Tag Archives: historical fiction

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairEverfair is a story that spans decades and continents. It tells the history of a country that never was, one where “Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.” (source) It lies across blurred genre lines, at the meeting point of steampunk, historical fantasy, and alternate history.

Everfair is told through a multitude of voices, from King Mwende to Lisette Toutournier, Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson to Martha Hunter. It is in a sense the story of an idea, a different kind of grand experiment, more than one person or their personal experience. At first this was disorienting for me–I’m very much a character-based reader. But I realized that in fact that this is the point: that Everfair the country is herself the main character, and that the patchwork of people who make up her history are telling her story, rather than their own. So, the main emotional arc is not exactly that of Lisette, or of Daisy, or any of the others. It is of their collective experiences, their various viewpoints, coming from different backgrounds, races, beliefs, and genders.

This approach also lets Shawl resist flattening any one character into a type. Each of the sympathetic characters shows flaws as well as greatness; each of the less sympathetic characters shows greatness as well as flaws. Although the characters are in some ways secondary to the history of what they made, they are not comforting. They also challenge the reader and the reader’s assumptions. We see Daisy’s limits when she cannot look beyond her own whiteness. We also see Martha’s real care and worry for George later in the story. Neither the country nor the characters are held to an impossible perfection; it is through the contradictions and flaws that both become real.

After finishing the book, I kept thinking about the image of prosthetics that appears throughout the book. It’s one of the most steampunk-y elements: the beautiful, deadly mechanical hands that are made for the survivors of King Leopold’s regime whose hands were cut off. It’s an image that seems to underscore the heart of the book: that the history and trauma that have passed cannot be undone, and yet that the story does not have to end there. That another story, with dirigibles and steam-powered hands, with heartache and work and courage is also possible.

In short, I found Everfair to be a reimaging of the past that thinks deeply about implications and patterns. It takes people as they are, and shows the weight and burden of leadership. It is too clear-sighted to truly be a utopia, but it is also hopeful. The ending, full of possibilities, asks us to take up the task of reimagining the world–by both acknowledging the real traumas and looking for the rest of the story.

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Jenny at Reading the End; Jaymee Goh at Strange Horizons

 

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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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Burn, Baby, Burn by Meg Medina

burn_baby_burn_coverI read this book last month in the midst of a reading slump, when all I wanted to do was reread old favorites but the pressure of all the new books sitting on my library shelf was too much. I picked it up after getting home from work and read it in one evening, completely ignoring everything else I meant to do. I liked Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass a lot–in fact, I was on the Cybils panel that shortlisted it the year it came out. But Burn, Baby, Burn is even stronger, in my opinion. It does so much so well that the only challenge is which of the threads to talk about.

For instance, there’s been a spate of YA set in the 1980s & 90s which seems to have no reason for that setting aside from nostalgia on the part of the author. By contrast, Burn, Baby, Burn not only engages with its historical setting, it could not possibly have been set in any other moment. Medina writes out of personal memory and experience, as her backmatter notes make clear, but she doesn’t stop there. The atmosphere of the summer of 1977 is woven into every scene and character.

There’s also a kind of mythologized, idealized NYC that exists in a lot of YA, as in a lot of other media. Medina resists that as well, pushing back against the idea of the glittering city full of a thousand possibilities. Nora’s city is on the edge of something, full of danger, full of people trying to make their way in a difficult world. It would be easy to say that it’s gritty, and I think that is wrong: it’s also full of hope and excitement. But it’s not smooth; when Nora visits her father and his new family, we see briefly the kind of NYC that usually appears in YA and feel the same relief that Nora does when she returns to her neighborhood.

Most of all, though, the setting here underlies and informs the characters. Medina draws everyone with understanding and complexity, but at the heart of the book is always Nora. Like her neighborhood, Nora is not smooth: she’s prickly, both self-assured and self-doubting, brimming over with hope and joy and fear. Medina shows a very specific Latina girl growing up in a particular neighborhood in NYC at a particular time in a particular family. But at the same time, Nora’s journey towards becoming a young woman resonates deeply.

I’m also grateful for the way that Nora’s story includes other girls and women on their own journeys. While she does navigate falling for a boy, the story starts and ends with Nora and her best friend Kathleen. We see their similarities and differences, but we also see the older generation. Kathleen’s mother and her black best friend (one of Nora’s neighbors) are both feminists, but we see the differences in their experiences as well. Without being the History of Feminism, we’re also given a picture of what the struggle for equal rights looked like in that moment, which doesn’t erase the experiences and legacy of women of color.

The final strand I wanted to note is the depiction of Nora’s family. Over the course of the book we see Nora slowly, slowly coming to terms with the fact that her brother Hector is truly dangerous to himself and to others. And once she realizes that, she also has to decide what she’ll do with that knowledge, in the face of her mother’s determination to not see. It’s a tricky thing to show that undercurrent of things not being okay, and Medina does it really well. Nora’s final decisions and determination in keeping herself and others safe is a really great and powerful way to tell this story. More teens than we sometimes realize or want to admit have families where things are broken, and a lot of growing up is learning to acknowledge this and find your own path.

This is definitely a book where difficult things happen, where the hard parts of being a teen aren’t shied away from. But there’s also a tremendous sense of hope and joy. There are second chances and learning to find your own place to stand and grow. There’s so much more to talk about here, but the heart of it–what’s stuck with me in the last month–is Nora’s courage and determination to do the best she can, by herself and by other people.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2016, Candlewick; YA historical fiction

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Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner

listen to the moonListen to the Moon is the third in Rose Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston series. As in many historical romance series, it features a number of cameos from the protagonists of the other books, which is always a fun thing to spot! In this case, Lerner does something slightly unusual and features as her main characters two servants.

I’ve definitely read other historical romances with servants as main characters before. But they often tend to fall into a couple of patterns: distressed gentlewomen down on their luck, or illegitimate children of nobility, or people in disguise. In this instance, Lerner resists all of these patterns: John and Sukey are genuinely part of the servant class. They expect to be part of this class for the rest of their lives.

I very much appreciated the way the complexities of being a servant are shown, both within the characters and in the different experiences depicted. John, for instance, is well paid and highly trained, someone for whom work is a source of pride. Sukey works because she must in order to live, and she doesn’t have the same pride in the job nor the same prospects (which is a source of conflict in the story). But at the same time, there’s an inherent tension between the reality of being perpetually lower class and at the mercy of your employer’s circumstances, and having a sense of fulfillment from doing the job well. It’s not resolved, because it can’t be resolved; there are no simple answers here, and Lerner doesn’t attempt to pass off platitudes as wisdom. Instead, she shows us John, and Sukey, and Thea and Molly, and Mrs. Khaleel. We’re given a sense of some of the very small range of experiences, not a single story. We’re also shown that even a well meaning or kind employer doesn’t erase the structural inequalities.

In terms of the relationship at the heart of the book, I really liked the contrast between Sukey’s impetuousness and John’s exactness. It gives food for realistic and believable tension between them, though I occasionally did want them to just talk. I also liked the way John’s concern about his age and suitableness for Sukey relieved some of the worry about that inequality of age and power that might otherwise be there for me.

I also really appreciated the way Sukey was shown as a young woman who knows her own mind, who wants to be valued for who she is. Her anxieties and strengths both worked well for me, and I liked that she’s someone who doesn’t leap into romance and who’s aware of the potential costs to both love and marriage.

Perhaps the most resonant thread of the story for me was actually John’s struggle to come to terms with his family and how much of him comes from his father. This fear that he’ll be as tyrannical and feared combined with his desire for things to be done right was nicely balanced. Especially, I think, when we begin to see his genuine pride in doing things well at the same time as he wants to find his own way.

Having read this book twice, I do feel that there’s something a little awkward about the ending. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is–pacing? a shift in tone?–but I noticed it both times. However, as an overall story, I loved this one, and I found the emotional payoff of the ending to still be very rewarding. As usual, Lerner writes engaging and complex characters, and I really appreciated John and Sukey’s story.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information 2016, Samhain; adult historical romance

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My review of Lerner’s True Pretenses

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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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Recent Reading: McPherson, Ross, LaCour

dandy gilver Dandy Gilver series by Catriona McPherson: I recently decided to give the Dandy Gilver series a try and promptly glommed through three of the books: 1, 2, and 5. They’re historical mysteries, set in Scotland in the 1920s, featuring high society sleuth Dandy Gilver. Obviously, having read three of them in a week, I enjoy them quite a bit. They strike a nice balance for me between a satisfying ending and a detective I like reading about, and having enough grit to keep them from becoming too rose-tinted. Dandy is certainly a product of her time and particular strain of society, but her desire to find the truth and her connection to other people keeps her grounded enough for me. These aren’t the most brilliant mysteries ever, but they pulled me out of a reading slump and I imagine they’ll be nice to return to when I need a fast, fun read.

fog diverThe Fog Diver by Joel Ross: A middle grade futuristic scifi swashbuckler (whew!). Chess is a fog diver, one of a crew of kids growing up in the slums of one of the few human cities left after the lethal Fog covered the earth. It’s a dangerous life, and he is even more vulnerable, since Lord Kodoc is looking for him. I liked this one for Chess himself, for the evocative writing, and especially for the relationships within Chess’s crew. Hazel almost beat out Chess himself as my favorite character, and I appreciated that the story foregrounded friendship and trust. I suspect there may be a sequel to this one, and I’ll definitely be looking for it if so.

everything leads to youEverything Leads to You by Nina LaCour: Fresh from a breakup with her girlfriend, Emi discovers a new quest, a new job, and a new love in short order. This is a really enjoyable book; it has substance, but it also is immensely readable and engaging. I loved Emi and her voice, and I especially liked her talent and the way LaCour shows her maturing over the course of the book, not only in her relationships but also in her job and confidence. This is also a great one if you’re looking for a story where female friendship is important, since Charlotte and Ava are both central to Emi’s life & relationships. This is a great summer read, with evocative writing and characters.

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