Category Archives: reviews

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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Recent YA romcom round-up

To me, summer feels like the perfect time to read a bunch of YA romcoms, so I have. And it’s helped me zero in a bit on what I find most enjoyable in this type of book: a story that’s sweet and funny but also has a bit of substance to it. And, of course, great characters. Comedy and romance are both inextricably character-driven, so that makes sense! Anyway, here are some I’ve read and enjoyed recently.

The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

I really liked this one; the main character is prickly without being so mean that I was put off (I know this makes me sound like one of those people who hates ‘unlikable’ characters. I don’t! I’m also not convinced that a romcom is the best place for one? anyway.). Also, I really liked that the growing friendship felt as important, grounded, and central as the romance. Woo! The mom aspect wasn’t my favorite, but overall this was great. I need to read more Maurene Goo.

From Twinkle With Love by Sandhya Menon

Awwwww, I really super liked this one. It’s a cute story and I thought it worked just as well as When Dimple Met Rishi. The conceit of  Twinkle writing to her favorite female directors could have felt gimmicky, but it was just earnest enough to pull it off. I did realize where the story was going pretty quickly, but it was still effective for me.

Listen to Your Heart & By Your Side by Kasie West

So, I strongly prefer Listen to Your Heart, since By Your Side largely features the male main character not talking to the female main character while she tries to draw him out. It just made me uncomfortable; while I’m sure it was meant to be an update of the taciturn hero trope, this version didn’t work for me. (Also, I am a pedant and I know it, but: libraries have phones and doors that open from the inside even if locked!) But I really liked Listen to Your Heart, and the whole podcast scenario seemed pretty solidly depicted. And I did like the characters in that one a ton, especially the rivalry between Kate’s family and the local hotshots.

Always Never Yours by Austin Siegemund-Broka and Emily Wibberley

This one veers a bit more into drama territory (wow, this was not intentionally a pun but I’m just going with it) and is a lot less light-hearted than the other books here. But I’m including it anyway, because I think it still hits a lot of the same emotional beats as most romcoms. I liked it a lot! It’s thoughtful about a lot of stuff and I liked having a theatre story that focused on directing as well as acting. I’m also very curious about the fact that this is a husband and wife writing team but this is not a book with dual narrators! Intriguing.

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

I started this book with high hopes, because Jenny thought I’d love it when we talked about genre together, and so did my friend Kate. I mean, two of my best beloveds and trusted book people! Maybe I would finally get a literary fiction book and feel like I was smart enough to understand this genre.

But, alas, I didn’t love it and I don’t quite understand why I didn’t.

Here’s the thing: Tell the Wolves I’m Home has plenty of elements of a book I would love. It is all about sisters, and secrets, and growing into who you really are. I recognize exactly why Jenny & Kate thought I’d love it. But apparently I’m just broken and can’t figure out literary fiction, because there’s something about it that I don’t quite get.

(I’m being semi-facetious, because I don’t really think I’m broken, but also somewhat serious because one thing I sometimes feel from readers who love litfic is a sense that if you don’t like it or get it, it’s because you’re not an intellectual or serious enough reader. Which is baloney, but at the same time, I do still feel it? Like, part of me does think that there’s some key element of what Carol Rifka Brunt is doing here that I’m just not getting and if I could slide that lens into place I would actually love the book instead of just wanting to. So I don’t know.)

I guess what it boils down to is that for me there wasn’t any emotional connection to June, or Toby, or Finn. I was glad that the book eventually comes to see June’s mother and sister more complexly, and the emotional payoff for the story was in those relationships for me. But I just didn’t feel invested in the characters or the story even though I felt I should be. I guess I need dragons to process my feelings or something, I don’t know. Or maybe it’s that there’s a layer of self-consciousness to the prose and June’s narration here that creates a distance and pushed me away a bit.

I do know that it’s a bit discouraging when I really, really wanted to like a book and couldn’t find my way into it. A lot of literary fiction just feels like a slog to read, and this was no different. Is it that there’s an immediacy to the narratives of books I really love, even when the prose is complex or baffling? I have no problem with Helen Oyeyemi even when I have no idea what’s going on; what’s the difference between Mr Fox and Tell the Wolves I’m Home? If someone can riddle this out for me, I would greatly appreciate it.

Anyway, I wish I had a happier update in the great genre conversations and could say that I finally understand and appreciate litfic, as I’m sure it deserves. But I am who I am and litfic remains a mystery to me. Please tell me any thoughts you have about this, unless your thoughts are that I’m a bad person for not loving this book because I promise that I really, really tried.

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Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

I am finding it hard to know exactly where to start this post, because I don’t know where to start with this book. So, okay: I read Tess of the Road because I loved Seraphina, and because I kept hearing people talk about how amazing Tess was. At first the story felt slow; I felt almost impatient with Tess and her hurt and anger, a bit confused about what all the people who loved this book saw in it. But as Tess kept walking, I kept reading. Something pulled me forward. And as Tess’s journey progressed, I absolutely fell in love with the book and with her. I’m not sure I’ve done at all a good job of conveying how much I loved this book and how much it means to me, even now remembering reading it. But it’s always harder to write about the books that you truly love, that work themselves into your heart.

For one thing, the writing itself is a delight. There are riffs on madrigals, sly allusions to the Psalms, Tolkien, and probably some others that I’ve now forgotten. While the descriptions of the landscape that Tess walks through never overtake the main narrative in importance, there are moments of real loveliness. Like this one: “The sun began to rise in earnest; Tess loved the way it illuminated treetops first, turning the foliage white-gold. The sky behind was warmly blue, and in the west a gibbous moon lingered in the branches like a pale fish caught in a net.” There’s a wit and warmth even in the narration that’s hard to put into words but which helps to make the story what it is.

I was also charmed and disarmed to realize how much of the book is about philosophy. I can’t think of another historical fantasy off the bat that shows the medieval/renaissance conflict of philosophies so clearly and considering how much time people of those eras spent arguing about Ideas, this seems wrong. There’s a whole section where Tess argues with a nun, Mother Philomela, about attitudes towards the body. It’s important from a character building perspective, but it’s also there because our underlying beliefs do influence our personal journeys, our attitudes towards others and ourselves. I love it.

(There are sort of vague emotional spoilers in the rest of this review; not specific plot points but some of the emotional payoff. If you would like to avoid them, stop reading now!)

At the beginning of the book, Tess is locked in a self-destructive and bitter cycle, fueled by her past and her mother’s dislike of her. The catalyst that gets her out of her parents’ house and onto the Road forces her into self-examination whether she likes it or not. Ultimately, this story is one of growth, of healing. It doesn’t take place instantly, nor does it feel finished at the end. And yet, the Tess at the end of the book is so much more herself than the Tess at the beginning. We see her unshrivel herself as she walks.

This is also a book about kindness, but not a passive “be nice” sort of kindness. One of the key things that keeps resonating in ways spoken and unspoken is that kindness is “hard to manage if you were filled with the brim to bitterness.” It’s not enough to be a Nice Person, or to be reflexively polite. Neither is it enough to make yourself smaller to make others feel better. What Tess of the Road posits is an active kindness, acts of kindness that come not because you’re doing it deliberately in order to be kind but almost exactly because you’re not. Because each small choice to reach out, to uncurl yourself a little bit from your own pain and see someone else is real and vital and echoes through the world.

At the same time, there is no simple happy ending. There is healing and courage and kindness and all kinds of lovely, vital things. But there are some wounds that aren’t fixed on the pages of this book; they may be some day, but for now they remain. It’s not that everything is fine now, but that Tess has the tools and the inner strength to deal with them. In that sense the ending reminded me a bit of the ending of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy (also a story about healing and identity and companionship): “There is always more after the ending. Always the next morning, and the next. Always changes, losses and gains. Always one step after the other.”

This tension isn’t accidental, since the book contains at its heart this quigutl idea of -utl, a suffix containing the thing and its opposite. A life lived in joy-utl, which is to say joyful sorrow, or sorrowful joy. (Which are, as it happens, EXTREMELY Orthodox ideas.) No false promises of happily ever after here, but the next part of the journey and the next bit of the Road.

 

Other reviews of Tess of the Road:
Amal El-Mohtar for NPR (honestly, read this one; she says basically everything that I wanted to)
The Book Smugglers
Caitlin Kelly at Hypable

My review of Seraphina (2012)

Previously on By Singing Light:
Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke (2017)
Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: A Coalition of Lions (2016)
Diana Wynne Jones Reading Notes: Hexwood (2015)
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (2013)
 

 

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Favorite Tor.com Novellas

In the past few years, Tor.com’s novella line has really grown and strengthened. Here are a few of the offerings I especially enjoyed.

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander: This one is really stunning; it’s all about history and alternate history and the stories we tell. The prose is beautiful and the story is powerful. There are a few threads interwoven and each of them is treated seriously and given its own significance.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson: I’ve had a very strong reaction to some of Johnson’s other short fiction, but I really enjoyed this one. Centered on an older woman, whose academic background reminded me a bit of Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night, this also features some interesting cats and lovely descriptions.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire: A brutal, thoughtful take on portal fantasies and what happens afterwards. It’s probably my favorite writing from McGuire and I recommend it if you are interested in both stories and subversions of the stories.

Binti, Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor: Oh, the Binti trilogy! I love the writing in these books so much, the emphasis on diplomacy, on peacemaking. The scifi elements combined with a deep sense of history and culture and customs. Binti herself and her growth of over the course of the three novellas. There’s something really magical about these ones.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition by Martha Wells: MURDERBOT. I love Murderbot so much, which sounds sketchy if you haven’t read these lovely space operas yet. But Murderbot is a disenchanted securitybot who just wants to protect humans and hacked its own governor module so it can watch entertainment feeds and doesn’t want to feel anything and I LOVE IT. The second novella is just as good as the first and I can’t wait for the next few. (PS, if you know Wells through the Murderbot novellas, please check out some of her other books; they are also excellent.

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Becca Fair and Foul by Deirdre Baker

It’s always fun to come across a book that makes you wonder if the author took a look in one of your old diaries. Becca Fair and Foul by Deirdre Baker is one of those books. I picked it up from our new book shelf at work, attracted by the cover, and was hooked by the first page. It seems that there’s a first book, Becca at Sea, which I haven’t read.

At any rate, this book takes place over one summer on an island in Canada (I believe near Vancouver? I was a bit muzzy as to geography), where Becca and her cousins have come to stay with their grandmother. Her friend Jane is there too, and she and Jane decide to put on a Shakespeare play (with the unwilling help of cousins) to raise money to buy a better sailboat than the one they currently have access to.

As a kid, this would have been absolutely catnip to me. I loved sailing and boats, and my siblings and I often spent part of the summer at our grandparents’ house by the sea, with our cousin. (Not, alas, on an island.) I read just about every nautical-themed book I could get my hands on and, though my exposure to Shakespeare was probably limited to Lamb’s Tales From, I would have sympathized deeply with the desire to put on a play.

As an adult reader, all the old nostalgic love for those things is there. But I also admire the way that Baker takes what on the surface is a rather adventurey story and makes it a vehicle for exploring Becca’s very late elementary/early middle school experience of life. This is the summer when she notices and is hurt by the death of the animals around her, even though it’s a natural part of life. The summer when her aunts are hurting and there’s nothing anyone can do to truly fix it. It’s not a morbid or a sad book, but it does go a lot deeper than the initial premise suggests, allowing the lovely descriptions of the island and funny moments with the other inhabitants to exist alongside Aunt Meg’s pain over her stillbirth and the burial of the bear.

While I do admire the depth that the story reaches, and the handling of the various sadder moments in a way that felt just right for a sensitive tween reader, I do want to mention that the story at the same time feels limited. Everyone is white, and one of Becca’s aunts is a doctor with an AIDs center in Africa. Ultimately, Jane and Becca decide to give the proceeds of their play to this aunt, for her research and to help save the grandmothers and children there. In that sense it feels like a very old-fashioned book, and not in a good way. I really wished that this storyline had at least been counterbalanced with the presence of some people of color on the island or in the main story itself, or with someone more mature than the kids providing some pushback to the white saviorism there.

So, ultimately this is one that I personally really enjoyed both on a nostalgic level and  as an adult reader–there are some really funny scenes, some really heartbreaking ones, and a keen description of both the nature world and Becca’s growing awareness of life. But I also had some reservations about it, so I’m not entirely sure who I’d recommend this book to. All the same, if you also love anything set by the sea, or quiet books about growing up, this might be a great fit.

Other reviews of Becca Fair and Foul:
Kirkus 
Kristin Butcher
A Year in Books

Previously on By Singing Light:
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (2017)
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard (2016)
Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: Howl’s Moving Castle (2015)
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson (2014)

 

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