Category Archives: reviews

Recent Reading: Thomas, Shannon, Shaw, Hoose

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Does my Nice White Lady opinion about this book matter at all? Probably not. But sometimes you read something so good that even though it isn’t meant for you, it is worth talking about. And for whatever it’s worth, I loved Bri’s story.

It’s about the pressure of family history and making your own choices, about ambition and achieving your dreams. There were moments when as an adult I was concerned about the choices Bri was making, but I also understood why she was making them and they felt very realistic for a teenager under pressure. Personally, I found the conclusion very satisfying, and I appreciated where Thomas chose to end the story.

Although I’m not someone who tends to listen to rap, I really admired how well Bri’s skill is shown. Having that first person narrative during her rap battles showed her talent and quick wits, and kept it engaging.

Some authors have one great book in them–and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that–but I think On the Come Up proves that Angie Thomas is here to stay.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

I wanted to like this one a lot! But it didn’t quite fulfill my expectations, despite being full of things that I should have, in theory, loved. Dragons! Historical fantasy! Spies! Ladies being friends and/or falling in love. Somehow the characters never quite felt fully inhabited and, in a common failing for epic fantasy, it felt weirdly conservative in its undertones even when it seemed to be about remaking the world. I don’t know! I read the whole doorstopper book, so I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but I would also say it never quite reached its full potential. On the other hand, lots of other people loved this one, so it’s entirely possible that this was a me issue.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

This is a great example of a book that I liked and just don’t have much to say about. It’s a supernatural mystery featuring Greta Helsing, doctor to mythical creatures (vampires, gremlins, etc). Meanwhile something bad is happening in London–a murderous cult who worship a mysterious object underground. It’s perfectly fine and competent and I liked the inclusion of some classic vampires who were, the book argues, very misunderstood by Bram Stoker, etc. I will probably read the next one. 

Attucks! by Phillip Hoose

While I kind of wish that this book had not been written by a white guy, I did really appreciate the look at sports and Indianapolis history. Obviously, I have a connection to the location, and I thought Hoose did a good job of laying out the history of the city and state’s racial tensions, as well as the resilience and community of the Black residents during the 1920-1950s.

The text was based heavily on interviews with the surviving players and I felt that overall their voices and memories were showcased. I’ve driven by Crispus Attucks High School many times and been vaguely aware of its history, but now the history of both the high school and area have been really brought to life–in a bittersweet way, since so much of it has now been lost. I’d recommend this for basketball fans, but also for almost anyone from Indianapolis who wants to learn a little more about our history.

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A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Lsel Station has been trying to stave off the advances of the Teixcalaanli Empire for a long time. But with the request for a new Ambassador and the appointment of Mahit Dzmare–young, inexperienced, with an imago fifteen years out of date–the balance of power is shifting. When Mahit arrives in the capital of the Empire, she discovers a world she is fascinated and repulsed by, people she wants to and cannot trust. The previous Ambassador is dead, and his imago, which should help guide her, is malfunctioning. All she knows is that she is in over her head.

Given that A Memory Called Empire has been getting a ton of buzz from SF critics I trust, that I love potlical space opera, that amazing cover, and that it has some very obvious Ann Leckie influences (she contributed a front cover blurb, this is not a secret), I expected to love it from page one. But actually, it took me some time to ease in.

I mean, I liked Mahit immediately, and the culture of Teixcalaan is fascinating and beautiful. But I liked it more intellectually than emotionally, I kept thinking. This is all very mannered and interesting and tense, and I should like it. There’s poetry, and food, and complicated relationships to ambiguous and powerful people (Nineteen Adze) and the flashes of Yskandr are delightful and ridiculous. The world is rich and jarring and clearly the story thinks about empire and its effects far more than a lot of stories about empires do.

And yet, I really didn’t feel it in my spine or in my heart the way I did with Leckie or even Cherryh’s Foreigner books (another obvious influence! Mahit and Bren Cameron are definitely cousins of some sort). Or so I thought.

And then.

Things happened.

And all of a sudden, I felt this wave of emotion: anguish and horror and sorrow. All images and details that Martine had carefully woven into the story over the last few hundred pages, the rituals and customs and relationships and the weight of power and history and revolution and revolution’s limits. They crystallized into feeling and it all hurt. Even more so because it was Mahit’s emotion, but also Yskandr’s. And Nineteen Adze’s. And Three Seagrass’s.

So ultimately I’m not quite sure what to say about this book! I saw echoes of so many favorite authors–not only Leckie and Cherryh, but also Katherine Addison and Lois McMaster Bujold. Like all of them, A Memory Called Empire is telling a story about politics and diplomacy and what it means when two cultures are intertwined. Like Maia in Goblin Emperor or Bren, Mahit’s struggle centers around who to trust, and whether she truly can trust anyone. In some ways her actions come across as almost passive, and yet she is actually making active choices all the time. Sometimes it’s choosing to look like an uncivilized barbarian, sometimes it’s choosing to share information. Sometimes it’s [EXTREME SPOILER BUT YOU KNOW WHICH SCENE I MEAN, ARE ALL LSEL AMBASSADORS ADRENALINE SEEKERS, I MEAN COME ON, MAHIT].

But it’s telling a different kind of story as well. It deals much more closely with the simultaneous weight and danger of empire. (It’s also a lot more queer.) How can you love something that is also actively trying to destroy you? How can you form relationships when you’re not sure the other people even see you as a person? I think it’s a book that will reward rereading. And it looks like there’s a sequel coming next year, so rereading will definitely be in order before then.

Other reviews and reading:
Martin Cahill for Tor.com
Arkady Martine answers questions at NPR
James David Nicoll
Alana Joli Abbott at Den of Geek

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Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks

The hook of Comics Will Break Your Heart is pretty obvious. Miriam, the granddaughter of one of the co-creators of the famous TomorrowMen has grown up in the shadow of her grandfather’s legacy, the knowledge that things could have been different. As it is, her small Nova Scotia town sometimes feels like a trap she will never be able to escape. Then Weldon Warrick, the grandson of the other creator of the TomorrowMen shows up for the summer, and old family hurts come to the surface. Will Weldon and Miriam be able to find another way, or are they doomed to repeat their families’ past?

Anyone who knows basically anything about the tumultuous relationships between comics co-creators, from Bob Kane and Bill Finger to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby will see the pretty obvious reference here! The title is even a quote attributed to Jack Kirby himself! And Hicks, a seasoned graphic novel writer and artist, weaves in a lot of fun superhero comics moments, like the perennial debate about capes. However, the novel itself is much less about comics than I expected, so it should be relatively accessible even if you are not a fan yourself.

Instead, the story she tells develops in a different direction. Rather than packing it full of comics lore, Hicks chooses to focus on the weight of family history. Miriam and Weldon are confronted by their grandfathers’ collaboration and later falling-out, and the fall-out from that, which left Miriam’s family with a small settlement and Weldon’s father in control of a vast fortune and empire. One which is about to grow even more with the release of the long-anticipated TomorrowMen movie. When it comes down to it, Hicks seems to say, it’s all about choice. Will they keep enacting the same pain that has plagued the previous generations? Or will they find their own way? That’s a theme that resonated with me quite a bit, and I appreciated the way the family history aspect was handled.

In addition, Hicks really uses the small town Nova Scotia backdrop. Miriam is also one of three close friends, but the only one who has a real plan and chance at getting out of their town. It’s a bittersweet look at the way class and social mobility can affect friendship. What does it mean when one person gets to move on? Can you still be friends knowing your paths will diverge?

I went into Comics Will Break Your Heart expecting one kind of story and found one very different. And yet, I appreciated a lot about the story that I found. Miriam’s sweet, slightly eccentric family, Weldon’s relationship to his mother, the way almost all the characters are treated generously. I was only so-so on the romance thread, but I enjoyed the rest thoroughly enough to still recommend it if you have an interest in comics, or slightly melancholy coming-of-age stories.

Other reviews:
Alethea Kontis at NPR
Literary Treats

 

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A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

In  A Life of My Own (Penguin, 2017), biographer Claire Tomalin turns the focus onto her own life. Originally a journalist by trade, Tomalin also focuses on her family life and marriage to Nick Tomalin, a fellow journalist.

I will be brutally honest here: I read this book by mistake. For some reason, I always, always mix up Claire Tomalin and Claire Harman. I mean, they’re both British biographers of literary people, so maybe it’s a bit understandable. But anyway, I saw this on the shelf at my local library branch and was like, “OOOH, I loved that Charlotte Bronte book!” And the idea of a biographer then writing about their own life was interesting to me.

So, yeah. I was a good chunk of the way through the book when I realized my mistake. I could have set it down there, but I was interested enough and it was a fast enough read to keep going.

Having actually not read any of Claire Tomalin’s biographies, I can’t really compare A LIfe of My Own. I was on occasion frustrated because the moments that could actually have used some closer examination tended to be breezed by instead. Her first husband’s infidelities and abuse, the trauma of some of her childbirth experiences, her relationship with her sister, the harassment she received as a female journalist–all these were brought up, but also summed up quickly and without really looking at them.

And yet, I don’t know how much to blame her for this. After all, it is harder to turn the lens of detachment on your own life and lay out the minute details of your own trauma, especially when (as I suspect) you have spent a long time refusing to acknowledge that it was really that bad. And in Tomalin’s case, people affected by these events are still alive.

On the other hand, that might be an understandable human reaction, but is it then worth a book deal from a major publisher and international publication of what is almost a family memoir? I don’t know. I really don’t. Maybe it’s helpful to remember that Tomalin’s father also wrote a memoir and published it, revealing details that were deeply hurtful to Tomalin herself. I can understand her wishing to avoid doing the same to her own children and grandchildren.

I will say that there’s a deeply upsetting chapter about the suicide of one of Tomalin’s daughters that I found pretty wrong-headed in its approach to discussing the subject. I am not an expert! But if you read this book and know that’s a tough subject for you, I suggest  just skipping it altogether.

I don’t want to make it sound as if this is a bad book. Tomalin’s experiences as a journalist and editor who was also trying to negotiate family life are interesting in their own right. But even there, a description of sexual comments in her direction is almost always followed by “But Biffy and Squinty* didn’t really mean anything by it!” I’m sure in many ways it is a generational gap, a reflection of a shift in overall attitudes and language. And yet! This is still a book published in 2017–granted, just before the force of the latest anti-harrassment movement began–and it grated on me. Gesturing toward a feminist reclaiming of your own life and story and then not actually completing the gesture is almost worse than not making it at all. 

So all in all, a somewhat mixed reaction to this one, and a reinforced feeling that I almost always prefer to read biographies over memoirs. As a side note, I noticed that the US cover is a stack of books, while the UK cover is a photograph of Tomalin herself. Very different marketing, which I assume is driven by name recognition vs a general interest in literary biographies.

* These are not real names; they are Wodehousian inventions of my own

______

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Exit, Pursued by A Bear by E.K. Johnston (2016)
“Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear” and the disappearance of Else Holmelund Minarik (2014)
Two Biographies: Vera Atkins and Georgette Heyer (2013)
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (2012)

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A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland

A Conspiracy of Truths opens with a farce of a trial, a wandering storyteller called Chant accused of witchcraft in the country of Nuryevet. Chant does not exactly take this charge seriously, and he has never been good at keeping his mouth shut. So naturally, things snowball out of control until he ends up an accused spy pinballing back and forth between the jurisdictions of the country’s leaders. To all appearances, he is a helpless old man without friends or resources. But stories have power, and Chant is full of stories.

I personally feel, when surveying the current fantasy landscape, that so many awesome books are being published right now. And yet, not enough of them are funny! We’re in a moment of political fantasy and emotional anguish, with the feels – o – meter turned up to 500%. Which isn’t really a complaint because I tend to like exactly those books, just that I would also like a funny book or two to balance them out. So I am happy to say that Alexandra Rowland’s A Conspiracy of Truths (2018, Saga Press) is a breath of fresh air.

Okay, fine, there are also plenty of political shenanigans and some emotional anguish here. There are lots of stories and reflections on storytelling and human nature. But Rowland pulls off a tricky narration where her main character claims that he is not invested in the people around him and is very amusingly petty about the things that happen to him. And yet we start to see that this ironic air is in some ways a story he is telling himself. It is perhaps Chant’s curse to start caring.

If you are a plot-driven reader, or someone who gets impatient when characters are passive, this is probably not a book for you. I even started to wish that Chant would do something, and I certainly tend to like books on the “people sit around and drink tea and talk” end of the spectrum. However, I also guessed that he was in effect setting up a cascade of events that would happen all at once, and so I was willing to wait around and see what happened. And again, the light and humorous tone helped make even this part of the book a pleasure to read.

Chant himself is an interesting character–Chant is a title rather than a name. He has given up the name he was born with in order to become a Chant. But Chants are not simply wandering storytellers. They also influence events and tend to be there when moments of historical significance are about to happen. Without exactly lying, Chant is certainly not telling the entire truth when he plays up how much of a decrepit old man he is.

I will say that A Conspiracy of Truths suffers from a similar problem as The Goblin Emperor: the women here are fascinating and I have a sense of their off-screen lives being rich and wonderful, but the actual plot of the story is very focused on men. Ultimately, I really enjoyed the book and didn’t see this as a deal-breaker, but I do wish for more books in this vein that are about women’s stories.

This has been a bit of a hard book to review, especially in a hurry and several weeks after I actually read it, because it’s operating on different levels. There’s Chant’s story about what happened, which he’s telling. There’s the political upheaval in Nuryevet. There’s Chant’s apprentice and friend Ylfing, who is always falling in love. There are all of the stories they tell to other people and to each other. There are big questions about complicity and the limits of being a good person in a morally corrupt system. This is a lot to juggle, but Rowland does it well. Ylfing’s book, A Choir of Lies, is coming out soon and I will certainly be planning to read it!

Other reviews:
Fantasy Literature
Electra Pritchett at Strange Horizons
The Speculative Shelf

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Jinx by Sage Blackwood (2013)
Death Sworn by Leah Cypess (2014)
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee (2015)
Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis (2016)
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (2018)

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Tender by Sofia Samatar

I knew right away that I had to read this anthology. Sofia Samatar’s work is always amazing: unexpected, brilliant, beautiful. It’s been almost two years since I first read The Winged Histories, which turned out to be an important book for me. In Tender (Small Beer Press, 2017), Samatar has collected twenty pieces of short fiction, most of them published elsewhere previously. They are grouped into two sections: tender bodies and tender landscapes. It’s up to the reader to determine the way these two ideas interact with each other across the divide of the grouping, and the way they take on different shades of emotion and inflection in each story.

Short fiction collections can sometimes be frustrating, particularly when the pieces are uneven in quality. In addition, some collections lack coherence and end up feeling like the pieces have nothing to say to each other. Or the pieces begin to feel too much the same, as if the writer only has one real idea.

For me, Tender struck a nice balance between these two problems. There are similarities of theme–connection and loss, personal resistance to injustice, belonging–and even of tone. Many of the stories strike a melancholy and even elegiac note. However, Samatar’s seemingly endless inventiveness when it comes to setting and the crystal clarity with which she draws her characters keeps these similarities from dominating. What emerges is instead a set of stories that are in conversation with each other across the boundaries of genre and setting.

Because of this, and because it’s a strong collection, it’s difficult to pick favorites. “Selkie Stories are For Losers” as the opener is fascinating; I had read it before and while it’s not my gut-level favorite, it establishes the kind of narrative gaps that Samatar loves to play with. The tension between hope that the future will be brighter and the knowledge that it may not be. Within the first section, I also loved “The Ogres of East Africa,” which starts engaging with racism and colonialism, and ways of holding your self true in the midst of their pressures. This thread weaves through a number of the stories in the collection, approached in different ways but always with thoughtfulness and hope.

If I had to pick one favorite story out of this collection, it would probably be “Honey Bear,” which acts as a class in playing with the expectations of genre readers. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was delighted at how deftly Samatar took my sense of where the story was headed and turned it on its head.

In the second part, tender landscapes, “An Account of the Land of Witches” was especially delightful to me. I loved the way dreams are played with, and it’s an epistolary short story! I love those. “Request for an Extension on the Clarity” also shows how well Samatar can evoke setting and character, even in a very brief form. I’m still not sure what I thought of “Fallow,” the long story that makes up the bulk of the second section. The images and writing are vivid and lovely, but it felt a little bit pat. However, I loved “The Red Thread,” the last story of the collection. With its post-apocalyptic feel and haunting ending, it felt like the perfect conclusion for this set of stories.

All in all, no surprises here, I loved Tender and certainly want to revisit this collection of stories again. Given the depth and richness of Samatar’s writing, I’m sure rereading them will be like revisiting a familiar landscape and finding something in it that had never been seen before.

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Recent Reading: Gran, Moskowitz, Abbott

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran (Atria, 2018)

Book three in a series about Claire DeWitt, private investigator. I have not read the first two and didn’t mind that at all; this functions pretty much as a standalone novel. Claire is a tough character who is fueled by (sometimes barely believable) determination and a desire to find out the truth. It’s a weird foray into the mystery genre and  on paper it’s not a type that would necessarily appeal to me. But for some reason, despite the weird semi-mysticism, violence, and Las Vegas setting, I enjoyed this book quite a lot and intend to read the first two to catch up. I don’t know either! Something about the extremely surreal writing and characters was exactly what I wanted when I read it. We’ll see if the experience can be repeated. 

Salt by Hannah Moskowitz (Chronicle, 2018)

Four orphaned siblings left with a tenuous legacy of a ship and some monster hunting skills try to find the beast that killed their parents. Moskowitz just drops us straight into the world, which is a really fascinating approach. There’s not much in the way of backstory or world-building, but since this book is voicey as can be* it doesn’t really matter. The characters are compelling enough that I wanted to read on and cared deeply about what happened to them. Indi and his siblings operate in a weird sideways version of reality, more full of strange creatures and pirates than school and driving tests. But his desire to find his place, to find a home connects to that yearning that I think a lot of teens have–there’s something right around the corner if they can only just find it. It’s a slim book, but I’ve thought about it a lot since finishing it.

* a technical reviewing term, right?

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown, 2018)

An adult thriller about a woman who is suddenly confronted with her former best friend from high school. It’s been on my TBR for ages and I was in a mystery/thriller mood, so I gave it a try. I felt like it was weird about PMDD, which is a major part of the story but which was treated in a way that felt like it was there for shock value rather than feminist critique? I don’t know, I might be unfair here, but the story seemed in the end to reinforce stereotypes about the destructive power of female friendship rather than resisting them.

 

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