The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Small Beer Press; adult fantasy

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Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I was hovering on the edge of a reading slump when I read this one (symptoms of a reading slump: picking up and setting down a number of books, trying books you expect to like and finishing them with a grim sense of ennui, the inability to pinpoint exactly what you actually want to read) and I wasn’t really expecting this book to be the one to pull me out of it, but I was wrong.

This is a far-future scifi set on a group of distant planets belonging to the Coromina Group, an all-powerful corporation that operates a corpocracy. It controls everything about its citizen-employees and in turn supposedly ensures their lives are smooth and they have everything they need. Esme Coromina, the main character of Star’s  End, is the oldest daughter of the founder of the Coromina Group and his assumed successor. As the book opens, her father calls her in and reveals that he’s dying, asking her to find her estranged sisters. The story unfolds in alternating chapters between Esme’s third person current life and first person past narration.

Star’s End does a couple of that I found interesting and liked quite a bit. Although it’s definitely science fiction and I found the SF elements plausible and interesting, it’s main focus is on the family dynamics and their ripples across the world. For all the planets, and technological innovation, and scifi warfare, it’s a very intimate story; at the same time, because everything the Coromina family does carries power with it, that very intimacy lies in an unresolvable tension with the wider implications and effects on the world.

It can’t be denied that in his family life as well as the planet, Phillip Coromina is a driving force. And yet the true heart of this books is Esme and her three sisters. In a way that reminded me of my beloved Girls at the Kingfisher Club*, Clarke shows a sisterhood that is complex and fraught, full of distance and tensions and misunderstandings, but which is for all of that as vitally real as can be. We can see Esme’s strengths and her flaws most clearly in the ways she deals with her sisters, and it’s in these moments that her struggle becomes the most palpable.

While I love books that talk about working against a system from inside of it (the Imperial Raadch books, for instance), Star’s End has a lot to say about the limits of that possibility. Esme’s desire in working to achieve her current status in the company has always been to become unlike her father, and to take the company in a different direction. She’s committed to that course already, in the changes she made while working in Planetary Management. But at the same time, the book lays her failures out starkly. And although the end is hopeful, the fact remains that the corpocracy is still in place; the system has not been demolished so much as made benign. Esme is not her father, and she learns over the course of the book how to be even less like him and more truly herself. The ending is hopeful and feels earned and true. But I think, quite deliberately, Clarke also wants us to see the gaps.

All in all, the combination of themes and concerns in this one really struck me, and I’m glad I read it! I really like intimate scifi, especially when it also has some interesting SF elements, and I’d like to read more of it.

* Obligatory, Jooooooooo, my heart

Book source: public library

Book information: 2017; Saga Press, adult scifi

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The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Oh my, what a feels-fest The Inexplicable Logic of My Life was for me! It’s Benjamin Alire Saenz’s second book*, following Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and, like the first book, is quiet and elegant but also packs a walloping emotional punch.

Now, I have seen a critique that the beginning of the book goes slowly. And I can see that as fair. But I can also see that the pacing is actually very deliberate, as Saenz draws us into Sal’s world and his emotional landscape. At the same time, this is not a book that’s ever going to be for a reader who’s primarily plot-driven. It’s not that nothing happens here–in fact, there are big, seismic life changes. But the focus remains firmly on the characters, rather than the events.

And in fact, a lot of this book is about showing care and complexity in portraying people who are often overlooked, like Sal but also Sam and Fito, also Sal’s dad. This is perhaps a bit of an emotional spoiler, but I’m still going to share one of my favorite quotes:

“It was exactly like Sam had said, about how we had to see people because sometimes the world made us invisible. So we had to make each other visible. Words were like that too. Sometimes we didn’t see words.”

Sal starts off alone, but he doesn’t end up there; he starts off in some ways invisible, but over the course of the book, he becomes seen. And I loved the family that grows–found families being one of my favorite things anyway, but especially here, where it’s not easy or simple but is true.

There’s a lot more going on, including identity, the repetition of family patterns and history, learning how to see your parents as people, grief, the importance of friendship. But what weaves it all into a cohesive whole is the strength of Sal’s narration, and his relationship to the world, to his friends and family, and ultimately himself.

* Kate has alerted me that this is in fact VERY WRONG–Inexplicable Logic being BAS’s FIFTH YA book.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Every so often I try to convince myself that reading a bunch of ebooks is the way to get through my TBR list more efficiently, so I check out a bunch from the library (free! easy! look at me getting all these books to read!) and then inevitably read one or two before I forget about it and end up with an empty loan page again.

I went through that cycle earlier this month, and while I can’t say I was any more successful than usual, I did read We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I was going to say that it’s my first Shirley Jackson, but of course like many others I read “The Lottery” in high school. I’m convinced that this is a terrible time to read “The Lottery” and while I’ll stop short of saying that people are doing it on purpose, I do think it contributed to the fact that I’m just now reading any of Jackson’s other work.

Anyway, I loved WHALITC from the very beginning, because, I mean:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

(I too like Richard Plantagenet, but possibly for different reasons.)

Merricat’s voice is a huge strength in this one: calm and assured, deeply observant and also scattered and naive. I’m a sucker for a good narrative voice and it’s all over this one, from that opening paragraph to the end. And it works perfectly for the delicious creepiness of this story, with its silences and refusal to look full on at the truth. There’s a slipperiness of both memory and time here which relies on but is also in tension with Merricat’s confidence in her own history and reality.

One strand of this story is the eerie mirror-wrongness of the familiar and nostalgic. For instance, rather than a homey or quaint village, the one here is a locus of hatred and suspicion and eventually violence as seen through Merricat’s eyes. Though she’s certainly not a reliable narrator, I don’t think we’re meant to discount this particular aspect.

Similarly, the rituals and routines of the Blackwoods, the insistent return to the minutiae of their family history and customs, may at first call up a sense of warmth and continuity. But it becomes apparent, in the that slipperiness of memory, that the reality is darker and fiercer. We start to see the family members, both present and remembered, almost like mechanical figures going about their patterns whether they want to or not.

At the heart of the story is the bond between the two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine. It’s Constance that Mary Katherine loves best, and it’s the threat of Constance leaving with Charles that sets into motion the final bits of the plot. But as we come to realize the truth that lies behind all the careful rituals and rules, we see that this bond becomes something both beautiful and terrible.

(I also felt  the fact that a woman had written this very strongly. It’s in the details of everyday life and the careful inheritance of care for house and contents, but it’s also in the particulars of Constance and Merricat’s fear and vulnerability.)

The true trick of this one is how right it seems while reading. There’s humor, there’s a sense of embattled pride and self-reliance. There’s a sense of wonder and almost-magic that we see in Merricat’s love of her home and her land, her imagination and observation. It’s only when the story is over and the ebook returned that the wrongness of it becomes apparent. The bits that don’t add up, the bits that suddenly add up all too well, the bits that hang there waiting for a resolution. It’s one of the truly creepiest things I’ve ever read, because for so long Jackson manages to make it convincing.

So! I’m planning to read The Haunting at Hill House next and then that biography of Jackson that came out recently. But–to bring things full circle–I checked them out as ebooks and they’ve since expired.

Other reviews:

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Star Wars: Razor’s Edge and Rebel Rising

rebel risingI have to admit that I haven’t historically been a big reader of Star Wars tie-ins, despite loving the movies. But I’ve read several I liked recently, starting with EK Johnston’s Ahsoka.

Martha Wells’ Razor’s Edge has the advantage of being written by an author whose books I really, really like, and of being about Leia (my favorite character). I was initially slightly disoriented because for some reason I thought this took place after the end of the original trilogy. It’s actually between New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It’s a relatively standalone adventure, featuring space pirates plus some fun banter between Han and Leia.

I really liked the way Wells shades in Leia’s competence–she’s shown to be a great negotiator and diplomat–but also her vulnerability–she feels incredibly responsible for the survivors of Alderaan. It’s a Leia that fits the movies while also giving an added sense of interority to the quippy Princess. This is enjoyable, although I didn’t feel that it ever reached the emotional depths of Wells’ strongest character work (Tremaiiiiine). At the same time, Razor’s Edge is a solid and thoughtful look at echoes from Leia’s past as well as her growing competence and strength.

While Razor’s Edge was published as an adult book, Beth Revis’s recent Rebel Rising is being published and marketed as YA. Telling Jyn Erso’s backstory, interspersed with scenes from Wobani, it goes a long way towards making her a slightly more coherent character than Rogue One was able to achieve.

This Jyn is shattered by the loss of her parents and then by subsequent loss after loss after loss. It’s grim, but we really do come to see the reason of her lack of hope. And we also see her talents as well as the training that made her one of Saw’s best fighters.

Saw himself emerges as a complex figure, and the book does a nice job of showing how his distrust and paranoia grow over Jyn’s years with him. I can’t say the male/female ratio is better than in Rogue One, but we do see a bit more of Lyra’s importance to her daughter, which is nice. (I still long for the AU where Lyra’s the scientist the Empire wants.)

There are a few inconsistencies that bothered me a bit, and the story felt long in places. Despite those quibbles, Rebel Rising is a solid YA that gives us better insight into Jyn and her motivations and background.

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April 2017 round up

Well, I read so many books and talked about almost none of them. Also, it is May 16. Here we are.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Shannon and Dean Hale: I love the Squirrel Girl comics, and I enjoyed this middle grade chapter book about Doreen Green. I will say, though, that I didn’t find the story worked quite as well when translated to words instead of comics. I’m not sure exactly why this is, except maybe that part of Squirrel Girl’s charm is her very normal appearance (except for the tail) and that visual shortcut isn’t possible in a chapter book.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders: So, I had a really erroneous notion of what this book was going to be, and I struggled with the gap between my expectation and the book as it is. I mean, the idea that one character is in a SF book and the other is in a fantasy book is neat, but in the end the themes and love story didn’t feel super new. I feel a bit churlish for not loving it as much as others did–and I do think it’s very well written from a craft perspective.

Alone Atop the Hill by Alice Dunnigan: Kate recommended this one when I asked about biographies of women of color–and I’m glad she did. Alice Dunnigan was the first Black woman to be a Capitol Hill reporter and this book excerpts her biography in a way that gives us a sense of what she had to struggle with to make that possible.

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson: I loved this one so, so much and wanted to write a whole post about it, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to it. So for now, I’ll just say that just like This Side of Home, Watson’s second YA book is incredibly thoughtful and complex, and so strong on character and relationships. I appreciated how layered it is in terms of the different intersections of identity shown.

Keeping Hope Alive by Dr. Hawa Abdi: The memoir of a female doctor in Somalia, who semi-accidentally became a leader of a whole community. The story sometimes jumps unexpectedly, but it’s clearly personal and vivid, so I didn’t mind that here. It’s an interesting look at how to keep going in the face of really horrifying situations.

Elizabeth’s Women by Tracey Borman: This had been on my TBR list literally for years, so I finally checked it out. I liked it, generally speaking, though somehow the men just kept creeping back in. (#misandryalert) But Borman is a good historian and a decent writer and the idea of looking at Elizabeth’s life through her many complicated relationships with other women is a great lens to examine an already much-examined subject.

The Buccaneers’ Code by Caroline Carlson (audiobook): Third in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy. This one had been on my to-read list since it came out and I finally used an e-audiobook as a way to get through it. Which makes it sound like I didn’t like it–I did enjoy it quite a bit, though I think that at least for an adult listener, the pacing was a bit slow and the characterization a bit uneven.

Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford: Weirdly, reading this biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay made it much easier for me to understand what Amy Gary was trying to do with In the Great Green Room: the brilliant woman with a troubled love life and a sister who outlived her, and who the author had unique access to. The fact remains that Milford has the sensitivity and contextual ability to succeed where Gary doesn’t. While this left me feeling more sad about Millay than anything else, I do think it’s worth reading if you’re interested in her or her era.

Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall: reviewed here!

The Copper Gauntlet by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare: Book 2 in a planned…six book series, I believe? On the one hand, it’s really not doing anything incredibly new, but it does have just enough interest in the conflict and the characters to keep me interested while I’m reading it.

Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw (reread): It had been a bit since I revisited any of Bradshaw’s work and now I’m kind of wanting to do some focused rereading of her books. I think this one is probably still my favorite–or at least very close–mostly because Charis is such a great character. The degree to which this is kind of three separate books in one is pretty fascinating to me, though.

Seal Up the Thunder by Erin Noteboom: So, I love Erin Bow’s prose books and she mentioned on Twitter that she had a poetry collection–which I knew and had forgotten! I ordered it promptly and really liked it. The poems are sly, witty, and warm, treating their Biblical themes with respect and affection. My favorites were “oh the gates” and “Resurrection” (which I’d already read but which worked even better for me in context). If religious poetry can be too sentimental for you, this is a great antidote.

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz: Historical fantasy loosely inspired by real French historical figures. I really liked this one–maybe more than I expected to–and found that it was a deep and thoughtful look at different marginalized experiences. It was also a more emotional read than I expected, so all in all, I can really understand why this one has received so much acclaim.

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood: This is a very delightful book about fighting the patriarchy and hatred, also a dragon. I really liked the main character, and the interactions between the older and younger generations was fascinating. Plus, I hope I mentioned the dragon? I will say that I don’t think the tone of the cover art particularly fits the book, which is both more serious and richer than the kids on an adventure suggests.

Bandette v. 3: House of the Green Mask: Bandette! I do really like this series, though I’m starting to feel the desire for a slightly more resolved arc. However, the art and storyline, plus the low key romance is keeping me invested in this one.

In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll: There’s been an interesting mini-trend recently of middle grade books that hearken back to WWI in some way. (Hilary McKay’s Binny Bewitched is one, and I swear I thought of another one but of course didn’t write it down!) In Darkling Wood is quite sad–sadder than I was expecting, even once I figured out some of what was going on. The historical bits are pretty unrelenting, which made me perhaps not enjoy this one, or believe in the current-day resolution as much as I wanted to.

Lumberjanes v. 6: Sink or Swim: FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX–no but really, one of the things I loved about this one is the way it shows that you can mess up and still have friends at the end of the day. Also, there are some Revelations about the world that are exciting! I’ve heard the next arc is fantastic & I can’t waiiiiiit.

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (reread): My least favorite Tiffany Aching, BUT even my least favorite is still pretty marvelous.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi: Scalzi is a fluffy sci-fi writer–the kind I reach for when I want something that will entertain while taking almost no brain power. This is a fun little conceit and I may well read the rest of the series when it comes out. (I don’t feel like I need to over-praise Scalzi, because he gets plenty already.)

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (reread): I hadn’t reread any of the Prydain books in a really long time, and I thought it would be a nice time to do that. I do really like The Book of Three, which is funnier and fresher, and also much, much shorter than I remembered. However, the treatment of Gurgi seems like the worst kind of paternalistic racism, so that’s…not great.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (reread): Leckie is so good at building up emotion over the course of the three books so that by this one she doesn’t even have to say it, just telegraph it and let us fill in the rest. And the part when [spoiler redacted] asks if they can be a Cousin & the answer is just too much. I’m going to have to lie down just thinking about it.

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (reread): The number of lines that have second or even third layers to them on rereading is truly impressive–even more so when you know those were built in after the fact! (THICK AS THIEVES COMES OUT NEXT WEEK!)

 

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May 2017 releases

Well, first of all there are two new releases this month that I’m so much more excited about than all the rest that they get their own section.
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein (Code Name Verity prequel! Out now! Go read it!)

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner (May 16th! Fifth Attolia book!)

 

And now, the other (I’m sure very excellent) books that I’m looking forward to:

How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han

Say No to the Bro by Kat Helgeson

Tremontaine by Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Racheline Maltese, Paul Witcover, Joel Derfner, Malinda Lo, Patty Bryant

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

York by Laura Ruby

Girl Out of Water by Laura Silverman

Clayton Bird Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

The Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang

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