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monthly book list

May 2021 Reading Review

Hello, friends! It’s been forever, but I’m currently on a break from grad school before my last two classes (!!) and guess what? It turns out that without a huge time/energy burden, I actually sometimes read books! Wild. 

Also, a brief housekeeping note: I’m planning to take a look at my archives and do some cleanup there. It’s been 15 years since I started By Singing Light (ahaha, wow) and a lot has changed personally & in the world since then. I may also refresh the site design a bit since I haven’t touched it for probably 10ish years. In any case, things may look different around in the next couple of months. 

So, on to the books! 

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson (adult science fiction, 2020) has a relatively simple premise: there are many worlds and each of them has a slightly different version of the same people. Some of those people can walk between worlds, thanks to a technological innovation developed by a visionary scientist. But Johnson doesn’t stop there. The inequalities that riddle the world are part of what make this process possible, as the people who walk between worlds are the ones whose counterparts have died, usually young and violently. The system chews people up and spits them out, and the main character of the book exists uneasily betwixt and between the literal and metaphorical worlds. 

The Space Between Worlds is Johnson’s first published novel, and it’s a very solid debut. While I have some slight quibbles (the imagery is sometimes a little on the nose, and the ending seemed rushed), the meat of the story is complex and thoughtful. It’s possible to draw some analogies to current day people and concerns, but the world of the story feels fully realized on its own. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what comes next. 

The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson (adult/teen memoir, 2020) popped up on my radar because I’ve been a fan of Stevenson’s work since Nimona was a webcomic. It was interesting, and sometimes sad, to see how Stevenson experienced that moment in her own life. The Fire Never Goes Out is a thoughtful exploration of identity, sexuality, and the pressures of fame at a young age. I’m glad to have read it. 

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell (juvenile fantasy, 2017) is one that I read because it’s still relatively popular at my library and I wanted to be able to do some readers advisory for it. Cowell wrote and illustrated this one and the illustrations are really striking: jagged and dark, with an underlying eeriness. As an adult reader it wasn’t my favorite, but I can see the appeal. It’s also a relatively quick read, making it a good title to hand to reluctant readers or kids who aren’t quite ready for the denser fantasy books. 

Peaces (adult surreal fantasy, 2021) is Helen Oyeyemi’s latest book and it’s quite a wild ride (heheh). Full of Oyeyemi’s typical absolutely bonkers situations, this one follows Otto Shin, embarking on a magical train journey for a not-honeymoon honeymoon with his spouse, Xavier. Also, there’s a hereditary mongoose, and secrets, and the distinct possibility that Otto is constantly lying to everyone around him–including the reader. 

Do you ever read a book and just marvel at the brain that produced it? How, Helen Oyeyemi? What is it like inside your mind?? (Frances Hardinge is also in this category for me.) Personally, Peaces doesn’t rank amongst my favorite Oyeyemi titles (White is For Witching and Mr. Fox) but even a not-quite-favorite Oyeyemi is still very good indeed. 

For whatever reason, I sometimes love Aliette de Bodard’s work and sometimes bounce off of it really hard. Fortunately, Fireheart Tiger (adult fantasy, 2021) was in the love category for me, although it’s slight enough that I was left wanting more. The story unfolds in a really interesting way, weaving backwards and forward across the timeline. The shifting loyalties and relationships mean that the reader is trying to understand the full extent of what’s happening just as Thanh herself does. I also really loved the descriptions of the magic, wild and beautiful and dangerous all at once. 

Micah: The Good Girl by Ashley Woodfolk (YA realistic fiction, 2020) is one that I’m sure I put on hold on a whim after having read one of Woodfolk’s earlier books. I’m glad I did, as Woodfolk weaves together grief, friendship, and first love in a very thoughtful and effective story. Micah is nearing the one year anniversary of her brother’s death, and the way Woodfolk portrays her grief felt very understandable and real. It reminded me a bit of The Valley and the Flood by Rebecca Mahoney, which I read last month, although that story has a mythic fantasy element to it. However, both deal with the aftermath of losing someone close to you, and what it means to come to terms with that. 

I didn’t realize that this is actually the second in a series, but I suspect they stand alone relatively well and now I’m interested in going back to read the others. 

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book lists bookish posts

Diving into the TBR stacks

Are there some authors who perpetually hang out on your TBR list? Not because there’s anything wrong with their books, but just because there are so many. I have a few I’ve been meaning to get back to for *ahem* some time now and I need a little push to get me to actually do it. So here I am, committing to reading the following books by the following authors sometime this year.  We’ll see how this project unfolds!

An Earthly Crown by Kate Elliott

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

The Sleeping Life by Andrea K Höst

The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein

Half-Resurrection Blues by DJ Older

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

Vicious by Victoria Schwab

Blood Spirits by Sherwood Smith

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bookish posts reviews

Recover Reading: non-mysteries

I didn’t only read mysteries while I was recovering, even though it might seem that way. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the other books I went through!

I had read In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan in its original incarnation, as a serial published on her blog. So when the book was announced, I was excited to revisit it, but also curious about how the story might change in a different form. As it turns out, the heart of Elliot, Luke, and Serene’s journey remains unchanged, but the book is significantly revised and expanded from the original. It remains one of my favorite recent takes on portal fantasies and just as hilarious and heart-rending/warming as I remembered.

Then I picked up The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis, which I didn’t enjoy as much as I had expected. I was looking for a Hornblower/Aubrey-esque airship escapade, and I do think that’s what it wanted to be. But for me it seemed a bit too grim and the characters never quite solidified. However, several people I generally trust thought it was great, so I do recommend checking it out if a female captain of an airship sounds like a hook you’d be into.

I’ve been reading through Helen Oyeyemi’s backlist and–going strictly off of what was available on Overdrive at that moment–picked up What is Not Yours is Not Yours. While I think I prefer the spooled-out surrealness of Oyeyemi’s novels, this was overall a pretty strong short story collection. I especially liked the way characters from one story would appear in another, lending a sense of cohesion and purpose to the book.

Since Frances Hardinge is one of my favorite authors, a new book by her is always an exciting time! Her latest, A Skinful of Shadows, is strange and sad and lovely–not surprising, from Hardinge. Though I found the historical aspect of the setting less potent than Cuckoo Song or The Lie Tree, I loved Makepeace and her bear, as well as the shape the story took. Surprising and hopeful and lovely.

I had tried reading Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway at least once before and hadn’t managed to finish it. This time I kept going and was mostly rewarded. I liked it quite a lot, except that the story seemed somewhat awkwardly caught between wanting to be a light teen romance and wanting to explore some deeper and harder relationships between parents and children. Ultimately I’m not entirely sure how I felt about it as a whole, but I don’t regret reading it.

Finally, I picked up Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake. I had mixed feelings about a couple of aspects of Hadley’s characterization, but overall I really liked the way Blake took a somewhat implausible plot and used it as a base to explore different kinds of relationships and growth. It wasn’t always an easy or comfortable read but I did appreciate it–a good one for teens looking for a story that’s a little challenging in terms of theme.

 

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bookish posts reviews

Complex and haunting adult SFF: Oyeyemi and Jemisin

Spoilers for The Fifth Season below!

I wanted to take a look at two books which fall on the literary end of speculative fiction, but which are also very aware of the genre’s conventions and influences. Which is to say, that they are both complex and sophisticated, while remaining very much a part of SF. Also, I am still thinking about them two months after first reading them.

To begin with, I have now read two books by Helen Oyeyemi, and both were bewildering and beautiful. I started with White is For Witching and then read Mr. Fox, and let me say that I have no idea what is happening in Mr. Fox and I love it.

Except that this isn’t quite true. I do know what is happening, but Oyeyemi is writing in a non-linear way, trusting the reader to make connections between disparate times and places and characters. So the text feels both impenetrable and exactly right. I understand it in the way I understand difficult poetry: I can’t say what it means, but I know what it means. I feel it in my deep heart’s core, to steal a line from Yeats.

In this case, Oyeyemi is circling around several related ideas. Mr. Fox is about stories: the stories we tell, the stories we’re a part of, the stories we consume. And it’s about fairy tales, which of course are stories with extra power. It’s about patterns: who gets to tell the stories, who is featured in them, and how they are portrayed. At the center, the tangled heart of this book, is the relationship between the male novelist and his muse. The book uses this relationship to talk about male consumption of women, in the sense of fictional portrayals but also emotional labor. And it talks about women and their relationship to each other, their resistance and/or non-resistance to what men ask of them.

In short, this is a book that demands attention and energy to give up its meaning. It is coherent, but it doesn’t boil down to a simple argument or theory. It takes delight in taking you by surprise, especially in the moments when you think you finally have a grasp on what’s going on.

The second book I wanted to talk about is N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Many people have already talked about this book’s strengths, so on a certain level I feel like anything I say is just a matter of “me too!” However, I’ve been reading Jemisin’s books for a few years now, and I remain fascinated by how deftly she plays with big concepts and assumptions about story.

In The Fifth Season one of the big twists is the revelation that the three main characters–Essen, Syen, and the “you” of the second person narration–are all the same person at different times in her life. There’s a convention in epic fantasy that the story feature lots of different characters and viewpoints. Here, Jemisin trades on that convention brilliantly, as the reader slowly realizes the truth. The question of how these three parts of the same person fit together propelled me through the second half of the book.

But on a larger scale, Jemisin starts off with the end of the world, the act that causes this world to fall apart. I keep thinking about the end of the prologue:

But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.

Not only does it set the stakes for the rest of the story, but it’s a brilliant almost-echo of Eliot. And indeed, part of what’s agonizingly effective in this book is the extent to which it’s all a whimper. The revelations of the last chapter or so change that to a certain extent, but most of the story is fueled by this tension between knowledge and ignorance. Who knows that something bad is coming, and who believes this is just another Season. Jemisin shows us her hand and then unfolds all the decisions, all the little moment which lead up to the cataclysm.

It would be easy for all these different parts–the narrators, the structure of the narrative itself, the looming apocalyptic threat–to end up feeling like tricks. But they don’t. Instead, they deepen and enrich the story, so that when you reach the end, it feels real and raw and devastating.

In fact, this is a large part of what I admire about both Mr. Fox and The Fifth Season is the way in which the authorial choices are made in service to the story that’s being told. Neither books are easy; both books ask something of the reader; attention, sympathy for difficult people, patience to unravel the pattern. But on the other hand, neither book has style with no purpose. It’s the marriage of story and style that I’ve found myself returning to since I finished reading, because it’s somewhat rare but also so lovely when it’s pulled off.

Other reviews:

 

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Currently reading: 9-7

All the books I'm actively reading. Send help,
All the books I’m actively reading. Send help.

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I don’t know how this happened–no, I do. I’ve been reading several intense books in slow spurts because they are really good but also my heart can’t handle too much at once. And then I’m trying to read several other books that have taken me a bit to get into, so I keep pulling a new one off the shelf and trying it. Anyway, from the top:

Dove Exiled by Karen Bao: Sequel to last year’s Dove Arising. I am finding the writing a little choppy, but I’m really interested in what Bao’s doing with the world and characters.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken: For October’s reading notes, so I won’t say much more. Except–this book is 168 pages long. One hundred sixty-eight! Take note, authors.

Perfect Liars by Kimberly Reid: This is a fun diverse teenage con/heist story–great for kids who have aged out of The Great Greene Heist.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: I’m rereading this with librarian book club and auuugghhhh the emotions. They might actually be worse the second time through?

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi: It’s very difficult to say what’s happening in this book, but in a good way. (I tend to like texts that make you work for their meaning, as long as they’re not being jerks about it.)

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips: This book is making me feel way too many things. It’s fine. (I just DM the best/worst bits to the friend who recommended it to me. Thanks & you’re welcome.)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: A re-read because I wanted to and apparently wasn’t reading enough intense books? Yeah, I don’t know either.

Monstress by Marjorie Liu: My hold at the library FINALLY came in!! This is a lot more violent than I tend to like my comics, but the visual sensibility is so much my thing that I’m still reading. (Art deco-ish fantasy monsters=I’m there.)

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: I JUST started this one, but I’ve gotten far enough in to be hooked. Definitely a story I’d only trust from an #ownvoices author, though!

Jupiter Pirates: The Rise of Earth by Jason Fry: Third in a middle grade SF series I’ve been enjoying! Fry has years of experience writing Star Wars tie-ins and he clearly has a good grasp of what kids like in their SF. I have a feeling that things are going to Happen in this one.