Tag Archives: contemporary

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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July 2016 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos
The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly
Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson
Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan
False Hearts by Laura Lam

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Other books

Little White Lies by Brianna Baker and F. Bowman Hastie: I’ve been going back and forth about this one, and at a certain level I think I’m just not quite able to say from my own background whether it successfully does what it’s setting out to do. I’m glad to see exciting, timely YA contemporary fiction about a Black teen, but here it seems undercut a bit by the other point-of-character, who’s a middle-aged white man. It just–seems like a weird contrast and I’m not sure how it sits with me. If you’ve read this one, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Far From Fair by Elana K Arnold: Middle-grade contemporary. It’s a quiet look at family dynamics and end-of-life issues. While I can’t say my personal views align with the characters’ at all, I do think it could be a valuable book for the right reader. Overall, I thought Odette was really well drawn; as an adult reader I got a little impatient with her at points, but I suspect the target audience won’t.

Packing For Mars by Mary Roach: This is a look, not so much at the history of the space program, as at the history of the stuff needed to go into space. By and large, Roach has an easy breezy, readable style that is quite engaging. However, occasionally it’s a little at odds with her subject. And in one place I noticed a transition that came across as really, really racist (PRO TIP: don’t talk about how black women are ideally suited to being astronauts and then switch to black bears. Just don’t. This is why we need more diversity in publishing across the board.)

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks: Sometimes you just really need to reread a favorite, delightful book. This basically always means rereading Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, because it’s pretty much the definition of delightful.

Change Places With Me by Lois Metzger: YA scifi, a quietish book with some strong worldbuilding and characters. I can’t say much about the plot, because uncovering what happens is part of the fun, but I really liked it. I suspect that for the right readers it could be really great, and I hope it finds them.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Plamer: reviewed here
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey: reviewed here
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus: (review coming soon)
The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: (review coming soon)
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman: (review coming soon)
Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana: (review coming soon)

TV and movies
Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, go see Ghostbusters. It’s so fun and lovely and yes.

I also have been watching The Great British Bake Off because it is on our TV screens once again! You should be able to watch it on PBS.org right now.

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Recent reading: 7-13-2016

The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos: YA mystery about a girl whose father disappears. It’s a quiet-ish book that’s less about the mystery as such and more about Imogene’s journey as she tries to find out the truth about her parents. Podos grapples with the complexities of family and identity, as well as the stories we tell ourselves. There’s also an understated romance and an important friendship, which really help to round the book out. This is a debut, and I look forward to seeing what Podos writes next.

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly: This is Erin Entrada Kelly’s second middle grade book, about two sisters trapped with an actual evil stepmother. There’s a colorful cast of characters, but the heart of the book is really centered on Sol and Ming. From an adult perspective, I felt frustrated with the ending, and yet I can also see the realism there. Not every story ends perfectly, but this one does end well.

Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson: For me, I think this is the standout of the recent crop of YA titles about fandom. I really saw the involvement with fandom, the relationships and how life-changing they can be. The last, oh, third? of the book took a turn away from this with some twists and revelations. I didn’t mind these, but I also wasn’t that invested in them. I’m also curious because I feel like several reviews and comments downplayed any romantic tension between Gena and Finn, and I saw quite a bit. Am I alone here?

Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan: A YA fantasy retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, set in an alternate world where New York City is divided into the Light city (with Light magicians) and the Dark city (with Dark magicians). Lucie Manette becomes the main character, and we see the story unfolding from her point of view. SRB did a great job overall of engaging with the source text in interesting and resonant ways. However, this fell pretty flat for me at the end, when the plot seemed rushed and constrained by the original; I wanted to understand what this meant, for Lucie and for the other characters. I wanted to really feel something, and I almost did–but not quite. All in all, this is a really fascinating book, although maybe not for the reasons that I expected.

False Hearts by Laura Lam: Lam has written a couple of YA books, I believe, and this is her first adult. It’s set in a futuristic San Francisco, as Taema must rush to save her twin, Tila. They were once conjoined twins who were born into a cult and after their escape they were surgically separated. If that sounds like a lot to fit into a story, I had the same concern. But Lam pulls it off, by keep the focus pretty squarely on Taema, and weaving in the different strands around her. I also liked that Lam shows the shadowy side of San Francisco’s society, with its insistence on being perfect and blemish free, as well as conveying the very complicated relationship the twins still have to the cult. This rang pretty true with accounts I’ve read from cult survivors; that you never ever want to go back, and yet you still miss the good things about it. All in all, this was a fast, immersive read that pulled me in right away.

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Peas & Carrots by Tanita S. Davis

peas & carrotsI’ve been hearing great things about Tanita Davis’s books ever since her first, Mare’s War, was published. But (confession time!) I haven’t actually read one until now. That will be changing, because I loved Peas & Carrots.

The story is a contemporary YA, set in California. It’s told in alternating chapters between Dess, whose chapters are in first person, and Hope, whose chapters are in third. It took me a little bit to settle into this style, but I think it does a great job of differentiating the two characters and their perspectives.

As the story begins, Dess is being placed with Hope’s family temporarily. They’ve been fostering her younger brother, Austin, and Dess asked to see him. She didn’t expect to leave the group home she was in and go live with this family. Hope, meanwhile, is used to having foster kids in her family, but never one so close to her own age.

Given how many children are part of the foster care system, it seems important to have stories that reflect their realities. There aren’t enough, but this is a wonderful addition. Davis’s family fostered kids when she was young and I think that experience shows in the depth and complexity of the characters she portrays here. This is a story that it would be easy to get offensively wrong, and while I can’t say definitively, it certainly read as a sympathetic and nuanced look at one situation.

I also appreciated that Dess is a character who has a lot of integrity, and yet isn’t perfect. She refused to let her grandmother take her in if she wouldn’t also take in Austin, who’s biracial. And yet, she also judges Hope and her family because they don’t meet her expectations of how African-Americans* should be. We also see her pushing back against assumptions and stereotypes: she’s a good student and gets along well with most people.

Hope was a bit less clear to me as a character, but I also really enjoyed her sections. She’s a bookworm and scifi fan and later we find out that she read and liked The Goblin Emperor (!!!)**. Dess certainly pushes her to face her own assumptions, and to take chances that Hope might otherwise pass by. Mostly I loved seeing the slow growth of a friendship between them, as both girls learn to value each other. This is done subtly, but it’s really effective and I think fits their personalities and situation.

While there definitely is some plot here, this is a book that’s primarily focused on characters, and it really shines in that regard. Even the more minor characters seemed fleshed out and considered. Since I tend to be a character-based reader, this worked really well for me.

All in all, this is a thoughtful, complex book about a subject that needs more reflections in fiction. I’m really glad it exists and that I read it.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Knopf Books for Young Readers; contemporary YA

* this the term that’s used throughout the book, so I’m using it here

** Tanita Davis knows all the people I do online, so this isn’t really surprising but it was very fun!

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Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston (not a review)

exit pursued by a bear[content warning: both the book and this post contain discussion of sexual assault and rape. Skip this one if you need to. <3]

Continuing this week’s theme, I can’t quite manage to review this one in the normal sense. It’s a book that I loved deeply and that I felt deeply, but which I’m having trouble talking about. I spent the entire time I was reading it on the verge of tears and yet I couldn’t say exactly why. If you want a really good actual review, I’ll point you to Brandy’s, which does a great job of capturing the book’s strengths.

E.K. Johnston is at this point one of my favorite authors and one I’ll pretty much automatically read. This is her fourth published book, and it’s a bit different in that it’s within the contemporary and realistic genre, rather than the fantasy she’s published to date. And yet, as she’s said, this is perhaps the most fantasy book she’s written.

Part of the difficulty of talking about this book for me is that it’s just so complex. How can you do justice to this story when you’re pulling out different threads? Saying that it’s a Shakespearean retelling, or a cheerleading story, or even a story about friendship doesn’t capture it. And while it’s true that this is a book about the aftermath of rape, it’s doing something a little different from books like Speak or All the Rage (which are wonderful!).

Perhaps the reason I kept wanting to cry is the distance between what Johnston shows us and what we normally see, not only in fiction but in real life. Two weeks after this book came out, Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges and the judge basically put the victims on trial instead. The ongoing legal battle to free Kesha from being forced to work with the man who raped her also reappeared just after this book was published. Every personal story of sexual assault that I’ve been trusted with has had people doubting accounts, dismissing concerns.

Johnston gives us something different here: a story where something terrible happens, and then people react the way they should. By giving us a version of the world where Hermione is believed, where she is treated well by the adults in charge, where she is given space to remain herself, Johnston asks us to consider that our current reality need not be this way. There are certainly unkind people in this book (LEO, UGH) but they are exceptions. And Hermione refuses to lose herself: her love of cheerleading, her friendships, her identity. She refuses to become “that raped girl.” I appreciated that she is level-headed about this, and also that it’s a process that’s slow, hard, and ultimately hopeful.

I read this book feeling, as I’m feeling now, a strange mix of anger, sorrow, hope, and determination. It challenges us to make our world closer to this one, to make our reactions to terrible situations the kind that will foster belief, support, and healing.

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October 2015 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz
Court of Fives by Kate Elliott
Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson
The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn
The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

Other books
The Sleeping Partner by Madeleine E. Robins: The third (and last?) in the Sarah Temperance series. I really liked all three of these, although perhaps the first one a bit more than the second two. I was hoping for a slightly stronger resolution here, but the story that we got is great.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett: The last Tiffany Aching book, which just typing that makes me want to cry. There were many, many tears shed over this book, which was a perfect leave-taking for Tiffany and Pratchett himself. Even the dedication made me cry. Tiffany was my entrance into Pratchett’s books, so it seems extra-special to say good-bye to him with this one.

Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens: The second Wells & Wong book, which I loved just as much as the first. These books are a great combination of enjoyable and thoughtful, as Hazel reflects on her friendship with Daisy and her own place in England. I bought this one from the UK because I’m impatient and am strongly considering doing the same thing with the third book.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy: I loved this one! It’s been getting a fair amount of buzz and praise, as well it should. Willowdean is a great character, and the story is the perfect combination of thoughtful and fun.

Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry: I had been meaning to read this one since last year and when the third book in the trilogy was nominated for the Cybils, I knew I just had to do it. McCarry’s prose is marvelous, and while I often felt somewhat impatient with Maia, I also felt like she was a real person making real decisions.

Shadows of Sherwood by Kekla Magoon: A futuristic middle grade retelling of Robin Hood–I liked the way Magoon wrote a new story while also including nods to the original. Robyn is a fun heroine, and I think this is one middle grade readers will really love.

Prairie Fire by EK Johnston: Cybils book. Sequel to The Story of Owen, from last year. As with that one, this is a quiet book that builds to a really emotional climax. Which is to say: I cried. I loved the way Siobhan looks at the world, and I think her character is really nicely developed in this one.

About a Girl by Sarah McCarry: Cybils book. Third in the trilogy starting with All Our Pretty Songs. I think this might be my favorite book in the series, and I think all three are very strong. I loved Tally and her way of looking at the world, her strength and impatience. McCarry does a great job showing her metamorphosis via voice here, and the prose in the book is just gorgeous.

Dove Arising by Karen Bao: Cybils book. This is a very solid YA SF book, set in a base on the Moon. There’s some nice diversity (I personally read Phaet as non-neurotypical and both she and the people she encounters come from a variety of Earth cultures) and the story is engaging.

The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey: Cybils book. I think the strength of this is the set-up, and the plot which is fast-moving. I liked it more than I think I might have in a different mood, but I enjoyed the way the conflict played out.

Medicus by Ruth Downie: I’m not actually entirely sure if I liked this book, but it was just what needed for a day when I felt awful and just wanted to lie on the couch and read.

Captain Marvel: Down by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Material Girls by Elaine Dimopolous: Cybils book
Daughter Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics: Cybils book
Silver in the Blood by Jessica Day George: Cybils book
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

Other posts
Links 10-28
Book wishes
Favorite YA mysteries

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September 2015 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
A Wish Upon Jasmine by Laura Florand
Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer
The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour
The Devil You Know by Trish Doller

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson
The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The Silence of Medair by Andrea K. Höst
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

Other books
The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds: This book is on the quiet side, with lots of reflections on grief, family, love, and growing up. But it also has some really funny moments! There’s lots to like here, and I’ll definitely be looking out for Reynolds’s books in the future.

Ms. Marvel: Crushed: AHHH MS. MARVEL, YES! I am always so surprised by just how much I love this story–it keeps getting better. The arc on this one was really great and I just want mooooore.

Lord Peter and Little Kerstin by Ian Crumpstey: A review copy offered by the translator of Scandinavian folk songs/stories. It was interesting to note that sometimes I was able to predict where the story was going and other times it surprised me. I really enjoyed the language chosen for this translation.

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie: Audiobook. Not my favorite Miss Marple, but it does introduce the idea of her as a nemesis.

Baba Yaga’s Apprentice by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll: I’m fascinated by the Baba Yaga story, and I loved Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods. So I thought this one might be good and I ended up really liking it. It’s set in the modern day, but I liked the way McCoola’s story and Carroll’s art interact.

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson: I had a mixed reaction to this one, but I’m not sure entirely why, and I’m not sure I can tease it out in the time and space I have here.

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers: I read this one but didn’t end up writing a post about it. Partly this is because of the DLS books I just re-read, it’s the only one that’s really focused on the mystery, with Peter and Harriet’s relationship second. Also, it’s just vaguely grimy and depressing. Murder Must Advertise is sad; HHC is just unsatisfying.

Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault: I enjoyed this first book about Alexander the Great, but also I became very anxious about MWT’s Gen because of parallels. Arrghhhhh. Anyway, on its own merits this is immersive & beautiful.

Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein: Second in the Steerswoman series. This one starts off a little slowly and ends with an emotional gut-punch. Ow. Also, I really appreciate that Kirstein pays attention to the physicality of her world, and gives a sense of the time it takes to do things/move through the land.

A School for Brides by Patrice Kindl: Great readalike for last year’s Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place! It had something of the same school story + irreverent vibe. I wasn’t in love with the first book, but I really enjoyed this one–maybe because it was less an Austen retelling and more vaguely Austen-esque.

Blind Justice by Bruce Alexander: This is unusual in historical mysteries that I’ve read in that the detective is a real historical figure. Sir John Fielding was a magistrate and social reformer. The book itself is told as reminiscences of a fictional servant boy. I’ll probably try reading at least the next book.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth: Being a big fan of the TV show, I wanted to try Worth’s memoirs. It was interesting to track the places where it was exactly the same and the places where changes had been made. In general, I appreciated the book, but I didn’t love it as much as I did the show itself.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones: I absolutely loved this one, which is told via letters to and from Sophie. It’s funny, and heartfelt, and I found it truly enjoyable and charming.

Cuckoo’s Egg by C.J. Cherryh

Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton

Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner: review coming closer to the release!

Other posts
Made and Making
Links 9-3-15
Links 9-16-15
Links 9-29-15
Series I need to finish
Mystery books I want to read
Fall TBR
Favorite middle grade mysteries

TV and movies
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries!!!
Doctor Who
Call the Midwife

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