March round up

Books I’ve already talked about
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
Voices by Ursula Le Guin
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Other books
Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead: I was really blown away by this book, and I wish I had it together enough to talk about it at greater length. Stead weaves together two connected narratives that are really powerful. The themes of friendship and growing up are treated gracefully, and I think this is a really valuable addition to middle grade fiction.

The Scent of Holiness by Constantina Palmer: Reflections and stories from a Greek women’s monastery. I really like this one–I’d read it for Lent a year or two ago–and find it both challenging and inspiring.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness: I wasn’t sure how this one was going to go, but I ended up really liking it. It’s quite funny, and it has a really enjoyable and diverse cast of characters. I can only judge the representation of anxiety, but at least that part was done really, really well. And if you want a fun meta take on Chosen One tropes, this is a good one. (see also: Carry On and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Turn of the Story)

The Girl Who Fell Under Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente: I’d read the first few books in this series when they came out and then got somewhat distracted. I did like this one, but I didn’t feel the same level of engagement/enjoyment as I once had. I’m not sure if this is a function of being older or if there’s a flaw in the book itself.

The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine: Oh, I wanted to like this one. I really, really wanted to like this one. For one thing, the cover is flat out gorgeous, and the worldbuilding and characters were initially really engaging. But I felt like the early promise of something really unique turned into a story that just repeated the same tropes, with constant betrayals and plot turns that didn’t seem earned. And I was really distressed by the death of one of the characters [I have spoilery thoughts about this + representation]. Unfortunately, this one just did not work for me.

A Question of Magic by E.D. Baker: Middle grade fantasy in which a  young girl ends up becoming the next Baba Yaga. But it’s more complicated and dangerous than that initially sounds. This was an interesting mix of light-hearted and serious, which I think actually works really well for the target audience. I have some small reservations about the ending, but overall really liked this fairy tale retelling.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley: I’m not super in love with this book–it seemed sillier than the other Flavia books with all of the spy intrigue, and I felt like the story just keeps stringing us along without answering questions. I think I might be done with this series for now.

A Crooked House by Agatha Christie (audio): Pretty typical Christie, with maybe a slightly larger emphasis on the psychological details. It’s one that I both enjoy and argue with in my head a lot. Hugh Fraser read the audiobook and I would really just like for him to read all of the audiobooks for everything. He’s great with voices and narration.

Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan: Someone on Twitter (can’t remember who!) mentioned this memoir of Christie’s years as an archaeologist–or archaeologist’s wife? I found that it’s a gentler and more witty version of Christie’s writing, full of funny stories about herself and the others in the expedition. Also, sadly, full of paternalistic racism & imperialism. She’s maybe slightly more self-aware here? but it’s still very present.

Little Robot by Ben Hatke: This is the most adorable and heartwarming story about a girl and her robot. It’s largely wordless, with lovely art. I loved the fact that Hatke manages to telegraph details of class and race very clearly, and at the same time the story focuses on the relationship between the girl and the little robot.

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands: I’d been hearing good things about this middle grade book from several people I trust, and it didn’t disappoint! A very enjoyable and dramatic story about alchemists in Restoration England. Christopher has to decipher a series of clues to uncover the shadowy group that murdered his master. It’s also a nice look at family and friendship and finding a place for ourselves.

Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson: Johnson has done a couple of interesting books about different professions, including one about librarians. I liked this look at archaeologists and archaeology a lot (and it fit very nicely with the Christie book above). I will say, though, that I wish Johnson had faced the extremely dodgy past of archaeology a bit more head on. She’s certainly aware of it, but tends to leave it out. I suspect this is partly because she’s interested in the state of the field today, but also partly because she doesn’t want to bring up the fact that it’s based on a lot of theft from native peoples.

Stiff by Mary Roach: A look at what happens to human bodies after we die. It was interesting, but for me it bore almost no resemblance to my personal experience or belief system. My major experience of death had nothing to do with either the funeral home industry or the other scenarios Roach lays out. It was gentle; religious; intimate–all things that Roach doesn’t portray. So I accepted that the experiences she describes may be true for others, but they didn’t have much resonance for me.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: I really, really, really liked this one–there were parts that made me cry, although I persist in thinking that the German spy subplot is just a Bit Too Much. I suspect that thinking too much about it as historical fiction might cause issues, but for me the heart of the story is really about Ada and Jamie and their struggle to find a home. That part absolutely worked for me, and I found it gripping despite the fact that the overall plot is a familiar one.

Other posts
The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier
Ten recent favorite reads
Links 3-9
Links 3-23
Picture books I want to read

Me elsewhere
World of YA episode 3 is out! Renata joined me to talk about the books we’ve read this year and the ones we’re looking forward to.
Reflections on integrity and fictional ladies

TV & movies
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel, which is one of my all-time favorites. I think this is a decent adaptation of the surface level story, although they made some odd and–as far as I can tell–needless changes to the ending which annoyed me. The casting is lovely (Eddie Marsan as Mr. Norrell is especially good and Enzo Cilenti as Childermass brought a complexity to the character that made me care a lot about him). But I think it missed the deeper layers of the story, and perhaps more so, the sense of the wonder and beauty of magic that the book captures so well. I never felt the Raven King behind every door, behind the sky, on the other side of the rain.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite recent reads

top-ten-tuesday
This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

I don’t really do star ratings, but I did come up with a list of books I’ve read in the last few months that I really loved! Links go to my reviews.

keeper of the mistthorA Gathering of Shadows Finalblackthorn key

And two re-reads:

__________

P.S. Did you know that I do a podcast about YA books? And the latest (brand new) episode is all about books we just read in 2016?

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Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: Voices

voicesVoices is the middle book of a loosely connected trilogy written for a YA audience, which was first published in 2006. I’ve read the whole trilogy, but it was Voices that I remembered best, and Voices that I owned. And since the books really are fairly unconnected, reading it out of order wasn’t a problem.

As the story begins, the city of Ansul has been occupied by the Alds for some years. The narrator, Memer, is a child of that occupation and much of the book deals with her anger towards the Ald and her desire to see them thrown out of the country.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the way the conflict between Ald and Ansul is portrayed: the Ald are shown to be fearful of all knowledge, writing and books. Their religion is a strict and narrow one which seeks to overcome all others. Ansul, on the other hand, is at least in the past full of learning, culture, and beauty, While this point of view is definitely being filtered through Memer, and while it does eventually become more complicated, I still remain somewhat uneasy about the potential echoes of real-world cultures.

However, I did really like the way the religion of Ansul was shown. Le Guin does something interesting where over the course of the book we go from the outward details of worship and ritual (the way Memer tends to the shrines in Galvamand, for example) to the actual inner heart and meaning of the faith. Sometimes religion in fantasy books, even when respectfully shown, is kind of a surface level. Here, there was a richness of image and meaning that I really appreciated.

For instance, Lero is both the idea of balance, and “the ancient, sacred soul of the ground where our city stands…the moment of balance…a great round stone down in the Harbor Market, so poised that it might move at any time and yet has never moved.” It is all of these things at once, and over the course of the book we begin to see this kind of meaning behind the customs and rituals of the physical and outward expressions of faith.

Memer herself is a really interesting character to me. I appreciated that she’s allowed to be a number of things, sometimes contradictory: angry, loyal, afraid, brave, sure of herself. Le Guin is really good at showing her emotions both in an outward way, but most especially what’s underneath. It really is a case of showing rather than telling, to the point that this book may not work for all readers. But I liked it, especially since Le Guin does really understand how people can be feeling one thing and express it in a completely different way.

I also liked that Memer is given a point of view that’s very powerful throughout the book, and yet at the same time we see other experiences and perspectives, and she is not judged and her opinion discounted. It is tempered, somewhat, but she’s never shamed for having felt what she did in the past.

Although I would say that this is a much different book than the earlier Earthsea cycle, it does have some common concerns. The idea of secret knowledge is key to both the plot and character development here, as is the danger of books and knowledge. Le Guin is clearly fascinated by both the power and difficulties of story, knowledge, and power, all of which are interconnected.

Indeed, this book begins with the act of writing, and books are a source of tension and comfort throughout. Early on, Memer says “I knew the Tales were stories not history, but they gave me the truths I needed and wanted: about courage, friendship, loyalty to the death…my love for the heroes of Manva was my heart’s blood. It gave me strength.” I was very interested in the way that books and heritage are both sources of strength for her, and indeed the way that they’re bound together. The heritage of Galva is strong and fearsome and what keeps both Memer and the Waylord going. Her journey is not simply being able to see the Ald as humans, but to grapple with the darkness at the end of the secret room in Galvamand–that is, to face what is fearsome about what she also loves.

One of the other things I appreciated about the way Le Guin unfolds the story is the way the oracle operates. Oracles and prophecies of course have a long history in fantasy, but they’re frequently–well–terrible. Le Guin’s oracle is impenetrable and its meaning is not straightforward. Even when it becomes clear, it’s not a simple matter of the king returning, or whatever. Its function is a more poetic one, in the sense that it’s not a strict analogy, but rather an image, a phrase that even its speakers must work to understand.

I should note that for the first part of this book, I was engaged and happy to be reading it, noting down various themes and questions I had. But then a little over halfway through, I suddenly became immersed in the story, only able to dogear the pages that I wanted to go back and look at again. It’s not that I turned off my critical faculty, but rather that the writing and story had gone deeper in a way that engaged my emotions as well as my head.

A lot of this shift is due to the way the second half engages with the idea of renewal. We see a slow process of thoughtful resistance and reclamation, as well as a shifting understand of the Alds and their culture and role in Ansuldar. This renewal takes place within cultural, familial, and personal spheres, as we see Ansul coming back to life, the oracle at Galvamand returning, and Memer herself having a new and more complex understanding of herself and her world. This section is beautifully hopeful–the kind of hard-won, deeply treasured hope that I love reading about. It’s not shown as a simple or easy process, and yet it provides the real resolution of the book: a sense that things can change, that what’s lost can sometimes be found.

I do have to note, though, that one of the most powerful moments where you feel the whole story shift is marred by the fact that it contains what looks a lot like a magical cure for disability. The Waylord, who was tortured and lamed by the Alds after their invasion, appears to Memer (presumably touched by the grace of the Oracle and the gods) as “he had been, and as my heart had always known him: a tall, straight, beautiful man, smiling, with fire in his eyes.” While this transformation isn’t permanent, the way it’s presented does fit into the pattern of a magical cure.

Despite a few reservations, I did really love reading this book. Le Guin really does focus more on the lives of and relationships between women, and I appreciated that. Most of all, I found that her gift for writing deeply about important things is in full force here. The questions that Memer, and by extension we readers, grapples with are not simple ones, and the answers we see are not simple either. This is a subtle and complex book that’s a demanding and yet enchanting read, and I’m glad I revisited it.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2006, Harcourt, Inc; YA fantasy

“They too had gifts of their lineage. They knew the burdens and chances laid on us by the shadows in our blood and bone, and by the spirits of the place we live in.” 323

“It made the darkness of the cave less uncanny, to imagine that my mother’s spriit  was there, with all the other mothers of my race, and they wouldn’t seek to frighten me.”

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Links from around the web: 3-23-2016

Laurie is a Nice Guy™. Yes. YES. “The story of Laurie and Jo is not, as I had previously remembered, one of Jo seeming like she loves Laurie and making an out-of-left-field decision. It is very much in the field!  Jo consistently indicates that she does not have feelings for Laurie, does not want him to flirt with her, and tries to prevent him from doing so every time he flirts with her. And he ignores her, again and again.” (via Brandy)

The Carnegie/Greenaway shortlists are out! It’s nice to see some favorite authors recognized. (via Leila)

A wonderful, in depth look at the complexities of “The World Was Wide Enough”: “Because kindness, in Hamilton, is always deserving of our awe and respect.  Hamilton’s “non-stop” series of accomplishments is wonderful to behold, but the one thing we’re really asked if we can even imagine is Eliza offering him forgiveness.  When Hamilton chooses to aim for the sky, he doesn’t throw away his shot, he takes stock of everyone he’s loved, and everyone he’s lost, and everything he’s done, and seizes the opportunity–to be kind.  To make peace.”

I have a lot of feelings about this Civil War II teaser image and they are NO. NO. NO. (via The Book Smugglers)

Last year I loved Sorcerer to the Crown and I haven’t seen enough fanart from it. So this amazing Prunella made me really happy!

Also something I like: this fancast of Jane Eyre.

I’m not sure if I like weird animals, strictly speaking, but they are certainly fascinating!

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Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan

Reading Notes returns! This month, I’ll be looking at assorted books by Ursula K. Le Guin. The first post on A Wizard of Earthsea, is here.

tombsThis post is quite late now, mostly because Real Life Things have gotten in the way recently. But also: I’ve been struggling with my reaction to this book, both with identifying it and putting it into words.

It’s easy in one way to look at A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan as a fairly deliberate mirroring. The Wizards’ school is a male place; the Tombs are a female one. Ged is overflowing with power and pride; Arha has both, but in a very different way. The attitudes towards magic and the old powers if the earth are also pretty much opposed.

This is an interesting and bold choice on Le Guin’s part. This second book opens with an entirely different setting, culture, and characters than the first book in the series. In fact, Ged doesn’t even appear until the book is over halfway done.

Instead, we are given the story of Tenar, who becomes Arha, the Eaten One. She is taken from her family and has almost no memory of who she was. Instead she grows up in the holy compound of the Tombs of Atuan, learning the rites she must perform.

Arha is a fascinating character to me, because she is so lost to herself for much of the book. She’s not uninteresting at any stage, but I always felt a shadow of what she might have been. Whereas Ged is pretty brash, even after he begins to learn the limits of power, Arha is much more compressed. Rather than learning the limits of power, her journey is learning to break free of the patterns of a wrong belief.

And we see her begin to do this, slowly and gradually, even before Ged shows up. But, in keeping with Arha herself, this process is understated, even hidden. It takes place in dreams, in refusals rather than in positive action. Arha cannot admit that the system in which she believes, which affords her even the small amount of power that she has, can be wrong. The moments when Penthe, her friend and narratively speaking her foil, shows her another perspective are powerful but also deeply upsetting to Arha. She reacts with puzzlement and even anger.

I wanted to talk a little bit more about the way the system is shown on Atuan, because this is the heart of my discomfort with the book. As I said before, the Tombs of Atuan are a place for women. No men can step into the Tombs themselves, although they can visit the Temple (they mostly don’t; part of the tension of the book is between the power of the new upstart male rulers of Karego-At, who have their own gods and don’t worship the Nameless Ones as much). The eunuchs who serve the priestesses can enter, but even they are limited in where they are allowed to go.

So, this is a primarily female society. And this is good in one sense, because it gives us a sense of different characters. Kossil is pretty malicious and awful, but on the other hand, we also have Thar, who is mostly kind and wise. And there’s also Arha, and Penthe, both of whom are their own people and who have personal and complex reactions to the world.

This is all much better than A Wizard of Earthsea, and at first I felt pretty relieved about that. But then I started considering the fact that “not literally all the female characters are evil!” is not actually a super high bar. And that this place that is from the very beginning of the book shown to be specifically a place for and run by women turns out to be kind of evil–it is the thing Arha has to win free of. So I have a pretty complicated reaction to the last part of the book, beginning when Ged shows up.

On the one hand, Arha’s disenchantment with the cruelties of Kossil and the demands of the gods she worships finally breaks free. She cannot do what she should and simply have Ged killed. She cannot decide what to do with him, but her decision to let him live, at least temporarily, is her own decision, based on her experience after the robbers earlier in the book died. This is one of my favorite moments in the book.

And I found it believable and compelling that, having made this decision, she didn’t simply keep going on that trajectory. Humans don’t simply make decisions and stick to them, most of the time; her conflictedness and contradictions not only keep the plot moving, they show her as a real person.

On the other hand, I remain uncomfortable with two and a half things. First: that it takes the appearance of Ged, who naturally knows everything and can teach Arha how to be good for this to actually be set into motion. I keep going back and forth here–Arha decides of her own self to save his life, but then the real resolution, her escape from the Nameless Ones and their hold over her is all led by Ged.

This includes even the half thing, which is one of the most powerful moments in the book, at the end of the “Ring of Erreth-Akbe” chapter, when Arha dies and Tenar is reborn. It’s a lovely scene, and yet–and yet I wished that a little more of it had come from Tenar herself, and a little less from Ged. It’s a good case of liking the individual thing and at the same time being aware of the pattern it’s a part of.

The second thing I remain uncomfortable with is the extent to which the book sets up female society=bad and rotten and male society=good and salvific. Granted, in this book Gont and its surrounding country isn’t coded quite so explicitly For The Men, it certainly is coded that way in the first book. And while Tenar hopes that not everyone died in the earthquake that follows their escape, again this seems like kind of a low bar.

I suspect that had the emphasis been slightly different–had Thar still been alive, had there been one woman who Tenar truly loved and respected and did not want to lose–I would feel better about this. As it is, I think that the overall effect of The Tombs of Atuan is a very mixed one for me: it’s more generous to women than A Wizard of Earthsea, and there are parts of it that I find beautiful and genuinely moving. At the same time, I can’t excuse the issues that still run through it, because they are still present, and still troubling.

Finally, I will mention that Tenar’s story, far more than Ged’s, feels unfinished. A Wizard of Earthsea was fairly self-contained, although there were hints of things Ged had not yet done. I wasn’t originally planning to re-read Tehanu, but I may do so anyway, just to feel that the story actually has a real conclusion. (I’m still going to be doing Voices and Lavinia for the last two posts in this series.) This isn’t a criticism so much as a realization that it might be part of my discomfort with the ending of the book: that it feels so unresolved.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1970, Atheneum Books; adult/YA fantasy

 

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Picture Book Monday: What I want to read

Usually I look at books I’ve already read, but this month I decided to look at some that I’m looking forward to reading instead! Some of these are already out and others have yet to be released.

Small Elephant’s Bathtime by Tatyana Feeney (March 2015, Knopf Books for Young Readers)

Sing With Me by Naoko Stoop (July 2016, Henry Holt and Co.)

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and Christian Robinson (June 2016, Roaring Brook Press)

Rudas: Niño’s Horrendous Hermanitas by Yuyi Morales (October 2016, Roaring Brook Press)

Little Night/Nocecita by Yuyi Morales and Christne Barcellona (June 2016, Square Fish)

Leave Me Alone by Vera Brosgol (September 2016, Roaring Brook Press)

It Is Not Time for Sleeping by Lisa Graff and Lauren Castillo (November 2016, Clarion Books)

How to Find a Fox by Nilah Magruder (November 2016, Feiwel & Friends)

Every Day Birds by Amy VanDerwater and Dylan Metrano (February 2016, Orchard Books)

Dragon Was Terrible by Kelly DiPucchio and Greg Pizzoli (August 2016, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat (April 2016, Little, Brown)

When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons by Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad (March 2016, Roaring Brook Press)

Vasilisa the Beautiful by Anna Morgunova and Anthea Bell (December 2015, minedition)

The Princess and the Warrior by Duncan Tonatiuh (October 2016, Abrams Books for Young Readers)

 

 

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Easing back in

I spent the weekend in Boston at a friend’s bachlorette party, driving there from Ohio with another friend, which meant posting was a bit sparse around here last week and yesterday. And now, of course, it’s the first week of Great Lent, which means lots of church and–at least for me–an attempt to dial back in certain areas and increase my level of quiet time. Big trips are always funny: a space of time out of the usual. I did some knitting and not much else. And Boston is not my own place, although it’s full of people I know–I got to see my sister and meet a longtime internet friend, as well as the friend I came to see.

At any rate, now I’m easing back into being home and at work and also adjusting to a somewhat abrupt transition from Exciting Trips! to Church! Things may be a bit quiet around here for the rest of the week, but I’ll see you all soon.

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