Spring 2019 Reading Wrap-Up

Here are some brief reviews of what I’ve been reading so far this year.

Wayward Children series

Seanan McGuire

25526296The Wayward Children series consists of four novellas, starting with Every Heart a Doorway, which is set in a boarding school for young people who went through various magical doorways to other worlds and then came home again (shades of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, but with less whimsy and more therapy.)  The other novellas tell a bit more about the adventures of the various characters in the other worlds.  

I tried reading the Hugo-winning Every Heart a Doorway a year ago and had trouble getting into it because I felt it was too dark.  But it’s really not all that dark, considering that the plot revolves around murder and mutilation of corpses (also I was post-partum at the time and reading at odd hours of the night).  It actually has a really nice ending with a theme of being true to yourself. It has a great cast of characters, including several LGBT+ characters, which really adds an extra dimension to the themes about self discovery and belonging.  I’m reading through the rest of them now, and I’ve been enjoying picturing Jack, one of my favorite characters, as looking like Moonbyul of the K-pop group Mamamoo.

Related image
I couldn’t find any pics of Moonbyul wearing gloves. But lots of her in suits!

 

Heartstone

Elle Katharine White

31290944This book is billed as Pride and Prejudice with dragons, and that is exactly what it delivers. In fact, it starts out as a beat-for-beat retelling of P&P (same characters, scenes, conversations, etc.), which was a bit boring, but as it continues it deviates further and gets more interesting.  Its strength is its world building of dragons (and dragonriders) and other creatures. 

I’m waiting for the sequel Dragonshadow on hold at the library now.

The Other Einstein

Marie Benedict

28389305This was a book I wanted to like more than I did.  On the surface, I was thrilled to read the story of a female scientist, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, the first wife of Albert Einstein.  But I struggled with several aspects.

I am a bit uncomfortable with the use of recent historical figures as the focus of a fictional novel.  I applaud the author’s intent to shine light on Mitza, but I personally would have chosen another way to do it. (This is the kind of thing that alternate history fantasy was made for.)

The book wants to treat Mitza like a Madam Curie figure, when in reality she failed her undergraduate final exams, never achieved a degree, and never worked professionally as a scientist. I say this not to disparage Mitza, who was clearly a brilliant woman (also dealt a bad hand by society), but to emphasize that the book is fiction.  Though she undoubtedly collaborated with Einstein on his early works, there is precious little evidence that Mitza had a significant role in formulating the theory of relativity.

It makes for a good story, though.  It very nearly reads like a tragedy, but the book injects some hope right at the end.  There was nothing particularly beautiful about the prose, but it did have a good sense of drama.

I realized partway through that I would rather have just read the letters between Mitza and Einstein; the author helpfully provides the link to them here: https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/. (You can in fact read all of Einstein’s papers and correspondence.)

Also, have you noticed a trend in historical fiction covers recently?

Vengeful

VE Schwab

26856502

I was very excited to get my hands on this sequel to the supervillain revenge story Vicious, which I loved last year.  However, I hit some roadblocks in that until recently, my library only had the audiobook, not the ebook, thanks to a targeted campaign by the publisher (my library did not happen to have a print copy either).  I have been trying halfheartedly to get into audiobooks, and I did not think this one was great. The narrator sounded perpetually wistful, and I was not impressed with his female voices (though his accents were good).  It is also not a linear story, so I didn’t like that I couldn’t just skim back a few pages to the chapter break to check where in the timeline I was.

The story itself however was nearly as good as the original, just maybe not quite as tight.  It went in a different direction than I expected, and I enjoyed the journey. Victor and Eli’s roles are a bit switched in this one, plus there are some great new female characters including the powerfully ambitious mob wife Marcella Morgan and the mysterious June.  The book once again has a satisfying ending but with enough threads left hanging that there could be another installment (yes, please!). So if you really like grey characters or stories that make you root for sociopaths, I highly recommend this series.

What have you guys been reading recently?

Advertisements

A selection of canon Star Wars books that you should read

I have read the vast majority of the Star Wars books published up until 2014, which were previously called Expanded Universe (EU) and are now called Legends.  I even slogged all the way through to the end of the Fate of the Jedi series. For evidence, please see my bookshelves.

For some reason, I have not read nearly as many Star Wars books since they became canon.  Probably a couple of things are contributing: less time for reading, less patience for bad books, moving on to other series like The Expanse.  Plus I’m just not as invested in new characters as I was in EU mainstays like Mara Jade.

But I’m slowly starting to get into more and more of the canon books.  Here are some I’ve read that I thought were worthwhile.

25067046Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

This was the first new canon book that got a lot of buzz.  It was published as part of the “Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens” initiative in 2015 leading up to TFA.  Technically it is classified as Young Adult (Gray is a YA author, and the characters are young) but don’t let that deter you.  (Luke is only 19 in A New Hope after all, and no one worries about that being YA.)

It tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, one belonging to the Empire and one to the Rebellion.  I liked seeing the perspective of everyday Imperial citizens, and it helps the reader understand why young people might join the Empire even though it’s evil.  The story takes place mostly during the Original Trilogy but also goes all the way up through the Battle of Jakku (so that we can find out why there is a Star Destroyer crashed on the planet in TFA).

Thrawn and Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

31140332I remember how excited I was when they announced at Celebration 2016 that not only would Grand Admiral Thrawn, the best antagonist of the entire EU, be appearing in Star Wars Rebels, but also that Timothy Zahn, his creator and one of the best EU authors, would be writing new novels about him.  The result is two solid new canon books that will appeal to new readers and EU fans as well (and particularly those who have enjoyed The Clone Wars and Rebels).

Thrawn serves as a kind of origin story for the future Imperial officer, showing how he initially came to serve the Empire.  I was disappointed that Pellaeon does not appear; instead his role is essentially filled by a new character, Eli Vanto.  There is also an interesting side plot regarding Governor Pryce of Lothal and Colonel Yularen, and a cameo from EU character H’sishi, a Togorian.

36385830Thrawn: Alliances also has some good payoffs for EU fans, including a joke about Force-sensitive animals (but no actual ysalamiri or vornskrs).  The flashbacks where Thrawn teams up with Anakin and Padmé to take out a Separatist operation feel like a good episode of TCW. It also provides an interesting contrast to the tentative partnership of Thrawn and Vader much later as they follow the Emperor’s orders to investigate a disturbance in the Force. (Plus we get a Noghri assassin!) Both storylines take place on/around Batuu, and specifically Black Spire Outpost, which will be featured in the upcoming Disney Star Wars theme park area, Galaxy’s Edge.

My only complaint about T:A is that it was difficult to read casually.  Because the story jumps between two time periods, and also occasionally between characters, it was sometimes hard to pick up the thread of the story when I was only reading a chapter at a time.

The conclusion of Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy will be out later this year.

Darth Vader and Doctor Aphra by Gillen, et al.

Disney launched a bunch of new lines of comics with the new canon, and these two series feature the first breakout non-movie character of this era: Doctor Aphra, a mercenary archaeologist with two homicidal droids in tow.

Aphra seems like a new take on Indiana Jones, except as a queer woman whose illustration implies a mixed race heritage.  She ends up working for Vader and forming an interesting quasi-partnership with him, which is the most interesting part of the Vader story line.  (The less interesting part involves some Force-based science experiment characters that seem like they came from the bad part of the EU.)

Plus, did I mention the homicidal droids? BT-1 (“Bee Tee”) and 0-0-0 (“Triple-Zero”) may seem like an astromech and a protocol droid, but they actually are programmed for assassination and torture.  For me, they recall HK-47 from KOTOR, which is always welcome.  Plus it’s just nice to see snarky droids, whatever their allegiance or alignment.

Aphra eventually got spun out into her own series, plus a short story in the From a Certain Point of View anthology.  I look forward to seeing where she goes from here!

Star Wars Block Book

sw block book

This is the Star Wars book I currently read the most.  Every day, in fact. Sometimes multiple times.  My 1.5 yr old loves this book and can recognize Darth Maul (“Maul Maul”), the Death Star, Darth Vader, and R2-D2.  I am a proud mama!

But seriously, this book is beautiful with lovely cutouts and illustrations.  Plus it’s sturdy enough for toddler fingers.  It covers the prequels, OT, Rogue One, and TFA.

Have you guys read any of the new canon books?  What would you recommend?

National Poetry Month: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, who passed away this January, remains one of this country’s most popular poets.  She won both the National Book Award for Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  On a more personal level, I feel a connection to her work because she was born in northeast Ohio, near where I live.

20190405_224303Oliver frequently uses themes of nature in her work, so it is not really a surprise that she has an entire book of poems about dogs.  Published in 2013, Dog Songs contains many poems about canines in general as well as some specific dogs in Oliver’s life.  There are also beautiful sketches of dogs throughout the book.

Her simple, unadorned structures and word choice fit the topic very well.  You can easily see her familiarity with and love for dogs coming through. From the very first poem I could see how she uses the motif of dogs to discuss issues of identity, love, living well, and even what it means to be human.  

One of the poems that spoke to me immediately was “Her Grave,” as I am also dealing with a recent loss of a pet.  The lines that really struck me:

She roved ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back,

or wait for me, or be somewhere.

 

Now she is buried under the pines.

Specifically, it’s that “be somewhere” that got me.  It seems to me that the essence of grief is distilled into those two little words.  Jolee, my cat, used to be somewhere. He existed. And now he is not, does not. As simple as that.

I may have cried a bit while reading some of these poems.  But that’s good. I think poetry is one of the most powerful tools for processing emotions, both reading and writing it.  I’m happy that reading this book made me get up out of bed in the night and find pen and paper to write a poem myself before it slipped out of my head.  (You’ll be reading that one a little later this month.)

If you are not familiar with Oliver’s work, now is a great time to check it out since April is National Poetry Month.  Let me know which poem of hers is your favorite!

NaRMo Review: Daddy-Long-Legs

1873363

This review is my contribution for National Book Review Month (NaRMo).

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster is a charming short little novel, more of a novella, that I stumbled upon recently.  Published in 1912, it has a classic feel that has been popular with readers over the years, though I am surprised that it is not better known now.

Jerusha Abbott has lived her whole life in an orphanage, with the monotony of her studies and duties with the younger children broken up only by ice cream on Sundays.  When an anonymous benefactor offers to send her to college, she reinvents herself as Judy, a vivacious coed studying to be a writer. Her benefactor’s only requirement is that she write him letters to keep him updated on her college career, which she addresses to “Daddy-Long-Legs,” because all she knows about him is that he is tall.

Except for short introduction, the book is entirely epistolary in format, consisting of Judy’s letters to Daddy (or other epithets like “Mr. Rich Man” when she’s piqued).  Judy knows that she will receive no reply to her letters, except perhaps curt instructions from Daddy’s secretary, so the story is wonderfully one-sided yet still manages to give an impression of what her benefactor’s actions, thoughts, feelings are.

Most of the letters are amusing and often flippant, but her determination and struggles occasionally break through.  She is both full of goals and dreams for her future and at the same time determined to live life to the fullest here and now.  There are charming details of life at a women’s college mixed with her cheeky passages determining what kind of socialist she is.

The twist to the story was of course obvious to me immediately, but the dramatic irony was really enjoyable as I read between the lines of Judy’s letters to see the relationship taking shape. The ending is a bit abrupt but satisfying.

Webster also wrote a sequel called Dear Enemy, which consists of letters written by Judy’s college roommate Sallie McBride, whom Judy talks into taking over running the orphanage. While equally entertaining as the original, this novel has a few quaint thoughts (some bordering on harmful) regarding “Negroes,” “Indians,” and the “feeble-minded,” which will require some critical thinking for modern readers.  The two books together have some shadows of Jane Eyre, and I can see them being very popular with young women in particular.  

It’s National Book Review Month!

Several years ago, SUNY Geneseo created National Book Review Month to “give readers an outlet to bring lesser known works to the forefront.”  This year, NaRMo falls in March, so if you’ve read a book recently (of any genre, including “including children’s books, drama, non-fiction fiction and poetry”), you can go to the NaRMo website and submit a review for publication there.  The only real rule is that the review must be between 100 and 1,000 words, though the website does have some great tips for crafting a review.

NaRMo

Although I’m not a book blogger per se, I’ve been talking about books since the very beginning of this blog seven years ago.  To my mind, there are three main reasons I write reviews of books.

First, to help other readers.  This seems pretty obvious.  Reviews can help people decide whether they want to read a book or not, which is especially useful when they are going to be spending their hard-earned money on it by buying it.  I personally like to read the 2 star reviews of books on Amazon, because those tend to have more specific, useful critiques than the one- or five-star reviews.

Second, to help the authors.  Many independently published authors depend on reviews on blogs as well sites like Goodreads and Amazon to entice new readers.  When a book only has a dozen or so reviews, every one counts.  So every time I read something by an indie author (often one of my blogger friends), I make sure to review it somewhere to give them some free publicity.

Last, to help me.  Part of the reason I started this blog was to have a space for my thoughts on books and other media.  Reviews are sometimes a way for me to process what I read, as well as an outlet for me to share my thoughts.  Like an internet-wide book club or something.  I do try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but sometimes I dive a little further into analysis than a proper review does.  I also like to do brief reviews when I don’t have too much to say about a book.

book data document education
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve definitely learned a thing or two about reviewing books over seven years.  I can’t even claim that I’m good at it now, and I’m certainly still learning.  Here are a few things I’ve picked up since that first review.

  • Give a picture of the book cover.  Not only does it give your post some visual interest, but it also helps people remember the book better if they come across it again.  Of course I prefer to take a pic of my own copy if possible, but most of the time I just end up using an image of the cover art.
  • A short summary is helpful to give some context of the book.  I’ve been using snippets from Goodreads summaries recently (with attribution of course).
  • I like to review both books that I know many people have read (so I can have a discussion) and also some that I know will be new to readers (so I can convince them all to read it, and then have a discussion).  I also tend to stick to the sci-fi/fantasy genres here on the blog, though I do go outside that occasionally for a special book.
  • For trilogies or series, I will often write only one review for the whole thing (though I often focus on the first book, which helps avoid spoilers).  Since I’m not a book blogger with ARCs or anything, my reviews aren’t usually about current releases, and I’m not sure that anyone wants to read a review of just the third book of a trilogy from five years ago or something.  If you haven’t read the first two already, what’s the point?  And if you have read the first two, but not the third, by now, well, that seems weird, too.

Okay, I’ve babbled long enough.  Do you guys enjoy writing book reviews?  Will you participate in NaRMo this year?  I’m going to try to post a review for NaRMo next week, as I’ve read several books recently.  Have you guys enjoyed reading my reviews?  Even better, have you read any books because I recommended them??