Category Archives: reviews

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairEverfair is a story that spans decades and continents. It tells the history of a country that never was, one where “Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.” (source) It lies across blurred genre lines, at the meeting point of steampunk, historical fantasy, and alternate history.

Everfair is told through a multitude of voices, from King Mwende to Lisette Toutournier, Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson to Martha Hunter. It is in a sense the story of an idea, a different kind of grand experiment, more than one person or their personal experience. At first this was disorienting for me–I’m very much a character-based reader. But I realized that in fact that this is the point: that Everfair the country is herself the main character, and that the patchwork of people who make up her history are telling her story, rather than their own. So, the main emotional arc is not exactly that of Lisette, or of Daisy, or any of the others. It is of their collective experiences, their various viewpoints, coming from different backgrounds, races, beliefs, and genders.

This approach also lets Shawl resist flattening any one character into a type. Each of the sympathetic characters shows flaws as well as greatness; each of the less sympathetic characters shows greatness as well as flaws. Although the characters are in some ways secondary to the history of what they made, they are not comforting. They also challenge the reader and the reader’s assumptions. We see Daisy’s limits when she cannot look beyond her own whiteness. We also see Martha’s real care and worry for George later in the story. Neither the country nor the characters are held to an impossible perfection; it is through the contradictions and flaws that both become real.

After finishing the book, I kept thinking about the image of prosthetics that appears throughout the book. It’s one of the most steampunk-y elements: the beautiful, deadly mechanical hands that are made for the survivors of King Leopold’s regime whose hands were cut off. It’s an image that seems to underscore the heart of the book: that the history and trauma that have passed cannot be undone, and yet that the story does not have to end there. That another story, with dirigibles and steam-powered hands, with heartache and work and courage is also possible.

In short, I found Everfair to be a reimaging of the past that thinks deeply about implications and patterns. It takes people as they are, and shows the weight and burden of leadership. It is too clear-sighted to truly be a utopia, but it is also hopeful. The ending, full of possibilities, asks us to take up the task of reimagining the world–by both acknowledging the real traumas and looking for the rest of the story.

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Jenny at Reading the End; Jaymee Goh at Strange Horizons

 

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January 2017 round up

Books already talked about

Dared & Done by Julia Markus

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord

The Reek of Red Herring by Catriona McPherson

Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Other books
A Little Taste of Poison by RJ Anderson: This one is the follow up to one of my favorite books from 2015, A Pocket Full of Magic. It was delightful to be back with Isaveth and Quiz, and I enjoyed the school setting of this book as well as the complications that arose from the resolution of the first book. I do think the set up portion took longer than I expected it to, and I wished for more of Isaveth’s family, because I think they’re delightful. But overall, this is another solid middle grade mystery.

Chime by Franny Billingsley: This was a reread, the first book I finished this year. It’s one of my favorites (the humor! the language and word-play! BRYONY!) and it fit especially well with some things I’ve been thinking about in regards to my personal life and this year. But mostly, I just love Billingsley’s books and especially this one: a story about a prickly, unkind girl whose voice shines from the very first page.

Bandette v. 2: This series manages to be incredibly charming and incredibly menacing somehow at exactly the same time. The tone is light and cheerful and the storyline flows along merrily until you realize that actually the villains are pretty terrifying. It’s a very weird mental adjustment, but I like it.

Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill: This is one where my personal reaction and my professional reaction are totally different. Personally, it just didn’t resonate for me–the story is a little too condensed, and we don’t spend enough time seeing the characters get to know and appreciate each other. However, I absolutely see the value in it, even though it didn’t quite work for me as an adult reader, and I’m glad I know about it and can recommend it to the readers who need it.

A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand: Florand’s latest release in her Provence series is absolutely lovely. Tristan hasn’t been my favorite character in the previous books, but as usually happens with Florand, I wound up really appreciating him in a new way. And Malorie won my heart almost from the first page. This is one that meant a lot to me personally, which is really why I haven’t written a longer review–I think I have too many feelings about it to do it justice! Beautiful, as usual.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl: review coming soon

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard: review coming soon

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: Continuing my Ann Leckie reread and ooohhhhhhhh, I have so many thoughts and emotions and reactions to this book. It manages to do so many things so well, and there are moments that are just so beautifully written. Leckie’s control of Breq’s voice is fabulous. But perhaps one of my favorite things is the way we begin to see what Breq can’t, reading other characters’ reactions differently. I can’t wait to reread the third one and have lots more feelings about what it means to be human + found families + surviving trauma.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: I can’t BELIEVE I waited this long to read Binti, because it is outrageously beautiful and amazing. I really like Okorafor’s work in general, and this one is just great. It’s a novella, and the first of at least two, so there’s a slightness to it. But there’s also a lot packed into the pages: family and culture, diplomacy and building trust, math as–religion? experience? Plus spaaaace. Most of all, though, Binti’s voice is so clear and vivid right from the first sentence. I can’t wait for the next one!

Let Evening Come – Jane Kenyon: I recently discovered Kenyon’s poetry and wanted to check out a collection. Overall, this is a powerful set poems, though there are a few that certainly stand out more than the rest. I loved the juxtaposition of nature imagery with a kind of rejection of sentimentality that runs throughout.

The Smaller Evil by Stephanie Kuehn: I loved Kuehn’s first book, Charm & Strange, but haven’t actually read any of her subsequent work. This one, dealing with a cult in California, was a little bit difficult because my adult brain with a lot of experience reading and thinking about cults was yelling things the whole time. Certainly, the ending wasn’t a surprise to me. However, that isn’t to say that  teen reader won’t like this a lot and find that the ending works for them.

Other posts
Favorite children’s & YA read in 2016

Favorite adult books and reading notes in 2016

2017 releases I’m excited about

Currently reading: 1-19

Books that have been helping me lately

Newsletter + news

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned here that I’m writing a newsletter now! It goes out monthly, with reflections, recipes, interesting links, and whatever else I’m interested in when I sit down to write it. You can check out the first two and sign up right here.

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Recent Reading: Markus, Lord, McPherson, Gonzalez

Photo of Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez on a wooden background

Dared & Done by Julia Markus: After having a months-long thing about Markus’s biography of Annabella Milbanke Byron (Ada Lovelace’s mother), I definitely had to read her first biography about the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I have a lot of feelings about Elizabeth Barrett Browning–mostly due to the fact that I wrote part of a senior thesis on the Sonnets from the Portuguese. In fact, Markus’s look at the Browning’s marriage as it relates to the sonnet sequence was probably the strongest part of the book for me. It’s very solidly researched and does a nice job of teasing out the circumstances of the Browning’s marriage in particular as opposed to Victorian marriage in general, and contrasting it with some of their friends who were less conventional. However, there were times when the organization was a bit confusing–jumps in chronology that muddled rather than clarified–and I found it less emotionally affective than I expected.

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord: I’ve been hearing good things about Lord’s books for a couple of years now and finally actually read one! Oddly enough, this is set in a suburb of Indianapolis, with a setting that felt very much like the suburb of Indianapolis where I work. Both setting and voice are an interesting contrast with The Fault in Our Stars; perhaps unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer The Start of Me and You. Paige’s story is thoughtful and nuanced, with a lot of care shown for all the characters. Plus, Paige has a strong group of girl friends, and I loved they way they interact and grow together. Add in a slow, careful romance, and a quiet and realistic depiction of healing from trauma. I will definitely be looking for more of Emery Lord’s books!

The Reek of Red Herring by Catriona McPherson: This is book 9 in the Dandy Gilver series, and it’s a strong entry. I have to admit that I find Alec a good deal more annoying than Dandy seems to. He certainly doesn’t add much to the story for me. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about local folk traditions, and a nice creepy factor to the solution to the mystery. As usual, this is right at the line of cozy vs not, which is one of the things I appreciate about the series.

Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez: After Moving Target, Cassie Arroyo and her friends pick up right where they left off. This is a fun middle grade adventure/fantasy. It’s quite fast-paced, with a lot of excitement and even an explosion or two. But there are also some deeper questions about family, and destiny, that add some weight to the story. I’m not sure whether this is the last installment, but it ends on a satisfying note.

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Currently reading: 1-19-2017

current reading 1 18

This stack of books is already out of date–I finished Pilgrim at Tinker Creek yesterday and am still processing my final reaction to it. I’m trying to be more organized about my reading this year, and only read one book at a time. So far I’m sticking to it, but reading patterns come and go and it’s likely that halfway through the year I’ll be happily in the middle of five books at once and bouncing back and forth.

But at the moment, I have one non-fiction, one adult fiction, one YA, one middle grade, and one reread in my active stack. Except that Binti is so short that I have two adult fiction in this stack. Both SF–it’ll be interesting to compare the two. I started Dark Orbit a while back–in December, maybe?–when I was on a lunch break with nothing to read. It’s an engaging mystery, though it’s really just getting started at the point I’ve reached. Binti I have literally heard nothing but good things about, and I have to catch up with Okorafor’s backlist. (So excited for Akata Warrior!)

I have also started A Little Taste of Poison before I needed to prioritize some other library books that were due back. I’m expecting to enjoy it a lot–RJ Anderson is both a favorite author and a friend, and we like many of the same books. Including, of course, the Sayers that were mild inspirations for both this one and last year’s Pocket Full of Murder.

Ancillary Mercy is a dearly beloved reread. I wanted to come back and pick up the rest of the trilogy after I reread Ancillary Justice last year and gave R. a copy of the first one for Nativity. Also, in some ways I think Ancillary Mercy is my favorite? But I’ll just have to reread them all to find out for sure.

We Are the Ants was a Cybils-nominated title that I heard good things about but never got to. I have not even opened it yet, so I have no idea what my reaction will be!

Up next on the non-fiction front: The Spy Who Loved, which is a biography of SOE agent Christine Granville, a subject almost guaranteed to make me burst into tears at least once.

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2016: favorite adult books + reading notes posts

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi
Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus
White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon by Julie Phillips

This was a good year for biographies: the three I’ve featured here were not just my favorite non-fiction reads but some of my favorite books of the year, full stop. (The Lady Byron and Tiptree bios in particular still have an incredible emotional power for me.) If you have favorite biographies, especially of women of color, please tell me–I’d like to continue this trend in 2017! In terms of the rest of my list, what can I say? SFF by women is clearly my thing. Bujold’s latest was surprising and beautiful. Roses and Rot is one of those books that felt like it was written for me. The Fifth Season is probably my favorite Jemisin to date. Ascension is a lovely, thought-provoking read, featuring a chronically ill, queer woman of color as the main character. It was hard to decide which Oyeyemi book to feature here, because I’ve loved both that I’ve read, but White is For Witching has a kaleidoscopic power that is really fascinating. All in all, I don’t think I read as much adult fiction this year as some other years, but what I did read was pretty outstanding.

The Reading Notes series that I do here are some of my favorite kinds of posts to write. (Although I totally fell down on the job with my Joan Aiken posts! Whoops!) I thought I’d highlight a few favorites from the past year here.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
A Coalition of Lions by Elizabeth Wein
The Sunbird by Elizabeth Wein

 

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The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier

mountain-of-kept-memoryIf you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you probably won’t be surprised that I’m writing about this book. I’ve been a fan of Rachel Neumeier’s work since reading The City in the Lake back in 2011. And I definitely have some unspoken expectations when it comes to her books–themes, types of characters, a general style and set of interests that seem pretty common across the different kinds of stories she writes. The Mountain of Kept Memory is really interesting because it is very much a Rachel Neumeier book–but it also feels a little different, in a way I really liked.

Neumeier’s books nearly always focus on main characters who are resourceful girls and young women. Oressa, daughter of the king of Carastind and one of the two main characters in The Mountain of Kept Memory, certainly fits into this pattern. She’s very good at understanding people and motivations, potential costs and shifting allegiances. Her place in her father’s court is limited, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that she’s an extremely strategic thinker–which is helpful when everything begins to go wrong.

There’s an interesting comparison here to characters like Gen and Miles Vorkosigan. Oressa is also almost hypercompetent, good at sneaking through her father’s palace. But unlike Gen and Miles, there’s a strong suggestion that she’s developed these traits at least partly as a way to survive her father. He holds her future in his hand, and it’s pretty clear that he’s not a safe person to be around. There’s a sense of danger in him that’s more hinted at than shown, but which is very effective.

And both her father’s disregard and her overall vulnerabilities are partly because she’s a girl. There’s one really powerful moment which I unfortunately can’t seem to find again where Oressa realizes that her brother Gulien sees their father totally differently, because he’s been treated totally differently. But since Oressa is a girl and therefore largely despised and expendable, she’s been pushed to the edges and largely ignored.

But over the course of the book, she also finds a way to use her compensations to her and Guilen’s advantage. I loved watching her come to terms with the power that she does have and the shape of it. This idea of strengths coming out of vulnerabilities and the way that plays out was really fascinating to me.

Oressa was certainly the heart of the book for me, although I liked both Gulien and Gajdosik. Without wanting to give too much away, there’s a complicated romance here, which worked pretty well for me once it got past the initial stage. Shifting power and understandings are also very present in the relationship between Oressa, Gulien, and Gajdosik. We see it in the bond between the siblings, and the way their strand resolves, the way power is handed back and forth.

But we also see a question of power and relationship in the Kieba and her guardianship over Carastind. Will she exercise her old promise to keep the country safe, or will she let it fall? There’s a real sense of danger here, a sense that something could go truly and finally wrong. And Neumeier shows an nonhuman sense of the world very well, making it especially fraught. How can you predict what the Kieba will do, when she doesn’t think the way we do?

Overall, there’s a feeling of sharpness and almost horror to the scenes in the Kieba’s mountain. I’m thinking of a couple moments in particular which have really stuck with me. It’s not that there’s never a sense of danger in Neumeier’s other books–indeed, there’s quite frequently a very thorny problem driving the plot. But here it feels heightened in a way that’s really effective.

All in all, this was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, though sometimes in a slightly horrified way. There’s a feeling of familiarity in the political intrigue and family complications, but there are also some interesting turns in the story that made it feel also alive and real.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: 2016, Saga press; adult fantasy

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Other reviews: Jason Heller at NPR; Charlotte’s Library; you?

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November 2016

The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron: I’ve liked Sharon Cameron’s books in general, and this is another solid one from her. It’s a slightly different take on a dystopianish society–although it feels familiar in some ways, it also reminded me that sometimes tropes are tropes for a reason. And in the second half of the book, there are some interesting twists that change how the story unfolds.

The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier: review coming later

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders: My friend Shae sent a copy of this one to me because she thought I’d like it–and I did! It’s a Victorian mystery with some Dickensian elements (loosely inspired by parts of David Copperfield). I liked that it features an older woman as the detective, and Saunders does a nice job of weaving in everyday details without clunkiness.

Nomad by William Alexander: Sequel to Ambassador, which I also loved. I read this one just after the election, and a story about a Latino kid saving the world through diplomacy while facing his father’s deportation was both heartbreaking and really affirming. Alexander is great at quiet, kid-centered SFF, which engages thoughtfully with political issues and tells really valuable and beautiful stories.

The Pocket Emily Dickinson: I went to look for a few poems and ended up reading the whole thing. Lo, the power of poetry, I suppose. [that’s a quote]

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens: Look, I just really love the Wells & Wong books. They’re 1930s-set middle grade mysteries, which sounds pretty simple on the surface. But Stevens actually tells a really complex story, and there’s a lot about friendship and identity and privilege woven into the whole series. This third book started off a little slow, but it ended up being possibly my favorite yet as we see both Daisy and Hazel dealing with their family histories and the realities of growing up. (ARC read through Edelweiss)

Ms. Marvel Last Days by G. Willow Wilson: Every time I read a new volume of Ms. Marvel, I think that it couldn’t possibly be as good as the last one (because the last one was so good). But every time I am wrong! If I had to only read one comic series for the rest of my days, it would be Kamala, no questions. I love the depth of relationships shown here, the way Kamala’s family and culture and faith influence but don’t define her, the balance of hope and struggles. It’s just so good.

Goldie Vance vol. 1 by Hope Larson: My friend Kate gave me this one for my birthday and I really liked it! It’s a 1950s mystery, set in a hotel, and featuring a young detective. There are so many black and Latinx characters, which is nice to see, and the comic does deal with privilege and prejudice to a certain extent. I also really liked the art! It felt very fresh and clean and bright, which fits Goldie’s character well.

Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers: I reread this with my friend Ally and WHOOOO BOY WE HAD FEELINGS. (I talked about this one at length recently enough that I’m not going to go into more detail at the moment.)

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria: 1919-set historical fantasy, which seems to be a Thing at the moment? But I liked this version–the friendship between Ada and Corinne really drove the book for me (you all know how I love a good female friendship). I kind of saw the big twist coming, and there were a few clunky moments, but overall I found this one pretty solid. (I can’t speak to how good the representation is, and I’m not finding a ton of reviews for this one? If you have thoughts, I want to know.)

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley: This book is definitely a case where I can’t step back from my adult reaction enough to say fairly whether I think this is a successful book for kids. It’s a nuanced look at friendship and family and class; Gertie’s complicated feelings about the people and events in her life are compelling. But I wanted something to break free a little bit sooner, I guess. Whether a kid would feel the same way is a question I keep wondering about and not really coming up with an answer for.

Diva Without a Cause by Grace Dent: I’m really sad that only the first two books in this series have been published in the US. I liked this one quite a bit–it’s thoughtful and sharp and funny. In a certain way some of the concerns do feel very specific to the UK, and yet I think that 1) the overarching themes are totally relatable and 2) it’s good for us to read outside of our own culture!

Bandette vol. 1 by Tobin and Coover: Another recommendation from Kate. I LOVE IT–the story feels fresh, although the art feels retro and that’s a combination that works really well for me, it seems.

Rogue Heroes by Ben MacIntyre: I like MacIntyre’s non-fiction style; I was less interested in the subject of this book. [I could say more about this, and the fact that MacIntyre tries to push back against the glorification of hypermasculinity that’s almost inherent in his subject, but doesn’t entirely succeed. I’m not sure I’d be entirely coherent enough to make it worthwhile, though.]

New and Selected Poems, vol 1 by Mary Oliver: Rereading this volume and realizing I need to read vol. 2, since there are whole chunks of Oliver’s career that I’m missing! I am occasionally impatient with Oliver, and yet every time I feel this way, the next poem pulls me back and reminds me of why I love her.

Ahsoka by EK Johnston: I love Johnston’s books and I love Star Wars, so this seemed like a natural fit! The take on the universe, the aftermathy kind of story, was really interesting to me, and I liked the look at everyday life and resistance. This is about what happens when you lose the war; it seems unfortunately apt at the moment. Also, Ahsoka’s relationship with Kaeden and the way that played out seemed like a story I haven’t seen a lot of, in a way that seems realistic and true to the characters.

Guile by Constance Cooper: On a personal level, I found the story, characters and writing fairly strong (I do think it dragged in the middle) I am wondering about the representation and portrayal of bayou culture–not because I saw anything inherently problematic, but rather because it’s hard to tell how well Cooper has written it from the outside.

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