Category Archives: reviews

Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Rumi and her sister Lea share their love of music and songwriting; it makes them closer than most sisters or friends. But after Lea dies in a car accident, Rumi is left alone with her grief. Her mom sends her to Hawaii, where Rumi struggles to find a way to finish the last song she started with Lea, “Summer Bird Blue.”

I read this one because I had heard some really positive things about its depiction of grief, and because my contemporary YA reading could always use a boost. I didn’t know much about the plot or characters going in.

Sometimes when I read YA, I wonder if my reaction is colored by my age, and that was definitely the case here. While I liked the prose and the spareness of the story, I felt like I could predict the overall character arc and themes of the book within the first few pages. Since the story felt expected in that sense, I struggled to really immerse myself in it. However, I suspect that for teen readers that might not be the case.

I did really enjoy Rumi’s neighbor in Hawaii, Mr. Watanabe. In addition to being a snarky monster, it was also nice to see some older characters in a YA book, having real relationships with the main character in a way that felt realistic. Rumi’s friendship with her other neighbor, Kai, were also refreshing–while Kai is somewhat interested in her romantically, Rumi doesn’t feel that way about him and talks about how she possibly considers herself asexual on the page. 

And while for me Rumi’s journey throughout the book felt a bit predictable and repetitive, Bowman does a great job of shading in the details of the initial picture we get, especially in regards to Lea and Rumi’s relationship. It’s clear that there was a special bond between the sisters, but it also becomes clear over the course of the story that they also fought and were jealous of each other in ways that make both more human.

Lastly, I loved the setting–Hawaii is not somewhere I’ve ever been or felt a particular desire to visit, but the history and heritage of the characters, as well as the physical setting, are important background and inform who they are and how they live in the world.

All in all, while I wasn’t personally in love with this one, I would definitely hand it to teenage readers, especially those who are grappling with grief and the different forms it can take. Readers who liked Ashley Woodfolk’s The Beauty That Remains might especially appreciate it.

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Previously, on By Singing Light:

The Caged Graves by Dianne Salerni (2013)
The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud (2014)
The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn (2015)
Dancing, Princesses, Magic: Vernon and Valentine (2016)

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Capsized! by Patricia Sutton

Capsized!: The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster by Patricia Sutton (Chicago Review Press, July 2018) is a children’s non-fiction book about a largely forgotten disaster–the capsizing of a passenger-laden steamboat in the Chicago River in 1915. It’s a fairly slim book with a fair number of contemporary photos of both the people and the actual events of the capsizing. Sutton’s author’s note indicates that she has been fascinated with the story for a long time and I’d say this book shows how much research she has done to uncover eyewitness accounts and reports.

I thought that I picked Capsized!  up because I had challenged myself a while back to try to read (or at least attempt) the middle grade books from the Publisher’s Weekly best books of summer 2018 list. But it turns out, it’s not on that list! It did receive a Kirkus star, so I may have seen the review there and thought it looked interesting.

The SS Eastland story is one I think I was vaguely familiar with but certainly didn’t know much about. And oh wow, this is a tough one! The details of the disaster are pretty much horrifying. It’s one of those examples of how a bunch of small mistakes can build up to a situation that goes really, really awry. So the first part of the book is full of a sense of impending doom since you know what’s about to happen and all the people in the book are blithely getting ready for a company picnic.

Part of what’s so devastating is the fact that most of the victims were from a very close-knit community who lived in neighborhoods around the Western Electric factory where they or their families worked. Towards the end of the book, Sutton mentions that on one street there was not a single house without mourning ribbons on the door. The narrative follows a couple of families, giving a sense of how they fit into the overall picture of Western Electric employees and families, through their part in the disaster, and wrapping up with what happened to them later. The inclusion of photographs from the capsizing and the aftermath strengthen the power of the text nicely.

The book does an excellent job of painting the background picture: the history of the SS Eastland, the immigrant communities that many of the workers were part of, the pressure from the management of Western Electric to attend the picnic. That being said, I felt that the bulk of the book focused on the lead-up to the accident, and I wished that a little more time had been spent on what happened afterwards, although since Sutton notes that war news replaced the reporting on the capsizing almost immediately this may be partly an issue with the historical record.

Overall, this is a powerful and devastating read that I would recommend for grades 5+. Hand this one to anyone who loves reading about forgotten history or disasters, especially the kids who are into the Titanic and ready to branch out.

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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow (2013)
Libraries and Life Preservers (2014)
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (2015)
Joan Aiken Reading Notes: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (2016)

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TBR Stacks: The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein

So I’ve finally finished one of the books on my TBR challenge list. Hurray! The Lost Steersman is the third book in the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, and I’ve read the first two books previously. It’s a series that does some interesting things with genre conventions, and with the underlying structures of the world.  (There are some non-specific spoilers below, so tread carefully if that’s something that will bother you.)

In The Lost Steersman, we pick up the story with Rowan separated from Bel, living in  the small town of Alemeth and trying so hard to be resigned to her situation. At the same time, she is still trying to find the wizard Slado, looking for him in the shadows, in what is not there. Meanwhile, one of the young people of Alemeth is trying to adjust to the new Steerswoman, who is about to change the course of his life.

It’s always nice to see the deepening of worldbuilding as a series goes on (this is one of the things I love about CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series) and here Kirstein really delves into the implications of the Steerswoman’s code of conduct. If Rowan believes in it, then she must act in certain ways; if she acts in certain ways, there will be consequences. It causes a kind of thinking that’s what we might call critical thinking but which feels much more fundamental than that within the context of the world. It’s related to what Terry Pratchett calls Second and Third Thoughts in the Tiffany Aching books.

And we also see how it can be used against the Steerswomen, how their commitment to the exchange of knowledge doesn’t mean that they are omnipotent. We see how the flaws in the system can hurt people as well as help them, and yet we also understand Rowan’s ultimate re-commitment to that system and its best practices.

I also was fascinated at the way Kirstein takes our expectations of narrative–that the solution of the problems in this book will advance the main storyline–and upends them. The threat here is not what Rowan thinks it is, and the moment when she finally admits that to herself is really effective.

This is a book about ideas almost more than characters, but I do find Rowan deeply sympathetic in a lot of ways. And there are lots of nicely-written moments in the story. Kirstein has a great understanding of how to move a story forward when long journeys are involved, which other fantasy writers might take notes from. The result is a story that feels tightly wound, propelling us towards a horizon we can’t quite see.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2003, Del Rey; adult specfic

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Previously on By Singing Light:

Mary Stewart Reading Notes: The Ivy Tree (2016)

Not the Chosen One (2016)

Dorothy Sayers Reading Notes: Gaudy Night (2015)

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Reading Notes: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

Reading Notes is a semi-regular feature where I look more deeply at a book I’ve read before. This time, it’s Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics. As usual with these posts, there will be spoilers here, so tread carefully if that’s something you care about!

I first read A College of Magics back in 2010, and then again in 2011. It’s a book I’ve wanted to revisit for a while now, partly because I had a vague memory of the feeling of reading it but almost no memory at all of what happens. And someone mentioned it on Twitter as part of a college + magic discussion. So I’ve finally pulled it off the shelf. It was published in 1994, and a title that I think has largely been overlooked. Interestingly, my edition claims it is for ages 10 and up! I am not sure I agree; certainly it would be possible for an 11-year-old to read it, and even for that someone that age to enjoy it. But I don’t think the full depth is really going to come across unless that reader has also read Austen, Sayers, and Anthony Hope. Not impossible, but a rare child indeed.

This is, quite deliberately, a three-volume novel, all three volumes being contained in the one book. Jane and Faris read three-volume novels, which helps us picture the setting a bit, if you’re the kind of person who knows what they are. And the story does, in a weird way, follow what Wikipedia calls “[t]he particular style of mid-Victorian fiction, of a complicated plot reaching resolution by distribution of marriage partners and property in the final pages.” But Stevermer has also taken that structure and twisted it for her own purposes. Each volume takes place in a different location, propels Faris’s journey in different ways. Each section has a different focus and tone, but by the end we see how they fit together into a whole. It’s an interesting way to revisit an older way of writing and reading books.

A College of Magics starts with one image: a coach pulling up to the gates of a college with a new student. But reading it is like looking at a Bruegel painting by starting at one corner, with one figure. Stevermer gradually pulls the focus wider and wider as we start to understand the setting and personal/political intrigues. She certain does not infodump. In fact, it’s really the opposite of an infodump: a trust in the reader to figure it out. I can imagine this being fairly frustrating to some people; I really liked it. But so much depends on that beginning, that first image of Faris and Greenlaw, to engage the reader until it’s a bit more clear about what’s going to happen.

And what kept me reading and engaged were the contradictions that create tension and friction. We have a college of magics–the title, even!–which doesn’t teach magic (except that it does). And a student who, unlike most other students at most other schools of magic, doesn’t want to be there (except that she does). And who is also  a duchess without power in her own place (except that she has more than she realizes). On the surface, the first section is a rather nice school story, with the requisite scrapes and friends and difficulties with teachers. But you can see all the things that you don’t quite understand yet–the references to people and places, the way magic is both real and impossible, the relationship between Menary and Faris. And the fact that despite Greenlaw not having any classes that teach magic, the students manage to learn it anyway. It’s an accomplished piece of writing, relying on what’s not said, on the inferences characters make that aren’t necessarily spelled out for us.

This section is a bit Sayers-esque in some ways, and I’m sure the book has been described as Sayers, but with magic. This is and isn’t true. There are connections, in the form of the many allusions, the college setting, and an unlikely romance that’s slightly horrifying to the main character. But Faris very much is not Harriet. She’s both more sure of her desires and much younger. She is very much herself: full of duty and temper, stubbornness and loyalty. Moreover, where Shrewsbury is a still center for Harriet, Greenlaw is not for Faris–although that idea is borrowed a bit later on. I do think that people who enjoy Sayers are likely to enjoy A College of Magics, however, so in that sense the recommendation is true.

What’s also gradually established is a kind of slipwise setting. This is our world, Edwardian England–but not. We’re in a college that never existed, a country and duchy not on any map, etc. The geography of this whole idea was intensely frustrating to me, perhaps because I’m a little too literal at times. Mentions of Ruritania as real help set the stage, but when we eventually arrive at Galazon and Aravill, it makes approximately no sense whatever. It seems like it’s supposed to be Eastern European, but everything is filtered through the Anthony Hope-style British-centered romance adventure stories. So the culture isn’t right for Eastern Europe, but it’s also not quite British. I wasn’t nearly as frustrated by this on previous reads, so ymmv as they say.

However, there are some lovely descriptions of the landscape of Galazon, the duchy that’s supposed to be Faris’s inheritance if her evil uncle Brinker doesn’t get his hands on it. Galazon is the geographical center of the book, that everything else turns on. So it’s interesting to note that it’s literally the center of the book as well, with the sections taking place in Greenlaw and Aravill bookending it on either side. Faris’s identity and understanding of herself are wrapped up in Galazon, so much so that she sometimes has difficulty seeing beyond it.

So much of this book is woven through with questions of families and inheritances and duty–in small ways with Jane’s family who give her access to diplomatic information but also ask her to spy on her best friend. In larger ways with the Nallaneens–their history as independent rulers, their sense of pride in their land and their people, their temper. The conflict between Faris and Brinker is complicated by the fact that Brinker truly cares about Galazon. But we see negative effects of this theme most clearly in the  Paganells, the ruling family of Aravill. Menary is the main antagonist of the book, a self-centered and power hungry person who delights in cruelty. The king is vain and weak. And Agnes, his other daughter uses Galazon for her own ends in ways that even Brinker wouldn’t.

The last section of the book is the most magic-filled, and perhaps my favorite. This is partly because all the threads that have been established come together, and partly because of the climax of the story which is beautiful, effective, heartbreaking. I almost always like endings that have a bit of bittersweetness to them (blame my early love of Tolkien) and this one does. Faris gains her power as Warden of the North, but she loses Galazon in the same moment that it’s most hers. Tyrian is saved but at a cost. We see that Faris will have to learn to understand herself in a new way.

But there’s also this moment: “As sure of her own strength as she was of the north wind’s, she sent herself into the heart of the rift. In the heart of the rift, she found the heart of balance, the heart of rest. For a blazing, endless moment, as all pain eased, the world held still around her.” There are these glimpses, woven backward and forward through the book, when Faris finds something deep and real, peace and a center that give her power.

While I like the book as a whole and enjoy the various settings and threads, what has stayed with me is the feeling of the deep magic and Faris herself. This really shows Stevermer at her best: synthesizing and playing with bits of other books, while also making something new and beautiful. I’ve enjoyed revisiting it a lot!

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Recent adult fiction: Older, Hoang, Carey

I’ve been on kind of a roll with adult fiction recently, after my earlier YA romcom binge. Here are a few that have no thematic connection except that I read them recently.

Last Shot by DJ Older: Star Wars tie-in, about Han and Lando and one last job. There’s some interesting past/present narration and we see things from both Han and Lando’s points-of-view which is cool. I do wish that the timeline was slightly clarified–the main action takes place a few years after Ben Solo is born (I think he’s two here) but the older parts are all “fifteen years earlier” or “ten years earlier” and sometimes it was hard to orient to where that was in the larger SW universe. However, I always like a good heist and there are some funny characters and moments, plus some heartbreak as Han wonders if he’ll ever learn to be a good parent. Bonus for Lando’s amazing wardrobe.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang: Super cute contemporary romance! I liked a lot of things about this one, especially the interactions between the main characters and the male mc’s family. It was really sweet to see a male mc who cares so much about his mother and sisters, and it helped make sense of how he understands Stella. There’s not much external drama here, which is also nice sometimes! It’s much more focused on Stella and Michael and whether they will/can commit to each other.

Starless by Jacqueline Carey: This is actually the first book by Carey that I’ve ever read, although I know she has a lot of others out there. I have extremely mixed feelings about this one. On the positive side, the narration was pretty engaging and some of the worldbuilding concepts were pretty neat. On the other hand, I felt pretty strongly that this book needed to be edited down, or that one clear through-line should have been established, or both. There are entire sections that felt irrelevant to the ultimate story, and I never felt truly invested in Khai’s journey, resulting in what felt like a somewhat boring read. But I might be in the minority on this one, so take my grumps with a grain of salt.

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Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Valley Girls by Sarah Nicole Lemon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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