Book Review: The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

I felt fine. No; I felt like I’d woken up after a long sleep and had a good workout in the fresh air and a really nice stretch and was now contemplating with interest the idea of a hearty lunch. Sitting on edge in a classroom for hours surrounded by fluffy peeping freshmen waiting for one mal to pop out at me: nightmarish. Summoning a river of magma to instantly vaporize twenty-seven carefully designed attacks at once: nothing to it.

Last graduateThe Last Graduate, the sequel to A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, picks up right where the first book left off. We are still in the Scholomance with El and her burgeoning friendship (minus a few seniors) and she must immediately begin working on surviving her senior year. (No summer holiday at this magical school.)

I think writing in interesting ways about second books in a trilogy is one of the hardest things to do. You don’t want to give any spoilers for the first book and you don’t yet know how the third book will end things. (Although: I have my suspicions!)

So instead of writing much about the plot and characters, what I will say about The Last Graduate is how it spoke to something I have been wrestling with in my current life.

The recent dissolution and/or alteration of one of my longest-held relationships has made me question every aspect of myself as a decent, functioning human being with value to the world.

So reading more of El’s adventures, as she discovers that some of her “evil sorceress” traits might actually be helpful? Well, that gave me a pause in my self-loathing. It made me take a little breath and ease up on berating myself; it found me some space to question whether I am the abhorrent problem or if this is something else.

And that is something I love about reading speculative fiction. Sure, it’s all a made-up, impossible world, but the good ones aren’t just about magic or fairies or doors between worlds. They are about how wherever you find yourself as a human being, you are a human being (even if you are potentially able to destroy the world with your evil-sorceress panache). And, in this case, figuring out how your true self can (or cannot) interact with people you want to trust.

Plus it was just a good story, and El’s machinations for saving other students, her process of learning how to work with other people within the scope of her own El-ness, gave me a sense of courage I didn’t have before.

And that cliffhanger!

I’m excitedly anticipating the end to this trilogy this autumn.


Book Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

She says it's too easy to call people evil instead of their choices and that lets people justify making evil choices. Because they convince themselves that it's okay because they're still good people overall inside their own heads. And yes, fine. But I think that after a certain number of evil choices, it's reasonable shorthand to decide that someone's an evil person who oughtn't have the chance to make any more choices. And the more power someone has, the less slack they ought to be given.

Deadly educationI’ve been anticipating Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy since, oh…spring of 2020 I think. (Masks & hand sanitizer & nose swabs & terror & sweet, sweet anticipation of a favorite author’s upcoming release all combined!) I didn’t, at first, realize that it actually would be a trilogy, but once I did I reluctantly decided to wait a bit. I just get annoyed with starting unfinished trilogies and then having to wait and even eventually reread the first book so I understand the second and…

And thus I didn’t read A Deadly Education until last month, when I was lying around with stitches and an elevated foot (yes, again, sigh). Because then I could immediately start in on The Last Graduate and only have to wait until September for the third book, The Golden Enclaves.

Perfect!

This trilogy is set in a world where some people are wizards, and once they are old enough, they begin attracting the attention of evil, destructive beings, and so must be sent to school to learn how to fight the beings, control their power, and hone the use of mana, which is the energy that magic comes from.

El (short for Galadriel) has been prophesied to be a dark sorceress capable of destroying entire enclaves (the places where the wizards live). Her mother, however, is a benevolent witch who has taught her to examine things from different angles of morality, and so El is fighting hard against her own nature. She is cranky, difficult, and solitary, as she didn’t grow up in a wealthy enclave but in a small house with her mother in Wales.

At the Scholomance, the students can ask for spells from the nether that surrounds the building, and if they have enough power or energy, they receive them, but they are customized to each student’s magical strengths. So, for example, when El asks for a spell to light her room, which she receives is one for eternal flame (responsible for burning down the Library at Alexandria); everything the school (which is sentient to some extent and responsible for all of the actual teaching) does reinforces her potentially-evil nature.

The severely divided class structure complicates El’s problems, because—as  she’s not an enclaver—she doesn’t have an unlimited source of mana but must create and store it on her own.

She’s a loner just trying to survive a school full of creatures trying to kill her while she struggles to subdue her powerful nature.

When Orion Lake, the school’s hero, saves her from a Soul-Eater, the rest of the students start to think that they are dating, and slowly El gains some social capital. Friends, even. Which is good because the influx of evil creatures and terrifying monsters seems to be growing.

This book had a surprising spark for me. By principle, I avoid novels that focus on characters with wealthy families. Which maybe isn’t fair of me, but it’s just not something I enjoy, the escapes of the rich and powerful. I can relate much more to the underdog, the character who comes from a place of poverty, the unpopular one. The one who has to scrabble.

This book made me push back against that tendency. It made me wonder about myself—am I a reverse snob? Prejudiced automatically against the wealthy, unable to feel compassion or empathy for them because of my own bitterness?

El herself has to learn that the wealthy kids from enclaves, who come armed with literal vats of mana, spellbooks passed down through families, and instant allies—they aren’t completely selfish and uncaring (at least, not all of them).

She has used bitterness, meanness, and aloofness as shields, and when she starts to form relationships she has to figure out how to be more raw in the world. More vulnerable. Even with the wealthy enclave kids.

I’m not sure everyone will enjoy this book. The storytelling style is very interior, deeply within El’s perspective, and while she is so vividly drawn I feel like I’ve met her (maybe also because we share more than a few traits) she isn’t always a pleasant, fun lens to view the world through. It is heavier on description than dialogue and has a lot of inner monologues. None of which are negatives for me but I know not everyone will love that style.

Sometimes it’s easy to be disappointed by a favorite author’s newest offering, especially when you’ve prolonged for so long the turning of the first page.

But I was not disappointed. A Deadly Education was a perfect companion for a couple of recuperating-from-surgery days for me.


Book Review: The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz

I will tell them stories from the life of a master curator: the pilfered Bruegel Ten, the mishandled matchbook, the stolen Bible, the exploited final chapter of a famed novel, the busted typewriter, the poet’s lost note, and the stolen notebooks of The Bell Jar—disparate objects, each one solely possessing the power to absolve us of our unforgivable sins against them.

Last confessions of sylvia pI’ve written about how discovering Sylvia Plath changed the trajectory of my life more than once. Like many Plath lovers, I was and continue to be entranced as much by her life story as I am with her poetry. She will always be an interest of mine.

But if I’m totally honest, there are more poems by another confessional poet, Anne Sexton, which are touchstone poems of mine. “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” “Her Kind,” “The Truth the Dead Know,” “The House,” “Sylvia’s Death” and many others have given me courage, helped me feel less alone, and given me literary understanding of what feminism means.

And yet I’m not sure Anne Sexton and I could’ve ever been friends. Especially after reading her daughter’s memoir, I’m not sure she was a fantastically kind or even moral person. (This begs the question if Sylvia Plath and I could’ve been friends and I think the answer is probably not, but for different reasons.)

Can you separate the artist from her art?

Should you?

But the truth for me is that both of these writers—who both died before I could read—have had an immense impact upon me. I wouldn’t be the same person without them.

So I approached Lee Kravetz’s novel, The Last Confessions of Sylvia P., with immense caution.

This is because the story of Sylvia Plath’s life is intrinsically woven with her death, and because it is easy to sensationalize or romanticize it. Easy, and done, and I won’t engage with that, even if her suicide is what drew my attention to her in the first place.

But it is also a novel about two writers whose work I love.

So I went ahead and read it.

The book isn’t really about Sylvia Plath, but about some of the people whose lives intersected with hers: her therapist and, yes: Anne Sexton. In a sense, this is much more the last confessions of Anne Sexton, who is called Boston Rhoades in the novel. And she is not painted in a flattering light. In fact, I’d say the Anne Sexton you find here is more a caricature: obsessed with fame and with beating Sylvia Plath in popularity. While I’m certain that the real-life Anne Sexton would not be a bosom friend, I am also certain she was more well-rounded than the novel presents her as.

The book also tells the story of Estee, who is an curator for an auction house; the last object she is going to curate before retiring is a handwritten copy of Plath’s The Bell Jar.

These three women rotate around Sylvia Plath’s story in interesting ways.

It was an intriguing book: a good mystery around where the handwritten notebooks came from and how they got there, an exploration of the midcentury social experiences women writers had, a study of how mental health therapies have changed.

Despite my initial hesitation, I am glad I read it. It reminded me of how it felt when I was 19 or so, delving headfirst into the worlds of poetry and feminism. I have lost some of that enthusiasm and wonder along the way, and this book nudged me to find it again.

But I continue to remain annoyed by the title. I think the author understands that a certain demographic will read anything about Sylvia Plath, but this isn’t Plath’s story.

Instead it is a story about how Plath influenced others.

And I can absolutely relate to that.


Book Review: Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

Suddenly Ellen was angry. She was angry because she had not guessed that it was Otis instead of Austine who untied her sash. She was angry because she had slapped Austine. She was angry because Austine had not explained what had really happened but, most of all she was angry because she and Austine had not made up. The quarrel had lasted so long that Ellen supposed now they would never make up.

Ellen tebbitsThe other day when I was covering a desk for the children’s department, I walked past a book shelf in the junior fiction section. Then I turned around and went back, because I had just spotted something I hadn’t thought of (consciously, at least) in decades:

Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

This funny little book tells the story of Ellen, who becomes friends with Austine after they discover they each share a secret: their mothers make them wear winter underwear.

I glanced at the cover and the feeling of the book flooded back to me: something about a girl hiding in a broom closet so the other ballet-class friends didn’t see her embarrassing underwear. And something about brownies. And friendship. And a beet???

I took it home and reread it. And laughed so hard.

I loved Ellen Tebbits as a kid. I still love her and can totally relate to her struggle with underwear. (Thank God we’ve both moved past that little fun bit.) I had forgotten bits of her story, but my body still remembers how reading it made me feel. As a shy, anxious kid (we didn’t call it “anxious” back then though; I was “nervous” a lot), I had a hard time maintaining friendships, and Ellen’s friendship with Austine helped me at least know that all friendships had times when the other person ignored you and talked about you behind your back. And that everyone goes to school knowing it will be a lonely day when no one really talks to you.

(I wish I could hug third-grade Amy and somehow let her know it would all be OK.)

Reading a book written in 1951 in 2022 (and that means it was already almost thirty years old when I read it as a kid!) was an interesting experience, and I couldn’t feel the same way I did as a kid. Mainly this time I noticed the mothers, and how different they are from each other. And how integrated sexism was in the story (all of the kids who get a speaking part in the play are boys, and Otis Spofford is definitely graced with the benevolence of “boys will be boys”).

But I also found a little lost piece of myself in its pages, so close I could almost hug her.


Book Review: Braver Than You Think by Maggie Downs

Beyond that, I wonder if this is even my tragedy to understand. The struggle of my own mortality feels selfish in the face of those trying to reconcile their humanity, and I have no right to stake a claim in their personal suffering. I can’t escape the fact that I am a foreigner here, and I always will be. I can grieve here, but what right do I have to feel so sad?

BraverI think to some extent, reading is about recapturing the way a certain book made you feel. You read a book and love it, and then you want a different book that makes you feel the same feeling.

This is true for the book Braver than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime by Maggie Downs. I read it because it is a book about a woman dealing with her parent’s Alzheimer’s, but mostly I read it because I loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on The Pacific Crest Trail and wanted to feel something similar. Something about how travel can transform you.

They are not the same book.

When Maggie Downs was little, her mom spent many hours with her, reading National Geographic and imaging the places she would visit. But she never had the opportunity; not long after her children were grown and out of the house, she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s.

So Maggie decides to take a year-long trip like the one her mother wanted to take.

She travels to many different parts of the earth, Africa to South America to Asia. This trip coincides with the first year of her marriage and the year her mother dies, so she is torn. Is she selfish to be traveling rather than spending time with her (dying) mother and her new husband?

But she continues on.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons. I learned a lot about different areas of the world (although very few of her experiences made me want to travel the way that she traveled). Since my dad died of dementia, I could relate to many of the struggles she tried to work through (although sometimes it felt like she was angry at her mom for her disease, as if she couldn’t remember her daughter anymore out of a spirit of malice). The loss of a parent is something I am still trying to come to grips with, so many of her responses helped me.

But I didn’t love it like I wanted to.

Partly because I had a hard time forgiving her for something she does on the Nile. One of her excursions is to white-water raft the headwaters of the Nile, and when she survives it, she drops her orange peel in the water, imagining it swirling all the way down to the Mediterranean, someone finding it and wondering about its origin. This kind of arrogance offends me: a river isn’t about your need to leave a mark on the world (but the orange peel probably could exist for that long, which is why you carry out what you bring in), and it illustrates that she and I don’t look at the world in the same way.

Mostly it’s because she writes like a reporter writes (which makes sense considering she is a reporter) rather than like a poet would (which is the kind of writing I respond to the most).

Even though it didn’t evoke the same response for me that Cheryl Strayed’s travel book did, I am glad I picked this one up. It sparked some new travel interests for me, and reminded me of a story in Paris that I still would like to turn into an essay, and reminded me that it is OK I am still grieving for both of my parents’ deaths. And other, newer losses in my life, honestly. “I’ve had to cultivate a certain amount of faith to continue moving through the world,” Maggie writes, and I have to nod my head. That’s a tidy summary of life as time moves forward. It takes more and more faith—not in God, necessarily. In yourself.


Book Review: Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.

Between the world and meLast week I had the opportunity to lead the book club discussion at the library I work at. I chose the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A few weeks before the meeting I was talking to a colleague about it, and it hit me: this could actually be a really, really difficult discussion because of where I live. (Deep in the heart of Utah County, where people say things like “all lives matter” without even flinching, where that trumpy way of thinking about race—oh, all those Black people are just overreacting and it’s not like slavery is still a thing so can’t we just move on?—is very prevalent.) Plus, what was I thinking, a white woman in a white community trying to a lead a discussion about a book that explores how racism impacts people of color?

But I had picked it because it still feels important to me, for all of us to have these conversations, even if my community doesn’t necessarily share my values.

There were no fireworks at the discussion, but it went about as I had expected. One member loved the book like I did, but the rest were some varying level of that trumpy thought process. One woman said something that’s stuck with me, about how the author seems to have a chip on his shoulder and is making himself miserable. If he’d just focus on what has changed instead of worrying so much about how things used to be, he’d be so much happier. He’s impacted by racism because he chooses to be, and if he just chose something different he’d be fine.

I didn’t say what I really felt about that, which is that that is a way she looks at the issue is also a choice. We all bring ourselves, our race and culture and religion and experiences, to every choice we make. I strive to choose to look beyond myself, to allow that others’ experiences are different than mine and that my role isn’t to tell them how they should feel or act or choose, but to listen and try to understand. (Actually, what I really thought was it doesn’t seem like you understood the point he was making but I remained professional and didn’t say that.)

Another question I asked, which is something I ask in all the book group discussions I lead, was “what other books by people of color have you read that have impacted your understanding of racism?” I listed some of mine: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Beloved, An American Marriage, Audre Lorde’s collected essays. Then: crickets. No one had a response to that question. Then one of the group members asked “but isn’t that racist? I don’t read books based on the race of the author.”

Sigh.

Sometimes life contradicts imagination. There was a part of me (the hopeful part that chose the book in the first place) that imagined a great discussion about what these white people learned about living as a Black person in America. But that conversation still can’t be had, at least not here.

I don’t know how to write that without sounding like I’m judging, or like I think I’m smarter or better than others, and that’s not my intention. I just don’t think in the same ways most of my community does, and I am so hungry for discussion that makes me feel seen instead of strange.

All of which is to say: Recently I reread Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I read it when it was fairly new, and my memories of it were vague. I read a library copy before, but this time I bought my own, and it is full of underline and comments. While I don’t think Coates’s philosophies are without argument—he takes an awfully long time to realize that “the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know.” But I disagree heartily with the book club member’s idea that he should, basically, “just get over it.” “Look on the bright side” is, to my mind, a particularly Mormon way of thinking, and while yes, it is not great to always be stuck in the darkness and misery of human life, not looking at what is real is equally, if not more, damaging. It’s not about carrying a grudge, it’s about hitting up over and over against the fact that as an African American, he is treated differently, and I appreciate him sharing the details of what that is like so that I, at the very least, understand that all perspectives are not the same as my own.

I’m glad I read it if only so I could be reminded of this metaphor:

The right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

And the rest of that concept speaks directly to the book club member’s perspective:

There is no them without you [remember, this is a book written as a letter to his son, so the “you” isn’t you the reader but you, the author’s son], and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream.

I’m not entirely outside of the Dream. (I’m not sure any white person can be.) But I am trying to be aware of how my life influences others in ways that lessen their divinity. The patron is still deep in the Dream and can’t (yet?) see that not everyone is there with her.

But I’m also glad I reread it, if just for what he wrote about writing. How writing is a way of thinking, of figuring out what you think about what you experience. And this line, which struck me hard not because I’m white and he’s Black but because we both love words:

All I then wanted was to write as those black people danced, with control, power, joy, warmth.

And this is me entirely taking out of context what he wrote. He didn’t write it for me, a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman. But as myself, I want that too. Not that I want to write like others, but that I want to do it with that control, power, joy, warmth. As an expression of who I am.

I’m glad and grateful that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this book and that I got to read it. (Reread, and also listen to him reading the audio.) It has helped me understand the world better, and that is a source of power.


Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

I’ve heard it said that the Holocaust has no survivors, that even those who managed to remain technically alive were so irreparably damaged, that their spirit, their soul, the person that they were supposed to be, was gone forever. I’d like to think that’s not true. But if it is, then no one on Earth survived this war. 

One of the cool things in my life right now is having an adult kid who likes to read (and has time to). My son Nathan and I have great conversations about books. I mean...I’ve always tried to talk to my kids about books and what they think about what they’re reading. Or to suggest things to them that I have loved. But it’s a different feeling when they’re adults and you don’t have to censor much, but can just talk about the issues. We recommend books to each other a lot, and it makes me happy!

World war zA few months ago he told me I had to listen to the audio version of World War Z by Max Brooks. It didn’t feel like holiday reading for me, though, and then I was just so stuck in the dark in the middle of winter that I couldn’t delve into a zombie war until spring had at least started to come our way. In fact, I started listening to it just a couple of days before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The audio of this is excellent. It has a whole cast, rather than just one reader. Nathan Fillion is one of the readers, which kind of made my day. (I love him.) The structure of the book is perfect for this kind of reading. 

Listening to a novel about a war—even if it was with zombies—while an actual war was starting in the world was a strange feeling. (I was also reading a book about World War II, Still Life, and I actually had to set it aside for a bit because three wars happening in my head were just too much.)  It really drove home all of the ways that humanity is horrible to each other (both WWZ and the current war have vacuum bombs, for example), the way that we take so long to figure out this war that we’re in because we’re still fighting the last one. How leadership quite often moves too slowly.

But also sometimes gets it right.

Unlike the movie, the novel World War Z is told not in a straightforward narrative, but as an oral documentation, ten years or so after the fight against the zombies is mostly over. So it is a collection of people’s stories from across the world, told interview-style, of what they did and how they survived the battles. The stories that really stood out for me were these:

Father Sergei Ryzkhov, from Russia. He describes being a religious person in an atheist country, and his realization that the soldiers who were infected had to kill themselves was, in his mind, offensive to God. So he takes over the task, which becomes the act of Final Purification. Even just revisting this to write about it brings me to tears. It is so awful and so—noble isn’t quite the right word, but close. But then it devolves into assassinations in the name of purification and there it goes again: humanity’s consistent turning to inhumanity.

The burning of Kiev. Even if I hadn’t read this when Kiev was literally under attack, it would have stuck with me: the enormous statue Rodina Mat falling, “her cold, bright eyes looking down at us as we ran.”

Jesika Hendricks, from Wisconsin. She is a child who flees north when the infestation starts, with her parents who think it will only be a couple of months. The choices they have to make, and all that’s contained in something she says: “By Christmas Day there was plenty of food.” The will to survive no matter what, the struggle of being a refugee, the degradation of the natural world. So much of her story hit me hard.

Maria Zhuganova, also from Russia. She was already in the army when this started, and when her group refused to shoot someone who was infected—a rebellion of sorts—the Russian army instituted Decimation. They were divided into groups of ten and each group had to kill one of its members. The rest of her story, where she ends up after the war and what she does, is equally awful.

I just realized that half of the stories that really had an impact on me are Russian stories. And Ukraine isn’t Russia but on its borders. Is this because I read the book while Russia was invading? Maybe. In the book, many countries do horrible things. But that way of thinking…that, to me, is one of the masterful parts of the book. That he manages to get inside the thought processes of so many different nationalities, to show us both the differences and the similarities.

World War Z is one of those books that there isn’t a word for: a horrible, devastating story but so well written it must be called excellent. But how do you call “good” something that lays out so clearly the worst of humanity? Even if there are a few good moments.

So I just keep coming back to the quote I opened with, which really is what will stay with me from this book. The idea that wars actually never end, but continue feeding and influencing the next ones. True in fiction, true in real life (Putin claiming the war is to “denazify” Ukraine is him dragging the impact of what happened in World War II into the present day is only one example). If I have learned anything over the past half-decade it is that humans are less loving, kind, and good than I thought. From politics to health to very personal relationships, my faith in humanity has been broken, and this book confirmed those feelings.

And yet I am still glad I took Nathan up on his suggestion. I am glad I read this book, and glad for the timing of it. Not because it gave me hope, it didn’t. But because it helped me see that we all continue to be a part of this world, impacted by history as we make what will be history. It is a process we have always engaged in and maybe that is what it means to be human. Or at least a part of it.


Book Note: A Spindle Splintered by Alix Harrow

In that moment he reminds me of Charm’s parents, or maybe my own: A person whole love is a burdensome thing, a weight dragging always at your ankles. 

Spindle splinteredI absolutely loved Alix E. Harrow’s books The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches. So I was excited to read her novella A Spindle Splintered.

This is a contemporary retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Zinnia is terminally ill, struggling with a rare condition that affected her after industrial pollution infiltrated the town she grew up in. No one else who contracted the condition has lived past 21, so her twenty-first birthday is a big deal: it’ll likely be her last.

In an attempt to live as much of her life as possible, Zinnia’s already completed her college education, majoring in folklore, and she’s obsessed with the Sleeping Beauty tale. So, to celebrate her birthday, her friend Charm finds an actual spinning wheel for part of the party decorations. When the party’s about to end, Zinnia spins the wheel—and is shuttled into an alternate universe, where a real-life princess is under a spell that matches the Sleeping Beauty curse.

How Zinnia, Charm, and Primrose manage to escape (or not) their fates is the bulk of the story.

While I loved reading this story, I wanted it to be more. It felt very much like a novella, in fact: a complete story, but not...not textured enough. A bit more shallow than her other works. Or, to look at it a different way: it’s a fun book, but I wanted it to have more substance.

But I’m still glad I read it because it was a puzzle piece for me. That quote I opened with: burdensome love that drags around your ankles. I’ve felt that about other people in my life, but I never really realized that *I* am that weight to someone else in my life. Reading those words didn’t take that realization away, nor did it fix an of this issue I’m struggling with, but it gave me a frame of reference. Word for the experience.

Which is all part of the magic of reading. 


Book Note: Outlawed by Anna North

I had work to do, and as I saw the possibility of doing it recede into the brightening distance, I grew ever more afraid that I would lose myself—not in the way Kid had, but slowly, every day blanking out a piece of my heart and mind, until I faced some sheriff’s gun or executioner’s gallows with no fear or sorrow, because that which was worth protecting had already ebbed away.

I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of westerns. I do have a deep and abiding affection for Lonesome Dove and True Grit and stories about the American West, pioneers and cowboys and Native Americans and just that enduring myth of the freedom of the time (we just finished watching the TV show 1883 as another example). But I don’t love the conventions of the genre, the black-hat villain and the white-hat protagonist, the bad Indians and the good white settlers. Which is almost saying the same thing.

It’s easier to say that I like historical fiction set during the settling of the West.

OutlawedAnyway, what I am always drawn to are genre mashups, and I’ve been meaning to read Anna North’s novel Outlawed for a while now. And I finally picked it up after the enduring experience of librarianship: seeing a book on a discard cart and remembering you wanted to read it, so you pick it up during a slow moment and fall instantly into the story. Yep, this one’s coming home with me. (Even if you already have 27 other things checked out.) 

The book is definitely not a traditional western, nor is it authentic historical fiction (based on all the things that actually might’ve happened). Instead, it is a feminist reinterpretation of the western genre. Ada lives in an America that was recently decimated by a plague. This has caused a shift in society, wherein fertility is highly prized. Indeed, if it seems you are infertile, you’re likely to be a witch and thus need executing (or at least being left to languish in a prison for the rest of your life). Ada’s mother is a midwife, so she’s grown up knowing about delivering babies, women’s bodies, and other medical issues. She never imagines she would be infertile, but to her surprise, she is.

Rather than live in a convent, and to escape the sheriff who is still searching for her to satisfy the community’s need to execute her, she flees West, to find the Hole in the Wall Gang, a notorious group of bandits lead by The Kid who steal and blow up trains and make all sorts of mischief.

I loved this book so much. It plays with the conventions of the western genre in such an amusing and educated way, and I loved how vividly the setting (Hole in the Wall is an actual place in Wyoming, which I now want to visit, that was the fabled hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) comes to life.  But mostly I love Ada. She is intelligent and brave but she also makes a bunch of mistakes. Her pain over her marriage gets to be soothed in a surprising way. And the path she takes to discover herself, dusty and rocky and stumbling, felt authentic to me.

I’m glad to add another western to my list of “I don’t like westerns.” 


Book Review: The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

She became aware of a presence in her own mind. The touch of the Siren was quite unlike that of the Unspoken Name. This felt like a caress of warm water, rising slowly among smooth stones. Like the Unspoken Name she promised oblivion, but more softly. How sweet and soothing it would be to give way to her. Her voice curled around Csorwe like coils of vapour, gentle, ethereal.

Unspoken nameAfter reading two romance novels that fell flat for me, I decided to go back to a book I started in late December. I had enjoyed the first fifty pages but then gotten side tracked for unknown reasons. A good fantasy was exactly what I needed, I thought, to get back into a good reading groove.

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood is a high fantasy novel set in a universe composed of different worlds that are connected by gates one passes through via airships. This made me think a bit of Laini Taylor’s novels, but here the worlds and gates aren’t hidden or secret. Moving between the worlds involves going through a gate, then traveling through the Great Maze, a place I imagined as a gigantic landscape made of canyons in volcanic stone; one must know how to move through the maze to get to the next gate and thus to the next world.

Some of the worlds connected through the maze are dead or dying, but others are vibrant.

The story starts with Csorwe, who lives in a sort of convent. In her community, she is the chosen Child Bride; when she turns 14 she will be sacrificed to this world’s god. A few weeks before this is to happen, a traveler stops at the House of Silence and asks for a prophecy, which the Child Bride has the responsibility of giving. This man, Belthandros Sennethai, ultimately changes Csorwe’s life by offering her a choice: she can go into the cavern and be consumed by the god, or she can leave with him. She makes the latter choice, and the story takes off.

This was exactly what I needed: a book I loved falling right back inside of. Csorwe’s transformation starts with her choice to abandon the god she was pledged to, and works toward another sort of choice. I loved the layered worlds, the adventures Csorwe experiences, and the changes she makes as she grows. (I am keeping the summary purposefully vague as I think it is best, as with almost all fantasy novels, to just read it and discover the story as you go.)

While the book has the characteristics that make it fit within the high fantasy genre, it still felt fresh. I can’t say the worldbuilding is entirely unlike anything else. The Great Maze is similar to the Wood between the Worlds in Narnia, and Echentyr’s dead city reminded me of Charn. The influence of so many gods made me think of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin, and there is a character who is killed when her body is transformed into different jewels (which happens in another of Jemisin’s works). There is that bit of a feel of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and maybe The Ten Thousand Doors of January although the books were only published a year apart so maybe that is just coincidence. 

But I didn’t have that “here I am, reading someone else’s take on Tolkein” feeling. Maybe because this is a high fantasy story that also includes libraries and one of the main characters is a librarian? Oranna (the librarian) is actually my favorite character in the book, perhaps because she is also an older woman. She is supposed to be the antagonist but I couldn’t read her that way—instead, she was just a person who refused to follow everyone else’s rules. (She must be in her forties.)

What I didn’t expect was that there is also romance in the story. It isn’t the focus, but is definitely one of the motivating factors. And after having been disappointed by those two romance novels I read earlier this year, once I realized that is where the story was going I got a little bit leary. But it was excellent (perhaps because it wasn’t the main focus), slow to build and never overly romantic romance.

While it wasn’t perfect (I think the conflict between Csorwe and Sennethai was not built up enough, for example, and Shuthmilli’s choices felt too abrupt) this was a good book to get me out of my slump. And: when I picked it up, I thought it was a stand alone, but turns out there is a sequel. A sequel that was released on the same day I finished The Unspoken Name. I’ve already requested the library to purchase it and am looking forward to going back into Csorwe’s layered world. (Hopefully with more Oranna.)