My Year in Books: the 2018 Edition

I felt like it was a really great year for reading for me...I read a lot of books that left me thinking about some things in my life and I discovered books that held answers to questions I didn't realize I had until I found the answers.

2018 books

My goal for 2019 is just, as always, to read more. But I have also set myself the goal of reading at least one poem a day, not online or in my email, but a poem in a printed book. I'm starting with the current Best American Poetry (as soon as it arrives from Amazon; the last few years Costco has had it but, alas, not this year). I want to share more of my book reviews on my Instagram page and maybe get some more reading selfies.

But before I jump into 2019, here's the list of all the books I finished in 2018, with links to my blog posts. (There were many more I started but didn't finish, for different reasons.) This year I'm dividing what I read into genres, just for fun.

Young Adult

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway: adoption from two sides of the triangle. One of my favorite young adult novels I've ever read. Definitely my favorite YA in 2018.

Half-Witch by John Schaffstall: the last book I read in 2018, and it was just my type of YA fantasy.

A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti: Dumb title, excellent, excellent YA novel about a girl who runs across the country (Seattle to Washington DC) to process a trauma.

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor (sequel to Strange the Dreamer): very romantic fantasy, conclusion to the duology.

Night of Cake and Puppets by Laini Taylor (a companion novel to the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series): A quick read about Zuzana and Mik's first, magical date. Love!

The Other Side of Lost by Jessi Kirby: girl abandons Instagram and hikes the John Muir Trail.

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman: I almost always enjoy books about a character taking a road trip. Fantasy that is a companion novel (but not a sequel) to Hartman's other YA books.

Wild Bird by Wendelyn Van Draanen: Wilderness recovery


The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: An exploration of Russian fairy tales. I wasn't sure I'd love it but it was fantastic.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: I re-read this for our library book group, so I could lead the discussion, and I loved it just as much the second time around.

Circe by Madeline Miller: revisiting the witch of The Odyssey, except this is fully Circe's story. My favorite book of 2018.

Elevation by Stephen King. A man discovers that gravity's grip on him is beginning to dissolve. A fast, sweet read, not scary at all, it will make you consider mortality and what you are doing with yours.

What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine: more a magic realism/history blend than a traditional fantasy. I loved many things about this, but the end was anti-climatic. (Audio)

Science Fiction

Fledgling by Octavia Butler: Vampires in a science fiction vein; "read more by Octavia Butler" is high on my to-do list! 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: Dystopia/Post apocalyptic blend. Beautifully written but the end felt weak.

The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper: I continue to think about this, long after I read it. A post-apocalyptic novel in which the world after a nuclear cataclysm is rearranged: women control the cities, and men live in garrisons outside of them, training for war. This is thought-provoking and disturbing science fiction I wish more people had read so I could talk to them about it.

The Power by Naomi Alderman: I cannot stop thinking about this feminist apocalypse novel; I am not seeing everywhere the real effects of women's lack of power in our society. SO GOOD.

Contemporary Fiction

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: an African American man is arrested for a rape he didn't commit. One of my 2018 favorites.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy: parents lose their kids while on an off-ship cruise outing. Hit me right in the parent-terrors spot.

Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner: New York/Parenting/Adolescence. Hard to qualify, but I liked it.


American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrence Hayes: so good. One of my favorite poetry reading experiences of my whole life, let alone 2018. 

The Carrying by Ada Limon: the only book I finished this year but didn't write about. WHY??? I loved it, as I loved her previous book Bright Dead Things

Good Bones by Maggie Smith: restored my faith in poetry about motherhood.

Historical Fiction

Eternal Life by Dara Horn: I wasn't sure where to put is sort-of historical fiction, but it's also contemporary, and it's magical realism, all rolled in to one amazing book. Rachel makes a pact with God that means she lives forever...Seriously. This was so good, on so many different levels, motherhood and faith and the power of story and what our lives even mean. 

The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman: I learned a part of history I didn't previously know, about Canada's process of putting orphans into insane asylums, whether or not the orphans actually had mental health issues. So sad. A little more fluffy than I usually read.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: I loved this generational novel about the painter Pissaro and his family.

So: I only read 26 books this year, which is the fewest I've finished in some time. But there were very few I didn't really, thoroughly enjoy, so I'll still take this as a great reading year! What did you read and love in 2018?

If you're curious what I've read in previous years, here are some older lists too:





Book Review: The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper

Every once in a while, when I’m deciding what to read next, I realize that I have gotten stuck in a habit of always reaching for what is newest, what is being talked about, what is influencing thinkers right now. But there are so many great books in the world, written five or eight or twenty years ago, still to be read. (This is why I used to joke with my kids, when they were all still young teenagers, that I needed about, oh…a year in jail. Just to sit on a cot and read until I was finally caught up with everything I want to read. They could bring me books every day! Perfect, yes?) (“Never go to jail” is one of my life mottos, by the way!)

Gate to womens countryThe Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper is a book I read about during my work at the library, when I was putting together a new science fiction list. It was published in 1988. Science fiction has always been interesting to me, and I have made many such lists at work—but somehow, I never knew about this novel until now. I think the summary from the Foreword by Adam Roberts sums the story up well:

What separates women’s country from the rest of the world? A wall with a gate in it, of course: the title of the novel alone tells us that. But it’s more than than that. In this richly imagined post-nuclear, women live in walled communities with names such as “Marthatown,” “Tabithatown” and the like. Most men live outside the walls in military camps, and spend their lives training for, and fighting, wars. The flavor of this world is neo-Hellenic: the warriors train and fight like Spartans with spear and shield; technology in the “post-convulsion” cities is, by modern standards, rudimentary. Marthatown has been deliberately modelled upon the prototype of a fifth-century BC Greek polis, right down to the collective performance of tragic drama—Tepper interleaves her chapters with scenes from this latter, a play called “Iphigenia at Ilium,” modelled in part on Euripides’ Trojan Woman.

OK, if you know me at all, you know how much of this summary would grab my attention: post-apocalyptic communities controlled by women? And a thread of classic Greek narrative running through it? I’m not sure there could be a more perfect book for me. It explores so many of my defining issues: motherhood, the work of women, the difference in relationships between mothers and daughters, mothers and sons; how we might solve society’s ills. Feminist thought made into story: these are my favorite novels.

It takes the fear of all feminist-hating men and turns it into a story: what if women ran the world?

Well, what if? Would it be a better or worse world?

In the story, it is as if men are given everything they seem to want. So, fear not, feminist-haters and misunderstanders of the world! If women did control everything, look how great it would be for you. In essence, the story works with men in stereotypes: unfettered access to sex, not much responsibility to babies, the freedom to prepare for and fight in battle. They don’t have to worry about jobs, finding or raising food, making clothing, or anything else that the women do. They only have to protect the women. In this way, women are also presented as stereotypes.

If that was all the story did, however, it would be highly unsatisfying. Instead, it sets up this society, but then shows us how real characters (not stereotypes) move within it. Some characters—both men and women—resist, some fulfill the fullness of the role their society gives them, in all its negatives and positives.

And that underlying thread of narrative about Iphigenia (remember, she was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon after he tricked her with the promise of marriage to Achilles; he needed the winds to change so he could sail his fleet to Troy and start the war to get Helen back) is the perfect one to weave. It serves the same purpose that a black outline does in a tapestry with figures: sets them apart from the background and underlines what is implied but never said.

In case I haven’t made it clear: I loved this novel.

My only problem with it is that since it’s not new and shiny, there’s no one else to talk to about it. So I’ve read reviews and recommended it to my friends (and now I am recommending it whole-heartedly to you, my friendly blog reader!) and I continue to want to discuss it. Its weaknesses (the way it deals with homosexuality would cause quite a stir in today’s society, for example, and I can see many points upon which I might have some delicious arguments over). Its characters. The absolutely unexpected turn the plot took, and how right this turn is to the underlying wisdom of the story.

It is not a feminist utopia, as some reviewers have suggested. It is also not a dystopia. It is a science fiction story in the truest sense: it asks “what if?” and then it answers. It is blunt in its realizations about war, and about how men are deeply entwined with all the wars in history. It explores how technology leaves ripples in time, and how having power changes individuals, and how individual choices change society at large. It asks: what is the true nature of men, and of women? Or is there one at all? What are our weaknesses and our strengths? Can we work together?

However I learned about The Gate to Women’s Country (and I’m not sure I can even pinpoint it), I am glad I discovered it. Like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Mists of Avalon and A Wrinkle in Time (and many, many others) it changed how I think about and perceive the world, as well as my ability to influence some part of it. And I hope someone out there has also read it, and that you’ll tell me what you thought. (Even if you hated it!)

New 2018 Book Releases I'm Anticipating

I'm not always certain that being a bibliophile isn't the same as being a drug addict. Except, you know. Brain damage, bad teeth, the possibility of death. OK, what I mean is: even when I am in the middle of a book I love (currently reading: Far from the Tree by Robin Benway) I am also already thinking (when I'm not reading) about what I'll read next. As I currently have about 18 books checked out, I don't need to anticipate any more. But, alas. Here are some books that aren't released yet that I, however, am already anticipating:
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (7/17/2018)
Megan Abbott is one of those authors whose books I will always eagerly anticipate. I mean…she made me dislike cheerleaders a little bit less, she wrote about gymnastics in a fairly-authentic way (no mean feat…most writers get it totally wrong), and she upended high school social politics. I love her books: the writing style, the building tension, the misdirection. This one feels a little bit The Robber Bride-ish, mixed with science. Whatever. I’ll read it!
Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  (2/6/2018)
Books about readers always seem interesting to me. I'm not sure I can picture yet what this is even about...a young woman who's recently orphaned traces backward the trail she took to New York with her father from Iran, finding a relationship along the way. 
Circe by Madeline Miller  (4/10/2018)
I adore books set in ancient Greece that play off the old mythologies. I loved Miller’s retelling of the Iliad, The Song of Achilles. And I can’t wait to read her new one, which brings Circe (who will eventually turn Odysseus’s men into pigs) to a full, imagined life. Perhaps that should be an early birthday gift to myself…
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland  (4/3/2018)
The Civil War. But with Zombies. And of course, the nation enlists the children of minorities to fight the zombies. The main character is an African American zombie hunter. I don’t know…this just sounds incredibly awesome to me.
Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (2/6/2018)
There’s a rumor out there that, as with poetry, no one reads essays. And that might hold untrue only for me, but I’m pretty sure it’s just a rumor. At any rate, I love reading essays. And I adore Zadie Smith. So, yes. I’ll read this, despite that rumor that no one else will.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (4/3/2018)
A novel about a college student finding her path in life influenced by feminism. As I consider myself to be a feminist, but others disagree (because I’m a member of a fairly patriarchial religion, because I wanted to be a mother—and a stay-at-home mom at that!—because I live an average, heteronormative life) (to which I say: if you feel that way about me, it is because your understanding of what feminism is is skewed), this is a topic I actually think about quite a bit. Can I lay claim to the feminist title? I’m wondering how this novel will speak  to that quest.
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell  (2/6/2018)
It's well established that I am a Maggi O'Farrell fan. This one is a memoir of sorts, about how almost-dying has influenced her living. The British edition has been out for awhile and is currently making its way across the pond to me. I might not have it before the US release...but that's OK. I sort of really like reading British editions when I can get my hands on them.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee  (4/17/2018)
Speaking of no one reading essays, here’s another collection I will definitely read. As a person who tries to construct personal narratives of my own, I have an inkling that this will be one of those books that I enjoy reading for reading’s sake and for what I learn about writing.
Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay  (5/18/2018)
Put “Roxane Gay” on the cover of a book and I’ll want to read it. (Although if I didn’t find any of her actual writing inside the cover, I might not continue…) This is a collection of writing about rape culture, with many of today’s best writers writing about intimate, painful experiences and how they got through, as well as how society needs to change so that such experiences aren’t so common. I am certain this will be a tough read—but also an excellent one.
All the Names They Used for God: Short Stories by Anjala Sachdeva  (2/20/2018)
Kelly Link is one of my favorite writers of fantasy-esque short stories, so when a reviewer compared this to her work, I decided: yep, need to read this, too. I say fantasy-esque because they have elements of fantasy (and sci-fi, and strangeness) but not all the markings. Plus I'm just really enjoying short stories lately.
What are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne Robinson  (2/20/2018)
(MORE ESSAYS!) Dare I confess that I love Marilynne Robinson (who I once got to drive to the airport) more for her nonfiction than her fiction? I think her voice lends itself best to shorter pieces. I will read this without question.
How about you? What are you looking forward to reading? Or what are you reading right now?

My 2017 Reading Experiences

As I was putting together my list of 2017 books, I kept thinking of reading experiences that didn’t exactly fit into a list of titles, so tonight I’m writing a post about some of my memories of reading (rather than the books themselves, if that makes sense). I’m listening to Will Schwalbe’s new book, Books for Living, during my time at the gym this month, and there was something that stuck with me this morning. Summing up because I don’t have the print book to refer to, he says something like “the person I am when I finish a book is different from the person I was when I started it.” This struck me because I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about it exactly that way—but still find it completely true. Books change us, if we let them. They give us scraps of wisdom we can use in wider ways than the story might’ve intended. They help us become better people: more compassionate, more kind, gentler, more empathetic to situations outside of our own lives. They sometimes put into words what we cannot yet express by ourselves, and by doing so they bring us peace, understanding, the relief of knowing we are not alone in the world with our sorrows and our joys.

This blog post is about that—about how my life has been changed by books in 2017.

  1. I loved the movie The Arrival so much that I sought out the book that includes the short story the movie is based on, The Story of Your Life. It’s a sad, amazing, lonely and lovely story, but what really influenced me was the first story in the collection, “The Tower of Babel.” In it, the novelist imagines what might’ve been the process of building the actual tower of Babel, and why the people would do such a thing, and what God would think about people doing such a thing. This short story broke my heart. It was a powerful reminder to me that God must value, perhaps above all else, our freedom to choose, even if what we choose is foolish or dangerous or pointless. This knowledge has become a bitter truth in my life; it isn’t exactly comforting but it is because it helps me understand why some of my choices have had the consequences they did. I finished the story reading at my kitchen table and when it was done I had to put my head down and weep. I don’t know if all of the other stories in the collection are as powerful as that one—but I needed that one.
  2. One thing I miss about having little kids is reading lots of picture books. I mean…I can still check them out and read them to myself, and there is still the pleasure of a sweet story and condensed language and amazing images. But it doesn’t feel the same without a small little someone snuggled in at your side enjoying those things with you. But I couldn’t resist checking out Dave Eggers’s picture book, Her Right Foot. I checked this one out because even though I don't have a little one to read to anymore, wanted to read it. It's about the Statue of Liberty and an often-overlooked part: her right foot is in motion. I read it one afternoon when I was covering the children's desk and that is one reason I try not to read at the desk: maybe I am more open-hearted at the library, but anything that is vaguely moving makes me cry. And I don't like crying at the desk. But the illustrations made me cry, and this made me cry: "Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest." Hopefully the young generation is learning this, and maybe they will be able to repair the many ugly things that are happening in our country right now. But it also inspired me: I need to be courageous, too. I need to act, to move forward, to try to make change happen even if my actions feel small and pointless.
  3. For work, I am on the committee that chooses the children’s poetry long list nominees for the Beehive Award. I had so much fun reading almost 30 different junior poetry books. Some were, of course, better than others, and I’m pretty picky about what I will accept as far as rhyming goes (forced rhyming being a cardinal writing sin in my view). But I was reminded that there are so many excellent writers writing excellent poetry. I remembered, as I did this, the first time I discovered that there even was such a thing as “children’s poetry,” at least anything beyond Shel Silverstein, and how from that moment—when Haley was still going to the library with me in her stroller, so 1996 or ’97—I read poetry to my kids. I hope it is a thing that lingers in their memories and shapes their psyches in beautiful ways.
  4. One book I forgot to put on my list is called Poetry in Motion. Actually, I haven’t finished it yet, as I am savoring it, so I think it will go on my 2018 list. It is a collection of poems, both typeset and as images, of the work that’s been displayed in the subway trains in New York City. I’ve only seen a few in person (and, come to think of it, I saw exactly zero during our second trip to NYC last fall), but just the fact that someone puts poetry in the subway makes me happy. I bought my own copy of this, after seeing the library’s copy (which I also ordered!), and I read it here and there when I have a few minutes for a poem. It makes me think of one of our non-subway experiences in New York, strangely enough, when Kendell and I walked around Astoria looking at murals and then walked across the Robert F. Kennedy bridge to Randall’s Island. My feet were killing me and once we got to the island I’m not sure why I wanted to go there so we got on a bus and rode into Harlem. Maybe the book reminds me of that experience because it felt like a poem, both difficult and beautiful all at once. I don’t know. But every time I pick up the book, I’m back there to that early afternoon.
  5. Every week, I almost always read the new issue of The New Yorker. Not cover to cover, but I always read the poems and flip through to see the comics and drawings. A few weeks ago, I also read a short story (even though I’m really not, technically, supposed to read at the desk at work). It was titled “Cat Person,” which caught my eye when I was looking at the table of contents, so I flipped to it and read it. It was an engrossing story about a woman trying to make a relationship work with a man who turns out to be entirely not for her. It is uncomfortably true in its handling of their experiences. What I loved best about it was how it described the way we try to make peace with someone’s problematic behaviors; I have made those same excuses for others. But what really turned this short story into one of my memorable reading experiences that the very next day, when I checked my social media, “Cat Person” was all over my feed. Tons of other people had read it and were talking about it. It’s not often that I manage to be right in the middle of a cultural literary experience, so this felt pretty cool to me.
  6. But, speaking of being in the middle of a cultural literary experience. Do you know that the novel The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the country’s best sellers in 2017? Even though it is more than thirty years old? And that everyone is reading it? And that I am completely bugged by this? I know…that’s a strange reaction. But this is a book I’ve loved since I first read it in 1990. It’s a book that literally changed my life, because when I read it I wanted to learn both how to write like Margaret Atwood and how to find more books like it, which influenced my education choices in a dramatic way. In theory I should be thrilled that everyone is loving something I have loved for so long. But…I don’t. Instead, I’m annoyed because everyone’s like “oh, it’s prescient!” and “how did she know?” and “this is so good” and I’m like…yes, I know. I’ve known for a long time! (For what it’s worth: I have not watched the TV adaptation. Many people have told me it’s excellent. But The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely one of my top-five favorite books of all time…and I don’t want it reinterpreted for the screen. I don’t want someone’s vision of it. I just want my own. Is that crazy?) This all has something to do with the fact that I like liking things that everyone else hasn’t ever heard of. Does that make me a snob? Perhaps. But it’s a thing about me that hasn’t changed in decades. If everyone likes something, it feels less important, somehow. Less meaningful. So I really have not enjoyed having one of my favorite books becoming diluted throughout the culture. I know, it sounds lame. But it’s bothered me all year.
  7. Reading in Hawaii. Dare I confess that I don’t really love the beach. If I’m there by myself or with other adults, I’m OK. But when I’m at the beach with my kids, I’m always terrified that someone will drown. When we were in Hawaii this spring, we went to the beach every day. The kids swam and wandered and snorkeled. And I happily volunteered to sit with the towels and keep everything safe, when really what I was doing was trying to trick my heart to stop beating so hard and my head to stop filling up with worries. And I was also performing that mom mindtrip thing, which is that if I’m thinking very hard about my kids, I’m literally keeping them safe with my mind, right? So, in Hawaii I sat on lots of beaches, covered in sunscreen, worrying about my kids, and reading. (Yes, one can perform the mom mindtrip while simultaneously reading. Obviously, as I read and no one drowned.) My carefully-chosen books were the first two novels in N. K. Jemisin’s series The Broken Earth These books are so good. They give me exactly what I want from a fantasy series: excellent & beautiful writing, characters who are deeply human despite whatever magic system exists within the world, a magic system that makes literary sense (even if not scientific) and is not used as a deux-ex-machina for every problem, a plot that isn’t derivative of Tolkein or C. S. Lewis or George R. R. Martin. A strong female protagonist whose strength is also not a deux-ex-machina. Companion characters who are equally intriguing as the main ones. And, if I am fully completing my wish list, some women’s issues dealt with in unique ways. These books had all of that and an expansive underground tunnel/cave system that I will never completely erase from my psyche. They would’ve been great reads anywhere, but in Hawaii? On the Big Island under sun, on sand, under the shade of our rented umbrella? They were perfect. I was happy.

I feel like 7 is the perfect number of memorable reading experiences for one year. Did you have any? How have books changed you over the past year? 

My Year in Books: the 2017 Edition

This is the fourth year I've put together a list of all of the books I read. I don't always manage to write a blog post about every book (although it's my goal every year!) but I do keep a list of everything I read. 

I use these lists a lot at the library. Sometimes I have to write an annotation and revisiting my thoughts on a book helps quite a bit with that. Sometimes I remember the plot of a book but not a title, and the yearly lists are an easier way to find the title.

Sometimes I just like to remind myself of what I've read!

2017 capture

I didn't read as much in 2017 as I usually do. I think this is because I've spent too much time putzing around on social media. In fact, "spend less time putzing around on social media" is one of my goals this year. I'm not sure if this is an attribute of or a contributor to my depression last year; I do know it's mostly a waste of time. Here's to more reading in 2018! (links to the reviews I wrote)

The Bees by Laline Paull. A dystopia set in a bee colony. A little bit Watership Down, a little bit Daughters of the North. Perfectly strange!

Blackacre by Monica Yoon. "A life is not this supple." These words literally kept me going when I was in my darkest part of the year. 

The Book of Joan by Lidia YuknavitchI both loved and did not love this end-of-the-world retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. Clever and moving but also frustratingly vague on some of the ending details. 

Bright Dead Things: Poems by Ada Limon. This book of poetry, along with Blackacre, got me through my Narnia Winter. Click HERE to read one of my favorites (as if this big/dangerous animal is also a part of me).

The Broken Earth Trilogy books 1 and 2 (The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate) by N. K. Jemisin. These are the books I read in Hawaii. I will write about them when I finish the third book, The Stone Sky, which I bought myself for Christmas. I will say this: I LOVE N. K. JEMISIN. Such great fantasy!

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks, a Librarian’s Love Letters and Break Up Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence. This is seriously hilarious, which is high praise coming from someone who is rarely amused, and I think all librarians and/or book lovers will also love it. But especially librarians! These are actual letters addressed to different books. 

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. This was my choice for the library's February book club meeting in 2017. This is the Fuller's memoir of her childhood growing up as a white person in central Africa. I learned quite a bit about Africa that I didn't clearly understand before, as well as gained a better understanding of racism's impact upon individuals.

The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker. Man tries to run across England, which has been devastated by asteroids. Another 2017 favorite.

Gem and Dixie by Sara Zarr. Sadly, didn't love this young adult novel by one of my favorite young adult writers. It was fine, but not amazing like Zarr's novels usually are. 

Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow. A YA novel that helped me understand some parts of my adolescence experience a little bit better. 

Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast. I used to get really annoyed at people who wrote or talked about how much they love New York. Now that I've been there (twice!) I am starting to get it more. I still don't want to live in New York, but I completely understand its appeal. Plus, I almost automatically love anything by Roz Chast; her illustrations are just so good.  

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. This post-apocalyptic novel felt like a cross between The Martian and Station Eleven. It was lonely and haunting and cold and beautiful and I loved it. 

Grendel's Guide to Love and War by A. E. Kaplan. An entire novel I read on my cell phone. I hate reading digital books so that's how much I loved this retelling of Beowulf.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. This was a re-read for me and dare I confess I liked it perhaps even more the second time? Since I knew how the book ended, I could see how the structure came together more clearly. 

House of Names by Colm Toibin. A telling of the death of Iphigenia at her father's hand and of her mother's revenge. So, so good. Reimaginings of Greek legends are one of my favorite speculative fiction subgenres. I read this in the car on our drive to Seattle in May (we went to Hawaii via Seattle), my first trip to that city, which I loved and would like to return to. 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. A book I liked so much I wrote two separate blog posts about it!

It by Stephen King. When I started seeing previews for the movie, I started wanting to re-read the book. But I resisted because it is 1,000+ pages long. But after I saw the movie I couldn't resist; I went out and bought myself a copy and read it during October; I finished it while passing out candy on Halloween. It took up a ton of my reading time. I still intend on blogging about this reading experience. 

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron. I loved the pre-history part of this novel but the thread set in current times was less satisfying (and, honestly, a little bit frustrating!). Girl still sneaks into my thoughts now and then. 

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. Probably my favorite novel I read this year. 

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding. Essays about resisting, obviously. A wide swath of writerly ideas about how we can survive trump's presidency. 

Poetry Will Save Your Life by Jill Bialosky. I swear I wrote a review of this book, but I can't find it anywhere. It's a memoir/poetry anthology, in which the author writes about how different poems changed her life. I loved it because poetry! but I also felt a little bit disappointed by it, as I wanted her to go deeper into how the poems actually saved her life.

The Promise of Shadows by Justina IrelandA half-human, half-harpy girl must save herself from Hades' realm. Not exactly a retelling of a myth, but a story set in the Greek mythological kingdoms. 

The Reader by Stephanie Chee. A YA fantasy about a world where books aren't invented yet, except for the secret (and very powerful) one in the protagonist's back pack. I had a great time reading this, but then later this fall when the sequel came out, I had no desire to read it. Thus reinforcing my idea that reading trilogies before they're finished just isn't for me. Also: I sat in a little restaurant eating breakfast all by myself and reading this book on the first day that all of my kids were back at school and Kendell was back at work after recuperating from (another) heart surgery. So it's deeply associated with a deep sense of peaceful solitude mixed with guilt over feeling so happy to be by myself for a little while and, you know. Scrambled eggs and avocado toast. 

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. I willingly broke my "no unfinished trilogies" for this book. Let's just say I'll break almost any rule to read Laini Taylor's writing! This one did not disappoint!

This Must be The Place by Maggie O'Farrell. Rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers, Maggie O'Farrell can't seem to write a book I don't love. To prove it: I generally detest novels about movie stars, but I loved this one, despite it being about a movie star. Also: I just ordered her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am, even though it's not out yet in the U.S. It's OK. I love British editions!

Warcross by Marie Lu. I read this for work. I don't really love books about video games, and this is a book about video games, so maybe I was pre-conditioned to not love it. I had to skim the video-game parts as they are just so boring to me. And I guessed the twist at the end about halfway through. But, I think that teenagers will love this book. Which is perfect because they are the target audience! A mix of The Hunger Games and Ready Player One. I liked Lu's previous trilogy, Legend, and the voice here reminded me quite a bit of that early series. 

We Are OK by Nina LaCour. When I finished writing my review of this young-adult novel I thought I would never really think about the book again. But it has actually stuck with me in surprising ways. 

Women Who Read Are Dangerous by Stefan BollmanAn art history book with paintings of women reading. This is my favorite way to learn about art history, a thematic approach that introduces a wide variety of paintings and artists. I read the library's copy of this book (I actually requested that the library buy it!) but I will be getting my own copy. It's lovely. 

Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes from Inspirational Folks by Gavin Aung Than. The other graphic-novel-esque book I read this year (Going into Town was the other), this book is a collection of illustrated quotes. It was instrumental in helping me start to blog again, especially the illustration of the Neil Gaiman quote: make good art. It reminded me that I do have a perspective to share, a thing that might be art and might not be art, but is still my voice against the silence of eternity. 

What did you read and love in 2017?

5 Banned Books that Influenced My Life

On Monday I wrote about my opinion of book banning. (To sum up: I am a librarian after all. Getting books to people is my job. Choosing what people read is not.) Today, a list of books that have at one point or another been banned or otherwise restricted that have influenced my life.


The awakening kate chopin1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. This book wasn't actually banned, but it was heavily censored. The reviews were scathing, calling the book immoral, unwholesome, and socially unacceptable. It describes a woman having an affair and exploring her sexuality. It wasn't until the 1960s that it was widely read. 


a summary, and how it changed me: The Awakening​ is the story of Edna Pontellier, a woman living in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. She is married to a fairly wealthy man and has two sons, but she is desperately unhappy. On a family vacation in Mexico, she meets and falls in love with another man. Back home in New Orleans, she begins withdrawing from her roles of housewife and mother, as well as her social obligations, eventually leaving her family.


I heard someone say she hated The Awakening because all it was about is a rich lady whining about how difficult her life is. I can see that critique. And my response to motherhood is nothing like Edna's. While sometimes it is complicated or painful or exhausting, I wouldn't trade my experiences as a mother for anything. But here is how the book influenced me: It illustrates the effects of how society painted (and still sometimes does) womanhood in an either/or light. Either you're a mother or you're not. Either you are entirely selfless or entirely selfish. Had Edna had the opportunity to have an and—mother and music aficionado, for example—then perhaps she could have found healthier ways of managing her problems. The Awakening encouraged my natural proclivities; I never wanted to devote every ounce of myself to my children, house, or husband, and Chopin's book helped me do this with less guilt. As it shows the devastating consequences of the social either/or construct of womanhood, The Awakening encourages me to see my life's roles in broader terms and to accept my need to be a mother and something else as well.


Of mice and men2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Banned because of language, racism, and violence. Isn't it odd that white people try to ban books because of racism? Which is usually perpetuated by white people? Also banned (in the school libraries in the county where the novel is set) for libel against how the government treated migrant workers.


a summary, and how it changed me: Steinbeck's novel is about Lennie and George, two friends who are migrant workers and find work at a ranch in Soledad, California. It is a short novel with fairly deep implications.


I read this in tenth grade and never thought about it much again, until I became a teacher and it was the book my high school had for tenth graders. Rereading, studying, and teaching Of Mice and Men changed me partly because it was my first time dealing with actual, live people protesting a book. I had many, many parents contact me with their concerns about tenth graders reading it. One parent even went so far as to tell me that I was an immoral person for teaching it; another told me that I didn't have to let the school district push me around, I could choose to teach something else.


Some parents complained about the language in the book; some about the violence and that ending. What I finally realized, however, is that what they were afraid of is that the book would lead their children to think in different ways. Of Mice and Men is a novel that expects you to wonder if "wrong" actions are always wrong. It asks you to think in morally grey areas. It demands both anger and compassion. And this sort of subtle, difficult thinking is objectionable to some parents because what if their children catch on that they could think about other things with the same not-black-and-white thinking?


My experiences with Of Mice and Men taught me that I​ value grey thinking. It is an important part of my identity to question things and to find my own understanding. I also learned that not everyone values those ideals, and this has to be OK (even if I don't understand black and white thinking). Sometimes living an examined life is painful and not everyone wants to experience that pain. But it will always be valuable to me.


Fahrenheit 4513. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Can anyone overlook the irony of a book about book burning being banned? Too much swearing and contrary religious ideals are, it seems, the perfect reasons to not let anyone​ read something.


a summary, and how it changed me: A dystopian novel set in a society where it is illegal to own books. Firemen don't put out fires, but set them, burning books where they find them.


Aside from the fact that when I read this book as a junior in high school I immediately fell in love with the genre (which changed my life, too), Fahrenheit 451 can't help but change you if you let it. I already knew, when I read it that first time, that books were important. But this clarified it. Books aren't just important on a personal, individual level, but on a social level, too. Without books we are far less human. I have clung to that knowledge as it is starting to seem like books are less and less relevant: Those of us who know they matter need to continue sharing that knowledge. Sharing books. 


The bell jar4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Does reading a book about a character who attempts suicide create readers who also commit suicide? (It is also banned because of the main character's sexual experiences, some profanity, and its not-so-subtle rejection of women's role as a mother and wife.) I would like to think not. Except, when my dad was hospitalized for depression and suicidal thoughts, one of the things his therapist told him was to avoid "dark" books. So perhaps a penchant for dark and twisty thoughts might lead one to reading dark and twisty books. Except—the dark and twisty was there in the first place.


I don't know.


Suicide is real and pervasive and horrible and I am not a psychiatrist so I cannot say for sure. But it seems that not talking about it, and not writing about it (and thus not reading about it) won't make suicide go away.


a summary and how it changed me: Esther Greenwood is a successful young adult who landed a summer internship in New York City with a popular women's magazine, but her depression turns dangerous in the weeks following her return home.


I discovered Sylvia Plath through the song "Bell Jar" by the Bangles. I'd listened to the song a few times, and then in a fortuitous (or wise, on my English teacher's part) twist, looked up "Plath, Sylvia" at the library after my English teacher recommended her to me. The card catalog and the song lyrics clicked, and I was hooked.


The moment in The Bell Jar that changed my life is when Esther is swimming in the ocean, perhaps trying to drown, but the "old brag" of her heart, "I am, I am, I am" doesn't let her. I cannot say my depression was as dark as Esther's (or as Plath's), but sometimes those words reminded me that I am, too. Right now: I am​. And that helped me keep being.


Harry potter and the sorcerers stone5. Harry Potter by R. K. Rowling. This series was concerning to parents because they thought it celebrated the occult, magic, demonism, and witchcraft. Which puts to point one of the main questions I have for book banners: Have you ever actually read this book you're complaining about?


a summary and how it changed me​: I'm not sure I need a summary of Harry Potter. But: The orphaned Harry Potter, who lives with his emotionally-abusive aunt, uncle, and cousin, until he discovers he's a wizard and can go to Hogwarts School of Magic. Friendships are formed, magic is accomplished, hijinks ensue, including the need to find and destroy the world's most evil wizard.


The excitement over Harry Potter started in about 1998, and I totally didn't even notice it. Haley was three, Jake was a baby, and junior chapter books just weren't on my radar. But then my friend had tickets to the first Harry Potter movie, so we went with her (and Jake lost his brand-new coat) and I tumbled head-over-heels. I bought the first four books (the hardback ones, with the Mary GrandPre covers) and read them to my kids.


Haley, Jake, and Nathan all loved to read when they were kids. But none of them loved the books that I loved when I was a kid, thus dashing my expectations of discussing, say, Anne of Green Gables with Haley or A Wrinkle in Time with Jake. I'm fine with this—I'm just happy they loved to read. But Harry Potter changed me because it gave me those books to share with my kids. It gave us those happy days of sitting together in the front room, immersed in Hogwartian adventures. Harry Potter brought us closer together as a family and gave us a shared language and story arc; it still makes us closer because it is still part of our shared language. 


There are many other oft-banned books I love. But these five have all changed me in ways that are immeasurably valuable. They have defined me, brought me happiness, helped me to understand the world better. Saved me, in some ways. Thankfully I live in a country that values free speech, so while doubtless people will continue trying to ban or censor books, hopefully they will not ultimately be successful.





New {book} Releases I'm Looking Forward To (the late summer/early fall 2017 edition)

This week, Kendell and I took a little getaway, just the two of us. We hiked at Bryce Canyon and then drove over the desert to Santa Barbara for a little beach time, a little hiking time, and a chance to reconnect a bit.
Before we left, I made myself gather up almost all of the books I had checked out from the library. I think I had about 30. I only kept a handful as too-many-books-to-read has become a recent problem for me. "So many books, so little time" is, of course, the problem of all readers. You want to live your life but you also want to just sit around reading, and that wanted life sometimes gets in the way. It's a little bit frustrating.
Black and white library books
Still, I was feeling pretty good about narrowing down my choices. A book to read on the trip (not, of course, a library book; what kind of savage do you take me for?) and then just a handful of novels to read when I got home.
But then I came home and went back to work and found myself reading about all the upcoming new releases. And holy cow, there are some good books coming out.
I don't think my problem is going to get much better.
So, here's a list of upcoming new releases (August-November) that I cannot wait to check out, take home, stack up, and possibly even read. 
(With, of course, a little bit of commentary because I can't just list the title, I want to share why I want to read the book, too!)
Caroline by Sarah Miller. Little House on the Prairie from Ma's perspective.  Just go ahead and re-read that description and then join me in swooning. 
Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King. A sort of end-of-the-world story with a mysterious illness that causes women to fall asleep and stay sleeping—unless you (a man) forcefully wake her. I am going to undertake this one with very low expectations, because there's a part of me that's already a little bit bugged (why do all the violent, half-awake women need to be naked?) but I have been wanting to have a new Stephen King experience so I think I'll still try it.
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence. Letters to books written by a librarian. I'll probably just have to buy this one!
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Ward's books are gritty but humane portraits of lives on the edge. Salvage the Bones is a novel I think about often and I expect to be similarly moved by this one, which looks at three generations of a family living in Mississippi.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. An historical novel about a woman working a man's job during the war, and her hunt into how her father's past influences her current life. 
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich. She has long been a favorite of mine, but this one—an apocalypse story in which evolution turns backwards upon itself—this one sounds so good. 
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. Irish immigrants to Brooklyn in the 1920s, suicide, nuns, a rebellious daughter: this one has so many of the qualities I love in a novel.
In the Midst of Winter by Isabelle Allende. I discovered Allende when I was about 14 or 15 and have loved her books ever since.  A story that moves  between Brooklyn, Guatemala, Chili, and Brazil, with a little bit of a love story mixed with the problems of immigration and human rights. 
Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Power to Stand Alone by Brene Brown. Dare I confess I haven't ever read any of Brene Brown's books? I know. I had a recent epiphany about being alone in some aspects of my life and needing to make peace with that, so this might just be the exact thing I need to read. 
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Novels with a character who's an artist always grab my attention.
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. A prequel to her book Practical Magic. Dare I confess that I saw the movie before I read the book, and then I liked the (gasp!) movie better? But I am so excited to have Hoffman return to her magical-realism roots that I can't even stand it.
The Vengeance of Mothers by Jim Fergus. A follow-up of sorts to 1,000 White Women, which is twenty years old this year. Which kind of makes me a little bit nauseated because that means I read it twenty years ago. When I was 25. Time needs to slow down. Anyway: the little-known story of the US government's "Brides for Indians" program is further explored here. 
Adultolescence by Gabbie  Hanna. I lack the ability to follow a graphic novel. But a graphic poetry book? I am totally going to read this. 
The Good People by Hannah Kent. It's set in Ireland. I might not have to say much more. 
The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo. Short stories that rework and re-examine myths, fairy tales, and folklore. Perfect October reading I think.

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater. I'm not quite​ the rabid fan of Stiefvater that some of my librarian friends are. It seems that everyone loved The Scorpio Races but it didn't grab me. I did like her Raven Cycle series quite a bit though. I'm hoping the writing style of this one is similar, even though (obviously!) the story is much different.

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne. I didn't ever read his NYT bestseller, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. That's because I tend to resist reading what everyone else loves. I a book a bestseller because it's really, really good? Or just because it's accessible and fluffy? Sometimes it's hard to tell. But this new one looks good enough for me to trust the bestseller lists (I'm assuming it will be popular since his first book did so well): A boy who was adopted as an infant in post-war Dublin tries to figure out his identity as he searches for his birth mother. Not just Ireland but Amsterdam as well. (Obviously I have a promiscuous attachment to books set in Ireland, but I'm starting to love the ones in Amsterdam, too.)

So, tell me: are there any new releases you're looking forward to? Or something you're reading right now that I should check out? (I mean...I cannot promise I will read it. But I will check it out!)

When All The Holds Come At Once

When I got in to work this morning, I realized I had nine books waiting for me on the hold shelf. Nine might not be a problem if I didn't already have oh, about 25 other books checked out.
I am a book glutton.
It drives my husband a little bit crazy that I always have piles of books everywhere. Not a bibliophile, he doesn't understand the wanting that is wrapped up in all of those books: to be enmeshed in a beautiful story and surrounded by beautiful writing, to be in the capable hands of an author who might not make everything better for the characters but will at least, hopefully (if she or he really is capable) help me to understand something about the world, life, the human condition; to be entertained and to meet new people and experience new things.
I can't help it. It's built into the very core of who I am: I love books.
And even if I don't ever manage to read everything I check out (I never manage that!), there is something about just having them around me for a few weeks that is also wound up in my bookish coveting. It just makes me happy to know they are there.
Four books
(Plus it makes me remember how it felt to be a kid in the summer, when not only could I check out nine or ten or twelve books from the library, I could read them in a week and then come back and the librarian would praise me. I know I have to be a grown up but sometimes I'd really like to be 12 again, and be able to sit on the back porch in the shade and read literally all day long.)
But I am a grown up.
And also a librarian, which means I know other people could be reading these instead of them sitting at my house in a pile. So, alas, although I want (desperately) to take them all home and then read every single one, I am narrowing my choices to four (for me) and one (for Nathan). Here's what I'm choosing between, including a sentence chosen at random to give me a sense of the language:
Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace. Post-apocalyptic ghost hunting done by an archivist who is also viewed as a goddess. How could I resist? Random sentence: "As the thing settled on her, the edges of it tucked themselves in around the edges of her, adhering to the rock where it touched, while the middle sank in places to snug itself to her shape."
The Battlemage​ by Taran Matharu. This is the last book in the Summoner trilogy, which Nathan has been devouring. Really. He hasn't loved a series this much in a long time. 
Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy. Two families with several children between them go on a cruise, but during an expedition on the Central American coast, the children get separated from their parents. A book that Ann Patchett blurbs ("Read it once at breakneck speed to find out what happens next, and then read it slowly to marvel at the perfect prose and the masterwork of a plot") is a book I want to read. Plus, Maile Meloy. Random sentence: Penny sat in the back seat of the yellow car with her brother, watching the woman with the scrunchie drive."
The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron. An archaeologist races to finish the dig of a newly-discovered Neanderthal site before her baby is born; forty thousand years earlier, a Neanderthal family struggles to survive the upcoming winter.  I don't even need a random sentence to know I am checking this one out because, speaking of childhood and adolescent reading, I've been a fan of pre-historic stories since reading The Clan of the Cave Bear when I was 15. But, here's a random sentence anyway:  "Girl didn't know that whens he'd left the hearth of the family, the leopard had followed her for longer than she'd thought."
Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson. A YA novel with three intertwined stories (as I am writing these I am realizing just how much I'm drawn to books with stories from more than one time period), one in 2065 about a space flight to Mars, one in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, one in England during the recovery from World War I. How will these stories influence each other? This one is also coming home with me. Random sentence: "This morning in church we prayed for rain and President Roosevelt; I spend most of my time in church trying to keep Beezie from picking her nose or whispering loud and embarrassing observations like how if Jesus knew for sure he was going straight to heaven things weren't that bad for him anyway."
The Reminders by Val Emmich. Ten-year-old Joan was born with eidetic memory, which means she can remember all of even the smallest details. Gavin Winters, fleeing from the grief of losing his partner Sydney, strikes up a friendship with Joan, who knew Sydney and so can share her memories of him with Gavin. I feel like this book might be similar to Tell the Wolves I'm Home, except different enough to not bother me. Random sentence: I'm nervous but I think it's the good kind of nervous, the kind that Gavin was telling me about. I'll play my song and after people hear it, everything will change and no one will be mad at me anymore because they'll be too busy smiling at me and what I've done."
The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett. A novel about an astronaut; while she is in space, a virus decimates the human population on earth, and even though she went to space because she wanted to escape relationships, she becomes desperate to return home. It makes me think of Good Morning, Midnight, a book I loved quite a bit.  Random sentence: "Jamie suddenly seemed to be breathing ice, fear crackling inside her lungs."
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss.  I love books that take something from another book and make a whole new story from it. Here, monsters and the daughters of monsters try to unravel the mysteries of a group of (possibly mad) scientists. I like this blurb best: "As if Charlie's Angels, written by Mary Shelley, took over the Bluestocking Society, with bonus well-mannered explosions." I am totally reading this in October, as it is a perfect October novel I think. Random sentence: "To those of our readers who are not familiar with London, who may be reading this in the wilds of America, where we hear there are bears and savages, or in the wilds of Australia, where there are also savages but no bears (unless, adds Justine, they are marsupial bears), the problem that now presented itself to Catherine and Diana was as follows: how to get from Chelsea, in the south of London, to Regent's Park in the north?"
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kaddish. Set in London but in two different time periods—the current world and the 1660s—this is two intertwined stories, that of Ester Velazquez, who recently came to London from Amsterdam and becomes the scribe for a blind rabbi, and of Helen Watt, a historian attempting to uncover a mystery. Undertones of The People of the Book  and Possession: A Romance, I think. I also think this long story is a autumn, rather than a summer, read. Random sentence: "Inside the rare manuscripts room, settling alone at the long table, he wearily regarded the pencils Library Patricia rolled onto the table."
I sent The Strange Case to the next person on the hold list and put The Weight of Ink, The Space Between the Stars, and The Reminders on the new book display. And I took home the other ones. Now if I can just find an empty day for reading, I'm all set.

Book Review: House of Names by Colm Toibin

When I was working on my English degree, one of my very-favorite classes was the mythology course I took one summer. We studied the Greco-Roman tradition and the Norse pantheon; my final project was an anthology of about fifty poems about mythological beings (I still have it, and if I am ever a Famous Writer perhaps I will develop it and have it published, as in the past twenty years there have been innumerably more poems written about mythological beings).  These weren't new subjects to me, as it's a topic I've enjoyed for as long as I can remember; what changed me utterly was reading the Greek classics: The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. We had a translation that was incredible: approachable but not simplified, and poetic but still understandable. (I have misplaced my copy, much to my sadness, and I cannot remember the translator's name.)

Is it odd that I, a bibliophile, made it to 23 before reading these stories? I'm not sure. But they came into my life at exactly the right time, and I fell utterly, completely, and totally in love. Not so much with Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, Paris et al, but with the women. (If you know me, you're not surprised.) Helen, of course; Andromache, Chryseis, Hecuba, Penelope, Dido, Circe, Calypso, Lavinia. Cassandra and I are sole sisters. Some of them are barely mentioned in passing, some of the play larger roles, but they all fascinate me, for their sacrifices and their losses, their interactions with mortals and with gods, their subtle influences.

Since then I've reread Homer and Virgil's stories twice, in different translations and enjoyed them almost as much as that first time. (It really was an excellent translation!) Also Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. But I've also developed an abiding affection for contemporary retellings of the Greek myths, tragedies, and legends. (I'm including a list at the end of this blog post.) So when I read that Colm Toibin's new novel, House of Names, tells the story of Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, and Electra—it was a foregone conclusion I'd read it.

House of namesIphigenia is one of those haunting characters whose story stays with you. Possibly because of her name, but mostly because of her story: her father, Agamemnon, tricked her to coming Aulis, where he was stuck with his fleet, waiting for a wind that would not come because he had angered Artemis. Iphigenia believes she is coming to marry Achilles, but really she is to be the human sacrifice who will appease Artemis's anger and send the fleet to Troy. Her mother, Clytemenstra, is helpless to stop this from happening to her daughter, but she vows revenge as Agamemnon goes off to the long war.

If you've read the stories (this is technically a retelling of The Oresteia), you know what happens. If you haven't, I won't spoil it for you. But I will say this: I loved this book. The characters are far more developed than in Homer's story; they become real instead of narrative place holders. Other characters not in the original poem are added, developing the plot and the other characters' relationships. And the language! I loved this passage especially, when Electra is trying to communicate with Iphigenia's ghost: "Perhaps the days before her death, and the way death was give to her, are nothing in the place where she is. Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead."

The novel stays true to the original story—I was especially glad to have one last glimpse of Cassandra—but its focus is different. The development of the characters brings other themes to the forefront: revenge, loyalty, love within a family (and how that love can break); responsibility for choices; the possibility and difficulty of forgiveness. It is not an easy, simple read; it is full of violence, betrayal, loneliness, loss, despair. But it is deeply empathetic and gripping, helping us step into the sandals of a civilization and a family in transition.

It is definitely going on my list of favorite Greek retellings:

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood—Penelope waited a long time for Odysseus to get home; when he did, he killed all of her suitors and her twelve maidens just for good measure. Atwood’s signature wit and themes are at work here—women trying to find a voice in a situation that has made them voiceless, establishing their own cruelty dynamics, and revealing the way myth infuses relationships.

XO Orpheus by Kate Bernheimer—a collection of short stories reimagining the world’s myths, including plenty of Greek gods and goddesses.

Alcelstis by Katherine Beutner—reminagines Euripides’ tragedy about a princess who loved her husband so much she agrees to die for him. A huge part of the story takes place in the Underworld; as Persephone is my favorite goddess I am just fine with this.

The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley—Cassandra’s story, only here she is Kassandra; she is cursed to always tell the truth but never be believed.

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin—mentioned briefly in the Aeneid, Lavinia is another woman a war is fought over, this one much shorter and involved in the foundation of Italy.

Till We Have Faces  by C. S. Lewis—it is hard for me to convey my affection for this retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. It’s one of the books I’ve reread most in my life and, like scripture, I always find some new piece of knowledge.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller—were Achilles and Patroclus friends or lovers?

Black Ships by Jo Graham—what happens after the fall of Troy?

Helen of Troy by Margaret George—Helen’s autobiography.

The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney—the poet’s translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, which happens to be my favorite.

Book Review: The Reader by Traci Chee

Books about reading and books are a favorite of mine.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a recent one; The People of the Book, and The Book Thief, The End of Your Life Book Club and the wacky If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Possession, certainly, and The Shadow of the Wind. 84 Charing Cross Road (went I went to London I made sure to go to Charing Cross Road, even if the bookstore from the book is gone now) and My Reading Life. And of course, Fahrenheit 451, which is, I think, the book that started my interest in books about books.

The readerSo obviously I couldn’t resist The Reader by Traci Chee, a YA fantasy set in a world without books. I thought it would be a fantasy version of 451, where books are illegal but some people still have them anyway. Instead, it is a society where books just don’t exist. They aren’t a part of the culture. It’s a landscape made of several large islands (reminiscent, just the smallest bit, of Wizard of Earthsea), with each island having its own government and many of the islands battling each other for resources.

Sefia, the main character, has been living on the run with her aunt Nin since her parents died. They carry what they need in their packs and hunt for game as they go; sometimes they enter different towns or villages to sell the pelts they have collected. One day, when Sefia is returning from a village, she discovers that Aunt Nin has been captured. She watches from the woods while the strangers beat her aunt and then, when she won’t tell them where “it” is, they load her over a horse and take her away.

The movement of the book is in Sefia trying to track down the people who took her aunt so she can rescue her. The “it” the abductors wanted is, Sefia comes to realize, the only object that Nin saved from Sefia’s home after her father was killed, a rectangular thing with a metal hinge and paper bound inside: a book. Not just, you realize as the story progresses, a book, but the book, the only one left intact. The story moves between Sefia’s adventures; those of a boy named Lon, who is taken from his home to become an apprentice Librarian; and the seafaring story of Captain Reed (reminiscent, just a bit, of Gaiman’s Stardust). As she travels through the forest, Sefia picks up a companion, a boy named Archer who himself had been kidnapped and turned into a fighter; Sefia rescues him from being taken to the army.

Although I had a hard time imagining how a society would function without any form of writing—how do merchants keep track of what they buy and sell, for example?—and even though it was entirely different than what I expected, I really enjoyed this novel. It has just enough magic, without it being overpowering; I liked that Sefia was already strong before the story started (books with characters who suddenly discover they are expert trackers or archers or jiu-jitsu masters or whatever make me nuts) but that she discovered different things about herself. I liked the backstory of the mysterious secret society created to preserve bits of writing. And I liked the idea of the book, a magical book which is not just any book but one that contains all the stories, both living and invented, so that eventually Sefia and Archer, who have been reading about Captain Reed in the book, actually meet Captain Reed.

It’s very meta.

Mostly I like how books and the idea of reading are a type of magic in the world, because, let’s face it, books have always been magic for me (but of a very different sort than Sefia’s) and, I imagine, they are for most bibliophiles. Plus, there are interesting things done with the book itself. Like, some of the page numbers also have words, so there is a tiny little subtext you can read via the numbers. There are fingerprints and blotches here and there (I actually thought, when I noticed the first one, ah, crap, I smudged the book). Until they meet up, you “read” the story about Captain Reed out of the book in Sefia’s backpack (and it has its own series of smudges).

I suspected that this book would break my no-unfinished-trilogies rule, and it did. (The cover itself gives that away, too: it says pretty clearly that this is “Book One of Sea of Ink and Gold.) There is definitely a sequel or two to come. Some series I don’t continue reading, either because I didn’t get drawn in to the first book enough or because I didn’t feel like I needed more of the world. This one is a series I think I will follow, even though in a sense the first book felt like enough.