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]

Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Do you believe in God? I know it’s a personal question. I do. And I think He was pretty awesome to make relativity a thing, don’t you? The faster you go, the less time you experience. It’s like He’s inviting us to explore the universe, you know?

Project hail maryI wasn’t sure, when I just started reading Andy Weir’s novel Project Hail Mary, if it would be the book for me. The voice of the main character, Ryland Grace, is pretty annoying at first. Chirpy and a sort of kindergarten tone and yeah: totally not what I sign up for in a book. But since I loved The Martian I decided to give it a chance anyway.

So glad I did!

The novel tells the story of a man who wakes up in a space ship, with no personal memories about himself (even his name takes awhile to come back to him) but a brain full of science. It takes him a while to figure out even that he’s on a space ship. As the story progresses, his memories slowly start coming back. This was one thing I loved much more about this book than The Martian. The science itself is much more integrated into the story, because the memories connect with the science he needs to figure out, whereas in The Martian it was more clunky (I flipped through the sciencey chunks on that one, I confess).

I feel like most of the reviews on this book don’t really mention the details of why Dr. Grace has to go to space, so I will keep my review similar. He has some grand adventures in space that I loved experiencing with him. His slightly childish tone gets less annoying (and maybe it goes away altogether, I’m not sure), and the other characters just bring the story to life.

Yesterday morning, when I had about 75 pages left, I read a bit before we left for our little Sunday-morning adventure. (Still can’t hike or walk any distance bigger than about a mile, so I’m severely limited in my capacity for adventure). I realized as we drove up the canyon that while I was loving the colors and the walk and our conversation, there was a part of me still stuck onboard the Hail Mary. The book isn’t fine literature by any means, but man. It was so much fun. And the worldbuilding is skilled enough that I wanted to get right back inside of it once we got home. Which really reminded me that reading can sometimes just be fun if I let it. (I don’t do fun books very often!)

I think Project Hail Mary will be one of my favorite books this year, but it did leave me wondering:

How do all of the various planetary beings on Star Trek all live together on one ship? Their atmosphere requirements must be vastly different.

Kind of an odd place to jump to, I know, but books can make you make unexpected connections.

(this is book #1 on my autumn reading challenge. It does not fit into any of the categories, alas.)

Autumn Reading Plan

I had so much success with my summer reading plan that I decided to make a new plan for autumn. I'm doing this a bit differently this season. For summer, I had a list of 20 books I wanted to read, but I only ended up reading two of them. (I read a total of 13 books in the summer.)  I still want to read the 18 I didn't get to; this speaks more to the fact that there are just so many books I want to read. How do you pick just one when there are 75 or 100 you would likely enjoy just as much?
So for this challenge, I thought I'd make a list of types of books to read. That way, I can consider my mood and what I've recently finished and what the weather is like when I pick what to read next. Some books might work for more than one category and they can count for both. I am also saying it is OK to read books that don't fall into the categories. 
I'm setting the goal of finishing ten books. It's lower than the summer total because I'll be back on two feet again and thus will have less time for reading. Just being realistic here! 
The dates for my challenge are September 15-November 30. (Technically autumn doesn't end until the winter solstice but December is winter in my mind!)  
A book about witches or witchcraft. I realized a few years ago that "witch" is one of my alternate personas, after years of trying to reject that concept. But after I wrote an essay for The Exponent II  titled "What it Means to Be a Witch" I decided to embrace my Amy witch (for context, my definition of a witch is a woman who upsets the patriarchy), and part of that is witches in October.
Possible titles:  Chris Bohjalian's Hour of the Witch, which is more about the persecution of supposed witches than actual witches • The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson, which I've been meaning to read since it came out • The Lighthouse Witches which seems like it is about actual witchcraft  • something else witchy I haven't discovered yet.
A book of poems. I don't know if I can blame it on the pandemic (can I blame it on the pandemic?) but recently I have fallen out of the habit of reading poetry. I'm not sure why, but it is unlike me and part of me misses it (even if a part of me is now so jaded and bitter that even poetry sometimes makes me think "yeah, whatever, belief in humanity blah blah blah") and I need to rectify it.
Possible Titles: The 2021 Best American Poetry, which comes out in September •  The Carrying by Ada Limon  • Dearly by Margaret Atwood • How To Fly (In 10,000 Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver
A contemporary young adult novel. When I read YA (which I've done a lot less of in recent years, for reasons I should write about) I tend to go for fantasy. So I'm challenging myself to read a contemporary, realistic YA novel.
Possible Titles Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach, maybe—budding feminism on the school newspaper staff. (I would've been an excellent person to have on the high school newspaper if I had been, you know. a functioning adolescent.)  •  One Great Lie by Deb Caletti (I mean...Italy and art and history!)  • They'll Never Catch Us by Jessica Goodman (sisters and a mystery and running)
Something from the Booker Short List. I almost always enjoy Booker award winners. The actual winner will be revealed on November 3, and I'm going to hope whichever one I read before then is the winner.
Possible Titles: A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam • The Promise by Damon Galgut • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood • The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed • Bewilderment by Richard Powers • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Something I didn't read from my summer reading list. As I only read two books from the list I made, I have plenty of options. And I still want to read all of them, so...
Possible Titles: You can see that list here

Something I have checked out right now, today, at this moment I am writing this blog post. Because I do far too often check out something and then take it back three (or four!) weeks later without even having opened it up.
Possible Titles: You can see them all in this photo!
Something with an autumn color in the title. So, red, orange, yellow, gold (or golden), brown, or black.
Possible Titles: I don't have any ideas for this one yet!
A book from the non-fiction section. Because I like to be well-rounded.
Possible Titles: Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo Long Player: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them edited byTom Gatti • The Soul of a Woman by Isabelle Allende 
A book recommended to me by someone I care about. Because I feel guilty for not loving a book Becky recommended to me, but mostly because I love talking about books with friends. 
Possible Titles:  I'll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos (recommended by Julie) • A book you recommend! Let me know in the comments something you've read recently and loved. 
And as always, I continue with my goal of blogging about every book I read.
Happy reading! Happy fall!

Book Review: The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser

But I've never thought about what it would be like if they were there all the time and...wondered what they'd think about all my favorite places. Or read things and thought I must speak to them about this, or wondered if they've read that. Or worried or been concerned because they're sad...and I want them to be happy. Wished they were with me when I have to go away. 
I used to be in the habit of saying that I just needed some unknown relative—one who admires me from afar—to pass away and leave me $100,000. That's all I needed to be able to move. I stopped saying that when I actually started looking at housing prices and realized it would be closer to, oh...half a million dollars. From an unknown relative who loved me from afar. 
But when I did say that often (it's a joke, by the way; I don't want anyone to die in the service of my beautiful house dream), Kendell asked me once why I said that. "That kind of thing doesn't happen in real life," he said.
Which is true, but it does happen in romance novels!
Bookshop of second chancesTo fulfill my goal of at least once a year reading outside of my preferred genres, I read The Bookshop of Second Chances, which is based on a very similar scenario: a few weeks after she's discovered that her husband has been having an affair with one of her friends, Thea Mottrom finds out that her great uncle, who lives in Scotland, has left his house and antique book collection to her.
And despite my little joke, I had such a hard time suspending my disbelief to get on board with this book.
As far as romance novels go, this one was pretty good. It entertained me, even if  did have some objections. Thea travels to Scotland, where she discovers that being away from her husband helps her grieve and process the loss of her marriage. She makes friends in the small village that's close to the house her uncle left her, and gets a job at the local used bookshop. She meets Edward, who everyone in the village thinks is a grump but who she can just joke around with (he owns the bookshop).
As I read the book, I thought about how some books are about the reading experience, and that that is what reading is for some readers. People who love and only read mystery novels, or suspense novels, or westerns: that kind of experience is what some readers want, and that is OK. For me, the reading of a romance is about seeing which genre trope the story works with and how it deviates/stays true to it. This book has that rescued-by-the-death-of-someone-I-hardly-know trope. It's also kind of playing with the Pride-and-Prejudice idea of a man who everyone thinks is grumpy, distant, mean, or stand-offish actually being not too bad once you get to know him better. 
All of which is fine. Not exactly what I want from a book, but fine.
But as the romance progresses, Thea's issues with Edward (namely, will he cheat on her based on his history of sleeping with his brother's wives/girlfriends?) just kind of...he says he won't. And then it's resolved, or maybe her concern goes away in the time that happens between the story we actually get to read. Just like...a conversation? That's all it took to resolve it?
Also, I would like to tell Thea that while she might find Edward's grumpiness kind of charming, it will grow old quickly. (From someone also married to a grump. I love him but damn sometimes the grumpiness is just too much.) 
At any rate, I am likely not the best reader to give an objective review of The Bookshop of Second Chances. I can say that I didn't hate it, which is actually, now that I think about it, pretty high praise from a person who just doesn't really love reading about romance and other people's happy endings.
(Am I the curmudgeon in my own life???)
This is book #6 in my Summer Reading Challenge (and the review is numerically out of order because I forgot to post the draft!)

Book Review: The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot

Somewhere, out in the world, are the people who touched us, or loved us, or ran from us. In that way we live on. If you go to the places we have been, you might meet someone who passed us once in a corridor but forgot us before we were even gone. We are in the back of hundreds of people's photographs—moving, talking, blurring into the background of a picture two strangers have framed on their living room mantelpiece. And in that way, we will live on too. But it isn't enough. It isn't enough to have been a particle in the great extant of existence. I want, we want, more. We want for people to know us, to know our story, to know who we are and who we will be. And after we've gone, to know who we were.

One hundred years of lenni and margotBooks about authentic, healthy friendships between women (and by "authentic" I mean "friendships that aren't battered and bruised from too much mean-girling" even though I suppose that friendships based on mean-girl behavior are also real) are some of my favorites, and I think there just aren't enough good ones. The 100 Days of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin is one of the good ones.

It tells the story of Lenni, who is a teenager living in a hospital wing for long-term and terminally-ill patients in England. Her voice is immediately engaging, sarcastic and wry and also full of self-protection and still wanting to be loved and cared for, even if she has terminal cancer. One day, she witnesses something very strange: an old woman, also a patient, who has climbed up onto a garbage can and is trying to fish out something. Lenni creates a scene so the other nurses don't notice the woman, giving her time to get what she needs out of the can (a letter whose origins and importance you will discover later in the story).

A few weeks later, Lenni attends the new art class the hospital offers and finds that same patient already drawing. They form a friendship; the other patient's name is Margot. Margot tells Lenni a story about her childhood in Glasgow, and then another, and as time passes and they attend more art classes, they realize that if you add up their ages, you get 100. They decide to paint pictures about each of their 100 years. So you get some of Lenni's history, some of Margot's, all of it mixed with their experiences in the hospital.

I adored this book. 

Yes, it is about people in a hospital, many of whom are terminally ill. But it is also about sharing stories and how our stories can influence other people. Margot’s story is also about friendship, and marriage, and loss, and choice. It is a book with a bit of history. And art. (One of my favorite quotes: There are some words in the Lord's Prayer that I don't know. But I do know the wart art. It's a necessary inclusion, I think. We should all be artists. Especially if God is doing art in heave; we should follow his example.)  And astronomy. It examines faith and religion and all of the oldest questions—why do some people live and some die? It makes you wonder what sacrifices you are willing to let others make for you. It isn’t necessarily a happy story, but it is one that makes you feel hopeful.

[Sidenote: it also made me think about the differences between the US healthcare system and Great Britain’s. Margot and Lenni both are in the hospital for months, and before that Margot was in a place for elderly people who need a little assistance, and her husband goes to a memory care facility. None of that would happen in the United States unless they were very wealthy or very lucky to have amazing health insurance.]

But deep down, at its core, it’s simply a book about friendship. About how sometimes we find it when we are least expecting it. And how friendships sustain you just as much as romantic relationships. And how it doesn’t have to be bound by gender or age or race, but transcends those things.

I loved Lenni and Margot’s story and am so glad I read it. (Even if I did finish it at almost midnight bawling my eyes out in my hotel room.)

(This is book #13 in my summer reading challenge.)

Book Review: The World that We Knew by Alice Hoffman

That was how evil spoke. It made its own corrupt sense; it swore that the good were evil, and that evil had come to save mankind. It brought up ancient fears and scattered them on the street like pearls. To fight what was wicked, magic and faith were needed. This was what one must turn to when there was no other option.

World that we knewSince I first discovered the author Alice Hoffman, I have been smitten with her writing. She adds just a touch of magic to her realistic stories, just enough that they sparkle. No matter the topic, her books always give me a sense of hope. I had been wanting to read The World that We Knew since it came out, but hadn’t picked it up yet. Then, on my last day in Pittsburg, I had to run into a Target (the only store that sold books and was open early enough for the time that I had) because I had finished my other travel book the night before. There were several good paperbacks on the shelf, but I grabbed the Alice Hoffman one without hesitation. She is always reliable.

The World that We Knew begins with Hanni and her daughter Lea, living in Berlin in the spring of 1941. Hanni’s husband has died, and she has her mother, who is bed-bound, to take care of. They survive by Hanni’s thieving, until one night Lea is nearly raped by a soldier in the street. This helps Hanni know she must do something to get her daughter out of Berlin. Eventually she finds herself talking in hushed tones with the wife of a Jewish rabbi, who she has learned has the skill to make a golem. The wife refuses, but her oldest daughter, Ettie, who has listened at doors all of her life, knows how. She makes a bargain: in exchange for train tickets and new papers, she will make a golem to protect Lea. Of course this is forbidden work for women to do, but they do it anyway, along with Ettie’s sister Marta. The golem is a woman, who they name Ava, and here Lea’s story begins truly. She leaves Berlin and her mother and grandmother reluctantly, against her will, with Ava, Ettie, and Marta, headed for Paris.

As the story progresses, so do the war and the atrocities against Jewish people. Lea and Ava make temporary homes, again and again, as does Ettie, each of them impacted in different ways by the war. They each also begin forming relationships that will sustain them. Other characters enter the story, a farmer’s daughter, the sons of a Jewish mathematician, a village doctor. And always there is Ava, who Lea both loves and resents, keeping her safe but beginning to become more than the self she was created to be.

I think that all books about World War II should teach me something I didn’t know before, and this book did that. In France, the Jewish children were at first separated from their parents. The parents were sent to the camps, but the children were put into orphanages, many of them run by nuns. Eventually, of course, the Nazis overthrew those agreements as well, and took the children, but for a little while they were a bit safer.

I know that many people don’t enjoy novels about this time, but I am drawn to them. Especially stories that focus on women’s experiences in the war. Every time I read one that is well-written, though, I always have a hard time finding words to explain my reaction. I loved this novel—but how can you love a story that is about so much loss, pain, violence, and evil? But I did love it. The characters and the way their decisions and actions impacted other characters, often though they didn’t know it. The way that family stories and memories sustained them, even though they knew their family members had been killed. The examinations the story makes about women’s relationships and ways of creating and nurturing each other. The setting, small villages in the French countryside, forests out of fairy tales, the high peaks and winter snows of the Alps. The characters’ struggles and their sacrifices and courage, and Ava continuing to ask herself what makes someone human, what gives them a soul, what the worth of a life is. Also, the magical realism fits perfectly within the scope of the atrocities of the war, because I see it as a time that is very much like speculative fiction: suspension of disbelief is required.

One of the overarching themes of the novel is the idea that those we love stay near us after they are gone, a comforting thought for me, so that is what I will end with:

When she walked, Bobeshi walked with her. When she made her way through the forest, her mother was by her side. She had once heard the ancient story from the Torah of how Rachel heard her son’s grief when he came to her grave, for her love for him had never died. If you are loved, you never lose the person who loved you. You carry them with you all your life. They were with her as she ran.

(This is book #11 for my Summer Reading Challenge.)

Book Review: The Sisters Grimm by Meena van Praag

Love weighs less than fury—silver against lead on the chemical scale—but they might yet balance one day.

Sisters grimm
The hardest blog posts for me to write are about books I loved, adored, admired, and gave a bajillion starts to—and the ones that I would give only 1 star to. The latter is because I know there is a person behind the book, and because I know that all books are not for all readers and so maybe my negative response is not because of the book itself, but just because it’s not the book for me.

The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag seems like it should absolutely be a book for me. First, it came as a recommendation from my sister, who knows my reading tastes pretty well. Second, it’s a contemporary fairy-tell reimagining, one of my favorite sub-genres. Third, it’s about sisters. Fourth, it’s set in England. Fifth, England in October.

I should’ve totally loved this book.

The four sisters in question are Goldie, Bea, Liliyana, and Scarlett, each of whom are trying to figure out their lives as they approach their 18th birthdays. Each chapter is a day in October, from the 1st to the 31st, and each sister (half-sisters, technically; same father, different mothers) has a section in each chapter. The story starts with them each living their fairly-ordinary lives, beset by challenges, and then as October progresses they begin to have dreams and to meet people who start to make them question whether this is the only reality. Then there start to be chapters set in “Everwhere,” a place not of this world, where the four sisters went nightly as children. There, they each have a unique power or strength. They can no longer remember their experiences in Everwhere, but it is something that starts to fill their dreams. All of this is building to the day when they are each 18 (their birthdays are all on Halloween), when they will have a confrontation in Everwhere with their father and be forced to choose between lightness and darkness, good and evil.

I so wanted to love this book. If only to honor my sister’s recommendation. But, alas, I did not love it. I think it is a cool concept, but the execution just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t keep Liliyana and Bea separate and kept having to flip back and forth to pin down who was who. (It helped that Scarlet and Goldie both have hair that match their names.) It felt muddy and confusing, and much was left unanswered. (Like, what was even happening with Scarlett’s mom? How and when are the Grimm girls conceived? Why was Wilhem Grimm such an evil bastard? What happens to the Grimm girls who choose the dark?) It sets up a conflict between good and evil, but the way it ends is not as climactic as those clashing ideals might suggest. As each girl had a male love interest enter her life during the month, it felt forced in some situations (I did like Goldie and Leo’s relationship, at least initially, but then it devolves into the he’s-a-murdering-asshole-but-I-can’t-stop-loving-him trope and I just, yeah…no.) And the pacing was problematic, a very long drawn out October but then everything happens all at once on November first.

And then—the last page is a retelling of the Goldilocks fairy tale, but with a very different bear involved. It strives to be a piece that encourages women to be loud, to take up space, to be who they want to be, which is great, but it does so by sacrificing kindness and helping others. I think there is room for both and it’s a false dichotomy.

The writing itself was good, and there are some images that will stay with me, but overall, this wasn’t the book for me. I pushed myself to finish it simply because I’d put so much time into it.4

There is a sequel coming but I will not be reading it.

(This is book #11 in my summer reading challenge.)

Book Review: The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs

The plants are trying to write a history of our relationship with the land and some have longer memories than others...there are new areas and ancient areas and sometimes an old ditch marks the boundary between ancient and modern, woodruff and wild chervil.
Lost artI discovered Tristan Gooley's book, The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs, one day at the library when I was working on a list of books about hiking. I was immediately drawn to it because that cover, but I checked it out because I thought it might help me to understand clues when I am out hiking, especially if I am ever lost. I was happy my library had it and waited impatiently for the patron who had it checked out to return it.
I discovered a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is written n a conversational style and as the author shares tips about how plants, trees, lichen, sun, moon, stars, tides, waves, animals, and all sorts of other things can help us find our way across the space we are in, he shares little tidbits of his home country (England) that brings it all to life. 
I did feel that since Utah's climate is so drastically different from England's, not all of his tools apply here. But that's OK, because I'm not sure I will remember all of his tips anyway, at least not without some practice once I can get outside onto trails again. (Oh trails. I miss you!) But what I did learn was to be more observant as I travel through places, to watch for the signs and signals in my familiar areas, and that knowledge is getting me even more excited to start hiking again. (Only a few more weeks, hopefully.)
Glad I stumbled across this one!
(This is book #10 for my summer reading challenge.)

Book Review: The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

“I think,” Hoa says slowly, “that if you love someone, you don’t get to choose how they love you back.” So many layers of strata in that statement. … Some part of you is tired, finally, of the lonely, vengeful woman narrative. Maybe Nassun isn’t the only one you need a home for. And maybe not even you should try to change the world alone.

Stone skyThere are many different threads of meaning one could explore in The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin’s third book in her The Broken Earth trilogy. The persistence throughout time and seemingly all eternity of racism in human societies. Environmental issues. The way trauma continues to influence a person’s decisions. The way the whole third novel is sort of an expansion on Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walked away from Omelas.” How science fiction reveals humanity in both its most awful and most holy forms. The writing style. The ways women cope in the world, no matter how strange said world grows, and how they don’t. What makes us human. The overwhelming difficulty but also the inevitability of figuring out who you are and how you need to be in the world as yourself.

But what stood out to me the most, though, was motherhood. Maybe because I see a small but very real connection between me and Essun. In a sense we are nothing alike, but we share the commonality of being middle-aged women trying to figure out their place in the world, and what drives Essun the most is finding and protecting her daughter Nassun.

One of the marginalia I wrote:

“The earth having consciousness: Of course it does. But why is it Father Earth instead of Mother Earth?”

In the book, the earth itself is waging a war against humanity, because of how humanity has distorted and destroyed the earth. It has a consciousness, an idea I can accept, but it is a male personality, full of vengeance, wrath, the need for retribution, a sort of coldness against its own creations. Undeniably, the earth is entitled to these negative feelings, because humanity has harmed it. Yet it comes for humanity with only rage and the impetus to destroy, with nothing propelling it to try to understand humanity anymore.

I know that isn’t necessarily “male,” know that women can also be driven by anger and vengeance. But to my mind, the absolute lack of any willingness to bend, to understand, to soften isn’t how, in general, women act. So, to answer my own question, it isn’t mother earth because the conscious part of the earth in the story is male.

What Essun brings to this millennia-old conflict is her motherhood. She is almost a foil to the “evil earth’s” anger, even though she herself is angry. In the end, what she wants is to protect her daughter, and she learns as she goes through the journey of the last book—there’s another thread, how this is a woman’s heroic journey (a story I have been looking for)—that she can also care for the other people in her life.

Is the whole story just an extended metaphor for learning that as a mother, in the end, what is needed most is for you to love your child for who they are? I wouldn’t take it that far because the story is so rich and complex and elegant and terrifying and detailed and layered and good.

But it did rip my guts out, especially my mother guts.

This is because right now I am in a season of transitions. My job is changing. I will soon be an empty-nester. I have long understood that “mom” isn’t my only role in life; in fact, I’ve never wanted motherhood to be my only role. But there is a difference between understanding this and living it. How do I draw meaning from life if I am not actively raising someone? Who am I then?

But to the very end, Essun is Nassun’s mother.

I am keeping my review fairly vague because this is a book to experience first and think about as you go, rather than knowing even an idea of what happens.

And I think I could write, oh, roughly four thousand words about how the series has impacted, changed, and bolstered me.

But what I want to remember most clearly, out of everything (even though I want to remember every bit of how it made me feel) is that it was Essun’s need to mother her child, even once she, in some ways, didn’t need her mother, is what saved the world.

It wasn’t called Mother Earth because Essun did that.

(This is book #9 of my Summer Reading Challenge.)

Book Review: The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nielson Spielman

To me, spirituality is less about Sunday mass than it is about love. It’s that simple. When you treat others with love, consistently and fully, you honor your god or goddess. Some of the holiest people I know have never stepped foot in a church.

Star crossed sistersThe Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nelson Spielman, tells the story of the second-born Fontana women, who have been cursed for generations to never find love or marriage. Emilia, a second-born sister, lives contentedly in a Brooklyn suburb surrounded by her large Italian family, working at her grandmother’s bakery, helping her older sister with her kids, and living in her small apartment. She chafes some at her Nonna’s restrictions for her life, and wishes her sister would include her in her book group rather than having her bake the dessert for it, but mostly she’s happy enough.

Then she gets a letter from her great-aunt Poppy—another second sister who was banished from the family many years ago for reasons Emilia doesn’t quite understand—requesting that she travel to Italy with her. Nonna forbids it but Emilia finally finds some courage to choose to do what she wants, and decides to go to Italy even though she doesn’t know Poppy very well. Her cousin Lucy (another second daughter) also goes along.

Most of the story unfolds in Italy. We get to watch Emilia and Lucy’s transformations as they process the world away from their family. And, in flashbacks, we learn Poppy’s story of what happened to her in the 1950s before she immigrated to the United States.

I loved being in Italy via this story. Some of the places Emilia sees—Venice and Florence—are places I got to visit, too, when I went to Italy. I loved seeing Emilia grow into herself and find a way to be who she is rather than who her family wanted her to be. Seeing her grow close to Poppy while immersed in Italy was lovely.

I really, really liked this book.

But to explain why I didn’t love love LOVE it, some back story. A few weeks ago I was at work and a patron asked me for a book recommendation in a way I hadn’t ever heard. She told me that she has tons of extra stress at work right now, and the COVID and the politics and the bad air are making her anxious. She said “I want to read something that is good and entertaining, something with an emotional depth, but nothing TOO deep and nothing too complicated or hard.” She thought for a second and said, “You know. Like a book you’d buy at Target.”

I was kind of amused by her idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I think that “fiction you buy at Target” is a great description. Good story, interesting characters and plot, something that pulls you in and keeps you reading. But not really “high literature” and nothing that rips your guts out of your tear ducts. The kinds of books that focus more on characters and the story than on the writing style. You know. A book you’d buy at Target.

Both types of books have value and goodness, but *for me* I need that little extra glitter that a more literary writing style can add.

The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany is Target fiction. I enjoyed it and I think lots of other readers will love it. It just didn’t quite sparkle for me.

(This is book #8 of my Summer Reading Challenge.)