Previous month:
September 2021
Next month:
November 2021

Book Review: In the Quick by Kate Hope Day

In the quickI finished a book yesterday on my lunch break that I am struggling to write about, In the Quick by Kate Hope Day. It is billed as a mashup of The Martian, Station Eleven, and Jane Eyre and I've wanted to read it since it first came out, so when I was scrolling for another audiobook to listen to while I was quilting this week, and it was available on Libby, I snagged it.

It tells the story of June, who lives with her aunt and uncle (we never find out what happened to her parents, which was a question that ate at me for the entire story), a wealthy family living in what I imagined as an enormous old manor house in England, updated with modern conveniences but with plenty of relics in the basement. Her uncle is an astrophysicist who has designed a fuel cell capable of taking astronauts on years-long space trips, but he dies before he sees the first ship launch. June has his same mechanical-mind way of thinking about things and is fascinated with how things fit together.

When she nearly burns her aunt's house down, she is sent to Peter Reed, a boarding school her uncle founded to teach students to become astronauts, and eventually she gets to go to space, to the very pink planet her uncle always told her about.

This is hard for me to write about because I had a huge variety of responses. I was absolutely pulled into the story and couldn't wait to know what happens to June and to the space ship, which has stopped responding. I loved her precocity and her connection to her uncle, and her quirkiness—which maybe is even on the autism spectrum. I loved the adventures I went on with her, and besides, I always love a good bildungsroman, a boarding-school setting, a plot that infuses a genre with feminism. Plus the writing is amazing, and I would like to visit the pink planet too.

I love that this reads as a literary sci-fi. Considering how lines between genres can be blurred is always interesting to me.


I wanted it to be more. The ending was deeply unsatisfying to me, even as I understand why it ended as it did, and I had so many unanswered questions. Not just about June's parents. But: where did the pink planet come from? How did we not know it existed after all this time? What was in the atmosphere that helped with pain? What was wrong with James? Why were the government restrictions so lax and lazy that they just let all of the technology and inventions get neglected?

I ended up reading a bunch of reviews after I finished it. (I tend to avoid other readers' reviews of books until I have finished them for myself.) The responses to this one are all over the place, from extreme loathing to "it was OK" to adoration. The general consensus though?

That cover is amazing.

Even with those unanswered questions, though, I am glad I read this one and imagine that I will continue thinking about it for a long time.


Book Review: Matrix by Lauren Groff

               It strikes her now that god must be most like the sun in the sky, which rises for the day and sleeps at night, endlessly renewing itself; and it is warm for it pours out its warmth and light, and yet at the same time it is coldly remote, for it continues on even as humans who equally fill the earth with life live and die, and it does not care either way, it does not alter its path, it does not listen to the noises on the earth beneath, it cannot stop to notice human life at all, it shakes off what absurd stories we try to pin to it and exists in calm as only itself, radiant and distant and meaningless.
               It is up to saints and angels to intercede for those humans embroiled in the dirt of the earth beneath, filthy small creatures that must seem to them in their grandeur as little writhing insects crying out in words too muted to hear.

MatrixYesterday on my lunch break I drove down to Provo to get some apples from a fruit stand. On my way back I passed an apartment complex near the university with a huge pink banner draped across several balconies that read “women for trump.” I had finished the novel Matrix by Lauren Groff just the day before, and I was still in a haze of idealized imaginings of what women might do if we bound together, but that pink sign drained it all away. Women, I know and believe and utterly am sure of, have every capacity to save the world, to change the world, to make it better in ways that men, simply by being men in a society that for millennia has favored their perspective, cannot imagine.

But it also seems that possibility is far from coming to fruition.

The novel tells the story of Marie de France, a woman who lived during the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a bastard of royalty. Educated, opinionated, tall and strong, Marie comes to court after it is discovered that her mother had died and she (Marie) had been running the estate on her own, secretly. She doesn’t fit in at court, so Eleanor (influenced by another half-sister of Marie’s) sends her to an abbey, where she is to be the prioress. Eleanor resists and is unhappy and longs to return to the presence of Eleanor, but slowly accepts her new role—and then makes the choice to live. She turns the abbey, which held a few starving, ill nuns when she arrived, into a thriving place of worship, work, and innovation.

The “matrix” of the title refers to the connection between Eve and Mary, in that Eve’s choices made it possible for Mary to conceive Christ. As Marie explains it, “without the flaw of Eve there could be no purity of Mary. And without the womb of Eve, which is the House of death, there could be no womb of Mary, which is the House of Life.” This is the first matrix.

But it is also about the connection between women. Marie glimpses it over and over, in the women who become nuns and how they care for each other (even a bit of lesbian sex, which I’d never really thought about in terms of a nunnery but which does, really, make sense), how what they each bring to the community, their personalities, foibles, past experiences, families and learning and desires, influences everyone. She is able to see strengths and to alter paths to accommodate them. Near the end of her life, after the death of an old nun, she realizes that “this community is precious, there is a place here even for the maddest, for the discarded, for the difficult, in this enclosure there is love enough even for the most unlovable of women.”

Or, more precisely, it is about the potential for women to be connected. The concepts in Marie’s visions are revolutionary, and they are still, a thousand years later, mostly a concept. Maybe I only feel that because even with my own extended family, we women are not united and it is a knife I continue to grapple with. But it’s also that pink sign, and Kristen Sinema, and pro-fetus women’s groups.

I loved this novel. It is one that I know not everyone will love, because the writing style is so beautiful it makes the plot slow down. But it really isn’t about plot anyway, or at least it is only about the plot of an entire life. At first I thought of it as an “espresso novel,” which are the kind of books you can only read in small amounts of time, little but complex and intense gulps. But I read the last quarter of it straight through, with tears. The complicated mesh of love, frustration, annoyance, affection, care, and suffering the women in the abbey create both gave me hope and filled me with despair because I know there is potential for such communities to exist—but yet, here we are, no more united than any other time in history.

Book Review: They'll Never Catch Us by Jessica Goodman

               It was hammered home season after season that even though going out for a job can make you feel alive and whole and powerful, it also leaves you vulnerable and alone. But we keep running anyway. Because we have no other choice.
               We run in spite of this. We run knowing the dangers, knowing who we are and why we could be targeted. But that won’t stop us.

Theyll never catch usI confess: I kind of picked up this book mostly to meet one of the items in my autumn reading challenge: a contemporary YA novel. For complicated reasons, my affection for YA lit has dimmed some over the past two years; I’ve paid just enough attention to know what is trending so that I can continue doing good work at the library, but I haven’t stayed on top of reading all of the popular books. Or even the little-known ones. But a novel about a cross country running squad and sisterly dynamics?

Hard one for me to resist.

They’ll Never Catch Us by Jessica Goodman tells the story of the Steckler sisters, who are cross-country stars in Edgewater, the small town near the Catskills where they live. It’s an ominous place, as a series of unsolved murders targeting cross-country runners ten years ago still haunts the town. When the story starts, you know that oldest sister Stella did something horrible the year before, but not what; you also know that Ellie, her younger sister, had something traumatic happen over the summer. (Her “something” was not hard for me to guess, but what happened with Stella was more mysterious.) The sisters are both hoping to get scholarships and continue running in college, but Stella has already lost hope because of whatever she did, and Ellie isn’t quite as fast as her sisters. When a new girl, Mila, moves into their town, the stakes get even higher—and then she disappears.

I really enjoyed this book. Mostly importantly, it got the concept of running pretty correct. (I’ve read several novels about running that, well: did not get it right.) And the tension between two sisters who compete in the same sport. And small-town dynamics. And the travertine way the adolescent brain makes choices. It also captures the push and pull that women runners feel. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me it’s not safe for me to run alone, because someone might attack or hurt me, but honestly I don’t particularly love always running with someone. Sometimes it’s OK, but I like being out on my own. And, frankly, I don’t have many real-life running friends anyway. So my choices are to run by myself or not at all. Society is happy to tell me to not run at all, rather than teaching men to not attack women, which is also a problem in Edgewater, too. (After Mila disappears, the mayor states that girls are forbidden from running alone, but it’s still fine for the boys since they’re not the ones being attacked.)

I’m not usually a huge mystery fan, but this one pulled me right in. I actually stayed up until 1:30 in the morning to finish it. I’m glad I picked it up and gladder that it reminded me that good YA is worth the time.

Book Review: The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

Unable are the loved to die for love is immortality.

When I was finishing up my English degree, a million times more in love with books and reading and writing and especially in love with reading books written by women, I wondered in an essay how I would continue to find books that would resonate, without the guidance of English professors. The professor who had assigned the essay—one of my favorite teachers—wrote that I would learn more and more authors by just reading widely, by going to the library and talking to librarians, and by being open to new experiences. He told me that finding books we love is a life-long process and to trust that books would come when I needed them.

Shortly after I graduated (the summer I was pregnant with Nathan) I picked up a novel by Alice Hoffmann off the shelf at the library (the same library where I now work, how weird is that) just to try. It was called Here on Earth and was a contemporary retelling of Wuthering Heights. I fell in love and I’ve been an Alice Hoffman fan ever since.

Rules of magicIn preparation for reading The Book of Magic, I decided I wanted to listen to The Rules of Magic and Practical Magic. Still waiting on the latter to come up on my Libby hold list, but I listened to The Rules of Magic this week while I worked on my quilt. (An autumn quilt, which now is imbibed with some of the Owens’ family magic, stitched right in.)

I didn’t write about this one when I read it, so I’m not 100% sure how it compares between audio and print. I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the tale of Jet and Frannie Owens and their brother, Victor. I had forgotten how the book ends and I confess to crying hard over it, as Jet and Frannie get an unexpected gift in their old age: Gillian and Sally Owens as little girls who need a home and a family to raise them. I do think I understood the story better since I read Magic Lessons last year. What I left the story feeling was that love comes in many forms, and struggle is inevitable and unavoidable, but the forms of love make it just a little bit more bearable.

Book Review: Sisters of the Wolf by Patricia Miller-Schroeder

Before they leave, Shinoni, Keena, and Tewa walk to the back of the cafe for a moment alone. Shinoni takes out her precious red ochre and mixes it with water from her bag. Both girls prick their thumbs and mix drops of their blood into the pigment. Tewa cocks her head and watches as first Shioni, and then Keena, places a hand in the pigment and presses it onto the stone. They smile at the red handprints floating high on the rock wall.
Jean Auel's book The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I read when I was 14, was a formative novel for me. Yes, yes, all that sex in the later books of the series, and the disappointment of the last book (I actually only heard it was disappointing...I never actually read it because I read so many negative reviews of it), but that first book changed something in me. It made me look at the world in a different way, outside of the tameness of the suburbia I lived in, but it also connected to my affection for and curiosity about the natural world. Do I love hiking and being outside because of Ayla? Not entirely, but some part of that affection was sparked during those post-Christmas days in December of 1986 when I first read the book.

Sisters of the wolfAnd now, I confess, I continue to have a weakness for books set in pre-historical times. That anyone could survive at all in those brutal conditions still amazes me, and it is the processes of survival that continue to fascinate. So when Sisters of the Wolf by Patricia Miller-Schroeder came across the fiction desk at the library, I snapped it up without hesitation.
It tells the story of Keena, who is a Neanderthal, and Shinoni, a Cro-Magnon, and their journey across the landscape of Northern Europe as they try to find Keena's home after a hunter, Haken, has shattered both their lives. Each girl tells part of the story, even after their plot lines have connected.
A difficult thing when working so far back into history is how to get the language right. Several times the way something was worded threw me out of the story, such as when Keena says she has her hands full with one of the toddlers she is watching. "Hands full" didn't seem like a way of thinking that a prehistoric person would follow. Likely this is simply a function of telling this kind of story, but it made it harder for me to stay involved. Likewise when the author tried to relay the barbaric yawps of the wild men...if I had been reading my own copy I would've written "these aren't Native Americans!" in the margin because that is what the cries translated as.
I confess I struggled a bit with Keena and Shinoni being rescued by a pack of wooly mammoths by riding on their backs. And the way that in the Cro-Magnon tribes women's roles are sharply restricted also pushed a button for me. Perhaps it's illogical but in my head people in prehistoric tribes would've needed everyone to help in the ways they could help the most; it seems like it is a matter of survival that there wouldn't be effort to spend on gender restrictions. 
But I also really enjoyed this reading experience. The friendship that Keena and Shinoni form as their journey progresses—at first they are antagonistic as, not only are they strangers, they are different types of human beings—progresses naturally, and I loved seeing them share their different ways of being in the world with each other. (Shinoni teaches Keena about sewing and Keena teaches Shinoni how to play a flute made of a bone from a swan.) Shinoni's journey, especially, as she learns about painting with ochre on cave walls and pushes back against the restrictions of her culture, was something I enjoyed.
Was it fine literature? Nah. (Has there ever been a literary novel set in prehistoric times?) But that's OK. I had a great time being in this time period with Keena and Shinoni and am glad I read it.
(Even if it is yet another book that doesn't fit anywhere on the list for my Fall Reading Challenge!) 

Book Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

I am grateful for the walk to the goose pasture, the solitude. My grief is a quiet thing, wrapped so tightly around me that sometimes I cannot hear properly, my breath coming in strained gasps. Here in the fields it eases a little...There is a wordless sort of hope in this field that bears me up.
ThornOne of the perils of working in a library is that every day you risk coming upon a book that derails whatever else you're currently reading. This happened to me the other day, when I was happily ensconced in the beginning of the novel Matrix but, at work, picked up a copy of Thorn, a YA fantasy by Intisar Khanani, from a table where someone had left t. I read a few pages at the desk and got caught up in the story, so I took it home and finished it. (I will return to Matrix next.)
Thorn is a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale "Goose Girl," and part of me thinks that we don't really need another telling. Shannon Hale's Goose Girl is a book I have long admired (as well as the companion novels in her Books of Bayern series); I couldn't help but compare the two as I read, and I wondered if Khanani could add anything new. 
The basic bones of the fairy tale stay the same in both books: the princess, traveling to an unknown country to be wed, is deceived by her attendant, who takes her place at court while she becomes a goose girl. In Khanani's story, the princess renames herself Thorn when she takes up her Goose Girl role; her betrothed prince, Kestrin, is secretly a Mage, and his family is being pursued by some type of unknown dark magic. Both stories have Falada, the talking horse, the threatening goose boy, the false princess tricked into choosing her own death. Thorn adds other characters and menaces, such as The Lady, a sorceress who puts a spell on Thorn, the snatchers, and a gang of thieves in the city. It is also much darker, concerning itself  with violence against women, social disparity, and the inability of justice to remedy real issues. As I am a connoisseur of dark and twisty, this wasn't troubling for me.
I read this book quickly, as I was eager to find out how it might end...and then some of the magic of the story failed for me. The confrontation with The Lady was anticlimactic after so much story energy was dedicated to her, and while I can see that the unfinished plot lines will likely be unravelled in the next book, I still left feeling unsatisfied. And—spoiler here!—Thorn discovering that Kestrin was the Wind and not an unknown small God was a little bit...well, it was a bit Edward-Cullenish somehow.
I also think the cover is odd. The design elements suggest something of a Middle-Eastern flavor, but this was definitely a European-based story. 
All of that said, I did enjoy this and I will likely read the sequel, The Theft of Sunlight, because honestly: sometimes I do enjoy being in a European-based fairy-tale retelling with a bit of dark & twisty thrown in.
[This is book #2 of my Autumn Reading Challenge, which I am currently not doing very well with as I've lost myself to a quilting project]