Tag Archive | book review

Pancakes and Greenglass House

These are the pancakes we ate last night for Shrove Tuesday. (If I’d made crêpes, I would have called it Mardi Gras.)


The other day I finished reading Kate Milford’s middle grade mystery Greenglass House. I loved it and highly recommend it. Among other things, it’s definitely earned a place among my favorite snow books. (Those of you in the Northeast may not feel like reading a book about a snowed-in inn just now, but I have to enjoy my snow vicariously.)

Greenglass House is the name of the inn run by the Pine family. It stands on a cliff above the town of Nagspeake, overlooking the river Skidwrack (those names!), and it is mostly frequented by smugglers. Milo Pine, who is adopted and Chinese, is just beginning his winter break and expects to spend a quiet Christmas holiday in an empty inn with his parents. Instead, five guests arrive in quick succession on a snowy evening until Greenglass House is positively crowded. And then it keeps snowing. And sleeting. And snowing.

This book combines two great premises: a household snowed in and a collection of eccentric characters who are all harboring secrets. Mysterious things start to happen right away, and Milo, along with Meddy, the daughter of the inn’s cook, follow clues that lead to revelations about the various guests, the history of Greenglass House, and the most famous smuggler of Nagspeake. Meanwhile, the snow is beautiful, the house is cozy (at least until the power goes out), and the characters drink a new mug of hot chocolate in practically every chapter.

Greenglass House reminded me a bit of The Seventh Cousin by Florence Laughlin, a book I suspect is out of print. Like The Snowstorm, it was one of my mother’s Weekly Reader books from when she was a child. In The Seventh Cousin, three children living in an apartment building called the Tower Arms investigate a mystery related to the heiress of the building. It has a similar feel to Greenglass House in that the action is confined to a single house whose residents form the cast of characters, and the young protagonists interact a lot with adults both benevolent and duplicitous.

Dragons Upon Dragons

I just finished reading two very different dragon books, one right after the other. The first was Rebecca Hahn’s A Creature of Moonlight. What a gorgeous book! It’s a quiet novel with rather little dialogue, which you’d think might make it a slow read, but instead it reads like water, if that makes any sense. The words just flow by. It’s poetic without being flowery.

There was a notable passage that struck me as directly addressing a certain pressing issue in our world. See if you can guess which one I mean:

“Do you know what it is, lady, that’s…making the woods close in on us?”

I shake my head. “I don’t know.”

“It’s just–it seems no one actually cares. Everyone talks of it, sure, but the next moment it’s gone clean out of their heads, as if it doesn’t exist. And if the dragon’s really coming, well, we’ll all be sorry for it, won’t we?”

She looks so concerned, so sure that something ought to be done about this, and sure that I am the one who’ll know what to do. “In my experience,” I say, “there’s nothing we’re better at than pretending things don’t exist. We think if we pretend long and hard enough, the things will disappear. …We can push it out of our heads again and again, but it won’t make no difference in the end. The woods will keep on coming. The dragon will appear. We’ll walk half blind, thinking we’re safe, and one day we’ll turn and he’ll be there, right beside us, waiting.”

I don’t know if this exchange was intended to be commentary on climate change, but it certainly lends itself easily to such a reading. That said, the novel as a whole is not, to me, an environmental parable. It’s a story of self-knowledge and self-determination.

The second dragon book was The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E. K. Johnston, a 2014 Morris Award finalist. It was fantastic. And hilarious, while still being heartfelt. I loved the dragon-inflected alternate history. Basically, this is our world but with dangerous dragons. Everything from the lives of Eloise and Abelard to the history of 20th century music is shaped by dragons, and, you know, Shakespeare “ignored dragons for the most part and set his plays in bizarre alternate universes where dragons were imaginary creatures of significant rarity.” When I got to the following passage, I almost laughed out loud on the bus:

Canada managed to retain a portion of its traditional music, largely thanks to a statute that mandated 40 percent of everything on the radio had to be written by a Canadian [this is apparently true!] or feature a dragon slayer. This allowed for the success of songs like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which told the story of the attempted rescue-by-dragon-slayer of a tanker’s crew after they were attacked in the middle of Lake Superior.

I have one more thing to say, but look away now if you wish to avoid spoilers! So, throughout the book the characters slew (Johnston uses “slayed,” but it just sounds wrong to me) a number of dragons. Each time it seemed surprisingly easy, and there were no permanent consequences for anyone involved. Thus I was mildly shocked by the extent of Siobhan’s injuries after the climactic last dragon slaying. She is a musician (piano, winds, a bit of brass), and her hands are seriously damaged, so much so that she herself believes she will “never play again.” As a cellist, I found this nightmarish, and I wasn’t expecting Siobhan to end up paying such a high price for the success of their mission.


The Language of Food

I just finished reading a Christmas present, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. Dan Jurafsky is a linguistics professor at Stanford whose work I had previously read in a research context. The Language of Food is a delightful and highly readable exploration of the history and etymology of various foods. It was less linguisticky than I was expecting (computational analyses of online menu and restaurant review corpora and an introduction to front and back vowels notwithstanding), but this was not a disappointment because there was just so much to savor. Like recipes gleaned from almost every era in history, from a description of how to brew beer from 1800 BCE to Emily Dickinson’s recipe for “Cocoanut Cake”. If you’re someone who likes to discover the connections between words (and if you like to eat!), you’d probably love this book. You can get a taste for Jurafsky’s approach in this New York Times piece.

A few tidbits I found particularly interesting: I started The Language of Food right after finishing Ancillary Sword, in which the characters drink an alcoholic beverage called arrack. I thought Ann Leckie had made it up. So imagine my surprise when a mere 2 pages into Jurafsky’s book I encountered a reference to arrack, the liquor, which is very much of our world. I also learned that ketchup is originally Chinese (both the word and the condiment, though it might be a stretch to say that about the condiment). I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; isn’t everything originally Chinese? (Aside: I used to think catsup was a general term and ketchup a brand name that had been genericized, though in retrospect this doesn’t make much sense.)

Jurafsky talks about the confusion over the bird we call the turkey. Though I knew the French word for turkey was dinde, I didn’t realize this was from d’Inde, meaning “from India”. And then when I read that Europeans mixed up the American turkey and the West African guinea fowl, it struck me that there had to be a connection to the fact that in French “guinea pig” is “cochon [pig] d’Inde”.

Jurafsky also devotes a chapter to sound symbolism and food names, specifically brand names. Sound symbolism is the idea that there is some inherent, possibly iconic, link between the forms of words and their meanings. The most commonly discussed pattern is the association of front vowels (like [i] in see, [ɪ] in thin) with smallness and back vowels (like [u] in moo, [o] in go) with bigness. I once went to a talk by the linguist and fieldworker Claire Bowern on this very topic in Australian languages. Coming back to food, Jurafsky found that names for ice creams (think rich, creamy, heavy) tended to have a lot of back vowels while names for crackers (think light and crisp) tended to have a lot of front vowels.

Anyway, just reflecting on this book is making me hungry, so I’ll stop there.

The 25th Annual Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention


The day after my Twin Cities launch party for Sparkers, I attended the 25th Annual Minnesota State Sacred Harp Convention. The timing of my trip home couldn’t have been better. The convention was held at The Landing, an outdoor museum that recreates a 19th century settlement on the Minnesota River. It’s very picturesque. There are charming preserved houses and buildings, vegetable gardens, apple trees, and a river overlook. We sang in the Town Hall.


The Town Hall

I was called to lead during the second session of the morning. The arranging committee member introduced me, saying, “We welcome Eleanor Glewwe back from Los Angeles, CA. Ask her about her new novel, out on Tuesday!” With that, it was in to the center of the square with me. I led 501 O’Leary, for rather specific reasons. It was composed in the year of my birth by Ted Mercer, a singer from Chicago who was at the convention. It’s named for the O’Leary family, who live in the Los Angeles area. Finally, I like the tune and the text, especially the lines “How will my heart endure / The terrors of that day” (I mean, it’s about Judgment Day, but I think you can sing those words about any day you’re feeling trepidatious about). Later, a singer came up to me and said how fitting it was that I’d led O’Leary, since I’d come to the convention from Los Angeles and since Ted Mercer was in the room. She said she loved it when she could figure out why a leader had chosen a particular song. Also, Ted Mercer came up to me and asked if I’d sung with the O’Learys (I have).


The Minnesota River

The singing was fantastic, and there were a number of illustrious figures in attendance, including Judy Hauff of Chicago, who basically wrote all my favorite songs in the book (perhaps it’d be more correct to say all four of her songs are among my favorites), and Mike Hinton of Texas, the current president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. I also got to hang out with a number of young singers I don’t see very often. And the setting was just so idyllic: blue sky, autumn sunshine, painted wooden houses with porches…


Since the arranging committee had told people to ask me about my book, well, they did. And this is where things got interesting. During one of the morning breaks, across the refreshments table (and what refreshments they were! Sparkling apple cider and basil-infused lemonade!), a woman asked me if I was “that science fiction writer”. Later, someone asked me if I was the one who’d written that book about “a woman who is a robot” (or something like that). I knew at once who they were mistaking me for. What they imagined was very flattering and very wrong.

There is a Sacred Harp singer from Missouri named Ann Leckie who wrote a science fiction novel called Ancillary Justice (the sequel, Ancillary Sword, came out yesterday). I read it earlier this year on the enthusiastic recommendation of a good friend, and I thought it was amazing. But you don’t have to take my word for it: Ancillary Justice won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Hugo Award (among other honors). In other words, Ann Leckie is a big deal.

I was tickled that other singers thought I was Ann Leckie, particularly because I had actually been hoping that Ann Leckie would be at the Minnesota convention. Missouri isn’t that far from Minnesota, and in fact there were other Missouri singers there. Moreover, Ms. Leckie was going to be at the Heartland Fall Forum (a regional trade show) in Minneapolis on October 1st, so she conceivably could have combined convention and author appearance in one trip. I had imagined accosting her at dinner on the grounds, reaching across a picnic table laden with kale salads and baked pasta dishes to shake her hand and asking her for her autograph. Alas, it was not to be.


The church

The convention was wonderful all the same. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first day, but I made it to the evening social in St. Paul, where there was more food, including a delicious bread pudding (in two versions, with and without raisins!). I overheard someone say they thought about bringing a kale salad but knew there would already be at least three, so they didn’t. More people asked me about my book. And I learned that there’s now a (small) Georgian choir in the Twin Cities!


Singers mingling–look closely for some nice beards

A last word about funny Sacred Harp texts: When singing 280 Westford, we came to this line that I always forget about until I sing it again. I have to struggle not to laugh every time. It’s this: “Blest Jesus, what delicious fare!” Whenever I get to those words, they sound to me like, “Jesus, yum!” (I know. You’re thinking of communion. That is not the context. At least, I don’t think so.) That line might be the most amusing one in the book, outside the temperance song, which is impossible to sing without laughing. But that’s a song for another day…

What I’ve Been Reading: 2014 Releases Edition

My almost-one-book-a-day streak didn’t last (which was probably a good thing for my productivity in other areas), but I did tear through four YA novels in the last week. Call it the last hurrah of the summer. All four books happened to be published in 2014, though none of them are debuts. Below are some thoughts on each one. I can’t promise there aren’t spoilers.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

I did not guess the twist, so in that respect this book succeeded for me. I do think all the hype surrounding We Were Liars and knowing that there was going to be a huge twist lessened its impact, but when the reveal came, I did get one good shiver out of it. Also, wow, what a toxic family. Widowed patriarch playing his three malicious daughters off one another, said malicious daughters forcing their children to manipulate their grandfather into giving their mothers pieces of the inheritance… It makes one grateful not to have been born into a family so wealthy it owns a private island.

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

I read Complicit directly after We Were Liars and was struck by how much the two books have in common. (Here’s where you have to watch out for spoilers!) I mean, they both feature unreliable narrators who cannot remember the past, including the fact that they set deadly fires. They both have suspenseful plots that build to a major twist. In the case of Complicit, I did go in knowing the main twist, because I’m one of those people who always blithely clicks “view spoiler” when reading reviews online, even when I haven’t read the book yet (okay, I made an exception for We Were Liars because the twist was so hyped). Knowing the truth didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Kuehn’s novel, though, and in fact I hadn’t realized the full extent of the twist, so there were still shocking revelations above and beyond what I was expecting. And that ending! So chilling.

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

This book is about two girls, Biddy and Quincy, who become roommates after graduating from their high school’s Special Ed program. The writing is lovely and spare, conveying much in a few words, and the story is unflinching in its approach to the really horrific things Biddy and Quincy go through. It’s not sensational, though, and at its core, this is a book about friendship and hope. It’s funny in places too. I really loved it.

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

This is a modern tale of star-crossed love between two teens in Brooklyn. I don’t read a lot of books that are “just” romances, but when I heard this one was about Devorah, a Hasidic girl, and Jaxon, a West Indian boy, who get stuck in a hospital elevator together during a hurricane, I had to read it. And I really enjoyed it! Devorah and Jaxon both had engaging voices, and I thought the Hasidim were portrayed with sensitivity (though obviously I’m far from an expert). The ending was well done, neither unrealistically happy (love doesn’t always conquer all) nor utterly crushing. My one quibble was that Devorah and Jaxon go from being strangers to saying they love each other in the space of a few weeks. Literally their entire relationship from beginning to end lasts less than one month, and yet in the middle of that they believe not that they’re “in love” but that they actually love each other. I just had trouble buying that. Maybe this is a sign that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager, but. Precipitous love aside, though, I thought this book was wonderful. Maybe my obsession with Chaim Potok meant I was destined to like it.

Good Balderdash Words

Balderdash is one of my favorite games. It works as follows: one player reads aloud an obscure word of English that nobody knows. All the other players make up a definition for this word and write it down on a scrap of paper. Meanwhile, the word reader writes down the true definition of the word. She then collects all the proposed definitions, slips in the real one, and reads them all aloud. Everyone votes on which definition they think is the real one. Players earn points if they guess the correct definition of the word or if other players vote for their invented definitions. Balderdash is sold as a board game, with cards listing rare English words, but it can be played with nothing more than a dictionary (the larger the better).

Balderdash is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. There’s a fine line between a made-up definition that is amusing but still plausible and one that is completely outrageous. And sometimes the real definition is almost unbelievable. The hardest part of the game is probably reading all the proposed definitions aloud with a straight face when you know which one is real.

It’s very satisfying listening to other players take your utterly fictitious definition seriously, and it’s amazing to realize how many words of English (someone’s English, somewhere, sometime) you have never encountered before. In my experience, good Balderdash words tend to be of Germanic origin, as words with Greek or Latin roots can often be at least partially deciphered (consider haffle vs. xanthic) (okay, maybe most people don’t know that xantho– is a prefix from Greek meaning “yellow,” but I honestly think more 21st century speakers of American English know that than have ever heard the word haffle).

Anyway, the point of all this is that I learned two new words this past week that immediately struck me as being excellent Balderdash words.

Wapentake (n.) : a subdivision of certain shires or counties, esp in the Midlands and North of England, corresponding to the hundred in other shires

I stumbled upon this word by serendipity. I finished reading the YA fantasy novel Witchlanders (which is so, so good!) and went to learn more about the author, Lena Coakley. She has a fondness for the Brontës, so I looked them up on Wikipedia to remind myself of all the siblings in that family. There, I learned that the Brontës had lived in something called the West Riding of Yorkshire, which sounded so romantic I had to go look that up, whereupon I discovered the subsection “Ancient Divisions: Wapentakes.” It almost doesn’t look like a real English word, right?

The etymology of wapentake is pretty fascinating too. It originally comes from Old Norse and literally means “weapon take”. It might have referred to a sort of census by weaponry and/or a practice of voting by brandishing weapons. It’s interesting to think of dividing land into units according to a set number of available swords (that is, sword-wielding individuals). One could imagine sparsely populated areas having larger wapentakes and densely populated areas having smaller ones. I’m not sure that’s how it worked at all; I’m making this up. But it would be a good worldbuilding element, wouldn’t it?  

Spline (n.): a long, flexible strip of wood or the like, used in drawing curves

This word came up in Baayen’s Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics, a textbook I’m working through this summer (joy!). Specifically, it came up in the context of restricted cubic splines, which are functions that can be used to capture nonlinear relationships in a regression model while avoiding overfitting and its associated problems. Right. Basically, they’re functions for modeling curves, which is why they’re named after a physical tool used to draw curves.

Spline is an ideal Balderdash word because it looks perfectly English (it complies with English phonotactics, or rules about syllable structure and what sounds can appear next to each other) but I had never heard it before reading it in my statistics textbook. It looks like it could mean anything: a type of plant graft, a kind of fishing lure, a bird… Spline’s origin is given as East Anglian dialect, so, Germanic again.

Here, then, are two great Balderdash words! Only, now you know what they mean, which defeats the purpose of the game.

Mixed Race in Victorian London

I just read the first two books in Y. S. Lee’s The Agency series, A Spy in the House and The Body at the Tower. Y. S. Lee is a Singapore-born Canadian author, and these novels are mysteries set in 1850s London. The protagonist, Mary Quinn, is the daughter of an Irish woman and a Chinese sailor. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read almost no books starring a half-white, half-Chinese character, that is, a character like me, so I was intrigued by The Agency books.

Mary’s father is a Lascar, an Asian sailor who works on British ships. I hadn’t heard of the Lascars before reading A Spy in the House, and I appreciated Lee’s illuminating a perhaps little-remembered aspect of British imperial history and the demographics of mid 19th century London. By the time the story begins, though, Mary’s parents are both dead, and she is working for an all-female detective agency (improbable, I know). Though she can’t conceal her “exotic” (oh, boy) appearance, she keeps her racial background a secret from everyone, including her employers. She passes as black Irish or allows people to assume she has some Spanish or Italian blood.

Mary claims not to be ashamed of being Chinese, but she doesn’t want anyone to find out about her father because she fears (probably with good reason) that people will think her inferior or of lesser intelligence if they know. Thus she’s uncomfortable in situations where people dwell on her looks or when Lascars are brought up (the first mystery involves shipping and a home for aged Lascars) or when she must interact with other Chinese people in London. She also seems ashamed of her inability to speak Cantonese when other Chinese characters address her in it.

Mary calls herself a “half-caste,” a term which is now considered derogatory. I first learned this word from the Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I watched in a high school world history class. It also appears in Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society by Adeline Yen Mah, an entertaining book about a group of children in China who train in martial arts and rescue American soldiers during World War II. The protagonist is Chinese, but a couple of her companions are of mixed Chinese and European heritage, and I recall them being direct about the challenges this creates for them in China and even talking about their race with the American soldiers.

Mary’s sense of, and fear of, belonging nowhere is likely a familiar one to most mixed race people. She keeps her family history a secret among the English but still can’t avoid people questioning her about her appearance and heritage. She believes if people knew the truth, she wouldn’t be accepted in white society anymore, perhaps not even by her beloved employers/former teachers. At the same time, she doesn’t believe she’d fit in in the Chinese community either, in part because she doesn’t speak Chinese. In The Body at the Tower, while disguised as an errand boy, Mary is invited by a Chinese servant girl to have dinner (a proper dinner, with rice) with the girl’s family. Feeling that it’s too late to return to that community and that she can’t live in both worlds at once, Mary rejects the invitation.

While Mary can pass as, if not fully English, then at least not-Chinese among white Londoners, the Chinese characters can see immediately that she has Chinese heritage. This is probably a result of experience: most of the English have probably met very few Chinese people, while the Chinese Londoners are attuned to other East Asians because there are so few of them in the city and may also have seen other children of Chinese sailors and white women in their small community. I’ve noticed a similar pattern in my life, though it doesn’t always hold. Some white people tell me they noticed I was Asian right away while others notice something and privately wonder “what” I am for a while until they decide to ask me, often ineptly. I have also met Asian people who were surprised to learn I had Chinese heritage. In my experience, the only people who can reliably tell I’m hapa* right away are other hapa people. We’re generally pretty good at identifying each other.

In this vein, the part of Mary’s experience that most resonated with me was how people are eternally inquisitive about her appearance and how she can never be sure how people perceive her. For me, this is the number one most disconcerting thing about being multiracial. I don’t mind telling people about my background, but ignorant/borderline rude questions and coded language get old. And though I, unlike Mary, don’t have to pass as anything, it can be weird to be somewhere and not know whether everyone else in the room realizes there is a Chinese-American among them.

Something nice about The Agency books is that their covers feature a model who is both Asian and white! That’s partly why I finally checked them out from the library; seeing the covers reminded me that these were the historical fiction novels about a mixed race girl. I don’t think I ever saw the covers without knowing about the race of the heroine, so I see a hapa girl on them, but interestingly, there has been some discussion of the covers online. Some bloggers have complained (mildly) that the model looked more like a Latina or a light-skinned Black girl than a hapa girl. Others even seemed to think she looked white. This concern is understandable given that there have been cases of egregious whitewashing on YA covers, but it also reveals that people have a certain conception of what a Chinese/white girl should look like, and the fact is, hapa people can have a wide range of phenotypes. Y. S. Lee has even commented on this herself and has posted behind-the-scenes pictures from the cover photo shoots on her website. She wants her readers to know that the model’s heritage is true to Mary’s.

Anyway, I’m probably going to read the next book in the series because I want to find out if Mary reveals her Chinese heritage to her love interest!

*Hapa is a Hawaiian word meaning half, part, or mixed and is used to refer to mixed race people. In the continental U.S., it’s come to mean specifically a mixed race person with Asian heritage (see Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project). I like the word hapa, but I’ve also heard that some people object to its having been appropriated outside its Hawaiian context, so I use it gingerly. 

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been reading a lot lately, at a rate of almost a book a day, which is probably not helping my summer research any, or the book I’m supposed to be writing. Then again, it is summer, and it’s not Tolstoy novels I’m gulping down daily.

Yesterday, I finished Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, which is most definitely a snow book. It’s also a modern fairy tale, a retelling of “The Snow Queen,” and it’s deeply rooted in Minneapolis, which I loved, because sometimes it’s nice to encounter a setting in a book that you don’t need to imagine because it already exists in your memory. From Linden Hills to the chain of lakes, it was all familiar and real to me. Even Joe Mauer, though goodness knows I don’t care about the Twins.

Even though the central story echoes “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs weaves in other fairy tales, especially those of Hans Christian Andersen, like “The Red Shoes” and “The Little Match Girl” (hmm, I suppose it’s not a coincidence the heroine’s name is Hazel Anderson?). Growing up, I had a Hans Christian Andersen collection, a big, old book with a worn spine and a drab cover and lovely illustrations. I think “The Snow Queen” was the very first story in that collection, and it was my favorite. I particularly remember the robber girl and her knife. There is no robber girl in Breadcrumbs.

In addition to the intermingling of fairy tales, there are references to the literary magical worlds that come alive for Hazel and her friend Jack. Hogwarts, Narnia, the planets in A Wrinkle in Time. I liked the strong conflation of the Snow Queen with the White Witch Jadis from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and was amused when, after Jack climbs into her white sleigh, she asks, “Would you like some Turkish delight?” and he says, “Huh?” and she says, “Just a little joke.” (But surely he got it, after a moment?)

The most thrilling moment, though, was when Hazel is reading a library book on the school bus:

“The girl in it was reading A Wrinkle in Time. She was best friends with a boy who lived in the apartment below. And then one day the boy stopped talking to her. Hazel closed the book.”

I thought, Aha! I know that book. It had to be When You Reach Me, the 2010 winner of the Newbery Medal. It was one of those gleeful Lemony Snicket I-caught-your-reference moments, but also, I was blown away by When You Reach Me, and there is a strong affinity between the two books.

I read another book set in Minnesota recently: Sex & Violence, by Carrie Mesrobian, who, like Anne Ursu, is a Minnesota author. Sex & Violence takes place on a fictional lake in a fictional county of Minnesota, so I didn’t recognize landmarks the same way I did in Breadcrumbs, but it still captured that atmosphere of being “up at the lake”. (Well, my family doesn’t have a lake cabin, so I don’t have tons of experience being “up at the lake,” but it felt right nonetheless.) Sex & Violence was a 2014 finalist for the Morris Award, which honors a debut YA novel. I’d heard lots of good things about it, so I plucked it right off the shelf when I spotted it at the library. It absolutely lived up to its reputation. And all I can say is I wish I knew of an island on a lake with an old mansion on it whose library and other rooms I could explore. That sounds fantastic.

I also read another 2014 Morris Award finalist, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters. It’s set in San Diego in 1918, against the backdrop of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. The strong-willed, scientifically-minded heroine arrives in southern California to stay with her aunt after her father is arrested for helping men avoid the draft in Portland, Oregon. There she finds herself hounded by a spiritualist photographer, the brutish brother of the boy she loves, who is in the trenches in France. I really enjoyed the historical details, in part because the setting of Sparkers, while fantastic, is modeled on this era, in terms of the level of technology. The book also illuminated for me the full impact of the flu and the level of panic it created. I knew the pandemic happened, but I didn’t realize that practically everyone was going around wearing gauze masks, that schools were closed, that people ate onions and carried around garlic in hopes of warding off the flu, that wagons of dead bodies rolled through the streets, and that people hung color-coded flags representing the dead from their houses. At least as depicted in the book, it was like the Black Death transported into the 20th century. This sense of impending doom brought on by a plague also made me reflect on Sparkers.

Even beyond the richly-rendered setting and the omnipresent fear of the flu, In the Shadow of Blackbirds impressed me. It was genuinely surprising: many of the characters had a complexity and ambiguity that made it impossible for me to predict the roles they would play in advance, and I never saw the identity of the ultimate villain coming. Maybe another reader would’ve guessed, but I didn’t. Also, the climax was truly horrifying and terrifying. Finally—and this might be spoilery so if you care about that sort of thing, maybe don’t read on—I have this rule that has generally served me well that says you never believe a character is really dead unless you see the body. The protagonist may think they’re dead, but if you don’t see the body, they’re probably not and will likely return before the end of the book. So, in this book, someone died, and there was even a funeral, but we never actually saw the body, so I was pretty convinced for a long time that he would turn up, safe and sound, by the end. Maybe the fact that he was appearing as a ghost to the protagonist should have tipped me off to his actually being dead, but I held out hope (and confidence in my rule) for quite a while. But no. He was really dead. He didn’t come back. And thus Cat Winters subverted my expectations, and I was pleased. Because I always feel vindicated when a purportedly dead character resurfaces, but it’s also a little disappointing to be able to see it coming from the beginning, so I appreciated being proven wrong.

So that’s what I’ve been reading. Next up is Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy.

Sparkers ARC Giveaway #2

Sparkers comes out exactly three months from this past Monday, and in anticipation I’m giving away another ARC!


The little fig tree is not included.

To enter to win this advance copy, please leave a comment on this post mentioning one of the following:

1) A favorite childhood book of yours; or

2) A book you think is underrated; or

3) A book you’re excited to read but haven’t gotten around to yet

I’ll accept entries until next Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 at midnight Pacific Daylight Time. Once the entry period has ended, I’ll randomly choose one winner. If you win, I’ll contact you by e-mail to arrange for delivery. The giveaway is open internationally; if I can mail you the ARC, you can enter.

And now, I’ll answer all three of my own questions and even cheat by naming more than one book for each! A favorite childhood series would be The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I was half-indignant when I found out they were Christian allegory (according to some) since I’d taken them completely at face value. I also had no idea what Turkish delight was; I think I pictured it as something like caramels. Also, I just finished reading The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which are billed as adult Harry Potter. However, they feature a fantasy world from a children’s book series that turns out to be real, and the children’s books and the world itself are unmistakably inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia and Narnia, respectively. Where Narnia has Aslan, Fillory has a pair of rams.

For underrated books, I pick Murkmere and its companion Ambergate by British author Patricia Elliott. I have never seen these books mentioned anywhere, nor have I met anyone else who’s read them, but I found them at the library a year or two ago and checked them out. They’re utterly unique and wonderful. Very atmospheric. They’re set in, as far as I can tell, an alternate Cromwellian England, and there are strange touches of magic.

Finally, there are two middle grade books I’m dying to read. The Glass Sentence, by S. E. Grove, is set in an alternate world in which the Great Disruption of 1799 has thrown different regions of the world into different times. A mapmaker’s niece sets out to find her kidnapped uncle amidst political turmoil. Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell, features a girl who was found as a baby in a cello case floating in the English Channel after a shipwreck, so really, how could I not read it? Coincidentally, the protagonist of The Glass Sentence is named Sophia and that of Rooftoppers Sophie.

Please enter the giveaway, and feel free to spread the word! Good luck to all!

Lunar Eclipse

I was lucky enough to get to watch the full lunar eclipse two nights ago; we had clear skies, and the eclipse occurred before I went to bed. Apparently I didn’t stay up late enough to see the “blood moon,” but what I did observe was still a stirring sight, and it was cool to see Mars shining brightly nearby. Here is a photo I took just as the Earth’s shadow was beginning to creep across the face of the moon:


In honor of the lunar eclipse, here are three books, all highly recommended, in which an astronomical event plays an important role:

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson

Part I of this book is entitled “The Transit of Venus,” the phenomenon in which Venus passes between the Earth and the sun and can thus be seen from the Earth as a black dot moving across the sun. In the 18th century, scientists observed the transit of Venus from different points on the globe in an effort to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun. In this book, Octavian Nothing travels to the New York wilderness with his philosopher masters and witnesses the transit of Venus of 1769. Incidentally, the most recent transit of Venus occurred in 2012, and I’m happy I got to see it (from Minnesota) because it won’t happen again in my lifetime.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

In 1926, Evie O’Neill, a young woman with a supernatural talent, races to find a serial killer terrorizing New York City. The fictional Solomon’s Comet will soon appear in the heavens again, and there may be a connection between the sinister murders and the approaching celestial event…

The Chanters of Tremaris Trilogy by Kate Constable

This might be stretching it a bit, but in this trilogy’s beautifully rendered world, there are three moons. People measure time by counting “turns of the moons,” and different cultures have different names for the various combinations of moon phases, like the Whale’s Mouth or the Goat and Two Kids.