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By Singing Light

Pretty much everything here originally appeared at my actual blog: By Singing Light. I particularly focus on upper middle-grade and young adult books. I also enjoy adult genre books, especially speculative fiction.

Currently reading

The Lost Tools of Learning and the Mind of the Maker
Dorothy L. Sayers
The Seventh Bride
Kingfisher
Hope in the Dark
Rebecca Solnit
Outrun the Moon
Stacey Lee
Suffer Love
Ashley Herring Blake
Midnight Thief
Livia Blackburne
The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind
Meg Medina
The White Hart
Nancy Springer
The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu
Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Libriomancer
Jim C. Hines
The Reek of Red Herrings: A Dandy Gilver Mystery - Catriona McPherson

This is book 9 in the Dandy Gilver series, and it’s a strong entry. I have to admit that I find Alec a good deal more annoying than Dandy seems to. He certainly doesn’t add much to the story for me. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about local folk traditions, and a nice creepy factor to the solution to the mystery. As usual, this is right at the line of cozy vs not, which is one of the things I appreciate about the series.

Return Fire (Moving Target, Book 2) - Christina Diaz Gonzalez

After Moving Target, Cassie Arroyo and her friends pick up right where they left off. This is a fun middle grade adventure/fantasy. It’s quite fast-paced, with a lot of excitement and even an explosion or two. But there are also some deeper questions about family, and destiny, that add some weight to the story. I’m not sure whether this is the last installment, but it ends on a satisfying note.

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/recent-reading-markus-lord-mcpherson-gonzalez
Dared & Done: Marriage Of Elizabeth Barrett & Robert Browning - Julia Markus

After having a months-long thing about Markus’s biography of Annabella Milbanke Byron (Ada Lovelace’s mother), I definitely had to read her first biography about the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I have a lot of feelings about Elizabeth Barrett Browning–mostly due to the fact that I wrote part of a senior thesis on the Sonnets from the Portuguese. In fact, Markus’s look at the Browning’s marriage as it relates to the sonnet sequence was probably the strongest part of the book for me. It’s very solidly researched and does a nice job of teasing out the circumstances of the Browning’s marriage in particular as opposed to Victorian marriage in general, and contrasting it with some of their friends who were less conventional. However, there were times when the organization was a bit confusing–jumps in chronology that muddled rather than clarified–and I found it less emotionally affective than I expected.

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/recent-reading-markus-lord-mcpherson-gonzalez
The Start of Me and You - Emery Lord

I’ve been hearing good things about Lord’s books for a couple of years now and finally actually read one! Oddly enough, this is set in a suburb of Indianapolis, with a setting that felt very much like the suburb of Indianapolis where I work. Both setting and voice are an interesting contrast with The Fault in Our Stars; perhaps unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer The Start of Me and You. Paige’s story is thoughtful and nuanced, with a lot of care shown for all the characters. Plus, Paige has a strong group of girl friends, and I loved they way they interact and grow together. Add in a slow, careful romance, and a quiet and realistic depiction of healing from trauma. I will definitely be looking for more of Emery Lord’s books!

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/recent-reading-markus-lord-mcpherson-gonzalez

The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier

The Mountain of Kept Memory - Rachel Neumeier

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you probably won’t be surprised that I’m writing about this book. I’ve been a fan of Rachel Neumeier’s work since reading The City in the Lake back in 2011. And I definitely have some unspoken expectations when it comes to her books–themes, types of characters, a general style and set of interests that seem pretty common across the different kinds of stories she writes. The Mountain of Kept Memory is really interesting because it is very much a Rachel Neumeier book–but it also feels a little different, in a way I really liked.

 

Neumeier’s books nearly always focus on main characters who are resourceful girls and young women. Oressa, daughter of the king of Carastind and one of the two main characters in The Mountain of Kept Memory, certainly fits into this pattern. She’s very good at understanding people and motivations, potential costs and shifting allegiances. Her place in her father’s court is limited, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that she’s an extremely strategic thinker–which is helpful when everything begins to go wrong.

 

There’s an interesting comparison here to characters like Gen and Miles Vorkosigan. Oressa is also almost hypercompetent, good at sneaking through her father’s palace. But unlike Gen and Miles, there’s a strong suggestion that she’s developed these traits at least partly as a way to survive her father. He holds her future in his hand, and it’s pretty clear that he’s not a safe person to be around. There’s a sense of danger in him that’s more hinted at than shown, but which is very effective.

 

And both her father’s disregard and her overall vulnerabilities are partly because she’s a girl. There’s one really powerful moment which I unfortunately can’t seem to find again where Oressa realizes that her brother Gulien sees their father totally differently, because he’s been treated totally differently. But since Oressa is a girl and therefore largely despised and expendable, she’s been pushed to the edges and largely ignored.

But over the course of the book, she also finds a way to use her compensations to her and Guilen’s advantage. I loved watching her come to terms with the power that she does have and the shape of it. This idea of strengths coming out of vulnerabilities and the way that plays out was really fascinating to me.

 

Oressa was certainly the heart of the book for me, although I liked both Gulien and Gajdosik. Without wanting to give too much away, there’s a complicated romance here, which worked pretty well for me once it got past the initial stage. Shifting power and understandings are also very present in the relationship between Oressa, Gulien, and Gajdosik. We see it in the bond between the siblings, and the way their strand resolves, the way power is handed back and forth.

 

But we also see a question of power and relationship in the Kieba and her guardianship over Carastind. Will she exercise her old promise to keep the country safe, or will she let it fall? There’s a real sense of danger here, a sense that something could go truly and finally wrong. And Neumeier shows an nonhuman sense of the world very well, making it especially fraught. How can you predict what the Kieba will do, when she doesn’t think the way we do?

 

Overall, there’s a feeling of sharpness and almost horror to the scenes in the Kieba’s mountain. I’m thinking of a couple moments in particular which have really stuck with me. It’s not that there’s never a sense of danger in Neumeier’s other books–indeed, there’s quite frequently a very thorny problem driving the plot. But here it feels heightened in a way that’s really effective.

 

All in all, this was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, though sometimes in a slightly horrified way. There’s a feeling of familiarity in the political intrigue and family complications, but there are also some interesting turns in the story that made it feel also alive and real.

 

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: 2016, Saga press; adult fantasy

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Everfair is a story that spans decades and continents. It tells the history of a country that never was, one where “Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.” (source) It lies across blurred genre lines, at the meeting point of steampunk, historical fantasy, and alternate history.

 

Everfair is told through a multitude of voices, from King Mwende to Lisette Toutournier, Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson to Martha Hunter. It is in a sense the story of an idea, a different kind of grand experiment, more than one person or their personal experience. At first this was disorienting for me–I’m very much a character-based reader. But I realized that in fact that this is the point: that Everfair the country is herself the main character, and that the patchwork of people who make up her history are telling her story, rather than their own. So, the main emotional arc is not exactly that of Lisette, or of Daisy, or any of the others. It is of their collective experiences, their various viewpoints, coming from different backgrounds, races, beliefs, and genders.

 

This approach also lets Shawl resist flattening any one character into a type. Each of the sympathetic characters shows flaws as well as greatness; each of the less sympathetic characters shows greatness as well as flaws. Although the characters are in some ways secondary to the history of what they made, they are not comforting. They also challenge the reader and the reader’s assumptions. We see Daisy’s limits when she cannot look beyond her own whiteness. We also see Martha’s real care and worry for George later in the story. Neither the country nor the characters are held to an impossible perfection; it is through the contradictions and flaws that both become real.

 

After finishing the book, I kept thinking about the image of prosthetics that appears throughout the book. It’s one of the most steampunk-y elements: the beautiful, deadly mechanical hands that are made for the survivors of King Leopold’s regime whose hands were cut off. It’s an image that seems to underscore the heart of the book: that the history and trauma that have passed cannot be undone, and yet that the story does not have to end there. That another story, with dirigibles and steam-powered hands, with heartache and work and courage is also possible.

 

In short, I found Everfair to be a reimaging of the past that thinks deeply about implications and patterns. It takes people as they are, and shows the weight and burden of leadership. It is too clear-sighted to truly be a utopia, but it is also hopeful. The ending, full of possibilities, asks us to take up the task of reimagining the world–by both acknowledging the real traumas and looking for the rest of the story.

 

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Jenny at Reading the End; Jaymee Goh at Strange Horizons

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/everfair-by-nisi-shawl
Guile - Constance Cooper

On a personal level, I found the story, characters and writing fairly strong (I do think it dragged in the middle) I am wondering about the representation and portrayal of bayou culture–not because I saw anything inherently problematic, but rather because it’s hard to tell how well Cooper has written it from the outside.

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016
Star Wars Ahsoka - E.K. Johnston

I love Johnston’s books and I love Star Wars, so this seemed like a natural fit! The take on the universe, the aftermathy kind of story, was really interesting to me, and I liked the look at everyday life and resistance. This is about what happens when you lose the war; it seems unfortunately apt at the moment. Also, Ahsoka’s relationship with Kaeden and the way that played out seemed like a story I haven’t seen a lot of, in a way that seems realistic and true to the characters.

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016
Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain's Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War - Ben Macintyre

I like MacIntyre’s non-fiction style; I was less interested in the subject of this book. [I could say more about this, and the fact that MacIntyre tries to push back against the glorification of hypermasculinity that’s almost inherent in his subject, but doesn’t entirely succeed. I’m not sure I’d be entirely coherent enough to make it worthwhile, though.]

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016

Bandette vol. 1

Bandette, Volume 1: Presto! - Colleen Coover, Paul Tobin, Brendan Wright

Another recommendation from Kate. I LOVE IT–the story feels fresh, although the art feels retro and that’s a combination that works really well for me, it seems.

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016
Diva without a Cause (Diary of a Chav) - Grace Dent

I’m really sad that only the first two books in this series have been published in the US. I liked this one quite a bit–it’s thoughtful and sharp and funny. In a certain way some of the concerns do feel very specific to the UK, and yet I think that 1) the overarching themes are totally relatable and 2) it’s good for us to read outside of our own culture!

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016
Gertie's Leap to Greatness - Kate Beasley, Jillian Tamaki

This book is definitely a case where I can’t step back from my adult reaction enough to say fairly whether I think this is a successful book for kids. It’s a nuanced look at friendship and family and class; Gertie’s complicated feelings about the people and events in her life are compelling. But I wanted something to break free a little bit sooner, I guess. Whether a kid would feel the same way is a question I keep wondering about and not really coming up with an answer for.

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016
Iron Cast - Destiny Soria

1919-set historical fantasy, which seems to be a Thing at the moment? But I liked this version–the friendship between Ada and Corinne really drove the book for me (you all know how I love a good female friendship). I kind of saw the big twist coming, and there were a few clunky moments, but overall I found this one pretty solid. (I can’t speak to how good the representation is, and I’m not finding a ton of reviews for this one? If you have thoughts, I want to know.)

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016

Goldie Vance

Goldie Vance #1 - Hope Larson, Brittany Williams, Sarah Stern

My friend Kate gave me this one for my birthday and I really liked it! It’s a 1950s mystery, set in a hotel, and featuring a young detective. There are so many black and Latinx characters, which is nice to see, and the comic does deal with privilege and prejudice to a certain extent. I also really liked the art! It felt very fresh and clean and bright, which fits Goldie’s character well.

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016
Ms. Marvel, Vol. 5: Super Famous - Nico Leon, G. Willow Wilson, Cliff Chiang, Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona

Every time I read a new volume of Ms. Marvel, I think that it couldn’t possibly be as good as the last one (because the last one was so good). But every time I am wrong! If I had to only read one comic series for the rest of my days, it would be Kamala, no questions. I love the depth of relationships shown here, the way Kamala’s family and culture and faith influence but don’t define her, the balance of hope and struggles. It’s just so good.

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016
First Class Murder - Robin  Stevens

Look, I just really love the Wells & Wong books. They’re 1930s-set middle grade mysteries, which sounds pretty simple on the surface. But Stevens actually tells a really complex story, and there’s a lot about friendship and identity and privilege woven into the whole series. This third book started off a little slow, but it ended up being possibly my favorite yet as we see both Daisy and Hazel dealing with their family histories and the realities of growing up. (ARC read through Edelweiss)

Source: http://bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016