Category Archives: reviews

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

In my personal experience, there are two kinds of Holly Black books: the ones I like and the ones I don’t. And the whys and wherefores of which book will be which are not always obvious. I bounced hard off of the Tithe series but love The Darkest Part of the Forest, for examples. The Cruel Prince is by and large the kind of Holly Black book that I do like; it’s spikey and vivid and brilliant and full of interesting tensions between characters.

One of the strengths of this book is the relationship between Jude, the narrator and main character, and her sisters. I’m very much a fan of books about sisters and female friends, so any story with that theme is generally a draw for me. Here, Black gives us a complicated and sometimes tense history between Jude, Taryn, and Vivi. All three sisters have their own goals and agendas, and they intersect and conflict with each other in a way I found believable and effective.

I also really loved the details of this fairyland; I’ve said before, I think, that I’m most interested in fairylands which are all about what is dangerous and beautiful woven together, fairies who convincingly don’t think or react in human ways. Black delivers on that here, with details of the customs that are ancient but not unchanging, political minefields that Jude can only half-see because, as she remembers and reminds us throughout the story, she doesn’t belong here. At the same time, there’s a beauty to the descriptions of the food, clothes, and the society that help sell Jude’s fascination with the fairies and her desire to be part of their world.

That fascination and ambition drive the plot of the book, as Jude attempts in to earn her place in fairy society in several different ways. I really liked how ambitious she’s allowed to be, and while the story doesn’t exactly reward that, she’s also not punished for it. Too often female main characters are only allowed to want things to a certain degree, whereas here the conflict comes in large part because other characters also have their own goals and ambitions that don’t sit easily with Jude’s. I also really liked how she cares about her sisters but doesn’t necessarily change her course of action based on that care.

There is a big old However looming here, and that is Carden. I’m simply less and less interested in this kind of male character, in the guy whose cruelties are waved away because of his own pain. This goes double when there’s any question of his being the love interest. Black treads a really fine line here and does it semi-successfully–I did not throw the book across the room, and I will most likely read the next one. But that’s in spite of Carden, not because of him. (I do want to acknowledge that I’m not a teen reader, but I also feel like modelling healthy masculinity is important in teen books? And also that we do teen girls a disservice by assuming that they’ll only be interested in jerks? I don’t know; I went back and forth on this point a lot.)

So, The Cruel Prince: fascinating world, surprising twists and turns, and mostly compelling characters, with a few points where I remain Dubious.

Other reviews of The Cruel Prince:
The Book Smugglers
Emma @ Miss Print
Rachel Pfeiffer @ The Young Folks

Other Holly Black reviews here:
The Darkest Part of the Forest
The Iron Trial
Doll Bones
White Cat
Red Glove

Previously:
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (2011)
Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: Voices

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk is part memoir, part how to guide, part biography. It weaves together Helen Macdonald’s experiences training a goshawk after her father’s death, her observations about her grief and journey through it, and T.H. White’s experiences training his own goshawk almost a century earlier. It’s a very compelling and also very peculiar book. 

While I was in the middle of reading it, an internet friend of mine summed up her own experience of it as “brilliant but uneasy” and I keep thinking that this is the perfect way to encapsulate the tensions that pervade the book. Macdonald’s narrative voice carries the reader through the sometimes jagged connections between the threads. She has keen insights into grief, herself, the birds, the landscape she encounters while training Mabel–and a lovely turn of phrase. 

At the same time, I keep circling back to the sections about T.H. White. Macdonald includes his story because it fascinated her as a child, because it operates as a warning of how not to train your hawk, because White himself fascinates her and she often defines herself in opposition to him. But it’s an uneasy fascination; as far as I know, and based on the self-portrait in the book, Macdonald is straight, so is it fair for her to take on the subject of White’s tortuous feelings about his own sexuality? I don’t know. She is certainly sympathetic, but sympathy is not everything, and I still just don’t know how to take the comparisons she seems to draw between her grief and White’s self-loathing. There’s perhaps a failure to consider the external cultural forces that are present in White’s case which are not present in her own. Or am I simply oversimplifying what is meant to be a more complex relationship? I do know that I remain uneasy about this aspect of the book.

On the positive side, Macdonald has a great ability to show why she loves hawking while also interrogating its questionable history and less beautiful moments. She’s writing from a position of some privilege and that sometimes shows in ways I suspect she’s not entirely aware of. At the same time, she is willing to engage with the complexities around her, including one of the best passages on the problems with nostalgia for landscapes that I think I’ve ever read.

Despite my overall occasional ambivalence, I would say this one is worth reading for the beauty of the language, that voice which starts in the first sentence and pulled me right in. H is for Hawk is not always an easy book, not always one I agreed with, but I’m also glad that I read it.

Other reviews:

Kathryn Schulz (New Yorker)

Vicki Constantine Croke (NYT)

Katy Waldman (The Slate)

Previously:

The City in the Lake by Rachel Neumeier (2011)

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (2014)

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (2015)

Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)

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Three recently read graphic novels

I’ve been dipping back into the world of graphic novels! Here are quick reactions for a few of the ones I’ve read in March.

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

I loved Jamieson’s Roller Girl, which felt like a perfect middle grade graphic novel–and a great readalike for the insatiable Telgemeier readers. Like Roller GirlAll’s Faire features a tween girl with a specific interest (in this case, a Ren Faire) and some complicated friendships. It’s hard to read in some places because middle school feelings are A LOT. I appreciated that Imogen is a character who doesn’t intend to be unkind but is anyway, and then has to deal with the fallout from that. It’s at times a messy story, but it should be. Middle school is a messy time. If I have a complaint, it’s that things get tidied up a little bit too much at the end considering the rest of the story. However, I think this book hits its target audience really well.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

A fantasy graphic novel about Priyanka, a young Indian-American girl, who struggles to connect with her single mother. Meanwhile, she becomes increasingly fascinated with India and wanting to experience life there. This only increases when she discovers a mysterious pashmina that seems to transport her there. I’m not quite sure what age to recommend this one to, but it’s a strong story and I like some of the art choices. It’s also pretty explicitly feminist, which is neat! While I’m not familiar with the particular struggles of women in India, Chanani’s inclusion of different kinds of relationships between women and a complicated family and social background gave the story a lot of depth.

Spinning by Tillie Walden

A graphic novel memoir of ice skating, falling in love, and being queer in Texas. I was attracted to this one by the cover–one of the stronger graphic novel covers I can remember, actually! I absolutely loved the style of the artwork and the way each section began with a description of a figure skating move. Each one had a kind of poetic significance with the chapter that came after it; the relationship between the two was not always obvious but was very real. The ending felt frustratingly sad, but also true. And I think the frustration was meant to be there, that Walden was very consciously leaning into the way life doesn’t hand always hand us a satisfying ending. While this deals with some heavy subjects, I also found that it contains moments of warmth and even joy. I’d especially recommend this one for fans of This One Summer.

Other reviews:

Marjorie Ingall on All’s Faire (NYT)

Ibi Zoboi on Pashmina (NYT)

Rachel Cooke on Spinning (The Guardian)

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Previously:

Chime by Franny Billingsley (2011)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (2014)

Three of a Kind: Young women coming into power (2015)

Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: A Wizard of Earthsea (2016)

In the Great Green Room: The Bold and Brilliantl Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary (2017)

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Recover Reading: non-mysteries

I didn’t only read mysteries while I was recovering, even though it might seem that way. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the other books I went through!

I had read In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan in its original incarnation, as a serial published on her blog. So when the book was announced, I was excited to revisit it, but also curious about how the story might change in a different form. As it turns out, the heart of Elliot, Luke, and Serene’s journey remains unchanged, but the book is significantly revised and expanded from the original. It remains one of my favorite recent takes on portal fantasies and just as hilarious and heart-rending/warming as I remembered.

Then I picked up The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis, which I didn’t enjoy as much as I had expected. I was looking for a Hornblower/Aubrey-esque airship escapade, and I do think that’s what it wanted to be. But for me it seemed a bit too grim and the characters never quite solidified. However, several people I generally trust thought it was great, so I do recommend checking it out if a female captain of an airship sounds like a hook you’d be into.

I’ve been reading through Helen Oyeyemi’s backlist and–going strictly off of what was available on Overdrive at that moment–picked up What is Not Yours is Not Yours. While I think I prefer the spooled-out surrealness of Oyeyemi’s novels, this was overall a pretty strong short story collection. I especially liked the way characters from one story would appear in another, lending a sense of cohesion and purpose to the book.

Since Frances Hardinge is one of my favorite authors, a new book by her is always an exciting time! Her latest, A Skinful of Shadows, is strange and sad and lovely–not surprising, from Hardinge. Though I found the historical aspect of the setting less potent than Cuckoo Song or The Lie Tree, I loved Makepeace and her bear, as well as the shape the story took. Surprising and hopeful and lovely.

I had tried reading Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway at least once before and hadn’t managed to finish it. This time I kept going and was mostly rewarded. I liked it quite a lot, except that the story seemed somewhat awkwardly caught between wanting to be a light teen romance and wanting to explore some deeper and harder relationships between parents and children. Ultimately I’m not entirely sure how I felt about it as a whole, but I don’t regret reading it.

Finally, I picked up Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake. I had mixed feelings about a couple of aspects of Hadley’s characterization, but overall I really liked the way Blake took a somewhat implausible plot and used it as a base to explore different kinds of relationships and growth. It wasn’t always an easy or comfortable read but I did appreciate it–a good one for teens looking for a story that’s a little challenging in terms of theme.

 

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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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