Recent Reading: Markus, Lord, McPherson, Gonzalez

Photo of Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez on a wooden background

Dared & Done by Julia Markus: After having a months-long thing about Markus’s biography of Annabella Milbanke Byron (Ada Lovelace’s mother), I definitely had to read her first biography about the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I have a lot of feelings about Elizabeth Barrett Browning–mostly due to the fact that I wrote part of a senior thesis on the Sonnets from the Portuguese. In fact, Markus’s look at the Browning’s marriage as it relates to the sonnet sequence was probably the strongest part of the book for me. It’s very solidly researched and does a nice job of teasing out the circumstances of the Browning’s marriage in particular as opposed to Victorian marriage in general, and contrasting it with some of their friends who were less conventional. However, there were times when the organization was a bit confusing–jumps in chronology that muddled rather than clarified–and I found it less emotionally affective than I expected.

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord: I’ve been hearing good things about Lord’s books for a couple of years now and finally actually read one! Oddly enough, this is set in a suburb of Indianapolis, with a setting that felt very much like the suburb of Indianapolis where I work. Both setting and voice are an interesting contrast with The Fault in Our Stars; perhaps unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer The Start of Me and You. Paige’s story is thoughtful and nuanced, with a lot of care shown for all the characters. Plus, Paige has a strong group of girl friends, and I loved they way they interact and grow together. Add in a slow, careful romance, and a quiet and realistic depiction of healing from trauma. I will definitely be looking for more of Emery Lord’s books!

The Reek of Red Herring by Catriona McPherson: This is book 9 in the Dandy Gilver series, and it’s a strong entry. I have to admit that I find Alec a good deal more annoying than Dandy seems to. He certainly doesn’t add much to the story for me. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about local folk traditions, and a nice creepy factor to the solution to the mystery. As usual, this is right at the line of cozy vs not, which is one of the things I appreciate about the series.

Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez: After Moving Target, Cassie Arroyo and her friends pick up right where they left off. This is a fun middle grade adventure/fantasy. It’s quite fast-paced, with a lot of excitement and even an explosion or two. But there are also some deeper questions about family, and destiny, that add some weight to the story. I’m not sure whether this is the last installment, but it ends on a satisfying note.

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Currently reading: 1-19-2017

current reading 1 18

This stack of books is already out of date–I finished Pilgrim at Tinker Creek yesterday and am still processing my final reaction to it. I’m trying to be more organized about my reading this year, and only read one book at a time. So far I’m sticking to it, but reading patterns come and go and it’s likely that halfway through the year I’ll be happily in the middle of five books at once and bouncing back and forth.

But at the moment, I have one non-fiction, one adult fiction, one YA, one middle grade, and one reread in my active stack. Except that Binti is so short that I have two adult fiction in this stack. Both SF–it’ll be interesting to compare the two. I started Dark Orbit a while back–in December, maybe?–when I was on a lunch break with nothing to read. It’s an engaging mystery, though it’s really just getting started at the point I’ve reached. Binti I have literally heard nothing but good things about, and I have to catch up with Okorafor’s backlist. (So excited for Akata Warrior!)

I have also started A Little Taste of Poison before I needed to prioritize some other library books that were due back. I’m expecting to enjoy it a lot–RJ Anderson is both a favorite author and a friend, and we like many of the same books. Including, of course, the Sayers that were mild inspirations for both this one and last year’s Pocket Full of Murder.

Ancillary Mercy is a dearly beloved reread. I wanted to come back and pick up the rest of the trilogy after I reread Ancillary Justice last year and gave R. a copy of the first one for Nativity. Also, in some ways I think Ancillary Mercy is my favorite? But I’ll just have to reread them all to find out for sure.

We Are the Ants was a Cybils-nominated title that I heard good things about but never got to. I have not even opened it yet, so I have no idea what my reaction will be!

Up next on the non-fiction front: The Spy Who Loved, which is a biography of SOE agent Christine Granville, a subject almost guaranteed to make me burst into tears at least once.

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2017 releases I’m excited for

For all that 2017 is already shaping up to be quite something, there are a number of books that I’m really looking forward to reading! These are just a selection–I could have picked a lot more.

EDIT: I forgot The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity prequel, only because I’ve already read it so it was marked in a different category. (P.S. It is very good.)

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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

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

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