Book Review

Book Review: Emily Climbs, Emily’s Quest

I’ve tried to review the Emily books so many times that it’s just silly.  But the books are so much a part of my existence at this point that it’s hard to be coherent about them.  Emily is the quintessential writer.  Not only are her thoughts, feelings, and work ethic extremely similar to mine, but Montgomery (along with Garrison Keillor) is one of the people I hold up as a paragon of a point I like to make.  Every subject matter is valid, even everyday mundane life.  You don’t have to have experience in darkest Africa or on the fringes of society to write an interesting book.  The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is rural Prince Edward Island in the early 1900s with plenty of aunts and family traditions to make a girl crazy.

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I have marked Emily Climbs as the book where she is most like me on the 2016 reading challenge.  This is the book in which she’s a struggling, working writer while still trying to balance school duties and family expectation.  Emily is more sensitive than I am.  I’m able to not care about what people think of me in a way she can’t.  But otherwise we are alike.  Right down to the writing habits – spilling out all the chaff of life into a diary before writing into the wee hours of the night.  Sending manuscripts back and getting nothing but rejections for them.  Scribbling sketches of events and trying to capture character in a few paragraphs.  Watching the rejections pile up and pretending you don’t care.  Being so proud of the free subscription or set of contributors copies that come with your first publication instead of pay.  Always hoping for more.

The only thing I don’t find terribly realistic is that Montgomery doesn’t treat Emily’s writing as exactly right.  We never see her editing, only writing more and more things.  It’s such a faithful portrait of a young writer otherwise that I’m sad it’s left out, not because I feel it detracted from the story but because I think it would have helped me earlier to realize that 75% of the writing process isn’t actually writing. It’s editing the stuff you wrote.

I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not.  I cannot see it clearly anymore because I am far too close to it.  But owls in the Land of Uprightness, Egyptian trinkets at the snowshoe dance, Perry’s terrible poetry and Ilse’s bad temper, midnight donuts with Cousin Jimmy, and Aunt Ruth’s terrible snooping all make for something pretty magical.

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I also read Emily’s Quest this time.  I don’t often, because this book is full of heartache.  Emily makes one bad mistake after another, spends all of her time lonely and wanting, and I generally feel morose and horrible at the end of it.  She gets a happy-ish ending, but it is so quick and so slim that it hardly seems worth the pain to get there.  It qualifies quite well as a book that makes me a complete mess for the reading challenge.

This is another one I don’t know if I should recommend.  I love knowing what happens to Emily, but watching her be so proud and so mistaken, to attempt to give things you know she can’t, to watch her succeed professionally and fail so hard personally, is not an easy thing to do.  I love New Moon, but this Emily is not the carefree, hopeful girl of the other books.  This girl has taken it on the chin hard and is struggling to make a life knowing that.  It feels true, but it doesn’t make it better to digest.  The moonlit snows and gray cats in the orchards seem lonely now, and not a comfort.  One by one, all her friends go away.  That, too, I think is a bit like the rest of us.  The promise of college never is quite the same from the other side.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to read Emily as a comfort book.  I realized that I’ve memorized large swaths of Emily Climbs this time around, and it didn’t grip me as hard as it usually does because of it.  This read around might be the end of an era.  For quite a while, at least.  We’ll see how I feel in a year or so.

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Book Reviews: Colonial Non-Fiction Favorites

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I usually try to keep the History Nerd glee under wraps, but I’ve been listening to this podcast on the way to work titled “Revolutions.” Of course I skipped right to my favorite one, the American Revolution.  I’ve been nerding out on Brian about it ever since, because I think the guy gets everything right but sometimes forgets to mention small nuances that matter much.  Like with the Townshend Act… colonists weren’t just pissed because Britain was taxing them.  They were pissed because Britain was taxing them on goods it was illegal to make themselves.

You see?  You get me going…

I’ll admit that I haven’t read as much about the revolution as I probably should.  I’ve never read 1776, for instance.  But I do voraciously read all sorts of stuff from the colonial period. In another world, in another place, I would really have loved to be a career Colonial Historian.  I’ve even delved into some of the primary source stuff.  It’s totally different than you would imagine it to be from all the myths you were fed as children.  Even a college American History course doesn’t always get at the meat of it all.  I recommend a lot of fiction on this blog, but below I’m listing four non-fiction books that changed the way I thought about Colonial America.  Because once I’m on a history kick, I want to STAY on a history kick.   (I’m just gonna pretend you’re also into this stuff…)


Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick

This is a great overview of the pilgrim experience that is easier to read than most non-fiction books and just fascinating.  I say overview, but that might be deceiving.  It delves deeper than generalities by giving you a sense of who these people were, mistakes and all.  It also takes you farther than most pilgrim histories, right into the pivotal conflict of King Phillips War.  Philbrick explores the attitudes of the pilgrims, but also of their children and the children of Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief whose help was probably the only reason the early colony survived.

I’ve seen a bunch of different histories that attempt to do this same thing, but I don’t think that any of them have quite the complexity of this one, while still maintaining clarity.  If you’re new to pilgrim history, Mayflower is the definitive volume.

A few things surprised me in this book.  First was the way Massasoit used the pilgrim alliance to secure power for himself in the region.  We think of the Wampanoags as being these benevolent people who could not watch the pilgrims starve, (Samoset and Squanto teaching them to hunt eel and plant corn, anyone?  “Welcome Englishmen?”).  The reality was much more complicated, and to a lot of extents more equal.  The Wampanoags were giving something, yes.  But they were getting something as well.  They went from small and bullied tribe to the most powerful tribe in the region over this alliance.

The other thing I found surprising was how nuts the pilgrims were.  Again, we think of these grandfatherly men going into God’s wilderness to create the City on A Hill.  And they did go to America with the hopes that they could have religious freedom from the Church of England.  The thing you don’t realize is that they were just as fanatical about it as the people they left behind – no room for anything other than Puritanism in Plymouth colony.  They also often overreacted in bloody, bloody ways when relations with the locals weren’t going as they preferred.

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laura Thatcher Ulrich

Ulrich unearthed the diary of Martha Ballard in a local library, and created this great book exploring what her life was like as a rural Midwife in colonial Maine.  Ulrich’s New England is a bit more built-up than Philbrick’s.  It’s has information about medicine at the time, colonial understandings of communicable disease, and the colonial legal system (Martha’s husband wasn’t the best sort of guy).  It can be a bit of a slog, since Martha’s English is far from the modern standard and chapters start with snippets from her diary.  But it’s worth it to get through, and if you need to you can skip the diary excerpts.  Ulrich does a great job of quoting from them and expounding on why they’re important later in the chapters.

What surprised me most about this book was the deep connection of neighbors to each other.  I think of colonial Maine as being this bleak and unpopulated place, but there was a lot of help and a lot of camaraderie among the people who were there.  It was not the uninhabited wilderness I pictured.  What I found especially interesting was the birthing practices.  I guess having children while sitting was the norm back then – usually on a neighbor’s lap if the midwife didn’t own a birthing chair.  That kind of closeness is something I couldn’t even fathom experiencing today.  What also got me was the massive amount of work running a colonial farm could be.  Martha is only able to run around and midwife because she has older children to do most of the housework for her, and that housework is INVOLVED.

Mayflower Bastard: A Stranger Among the Pilgrims, by David LIndsay

Lindsay looks into the life of his ancestor, Mayflower passenger Richard Moore, and finds a strange story.  Most pilgrim stories focus on the Puritan passengers, but there were non-puritans who made the trip too.  Moore is one of these.  Not only is it interesting to see the story from that perspective, but Moore’s father tore him from his life with his adulterer mother, sending him the only place she could never reach him (spoiler: it’s the New World).  It’s not only a crazy-awesome soap opera story, it’s an interesting look into the England they all left behind to make the journey.  Not only that, but Moore became a well-known ship captain in the area, leaving room for a wealth of merchanting information.

The most impressive thing for me in this is the England Moore leaves behind.  It’s after the Renaissance, you would think the world must be progressive somehow, but in many ways it all feels like the middle ages rehashed.  There are definite nods to landed gentry being the most important, and to them living a life so separate from the farm communities around them.  It makes you see the contrast between American and England so much more clearly – and how in many ways American was really brutal even if it was freeing.

I have seen fisherman perspectives, and trapper perspectives, but Moore also lived in parts of the country that weren’t as affected by native attacks, and he was a merchant with a large cargo ship who also traveled to the West Indies.  That was a new perspective for me as well.  Interesting all around.

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England,  by Carol F. Karlsen

This book focuses on how witch trials were more about wealth and forcing women to conform to societal norms than they were about actual Puritan hysteria.  There’s a wealth of information about relationships and marriage practices in the books.  In order to get Karlesn’s argument, you do have to understand the social hierarchy of women in Colonial America, and she devotes a bunch of time to this.  Women’s studies and colonials?  My favorite thing ever!  Karlsen makes a compelling argument, too, showing that it was usually women with wealth and power who weren’t quite conforming the way everyone liked that were accused of witchcraft.

This book occupies that sort of middle period where things were built up in the colonies and fairly urban in places, but it was still a frontier with a lot of freedom from laws and dependency on neighbors and community.  It’s an interesting time that isn’t covered as often, part of the same time that the Moore book covers.  That’s in its favor, too.  What I think struck me most is how relations between people haven’t changed much.  The rules that govern those relationships certainly have, but the feelings behind them, and the way they play out within the economic structure of society, are still the same.

All links are Amazon Affiliate links.  Happy Reading!!

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3Point8

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So, this thing has been going on for a couple of weeks now.  I have been perpetually disorganized this last month, and am definitely remiss in posting this so late. But better late than never, right? I had to wait until payday to buy the book (because I didn’t realize they don’t charge you until it prints) and didn’t feel comfortable plugging something I hadn’t bought, even if I was going to buy it. Um, I mean, I was trying to stagger my release of this blog to help Mike keep his momentum going.  Of course.  Yes, that was my plan all along (shifty eyes).

So here it is:

I’m going to tell you about this good friend of mine.  His name is Mike Melilli, and he’s got a grasp of story that is, well, masterful I guess.  Except that description seems so pale.  I can’t say that I hate him for it, because he’s the sort of guy that is gregarious and unhateable.  I’m sure you know the feeling, though.  That jealousy that someone else has easy command of something you’re trying so hard to learn, while at the same time being floored by it.

I am telling you this because he’s writing a book, and we all know how hard that is.  MUCH harder than anyone who hasn’t done it thinks it possibly could be.  I already know he’s a good storyteller, because we’ve played Dungeons and Dragons/Savage Worlds in the same group together for, oh, certainly over five years.  Maybe closer to seven?  But I haven’t seen any of his writing.  Until now.

Mike is crowd-funding a book through preorders at Inkshare, and if his excerpt is any indication, the book going to be an AMAZING fantasy/thriller mashup. The whys and wherefores that have led him to this novel are his story to tell, not mine, so I will let him tell it.  You can read about him and his novel here: https://www.inkshares.com/projects/3point8?recommended=true.  I’m 100% excited to read the final product.

Several reasons you should buy his book: 1) It’s going to be a really good book.  2) 50% of the profits are going to Forever Footprints, a charity that supports families who have suffered a pregnancy or infant loss.  3) The book is a steal at only $4.99 if you’re willing to sign up for an Inkshare account.  4) If you buy now (before the end of September), it will help Mike win a contest that guarantees he’ll get it published.

Thanks so much for letting me spout off about this.  More books in the world = more readers = a better world.  You can help bring one more into existence, you know.

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Some Thoughts on Romance Novels

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I usually keep a reading list of whatever I’m finishing, but I am here to confess that my reading list has been less than honest lately.  I’ve been binge-reading romance novels for the last 2 months now, with not a whole lot else stuffed in between.  I’ve been loath to admit it, so I’ve been leaving it off the list.  Why, you ask?  Oh good, I was hoping you would.  I’ll tell you.

Well, I mean… Regency romance novels with all the sex in them are definitely considered some of the worst kind of beach smut by a lot of people.  I get that, but I don’t think that’s the entire reason I hate to admit that I read them (although as a self-professed book snob, perhaps that’s some of it).  I DO advocate for reading everything and for judging a book by it’s intended merits.  Romance novels are fun.  The real reason I’ve not wanted to say anything , though, is because I am a girl who has always prided myself on being a little weird.  But if I’m a 33 year-old married lady who isn’t particularly happy with life in its current state (Why have I not received a six figure book deal yet?  Oh, it’s because I haven’t finished writing the book, you say?  And even then, that sort of money is a total pipe-dream?), I may also be a giant cliché.  Okay, I’ll just embrace it; I’m almost certainly a giant cliché.

But I’ll live with it.  That’s how much I like romance novels.  I am willing to be labeled ordinary for reading them.

There has been a TON of scholarship on why women like the romance genre, but I’m going to add my non-scientific thoughts on it.   I like them because they’re the best kind of escapism.  It’s really that simple.  For example:

There are no money problems.  Or if there are money problems, it’s because one or the other of the protagonists is hiding their vast fortune.  Or is about to be left a vast fortune.  Or is about to have an amazing idea for an invention that will earn them a fortune.  In a romance novel, no one ever spends the evening going over the finances and crying.  There is no dismay at how bad the electric bill has become in the wake of the 100-degree heat.  No cars or carriages ever need repairs that are unaffordable.  No one shops at the thrift store, the dollar tree.  They don’t have to worry about deciding where to eat, or where to spend date night, or if there will even be a date night.  Just have the cook make whatever you want! Attend the ball, or the theater! Characters buy libraries and entire wardrobes in one fell swoop in these things.  Characters buy and furnish entire manor houses in one fell swoop.  It’s relaxing.

And then… There are no job problems, because no one works.  Everyone has a title or a vast fortune, so there is no day job to make ends meet.  If you are female, your job is to dress yourself in awesome clothes, read books, and drink tea all day while waiting to be seduced or chatted-up by a VERY handsome (and often smart) man.  You can attend balls and theater performances if you’d like.  If you are a man, your job is to gamble, talk horses, tie a mean cravat, and go to the club while chatting up a lovely lady of your choice.  Bonus points for tight pants and sheer manliness.  People have professions if they want them or are good at them, but they work for themselves.  There are no crappy bosses.  There is no sacrificing time with your loved ones because the boss needs you to work overtime.  There are no assignments that make you want to tear your hair out with boredom.  No one ever has to decide what they want to “be when they grow up,” because what they’re going to be is independently wealthy.  It’s lovely.

Put that together with settings of fantastical manor houses, pretty dresses, and bleak yet beautiful countryside and you have something that is just the perfect place to escape to.  It’s so unlike my current American life of offices and cars that it’s almost like reading fantasy.  Now if only we could do something about the sappy, cringe-worthy titles.  That is the only thing left to reconcile… I can’t tell inquirers that I’m reading “Three Weeks With Lady X” with a straight face.  I just can’t.

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Book Review: Pioneer Girl

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Pioneer Girl, by Laura Ingalls Wilder & Pamela Smith Hill:

I am a Laura Ingalls Wilder nut, of course.  I mean, anything pioneer and it’s probably my favorite thing.  Oregon Trail game?  Check.  Sewing a quilt?  Check.  Conestoga wagons and horses or oxen? Count me in.  Heck, I’ll even churn butter.  For a limited amount of time (let’s not get nuts).

So when I found out that the South Dakota Historical Society was putting out the original, adult version of Wilder’s novel?  I went a little crazy.  I’ve been following their blog for years while they researched the annotations, and it’s been fascinating.  I tried to pre-order a couple of times but it was a complicated system.  Then, the book came out and sold out of its small print run almost immediately.  Because it was being distributed by the South Dakota Historical Society Press, it wasn’t something I could run down to Barnes and Noble and grab, even if it wasn’t a scarce commodity.  While The Frugal Frigate (my local indie bookstore) has a GREAT selection, they don’t stock many adult books.  There is no e-book version.

And then I walked into the bookshop in Damariscotta, ME, and there it was in all its painted glory.  After picking my jaw up off the floor and then drooling on it, I had to buy it.

It’s been an interesting read.  It’s not what I expected it to be, but in many ways it’s so much more than what I expected.  First of all, it’s the VERY first draft of her manuscript, before her daughter started to help her edit it.  There are at least three other versions, but they elected to print the first version with the idea that it was the most pure.  Wilder’s natural prose is vibrant, but the manuscript is definitely a first draft.  I tells, it doesn’t go into enough detail, and it finds vagueness more than it finds concrete facts.  This last thing is somewhat remedied by the annotations, but there’s only so much the annotations can do for the rest.  Still, it’s a fascinating narrative.  If you’ve read “The First Four Years,” it sort of reminds me of that in style. Only it’s so much more racy.  They didn’t lie when they talked about how much more this one holds in atmosphere and tone, something you don’t get from the Little House books themselves.

The footnotes are so vast and varied that it seems daunting to get through them all.  It was also a bit of a trick to figure out how to read them along with the text.  In places there are two to three pages of notes for every page of the manuscript.  I finally found that reading a page of the manuscript and then going back and reading only the footnotes for that page was best.  It takes a while.  Much longer than I’m used to, and non-fiction typically takes me longer anyway.

So, did I like it?  At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about the book.   I know this is blasphemy, but I didn’t start liking Wilder’s Little House books until about “By The Shores of Silver Lake,” when the girls grow up a bit and are able to express wants and needs, not just play and work.  I felt the same about this book.  I didn’t start enjoying it until they moved from Walnut Grove the first time.  Then it got CRAZY.  I mean, the wives being led around the house by their hair, shootings in the saloon, robbers tying people up kind of crazy.   I’m all on board now, and dying to find out what happens next.

I’m about 2/3 of the way through.  If you can find it, it’s 100% worth the search.  It’s such a luxurious thing too – big and hefty on pretty paper with a velvety cover.  You won’t be disappointed. Especially if you are a Wilder and/or a pioneer lover.

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Books I’ve Drooled Over

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The last time I did a summer reading challenge, it didn’t really work out that well.  It was the summer before I entered Chapman, the last summer I knew I might have some time before I was bogged down in scholarship 24/7, 365 (summer classes, man.  And winter interterm).  The challenge was to read ALL new books – nothing that I had ever read before.  For a gal who nurses comfort books like they’re going out of style, that was quite a challenge.  I managed it, but I read 37 books that summer and only 4 of them were books I loved enough for them to matter (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Watership Down, The Graveyard Book, and Of Plymouth Plantation, if you’re interested).

I have had much better luck with this challenge.  So far, of the eighteen books I’ve read, only 3 of them are books I didn’t love.  Several have been can’t-put-it-down all night reads.  These are the one’s I’m about to tell you about.  And recommend that you try them too.  Here they are:

The Wrath and The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh: I love fairy tale re-mixes, and I have been wanting an Arabian Nights tale for SO LONG.  I can’t even tell you.  I even thought about writing it myself, if I could get a concept figured out.  That’s how badly I wanted this thing.  And it’s here, in it’s perfect gilt package, and it is glorious.

First of all, Shazi is awesome.  She’s there to kill the king before he can kill her.  Who doesn’t love a super-spunky protagonist?  And then there’s also Khalid and his really horrible secret, and his hotness, and his hostile kingdom.  The world feels dangerous as well as beautiful, and it has a magical component that is so epically huge that it’s impossible to understand how much it influences the foundations of everything, because in the beginning it feels like it’s only for background atmosphere.

Shazi basically doesn’t get a good opportunity to kill the king for a while and then finds herself falling in love with him.  He also starts to fall in love with her, and then he has to make this horrible choice between her life or the entire kingdom.  They’re married, too, so there’s a lot of hot sexual tension (and sex, although not in any detail – it’s more that you know it’s happening in the cut-away), which is unusual for a YA novel.  But in the wings there is Khalid’s abusive father, a pregnant lady-in-waiting, Shazi’s failed magician father, her childhood crush who wants to rescue her, and a whole host of natural disaster.

My only real beef with the novel is that it’s a cliff-hanger.  Usually that’s a deal-breaker for me, but with this one it isn’t.  Instead of my usual ‘my God, guys – how much money do you want from me?’ attitude about cliff-hangers, I’m just ready to throw a party that there will be MORE (!!!).  This is the best thing I’ve read this summer.  It’s so good I might even read everything Renée Ahdieh writes for the rest of her/my life.  All I can say is that the next one better come out soon or I may die of waiting.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han: In this book, Belly goes with her mother every summer to live in Aunt Susannah’s beach house (not her real aunt, but her mother’s college roommate).  It’s just the moms and the kids in the house most of the time – Belly, her brother, and Susannah’s two boys.  The husbands are present only in small days, in glimpses and weekends.  Only this summer everything is different.  The boys that Belly has had a crush on for as long as she can remember seem to have a crush on her back.  There’s a bittersweet feeling that they’re growing up and this summer might be the last one; and then they get positive evidence that yes, this is the last.  This is it.  It all will end.

I do not know how Jenny Han captured my childhood so completely, but she did.  We used to spend huge chunks of the summer on the Southern Maine coast – first at my grandfather’s house in Biddeford Pool and then at my Aunt’s house on Gooserocks Beach.  When my grandfather had a house, Aunt Nancy used to rent hers.  She and Uncle Dennis would move out for the month we were there, leaving Alysson and Leah behind – five girls in a tiny two-bedroom cottage sharing three beds and a pull-out couch.  If two people were in the bathroom, one of them was standing in the shower.  Those are some of my fondest memories, all of us stacked together, running free in the ocean and playing house on the granite rocks.  This book captures that, and all the losses in between when we knew how bad the property taxes were, and we too knew it was all ending, too.

One of my favorite things about Jenny Han’s books is that I always end up rooting for the guy the main character doesn’t get together with at the end.  I think it’s a testament to how real her characters are, and how flawed.  People always look more perfect when you don’t know them as well, don’t they?  I love that I can’t count on anything with her.  Everything is a surprise, even while it feels like something I’ve already lived.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz: This is basically a book about a friendship that blossoms into a deep love over the span of about two years.  Dante and Ari meet at the swimming pool one summer, and they become inseparable after that.  They’re as different as they can be on the outside, but on the inside they’re the same.  Neither of them has come from a wealthy background.  Ari has a brother who was sent to prison, a father who fought in Vietnam, and a propensity to talk about nothing at all.  Dante feels the deep burden of being an only child, wants to talk about everything, and is friendly but friendless.

It’s a good story.  A coming of age thing where both boys are trying desperately to figure out who they are and if they can live with who they are.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it because of the plot.  But what I really fell in love with was the writing.  Sáenz starts off using very simple language, easy thoughts and plenty of juvenile tags to the letters and journals he samples from both boys.  But as their lives deepen, so does the writing style.  And his use of imagery and foreshadowing made me thing of Fante’s masterpiece “Ask The Dust.”  With the added benefit that I didn’t want to murder any of the protagonists for being whiny like I did when I read Fante. It’s a beautiful thing.

Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson: I picked up Johnson’s novel because I liked “The Great Greene Heist” so much.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.  Joshua is the preacher’s son, and is reunited with his childhood crush Maddie (a preacher’s daughter with a bad-girl image) when she comes back to town to stay with her aunt.  I think I was expecting it to be this thing where she’s bad and he succumbs to it while renouncing his faith or something.  I was expecting drama and drugs and high school hijinks.

Instead I got this lovely story about dichotomies and assumptions.  Maddie struggles with who she is vs who she’s told she should be, and what attempting to live up to her label has cost her.  Joshua learns to have opinions, to rely on more than his parents, to find a deeper faith through reason and questioning.  Both of them learn that parents aren’t perfect, even the good ones, and that love doesn’t really trump all.  Not when there are so many other things in play.  The whole book is a fight about good and bad, and if we can really assign those titles to anyone without knowing the full story.  With some bonus making out to keep things steamy, of course.

I think what I like most about this novel, though, is that it gave me a different perspective on the world.  It felt like my own in a lot of ways, but Joshua’s life centered around things that are foreign to me.  My horizons were broadened. And that was the point of this whole exercise in the first place, wasn’t it?

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Summer Vacation Reads

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It’s summer, and I have been thinking about vacation.  I just got back from a lovely weekend in Oceanside, and it looks like I’ll have another trip on the horizon to Maine.  The all-important decision, of course, is what to bring to read.  I have found that by practicing careful vacation reading curation, I am left with books I’m unable to separate from the landscape.  It’s a lovely thing to have happen.

So in that spirit, I thought I’d make some recommendations.

It’s a bit of a mish-mosh, these lists.  They’re to my taste and to my whims as they stand today.  I tend to agonize over what I’m reading and pick a theme, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with where I’m traveling.  My first trip to Yosemite was steeped in Tolkien.  The Ross Lake adventure was mostly dystopia amid stark mountains and placid, cold waters.  I spent a bit of the summer in Maine at my Aunt’s house by the river, in a sunny room full of antiques, reading Jane Austen.  But if I had to pick on place alone, these are what I would recommend in this moment, depending on where you’re traveling.  It’s a little bit of heartbreak, some silly, a heap of amazing prose, and a pinch of magic to round it all out.

I also want to say that in reviewing this lists, there is not nearly enough Rainbow Rowell, nor Diana Wynne Jones here.  They didn’t seem to fit into categories very well, but you can’t go wrong in reading ANYTHING by these two.  I especially recommend starting with Dogsbody, Fire and Hemlock, or Howl’s Moving Castle with Jones though.  She has so many, it’s hard to weed-through.  Rowell’s backlist is still fairly manageable.

Happy adventuring, and happy reading!

The Beach:

  • Colony, by Anne Rivers Siddons: four generations of family secrets and betrayal on the shores of a summer colony in Maine; and the strength of the women who keep the colony intact.
  • The Moonspinners, by Mary Stewart: While on vacation in a remote part of Crete, Nicola runs into two travelers who have witnessed a murder and are being hunted by a man from the local village.
  • Lake Woebegone, Summer 1956: A coming of age novel about Gary, self-described tree toad, who writes stories about talking dogs and is somewhat obsessed with his bad-girl cousin Kate.
  • Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray: If you mashed up Lord of the Flies with the Miss America pageant, and then added a smidge of reality TV, you might get this novel.
  • The Summer I Turned Pretty, by Jenny Han: Belly is used to tagging after the boys all summer long at the beach house her mother’s best friend owns.  But now they’re all older, everything has changed, and the boys are running after Belly.  And the adults are hiding something life-changing.

Camping:

  • The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien: Bilbo is very surprised when twelve dwarves show up on his doorstep and sweep him off on an adventure containing elves, wizards, a dragon, talking ravens, and a very strange ring.
  • Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. LeGuin: An ethnography of a matriarchal culture in California that exists after the nuclear apocalypse. Weird and interesting, and just beautiful.
  • Watership Down, by Richard Adams:  Because of Fiver’s presentments of doom and destruction, a group of rabbits go on an epic journey to find a new home.
  • Chalice, by Robin McKinley: With the Demesne ravaged by misuse, and a new Master who is part fire-demon, Marisol must attempt to hold the land together with her hives of bees and her chalice, or lose everything to the men who seek to usurp them.
  • Plain Tales from the Hills, by Rudyard Kipling: A collection of short stories featuring soldiers and others in India.  Usually of the heartbreaking sort.

The City:

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith: Francie grows in Victorian New York, struggling against gender roles and poverty to become the woman she needs to become.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot: The strange and sometimes terrifying story of a woman whose cancer cells are used in almost all stem cell research, yet her poverty-stricken family cannot afford health insurance.
  • Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott: A tale of Miss Tribulation Periwinkle and her time as a nurse in Washington during the Civil War.
  • Isla and the Happily Ever After, by Stephanie Perkins: Isla has a crush on introspective cartoonist Josh.  When they both end up friendless at the American School in Paris, it looks like something might blossom – during senior year.  Just in time for them to have to part.
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris: A hilarious collection of essays, including his life as an artist in New York, and the time he spent in France.

Road Trip:

  • Paper Towns, by John Green: Pretty, perfect Margo Roth Spiegelman climbs through Qs window one night and they go on a spree of pranking.  But then she disappears, and it looks like she’s left him clues to find her.
  • Candy Freak, by Steve Almond: About one man’s search through the candy factories of America and abroad in an effort to sate his sweet tooth, or perhaps just to ferret out the other Candy Freaks.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: Richard runs into a woman bleeding on the pavement one night, and finds he must help her.  He wakes up to discover that he no longer belongs to London.  He belongs to a strange world called London Below; and he must go on a perilous journey to restore the status-quo.
  • Forever Liesl by Charmian Carr: a lovely memoir not only of the making of a Hollywood starlet, but of the movie The Sound of Music and of the lives it touched across the globe.
  • Travels with Charlie In Search of America, by John Steinbeck:  Steinbeck travels America in the 1960s, with nothing but his trailer and his poodle, Charlie.  This is his beautifully written memoir of the people and attitudes he encountered along the way.
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I Need Diverse Books

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I have decided that I’m reading only books by non-white authors this summer; and only books I haven’t read before.  I realized that, although I don’t try to be exclusive, most of the authors I frequent – my favorites – are white women.  Nothing wrong with being a white woman who writes books (after all, I am one).  But summer is for stepping out of the usual, am I right? (I’m right)

I’ve been following the We Need Diverse Books movement online.  I know the reality is that diverse books only get made if diverse books get bought.  Therefore I will buy some (hence the “haven’t read before” rule). I’m also hoping that by reading only non-white authors I’ll learn something new.  Yay for learning new things.

I usually get through somewhere between 20-35 books over a season.  I have a lovely little list going on at Goodreads, but I’m posting my thirteen Must Reads below (I started with ten, and then had to keep going).  It’s been sort of a challenge to find things because I’m not thrilled with literary fiction; I like genre much better and YA or Fantasy in particular.  Recommended reading lists for those genres are few and far between.  But I digress.

Below is my list.  If you have any others you think I should definitely put on there, please, PLEASE let me know.  I have read the Great Greene Heist, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, How The Garcia Girls Got Their Accent, The God of Small Things, some Virginia Hamilton, some Laura Esquivel, and much Sherman Alexie, but anything else is (probably) fair game.

  1. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
  2. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson
  3. Kindred by Octavia Butler
  4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  5. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renaee Ahdieh
  6. A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison by Paul Jennings
  7. My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson
  8. Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
  9. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
  10. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  11. Written In The Stars by Aisha Saeed
  12. For The Record by Charlotte Huang
  13. An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes by Randy Ribay

See, I read all of these titles and I get REALLY excited for those students to graduate and for the summer to officially start.  Commencement is this weekend, so SOON. (!!!)

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Book Reviews: Tiffany Aching and Other Witches

Pratchett

I’ve been reading a lot of Terry Pratchett lately.  Someone introduced me to a lovely infographic on where to start his books.  Discworld is so diverse that it’s impossible to know where to start, and very intimidating.  But the infographic made it alright.  Also, after reading several of the books, even as part of a series, I can say you should just dive in wherever looks good to you.  Everything I read would stand on it’s own.

I started with the Tiffany Aching books: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith.  There’s one more, I Shall Wear Midnight, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.  And then I picked up the first of the witches books, Equal Rites.  To say I’m a fan is an understatement.

First of all, I have a thing about men who write women.  Most men do it very badly, especially in the Fantasy genre.  The women in Terry Brooks’ “Magic Kingdom” books, for example, are a very good approximations of females.  But there’s something not quite right about them, although it’s hard to put a finger on what.  The same can be said of all the women in The Lord of The Rings (although I LOVE Tolkien second to none), anyone in the Wheel of Time series, even The Princess Bride a bit.  Don’t even get me started on Piers Anthony…

Pratchett doesn’t have that problem.  His women are WOMEN, real and accurate.  They care about domesticity, even while they strain against it.  They’re each powerful characters in a matter-of-fact way.  It also doesn’t hurt that he’s wildly funny.  I wholeheartedly approve, and I’ve been disturbing Brian’s sleep because I have to keep reading them into the small hours of the night, and I can’t help laughing out loud.

So here they are in more specificity:

The Wee Free Men:  My only criticism of this book is that Tiffany seems much more mature than your average nine year old should be.  Other than that, the book is perfect.  She uses her annoying little brother as bait, and then when he’s captured, takes on fairyland with nothing but an iron frying pan and a bunch of small pictsies (the Nac Mac Feegles) who are vulgar, drunk, and hilarious.  They have awesome names like “Rob Anybody,” “Daft Wullie,” and “No’-As-Big-As-Medium-Sized-Jock-But-Bigger-than-Wee-Jock Jock.”

It’s a story full of dreams and fairy queens; and a young girl’s need to live up to the reputation of her grandmother (who was probably a witch).  Tiffany herself is so spunky and practical that she is one of the best YA heroines I’ve read.  I would 100% recommend this book in every way.

A Hat Full of Sky: Not as good as Wee Free Men, I don’t think, but still pretty great.  Tiffany’s magic attracts the attention of something called a Hiver, which wants to take over her body and live as a mean, horrible version of herself.  She’s eleven now, and living in a different city with a woman named Mrs. Level who is actually one person split into two.  It sounds strange, but somehow it works.  The coven of witches with “no leader” is great.

The Feegles are back, and funnier than ever.  It seems like they’re hilarity is more for show than for actual plot furthering, but I do have to say that the dialogue while they’re all glommed together in a suit of clothes so they can pretend they’re a full sized man is just golden.  Especially everyone’s complaint about being the knees.  It’s sort of nice to see Rob Anybody coming into his own as a leader, too.

Full of much worthy stuff, and well worth the read, but not as tight as the other Pratchett novels I’ve read.

Wintersmith:  This was another of my favorites.  Tiffany is thirteen now, and studying with a Miss Treason, who is utterly delightful (if the adjective “delightful” can be applied to someone deliberately trying to seem nefarious).  She’s scary, and uses magic props from a catalogue to set up a haunted house-ish place in order to gain respect from the inhabitants of her village.  She takes Tiffany to the Dark Morris dance one night, and Tiffany gets swept up in it; dancing with Winter even though she isn’t supposed to.  The Wintersmith falls in love, and starts doing all sorts of embarrassing things like making snowflakes and icebergs in Tiffany’s image.

The Feegles are back in all their glory, along with an inexplicable sentient cheese.  The cornucopia is also pretty amazing, dumping hundreds of thousands of things you definitely don’t want into the house.  My favorite thing in the whole novel is all the “waily, waily” from the Feegles when Tiffany starts performing The Pursin’ o’ the Lips, and The Tappin’ o’ the Feets.

The end also feels inevitable and perfect.  I’d say it fully earned the awards it won.

Equal Rites: A hilarious comedy of errors, of sorts, where a wizard gets word that there will be an Eighth Son of an Eighth Son born in a small town and passes his staff on, but the Son is actually a Daughter instead.  She’s sort of forced to become a wizard.  The staff is temperamental, and  Granny Weatherwax is such a great character.  I got gleeful when she starts to make a bit of a romance of things with the head wizard.

Eskarina, or Esk, (the Daughter) is a stubborn girl.  She ends up entering the wizard academy as a servant, but still manages to learn a lot and ultimately saves the day.  Pratchett has such a way with character that you can forgive him a bit of density in his magical theory, even when she and the main wizard character come up with things that are utterly incomprehensible.  Did I mention that the librarian is an orangutan?

10/10 would read again.   And incidentally, if you’re looking for a well written essay by Pratchett on gender in fantasy, there’s a great one here: http://ansible.uk/misc/tpspeech.html

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Comfort Books

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I was perusing some Reading Rainbow interviews with authors the other day (and by “authors” I mean “Neil Gaiman,” but I can’t let the internet know how out of hand the stalking has become.  Shhh, don’t tell).  They were talking in the interview about Comfort Books.  I had never heard of comfort books, but the second they mentioned them I knew exactly what they meant.  Those of us who are crazy voracious readers DO have books that we turn to when things are stressful, and we just need a little escape.

It’s so hard to tell people what your favorite book is.  As a reader, I seek for the life-changers; the books that tell me something about myself and my world that I didn’t know before.  I find enough of them that it’s worth it to slog through the things that aren’t as good.  And there is a definite place for things that are merely enjoyable with no Message (see Beach Smut for more info).  I could list off so many books that I found life-changing for you right now.  It’s impossible to pick a favorite, because a lot of them are mood-dependent.  Picking a favorite book is like picking a favorite child. You like them for different reasons, maybe, but better or worse?  No.

But a Comfort Book?  I can tell you my few comfort books right away.  They’re books where I love the world so much that I just want to be in that one instead of my own for a while.  They’re not always the life-changers, either.  It’s a different thing.  So in that spirit, I thought I would discuss mine.  They’ve changed quite a bit over the years, mostly because I can’t read some of the old ones anymore. I’ve read them so much I can recite passages by memory.  Things stop playing in your head like a movie when you can recite them along with the text.  So here are the books I turn to for comfort these days:

  • Howl’s Moving Castle, House of Many Ways, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Charmed Life, or Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones:  All feature great, zany people in worlds where you can mostly order things to be how you want with magic (although it usually doesn’t turn out how you think it will).  Laundry multiplies, stolen items call out who owns them, you can open the door on the city and then turn the handle and end up in a field of flowers, and the troll in the garden keeps outgrowing his clothes.
  • Austenland or Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale:  Austen’s great landscapes take a turn for the silly in both of these, where the line between fantasy and reality is really hard to see.  There are yummy, melt-worthy men.  But the books also contain some profound truths.  Like when Charlotte realizes that she was about to let a man kill her because she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
  • The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery:  I love Valancy’s stodgy relatives so much.  And it gets even funnier when she gets the letter telling her she’s dying, because she doesn’t care at all about shocking them anymore.  There’s Roaring Able, the debauched and usually drunk carpenter, and Barney Snaith in his backwoods island home that is full of cats and firelight, and Uncle Benjamin’s horrible puns.
  • Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery: Emily is such a great girl, and the exploits she finds herself in are so funny.  You have to love the aunts at New Moon, and how mean Aunt Ruth is, and Ilse’s terrible behavior.  Add all of that to a realistic picture of life as a young writer, and you get something that’s just so lovely.
  • Little Town on the Prairie or These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder: All the girls are old enough that they’re real people and their adventures are more interesting (to me, anyway).  It’s easy to imagine what it would be like to live in DeSmet, and it’s nice to have a coming of age story where everyone in the family still basically likes each other.  Plus, how can you not be head over heels for Almonzo?  You can’t.
  • Lake Wobegon, 1956 by Garrison Keillor: A charming, if sometimes crass, book about a boy’s experience in a small town in high school.  He terrorizes his sister, is secretly in love with his cousin Kate, is too dweeby to hang out with the local bad boys (who have a band), writes stories about dogs who can talk, and deals with Dad’s neuroticism.  It’s all funny.  Especially the baseball stuff.  And you have to love Kate too.  So much.

I have a feeling that Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments and Fangirl are going to be added to that list, although it’s really too early to tell.  Also, I never realized how many of them there were until now.  Yikes.  I don’t know what that all says about the inside of my head and what spaces I like to inhabit, but there it is.  Someone do some psychoanalysis. Quick.

Categories: Book Review, Comfort Books, Diana Wynne Jones, Garrison Keilor, L.M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Shannon Hale | Tags: | Leave a comment

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