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review 2016-12-14 19:15
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: bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/november-2016
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review 2016-12-12 21:08
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina
Burn Baby Burn - Meg Medina

I read this book last month in the midst of a reading slump, when all I wanted to do was reread old favorites but the pressure of all the new books sitting on my library shelf was too much. I picked it up after getting home from work and read it in one evening, completely ignoring everything else I meant to do. I liked Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass a lot–in fact, I was on the Cybils panel that shortlisted it the year it came out. But Burn, Baby, Burn is even stronger, in my opinion. It does so much so well that the only challenge is which of the threads to talk about.

For instance, there’s been a spate of YA set in the 1980s & 90s which seems to have no reason for that setting aside from nostalgia on the part of the author. By contrast, Burn, Baby, Burn not only engages with its historical setting, it could not possibly have been set in any other moment. Medina writes out of personal memory and experience, as her backmatter notes make clear, but she doesn’t stop there. The atmosphere of the summer of 1977 is woven into every scene and character.

There’s also a kind of mythologized, idealized NYC that exists in a lot of YA, as in a lot of other media. Medina resists that as well, pushing back against the idea of the glittering city full of a thousand possibilities. Nora’s city is on the edge of something, full of danger, full of people trying to make their way in a difficult world. It would be easy to say that it’s gritty, and I think that is wrong: it’s also full of hope and excitement. But it’s not smooth; when Nora visits her father and his new family, we see briefly the kind of NYC that usually appears in YA and feel the same relief that Nora does when she returns to her neighborhood.

Most of all, though, the setting here underlies and informs the characters. Medina draws everyone with understanding and complexity, but at the heart of the book is always Nora. Like her neighborhood, Nora is not smooth: she’s prickly, both self-assured and self-doubting, brimming over with hope and joy and fear. Medina shows a very specific Latina girl growing up in a particular neighborhood in NYC at a particular time in a particular family. But at the same time, Nora’s journey towards becoming a young woman resonates deeply.

I’m also grateful for the way that Nora’s story includes other girls and women on their own journeys. While she does navigate falling for a boy, the story starts and ends with Nora and her best friend Kathleen. We see their similarities and differences, but we also see the older generation. Kathleen’s mother and her black best friend (one of Nora’s neighbors) are both feminists, but we see the differences in their experiences as well. Without being the History of Feminism, we’re also given a picture of what the struggle for equal rights looked like in that moment, which doesn’t erase the experiences and legacy of women of color.

The final strand I wanted to note is the depiction of Nora’s family. Over the course of the book we see Nora slowly, slowly coming to terms with the fact that her brother Hector is truly dangerous to himself and to others. And once she realizes that, she also has to decide what she’ll do with that knowledge, in the face of her mother’s determination to not see. It’s a tricky thing to show that undercurrent of things not being okay, and Medina does it really well. Nora’s final decisions and determination in keeping herself and others safe is a really great and powerful way to tell this story. More teens than we sometimes realize or want to admit have families where things are broken, and a lot of growing up is learning to acknowledge this and find your own path.

This is definitely a book where difficult things happen, where the hard parts of being a teen aren’t shied away from. But there’s also a tremendous sense of hope and joy. There are second chances and learning to find your own place to stand and grow. There’s so much more to talk about here, but the heart of it–what’s stuck with me in the last month–is Nora’s courage and determination to do the best she can, by herself and by other people.

Source: bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/burn-baby-burn-by-meg-medina
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review 2016-12-12 21:04
Joan Aiken Reading Notes: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - Joan Aiken,Pat Marriott

“It was dusk–winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”

So begins The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the first book in the Willoughby Chase series. I love this opening–there’s a kind of delicious thrill about it and the way it starts off quiet and calm and then turns into something very different. And it serves as a good summary of the world of the books, which looks a great deal like our Georgian/Regency England…except not quite. There are those wolves at the end of the paragraph, wolves that run freely through the countryside.

In fact, Aiken has created a wild alternate history, where Hanoverians in support of Bonnie Prince George are trying to overthrow the Stuart King James III. We see very little of the political aspect in this book, but it becomes a major theme and plot point in the rest of the series. In this first book, what we mostly get is a world that seems so much like our own, but a little bit slantwise.

Oddly enough, my personal history with these books doesn’t start here at all. My grandparents gave me a copy of Nightbirds on Nantucket when I was about 12, and I read that one first (and fell in love) and then went back and read the earlier books. And I do love the first two books! But at the same time my experience is very much filtered through the fact that my experience of these stories began with Dido Twite, who doesn’t appear here at all.

Instead, this is the story of Bonnie and Sylvia, the cousins who get thrown together when Bonnie’s parents invite Sylvia to live with them at Willoughby Chase and then depart for a long ocean-voyage, leaving them in the care of a distant relative none of them have ever seen before.

SHOCKINGLY, this does not go well.

Bonnie and Sylvia are both almost impossibly sweet characters. Bonnie is a little less so, but she’s also a privileged and slightly spoiled child, who is less saintly because she can get away with it. Sylvia seems too good to be true–quite literally. The other main character is a gooseherd name Simon who is an orphan and escaped from a cruel farmer. The Simon of later books is a kind-hearted and relatively fleshed-out character; here he’s more idealized. (We don’t see Bonnie or Sylvia again, as far as I remember.)

As is generally the case in Aiken’s books, the adults here are mostly either evil or naive and helpless. The sole exceptions are James the footman and Pattern, Bonnie’s maid, who try to look after the girls and later save them from the orphanage and Miss Slighcarp. But even in their cases, there’s an odd element of ineffectualness.

And then there are the Slighcarps and Miss Brisket, who represent the other kind of Aiken adults–the scheming ones, who try to take advantage of the well-meaning naive adults. These are the adversaries the children have to overcome, by sticking together and finding a way out of the mess. (Usually this means finding the one adult who will listen to them.) Miss Slighcarp especially is genuinely awful, as is Mr. Slighcarp/Grimshaw–in a less overt but even more realistic way.

What’s interesting to me about this book in particular is that, in a certain light, it looks like a familiar kind of morality tale. Bonnie and Sylvia are well-born, true-hearted, brave, and kind. Therefore, as is right, they eventually triumph. And yet, all through the book there’s also an ever-present sense of real danger. The triumphant ending is not assured. So although the story has the outward trappings of an uncomplicated “good children get their reward” trope, there’s a kind of subversiveness that’s lying just behind it. Aiken keeps reminding us about the howling wolves, and the dangers of the Slighcarps and Briskets of the world, and in doing so she makes it very easy to imagine the ways the story could go wrong.

On the other hand, the subversiveness only goes so far–I found myself frustrated at several points, with the assumption of Sir Willoughby as a good landowner who all the servants are happy to work for. There’s a lot of “dear Miss Bonnie” from the staff, who seem uncommonly attached to her. And finally, there’s an uncomfortable romantic view of Simon’s situation and life, which does express his general goodnatured optimism, but which also has a ring of “he’s happy with nothing, why aren’t you?”

It’s not that I expect some sort of political tract. I’m not even sure I think Aiken believed what she was writing, exactly. (The later books move away from this to a large degree.) Rather, I think that because she’s still writing within a certain type of story, and because she doesn’t quite have the experience or vision to reach beyond it yet, she’s still caught in this slightly antiquated sense of class and roles.

I do also have to say that on this reading I found the resolution oddly unexciting, especially considering the fact that there are literal wolves involved. It’s all a bit handwavey. Aiken is fond of ending books with a sudden surprise (in this case the reappearance of Bonnie’s parents), but in this case I didn’t feel there was much tension to begin with.

However, it is very satisfying to see Miss Slighcarp get her comeuppance.

All in all, I can’t quite say that this is my favorite book of the series–it’s clearly a first book, and Bonnie and Sylvia have nothing on Dido, or even Sophie. But it is certainly a memorable beginning.

Source: bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/10/06/joan-aiken-reading-notes-the-wolves-of-willoughby-chase
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review 2016-12-12 20:31
Icon by Genevieve Valentine
Icon (The Persona Sequence) - Genevieve Valentine

(Orthodox readers, this is not an Orthodox book, despite the title! I’ll talk about this a bit more below but I wanted to make it clear right away.) (Everyone: There are spoilers for Icon below. I couldn’t talk about what I wanted to in this book without spoiling it, I’m sorry, please don’t read any more if this bothers you!)

Oh, friends. This book. However this review turns out, please understand that the temptation to just add that Community “MY EMOTIONS” gif and hit schedule is going to be super high. Genevieve Valentine is really good at making me feel lots of things, it turns out. Also, she writes books that I possibly would not read from anyone else but which are so good that I consider her an auto-read author at this point. I’m pretty sure she could imbue the phone book with strong characters and a tense plot, also that I would like it.

In this case, Icon is a sequel to last year’s Persona. Both are near-future political thrillers, about the same main characters, Suyana and Daniel. I finished Persona and was astonished that both of them made it out of the book alive.

Well, they don’t both make it out of Icon alive.

Icon has a sense of narrative inevitability from page one, and a sense of tension and doom that increases to an almost unbearable extent over the course of the book. I both knew and felt that things were gong to end badly. I kept finding myself holding my breath until the most immediate danger had passed. And yet, I kept reading, even knowing I was going to cry.

I cried so much.

Suyana and Daniel are completely compelling, partly because Valentine has a keen sense for what to tell us and what to leave out. Asking the reader to fill in the blank spaces makes us more invested, keeps us caring, keeps us turning the page. In Persona, we had a sense of them as unlikely partners. Here they’re separated. But they keep fighting and fighting, for the soul of the IA, for the people they care about, for each other. They never get a break or a rest, they hardly have a single moment alone together, and yet their relationship is so potent that it becomes the center around which the story turns.

(I also love that Suyana gets to be calculating without being heartless.)

But Valentine is also excellent at throwing her characters into tense, impossible situations. In Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Persona, they manage to win some sort of space, peace, love. Icon, on the other hand, refuses any way out. I have always thought that West Side Story is more tragic than Romeo and Juliet, because one of them lives and has to go on living. In Icon, not only does Daniel die, and in dying save them, but Suyana “wins” at a horrific personal cost. She ends the book almost entirely alone, muddied by politics. She has done the right thing for the IA and therefore the world. It’s not exactly a bleak ending. But it is a hard one.

Now, I do have to say that I’m not a fan of the title. I understand what Valentine is trying to conjure–the complexity boiled down into a symbol. But since I am Orthodox and the word icon has a primarily religious connotation for me, and since that religious understanding is quite different than Valentine’s usage, it just…doesn’t work for me. I realize this is a personal issue, and one not every reader will share.

I’d recommend this book for people at the unlikely intersection of: invested in Hiddleswift (I have not even gotten into Suyana’s fake relationship with Ethan!), interested in politics, and the red carpet, and into Code Name Verity. (Weirdly enough, I feel like I know multiple people who fit that profile.) Actually, you don’t have to be interested in all of those things, or maybe even any of them. You just have to be willing to let these characters in and then let them break your heart a little.

Source: bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/icon-by-genevieve-valentine
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review 2016-12-12 20:17
Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus
Lady Byron and Her Daughters - Julia Markus

This post is in two parts. The first part is my personal reaction to reading this book, and the second part is a rumination on history and who tells it. They bleed together; it’s true that the personal is political, but it’s equally true that the political is personal. I am thinking about history and biography because of my personal reaction, and vice versa. However, for the purposes of structuring this review, two parts it is.

****

I have an ongoing interest in women’s stories, which is only intensifying as I grow older, crabbier, and more feminist. I also have a specific interest in Ada Byron Lovelace* and read Sydney Padua’s lovely The Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace last year. Then this year my librarian book club, which is the best book club, decided to read Padua’s book together. Lady Byron, Ada’s mother, is a shadowy figure throughout the book and in the middle of rereading I decided to see if there was a biography of her; there was. I put it on hold and read it in about two days straight, with lots of burning anger towards Lord Byron and tears for everyone else.

Annabella Milbanke Byron is a fascinating, complex figure, and Markus does a great job of treating her with respect while also not overlooking her flaws. Rather than either put her on a pedestal or vilify her, Markus attempts to paint a picture of a woman who was both progressive and conservative, both generous and selfish. At the same time, she uses this particular case to make some well-deserved points about who we decide is worthy of praise and remembrance.

I also just flat out cried quarts and quarts, particularly but not limited to the part of the book dealing with Ada’s final illness and death. I am getting teary THINKING about it. It seems like something out of a novel: a deathbed reconciliation between the brilliant, troubled child and the stern, loving mother. But it’s also a scene that modern readers may distrust, and Markus handles it carefully, with care for both Ada and Annabella.

Also, let me tell you how many feelings I had about this: “Lady Byron was a woman who had many close female friends, a loyal band, actually…” (SO MANY. Ladies being friends forever!) Lady Byron is presented throughout the book as a woman who cared a great deal about other women, who had complex and thorny relationships with several of them, and who spent much of her life engaging with their concerns and activities.

Fundamentally, I think, this is a biography that I loved, because it’s a biography written for readers like me. Readers who are interested in the stories we tell and who they’re about, who are interested in women’s stories. We think and talk about this a lot with regards to fiction, but it is just as important, if not more so, when we discuss biographies.

****

Several times during this book, I thought about one of my favorite lines from Hamilton: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” This is a book that is significantly about who tells your story, because Lady Byron’s story has been told largely, both during and after her life, by men. By men who assume that male geniuses must be right, and that women telling a different story must be wrong. Not only wrong. They must be discounted and discredited.

In the Foreword, Markus writes: “The good she did, however, lies interred under the barrage of Lord Byron’s brilliant poetic spite and later critics’ overwhelming devotion to male genius.” She later quotes several times from older biographies, both of Lord Byron and of Lady Byron herself, which paint her in the worst possible light, wholesale repeating outright slander from Lord Byron. Who, of course, can hardly be supposed to be in any way an objective source, and yet for some reason is considered entirely trustworthy.

But in fact, as Markus lays out in the beginning of the book, Byron was not only extremely untrustworthy and biased. He was also a terrible person, an abusive husband (mentally, emotionally, and possibly physically), and a manipulative jerk. (I am not objective on the subject of Lord Byron.) He passionately hated Annabella, especially after the end of their marriage. And yet, because he is a Great (Male) Poet, he must be right.

Oddly enough, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe who mounted one of the earliest and most strident defenses of Lady Byron. Stowe points out that “The world may finally forgive the man of genius anything; but for a woman there is no mercy and no redemption.” (Dorothy Sayers would echo this almost a century later: “Women geniuses don’t get coddled…so they learn not to expect it.” Which is all too apt when we consider, for instance, Ada Byron Lovelace herself.) For her pains, Stowe’s reputation was torn to shreds.

This biography itself is not objective, but it is also not meant to be. It is meant to be a revelation and defense of Lady Byron, asking us to revisit the old assumptions and look at the evidence with fresh eyes, and also an excoriation of the older biographers who were so little able to see past those assumptions. It is partisan, but it is also open about being partisan, rather than pretending to being unbiased. If it’s a choice between Markus and, say, Malcolm Elwin, I know who I would pick.

****

Markus ends with a short paean to Lady Byron, which I don’t think I could possibly top: “Lady Byron took her own advice. She made no attempt to censure records and never attempted to shape her life in order to find favor with the world. She was herself. She remained herself.” I am very glad that this biography exists, and that it shines a light on a woman who was complex, brilliant, flawed, and utterly human.

* not in actual fact her name, but the one by which she’s most recognized

Source: bysinginglight.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/lady-byron-and-her-daughters-by-julia-markus
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