles from a specific publisher’s catalog. This month it’s Workman’s Fall/Winter 2018 catalog.

Because Workman is a relatively small publisher, there aren’t a lot of titles here. But I wanted to feature a catalog that wasn’t from the Big Six (Five? I’m still unclear on the Penguin/Random House merger and its effects.)

non-fiction

Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge Susan Hand Shetterley: I just think seaweed is cool, and I’m excited to maybe learn more about it. August 7

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid: This seems like a really cool concept and the illustrations featured on Edelweiss are gorgeous. September 18

Young Adult

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health ed. by Kelly Jensen: This is a non-fiction anthology that collects a number of different voices on mental health. I’m including it here because it’s a topic I care about and it’s edited by someone who I know is very thoughtful about mental health and mental illness.  October 2

A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma: There’s a new Nova Ren Suma! I had no idea! That’s exactly why I find looking through catalogs really valuable–it’s a great way to find books that aren’t getting as much of a social media buzz. Anyway, I love Nova Ren Suma’s books and I’m super excited that she has another one coming out. September 4

 

 

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Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

I’ve been trying to keep up with some middle grade books beyond the fantasy I gravitate towards, which is the reason I picked this one up. Having finished it, I have very mixed thoughts.  There are some aspects that are great, some aspects that didn’t work as well for me personally, and one big thing that I have some real issues with and think is potentially harmful.

Where the Watermelons Grow is contemporary and…mostly realistic (more on that in a sec).  It’s the story of Della Kelly, the summer she’s 12, when a drought hits her area of North Carolina and her world falls apart. Her daddy’s farm isn’t growing well because of the drought, her baby sister is a whirlwind, and her mother is showing signs that her schizophrenia is returning as it has twice before. Della decides that rather than let her family disintegrate, she has to do something to fix it.

There’s also a small town, Della’s best friend Arden who moved from up North, and a spinster lady with magical honey that can cure anything. Except Della’s Mamma.

So, there’s a lot happening in this book and I’m not sure it all worked together very well. On the positive side, Baldwin nails the feeling that a lot of kids have when there is something really big and scary going on in their adults’ lives: I must have caused this somehow. It’s my fault and my responsibility to fix. Della becomes increasingly scattered over the course of the book as she tries different ways to cure her mother, once and for all.  I certainly recognized it from when I was young, and I appreciated seeing it in a story for 11-12-year-olds. It’s an age when you’re starting to understand hard things but when you often don’t have the ability to process them adequately without some help.

I didn’t love the magical realism aspect, which didn’t feel integrated into the story as fully as I would have wished. And none of the minor characters seemed to have any life beyond Della and her perspective–which is fine if that’s a authorial choice. I’m not sure it was here. Baldwin seemed to be reaching for the “quirky Southern town” theme we’ve seen in some other middle grade recently. These aren’t ever my favorite books, but here the quirkiness felt undercut by the seriousness of the rest of the story, neither quite leavening it with humor or working to reinforce it.

However, the biggest problem that I have is the portrayal of Della’s mother. I struggled with this, because I absolutely think that a story about a child whose parent has a mental illness can be helpful and vital. I really liked This Is How I Find Her by Sara Polsky, for instance. This can be a really tough thing to grow up with and experience, especially when our society is still so far from real understanding or support for people with mental illnesses. And middle grade is a perfect time to address this.

But–but–I really struggled throughout this story with how Suzanne, Della’s mom, is shown. I acknowledge that this story is entirely through Della’s eyes, and that we’re meant to read along and grow with her.  I also acknowledge that the book very explicitly supports medication for mental illnesses, and tries to break down some of the stigmas of hospitalization.

That being said, Della over and over says that she wants a “normal mother,” and she wants to cure her mom. That’s understandable from a kid’s perspective, but it still stung to read. What’s worse, for me, is that both Della and her father express exasperation with her mother, feeling how much of a burden she is to them. I think we’re meant to sympathize with Della’s father as he is struggling to raise two kids and keep the farm going in the middle of a drought. But to me all of his interactions came across as patronizing or outright unkind towards his wife. And the idea that people with mental illnesses are burdens to their loved ones is very much a real life issue that’s incredibly hurtful. I disliked seeing it perpetuated here without much interrogation.

It’s also unfortunate that Suzanne has absolutely no personality aside from her mental illnesses. (While Della talks about schizophrenia by name several times, it also sounds like Suzanne has another OCD-like disorder which is not specifically named.) Towards the very end of the book, she sings once and Della says she’s always loved her mother’s voice, but that thread isn’t present anywhere else in the book. We know almost nothing about her likes or dislikes, who she essentially is as a person. She exists almost entirely as a negative force, her illness the antagonist that’s keeping Della from being happy, “normal,” like her friend Arden. She is explained over and over by Della’s father, but we never get to see her explain herself. Part of this is due to the tight focus of the book, which starts when she is already experiencing more symptoms, but part of it is also due to a lack of characterization which keeps her from ever being seen as a real person.

I also kept wondering as I was reading what this book is saying to kids who have mental illnesses. If you are 12 and have anxiety, if you are 13 and have depression, how would it feel to see the only character with a mental illness be shown in such a relentlessly negative light? How would it feel to see that your pain is a burden?

This isn’t exactly a bad book, and I’d be curious to read whatever Baldwin writes next. Showing kids who are struggling with feeling the weight of the world that it’s not always their fault, that they’re allowed to seek help from trusted adults, and that they’re allowed to be upset is a good thing. But because of the depiction of mental illness and the way Della’s mom is never given her own voice, I don’t think I could recommend it.

Books I do recommend:
When I Find Her by Sara Polsky (upper middle-grade/YA)
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand (middle-grade)
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (YA)
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Previously on By Singing Light:
“On the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope”: why I love Galadriel (2016)
Patricia McKillip Reading Notes: The Book of Atrix Wolfe (2015)
Dirty Little Secret by Jennifer Echols (2013)

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Valley Girls by Sarah Nicole Lemon

Reading Sarah Nicole Lemon’s debut book, Done Dirt Cheap, was an experience. It’s one of those books that leaves you slightly dizzy and wondering what had just happened. But in the best possible way. So I was excited to read her second, Valley Girls, and I am happy to report that for me it did not disappoint.

There are two things that I loved the most about this book. First, it is deeply, unabashedly nerdy about climbing. If you’ve read Code Name Verity, it’s like Maddie is about planes, but the entire book. Rilla isn’t instantly amazing at it, but she keeps coming back and Lemon gives a sense of why. It’s not just the technical details, although they are compelling and gave me a false sense of vicarious accomplishment, like I too could climb in Yosemite. (Hahahaha.) But the real heart of climbing in this book is that it’s the mechanism through which we see Rilla’s journey. It’s the way that she comes to understand herself and the people around her more clearly.

The second thing that I loved is that this is a story very tightly focused on a young woman’s interiority. Rilla is deeply flawed and she’s not excused for that, for the way she lashes out and hurts others. But she’s also not condemned for it; this is a book about second chances, and it’s a reminder that we don’t have to stay in the box other people create for us. Throughout the book, we see flashes of other characters’ perspectives in ways that remind us of their own points of view, and yet Rilla’s transformation is always the heart of the story.

And there are other aspects that tie right into things I love, like the beautiful descriptions of the Yosemite landscape and the feelings of vastness and awe that it gives Rilla. Or the thorny, complex relationship between Rilla and her sister Thea (if I have a small complaint about the book, it’s that this thread gets kind of dropped towards the end, and I wish there was another scene between the sisters). Or the stubborn and also complicated relationship between the group of girls who climb in Yosemite, which Rilla finds herself a part of.

Most of all, it’s about the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and who other people are, and the way those stories can get in the way of growth. I loved how Rilla’s desire to grow was sometimes at odds with the familiarity of stereotypes and expectations. It is often easier to live down to our worst selves, and the process here is not a simple or immediate one. I took a photo of one quote that particularly resonated with me:

“It was true. That was what she’d been expecting–to change the minute she determined she should. Terrified when she was not immediately the things she envisioned. Panicked she never would be.”

It’s part of Rilla’s journey to realize that she doesn’t have to be instantly perfect at climbing, or at friendships, or at being true to her own self. We see her mess up again and again through the story, but we also see her learn her own strengths, internal and external. Ultimately, this felt like a very kind book to me, one that wants girls like Rilla–girls who feel like outsiders, who feel unlovable and unloving–to see that this is not the only truth about them. To realize that they can mess up and not always live up to their ideals or desires, and yet still be worth something.

For me, the ending felt a tad abrupt, and as I said a strand or two was dropped. In that sense it’s perhaps not a technically perfect book, but the emotional journey and Rilla’s characterization rang true and so I don’t really care. It’s not inspirational in the sense of the characters being perfect or instantly good. They’re flawed and passionate and often wrong. But the story here is all the more powerful for that and I’m glad I read it.

Other reviews of Valley Girl:
Kirkus (I really, really disagree with this take on Rilla!)
Great Imaginations
The Page Turner
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Previously on By Singing Light:
Landscape and Character (2016)
Worldbuilding 202 (2015)
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (2014) [speaking of thorny, complex sisters, and stories we tell about ourselves]

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Currently Reading

I have been reading Starless for days and days and I’m starting to feel like it will never end. I should maybe start something else before I get so frustrated that I swear off reading forever and this turns into a shoe repair blog (jk, probably). The Shepherd’s Crown is a reread for fun and feels, and I’ve only dipped into the other books so far. But I’m excited for Summer of Salt because apparently there are family secrets and weird bird magic? It sounds like something I’ll be into anyway.

 

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Favorite biographies

I have a type of biography that I love and it is: thoughtful biographies of complex and difficult women. I think that they’re ways I learn to understand myself better. In the biographies that I love, I see parts of myself but also lives I don’t know and can’t understand, ways of engaging with the world that are not mine and yet help me to see my own life more clearly. Some of these books have changed my life so deeply that I can’t even bring myself to truly write about them. (The Tiptree bio and Savage Beauty in particular.) A good biography can be just as emotionally effective as fiction, if not more so! (I cried HEAPS over Lady Byron.) Anyway, I love these books and continuing to talk about them feels like laying my heart bare.

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley

Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus

Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of a Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters

James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon by Julie Phillips by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Lena Roy

Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

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A guide to Martha Wells, for Murderbot fans

As someone who has been a fan of Martha Wells’ books for at least six years now, it’s been a lot of fun to see new people discovering her work via Murderbot. I love the Murderbot novellas, and I’m so glad that other people do too. (Also that we’re getting a novel! Yes!) But Wells has written a lot of awesome books, so I thought I’d put together a list of places you might want to start, depending on what draws you to Murderbot to begin with.

Let us begin where I did, with The Wheel of the Infinite, a secondary world fantasy featuring a protagonist who really would prefer not to. Maskelle is a middle-aged woman who is jaded and weary but also very competent and appealingly snarky.

Or, if you’d rather, you can try The Wizard Hunters, the first in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. I love Tremaine, one of the two protagonists for this series, a lot; she reminds me in some ways of Julie Beaufort-Stuart, but if Julie was deeply depressed and didn’t like people all that much even though she also cares about them. Bonus: this series has weird magic, accidental travel to other worlds, friendships, and a very prosaic romance.

I am also very fond of the other Ile-Rien books, particularly The Death of the Necromancer, which I described back in 2013 as “a bit like Les Miserables, if Jean Valjean was a burglar and he teamed up with Javert to fight sorcerous crime.” (A description which instantly makes me want to reread the book, if I do say so myself.) However, I stand by the suggestion to start with Element of Fire if you’re planning to read Death of the Necromancer, for maximum feels. These are the least like the Murderbot series in some ways, but they do have some pretty excellent politics and machinations going on.

Finally, I am still working my way through the Raksura series, which starts with The Cloud Roads. Like the Murderbot stories, these feature non-human protagonists–in this case the Raksura, who are winged shapeshifters. The main character, Moon, is also an outsider in his own culture, which makes for some interesting conflicts.

I personally have most often reread The Wheel of the Infinite and The Wizard Hunters, but I’ve truly enjoyed and recommend all the books here!

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July 2018 books

Most Wanted Rae Carson 7.26

Dread Nation Justina Ireland 7.22

Always Never Yours Emily Wibberley and Austen Siegemund-Broka 7.22

By Your Side Kasie West 7.12

Listen to Your Heart Kasie West 7.10

Front Desk Kelly Yang 7.10

All Summer Long Hope Larson 7.10

The Girl with the Red Balloon Katherine Locke 7.9

Unicorn Rescue Society: The Creature of the Pines Adam Gidwitz 7.6

Puddin’ Julie Murphy 7.2

The Beauty That Remains Ashley Woodfolk 7.2

 

Total books read: 11
Total rereads: 0

Favorites:

  • The Girl with the Red Balloon
  • All Summer Long
  • Front Desk
  • Listen To Your Heart

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