bookish posts reviews

Favorite books from the beginning of 2017

I’ve been reading a lot more than I’ve been writing here, so I thought I’d do a round up of my favorite books from the first quarter of 2017. These are just books I read in January-March.

middle grade

Ratpunzel by Ursula Vernon: Harriet Hamsterbone continues to basically be the best. Mother Goethel here was genuinely creepy (something I feel Rapunzel retellings often fail to pull off). This series really manages to tackle some big, complicated issues in thoughtful and kid-appropriate ways. So good!

Lumberjanes vol. 5: Band Together: FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX! (someday I will start a Lumberjanes review with something else) (jk, that will never happen) Look, this volume has mermaids, and also lots of confusion about how an underwater mermaid rock band is even possible, and it contains the immortal line, “I don’t want to die confused” so yes.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis: This book is just so comforting (much like a cup of chocolate). While this might sound like faint praise, it’s really not–comforting things are really necessary, and books that lie at the crossroads of smart and comforting are harder to pull off than they look. It’s a unique take on dragons, and I loved Aventurine and her determination.


We Are Okay by Nina LaCour: Okay, I will say upfront that the premise of this book is a bit implausible, BUT please accept it and move on because it is full of LaCour’s most mature, rich writing to date and so many feelings. There’s this feeling that’s common to many young adults of being out of place, of not knowing who you are or how exactly to find out. This book is quiet and specific in its characters and setting and it feels so textured and beautiful.

The Hate U Give by A.C. Thomas: Any praise I have here will be slightly superfluous, but oh this book. I wanted to reread it as soon as I finished. It is so amazing on so many levels, but Starr herself really stood out for me. This is a book about her finding her voice, but at the same time, even on the first page she shines.

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow: To be honest, I delayed reading this one at first because even though I trust Bow, I wasn’t sure how anything could follow The Scorpion Rules. But this one did. It starts small and quiet, but the tension and the implications build until it becomes an incredibly heartbreaking exploration of identity and love and what it means to be a person. I love sequels that dig deeper into the world of the first book, and that’s just what this one does.

Chime by Franny Billingsley: I reread this one at the beginning of the year, and it was just what I needed. Learning to tread new brain paths, learning to love and be loved. Living in the tension between the old and the new. This book is just a LOT in all the best possible ways.

Lucy & Linh by Alice Pung: I realized as I was typing this up that Lucy & Linh (aka Laurinda in its native Australia) has a lot in common thematically with We Are Okay: growing up and moving to a new place, complicated friendships, feeling unsure of yourself and who you are. But Lucy also deals with class and privilege and race, which tie back into the theme of identity and friendship in really interesting ways.


The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley: I’ve discovered that I love good biographies of complex, difficult women, and this one is a great example. “Christine Granville” and her life make for an incredible, infuriating, and achingly sad story.

A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand: While I basically just love all of Laura Florand’s books, this one really hit me in a personal place. It’s a quieter story, more intimate, full of the weight of the past–both family history and historical events. It’s about learning to acknowledge that weight without letting it bind you. And, on a lighter note, I really enjoy the setting and descriptions of the countryside as well.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl: I talked about this one quite a lot already, but I’ve found myself thinking about it regularly ever since I read it. The approach to the story is so inventive and thought-provoking, and the sense of what-might-have-been is both inspiring and heartwrenching.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: Math and magic IN SPACE, and family, and culture, and diplomacy, and explosions, all in one short novella that doesn’t have that frustrating too-short-and-too-long feeling that some novellas do. It just makes me happy whenever I think about it, and I can’t wait to read Home.

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Out of the woods: books set in forests

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.

out of the woods

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.





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Favorite science fiction from the last five years

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.)

ancillary mercyscorpion rulesconservation of shadows

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.

bookish posts reviews

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

scorpion rulesI loved Erin Bow’s previous books, Plain Kate and Sorrow’s Knot. They also made me cry kind of a lot, so I was expecting The Scorpion Rules to be emotionally damaging. But oh, dear reader, I was still not prepared.

Which is to say, this probably isn’t a book for everyone. The world it depicts is brutal, which is not dwelt on in detail, but perhaps is all the more powerful for that. With the seas rising, the world has torn itself apart over natural resources–until Talis, the AI who ruthlessly brings an end to the endless conflict by making the rulers’ children hostages. If your parent goes to to war with another country, you die. No exceptions.

But there are also terrible things that happen in the present of this book. I really admired this, actually. Sometimes authors will write a threat into their world but then wiggle around it. Bow goes for it every time. If Talis threatens something, it happens. And so the other players in this scene have the same kind of mercilessness; Talis does dreadful things, but so do the humans involved. (I may never be able to drink apple cider again, thanks.)

To the extent that this set-up is a dystopia, it must contain within it the seeds of a utopia. And that, here, is the promise of peace–as long as you follow Talis’s rules. A pax Talisica? (I don’t know Latin; I’m sure this is dreadfully wrong! So sorry!) And so, as the book begins, Greta and her fellow Children have been thoroughly trained into compliance. Trained isn’t quite the right word. Elián would probably use tortured; I think I would call it conditioned. The Children take it as a matter of pride to go to their deaths with dignity, and Greta is the epitome of this philosophy.

Which means that she is not very interested in challenging anything. She hopes for peace until she turns eighteen and is no longer a hostage, even though she knows that her country is teetering on the brink of war. She rebels only in the smallest and most hidden of ways, not even in the semi-accepted ways that the other Children do. It would be easy to see her as passive, but her voice is to clear and strong that I never read her this way. In fact, I don’t read this as a story of transition from weakness to strength. I read it as a story of a changing relationship to the world around you, a changing use of the strength you always had. It’s about the moment when you find a way to act.

But in this world, if you act, bad things happen. And they do. They really do. (If you’ve read The Queen of Attolia, this story is kind of like That One Scene, except for most of a book. I kept having to take breaks from reading it because it was so intense, but by the same token, I always came back.) This is mostly because of Talis, the ancient and powerful AI who runs the world. If he were human, he would certainly be evil. As it is, it’s hard for me to say, exactly. He’s hilariously snarky and unexpectedly heartbreaking. I should not like him, but I do.

Opposing him is Elián, a new member of the Children, one who has not undergone the same conditioning. He fights Talis’s decrees, he rebels against the peace-keeping laws, he won’t give in even after he knows full well that something dreadful will follow. One summary of this story might be: girl is part of a dystopian system; she meets a boy who refuses to follow the rules; everything changes. This misses a lot of the specifics that make this particular story what it is, but there’s also a little truth to it. Greta is continually annoyed with Elián because he won’t simply accept his fate and behave. But she is also changed by him, inevitably, even if the ways she’s changed aren’t always predictable.

If Greta’s relationship with Elián is one part of the story, the other is her relationship with Da-Xia, her roommate. Elián is a catalyst and a friend. Xie is the one Greta trusts, the one who holds firm. Personally, I was rooting for Greta & Xie; I read her as somewhat attracted to Elián and Elián as someone she cares deeply about, but who she’s not in love with. I’m having a hard time talking about the way I read their relationships without huge spoilers, but I will say that I loved the way both are shown as important and valid.

And if there’s an uplifting theme here, it’s that love can save you. I’m running up against spoilers again, and I really want to avoid spoiling everything. But, despite the awful things that happen in this story, somehow this is also true. If you are trapped in an impossible dilemma, you can find a third choice, and if you find your way through it, it will be with the help of those you love and who love you. You may not be able to hold on to it, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Also, hi from Indianapolis (this is funny if you’ve read the book).

Book source: Advanced copy

Book information: 2015, Margaret K McElderry Books; YA science fiction

Other reviews: Bookshelves of Doom, Charlotte’s Library, Miss Print, you?