Tag Archives: non-fiction

Recent Reading: Thomas, Shannon, Shaw, Hoose

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Does my Nice White Lady opinion about this book matter at all? Probably not. But sometimes you read something so good that even though it isn’t meant for you, it is worth talking about. And for whatever it’s worth, I loved Bri’s story.

It’s about the pressure of family history and making your own choices, about ambition and achieving your dreams. There were moments when as an adult I was concerned about the choices Bri was making, but I also understood why she was making them and they felt very realistic for a teenager under pressure. Personally, I found the conclusion very satisfying, and I appreciated where Thomas chose to end the story.

Although I’m not someone who tends to listen to rap, I really admired how well Bri’s skill is shown. Having that first person narrative during her rap battles showed her talent and quick wits, and kept it engaging.

Some authors have one great book in them–and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that–but I think On the Come Up proves that Angie Thomas is here to stay.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

I wanted to like this one a lot! But it didn’t quite fulfill my expectations, despite being full of things that I should have, in theory, loved. Dragons! Historical fantasy! Spies! Ladies being friends and/or falling in love. Somehow the characters never quite felt fully inhabited and, in a common failing for epic fantasy, it felt weirdly conservative in its undertones even when it seemed to be about remaking the world. I don’t know! I read the whole doorstopper book, so I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but I would also say it never quite reached its full potential. On the other hand, lots of other people loved this one, so it’s entirely possible that this was a me issue.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

This is a great example of a book that I liked and just don’t have much to say about. It’s a supernatural mystery featuring Greta Helsing, doctor to mythical creatures (vampires, gremlins, etc). Meanwhile something bad is happening in London–a murderous cult who worship a mysterious object underground. It’s perfectly fine and competent and I liked the inclusion of some classic vampires who were, the book argues, very misunderstood by Bram Stoker, etc. I will probably read the next one. 

Attucks! by Phillip Hoose

While I kind of wish that this book had not been written by a white guy, I did really appreciate the look at sports and Indianapolis history. Obviously, I have a connection to the location, and I thought Hoose did a good job of laying out the history of the city and state’s racial tensions, as well as the resilience and community of the Black residents during the 1920-1950s.

The text was based heavily on interviews with the surviving players and I felt that overall their voices and memories were showcased. I’ve driven by Crispus Attucks High School many times and been vaguely aware of its history, but now the history of both the high school and area have been really brought to life–in a bittersweet way, since so much of it has now been lost. I’d recommend this for basketball fans, but also for almost anyone from Indianapolis who wants to learn a little more about our history.

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January 2019 reading

I did not read as much as I wanted to this month, but I read some really awesome books. A few of these I suspect will end up on my end-of-year favorites list! As I mentioned the other day, I’m trying out a new system for my active TBR, and I’m hoping it will result in getting more books either read or passed on.

The Winged Histories –  Sofia Samatar [review]
Sawkill Girls  – Claire Legrand [review]
The Prince & the Dressmaker – Jen Wang
Nate Expectations – Tim Federle
I, Claudia – Mary McCoy [review]
Frederica – Georgette Heyer
Begone the Raggedy Witches – Celine Kiernan [review]
Merci Suarez Changes Gears – Meg Medina
The Dinosaur Artist – Paige Williams
Sanity and Tallulah – Molly Brooks
A Spark of White Fire – Sangu Mandanna [review]
The Girl with the Dragon Heart – Stephanie Burgis

Total books read: 12

Total rereads: 2

Favorites:

  • The Winged Histories
  • I, Claudia
  • Begone the Raggedy Witches
  • Merci Suarez Changes Gears
  • Sanity & Tallulah
  • A Spark of White Fire
  • The Girl with the Dragon Heart

Other posts:

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November 2018 books

The Death of Mrs Westaway Ruth Ware 11.29

This was on the NPR Book Concierge and it sounded like the kind of mystery I’d like. It was! I’m always a sucker for the “assuming someone’s identity” trope, and Ware plays nicely with that here. I also liked Harriet a lot. It feels very old-fashioned on several levels, I think intentionally, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about that aspect.

Pride Ibi Zoboi 11.29  (review tomorrow)

Girl at the Grave Teri Bailey Black 11.25 [review]

Darius the Great is Not Okay Adib Khorram 11.17  [review]

The Language of Power Rosemary Kirstein 11.16  [review]

Mariam Sharma Hits the Road Sheba Karim 11.14  [review]

Making Friends Kristen Gudsnuk 11. 9  

The Witch Boy Molly Knox Ostertag 11.8 

The Proposal Jasmine Guillory 11.9  [review]

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster Deborah Hopkinson 11.7  [review]

 

Total books read: 10

Total rereads: 0

Favorites:

  • Darius the Great is Not Okay
  • Pride
  • Witch Boy

Weekly reading roundups:

I kind of stopped doing the weekly roundups towards the end of this month, but I could be persuaded to try them again if anyone is interested!

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Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

In Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, Deborah Hopkinson weaves together first person narratives from passengers and crew of the Titanic, to give a picture of the first and last voyage of the ship. It’s published for children, but written in an accessible enough way that adults might enjoy reading it as well.

I read this one because I had scheduled it for my homeschool book club at work and then realized I’d never read it. Due to reasons, I ended up reading most of it as an ebook.

Reading Titanic so soon after reading Patricia Sutton’s Capsized! was an interesting experience. There are certainly some similiarities between the books–children’s non-fiction focusing on a disaster, with an emphasis on the experiences of the survivors. Obviously, the sinking of the Titanic is much more well known than the sinking of the Eastland, and therefore the amount of material available to Hopkinson makes for what I think is a slightly more complex read.

I will say that although I’m familiar with the story of the Titanic, the progression of events has never quite sunk in for me. Having the information presented the way Hopkinson does here was actually very helpful and informative! It does make for a tough emotional read because, whoo boy, a lot of this tragedy could have been mitigated had things turned out slightly differently.

Overall, Hopkinson focuses on narratives from survivors, which makes sense on several levels. First, because there were almost no things saved from the Titanic–unsent letters, diaries, etc, most likely went down with the ship. Second, because it’s obviously the survivors who afterwards contributed the most to the historical record of narratives and remembrances. But also, I thought it made a nice way to approach this story for kids, in a way that engages with the reality of the disaster and the effects it had on the people who were present without being too horrifying.

The book also includes some information about myths that have sprung up around the Titanic and its sinking, with a quick summary of what historians and primary narratives say actually happened. I liked the approach here, which wasn’t to spend too much time on the myths while also debunking them.

I’d say that Hopkinson is a very strong writer of narrative non-fiction. There’s a decent balance of different types of people represented here, including some of the crew and some third-class passengers. I haven’t read a lot of Titanic non-fiction to know how she compares to others. But I’d recommend Titanic: Voices from the Disaster as a solid primer on what happened to the Titanic, or for any fans of non-fiction with an emphasis on the people involved.

See also: Capsized! by Patricia Sutton 

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Previously, on By Singing Light

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (2014)
What to read After Howl’s Moving Castle (2013)
The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (2009)

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October 2018 books

A Scholar of Magics Caroline Stevermer 10.31

Fake Blood Whitney Gardner 10.28

Border Kapka Kassapova 10.27 [review]

Exit Strategy Martha Wells 10.26

Jade City Fonda Lee 10.23 [review]

Summer Bird Blue Akemi Dawn Bowman 10.21 [review]

Capsized! Patricia Sutton 10.18 [review]

Monstrous Regiment of Women Laurie Russell King 10.17

Drum Roll Please Lisa Jenn Bigelow 10.14

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Laurie Russell King 10.13

The Wild Dead Carrie Vaughn

Midnight Robber Nalo Hopkinson 10.12

Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea Lynn Rae Perkins 10.12

Spinning Silver Naomi Novik 10.9

She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah) Ann Hood 10.9

The Lost Scroll: The Book of Kings Sarah Prineas 10.4

 

Total books read: 16

Total rereads: 1

Favorites:

  • Spinning Silver
  • Midnight Robber
  • Drum Roll Please
  • Border
  • Exit Strategy

Weekly reading roundups:

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Border by Kapka Kassabova

In Border, Kapka Kassabova returns to Bulgaria, where she grew up, hoping to explore the border region where Bulgaria meets Greece and Turkey. Partly driven by the desire to flout the old Soviet restrictions, partly by the wealth of folklore and myth there, she finds a land that is strange and beautiful, full of ancient secrets and modern tragedies.

I must have heard about Border somewhere, because I don’t usually just find non-fiction books. But I don’t know where it could have been. I’m sure I was intrigued by the mention of Bulgaria–I’m part of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, after all–and the premise of Kassabova’s travels. Borders and liminal spaces are fascinating to me in fiction, so why not here as well?

Kassabova’s prose is astounding here; the descriptions of not just the landscape but the emotion behind it are entrancing. Much of what the book revolves around are the ways the specifics of these lands come to inhabit the people who live there, and the trauma that happens when political motivations force populations to leave the place they are so deeply connected to. And so it makes sense that the land itself is a force, that some of the best writing in this book is about the landscape she encounters, both natural and manmade.

There is a personal aspect to the story she tells, but the portrait of herself are always a bit cagey. It’s not that I don’t believe what she writes, but rather that she invites ambiguity and uncertainty. This isn’t exactly a memoir, because the people she encounters and the places they encounter each other are both given more weight than herself, except for a few moments here and there. 

The stories those people tell are sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, but most often they are sad. This is a book full of sad things and yet there’s also a sense of celebration to it. A commitment that even if this way of life is dying out after all these thousands of years, we can take a moment to remember and savor it. Both Kassabova and her friends talk a lot about surviving in the face of adverse political powers, in a way that is obviously relevant to our political age but did not feel too on-the-nose. While she doesn’t forget the overall movements of the major players, this is history focused on the personal level and the effects the national and international decisions have on individuals.

I loved a lot of the book, not only the prose, but the sense of age. Of time going on and on, and of the depth of history and belief. I didn’t always agree with the stances here, particularly her opinion of the Orthodox Church, but it remained a very emotionally effective book for me. Perhaps this is because of how the mythology and the folklore of the places are treated; each section is prefaced with a brief explanation of an aspect of history or folklore that will be expanded on in the following pages in a more personal and lived way. In some ways it felt like a fantasy novel–or maybe it’s just that at imes the feeling reminded me quite a bit of The Winged Histories

There’s a lot here, between history, the stories of people she meets, and the way their stories interact with the story of peoples and nations in the 21st century. This is not a book that’s researched so much as felt and lived, but it’s also erudite and I wasn’t surprised that the back contains a list of scholarly resources. And she keeps the focus clear by following the path of her travels, circling through the ancient forest called Strandja, circling the border. 

All in all, this was not quite like any book I’ve ever read, and it will stay with me for a long time. If you are interested in Eastern Europe, or in liminal places, in the forces of landscape or history, I recommend it.

Background reading: an interview with Kapka Kassabova

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Capsized! by Patricia Sutton

Capsized!: The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster by Patricia Sutton (Chicago Review Press, July 2018) is a children’s non-fiction book about a largely forgotten disaster–the capsizing of a passenger-laden steamboat in the Chicago River in 1915. It’s a fairly slim book with a fair number of contemporary photos of both the people and the actual events of the capsizing. Sutton’s author’s note indicates that she has been fascinated with the story for a long time and I’d say this book shows how much research she has done to uncover eyewitness accounts and reports.

I thought that I picked Capsized!  up because I had challenged myself a while back to try to read (or at least attempt) the middle grade books from the Publisher’s Weekly best books of summer 2018 list. But it turns out, it’s not on that list! It did receive a Kirkus star, so I may have seen the review there and thought it looked interesting.

The SS Eastland story is one I think I was vaguely familiar with but certainly didn’t know much about. And oh wow, this is a tough one! The details of the disaster are pretty much horrifying. It’s one of those examples of how a bunch of small mistakes can build up to a situation that goes really, really awry. So the first part of the book is full of a sense of impending doom since you know what’s about to happen and all the people in the book are blithely getting ready for a company picnic.

Part of what’s so devastating is the fact that most of the victims were from a very close-knit community who lived in neighborhoods around the Western Electric factory where they or their families worked. Towards the end of the book, Sutton mentions that on one street there was not a single house without mourning ribbons on the door. The narrative follows a couple of families, giving a sense of how they fit into the overall picture of Western Electric employees and families, through their part in the disaster, and wrapping up with what happened to them later. The inclusion of photographs from the capsizing and the aftermath strengthen the power of the text nicely.

The book does an excellent job of painting the background picture: the history of the SS Eastland, the immigrant communities that many of the workers were part of, the pressure from the management of Western Electric to attend the picnic. That being said, I felt that the bulk of the book focused on the lead-up to the accident, and I wished that a little more time had been spent on what happened afterwards, although since Sutton notes that war news replaced the reporting on the capsizing almost immediately this may be partly an issue with the historical record.

Overall, this is a powerful and devastating read that I would recommend for grades 5+. Hand this one to anyone who loves reading about forgotten history or disasters, especially the kids who are into the Titanic and ready to branch out.

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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow (2013)
Libraries and Life Preservers (2014)
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (2015)
Joan Aiken Reading Notes: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (2016)

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