Category Archives: reviews

I wish there were more books from…

The other day I started thinking about a very particular reading experience: I discover a new author, start reading their books, enjoy them hugely, and then find out after four or five that there are no more. And not just that, the author has stopped writing, or passed away, and so there will never be any more. These are a few of the ones I thought of–I left off anyone who wrote a lot (Diana Wynne Jones) or who is just writing very slowly (Megan Whalen Turner).

Franny Billingsley: I know that Billinglsey writes quite slowly, so perhaps we will be surprised with another book someday! I love all three of her published books a lot, but especially the beautiful, spiky, healing Chime. 

Elizabeth Bunce: Bunce has only published three books, despite winning the Morris award for A Curse Dark and Gold. I actually preferred her duology, StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon.

Sarah Caudwell: The author who prompted this by writing the four Hilary Tamar books and then writing no more.

Susanna Clarke: I had heard that Clarke was working on a sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but it’s been fourteen years and so far there’s no sign of it. There is a collection of short stories called The Ladies of Grace Adieu, but for me it doesn’t quite scratch the same itch.

Elizabeth Marie Pope: Two books–TWO BOOKS–but they are both gems, especially The Perilous Gard which I have loved whole-heartedly since I was about 12.

Judith Merkle Riley: Riley’s books are delightfully fresh & funny historical fiction, so I remain quite sad that there are only six of them. Even though that is more than most of the other authors I’ve featured here, it doesn’t feel like enough.

Kate Ross: Another mystery writer, who sadly passed away very young but wrote some pretty delightful Regency mysteries about a dandy named Julian Kestrel.

What about you? Are there authors you long for more books from?

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Recovery reading: mystery round-up

As previously mentioned, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries recently–so much so that I’m just going to go ahead and do a quick post on all the others I read or reread during January.

I started off with Agatha Christie, who I can usually count on to be engaging and whose books I have read enough times that it didn’t really matter if I was napping or loopy. Therefore, I zipped through: Death in the Clouds (not her strongest mystery in terms of characters, which she’s seldom interested in anyway), Nemesis (I love Miss Marple, but the attitudes towards sexual assault in this one are, uh, not great), The Mysterious Affair at Styles (ah, lil baby Poirot, before she had really figured out his characterization), and Towards Zero (actually one of her strongest mysteries in terms of writing–and fascinating for its depiction of gaslighting). PHEW! I pretty much just picked whatever was available on Overdrive at that moment and had mixed success but really no regrets.

Then I moved on to Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January books. I’d read the first one already and started the second (Fever Season) but set it down. I finished it and read Graveyard Dust and then decided that while they’re good, the plot was taking too long to get going for my current state, and the atmosphere was a little too bleak. I may come back to them at some point, we’ll see!

Wanting something a bit lighter, I then picked up the first in Charlene Harris’s Aurora Teagarden series–Real Murders–and really liked it. While I think the first book is by far the strongest, I did read most of the series, except for one that was checked out and another that was all about babies (A Fool and His Honey) and therefore not what I wanted to read at that moment. They’re light and competent enough, which made them perfect for zipping through. It is interesting that Harris kind of writes herself into a corner at one point and then just up and kills off a character to write herself out of it. Also, apparently there are some Hallmark adaptations?! I am curious, but uncommitted.

I also reread Murder is Bad Manners, the second in Robin Stevens’ Wells & Wong series of middle grade murder mysteries and A TRUE DELIGHT. It was the only one available on Overdrive and I only own the first book! Alas.

Then I asked for recommendations on Twitter, having run out of ideas on my own, and got some good ones. Kate suggested the Sarah Caudwell books I talked about last time, and Charlotte mentioned the Mrs. Pollifax books by Dorothy Gilman. I had read those–or at least, as many of them as I wanted to–but I hadn’t read her standalone A Nun in the Closet which I devoured late one night when I couldn’t sleep. It was extremely charming, and surprisingly thoughtful, and altogether lovely. I also tried her two books about Madame Karitska, The Clairvoyant Countess and Kaleidoscope, and liked them fine. A Nun in the Closet is definitely still my favorite. I’m kind of laughing just thinking about it.

I finished up with a reread of a couple of the Vicky Bliss books by Elizabeth Peters–Borrower of the Night and Street of Five Moons, whose cover always misleads me into thinking it takes place in Egypt instead of Italy. I like the Vicky books just fine, and I appreciate all the Lord Peter Wimsey homages, BUT I do get fairly tired of Vicky’s insistence on the trials of being tall, whereas short women are always evil and charm all the men in the story into thinking they’re so frail and helpless and feminine. Can’t we just agree that the patriarchy is terrible for everyone and leave it at that? Signed, a small woman who resents being talked down to.

All in all, the mystery reading was probably the highlight of my recovery period. It was kind of the perfect genre for being engrossed in without too much emotional complication. I’m back to work tomorrow, but I might still be on a mystery kick for a while, so if you have favorites, let me know!

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A year ago: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Two years ago: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

Three years ago: Fifteen favorite heroines

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Recovery reading: Sarah Caudwell

I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately–for whatever reason, it’s a genre that has been exactly what I wanted while recovering from last month’s surgery. I actually asked for recommendations on Twitter and got some great suggestions. So far my favorites from that list have been the Hilary Tamar books by Sarah Caudwell, which my friend Kate suggested. They’re so delightful! I was extremely sad that there are only four of them and had to ration them out a bit so I didn’t just read all of them in two days and then regret it.

Now, I’m sure that not everyone will enjoy these books to the same degree that I did. They’re centered around the legal profession in London, with an ironic and somewhat distant narration style that reads almost like a 19th century novel. The setup is a bit predictable after the first book. The characters are mostly well-of, upper class, white Britons. I suspect that you’ll read the first page or so of Thus Was Adonis Murdered and know instantly if this is a book for you or not.

But if it is a book for you, then what joys await! Hilary’s narration is actually really funny under the dry tone, and the actual plots of the mysteries are quite engaging and twisty. The books are erudite and abstract, but they also have a keen sense of observation and understanding of people and what motivates them that keeps the story from becoming dry. Caudwell also had a deft hand with description, which makes the settings of her stories come alive. All in all, my main memory of the books is of vividness and humor, which is partly because of that same detached tone.

Also, when I looked up Caudwell Wikipedia pointed out that Hilary’s gender is never specified, which I had not previously realized. Either because Hilary tends to be a name more associated with women in the US or because I’m me, I had instinctively read them as female (Jo Walton completely disagrees). It may also be because of the sympathetic air shown towards the various difficulties Selena and Julia undergo. Regardless, I felt there was an undercurrent of feminist sensibility in the stories, which also kept the plots from falling into tired tropes.

As I said earlier, my only real complaint about these books is that there are not more of them. Sadly, Sarah Caudwell died in 2000 (and had not published a novel for 11 years before that). At least it’s possible to read & reread the existing books with (at least for me) great enjoyment.

 

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Favorite books of 2017

Well, my 2017 ended on a different note than expected–with major surgery that I’m still recovering from, preceded by almost a month of being in pain, during which I was basically useless. So I hadn’t even begun to think about favorite books of the year until quite recently. In terms of numbers, 2017 was a dismal year: several major life events and the Trump administration will have that effect. But dang I read some good books.

Unlike other years, I’m not going to write about why these particular books are my favorites. I have found that so often I just say the same thing over and over: it touched me, it opened up a new world, the characters made their way to my heart. But I will say that if I had to pick my absolute favorites, there are two that have been haunting me ever since I read them. The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar and How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ are both brilliant, beautiful, challenging books that moved me and made me feel seen, stronger, more myself. I highly recommend both. (And obviously all the rest of these as well.)

Middle Grade

Lumberjanes vol. 6: Sink or Swim
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander
Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood
The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Shannon & Dean Hale
Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall
Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens

Young Adult

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Done Dirt Cheap by Sarah Nicole Lemon
When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner
Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

Adult Fiction

Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke
A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Stone Sky by NK Jemisin
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Lucy & Linh by Alice Pung
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Non-fiction

Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford
The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley
How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

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The Wolf Hour by Sara Lewis Holmes

This post is part of the Wolf Hour blog tour, organized by Tanita S. Davis over at Finding Wonderland. You can check out Tanita’s interview with Sara Lewis Holmes and Charlotte’s review and interview now, and keep an eye out for the other posts during October!

Welcome, my little lambs, to the Puszcza. It’s an ancient forest, a keeper of the deepest magic, where even the darkest fairy tales are real. Here, a Girl is not supposed to be a woodcutter, or be brave enough to walk alone. Here, a Wolf is not supposed to love to read, or be curious enough to meet a human. And here, a Story is nothing like the ones you read in books, for the Witch can make the most startling tales come alive. All she needs is …
A Girl from the village,
A Wolf from the forest,
& A Woodcutter with a nice, sharp axe.

So take care, little lambs, if you step into these woods. For in the Puszcza, it is always as dark as the hour between night and dawn — the time old folk call the Wolf Hour. If you lose your way here, you will be lost forever, your Story no longer your own. You can bet your bones.

The Wolf Hour is a fascinating and odd book, although I don’t mean odd in a negative sense here. I often don’t enjoy fairy tale mashups (as opposed to fairy tale retellings, which I do often love) but Holmes has woven in some of the things I like best about fairy tales: the strange logic, the sense of foreboding, the vivid imagery. So, despite the fact that this story contains strands of several different fairy tales, it feels more like one complete in itself.

Set in a small Polish town, outside the great forest called the puszcza, The Wolf Hour is the story of Magia the woodcutter’s daughter, who longs to be her father’s apprentice and help her family survive. It is the story of three pigs. It is the story of a wolf named Martin. But it is also the story of a woman named Miss Grand, and of Magia’s family. In this book, Story is a powerful force, and one that is not entirely benign. Once you’re part of a Story, you’re in it for better or worse.

One of the things I liked about this book was how complicated the characters felt. Although fairy tales can sometimes feel simplistic, here Lewis doesn’t allow any of her characters to simply be good or bad. At first, we encounter them more as types than as people, but gradually they are shaded in and become much more complex. This included a revelation that I found personally a bit shocking and even upsetting; I wonder if a kid reader would find it more or less so. From Miss Grand to Magia herself, we see almost everyone in this book in shades of grey.

I did personally find that the pacing was a bit odd, since the story jumps ahead by several years at one point. But overall, I felt this one was very successful at recreating the feeling of a fairy tale, with fresh themes and approaches. Magia seems very alone for much of the story, without anyone to guide or mentor her. And yet, by the end the place she has found for herself feels earned and right. She and the other characters are caught in someone else’s story for a time, and they have to find their own ways out. I think this one will resonate with confident readers, especially those who are ready for some fraught plotting and moral complexity.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: Arthur Levine Books, 2017; middle grade fantasy

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Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

It kind of seems like everyone has either already read this book or already intends to, but I still want to talk about it because WOW.

Actually, I’m going to instantly contradict myself and say that this book probably works best for a particular kind of reader, one who has a strong tolerance for gory stuff and a willingness to trust the narrative a bit. Lee throws us right into the world and the characters, and both are complicated and demanding. In particular, the system of magicky science, or sciencey magic, is confuddling at first.

However! I also think that all of the disclaimers about the difficulty of this book, my own included, probably make it sound more daunting than it needs to be. If you are a reasonably astute genre reader, who’s comfortable with worldbuilding and weirdness, this shouldn’t be necessarily a tricky read. I certainly didn’t find it easy, but neither did it make me so utterly confounded that I wanted to scream (unlike, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, another recent read).

And ultimately this ends up being a very rewarding story. The characters and world are complex and compelling–while most of the characters aren’t exactly likeable, they certainly command attention. The exception here is Cheris, the main character: thoughtful and kind and competent as well as out of her depth through most of the book. The fact that she’s not completely overshadowed by Jedao, the murderous ghost that she’s forced into, uh, let’s say partnership, with shows Lee’s ability to write different kinds of characters convincingly.

I don’t want to be spoilery, but I do want to talk a bit about what I found to be a very impressive trick, which may give some things away. So if you absolutely don’t want to know anything about the rest of the book, here’s the place to stop. (For what it’s worth, this is one I completely avoided spoilers for and was glad I did.)

Okay.

The thing is, Ninefox Gambit is all about trust and who we trust and who we don’t. And it’s also very much about Cheris’s relationship with Jedao–not an overtly romantic one, but incredibly, awfully intimate. Their dynamics as well as the world and the questions the story raises were so immersive that it’s not until I finished the book that I realized something. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, the reading experience mirrored Cheris’s own arc with regard to Jedao in a fascinating and entirely disturbing way. That is quite a trick to pull off, but Lee managed it so smoothly that I didn’t even notice.

In short, this book has a lot to recommend itself, and I’ll absolutely be back for the sequel.

Yoon Ha Lee previously:

  • A short story collection, Conservation of Shadows, which I HIGHLY recommend if you liked Ninefox Gambit and want more before Raven Strategem is out.

Other reviews of Ninefox Gambit:

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The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

There are lots of fine books in the world, but every so often there’s a book that just reaches out and grabs me in a very particular way: from start to finish, in a way that lingers long afterwards. The Winged Histories was one of those books, a thing so lovely that I’m still amazed by it, and moved by it in ways that I’m not entirely sure I can articulate.

I read Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria back in 2015 and I was excited when I heard there was a sequel coming out. The Winged Histories is actually a loose companion; it has a different feel and concern than the first book, but takes place in the same world and (if I’m right about this) about the same time as well. But whereas Jevick’s story is obviously about a stranger, and about a man, The Winged Histories is about four women in Olondria itself–though the issue of what is and is not Olondrian actually lies at the heart of the book.

The Winged Histories is divided into four sections, four books, four narratives from four different women. Each narrative has a different voice and perspective; they all sit near each other with the tension of stanzas in a poem, clearly connected and in conversation with each other, but not simply a continuation. The formality of the structure (each book has its own title, an epigraph which comes from within the narrative, and an impersonal relation of relevant history) contrasts with the incredibly personal nature of the narratives themselves.

Samatar is a poet, so it’s not surprising that I thought of poetic structure here, or that just now I thought of the connection between this kind of narrative and confessional poetry. That poetic quality is also very much on display in the sentence level writing which is so astonishingly beautiful in places that I can hardly stand it.

Also, the sense of history and politics and the way the personal and political interact with each other adds up to a world that feels so lived in and real. I believed in Kestenya and its desire for freedom; in the religion of the Stone and the complicated motivations of those who follow it; in the family dynamics that haunt the different stories. The balance of detail and scope can be a hard one to get right, but here it seemed right.

I know I pointed about above that this is a story about four women, but one of the things that I adored here is that it’s not just a story about these four women. There are men here, certainly, but there are women everywhere: mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, lovers. And they all have different views about the world and themselves and their place. One advantage of this overlapping narrative is the ability to show the tensions within a society, where the fault lines lie. This is not a story of simple female solidarity, by any means, but it is a story that’s centered on women and their lives, showing them in relationship to each other in a way that feel really true.

I kept putting this book down while reading it, not because I was bored, but because it was so much that I wanted to absorb it slowly. And I think the beginning could be a bit confusing, because Samatar drops us down into the middle of the world as Tavis herself experiences it. (There is a glossary in the back, which can help.) But mostly, I encourage setting the confusion aside and reading a little further, because the story here is wild and sweet and sharp and beautiful, with a sense of place and characters who make the work of reading entirely worthwhile.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Small Beer Press; adult fantasy

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