bookish posts reviews

The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier

mountain-of-kept-memoryIf you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you probably won’t be surprised that I’m writing about this book. I’ve been a fan of Rachel Neumeier’s work since reading The City in the Lake back in 2011. And I definitely have some unspoken expectations when it comes to her books–themes, types of characters, a general style and set of interests that seem pretty common across the different kinds of stories she writes. The Mountain of Kept Memory is really interesting because it is very much a Rachel Neumeier book–but it also feels a little different, in a way I really liked.

Neumeier’s books nearly always focus on main characters who are resourceful girls and young women. Oressa, daughter of the king of Carastind and one of the two main characters in The Mountain of Kept Memory, certainly fits into this pattern. She’s very good at understanding people and motivations, potential costs and shifting allegiances. Her place in her father’s court is limited, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that she’s an extremely strategic thinker–which is helpful when everything begins to go wrong.

There’s an interesting comparison here to characters like Gen and Miles Vorkosigan. Oressa is also almost hypercompetent, good at sneaking through her father’s palace. But unlike Gen and Miles, there’s a strong suggestion that she’s developed these traits at least partly as a way to survive her father. He holds her future in his hand, and it’s pretty clear that he’s not a safe person to be around. There’s a sense of danger in him that’s more hinted at than shown, but which is very effective.

And both her father’s disregard and her overall vulnerabilities are partly because she’s a girl. There’s one really powerful moment which I unfortunately can’t seem to find again where Oressa realizes that her brother Gulien sees their father totally differently, because he’s been treated totally differently. But since Oressa is a girl and therefore largely despised and expendable, she’s been pushed to the edges and largely ignored.

But over the course of the book, she also finds a way to use her compensations to her and Guilen’s advantage. I loved watching her come to terms with the power that she does have and the shape of it. This idea of strengths coming out of vulnerabilities and the way that plays out was really fascinating to me.

Oressa was certainly the heart of the book for me, although I liked both Gulien and Gajdosik. Without wanting to give too much away, there’s a complicated romance here, which worked pretty well for me once it got past the initial stage. Shifting power and understandings are also very present in the relationship between Oressa, Gulien, and Gajdosik. We see it in the bond between the siblings, and the way their strand resolves, the way power is handed back and forth.

But we also see a question of power and relationship in the Kieba and her guardianship over Carastind. Will she exercise her old promise to keep the country safe, or will she let it fall? There’s a real sense of danger here, a sense that something could go truly and finally wrong. And Neumeier shows an nonhuman sense of the world very well, making it especially fraught. How can you predict what the Kieba will do, when she doesn’t think the way we do?

Overall, there’s a feeling of sharpness and almost horror to the scenes in the Kieba’s mountain. I’m thinking of a couple moments in particular which have really stuck with me. It’s not that there’s never a sense of danger in Neumeier’s other books–indeed, there’s quite frequently a very thorny problem driving the plot. But here it feels heightened in a way that’s really effective.

All in all, this was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, though sometimes in a slightly horrified way. There’s a feeling of familiarity in the political intrigue and family complications, but there are also some interesting turns in the story that made it feel also alive and real.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: 2016, Saga press; adult fantasy


Other reviews: Jason Heller at NPR; Charlotte’s Library; you?

book lists bookish posts

Favorite books featuring food

Food can be a really powerful motif in books. It can be a sign of trust or distrust, a tool for worldbuilding, a way to show the preferences and background of characters. But sometimes it becomes really central to the story, even beyond that. Here are a couple of books where the main characters have a really important relationship with food in some way.


Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen: I loved the way the magic of the garden and plants intertwine with the magic of food in this book. The gentle, textured way Allen talks about Claire’s gift and her relationship to cooking make this probably my favorite book by Sarah Addison Allen.

all the Amor et Chocolat books by Laura Florand: No, I mean, I really tried to pick one here. I love The Chocolate Kiss deeply and truly, and I especially love Magalie’s gift, and Aunt Aja’s tea. But then there’s Gabriel’s rose from The Chocolate Rose, and and–basically, if you like food, this is the romance series for you!

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han: One of the (many) things I loved about this book was the way Lara Jean used baking to express herself, and also as an expression of how much she cares about the important people in her life.

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban: This is a bit of an outlier in the rest of this list given that it’s a picture book. But the memory of Albert’s lunch and the very particular way he eats it has remained with me so vividly for so long that I just had to include it anyway.

Relish by Lucy Knisley: I have a few reservations about the kind of–cultural tourism, is maybe the term I’m looking for?–in this book, but I also genuinely enjoy Knisley’s grapic novel memoir. The art is lovely, and each chapter has a hand-illustrated recipe to accompany it!

The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip: I re-read this book last year for my McKillip reading notes series, and I was hungry the entire time. The descriptions of the feasts are mouthwatering, but they’re also sometimes surprising. I loved the sense that McKillip gives of the economy of the kitchens, and the way they are their own world.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley: Rae is, of course, a baker and Sunshine is FULL of things like cinnamon rolls as big as your head and the intriguingly titled Death of Marat (I hear someone has made a recipe for this and I want to try it! baked good and jokes about the French Revolution). Making food is an important part of Rae’s life and McKinley definitely shows that.

The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier: I’m maybe stretching just a tad here, because this is less focused on food and more on taste–Araenè, one of the main characters, experiences magic as a taste. I loved the way Neumeier used this description to create a sense of magic that’s really vivid and different.

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon: I really enjoyed Silver Phoenix and its sequel when they came out a few years ago. One of the things I liked is the fact that Ai Ling unabashedly enjoys food. She thinks about it, she looks forward to eating it. It seems like often characters, especially female characters, aren’t allowed to do that.

bookish posts reviews

The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier

keeper of the mistRachel Neumeier is one of my favorite authors, and also a person I very much enjoy. When she offered to send me an ARC of her latest book, The Keeper of the Mist, I was happy to accept. And even happier to read the book, which turned out to be one of my favorites by her! I want say my favorite and it might be true, but I should probably reread City in the Lake and House of Shadows and The Floating Islands and Black Dog. Just to be sure.

I’m not normally great at coming up with succinct pitches for books, but in this case I’ll say: this is great if you’re a character-driven reader, who likes magic, landscapes that are like characters, fantasy politics, and girls being friends. Also, quiet romance and food. (I had to stop in the middle of reading this to make cake. Just to warn you.)

As the book opens, Keri, the main character, has lost her mother and is working to keep her bakery afloat. When the Lord Dorric of Nimmira dies, not entirely unexpectedly, she doesn’t anticipate inheriting anything. But in fact, the position passes to her, bypassing all three of her half-brothers. Her Timekeeper, Doorkeeper, and Bookkeeper are also somewhat unexpected, at least to Keri. Very quickly, they have to face a huge challenge because the Mists that protect Nimmira have begun to fail, meaning the aggressive countries on either side will suddenly realize there was a land hidden from them all along.

There are a number of things I love here. Complicated families to begin with: Keri had never been acknowledged by the Lord and her new position comes as a surprise, at least to her. It also sets up tensions between herself and her three half-brothers. Neumeier deals with this in an interesting and complex way as Keri has to navigate the question of which of her siblings she can trust.

I also love settings where the landscape feels important. This is definitely one and I love the way the three lands are described. There’s a very clear and vivid sense of the way land and people influence each other.

I absolutely loved Keri’s friendship with Tassel, which is perhaps her most un-fraught relationship through the whole book. I totally bought them as longtime, close friends who know and rely on each other. And I appreciated how central their friendship is to the story.

In some ways, this is a sharper book than Neumeier’s previous stories. There’s a lot about being a young woman navigating the world and relationships: the way that others—even and maybe even especially those who care about you—underestimate and misunderstand you. Keri is relatively competent and confident but most of the male characters don’t see that clearly.

Also, her cakes sound amazing and I would like one.

All in all, this is a lovely mix of vivid descriptions, a great depiction of a young woman coming into her own strength, and some subtle and thoughtful commentary on the world.

Book source: ARC

Book information: 2016, Alfred A. Knopf; YA fantasy



bookish posts reviews

Pure Magic by Rachel Neumeier

pure magicPure Magic is the second full-length book in Rachel Neumeier’s Black Dog series, following the “Black Dog Short Stories” that were released earlier this year. Black Dog, the first book in the series, was published by Strange Chemistry and following the fold of that imprint, Neumeier is planning to self-publish the rest of the books in the series.

We have several pov characters in this one, including a new character named Justin. Sometimes adding or changing a point of view character between books is tricky, but this worked well for me. We still get Natividad and Alejandro’s points of view, especially Natividad’s. And there’s a nice echo in the opening of Justin’s point of view of the beginning of the first book.

I also loved the way Justin’s particular relationship to magic gives us a better sense of how the magic in this world works. And it’s so neat and unusual–how many other books can you name where magic manifests as math? The way he and Natividad have different kinds of strengths and weaknesses worked really well for me. Not only the differences in training, but the inherent qualities of the way they perceive and work with magic.

And for Natividad, the way she has taken the training and grounding that her mother taught her, and then changed and experimented with it was really interesting to me. I think she’s a fascinating character anyway; she has a quiet strength that sometimes hides how much she really understands and how stubborn she can be. This also makes sense within the context of the black dog world and her role in it, but I really liked seeing the way she interacts with the other characters.

I also continue to like the romance; the dynamics are a bit weird–or not something I would enjoy in other circumstances, perhaps. But for me the characters make it work. I like that Natividad knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to be clear about it. And Ezekiel shows here that he is willing to learn from the times he’s messed up in the past.

This is also a story that’s dealing with the aftermath. Not only from the events of Black Dog, although that’s certainly there, but from the backstory of the vampires and the Blood Kin. In its own way, it’s an after-the-war story, and part of what drives the plot of this book is the fact that it’s not quite as over as people thought.

There’s a lot going on plot-wise, but the real focus stays on the characters. Rachel Neumeier is excellent at writing internal landscapes and dilemmas, the push and pull of emotions and influences. It’s not melodramatic, but we get a very clear sense for why the characters make the choices that they do.

I will note that I read a review copy and so I’m not sure if this is true in the final version, but both Zinaida Alexandrova and Justin’s grandmother’s last names were missing the final -a that Russian female familial names have. It’s a little thing, but of course I did notice it. (Again, not sure if this was fixed for the final version.) However, I appreciated that there’s a sense of global politics in the story, not only focused in the immediate issues of the Dimilioc wolves.

I highly enjoyed this one, most intensely for the characters, but also for the world and the descriptions of magic. I’ll be looking forward to the next.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: 2015, self-published; YA

bookish posts monthly book list reviews

March 2015 round-up

Books I’ve already talked about
Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein
Jinx’s Fire by Sage Blackwood
A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Bad Luck Girl by Sarah Zettel
Persona by Genevieve Valentine
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
Death Marked by Leah Cypess
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Lord of the Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (such a bittersweet read)
Hunting by Andrea K. Höst

Other books
Displacement by Lucy Knisley: I found myself disquieted by this one, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

Land of the Burning Sands by Rachel Neumeier: Second in the Griffin Mage trilogy. At first I was a bit taken aback by the change in point of view, but I really liked the characters and the story, and the way we saw a different side to the countries than in the first book.

Ms. Marvel, vol. 1 by G. Willow Wilson: I absolutely adored this one. Smart, fun, filled with a YA sensibility. I also loved the way Kamala’s family and faith and culture are woven into the story, how they’re both frustrations and sources of strength. I can’t wait for the second collection!

Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg: The titular essay is one of my favorite things EVER. As a whole the book is enjoyable, but also tends to repeat itself a bit. Still, it’s short and tight enough that this didn’t bother me too much.

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson: Nelson’s poetic memoir of growing up black in the 1950s. She uses the sonnet’s snapshort form to great effect. This perhaps doesn’t have the same overview as Brown Girl Dreaming, but it’s likewise an important and powerful story. Its aims are, I think, somewhat different and achieved beautifully. I hope people looking for readalikes for Woodson’s book find it.

Dangerous Deceptions by Sarah Zettel: Second Peggy Fitzroy book. I enjoy these Georgian spy mysteries quite a bit, although this one seemed a bit long (middle book syndrome, maybe?). I do really like the way Peggy’s relationship with Matthew is depicted, and her valiant attempts to keep juggling all her plates.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: Fun, angsty fantasy (not a contradiction!). I liked the concept and worldbuilding a LOT, and the way the magic has a price. I was less connected to the characters than I perhaps wanted to be. There were a few niggling historical details that bothered me, because I am the person who can’t let go of the fact that there were no abundant skirts in 1819. However, it’s a really enjoyable book and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen: Darker middle grade retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Gorgeous language and a pleasingly spare book. I found the characters and the way the story plays with the original to be fresh and engaging, despite a few niggling questions about the resolution.

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry: I’ve been hearing good things about McCarry’s writing ever since All Our Pretty Songs came out, and I finally picked it up. SO GOOD. Complex characters, a wonderful narrator, outstanding prose, layers of myths that add a lot of depth. Definitely recommended if you loved Bone Gap–I would love to see someone look at the way the two books engage with the story they have in common.

Iron Kissed by Patricia Briggs
Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

Other posts
Favorite books from the last three years
Favorite authors: Terry Pratchett
Spring TBR list
Library displays
Books I want to revisit
Links 3-11
Links 3-26
Recent additions to my TBR
Links to two tumblr posts

TV & movies
Poirot. I’ve been watching a lot of Poirot. I find the fact that the stories are transported to the 1930s sometimes a little jarring, and I recently watched “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” which is just a study in how NOT to adapt that book. (What is the whole point? Christie playing with narrative. What do they ruin? The game she’s playing.) Still, I love the main actors and it’s lots of fun to spot people who would later become famous (or famous for British actors, anyway).

Also watched “Belle”, a beautiful period movie based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle. I loved the movie as a story, and the acting was wonderful. It does bother me to a certain extent that the John Davinier of the movie is so obviously not the John Davinier of history, which undercuts the story a bit. But as a story based on Dido Belle’s life, it’s wonderful, and it’s a powerful and important piece of representation.

Finally, I watched Sense & Sensibility (1995) with the Two Bossy Dames crowd. Despite some technical glitches on my end (Netflix, why must you fail me?!), it was an extremely enjoyable evening; there’s definitely something to be said for watching a movie in good company. It’s been awhile since I had seen this one and it ages quite well. I will admit that the climactic scene when Elinor begs Marianne not to leave her had me crying and then texting my sister.

bookish posts reviews

Recent Reading: Sheinkin, Cypess, Carroll, Neumeier

port chicago 50Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin: I have had somewhat mixed feelings about Sheinkin’s non-fiction in the past, mostly due to his tendency to fudge some of the details just a little. However, I thought Port Chicago 50 did an excellent job of letting the people who were involved tell their own story, while at the same time giving the context and background for readers. I also appreciated that Sheinkin several times said, “We simply don’t know what actually happened at this point.” I would much rather have this kind of statement than a supposition or even a recreation. This is an important and powerful story, and casts light on an often-forgotten moment in the history of civil rights in America. I think it will work best for readers who are ready to grapple with the idea that courage doesn’t always get an outward reward, but I would certainly recommend it for a wide audience.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Roaring Book Press; mg/YA non-fiction

death markedDeath Marked/a by Leah Cypess: After reading and mostly liking Cypess’s Death Sworn last year, I definitely wanted to read the second book in the duology. Ileni has left the assassins’ cave and is now in the sorcerers’ power. But what she finds there will test her loyalty all over again. As with the first book, my reaction is mostly positive. I like Ileni quite a bit, and especially the way she’s shown to be powerful without being the awesomest everrr!!!! Her power does have limitations and a lot of the book is her grappling with the moral issues that her use of the sorcerers’ lodestones brings up. At the same time, I felt that the romance subplot never worked for me, even less than it did in the first book. And I found the conclusion more than a bit abrupt and not entirely convincing. All in all, this is one I perhaps wanted to like more than I did, although I suspect that some readers will love it.

Book source: eARC from Edelweiss
Book information: 2015, Greenwillow Books; YA fantasy

through the woodsThrough the Woods by Emily Carroll: Genuinely frightening graphic novel with fairy tale echoes. I recommend NOT reading this one right before bed, as I unfortunately did. The art and story work marvelously together, and I love the way the pictures sometimes flow out of the confinement of boxes to take over the whole page. I felt that the overall conceit reminded me a bit of Poisoned Apples, but the themes are more subtly dealt with here and in general, I liked Through the Woods better. If you don’t like to be scared, this probably isn’t the book for you, but it’s dark and delicious and will definitely be sticking with me.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Margaret McElderry books; YA graphic novel

lord of the changing windsLord of the Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier: So, I honestly thought I had read this book, and only got it out to re-read it. It turns out that I hadn’t read it at all, or at least have no memory or record of doing so! Which is a shame, since it’s a really marvelous story. (Also, there’s the whole favorite author/Twitter friend thing.) I love the worldbuilding here, both the details of everyday life and the wider political issues and implications. (There is also some truly excellent food.) Although the story takes on big topics, there is at the same time an intimacy to it. We stick pretty closely to two viewpoints and the arcs of these two main characters are pretty closely interwoven. I found that I liked this one with the same part of my reading brain that likes Andrea K. Höst’s books (which is not surprising at all). I’ve already devoured the second and am part-way through the third book.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2010, Orbit; adult fantasy (though excellent YA crossover)

bookish posts reviews

Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier (and giveaway)

black dogRachel Neumeier is one of my favorite authors–I’ve loved every book of hers that I’ve read–and I also enjoy her blog and Twitter a lot. So when she offered to send me a copy of her newest book, Black Dog, saying yes seemed like a no-brainer. And then I proceeded to devour it in two big chunks, pausing mostly because sleeping sometimes is a good thing.

Natividad Toland and her brothers are on the run, fleeing from the ashes of their home in Mexico and the enemies that are pursuing them. They have no choice but to run to Grayson Lanning and the Dimilioc wolves in New England, even though there is no guarantee that Dimilioc will accept them. Natividad is Pure and therefore an asset, but her twin Miguel has no magical powers and Alejandro is a stray black dog. Their hope lies in the fact that Dimilioc is still rebuilding after the recent vampire wars and needs everyone it can get.

Okay, summaries are weird things–reading the official blurb for Black Dog before I read the book, I wasn’t at all sure what it was really about, or if I would like it. And reading over my own blurb, I’m not sure I’ve really conveyed anything beyond the essential conflict of the book. Regardless, as soon as I started reading, my fears were put to rest. I loved Natividad and Alejandro and Miguel, and I found their story extremely compelling.

So, the mechanics of the world are somewhat confusing to try to explain–for instance, black dogs are sort of like werewolves, except they’re not wolves and the rules their lives follow aren’t exactly werewolf rules. I won’t try to explain anything else, but I will say that in the context of the story, the worldbuilding and especially the interactions between different types of magic and magic users works really well. I also loved the relationship between the people and their black dogs, which is really interesting and complex. But even more than that, I found the way religion and magic interact to be completely fascinating. I liked that they aren’t shown as necessarily antagonistic–the emphasis is much more on whether you’re a moral person. This is a perspective that isn’t often shown in fantasy, and I liked the understated way it’s portrayed quite a bit.

Stories about families are one of my favorite things, and here we get a marvelous relationship between the Toland siblings. They rely on each other because they have to and because they love each other, but also their motivations don’t always line up. In addition, the Dimilioc group functions as a kind of family, and a lot of the conflict comes from the Tolands trying to fit themselves into this new family while still mourning the loss of their own parents.

I also really liked how definite Miguel is–it would be easy to see him as a less-interesting character because he’s the only one of the three who doesn’t have magic abilities, but instead he is pretty strong in his own right.

But in a way that’s all background for Natividad and Alejandro, who carry most of the story. I started off liking Natividad a lot, for her strength and her way of looking at the world. I still do like her a LOT, but Alejandro grew on me as well. His struggle with his identity–what is black dog, and what is him? how does he hold those two things separate?–was really powerful.

And I haven’t even gotten to the romance, which could so easily not have worked for me but which really, really did. There were several elements that I often would view with a skeptical eye, and yet somehow they didn’t bother me. I think this is partly because by the end of the book, a lot of what could potentially have bothered me gets complicated and more interesting, partly because black dog society seems to give things a different slant than usual, and partly because I just like Ezekiel. Tumultuous backstory without a lot of angst and single perfect tears? Messing up but also trying really hard? So much more interesting than characters who moodily mood about.

I’m at all qualified to comment on how authentic the Mexican settings and culture are, but I will say that the Tolands’ sense of exile and strangeness, especially Natividad’s, worked really well for me.

I don’t know that I’ve really conveyed just how much I loved this one–I finished it and immediately started pining for the next one, which will probably be out next year.

BONUS: Because I had already pre-ordered a copy when Rachel offered to send an early copy to me, I’m ending up with two. So I’ll be giving one away. If you want to enter, leave a comment here and tell me so! I’ll pick a winner randomly on 2/11.

Book source: review copy from the publisher, also bought one
Book information: 2014, Strange Chemistry, YA fantasy