2016: favorite adult books + reading notes posts

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi
Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus
White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon by Julie Phillips

This was a good year for biographies: the three I’ve featured here were not just my favorite non-fiction reads but some of my favorite books of the year, full stop. (The Lady Byron and Tiptree bios in particular still have an incredible emotional power for me.) If you have favorite biographies, especially of women of color, please tell me–I’d like to continue this trend in 2017! In terms of the rest of my list, what can I say? SFF by women is clearly my thing. Bujold’s latest was surprising and beautiful. Roses and Rot is one of those books that felt like it was written for me. The Fifth Season is probably my favorite Jemisin to date. Ascension is a lovely, thought-provoking read, featuring a chronically ill, queer woman of color as the main character. It was hard to decide which Oyeyemi book to feature here, because I’ve loved both that I’ve read, but White is For Witching has a kaleidoscopic power that is really fascinating. All in all, I don’t think I read as much adult fiction this year as some other years, but what I did read was pretty outstanding.

The Reading Notes series that I do here are some of my favorite kinds of posts to write. (Although I totally fell down on the job with my Joan Aiken posts! Whoops!) I thought I’d highlight a few favorites from the past year here.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
A Coalition of Lions by Elizabeth Wein
The Sunbird by Elizabeth Wein



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2016: favorite children’s and YA books

I’m doing something a little bit different this year! (links go to my reviews)

Nomad by William Alexander
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand
Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Of Mice and Magic by Ursula Vernon

To be honest, I hadn’t realized what connects these books until I put them all in a list, when the fact that they’re all about real, hard things that kids deal with while also being full of hope and kindness and connection kind of jumped out at me. I also hadn’t realized how many great middle grade books I read this year–making a choice was tough!

Peas and Carrots by Tanita S Davis
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston
Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
Burn, Baby, Burn by Meg Medina
Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier

Four books I totally expected to love (and did), three that took me by surprise. Obviously, I’m kind of an E.K. Johnston fan at this point, no matter what she’s writing about. I loved Burn, Baby, Burn even more than Yaqui Delgado. And Rachel Neumeier is a perennial favorite in these parts. The three that took me by surprise–Peas and Carrots, Mirror in the Sky, and When the Moon Was Ours–were all rich books with lots to think about and really strong characters. The relationship between Dess and Hope, the thoughtful look at a world of what-ifs, and the lush, sharp prose made these ones stand out.


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2016: favorite posts

I’m behindhand with my 2016 round up posts–but also I’m travelling this weekend and anticipate finishing at least another book or two before the year is over. So I’ll be back next week with more about my favorites and the reading year. For today, here are some of my favorite posts here from the last twelve months.

Making without context” (on the maker movement, the history of crafts, and the tension between them):

Rather than pausing to learn the history of a craft or what shaped it, maker culture wants to recreate it so it can be produced (as long as you do it exactly right). It creates an expectation of production rather than listening, replacing the relationships between people with a pressure to stay on top of flashy technology which often doesn’t last very long.

Pop culture and me” (how I used to be snotty about liking popular things and learned that I should try to resist that urge):

The process of sharing your love of [insert tv show/movie/album/book] builds a shared language: jokes, references, crossovers to other favorites. They’re about being able to say, “RIGHT IN THE FEELS” or “I feel like your inner April and inner Leslie are fighting” (as I memorably said to my boss) and knowing that the other person is going to get it. It is fundamentally about that common sharing & understanding.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer” (a review where I managed to unpick some of why this book fascinated and troubled me):

So, this is science fiction, but it’s the kind of science fiction that talks about Thomas Carlyle and Voltaire all the time. The Enlightenment is as powerful a force in this society as any other point in history–we are given a sense of the great philosophers and thinkers of the fictional near past, but they also hearken back to the 18th century. And there’s the kind of science that basically looks like magic, also possibly real magic in the form of a mysterious child named Bridger. This is what I mean by peculiar.

On the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope”: why I love Galadriel

When I first read Lord of the Rings in middle school, I didn’t think of myself as having much power at all. And even now, it’s not necessarily how I think of myself. But rereading these passages it strikes me how clearly Galadriel, out of all the characters in LotR, shows the way that our own talents and strengths can be twisted. By refusing that path, she acts with integrity and remains herself. It’s not an easy thing, but it’s a true thing.

When twists work, and when they don’t

We don’t necessarily have to like the characters better after we find out their secrets (Too Like the Lightning is a good recent example of this). But what we learn shouldn’t be antithetical to what we already know. If a story has carefully set up a character loving the color blue, for instance, suddenly saying, “AHA! They actually hate the color blue and have loved purple all along!” doesn’t work too well for me. In that case, a twist can become a “gotcha!” on the part of the author.

Thinking about self care and self preservation” [tumblr]

I think what I want is for self care to be recognized as —as self preservation. As a work that I and others to keep breathing, to keep going, to not lose ourselves. I think we can and should encourage everyone to do what they need to in order to keep going—but we shouldn’t make the mistake of forgetting that this is not an equal thing for everyone.

Thoughts on Lady Rage” (a very personal musing on anger):

I know that women are told to be quiet and meek in a way men aren’t. I hate this. I want to rage against what’s wrong in the world. And yet–and yet–I also see the ways that anger can be toxic for me–both my own and other peoples’. I hate that women, are told that their justified anger is wrong, unseemly, too much. And yet there are times when I literally physically feel anger building up in my body and it hurts.




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The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier

mountain-of-kept-memoryIf you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you probably won’t be surprised that I’m writing about this book. I’ve been a fan of Rachel Neumeier’s work since reading The City in the Lake back in 2011. And I definitely have some unspoken expectations when it comes to her books–themes, types of characters, a general style and set of interests that seem pretty common across the different kinds of stories she writes. The Mountain of Kept Memory is really interesting because it is very much a Rachel Neumeier book–but it also feels a little different, in a way I really liked.

Neumeier’s books nearly always focus on main characters who are resourceful girls and young women. Oressa, daughter of the king of Carastind and one of the two main characters in The Mountain of Kept Memory, certainly fits into this pattern. She’s very good at understanding people and motivations, potential costs and shifting allegiances. Her place in her father’s court is limited, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that she’s an extremely strategic thinker–which is helpful when everything begins to go wrong.

There’s an interesting comparison here to characters like Gen and Miles Vorkosigan. Oressa is also almost hypercompetent, good at sneaking through her father’s palace. But unlike Gen and Miles, there’s a strong suggestion that she’s developed these traits at least partly as a way to survive her father. He holds her future in his hand, and it’s pretty clear that he’s not a safe person to be around. There’s a sense of danger in him that’s more hinted at than shown, but which is very effective.

And both her father’s disregard and her overall vulnerabilities are partly because she’s a girl. There’s one really powerful moment which I unfortunately can’t seem to find again where Oressa realizes that her brother Gulien sees their father totally differently, because he’s been treated totally differently. But since Oressa is a girl and therefore largely despised and expendable, she’s been pushed to the edges and largely ignored.

But over the course of the book, she also finds a way to use her compensations to her and Guilen’s advantage. I loved watching her come to terms with the power that she does have and the shape of it. This idea of strengths coming out of vulnerabilities and the way that plays out was really fascinating to me.

Oressa was certainly the heart of the book for me, although I liked both Gulien and Gajdosik. Without wanting to give too much away, there’s a complicated romance here, which worked pretty well for me once it got past the initial stage. Shifting power and understandings are also very present in the relationship between Oressa, Gulien, and Gajdosik. We see it in the bond between the siblings, and the way their strand resolves, the way power is handed back and forth.

But we also see a question of power and relationship in the Kieba and her guardianship over Carastind. Will she exercise her old promise to keep the country safe, or will she let it fall? There’s a real sense of danger here, a sense that something could go truly and finally wrong. And Neumeier shows an nonhuman sense of the world very well, making it especially fraught. How can you predict what the Kieba will do, when she doesn’t think the way we do?

Overall, there’s a feeling of sharpness and almost horror to the scenes in the Kieba’s mountain. I’m thinking of a couple moments in particular which have really stuck with me. It’s not that there’s never a sense of danger in Neumeier’s other books–indeed, there’s quite frequently a very thorny problem driving the plot. But here it feels heightened in a way that’s really effective.

All in all, this was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, though sometimes in a slightly horrified way. There’s a feeling of familiarity in the political intrigue and family complications, but there are also some interesting turns in the story that made it feel also alive and real.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: 2016, Saga press; adult fantasy


Other reviews: Jason Heller at NPR; Charlotte’s Library; you?


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November 2016

The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron: I’ve liked Sharon Cameron’s books in general, and this is another solid one from her. It’s a slightly different take on a dystopianish society–although it feels familiar in some ways, it also reminded me that sometimes tropes are tropes for a reason. And in the second half of the book, there are some interesting twists that change how the story unfolds.

The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier: review coming later

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders: My friend Shae sent a copy of this one to me because she thought I’d like it–and I did! It’s a Victorian mystery with some Dickensian elements (loosely inspired by parts of David Copperfield). I liked that it features an older woman as the detective, and Saunders does a nice job of weaving in everyday details without clunkiness.

Nomad by William Alexander: Sequel to Ambassador, which I also loved. I read this one just after the election, and a story about a Latino kid saving the world through diplomacy while facing his father’s deportation was both heartbreaking and really affirming. Alexander is great at quiet, kid-centered SFF, which engages thoughtfully with political issues and tells really valuable and beautiful stories.

The Pocket Emily Dickinson: I went to look for a few poems and ended up reading the whole thing. Lo, the power of poetry, I suppose. [that’s a quote]

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens: Look, I just really love the Wells & Wong books. They’re 1930s-set middle grade mysteries, which sounds pretty simple on the surface. But Stevens actually tells a really complex story, and there’s a lot about friendship and identity and privilege woven into the whole series. This third book started off a little slow, but it ended up being possibly my favorite yet as we see both Daisy and Hazel dealing with their family histories and the realities of growing up. (ARC read through Edelweiss)

Ms. Marvel Last Days by G. Willow Wilson: Every time I read a new volume of Ms. Marvel, I think that it couldn’t possibly be as good as the last one (because the last one was so good). But every time I am wrong! If I had to only read one comic series for the rest of my days, it would be Kamala, no questions. I love the depth of relationships shown here, the way Kamala’s family and culture and faith influence but don’t define her, the balance of hope and struggles. It’s just so good.

Goldie Vance vol. 1 by Hope Larson: My friend Kate gave me this one for my birthday and I really liked it! It’s a 1950s mystery, set in a hotel, and featuring a young detective. There are so many black and Latinx characters, which is nice to see, and the comic does deal with privilege and prejudice to a certain extent. I also really liked the art! It felt very fresh and clean and bright, which fits Goldie’s character well.

Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers: I reread this with my friend Ally and WHOOOO BOY WE HAD FEELINGS. (I talked about this one at length recently enough that I’m not going to go into more detail at the moment.)

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria: 1919-set historical fantasy, which seems to be a Thing at the moment? But I liked this version–the friendship between Ada and Corinne really drove the book for me (you all know how I love a good female friendship). I kind of saw the big twist coming, and there were a few clunky moments, but overall I found this one pretty solid. (I can’t speak to how good the representation is, and I’m not finding a ton of reviews for this one? If you have thoughts, I want to know.)

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley: This book is definitely a case where I can’t step back from my adult reaction enough to say fairly whether I think this is a successful book for kids. It’s a nuanced look at friendship and family and class; Gertie’s complicated feelings about the people and events in her life are compelling. But I wanted something to break free a little bit sooner, I guess. Whether a kid would feel the same way is a question I keep wondering about and not really coming up with an answer for.

Diva Without a Cause by Grace Dent: I’m really sad that only the first two books in this series have been published in the US. I liked this one quite a bit–it’s thoughtful and sharp and funny. In a certain way some of the concerns do feel very specific to the UK, and yet I think that 1) the overarching themes are totally relatable and 2) it’s good for us to read outside of our own culture!

Bandette vol. 1 by Tobin and Coover: Another recommendation from Kate. I LOVE IT–the story feels fresh, although the art feels retro and that’s a combination that works really well for me, it seems.

Rogue Heroes by Ben MacIntyre: I like MacIntyre’s non-fiction style; I was less interested in the subject of this book. [I could say more about this, and the fact that MacIntyre tries to push back against the glorification of hypermasculinity that’s almost inherent in his subject, but doesn’t entirely succeed. I’m not sure I’d be entirely coherent enough to make it worthwhile, though.]

New and Selected Poems, vol 1 by Mary Oliver: Rereading this volume and realizing I need to read vol. 2, since there are whole chunks of Oliver’s career that I’m missing! I am occasionally impatient with Oliver, and yet every time I feel this way, the next poem pulls me back and reminds me of why I love her.

Ahsoka by EK Johnston: I love Johnston’s books and I love Star Wars, so this seemed like a natural fit! The take on the universe, the aftermathy kind of story, was really interesting to me, and I liked the look at everyday life and resistance. This is about what happens when you lose the war; it seems unfortunately apt at the moment. Also, Ahsoka’s relationship with Kaeden and the way that played out seemed like a story I haven’t seen a lot of, in a way that seems realistic and true to the characters.

Guile by Constance Cooper: On a personal level, I found the story, characters and writing fairly strong (I do think it dragged in the middle) I am wondering about the representation and portrayal of bayou culture–not because I saw anything inherently problematic, but rather because it’s hard to tell how well Cooper has written it from the outside.

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10 new-to-me authors

This was yesterday’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, and I didn’t get it together to post then. So, here’s a late version!

hour of the beespeas & carrotsmoving targetlady byronmirror in the sky

Boy Eatingwar-that-saved-my-life

white-is-for-witching ascensionupdraft

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Here we are

It’s December. I woke up this morning and felt like I could breathe for the first time in a month. November is always a difficult time for me personally, because of the time change, the change of seasons, the anniversary of my dad’s death at the end of the month. This year, in addition to all of those things, there’s been the heartbreak and sorrow and anger of the election. Of trying to figure out what to do and where we go from here. Of sitting with friends and their pain as they face an unknown and terrifying future.

Oh, and in addition to all of the above–more than enough as it is!–I managed to render my car undriveable and had to spend the last two weeks looking for a new one. Thankfully, that search is now done, and I have a new (to me!) car.

With all that being said, there were also moments of great beauty in the midst of it all–a wonderful visit, a friend stopping by to give me a hug, lots of time on the couch with Wimsey sitting on me. I’m so thankful for all the people who have comforted and reached out to me.

I haven’t managed to write a review since November 9th. I was in the middle of writing about Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, but when I came back to finish the post everything I had written felt so naive and trite that I couldn’t find a way forward. But I have been and am thinking of a passage I had quoted, from a letter Alli wrote:

Certainly my inner world will never be a peaceful place of bloom; it will have some peace, and occasional riots of bloom, but always a little fight going on too. There is no way I can be peacefully happy in this society and in this skin. I am committed to Uneasy Street. I like it; it is my idea that this street leads to the future, and that I am being true to a way of life which is not here yet, but is more real than what is here.

I have a sense that what I write here and how I engage with books, reviewing, etc may be undergoing some deep shift, which is related to the wider political landscape but isn’t entirely because of it. We’ll see. I’m going to try to pull together some thoughts about a few books I’ve read recently. We can’t–and I don’t want to–go back to “normal” while at the same time I do feel that continuing to read, write, think about, and talk about books and stories is vitally important.

I’m going to close with a few links to things that I’ve found helpful recently. Feel free to share your own!

Raise Your Hand If You’re Gonna Fight: a daily newsletter with 1-2 action items–helpful for deciding what to do to fight today

Holding it together” at Things Mean A Lot: Ana is always thoughtful and this post was especially helpful for me last week

Likewise, Theodora Goss’s post “How We Live Now” has some good thoughts about principles rather than actions as such

Jenny at Reading the End has an amazing round up of election-related links, which I have only dipped into because of emotional and mental energy, but which contain a wide variety of voices


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