Short edition of links this time, as I’ve been busy and dealing with some personal stuff.
Someone wrote a Very Bad essay about YA
I really appreciated Kelly Jensen’s thoughtful look at reviews and criticism and how these aren’t neutral nor benign.
I’m not entirely sure why forests are such a powerful setting and symbol in fantasy. Maybe it’s something to do with fairy tales, maybe something to do with how much of the land we now inhabit was once covered with vast acres of trees. Regardless, I love books that have forests as a main setting and I wanted to highlight some of them. They might engage with the mythology of forests in different ways, but they’re all playing with that sense of magic and danger.
The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black: The forest that Hazel and Ben enter plays a major part in this haunting book.
The Jinx trilogy by Sage Blackwood: The Jinx trilogy is almost entirely set in the Urwald, a magical forest that’s full of danger and secrets.
Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow: In Otter’s world any shadow can hold one of the deadly White Hands, and so the forest that surrounds her home is both beautiful and terrifying.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: Carroll draws on fairy tale influences to weave her extremely creepy story of a girl who goes out into the dark woods.
The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye: The forest in this book is more benign than many of the others I’m featuring here, but it’s extremely delightful.
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand: Finley’s semi-imagined forest, the Everwood, drives a lot of this book, as well as being the place Finley feels the safest.
In the Forests of Serre (and several others) by Patricia McKillip: McKillip loves to write about forests, and she often does so with a sense of the edges where they turn magical.
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne: Like the woods in The Ordinary Princess, The Hundred-Acre Woods are more benign than most of these stories. It’s still a magical and enchanting land.
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: A magical forest where the trees speak Latin and time is out of joint should definitely be on this list.
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede: I mean, they’re called The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Also, a wonderful mix of funny and serious.
Am I missing a favorite book set in a forest or woods? Let me know! I’d love to read more of them.
Mirror in the Sky is Aditi Khorana’s debut, and it’s a pretty neat take on YA speculative fiction. Tara Krishnan is an outsider in her rich, white school. But when a mirror planet is discovered–a version of Earth that’s just a little different from ours–Tara is jolted out of her usual life. Her mother might be joining a cult, she becomes friends with unexpected people, and she starts to wonder about the other paths she might have taken. Essentially, this book takes an SF premise, the discovery of Terra Nova, and uses it to tell a quiet, thoughtful story of family, friendship, and identity.
The family strand is the one I had the most conflicted reaction to, which is mostly down to the depiction of Tara’s mom. I had mixed feelings about the fact that her choices are seen as selfish, that her decision to go to California is shown as being a bad mother. On the other hand, we’re seeing everything so much from Tara’s point of view, and from a teen perspective it rings pretty true. And by the end of the book, Tara has come to see some of why her mother might have made those choices. In the end, while I wasn’t wild about this storyline, I felt comfortable with the way it resolves.
Tara also becomes friends with Halle Lightfoot, one of the most popular people at their high school, and through Halle with a group of tight-knit kids. This opens her world, but also complicates it. A lot of this book engages with questions about friendship: who’s really a friend? How and why do we choose our friends? and having chosen them, when do we leave them behind? There aren’t really easy answers here, but the depiction of a group that is both close and at odds with each other was really well done.
And for Tara herself, the discovery of Terra Nova and her changing relationships call into question a lot of her identity. As the only brown, poor kid at Brierly, she’s often felt herself to be an outsider. Late in the book, there’s a powerful moment when Tara realizes, “I was afraid of the messiness that closeness brings, afraid of friendships that turn to something else, afraid of my own petty jealousies and the monstrous things that can come of them.” This is partly a book about learning to let people in and also stay yourself.
There are definitely some clunky moments in the story. Sometimes the images and thoughts are a bit repetitive and sometimes Tara’s conclusions are a little pointed. Nonetheless, this is an accomplished and impressive debut that’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I definitely recommend it for readers who are looking for a quiet, complex story.
Book source: public library
Book information: 2016, Penguin Random House; YA speculative fiction
This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). The first post is all about The Daughter of Time which is the other one of my two favorite Tey books. There will be spoilers! (But this all about history, so it doesn’t really matter.)
The Daughter of Time is a mystery book in which a detective hypothetically solves the murder of the two Princes in the Tower while laid up in the hospital. It is also a book I love very deeply. I am not kidding about either part of this. Tey always tends to be a cerebral writer, for a writer of mysteries, but The Daughter of Time is something else altogether. As I wrote in my notes, “it’s a mystery…about history!” (Sorry, not sorry.)
But it’s also a very typically Tey sort of book. She tends to insert her points into the mouths of characters who are very unlikely to think such things. She’s not very interested in continuity (witness Marta, who basically is whoever Tey needs her to be for this particular book). There’s a nostalgia for a lost Britain which never was, which also ties back to the conservatism of Latchetts in Brat Farrar. She can’t help getting derailed with complaining about the Scots.
And yet, for all this–Teyness–it’s also full of her best qualities as a writer: her vivid characters, her ability to convince you that it all makes sense for as long as the book lasts. This was the book that sent me on a long path of Emotions About Richard III, which is weird and specific but here we are. Rereading it this time, I cared the most about the part of the book that’s about history, about what is remembered and forgotten. I will probably never not cry at the end (“This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city” sob sob sob.)
I also am reading it this time in the context of multiple ongoing conversations about American history and the way it is sanitized and wrongly taught. I’m reading it against the backdrop of people claiming that the White House wasn’t built by enslaved people, or that it’s all okay because they were treated well. (Shut up, Bill O’Reilly.) It’s impossible not to think of this. It’s likewise impossible not to notice that Tey manages to be both revisionist and essentially conservative. That is–while The Daughter of Time makes some fascinating points about the way we’re taught history and that it isn’t benign or objective, it also spends a lot of time defending the British government. This is a weird tension that Tey never really resolves. Or rather, she doesn’t think it needs resolving.
(She does make the very accurate point that “when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you.” Anyone who has tried to point out George Washington’s flaws, for instance, will be familiar with this.)
Despite this, her eye to character and her look at Richard III’s reign as a mystery remain really compelling to me. Do I think that Henry VII murdered the Princes? I don’t know. Do I think the historical evidence is as clear as she paints it? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter, in a certain sense. I’m always moved by the story she does tell, of this king who inherited abruptly and did his best to make the country he ruled more prosperous, liberal, and just. I’m moved by the desire on the part of Grant to tell the truth and give him his due. Do I trust that Tey is telling the absolute truth here? No, not really. But I believe it, for the space of 200-odd pages, nonetheless.
Book source: personal library
Book information: 1951, adult mystery (about history) (please don’t be mad at me) (I can’t help it)
I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of my favorite SF from the last few years. These are not necessarily books published in the last five years, but ones that I’ve read in that time span. (I feel like I’ve read less SF this year than normal, but I know there are also several I haven’t gotten around to yet.)
Ambassador by William Alexander: I read Ambassador for the Cybils back in 2014 and loved it. It’s nice to have an SF book about a Latino boy, and Alexander does a great job of incorporating Gabe’s identity and culture into the story. The concept that drives the book works well as a way to combine kids and politics.
Quicksilver and Ultraviolet by RJ Anderson: This is a really fascinating SF duology from one of my favorite authors. I’m never sure what to say about these books, because they have some great twists I don’t want to spoil. But I loved the main characters a lot, and I enjoy the way they have an SF plot with kind of a fantasy sensibility–if that makes any sense whatsoever.
Dove Arising by Karen Bao: I read this YA for the Cybils last year, and it’s really stuck with me. Less the plot (I just had to Google because I couldn’t remember) and more the characters and worldbuilding Bao was doing. I really liked Phaet, and I felt like her outlook on life is one we don’t get very often in YA.
The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow: This book. THIS BOOK. It’s terrifying and tense and smart and every time I drink apple cider, I wince. Terrible things happen in it, and yet I also cried because it’s so hopeful and affirming. I can’t say how much I love Greta, and Xie, and all the Children of Peace.
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold: I love Bujold’s Vorkosigan series in its entirety, as I’ve documented here many times, but I was really fascinated by some of the turns and choices she made in the latest installment. It was also really lovely to have another story from Cordelia’s point of view.
The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh: If you’ve been following my blog for a few years, you’ll know that I’ve been glomping my way through Cherryh’s massive series. I love the way she writes the atevi and the political and social customs and issues that arise. While I occasionally quibble with the depiction of the human women, overall the characters are really engaging and wonderful as well.
Promised Land by Cynthia DeFelice and Connie Willis: This is a lighter SF romance, which has turned out to be one of my comfort reads. It’s kind of a space western, but in a very different vein than Firefly.
Jupiter Pirates by Jason Fry: A fun middle-grade space adventure about a family of space privateers. Tycho and his siblings have to compete to win the captain’s seat, but there are also bigger contests going on. Fry has written a number of Star Wars chapter books, and he clearly knows what he’s doing.
And All the Stars by Andrea K Höst: I love Höst’s books, and this was the first one I read. It’s an intimate story, almost quiet, even though it’s about a terrifying world-wide event. Rather than a sweeping epic, Höst keeps the scale on a human level, and makes me care so much about Madeleine and her friends and the outcome of their story.
Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: I basically always want to be reading this trilogy; Leckie writes ambitiously about identity, loyalty, families, and imperialism. She also pulls it off, mostly because of her rich characters and worldbuilding which also give an emotional core to the big concepts she’s engaging with.
Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: I was really impressed by this short story collection, which features so many fascinating and strange worlds, as well as some really striking characters. The prose itself is also beautiful, even when the subject matter is not. I can’t wait till I get a chance to read Nine Fox Gambit.
Persona by Genevieve Valentine: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but it turns out that near-future socio-political thrillers are very much my thing when Valentine is writing them. Persona is smart and sleek and tense. If UN + red carpet + spies sounds intriguing, this book is probably for you.
I have to admit that I tend towards books that are on the intense and emotion-heavy side, especially with speculative fiction. So it’s fun to every so often read a lighter book. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman is a great one to turn to in those moods. It’s a light and fun fantasy, with some cool worldbuilding and interesting mystery elements. It’s also Cogman’s debut, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.
The Invisible Library is narrated by Irene, an agent of the Library, which collects fictions from across different realities and worlds. I liked Irene a lot–she’s capable and has a lot of strength and knowledge. In some ways, she’s not very confident, but these mostly stem from the hierarchies and politics of the Library itself, rather than internal doubts.
I also enjoyed the central conceit of the story, and I thought Cogman did a nice job of making it internally consistent. While the Library bears basically no resemblance to the living, breathing libraries I’ve worked in, Cogman also generally avoids being precious about the sacred value of learning. (Public libraries in particular are weird and wonderful places that aren’t exactly sacred sanctums of Knowledge.)
I thought the mystery element was pretty well played out–it can be tricky to balance a mystery when there are lots of extra fantastical bits going on at the same time. There were a couple of moments that were genuinely horrifying, although they never overwhelmed the overall tone of the book. I certainly didn’t guess the ending, and I thought the book did a good job of showing Irene and Kai as competent without being superhuman.
I’ll also note that the main Inspector in the alternate world is Indian. Irene herself seems to be canonically bisexual (although that term is never used); she’s been romantically interested in women in the past, but describes her type as dark and dangerous, and seems into at least one male character. I can’t say whether those representations are done well–there was one moment I have some questions about.
Some books end with everything neatly wrapped up and resolved. Others end with things mostly resolved. And still others end with new revelations and questions. The Invisible Library is definitely in the third category, which unfortunately is my least favorite of the three. However, I do genuinely want to know how it will play out. To the extent this works for me, it’s because the set up had been becoming more complicated throughout the whole book, rather than having a Surprise!Info dump ending.
All in all, despite a few minor quibbles, this was a really enjoyable fantasy, with some cool elements and nice characters. I’ll definitely be looking forward to reading the next one.
Book source: public library
Book information: 2016, Roc (in the US); adult fantasy
This month’s Reading Notes series is on books by Josephine Tey (the better-known pen-name of Elizabeth MacKintosh). This post is about her 1936 book, A Shilling for Candles, which features Inspector Grant. There will be spoilers! (But this matters less with Tey than with most mystery writers.)
I reread almost all of Tey’s books while working on this series (I skipped The Franchise Affair, which I have vague memories of disliking), and I was surprised by how much I liked A Shilling for Candles, given that I had no real recollection of it. For me, it’s the most successful of the more traditional mystery books that Tey wrote. While it certainly never reached the level of affection that I have for either Brat Farrar or The Daughter of Time, I did find it engrossing and enjoyable.
I think this is partly because Tey relies a little less on Grant as the center of the book. He’s certainly very much the main character, and good chunks of the book are devoted to his finding out information and setting up the twists and turns of the story. But we also get perspective from other characters, notably Erica Burgoyne, which opens everything up beyond Grant’s own thoughts and reactions.
As usual, Tey really shines in her descriptions of character and place. A lot of this book in particular rests on whether the reader buys Grant’s instinctive liking of Robin Tisdall, despite later events. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but this reader did buy it. Perhaps this is partly because Grant has been shown to be a shrewd judge of character in other books, but I think it’s also because Tey is so good at quick, vivid character sketches. And there are some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of the countryside as well.
Like To Love and Be Wise, which revolves around an absent character, A Shilling for Candles partly relies on how much the reader is interested in and believes in the picture of Christine Clay we’re given. Tey is remarkably good at this, considering that she pulls it off in two separate books. Christine emerges as a complex, warm, vivid character, and Grant’s commitment to solving the mystery of her death makes sense.
Unlike most of her Grant books, Tey chooses to give us another point-of-view character. Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the Chief Constable and a formidable character in her own right, who also acts as a bit of a leavening agent. It’s nice to see a character who is a little less cerebral and inward-turning that Grant himself. And while there’s a bit of exceptionalism and not-like-the-other-girls going on, I also found myself charmed by Erica and the strength of her inward compass.
Some of the more minor threads (Edward Champenis, for example) are wrapped up in a somewhat haphazard way, but this did bother me less than in other books. And it’s fair to say that Tey readers in general aren’t there for the whodunnit anyway. And there’s the kind of insularity and distrust of Other that runs through all of Tey to the point that it becomes, distressingly, almost standard.
Still, I do think this is one of her more successful mysteries as mysteries. The characters are rich and warmly drawn, the puzzle is convoluted and engaging, and I really liked the addition of another point of view to Grant’s. If it didn’t touch me as much as Brat Farrar or Daughter of Time, it is an book I enjoyed reading.
Book source: public library
Book information: 1936, adult mystery