Tag Archives: YA

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

I am finding it hard to know exactly where to start this post, because I don’t know where to start with this book. So, okay: I read Tess of the Road because I loved Seraphina, and because I kept hearing people talk about how amazing Tess was. At first the story felt slow; I felt almost impatient with Tess and her hurt and anger, a bit confused about what all the people who loved this book saw in it. But as Tess kept walking, I kept reading. Something pulled me forward. And as Tess’s journey progressed, I absolutely fell in love with the book and with her. I’m not sure I’ve done at all a good job of conveying how much I loved this book and how much it means to me, even now remembering reading it. But it’s always harder to write about the books that you truly love, that work themselves into your heart.

For one thing, the writing itself is a delight. There are riffs on madrigals, sly allusions to the Psalms, Tolkien, and probably some others that I’ve now forgotten. While the descriptions of the landscape that Tess walks through never overtake the main narrative in importance, there are moments of real loveliness. Like this one: “The sun began to rise in earnest; Tess loved the way it illuminated treetops first, turning the foliage white-gold. The sky behind was warmly blue, and in the west a gibbous moon lingered in the branches like a pale fish caught in a net.” There’s a wit and warmth even in the narration that’s hard to put into words but which helps to make the story what it is.

I was also charmed and disarmed to realize how much of the book is about philosophy. I can’t think of another historical fantasy off the bat that shows the medieval/renaissance conflict of philosophies so clearly and considering how much time people of those eras spent arguing about Ideas, this seems wrong. There’s a whole section where Tess argues with a nun, Mother Philomela, about attitudes towards the body. It’s important from a character building perspective, but it’s also there because our underlying beliefs do influence our personal journeys, our attitudes towards others and ourselves. I love it.

(There are sort of vague emotional spoilers in the rest of this review; not specific plot points but some of the emotional payoff. If you would like to avoid them, stop reading now!)

At the beginning of the book, Tess is locked in a self-destructive and bitter cycle, fueled by her past and her mother’s dislike of her. The catalyst that gets her out of her parents’ house and onto the Road forces her into self-examination whether she likes it or not. Ultimately, this story is one of growth, of healing. It doesn’t take place instantly, nor does it feel finished at the end. And yet, the Tess at the end of the book is so much more herself than the Tess at the beginning. We see her unshrivel herself as she walks.

This is also a book about kindness, but not a passive “be nice” sort of kindness. One of the key things that keeps resonating in ways spoken and unspoken is that kindness is “hard to manage if you were filled with the brim to bitterness.” It’s not enough to be a Nice Person, or to be reflexively polite. Neither is it enough to make yourself smaller to make others feel better. What Tess of the Road posits is an active kindness, acts of kindness that come not because you’re doing it deliberately in order to be kind but almost exactly because you’re not. Because each small choice to reach out, to uncurl yourself a little bit from your own pain and see someone else is real and vital and echoes through the world.

At the same time, there is no simple happy ending. There is healing and courage and kindness and all kinds of lovely, vital things. But there are some wounds that aren’t fixed on the pages of this book; they may be some day, but for now they remain. It’s not that everything is fine now, but that Tess has the tools and the inner strength to deal with them. In that sense the ending reminded me a bit of the ending of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy (also a story about healing and identity and companionship): “There is always more after the ending. Always the next morning, and the next. Always changes, losses and gains. Always one step after the other.”

This tension isn’t accidental, since the book contains at its heart this quigutl idea of -utl, a suffix containing the thing and its opposite. A life lived in joy-utl, which is to say joyful sorrow, or sorrowful joy. (Which are, as it happens, EXTREMELY Orthodox ideas.) No false promises of happily ever after here, but the next part of the journey and the next bit of the Road.

 

Other reviews of Tess of the Road:
Amal El-Mohtar for NPR (honestly, read this one; she says basically everything that I wanted to)
The Book Smugglers
Caitlin Kelly at Hypable

My review of Seraphina (2012)

Previously on By Singing Light:
Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke (2017)
Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: A Coalition of Lions (2016)
Diana Wynne Jones Reading Notes: Hexwood (2015)
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (2013)
 

 

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Currently reading: 6-13-18


I am actually only actively reading one book at the moment! Claire LeGrand’s latest release, Furyborn. I am sure it’s being marketed as a feminist epic fantasy (ah, yes: “The stunningly original, must-read fantasy of 2018 follows two fiercely independent young women”) and I’m interested in that and how successfully the book fulfills that promise. I’m on page 283 of 494 and I keep waiting for a twist or a moment to coalesce the story and bring the two parts together. I suspect it’s coming soon? Anyway, it’s an interesting take on an YA epic fantasy, although I’m not sure I’m buying “stunningly original”–certainly the world is inventive and fascinating, but I pretty much always prefer a take on books that situates them within their historical context.

I think I’m making it sound like I don’t like Furyborn, which is not true at all! In fact, it’s probably my second-favorite fantasy read of 2018 to date (after Tess of the Road). I’m just always interested in how we market things and how that can strip books of history and context. Bringing me back to Joanna Russ, I suppose, and How to Suppress Women’s Writing--how do we forget the writers who came before, and what does that cost us? Anyway, it’s a thoughtful book, sometimes unexpectedly fun, and a surprisingly quick read despite its heft.

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May 2018 books

This was a light reading month for me, mostly because we were moving! (Therefore, also a light posting month here.) 

Ms. Marvel: Damage Per Second G. Willow Wilson 5.25

Goldie Vance vol. 3 Hope Larson 5.25

Becca Fair and Foul Deirdre Baker 5.25

The Only Harmless Great Thing B. Bolander 5.13

Sunny Jason Reynolds 5.13

Artificial Condition (Murderbot 2) Martha Wells 5.12

Mighty Jack Ben Hatke 5.6

A Traveller in Time Alison Uttley 5.5

The Boxcar Children Gertrude Chandler Warner (reread) 5.4

 

Total books read: 9
Total rereads: 1 (The Boxcar Children, which was for work)

Favorites:

  • Sunny
  • Becca Fair and Foul
  • Artificial Condition
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing
  • Goldie Vance
  • Ms. Marvel

(Okay, yes that’s basically all of them; I REGRET NOTHING.)

 

 

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April 2018 reading

 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones Seanan McGuire 4.28
Blood Road Amanda McCrina 4.28
Aru Shah and the End of Time Roshani Chokshi 4.28
New Shoes Sara Varon 4.28
Be Prepared Vera Brosgol 4.26
Becoming Madeleine by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy 4.21
Binti: Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor 4.20
Hamster Princess: Whiskerella by Ursula Vernon 4.19
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison 4.19 (reread)
White Road of the Moon Rachel Neumeier 4.16
Shadowhouse Fall Daniel J Older 4.15
Step Aside Pops Kate Beacon 4.9
Hark a Vagrant Kate Beaton 4.9
Emperor of Mars Patrick Samphire 4.7
Acquiring the Mind of Christ Arch. Sergius Bowyer 4.6
Rise of the Jumbies Tracey Baptiste 4.6
Bird Angela Johnson 4.2
Cobalt Squadron Elizabeth Wein 4.1

Total books read: 18
Total rereads: 3 (The Goblin Emperor, Step Aside Pops, Hark a Vagrant)

Favorites:

  • Cobalt Squadron
  • Rise of the Jumbies
  • Whiskerella
  • The Night Masquerade
  • Becoming Madeleine
  • Be Prepared

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The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

In my personal experience, there are two kinds of Holly Black books: the ones I like and the ones I don’t. And the whys and wherefores of which book will be which are not always obvious. I bounced hard off of the Tithe series but love The Darkest Part of the Forest, for examples. The Cruel Prince is by and large the kind of Holly Black book that I do like; it’s spikey and vivid and brilliant and full of interesting tensions between characters.

One of the strengths of this book is the relationship between Jude, the narrator and main character, and her sisters. I’m very much a fan of books about sisters and female friends, so any story with that theme is generally a draw for me. Here, Black gives us a complicated and sometimes tense history between Jude, Taryn, and Vivi. All three sisters have their own goals and agendas, and they intersect and conflict with each other in a way I found believable and effective.

I also really loved the details of this fairyland; I’ve said before, I think, that I’m most interested in fairylands which are all about what is dangerous and beautiful woven together, fairies who convincingly don’t think or react in human ways. Black delivers on that here, with details of the customs that are ancient but not unchanging, political minefields that Jude can only half-see because, as she remembers and reminds us throughout the story, she doesn’t belong here. At the same time, there’s a beauty to the descriptions of the food, clothes, and the society that help sell Jude’s fascination with the fairies and her desire to be part of their world.

That fascination and ambition drive the plot of the book, as Jude attempts in to earn her place in fairy society in several different ways. I really liked how ambitious she’s allowed to be, and while the story doesn’t exactly reward that, she’s also not punished for it. Too often female main characters are only allowed to want things to a certain degree, whereas here the conflict comes in large part because other characters also have their own goals and ambitions that don’t sit easily with Jude’s. I also really liked how she cares about her sisters but doesn’t necessarily change her course of action based on that care.

There is a big old However looming here, and that is Carden. I’m simply less and less interested in this kind of male character, in the guy whose cruelties are waved away because of his own pain. This goes double when there’s any question of his being the love interest. Black treads a really fine line here and does it semi-successfully–I did not throw the book across the room, and I will most likely read the next one. But that’s in spite of Carden, not because of him. (I do want to acknowledge that I’m not a teen reader, but I also feel like modelling healthy masculinity is important in teen books? And also that we do teen girls a disservice by assuming that they’ll only be interested in jerks? I don’t know; I went back and forth on this point a lot.)

So, The Cruel Prince: fascinating world, surprising twists and turns, and mostly compelling characters, with a few points where I remain Dubious.

Other reviews of The Cruel Prince:
The Book Smugglers
Emma @ Miss Print
Rachel Pfeiffer @ The Young Folks

Other Holly Black reviews here:
The Darkest Part of the Forest
The Iron Trial
Doll Bones
White Cat
Red Glove

Previously:
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy (2011)
Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: Voices

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March 2018 reading

 

The Cruel Prince Holly Black 3.11

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani 3.19

American Panda Gloria Chao 3.3

Emergence CJ Cherryh 3.10

The Belles Dhonielle Clayton 3.13

The Disorderly Knights Dorothy Dunnett 3.12

As the Crow Flies Melanie Gillman 3.26

Leia, Princess of Alderaan Claudia Grey 3.1

Garvey’s Choice Nikki Grimes 3.24

The Wedding Date Jasmine Guillory 3.1

All’s Faire in Middle School Victoria Jamieson 3.14

A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle 3.8

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald 3.19

Wonder Woman: The True Amazon Jill Thompson 3. 23

Spinning Tillie Walden 3.12

 

Total books read: 15

Total rereads: 1 (A Wrinkle in Time)

Favorites:

  • Spinning
  • Leia, Princess of Alderaan
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Wedding Date
  • The Belles
  • As the Crow Flies

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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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