Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review: Winter of the Witch

The Winter of the Witch begins just moments after the events of The Girl in the Tower. There is really no way to write about the plot of this book without giving a lot away about its predecessors. As usual, the story moves at a breakneck pace and Katherine Arden manages to include an incredible amount within the covers of this book.

Throughout these three books, Vasya is a woman torn between realities: she lives within the walls of Moscow, but yearns for the Russian countryside; she is committed to protecting her family, but also compelled to return to the frost demon Morozko; and she is pulled between the religious traditions she grew up with and the knowledge that magic is real and she has a powerful gift for it. All the threads from the previous two books come together here and it is impressive to see that no character or plot point was haphazard. In the midst of this, Arden introduces new characters and new facets to the magic we thought we understood, and it works beautifully.

Vasya has always been a compelling character. She is talented and committed, but she is not immune. In Winter of the Witch, we see that there is a cost to bravery and there are consequences for you and those you love when you run into danger instead of fleeing from it. She is determined to forge her own path, but she quickly learns that her understanding of both human politics and the history of magic are limited. It's a fascinating to watch Vasya realize her potential and then learn when to act on her own and when to ask for help.

In this series, Katherine Arden has achieved something remarkable. Her characters are easy to love and readers will race through the pages to find out what happens next all the while lamenting that they are reaching the end of the story. Each of the books in this trilogy is teeming with Arden's love for magic and Russian folklore. I can see myself returning to Vasya's adventures each winter, happy to be reunited with these characters and the possibility that magic might be just beyond those trees in the dark, cold forest.

My reviews of The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower

The Winter of the Witch
Winternight Trilogy #3
By Katherine Arden
Del Ray January 2018
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: The Only Woman in the Room

Hedy Keisler was a beautiful actress determined to enjoy her career and make her own choices. But when a powerful Austrian arms dealer courts her and proposes, she realizes that this is a chance to keep herself and her Jewish family safe from the horrors that are about to engulf Europe. Hedy pretends to be a proper wife while listening closely to Nazi information and planning her escape. Once she leaves Europe, she moves to Hollywood and becomes one of the most famous film actresses of her era. But her greatest accomplishment is one that few know about: Hedy Lamarr spent her evenings developing the technology that could help the Allies win the war.

The Only Woman in the Room covers much of Hedy Lamarr's life, but unfortunately Marie Benedict covers so much time that we never really feel like we know Hedy herself. It must be a delicate task to try to bring  a real person to life, but I found myself wishing Hedy had a more compelling voice and we got to really dive into her life instead of skimming through important moments.  I was also puzzled by how she gained enough knowledge to work on her inventions; the only time we ever hear about her being interested in science is when her father read her interesting articles about science or politics. We get no background into her scientific training; instead she suddenly seems to have the know-how to create groundbreaking technology.

I was thrilled to learn more about Hedy Lamarr in The Only Woman in the Room. I knew she was a scientist in addition to being an actress, but I didn't know the details of her life before reading this book. While this version of Hedy's story fell flat for me, I am glad that Marie Benedict is bringing incredible women to the attention of readers and I will certainly be reading more about Hedy's fascinating life and work.

The Only Woman in the Room
By Marie Benedict
Sourcebooks Landmark January 2019
272 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Review: The Book of M

One normal day, an Indian man's shadow vanishes. He is the first of many, as people all over the world find their shadows have disappeared, and their memories soon follow. Max and Ory have managed to stay safe so far by holing up in a remote mountain hotel after the wedding of their friends. When Max's shadow vanishes, Ory is determined to care for her. But Max wants to protect her husband while she still can, and she leaves their sanctuary. Ory refuses to let his love die alone without any memories and goes after her, hoping he can navigate this increasingly perilous world and find Max before it is too late.

Four years later, it still seems impossible for discuss an end-of-the-world story without comparing it to Station Eleven. I think there is a lot of comparison to be made between the two. Neither book is particularly concerned with the why of the disaster and instead, they focus on what happens to people as a result. Both stories take place on the road, which gives the authors the ability to introduce us to different locations and show their characters in varied situations.

One of the joys of reading The Book of M is discovering just how far and wide Peng Shepherd has allowed her imagination to wander. She follows Ory and Max not just on their journeys in the present, but she goes back to how they survived the early days of this crisis, and introduces the first victim, an amnesiac who tries to help him, and a potential Olympian reaching whose sport will be very helpful. This story is expansive and I loved seeing effects of this crisis that I could not have imagined and meeting groups of people who were willing to make different choices and sacrifices to survive.

In stories like this, the characters and the reader wonder if they can truly be human if they set aside things like compassion and beauty to stay alive. In The Book of M, the question becomes if we are still the same without our memories. If we have forgotten everything that makes us the people we are, are we still human at all?

One of the marks of great fiction for me is thinking about what these characters did before the story began and after the final page, and this is definitely a book where I did that. The story and its characters are unforgettable and I'm so glad I experienced the end of the world with Max and Ory.

The Book of M
By Peng Shepherd
William Morrow June 2018
485 pages
From the library

Friday, December 28, 2018

A Month of Faves: This Is How We Read and Blog

I had lofty plans for his month, specifically for A Month of Faves. I was going to read and blog prolifically. But it was December. So I have posted exactly two reviews and you can find me this weekend at home under a blanket, desperately trying to read the five books I need to finish to reach my Goodreads goal.

However, I am here right now and ready to jump into A Month of Faves with this post about reading and blogging.

A Month of Favorites

As of this minute, I have read 125 books this year. I read a lot of literary fiction, although I am open to reading anything. This year, I've read romance (The Wedding Date), memoir (All the Lives We've Ever Lived, Old in Art School), short stories (What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, The Sadness of Beautiful Things), YA (Puddin', When Dimple Met Rishi), mysteries (Flavia de Luce, Cormoran Strike, and Perveen Mistry), graphic novels (Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Giant Days), nonfiction (In the Garden of Beasts, The Displaced) and sci-fi/fantasy (The Lunar Chronicles, Every Heart a Doorway). 

I read everywhere and anywhere, although I can be found reading in bed before I go to sleep every night, I often read in the rocking chair in my daughter's room while she's falling asleep after storytime, and I am quite comfy these days reading on the sofa in front of our faux fireplace. Most of the books I read are from my local library. I read some ebooks (mostly ARCs from Netgalley) and I've listened to eight audiobooks this year.

While I'm pretty happy with my reading, my blogging has not gone quite as well. Since I'm a few years into blogging. I don't feel the pull anymore to review every book I read. But I haven't reviewed nearly as many books I would have liked to review this year. Sometimes I sit down to write a review or muse about the reading life and the words seem to pour out. Other times, I schedule posts but can't seem to find the time or inspiration to actually get them done. On the plus side, I started to branch out from my own site and had my review of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby published over at Literary Mama.

In this next year, I think I would like to schedule some time into my week that is specifically for blogging/writing and see how that works. I don't think I need to read more books, but I want to continue really diverse reading, from the genres I read to the authors who write the stories. It would be nice to blog a little more regularly in 2019, but we will see how that goes!

What worked well for you with reading and blogging in 2018? What changes will you be making in the new year?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review: The Golden State

Daphne is on the brink of a breakdown. Her husband isn't allowed back in the country and she feels some responsibility for the accidental death of a young woman overseas. One morning, she simply leaves her office, picks up her daughter from daycare, and drives away from her life. Daphne finds solace in an isolated trailer left to her by her grandparents in eastern California, but the boredom of being alone all day with her toddler and her uncertainty about what to do next soon compel her to go into town. She cautiously befriends Cindy, a neighbor who is part of a secessionist movement, and Alice, an elderly woman who feels a little bit like family. Over ten days, the women's lives intersect in surprising ways as Daphne decides where her life will go from here.

I have to confess that it took me a long time to pick this book up. I had read some rave reviews, but the description just didn't compel me to pick it up. I am mature enough to confess I was very wrong and Lydia Kiesling's debut is a haunting, thoughtful story about the bonds of connection and the consequences of loneliness. She excels at capturing the overwhelming feelings of new motherhood, as Daphne alternates between wondering what she is supposed to be doing with this small child all day to rejoicing over a miraculous milestone to considering all of the terrible things that could happen in the single moment that she looks away. As a working mother, she is not used to having to account for every moment of her daughter's life and finds it equally terrifying and exhilarating (depending on the moment). Kiesling rarely uses commas, which means it takes readers a few chapters to adjust to reading her prose. But it wonderfully captures the endless lists that run through the heads of parents as we struggle to remember everything that we need to do while keeping a little one safe and happy.

The Golden State is also a look at what it means to be or feel like the other. Daphne's husband is stuck in Turkey after a visa snafu separated their family. She feels stuck between cultures because she herself is not Turkish, but she speaks enough of the language and knows enough about the country and its people to be offended when people start calling Middle Eastern people terrorists. With no immediate family around her, she feels isolated as a mother without anyone to mother her or teach her about being a parent. She hopes to capture some of the magic of her childhood by going back to her grandparent's hometown, however, she is familiar enough to warrant a polite greeting but not a true daughter of that town.

This is a travel story, it's a motherhood story, it is an everywoman story for the person who feels like they don't quite fit in and for the person who senses the slow simmer of fear and anger in current events and in their own life. Kiesling is a very talented writer with a distinct voice and and I look forward to going on other journeys with her characters.

The Golden State
By Lydia Kiesling
MCD September 2018
304 pages
From the library

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Review: Washington Black

George Washington Black is an 11-year-old slave on a Barbados plantation. His life changes drastically when his new master's brother takes him under his wing as an assistant for his scientific endeavors. Instead of working in the fields, Wash now spends his days seeing the world through Titch's eyes, as well as learning to read and develop his talent for drawing. But he never feels entirely comfortable; the relationship between the two is certainly unconventional and destined to fall apart sooner or later. That day comes when a man is killed and Wash is blamed. Titch and Wash flee in Titch's hot air balloon and set off on an adventure that will take them around the world to London, Antarctica, and Morocco.

There were parts of this book that reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things because both books follow a person who was not expected to pursue science in their time. Wash learns about weather and creatures all over the world and later uses his knowledge to sketch and paint the wildlife and even collaborates with making the first aquariums. But there is always that feeling of uncertainty--even in places that are supposedly friendly to free black people, one wrong word or careless moment could mean the end of Wash's life. His relationship with Titch is the thing that took him away from the horrors of slavery, but it also haunts Wash as he wonders if it is possible for his mentor and father figure to think of him as anything other than a worthy cause.

Washington Black is a sprawling adventure that takes readers around the world. Edugyan renders time and place with beautiful specificity and the reader feels as if they could journey up the hill to Titch's balloon and watch the plantation below or see the endless expanse of Arctic snow for the first time. But the thread that runs throughout the entire story is that there is no safe place to be a black person in the 19th century--you can never truly be seen as just a neighbor, a friend, a lover, a scientist, or an artist because of the color of your skin.

Also by Esi Edugyan: Half Blood Blues 

Washington Black
By Esi Edugyan
Knopf Publishing Group September 2018
339 pages
From the library
Man Booker Award Finalist

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Nonfiction mini-reviews: Bored and Brilliant and A Forever Family

Manoush Zomorodi is the host of popular radio show and podcast about technology and its effects. When she had time to think about her plans for the future and really look at her surroundings when she was home with her baby, she found herself inundated with ideas. Conversely, when she was back at work and filling every possible second, the ideas seemed to disappear. Wondering if there was a correlation between empty moments and productivity, she challenged her listeners and herself to take on a week of challenges. Readers are asked to delete an app they love, relearn how to observe their surroundings, and ensure that there is quiet time in each day.

The issues examined in this book will be all too familiar to most of us. We wonder about the effects of video games on our kids and find ourselves scrolling through social media whenever we have a spare five seconds. The information that Zamorodi compiles is fascinating, and she has plenty of statistics and interviews throughout the book. Ultimately though, the result of reading this book is about the same as the results of her challenge: people didn't see a huge change, but they were more aware of their habits. After reading Bored and Brilliant, I do find myself considering before picking up my phone and instead asking my kids about their day, reading a few pages of my book, or even enjoying a moment or two of boredom.

Bored and Brilliant
How Spacing Out Can Unlock
Your Most Productive and Creative Self
By Manoush Zomorodi
St. Martin's Press September 2017
208 pages
From the library

Rob Scheer grew up moving from one terrible situation to the next, from his abusive father to living in his car after a foster family kicked him out of their home. As an adult, he felt moved to help children in similar circumstances and he and his husband became foster parents. Scheer doesn't paint a rosy picture; instead, he writes about the difficulties of two white gay men trying to adopt black children and the moments when the ghosts from his own past show up in his parenting. Some of the hardest moments to read about are the small ones--the difficulty of using someone else's soap in a strange new house or Rob and his husband Reece's realization that their foster daughter is hoarding food because she doesn't feel secure yet.

Scheer's story is heartbreaking and I am glad he found the courage to share it. For me, I'm not sure it warranted an entire book; it would have been an excellent article showing how his painful childhood led to his becoming a foster dad, adopting his children, and starting Comfort Cases, an organization that gives backpacks with a book, blanket, and hygiene items to foster kids. But if Scheer's story can make anyone understand the need for foster parents and support for children in need, then it is an important one.

A Forever Family
Fostering Change One Child at a Time
By Rob Scheer with Jon Sternfeld
Gallery/Jeter Publishing November 2018
320 pages
Read via Netgalley