Book Review: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

“Neither myths nor mysteries can hold a candle to the most infinitesimal spark of hope.”

Back in 2017 when we were planning a family trip to Hawaii, I knew I needed to find THE BOOK. Long and compelling and well-written but not TOO literary (“beach read” means something different to me than most people, I have learned!), thoughtful but not too dense. After much thought and book perusal, I chose The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, even though they broke my rule of “no unfinished trilogies” because A. It’s N. K. Jemisin and B. The third book was being released just a few months after our trip.

Fifth seasonI picked correctly: The books were perfect for a trip to Hawaii. (Yes, I did bring both!) The world of the books is brutal, vicious, and stony, hard and unrelenting, which somehow connected a bit to the Big Island landscapes, but the story is not of this world. Or, at least…not of this version of the earth where we live. It is set on a planet that seems to be made of just one enormous continent (although no one is sure as this is not a true seafaring age) that is constantly rumbling and erupting and quaking. The “fifth” seasons are the times when something huge happens in the world’s geology, causing a shift in the environment that will drastically challenge humanity’s ability to survive on the planet at all. Communities prepare for fifth seasons, and keep records of the past ones with rules that helped people make it through the fifth seasons, so that humanity can survive.

Within this world, there are different “use castes,” the roles that people taken on within their communities. And then there are orogenes, who have the ability to “sess” the earth. When trained, they can stop earthquakes, maintain harbors, settle volcanoes. They can also use their orogeny to draw power from the earth and living things in order to kill. This ability to kill overrides their ability to calm the earth; the societies fear orogenes and when their abilities (which are genetic) become known as children, they are often killed. Those who aren’t are gathered by Guardians, people who have an ability to control orogenes, and taken to the Fulcrum where their abilities are honed until they can control them.

Essun, the main character, is a woman orogene who is passing as a teacher in a small community. She has a husband and two children, both of whom are also orogenes, but she is keeping that a secret. When her husband discovers the children’s abilities, he kills the younger son and kidnaps the older daughter. At the same time, a huge event has happened, an enormous earthquake that has literally broken the continent in two, setting off a fifth season that might not be survivable. When Essun discovers her dead son, she sets out across the continent, trying to catch up with her husband so she can kill him and get her daughter back.

One of the things I love about Jemisin’s work is that it is unlike anyone else’s. Is this science fiction? Yes, as is it’s based on geology and plate tectonics. Does the “magic” of orogeny make it fantasy? Maybe, except it’s not really magic because there is a biological source for the ability. It is, I suppose, post-apocalyptic. And apocalyptic as the world as they know it is ending. It has qualities of dystopian fiction but it is not a dystopia, really. There is a school for extraordinary children. It has governmental and societal controls. It touches on history. It is also deeply connected to humanity’s penchant for environmental destruction. I guess it’s science fiction, but not like anything else you’ve read.

I loved the first two books in this series. I didn’t quite finish the second one until after our trip to Hawaii, and then I bought myself the third one as a Christmas gift. But I never actually read it, because…who knows. Sometimes other books get in the way. Also, I think the story felt so connected to beach and sun and wind and volcanoes that reading it in Utah just didn’t feel right. So The Stone Sky, the final book in the trilogy, sat in my TBR stack.

And then I read The City We Became and I wanted more of N. K. Jemisin. Her style and her creativity and her…something. Her flare.

But starting up with a third book after finishing the second more than three years ago seemed intimidating. So I decided to listen to the first two books.

Last night I finished The Fifth Season. I was trying to explain to Kendell just how good it was, and I honestly just couldn’t. Partly because understanding why I like it so much requires an understanding of books, genre, writing approaches, gender studies and the history of racism and literary theory and all of that is knowledge he doesn’t care about (as a person who doesn’t really love reading. Which is fine.)  So I’ve been thinking to myself: Why do I like this story so much? This writer, yes, but specifically this series?

And I think it’s this: nothing is wrong in the world except what is always wrong. Racism. Being a part of a community but only if you perform the ways you fit in and hide the ways you don’t. The loss of history and thus the loss of the ability to learn from our history. The unyielding way humanity breaks the world that made us. People controlling others out of fear.  How belief in religion or myth or tradition can cause us to make blind, illogical decisions that hurt us in the end. The way we create civilizations and cities and towns, which are really fairly amazing creations, but then we always somehow set about destroying them at the same time. People being cruel to other people. The compromise that some groups of people have to make in order for others to thrive. This is the way the world with humans is.

In a sense, it is unrelentingly bleak. But she manages to balance this with other things. The communities Essun becomes a part of during her life. The ways she learns to stand up for herself. The endlessly creative ways that people create living spaces—there is one community, mostly women, that lives within an enormous geode, for example.

It isn’t really a hopeful book, but it isn't full of gloom either. I don’t think every reader will love it, as the writing style is not thoroughly mainstream and the story isn’t fluffy. But those qualities are part of why it is so good to me. It doesn’t drown you with despair (a la GOT) but it also doesn’t lift you up with false optimism. For me, good science fiction is less about the “realness” of the science (several reviewers complained that this is fantasy, not science fiction, because the sessing ability is like magic) than about the way that people live within the science, and that is what N. K. Jemisin does here. She creates a world controlled by implacable scientific forces, many of which are the result of human meddling, and then sets her characters lose to live there.

It is real and vibrant and yes: so good.

Book Review: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Mattie said all the things that looked dead were just dormant. As soon as the rains came they would sprout leaves and grow. It happened so fast, she said, you could practically watch it.

I think if you are a lifelong reader you’ll share this characteristic: images from books stay stuck in your head, even when the details of the story or the characters get lost. Sometimes they get jumbled up so you’re not even 100% sure which book that image came from. And then you decide to reread something and are sometimes surprised: Ah, that image goes here!

Bean treesI first read The Bean Trees in about 1990 or 1991, and Taylor’s adventurous spirit was inspiring to me. (I still want to take a cross-country road trip on my own one day, but hopefully with a more reliable car.) She leaves the small town in Kentucky where she has spent the first twenty or so years of her life, having managed to avoid the fate of many of her high-school classmates (pregnancy and early marriage), wanting to create some new version of herself. (She also changed her name; in Kentucky, she was Marietta.) She’s planning on settling wherever her car gives out and she makes it all the way to Tucson, with a little wrinkle along the way: in Oklahoma, at a small diner along the highway, someone gives her a baby. In Tucson her tires give out, and so she starts making her life there.

To read this story when I was also young and trying to create a new version of myself was one of those happy bookish coincidences, when a book comes into your life at exactly the right time. I didn’t do anything brave like Taylor, but her adventures gave me the idea that people along the way, whatever way I went, would help me. An idea that didn’t exactly come to fruition, but it still gave me courage. And every once in a while, an image from the story would filter into my head: Taylor giving Turtle a bath for the first time and discovering both that the baby was a girl and that she had been abused. The park in the desert city with its bower of wisteria. The canyon where Taylor and her growing tribe picnic and the cold stream she jumps into. The desperate and unknown fates of the immigrants helped by Mattie. Lou Ann’s salsa and Poppy’s red outfits.

This year, for my turn at hosting the library’s book club, I chose The Bean Trees. Considering our current issues, I thought that reading a book that explores the problems of immigrants would be timely. It was—part of the discussion turned to this topic, and the members had many good things to say, even if we arrived at a consensus that we haven’t solved this problem yet because it is so complicated.

What I didn’t expect was to find the book home of one of those floating images.

I’d carried it in my head for all those years: some characters admiring a flower that only bloomed once a year, at night. In my head they were like fuchsia flowers, except larger and made out of silver the texture of gold flake, and they had a lemony scent. That image would sometimes just float into my head, usually when I was at a nursery or working in my flower garden. Of course I could have researched it, the kind of flower, the book it came from, but those things didn’t really matter. It was just that image, a silver flower blooming in the dark. I just kept it and thought about it when it came to me.

It’s in The Bean Trees. In the book, when Taylor is trying to figure out how she will be able to keep Turtle legally, one night the neighbors knock on their door and ask them to bring Turtle over for a surprise. It is the night blooming cereus, a plant that looks big and kind of ugly and very dry for almost the entire year. It only blooms once, and they manage to know when it will bloom when Poppy, who is blind, smells it. “The flowers themselves were not spiny, but made of some nearly transparent material that looked as though it would shrivel and bruise if you touched it. The petals stood out in starry rays, and in the center of each flower there was a complicated construction of silvery threads shaped like a pair of cupped hands catching moonlight.”

I’m glad to have the context of this image, even if I didn’t need it, because it helped me understand why it has stayed with me (aside from the beauty of the actual image of the flowers). It’s a little heavy-handed (this is, after all, Kingsolver’s first novel), but the meaning resonates: sometimes you get to find light in darkness. Sometimes someone who loves you brings you beauty when you need it. Peace, which is fleeting, still blossoms when you least expect it. Watch for the signs. Stop and be fully inside the beautiful moments.

There is always a bit of danger to rereading something you once loved. You bring a different self to a story that hasn’t changed. You know other things that you didn’t know when you first read it, and those things can make it so you despise the story now. I’m grateful that didn’t happen with The Bean Trees. I’m glad I reread it so I can remember to watch for the signs of a flower about to blossom.

Book Review: The Grace Year (WITH SPOILERS)

Isn’t that the biggest sin of all for a woman? Not to be of use?

Grace yearThe novel The Grace Year by Kim Liggett is set in a society, The County, where sons are valued and men hold all of the roles within the society, but women exist only for the capabilities as a mother (who will hopefully produce man sons) and a wife. Women who are not chosen as wives work in the fields or markets, without any social status or wealth. Enjoying sex is not a concept for women; they are expected to lie “legs spread, eyes to God.” In the County, men believe that women come into a type of magic during their sixteenth year. As the magic will do damage to men, these teenage girls are exiled into the woods for an entire year, their “grace year,” where they find their magic, let it work through their bodies, and come home (if they survive) pure and ready for marriage. Aside from being away from civilization and such things as food, clean water, shelter, medicine, or social structures, the girls are threatened by poachers. If a poacher manages to capture a grace year girl outside of the encampment where they live, he kills her and her body is cut into pieces, which are then eaten by the men in the County as a way for them to “consume” the women’s magic and keep it for themselves.

The main character is Tierney, who, as the novel begins, is preparing for her grace year. She is unlikely to receive a veil before she leaves—no one will choose to marry her, because she is “Tierney the Terrible” who likes to be outside in the woods or the fields rather than being in the proper places for women. She is OK with this; she just wants to survive her grace year and then come home to work in the fields, where she will not have to be beholden to a husband or a family but can at least be outside moving her body. Things at the veiling ceremony do not go as expected, and then her grace year begins.

This is a hard book to discuss without giving away any spoilers. If you haven’t read it but want to, just read this paragraph but no further, as the plot twists are worth discovering within the story rather on someone’s blog. I listened to this book and the reader, Emily Shaffer, was excellent. I almost gave up on it, though. The characters weren’t grabbing me and I felt frustrated by the mean-girl aspects, even though they are important to the plot. I stuck with it, though (mainly because the next book I wanted to listen to wasn’t available yet!) and about one-third the way through I started loving it. The writing style is fluid and moving; the pacing is a bit uneven but not terribly so. Many reviews I’ve read have compared the book to The Handmaid’s Tale, probably because of the highly restrictive community, but for me it was more of a dystopia+religious-cult+nature-adventure blend. I had a few issues with the story but overall I am glad I read it.


Spoilers follow!

Once the girls are at their grace year encampment—which is on an island off the coast of a large lake, and is surrounded by cedar trees made into a fence (I could never envision this fence, as it is sometimes described as tree-like and sometimes smooth and not-of-nature)—the tribalism The County nurtures in the women comes to a full manifestation. Someone has to be in charge, and Kiersten, a girl who was popular and beautiful at home, takes that role, even though Tierney knows many of the skills they will need to survive for a year in the woods with very little. Kiersten thinks that things like clean water in rain barrels (instead of the water from the well, which is coated with a green moss) is pointless, as their magic—figuring out what it is and then how to get rid of it—is the point. This section was the height of my frustration, as Tierney is clearly a better leader and yet all of the girls in her alliance slip, one by one, onto Kiersten’s side. Even though that might be what really would happen in such a situation (the dynamics of girl-on-girl cruelty are fascinating and myriad), the girls’ inability to see how they are damaging themselves by aligning with her power made me crazy. And Tierney doesn’t stand up for herself much, but lets Kiersten bully her in a way that doesn’t seem authentic to her.

The girls think their magic will be some sort of supernatural power. Kiersten, of course, “finds” hers first: she declares her magic is that she can make anyone do whatever she wants, just with her power, and when girls do something unexpected, she takes credit for their actions. Since in The County what happens in the grace year stays in the grace year—literally no one talks about their experiences, not even mothers to help their daughters—there is a sort of mythology that has built up around the types of magic. Flight, invisibility, the strength to make the sun set or rise, for example. Tierney is having none of it; as a person who has spent time in the woods and with an observant and scientific nature, she doesn’t know exactly what the “magic” is but doesn’t, deep down, believe it is real.

I found the concepts that the story builds on to be fascinating. What is the power or magic that women hold? If men fear it and try to subdue it, what happens? Could they remain in power if women didn’t allow men to take their magic away? If you are a woman living in a society that is constructed to keep you powerless, how do you find power? These are topics I love exploring through fiction (The Power, Gather the Daughters, All the Truth That’s In Me for example) and so some of my…dissatisfaction, I guess, in this book was that it played it safe.

I think the men in this story are afraid of women’s sexual power. Thus the “eyes to God” rule and the non-existence of women’s pleasure. That is one of the forms of magic that the grace year is supposed to strip away from them. Tierney, as a character who is starting to see the strings the men use to control them, is in a unique position to figure this out, and then, when she runs out of the encampment to escape Kiersten’s violence, she has a bigger chance. She is rescued by a poacher named Ryker, who doesn’t skin and then kill her, but instead takes her to his blind and tries to heal her. He does this because her father, who takes care of The County’s medical needs, also secretly helps the poachers. Tierney’s father saved Ryker’s friend from an illness, but only on the condition that Ryker would make sure Tierney survived her grace year.

And herein lies my deepest struggle with this book: they fall in love. Even though Ryker has detailed drawings of her naked body, marking all the scars and her father’s brand, so if he does decide to kill her she can be identified by The County. Even though that is his entire existence and identity: killing grace year girls and cutting their bodies apart. I mean, he’s new at this and has never actually killed a grace girl yet, but it’s his career path. Falling in love with your captor, finding out he’s really a captor with a heart of gold and is only doing it for some noble reason (here, to save his mother, who has taken six of the County’s banished girls under her wing) is one of my least-favorite tropes in a book. And it’s especially disturbing to find it in an avowed “feminist” novel.

But I also think a romance is essential to the point of the story, which is that one of the women’s powers is their sexuality. I just deeply, deeply disagree with the shape the relationship takes. Plus, their “love” is built on so little: him taking care of her. At one point he starts explaining his plan to his friend, that he and Tierney are going to escape, go west, find another settlement where they can be together, and she doesn’t even know she has feelings for him yet. Plus, if sexuality is one of the magics, I think it was necessary to actually witness the sex, rather than the fade-to-black sex.

The other very real magic that women hold is their relationship with other women. Kiersten knows this and uses it to her advantage, and honestly it is the magic I think the men want the women to keep. Or at least, keep it in the way it develops during the grace year, the Lord-of-the-Flies brutality that women wield against each other. If they keep that tool and use it against other women, it makes it easier for me to remain in power, because in essence women do much of the work for them. (The opposite form of this power is women standing up for women, which is just barely explored in the story. Perhaps there will be a sequel.) When she goes back to The County after her grace year, Tierney finds that women are starting a very quiet and careful rebellion away from that type of magic.

Anyway. Here I am at almost 1700 words about one book. Clearly it struck many nerves for me. It is far from a perfect book, but I am glad I read it. I would love to discuss more with you if you’ve read it too.

Book Review: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang

Because this land they live in is a land of missing things. A land stripped of its gold, its rivers, its buffalo, its Indians, its tigers, its jackals, its birds and its green and its living. To move through this land and believe Ba’s tales is to see each hill as a burial mound with its own crown of bones. Who could believe that and survive?

One of my clearest memories from childhood: we were driving home from Salt Lake City, winter evening, fresh snow, full moon. I looked out the window and saw a long, tall mountain, glowing the way mountains glow in those conditions, even in the dark. Especially in the dark. I said, “Mom! What is that mountain called?” because I wanted its name, wanted its identity. Wanted to know it. She said “ummmm, I don’t know!” in an exasperated tone and kept driving.

Another, this one a palimpsest, a layering of doing the same thing on different days in different seasons. I loved to sit in our backyard and look up at the mountains. There was a specific slope, green in spring, red for a few days in October, that I especially loved. I would look up to that slope and think I want to be right there and then I would imagine what it might be like, the softness of the grass, the brilliance of the leaves. This looking and imagining was a thing I did all through my childhood and then even after, when I came home as an adult, married and with kids.

How much of these hillsThose two memories kept coming back to me as I read C. Pam Zhang’s novel How Much of These Hills is Gold. Not because the landscape in the book is the same as mine; the book is set in the hills of California during the Gold Rush. Rolling hills with creeks and rivers polluted from mining. But because of the characters’ connection to the land: “If I had a ba,” Lucy’s father says, “then he as the sun that warmed me most days and be me sweaty-sore on others; if I had a ma, then she was the grass that held me when I lay down and slept.” My connection is different from theirs, less physical and more emotional, less immediate and more romantic. But just like Lucy, I am tied to this landscape; the mountains shaped me in ways I might not even fully understand.

How Much of These Hills is Gold is a brutal novel, which is fitting as it tells a brutal story. Lucy and her sister Sam (who is a boy for most of the story) are Asian-Americans, living with their parents Ba and Ma in a chicken coop converted to a tiny house on land owned by the coal mine. Sometimes Lucy gets to go to school, others she works in the mine (for far less pay because she is a girl). They don’t have enough food and their living conditions are squalid no matter how they work to keep the place clean; their only richness is in that desolate land and in stories. Ba tells them stories about how the land used to be and Ma about the far-away place she came from, which they can catch the scent of in the rare times Ma opens the trunk she brought from there.

After a particularly rainy, difficult season, Ma loses the baby she was pregnant with and dies, sending Ba back to drinking. When he, too, dies, Lucy and Sam start on a quest of sorts, carrying the trunk that Sam put Ba’s body in on the horse they stole from Lucy’s erstwhile teacher, looking for the perfect place to bury him.

This book. I go back to that word: brutal. // harsh, severe. // unpleasantly accurate and incisive. // grossly ruthless or unfeeling.

No. The book itself is none of those things. It is so beautifully written that the prose itself makes me think of gold. The act of telling Lucy’s brutal story in such a way helps underscores the harshness of it. The ruthlessness, not only of the land but of the society. The unfeeling way that people turn away from their poverty because of their race. There is no real reprieve for any of the characters, because even as it seems like things might be improving, the atmosphere grows ominous with some future disaster.

This isn’t a novel that everyone will love. Its structure is untraditional and the ending will be deeply frustrating to readers who like everything neatly tied up. It isn’t mainstream fiction and it is difficult to read. (I had to take a break in the middle, put it down and read something fluffy just to give my strung-out heart a break.) But the world is so compelling, the writing so beautiful, the characters so real. It makes you consider: what is gold? In the sense of: what has value, and there are no simple answers to that question. And that connection to the land—for me, that was the thing that made this book resonate for me.

Book Review: You Have a Match by Emma Lord

It feels like something’s opened up to me—not only landscapes and sweeping views, but the future. It’s not clear, but it’s wider than I ever remember it feeling, full of possibility, of places I can go someday.

You  have a matchSome YA books read, to me, like books anyone might read. Others feel like they have gotten right to the heart of their intended audience, which is teenagers, not nearly-50-year-old women. You Have a Match by Emma Lord reads like the latter for me. It tells the story of Abby, who decides to take a DNA test to support her friend Leo, who wants to find out more about his biological family. When the results come back, Leo doesn’t have any matches—but Abby does. Turns out she has a sister, Savvy, and the rest of the book is about them figuring out their relationship and their family secrets.

I am drawn to books about adoption, and this one also includes a bit of hiking, and it’s set in the Pacific Northwest (a place I would like to be more familiar with), plus it’s about sisters (all those being topics I like in books), so I was always going to read this, even before it Reese Witherspoon picked it as a title in her YA book club. I started reading it in the car after Kendell picked up my holds for me, and it was just the escape I needed. (Is that weird? Sometimes I need an escape from a book I’m reading and loving but am also finding dark, which is currently How Much of These Hills is Gold; I intend on picking it back up today but I needed a break from the sadness.) For me (acknowledging that I’m hardly the target audience) it read as a somewhat fluffy, somewhat earnest story that teenagers will love.

OK: that is a chunky, clunky paragraph and I’m finding this review hard to write! I liked this book. I read it really quickly and even stayed up late last night finishing it. But I also found the writing style…well, also clunky. (Maybe it wore off on me?) There were several times the transitions between conversations were actually missing, and the plot points felt like bullets in an outline: first this happened, and then this, and then this, but they didn’t feel vital, if that makes sense. So I’d fall into the stream of the story but then get yanked back out again by the way the story was written. (All the while reading as quickly as I could to find out what the secrets were, and how Abby and Savvy came to be raised by different parents.) Also…the ending. The ending was so neat. Way too tidy and happy-ending for me.

Which of course brings me to my original point: this was a fun book that teenagers will love. Perfect for its intended audience. But as I am not that audience, it fell a little bit flat.

That said, there is a concept I want to remember from the story. Abby’s other friend, Connie, helps her make decisions by making a Connie list. A twist on the usual pros/cons idea, the question is: what would happen if I didn’t do this thing I’m struggling to decide? What would I lose out from not taking this chance? As I am struggling to make some life-altering (or keep-my-life-the-same) choices right now, I am intrigued by this idea.

Glad I read it, glad it helped me escape, glad to have been introduced to that way of thinking through decisions, but not a book I will savor and cherish.

My Year in Books: The 2020 Edition

One of my yearly goals is to write something about every book I finish. (Sometimes I also write about the books I didn’t finish, but not often.) I’ve mostly accomplished this for the past five years, but 2020 was an exception. I’m not really sure why I dropped the ball, as I read some books that I loved, but there you go. It was 2020 after all! (Also the fewest books I’ve read in a year.)

So this is obviously out of chronological order (I usually post this in the first week of January), and fairly incomplete with links to what I actually thought about each book, but still it is useful to me. I like being able to come to an organized list rather than having to search my blog (which, let’s be honest: almost never finds what I need it to find, after 15+ years of blogging and an apparently not-very-developed search algorithm, thanks Typepad) when I want to know something about a book I’ve read.

No more waiting, here’s my list of books I read in 2020:

Audio Books:

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melmud.  A society of fundamentalist Christians living on an island after a supposed devastation has destroyed most of the world. I enjoyed it until the end, which thoroughly annoyed me.

The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick. An assistant librarian in a small town in England turns her life upside down when someone leaves a book of fairy tales for her to find—one clearly written by her grandmother, who is supposed to be dead. This book falls squarely into the “up lit” genre, which I am just beginning to explore.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. A generational novel about two Black families who are connected by an unexpected teenage pregnancy. I loved this book so much. I think I need to read the print version and then I will write about it. 

Scars like Wings by Erin Stewart. This young adult novel tells the story of Ava Lee, whose family was killed in a fire she barely escaped from. When she must go back to school, she starts coming to terms with her scars, both the physical and emotional ones.

Young Adult Books:

Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams. I’m sad I didn’t write anything about this book because I LOVED it. Agnes and her sister try to escape from the fundamentalist cult they’ve grown up in, only to discover that the world outside is suffering from a virus that might kill all of humanity. Which sounds like a lot but wow, the author did a great job with this story.

Break the Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli. Gymnasts vying for the Olympics. How could I not read this?

The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid by Kate Hattemer. This one is right on the border…a little bit too sexy to be firmly in the YA category, it’s more on the “new adult” side, but still shelvable in YA. (I discussed this with two of my coworkers just to be sure.) It’s the story of Jemima Kincaid figuring out her last days of high school while she navigates what it really means to be a feminist. 

Love and Gelato by Jana Evans Welch. After her mother dies, Lina spends a summer in Tuscany with the father she never knew. I’m a sucker for most things set in Italy so this was fun.

Historical Fiction:

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman. I read this prequel in the continuing story of the Owens family of witches in October and it was perfect. It tells the origin story of the Owens’ family’s magic. I loved it! The last book in this series, The Book of Magic, comes out next October and I will definitely be spending my time with the Owens women again.

This Tender Land by William Kent Kruger. Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy run away from the orphanage where they are being abused and travel across the American Midwest by foot, through the landscape impacted by the Great Depression. I still think quite often about Odie’s evolving relationship with God.

General Fiction:

Girl by Edna O’Brien. Tells the story of a teenage girl who is kidnapped by Boko Harem and then later escapes. “Good” in the sense of moving, powerful, unforgettable, and so well-written. But a devastating story.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I think I read Little Women at least ten times as a kid, so this was clearly a reread. Undertaken with a little bit of trepidation as what if I couldn’t love it anymore? And there were definitely some annoyances that my 10-year-old self never saw, but I’m glad I reread it. (I also realized, upon revisiting that post, that I meant to write another one.)

Speculative Fiction:

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag. A woman and her daughter travel across the world that is transformed after global warming has caused the seas to rise.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal. Explores the impact of syphilis on a royal family. I enjoyed this book but am not sure I could recommend it to just any reader. You have to be willing to enjoy a book that almost never lets up on darkness and despair. I loved the ending. But it was a hard book to get through, even for me.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow. I love love loved this book about finding doorways to other worlds.

The Dark Tower Series:
This was my main reading this year. It kept me company during the pandemic and was the perfect way to distract myself from worrying about imminent death.

The Gunslinger

The Drawing of the Three

The Wastelands

Wizard and Glass

The Wind through the Keyhole

Wolves of the Calla

Song of Susannah

The Dark Tower

Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune

We are who we are not because of our birthright, but because of what we choose to do in this life. It cannot be boiled down to black and whit. Not when there is so much in between. You cannot say something is moral or immoral without understanding the nuances behind it.

House in the ceruliean seaThe House in the Cerulean Sea tells the story of Linus Baker, who is a caseworker for DICOMY: the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He visits orphanages, where said “magical youth” live, to make sure the children are being taken care of properly, and he sits and a tiny desk with hundreds of other caseworkers, doing paperwork. At work, he is a consummate rule follower, never deviating from the RULES AND REGULATIONS. After work he goes home to his small house on Hermes Way to make dinner, maybe listen to some records, and hang out with his grumpy cat.

One day he is called away from his tiny desk by Extremely Upper Management and is given a special case. He is to travel to an island that houses a very unusual orphanage. Instead of a few days, he is to stay there for a month. And he is definitely not supposed to deviate from the RULES AND REGULATIONS. In fact, it is his very dedication to them that earned him this opportunity.

And thus does Linus begin to actually experience the world, by way of a handful of magical children. Talia is a gnome child who grows a beautiful garden on the island, never letting her long beard get in the way. Phee is a sprite who is learning how to make trees grow and forests flourish. Theodore is a wyvern who loves collecting shiny things, especially buttons. Chauncey is a blob with tentacles, origin unknown, who wants to grow up to be a bellhop. Sal is kind of like a werewolf, only he transforms into a little dog and only when he is afraid (and he is afraid often). And Lucy is the son of the devil and thus possibly the antichrist. Plus there is Arthur Parnassus, who runs this orphanage, and Zoe, the adult sprite who the island belongs to.

This is a story of love, acceptance of differences, figuring out your place in the world, being brave, standing up to racist assholes, and change and possibility and breaking rules. Everyone I know who’s read it has loved it. Adored it. Swooned over it.

Dare I confess?

I didn’t love it.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t hate it. And it did a remarkable thing for me: it made me laugh. Don’t get all jealous of this amazing personality trait of mine, but not many things are funny to me, even the things that everyone thinks are funny. I am totally a stick in the mud. So for a book to make me laugh out loud…that is rare and sweet and precious to me.

I’ve taken a few days to write this review because I wasn’t really sure if I could explain why I didn’t love it. After thinking, I have come upon this realization. It has everything to do with my stick-in-the-mudness. It has everything to do with “it’s not you, it’s not me.” The book is perfectly lovely and sweet and well-written and funny and insightful.

I just don’t really love whimsy. And it is definitely whimsical. And magical. I’m glad I read it, but my dry-and-bitter heart might just not be the audience for it.

Have you read this one? Did you love it?

Audio Book Review: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor

Be your own place of safety, she told herself, straightening. No crossbar in the world could protect her from what lay ahead, and neither could a tiny knife ticked in her boot - though there her tiny knife would most certainly remain - and neither could a man, not even Akiva. She had to be her own strength, complete unto herself.

Daughter of smoke and boneIn December, when I started wrapping Christmas presents, I decided I wanted to listen to an audio book. Something I’d read before, so if I didn’t pay exact attention I wouldn’t be totally lost. As I had just received my Illumicrate edition of Laini Taylor’s novel Daughter of Smoke and Bone AND as it was available on my Overdrive app, I decided to listen to it.

She’s one of my favorite authors, so of course I’ve read these books before. The first one twice, in fact. (Alas, I only wrote a book note about the last one, Dreams of Gods and Monsters.) It’s also a series I love recommending to many different kinds of readers at the library. Ours is shelved in the YA section, but I think this reads just as well for adults. It’s intensely romantic without being overtly sexual in its descriptions, so it’s a good recommend for my conservative community’s preferences for their daughters. And, honestly, even though the main character is a girl, it also has such great male characters that boys will like it too. (Nathan has read it, and I’m pretty sure Jake has too.

One thing I am hesitant with as far as audio books go is the reader’s voice. It takes me about, oh…a minute of listening to know if I like it or not, if it fits well with how I tink I’ll “hear” the story in my head (or if I’ve read the book, how I did hear it), and if it doesn’t I won’t keep listening. (My least-favorite narrator was for the novel Swamplandia!, which was entirely too young. My favorite match of a narrator was for the novel The Postmistress, as she had the perfect east-coast accent. I also think that was the first audio book I finished all the way through.) The narrator of this series, Khristine Hvam, was exactly right for telling Karou and Akiva’s tale.

Listening to these audio books reminded me of remembering a dream. That feeling you have when something at, say, 2:25 in the afternoon, triggers your memory of what you had dreamed (but kind-of forgotten) the night before. I remembered the vague outlines of the story, rather than the details, but just before a part of the story was told, I’d start to remember it. This was a kind of pleasure, the voice triggering the memory and the way the images came into my mind before I heard the words describing them.

I listened to about half of the first book in the trilogy while doing Christmas prep (wrapping and the Christmas-eve baking) but then let it go until my surgery, when I picked it back up. (Glad it was still available!) And I have to say, this trilogy has been the perfect companion to my recuperation. It’s taken my mind off my desire to be outside moving my body, kept me entertained when I wasn’t reading, and just…Karou, Akiva, Zusannah et al became sort of my companions. Which sounds a little bit cheesy but is also true.

What I love about this trilogy (and her other books) is that it doesn’t feel derivative of anything else. It has elements of other fantasies, angels and fantastical beasts and connections between worlds, but she creates something entirely new with them. I also like Taylor’s writing style, which is lyrical without being overwrought. Prague is a place I want to visit simply because of how it is described in this series. And I appreciate that she doesn’t stop her characters from suffering. They have painful experiences, some of them their own faults, and so they grow and change over the books.

One thing that kind of made me laugh is that I remembered the ending almost entirely wrong. In my head, it ended with a group of seven characters leaving through a portal to go out into the layered universe to fight the Nephilim. And it was nothing like that at all, but even better, because in my memory Karou and Akiva never got to be together, but, in the end, they do.

I’m glad I chose this to listen to over the past month!

Book Review: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

All of that stuff is true. All the other worlds that human beings believe in, via group myths or spiritual visitations or even imaginations if they’re vivid enough, they exist. Imagining a world creates it, if it isn’t already there. That’s the great secret of existence: it’s supersensitive to thought. Decisions, wishes, lies—that’s all you need to create a new universe. Every human being on this planet spins off thousands between birth and death, although there’s something about the way our minds work that keeps us from noticing. In every moment, we’re constantly moving in multiple dimensions—we think we’re sitting still, but we’re actually falling from one universe to the next to the next, so fast that it all blends together, like… like animation. Except there’s a lot more than just images flipping past.

The older I get, and the more books I read, the pickier I become about what I actually want to spend time reading. While I firmly believe there is a book for everyone and thus no genre or writing style is “better” than another (by “better” I mean…proof of some sort of superior intelligence being inherent within the reading of it), that doesn’t mean that I have to, or even want to (yes! Even as a librarian!), read all the books or all the genres. I like specific things, and I also like to be challenged in specific ways by books—I like a book that has something that resonates with part of my identity, but also has other things that make me question my ideas, beliefs, and/or worldview.

In my twenties I loved fantasy that was set within a medieval European world view. I still love that kind of fantasy, but only if it has some new edge to it; I don’t want to reread the same old story by a different author. Same with Tolkien-esque tales…there’s got to be some kind of twist. And the cool thing with fantasy is that it has endless possibilities. This is one reason N. K. Jemisin is one of my favorite writers. Her novels are fantasy…but like nothing else. In fact, even putting them in the “fantasy” genre is kind of limiting, as there is often science involved in her world. Speculative fiction might be better. She also explores racism, gender issues, cultures, the influence of prejudice, art, dogma and belief within a society. All while building believable, living worlds. (Maybe because they include racism et al.)  At any rate, she is a trope maker rather than an adherent, and I have loved the places she’s taken me.

City we becameHer newest book, The City We Became, is an urban fantasy about New York City. It is based on the concept of parallel universes, or the multiverse. This is a concept I am fascinated with, as I often think “who would I be if I had made a different choice?” about different turning points in my life. Not really with regret, but curiosity. In the multiverse concept, there is another universe where I did choose differently and so I exist there as still myself but in a different kind of life. Some books explore those possibilities, but in The City We Became, the multiverse goes in a different direction. What if cities become living entities within the larger realm of the multiverse? And what if other entities don’t want the cities to exist? And what would happen if New York became such a living city?

I’ve only been to New York City twice, so I can hardly call myself a person who knows the city. Not at all. But I did love my experiences in New York. I’ve also had a tiny little taste of other cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Florence, Venice, San Francisco. Even with those small experiences, I can recognize how each city has its own spirit, its own identity, even within the similar characteristics cities have. So I was absolutely willing to go along with where the story took me. Recognizing some of the places the characters experience in New York was the thing that resonated with me.

In the book, each borough of New York City has its own avatar, a person who becomes the larger entity of the borough, able to protect it and also see parts of the multiverse. There is also a New York City avatar, another person who is the whole of the city, and he is the avatar who IS the city. (Obviously once you are reading the book, this is explained in less clunky ways than I am explaining.) Each avatar embodies its borough’s qualities in different ways. The NYC avatar must, as with all living cities, battle against the other forces that don’t want the city to live (in New Orleans, for example, the avatar lost the battle and the city didn’t become alive). He wins, but only barely, and falls into a sort of coma. Then, as each borough avatar begins to realize what is happening to him/her, their conflict is to come together so they can wake him.

All while battling the invasive force that wants to kill New York City, so it isn’t a living city.

Reading this book as the end of trump’s presidency finally came about was an interesting experience. The destructive force moves throughout the city as a sort of vegetative mass, tendrils growing both in the structures of the city and within the people themselves. When, for example, the Manhattan avatar manages to destroy the enormous tendril he finds on the FDR, the remnants are squished on tires and then driven throughout the city. It spreads partly by the decisions and actions of people, which to me felt deeply representative of what is happening in the United States right now…this strange creeping dogma spreading, and almost everyone is oblivious of the damage it is doing.

One thing that frustrated me is Aislyn, the Staten Island avatar. She is the only white avatar, and she resists joining the others. Part of me thought…wait a second. Why are we making the white character the narrow-minded, blinded-by-fear character? But…I pushed back against that thought. Why can’t the white character be the weak one? Just because *I* am also white? And then I thought…see, this is why I love Jemisin. She pushes me to think outside of my own comfortable world view. Aislynn annoyed me because she acted in ways that white people DO act but in ways I wish they (we?) wouldn't. But I am also looking forward to seeing how she changes. Hoping she least thinking she has the capacity to change.

(Mostly unrelated side note: If I had ever had another daughter, her name would’ve been Aislynne Hannah.)

The book ends not with a cliffhanger, but also clearly the story isn’t finished. I didn’t realize this is a planned trilogy until after I had bought it, but it doesn’t matter. I will happily break my “no unfinished series” reading rule for N. K. Jemisin. Also, I cannot wait to go back to NYC, because there are so many places this book introduced to me that I want to see.

***WARNING*** I’m going to make a list below of what is happening with each of the characters at the end of this book, so that when the second one comes out I can remember what seems necessary. So, don’t read any further if you don’t want spoilers.


Aislyn is still in Staten Island with the Woman in White, basically allowing her to overtake that borough.

The other avatars made it through waking up NYC.

Sao Paolo is going home.

Hong made it back to Hong Kong.

Veneza became the fifth avatar.

Madison drives the white Checker cab.

The enemy is the city of R’lyeh, which comes from Lovecraft’s stories. Maybe actually read some Lovecraft before the second book comes out?

Remember: Brooklyn’s house is about to be taken from her by the “Better New York” foundation; Bel Nguyen is Manny’s roommate (I hope we see him again); Connell is the guy that Aislynn’s dad brings home but is also the name of the baby her mother aborted.

Book Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (edited at the bottom)

"Ideas are so much wilder than memories."

Invisible life of addie larueThe Invisible Life of Addie Larue begins near the end of seventeenth-century in the small village of Villon, France, when young Adeline LaRue convinces her father to take her into the city with him, to sell his wooden carvings. In Le Mans, Adeline sees and experiences many new things, and as she travels there with her father she hears his stories, and she is forever changed by her travels. Even as young as she is, she knows she doesn’t want the small life Villon would give her. Her friendship with Estelle, an old woman who lives on the edges of the village and teaches her about the Old Gods, provides her with a sort of escape for her energy; as she learns about leaving offerings and praying to the Old Gods, she seemingly manages to avoid marriage. But on the day she cannot, she breaks the rule Estelle has taught her: never pray to the Gods who answer in the dark, and in doing so makes a sort of Faustian bargain: her freedom for her soul.

Of course, as with all such bargains, she doesn’t understand the transaction until it is too late: her freedom comes at the price of memory. She remembers everything, but people forget her as soon as they leave her presence. Thus, she begins a new life, where she must figure out how to live without being able to really exist for anyone else, for longer than a day at most. As she lives, we get to experience three hundred years of history, from Le Mans to Paris to America, with a few trips to Italy and Germany along the way. She becomes adept at thievery and at getting by on her own, and then one day in 21st century New York, she meets someone who remembers her.

I’ve been really excited to read this book, but have been saving it for this time after my surgery when I knew I would have a lot of reading time (I have). It’s the first book I’ve read in I don’t even know how long which I’ve finished in two days. And I think my anticipation was worth the wait: I thoroughly enjoyed the story. I loved seeing how Addie manipulates the world so that she can get along within the context of having to start every single day anew. (It also, though, I confess, reminded me of the feeling I deeply don’t enjoy when traveling, that time between getting off the airplane and actually being inside your hotel room, when you feel lost and unconnected with no familiar places around you.) I liked experiencing her experiencing the change in society as time passes. I adored the thread of art running through the story, what that little glint says about where creativity even comes from.  The addition of the character Luc, who is the God she made her bargain with, made the book into something else…not just a wandering through history but an exploration of what it means to be human. And her relationship with Henry, the first person to remember her in 300 years, was the kind of romance I appreciate—intense and sharp, but not too perfect.

But I did wish some things were different. I actually wanted more of Addie’s story; I wanted to explore Florence with her, for example, rather than just being there for one night. See what her impressions of New York were as it changed during the twentieth century. Come to interact more deeply with the artists she influenced. I found it improbable that she could teach herself to read, because without context how can you even begin to know what sound each letter on a page makes?

What I didn’t like the most is the light that the book places on “everyday lives.” Especially women’s lives. Addie’s friend in Villon, Isabelle, who she grew up with, is a character I will remember, because her life is portrayed with such bleakness: early marriage, several babies close together, and then death before she reaches middle age, every moment of her life consumed by work instead of joy. This is what Addie makes her bargain to escape, a short life of drudgery and death, and then she goes out into the world to experience it as most women cannot. And while that character—the girl who doesn’t fit in because she’s too free-thinking, too forward thinking, too “not-normal-girl” enough—is a trope that’s inherent to feminist fiction and is, in fact, one of my preferred tropes…even while I enjoy the character, it still does a disservice to everyday lives like Isabelle’s. Yes…Addie gets to experience extraordinary things. Just like many people in the world, even without Faustian bargains, do. And yes, there is a part of me that is bitter about my life being small and average like Isabelle’s. But there is also beauty here, too, and by totally discrediting that, Addie loses some of her own humanity, somehow, for me. Later, she tells Luc that "nothing is all good or bad," that human lives are messier than that, and it is true of this circumstance, too...that just kind of bites at me some. 

Still, though, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and would love to hear your thoughts on.

EDITED. I have received several comments and emails about what I wrote about "everyday lives," and I wanted to clarify. It's not that I think that marriage and motherhood are choices every woman should make. I don't. This is what feminism is, in fact: that you choose what fits well for you, rather than automatically doing what is prescribed based on the traditions of your gender. I'm not saying that Addie is less-than for not wanting any part of what Isabelle chose. Rather, it is the light Isabelle's choices are cast in. Women in most of the history of people have suffered and not been given the freedom to explore their identities outside of being wives and mothers. It must've been hard to be in Isabelle's shoes. But there is also goodness, light, and happiness there as well. The fact that Addie never thought about Isabelle's life with anything other than sadness or a touch of revulsion grates at me a little bit. And maybe that is because of my own weaknesses and the fact that I sometimes feel a sort of...shame, almost, about the choices I have made, and then I'm projecting them onto a book.

One of the things that books like this—books that present an image of what it might be like to live more than one lifetime—do to me is create a sense of tension. How devastating it is that we only get one life, one experience, one group of people to know and love. But how devastating would it be to live and watch everyone you love grow old and die? (Eternal Life by Dara Horn also raised these feelings for me.) But here we are, in this reality. No one gets to do everything. And I guess I just wanted to give space for the Isabelles of the world and point out that while their lives are average, they aren't only darkness and drudgery and sorrow.